054 - Soda Lite

This week I’m delighted to present a mix from the Dutch born, Melbourne resident, Alex Last, or as he’s better known, Soda Lite. A youth worker by day Alex splits his free time creating, and listening to, ambient music, whilst also trying to pursue a life spent outdoors. His proclivity towards being in nature comes as little surprise after spending some time with his music. Both ‘In Eco’, his debut, and ‘Rêveries in terra lerpa’, his sophomore LP, are filled with bird calls, wind chimes, animal vocalisations and running rivers. It’s beautiful, primal, natural music.

This connection and appreciation for nature isn’t just talk either, Alex has studied permaculture and intends to set up his own sustainable farm one day. All proceeds from his latest release have been donated to an animal rescue shelter in Perth, where Alex grew up, and, when he’s not Kayaking or hiking, he’s bird watching. There’s a very clear intent to feed the organic rhythms of nature into his sonic output, and whilst some ‘new age ambient’ music can feel trite and inauthentic, both Alex’s art and actions speak volumes to his desire to find connection with the wild. (Be sure to check out his fascinating and detailed response to my question about bird song and music in the interview below).

His selections here focus in on two of his favourite types of instrumentation, harps and flutes, both of which he feels capture the delicate fluidity of the natural world. It’s little wonder the mix plays out like a soundtrack to an episode of BBC’s Planet Earth, at times drifting majestically like a hawk in the mountains, before returning to the scurrying, kinetic energy of the forest floor. It’s these beautiful natural sounds that form the base from which the music is built around, a beautifully detailed buzz that forms the soil from which the layers of instrumentation sprout up from. A gentle reminder of the sublime sonic textures that Mother Earth has created to soundtrack life’s fragile existence.

I spoke to Alex about sustainable farming, bird song and his plans for 2018.  You can read the full interview beneath the artwork.

Hey Alex thanks so much for your mix, I really enjoyed it. In our previous exchanges you mentioned Debussy was your favourite composer and you began your mix with a track of his. Can you talk about what makes his work so special to you?
I feel he has a very colourful, unrestrained and fluid compositional style. His clear reverence for the natural world, his delicate orchestration and his focus on the character and tone of sound – all of these are things I empathise with and strive for. I love the meandering, swelling, lilting, pouring and growing motions of the music, and the sheer joyfulness of it.

You mentioned the mix focuses heavily on two instruments, the harp and the flute - tell me a bit about what you find so special about these instruments?
I feel they both really capture the fluidity, the ebb-and-flow and the meditative calm inherent to aspects of the organic world. They were very important in Debussy's work for this reason, I think. I find some real magic in his compositions when cleared down to just harp and woodwind (link) I love the playfulness of the flute (and most woodwinds), the way they can dance, screech and sing. I love the harp for its hypnotic, eternal qualities too... if the Alice Coltrane piece I included was 100 hours long, I'm not sure I would tire of it...

You use a lot of natural sounds in your own music - are these your own field recordings?Most of them are, and sometimes they are drawn from found sound libraries. It depends on what I am looking for – the acoustic memory of a real place, or something that might evoke the memory of a place I have experienced? Often these overlap, with recordings I have made merging with ones I have found.

I’m pretty obsessed with bird calls, which are prominent in this mix and in your own productions - I’m not sure whether my own enjoyment of them comes from the context in which it then places the surrounding music, the ability to transport the listener into a natural environment or some basic sonic pleasure. I’m interested in why you chose to incorporate bird song, and other animal calls, in your music?
When I include bird recordings in my music, its generally as the starting point. Its the environment into which the first tone or instrument carefully enters. The field recording might act as a sort of ground upon which everything else gently rests, like leaf litter building up on a forest floor. Sometimes the recording might inspire an actual dialogue, e.g. in 'Terra Polymorpha' (from my most recent album) the song evolved from my own responses (via a MIDI-flute) to the surrounding birds (magpies and superb fairy-wrens, mostly) and then morphed into a kind of dawn chorus.

I'm deeply obsessed with bird calls, and with all the details of avian communication. I think it begins and ends with basic sonic pleasure – birds can be incredibly melodious and harmonic, as well as genuinely creative. Hollis Taylor is a zoömusicologist who has done some incredibly detailed studies of the pied butcherbird. She records their improvisations and then transcribes them into sheet music which can be analysed on different levels. In one study she found that there are massive inter-individual differences in the repertoires of mature birds, made possibly by an incredible level of inventiveness. One bird executes 1,123 different phrases within its 3 hour (!) song and uses recurring motifs as a kind of glue (or signature?) around which to improvise novel ideas. Once transcribed, their songs can also be performed by expert musicians, e.g. Genevieve Lacey, included on this mix, is an Australian recorder virtuoso who collaborated directly with Hollis Taylor on a series of works based directly on pied butcherbird song.

Beyond the sheer musicality of bird calls, I'm interested in the actual communicative aspect, i.e. birds exchanging meaningful units of information via their calls. A study on chestnut-crowned babblers found they can re-arrange meaningless acoustic utterances (akin to phonemes) to create meaningful vocalisations. In a study on magpies in New Zealand in the 80s, a group of researchers recorded 100 hours of sound from 8 different groups of magpies and, through a fine-grained acoustic analysis, identified 893 unique 'syllables' being used. Considering there are only 44 phonemes in the English language which we use to build our entire communicative world, and considering the diversity of sounds many avian species are capable of producing, it doesn't seem unlikely that many bird species have a rich and meaningful vocabulary.

Also, we shouldn't forget that, like humans, birds might have other ways to convey meaning, i.e. through body language, odour, or other unique means. Something else we should consider is the notion of time in bird communication – for example, budgerigars are able to discern tiny temporal variations in their calls which are completely indistinguishable to human ears. This is why I included the 'Superb Fairy-Wren (-IV)' track in the last album, which is basically the same call but pitched down seven times. As you stretch it out it transforms from a high-pitched 2-second burst of scrambled whistles to a diverse, precisely enunciated string of highly complicated phonetic/syllabic units.

That leads me to this thought - when does sound become music?
Well, a single sound on its own might not be music, but I think as soon as it becomes part of a larger environment of sounds from multiple sources, it can be. All you need is a listener, a mind that perceives 'musicality,' which is just a concept we invented. You can be walking down a street and perceive the whole scene (in which cars pass, hammers fall, birds call, humans speak) as a kind of composition, with rhythmic elements and melodic synchronicities.

Why is sustainable farming important to you? Do you think music, especially the physical production and distribution of music, is sustainable?
I think all human life on earth is basically dependent on the future of how we farm and feed ourselves. Current industrial methods of production are a short-term solution to feeding billions of people, but unfortunately the land itself can't endure these methods for much longer and eventually there will be no arable land or healthy soil left to grow anything at all. This is already happening across the world and leading to widespread famine. Additionally, the more we allow massive corporatised industries to control our food supply, the more power we relinquish. This is why food sovereignty is in my mind one of the most crucial contemporary issues in the fight against capitalism, patriarchy and colonialism, even though it is routinely ignored by most activists, critical theorists and artists. I encourage people to read more about the issue here (https://viacampesina.org/en)

As for the physical production of music (be it CD or vinyl) I mean it relies entirely on heavy industrial processes to exist. One of the best things about the digital format is its (relatively) low environmental impact. If we want a sustainable physical aspect to our music then we'll either need to come up with an entirely new manufacturing process, or at least try to offset/minimise the negative effects of the process, or we could just recycle old cassettes over and over until they disintegrate.

What have you got planned for 2018?
I have some singles coming out on a few compilations. I have another very soft ambient album (a kind of follow-up to 'In Eco') that is almost finished. I'm also working on something that might be a kind of experimental documentary or visual essay about Australian birds which I've been filming for the past year – not sure the form it will take yet. I'm also growing some kale and beetroot.

Can you recommend some music for us that we might have overlooked?
Anything released lately on Sounds of the Dawn, an amazing ambient/new age label. Also Lee Hannah's recent album 'Infinitely' which has a beautiful visual component, a gorgeous exploration of Australia’s mallee district.

01. Debussy - Syrinx
02. Joel Vandoogenbroeck - Plaine du Jura
03. Genevieve Lacey - A Midnight Dream of Summer (by Jason Yarde)
04. Iasos - Pan Musing
05. Argile - Kleine Rosa Wolke
06. Inner Travels - Sunsoak
07. Alice Coltrane - Harp Solo
08. Colin Offord - Helictites
09. Musicians of STSI Surakarta - Ketawang Langen Gita Srinarendra
10. David Naegele - Eternal Sanctuary
11. Leafy Suburbs - L’Hermitage
12. X.Y.R. - Rainforest

Words, images & interview by Jack Hardwicke.
Métron Records 2018. Hampshire, UK.