Maxwell Sterling is a composer and double bass player whose musical style has been defined as “modern classical”, as it fuses aspects of classical music with jazz and electronic experimental music. Sterling’s soundscapes stand out for their narrative depth and enigmatic effect. Forest walks and car rides become a psychedelic trip to slowly bury you in oxytocin.
Originally from Manchester, he graduated from Leeds College of Music and moved to Los Angeles to study at UCLA. During his 5 years in Los Angeles, Sterling has worked on film, TV, dance and multimedia soundtracks. Today he lives in London and has released three albums that have not left international critics indifferent: Medieval Hollywood (Memory No. 36 Recordings, 2016); Laced With Rumour: Loud-Speaker Of Truth (Ecstatic, 2020) and the album Turn Of Phrase (AD 93, 2021) where he collaborates with Trip Hop pioneer Leslie Winer.
On January 14, Sterling presented his new collaboration with singer Martha Skye Murphy, Distance On Ground. The 20-minute record is split into two pieces, “86 km” and “93.3 km”. Both tracks collage Sterling’s double bass and dreamlike Murphy’s soprano voice with a variety of subtle tones and textures that entice the listener to an astral journey.
The artists focused on the concept of travel for this project, which is accompanied by a web page where the public can travel through rural and urban landscapes while listening to the album. Both tracks were edited from live sessions that lasted several hours and have a deeply hypnotic effect.
In this interview we talk about this release, previous projects plus musical and social-political perspectives.
On Martha Skye Murphyˈs collaboration:
1. How did you meet Martha Skye Murphy and how did the collaboration take place?
Martha and I were introduced through Warp publishing in 2020. We met during one of the first lockdowns and I acutely remember how good it was to make music with someone in the same room, in real-time again. Covid 19 has tested the limitations of remote working and virtual collaborations but has yet to live up to the visceral experience of being in the same room as someone, being able to bounce off the same ideas, reacting to the physicality of spaces and energy.
2. Both tracks seem to be thought to create a hypnotic state in the listener. Was this an intention you talked about before producing them or was an organic result from jamming together?
Both tracks were edits of much longer sessions that lasted several hours. We found ourselves entering into trance like states during the improvisations, partly being due to the nature and tonality of the music we both gravitate towards and partially to do with the equipment and machinery we use. By taking acoustic and organic textures and altering them electronically, we are able to exploit, repeat or alter a moment that could be lost forever if it was purely acoustic.
3. I once read that ambient music “make you feel as though you’re in two places at once. That’s one reason why ambient music is so widely used in video games: it gives you the sense that there might be an alternate way of inhabiting the place and time where you are located”. What´s your relationship with ambient music and your intention with this new release?
I both love ambient music and also loathe the title- as it has become a catch all name for many types of music. I feel more driven to define my/our sound as Narrative music. A music that is driven by some storyline, either disclosed or undisclosed to the listener explicitly. I love your quote of being in two places at once- this notion I feel is very apt with that of narrative music too- the listener can fuse their own being or place with that of which they are listening to or being subjected to.
4. Both tracks have a range of, what it seems, real life noises and sounds. Does their inclusion have a symbolic meaning?
We were quite keen on not editing out sounds that bled into the microphones present in the room. On the one hand, this helps retain an impromptu and not overly polished finish. More importantly however, these diegetic sounds become a signifier to the listener of the reverberations of the space feeling ‘real’ or relatable to- something which ambient music often tries to disguise. Guitar pedal clicks and vocal muttering also offer a nice variety of transients in the music, which aren’t heard from any other sound source.
5. The two melodies are surprisingly expansive while not feeling long at all. They seem to represent that liminal space between dreaming and waking, and while Skye Murphy´s voice is peaceful and weightless, I can’t avoid having this feeling of deep nostalgia and almost sadness. Is that intended or is it just me? Do they have a meaning for you?
We didn’t set out to create music with a particular mood or feeling, but I think the two of us are drawn to certain tonalities and timbres. That’s why I love collaborating musically- you’re able to non verbally converse and see where your similarities and differences lie.
On Turn of Phrase:
6. As a non native English speaker the term “turn of phrase” was new to me. Why did you choose this title?
Titles are very important to me and for this record I wrestled with several for some time. I stuck with turn of phrase as it felt malleable and open to interpretation. ‘Phrase’ is used as a term in classical music and I liked that connotation with an art form that record flirts and pushes against.
7. In the first song of the album, “Eris”, we can listen to a gregorian chant that breaks and gets distorted to the point where we can’t be sure what sounds are organic and which are only synthetic. I love that, and I think it is because I feel it is a truthful example of where we are heading in regards to the history of humanity; a point in time where artificial reality has the same importance as reality itself and where past, present and future seem to merge together. Were you trying to express that?
I love that description and observation! Yes, on the one hand that is totally what I was trying to express. On the other hand and in more stylistic terms, I am drawn to this (made up) musical Venn diagram between: Gregorian chant, grunge, modal jazz and minimalism- with the common denominator being the musical interval of parallel 5ths which have this bare quality that is both strident yet strong, open and timeless.
8. I have this theory that links your song, “Decay Time”, with many of the projects that were presented at MIRA festival (2021, Barcelona) where I last saw you performing. I felt that some artists at MIRA, like nara is neus or James Ferraro; played with the idea of a technological future where society falls into decay and has to reinvent itself. “Decay Time”, despite its title, feels like a very hopeful melody. So, it makes me think that, some people, knowing that our lifestyle is unsustainable, see in the process or decay or even destruction the hope of a better future. Do you share that feeling?
Yes, I wanted there to be an optimism in this track and more importantly at this point in the narrative arc of the album as a whole. Without decay and disintegration we cannot grow and learn and that was a driving thought behind the whole record. I like the idea that as something decays, it becomes more granular and small, therefore more easily able to merge with other (perhaps older) matter. This anachronistic mixing is something that I tried to sonify throughout.
9. Turn of Phrase’s incredible ninth track, “Tenderness”, is a collaboration with Leslie Winer. Winer strikes me as an intriguing figure and I don’t think her musical contributions have garnered the attention they should. How do you know each other and how does this collaboration take place?
Leslie and I have never met in person. This adds to our special collaborative relationship. It was the fashion designer Christopher Shannon who originally introduced us- he acts as a producer to our collaborations. We have a 7 inch single coming out on Light In The Attic this spring- it’s something very dear to my heart.
10. I really like how the different sounds start and move from one angle to another, (if you are using the headphones); sometimes very intensively and it creates this adrenaline rush. I´m not saying this is just due to how it is recorded but it definitely helps. I assume it is not 8D or is it?
Spatialisation is very important to me in terms of a compositional technique as opposed to just a production technique. On this record, often the panning becomes so fast that it moves into audio rate, that is to say that another note is heard rather than just movement. I liked this additive process and feel it is a way to colour sound and rhythm in a way that is more psychoacoustic.
11. What does the title “2nd Person Chamber Music” come from and how did you create the alien sounds that end that song?
The alien sounds came from a hydraphone microphone I was experimenting with in the sea at Morecambe bay. The sound is then processed through various vocoders to give it a weirdly vocal quality. The title was a kind of play on words and how a music could be intended for different situations, people and how it is experienced. I often have to contrasting columns of words that I draw from to make new titles.
12. The songs of Turn of Phrase seem to have a very narrative nature even though they are only instrumental. For example, “Speaking in the Tongues of Angels”; reminded me of the story in the book “The Memory of Earth”(1992) by Orson Scott Card. In this story there is an artificial intelligence, which is also referred to as a “guardian angel”, monitoring the planet to protect humanity. The technological sounds and the reference to angels remind me of this idea. I was wondering if, when you compose a song, you use culture references to apply a meaning to it. If so, do you have any examples?
This particular song was born out of my fascination with a bunch of TV news reports about people speaking in tongues, or speaking in the tongues or angels. There’s an absurdity to it but also a beauty, when the voice transcends language and becomes this weird and nuanced instrument that supposedly can communicate with a god. So lots of the found audio comes from that, then I built various scenes and scene changes, musically speaking that offer a support to what is is said or heard.
13. Something that I thought while listening to your music and I haven’t thought of it before, is that, the way in which the different instruments and sounds participate in the composition, feels like they were dialoguing between one another instead of participating in one melody together. To me, “Rage Aria” could be an extraterrestial, beautiful conversation. What allegories do you find in your own songs?
Thats very true- I often think of each discrete melody as a word in a sentence, responding and reacting to another one. I think part of the reason why it took me so long to write this record is that each layer informs the next and therefore the sonic tapestry becomes quite dense yet hard to unpick. Allegorically speaking I’m not so much drawn to literal stories but more that of narrative arcs, drops and what I call scene changes. This whole record deals with time and how it can be refracted and played with, that in itself is a parable I like to explore constantly.
On past projects and life in general:
14. What was more enriching for you, your time in Leeds or in UCLA?
Both cities left their mark on me. In Leeds I was studying jazz and in LA, film music. Jazz music focuses on the immediate and what happens in the moment, whereas film music is much more of a manipulation of the moment as well as emotions. I like to think that both of these disciplines are present in my music, as are the two geographical locations.
15. Your work is closely linked to the visual and cinematographic world. Is this something that you knew you were interested in from the beginning or did it just come about that way?
Ive always been interested in storytelling and as a child I spent a lot of time drawing as opposed to making music. It wasn’t until I got hold of MTV music generator II on PlayStation that I began to fall in love with making music. I think in quite visual terms when creating music and quite enjoy having to speak in metaphors when collaborating with visual artists- you have to create your own language together.
16. I’m going to say something that may be controversial. I believe that a society that does not have universal healthcare is a deeply miserable society. How does a European experience this reality in Los Angeles?
Yes, I totally agree with that, universal healthcare is something we mustn’t take for granted in Europe. I was fortunate enough to have Obamacare whilst I lived in LA which was much more affordable than most insurance, but it is not the end solution. A European cannot ever fully relax in the USA knowing that you don’t have full insurance, I know many friends who have had to leave the country due to these issues.
17. I lived in Los Angeles for just one summer and I consider it to be a city where extremes meet closely. I remember going to see a room to rent in a flat and I ended up in a crack den where the “room for rent” was the kitchen floor; and yet, a few miles away, you are in Beverly Hills. Are these extremes a motivator for your creativity, or are you more productive in a calmer environment?
Environment is very important for my creative process, I found LA to be a big inspiration in that regard, part of that was to do with being an alien there, and having all these new experiences. Geography is usually at the centre of a composition for me, from the collaboration with Martha Skye Murphy through to my debut Hollywood Medieval. I feel that each locale has a tonality and rhythm that can be uncovered.
18. What upcoming projects are you working on?
I have several projects on the go which sadly can’t be shared publicly at this point- from film work, to producing a record for one of my idols. What I can share is that I will be finishing my 4th LP this year as well as collaborating with visual artist Stephen McLaughlin, musician Kenichi Iwasa and Death in Vegas.
Teresa Ferreiro traballa en dirección e xestión cultural e xestión de medios. É escritora e editora en Ruido de Fondo. Doutora en Belas Artes e Estudios de Xénero (Universidade de Vigo) e é artista de cómic, ilustradora e DJ.
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