Three months ago I received a demo from a band called The Balustrade Ensemble. As with most demos I receive, I had no preconceptions of how it might sound prior to pressing play. The name was completely new to me and I had no background on the band. The album opens with a track called Bathyal Reel, when it started playing, it captured my attention immediately. The music was quite unlike anything I had heard before, I was enthralled.
That first time I listened to the album in its entirety I was on tenterhooks - I guess I was praying that nothing would happen to disturb my initial sense of wonderment, it didn't. There's precious little information about The Balustrade Ensemble online, in order to satisfy my own curiosity and to give you a little more insight into their music, I sent composer Grant Miller some questions. He very kindly replied with the following answers.
Renewed Brilliance will be out November 27th on Serein.
What's your background in music, and what is the history of The Balustrade Ensemble?
I arrived at guitar via the drums in grade school. Listening began with AM radio and took many turns before arriving at so-called experimental music in college while involved in free-form radio. A couple of the other station announcers wanted to put together an improvisational music trio for guitar, cello, and magnetic tape, and asked me to join. It seemed incredibly exotic at the time and I think forever derailed any path toward normalcy.
When I arrived in San Francisco soon after, it was about finding more of the same. Through the 90's and early 00's, I was in an ambient-industrial group called Mandible Chatter. We never officially stopped, but reaching a comfortable pause, I began looking around for something different. That's when I met Scott Solter and Wendy Allen, early 2005. The Balustrade Ensemble emerged from our meeting and the sessions that followed. Two years later, we released our first record, Capsules, and now we're about to release our second, Renewed Brilliance.
What was your day to day routine while writing and recording Renewed Brilliance? How has that changed now that it's finished?
There was no routine to either. Writing for Renewed Brilliance started quite soon after the release of Capsules. "Processionary" was written almost immediately. The others came a bit later. My process generally involves playing nonsense bits again and again until a happy accident leads me in a direction I like. Occasionally, a piece will emerge whole, practically in no time at all, but more often, if I come up with a part that's good, I'll save it or connect it to other good parts, eventually forming a whole piece. Once I have enough pieces, Scott and I choose from demos and begin building the recorded versions. This is essentially a second stage of composing. Scott takes over, elaborating upon or even dramatically altering the pieces.
"everything fell suddenly into place, a moment of bliss that I remember still"
On the new record, Liam and Erik participated in this process, as well. The best illustration would be "Show Us To The Sky." This began as a simple guitar piece, on a particularly stressful day when I needed to come up with something calming. A few of the chords were already there, but in a different order. Rearranging what I had and adding to it, everything fell suddenly into place, a moment of bliss that I remember still. I knew it was going to be great if we could capture the same mood in the studio. Once the guitar was recorded, Scott and Liam began enhancing the arrangement, experimenting with tape and piano until they had replaced the guitar entirely. Later, Erik added his own cello arrangement, and last was Monika's French horn for the transition into the long coda. So, what began as a fairly simple sketch turned into something massive by comparison.
Because Scott and I live on opposite coasts, the sessions were spread out, both geographically and over time. Most of the record was made in Charlotte and later Durham where Scott is now. Other sessions were done in Brooklyn and here in San Francisco. That's one reason why the record took awhile to make. Now that it's finished, I am gradually getting back to writing for whatever follows. That's the typical cycle. I find it difficult to write while recording or mixing is underway. There needs to be separation and clear focus.
It looks like you have quite a packed studio, can you tell us about some of your favourite instruments and pieces of equipment?
The packed studio is Scott's. Apart from our work together in Balustrade, he makes records for many other artists. My favorite instruments would have to include the wire recorders and his assortment of antique filters.
What inspires you to write music? Is there a concept behind Renewed Brilliance or are you more interested in music as an emotional expression?
Mainly as an emotional expression, I suppose, with perhaps a degree of hedonism. It simply has to feel good playing it, down to the actual touch of the guitar chords, otherwise I would never get started. Also, it's inspiring to make something I think others will appreciate, as a means of communicating with willing listeners, and to receive their appreciation. The usual reasons we do things that are satisfying. I admire artists who come up with interesting concepts that inspire and drive their records, but it's not what we do. We build out from the core with the shell arriving last.
"You don't have to flog a harmonium for an hour to get taken seriously"
In Textura's review of your 2007 album Capsules, you're quoted as saying "listening need not be difficult to be compelling", can you expand on that?
I'm not remembering the exact inspiration now. I think I was reacting to what I was seeing on Myspace at the time. There was a lot of excellent creativity happening, but also this incredible abundance of non-ironic amateurism taking itself far too seriously. Essentially, I was saying, "Look, if we make (or attempt to make) music that is unapologetic in its determination to be beautiful, it can still have an edge. You don't have to flog a harmonium for an hour to get taken seriously."
An eight year gap between albums is considerable, why was The Balustrade Ensemble silent for so long?
Honestly, this record simply took a long time to make. In addition to the time between sessions and living far apart, there were a couple of false starts and some big challenges along the way. Usually, bands learn the hard lessons making their first record. Somehow, we missed most of that the first time and it was our second that proved to be our teacher. Either way, one has to go through it at some point and we know now so much better how we'll make future records.
You're supposedly on record as having described the music of The Balustrade Ensemble as 'steampunk-ambient'. Is this true and, if so, was it premeditated or a connection discovered after the fact?
I think it was true when we made Capsules, but I wouldn't call our music that now. The term "steampunk-ambient" was invented by the label, certainly after the fact. Actually, I had never heard of steampunk before and needed to have it explained. No other band was calling their music "steampunk-ambient." It was brilliant at the time, as it did get us some positive attention, though soon it felt outdated. Scott once described the first record as "a haunted underwater bird sanctuary kaleidoscope." No one has topped that.
"subtract the actual mechanics of recording and traditional mixing, and 'tinted vapors' is what is left over"
Am I right in thinking that older, mechanical instruments hold special appeal for you? Can you tell us about these?
Older, mechanical instruments certainly hold appeal for us, but not necessarily special appeal. We're just as likely to use new equipment and embrace it with the same curiosity.
You worked with a number of musicians on this record, aside from the additional instrumentation, what does working with other talented musicians bring to the process of recording?
In our case, the musicians inform the compositions almost retroactively by providing parts that were missing, but always calling out to be there. Sometimes, we might direct or guide what the musician plays, but just as often the player has specific ideas, and that can be especially exciting. Liam was quite involved in this way. He used the original guitar parts as a departure for his piano and organ, but clearly moved beyond.
Scott Solter is credited with recording, mixing and 'tinted vapors'. Can you tell us what that means or is it better left a mystery?
Much of what Scott does is a mystery to me, too, and I don't always fully comprehend how he gets the sound. The best way I can describe "tinted vapors" is to compare making our record to building a house. You begin with blueprints, of course, but looking at the blueprints is never like looking at the house when it's finished. My compositions are the blueprints. When you listen to our record, the house you're hearing is Scott. He makes it three-dimensional. Now, subtract the actual mechanics of recording and traditional mixing, and "tinted vapors" is what is left over. Essentially, it's a way to describe arranging that is more finely attuned to the peculiarities and needs of making ambient music.
Before producing artwork for a release, I close my eyes and try to tease feelings and images out of what I hear. Your music is some of the most evocative I've heard in recent memory, it's so dreamy and serene. I found myself imagining being suspended in the air a great distance from the ground, or submerged under water in a kind of hypnagogic state. I chose to focus on that subaquatic feeling because the idea of being enveloped seem to fit as well. What does the music look like to you? Do you imagine a visual counterpart to the sound?
Our music goes through such a dramatic transition during mixing, it's only afterwards that I can start to visualize its final form. So, only then, too, can I begin thinking seriously about track titles. I always want a title to capture the piece without actually describing it. Titles should connect with that visual aspect you mention. Capsules was unquestionably a collection of submerged vignettes. Renewed Brilliance, to my mind, is suspended aloft. A few of the titles even suggest this rather strongly, although, as I said, I was not aiming for any specific theme at the outset. Each piece landed where it did on its own.
How do you imagine that Renewed Brilliance would be best enjoyed?
In the liner notes of her first album, Judee Sill wrote, "May you savor each word like a raspberry." I can think of no finer way to enjoy anything.
Renewed Brilliance will be out November 27th on Serein.