Dolphins Into The Future: Interview
“My music is no more or less than the music created hundreds of years ago by some indigenous inhabitant of a small atoll in Micronesia.”
Antwerp-based sound artist Lieven Martens (aka Lieven Moana) has been making and releasing music as Dolphins Into The Future since 2007. Many of the earliest releases came in the form of cassettes on small boutique labels such as Pacific City Sound Visions (the label run by Spencer Clark of The Skaters) or Cetacean Nation Cassettes, a subsidiary of Martens’ own Taped Sounds label. With its obsessive focus on the ambient drift and primitive recording style of early new age music, Dolphins Into The Future materialized at the beginning of what was to become a major thread in the post-noise cassette underground. The project’s breakthrough came with the 2009 release of the …On Sea-Faring Isolation LP on Not Not Fun, which further developed the DITF sound toward a uniquely contemporary iteration of exotica, with original field recordings playing an increasingly important role. This month will see three releases by the prolific artist: a new album entitled Canto Arquipélago on the Underwater Peoples label, a CD reissue of …On Sea-Faring Isolation on Fonal Records, and a cassette entitled A Starmaker, Strange Dreams, And Clairvoyance on NNA Tapes.
When I first heard your music, I was struck by the way your compositions combined elements of avant-garde electro-acoustic improvisation together with a kind of “record collector” spirit: elements of 1970s new age, old exotica records, Nonesuch Explorer, field recordings, etc. Do you see yourself as an avant-garde musician, or is your work coming from a more eclectic “pop” background?
I see myself as an avant-garde musician, because I’m part of a group of musicians who make a new kind of music, using new ideas, thoughts, backgrounds and techniques. But at the same time, I guess I’m a classical musician in a certain, strict, sense of the word. My music is no more or less than the music created hundreds of years ago by some indigenous inhabitant of a small atoll in Micronesia, for instance. I’m creating sounds that manifest the energy of the waves, the winds, the birds, etc.
I deal with a complete adoration of beauty in natural environments, and with the romance of these metaphorical power spots, these islands of insight.
The pioneers of new age music — Iasos, Bearns & Dexter, Ashra, etc. — were creating soundtracks for meditative states. Your music takes part in this tradition, but you seem more interested in creating vivid environments using field recordings, evoking the atmospheres of tropical or oceanic climates. How did you arrive at this confluence?
Oceanic environments came a bit out of nowhere for me. While I was reading Joan Ocean, I suddenly started to notice a radically different approach in my way of composing and playing music. It’s not that the book as a whole, as an intellectual study, gripped me completely, but it altered things smoothly underneath the surface. I reconnected with a childhood love for the ocean. I used to go there with my parents a lot, and completely dig the ocean, fish, the rhythm, the beach, etc. I started to see the extreme power of the metaphors relating to the ocean only after reading stuff like that. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not about those childhood memories — it’s not “hypnagogic” — but more about noticing that I had an eternal link to, and adoration for, the ocean. And when you accept such a thing, you’re ready for the next step in personal investigations of your brain and creativity. Digging deeper into your own art form is the first step. For instance, it helps me to scuba dive, to study the actual rhythms and energies I’m dealing with. That’s when I started composing …On Sea-Faring Isolation. That LP is both a case study of actual “sea-faring isolation” as well as a massive celebration of the awesome power and rhythm of the ocean wave, which radiates like a lovely sine wave.
It was also really important to hear my mother talk about her passion for the ocean. When we invited her to the Azores recently, she went lyrical about the endless imaginary story-lines and figures the ocean waves create… amazing! Or when I saw my brother being inspired by nature in his paintings. In this way I started to fully grasp how I… we are locked down in this by our genetic code.
Why do you focus on tropical and exotic environments?
As for exotic environments… I don’t like to approach them as only being “tropical.” Of course places like Big Island Hawai’i, which is extremely tropical, have been a major next step in my music making. Being inside a place of such tremendous beauty, i.e. the Kealakekua Bay, made me understand my own art even more, made me connect deeper to meanings I was already playing with in my work. However, I don’t want to create a style that is informed by too much tropical adoration, like stylized tropical lounge music, or something like that. It’s just that in the tropics, there are indeed a bunch of places of deep beauty. But I’m equally moved by the Scandinavian pastoral landscape, the German countryside, the vibes of New Zealand’s southern island Dunedin, or the subtropics, i.e. the Azores Islands.
I think “exotic” works better than “tropical.” Belgium, and especially the North of Belgium, is so full of bricks, cement and highways, it’s difficult to find a deep spot of tremendous beauty. So yeah, I need these exotic environments to connect deeper to my art form, for sure. Even more than these exotic landscapes, I’m moved by the power of islands and archipelagos. They hold the heaviest rhythms and energies to be found in this or any other world.
Your compositions are very “center-less” – often no beginning or end. Is this something you strive for?
Some of my compositions are more linear. Some are built up like concentric circles, shifting on top of each other, next to each other. One circle radiates into focus while the other circles shift left and right, out of focus, and vice-versa. To stay with the ocean analogy, they are structured like a group of jellyfish or sea anemones, opening and closing. In focus, out of focus, etc. So really my compositions are more center-FULL, rather than center-less.
Are you creating meditation soundtracks?
I see all of my works as “meditations” or “contemplations” on a theme, and I guess you could stretch out and relax to it, or meditate to it. However, my initial idea is more along the lines of creating a complete landscape in which you can walk around, ponder things, or just stand back and let it wash over you and do nothing. Or be overwhelmed, moved, be a Rückenfigur. It’s all possible. It’s like a metaphysical poem, or a love song to the powers of nature. A narration painted by various sounds.
Reading the book Pathways Through To Space by Franklin Merrell-Wolff, I was struck by the fact that you could read it as a metaphysical detective story, or like a man’s personal logs in a diary about traveling in his own inner island. The book functions as a man’s personal poetry about his vision of the inner/outer islands, or like a toolbox everyone can use to approach or grasp certain kinds of knowledge and awareness. I hope some of that multi-entrance aspect is present in my own art.
I think “exotic” works better than “tropical.”
So what is the connection between these audio landscapes and the metaphysical ideas you’ve been hinting at?
The connection is this: With the combination of sound, music, field recordings, etc., I am creating NEW landscapes, UNREAL landscapes, that penetrate down to the deeper psychology of music. Just like a great romantic landscape painter, it’s not about re-creating a real landscape, but about inventing a magnificent, sublime landscape. Landscapes that are necessary to be heard, to be created, to be recreated. I believe strongly in the necessity of this kind of creation, for all times, i.e. my earlier example of the indigenous person from Micronesia.
Your project is named after the book by Joan Ocean about her work with the spinner dolphins in Hawai’i. Have you ever met or spoken to Ms. Ocean?
I e-mailed her when we touched down on Big Island Hawai’i. I needed to go on a mission to the Kealakekua Bay, which is really close to the place where she lives, I gather. I just wanted to pass by quickly to say hello, pay my respects, and to say, “Sorry I mess up your Google searches with my band,” but she never replied to my e-mail. Maybe it got lost? I’m equally happy about this, as I never felt the urge to meet her in person. I like thinking of her as a mythical aunt with whom I see eye-to-eye on some things, and other things not at all. That’s all… there is no extreme fascination there at all.
What do you think of her claims about time travel, communication with ETs, etc.?
There is something in Joan Ocean’s books, and in the visionary art of her friend Jean-Luc Bozzoli: the general feeling, the ideas; they made me a different musician and person. On the other hand, it’s not all perfect in those books, and others have been of an equal or heavier influence on me. But yes… that’s why I called myself Dolphins Into The Future: as an eternal thank you for the personal enlightenment after reading her books. Also, the name sounds better than her other book titles…The Dolphin Connection sounds too Carl Sagan-y to me.
I’ve listened to Canto Arquipélago and I think it’s your most vivid, beautifully realized album yet. What was your specific inspiration on this album, other than the landscape of the Azores?
I think it’s the most vivid because it’s all recorded, conceived and mixed on location on the fantastic Azores archipelago. I was surrounded by the hissing vibes of a volcanic island in the middle of the Atlantic… the energy, the nature, the ever-present waves, wind, the roughness, and at the same time the quietness and sleepiness of the ocean. You can hear it in every tone.
Are there any musical or literary references that were important to you when creating these pieces?
A few years ago, I noticed my compositional techniques were remarkably similar to those of the German painter Caspar David Friedrich. The way he approaches a landscape; how he inserts new elements and meanings, forming a tree into a spiritual crucifix. He adds new, magical elements to an existing landscape. He creates a new landscape out of various sketches of several other “worlds.” It’s almost exactly like how I was approaching my subjects and creations for a few years. It seemed intriguing and challenging to me that we had both created similar meanings, techniques and ideas in a completely different form of art, in a completely different time frame. Friedrich lived during the late 18th century/early 19th century. He was coming from a different background, i.e. he was a devout protestant. I started studying him a bit more thoroughly, noticing more similarities, but obviously also a bunch of differences. Looking at his paintings, reading about his life and ideas. That’s been quite an influence on the creation of this album, as well as my previous Ke Ala Ke Kua LP, and the collaboration LP I did with the visual artist Ada Van Hoorebeke.
Also, while completing and mixing this album, we were free-diving and scuba diving daily. Being in that particular rhythm, in the magical and super-rich underwater ecosystem of the Azores influenced my process highly as well. The biggest reference for this LP is the rhythm of the archipelago. The other biggest energy is the spirit of the small fisherman town we were staying in. My girlfriend and I always wanted to live in a small fisherman town, and traveling for months trough remote islands, Hemingway-style. That experience was the deepest and most… sane I had ever experienced!
Normally, my creative process involves dreaming and thinking about these exotic natural locations, reconnecting to energies out there, all from my home in Antwerp, a small cement city. But with Canto, I was THERE, on the power spot of that energy. So instead of the usual field recordings which normally transport me from Antwerp to all of the magic places in the world, this time I was there in person while creating it. So that energy is directly transferred into the music.
What kind of gear are you using to create these pieces?
I use various gear. When I think about an instrument, it’s not what it can do per se, but what I can do with it, or what the instrument can do for me. Hence, I switch gear sometimes to reach a certain sound. For my Ke Ala Ke Kua LP, I acquired a specific synth because of a something I tuned into at Ho’okena Bay, which made me think about a certain sound which I was able to achieve with that particular synth. I bought the synth, got to know it for half a year, then used it to create those certain sounds and movements that were necessary to complete that LP. Afterward I sold the instrument and moved on.
At the moment, I’m working with two cheap (but awesome) Korg AI² synthesis MIDI modules and a MIDI keyboard, a Korg sampler, a Marantz field recorder, an Oktava matched pair of stereo mics, and an Aquarian Audio Products hydrophone. Also, I recently used a Yamaha FM synth, with which I created the whole of the Two Romantic Landscapes cassette. I also use tape decks and a four-track cassette recorder, which is the best and most important instrument, I suppose.
You have achieved a very unique signature sound through combining sounds with varying fidelity… some sounds are very fuzzy and esoteric, others are crystalline and lucid.
Just like a great romantic landscape painter, it’s not about re-creating a real landscape, but about inventing a magnificent, sublime landscape.
A lot of the sounds I am inputting are specifically crystal clear, but after being bathed in the process of tape manipulation, they come out with a nice, hazy organic crunch. I like the contrast of a crunchy layer colored with bright, crystal tones. It’s like pristine nature; the ocean spray covering a damp island. The most beautiful sight in the whole wide world.
Do you feel a kinship with the work of an artist such as Chris Watson?
I’m definitely moved by some of Chris Watson’s work. I don’t necessarily like all of his stuff equally, but the radio sessions he put together for the Touch website are amazing. I like the audio diary vibe of those, the Hemingway feel of making art on the spot, moved by the beauty of nature… OVERCOME by the power of natural systems.
You mentioned that you are a part of a group of musicians who are making a new kind of music. Who are your peers? What do you think of the American cassette underground following from the work of The Skaters and James Ferraro? Right now there is such a proliferation of experimental bedroom musicians making work that seems at least vaguely related to some of the techniques and sounds that you created with DITF. Are you part of that movement?
When I talked about the group of artists, I meant that there’s a group of people active, making music, visual art, movies, batiks, comics, etc. with whom I feel kindred, with whom I communicate a lot. With some artists I share common ideas, feelings, but there are also lots of things that we don’t share in common. It’s important to me that this diffuse group makes this kind of art, since I believe it is a necessity for our times. There’s no need to call it a movement or a scene. It’s just “there.” Regarding the American cassette underground, there’s some stuff I like, and some i don’t. Perfect balance, man.
The writer Simon Reynolds, in his book Retromania, suggests that many contemporary musicians who are working with elements of new age music are doing so with a sense of kitsch or irony. Does irony play any part in your work?
Nope. In these postmodern days, a lot of things could be approached with the filter of “naivete” or irony, but that is not something I’m dealing with. I know other people do it, and that’s fine by me. Everybody should figure out their own approach… everybody has her or his own passion, and should strive to fulfill it. I like Simon’s writings a lot, though. And I know he might have suggested that I’m a bit ironic as well, but I’m afraid that element is not present in my work. I deal with a complete adoration of beauty in natural environments, and with the romance of these metaphorical power spots, these islands of insight.