Souns and Vision | PGNB2016

As the one year anniversary of Pretty Good Not Bad’s inaugural edition nears, Michael Red shares his PGNB2016 performance and unpacks some of the mystery surrounding his art.

One of the key goals of Pretty Good Not Bad is to provide artists and audiences novel and unique spaces to present and experience artistic performances. In our first year, one of the marquee events was a performance by Michael Red as Souns in Crag X, a state-of-the-art indoor climbing gym in the heart of downtown Victoria. Accompanied by visuals from multi-media artists Emp Interactions, he presented a live performance of ambient electronica in the 3-storey high cavern of the gym, folding the space and natural reverb of the room into his sonic palette. The audience was invited to lie down on the soft padded floor and soak in the performance as the space was brought to life through immense, abstract imagery which slowly shifted and morphed in response to the music.

The Artist

photo — Melissa Hankinson

Michael Red is a fixture of the West Coast electronic and experimental music scenes. He has performed around the world, released work with dozens of imprints, and is an active organizer in the music community. He is a founding member of the Lighta! Collective, a group of producers, DJs, and promoters responsible for making Vancouver and the surrounding region a destination on the global bass music map. He is a curator for New Forms Festival, and head of the Low Indigo label.

As Souns, Michael has released numerous ambient music works on Panospria, New Kanada, Deep Sea Mining Syndicate, Subtempo, Kikapu, Sensing Waves. He’s performed solo at Ambient Ping, Vancouver Art Gallery, VNM Festival, Pretty Good Not Bad, Signal & Noise Festival, and has collaborated live with a varied list of performers including Loscil, Tanya Tagaq, Gabriel Saloman, Rachel Iwaasa, and Mei Han. Themes common to Souns music are sounds and resonances of the natural world, the unseen world, outer space, and transcendence. Performances are largely intuitive and improvised, sometimes guided.

Michael recorded his PGNB2016 Souns performance and has graciously decided to share the recording and some thoughts below.


You have a lot of different sides to your work. What makes something a Souns piece, rather than a Michael Red piece?

i’ve always made a wide variety of music. i can’t help it. i think i started souns simply to start to differentiate between dancefloor material and sit down stuff, which felt very right and natural once i had committed. it also help me focus intentions a little bit better, and kind of justified some of my more abstract material too. that was around the turn of the century, when i started using that name. initially the difference was murky in areas, but over the years it became clearer the difference between souns material and stuff under my name. one test is if i can see the work on the dancefloor, however abstract that dancefloor may be — than it’s not souns. if i can see the music being appropriate for a contemplative seated concert — it’s likely souns. typically there are no “drums” in souns material, though there might be a detectable pulse. it’s more of an accumulative thing too — the more music i have out there under the two different names — the more each context is defined. also, intentions that exist in metaphysical realms and exposed process-based methods are more likely to be a souns context.

another way to define it is: sound art is souns, and sound art + beats or just beats is michael red.

photo — Melissa Hankinson

Can you give us a brief history of the Souns project, when & why you started it, highlights, etc.

the question of “why” is interesting because in more recent years i’ve introduced the idea of making music that i would choose to listen to myself, within the scope of my every day listening habits. presently,when i choose to listen to ambient music it’s to relax, more and more. so, when using that intention, i have made a lot of souns material to help myself relax and unwind. and i also feel that’s relevant and a desire in other people too.

but probably a better answer to “why” is out of a need to process my own thoughts and emotions, to work myself into a freely creative state, or to escape from the outside world. a lot of souns material is born out of writing music without intention, just freely playing or experimenting. it’s happened many times that i write a quick souns piece as a warm up to a more daunting complicated work that i’m having trouble getting into the zone for.

“souns is born of a need to process my own thoughts and emotions, to work myself into a freely creative state, or to escape from the outside world.”

hmmm, as for highlights... the first memory that comes to mind is a fully improvised set at the vancouver art gallery for fuse that i felt genuinely free and lost in. i might visit the memory of that feeling the most, these days at least. that set felt simple and perfect to me, highly emotional, and i felt really showed “me” and my expression — which is something i’m always shooting for but rarely fully achieve. the fact that i had a full house, all silent and paying attention, and that i had enough patience to slowly unfilter one single sound over the course of two minutes and everyone was with me on that .. it felt like a dream. it was also a dimly lit rooftop with a warm night breeze happening — that helped too, heh. very dreamy.

When you’re performing live as Souns are you exploring a sonic space? invoking/evoking a mood? or something different entirely?

interesting question. interesting because this is often something i think about, but i don’t think i knew that until you asked. i think about how strongly i desire the audience to fully understand all my intentions, all that i am doing, and how i’m feeling and all that i am aware of in those moments — and how this virtually impossible. it’s a very strong desire. and that’s not to say that i don’t think some people are getting the subtle or complex things that are happening sonicly, i know some do, i guess i have yearning for people to understand my wholer experience and what’s going on inside. i also feel like the measure of a good performance is coming closer to that complete communication, when i can more successfully communicate what’s going on internally.

on the flipside, sometimes i actually enjoy the fact that i have secrets. like, i sourced this sound from a terrible pop song and no one knows, or no one knows that i could easily drop a hilariously inappropriate sound in the middle of this deep meditative moment right now. i laugh inside often at the potential of totally derailing a set, and sometimes i actually musically respond to that notion or flirt with potential disaster by playing with unpredictable sounds or parameters. i regularly take risks when i’m playing, and enjoying responding to surprises or making “mistakes” make sense over time.

“i enjoy the fact that i have secrets… like, i sourced this sound from a terrible pop song and no one knows… or no one knows that i could easily drop a hilariously inappropriate sound in the middle of this deep meditative moment right now.”

one thing that is unavoidable is that i will feel the room and the audience and i will respond to what i feel is needed most. sometimes i walk in wanting to be really really gentle, but i interpret a need from the audience to be thrown around a little — and i typically favour what i feel the audience desires over my own personal desires. i’ll have my own little indulgences, to keep myself happy and fulfilled, but mostly i view myself as “in service” to the audience. i can get very turned off very quickly at artists who get in stage to work out their personal darkness by barfing their pain or loneliness onto the audience or wanking off on stage or what ever else. i often feel a sort of responsibility to do the opposite, just because i have that awareness, but also because i find it fulfilling. and if i can fulfil myself while fulfilling others — that seems a winning formula to me.

photo — Melissa Hankinson

You’ve done a lot of collaborative live work as Souns — what are you seeking when you work with other artists in this setting?

i’m always seeking to be challenged, to be inspired and to explore new sounds and methods. i love to learn and i love to be surprised. all that comes through in collaboration. collaborating can be so intimate, and i enjoy getting to know people and their ideas on that deeper level, that non-verbal level. i’ve worked with a lot of people from different musical traditions from around the world. sometimes i feel like i’m travelling a bit through that work. it’s just fun and exciting, and it can also feel very validating and encouraging to be musically understood by others. it feels particularly amazing to be met with someone else who really listens and responds. listening is crucial, especially when it comes to improv, and it can be heartbreaking when people don’t. so when people do, when there’s a real back-and-forth conversation — it can feel euphoric, and be very musically rewarding.

How do the live performances in Souns relate to Souns recordings?

obviously both live in the same sonic space and share the same source materials. it could be more relevant to talk about what makes them different. when i’m playing live, like i said, i respond and interact with the room, so there’s more people and energy that is participating in the work. and realistically, i don’t always have the same patience in front of an audience as i do when i’m creating songs by myself. so add those two together and it’s probably true that the live performances are more dynamic on average. i also think of the overall arc of the set and facilitating some sort of journey that is more colourful and diverse than a recording that might have very fixed singular intentions.

What was the experience of working in the Crag X space like for you as an artist?

loved it. truly. i felt a freedom that is honestly rare in performance scenarios. everything was taken care of technically and the space was truly impressive and i felt like the audience was very excited and into the concept of the night — getting completely comfortable and lost in some weirdo ambient music. there was a huge feeling of enthusiasm, an enthusiasm to explore the unknown and hear new things, which was a real joy to engage with. i thoroughly enjoyed magneticring’s performance too. i was very mediative and trancey — which was the perfect set up to go really far with what i did.

photo — melissa hankinson

What are your thoughts on performing in immersive A/V environments, & how do you think it changes the experience?

i love it. i dream and think about it often. it’s ideal. fuller immersion creates more of a likelihood for a richer experience — and that’s what it’s all about. with immersive environments there’s less of a chance of the audience being distracted by mundane thoughts and more opportunity to be taken away with the experience at hand.

How would you describe this set and have you got any ‘serving suggestions’ for people listening to this set?

huh, i kinda don’t know how to describe my set. i might be too close to it, and it’s also made to be open to interpretation. i can say it’s “real me” and authentic. it’s a journey. it also might be important to note that this was recorded off the main board and un-edited, so this was actually how it happened and how it sounded. and even though it technically couldn’t be there — i feel like the vibe of the room is embedded in the recording too. as far as ‘serving suggestions’ go, i would say ideally, make sure you actually have the time to take in the whole set, that your mind is quiet enough for that, and make sure your comfortable and feeling open. in stereo and perhaps in the dark. ..but, as you will and as you do.

What do you have planned for Souns? Releases/performances/collab etc? What are you excited about, artistically, related to this project?

this year i think has potential to be a big year for the project. a lot of slower moving cycles have completed themselves and things are very “ripe” right now in a lot of ways. i have many releases coming out this year, all of which i’m proud of and have a feeling will reach an expanded audience. there’s two releases with new kanada, two with subtempo, at least one with panospria, and another release with deep sea mining syndicate. there’s a good chance that more will be more to add to that list soon too.

this is the year where i actually reach “zero point” with the project and start releasing music i’ve made within the same year of creating it. for a long time i’ve been playing catch up with organizing releases of older work, still work i believe in of course, but older none the less. i really can’t wait to get out what i’m actually up to now now, and that wave is finally starting to break.

the next souns performance is in toronto at a very cool gallery space, pushmi pullyu, that my friend sergio levels helps to run. i’m feeling a vibe for that already. ..and as far as collabs — time will tell. there are lots of potentials floating around. i’m interested to see where those all land too.

PGNB will be returning to Crag X May 19, with musical performances by Sarah Davachi and Slope accompanied with multimedia and visual mapping provided by Ikigai. Details here, tickets available here.