Una Mullally

Society, life and culture on the edge

RBMA #1: Stephen O’Malley on expanded minds and expanded sounds

Metal, doom, and drone ends up meaning much more than noise when Sunn O))) lays out its ideas and influences.

Mon, May 6, 2013, 20:39


The Red Bull Music Academy happening in New York right now brings new musicians from around the world into an academy for a term of lectures from some of the most innovative people in music, and studio time with brilliant producers and top gear. The common denominator amongst all of the lecturers is an unashamed intellectualism associated their work and processes. This isn’t about teaching people how to be popular or how to make loads of money, but how to be creative, how experimentation is key, how to make GOOD art, how they did it and how they continue to do it.

The academy is situated in lower Manhattan in the Meatpacking / Chelsea neighbourhood. During the day, lectures and studio sessions take place, and at night gigs happen elsewhere around the city. I can’t begin to quantify how much this costs Red Bull, and while the gigs are for a wider audience in that for some of them tickets are on sale to the public, the academy itself is closed off to those taking part and a small number of media who are accredited access to the building. Myself and Jim Carroll were brought over by Red Bull Ireland to check it out, and over the next week on the blog, I’ll distill some of the lectures and the ideas that emerged from them and the one-off gigs into a number of blog posts. Like this one you’re reading right now.

Stephen O’Malley begins his lecture at RBMA in a way that I’m sure there are PowerPoint presentations done in boardrooms saying how not to do something. He plays a 20 minute track off an upcoming collaborative album he has made with a Finnish musician. The track is dark, loaded with static, occasional heavy drums and screeching, contorted guitar noises, sweeping sounds that stretch into some kind of transmission from the future casting gloomy crescendos out into black holes and dead stars, until everything eventfully collapses in on itself beautifully, a quiet voice filling the space – both inner and outer. This ain’t no TED talk. At a time when those boardroom PowerPointers command that ideas need to be compressed and commodified in order to be digested, O’Malley is sitting quietly on a couch in a room with maybe 30 people listening in silence for 20 minutes. He says his songs tend to be quite long, but then adds that 20 minutes isn’t exactly long “it’s just a fraction of time.”

O’Malley founded Sunn O))) 15 years ago, named after the amplifier company (who have never sued), and has had a long career in experimental doom and drone music. He was a metal head in Seattle, starting a zine that allowed him to interview death metal and black metal musicians from Scandinavia and elsewhere, expanding the network of musicians he knew, mining their influences for an increasing number of musical references, new bands, new sounds, eventually veering into the experimental fringes of the genres and occasionally spilling over into electronic music.

This was pre-internet, and his musical taste was further expanded by tape trading internationally, selecting tapes from a list made by other fans, and trading them by post, one, two, three, four, five tapes a go. His taste was also dictated by the Swedish label Cold Meat Industries whose roster he absorbed. Post-zine he moved to New York, taking his interest in art and design to become a creative director in advertising. His design work later informed mastering work. He says that in order to be good at design, you have to detach yourself emotionally and conceptually from the subject or else you end up interpreting someone else’s abstract idea. In mastering, there’s a risk of getting too into it.

A lot of the output of Sunn O))) is about the vibe of its sound, not necessarily about songs in the traditional sense. I’ve always found it quite hard to approach, especially considering metal – O’Malley’s initial influence – has never been a genre I’ve responded to. But when collaborating on an experimental piece of theatre with Gisèle Vienne, O’Malley said one piece took him six months to really understand even after he had worked on it and after it had been performed. “Even if you don’t understand an artist’s work, you can still respect it,” he said. That viewpoint is a remarkably honest one. There are plenty of times when we observe art that we don’t actually get but appreciate that there’s something interesting going on.

That interest in sound that informs Sunn O))) continues in more of O’Malley’s theatre collaborations where he’s experimenting with spacialisation and creating acoustic sound fields. He’s also currently working with a Russian engineer who designs amplifiers as a way of coming up with amplification systems that will make it easy for Sunn O))) to tour countries and venues that don’t have the specialised PAs they need to sound as they intend to.

I asked O’Malley about the sense of repetition and expansion that looms large in Sunn O)))’s music and in his other projects. For me, John Cage’s influence (which I’ll come back to in another post as rather oddly he was probably the most referenced artist throughout the RBMA lecture series) in O’Malley’s music can be summed up by the Cageism, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” O’Malley said that he only really got into Cage about six years ago, even if his ideas were always in the ether, being referenced by others in the same way that Elvis is constantly referenced when people talk about rock and roll. But going back to that 20-minute track, its repetition creating something new throughout, the element of space expanding the notes and sounds, the space itself breathing throughout the track, the absence of sound creating something as interesting as the sound itself is utterly Cage, not just sonically, but in sentiment too.

You can now watch the lecture here.