Kenneth Newby and Stephen Kent: Trance is the Mission!
(Copyright © 1996 I/E MAGAZINE)

Stephen Kent and Kenneth Newby, under the various banners of Lights In A Fat City, Trance Mission and Beasts Of Paradise have been, are, and probably will be for a long time, two of the most innovative and influential musicians at the borders of new electro-acoustic music.
I/E: Can we retrace your early steps in music? Stephen, I understand that your personal and artistic education is international in the true sense of the word.

Kent: "I was born in Southwest England. When I was a few months old my family moved to Uganda. My father was working at setting up an art course at a University there. That whole time has maintained its presence and is relevant to what I do now. When I was seven, we went back to Britain, where I had a fairly normal, rural upbringing, except that I was exposed all the time to a lot of art forms. When I was eleven, my father took me to London and I bought a french horn. That was the first instrument that I started studying. A musicologist called Jean Jenkins, who had done recordings all over Asia, introduced me to balinese music. I began making music with friends at school, which riflected my influences from Africa and Indonesia as well as the fact that we were learning classical music and I was beginning to play guitar. Then we finally formed a rock group called Furious Pig. We put an album out on Rough Trade in 1980 (entirely a cappella...). We were playing all kind of strange idioms, along the likes of Raincoats and other new wave combos with quite a bit of punk energy. We were connected with people from Henry Cow. We listened to a lot of Zappa and a lot of Beefheart."

I/E: How did you get the idea of devoting yourself to an Australian instrument that was still widely unknown in the west at the time?
Kent: "I skipped college and I was hired as the musical director of an Australian agitprop circus, a group of intellectuals who perceived popular theatre as a method to getting across a political message, in particular about the role (or the lack of a role) of the aborigenals in the Australian society. We travelled all over Australia for two years and the first time I heard it I immediately got interested in the sound of didgeridoo. I was looking for inspiration for the group. I figured if I learned some some of the techniques of the didgeridoo and applied them to the brass instruments I would give the music of the show a very powerful foundation. I figured it would convey something about the quality of Australia. I started writing and arranging music focused around the playing of a musician called Donato Rosella, who also played didgeridoo. I learned the same technique myself until, abandoned the circus, I moved to the north with Donato, who was a big influence on me and had access to various aboriginal settlements. I had the privilege to accompany him to some of these places and got to live in the bush with aboriginal people. That was big change in my life. It really got me into the didgeridoo. At the same time the bigger picture of being there elicited bigger questions. I started having some major philosophical thinking of my own, who I am and why I am here. I had an awakening that brought me to playing didgeridoo, although most of my playing actually happened when I returned to Europe."

I/E: How did you form the partnership with Kenneth Newby that eventually led to your most important works?
Kent: "I met Kenneth for the first time in the summer 1985 in London. I was playing with a percussionist, Eddy Sayer. We used to play marketplaces just for fun, while I was still working with another circus. We met Kenneth The following year I was invited in Vancouver at this big party. It was like the party at the beginning of Tolkien's The Hobbit. There was a knock and ten aboriginal guys walked in with didgeridoos. Another knock at the door and five indonesian guys with gamelan instruments walked in. And so on. We developed a friendship. Around the same time we were developing this group in London, called Lights In A Fat City, which was basically Eddy and myself and the sound engineer, Simon Tassano, and that took over one year later as my main focus. We put out a first album in 1988. It was a cult success. It was unusual in that it was music based on the didgeridoo. It was probably the first time in the contemporary scene. We performed all over Europe at a lot of festivals - jazz, world-music, folk, new music, avantgarde... the music defied boundaries. We had a lot of trouble having any more music happening because it wasn't very well distributed. We came to the States in 1991 and invited Kenneth to play together. He gladly joined the group and played a few gigs here and in Canada. The tour over, I decided to stay here, in the San Francisco Bay Area. And I've been here ever since. The meeting with Kenneth was really the beginning of the development of Trance Mission."

I/E: Kenneth, your turn. What were your beginnings?
Newby: "I was born in Vancouver, I received classical training since I was five, I always had an interest in alternative music and I was turned on by the psychedelic music that was around in the Sixties. It made me excited that you could be creative in the studio, that one can work with sound. I set myself to compose music that used the recording technology in some creative way. At the same time we started to hear a lot of music coming from the rest of the world. I was studying Philosophy, a degree which I never finished, when I started doing free improvisation for sax, bassoon, oboe with the New Orchestra Workshop, an ensemble which has been a focal point for creative musicians (Paul Plimley and Lisle Ellis, to name two, also came out of that experience). I then switched to the contemporary scene that was very focused on technology, on cutting-edge interactive methods. A big inspiration on me was George Lewis. We met in 1979 and we've stayed in touch over the years. A revelatory experience was my trip to Indonesia, encountering a culture that was so radically different from the one I was raised in. I ended up forming a long-term relationship with balinese and javanese music. I spent two years altogether in Indonesia. What was most intriguing to me was the fact that balinese music is mainly an oral tradition, it does not rely on scores, as opposed to notation-based western music. I found myself trying to reconcile the unstructured and the structured, looking for a fine balance between eastern and western traditions. And of course I found the gamelan stimulating conceptually, with its subtle tunings... the more you dig into it the more subtle you realize it is. I felt that maybe I could translate all these ideas in the electro-acoustic realm. So I started composing in a new style that was influenced by indonesian instruments without being truly indonesian. Around this time was the meeting with Stephen in London and subsequent development. I was working professionally in Canada as the music composer for a dance company called Cymbali, a cooperative ensemble that did festivals and put our a couple of cassettes. My partner, Lorraine Thomson, is a coreographer/dancer for Cymbali and we have often collaborated."

Kent: "I should interject that I too had been working with dance and theatre during the mid 80's, when I was in Barcelona. It is part of our common, combined experience. I think that's very important in the context of what we do today because it enhances the visual sense of our music. People see it as music that is inspiring at the image level, true soundscape. I have always maintained an interest in art involved with movement."

Newby: "There is also drama to it, that I guess shows up in our music."

I/E: How did the second LIAFC recording happen?
Newby: "We recorded it in 1991 here in San Francisco and it was the first recording collaboration that we did. It was a very simple project. We just put a microphone inside this huge hollow pillars of the rotonda of the Palace Of Fine Arts (an obvious reference to the didgeridoo). It was a very foggy day. We sat down in this triangular room. We shut the door to the pitch black. I had a small hi-fi system to play the samples and we put the microphone six feet high in the air and plugged it in a little portable DAT. The most powerful piece is totally improvised. It's music that sends people to a very deep space, almost asleep. People who love gamelan say that they love it because it puts them to sleep."

I/E: By this time you were ready to embark in the Trance Mission project...
Newby: "LIAFC fell away but there had been some jam sessions with local San Francisco musicians. One of them was Beth Custer, a connection that Stephen cultivated."

Kent: "It was an interesting time for me because I had just decided to leave Europe without relaly knowing what I was going to do here. We jammed, then we found John Loose. We played as a trio for two or three occasions. Then we invited Kenneth down and in april 1992, we took a portable recording studio up to the wine country and recorded a tape of our improvisations. Trance Music wasn't really the invention of anyone of us, but the act of meeting of four people and a few satellite musicians. Music is created by consensus. Tassano was called in to produce the second album and the difference is quite striking, and it has very much to do with how we operated in the studio. The first album was about the acoustic interactions that we were perfecting in the context of a small environment. The second is very much a studio project, taking the same process in the studio, and in addition using the studio itself (that's Simon's part). Because we're all very busy with many projects and because we have our private lives and because Kenneth is not living in the area, it seems that this will be our preferred way of working for a while. We seed ideas and arrangements to take into the studio. We don't take a composed work in the studio. Right now we are rehearsing for the third album, which will also be along those lines. It should be released around april of 1996. There will be many new sounds."

I/E: What was exactly Beth's contribution to the whole?
Newby: "On the first recording Beth had a very melodic role and very much centered around the clarinet playing. The work we did on "Meanwhile" was much more layered, textured. She certainly added an acid-jazz quality to the overall sound that I quite liked. Her role is ever changing. On each album you get a snapshot of where she is at now. She does her solo work, well represented on her recent first album, but then she takes a different approach when she plays with us. And now she also plays the trumpet."

I/E: Can you brief us on your projects as well?
Kent: "A few years ago I started hiding in caves and woods to play and record didgeridoo solos. My didgeridoo playing had become quite focused as the instrument had become my main vehicle for expression. In late 1993 I decided that there was space in the world for an album that was even more based on this instrument. The didheridoo has not really been explored in the way that i was capable of doing it. I wanted to present different aspects of the didgeridoo that I didn't feel had been exhibited anywhere else. My style is very different from aboriginal playing, it's a contemporary style. I see the didgeridoo as an instrument that has an orchestral sound in itself, it is more than a solo instrument, it is both a percussive instrument and a wind instrument, it takes up a lot of space and it gives back space, it has phenomenal dimensions. I invited Kenneth and Eda Maxym, who is my partner in life, to help out in the studio. I am very pleased with the way it came out."

I/E: What about Beasts Of Paradise?
"We met harpist Barbara Imhof when we played a Mondo 2000 celebratory party. She used to work for Mondo 2000 (Kenneth himself later took over her place at the magazine) and wanted to interview us. I started to jam with her. Barbara and Eda Maxym, who has this wonderful voice, started playing as a duo, then somehow this evolved in The Rocking Horse People, then in Beasts Of Paradise. The band loosely, gradually happened. For the first album it was a seven-piece group, but it was not very coherent. I wasn't even a member. I was invited to join after the recording sessions. Then we became a five piece, with Barbara, Eda, and percussionist Geoffrey Gordon. The real band was formed after the record, in a sense."

I/E: Kenneth, I consider "Ecology Of Souls" as one of the milestone recordings of this decade. Can you elaborate on how it was created?
Newby: "It really started as an opera, a multimedia opera in Vancouver that included dance and video projections. The whole focus was to bring people to let them explore the deep spaces that we associate with psychedelic music, to let them feel the kind of experience they might have if they ate a lot of mushrooms, to let them embark in shamanic explorations of their own consciousness. The music is largely inspired by LIAFC of 1991, directly inspired actually by the improvisations for Sound Column. But this is truly an opera because the voice is such an integral part of the music. There are vocal samples throughout from different places, altered to the degree that you may not be able to recognize them in most cases. Then there is the bamboo flute that plays the role of the soprano. And then there is the performed voice."

I/E: Are you planning a continuation?
"Possibly. Every now and then I come up with new ideas, but I haven't found the time to work on them yet."

I/E: New projects?
Newby: "We'll be soon paying a visit to Steve Roach in the Arizona desert. We're planning a collaboration on Fathom scheduled for release again in the fall of 1996. We have lots of ideas and we'll spend ten days or so in the studio to materialize them. It's a very open process, like with everybody else. We all come to the meeting with questions as much as answers. The spark flies and ignites the fire when and where you least expect it."

Kent: "Music is out there. A musician simply absorbs it and translates it into a recording format."

DISCOGRAPHY

Furious Pig:
Furious Pig (Rough Trade, 1980)
Lights In A Fat City:
Somewhere (These Records, 1988) (City of Tribes, 1992)
Sound Column (Extreme, 1993)
Kenneth Newby:
Ecology Of Souls (Songlines, 1993) (Hearts Of Space, 1994)
Trance Mission:
Trance Mission (City Of Tribes, 1993)
Meanwhile (City Of Tribes, 1995)
Stephen Kent:
Landing (City Of Tribes, 1995)
Beasts Of Paradise:
Gathered On The Edge (City Of Tribes, 1995)
Beth Custer:
The Shirt I Slept In (BC, 1995)
Kenneth Newby, Stepehen Kent & Steve Roach:
Halcyon Days (Fathom, 1996)

ADDRESSES:
City Of Tribes
3025 17th St
San Francisco CA 94110
Web Site

Beth Custer
88 Lundy's Lane
San Francisco CA 94110
E-mail

Hearts Of Space
POBOX 31321
SAn Francisco CA 94131
E-mail

These Records/ Recommended
c/o Cuneiform
POBOX 6517
Wheaton MD 20906-0517
Web Site