The first instalment of 2022 and the first in quite some time brings the conversation to Iván Muela, the multi-instrumentalist, sound artist and composer based in London. Iván’s most recent album, ‘Monologues’ (RTR049) opened the new year for the label, featuring five tracks of generative composition, layered synths, tape loops, and effects pedal processing. Iván is also an accomplished performer, taking to stages throughout the UK and further afield in Europe, with a focus on improvisation, chance, and the momentary.
In this feature, Iván discusses his early introductions to ambient and experimental music, composition as a therapeutic process, creative limitations, and the cassette as a democratic medium. There’s also a selection of listening recommendations provided, covering looping soundscapes, drones, and free improvisation.
How did you first get introduced to ambient/drone/experimental music?
I think my curiosity for this kind of music has always been there. When I discovered shoegaze in my teens it blew my mind. I had been playing piano since I was a child and I picked up a guitar at 13, but those layered walls of sound were something that I hadn’t heard before and I connected with it very quickly and very strongly. I guess I’ve always found words limiting, so textural music has always appealed to me for its ability to convey a message that is extremely abstract and open so it can be interpreted in very different ways. I would say my first ambient discovery was Rafael Anton Irisarri’s ‘The Shameless Years’. I remember being hit by a wave of emotions and feeling fascinated by how he was creating something so big out of repeating short loops.
What inspires you to create a new body of work?
I would lie if I said that I start with an idea or emotion in mind. The concept usually takes shape during the writing process, as I start reacting to the ideas that turn up, and then reacting to my own reactions. Often, it’s only when I’ve finished a piece that I start analysing it and understanding where it came from or why I did it in a certain way. It can be very therapeutic and very cathartic.
Overall, when I’m working on ambient or experimental music, I think it often comes from a place of trying to offset some anger or anxiety. It can also be an exercise to force myself to sit still and focus on small soundscape changes, so that my head can stop wandering around and be more present.
How do you approach working on a new release?
I get easily overwhelmed by the infinity of tools and options available to make music, so I normally have to restrict myself to some kind of system. This could be using only one particular piece of gear or effect chain, being restricted to one particular scale or working in a limited time frame. My EP ‘Five Questions’ was written entirely by playing piano in the dark just before drifting off to sleep. ‘How Much Left Gone’ came from the idea of trying to tell a story reducing the harmonic content to the minimum – or sometimes not having notes at all, only the noise coming from the equipment itself.
I like to create a system that I’m not fully in control of. So, it generates musical ideas that then I react to, and then slowly the music starts taking shape. I really enjoy approaching composition as a conversation between me and – I don’t know, chaos?
Can you tell us about your favourite new release from the last 12 months?
It’s hard to pick one, there have been a few albums that I have really enjoyed recently. I love Spirit Was’ debut album ‘Heaven’s Just a Cloud’. It feels like a hand-painted film, painted on a complex and beautiful canvas, and I like how it mixes seamlessly tender melodies with heavy textures from doom and folk.
I also love Trio Ramberget’s ‘24 Ways Vol. 1’. They’re such a precious band and I can’t wait to hear the other two albums of this trilogy.
As RTR is a tape label, we have to ask: What attracts you to the cassette medium?
Many reasons. It’s relatively cheap, which makes it quite democratic – any label or artist can afford to make a short run of cassettes and sell it online these days. It’s also relatively fast to manufacture too, which helps create a continuity between creation and distribution. I think this immediacy is crucial to some kinds of music in order to capture a message and pass it on to the listener while it’s still vivid. Cassettes are also a pretty medium to collect, especially as you start playing with different colours and materials. As a 90’s kid, it still brings me nostalgia from my early days of finding music.