Pieces of music are like short stories. Whether a song has words or is purely instrumental, it conveys either a set of feelings, thoughts, or a straightforward narrative outlining both of the former and in that self-contained listening experience, a story comes through. John Thayer, a Brooklyn, NY based composer, audio engineer, and percussionist, has composed both with and without spoken words at his disposal, to sonically colorful and mentally stimulating results.
Thayer’s latest work, a forthcoming full-length titled Supermundane, (out 19 November via Moon Villain) opts for a purely instrumental approach. The lack of an additional lyrical element to work with, coupled with the album’s seemingly straightforward title might initially give a person pause, presenting a potential embrace of conceptually safe and-or detached songwriting. However, in reality, it turns out “supermundane” isn’t the word it perceives itself to be – much like the music on its namesake record.
“Supermundane is actually defined as ‘transcending the earthly, divine, celestial, supernatural’,” Thayer says.
“It’s a very playful word. It felt appropriate for the headspace I was in while recording the album. I believe very strongly in the power of sound to alter consciousness. It’s a potent form of non linguistic communication. These compositions are in a way laptop études, exercises for me to engineer new realms.”
It’s from this single clarification that Supermundane can really embrace a proper introduction, which starts with the premiere of “Akaku.” Citing his home base Brooklyn, as well as Maui, in Hawaii and Kyoto, Japan as influential factors for this piece and the album overall, such geographically vast inspiration prompts curiosity around how these extremely distinct environments play a role in “Akaku’s” shaping musical personality.
“Brooklyn is where I’ve lived for the last 14 years. I’m an audio engineer and work primarily out of a studio called Thump, a place where I can explore ideas and techniques and not worry about the result. That’s where I curated and expanded on everything I sketched out on Maui and in Kyoto. My partner Lea was born and raised in Maui and her family have since relocated to Kyoto. These places have become anchor points for us whether it be touring or traveling. We feel a deep sense of reverence for both and they’ve continued to call us back over many years,” Thayer explains.
“Kyoto is an ancient city, it’s full of beautiful serene places. There’s a pervading sense of stillness that I very much relate to. Maui is a more vibrant, lush landscape. You’re surrounded by 3,000 miles of ocean and it’s a simple reminder of the splendor and enormity of our beautiful planet,” he continues. “Akakū is a Hawaiian word, an english translation could be ‘waking dream.’ I started working on the song while living in Haiku, a beautiful jungle area on the islands’ north shore. We ended up getting hit with a massive storm and lost power for 3 days. I would charge my laptop on a gas-powered generator and work until it died. Every night I was having really wild dreams, falling asleep to intense rain on the jungle canopy, the entire experience felt very surreal.”
The second track on the album, “Akaku” certainly reflects a deep well of sounds that match the range of difference between each of Thayer’s frequented locales. It also offers a similar kind of revelation to abruptly learning that a word doesn’t mean what one thinks it does. The piece opens with a spotlight on Thayer’s musicality with the marimba. As a wooden percussion instrument with an expressive and notably warm timbre, the opening of “Akaku” sets a very natural tone. One might wonder if the piece will unfolds as a presentation of modern percussion performance, which given the marimba’s capability to execute a four part arrangement, would certainly be musically stimulating on its own.
It only takes the first 10 seconds however, to notice Thayer subtly add in splashy electronic undertones, which are blended together with other percussive beats in a beautifully uniform way, which makes differentiating between the growing coexistence of this acoustic and digital instrumentation almost impossible. The central melody itself has a sort of propulsive character, starting and stopping somewhat abruptly and without pursuance of predictable phrasing.
“I believe very strongly in the power of sound to alter consciousness. It’s a potent form of non linguistic communication. These compositions are in a way laptop études, exercises for me to engineer new realms.”
– John Thayer
As more and more digital sounds drop into the music, one’s ear hops from one leading “voice” to another, either for reasons of a new phrase or because the new sound in question presents an overtly dominant timbre, like the low-pitched, heavily angular and slightly booming tone that appears in around 1:20. The change of the leading tonal part doesn’t always involve asserting dynamic dominance, as more crystalline tones that appear about a minute later, easily find their way to the front, without necessitating a severe change in their sonic character to maintain their importance to the music at that time.
One can tell there are different types of sounds happening with each new note, and that they are sharing sonic space in an incredibly close way. Still, Thayer’s ability to blend the two styles of sound leads to a blurring of the pathways that would reveal how each separate component ultimately connects with the others. It’s almost like a blended chemical solution. The way “Akaku” transforms the acoustic and organic with the digital and artificially manipulated, it’s almost as if it isn’t meant to be discernible on an individual level. Unsurprisingly, this result mirrors the intangible notion Thayer recognizes when a piece of work has reached a state of completion.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of knowing a track is done,” says Thayer. “I could work on a track indefinitely, getting lost in my own experiments. The main criteria for ‘completion’ is, ‘Am I moved listening to the piece?’.”
Of course, even in listening to “Akaku” knowing that the central driver for its compositional evolution was more of a feeling than a replicable characteristic, the music nonetheless requires Thayer’s manual skill with a DAW. Yet even in this part of his creative process, the approach isn’t as much of a turned to favored plug-ins or a set routine for mixing as some engineers rely on. Much the same as reflecting on his inner reactions for when a piece is done, Thayer sees the technical tools in his studio as pliable and imaginative palettes more than fixed and calculable tools.
“I’ve developed techniques over years of recording that are effective ways to alter perspective. The important thing is to step outside myself and entertain a new view,” says Thayer.
“To achieve that, I try to exploit the elasticity of the computer. It gives me infinite options for pitch, speed, granular processing, delay, reverb etc. I use tons of different software in addition to hardware processors. I really enjoy chance operations. I’ll record multiple passes and collage instruments together, some people hate comping performances but I find it cathartic.”
Regardless of whether a listener knows all the inner workings of Thayer’s methodologies or not, “Akaku’s” pathway from start to end is truly a display of transformation and sonic transcendence, indeed fitting under the umbrella of Supermundane. Its listening journey is liquidly metamorphic and nebulous in its musical boundaries. Whether it’s the reverie-inspired experience Thayer had that led to writing the piece, or the mere observation and internalizing of the sounds from places Thayer knows well but whose sonic universes he doesn’t control, “Akaku” offers a portal to a unique universe all its own, born from an abstract unity of Thayer’s artistic and sensory introspection. “Akaku” might not have any words but there’s no denying the unique stories that wait to be told by after every new person hears this piece for themselves.
“Each mix is an opportunity to construct a new world. I’m always searching for a sonic space that holds me in suspension for the length of the piece,” Thayer says.
“One of the joys of instrumental music is its ambiguity. We can take an idea like the dream world or the dream state and attempt to codify it in binary. The listener is guided towards a concept but will inevitably have their own interpretation.”