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Musical Philosophy With Ewan Pearson

Ewan Pearson gives us the benefit of some of his academic wisdom ahead of his appearance at Festival No 6.

Mike Boorman

Last updated: 29th Aug 2014

Image: Ewan Pearson

Ewan Pearson is not your average DJ/producer. He's in a pretty unique club of someone who has released on the likes of Soma, Kompakt and Buzzin' Fly; remixed people as diverse Nelly Furtado, Goldfrapp and Depeche Mode; and has co-written an academic text on the relationship between dance music and society; hardly your standard selector.

Ahead of his appearance at one of the more intelligent musical gatherings out there, Festival No 6 (which starts on September the 4th), Mike Boorman caught up with him on matters of musical philosophy.

Something you wrote in your book about the physical nature of dance music struck me the other day, when my mother sent me a clip of a Steve Reich composition.

She was right that I would like it because it was repetitive in the same way as dance music, but it struck me that Reich’s music was more mental than physical, because there was no pounding kick drum or big sound system. Just explain why you think dance music is a particularly physical thing?

I think actually all music is bodily in some way... it's something that's deeply at the heart of western ideas, that there's a split between mind and body, so I'd reject the dualism of mind versus body.

But that aside, from the point of view that dance music is designed to be appreciated in club spaces that emphasise the lower bass frequencies and rhythms, but also the necessity of dance, and the activity... yes, it's physical. It's not a sit there and study it kind of thing. It's supposed to be part of a number of activities. Listening takes place within this more complicated set of other-bodily activities.

But then again, I would argue that could sometimes be the case with classical music. Our idea of listening to classical music as being quiet and sort of studying it – enraptured in a church-like atmosphere – but if you go back to certain points in the 19th century, classical music concerts were actually quite rowdy affairs. People's experience was less reverential if you like.

With dance music... the body is at the heart of the dance music experience. I would argue that the body is at the heart of all music experience, but with dance music it's very, very obvious.

So would you say that throughout time, all musical composition is affected by the kind of spaces that the music is delivered in – that dance music's general preference for being bassy and repetitive for the reasons you've given before is just a common example of how the art is affected by its surroundings?

Absolutely. Reception is a huge part of it. One thinks when one's making it, the way it's going to be received. If you think about the development of ambient music for example, Brian Eno's idea that it's almost as a tint to an atmosphere, that the music was meant to be backgrounded – to be something that's there floating, that maybe isn't supposed to be at the front of your conscious attention. Music has to fit in all sorts of contexts, and it's not merely meant to be studied.

So I guess one of those contexts would be a music festival. Seen as you're playing at Festvial No 6, I'd be intrigued to know whether you'd adapt your musical performance, because whatever tent or arena you're in is kind of a quasi-club space if you like. Big sound system, attuned to electronic music, but not indoors in a nightclub. So will you be thinking about the acoustics of the space when it comes to your performance?

When it comes to festivals, I don't necessarily think about the acoustics, but it's certainly the case that if you're in a bigger, more open space like that, one feels the need to have a broader brush. More urgent from the get go. It's not like you've got this kind of acid house sweatbox where you can bring people in and lock them into it and then slowly ramp it up.

But then again, if you see Andrew Weatherall and Sean Johnston do their Love From Outer Space thing at Electric Elephant festival (see below), it's kinda the same as what they'd do in London. They build it up from the ground up and hypnotise everybody.

I guess it really depends on each space. The other thing I have to remember with things like this is that people might not be there to see me in the same way as they would if they'd come to a club because they've come to see a load of other acts and might only be watching you for a brief moment. Sometimes that would require broader brush strokes.

And another thing is set time. Sometimes festival sets are shorter, so then you can't really build something... you've got to come out 'bang bang bang'.

A lot of your book quite rightly identifies how important the reception of 'the message' is, as opposed to what 'the message' was when it was created.

It reminds me of when I was an angry journalism student - I used to read so much work by what were supposed to be legendary academics that would bang on about how The Sun won Maggie Thatcher a general election, and how newspapers are basically corrupting the nation, but often they wouldn't bother talking about what might happen to the message when it's received; like, how many people just flicked through The Sun and read the sport or whatever? Were you motivated by the same kind of annoyance when you started writing the book?

The bodily experience of that moment of reception was one of things that was being hugely ignored. There was some great writing about the history of the scene but none of them were writing about it from an academic standpoint – it was more journalism or fandom point of view – it just felt like there was a big hole.

I certainly thought that the people writing about popular music in an academic context had mainly come from a sociological and anthropological background, so it was always going to be the case that their interests and observations were skewed in a particular way towards theory. And I kept thinking “What about the music? Don't tell me what they're wearing when they're listening to it - let's talk about the music, let's understand how that works and what it does to people.”

But I guess this is understandable. The practical criticism of poems or whatever at school is taught to us as part of our English education. If you've made it to 16, you've done some of that. Well as with music, it's more specialised than that. We're taught how to play music but not how to break it down and analyse it.

So do you think there should be more emphasis on this kind of analysis when it comes to talking to kids about music? It was my experience that music wasn't taken as seriously at school as other subjects like English – that it was seen as a bit of a mess about and not as important, and that there was not a serious enough focus on getting kids to understand music. Was that your experience?

Yes, that was my experience. And that's not to do down the music teaching I had – some of it was very good. I mean, we had a Korg MS10 and a Moog Rogue at school which was great, so we had a couple of crazy mono synths in our music lab which we could mess around with and make weird noises.

I would imagine that all of that side of things would be much easier to teach nowadays with all the software plugins and the like, but teaching someone to listen to a song, how to break it down, how it's made, what effects it might have on somebody – it's still a tricky thing. And that might be why it has been avoided.

So when it gets to the point of being specialised, when the kids that can play instruments are taught more theory, do you think that the rigid way it is taught can stunt creativity? That some people who know too much theory just become parrots?

I don't know whether that's quite fair. Everyone parrots to start with – that's how everyone learns – the first thing you do is you kind of copy what other people are doing. So I think that's a necessary first step. But the point is whether you get to a stage where you develop your own voice. A lot of people ask me advice when I give a talk or something like that, people are asking “how do I get further in this?”.

Really, putting the difficulties of the industry and making a living to one side, I always say the important thing is to find what's distinctive about what you do – to find what you do differently to other people, because it's never been easier to make competent, functional music. The technology is such now that it wouldn't take somebody that long to make something that is in the mode of something that they like. There's never been more of the stuff!

Although not in your case – no solo projects for a while...

There is so much been done. You kind of think sometimes that it would be better to not throw another thing on the pile, and I've felt that for years. There is plenty of good music out there though, but it's hard to find. For this reason, journalists and labels have never been more important in my opinion.

I'm not reticent, but it's one of the reasons why I haven't made a lot of original music recently. You wouldn't believe how happy it would make certain people who are close to me – like my friends and my family... my agent! - for me to make another solo record, but it's got to come from the right place.

At the moment I'm happy doing more Partial Arts stuff with Al Usher (hear their latest release 'Taifa' on Kompakt below).

He's one of those people where I'm really excited every time we work together, and it genuinely produces things that neither of us would be able to do on our own.

The thing is, I know my tricks, so it's always about how do you trick yourself, how do you surprise yourself...

How do you induce the accidents?

Yeah. So I'm just like “oh shit – you're doing that again”. With remixing it's less of a problem because you have this other material, so there's otherness built into it. Solo stuff and a blank sheet of paper is a bloody nightmare, but that's not to say I won't ever do it again.

The other thing is I'm just happy being a part of other people's music making... I've been mixing quite a bit recently for example, which I find amazing because I think I have so much to learn about that as an art. And I've said in other interviews as well, I've become more interested in the craft as I was in the idea of art when I was younger.

There are many ways to keep your hand in I guess.

Yeah. I don't feel like I have to write an original track and somehow express some part of me – I'm happy to help other people make great records.

You know, I'm looking at my whiteboard for the rest of the year and I've got two remixes, a single for somebody to mix, an EP for somebody else to mix, an album I'm co-producing to finalise mixes on, and then with a bit of luck, a whole artist album to produce. There's just so much to do in what is quite a short life. I don't lack for things to do.

He certainly doesn't. But what better thing to do than DJ in the beautifully surreal setting of Portmeirion for Festival No 6? You don't see Ewan Pearson in the UK so much these days, but the chance for him to go back to back with Andrew Weatherall on the set of the most inexplicably trippy TV show ever (The Prisoner) was clearly too good to for him pass up. Tickets are still available here.

Follow Mike Boorman on twitter here.

Like this? Try 56 years young: The Legendary Radiophonic Workshop.


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