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Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series
Hailing from Toronto, Canada, guitarist/composer Jamie Bonk has graciously agreed to become a contributing editor to NewAgeReporter.com. Jamie will be conducting a series of interviews entitled Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series. We look forward to his contributions for they are both insightful and offer a unique artist-to-artist perspective over the typical interview. We hope you enjoy them.
Other Conversations with Jamie: Artist-To-Artist Series:
A Conversation with Justin Elswick of Sleepthief, Oct. 2006
A Conversation with Ryan Farish, Sep. 2006
A Conversation With Chris Field, Jul. 2006
<<-later interviews | earlier interviews->>   <<- all interviews ->>
Jamie Bonk
A Conversation With Michael O'Connell
March 2007
Perhaps there is an artist out there who has lived life as fully and as complexly as composer/multi-instrumentalist Michael B. O'Connell, but Iím not aware of him or her. Growing up, Michael's mother worked as a singer and dancer in vaudeville and he was surrounded with music and musicians. His love of the drums, and more specifically Gene Krupa, started him on the road to the... seminary. Which ultimately makes sense when you get a bigger picture of Michael as an artist and as a person. Music and philosophy have been, and are, intimately combined in Michael's life and music.

After two years in the seminary, Michael left and, after pestering his Mom, got his first drum kit for Christmas. Wasting no time, Michael was in his first rock band within two weeks. Throughout his teen years and into his time at University of Notre Dame, he played in a number of rock and jazz groups and studied with some first-rate teachers, including drummer Alan Dawson. And this is where things really get interesting for me. A huge fan of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Michael interviewed John McLaughlin for his senior thesis at Notre Dame and, during that interview, was introduced the philosophy of Sri Chinmoy. A few years later, Michael came into contact with a student of Sri Chinmoy and as Michael says, "took the plunge into Eastern spirituality relinquishing my budding music career and following on that path for what turned out to be 31 years."

Still Michael was musical to his core and through the Sri Chinmoy group met Omar Mesa of Mandrill fame, and the saxophonist for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Premik Russell Tubbs. They formed a group called Jatra and played "big electric music". Eventually with the band focusing on a more Eastern sound, Michael sought out instruction for playing the tablas and began studying with Northern Indian style tabla master, Pandit Shashi Nayak. Then Michael took a six year break from music.

Of course, as with anyone who has music in their blood, Michael came back to music. He bought a new drum kit and a guitar and started studying music theory. After a few years, he formed a rock/prog-rock band called Lotus and picked up the recording bug from the band's guitarist, Dave Rizzuti. The pair formed Strong Recording in Arlington and collaborated on several projects involving the Either Orchestra of Arrow Records and some work for Rounder Records as well as their own original material.

Eventually, Michael left Lotus and built a studio in his home. Calling his new base of operations Nimbus Studio, he originally had intended to record a wide variety of sessions, but didn't enjoy recording just anyone. As luck would have it, a friend of Michael's introduced him to a woman looking for a soundtrack for her yoga routines and a new career path emerged. At the same time, he met guitarist Peter Janson. The two began a two year professional relationship and played many gigs, including one I was fortunate enough to attend up here in Toronto.

And that takes us to Heart of Matter, Michael's first album of original material. To my ears, it's a mix of Ambient, Jazz and New Age. And it's good.

To learn more about Michael, please visit his website at www.ExpandingSky.com.

Michael B. O'Connell
"Heart of Matter is the result of an inner urge to express things that for a number of reasons could not be expressed in my "previous life"." - Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: You have one of the richest, most deeply complex bios I've read in years. After all you've been through in your "first life", how is Heart of Matter a realization or description of the true calling of your "second life"?
Michael: Well, an excellent question. For one thing, Heart of Matter is the result of an inner urge to express things that for a number of reasons could not be expressed in my "previous life". While the term and the concept of creativity was honored and highly valued in the philosophy, the reality was that personal creativity was discouraged in our group unless it served the manifestation of the groups goals. There was some creative expression but forms were severely limited and others were completely devalued. Consequently, I sublimated my creative urges inwardly, and while I did develop in this regard, the development was unbalanced and lacked an honest vehicle for the expression of my deepest inner voice.

For another matter, I had neither the skills nor the resources earlier on and was not really that engaged in music for a long time given my circumstances. Additionally, my first instrument is the drum set, so in order to compose what I was feeling, I had to acquire a whole new skill set as well as develop a confidence that the manifestation of a dream of this magnitude could, in fact, be pulled off. The skill set that I envisioned working for me involved delving deeply at first into the world of MIDI keyboards and guitars, teaching myself rudimentary music theory, understanding recording and mixing techniques, learning Digital Performer (eventually switching to Logic), and coping with the world of interacting digital equipment. Then there was the potentially fruitful world of virtual instruments, samplers, and effects.

Another aspect of the process was this: I really wanted to hear music similar to what is represented in the album, and hadn't really found much that really satisfied: this became a very powerful driving force in me. To give you some perspective on why I would make a statement like that you do have to look at my 30 years or so spent in pretty intense spiritual practice isolated in some sense from the so called secular world. I discovered certain directed music powerfully affects its participants, both performers and listeners, bringing them to different or higher energy states and can be a tremendous force for awakening consciousness in the listener. Where a lot of music serves to entertain, excite, and distract us and is very, very necessary in that regard, it's not everything that music can do, nor does that music have to specifically be so called "spiritual music", which often is not the kind of music I'm trying to describe. So, Heart of Matter is an attempt to get at that in some way without any overt sense of being spiritual and not abandoning the mirthful, dynamic, and, yes, profound aspects of modern western popular music.

I've been told that this album represents my Plutonian period. Years spent delving the deeper layers of my consciousness, in a kind a mythological nether world where everything is formed from the formless void, coalesces and surfaces finally.
"I discovered certain directed music powerfully affects its participants..."

- Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: I hope I'm not prying, but in reading your first response, what comes to mind is: Why did you go down the path you did 30 years ago? What did you feel intense spiritual practice could give you that music at that time could not?
Michael: Another very good question with a simple answer. Music can be a catalyst, provide an opening to a higher experience, but is not that experience itself. That experience is beyond music. When you consider silence you can say that silence contains sound, or sound is born out of silence. In a like manner there is the experience of silence, or the experience of the stillness of your own being that is beyond everything that you know in your mind. I was probably more predisposed to be interested in the experience the catalyst provoked than the experience of the catalyst itself.

That being said, after silence comes music, the primordial Aum, the music of the spheres, the essential vibration. Paradoxically, these can propel us back to the source, and is why music can be such a sacred vessel.
"Music can be a catalyst, provide an opening to a higher experience, but is not that experience itself."

- Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: Which brings us back to Heart of Matter. I immediately connected with the record as many of the elements that I like -- good composition, strong performances, excellent production and a defined and distinct voice -- are present. You clearly have a knack for record making! This is a bit of a nuts and bolts question, but since you mention the many technical and artistic challenges that you faced in making this record, I'm curious about the interaction of the development of your musical/technical skills and the impact it had on the sound you were going for. As you gained more musical/technical resources did the sound in your mind's ear change?
Michael: Thanks for your kind words. Yes, as my technical skill increased, and my musical acumen sharpened, what I heard in my head definitely came into a clearer focus. But, I have to be honest here, some music was present in concept only, but not necessarily the real content of that conception: in other words there may have just been forms that I was going for initially, thinking how that form would shape the resultant music. I can't really say what the sounds were in my head. I would often break things down into big chunks like orchestral bit here, synth jazz combo bit there, or bass, pads, pulse. Like that.

Pieces would then develop from playing around with sounds and combinations of things and being inspired by a small result or direction; then work by adding and shaping, always trying some new thing or other, and evolving the pieces from there. What did remain a constant, however, was my strong feeling that each piece had to have at least one magic moment, one passage that affected me deeply, that was the heart and soul of the piece. That may not have shown up right away, but I would always get a sense of whether I was headed in the right direction where the potential for the heart of the piece to emerge was there. This consideration was apart from technical and musical skill, but not in a mutually exclusive way. Again, there was an overall feel that I was going for, and what form it took was an endless fascination.

Over the period of making this album I wanted to continue to grow and change and not become so frozen in a plan that I wouldn't consider the new direction a piece was taking apart from my initial conception or inspiration. It's funny, these things do have a life of their own which I feel you must try to understand and nurture. Looking back at, say, "Dark Moon Transit" from the perspective of "Liquid Clouds Suite", I can see some musical growth there. Technical skills grow as well, especially as I noticed what a particular effect or studio trick can do for a passage of music. I was more likely to get at that having had constant exposure over a good chunk of time to how these things work and what techniques or understandings were required to produce the desired result (yes, that does mean slowing down and reading the manuals, too!).

It's also fair to say that as I grew musically my intentions for a piece were more deliberate because I was also hearing better and understanding harmonic interaction a little bit better, so there's that. Understanding some of the not so obvious pitfalls of ambient music production also evolved with me in my constant pursuit of getting sounds to not get in each others way.
"What did remain a constant, however, was my strong feeling that each piece had to have at least one magic moment..."

- Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: I have a sense that learning and education in general are very important to you -- an ongoing concern. In addition to your personal study of music theory and production, you've studied with, among others, drummer Alan Dawson, tabla player Pandit Shashi Nayak and pianist Stephen Savage. How do you feel your teachers have affected you personally and as a musician? And secondly, can you point to any direct impact they had on the making of Heart of Matter?
Michael: We are constantly learning new things as artists and musicians; there's seems to be a natural curiosity there. I do value learning, but not to the point where things become too intellectualized. Let's say that learning can be a burden as well, a box within which I can become too confined. I feel that what is missing primarily in music today and what people crave in a way is originality and spontaneity. Okay, so we often get some originality, but the perfectionist binge in the music industry just kills spontaneous creation. I wonder if Miles's Filles de Kilimanjaro for example could be produced today.

Alan Dawson was my first exposure to the real deal in music. He was hugely respected and sought after for his breadth of knowledge and his ability to pass that knowledge on to his students. He was a legend. I consider myself fortunate, indeed, to have studied with him for the all too brief year of so I was able to work drum studies into my struggling schedule at the time. My first impression of the man was that he was a gentleman and a consummate professional. I took lessons at Alan's home in Lexington, in his home studio. He drilled the basics while applying them to real musical situations. He'd play changes on the vibes while I played drums with the lesson de jour for that aspect. Oh, yeah, it was jazz studies to boot, and me with this rock drummer background I found myself in a different swimming pool altogether. However, I really liked the swing feel, so I learned to swim pretty fast. Alan had this thing for Swiss Army Rudiments! To this day I think he is one of few purveyors of the practice that could make those things swing.

Pandit Shashi Nayak was one of the sweetest men I ever met, just so real, you know? He would sit across from me, teach me tabla bowls which I would record in pen, syllable-wise, in my notebook, and then show me after some time what I was doing right while gently correcting what was not so right. Tablas also had a swing feel, so that was very cool to get into that. Shashi wanted me to move in with him and his family in Boston so that we could practice music round the clock and he could hear if I was practicing correctly or not. A different teaching concept to be sure, but typically Indian. If I could have I would have, but making ends meet at that time of my life made that invitation moot. Not to mention I was married. Sadly, both Alan and Shashi are no longer with us, but their legacy exists in the artistry of the many serious students that passed through their studios. Alan and Sashi affected me deeply in two ways. They were both great people first and foremost; they had respect for their students and their students struggles-they could identify. You could say they both had heart. Secondly, they were masters of their art. When I played the lessons, they sounded like lessons, but when Alan or Shashi demonstrated the lessons, music came out. So, by osmosis, you learned this proper standard.

I'm saving Stephen Savage for last because it was his influence that had perhaps the greatest impact on Heart of Matter. Stephen teaches gifted students at New England Conservatory among other assignments, and I'm really glad he didn't let slip that little bon mot until after I had settled in with my studies with him. He virtually inundated me with material, concepts, techniques, all of it, and I was just this terrible student having become a little too crazy with making the album to properly assimilate what he was teaching me. Over time he grew to understand me and I him-we were both composers. And while Stephen was a monster pianist and symphonic composer of note, he always regarded me as an artist/composer wanting to learn more about music. I became comfortable bringing in some of my early takes on some pieces and we could discuss aspects of this or that. This was a huge confidence builder and idea generator for me. Eventually, I began to notice that I had acquired some real knowledge, skill, and confidence on the keyboard that I was applying in real time to the album. Again, Stephen is a master pianist, but is so humble and unassuming as a person. It's easy to communicate with him; definitely fun and stimulating hanging out with the guy.

I see this distinguishing trait with these great artist/teachers; it's their ability to identify with their students and to respect them as individuals while being able to infect them with their own excitement and enthusiasm about the learning process. You'll notice that even though they've attained great stature and mastery in their art they continue to learn, grow, and create at ever higher levels. Way cool. The other huge factor here is their willingness and commitment to teaching you all that you can absorb from everything that they know, no holding back. It's a great gift.
"We are constantly learning new things as artists and musicians; there's seems to be a natural curiosity there."

- Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: I'm listening to Heart of Matter right now on headphones and the attention you paid to sound design is amazing. There are very few static elements in your mixes -- sounds are in a constant state of change. Could you talk about your approach to sound design and production? Also, from an engineering standpoint, how did you keep your mixes so clear sounding?
Michael: I've developed the lazy mans philosophy to sound design. Real in the trenches sound design is a high art form in and of itself; it takes talent, dedication, and gobs of time. There exist many wonderful "presets" that come with various VI's and good sounding modules. Eric Persing comes to mind as a perfect example of what I'm talking about. When I think of all the great sounds he created for Roland and now with his Spectrasonics company, it really blows my mind. BT is another great sound designer who also is a gifted composer (it's been said that his brain is over-clocked which probably accounts for his prodigious output). Ian Boddy is another sound designer/composer I can think of off the top of my head. I've used some of their sound offerings in my work, and am grateful that they and others create such wonderful starting points for what amounts to my tweaking things to my requirements. In sum, I take what's out there and integrate it into my sound palette. Sometimes if a sound works right away, I may not do anything to it. However, my experience is usually one of having to shape the sound in some way, whether it's adjusting envelopes, filter cutoffs, or what have you. Then there is post processing where compressors, delays, reverbs, filter sweeps etc. may occur. Definitely a hands on, ears open process.

There are times also where I will take an unassuming audio sample like an oboe sound and run that through a cranked pre-amp, split the signal, take one and run that into a convolution effect, and mix the whole thing onto a mix bus for further mayhem. I did a fair amount of sound creation that way as well.

I also love the fact that many sounds do move and develop if you let them. You do have to be careful that they don't move into another sound's space and obscure it, but generally if you allow space and are patient you can get really nice results. If you could actually look at some of my mixes you would find that rarely are there more than 6 to 8 actual sound sources. These may be split and processed and brought back in on their own channel, but I tend to approach things from a small combo point of view so that there is space in my head to work out the arrangement. Having a minimalist approach when dealing with large, evolving sounds, giving them a chance to breath and stretch out is my way of recognizing the work artists have put into those sounds, and, hell, I just really love it when it works in a piece.

Engineering sounds and spaces is its own challenge, and, as you state, keeping things clear is a high priority. You also have to keep in mind that you better not kill the groove of a piece with rampant reverbs, and out of kilter delays and such, because when you are dealing with evolving sounds these things may be integrated in the sound itself, so, remember, entropy rules. That is one of the drawbacks of using presets or sounds perhaps intended for an entirely different category of music. I had a hellacious time with one groove element because I wanted to spread it out and have additional delay treatment etc. That effected the groove of the piece to the point where even though the percussion things were spot on, they were not in the pocket with this element. It wasn't until just before I went to the mastering house that I figured out what was happening and made the proper adjustments to get everything grooving. A real learning experience.

To be very honest, I engineer things so that I can hear and enjoy all the different elements that have gone into a piece. That may not happen right away because in the flurry of creation I may have buried something, and eventually through soloing parts, etc. I can consider things like better placement in the stereo field, stereo spread, volume, velocity (especially when dealing with midi instruments), presence, as well as timbre, whether things are in tempo or deliberately not; and get the clarity happening. I was, I feel, fairly conservative in my panning (maybe chicken is more apt). Since this was my first album, I didn't want to achieve the dreaded "whole in the middle" effect, nor did I want a monolithic wall of sound. I think I came down somewhere in the middle, although Jeff Lipton, the mastering engineer at Peerless Mastering did make a passing comment that it was almost mono (probably a very first impression). I really couldn't entirely disagree, since I wanted to really extend the sound stage and didn't. However, it was a satisfying first experience, and I'm glad I was a bit conservative.

Moving ahead I'm looking to creating more of my own sounds with an eye towards playing live, so that's a different tack right there. What tweaking is to be done will be mostly done ahead of time save for real time controllers pre-patched to modulators, etc. Perhaps the second album will spring from more of this approach. We'll see.
"To be very honest, I engineer things so that I can hear and enjoy all the different elements that have gone into a piece."

- Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: This flows nicely into my next question... How are you going to approach playing your music live? Will you be playing predominantly percussion/drums? Any thoughts of adding a multi-media/visual component to the show? Okay I guess that's more than one question...
Michael: I had to turn down an offer to play live on the Echoes Living Room Concert series last month because I hadn't seriously considered the performance aspect of my music to occur for some time. My initial feeling was that this album would never be performed live, it is what it is- a studio album. And perhaps that's what it will remain, but I have always liked the idea of gigging my music live, it just doesn't necessarily have to be all the pieces from this particular album. There may be one or two to connect me to the album for the audiences' sake, but beyond that there is, I suspect, a whole new exciting world of creating pieces to be performed live with all the inherent limitations that that implies. As a matter of fact, I'm thinking that gearing up for a live performance may be the way the next album is born - who knows?

Additionally, I'd like to perform a lot on the synths using both keyboards and my newly acquired MalletKat. This a midi instrument that is laid out and plays similar to a xylophone. So, there is the percussion element again. I'm going to have to program some interactive stuff as well, be it in Ableton Live or triggered bits from my TurboKat, MalletKat, or Zendrum. Really, there are lots of really cool possibilities. Of course, it's always infinite possibilities until you actually make some decisions, like how much equipment do you really feel like lugging to the gig. I've also considered not doing everything myself: duet, trio to start then if it keeps going, bigger stage and maybe I get to play the drum set.

Again, this is all in infant stages, but multi-media has always appealed to me and I find staging, even in an extremely limited form, adds some dignity to the proceedings. For example, I'm assembling a midi drum kit and want to decorate it, if that's the term, so that it seems an organic living being (I'm thinking trees or kudzu, or alien slime... okay, trees).

Hey, do you want to join a band?
"As a matter of fact, I'm thinking that gearing up for a live performance may be the way the next album is born - who knows?"

- Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: Alright -- I'm in! We're just going to have to figure out a way to deal with the 500 plus miles between us...

There are a few artists who have inspired me musically and artistically. Miles Davis is one who first comes to mind. His approach to music has always impressed me -- throughout his career he seemed to be in perpetual motion. And the way he ran his band -- giving lots of freedom to his sidemen -- has guided me in how I try to run my own group. What inspires you musically and artistically? Any particular artists that stand out for you?
Michael: I'll keep a chair open for you at ESP studio!

Being in nature away from the background sound of civilization, just experiencing silence in a huge open space is incredibly inspiring. I think of trekking to Georgia O'Keefe's Ghost Ranch, parking the car, and hiking out a ways, then just sitting and drinking it all in. You don't always know what happens to you on the deepest level, but you know something is going on that is needful, nourishing. It's not always about the music: I try to be cognizant of where the music is emanating from.

Art itself is a huge field encompassing all the disciplines. Then there are those whose very life is a work of art-consciously so. I studied art history for three years and with my wife being a visual artist we do love to go gallery and museum hopping which for us is real food for the soul. I want to slow down, become more aware of what is happening now, really see life/art for what it is and not for the story or stories around it. That experience is a real kick in the pants. It's liberating, wonderful, and some incredible, free music is in spontaneous creation there. I digress a bit, but just wanted to give the question some added scope.

Reading my bio you know of the many musical influences noted there. So, let me take two or three artists that do stand out for me. The artist that inspires me the most and whose career I've followed the longest is Robert Wyatt, best known perhaps as the drummer and vocalist for Soft Machine, but whose career really blossomed after he had left that group and after a horrific incident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. He possesses an amazing voice, but it's his melodic sense of what to do with that gift that stops me in my tracks whenever I hear it. He has also been able to bring this very spontaneous feeling to his recordings and elicits that quality from whoever seems to appear on his record dates as well. Just some amazing, delightful, very funny at times (he has a daemonic way with words), human, poignant artistry. (Did I mention he is a gifted drummer?) He conveys to me through his compositions but especially through his voice this incredibly real, authentic soul giving over to expression.

You mention Miles Davis. Miles was a courageous soul. After he had explored or created a direction in music, he moved on from there without repeating himself; although the demand to do so was tremendous. His breadth of artistry is well known and documented in his numerous recordings. They remind me of sketches or paintings of where he was and then him knowing that he wouldn't paint that kind of painting again. He was resolute about it. I love the fact that with both of these artists a mistake or a fluffed note never killed a session or a take that possessed the requisite passion and spontaneity. Each brings a refreshing approach to composition that I find daring, innovative, delicate and often intricate, yet in an unmistakably unfabricated way . As a result the music breaths. So, yeah, these two artists stand apart. I'm sure there are many others that I'm just not aware of who do the same thing, but to answer your question, it's these two.

What got me inspired to take the tack that I did on this album was hearing So Flows the Current by Patrick O'Hearn. Now, I could say that his music is the polar opposite of the two artists that I just mentioned, yet there is this static beauty that keeps saying, stop...listen- every time I hear it. He employs a huge sound-stage and just amazing, amazing use of reverbs that can forge a simple piano line into this arching beautiful spacial water current. I'm not trying to discount his real command of all the elements in his music, but talk about separation of huge sounds. He is a master at it. Then I discovered Eric Wollo, a guitarist with an electric sensibility that reminds me a lot of Terje Rypdal, but who retains some of the sensibilities that O'Hearn possess. (Both great synthesists by the way.) Now, if you listen closely to Eric Wollo you can almost hear the sun reflecting off vast fields of snow, or see the aurora borealis careening passed the stars of a perpetual evening. At least it's there for me. He's from Norway, I believe, and I feel a different sensibility operating in his music. What I'm saying is our music is a reflection somewhat of where we live, what culture we grew up in, what experiences we had within that. Man, we are a walking repository of memories, feelings, experiences and that stuff is bound to come out or be expressed somehow; but I feel that's only part of the equation- there's way more. For now it's a real great joy and satisfaction to be able to go around expressing some of this musically. Cool, indeed.
"I want to slow down, become more aware of what is happening now, really see life/art for what it is and not for the story or stories around it."

- Michael B. O'Connell
Jamie: One of the things I like when listening to Heart of Matter and hearing you talk about your musical point of view, is your sense of openness. I can see you taking your music in any number of directions. Where do you see yourself going from here?
Michael: More lightness of being for one thing. What I mean by that is the overall gestalt of this album could be seen emerging from this deep, inner, purply-bluish, somewhat mysterious place. I wouldn't call it dark, far from it, but I wouldn't call it exactly sun-lit and palm tree lined either. So, I'm seeing and feeling something a little more of the latter emerging. Now, what that is going to be I haven't a clue until I begin composing around it in earnest.

We spoke about the live performance vehicle, so things may become a little more geared towards exchanging energies with a live audience, and evolving that approach. The goal is still the same: to make manifest something of peace and energy from within. And you're totally right, the music could go in several of many possible directions. I'm still a big proponent of the small combo approach to music making either in my head, or in working with other musicians, regardless of the ambient backgrounds and the sudden stillness moments I'm fond of approaching. I also see some vocalizing possibilities with some carefully crafted, spare lyrics. Maybe sprinkled in here and there. So, I may combine a few directions and see what holds everyone's interest. What I know for sure is, it's going to be a bit of a steep climb. However, I'm excited already by the possibilities.
"The goal is still the same: to make manifest something of peace and energy from within."

- Michael B. O'Connell
 
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