In Hinduism, there is a term called Shaktipat, in which a guru transmits enlightenment by their very presence. Considering the places that some of us here at REDEFINE Magazine have voyaged to while listening to the music of Jon Porras and Evan Caminiti, solo musicians who are also collectively known as Barn Owl, we decided to harangue the duo with a bunch of questions about meditation, to see how much they had seen in such altered spaces.
Barn Owl’s music seems custom-made for the sweat lodge or meditation hall. As you listen to an amalgam of tribal percussion, temple bells, cosmic synths, and rustic American transcendentalism, you can practically smell the sweet sage burning. Their music knows no bounds, and as such, is a ritual that everybody can take part in.
As increasing amounts of people and culture make demands on our time and attention, the ability to find a quiet, sacred space becomes essential. Barn Owl’s portable ashram is a precious resource — you can strap on a pair of headphones and find some space on a crowded train or a busy street to reflect. They encourage us to slow down, and find a little peace.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ANTHONY MASTERS; ABOVE ARTWORK BY EMILY FRASER
“Into Midnight” from Black Mesa
“Fading Dawn” from Dreamless Sleep
“Void Redux” from V
Barn Owl’s music has a way of slowing down attention, slowing down one’s perception of time. Meditation produces a similar result. What are your intentions with putting music out into the world? Are they aligned with such qualities?
Jon Porras: Especially in the Bay Area, I feel myself trying to slow down in the wake of a fast paced, technology-based culture. Maybe this desire to slow down comes out subconsciously in our work. We’ve always gravitated toward music that builds slowly and thoughtfully, and I believe it can be powerful to feel big impact from subtle shifts in tone, volume and texture.
Evan Caminiti: I approach music less conceptually than I once did and rely more on intuition and daily practice, embracing the strong moments of improvisation rather than trying over and over again to execute an idea based on concepts that don’t resonate viscerally. Having a specific vision and knowing what we want to hear is crucial; I would say we always make the kind of music we would to listen to. I think slow music, deep music that taps into something beyond just entertainment, music that engages your body and mind in an all encompassing way — that is really valuable and crucial. Personally, it is a major part of my well-being, and I hope through releasing music that it does the same for others. I find it to have a grounding effect, both energizing and calming.
Related Concept: Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening Philosophy
In 1991, musican Pauline Oliveros coined the term “Deep Listening” in conjunction with her musical group, The Deep Listening Band, as well as her Deep Listening program. Oliveros describes Deep Listening as “listening in every possible way to everything possible to hear no matter what one is doing.” According to the Deep Listening Institute’s website, it is the exploration of “the difference between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature – exclusive and inclusive — of listening. The practice includes bodywork, sonic meditations, interactive performance, listening to the sounds of daily life, nature, one’s own thoughts, imagination and dreams, and listening to listening itself. It cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal, and promotes experimentation, improvisation, collaboration, playfulness and other creative skills vital to personal and community growth.”1
The Deep Listening Band specializes in performing and recording in resonant and reverberant spaces, such as caves and cathedrals — most famously, underground cisterns, including the 2-million-US-gallon (7,600 m3) Fort Worden Cistern which has a 45 second reverberation time.2 The Deep Listening program consists of annual listening retreats in Europe and N. America, as well as workships, certification programs, and trainings.3
Barn Owl Band Interview (cont’d)
What does meditation mean to you, and when did you first encounter the idea? Do meditative states influence the creation or consumption of your music?
Jon Porras: Over the years, we’ve developed performance habits that involve mindfulness and deep concentration. I’m not sure this could be considered meditation by definition, but we rely on deep concentration and intuition to guide our live and recorded performances. I would associate this more with Pauline Oliveros’ Deep Listening philosophy. I’ve read that some people see a difference between deep, focused performance and the act of deliberate meditation — so it may be important to make that distinction.
Meditative states absolutely influence our music. As a performer, I try to find that balance between losing myself in the music and being completely self-aware. It’s during these moments where I can experience a deeper quality of sound. There is a cathartic release involved, but it is balanced with intense focus.
Evan Caminiti: For me, music comes first and the meditative benefits are one part of it. Long duration music really introduced me to meditation in some strange form. Raga, especially the slowly shifting styles of Dhrupad and Pandit Pran Nath, and the music of La Monte Young, Tony Conrad, Terry Riley, and Pauline Oliveros, were important in that they allowed me to literally hear musically differently. Before getting into all of these artists, I experienced the powerful live sets of Sunn O))) and Om, which primed me for the transcendental philosophies these [other] artists have explored for decades.
Meditation produces a slippery sense of self, when you cease to identify your thoughts. Can you speak about the self and how it effects your creativity?
Evan Caminiti: The ability to dissolve the ego and allow performers and audience alike to slip into a trance state is one of the most amazing and rewarding things about music. It’s the moments where we’re open where we can leave the self behind and become fully absorbed with the music; there we can become part of the continuum of inspiration and influence.
There are some studies about the ability to induce deep trance states (theta and delta states) by listening to tones (binaural beats). Theta states are also brought on by simple, repetitive tasks, and these states are attributed by artists and scientists as responsible for inspiration and clear insight. What are some things you do to clear your mind and allow for inspiration to occur?
Jon Porras: I completely agree with these theories, but connect with them on an intuitive level. The ability for music and tones to influence perception is a major factor in what keeps me interested in exploring sound. Repetition and extended tones have an elevating effect, a lulling quality that can induce trace-like states. Some people call it “zoning out” but I feel that when you’re in this state, there is a pathway to the subconscious that isn’t normally open. Some would argue that it is not the subconscious you become aware of; it’s a higher conscious. It certainly feels that way sometimes.
As far as work habits, I try to spend time in my home studio everyday — I guess this is also a repetitive task. It’s grounding for me to spend a few hours plugging away, experimenting with sounds, filters, effect chains. Not always, but there are those moments of clarity when things seem to align perfectly and you come away with a new sound.
Evan Caminiti: Having a comfortable environment at home is really helpful in creating the right environment for inspiration and insight. Surrounding myself with positive influences and creating an altar-like space in my home studio is essential.
BARN OWL INTERVIEW CONTINUES BELOW
Listening Station: Barn Owl Through The Years
Meditation emphasizes letting things arise, and letting thing go, without clutching or attachment. I have always found improvised music very similar to this. How do you compare the process of recording, versus just playing music in the moment?
Jon Porras: Recording involves a balance between letting go while being focused in the moment. These seem like opposite modes, but it’s possible to be fluid and intuitive in your playing while following a distinct trajectory. It’s about finding that flow when technical skill and deep focus facilitate that potential for discovery.
Evan Caminiti: Improvisation and recording are inseparable. I was talking to a friend the other night. He brought up a quote; I think it was something Mark Hollis said. It went something like, “The first time you play something it is at its peak.” That philosophy makes a lot of sense to me because I’ve found over the years that improvisations and first takes can possess this vital essence driven by pure expression which is impossible to attain when something that is contrived. The catch is knowing how to improvise without wanking or noodling and knowing how to edit improvised recordings down to the essential parts. Furthermore, not being afraid to edit the recordings and shape them into something new. This approach where improvisation, composition, and production are equal is really exciting to me.
Hardcore practitioners of meditation often advocate material renunciation. What is your take on creature comforts versus ascetic living? Materialism is to a degree necessary in the music industry; how, if at all, does that dialogue affect your creative process?
Jon Porras: It’s tough because I find myself constantly seeking that creative spark. Sometimes it can come from hearing a piece of music, but it can also come from getting a new piece of gear. Music can operate without material completely — just open your mouth and sing a note — but machines are great tools and some would argue are extensions of the creative process. So I find myself oscillating between feeling strange about how much money I spend on gear, and feeling confident in accumulating these tools. It’s important to remind myself that high-end, sophisticated gear will not make better music. It comes down to how you implement the gear. At times, it can be more interesting to carve new directions using old tools in different ways.
Evan Caminiti: I’ve been spending a lot of time lately with my modular synthesizer. I get endless hours of joy and inspiration out of the synth; it’s also essential in a practical way as a working musician, so yeah materialism is necessary. Like collecting records, there is no substitute for vinyl, but they take up a lot of space. We all have our creature comforts but I keep things really minimal; my small apartment certainly helps with that. As far as effecting the creative process, I look at the limitations of a small space and the fact that I can’t afford a really elaborate setup as a good thing. There was an interesting piece by Mark Fell in a recent issue of the Wire that discusses how limitations lead to innovation. The less you have, the more you’ll get out of what you’re working with and it can produce unique and personal results.
You recently played at the SF Zen Center. Can you describe how this came about and what the experience was like? Have you and do you wish to do more things like this in the future?
Jon Porras: This was a very memorable show. I’d love to do more like it in the future.
Evan Caminiti: This experience was thanks to Jennifer Mearz, a writer for the Bold Italic here in SF. The experience was great, totally unique. One of the most amazing things was reading the blog of one of the Zen Center’s residents, who happens to be deaf. In detail, this individual described the physical sensations of our set, the way vibrations moved from the heart to the belly, all over. It sounded like a very multi-dimensional experience. The physical aspects of our music is a key element, something people may miss out on if only listening at home and not coming out to shows. That being said, the PA we used that night was actually very small so we weren’t half as loud as we like to be. So yes, doing more things like this in the future would be great, but we would want to make sure the PA is powerful enough so we can give everyone the best experience possible. Good sound systems are becoming increasingly important to us now that we’re playing so many electronics live; we’ve really wreaked havoc on some inadequate systems.
Your latest record is much more electronic than your previous outputs. How did this shift come about? Do you think that the shift between analog versus digital changes the meditative atmosphere at all?
Jon Porras: We’ve always pushed ourselves to find new sounds and new ways of expanding the project. After touring Europe, I was fascinated to see how embedded electronic music was into pop culture. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with being from the west coast, but I grew up with an ambivalent perspective on electronic music. Being exposed to it later in life was revelatory; I guess I wasn’t ready for it before. It helped to have a friend deep into electronics; I think his sensibilities sort of rubbed off.
Also, synthesizers can occupy a larger frequency range, so our live sets have been more dense since incorporating electronics. Synthesis allows for optimal sound design. You start with an oscillator and build from there, making artistic judgments along the way until you reach that perfect sound.
Evan Caminiti: We’ve always used both analog and digital instruments. There are more digital elements on this record, but you know, almost all the synths were analog, we used a bunch of tube amps; there is just no substitute for these things. This shift came about because of the desire to expand our techniques and try new things. We just weren’t inspired to create a record structured around the guitar as the primary instrument. We’ve made a lot of albums that took that approach already. We have always been drawn to a hands on approach so we gravitated towards synthesizers that allow the user to sculpt the sound from the ground up. Your options open exponentially when you move from the setup of guitar, pedals, amplifier, on to synthesizers — massive octave range, full control over the stereo field, a vast array of timbres… it goes on. I love guitars, but it’s refreshing and inspiring to work with something so open; it’s like a blank slate.
Do you have particular records that you use as a tool for getting into a meditative zone? Are there any positive or negative experiences of note stemming from meditative states in your life?
Jon Porras: Pandit Pran Nath’s Earth Groove is a great album to help cleanse the palate.
Evan Caminiti: I listen to Alice Coltrane’s devotional tapes pretty often, and in situations like being a plane, where I’m feeling on edge, those songs have an amazing calming and empowering effect. On the opposite side of things, I’ve certainly been in situations where I get on the bus after a long improv session or a deep listening [session] and I’m just not ready to deal with all the chaos of the day-to-day BS after been in such a deep zone. It’s like crossing a barrier and you then have to re-acclimate to the outside world.
J. Simpson is attempting the unlikely, seeking to master 3 separate, but interlocking traditions: music, audio production, and writing. As you can probably imagine, he drowns in sound and wallows in noise, and writes down the effects, using himself as a guinea pig for psychoacoustic experiments.J. Simpson has written about music for REDEFINE, Freq Magazine, The Active Listener, Weirdo Music, and Chain DLK, and writes about horror for Amazing Stories. He is the founder and author of the Forestpunk journal, as well as co-founder of the Bitstar art and music collective. He also makes music with the love of his lifetime in the band Meta Pinnacle, and solo under the name Dessicant. He lives in Portland, OR.