The music for Time of the Archons – an interview with composers Brad Jenkins and Steve Wolf, by Alex Staines.
Steve Wolf – composer, piano
As with Seclusion Data, the previous project he worked on with Alex Staines, Steve started with a handful of poems and thought about the approach he would use for composing. The first thing he realised was that while the poetry for Seclusion Data is quite absurdist and slapstick – spectral with a feeling of whimsy – the poems in Archons are a lot darker and quite heavy. So he had to change the way he composed. First he had to find out what an Archon was:
Archons, in the Gnosticism of late antiquity, were servants of the demiurge Yaldabaoth, the “creator god” that stood between the human race and a transcendent God that could only be reached through gnosis [special knowledge or insight]. In this context they have the role of the angels and demons of the Old Testament. They are said to envy humanity for the ennoia they lack.
Steve pictured the Archons as imperious and hieratic. Incredibly lonely, they are in-betweeners. They don’t have the spiritual essence of the demiurge. They resent humanity and their goal is to prevent awareness. The governing tone for the piano, then, would be Stygian, with moments of Satie-esque gallows humour to lighten the palette.
Steve achieved this tone by employing minor chords, jazz colourings and dissonance derived from avant-garde classical music. Impetus was provided by playing with an aggressive and propulsive style acquired from rock and roll.
“The people who were against rock and roll because it was violent music were right. It is violent. But in the context of bringing catharsis out of despair, it’s wonderful,” Steve says.
“I don’t consciously try and purloin influences from the likes of Xenakis, Webern, or Schoenberg, it comes through osmosis. I tend to prefer more avant garde classical composers, because they have a bit of that aggression you get from rock and roll.”
The overall mood of the soundtrack is desolation. In Steve’s eyes, the effect is cathartic rather than nihilistic.
“Darkness is like a rich, lonely soil – it’s a generative thing.” – Steve Wolf
Brad Jenkins – composer, electronics, mixing and mastering
Brad Jenkins, composer of the electronic music for Time of the Archons, was surprised when he received the piano tracks composed by Steve Wolf. They had never met before, and Brad wasn’t expecting Steve’s barnstorming style of playing. Given that this was a poetry album, he assumed the piano playing would be more spacious, allowing the poet’s voice to be the dominant personality and provider of energy. He didn’t know how the piano would sit with the voice and other elements. And he didn’t have any vocal samples of the poems either – these were recorded last. What he had to work with were a dozen or so completed poems in written form and Steve’s piano tracks.
Brad began by creating a few rules for himself to maintain a dynamic and stylistic consistency throughout the album, and to stay in tune with the hermetic world suggested by Steve’s performance and Alex’s soliloquies.
“The value of imposing limits on your creative choices is that as you go on through the tracks, you don’t make compositional decisions that are slap-dash, and might risk taking you out of the world of the album,” Brad says.
He was mindful of giving space to Alex’s voice and Steve’s piano so they wouldn’t be washed out by the electronics. This was a compositional issue, and also involved the mixing and mastering stage.
Brad needed to locate the right registral place for the electronics. The piano tracks were often in a low register; the voice, when recorded, would be mid-register; so he decided that the electronics belonged both up high, and down low, below the piano.
He scoured his EDM and techno sample libraries, identifying any that sounded as if they might have some promise at a certain register. A sample will sound totally different playing way up high, compared to when it’s playing at the depths of the low octaves. A pool of about two dozen samples was created from this process.
“It’s the end of the world – ‘Life has become night’ – but who cares?” – Brad Jenkins
Then, for each track, Brad improvised his own performances with various samples from his pool, weeding out what didn’t fit with his visualisations until he was left with an interesting collection of about half a dozen sounds for each track.
“I used what I know about music – when to bring in sounds and take them out, following the tension and release of Steve’s chord progressions,” Brad says. “Working with a small palette of sounds for each track forced me to think creatively.”
A flavoured electronic landscape
Brad’s creative response to the moods suggested to him by the poems and piano was essentially spatial. Each track has a landscape; Motes is the surface of Mars – dense, depopulated. Other tracks feel located in a subterranean vault.
The eschatological darkness evident in many of the tracks is accompanied by low-frequency electronics. The feeling is that something ominous is going on and there might be danger. At the high end, sounds float like sprites in the ether above the voice.
The electronics contribute dashes of humour, which provide a counterpoint to the heaviness. Charcoal Arc, for example, is characterised by short attacks on the piano, so Brad added sounds suggesting insects scurrying across a metal surface.
There is even campness in some of the compositions, such as Silver Throat. “The piano track is one of the less emotionally heavy ones, and the playing is so rhythmically driven that I couldn’t help but embrace it and add beats, so I put a dark industrial-lite thing over it,” Brad says.
The final stage – album sequencing
Generally, the tempo of the tracks increases as the album progresses. It’s the dark night of the soul from track 12 onward. “I like albums that have a cinematic kind of emotional pacing, where the emotional qualities of the deep tracks are particularly intense or profound in some way and have the same effect as the climactic final scenes of a film,” Brad says. “The real nitty gritty of the album is toward the end.”
With its staunch chord progressions, obdurate poetry and electronic pitch bends, the penultimate track Coptic Lisp revels in the apocalypse. Brad considers it to be the musical equivalent of Major Kong riding the falling nuclear bomb at the end of the film Dr. Strangelove. It’s the end of the world – “Life has become night” – but who cares? Emotions run high, then everything’s finished – and the wasteland (Slur) remains.
Find out more including how to get hold of a copy of the album.
The book is also available to purchase as an attractive slim volume.