Previously published in Robert Ham’s Substack on Jan 14, 2021

Robet Ham: I feel sometimes as though my memory is fading. It’s a worrisome sensation, knowing what I know about dementia, Alzheimer’s, and other neurological concerns. Even as I can quickly connect myself to embarrassing incidents from my past with crystalline clarity, other experiences are inaccessible. I lay some of the blame on the rise of technology in my life. I’m stuffing myself with more and more information than ever before, forcing my brain to wipe out other details to make room. And facts that I might have otherwise let stick are now left to slide, knowing that I can pick up the thread again with a web search.

These thoughts have been tumbling through my brain as a result of listening to The Blue of Distance, the new album from composer/performer Elori Saxl (out on Jan. 22 from Western Vinyl). As she explains in my interview with her, she initially wanted to write music that dealt with how technology was helping put us at a remove from the natural world, but the work later became an elegy to the wonder and elusiveness of memory.

To evoke this, Saxl used recordings of bodies of water and wind that she captured in the Adirondacks. She digitally manipulated these natural sounds, rendering them as blurry recollections, augmenting them with synth melodies and drones and the billowing sounds of a small chamber ensemble. Listening to it, I felt as if I were floating quietly through a bare wintry forest or blissfully underneath a huge layer of ice.

What can you tell me about how you settled on the concept for this new album? You talk a bit about how it began with one idea and then evolved to something else. How did that transition happen?

Elori: When I began working on the album, I had a vague and abstract idea that I wanted to make some music that helped me explore how my (and others’) relationship with place/land/nature was changing through developments in technology that allow us to visit distant places without being physically present. I wrote the first half of the album in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York in the middle of summer. It was an incredibly verdant and beautiful place and an ecstatically happy period of time for me. Then I had to stop working on the album for a few months. When I finally picked the project back up, it was the middle of winter, I was staying at my family’s place on an island in Lake Superior surrounded by ice and gray skies, and I was feeling pretty low. I wanted the album to feel cohesive, but I was in such a different place both emotionally and physically. I would look at photos and videos from my summer and try to remember what it had felt like to be there and then to write music from that now distant place. I discovered that no matter what I did, it was basically impossible to get myself back there. The feeling had inevitably shifted–through both my own memory and through the digital media. In that sense, what had started as something conceptual became very personal. With that shift, I recognized that it was less about the specific idea of nature and technology and more about longing and memory at large–whether that’s in relation to a landscape, a person, or a feeling.

In the notes on Bandcamp, you talk a bit about how you grew up during the Internet's first big wave... what was that like to experience the way technology and smartphones changed your life and those of the people around you?

This could be an endless conversation, but in regards to the album specifically, I was mostly thinking about the relationship between that technology and land/nature/place. This was mostly inspired by wondering why even though we can now see images of the effects of climate change such as melting ice caps, massive wildfires, and devastating floods, there still seems to be cognitive dissonance for so many people. When I first started working on the album in the Adirondacks, I’d begin each morning by canoeing out onto a lake while the sun rose and watching the fog on the lake be burned off by the rising sun and the dew on the trees start to dry. In that setting, it was really easy to feel the direct exchange between the water, sun, trees, and myself. It was quite obvious that we were all impacting each other on a very physical level, and it felt easier to understand that the imperative to protect the natural world is just as much about protecting ourselves. Technology such as youtube and instagram can provide us with information about a place, which is definitely useful to a certain extent. But it’s really difficult for it to convey what it feels like to be in a place or with a person, and I think that sense of feeling and connection is ultimately what spurs people to want to protect something. I think this pandemic year of endless Zooming has made it clear that while all of this technology is useful and has definitely made this experience more bearable, it is absolutely not the same as physical presence. I think the challenge will be for us to continue to be aware of the differences between reality and simulacrum and to decide collectively that we value the feeling of physical presence over information.

You started the recording process in the Adirondacks - how did you end up there? What was the lure of that location?

I was at the Blue Mountain Center, which is a residency program in Blue Mountain, NY that hosts writers, artists, organizers, and composers. I got to spend a month just making music and roaming the woods, and it felt like a sort of blueprint for what I was after. It was also the first time in my life that people referred to me as a “composer,” and that alone might have changed my life.

Did you go there with the intent of making these recordings of natural sound?

Sort of. I had a very loose idea of a sound I wanted to create and how I might make it. But mostly it was inspired by the experience of sitting outside and hearing what sounded like pulses coming from the wind and water and thinking about how much it resembled House music and wondering if I might be able to push it even more that way.

How did you end up at your second location on Lake Superior? What can you tell me about that?

The second location was my family’s house on Madeline Island, which is an island in Lake Superior off the coast of Northern Wisconsin. Madeline Island is an incredibly special place. Physically, it is about the shape and size of Manhattan but with a year-round population of about 300 people. I’ve lived in NYC the last seven years, but I’ve tried to spend a month or two on the island every winter. With the Lake’s waves frozen under many feet of ice and the forest blanketed in snow, it can be very quiet–almost like an anechoic chamber. If you go for a run or ski in the woods and get your heart racing and then stop, you can often hear two frequencies buzzing in your ear of your circulatory system and respiratory system. This past winter, I came for what I thought would be my normal month-long trip here, but then Covid hit and I haven’t left yet! So now this place is becoming even more of my home, and I’m feeling deep love not just for the natural world here but also for the community of people here.

Beyond the concept for this album, it seems as though your physical environment has a marked effect on your creative output. Would you agree with that?

Yes! Very much so.

How did you land on the idea of combining these processed field recordings with synths and a chamber ensemble?

This whole thing actually started as a commission from an 18-person chamber orchestra in Baltimore called Mind On Fire. They had asked if I’d write something for some subset of their musicians. Feeling like I wasn’t sure when the next time I’d have the opportunity to write for 18 people would be, I (very insanely) decided I’d try to write for the whole group. And I knew I wanted to make an album eventually and kind of just needed an excuse to do it, so I decided to write an album’s worth of music for them. And synths are just what I’ve spent the most time with over the last 10 years and feel the most comfortable writing with, so alas that led to 40 minutes of music for 18 chamber orchestra musicians plus synths, and three years later here we are! Not the most thought-through decision-making of my life, but very happy I did it.

Did the pieces change considerably as you were recording them with the live musicians or during the mixing process once you had all the elements in place?

I wrote all the music by making demos using a combination of analog synths, MIDI woodwind samples, and my very scrappy violin playing, which I then pitch-shifted down for the viola and cello parts. So from the beginning, I had a pretty specific sound in mind. But one thing that I didn’t foresee was how the sounds of the midi samples and pitch-shifted violins were actually informing the composition. I assumed that replacing all of them with real live musicians would make everything better, but when I finally started mixing everything, I realized that I’d become really attached to some of the weird synthetic sounds I’d incidentally landed on. So one thing that Zubin Hensler (mixer) and I spent a lot of time on was figuring out which parts should sound real, which parts should sound obviously synthetic, and which parts should be really ambiguous. I really wanted the live parts to sound sort of synthetic and to have the muted tone that the midi parts had. Zubin came up with some really cool ways of getting there involving filtering almost everything through a Moog. And in a few instances, we ended up opting for the pitched violins and samples.

You produced some amazing videos for this album as well - were those visual concepts clear to you during the recording process or did they come later once the work was finished?

Some of the visual ideas came to me simultaneously with the sonic ideas for sure. Some of those images are direct pulls from my own memory of real things that happened in my life. And some of them are maybe more like fantasies that I’ve also had in my head for awhile. But as a whole, they really came together right before shooting the videos this past summer, which was a while after I’d made the music. I was fortunate that I was living on Madeline Island (where I’d written the music) while planning the videos, so it was a really natural process to go for a walk in the morning, listen to the music, and just see what settings seemed to click with the sounds. And conceptually, I think maybe the videos are exploring the same themes as the music but with a bit more emphasis on the personal side of things. To me, the album is as much about these bigger themes like climate change and social media as it is about having a crush on someone far away, so it was nice to be able to bring some of that human quality to light. With the videos, I was thinking a lot about distance between people–about the ways in which we drift apart and crash into each other, about how waves ripple out from each of us and hit each other, and about feeling alone and together at the same time.

How did you come to work with Emma Portner one two of the clips?

How Emma and I came to work together feels bizarrely fateful. One of the reasons I wanted to make an album in the first place was so that I’d have something to send to choreographers that I wanted to work with, and Emma was definitely at the top of that list. The day that I finished mixing the album, Emma happened to post online that she was looking for a composer for a project, and we started talking about working together then. Originally, she was going to use the Blue of Distance as the score for a short dance film that she was making. I sent her the record, she filmed a bunch of stuff, and then for various reasons, the film never ended up being released. When I was putting together all of the videos this summer, we started talking about the possibility of her making one of the music videos, but with Covid, it was feeling pretty impossible logistically. And then Emma found all of this lost footage from the original film she’d made that never came out, and we basically realized that even though she and Justin Dejaeger, who’s also in both videos, had danced in silence while they were filming, their movement fit together with the music pretty perfectly. The tempos were the same, the tone was the same, and some of the smaller dance movements seemed to mimic the smaller musical parts too. So throughout the whole process, there was this weird thing happening where the music and the dance seemed to be fitting together. When I watch Emma and Justin’s dancing, it feels like I’m watching the visual equivalent of how I think about sound. The whole thing feels pretty magical.

How has it been for you during this fraught period of our history?

I’ve been on an island with 300 people for almost this whole time, so in that sense I’ve been pretty lucky. I went back to the city for one week this summer, and it was really challenging for me. I commend everyone’s resilience and strength there so much.

What comes next for you?

Hard telling! I’ve been trying to get better at making beats, singing, and writing pop songs. We shall see!