PROFILE: High Plains (2017)

For those who haven’t been paying attention, Cinderland — the debut LP from Scott Morgan and Mark Bridges, the duo known as High Plains — is a serious early contender for year-end Top Ten lists. It is elegiac and nuanced stuff, at once dreamy and funereal; the record just ebbs and flows from your turntable speakers. Popdose recently got the opportunity to speak with Scott, from Vancouver, and Mark, from Madison, Wis., via e-mail. This is the transcription.

POPDOSE: Your debut sounds absolutely incredible, a real accomplishment. Was this a function of your surroundings at the Wyoming ranch? Your method(s) of working together? Good equipment? In short, how did you get those wonderful sounds?

SCOTT: Thank you.  I think the landscape around us was a huge inspiration and definitely plays a big role in the sound of Cinderland.  The vastness and ruggedness of the Wyoming landscape is breathtaking and we coupled all our creative time with time in the environment, snowshoeing, hiking, field recording and soaking in the local hot springs.  I would guess we would not have made the same record in a different location.  That being said, Mark and I did bring some things with us.  Mark clearly brought his cello, which is the keystone sound of the record.  He also brought some harmonic ideas that we ended up spinning variations from.  A great deal of the material I was working with digitally was sourced from the cello itself.  We were also lucky to have a grand piano on site and both those instruments get quite deconstructed and reconstructed in a digital sense by me.  There was even a strange, decorative, drum in Mark’s room we ended up using for percussion sounds.  Add to this the sounds of the actual environment (creaking trees in the wind, the lapping of the nearby creek) and you get a sound palette that is quite rich and inspiring to work with.  This is a very comfortable way of working for me – to source your sounds first, build a palette and then start carving and designing with those timbres.  The forced parameters are very helpful creatively.

POPDOSE: Were “those timbres” a kind of comment or reflection on the landscape, though? I mean, should we be looking at Cinderland as a kind of instrumental song cycle about that Wyoming ranch?

MARK: I think the individual songs capture subtle changes in tone and aren’t meant to be taken too literally. The musical language we used to make this record is very connected to the place where it was made, but our intention was not to allude to to that place. We never talked about trying to capture the feel of Wyoming or the ranch specifically, but we were open to the influence of the surroundings and Scott and I went in knowing that field recordings would be a part of constructing the sound palette. The openness of the space and exposure to the elements were influential to me. Everything on the ranch seemed to be dormant or dead, and at that time of year it had been for some time. There was always this feeling for me like the deadness had been pretty well established, but was still very temporary, like a renewal was nigh. The anticipation I had about the return of life was exciting for me, but I knew we wouldn’t be there to see it. In a more concrete way, the thin air at 7,000 ft. affected my sleep in a pretty profound way. I never slept for more than 15 or 20 consecutive minutes for the entire two weeks I was there and I had very emotional dreams every night. When I listen to the record, I can hear this sleepless feeling but it’s well balanced with a grounded feeling, which I think has a lot to do with Scott.

POPDOSE: I’m surprised you didn’t allude to that sleeplessness explicitly with a song title. The, for lack of a better word, ethereal nature of parts of the record would have fit well with it. Speaking of song content, can one of you elaborate on the titles, or on the meaning of the phrase Cinderland?

SCOTT: For me, titling abstract, instrumental music is more of a poetic act that an overt statement of ideas.  We were looking for words and names that evoked the landscape to some extent.  “Ten Sleep,” for example, is the name of a town in Wyoming.  It apparently got its name by being ten sleeps away on horseback from the nearest fort.  As for Cinderland, we don’t have a specific recollection of the genesis of the title.  Where we were staying in Wyoming was close to Medicine Bow.  Medicine Bow had a huge fire a number of years ago and is still in recovery from that.  I think this, combined with the general sentiment of a severe and rugged environment, where life of all sorts struggles to survive lead us to wanting a title that somehow reflected that.

Along with this, Mark and I both shared a love and respect for Schubert’s Die Wintereise song cycle.  Though the influence is vague and indirect, I think this kind of mid-19th century Romanticism, fixated both on the sublime qualities of nature and the solitary emotional despair of lost love is interesting when blended with the rugged, harsh, unforgiving winter landscape of Wyoming.  So there’s an underlying flavour there that we also were tapping into.

POPDOSE: I can hear the Schubert influence on the recording, for sure. Scott, and maybe Mark, too, how was creating these sounds different for working on your own, in loscil, in other projects?

SCOTT: The fundamental difference is loscil is a solo endeavour.  With few exceptions, I create all the music alone in my studio and then perhaps reach out to performers from time to time to play parts or improvise over the finished works.  With High Plains, Mark and I entered the room together with nothing but a vague set of ideas and zero expectations.  We created everything together from scratch.  Every single bit of this record is the result of a back and forth and that is truly different for me.  I think what worked so well for us is that, while we shared the role of composer equally, we divided the other work in different ways.  Mark’s skill set is clearly more of a cellist and this adds such a rich dimension to the the music, whereas I took on more of a producer role handling the recording, sound design, mixing, etc.

MARK: I think my role as a performer with the symphony and as a chamber musician is much more interpretive rather than generative. This experience informs the way use harmony and just generally gives me a sensitivity to the language of many different composers. I was happy that my classical background gave me a lot of fodder to create. A lot of the decisions I made musically in the creation of Cinderland felt pretty intuitive, but the intuition is largely based on my experience playing other people’s music. Making this record was a new type of process for me and one that I enjoyed very much.

POPDOSE: Mark and Scott, can both of you give me a kind of quick lesson on when you started composing original music like this? Mark, you talk about experience playing other peoples music. How much of the new record do you two think is informed by canonical texts?

MARK: This is the first time I’ve ever worked in this way to compose. I tend to compose tiny pieces for cello or piano on my own, record what I’ve made and then never listen to them again. Composing in the moment with Scott felt effortless and obviously I have listened to the record again.

With respect to interpretation, every composer has their own musical language, so when I play someone else’s music, part of my job is to try to understand that language as quickly as possible and to try to show my audience what is interesting about it. Everything is written in a score and you have to make your own sense of that based on what you know about the shared tradition and what you know about the composer and composition. There’s a lot involved in getting close to the music. With original composition, you’re speaking your own language presumably, so you’re already very close to the music. The process feels very different. Making Cinderland required a combination of those skills. Scott has a distinct style and I had to compose or play in conversation with his language.

As far as use of the classical canon, the harmonies we used and the voicing of those harmonies are very appropriate to the early 1800s, the time when Schubert and Beethoven were composing. That style is certainly referenced. Some of it is intentional, some of it is just me not being able to help myself.

POPDOSE: Tell me how this experience of performance and recording conversations differed from Adrift, the app for which, Mark, you recorded in — what? — 2015? I assume it was more collaborative, no? More of a dialogue?

MARK: The Adrift cello parts were written down ahead of time. Nothing on Cinderland was pre-composed, nor was it ever written down. Each track really evolved through a back and forth between Scott and I through conversation with our respective instruments. It was a mix of improvisation and the deliberate building of sounds over time that helped things take shape.

POPDOSE: Well, things definitely took shape. What’s next for you guys? Will you perform together as High Plains? Will you pursue more recording and, if you do, will you go back to Wyoming?

SCOTT: Yes, we are performing five shows along with kranky act Anjou in May:  Minneapolis, Madison, Milwaukee, Chicago and New York (all dates listed on highplains.ca).  I think we would both like to continue the project and see where it goes.  There is no indication right now where or when this would happen.  It’s also unknown how similar or different it would be to the first endeavour.  I think the core idea of planting ourselves in an unfamiliar location and seeing what happens will be something we aim for again, but it’s unlikely it will be in Wyoming next time.

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