The Promiscuous Listener – An Interview with Gabriel Saloman

The iridescent ring of ear-piercer transcends effortlessly into the chiming bells of Skype’s ring tone when its creator Gabriel Saloman calls me up. The high frequency sine waves of Gabriel’s song form the foundation from which the jovially drunken ringtone bursts into life. “Hello” breaks the exasperating monotony of the musical whim from the communication software and I find Gabriel’s image pull into focus from my computer screen, somewhere from the opposite side of the world – Vancouver, Canada to be exact. “For the most part Canada is, relative to the landmass, this thin border. It’s also disconcerting for Canadian identity, because Montreal is as far away by airplane from Vancouver as Mexico City. And that’s to say nothing of the differences between Quebec culture and Anglos culture.” He says this as he takes a sip of coffee from a big bright yellow mug, while the last resonances of Ear Piercer still try and find their way out from within my cognitive processes.

The former Yellow Swan is sitting on the threshold of his next release via Shelter Press. Movement Building Volume II is the next instalment in a trilogy of releases appropriated for the album format from commissioned works for dance. Movement Building Volume I created layers between noise and ambience, submerging the listener in tonal waves of irrevocable beauty through two extensive compositions, commissioned for a dance work by Daisy Thompson. ”Her work is really focussed on Michel Foucault”, and with his concept of discipline explains Gabriel: “ it’s about power and how power is put inside the body by various external forces.” Daisy’s work would be about “exploring movement through a process of un-disciplining the body” while Gabriel’s music provided the backdrop in long lethargic drones and percussive elements that stretch out to contort the temporal construct of the music. Foucault and discipline however would bear no relation to the second volume and his latest work. The only connection Gabriel entertains between these works is a temporal one, in as much as that they were created around the same time. Movement Building Volume II, commissioned by the 605 collective, is a work that is some parts based on the Japanese novel Snow Country. “The appeal of (Snow Country) is that there are these interesting elements inside of it, in terms of the characters’ background and stories. I took that novel and the mood of it and the relationship of the natural world that’s depicted in it and I tried to find ways to musically suggest that space.” Using traditional forms of Japanese music as “inspiration or as maps” Gabriel documents an abstract narrative of Snow Country through his music and as such creates immersive sonic landscapes that work as well in the album format as they do as individual sound-art pieces for the purpose of dance. “The thing I get back from dancers, is that the things I do are distinct from what a lot of other sound artists do”, replies Gabriel when I highlight this element to the album. Gabriel is unique in this respect with that awareness of making albums always in the back of his mind when he creates these pieces. With dance “the work is done to be in this ambiguous space to be present enough that people notice it, but in the background enough that they don’t realise the extent to which it’s affecting their bodies and stimulating them, because they are so focussed on the dance. Music is seen as a subservient element to the dance. What you hear is incidental” and when Gabriel appropriates it in the album format the work “gives people the opportunity to engage directly” with the music. With the recorded format always in the back of his mind, Gabriel approaches music for dance from the point of view of documentation rather than an album. “There’s these formal ways in which you compose a record and ways in which you think through the composition of a record that are different than the priorities that might be behind composing music for a dance performance.” In effect what comes from these musical pieces are ambient spaces that are able to function independently and alongside the dance work.

Gabriel Saloman creates these ambient spaces from a mixture of processes with the bowed guitar at its core and an experimental propensity for music that stretches back to his youth and watching footage of Jimi Hendrix as a kid. “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to recreate the music, but the physical way he was playing the guitar, the noise, I knew that’s how I should do it.” He would always put some time aside at the end of a practise session to grab a glass or a jar, sliding it across the strings to find new and “strange sounds” through his limited means. “I had this idea if I kept on doing it, even without being taught how, eventually I would figure it out.” He fell accidentally on methods of prepared guitar in this way, sticking bits of paper between the strings to get that distorted sound he’d heard at the end of Nirvana concerts.“ I was just trying to make up for what I couldn’t do.” At some point some friends made a joke about Sonic Youth putting blenders to their guitars and through them Gabriel eventually found a way into Free Jazz and Japanese noise, music that would cement a lifetime as a “promiscuous listener”.

It’s this idea of Gabriel as the promiscuous listener that pulls me back into the direction of his new album, Movement Building Volume II and one particular song, My Funny Valentine. Gabriel gives out a little hollow guffaw and says he’s “not entirely sure how to talk about this, and not just for legal reasons.” The song is for the most part a You Tube rip of a Miles Davis Quintet performance, with Gabriel applying often-unnoticeable processing touches to the music in a kind of readymade aesthetic passed on from Marcel Duchamp or John Cage. “I was requested to make a piece that involved horn, trumpet to be exact, and that had this drunken romantic feel to it for a duet.“ When Gabriel eventually saw the dancers perform the piece, he immediately heard ‘My Funny Valentine’ and without access to a record player and a deadline looming he turned to You Tube and found a recording of the quintet performing that piece. “It had all this other noise around it”, which piqued his interest even further. For Gabriel however there was no intrinsic statement to be made of the methods he used to create this piece. I ask him if there might be any relevance to modern popular culture and its use of this questionable source of found sounds, but Gabriel it’s probably more relevant to his working methods than anything else. “It’s not agenda and I’m not trying to make point, it’s just within the limits of what I have access to.”

Gabriel enjoys the limitation of the creative process through setting up parameters like these. Much of his work will include elements like field recordings and cymbals, applied in an abstract manner to arrive at certain sounds like those high-pitched whines of Ear Piercer or the rumbling drones of Mountain Music. “I’ll take acoustic sounds and I’ll work with them as if they’re built from electronics.” By using restraint, Gabriel’s work is most creatively fertile and this element to his work has its roots in his youth as a teenager reading about Punk Rock, before ever hearing a Punk Rock band. “I had a real strong drive towards collaboration and towards collective projects.” The idea of the collective brought with it the necessity to compromise and in that Gabriel found an “integral part to the creation process”. “When I work with somebody else; that place where we struggle to understand each other, that to me is creation, that’s exciting. It sets up that limitation that’s really productive.” As a solo artist he had to apply new limitations to find that same place in the creative process he’d found with Yellow Swans and Pete Swanson early in his career. “If I had the time, technical skill and resources to do exactly what I want it would be rubbish.” In some ways working with a choreographer offered a solution in that it offered Gabriel the collaboration that was so creatively productive in a band context, but for the most part it was Gabriel’s own limitations that were most fruitful in this regard. “Certain pieces are determined by the content but I’ve also started narrowing my choices and the instruments I use.” Gabriel will often throw in the odd instrument to find a particular sound he’s looking for, while influenced through what he hears in contemporary electronic music. “The sounds I produce are often sounds I hear from synthesisers“ and “influenced by contemporary dance music and bass music culture.”

Some of these influences have recently also been channelled into Chambers, a new collaborative dub project with Michael Red, in which Gabriel fills the silent moments between the beats of the dance music with exploratory noise and ambiences. The electronic influence has also manifested itself in a different way for Gabriel. “I’ve been thinking more about how music reaches people and how it reaches people that it registers more than just a moments of attention.” In a way this harks back to Gabriel’s Punk Anarchic roots as “a desire to communicate a certain politics to a wider audience.” He cites Chumbawamba here as en example of an anarchist band delivering a political message through accessible music in the form of Tubthumping. “It’s a song working class people can relate to and sing to celebrate the working classes.“ It’s something Gabriel would like to explore further in the future as he moves intentionally into “recording for the album format” and with synthesisers and drum machines being the popular medium today, it will most likely take the form of electronic music. It all forms part of the “ongoing exploration” for Gabriel that today includes creative outlets like writing and visual conceptual works, with music being the “most emotional and intuitive” form of artistic expression for the artist. “Music is the least explicit but the most emphatic in some ways and then writing is the most explicit, but the least emotional or the least abstract, and the least open for interpretation.” He sees these various creative elements to his identity lying on this spectrum as “they speak back and forth with each other” with the singular voice of the artist at its core. It’s part of the reason he enjoys releasing his music on a label like Shelter Press, labels that are essentially “art publishers publishing records as art works.” It makes it easier for all these different elements to “function simultaneously” in Gabriel’s opinion. With Shelter Press’ “awareness of the visual culture around producing records, it’s easier to sometimes occupy similar places”, something that Gabriel finds an intrinsic part in his own work.

Our time together is slowly creeping to an end and Gabriel mentions how on a recent visit to Berlin he’s found a European mentality where these things truly can occupy the same places. Our conversation seemed to touch on various topics and through our meagre hour together, I’ve learnt more about this particular artist without even touching on something as literal as a biography. I feel there is more that needs to unfold, but as the hard-drive of my computer starts bulking under strain of the excessive recording, we have to end our conversation prematurely. We hardly hear the other say goodbye as Skype freezes and when the closing click dies out in a muted ‘bing’, the iridescent tones of Ear Piercer come drifting back out of the speaker like they’ve never left.