Many lovers of ambient music or whatever you would label it doesn’t really need any introduction by the composer, performer, sound designer, soundtrack producer (as well as music producer for many theatrical films, documentaries, themed attractions, and so on) we reached by our questions in recent days. A valid pretext to reach Michael Stearns was offered by the recent release of “Beyond Earth & Sky” (recently pushed by the excellent Projekt label), an awesome collaborative album with another living music legend Steve Roach (both of them are considered to be the musicians who laid the foundations of the so-called new age music scene in Los Angeles), coming 26 years after their notorious collaboration “Kiva”. Besides any label someone can give to Michael and his music, we are aware that Michael and Steve are two musicians who are conscious of the power of sound since their very first steps over respective long-lasting paths and a release like this one, where those paths gently cross over impressively evocative frequencies cannot be but welcomed. Just as Micheal’s words.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Michael. It’s a big honor to host your words on our zine. How are you doing?
Michael Stearns: Doing fine, Vito, working in the studio most days.
Chain D.L.K.: You’re considered one of the fathers of the so-called electronic new age music of the Los Angeles scene together with Steve Roach and Kevin Braheny, even if many music lovers consider you a bit like an anomaly due to the similarity of your electronic symphonic suites based on huge musical scores as well as for your impressive creativity in forging instruments. How do you feel with regard to this paternity?
Michael Stearns: The early days in LA with Steve and Kevin were the forge we emerged from, each of us individuating musically in our own way. There are many other names from that time that did not become as ‘public’, that were also seminal in forging the music. It was a good time to be birthing our creative expressions.
Chain D.L.K.: When someone refers to electronic suites in this scene, the first link is to the ones by German cosmic music riders and kraut rockers like Tangerine Dream, Can, and so on. I would say yours have always been more “ascetic” and closer to microtonal American minimalists than the symphonic rides of many European electronic musicians. How did you relate to the mentioned bands and musicians?
Michael Stearns: I love it all. Love listening to them. Travel has always been a big inspiration, visiting people and places outside of the Western ‘bubble’ that we live in, hearing the musics that have emerged from different cultures. So, I would have to say the world has influenced me as much as any ‘Western’ musics and/or composers, electronic or otherwise.
Chain D.L.K.: Besides focusing on recent outputs, some questions for younger readers who may have missed that interesting stage of music history that you lived as an absolute forerunner. One milestone of your path was maybe Planetary Unfolding, where you embraced or maybe was just fascinated by the theory that matter doesn’t exist and that the universe is just made by sound. Did you update somehow your recent beliefs about the nature of the Whole, or do you firmly believe in that intuition, fostered by new scientific discoveries?
Michael Stearns: There are a number of spiritual traditions that believe the universe we perceive through our senses is created through sound… and that matter as such does not actually exist. Or, you could say, “what we see is what we think”. Music can take us to a place beyond thought.
Chain D.L.K.: Would you say that your music was influenced more by knowledge or soul? If there’s a balanced influence by both, how did it change over the years?
Michael Stearns: All my life, ever since I was a child, I’ve experienced the life outside of the ‘cultural sandbox’ defined by the language and stories we tell ourselves and each other. The music comes from that place.
Chain D.L.K.: As we mentioned your inventive approach to instruments (I particularly remember the awesome instruments you made for Lyra and Chronos!), did you keep on creating weird resounding entities these days?
Michael Stearns: Lyra was actually created by the artist George Landry, and the beam that I used in the Chronos soundtrack was designed by John Lazelle. I worked with George bringing Lyra to life, helping to design some of its technical aspects, and then performing with it. I was introduced to the beam, hearing Francisco Lupica play his. Mickey Hart of the Grateful Dead also has them, as does Craig Huxley. I’ve had wonderful opportunities to use mine in my own music and in soundtracks. These days, most of my musical manipulation is created using my modular system and on the computer.
Chain D.L.K.: I read you used The Beam for your recent releases. You used it in Chronos (I can’t hide that I consider that album your masterpiece). Is it an updated version of the instrument you used decades ago, or is it the same?
Michael Stearns: It’s the same instrument, although the way that I process it and record it has changed.
Chain D.L.K.: Well, we mentioned it, so maybe it’s the right moment to talk about the forthcoming “Beyond Earth & Sky”… it’s nice you and Steve keep on being great friends and collaborators. How did the idea of this collaborative release sparkle?
Michael Stearns: Steve performed here in Santa Fe in 2018 and 2019. After his performance in 2018, he suggested that we collaborate on an album together the next year. In 2019, I performed with him for a section of his concert. Afterwards, he spent several days here at the house, working with me in my studio. At that time we lay down the basic tracks and direction for “Beyond Earth & Sky”. Last year, during the Covid waves, we ‘fleshed out’ each of the pieces, put the meat on the bones, and this year I mixed the album.
Chain D.L.K.: Can you tell us something about the aspects that are normally not attached to release notes, such as anecdotes, issues, or nice facts related to “Beyond Earth & Sky”?
Michael Stearns: Steve and I have known each other for over 40 years. We were both establishing our music in Los Angeles at that time, Steve living in Culver City and myself in Palms, just a few blocks across Venice Blvd from each other. We collaborated on several projects. Once we took a long trip around the Southwest together, camping and visiting several of the iconic geologic and sacred sites. The cover photograph for his album “Dreamtime Return” was shot on that trip in Bryce Canyon. So, the music for “Beyond Earth & Sky” was ‘seeded’ at that time. And from there, the ‘roots’ grew into the collaboration we share today.
Chain D.L.K.: In the 70ies, you and Steve were neighbors in Los Angeles, weren’t you? Now you live far from the urban environment. I read the context in which you are both living had an influence on the sound of “Beyond Earth & Sky”, didn’t it?
Michael Stearns: Steve lives and has his studio in the desert and mountains to the south of Tucson, Arizona… out where the ‘horizon’ is everywhere, and you disappear into the landscape and vistas. My studio and home are just outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, where the desert meets the mountains. We’re up high on a ridge at 7,200 feet (2,200 meters). The mountain towers above us at 13,200 feet. The music Steve and I create is ‘informed’ by the landscapes we live in.
Chain D.L.K.: The Beam was pushed in the equipment of another recent output on Projekt co-signed by you and Erik Wollo. Any words about this “Convergence”?
Michael Stearns: Erik and I met at an electronic music festival we were both headlining in Belgium, B-Wave. While having dinner one night during the festival, it was suggested we do an album together. That is how “Convergence” was born. We worked on the album in the second half of 2019, finished tracking early in 2020, just as the Covid surges started. Great fun working with Erik, playing a bit of guitar, which was my original instrument.
Chain D.L.K.: Many ambient producers (particularly the newest generations coming from the UK scene) consider you like a living Mozart of ambient music. What is the most concise lesson you would provide to them or to any approaching the genre?
Michael Stearns: There are no rules.
Chain D.L.K.: There have been many references to native Indian Americans in some of your releases. How do you feel close to that forgotten culture?
Michael Stearns: It is not forgotten. Santa Fe is in the middle of 7 Native American pueblos. I see Native Americans nearly every day, some are dear friends. Living here, you are immersed in the mystery of this place and its original peoples.
Chain D.L.K.: What should we expect from you in the near future? Are there any works in progress?
Michael Stearns: There are two new solo albums completed but waiting to be mixed and sequenced, at least one will be released in 2022. And Projekt will be re-releasing many of my older titles over the next year, year and a half.