Super Positions: Interview with Sam Hamilton

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New Zealander Sam Hamilton is a multidisciplinary artist now residing in Portland Oregon describing to me as to what he does as being “about the intersections between sound, ecology, art, and the fundamental structures and construction of existential life“. Coming from a fellow artist, it’s a deep perspective. In his latest sound-based project, Super Positions, it is anything but ordinary in presentation, physicality and goes beyond the traditional player-listener experience. On this set of recordings are glimpses of electronica with neo-classical leanings, psychedelia and lots of intricate experimentation. We had the chance recently to hunker down to break down his process some and here is what we discussed:

Q: Hi Sam. I’m glad we connected, having crossed paths without ever having met, even having lived in the same city (Portland, OR), though we are both from other places (likely before and after). I always find the degrees of separation between artists to be ever expanding and contracting. Might you have any thoughts about this?

A: Hi TJ, I’m glad to have connected also. Thank you. I think “expanding and contracting” perfectly encapsulates the dynamics of at least my personal interface with the world as an artist at large. I think, at its most effective, a good artistic practice is one that functions like an iris. Focusing energy, matter, and meaning back a forth between the external world and ones interior world.

Q: I can appreciate the metaphor. And in this light, one of the tracks on your new collection of soundworks, The plural center of the world, may in some weird way, touch upon the cerebral nature of place. What was your thinking behind this half-hour plus work, is it a dirge to nature? And are there sneezes sampled on this (a nod to Yoko Ono)?

A: Ah yeah, ok, good question. So, firstly, the piece was recorded live, in my living room, to a live audience, with 3x harmonium players and 5x string players on the darkest night of the year. A dirge to nature, definitely, although I must add, a dirge particularly to our subjective orientation within it. So, although I love Yoko Ono and will happily nod their way regardless, the sneezes here are the real deal.

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As for “cerebral” sense of place. I think that is close, but it risks implying that one’s sense of place is solely intellectual. To me the title implies the inclusion of the opposite. That one’s sense of place functions like gravity in the sense that it is a force that is simply focused through the center of greatest mass. I guess the trick here is the consideration of mass from a slightly more expanded ontological perspective than usual. It is the consideration of our individual and collective trajectories through existence as having meaningful gravity worthy levels of mass themselves. And of having objectively definable shapes. Shapes chiseled, in an evolutionary manner, through their respective relational interfaces with the world over time. Another dimension to the idea could be the description of one’s sense of place as a tree that branches out over time.

Q: Speaking of trees….Is it true that you recorded some of this in the Amazonian rainforest? Where exactly were you, and can you talk some about what it was like there?

A: Yeah. I started in 2007 in the central Brazilian Amazonas on a workshop residency run by Francisco Lopez, and then spent a further 3-more months after that working alone mostly in the southern Colombian Amazon region, and around La Selva Central Peru between the cloud forests and lowland forests.

I went in with a typical analytical western post-musique concrete perspective about sound. That it’s real creative agency only comes into being via its use as a raw, dissociated physical material within the construction of something compositional (artworks), something “considered”. But I came out of that forest with a completely opposite attitude. I came to wholly reject what I came to consider as an inherently colonial attitude of divide and conquer, and began to perceive the sounds I was recording, collecting, as inherently living things. As entities who’s creative and existential agency is at their most vital with they are connected to the world within their natural contexts. I went in with a museum collectors’ attitude of collecting these things and putting them on display in a gallery. I came out realising the intense responsibility I actually now had as the guardians of a small collection of beautiful, special, and very much living sounds.  It was a radical shift of thinking that has fundamentally echoed throughout my entire practice, sound or otherwise. And it’s a perspective I owe entirely to those forests.

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Q: OK, that is an intense realization and I get it, of course in my way. Interpreting an experience is the sixth sense in my world. What does sense of place, or the in-situ nature of field recordings mean to you? And how is it infused into or deployed in your work?

A: Mmm. Contrary (although hopefully only initially) to my above statements, I think the musique-concrete perspective is usual for breaking the implied sense, or impression of place that inhibits a listener’s ability to engage a sound on its own existential terms. I think being able to disassociate the two things is useful, but, and it’s a perhaps a very significant but, the usefulness of doing so is best put to use for ultimately better understanding, feeling, and sensing the sounds relationship to place and context. Be that the implied place of their origin, the place and context of your experience of them (like on a record or in a gallery etc), or the subjective and ephemeral “place” within the sounds themselves.

Q: This recording, ‘Super Positions‘, as a deep listener, sounds physical, performative. Where did the title come from? And how about the cover art, a print of yours?

A: Haha, lol, I read that as you saying the music sounds “physical”, too which I would have swooned at such a perfect feeling description. On that note, for me a lot of the work on this record feels physically oriented. I’ve often described it as musical Brutalism. Large, elementally dimensional concrete buildings, cast in soft lighting with a nice garden.

But the title… it’s borrowed from physics, quantum-mechanics, and geology, for which it means different – but in some cases related – things for each. It has a lot to so with the relationships between particle waves, and the interactions of structures and systems. For particles I think it can mean a particle can be in two places at once, like quantum entanglement. I think… it’s mostly beyond me.

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Q: Being someone who was (and likely still is) fascinated by all things of a forensic nature, sometimes trying to capture what is beyond, the breadth and intangible-ness of understanding, can help propel the creative spirit. You had mentioned to me earlier that you had taken a “different tact for this release” – can you explain how?

A: Well, despite whatever intentionality I might claim to underscore this “different tact”, it is nonetheless an inherently lazy one. But essentially, principally, I wanted take this music that was a total labor of love and creativity, and completely and absolutely disassociate it from any form of capitalist system of value model.

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I’ve made many records, LP’s, CD’s, Lathe cuts in my time, so I’m fully familiar with the process. And although it can be an immensely rewarding thing to do, it can also be back breaking, and soul sucking. I want people to hear it, and although physical records are a beautiful delivery vessel, that process of making and promoting a record doesn’t actually service one’s ability to disseminate the work to the people most likely to enjoy it. In fact, employing such a model can actually be incredibly inefficient. So why burden a project of love with such stuff? Why not remove the cost and the mountains of admin, and simply give the music directly, and personally, to those I want to hear it?, like you? like my friends and peers?. Why burden the work with having to try and keep afloat in an incredibly over saturated, cashed up and profoundly impatient music world. nope. no thanks. I’m done with that.

Q: (nondenominationally) Amen!

Now let’s move on to The Meteorological Meter. I could listen to this all day and night. No, honestly, I am obsessed with weather, one of the main reasons I lived in the Pacific Northwest in the first place. The fire, fury, the pitter-patter and whistling winds, it’s all music to my ears. Sometimes I sit and ask my Google speaker to play sounds of the ocean, and I am mesmerized to sleep. How do you ‘conduct’ such found sounds?

A: Haha, interesting. Yeah, I really love the rain here also. Although to be honest I find weather here incredibly placid in comparison to what I’m used to back home in Aotearoa New Zealand where you regularly get four seasons in a day. I hear you mean otherwise though. I grew up listening to rain on a tin roof, like nature wrapping a blanket of textured noise around your mind.

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That work was part of a long series of works thinking about the intersection or evolutionary relationships between anthropocentric musicality, instrumentation, and “nature” at large. this piece is made from recordings of a drum kit being “played” by the rain.

Q: I watched one of your videos, I think it was Apple Pie, is your work based in principles of endurance?

A: Mmm, not explicitly. I would perhaps frame it more as work that is liberated from the need to be distracting… for which the vast majority of what’s produced these days is trying to do, explicitly or not. Also, although yes, a lot of the work I make can be unconventionally long  uneventful, I don’t consider it endurance work because I don’t really expect you to “pay attention” the entire time. If you watch or listen to something and your mind ends up drifting off to other daydreams, does that mean you are enduring your own daydreams?. no. It means you’re just having a different relationship to experiencing a work that isn’t tethered to the need for instant attention grabbing stimulation.

Saying that, being able to endure things can be a useful tool for teasing out harder – but sweeter – won experiences. The view from atop a mountain is going to feel more ecstatic and rich after hiking the mountain than it is if you just drive up there.

Q: Indeed, the letting go can be the hardest part, and the biggest return. Now to switch gears – getting practical, what instruments do you play on the recording? Do you collaborate with other musicians?

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A: On Super Positions I use Electric guitar, spring reverb, DD94, acoustic piano, acoustic foot pedal harmonium, Casiotone keyboard, floor tom, and bells. Each track usually focusing on a single instrumentation. The Plural Center of the World was recorded live with Chiara Giovando, Jacob Mitas, Marilou Carrera, Shannon Steele, Kristen Castagna, Tosten Larson on strings and Ethan Demarest, Lane Barrington and myself on Harmoniums.

I’ve collaborated with a few folks over the years. Most recently with Finland’s Jan Anderzén – both as a duo colab, and I also contributed to his recent Kemialliset Ystävät LP –  a remix of Peruvian friend Wilber Gonzales, my occasional ecstatic collaboration with Portland’s Alissa Derubeis as Universal Politics. I used to be in a bunch of bands/projects in Aotearoa before moving including The Absolutionists with Dean Roberts and Chris O’Connor, performances with Phil Dadson, a pop band called History of Snakes, even a one-record member of Tall Dwarfs :). I’ve spent much of the last decade working with an international dance company called the Lemi Ponifasio / MAU Dance Company as well.

Q: Ahhh, dance, that could definitely be a conversation for another time, I imagined your work in this context. Now, Medulla Oblongata, this is quite psychedelic approach. It sounds super sci-fi, how did you work with phasers? Have you listened to a lot of Krautrock or Pink Floyd?

A: Haha… um. Definitely a lot of Krautrock. I played a set with Damo Suzuki once as it happens. This piece certainly has an element of “cosmic” retro-futurist leanings to 60’s/70’s psychedelic music. Although it’s also a pretty minimal and earnest homage to the humble Casiotone. In an era when everyone has a huge modular synth rack, I – in typical broke-ass New Zealand free noise fashion – am happy to stick to the shittiest of instruments possible and eek out whatever beauty I can from them.

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Q: Can an artist ever separate him/herself from their art, and if so how?

A: Great question. As with the field recording, I think the answer is kind of yes – but only as a means of better understanding and better serving that relationship. I think the relationships that underscore arts orientation within an artist’s life, within the lives of those who experience it as audiences or participants, and within the world at large, is finally starting to be acknowledged and given the long overdue credence it deserves. You can separate art from its personal or social context, but why would you want to when it’s these relationships that give it its greatest agency and deepest responsibility.

Q: Thank you for the chat, though we both have relocated from other vantagepoints, I feel we are that much closer on the global axis now. As we come to closure, for now, can you tell me what is coming up for you this year, anything we should watch out for?

A: Cool, yeah, so… I’ve had a few screenings this year in NZ, LA, and London, but am essentially getting deep into developing two large new projects. One is a painting project – something I haven’t done in a decade, but which I’m enjoying immensely – and the other is a new large-scale film work I’ll be developing over the next 2 years, shot on 16mm film with a cast of just over 300 people around the Pacific looking at the relationship between atomic weapons testing, the anthropocene, and cultural evolution.

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