Quindar: Mikael Jorgensen (Wilco) & James Merle Thomas Combine NASA Media Archives With Electronic Music (INTERVIEW)

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Electronic music and AV project Quindar is a collaboration between Wilco member Mikael Jorgensen and Art Historian James Merle Thomas. Originally introduced through a mutual friend in Brooklyn, NY the two bonded over their love for Contemporary and Electronic music. They began to jam at Jorgensen’s studio regularly, eventually playing festivals like Mass MoCA’s Solid Sound Festival and Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, TN.

In 2012, James became a Guggenheim Fellow at the National Air & Space museum. His access to the NASA media archives quickly influenced their jam sessions. Those sessions evolved into their super playful, debut LP, Hip Mobility released this summer through Butterscotch Records.

Their LP Hip Mobility remixes archival audio deep from within NASA’s archives of the1960s and 70s. A meditation on space travel, their project’s name Quindar is inspired by the transmission beeps used during NASA’s early spaceflight missions. Excited for their new release, Glide recently spoke to both Jorgensen and Thomas to learn more about their creative process.

Can you give us a brief run down on how the project started and how you two met?

MJ: We met in 2005 over coffee via our mutual friend, the German musician and producer Volker Zander. We also had a slew of common friends in contemporary art and music, including Mikael’s then wife-to-be, Cassandra C. Jones, who knew James from art school. In short, our friendship emerged organically out of a lot of shared friends and inspirations that were built around our mutual admiration of art, music, and histories of technology and science.

And was there a specific moment or conversation that inspired the project?

MJ :While I was still living in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, I invited James, who was living in Washington DC at the time, to my Greenpoint studio space to just jam on some electronic music gear. It became apparent very quickly that we shared complementary sensibilities and interests and from there made an informal agreement to continue getting together to make more music over the coming months.

In between the sessions that punctuated 2012, James and I would correspond via text/email and would share photographs and articles about space exploration, synthesizers, video manipulation and electronic music. It was during one of these volleys that a question popped into my head: “What is the name of those beeps you hear in recordings of early manned space missions?” James responded, “They’re called Quindar Tones.” Me: “Well, there’s the name of our project.”

JMT: Quindar takes its name from the devices that make short “beep” tones heard in early NASA communications. The project is directly related to my doctoral research in Art History. In 2012, while serving as a Guggenheim Fellow at the National Air and Space Museum, I was looking at how artists, architects, and designers were working with NASA to develop things like spacecraft interiors, how they were thinking about designing for space.

At the same time that I was uncovering the agency’s extensive media archives, Mikael and I decided to collaborate and to develop these materials in less academic ways. I continue to write on these topics, but Quindar is simply another outlet for this research. Our time in the studio began as a very open-ended exercise with no tangible expectations or intentions other than to listen closely, and to create some compositions based on archival audio and existing equipment. From this unassuming start, we felt a musical and conceptual bond that has strengthened and extended very organically over the past five years.

You both come from a rich background of musical and research driven projects. (Mikael with your collaborations with Wilco and James with your curatorial research and fellowships) Are there moments from those projects that seemed to really pave the way for Quindar and your upcoming album Hip Mobility?

MJ: I am proud and eternally grateful to have been a part of Wilco since 2002. It is hard to overstate the impact that it’s had on my professional and creative life, but there is one, constant, easily identifiable ethic that has contributed to Wilco’s perseverance and that is this: Music is the currency. If what you are contributing doesn’t serve the song or idea, find another approach until it does. It drives practically every decision from the bottom up and from the top down and it works in the studio and on stage. If you’re not feeling something from a piece of music, put it aside and try something else until you do.

It’s convenient that holding music in this high regard not only fosters growth as an artist but the right ingredients for a long career. It also is helpful to keep the focus of business decisions strategic: Spend wisely on services and items that directly benefit the music and cultivate an ongoing relationship with music-fans: Good vinyl. Beautiful packaging. Great Sound System. Great Projector. Big Screen. Quality T-Shirts.

Quindar songs have a visual component that provide a unique experience in a live setting, and we’ve been able to be selective about the types of venues that are well suited to our show – from a traditional sit-down theater (Bijou Theater, Big Ears Festival) to performing inside a video cube in the forest (Eaux Claires Festival, Eau Claire, WI).

JMT: As far as specific moments: my work with the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation to organize an exhibition of the artist’s NASA-related artwork is relevant for obvious reasons; so are our ongoing collaborations with guitarist William Tyler, whose longform compositions are inspiring to our way of writing songs.

In general, my curatorial practice—which has involved producing both large biennials of contemporary art, and smaller projects in independent artist spaces—is guided by my training as a historian of art and technology, and by my tendency to embrace interdisciplinary and unconventional collaborations.

I’m deeply inspired by visual artists who engage substantively with adjacent disciplines beyond what passes as their art: Robert Irwin’s interest in architecture and philosophy; artist-songwriters like Rodney Graham and Terry Allen are also huge influences. Projects with astonishingly manifold outcomes, such as those created by artists like Trevor Paglen and Tacita Dean are also touchstones. Earlier this year, I was incredibly moved by Simon Starling’s installation, “At Twilight,” which featured a multi-media installation of sculpture, choreography, and archival materials, all related to W.B. Yeats’s collaborative staging of “At the Hawk’s Well,” a Japanese noh-inspired dance play, in 1916. Starling’s interpretation and the original artifact seem timeless, enchanting.

With the notable exception of Rauschenberg, none of these references are directly related to the content of our current album, but I’d say they speak to an imperative: of the need to engage deeply with the material you are holding. Let it take you in unexpected ways, and be willing to follow it to unlikely destinations. This dictum—which in some ways is our own interpretation of John Cage’s admonition to “let sounds be themselves”—has allowed us to critically engage with questions of process before fussing with an envisioned outcome. It has also led to incredibly fruitful collaborations with visual artists, fellow academics and musicians, graphic designers, curators and cultural theorists over the course of our respective and shared paths

What was an average day like for both of you while developing your new album?

JMT: While the project began on the east coast between Washington DC and Brooklyn, the bulk of the album was recorded and mixed in southern California between 2014 and 2016, while I was on a postdoctoral stint at the University of Southern California. Between Mikael’s commitments to Wilco and James’s obligations to academic and curatorial projects, we kept very busy and found time between deadlines when we could devote a few days for developing the tracks for Hip Mobility. We’d build out a version of a song and the track would consist of hours of looped material; we’d then prune these sounds back to their essential constitutive elements and build the track back out again.

All of this meant lots of time in Ojai at Mikael’s studio. Organic food, juices, getting Mikael’s kids to school and keeping sane working hours. Lots of seltzer and avocados. We’re pretty dull, and like to retain hours in the day for reading, working independently, and tending to our own projects….Mixing/Thinking/Refining: Mikael in a tour bus, reviewing audio and film files; me finding materials in the National Archives…It’s a lot of virtual office hours built upon many, many hours of shared studio time in Brooklyn and California. Something about the landscape and rhythm of the seasons of Ventura County is baked into the record…

Do you have favorite moments or discoveries from digging through the NASA Audio archive?

JMT: One important distinction to make is that Skylab missions were really long. It wasn’t always about “mission performance,” and highly publicized moments, like Armstrong on the surface of the Moon—it was often about the mundane nature of living in outer space for months on end. After listening to many hours of “down” time from these missions, it was nice to realize how even under such extreme conditions, everyday traits emerge in humorous ways. You kind of get to know personalities based on repeatedly listening to their incredibly mundane exchanges.

Can you tell me the original context of some of the samples you used? Like on the track “Honeysuckle This is Houston”?

JMT: The opener from Honeysuckle is a great example. It’s a completely mundane recording—one widely circulated—that vividly demonstrates how the Quindar tones functioned like a communications technology. “Honeysuckle” derives its name from the now-defunct Honeysuckle Creek Tracking Station, which was one of several tracking stations NASA established in order to maintain radio contact with Apollo and Skylab spacecraft while they were in orbit. It’s a mic check.

I know the visuals you use are a huge part of your live performance. What’s the thought process like behind how you select the footage you use for your shows?

JMT: We think critically about the relationships between sound and image, a lot like others think through the relationship between image and text. Our music isn’t so much a “score” to a film — although we have worked in this way—but is instead more of a circuit. We perform with a digital platform that allows us to project multiple channels of video in loops and bursts. The logic of looping, which directly relates to the way we compose and perform, allows us to isolate small gestures and edits in films that would otherwise be lost in a straightforward/linear narrative structure. We seek out moments in a vast visual film archive that match the mundane (but fascinating) qualities of the audio we are researching. At times the archival audio and the video is very much related, but it’s not always so overdetermined.

MJ: I think it’s important to stress that we are not scoring a motion picture. The software we’re utilizing allows us the flexibility to adapt and change not only the music but the video program on the fly. Our lighting designer Jeremy Roth (who also designs the Wilco set & lighting) has been instrumental in deploying and manning this aspect of the show and we couldn’t do it without him.

Once we’ve digested the footage, we categorize clips into themes, and from there it’s pretty simple – we put it up on the screen and play the song, and if it works, great, if not, we tweak and continue to refine.

Focusing on the human experience as it relates to space, science and music is really the key. For our track “Choco Hilton” we selected footage of Apollo-era Command Space Modules and Lunar Landing Modules docking and undocking in isolated in the vastness of space to elicit a somber loneliness. Conversely, for the track “Honeysuckle,” we’ve isolated moments of scientists in labs testing space suit skeletons, handling dry ice, spinning in rotating chairs and looped them to make it seem like they’re all dancing to this house music track being pumped through an imagined NASA sound system in every facility. I love to surprise the audience with something so silly and funny after being confronted with images that would provoke introspective questions.

In your liner notes, You mention sound artists & musicians that inspired your working method. Is there a specific song, piece or body of work by these musicians that you’ve been excited about recently?

JMT: As mentioned above, William Tyler’s compositions are inspiring. I’m also a huge fan of complex modular synthesis, where I can’t readily discern how sounds are being created and managed as they evolve. Albums like Interior Architecture by Ged Gengras (who remixed one of our tracks) and Ears by Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith are on heavy rotation these days.

The modular synthesis community in Los Angeles is really thriving at the moment, and projects like Modular on the Spot, which is a periodically-held outdoor concert series held on the banks of the L.A. river, are really exciting to us, as they blend a sensibility for dynamic sounds with an appreciation for unique landscape and architecture. Mikael has extended such projects with his own “Rancho Electro” series, which invites musicians to Ojai to perform, film and record a new song in the mountains using electronic and traditional instruments; I’m currently the Executive Director of Vox Populi, an arts nonprofit in Philadelphia, and have used this platform to start hosting similar projects on the East Coast.

MJ: It’s hard to choose only one! Battles have been continually leading the pack of merging music technology and performance into a visceral live experience. Helado Negro navigates the line between tech-music and performance in a very honest, genuine and compelling way. Vik Muniz’s work continues to be fresh and infinitely fascinating, in particular his “Cloud” photograph series where a skywriting aircraft makes a drawing of a cloud in the sky. It is a performance, sculpture, drawing, photograph at once.

You also talk about Rauschenberg’s “Stoned Moon” series as an example of past artists’ exploring the archives of space travel. Were any songs inspired by a specific piece from the series?

JMT: To clarify: Rauschenberg wasn’t necessarily working with historical archives. He was commissioned by NASA to document and commemorate the Apollo 11 launch, and traveled to the Cape in July of 1969 to witness the event. His “archive” was—no joke—to go around and grab the scraps from NASA’s trashcans: the blueprints and schematics, the random press photographs, the menus from the hotel…a brilliant re-writing of the history, which was then mulched up and transformed into Stoned Moon, which is a series of around thirty unique lithographs and a related set of collages.

The trick with looking at “Stoned Moon” is not to be seduced by any single composition. If you look at one work and try to play the game of naming each reference, the complexity of the series slips between your fingers. Take in the entire project and let it confound you. When you look at how those collaged artworks collectively celebrate (but playfully deconstruct) NASA’s intended narrative, you start to understand Quindar a bit more. It’s the same with Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s “Evidence,” which is best viewed in sum, and not as a series of individual images.

Do you have other new favorite sounds you’ve found from space missions beyond the Quindar?

JMT: The telemetry recordings from the 1957 Geophysical Year projects are better than any esoteric noise record you can try to play for us.

And to quote the show Bob’s Burgers, “If you could take only one album to space with you, what would it be?”

JMT & MJ: That’s easy. There’s already one there: we’d like to find the Voyager Space Records and hear how they’ve held up over the past forty years. Barring that…

JMT: Harold Budd’s 1978 The Pavilion of Dreams

MJ: The Beach Boys’  Pet Sounds 1966

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