Name: Michael Stearns
Occupation: Composer, producer, sound designer
Recent release: The remastered version of Michael Stearns's 1981 classic Planetary Unfolding is available now via Projekt.
If you enjoyed this interview with Michael Stearns and would like to find out more, visit his official website.
Over the course of his career, Michael Stearns has collaborated with many different musicians, including Steve Roach, Lisa Gerrard, Erik Wøllo.
[Read our Lisa Gerrard interview]
Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
There might be a trigger or experience … a dream, a work of art, a new instrument, an experience or immersion in nature, travel, being exposed to another culture.
"Morning" started as an environmental recording that I made in the desert outside of Tucson at dawn, and a recording of children in the village of Yelapa, Mexico, on their way to school. The music emerged from those recordings.
The fourth movement of Planetary Unfolding, "As the Earth Kissed the Moon", emerged from a fullmoon hike in Redrock Canyon, north of Mojave in California. A friend and I were discussing an ancient Native American prophecy about moving into a new age when the eagle landed on the moon … and the first lunar lander was named "The Eagle".
"St. Francis" on the Lost World album came from floating in a dugout canoe through the Orinoco delta at dawn as the jungle came to life.
But really, it’s all a mystery.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
Outside of working on a film score where there are images and direction from a director, there are never concrete ideas or pre-visualizations.
I never know where the music will lead me. The thread unfolds into the tapestry from an unseen hand. Somehow it works.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Yes, there are sometimes preparations, the creation of a new pallette, new sounds, sometimes a new instrument or processor.
I’m generally very messy in my creative environment … wires strewn across floors, instruments on chairs, etc. Nothing like the studios you see on Youtube. The creative process is a messy one, "No mud, no lotus".
There can be earlier versions of music I’m working on, or versions I just wipe out and start anew, knowing that creating the earlier material was essential to where the musical road will lead. That happened several times on Chronos.
And, there have been projects that required research, The Singing Stones comes to mind. Or, Maya Skies, visiting sacred sites in Yucatan, exploring the musical relationships apparent in the Maya sacred calendar .
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
Not really, just the ritual of finding time in the studio with everything else going on in my life!
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
The first one isn‘t dificult, there’s a sense of recognition … it’s often the ones afterward you have to reach deep for.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
Sometimes gradually, sometimes like a lightening bolt.
The opening movement of Planetary Unfolding, "In the Beginning", came directly, played live for a class of meditators, one pass. Other movements of that album took weeks.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I’m always a fan of following the muse’s‘ lead.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
On a purely technical level, when music I’m creating / recording takes a tangential turn, I’ll save the session that I’m working on, and continue on recording the "alternative road". That road often leads to a new piece of music, or a musical idea to be filled out later. Then I can go back to work on the saved session.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
There’s an element of what we have abstracted to call spirituality in all of my life, every aspect. The music embodies that.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I’m usually working on multiple pieces simultaneously. Switching back and forth keeps the work fresh and allows for an element of "cross pollinating". When possible, letting the music "lie", and then returning to it fresh can be an important step in composition. Sometimes there isn’t the opportunity to do that. But, when there is, it’s welcomed.
I’ve recently revisited music that I recorded long in my past, but never released. It has been a pleasure to breath new life into it with tools that I couldn’t have imagined at the time, and then finish and release it.
"The Soft Touch of Morning Light" is a good example of that.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
It goes "hand in hand" with the creation of the music … it happens simultaneously with the creation of the music.
Along with stereo monitoring, my studio is set up with a 9.1.4 surround mixing / monitoring system. While I’m creating / recording the music for a surround project, I’m creating an architectural spatial sound score/mix‘ at the same time. Most of the mixing is finished when the music is finished. Same for stereo, Ambisonic, binaural, etc.
If I’m recording music for a binaural project, I’ll have headphones on and monitor / mix in that format while I’m composing the music.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
I’m probably an "odd ball". Moving on to the next project, the next "energetic musical metaphor" for what is unfolding, who I am becoming, hasn’t been an issue for me.
There’s always the space between breaths, the larger emptiness. But not a sense of personal emptiness.
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Great question! It’s really no different. What you put into the music, or making a sandwhich, or any outward activity, can be seen as a metaphor for your inner depth of participation or being you embody in that moment.