Scott Morgan doesn’t listen to his work as Loscil after it’s been released. The Canadian avant-ambient sound-sculptor has little concrete sense of his discography. But, before the recordings are available commercially, they’re fair game.
When he was mixing the Sea Island LP, from 2014, for example, he literally would wander Sea Island – an island in Richmond, British Columbia that is home to Vancouver International Airport and a nature conservation area – listening to his sound-portraits through headphones, trying to see if the “final” compositions evoked the landscapes they referenced. With Equivalents – his 12th full-length outing as Loscil, out Aug. 16 on vinyl, CD and digital download via Kranky – he left the “slightly too-small Herman Miller chair” of his home recording space in Vancouver and laid in his bed in the dark, waiting for transcendence.
“I think I knew that much of this thing was done when I got a glimpse of losing myself in the sound,” Morgan told me recently. “It can be like meditation. You’re not thinking, ‘Oh, I screwed up on that bass line.’ You’re not being analytical, though you’re always analytical.”
“The idea that maybe I got lost in the work for a second and wasn’t thinking about the structure of it for a second – maybe that meant it was done.”
The new work is most definitely done. The eight tracks collected on Equivalents have an otherworldly sense of purpose to them. They’re far less narrative-driven and more sedate than much of Morgan’s other work, but still maintain his painterly instincts with sound-beds, his ability to craft engaging, sometimes breathtaking soundscapes out of atypical colors and amorphous forms.
“That’s what I’m after – that feeling of floating in nowhere,” Morgan said, “rather than being hand-held and being told, ‘You need to feel sad here. You need to feel elated here.’”
Morgan told me he worried he was leaning a little too heavily on the “score to an imaginary film” crutch after Monument Builders, from 2016. Though Philip Glass always has loomed large in Morgan’s canon, he said he took inspiration for the new record from the cloud photography of Alfred Steiglitz, which also was titled “Equivalents.” Morgan called the process of recording and mixing the new work, which is more abstract than the ambient sound-stories of Monument Builders, both a technical and emotional endeavor.
“I think that there’s sort of a struggle to find that space between technology and expression and abstraction – the place where they all exist,” he said. “I’m always so tempted to drive in other elements, like rhythm and melody. I wanted to get back [on the new record] to density, to cloud-like structures.”
The new work leaves much room for interpretation. Even the titles – each track is simply called “Equivalents,” followed by a number indicating the order in which they were created – bare few clues. The record’s jacket is adorned with Morgan’s black-and-white photographs of clouds, which, after careful inspection, begin to look even a little alien to an Earth-bound landscape, almost works of abstract art in their own right.
“Part of the goal, too, is to allow a little subjectivity for the listener,” Morgan said. “If you give people too many tip-offs – this is dark, this is light – they’re taken aback.”
The visuals on the record’s jacket are no accident; Morgan said he’s increasingly integrating his interests in photography and graphic design into his oeuvre as Loscil. When I saw him perform at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh several years ago, he stood in front of a large film screen, on which were projected videos that seemed to draw from images of Sea Island.
The live performances also provide a template for some improvisation, which is unexpected given how fully formed, even scripted, most of Morgan’s work seems.
“The biggest difference [between the recordings and playing live] is I can elongate and manipulate sounds a little bit,” Morgan said. “It’s more of a fluid trip than a set of pieces. The guts are the same. The sounds are the same. The instruments are mostly inside the computer anyway. I find it interesting I have the ability to play with it, to mix it differently.”
“That’s why I’m there, I guess,” he added, with a laugh.
The Loscil project, some might be surprised to hear, also is informed by video games. Morgan worked for 10 years in the gaming field and still does contract work. He’s currently doing sound design and music – under the name Loscil – for a game called Lifelike, set to be released this fall on Apple’s new subscription game service. The game, which also is highly abstract, centers around the technology of particle manipulation.
“On indie games and mobile games, I am the sound team,” he said. “There is no escaping the work. And you get lost in the design. You can’t make a linear piece of music that has a beginning and an end.”
That, he said, makes it a little different than working on films – even imaginary ones, which have all sorts of prescriptions for editing and time.
“It can be rewarding, for sure,” Morgan said. “When you think about film, it’s such a beaten path. With interactive stuff, there’s a lot of guesswork. There’s a lot of trial and error. You’re in new territory quite often.”
In the end, though, Morgan has done an exceptional job staying true to the overall tone of the Loscil moniker. While he is not bound by convention, his sound-pictures do have a similarity to them, almost a kind of handwritten signature. That’s no accident.
“There’s definitely been lots of details in my work, if you will, that have come and gone,” Morgan told me. “But, in the end, it’s about grabbing new sounds, shaping new sounds and spitting them our with whatever’s in front of me.” – Justin Vellucci, MusicTAP, July 19, 2019