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Interview with Phillip Wilkerson

img  Tobias Fischer

What was your background before you began composing?
As a child, I had some rudimentary piano training from my great-grandmother, but I really started writing music at age 15, creating simple 3-chord tunes on the piano. I also taught myself to play guitar, because it was portable, and wrote a few songs and even recorded them into an old 8-track system we had. I learned chords and progressions and how to put a basic song together, but never saw myself in a music career. Recording was just something to do for fun. In my late 20s, in addition to the guitar, I bought a second-hand Roland electric piano and hooked it up to a Korg sound module. That was about the time New Age music was just coming into vogue (late 80s) and I began to experiment with playing similar music. I just didn’t have a way to record at that time, but the seed was planted: Between 1993 and 2003, events in my personal life derailed my music until 2004 or so. But thanks to my career in software, I had extensive experience with home computers. In 2005, I bought a simple Yamaha keyboard that had a USB midi interface and someone suggested recording and sequencing software to me and I discovered VSTs. A whole new world of creativity opened up for me, once I was able to play and record virtual instruments on multiple tracks. And that is when I consider my serious „composing“ to have begun.

Almost all of your music seems to be founded on rich harmonies. Is this in some form related to the musical education you just described?

Harmony has been at the core of my musical life from birth, so yes, harmony is almost always the starting place for me. I grew up immersed in a capella church music: African American spirituals and hymns, written out as shaped notes, specifically to be sung in four part harmony. My grandmother also played church music at home, on her Lowrey organ, reading the shaped notes from the hymnal and playing all four parts. In addition to hosting singing parties in our home—several families getting together to sing and harmonize from the hymnal—my parents listened to secular artists like Mantovani, Carpenters, The Lettermen—artists known for their rich harmonies. Naturally, when I started buying records as a teenager, I was drawn to groups like Yes, The Eagles, The Beatles, CSNY—primarily because of their emphasis on harmony.

You still include a lot of acoustic instruments in your pieces today ...

I just love the sound of acoustic guitars and pianos. For me the main advantage of playing a real guitar or bass is greater control over the instrument to elicit warmth, softness, and emotion. Of course, actually playing a guitar obviously allows me to continue expanding my skills and technique. Plus, it’s just great fun to play and record real instruments. With the bass guitar, for example, I can stand up and play, feel the music a bit differently, and enjoy the physiological pleasure of playing the instrument. Aside from the obvious keyboard-based VSTs, virtual instruments, to me at least, just don’t provide that same physical playing experience.

Your biography mentions that there was „a lot of experimentation“ before you started releasing your material.
I spent many years experimenting with the Korg module and also experimenting with the guitar—various tunings and creating my own tunings. I just wasn’t recording anything. When I started in 2005, I was experimenting with every VST I could find or download. It was mostly a form of creative exploration, but I was also recording everything I was doing. Then I would experiment with different layerings of the recordings, various types of effects, mixing different voices, patches, sequences, etc. That’s what I mean by experimentation—creative exploration. Out of all that recorded experimentation and exploration, finished tracks began emerging.

I listened to the material on „Early Works“ and must say that it holds up to scrutiny when compare to, say, the early Drift-EPs. How do you rate these pieces yourself with some hindsight?
The tracks on „Early Works“ are the most popular tracks in terms of listeners I had released as Collection I and II at Each Collection had about 30 tracks in it, written between late 2006 and during 2007. Most of the tracks in those collections are inferior and poorly recorded. However, the „drift“ tracks are actually my earliest finished pieces and came directly out of that initial experimentation in 2005 and early 2006. Cold Moon Drift and Evening Drift remain among my favorites and my listeners. With those early experiments, I was doing some things correctly, musically, that got lost for a while. At present, I am circling back to that initial style of work, which you can hear on current releases like daybook [bfw034] and Sun Tracer [earman113]. My music is still created primarily through experimentation, only now I know much  more about sequencing and getting a higher quality recording than I did in 2005.

Was part of the appeal of co-operating with netlabels that you could try out different things and receive a very direct feedback?
Yes, that was part of it. But, the primary reason I wanted to work with netlabels was for the comraderie of interacting with other musicians, the exchange of information and recording techniques, and gaining insights into the processes they were using to get their results. I quickly discovered people who were willing to help me directly, either by mastering my tracks or suggesting ways I could improve my tracks. My most successful netlabel releases are the ones where people like Mark Stolk, Darrell Burgan, Christian Roth, or Zhang JW either contributed directly to my process or helped me to improve the overall quality of the release in some tangible way. And I have to say that I think my collaborative work is much better than my solo work.

Despite your digital output, you have also published three CDs. What differentiates a physical release from a digital one from your point of view?

When I released Amorphous Worlds (2007) on CD, I was only vaguely aware of netlabels and of course, none of them had never heard of me. I didn’t know how to go about putting together a release except as a CD. So that’s how AW came into reality as a CD. Of course, no one had ever heard of me as an artist either, so the CD didn’t sell very well. As I gradually became more aware of netlabels and their importance, I did see them as a channel for gaining an audience, but realized they could better serve as a venue for trying out different genres of music—to stretch myself and discover myself as an artist. Subsequently, I went through a period where I was creating highly experimental releases that I knew would only ever find an audience at a netlabel, but I was happy to be experimenting and exploring, finding my way, and learning from others. Since I am currently an independent artist, my CD releases help put my music into mass distribution channels like CDBaby, Amazon, iTunes, and eMusic. CDs serve as promos to radio stations and radio shows, give-aways, and other physical-media channels where I want or need to put something tangible into another person’s hands. With Stillpoint [earman047], I released it on CD as a way to help promote the Earth Mantra netlabel, so it became win-win. I’ll do the same with Sun Tracer [earman113]. My CD releases are limited to my ambient work, which I feel is my best.

One immediately captivating aspect of your work is the division into different „series“. How did the idea present itself?
At some point during 2008 I realized that people were looking at my list of releases and didn’t have a clue what they might actually hear in a particular release. Was it noise? Was it experimental? Was it ambient? Was it drone? In order to help listeners find the genre of mine they wanted, I created the categories.

What, to you, are the main differences between the Ambient and the Drone series, two styles usually closely associated with each other?

Length. I consider the material in my Ambient Series to be the absolute best of my efforts. Those releases tend to be „traditional“ in the sense of offering a set of tracks, with each track usually anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes in length. Conversely, the material in my Drone Series is typically long-form - for example each Constant is an hour and yes, their genre, technically speaking, is ambient or dark ambient or abstract ambient.

One of your series is called „Complex Silence“ - how are sound and silence connected would you say?
The Complex Silence series, as I originally conceived it, is a play on words. „Complex“ signifies that musically, it is either abstract or enigmatic, but still beautiful. „Silence“ signifies that it can function as classical ambient music—in the background. Traditionally, abstract and enigmatic music tends to do just the opposite: call attention to itself. It demands to be heard.  But I wondered, what if you apply abstract and enigmatic to the ambient genre? Can abstract and enigmatic function as background as well? If you start paying attention to it, that is, calling it out of the silence of your inattention, you find it to be musically complex, rich, and satisfying. Or you can simply let it exist in the background, adding a layer of interest and beauty to the overall ambient sounds within your environment. The Complex Silence series is an open-call to musicians who want to try their hand at creating music within these basic guidelines.

You also have a series of „experimental“ releases. Do these act as a sort of „lab“, where you can test some ideas before implementing them elsewhere?
Exactly. Understanding that my workflow process is primarily experimentation-based, the experimental work naturally informs the ambient work. I sit down and start playing and recording without any intent other than to experiment, but along the way, I usually discover some new aspect of the VST I happen to be using, or the analog synth, or a randomized patch that can be used to enhance or further my ambient efforts. As an artist, I’ve realized my path is ambient music, so there will be less experimental music released officially or through netlabels. I’ve thought seriously about making that material available through Gigatribe or Soundcloud, offered up for collaboration or remixing.

From my point of view, your work has grown more minimal and yet more effective and emotive at the same time, with „Midland“ a particular favourite of mine. What, to you, are important challenges for you as a composer?

The most important challenge for me is keep the music both interesting and inspiring. I am focusing more and more on ways to remain minimal, yet still hold interest without pushing too far beyond the purpose and intent of classical ambient music. I never want to layer up my music with several parts and tracks and instruments just for the sake of holding interest. I want the fact that it is minimal and interesting to be the hallmark of my work. I also hope that my music inspires other ambient musicians and artists in the fine arts, the way I have been inspired by listening to influential ambient artists. I think that is one of the highest purposes for music—not just to passively entertain or serve as background atmosphere, but to actively inspire creativity in others. I have painters and photographers who write to me and say that they listen to my music while creating their art. That’s the ultimate compliment for me.

Ambient and Drones are often seen as a form escapism. What do they mean to you?

When I started composing ambient music in 2005, I had been listening exclusively to ambient music for about 3 years, mostly Liquid Mind, Jonn Serrie, and Brian Eno. It was a very peaceful time in my life and the music I was creating was born out of that peacefulness. That’s still what I am trying to express most—peacefulness. Of course, I’ve wandered away from that at times, but it’s always what I come home to when I get into the mode of creating ambient music.

By Tobias Fischer

Interview originally published in "Beat" magazine.

Phillip Wilkerson Discography:

Cathedral Drift (Amorphos Music) 2006
Cirrus Drift (Amorphos Music) 2006
Cold Moon Drift (Amorphos Music) 2006
Eris Drift (Amorphos Music) 2006
Evening Drift (Amorphos Music) 2006
Fantasy Drift (Amorphos Music) 2006
Galactic Drift (Amorphos Music) 2006
Across An Imaginary Sky (Amorphos Music) 2007
Amorphous Worlds (Amorphos Music) 2007
Constant 14 (Treetrunk) 2007
Hymns To The Wind (Amorphos Music) 2007
Seven Piano Improvisations (Amorphos Music) 2007
The Dream Beneath (Amorphos Music) 2007
Vigil (Amorphos Music) 2007
Warm Air (Self-released) 2007
Blue Falling Light (Amorphos Music) 2008
Foregone Conclusion (Just Not Normal) 2008
Microlinear (Clinical Archives) 2008
New Smyrna (Clinical Archives) 2008
Starjournal (Clinical Archives) 2008
Still Point (Earth Mantra) 2008
Transience (Earth Mantra) 2008
Early Works (Self-released) 2009
Constant 23 (Treetrunk Records) 2009
Ege Denizi (Earth Mantra) 2009
Incidents In Spring EP (Bypass Netlabel) 2009
Midland (Resting Bell) 2009
Penumbra (Just Not Normal) 2009
Secret (Clinical Archives) 2009
Williams Park (Bypass Netlabel) 2009
Interplay (Self-released) 2010
Collected Works (Self-released) 2010
Sun Tracer (Earth Mantra) 2010

Phillip Wilkerson

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