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Sound Resonance:
An Interview with Asher Thal-nir

The sonic world of local musician, Asher Thal-Nir, is a quiet, warmly textured one, full of gauzy hiss and rainsoaked half-melodies that gently and glacially unfold. His music is uncannily beautiful and evocative, sometimes overtly melodic, as on his recent CD, Landscapes Elsewhere, but more often spare and abstract. In the past year or so, Asher has released a spate of recordings on labels, such as Conv, Leerraum, and Homophoni, with each title revealing a subtly different facet of his musical personality. On Thursday, February 1, Asher will be performing live on Rare Frequency for the second time (you can hear a podcast of his first RF performance here). What follows is an interview with Asher that was conducted by email during the last week of January 2007.

Could you talk a bit about your background? When did you first begin making music and how did you come to work with electronics?

Well, I first became interested in playing a musical instrument when I was sixteen or seventeen and I eventually got a trumpet right around then. I was listening to a lot of 50’s and 60’s jazz and improvised music, so the trumpet was a natural choice, I guess. After just playing on my own for some time, I ended up meeting people to play with and that was great for a while; but after traveling and coming back to Boston, the people I had been playing with had moved away and I decided to get some recording equipment and just work on compositions on my own. I bought an eight track and I had an old Casio keyboard, and that worked for a little while, but I really felt like I needed to move away from the trumpet and by the end of the year I was working with a synth, a couple of samplers, and various effects, etc.

Is your work influenced/inspired by any particular artists, musicians, filmmakers, etc.?

I try to mostly find inspiration in the incidental sounds and events around me, whether they are musical or environmental; but of course I also have drawn inspiration from many artists, filmmakers and authors. I think the two biggest influences for me in recent years are William Basinski and Steve Roden. Basinski’s work really opened my ears in terms of doing so much with so little; he is able to find these little phrases which carry so much meaning. Steve Roden’s work is also really incredible in its simplicity, but in a different way; he is often able to use really unexpected sources and make them musical.

Much of the inspiration for my work comes from outside the field of sound work. Though lately I haven’t had quite as much time for books or films, I still do get a lot ideas from them. I have in the last few months rediscovered the films of Andrei Tarkovsky, as well as seeing some of Bela Tarr’s films for the first time. These filmmakers along with Bresson, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Chantal Ackerman and others have been a major source of inspiration; even just for ideas about pacing and duration. But a lot of the connections which are made are difficult for me to put into words, or maybe they’re not even retained after the fact. The main thing I guess is that my sound work is constantly in my thoughts, so when I am going through my day and some small thing happens which gives me an idea, I hold onto it and apply it to what I do in the studio later that day or whenever I have the time.

You use a lot of field recordings in your work, but they’re often submerged and/or abstracted. What attracts you about using such materials?

I have found that it can be very difficult to work with field recordings, but perhaps this has to do with how I tend to employ them. I have made pieces which use field recordings in a relatively untreated fashion and in which they were the sole sound source, but have never been entirely satisfied (I’m still trying, though). I find that when they are used with sounds which complement them and play against them they can be very effective in creating a sound field which interacts with the sounds present when they are played back. I think that is mainly what attracts me to working with them but I also simply find location recordings to be a continually challenging and compelling source to work with. I will often return to the same location to try and make new recordings as well as going back and trying to reuse a particular sound for multiple compositions, which gives me a better idea of how they can be used. Ultimately, with most of my work I treat sound recorded at home in the studio or captured from the radio in the same way as sound recorded at various locations, and most of the time the location recordings end up being less in the foreground, but I hope to change that eventually.

Your most recent release, Landscapes Elsewhere on Con-v, is a more melodic/overtly tonal work than what I’ve heard you do in the past. What inspired this shift?

You know, I’m not entirely sure; I have worked on pieces which were melodic all along but they’ve seldom been released. I think that Graceful Degradation was maybe more melodic than other things, but not nearly as purely melodic as Landscapes…. I guess with the new album I found a way for it to be melodic and simple but still have the qualities which I look for in my work. A lot has changed in my life lately; the bulk of the work I’ve released was recorded in Brooklyn between the fall of 2004 and the summer of 2005 (everything but my most recent two releases), but since that time I’ve moved and become a father, and though I can’t say just exactly how all this has affected my work, I think it’s obvious that it has had a strong impact.

Have you found that your move from New York to Somerville affected your work at all? Am I correct in thinking that the water-soaked Landscapes Elsewhere is the first work that was composed since your return to Massachusetts?

I have been back in Mass. now for more than a year, and I’ve had a chance to really reflect on the differences.  Mainly I’ve found that I have been exposed to a very different sound environment, and this has changed my pallate that I work with. Things are so much quieter both in my studio and all around me and this lets me hear things in a very different way, it also has allowed me to concentrate very differently. The way that I work changed, just in how I approached sitting down and working as well, especially since I have two babies now.  I used to be able to spend quite a bit of uninterupted time in the studio, but now I have to work piecemeal most of the time; this means that I end up listening to things more before they’re recorded.  I think this has added a level of precision which I didn’t have before, I’ll come back and notice something that bothers me and take it out or change it, where before a lot of things got left in. Actually Landscapes Elsewhere was not the first thing I recorded here in Somerville, but you are right in a way since I think that it is really the first ‘new’ thing I recorded here, which wasn’t based on old processes or old sounds.  The way that I worked on Landscapes… was more reflective, I would really immerse myself in the sounds let them play, listen, make adjustments, and only record a piece after I had really fine-tuned it.  Since finishing work on Landscapes… I’ve recorded some new material which is more indicative of this approach. “The Anguish is Not the same” was a composition that I spent quite a bit of time on; it was intended to be performed at a live event this past summer but the show was cancelled.  So I really had a lot of time to engage with the sounds used for that piece, and this enabled me to be very precise with my decision making while recording.

I’m curious about the process behind your music. Do you have a fairly set way of composing? What are the basic set of instruments do you use?

I try to keep changing the process all the time, but usually for each project the process is the same for all the pieces; in other words I work the same way for a while and then something will happen and I’ll make a change. But generally speaking I do have a fairly set way of composing, I will usually start with one or a few sounds which form the basis for a composition and layer things from there. I might try things a few different ways at first but once I find a formula I will stick with it and use many different sounds in the same way for a period of time.  So I may find some textural sounds which I’m really enjoying working with and place different sounds on top of them and experiment that way. This usually means that there are always more tracks which don’t make it to the album, sometimes very many. But that’s not always the case. For The Anguish is Not the Same I really just recorded that one piece after playing around with it for a few days, and a week or so after I worked on a longer composition which was made in a similar way. For all of my work everything ends up on one of three Boss sp-202 samplers, but the sounds come from a variety of places: acoustic instruments, synth, cassettes, radio, location recordings, etc. All the sounds are then run through a series of effects, mainly three resonance filters, but also sometimes delays, bit reduction, etc.

You’ve released quite a lot over the last two years, to what do you attribute this burst of activity? What projects are you working on at the moment?

I went through a period when I was living in Brooklyn where I felt very inspired and I had a lot of time to work. I was doing freelance work so I would often have weeks at a time where the only thing I really did was work on compositions or read or watch films. That was a very productive time for me, in fact my first three releases were all recorded within three or four months in the fall/winter of 2004. At that time I was making a lot of discoveries about how to work with sound, I was trying to work with very little material but get the most out of it. I think all of those experiments really culminated with the composition “untitled (for f)” which was released on laboratoire moderne, this is a piece which I still go back to for inspiration.

I’ve actually recently finished work on a couple of projects, but I’m still unsure about how to put all of it together. One project involves working with sounds captured from FM radio stations here in Boston, and I’m still in the process of making decisions about that material. The other project that I’m involved in is a collaboration with ubeboet (aka Miguel Tolosa who runs the conv record label); we spent some time this fall working and we plan to exchange some more material soon.

Links to Asher’s online releases:
The Anguish Is Not the Same
Three Untitled Compositions
Two Compositions (follow the link for Term)

Link to Earlabs’ Interview with Asher:
Invariably Personal Sounds


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Dear Asher, I’m sitting here in los angeles just listening as you get ready to start your set. I’m so excited to get to hear you “live” on the radio. Much love, billy

partially for the giddiness of two comments by a billy - but this is an excellent set. thanks!

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