For as long as I can remember I have felt drawn to music derived purely from electronic sources, whether it be the abstract classical (Stockhausen, Tangerine Dream), the artistic and imaginative (Kraftwerk) or the hypnotic beats and addictive riffs of acid house in the 80s/90s.
There is something beautifully mesmerising and captivating about a style that is seemingly simple in its purity yet simultaneously complex in its multitude of interweaving layers, its patterns and its textures.
Like life itself, music can be intricate and delicate, or rough and harsh; beautifully crafted and detailed, or crude and coarse. The building blocks of both intrigue me. I am fascinated by the seemingly infinite varieties that arise from a finite set of factors – a set number of notes, a set number of chromosomes. We seem to be able to make anything we like from them.
Yet much of the music we humans create is rubbish, let’s be honest. I mean, Eurovision? Pop?! The ‘master races’ of music -
fed to the masses and gobbled up greedily by battery hens, forming ‘hit parade’ charts that reflect a snapshot of so-called fame, generating money for the parasites that run a music industry geared towards just one thing – profit. (The saddest part is that the people who usually make the smallest sums are the ‘artists’ themselves.)
To me it is not music; at best it is mere noise.
When I was in school I once compared my favourite composers of electronic and ambient music to the great classical composers in terms of their ability to create imagery with sound. I compared Brian Eno with Handel; Tangerine Dream with Mozart – “It’s like classical music but with synthesisers!”.
Suffice to say my music teacher went ballistic. “Sympathisers? Ha! You don’t play them, they play you!”
Point very much missed, I fear.
Pink Floyd once said, in the early 70s, that of course you run the risk of letting the machines take over the music and you risk become a slave to them but the machines are only as good and as useful as the people using them. What they performed still had to come out of their heads before it reached the machines!
There are many bands who use these machines and have indeed become slaves to them. There are however other bands who truly
broke new ground and it is these people who have shaped my musical influences and tastes over almost four decades of listening.
Here is my personal Top 10 list of true electronic music aficionados, those who have mastered their machines, not become slaves to them, listed in more or less chronological order, not preference:
Gier Jensen (aka Biosphere)
Higher Intelligence Agency
Future Sound of London (FSOL)
Finally, my current focus of attention for this article,
Carbon Based Lifeforms, or ‘CBL’ for short.
CBL are Johannes Hedberg and Daniel Segerstad (né Ringström), both born in 1976 and based in Göteborg, south-west Sweden.
They met at the tender age of 15 and are still, amazingly, working happily together, almost 20 years later. CBL itself was formed in 1996, as an offshoot from other projects, but soon became their focal point, culminating in their first release on ‘mp3.com’ in 1998.
It is hard to categorise CBL’s music but an apt description might be that of a groundbreaking mixture of acid, techno and house music. The term ‘acid/ambient’ has also been coined; perhaps a respectful nod to Eno himself, as well as a perfect association with the technology CBL uses and the mesmerising beats of their more up-tempo tracks.
CBL signed with the celebrated Lyon-based ‘Ultimae’ label in 2002 and have since released two full-length albums (‘Hydroponic Garden’ in 2003, and ‘World of Sleepers’ in 2006). Both albums have been extraordinarily well received by connoisseurs within the ambient scene.
It remains unclear which of the two members derives the greatest pleasure from manipulating the distinctive, squelching sounds of the Roland TB-303; certainly it is much more fun than any man is entitled to have whilst twiddling electronic knobs.
Johannes often creates the building blocks of sounds and harmonies and could tweak sounds forever, whereas Daniel develops the rhythms and sculpts the ideas into tracks. Through this synergy of ideas, their aim is to combine earth and space in their music.
Daniel and Johannes use the combination of nature and technology as the main inspiration for their work. They like to represent both the positive and negative effects that this collaboration can lead to, including the negative impact that incorrect technology can have on the environment.
Their sources for inspiration vary; articles on technology and science, video games, books, dreams. For them, it is vital to get into the right “mindset” before making for example a more atmospheric track. “It is all too easy to get carried away and rush things.”
The fact that they take their time over what they produce makes their music no less of an art form than a sculptor taking his time with the hammer and chisel, the painter changing the colour of a background detail, or the poet for whom the changing of one word alters the whole mood of a stanza.
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When it comes to this kind of music, the beauty is in the detail. Every time I listen to their tracks, I hear something different. That
is not to say I had not heard it before, but with our changing moods it is sometimes easier to focus in on one detail rather than another, so you notice it more this time around than you did the last. See? We often hear but do not always listen.
This is music whose sum is far greater than its component elements.
Such is their creativity that it occasionally overspills into what become ‘new’ projects. The results can be enjoyed by listening to releases from ‘Thermostatic’, ‘Digidroid’, as well as Daniel’s own ‘SYNC24’, which is the result of sudden impulses of inspiration, giving room for his personal reflections.
This way they can keep the ‘CBL sound’ pure and ultimately distinctive: Evolution in music.
Have you ever looked at a picture of somewhere familiar to you, yet the photographer has represented the view with a radically different light or colour? Ever wondered how that is done? A skilled craftsman of the modern age uses the technology available. Much of CBL’s inspiration comes from the exploration of their hardware and software, just as you or I might change a familiar picture with iPhoto.
“A large part of the inspiration for the tracks comes from fiddling
around with the hardware and software, if you tweak a thing the wrong way, [or] in exactly the right way, strange things happen. 50% vision and 50% serendipity is a pretty good formula for us!”
“We’re like a shepherd trying to herd his flock, but in our case they’re machines not sheep. You can get them to go in a general direction, but if you tweak them just the right way they start doing their own thing and that adds a lot of detail and depth to the tracks.”
(That almost begs the question of whether in their dreams they see electric sheep, but that’s a different angle……)
The music often seems to reflect the natural landscape of its land of inception; indeed if you listen to ‘Photosynthesis’ on the ‘World of Sleepers’ album then you find yourself feeling genuine concern for the forests. Given the source of the quotation in the song, perhaps this is the point.
If so, it is a damned good one and epitomises the aim of the group in pricking the conscience when it comes to something as critical as the environment. In fact, they see technology and the environment intrinsically linked in their message to the planet.
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“Technology is our friend and probably the solution to most of our physical needs (eating, shelter etc), if only we could stop and
think things over for a minute before rushing to make the most profit possible all the time.”
“Even though we’re pretty much still banging rocks together, [we] feel we are on the verge of great breakthroughs, I mean if the scientist guys only put their heads together and built the ‘replicator’ already, that would mean the end of much of the plight people are in right now. It would do away with the need to work hard to cover your base needs, and you could spend your time doing meaningful stuff instead!”
I first became aware of CBL through the iTunes channel ‘radioioambient’ during a particularly warm Nordic summer, immersed in a perfect harmony between complex nature and multi-faceted soundscape – the north of Sweden in high summer gives plenty of opportunity for sober (occasionally not-so-sober) reflection or introspection.
Music had not had such a profound effect on me since the Higher Intelligence Agency released their innovative first album ‘colourform’ in 1993. The first time I heard ‘Hydroponic Garden’ was like being given a new pair of ears!
CBL do not just restrict themselves to the studio, like you might expect from musicians heavily dependant upon machines and “fiddling”. They often play live, at music festivals across Europe -
One of the exciting things about playing at these venues is that they can add a visual element to the music through light shows and special effects (think ‘Baraka’ or ‘Koyaanisqatsi’; great films with a great soundtracks) – an audio-visual feast that kicks off all your senses.
When CBL play live they themselves are silent and unobtrusive – the music and effects speak for them. There is no showmanship, no grandstanding, no prima-donna diva-like demands for worship. What you take away from the show is how the music, the atmosphere, the experience itself made you feel.
The worst gigs I have attended in my life were the ones where the ‘artists’ engaged in “Oooh, look at us! Aren’t we great! Thank you for your adoration! More please, stroke our egos!” CBL are as far removed from that as you can get, short of them playing behind a screen. Typically modest – and bloody nice people with it.
I asked them a question about live performances the other day; “If you could perform live anywhere in the world, which would be the most appropriate venue in which to demonstrate the perfect blend of your music and location?”
They answered without hesitation; “The International Space
Station. Easy question.” Class!
That would be some performance. I recall when FSOL released their album ‘ISDN’ live over the internet. You got the feeling you were participating in something special. Imagine listening to a gig live from space…..
For a live experience, it’s good to see the artists perform – but it’s more important that those attending have their own experience, not have it manufactured for them.
CBL’s next gig, for example, is at the Natural History Museum in Stockholm. The museum has its own IMAX theatre, called ‘Cosmonova’. For me it’s probably the most anticipated concert since I first saw The Orb live in 1992.
It promises to be an amazing evening: Friday November 27th 2009. Experience it. (info: carbonbasedlifeforms.net/)
CBL’s music has become important to me personally. It has seen me through some very difficult times in recent years. It is the best music to lose oneself in peaceful, meditative thoughts, the ideal escape from the trials of ordinary life.
Their music has also seen me through some of life’s best moments too. The live edit of their track ‘Inertia’ was, with kind
permission, used as the perfect accompaniment to a video made of my wedding in 2007.
That’s how much of an impact their music can have on people; it touches lives and evokes strong memories of deeply emotional experiences, which is exactly how ambient music should be: a soundtrack for life, not a backdrop to it.
Jim Sharman, born 1970, raised in Liverpool UK. His career and personal life centre around a desire to improve and develop communication between people, to share ideas, to evolve towards a state of mutual learning, to deal effectively with conflict. You may say he's a dreamer; he's not the only one.
acid house Baraka Carbon Based Lifeforms Digidroid environment forest Higher Intelligence Agency Hydroponic Garden IMAX Koyaanisqatsi Liverpool Natural History Museum Nature Photosynthesis radioioAMBIENT rave culture Roland TB-303 serendipity soundtrack Stockholm Sweden SYNC24 technology The Orb World of Sleepers
To be honest, half the article was based on the CBL biog that you can read on the CBL and Ultimae sites. They asked me write that biog earlier this year.
The rest was just following the brief :) Glad you liked it though. We can never get enough CBL!!
We’ll be at the gig with our “…forests…” t-shirts on :)
Well written article, but most of the subjects already have been touched in other interviews, maybe It’s just me being spoiled ;)
Can’t wait to friday!
Any time, Paul! :)
Try and get over for the gig – waiting for a reply from D about Friday – but there’s an extra gig on Saturday – might go to both ;)
Heartfelt article with some excellent tips for living embedded in there, thanks Jimbo.
CBL are CBLESTIAL. No need to dive deeper, time to float. Tranceport me to the next world.
Neither, was talking about the scouser:-) Nice piece Jim!
http://www.ultimae.com (Record label, Lyon, France)
http://www.carbonbasedlifeforms.net (artist’s own website)
Both sites have a whole feast of audio-visual goodies.
Which hunk? Daniel or Johannes? *grin*
Whow, who’s that hunk, how about a phone number;-)