Music Interview

Zoar

by Jett Black

Make yourself comfortable. Sit back and relax. Dance in the dark, too if you wish, as you will want to explore each and every rarity, every sampled intonation, every primal expression of vitality that Gaia and the modern electronic media that is Zoar unfold. Cassandra, the latest CD by Zoar, unfolds like a starlit night above a solitary campfire. Heavenly hosts of mythology, above and below, compete with the majesty of creation that humans now have all but forgotten. Almost immediately, modern primitives clad in black can be seen, or imagined, charting the music of Zoar against a backdrop of shadows and flashes of light. If the concept doesn't grab you, then the true depth and elegance of the music on this CD will. In the first three tracks, themes of Cassandra, creatures of darkness collaborate with these fine musicians to bring you the most eerie and yet soothing soundtrack to date for any Halloween moment. And beyond this initial stage, in "The Passing of a Plague," the ever-present primitive and the super-imposed modern industrial influences collide and rip asunder mortal conceptions of order and stability. Enough prelude. In the midst of it all walk the musicians; ordinary people (aren't we all?). One of these is Michael Montes, a present-day Bilbo Baggins. An anachronism of sorts... a Hobbit torn from Middle-earth and sent into the heart of New York City. Listen now as he begins to unfold a portion of the mystery that is Zoar.

Who are current members of Zoar and what roles does each perform?

The main musical components of Zoar are myself (keyboards), Peter Rundquist (guitars) and Erik Friedlander (cello). Peter and I share most of the compositional and production duties. Erik brings his classical and improv/noise techniques into the process. The visual components of Zoar involve filmmaker Bill Morrison and lighting designer Scotto. Both of their aesthetics contribute greatly to our live performances. For our third disc we are considering some guest vocalists, TBA.

What forms of instrumentation does Zoar utilize?

Generally we have been using guitar, cello and keyboards. The keyboard parts include rhythm programming, chordal pads, walls of thick noise and specific samples of nature and technology.

Tell us about "In the Bloodlit Dark."

"In the Bloodlit Dark" is a much darker disc than Cassandra. The cello emerges, taking on a much bigger role. The guitars are moving toward a more abstract area. We are continuing the attempt at making very original music. Our attempts do not always succeed, but "In the Bloodlit Dark" represents a strong move toward the development of the kind of sound we're striving for. Industrial wasteland atmospheres transform into deep underwater melodic fantasy into a nightmarish sexual serial-killer soundscape into a sub-basement torture chamber, etc.

How did Zoar come to form a relationship with award-winning film director Bill Morrison?

Bill was working with The Ridge Theater, NYC's renowned underground multi-media theater group, making beautiful high-contrast black and white films for their performances. His work had a timeless quality that we really liked: ancient grainy photography in a futuristic context. After many beery think-tank sessions (including a night with absinthe he brought back from Prague!) he decided to come on board. He has made two new films for "In the Bloodlit Dark."

Methods of cinematic performance employed during Zoar's live shows appeal to audio-visual interactive sensations. How is this accomplished live?

When the lights come up after one of our shows we want the audience to feel as if they were awakened from some sort of mysterious and complex dream. We try to accomplish this by submerging the room in our musical world, painted with Scotto's lights and Bill's films. It's like watching some strange subconscious movie.

Beyond the upcoming release of In the Bloodlit Dark, Zoar is already composing a third, and as yet untitled, recording from within its New York studios. I read that this next recording will be reflective of the Serengeti Plains of Tanzania and further of Costa Rican rain forests. What motivations prompt you to record in such exotic locations? And, more importantly, how can I hitch a ride? :)

More and more often our music is trying to reflect the basic conflict of our times: Nature vs. Technology. This past December in Tanzania I was able to capture some of the eerie night ambience of the Serengeti, the time of fear and predation. I dream of making pieces which juxtapose these pure sounds with the sharp destructive teeth of human technology. (It also makes for a good write-off! Jett please join us next time!)

First explain the relationship between Zoar and Scotto and then tell us a little about what it has been like working with him.

We met Scotto a few years ago. A great guy, a true artist. He is known as one of the founders of the rave scene here in NYC in the early 90's. We approached him not only for his talent in generating unique lighting effects, but also because of his knowledge and passion for new lighting technologies. He has taught us a lot. He was looking for ways to expand beyond the dance club scene and dove into our experimental dark world with great enthusiasm.

Tell us about Nine Days North (1996), and then next about Nemo (1995).

Bill Morrison also does a bit of traveling. Both "Nine Days North" and "Nemo" were shot in many locations around the world: Italy, Croatia, Geneva, Ecuador, Northern Canada, Arizona, Louisiana, etc. He creates photographic dreams, vast landscapes devoid of humanity. He spent a lot of time painting before moving into film and it seems that he is able to find textures in various settings that go well with the tempo and mood of our pieces. "Nine Days North" is almost like a Viking saga, travel on water, past bleak and rocky coasts until the lonely citadel appears. "Nemo" takes us through desolate time-lapse urban scenes, floating swans, cathedral candles...

Reflecting back upon the first weekend of April '99 and a multitude of opportune events available during Convergence 5 in New Orleans, Louisiana, what do you most remember? And can you share any details?

The whole experience was exceptionally wonderful. I was particularly struck rather deeply by the joy of being involved with a thriving scene that exists completely outside of the mainstream. There is an idealism there that is hard to beat. Let the corporate powers be damned! I was also really happy for the bands. What a great opportunity to expose one's work to an appreciative audience! The musician's struggle is long; the joy, fleeting.

Now you are packing to visit Paris, France. What awaits you there across the water?

Travel is always the best education. How horrible it would be to die without experiencing as much of the planet as possible! I'll be meeting some pen-pals there as well as visiting some old friends. (Chopin is buried in the Cimetiere Du Pere Lachaise!). Also, a vampire ball is happening at "Le Cave" on May Day. (http://perso.cybercable.fr/premo/goth.html)

In what ways will Zoar's live performances differ from its recordings?

Besides the visual aspect, the sound is probably a bit more raw. Also, we often try to add new material.

How are your musically hallucinatory landscapes achieved?

Many, many layers of samples. Often the approach is more like painting or sculpture, adding colors, changing shapes. Also the structures can sometimes take more narrative forms as opposed to the more usual verse - chorus - verse - chorus - bridge - chorus format. Dissonance plays a part. I love thick dark clouds of surreal texture combined with the stark reality of cello or guitar.

Describe how you view nature as a "brutal" and "unforgiving" force against which humanity struggles.

Yes, but isn't humanity 'brutal' and 'unforgiving'? Humans are the dominant species at the moment. Nature is obsolete. And technology is only beginning to show us its huge and dark potential.

Describe in detail how you prepare and manage to capture slices of natural life using DAT recorders.

It is getting more and more difficult to find places where the influence of humans cannot be felt. Here's an analogy: you go out to the middle of some deserted area somewhere, miles from any humans, you set up camp, lie down on the dirt to look up at the stars and satellite after satellite pass across the sky. Anyway, I use a pretty good stereo mic, a portable HHB DAT machine, some big batteries, lots of bug repellent and let it run. You can record for hours just to get a few precious minutes of really good stuff. Much patience required.

When not completely focused upon Zoar, what do you do to support yourself?

As you know, society doesn't really care much for musicians. We are feared, ridiculed and disrespected on a regular basis. But, can anyone imagine a world without music? Anyway, I stumble through the corporate world, prostituting myself like pretty much everyone else.

Recent tragedies have prompted misguided mass media to assault the gothic community with countless versions of bad press. Consequently, readers everywhere have turned their angst against individuals perceived to be members of an undefined gothic community. What suggestions might you offer to individuals seeking pro-active ways to express their support and appreciation for the overall integrity of gothic interests?

My biggest fear is that people will trade in all their black clothes for beige. We must continue to live our lives the way that we want to live them. It's not our fault that the corporate powers that be have built a society where both guns, boredom and a sense of futility are all plentiful. The overall integrity of Gothic interests is growing. Let's keep communicating and organizing events.

What changes in the music industry have caught your attention most during the '90s?

The implosion of the big record labels has certainly caught my attention. Long may they rest in peace. Sooner or later the music mafia will have to give in to the idea that fewer and fewer musicians will need them in order to get by. Since so many major execs are now out on the street however, it will be interesting to see how they adapt as they build the labels of the future. I suggest that all artists demand a LOT MORE AUTONOMY than has been granted to them in the past, or else just simply put up a web site and make a go of it on one's own.

What images illustrate your visions of a "New Dark Age?"

Kosovo, Littleton, Rwanda, McDonald's, Y2K, National Parks = Glorified Zoos, TV MIND CONTROL, Kraft, Sysco, Bill Gates, Suburban Sameness, you know: the usual. I read in Harper's that major pharmaceutical companies are some of the biggest contributors to Partnership For a Drug Free America. Evidently they would like to eliminate their competition.

How do environmental and social stimuli of New York City influence the developments of Zoar's compositions?

NYC is a wall of noise and energy that keeps us compulsive types good and busy. The high stress melting pot is a continuous source of inspiration. This place is the crossroads of the planet. Besides, as John Lennon said: "During the Fall of the Roman Empire where else would one live but Rome?"

Reading through some of your previous interviews, I find that you prefer to begin a la Tabula Rasa and then build up from ground zero. Describe some of the processes involved in composing and evolving soundscapes.

Very often we begin with a title and let all the sonic imagery emerge from there. Certain passages from literature can also provide narrative threads which allow us to plot sonic "story lines." Sometimes I sit down with the express purpose of creating source material, collages of various samples, which later can be placed into the context of new pieces.

Sands of time are swiftly expiring in the remaining months of this millennium. What will Zoar hope to accomplish before the new millennium dawns?

Never enough! The "In the Bloodlit Dark" release, completion of the third disc, possibly some kind of tour in the fall, planning for a fourth disc, a new film with Bill, the list goes on…

Special Subject: Powaqqatsi (1988) & Koyaanisqatsi (1983)

When I read about and contemplate concepts expressed about a "New Dark Age" as conveyed by Zoar compositions, I think of these two films. If you know these two films please comment on your reactions and perhaps how these films may have influenced your conceptual evolution of Zoar compositions.

It's interesting that you brought this up. I am more familiar with "Koyaanisqatsi" so let's talk about that. When I saw that film it completely blew me away. Here was the perfect merging of music and film. Both are equally represented and equally powerful.

The whole concept of "Life Out of Balance" really interested me. We have created a structure of living based upon the consumption of resources and the acquisition of wealth. This structure is complex and powerful and more importantly it now exists beyond the realm of our control. Furthermore, the world of GAPMcDonaldsSevenEleven is a rather impersonal world, a world that denies the idea of the individual, creates sameness, pushes us away from a unique life experience. Now that this great machine is in place, it is only a matter of time until it grinds itself into the ground. Technological "accomplishments" may continue to accelerate this process. Within this deterioration the "New Dark Age" may possibly flower: an age of chaos and, ultimately, purification.

Also, I've had the chance to meet and have more than a few drinks with Godfrey Reggio, the director of Koyaanisqatsi. He happens to be a good friend of Bill Morrison's! Currently, I believe that he's trying to get another film off the ground. He has been to a Zoar show and given us really good feedback.

How can fans order releases by Zoar? How can fans communicate best with Zoar?

"Cassandra" can be found at the usual internet shops and also at Kevin Dunn's catalog site: http://www.middlepillar.com If all else fails please contact us through our website: http://www.zoar.com.