Words by David C. Obenour
Having worked as an engineer for Anthony Wilson on last year’s The Plan of Paris, Pete Min had a thought. What if the well-established guitarist and composer would take a chance with something different? Something that fell distinctly outside his usual bounds of sound and instruments? Would Anthony Wilson want to record an album for his eclectic and curated label, Colorfield?
The answer is given in Collodion, eleven tracks that span the sounds of electroacoustic and stretch the concepts and creativity of it’s composer. Coming in without songs, charts, or even an agenda, Min played host to Wilson’s talent for the session – offering instruments and guest players, guidance and room for exploration.
Off Shelf: Your past work has been described as fluidly moving between inspiration and genres. Taking this in whatever direction you feel while trying to drill down in it, what do you see as the throughline of your music?
Anthony Wilson: I have always felt an attraction to the intricacies of harmonic movement, to the gracefulness of well-contoured melodies, and to compelling rhythmic foundations that help to support and lift both of those. I’d say that the combination of those factors is consistent in all my music, from the very first things I recorded to now.
OS: How do you see that throughline existing on Collodion and what new ground are you able to cover while holding to that?
AW: I think you can hear those sensibilities all over the album. The first piece on the album, a rather ambient one called “Star Maiden,” sustains a kind of unresolved harmonic atmosphere with a very spare instrumentation of keyboard and saxophone, completely improvised. And continuing to pieces such as “Heart Whispering,” which uses some rich jazz harmonies with a rhythmically playful bass line playing against a warmly melodic guitar solo, and finds its way to a strange episode for kalimba and other percussive sounds. It’s not quite the ensemble-based work I’ve done for years, but I think it still partakes of the same musical sensibilities.
OS: When Min invited you to make an album for Colorfield, what ran through your head? Knowing they have a set approach, did anything excite or intimidate you about the offer?
AW: I really like Pete, as a musical colleague, engineer and producer. I never have been at a session that he’s running that hasn’t been great fun. So, already having some experience with him as well as being familiar with some of the projects he’d been doing with other musicians for Colorfield Records, I was super excited to see what we’d come up with. Thinking about having the chance to explore new sounds without any conceptual agenda was something I couldn’t wait to do.
OS: You talked about how during the session that Min was very accommodating for facilitating creativity. Can you think of any particular moments where that intention showed up in the recordings?
AW: You really can find it everywhere. Here’s one that comes immediately to mind. There’s a song on the record called “Keeping.” It’s a kind of a stately theme that I initially improvised on piano with big resonant chords and then added other elements such as synthesizers, Morfbeat gamelan strips – the recording of which we sonically altered – and electric guitar. At a certain point, we were interested in having something else happen in the song. Pete said, “why don’t you go outside, take a little walk, and record some sounds with your phone?” While I walked, recording random things, I passed an old man pushing a rickety grocery cart filled with cans. A bus went by. Those sounds became the new event we needed about two minutes into the song.
OS: You have had a few albums where you sang, did you ever explore that for Collodion? What led for it to be a largely instrumental album?
AW: Most simply, I didn’t have any ideas during the recording of this album that seemed to suggest lyrics or singing. If we do a second album, I’d love to see how a process such as this might prompt a new and interesting approach to using vocals.
OS: You reached out with a number of new instruments on this album, so I wanted to ask about a few of them. Starting with Gamelan strips and synthesizers, what fascinated you about these instruments? How did you feel you were able to pull new sounds from them that inspired you?
AW: I love those Gamelan strips… especially when they are placed in non-sequential pitch order, so that the randomness of just hitting them creates unexpected sonorities. Sometimes you’ll hit one, and it will move and hit one of the other strips, so in addition to the mallet hitting the metal, you get metal hitting metal. This reminded me of being a little kid in elementary school and going to the music room in our school and just messing around on little xylophones they had there. Playing on modular synths also approximates for me an experience like being a little kid trying stuff out on a new instrument. Since, to be honest, I don’t really know much about what the various modulation and oscillation and frequency controls do on the old synthesizers, I’m just trying things out until suddenly a sound happens that feels exciting to explore and make music with. The fascination comes through that process, rather than having an idea ahead of time about what I can do with a particular keyboard or percussion instrument.
Then, juxtaposing all of these kinds of things with other instruments such as guitar, acoustic bass, and drum set creates a beautiful space for those more surprising elements to exist in.
OS: You talk about how hard it was to break out of your traditional habits, especially in terms of the guitar. What did you find yourself going back to and how were you able to unprogram that for this recording?
AW: I don’t know if I was completely able to unprogram myself of all my playing habits, of all the things I do naturally on the guitar after decades of playing that just seem to be there in my hands no matter what I do. But Pete was an incredible facilitator by suggesting things to try in the moment, and by stopping me from doing more takes on a guitar part than were necessary. Often, the earliest guitar parts I’d play would contain a kind of questioning uncertainty to them, and Pete would then say, “hey, I think you probably got it. Let’s just leave it for a while and see where it all lands.”
OS: There is one moment that always catches me everytime I listen through the album, can you talk about the abrupt end to Dream Oracle? Why you choose to handle it that way and what you think it does in terms of the song and the album.
AW: [laughs] I’m glad it catches you! I love that moment. I had been using a synth with a sequencer on an overdub, to play that harmonic progression over which Daniel Rotem takes his amazing saxophone solo. When I took my finger off the keyboard at a certain point, the sequence just ended in that abrupt way. I don’t think we knew that the piece would end in that abrupt way, but as we layered different parts, everything just naturally stopped at that same place. It seemed as good a way to end it as anything else, and I’m not sure we ever even discussed it. I think it’s just another cool example of letting exactly what happened in the studio dictate how things would come out, instead of crafting things too much.
OS: Do you think this method changed how you approach music or recording? What do you think you’ll take from this process into your music moving forward?
AW: I think that making “Collodion” made it clear to me that one doesn’t need to adhere to any agenda when making creative recorded music. For example, why not use more audio editing, sonic alteration, and addition of electronic and ambient elements, even in a mostly acoustic jazz trio setting? The idea of letting the composition emerge from the studio process, or at least allowing a previously composed piece to be significantly affected by the studio process is very exciting to me. I can’t wait for the next time I’ll get to do some more work with Pete on a future project.