Music created within unique surroundings has historically stood the test of time; Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago was birthed in a Wisconsin hunting cabin; Radiohead’s OK Computer came together in a Tudor mansion in Bath – ultimately, both of these records evolved as Magnus Opuses.
Nous Alpha are another group who have opted for venturing further afield to find the perfect sound. The duo are Christopher Bono and Gareth Jones, who between them have produced and engineered music for Depeche Mode, Grizzly Bear and WIRE.
Following from their 2019 debut LP Without Falsehood, Nous Alpha’s latest endeavour is a cerebral journey into the unification between art, sciene and the natural world. Inspired by “meditative walks in the woods”, the pair foraged around New York’s Catskill Mountains, sampling elements of the surrounding forests along the way.
The result of this cerebral fling with nature was A Walk In The Woods, a stunningly poignant, varied and unique album that acts as a manifesto for both the shocking stillness and dense drama of the natural world at once.
We sat down with Nous Alpha to dig a little deeper:
How are you guys? How has the past year been for you?
Christopher Bono: I’m doing quite well thank you, I just got my second vaccine dose and I’m deeply appreciative of the genius and hard work of the scientists to allow for me such safety of mind and body. It’s been a challenging year of course for us all.
My Father in law passed from Covid so it hit our family hard and heavy like so many others. From the pandemic to politics it was quite the dystopian era, but it was also rather strange for me personally as my day to day was quite normal. Wake up, take care of my Son, go to the studio for work, come home. My routine was the same whether 2020 was a disaster or not, so there was a very bizarre kind of normalcy for me.
I also could be happy living in the North of Canada off the grid for years and not be bothered, so the isolation and solitude was a welcome opportunity. That being said the amount of suffering, fear and tension in our shared Mindspace was a thick and heavy smog that definitely affected my state of mind on several occasions.
Gareth Jones: I’m really well thanks. I’m post Covid and vaccinated, so I’m feeling reasonably well protected. The past year has been very challenging and also profoundly creative, because I kind of moved into the back bedroom with my laptop and a small modular set up where somehow I’ve been able to concentrate on the essentials.
This has included finishing A Walk in the Woods, finishing “electronic music improvisations volume one“ (my collaboration with Mute label boss Daniel Miller), writing and recording a new LP with Quinquis, ongoing work on volume 2 of my “ElectroGenetic” solo project as well as preparing the final versions of the pieces for “spiritual friendship 4” (my collaboration with Nick Hook).
And I’ve had the great pleasure of working in a remote advisory capacity on a beautiful record for Gabbarein, a new project that Christopher is making for his label, Our Silent Canvas.
You describe A Walk In The Woods as a ‘collaboration with the natural world’ – what do you mean by this? What natural elements were involved in the making of it?
CB: The album was derived from a day devoted to traversing into the western Catskills to find sounds. The magic happened on two paths in the wood- without any premeditation. We spontaneously began recording sounds and interactive performances using whatever was before us, which just ended up being the Wood, Stone, Earth, Water, Leaves and the occasional random form of an old rusted sign and a rotted bird box in the woods. The spirit or present state of the forest gave us what she had to offer and we received it with much gladness.
GJ: Heaven, earth, and humanity are all part of the natural world for me, there is no Un-natural world. So I guess everything we do is a collaboration with the natural world. In the context of “a walk in the woods“ we had a manifesto, a game plan. This was to go on a sampling expedition into the woods before we entered the studio, in order to collect audio samples of whatever we might find there.
For us, this involved interaction with the woods, the stones, the leaves, the water that we found there. We wanted to perform with the woods. So basically we bashed out a few improvised beats at different locations on our hike. And as the hike progressed it became obvious that we could add voice and chant to the mix. There are also many sounds in the words that we did not make, we just recorded them. Some of these appear on the record. Notably the bird on “bird box”.
You also mention that during the production of the record you were in a ‘trance’-like state. Do you think this cerebral and almost auto-motive element to the music makes it a release that can’t be replicated?
CB: The process was cerebral at certain times, but generally driven by intuition. Of course, we couldn’t replicate what happened in those special moments of composition and performance, but we could present a live show that offers further present moment interpretations of the general themes that surrounded each piece.
GJ: There is no way I can replicate anything that I channeled or created on this magical session. I do believe we could construct s wonderful performance inspired by this record, time space and budget allowing.
Your music blends the concept of self-discovery/mindfulness with modernised technology. Do you think a world can exist where both the natural environment and brave technology exist in harmony?
GJ: I believe that, for humanity, technology is part of the natural environment and I very much hope that we don’t use the former to eradicate our connection with the latter. It seems to me that without mindfulness, technology can be very dangerous to ourselves, our spiritual growth & the environment which we are privileged to be born into. Technology can also help people to make a shitload of money, and there is the danger, without mindfulness.
CB: I personally think, though I would be extremely happy to be wrong, that at this point the only hope for humanity is “brave technology” to save the planet from the woes of our ways. I think the momentum of the habit energy of society to expect material comforts and possessions has grown so strong that a reversal of the trend seems nearly impossible. I also believe that the only way to conduct this trend into a positive transformation for ourselves and for the world is more and more people to cultivate and develop compassion, understanding and insight. There are many factors that can nourish this development in our species, but an increase in mindfulness and meditation are certainly important ones. I do think we will rely on a small group of people to come up with some extraordinary innovations to help reverse the effects of climate change, whether through development of renewable energies or manufacturing of carbon capturing devices, etc. Regardless of this development, it is upon each and every one of us to do what we can in order for a positive future to be possible. It may not be enough, but we certainly need to try.
You’ve collaborated with Ben Heim and Paola Olea, two talented visual artists, for the videos for some of the tracks – how important is it for you as artists to explore the way sounds are represented visually?
CB: It depends from project to project. Certain projects are more multi-media from conception to finish so whether it’s a video or a dance performance, the visual side of the experience has added weight. On this album, the music was just the music with no expectation for visual reflection. In general, I prefer to work on Music for the sake of Music only, this also then allowed us to let Ben, Paola, Ployz and Gavin be really free with their artistic expressions. We gave them some general themes and suggestions but left it really open for them to utilize their own imaginations and experiments.
GJ: It’s very important to me, and now it’s something I’m pursuing with other projects inspired by the incredible work that Ben and Paola did for us. I feel very privileged that Our Silent Canvas sought these artists out and found a way to work with them. I’m very proud of my association with these video artists and the wonderful work they have created.
A Walk In The Woods seems to blur the line between art and science. How would you describe the link between these disciplines on the album?
GJ: My life‘s work has been a pursuit of recording music. Most of the deeply profound musical experiences that I have been a part of have been with recorded music, in the studio or as a deep listening experience to other peoples’ work. Because of this multi decade passion for the science and art of recording music I have come to realise that art and science are united in my life. Much (perhaps most) art uses technology to realize the work. I bathe in the magical light that emanates from the Crucible where art and science are fused as one. That’s just my thing.
CB: I feel I’ve seen an increasingly stronger trend blurring these lines as technology evolves. We’re seeing people who are technically programmers emerging as ground-breaking artists, and more art becoming reliant on technology. Like anything related to technology this has a good and bad side, I do get concerned about us moving away from making things with our bodies and experiencing in the body rather than in a virtual space.
I personally am in a phase turning back to acoustic instruments and listening for inspiration in the natural world and in old music, but I also am extremely thrilled with the possibilities of creative expressions through new tech. Like all things it comes down to balance, and I believe its important that people seek this balance in their own lives and cultivate it. In this case I think we are talking about the balance between intuition and reason, of the body and of the mind, of what is labelled organic and inorganic. It’s wonderful to explore it all, but it’s important to remember to cultivate a life outside the digital box.
A Walk In The Woods is out via Our Silent Canvas Records on May 7th – pre-order here: