An incredible story of the medicinal power of music, especially when delivered by someone we love, needs no further introduction. No spoilers here; see below for what occurred that Steer, a guitarist and composer, has created and how it had a direct impact on his mother’s recovery from a stroke.
By way of the tracks on Martin Steer’s new CD called “Sonic Healing,” the first five (plainly numbered: I, II and so on) include, on one end of the spectrum, a flurry of strings and abstract sounds all the way through pulsating musical heartbeats and the swell of instruments tuning up and testing arpeggios. The second half of the album is comprised of six tracks that are variations and remixes, characterized by vocal incantations, static and feedback, electronic expressions and soothing lyrical passages, imparting a sensation that defies further description. Free and unfettered, Steer’s work is worthy of exploration if only to reset your expectations and present something brand new.
How did this album come about?
The album is a reaction to deeply personal happenings but also a collective reflection to the global chaos this year. Just as the pandemic became serious in Germany, my mother suffered a stroke on march 13th and lost her language ability. In her recovery process, music became a ritual of communication with her, as she was isolated due to COVID-19 visiting-restrictions in the rehabilitation clinic for two months, relearning how to talk.
I played music for her, little ambient pieces on guitar and piano via FaceTime to empathize with her, to create a medium for her feelings with a utopian vibe for the intense healing process. It broke the isolation, reduced the distance, made a connection, it helped. In one of these “good streams” I recorded a little guitar loop which I modulated into a 38-minute experimental guitar piece afterwards in the studio. I sent it to 11 musicians and asked them to improvise on it and when the lockdown ended in mid-May the piece was finished.
The result is still fascinating. The music just grew itself, it reconnected the empty space between dark-dream and hyper reality. It faces the pain, bridges emotions and creates new perspectives. It is about filling the void of chaos with possibilities and imagination. I can’t imagine a better soundtrack for the vibe of 2020. It is a very transformative record and one of the most inspiring musical projects I’ve been part of.
How did the music affect her?
She loved it and she is listening to the album over and over again with her partner at home now. Back in May when she could listen to it the first time she was still in the midst of therapy and you know sometimes you don’t need words to understand the feelings of people really close to you, especially your family. A smile can mean more than a thousand words. I knew it would help her and open a transcendent channel, activating energy that goes beyond our rational understanding. It created a shared spirit, showing her that people really try to relate to the existential situation of pain and isolation. Meaning became sound and sound became hope. For both of us.
Why did you feel that an abstract vibe would help her?
We all know dark episodes in life. These months, March and April, with the whole world in lockdown were so hyper-real that it almost felt like the opposite, surreal. And I think abstract art can flip that – bring a distorted sense of reality back into balance and zoom out in order to accept things and think clearly again.
I love the idea of seeing instrumental music as abstract philosophy translated into sound. In my mind, abstract and experimental art can directly link up to hidden corners of the soul and give a vibe to the ambiguous space between modern feelings.
Music is beyond language. It’s in between. It has always been. And that makes it so powerful. The whole global society should rediscover and mirror itself with experimental arts.
Rather than more traditional music with a strong melodic component, how did you compose this music?
Over the last year I focused on experimental guitar playing and improvisation. I’ve always been obsessed with creating new sounds with my guitar. So I had this little five-second loop in E minor and I love the idea of sonic plasticity: To enchant sound, transform and re-harmonize little sonic-planets into whole symphonic universes.
Radiohead and Jonny Greenwood are a source of inspiration when it comes to this. I’ve been setting up a long chain of effects, tape machines, space echoes, granular/pitch pedals and amps and I did an improvisation with this set of machinery. It was all about minimalistic vibes. That’s what I really was trying to learn again when it comes to recording music; to turn down the inner clocks.
Let the music arise unfiltered from your innermost self. Isn’t that what music is all about? I think that magic happened with the guitar recording of the piece. I’ve been re-listening to the session a week after the recording with my brother and realized that it became a very special thing.
The music works as a minimal piece with only guitar but I wanted to put it into dialogue with other improvising musicians. And that’s when the idea came into my mind to send it to artists from the jazz, classic and electronic world. Every musician only had the guitar recording – the basic tonality of the piece. There was no need to talk about general theoretical harmony or anything, I just wanted the musicians to free flow with the music. Without knowing what the other musicians were playing, every instrument finds its place in the composition, like a silent agreement. It was really amazing to put all this together.
What are the elements that differentiate the tracks?
The first part is the imagination of a surreal dream state after a moment of shock. Like literally being out of space and time, hover through the open universe, somewhere between dream and reality. They key elements the ambient reverse-guitar, spaced out opera-esque vocals, the gently touched violin, the epic double bass and the slowly breathing saxophone.
Part II is about slowly waking up – drifting back and forth between these hyperdeep oceans of emotions. It is painful but this intense fight with yourself is already leading down the route of acceptance and healing. You are collecting emotional energy and channeling the chaos of the millions of signals of mind and body into a positive direction. The violin is soundtracking the sadness about the loss and the saxophone is soundtracking the idea of never giving up and a rising glimpse of hope.
The third part is a sonic interpretation of the polydynamic healing processes in body and nature. It comes also with dark and bright waves. I tried to imagine the physical process of regeneration with music, like the constant hear beat, the ever-evolving sound of progress, which is symbolized by the 606 drum machine by Hainbach and the percussion by Ran Levari. A restless breath by sax and bassoon. The arpeggiated guitar sound is a symbol for the weaving of new connections, like the development of a complex spider web. This process is also characterized by interruptions and unforeseen dynamics. I tried to shape this into sound by the change and acceleration of pitch and speed and the change of density and intensity of sound. The route is the goal and obviously – the route is not always as we planned to walk it.
Part IV is the sound of an emotional plateau. It´s about ever-growing patience and confidence. It’s inspired by “Electric Counterpoint” by Steve Reich. The guitar symbolizes a foggy night ride into a new day and the saxophone and the violin are guiding the way.
Part V is the sunrise and the final dawn of transformation. A feeling of liberation. It’s a break through the walls of doubt. The sax solo is a scream for freedom. The drums stand for the unleashing of a better future. It is about reaching a new state of mind and a new form of feeling alive and the final reconnection with yourself, nature and the universe. Reaching your hopes. The vocal at the end with the piano sounds like the German “Alles wird gut” which means “Everything will be alright.”
How is Sonic Healing different from previous music you’ve written?
Sonic Healing is the almost opposite of my work before, which was more dark, constructed and electronic. “Sonic Healing” is all about improvisation and collaboration. Letting go. It’s very human, very organic, very open. I hasn’t been planned. The music just happened and that’s always a good thing.
What were the challenges to producing this?
Actually, there haven’t been any challenges at all. I did some editing but most of the improvised sounds where like written pieces of music. The outstanding musicians had such a super-fine sense for the music. Maybe the most challenging part was to create the fundamentals – the guitar take. I guess the nerdy deep dive into new sonic territories was worth it again. Sometimes it really just takes time to find new sounds.
Talk about the other musicians and what they added to this project.
An important figure is Uri Gincel, one of Berlin’s finest jazz piano players. He wrote the beautiful piano part on “V” and he connected me to amazing musicians like Uli Kempendorff who plays a leading part with his saxophone on the piece; the incredible French violinist Heloise Levebre and Oliver Lutz who creates unique textures with his bass and double bass. Also Sebastian Dali, who is playing the low-end bassoon and has a leading role, giving sonic waves to the piece. Ran Levari from Israel did amazing percussion/drum stuff and Marika de la Torre from Italy created outstanding opera-esque voices. Kai Mader did the virtuoso sax solo and Hanno Stick did the drum part on “V.” I am really happy to be connected to these humans and proud of what we have created. I can’t stop pointing out how thankful I am for their contributions. These musicians also gave a voice to my powerlessness and transformed it into new energy.
How do you feel about the music and why?
The music brought back utopian feelings into my thinking and it helped me to face and transform the pain. It calmed me down when the stress level was too high. The whole project made me see life with different eyes and created new perspectives on all the possibilities we have every day to make a difference. Giving up is never an option. A better future is always around the corner. “Sonic Healing” gives me that vibe.
Have you found new paths to marketing your music and getting exposure since the lockdown?
We live in a time of massive cultural overload. The pandemic even accelerated this. It’s not so easy anymore to reach people. There is less and less attention and patience for music and more heavy distraction on our smartphones. But I think if you create something special it will find its way to the audience, like water finds its way.
I think one big key is collaboration. For me as a musician I can find deeper meaning in the artistic dialogue with other human beings. So it makes sense that collaboration will always push you further as an artist especially in these isolated times. And it connects you to new audiences.
Another key is to get directly in personal touch with the media and the music journalists with your story. Another important part of “Sonic Healing” is the collaboration with the super talented Iranian visual artists Arash Akbari who did a mind-blowing Visual Movie for “Sonic Healing” which will premiere in December. We are also planning to present it in art galleries around Europe. I think it’s also more important to work transmedially with other art-forms.
What kinds of restrictions are there in Berlin today, and when might venues and other opportunities open up again?
I think that it could slowly start in spring again. But who knows? I am really tired of thinking about it. It´s such a weird time for the whole city and for many artists. It’s definitely not the same Berlin. At the moment we are in “lockdown light” which means all venues, bars, clubs and cultural places are closed but the shops and schools are open. For the most part I am sorry for the young artists and musicians who just started their careers. I think we face a new cultural epoch when this is over. It will be challenging but it will also be exciting. A simple “back to normal” is not the answer. So many things have been over the edge already before the pandemic. A new age is around the corner and it’s our opportunity to create innovative and meaningful, sustainable, green and fair ways to perform the arts.
For more information visit https://www.badstream.net/.
Photos courtesy of and with permission from the artist.
(c) 2020 Debbie Burke