Even more so, when -- while in NYC, during a trip up from Florida to meet the great Indonesian progressive legends, simakDialog -- Leonardo snuck in a still-unmastered cut from Mark Wingfield's upcoming MoonJune debut, Proof of Light
, of course), during a listening session in his office. ("MJIHQ" ...!!) Upon hearing just the first few notes, I knew Leonardo had a true unprecendented masterpiece on his hands: one so brilliantly creative and soaringly articulated that it immediately commanded not just your full attention, mentally, but it also grabbed you on an emotional level. There was something very special happening here, and it extended way
beyond the ordinary!!
Leonardo hit me with another (track from the album), then another ...
After having consumed two glasses of a mystery-vintage vino, the combination of elations generated from multiple sources proved almost overwhelming. I felt as if my head was about to explode from this mind-altering music!!
... was this really a guitar I was listening to?? How can it be possible for someone to wring that much emotion and radical nuance from the instrument, really?
I was listening to the impossible.
... being articulated in the most sensitive trio setting ever.
Perhaps now you understand why it is, indeed, such a great honor to have been involved in the interview you are about to read.
Although in my gut I suspected this, also, I will go ahead and say it -- after reading and rereading Mark's responses to the questions which follow: Mark Wingfield is the most inventive electric guitarist of the last 30 years.
Or maybe ever.
I truly believe he falls into the same category as two of the greatest, most innovative players of my lifetime: Jimi Hendrix, and Allan Holdsworth. As this interview evidences, Mark Wingfield's approach to creating electric guitar tones and textures is no less revolutionary than either of said predecessors. In fact, the manner in which he embraces and integrates technology -- in terms of both tones and playing technique -- qualifies him for consideration as the most innovative electric guitarist of all time, I believe.
But enough of my controversial meanderings; let's hear from the master, himself. -JohnM
(JM:) Hi, Mark! Thanks for taking to time to provide our readers with some insights into yourself, your incredible music and your phenomenal, just-released debut album for MoonJune Records.
To prepare myself for this interview, I went back and digested some previous interviews that have been conducted with you. I read were you previously stated (in your interview for Anil Prasad's "Innerviews") that there is no such thing as an original musical idea -- citing "originality," in the musical sense, as being the result of a combination of influences. Given this perspective, can you identify any of the specific influences present on your MoonJune debut, "Proof of Light?"
(Mark:) Thank you, John -- for the kind words and your time. It's a pleasure to talk to you.
There are definitely original musical ideas. I was talking about the fact that any original idea played by a musician or written by a composer is made up from combinations of things they have heard at some point in the past. It's often said that every combination of notes has been played before at some point. That is undoubtedly true, but when you add rhythm into the equation the combinations become near limitless. Add in dynamics, tone, inflection and other expressive elements and there really is no limit to the variety of ways any combination of notes could sound.
Take the first four notes of the opening theme of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, most westerners at least know that theme. However these same four notes if played during an improvisation, could take on a completely different musical meaning. This is because, even if somewhere deep in they player's subconscious the notes originally came from hearing the 5th Symphony, years later, in the context of an improvisation, they no longer belong to that, they have become part of their musical language. If a musical idea you're heard has really become part of your personal musical language, on a deep enough level, it will sound like you. If it hasn't, it will sound like a borrowed musical quote. Beethoven himself must have got this combination of notes from something he heard, but he turned them into something new and something powerful enough to still be in many people's mind almost 200 years later.
The important point is that it's the combination of musical influences that creates an original idea. Wayne Shorter described it as "scrambling" your influences. All these different influences come in, they get scrambled up and they come out as your own sound. I think one of the key things that makes someone sound original, is that they have diverse or unusual influences. Influences don't even have to be musical. You could be influenced by the sounds of machinery in a construction site, or by bird song, or the rhythms of human speech. John Coltrane for example based his composition Alabama on the cadences of Martin Luther King's famous speech. Jazz players don't need to have jazz as their only big influence. Coltrane also was very influenced by African and Indian music. Or take Miles Davis who was influenced by classical composers like Ravel and Stockhausen.
With regard to "Proof of Light" (Mark's new debut album for MJR), it's very hard to point out any influence in particular. What I will say is that I listen to a huge variety of different music. I am influenced as much by Indian and African music as I am by western music and as much by classical music as I am by jazz or rock. I do love the music that happened in the 70's and 80's on the ECM label which you mention. I think that was a time when whole new vistas of musical sound were opened up.
Miles Davis' "Bitches Brew" was one of the most original sounding albums in the history of Jazz and still one of my personal favourites. But equally original albums came out in the decade after that; Ralph Towner's "Solstice" is an example. That album sounded like something out of a completely new musical world -- moving from haunting ghostly shades to intense uplifting energy within the same album. Kenny Wheeler, Keith Jarrett, and Jan Garbarek were others who created completely unique musical landscapes. These are all influences.
What about your influences on guitar? ... Are there any particular players you've been listening to recently?
The main influences on my guitar playing, for quite some while now, have not been guitarists. This was a deliberate decision on my part, to stop listening to guitar players. I made the choice because I was finding it too hard to break away from playing too much like which ever favourite guitar player I had been listening to at the time. I was always sounding to myself like a lesser version of one of my heroes, depending on which one I had been listening to the most.
So from that point on I've listened mainly to other instruments, for example: sax, trumpet, and a lot of vocalists. What I learned from these instruments is just how much they can do with their tone. By comparison, guitar sounded extremely limited, so I spent a long time working on different ways of sounding notes and different ways of moving between notes to create different tones. Most of the tonal changes you'll hear in my playing are based on these techniques, but I do also use electronics to manipulate the tone in real time which is why I have various attachments on my guitar.
So, you prefer not listening to guitarists, by and large, these days. I find your perspective quite intriguing, as it is indicative of your determination to pursue your own authentic voice -- not just as a guitarist, but as a musician.
That said, I guess if we are going to get to some guitarists who have had an impact on your playing and your mental approach to the instrument we'll have to dig a little deeper! When did you first start playing guitar, how did it come about, and what guitarists were your "role models" during your formative years as a beginner- to intermediate-level player?
Jimi Hendrix was my first major influence, and interestingly he has remained a major one. I'll caveat what I said about not listening to guitarists. I will listen to the occasional player who is far enough away from the way I play that there is no danger I'll start playing like them. Kevin Kastning is an example; his concept on the guitar is so completely unique that there is no chance I'd ever be able to start playing like him.
Jimi Hendrix is another player who's phrasing is different enough from what I do that I'm not worried about starting to sound like him. For me, Hendrix's Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock is one of the greatest works ever performed on electric guitar; it is utter sonic genius.
Then I heard Mahavishnu Orchestra's "The Inner Mounting Flame" and that totally blew me away. But not at first; at first, I didn't like it much -- but I could hear that what McLaughlin was playing was unbelievable, so I stuck with it. Before long, it became one of my favourite albums and a benchmark for guitar playing which I aspired to as a young player. As a result, I starting practicing 8 hours a day and this went on for about a year. Then I started getting into bands and that cut it down to 6 hours a day for the next year.
Around the same time as Mahavishnu, I got into Yes and Steve Howe's imaginative approach to the guitar. A little later, I started listening to Terje Rypdal and John Abercrombie, and through that discovered all the great ECM artists; that changed everything, yet again, for me. Listening to Terje showed me that it is as much what you do with the notes as it is how many of them you play, which points back again to Hendrix. I listened to Terje and he might just play a few notes, but every note was exactly the right note, each note seemed to say so much. That was a great lesson.
Around the same time I was getting into Terje Rypdal, I heard Bill Bruford's "One of a Kind." Allan Holdsworth's playing on that was a complete revelation. That's still some of my favourite of Allan's playing. King Crimson's second incarnation with Adrian Belew and obviously Robert Fripp was another favourite for me at that time. That was an amazing band. Both Fripp and Belew were big influences. Then it was Pat Metheny who, again, at first, I didn't like, because I found it too 'nice' sounding. But before long I realized the great emotional depths this music contained and just how brilliant a player Pat is. He became another all-time favourite, along with Lyle Mays, of course.
It was at this point, though, that I realized I really needed to stop listening to all these guys. I would be out somewhere with no music and I'd start hearing things in my head -- things from my imagination; things which I really wanted to play.
But as soon as I got back to my music collection, those ideas were instantly subsumed by which ever brilliant player I decided to listen to. Then I'd pick up the guitar and my head would be full of their playing rather than any of my own ideas. I knew that in order for my own playing to come through, I was going to have to give it space to do so, and filling my ears with Allan, Pat, Bill Frisell, or Jeff Beck was not going to let that happen.
Fortunately, by this time I was also heavily into Coltrane, Miles, Jarrett, Garbarek; and classical music like Ravel, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartok and Elliot Carter; I had more than enough to listen to. Also, I knew that however much I listened to these other instruments, I would never be able to sound anything like them -- however hard I tried -- so I could take in as much influence as I wanted. I found that it freed up my mind to start imagining more of my own guitar lines, which would still be there even after I'd listened to Lester Bowie, Anthony Braxton or whoever it was -- as long as it wasn't a guitar player.
You're manipulation of tone is, indeed, one of the most striking elements of your sound and style. Please expound on these "attachments" -- what are they, and how did you come about incorporating them?
Well, first of all, there is just so much you can do with tone just by how you play the notes. I have found more than 20 different ways to sound a note on the guitar and I know there are more to be found. The number of ways you can transition from one note to the next is even greater, then add to that all the things you can do to a note while it's sustaining, all without any electronics. Most of my sound and tone comes from these things. I do an awful lot with the "tremolo arm" which which I think should more accurately be called the pitch arm. I often use it to move from one note to the next or even to play several notes by bending and holding the arm in different positions.
I do use the laptop to allow me to do various things. For example: to sustain chords so that I can be freed up to play melodies and solos. Also, I don't like most guitar chord voicings that much, I tend to hear piano or orchestral chord voicings -- which are impossible to play on the guitar, unless you're Kevin Kastning. But with the laptop I can sustain single notes so that they overlap and create a chord. This means I can create a chord which would be impossible to otherwise play on a normal guitar, by playing it one note at a time. I can also create those chords as I improvise solo lines by choosing when to feed notes into the laptop as I play. You can hear this on "Voltaic," after the melody at the start of the group improv: I play a set of notes sequentially, which form a chord that sustains throughout the next section.
I also occasionally manipulate sustaining guitar notes with the laptop to create breathy sounds and change the texture of the note in various ways. As it happens, I also do this at the start of the same section in "Voltaic" just after I create the chord. I think there are one or two other occasions where this happens on Proof of Light, but I have used this sort of thing a lot more in my work with Kevin Kastning. However, I think I'm just at the start of working with these sorts of ideas; it's a matter of waiting for the technology to come along to allow me to do what I want to do.
There are some new plugins which I am working with at the moment, which will allow me to do some more interesting things with sustaining guitar notes. If you imagine what a vocalist, sax or trumpet player can do with their notes as they sustain them, it's that level of manipulation I'm after. I have a touch strip attached to my guitar right below where my right hand fingers are. As I move my finger along this touch strip I can control plugin parameters on the laptop. So this allows me to gradually bring in a breathy or raspy sound to the guitar tone as a note sustains.
I rarely use guitar synth for solos, but I do use it sometimes when playing chords along with the normal guitar sound. However again on the track Voltaic, I use a guitar synth to add those huge undulating sounds into my normal guitar sound here and there.
With regard to these new plugins and other sound manipulation tools and technologies, have you been involved -- either individually, or in partnership with a company -- in the R&D (Research & Development) of any of these tools you incorporate?
There is a great company called Sinevibes who have been very helpful. I use some of their wave-shaping plugins, which are the best sounding wave shapers I've found. About a year ago, I had an important recording session coming up and they really helped me out by making some changes to the plugin which I requested and emailing it to me in time for the session. I'm not working in partnership with anyone, but I would be interested in working with a software company who wanted to explore deeper levels of sound manipulation in a musical way.
I find your integration of sound processing technology tools to be extremely fascinating (as I'm sure many readers will or already do). Where do you see the future of plugins and the like heading? What sort of new developments do you envision and/or would you like to see come to fruition?
For a long time, plugin engineers have been working very hard to recreate the sounds of the best legendary hardware. Some of the plugins currently being made by Sinevibes, Waves, Slate Digital, Softube and a couple of others, really do sound as good as the original hardware -- and in some cases even better. What's interesting is that, in doing this, these engineers have gained skill, not just in programming audio effects, but also in the craft which the hardware engineers honed over the last 50 years. They have learned what it is that makes certain pieces of hardware sound so good and why.
This knowledge is now just starting to be used in more creative ways, going beyond simply recreating existing hardware. This interests me. I can imaging taking the sweetening effect which a particular hardware EQ adds and increasing that. At the moment, some plugins allow you to increase the amount of harmonics and distortion beyond the amount of the original hardware. But I can imagine taking the knowledge of what makes a plugin sound "sweeter" and using that to create something new. Not just a control that increases harmonic distortion, but one which employs a whole range of techniques working in combination to produce sounds which you could describe as "sweet", "silky", "raspy", "breathy" etc… with perhaps four or five knobs labeled as such.
As for the future, I would like to see plugin engineers go deeper into sound manipulation -- allowing for the manipulation of sound on a much more fundamental or deeper level. However, the key thing here is that, for me, it needs to be musical. There are plugins out there which employ single techniques, like frequency shifting, ring modulation, formant shifting etc.; but any single sound manipulation technique, if used on it's own in this way, has a relatively small range of musical sounds. Everything outside this small range sounds like sci-fi or monsters from the deep.
I think software engineers need to think outside of single techniques and more about what are the constituents of musical tones, and how these can be manipulated. Doing this would require a range of techniques working together in possibly quite complex or non-linear ways.
What I am imagining is being able to take the guitar sound and change it so that it takes on some elements or the character of say a saxophone or a trumpet. I don't mean mixing in sampled sounds of these instruments. I mean reshaping the guitar sound, so it still sounds like a guitar, but takes on an aspect of "brassiness" or "rasp" or perhaps the woodiness of an oboe or violin. Then you could have a pedal which moved the sound from a deep sax-like raspiness to an etherial flute-like breathiness. But all the while still sounding like a guitar -- a guitar who's sound has taken on aspects of these other sonic elements. In a sense, this is what I'm trying to do already, by using long chains of plugins. I could imagine a single plugin which goes ten times further and can take the sound in many different directions.
Thanks for sharing that perspective, Mark. Obviously, your passion extends beyond the bounds of just making music; if you weren't so entrenched in your work as a guitarist and composer, it certainly wouldn't be hard to picture you dawning an engineer's cap and becoming a plugin developer, yourself!
Let's return for focus back to the new album, "Proof of Light." Upon reviewing your discography, it's apparent that you have recorded in a variety of group formats -- from ensemble work, to unorthodox trios, as well as a series of improvisational duets (with Kevin Kastning) ... is there any particular reason why you choose a traditional guitar trio for this outing?
I chose this format for a couple of reasons. First, it's what I was hearing in my head when I was writing the music for the project. Secondly, there is something unique about an improvised trio setting which I wanted to explore. I had done some trio work before with Jane Chapman and Iain Ballamy (on the Three Windows album), but I really wanted to explore what would happen with the dynamic of drums, bass and guitar. There is a space you get with a trio that you don't have with a quartet or larger band, and that allows a different kind of interaction between the musicians.
Yes -- one of the things that stood out for me about the album was the 'spacious' sound, and your use of occasional pauses and slowly-decaying sustained passages.
Please tell us a little about this trio. Yaron Stavi is an upright player you have enjoyed playing with on several previous outings. Conversely, this is your first recording with drummer Asaf Sirkus. How did this trio come about?
Actually, although most of the work Yaron has done with me is acoustic bass, he does play electric, too. He plays electric on the track Mars Saffron on this album, but it's acoustic on all the other tracks. As you pointed out, I've been working with Yaron for some time; this is the third album we've recored together. Asaf and Yaron have played together a lot in the past in various projects, so I knew they would have a great feel together.
Yaron has such a warm tone and a great ability to make the acoustic bass sing, which is why I gave the melody to him to play either on his own or with me a number of times on this album. He's also a great sight reader, which means I don' t need to worry about writing intricate or fast unison lines for us to play together. I also know that even if I write something which sounds like it can't be played on double bass, he'll probably be able to play it. This allows me to be very free and varied in my approach to writing, which is something I really value with the sort of music I do.
Asaf is someone I had been thinking about playing with for a while. First of all, we have a lot in common, musically; we both have a deep interest in Indian music. Asaf makes a very serious study of Indian classical rhythms, and I have a long standing deep interest in Indian classical music -- in particular vocal and violin phrasings. Also, listening to the music Asaf does on his own albums, I can immediately hear an affinity for the kind of music I do. Asaf is a drummer who has created a distinctive style and approach; he is so inventive that I knew it would be great to improvise with him.
"Inventive" is an excellent choice of words, there, and I believe the affinity to which you referred is apparent. There is a very intimate feel and, at times, an almost telepathic communication between the three of you; for my ears, this is supreme, sensitive trio work.
How much rehearsal went into this project, prior to laying down the actual tracks? While recording it, did you get a sense that there was something magical transpiring?
There was no rehearsal at all before the recording. In fact, we had only all played together as a trio once before. The three of us got together about a year before for an exploratory improvised session and there was an instant connection there. Based on how good that session felt and sounded, I decided to write the material for an album.
Of course, we all had time to learn the scores before hand, but we didn't rehearse any of it together before the recording session. There was an instant connection and chemistry as soon as we started recording, though. I thought that would be the case because of how our previous improv session felt. But the recording sessions went beyond my expectations. The energy of the sessions was great and, yes, we could all feel magic was happening. We recorded for two days and by the end of each day, rather than feeling tired, we felt energised! So I knew it was going well, even before I'd had the chance to sit down and listen to the takes.
Wow!! I have to admit, Mark: that answer just blew me out of the water!
In light of that, and the overall sound and feel of the album, perhaps the ECM comparisons (for "Proof of Light") will be inevitable. Almost immediately -- within minutes of listening to the first song -- I was reminded of my favorite era of music: the output from the late '70's - early '80's ECM Records, when so much experimenting with musical forms and expression was taking place. Were there any deliberate musical goals / directions that were corporately discussed between the three of you? What was your vision for this album -- and do you think you achieved it?
There wasn't a lot of discussion or pre planning between the three of us before the session. However, I did give Yaron and Asaf mp3s (audio files) of sketches of the pieces some weeks before the session. I directed the sessions as I had written all the music for the album, and I had an overall vision for how I wanted the music to sound. So I discussed the feel and general approach I wanted for each piece in the studio before we recorded it. Occasionally, we would try a couple of different approaches to a piece to see which felt best. But, in many cases, Asaf and Yaron already knew the basic approach of the piece, based on the sketches. Having said that, I am always open to ideas from the musicians I play with, so there was a continual creative discussion between us on what we all felt worked well in a particular piece.
I like to compose on computer which means that by the time I've written a piece, there is a MIDI version which I can save as an mp3. I find this really useful, as it can give the other musicians some indication about the general direction of a piece. Of course, the real version played by musicians will sound utterly different than the MIDI version, but I'll often use the same synth sounds (as in the MIDI version) and sometimes I'll put down a rough electric guitar track in places (on the sample mp3). This helps me to decide on the final arrangement and, sometimes, other aspects of the piece. It's also really useful for the other musicians, as they can hear something of how the piece sounds prior to the session.
I knew what I wanted the music to evoke when I wrote the pieces. When I compose, I'm usually trying to create an atmosphere or a sense of a time and place. So when I've written a piece, if I listen back to it and it creates that feeling -- the place and time, the lives of people I was thinking about or imagining when I composed it -- then for me the piece is successful. I think of it, in a way, as a kind of storytelling.
When I go into the studio to record a piece, if I'm working with improvising musicians, then I want them to have as much freedom as possible and to be able to tell their own musical stories. But, at the same time, it's important to me that the overall story, mood and atmosphere of the piece remains. So I am prepared to direct people more if I feel the music is straying away from the mood and atmosphere of a piece. (Otherwise I like musicians to have as much freedom as they want.)
Part of the trick for me is choosing musicians for a project who will intuitively understand and have an artistic affinity for the music I've written for a particular project. I knew that both Asaf and Yaron would immediately understand what these pieces were about on an emotional and intuitive level. They are both extremely sensitive and intuitive improvisors.
Indeed they are. One of the things that stood out for me was the supreme sensitivity -- the delicacy -- by which Yaron and Asaf played on this record. Between the spaciousness, this group sensitivity (an almost "reverence" for the musical moment at hand) and the free-wheeling, experimental (but, obviously, deeply personal) nature of your playing and tonalities, for me, the earlier ECM parallels were, perhaps, a foregone conclusion.
How long did you guys spend in the studio recording this album, and what effects, if any, did you employ in post-production for the three instruments?
We were in the studio recording for two days. (Although I booked an extra half a day before to get the drum sound.) So when we turned up for the first day of recording, we only needed to get the bass miked up and we were ready to go. My sound doesn't take any time -- it comes out of my DAC straight into the studio DAC: no amps, no mics.
As for post-production effects, there really wasn't anything to speak of, just the usual mixing techniques to bring out the best in the sound of each instrument. I mixed these tracks myself. I don't always do that, sometimes it's good to get someone with a fresh perspective to mix your own stuff. But I had a really strong idea about how I wanted this record to sound.
I carefully chose the mics we used to record the drums and bass. I really wanted to hear the detail of Asaf's ride cymbal -- the texture of the stick hitting the cymbal; I love that kind of ride sound. But it's not that easy to get that sound, which is why I chose the mics carefully. Also, I wanted to be able to hear his intricate snare work really clearly. It was the same with the bass. It was important to me to get that big warm sound a stand up bass can have, but at the same time be able to hear the detail and articulation: the sound of the strings on the fingerboard. Part of getting these sounds is in the mixing, but a lot of it is the mic choice and positioning.
In general, when recording and mixing, I'm looking for detail and transparency. If I'm working with musicians like Yaron and Asaf, I want to be able to hear every nuance of what they're doing. I choose most of my guitar sounds for exactly the same reason. Occasionally, I'll use a lot of distortion -- if the feeling of the track demands it, like on Voltaic -- but on everything else I use sounds where every tiny thing I do comes through in as much detail as possible. A lot of my style is based on creating different tones, attacks, subtle pitch changes, and note transitions or slurs. So I need sounds which don't cover all this up with too much distortion. The fact that I have infinite sustain and can create feedback may fool you into thinking I've got a lot of distortion on my sound, but I don't. It's got some crunch, but it's clean enough to reveal any tiny change of tone or dynamics.
You did -- you definitely fooled me! I thought you were using some type of overdrive tool or device to get that sort of "on demand" feedback that sometimes comes into play. How do you actually generate that incredible "octivating" feedback?
I'm using a sustainer made by a company called Sustainiac. This is a device which takes the signal from the bridge pickup and uses it to keep the vibration of the string going via a magnetic field that comes out of a special neck pickup. It works even when the guitar is not plugged in, which is quite strange, to hear an unplugged guitar with infinite sustain! There are knobs and switches that allow you to gradually or quickly move the sustain into harmonics in the same way feedback will decay into harmonics. It's really the same principle as feedback only using a magnetic field instead of the air as a conductor. It sounds like the ultimate device to have on your guitar, but it takes some time to learn how to control so it's not for everyone. But for my style of playing it was exactly what I needed.
I know I've raved about the performance- and tonal-angles of the new album, Mark, but (-- to continue our "singing your glorious praises" theme --) the production is also on the same level of excellence! So, am I understanding you correctly -- that you didn't color any of the tracks with any effects in post-production?
In order to get this sound I used various mixing techniques. My aim when mixing jazz or related music is to make each instrument sound as real and unprocessed as possible, while at the same time making them sound big, detailed and spacious. However, with a band recording, if you just turn up the faders with no processing, you won't get that result -- however carefully you balance and pan things. So I don't hold with the view that using compression or EQ necessarily takes away from the natural or real sound of the instruments. I think if used correctly they can really increase the clarity and depth.
With most recordings, you need to craft the frequencies and sometimes the dynamics so that instruments sit well together and then you need to add reverb. You will almost inevitably have frequency clashes which naturally occur between instruments which occupy the same frequency bands, for example kick drum and bass guitar. If you don't deal with that, you'll get a muddy result where neither instrument is heard as clearly as it could be. This requires some careful EQing.
I carefully chose the mics for this session and carefully positioned them -- I think that's also big factor in the sound. Ru Cook was the recording engineer (www.lostboysstudio.com); we spent half a day together, before the session, getting the drum sound. Ru is an extremely skilled recording engineer and is great to work with. The recording and mixing signal chain was also a factor. The mic preamps went directly into the DACs and the music never left the digital domain after that.
The quality of the EQ and compression you use when mixing is an important factor too. Plugins, just like hardware, are not all created equal. I mix entirely "in the box" -- meaning that the entire mixing process stays in the computer, no analog hardware was involved.
I did use some harmonic coloration to add sweetness or silkiness to some frequencies on some instruments or mic channels using various plugins. These techniques really do sound nice, but you have to be sparing with them. If you put them on every channel you'll loose space and clarity in the mix.
Software plugins have now entirely overtaken hardware, in my view. These days, if you want to add sweetening harmonics or low end warmth to a signal you don't need hardware anymore. If you want that analog sound, companies like Waves, Slate Digital, Softube and a couple of others are now producing plugins which are indistinguishable from the world class hardware they emulate. In some cases the plugins are even better sounding than the original hardware. The only piece of outboard gear I would use now is a Bricasti M7 reverb. But that's only because there isn't a plugin version. I don't have an M7 in my studio, unfortunately, but I do have the Lexicon PCM plugins which are also world class reverbs.
I think the quality of the reverb is extremely important to the quality of the sound. I don't usually put one overall reverb on everything, I usually use different reverbs on different instruments. Part of how you create space and clarity is how you choose the reverbs, and the quality of the reverb. Reverb can be used to create space and depth in a mix and it can also be used to enhance the sound of an instrument.
When describing what you were trying to capture in the studio, you used the word "nuance" in the answer, two previous questions ago. For me, this is an acute choice of words, as the clarity of this recording truly does reveal the depth of nuance between the three of you; it's as crystal clear as any recording in recent memory. Did you avoid using compression in the post-production and mastering?
I don't use compression unless it's really necessary because this sort of music needs to keep as much of its dynamic range as possible. A lot of the expression is going on with dynamics. Other music can be different, I mean sometimes you want a lot of compression in order to create a certain sound. But for most jazz related music, in my view, you don't want to remove any more dynamic range than necessary to get things to sit well together in the mix. But almost all band mixes do need some compression somewhere.
Compression can be used in subtle ways on single channels, to add punch and control the low frequencies without actually changing the overall dynamic range noticeably. So I did use some compression, but no more than I needed to to create space and solidity in the low frequencies. I also used some transient shaping, which is a technology related to compression, to control how long the bass drum resonated for on each hit. I wanted to be able to control that differently for different pieces. If we had damped the kick drum too much, it wouldn't have had enough resonance on the slow, quieter pieces. But for the faster, louder tracks, I needed to shorten the resonance, otherwise the low end would have been swamped. I didn't use compressors on the two bus when mixing this album, that's something I would avoid with this type of music.
I know some people like to write in automation to control dynamics, but I think compression, if used correctly, can give a more natural result. When you start writing detailed volume automation, you are injecting your own ideas about how loud someone should be playing each note or phrase. For jazz related music, I think that's too invasive; where as gentle and carefully-tailored compression can reveal details in a particular instrument without actually changing the overall dynamics of the way a musician played. Again, I think different rules apply to different types of music.
This is all quite fascinating, Mark. I had heard it mentioned that you were an extraordinary producer (in addition to your obviously considerable skills as a guitarist and composer). There is a definite, discernible parallel between your approach to creating guitar tones and your approach to miking, mixing and coloring sound while wearing the hat of a production/post-production engineer.
How did you get started in audio production, and what production credits have you amassed to this point in your life? Are you formally trained (as an audio engineer)?
From very early on when I wasn't practicing I was messing around with effects, setting up studios with friends, recording and mixing. So I've always been immersed in it. I think I had a pretty good grasp of parametric EQs and delays by the time I was 18. As time went on, I learned more about sound and engineering, along side the guitar and music. I've always been fascinated with recording and production; I still am.
When plugins started to sound decent in the mid to late 2000's, things really opened up. In the past five years or so, they've become as good as the hardware and are now increasingly overtaking it. This means I no longer have to hire a big studio to get a great sound when I mix. I can do it in my own production studio in my house. You do have to spend some money getting someone really good to design acoustic treatment for your room. Foam on the walls isn't going to do it. You really do need high quality traps correctly positioned if you'e going to mix or master. The guys at RealTraps designed mine and did an amazing job. You also need a pair of great monitors -- I use Adam P11s -- and a good DAC, for which I use TC and RME. But you really don't need anything else now. You no longer need to spend a huge fortune on a mixing console and outboard gear to mix. I don't even own a mixing console anymore, and my hardware racks have sat there unused for some time now.
I mainly produce and mix my own music, though I am open to working on other projects. For example, I am mastering Ligro's new album for MoonJune Records at the moment. I've been interested in audio production for almost as long as I've been interested in the guitar. I think it comes from the fact that I see creating and crafting sound as a natural extension of composing. I work with atmospheres when I compose. I will get a feeling or an atmosphere and then render that into music, by writing the notes which, for me, recreate that feeling. Sound can be part of that. So a particular keyboard sound, drum sound or, of course, guitar sound can be part of what will create or embellish an atmosphere in the music I'm composing.
This approach led to the necessity for me to construct and manipulate sounds. If I just stick with the stock sounds, the normal guitar sounds, every day keyboard sounds, etc., there is a limit to the variety of atmospheres these can evoke for me. So if I want to be able to create any atmosphere which comes up when composing, I have to be able to create or mould a sound to make that happen. This attracted me early on to synthesisers, because you can create sounds from the ground up. Then, when the Roland VG-88 came out, it was possible to start moulding guitar sounds on a deeper level. That allowed me for the first time to be able to create the imaginary guitar sounds I was hearing in my head -- sounds I just couldn't get from ordinary guitar amps and effects.
Crafting a guitar sound to me is very much the same process as producing and mixing. Many of the actual principles that underly guitar sounds, synths sounds and mixing in the studio are the same. You are shaping frequencies, envelopes and dynamics, and you are working with space and texture. So, for me, there is a real continuum in the way I think about sound on the guitar and sound in mixing.
"Atmospheric" would be a good word to use to characterize your music and, indeed, your guitar textures, also. (... which, in turn, carries over into your production and end results.)
When preparing for this interview, I went back and listened to an album I have of your original duet with Kevin Kastning, as well as sampling some of your ensemble work and viewing some of your various duet performances you've posted on your YouTube channel. This atmospheric nature of both your tonal qualities and your technical delivery seems to lend itself well to the intimate setting of a duet or trio. I read somewhere (I think it was an article by Barry Cleveland) that your duet work with Kevin was completely, on-the-spot improvisations ... is this accurate?
Yes, almost all of what we record is. On the four albums we have done together, which consist of fifty six pieces, there were only four which were not live in the studio. Kevin and I can only get together when I happen to be in the US or he's in the UK, which since we’ve been working together has been about once a year. Typically, we go into the studio for two or sometimes three days and then don’t see each other again for another year, though we do regularly communicate via email and Skype. There have been two occasions where, after the recording when I was back in the UK, Kevin had a new and unique instrument built which we were both very keen on using in a recording. On these occasions Kevin recorded a couple of tracks on his own, leaving space for me to overdub my part here in my studio. So on these four pieces, though both parts are completely improvised, they were not recorded live. But all the other 52 tracks we’ve released so far have been live in the studio.
Playing with Kevin is an amazing experience because he’s such a great improvisor; the musical world and places he can create are vast. Also, he has created such a unique musical pallet on the instruments he designs. They are still acoustic guitars, but when you have an instrument with 36 stings, as he does, it becomes almost orchestral in the harmonies he can explore.
When we sit down to record neither of us knows what we were about to play. We might discuss a few simple things, like tempo or register, before hand -- or often not even that. So what you hear is live in the studio with no overdubs. Our concept is to compose in real time, as we play. So it's not a free-for-all or anything like free jazz. We are playing as if there is a composed piece, even though there isn’t. This means that we have to listen really closely in every moment and be prepared to turn corners together at any instant. It's challenging, but I’ve found all our sessions really inspiring -- partly because this approach allows us to go to places there is no other way to get to. Many of these musical places have been in the recesses of my imagination and have a very strong musical significance to me. So it's great to have found a way to get to and explore them.
We will be playing along and we’ll turn a corner together, and I’ll think, 'Ah. we’re here! I’ve always wanted to visit this place.' It's not like I actually think these words, or any words, this is just a way of describing a momentary realization. For me, thinking gets in the way when improvising, but there are momentary realizations. There are also instantaneous decisions, like a scale choice or sometimes you see a fork in the road, or a potential door come along which could be opened and you might choose to open it, or not. But any decision or realization needs to be instantaneous: any actual thinking would interrupt the flow.
From my point of view the same can be said for any improvisation. You have to endeavour to stay out of the way and let the music happen through you. My improvising on Proof of Light, for example, though very different from what I do with Kevin, is still about being in the moment and reacting to how the music makes you feel and to what the other musicians area playing.
How does your approach to improvising (with Kevin) -- where the entirety of what you record is purely spontaneous, with no structure or even forethought with regard to musical direction -- different from playing a solo over a set structure in a group setting?
With most of the music I do, like with the trio, we are working with a composition. So we have a written melody and chord progression which we use to structure what we do. I see the way I approach this is as a kind of musical story telling. When I play a solo I am improvising within the changing harmonic story told by the chords. The chord progressions I write usually tell an emotional story or create an atmosphere, which I was feeling when I composed them. These are often stories of events and times in the life of real or imagined people. But it can also be more abstract than that, it can be about an imagined place, or feeling which has it's own existence independent of anyone in particular. When I compose, I take these impressions and write the notes that recreate the feelings in musical form. Then, when the other musicians and myself improvise, we play within the context of this musical story.
There is a real discernible musical camaraderie between the two of you; when I first heard you and Kevin, although quite dissimilar in many ways, the chemistry between you and the space you allow one another to interject reminded me of the musical kinsmanship between Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, many decades ago, when they recorded several duet albums for ECM. How did you and Kevin cross paths, and how did you guys decide to go into a studio, let the recorders roll and just improvise? ... Whose idea was this?
Billy Shepard is a journalist who both Kevin and I knew before we knew about each other's music. Billy suggested that I should check out Kevin's music, as he thought I would really like it. When I heard it I immediately felt there was a musical connection there so I got in touch and we agreed to set up a recording session. We will be releasing our fifth album later this year.
Despite our very different approach to the guitar we have a lot in common in other ways. We are both composers and have a very similar set of influences. We both love the music which emerged from ECM in the 70's and 80's Jan Garbarek, Keith Jarrett, Ralph Towner etc… as well as people like Miles Davis. We also have similar classical influences, such as Elliot Carter, Bartok, Morton Feldman, Shostakovich and and many others. Interestingly, we are also fans of certain prog rock music, like Yes and Peter Gabriel.
The idea of recording improvised pieces with nothing planned is Kevin's. He does a lot of this kind of thing. When we recorded our first album, although Kevin was used to this approach, I had never recorded anything in this way so it was quite an experience. The red light goes on and you just have to make it happen! I had done the occasional piece like this in live performances a few times and of course at home but, the idea of recording an album in this way was really new to me. However with Kevin it was immediately clear in that first session that this approach was allowing us to go to places there is no other way to get to.
That explains a lot -- on several different levels. I can only imagine what a confident, fearless mindset is required to go into a studio and record in such a manner, with no preconception or established structures, whatsoever!
Although "Proof of Light" was just released, it was recorded back in May of last year. Obviously, you had to prepare chord charts and you were probably (at least mentally) mapping out the arrangements and direction you wanted to go with each respective piece, prior to entering the studio. As a musician -- strictly as a guitarist (not composer, arranger, etc.) -- how does your preparation differ from recording in a group setting, with a rhythm section, versus recording with Kevin Kastning -- with just two improvising guitars? What is the focus of your work and preparation as a musician on your instrument prior to going into two such completely different musical settings?
In a setting like the trio, where we are playing pieces based on a chord progression and melody, then I will make sure I'm familiar with each piece, but not so much that I don't need the music in front of me during the session. If there are parts which are particularly difficult to play, then I'll have put more rehearsal time into those. For other parts I will rehearse less, because I may want to alter them slightly to suit how the music feels with the other players during the session. I may, for example, make changes to the written timing of some notes in a melody if it feels better during the actual session.
The sort of chord changes I write usually don't fit into any key and I don't normally think in terms of keys. I'm usually changing scale for each chord in the progression and, the way I compose, each change is pretty significant and part of the story of the piece. I'm so used to this sort of playing that I don't really need to rehearse playing over the changes in most cases. I will try playing over them a few times just to see how it feels, and if there is some tricky spot, of course, I'll work on that. For example, if I have an unusual chord like a Major 7,b5,#9 -- or something like that, which needs a special scale -- I will have made notes on the chord chart about which scale I intend to use. But apart from cases like that, I don't tend to rehearse playing over the changes much; I like to keep the feeling spontaneous.
With Kevin, there's nothing to rehearse and so there is no specific preparation. Though Kevin and I will spend time discussing things in emails before the session, and we'll often spend hours talking between sessions on the days we're recording, we won't discuss specific musical ideas which we intend to play. We will discuss influences, specific pieces of classical music or jazz, composing and other influences outside of music, as well. We also often discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of music theory which we both find interesting. All of this probably feeds in to the music in some way.
In general, if I have any recording session coming up I will make sure I'm in shape. This involves regular practice routines which evolve over time. When I don't have any sessions coming up, I tend to do a couple of hours practice a day. Obviously, that increases a lot when I have a session coming up.
It certainly sounds like you were "in shape" for your MoonJune debut! How did you and Leonardo (Pavkovic, of MoonJune Records) come to meet, and what led to your decision to release "Proof..." through his NYC label?
I can't remember exactly now. It may have been after an interview in Innerviews that Anil Prasad suggested I get in tough with Leonardo, or maybe it was Leonardo who contacted me. At any rate, Leonardo mentioned that he was a fan of my playing, and we discussed the possibility of working together via email. Then I did a concert in New York City with Kevin Kastning and invited Leonardo, we went out to dinner afterward and it was at that point that we actually decided to work together on my next album.
Leonardo is a truly visionary record label owner who is presenting some of the very best jazz and progressive music being made. So, it was an honour when he asked me to be on the label. He is also is one of the most knowledgeable people about music I've ever met. It's quite staggering: he knows every significant album that's happened since the 60's -- and probably even further back. Working with someone who has such a deep understanding of this type of music is fantastic. Leonardo and I talked quite a bit about the album before I recorded it and I found his input extremely helpful in the direction the album took. I felt he was there behind the project, at every stage, with useful insights and ideas, right up to the design of the album cover and beyond. It's been a really great experience working with him. Leonardo is a one of a kind and MoonJune stands like a beacon of quality on the musical landscape. So, I couldn't be happier about being on the label!
From my perspective, "Proof of Light" is a landmark album -- hailing the next evolutionary stage of electric guitar expression. Please pardon my enthusiasm, but given your radical approach to creating and manipulating tone, I don't believe this to be overstating matters.
Being a guitarist, myself, between repeated listenings of the CD and absorbing everything you've shared to this point, I believe you are redefining the instrument's potential -- much in the same way as Jimi Hendrix and Allan Holdsworth did, when they opened the minds of fellow guitarists through their unique visions of expression on the electric guitar. Now that the album is out (and has been mastered for some time), I'm sure you have had ample time to listen to it, yourself ... is this a satisfying album for you? Are you pleased with the results?
I really appreciate your kind words John. I'm very pleased with the album, I think every track on it turned out well and achieved what I was after when I was writing the material. Of course, having Yaron and Asaf playing such great stuff helped a lot!
A lot of time and effort goes into the writing phase of an album for me; I always know that each album is a particular set of musical ideas I will only record once. The next album will always be different, I'll be writing about other things. As I've said before I often draw on real and imagined places, times and lives as inspiration when I compose. When I compose a set of pieces and record them, I know that this is the only time I'll visit these particular places with the music, so if the album works well and these impressions come through when I listen to the music, I'm really pleased.
You mentioned earlier about another duo album with Kevin (Kastning) you'll be releasing, later this year ... are there any other projects in which you're currently involved, or in the process of planning? What do the immediate and foreseeable futures hold for Mark Wingfield?
Will there be a follow-up album with Yaron (Stavi) and Asaf (Sirkis)?
I have various other projects happening at the moment.
I've been doing a lot of composing this year. I was asked to compose a piece for the renowned classical pianist Kathryn Stott. She regularly plays piano concertos with many of the world's greatest orchestras and has worked extensively with Yo-Yo Ma, so it was a real honour to compose a solo piano piece for someone of this stature.
At the moment, I am in the middle of recording another album with the amazing harpsichordist Jane Chapman, for which I also composed eleven pieces. Jane is another great classical musician who, as well as playing in classical settings, has also worked with some of the UK's best jazz players and some of the best-known modern classical composers. So, again, its great to be working with her.
I have started work with René von Grünig sketching out ideas for a new album. René is one of the most original composers and players I've had the pleasure to work with. His approach is unique and although he has influences like everyone does, he will often come up with an idea which doesn't sound like anything I've heard before. He is also fearless when composing in the sense that if it feel's right, he has no problem moving from a laid-back jazz feel, directly into an intense classical section. I love this willingness to have no boundaries and literally let the musical flow of the composing go wherever it needs to.
René is also someone who understands where I'm coming from when I talk about composing music inspired by real and imaginary times, places and lives as he also draws from those sorts things. So working with him is always inspiring.
I think it's very likely I'll do another album with Yaron and Asaf. In fact I have already started composing new pieces for an album with them in mind.
That's fascinating, Mark: your being commissioned to compose a piano piece! Do you play piano?
No, I don't play piano or any instrument other than guitar. However, you do need to have a good idea of what's possible on any instrument if you are going to compose anything adventurous. Its very easy to overstep the mark from challenging to impossible, so it's important to have a firm grasp on the practical limits of any instrument. Of course you can adjust these limits upwards if you're writing something for world-class players like Kathryn Stott or Jane Chapman. So knowing where those boundaries are has taken some study, but also I have been lucky enough to have worked with some great classical musicians over the years and I've learned a lot from that.
I do compose at the piano even though I'm not a player. Of course, I know all the chords and scales but I can't play and hold together a piece, or even part of a piece; I have no actual playing ability. But in some ways I find this an advantage. If I'm writing something and even with my non-existent piano abilities, it's sounding good, I know there is something strong there, musically. Whereas on the guitar, you can end up unintentionally disguising a weak idea by embellishing it with playing finesse. Also, there is something about the sound of the piano, the overtones, which I really like for composing, it seems to open out harmonic possibilities.
Having said that, I do compose on the guitar, as well. Most of the tracks on Proof of Light started on the guitar, then I wrote them into the computer. On the computer I worked more on the pieces using a keyboard, music notation and piano grid view. I tend to jump back and fourth between these, constantly. Then I brought them back onto the guitar again for the final stage. I find I think so differently when I'm composing on a keyboard vs the guitar that its great to jump between the two.
I can see where it would be advantageous, especially if "different" is what you're after! How does your process of composing for someone else, on a different instrument -- as in the case of Kathryn Stott -- differ from writing your own material?
There is a huge difference for me between writing a piece of classical music and writing jazz or other music which involves improvising musicians. With classical music, you can write in a tremendous amount of detail; you are of course writing every note which is played. You are writing the chords, melodies, rhythms, bass lines, the solos -- everything. This is very demanding, but at the same time it's really rewarding because you can render exactly what's in your imagination into sound in every detail. Also, you can make things happen which could never happen in an improvised setting.
Composing for improvised music is a whole different game. When composing, you need to be as minimal as possible -- leaving as much space as possible for the musicians to tell their own stories. But, at the same time (at least with the music I write), you need to find a way to create a feeling and atmosphere, even though you don't know exactly what everyone is going to play. Of course, the melodies and chords are written and there's a basic structure for the piece, but a big proportion of what people play is going to be improvised. So its a different sort of challenge. I think of it as a very "distilled" type of writing: you are trying to make the maximum amount happen with the least amount of notes. Every note really counts a lot, because you are writing so few of them.
Thanks for sharing that perspective, Mark. You have a very unique way of looking at so many different facets of guitar, music and the creative process -- and its numerous varied protocols. It's very fascinating to view the various respective intricacies of how you approach so many different things, but when I reflect back over the course of this interview I now see your work more clearly from the angle of 'the whole being the sum of its parts.'
Sir, I believe we have covered about everything we could have possibly have hoped to, prior to this interview commencing. (There was a pleasing structure, but we improvised well, also!) Is there anything we haven't touched on about which you are very passionate and would like to discuss? -- otherwise, this seems like a nice place to stop ... at least, for now, anyway!
Thanks for the offer, but I think I've said about everything, thanks to your excellent questions. It has been a real pleasure doing this interview with you. Thank you for all the thought and encouragement you've put into this. It really is hugely appreciated!
I appreciate you taking the time and making the herculean effort to share such a wealth of fascinating, insightful information, Mark. It has been my great privilege to be involved in this interview, sir. As I have reread your responses and reflected back on all you've conveyed, I understand why it is that I have found your music so profoundly moving, in both a technical and emotional sense.
Thank you, so much, Mark. I know I speak for all of the many MoonJunistas scattered across the globe in wishing you the very best of success with the new album and your rising star!
You're quite welcome, and a big "Thanks!" to all those out there who have supported my work and shared so many kind words.