Name: Christopher Luna-Mega
Occupation: Composer, Performer, Educator, Field Recordist
Current Release: Aural Shores on Edgetone Records
Recommendations: It is very hard for me to leave one of two essential artists out of this one, so I will have two recommendations: Andrey Tarkovsky’s cinematographic prose, “Sculpting Time”, and François-Bernard Mâche’s “Music, Myth and Nature”. Tarkovsky is a master of contemplation, and allows his audience to reflect while viewing his films. In “Sculpting Time”, he shares his artistic, technical, and philosophical views in film, which impacted my work profoundly. F.B. Mâche has devoted his life to understanding patterns and timbre of sounds in nature and human language, and orchestrating them for different ensembles. His imagination and depth in the task of elaborating, in his own words, an “aesthetic project on the basis of a harmony with natural data”, are unparalleled. In “Music, Myth and Nature”, Mâche provides an in-depth essay of his work.
If you enjoyed this interview with Christopher Luna-Mega, we highly recommend you visit his homepage for more information and current updates.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
My earlier experiences happened in my childhood, improvising on the piano. I was playing some early piano repertoire, but what motivated me most about the piano was to explore it freely and spontaneously. I would not try to keep a written record of the improvisations. I would either remember what I played and somehow revisit the material, or just forget it and explore other sounds, other keys.
My early passions were Pink Floyd (especially their experimental pre-Dark Side of the Moon period), the Beatles (the period between Revolver and the White Album), Miles Davis (Bitches Brew and Live Evil), Keith Jarret (his concerts in La Scala, Bremen, and Life Between the Exit Signs), Bartók, Ligeti and Messiaen. Bach has remained consistent throughout my life.
For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
During my early years writing music, I was profoundly inspired by the composers I was discovering. Emulating them, copying their textural procedures and sound worlds did not feel problematic for me. On the contrary, I felt excitement about the possibility of inhabiting the sonic worlds that I was finding so intriguing. Well known scores of the twentieth century like Ligeti’s Atmospheres, Saariaho’s Lichtbogen, Grisey’s Les Espaces Acoustiques, Penderecki’s De Natura Sonoris, Messiaen’s bird transcriptions and Scelsi’s string quartets, some of his piano music, and Anahit (violin concerto), influenced my writing enormously, and began defining my personality as a composer.
The transition towards my own voice happened quite naturally, through my obsession with nature, especially forests. Every piece I had written in the period in which my influences were obvious had a reference or inspiration on natural phenomena. One day, as I was listening to a stream in the Lagunas de Zempoala National Park about 40 miles from Mexico City –my hometown–, I felt a profound desire to orchestrate its complex sounds, dynamic shifts, rhythmic shapes, and continuous timbral flow. I then began thinking about translating various events in the world’s soundscape into instrumental music.
I was thinking about possible notations and orchestrations for all sorts of sounds, from busy traffic in Mexico City to the rustling leaves on a windy day. I found my own voice at that point. The aesthetics, technique, philosophy, and listening all came together working towards on a specific sound world that developed for over more than a decade.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
Not knowing how to imagine a global, panoramic, perspective of the piece that I was writing oftentimes resulted in a fragmentation of the idea. The commonplace “don’t get lost with the one tree: see the whole forest” is what best expresses the challenge. Learning when to think about the specific details and when to think about the whole was a turning point for me.
At this point of my life as a composer, the creative challenges have more to do with the question of what I want to explore now, after having explored a certain kind of sound world for a long period of time.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
My studio has a window with an expansive view, a spacious desk with monitors and an interface, a drawer with different kinds of paper, a piano, an electric and an acoustic guitar, some percussion instruments, and different kinds of microphones for instrumental and field recordings, oftentimes either ready to record the instruments in my studio or to be plugged to my recording device and go do some field recording. For me it is essential to be able to quickly set my mics as inputs and record whenever I spontaneously decide to improvise in either of my instruments. Since I do field recordings as a means for finding sound models for my written music, It is also important to be able listen in the best possible monitors.
Feeling connected to natural elements is essential for me, so I chose the room in my apartment where I have the most light, and feel more connected to the outside world and the mountains that surround us. In the last 5 years, in which my pre-compositional processes depend heavily on audio recording and analysis, technology has been an integral part of my written music.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
Speaking of a day in my life as a composer in the current state of the world and with my new circumstances as a father of a new-born is very different from what it was just months ago. After showering, I put Santiago (my son) in a carrier that I attach to my chest for about two hours. I make coffee, prepare and eat breakfast while listen to the radio or music, and transition to work on the course I will be teaching, emails, and other administrative tasks until the early afternoon. In the afternoon, I take Santi for a walk and eat dinner. In the evening I work in my studio composing, editing audio, listening to recordings that I recently made and, recently, playing Bach as a meditative practice and connecting with Gigi, my wife or with a friend.
Since I work with environmental and incidental sounds as foundations for my music, I oftentimes play them on my speakers while I am doing housekeeping routines such as cooking, cleaning, taking care of my son, or spending time with my wife. I have found that great compositional ideas and answers happen while I am doing the non-musical routines, especially when I’m out walking, riding my bicycle or running.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
Being present and expanded is all for me. A high degree of focus leads me to transcend the routines and non-creative responsibilities that sometimes may hinder the creative process. In order to be present and focused, I need to feel my space (virtually and physically) in order. It is the morning when I take care of scheduling, organizing, responding to administrative issues, preparing classes, organizing my house. In the afternoon and evening, when I feel like I have achieved a sense of order, I am able to expand into a creative state of mind.
My relationship to creating is similar to the relationship some zen practitioners have with meditation. It is one and the same with work, process, and order.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
Night Music started with my desire to record and compose with the constantly moving and surrounding sound of cicadas in deciduous forests in the United States. My original idea was to project the spatialized multi-channel recordings as well as their translation into instrumental music in a space where listeners could experience the sounds of the cicadas in motion.
Five rigs with microphones of various specifications were placed around an imaginary pentagon of ~30 meter sides in the forest. Varying microphones were used instead of matched microphones in order explore the variances between the sound perceived by each microphone.
To my surprise, the evening of the recording was one of the few of the month in which the temperature was cooler, and the sounds of the cicadas were basically absent. I left the devices recording for around 1.5 hours. I felt disappointment, since I had missed the sound I was looking for after so much setup. At around 30 minutes after I began recording, I noticed the density of the sound had increased considerably, which led me to think that there might be some interesting material in the recording. After stopping the recording devices in the forest pitch dark, I put my headphones on and listened. I was amazed by the sound that the shotgun mic I was listening to was picking up: a tapestry of melodic patterns produced by hundreds of crickets combined with the percussive sound of katidids pulsating around the space.
In my studio, I listened to the 5-channel recording. Two qualities in the recording became clear: a constantly morphing triad, gradually emphasizing either the fundamental, the third, or the fifth throughout 40 min, and an overall increase in intensity all across the frequency spectrum. I thought about these two qualities as the foundation for my next environmental recording-derived instrumental piece. In IRCAM’s AudioSculpt, I made a sonogram that revealed these features quite accurately, and to a high degree of detail. This made me consider generating a sonogram/sound score for each performer to follow the foregrounded sonic information in performance.
For about a month, I worked on different processes to make this sonogram/sound score, such as taking screen video shots of the AudioSculpt sonogram playing live and drafting scores in EAnalysis, a software which aims at experimenting new types of graphic representations and new analytical methods. After some test runs and considering the performance needs for an ensemble of five instrumentalists, I decided that the tech needs were excessive and not quite justified. In addition, I had been feeling the need of giving my eyes some rest from the computer screen, which I look at most of the day, every day. I then thought of manually transcribing each of the 5 channels into paper. I used sonograms to aid the transcription by expediting the process and increasing the precision of the microtonal fluctuations of the stridulating crickets.
The transcription process entailed a contemplative listening practice, letting every melodic pattern coming from the crickets set in my mind. I would then play these patterns in the piano, in order to experience what the performers would. From then on, the process continued until having the complete score for reed quintet (Splinter Reeds) and spatialized electronics (featuring the 5-channel forest recordings). Transcribing environmental and natural sound in this way has become a spiritual practice for me, somehow allowing me to connect with a transcendental order.