Jim Cole: Bislama Interview

jimandtower.jpg (14k) We're pleased to speak with Jim Cole, leader of Spectral Voices whose a cappela overtone harmonizing within a 120-ft.-tall abandoned water tower was featured in Sky and Coalescence (overviewed this month).

Jim is also collaborating with ambient artists such as vidnaObmana, Mathias Grassow and has just released Bislama with Alpha Wave Movement. Thanks to Jim for sharing!

Jim's Spectral Spiral Music website tells much more.

AmbiEntrance: Please introduce yourself to our readers.

Cole: In 1991 I heard recordings of the Tibetan monks and the Harmonic Choir's Hearing Solar Winds and was absolutely stunned at what these voices were doing. The whistle-like slowly evolving melodies that Timothy Hill and David Hykes do so well with their voices on that album especially seemed to cut straight into my heart emotionally and spiritually. I had dabbled in acoustic guitar during my college years, preferring to play it with no vocal accompaniment, as I had no interest in the voice.

Soon after hearing those recordings I began to sing along with Hearing Solar Winds, mostly for the joy and calmness it brought, and then as an attempt to mimic and learn how to do harmonic overtone singing. This fascination and practice with harmonic singing led me to listen to, and begin to appreciate, many vocal forms including: Georgian polyphony (a la Rustavi Choir), Bobby McFerrin, Qawwali - especially Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Toby Twining, medieval chant (especially as performed by Ensemble Organum, Hilliard Ensemble, and Anonymous 4), pygmy yodeling, the Bulgarian women's choirs, Inuit throat singing, Mongolian Hoomi, Gregorian chant as performed by the Schola Hofburgcappelle and much more (it was much later that I heard the Tuvan throat singers).

After learning some of the rudiments of harmonic singing I sought out reverberant spaces (mostly church sanctuaries, stone crypts etc.) to sing in and others joined me for these informal practice sessions. The meditative effects of chanting long drones and layering with harmonic overtones entranced us, and the interaction of two or more gathered within these resonant spaces was spellbinding. This was the beginning of our journey towards ambient vocal spacemusic.

AmbiEntrance: What are some favorite memories of your time in the Peace Corps?

Cole: Floating on my back in an aquamarine bay with friends off the beaches of southern Thailand looking up at the limestone cliffs and musing "...Ahhh, the toughest job you'll ever love, eh??!!!"

There are so many positive memories of being with various Thais and feeling so graced by their deep hospitality, friendliness and generousity of spirit. These experiences began during training when my host family welcomed me to their home. Some favorite times were sitting together with teachers and others in my village in Krabi (my assignment second year was in this southern Thai province and by then I was fairly fluent) simply enjoying the time together chatting. Even though I always was self-conscious on some level that I was "the foreigner" and always would be, there were many fine moments where I truly felt at home in that community, and some beautiful friendships were born there.

AmbiEntrance: Does this tie directly into your current "day job" of finding jobs for incoming refugees?

Cole: Yes, absolutely! When I returned in 1987 I wanted to keep in touch with the culture that had such a wonderful influence on my life. I began to volunteer at a refugee resettlement agency (while doing special education teaching full time work where by the way, I met Alan Dow) and assisted several Laotian families. I had lived in the northeast region (essentially Laotian culture) of Thailand my first year as a Peace Corps volunteer and felt very much at "home" with the Laotians I met in the Hartford area - they also helped me to keep my language skills honed.

Soon I heard of a full time job developer position at another agency, applied, and was hired. Over the years I have assisted families from many different cultures as war and political upheaval has devastated their countries and my original connection in this work to Laos/Thailand is long passed. I think the "volunteer spirit" tie remains, as I witness it everyday where I work.

AmbiEntrance: What led you to Suan Mokh Monastery, and what happened there?

Cole: I had been becoming increasingly interested in Buddhism since college and while in Thailand (95% Buddhist population) this interest peaked. I had begun meditating and felt that there was much in the philosophy and way of life from which I could benefit. I also sensed that a deeper understanding of Buddhism would enable me to understand much more about Thai culture - the society and structure, the psychology - basically, to gain insight into much that I encountered in the first two years I was in Thailand.

Several friends and my then Thai girlfriend encouraged me to spend some time absorbing the contemplative monastic life, and indeed most young Thai males ordain as monks once in their lives for a rainy season retreat (three - four lunar months) as a kind of initiation. So, I investigated which monastery might be most beneficial, and after my PC service was over and I had traveled to the Himalayas, I came back to Thailand and ordained for the rainy season at Suan Mokh.

It was a fascinating, valuable experience that I will always look upon fondly. It was quite frustrating at times, especially after adapting fairly easily to the outer rigors, and then finding how slippery my mind was. I remember the sensory deprivation giving rise to deafening symphonies blaring in my head while I was trying to meditate about three weeks into the stint. Also, so much garbage came to the fore in my consciousness and became magnified until I felt quite stressed and devoid of peace.

The routine of that life seemed ideally suited to peace of mind and serenity: Wake up in your tiny hut at 4 AM to a gong, walk to the community gathering place and chant Buddhist scriptures in Thai and Pali for an hour or so, meditate, walk calmly and silently with a bowl on a specified route through villages for your daily food, eat the only meal of the day in the community area with the other monks, clean your hut and surrounding area, attend lectures and classes led by the veteran monks and abbott, meditate, do some community work with the other monks (like constructing new buildings in the monastery), take a walk and contemplate, gather for the evening chant, meditate, sleep, and do nearly the same all over again next day.

Sometimes I helped the other American monk ("Santikaro" had already been there several years after his time in the Peace Corps) lead silent retreats for foreigners passing through and this helped to break up the monotony. I chose to go specifically to Suan Mokh partly so that I would have a way to process with an experienced American, and partly because of the abbott (Buddhathasa), who was well known and sort of revolutionary in his ideas and in the way he set up life at Suan Mokh. Ultimately and eventually this experience led to many inner revelations and to my growing up, and to a peace of mind that has had enduring effects even to this day - and I suspect will continue to affect my life.

AmbiEntrance: Can you give a brief explanation just how overtone singing works... can anyone do it?

Cole: Yes, anyone can do it. When we sing, speak, or use our voice any which way, there are many tones emitted at every moment. There is a basic tone (the fundamental) and then there are numerous harmonic overtones above that correspond to twice, thrice, 4 times, 5, 6, 7 times etc. the frequency of the fundamental tone. We don't usually hear these tones distinctly in everyday speech and song, but rather hear the particular combination of them in the moment as timbre (or tone color). It's easier to hear them as separate tones if one slows down the vocal changes.

For example, if one drones one note and doesn't change the vowel shape or changes it very, very slowly one can hear distinct harmonic overtones hovering over the basic tone without any special vocal technique or development, but rather simply through careful attention and listening. Once hearing the harmonics, one can then begin to experiment with modifying vowel shapes and modulate all the vocal apparatus (lips, tongue, jaw, mouth, throat, chest, diaphragm, etc.) in various ways to bring out particular tones and let them ring distinctly.

It's a wonderful biofeedback process - an interaction of mind and body through continual listening, adjustment and refinement to amplify intended harmonics while suppressing other undesired tones. It's really very easy to begin hearing harmonics in one's voice but it is arduous to get proficient at it like say, the Tuvans who ring out harmonic melodies so clear and loud, suppressing the fundamental so far that it no longer sounds at all like a human voice.

AmbiEntrance: How/when did Spectral Voices come about; who else is involved?

Cole: It developed from the informal sessions in the churches I referred to and in the water tower '91-'96 era and continues to evolve and change to this day. Throughout all the changes of personnel and refinement of sound and approaches to improvisation, Alan Dow and myself are the constant collaborators in this project. In fact, about 70% of the track time on Coalescence is just two voices singing together in the tank - Alan's and mine. Jim Desmond has been consistently with us performing and practicing since '96 and Geoffrey Brown came in a couple of years ago, so we are pretty much a foursome right now.

AmbiEntrance: How did you "discover" the abandoned water tower?

Cole: It was hearing Pauline Oliveros' Deep Listening (recorded in a two million gallon cistern) in 1993 that propelled me to look for such an awe inspiring reverberation chamber locally. We had been practicing harmonic singing for about two years in reverberant spaces but they were nothing remotely approaching this level of ambience. I just knew that taking harmonic singing into this kind of space would be perfect and lead to much innovation musically.

I went tapping on and throwing rocks at water towers all around the area, checking out underground concrete bunkers, and called many water department engineers in towns around the area. Eventually, I was tipped off by a kind one who knew of this abandoned water tower on land that had reverted back to the original owner (who had gone out of business so it was foreclosed and in a bank's possession).

I went there with pipe wrench and liquid wrench in hand, opened up the hatch at the bottom of this 120-foot tall monster, and was transfixed by the most gorgeous natural ambience when I stuck my head through the opening to hear inside.

AmbiEntrance: I understand there was an incident with the law?

Cole: hh yes, indeed! I thought no business entity in its corporate mind would ever entertain the possibility of allowing harmonic overtone chanters to enter their property and risk liability etc. As the tower was on otherwise undeveloped industrial land in the woods I figured if we were careful to remain inconspicuous (it was a "party" spot with the local teens so we parked far away in a nearby mall and walked in so as not to attract police attention - once in there no one would know we were there as the tank wall isolated sounds so well that even screaming inside could be heard no further than about five feet from outside the tower) we would be doing no one harm and our secret would remain unknown.

Thus we used the tower on several occasions. Well, one night we were with a woman who was about seven months pregnant and I didn't want her to have to hike through to the space so we parked on a dirt road that led fairly close to the tower. We were inside blissfully becoming harmonic when we heard the squawk harmonics of a police radio nearby. The officer was checking out the car and I went out to meet him rather than allow the possibility of him coming to the tank scared of what might be happening inside

Despite my resonant rendition of the "Star Spangled Banner" he cited us for trespassing (actually "Break and Entry" level of trespass as we had to remove the bolt-secured clamps to get in) and we had to go to superior court. That whole fiasco is an amusing story because we tried at first to go without a lawyer thinking we could just pay a fine and be on our merry ways. When the prosecutor confronted me with "90 days and $500" and the judge intervened and asked if we wanted a continuance, I answered "uh, y-yyy-y-yes, uh-uh y-y-your honor!" (and I'm thinking in my shocked state "What's up with this, three months in jail and $500 each for chanting in an empty water tower???!!!"

The end result was quite fortunate in that "randomly" I happened to get an attorney who just happened to have done some work for the bank who owned the foreclosed property the tank was on, so it was rather easy for him to get us off the charges and then I contracted him to set up an agreement with the bank to use the tower legally. I would like again publicly to thank Tolland Bank for allowing us to use that tower free for the two and a half years we had in there before the land was sold and it was demolished.

AmbiEntrance: I have to ask... what effect was singing the Star Spangled Banner to the cop supposed to have?

Cole: In trying to describe what we were doing trespassing on that private industrial lot I realized he had no clue, so using a simple familiar melody seemed the best way to convey to him the sense of our vocalizing. That is also why I like to sing first without a mike and amplification in performances. People who have never heard this kind of singing often do not understand explanations of it and their eyes sort of glaze over as I talk about what we do. Thereās an immediate connection and truth in hearing it solo live directly that dispels any notion that it is a trick of electronics or a kind of whistling, etc. But, I suppose my promotion/education efforts with that policeman were in vain as he gave a mixture of looks between bemused tolerance ("yeah kid, I've seen it all!") and even greater suspicion.

AmbiEntrance: Describe the scene of the session(s) that became Coalescence and Sky.

Cole: The second time we went into the tower legally and set up to record using my new DAT machine and stereo mike it was a warm July evening, the sun was setting, and thrushes, titmice, sparrows and other birds were singing. We left the hatch open at first because the tank was so hot inside. The first chord you hear on Sky is the first sound we made that evening, and in fact, that entire album is from that evening. The focus, wonder and spirituality that pervaded was incredible! We sang for about two hours, pausing at times to listen to the natural ambience, but we never spoke during that session until it was clear that it was all over. We felt so in touch emotionally, musically, spiritually, and it was clear that something magically beautiful was happening.

Coalescence on the other hand is a melding of many sessions - more "cuts" in the sense that Alan and I culled very specific moments of about 130 hours of recordings (numerous sessions!) to create that album and much of the creative process was finding how to sequence the pieces into a coherent flowing whole. One of the pieces, "Celestial Tides," was also from that Sky evening session. When we recorded all the sessions in the water tower we were simply documenting our mostly informal improvisations, with no mind or expectation of releasing them to the public (it was only with a grant from the CT Commission on the Arts that our debut Coalescence was born).

AmbiEntrance: How different would your recording career have been without the tower?

Cole: Likely there would have been no career to speak of! I cannot emphasize enough how integral and influential that space was to our singing and to the overall "Spectral Voices" sound that originally evolved in there.

AmbiEntrance: You've just released Bislama with Alpha Wave Movement; how did this project originate?

Cole: Andy Taylor at WWUH (West Hartford CT) connected us after Greg (AWM) moved into the area and was looking for ambient-minded musicians to collaborate with. Greg and I sensed immediately after meeting one another that, despite our different approaches and choice of instruments, collaboration would bring out the best in us musically. So Greg began composing the first couple of tracks and gave me recordings of this work for me to improvise with, and it all flowed beautifully from there.

AmbiEntrance: Tell us about your collaboration with vidnaObmana.

Cole: Chuck van Zyl paired us up to open for vidnaObmana at a Star's End Gathering. After the concert Dirk and I discovered a mutual admiration and he asked me to send him some vocal sources for his then upcoming projects (The Surreal Sanctuaryand its follow up The Contemporary Nocturne). He was very impressed with the 120 minutes of sources I gave him, which by the way, were recorded dry direct to DAT through my stereo mike in our living room.

When I heard how he melded these into his compositions I was completely blown away by the wonder he brought out in them and by how deftly he integrated them into his work. He did a magnificent job processing my voice to bring out subtle qualities. We have been collaborating by mail since then and the highlight last fall was finally meeting again in person and then introducing our "Harmonic Fusion" project onstage together in West Hartford.

One of the recordings I sent Dirk last year was an extended improvisation on the steel cello and he plans to use it on an upcoming album. I am eager to hear it blended with his creation! So our collaboration continues to develop and a deep friendship is growing from this process as well. I was thrilled to finally show him and Chuck our home and my main place of inspiration complete with waterfall.

AmbiEntrance: How did you hook up with Mathias Grassow for your upcoming CD, The Hollow?

Cole: I contacted Mathias to ask if he would like to trade CD's. After we traded he was keen on having me send him some vocal sources as well. I was of course quite flattered by this request and when I heard his completion of The Hollow I was astonished at this innovative creation: the mixture of deep organic ambient textures (both electronic and acoustic sources) and harmonic singing is magnificent. This will be a stunning release and I am looking forward to doing further collaborations with Mathias - to my mind he's a musical genius.

AmbiEntrance: How much/which of these collaborative efforts happened live vs. how much was done separately in the studio?

Cole: Greg (Alpha Wave Movement) initiated most of the pieces in his studio alone and then gave me tapes. Two of the pieces on Bislama were improvised live in his studio late at night and one track was built up layer by layer at Paranoise studio. With Mathias and Vidna it has been all done "separately" except for the rehearsal and concert with Dirk last fall when he came here.

AmbiEntrance: In the case of the Bislama tracks, did you prefer the separate studio work or the live improvisational technique? Why?

Cole: Live improvisation is dear and represents the main approach of Spectral Voices and Leland Burr to date. That is why I enjoyed the recording process with the Bislama project, because it represented a fairly unfamiliar approach to me. I tried hard to practice each section over and over until it seemed just right, then going into Paranoise Studio to document it.

This is a very difficult process for me and I must admit there were times when I utterly failed to produce satisfactory results. Still, there was something overall more enjoyable in developing this discipline, and it was definitely most enjoyable to hear the final edits from this approach.

AmbiEntrance: Would it be shamelessly self-centered of me to ask about the Bislama artwork?

Cole: Shamelessly? No, I donāt think so David!!! Seriously, you produced album artwork that closely suggests the theme and feel of the music extraordinarily, and did so with spare instruction from us. I am totally pleased with it... thanks! I am quite eager to view the artwork you are doing for The Hollow and am sure it will complement the music very well.

AmbiEntrance: I understand you "make house calls." Tell us about you "home concert series."

Cole: Yes, I am offering to come perform in people's homes - or anywhere where they are most comfortable - to provide the most intimate ambience imaginable for the audience. It can be me solo, with Spectral Voices, or with Leland Burr. In exchange for providing a space and gathering at least a dozen other people, the host pays nothing for the concert and also receives complimentary copies of our albums. Leland Burr has performed at a few homes with great success, and I envision Spectral Voices performing in such a home concert at a level akin to the sleep concert Spectral Voices recently did at Mantic Arts Center in Massachusetts. I believe this kind of venue has great and valuable potential.

AmbiEntrance: "Who" is Leland Burr?

Cole: Leland Burr is either an obscure 17th century playwright or a miscommunication with a friend during a phone conversation (ask Larry!).

Leland Burr is an improvisational performance group that consists of founder Larry D. (keyboards, chong, flutes, broken auto-harp, kalimbas, Vietnamese clackers, water pan weirdness, and almost anything else [in]conceivable), Geoffrey Brown (percussion, looping, harmonic overtone and subfundamental singing) and myself (steel cello, bowed and plucked tamboura, harmonic singing of various styles, vocalizations, looping).

Probably our finest venue so far has been performing at the Salvador Dali opening and closing parties at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. We have described our music as "Surreal hypno-ambient world tribal grooves and beyond" but these are just words - we honestly never know what music will come next from ourselves and we simply attempt to respond in the moment to the often surprising, inspiring and wonderful music that happens when we play. Leland Burr performs often and we have just finished mixing our third album Hover.

AmbiEntrance: What is a "Winter Solstice Labyrinth Walk"?

Cole: Labyrinth walks are basically where people come to walk meditatively through a labyrinth (templates based on circuits found in Chartres Cathedral) laid out in a church sanctuary (in the ones we've performed at so far). The Winter Solstice Labyrinth Walk of '99 resulted in an album project with cellist/flutist Kevin Makarewiczcalled Labyrinth Walk Live (it also includes percussion by Matt Moadel). This kind of contemplative atmosphere is ideal for kinds of improvising I/we like to do and I hope to perform at many more labyrinth ceremonies with Spectral Voices and with other musicians and musical configurations.

AmbiEntrance: Do you have any future projects you could tell us about?

Cole: We Spectral Voices will continue to perform and hope to record some new material now that we have adequate equipment to "mimic" the tower and other grand reverberant spaces. I will probably continue to collaborate with other musicians and explore those many fruitful paths too. There is one more album to mix and master from the "water tower trilogy" and I hope to produce it fairly soon. It is called Innertones and features a 20-minute solo piece (title track) with tamboura in the tower. Oh yes, there is also my contribution to the new Paranoise (progressive rock group) album Ishq. That will be out very soon and one piece features a wall of electric guitar chords with about a dozen overdubs of Kargiraa (the Tuvan guttural chant) and Terrence McKenna's philosophy interspersed, along with much, much more.

AmbiEntrance: Thanks very much for sharing with us Jim; any parting words?

Cole: Ooooaaaeeeewwwwrrrrrrrhhhhhh!!!

You are welcome. Thank you also for the insightful questions that inspired reflection. I am grateful for the opportunity you have provided here to share about our music and us.

This interview posted April 30, 2001 | Interview Index

AmbiEntrance © 2001-1997 by David J Opdyke (except CD cover art, rights retained by original owners).