The Miracle of Meaning; or, “The Strife of Love in a Dream”
Turns out, darkened synth-pop and metal arrive at the same destination, having traveled far from distant origins. Despite differences in instrumentation (including vocals), production, and arrangement, both forms of music exude a common intensity: their ethereal but palpable essences, i.e. the way these particular arrangements of noises make you feel. Some call it the “beauty” of music; others see it as profound messaging for their souls, everlasting and nurturing. The idea is that the same (heightened) state of mind can be invoked by two aesthetically distinct means of audial stimulation.
Perhaps the truth isn’t determined by an object’s form, but rather the object’s effect on self-perception, the looking-glass. Perhaps the object is nonexistent, and it’s all just movement, desire, satiation, and death. Perhaps introspection is research; perhaps all data points are infinitely variable; perhaps surface and depth equate. Perhaps subjectivity was objectivity all along.
What then is a Miracle? It’s an oftentimes astounding and ultimately beneficial violation of “What We Know To Be True And Possible;” it’s subjectivity taking momentous precedence over objectivity, not destroying it, but rendering it irrelevant instead. The Strife of Love in a Dream is, unto itself, a headspace where this phenomenon occurs. Invigoratingly detaching, unstoppably catchy, decisively postmodern: here’s an exclusive stream of “Sulfur.”
“Sulfur” backbones The Strife of Love in a Dream with its unabashed poppiness, juxtaposed by moody synths and space-time singing. Its beat moves your insides, both tangibly and intangibly, serving an important purpose: holding onto your attention so you don’t have to, freeing up that metal bandwidth for, say, deeper exploration. Or inner discovery and the search for self-meaning. As you fade into the ether of “Sulfur” toward its midpoint, it accelerates into a culminating wall of electronic noise, densely layered and gorgeously textured. Here is where total enrapturement takes over; here is where, for that briefest of instants, your train of thought releases from its conscious bindings and is thereby able to dig deeper into your mind’s mysterious annals.
Miracle is comprised of Daniel O’Sullivan (Ulver) and Steve Moore (Zombi). We talked to O’Sullivan about his collaboration with Moore, the nature of music, and the subjectivity of life.
I read that the beginning of Miracle started with something having to do with an instrumental dance project — obviously, it turned into something else. What’s the origin story of the band?
Well, Steve — as you know, he plays in this band Zombi — at the that time, I was playing in a band, a more avant progressive rock-type band I suppose you could describe it, and we were touring the States together because we shared a booking agent at the time. I think we just, you know, [our] musical trajectories were far more panoramic than the music we were exploring at that particular time. And we talked about doing other things, you know, as you do with your friends who are musical, you kind of have sort of a vague, fantastical notions of where you’d like to go next, and how you’d like to evolve in sound. We pursued that when we got back home, basically, and started kind of a long-distance relationship.
Initially, I suppose the initial conversation… it never really pans out, you know, as soon as you start sort-of describing what you’re going to do in no uncertain terms. The inclination, or the unconscious desire maybe, to stray away from that — or corrupt that — is strong. But there was talk about doing some sort of proto-house sort of… I don’t know, it’s funny, isn’t it? The language we use to describe something that’s quite ephemeral and ineffable. I wasn’t planning on singing, I wasn’t planning on anything really; just responding, a bit of a game of exquisite corpse, you know? One of us would send something and the other one would respond.
I suppose to surprise the person you’re conversing with, you go to uncharted territory in some way, even if that’s just within the confines of the sphere you decided to explore. I don’t know if that really answers your question, but that’s kind of the origin: it’s getting together, talking about music, getting excited, sending files. It’s still not really set in stone what it is, and that’s kind of what I like about it, it can gravitate toward different sonic archetypes, you know?
Specific to your writing process with Steve, would you say that it’s a collaboration, or do you find yourself in situations where you’re critical of each other, more feedback-based?
Tend not to be too critical. I think once you embark on a collaboration with somebody, there needs to be that sort of understanding — you need to be kind of on the same page to begin with. If you get into that scruity of the process, it disturbs the flow, and you get into a bit of a duality: what you consider to be right and wrong in sound, as opposed to having your preconceptions challenged. That’s the point of collaboration, isn’t it? It’s to draw something out of you that you wouldn’t necessarily explore.
So, being too critical at that precious stage when you’re forming your language I think is counterintuitive.
With respect to Steve, there’s a dynamic between you two that obviously plays out in the music, but did you come across any moments where you felt particularly challenged? Maybe not just as a musician, but a songwriter, or a collaborator?
Absolutely, but I wouldn’t necessarily argue that that was from Steve’s contribution. It’s more things that I’ve been working through on my own, perhaps more [like] lyrical ideas, concepts, trying to write songs about writing songs, in a way. That’s largely what I’m interested in, this sort-of mystery and those entanglements, putting those into some sort of recognizable living language that people can understand and relate to.
That’s the kind of stuff I struggle with. Sonically, I find music to be very easy. It’s gestural, it’s like being able to walk or run, or singing: coming up with melodies and imagining harmonic structure. It has never been something that I would consider problematic; that sort of gets into the love of life, the love of music, the love of sound. That comes very naturally, and I don’t really question it. I’ve worked with people who do, and those collaborations don’t tend to last very long [laughs].
In your mind, do you separate being a musician from being a songwriter, as two separate entities? Like, your technical skills and fluency in the language of music, as opposed from what comes from the heart, what’s deep within.
They’re related, aren’t they? It’s a bit like the relationship between the name and a known quantity, like hypostasis: there’s the object, then there’s the thing which stands behind the object, which is the foundation, which reinforces its [the object’s] presence. The language of music can inform so many different things, so many concepts and ideas and vernaculars, but in itself, it’s indiscriminate. It’s purely vibrational. It’s just that you steer it in whatever direction you see fit, whatever it is that you’re trying to articulate. You use the music and you shape it, mold it, and then you present it.
Some people do that in a very traditional way, using received structural identities, and others totally subvert. And I suppose I like the idea of both, in a way. I don’t see what we can’t do both. Like, we were talking about my daughter today with her uncle, saying she’s very good at maths, but she has a creative spirit, a creative impulse. It’s funny how those two things never really get to share the stage — maybe it’s something that is happening more with these millennials, they seem to have these super-abilities. They’re able to do many things at once.
But I think that’s maybe because we’re not discouraging it anymore, we’re not saying, “oh you’re like this, you’re like that.” You can be anything. Also, let’s not forget that there’s a mathematical component to everything, if you choose to look at it that way, especially music. I suppose it’s just that [merging] of contrasting ideas that I love: using ancient things from the deep past to the hypermodern, imagined future realities, things that are in bad taste; then things that are in good taste. Calling those things into question. Taking received phenomena and reassembling them: it allows you to obliterate any meaning it may have had.
It becomes an experience, and the only thing that really counts in your own experience. And when you make music, I truly believe it has to be that. I think if you’re too influenced by culture, that’s an external operating system, and it can affect your trajectory. Not necessarily in a negative way, but I don’t think that really matters. Most of my favorite artists were all troglodytes in a way: keep themselves to themselves, keep their process quiet, don’t rely too much on epigenetic, atmospheric influences. Just allow the self to express itself; allow the self-fountain to manifest and not be reduced by conceptual thinking.
That kind of destroys my next question, because I was going to ask what the intersection of the concept of pop music and the concept of darkness was. I guess if you take it from a postmodern lens, those concepts might not mean so much anymore, especially if you’re reimagining what they used to mean in a new framework where the subjective experience is the primary focus.
By the same rule, I think we are born with certain… I don’t think we’re born as tabula rasa; I think consciousness is from the very beginning, just like the body is born fully formed with organs. I think the mind is kind of a similar thing — it has an awareness that’s formed by the presence of symbolic arrangements or, in the Jungian sense, archetypes. They manifest usually as symbols, and they point towards the arch-mysterium, the thing we all recognize. That kind of lies beyond subjective thinking and subjective experience — it’s the other thing that informs the subjective thinking, isn’t it? As you said, “darkness.” It’s the forces from [a] personal unconscious place which press up against the conscious mind, and sometimes we resist. And I think when we resist, that creates that tension, that darkness.
The album… that’s a big theme within it, it is kind of a caricature of this album, and some of the voices that I embody in it are a result of this resistance, or the study of a mind that is oppressed its own sense of separateness. On the same token, there’s an expression of a liberated mind as well, one that understands that there are psychic structures that are not unique to the individual as well — and those things… you see those things, and we all recognize them. Those similar patterns, those symbols, the symbols in myths and in dreams, in art. It’s the awareness of those contents in the mind that we’re trying to evade because they define our destinies so much. I think we want to reverse that programming, and we want to widen or expand our view of consciousness and of reality, and realize that we’re really operating on a quite narrow bandwidth.
Life is more prismatic than it seems, and this organism we inhabit… it has to be a reduction by its very nature. The mind has the danger of also being reductionist, and in order to evolve as a species, we need to look further than that. Music is one technology for doing it, a really powerful one.
Listening to Miracle and knowing your background with Ulver, and then Steve’s background with Zombi, do you feel that any elements were drawn from past experiences into Miracle? Did any of your past come back up, not to haunt you, but to ask questions or to show you something [for] this new album?
Not so much, actually. I think it was quite refreshing, this record, in a sense, because I don’t think either of us were really sure we were going to make another record. And, there was nobody bashing down our doors [laughs], so to speak. We did it automatically, I suppose. He sent me some music quite a long time ago that I didn’t jump on at the time. Some of those tracks ended up being used for a record. Some of them were kind of sitting around; I just started working on them. It was quite an automatic process, I didn’t really think about it too much. Any kind of synchronicities that have emerged, that have something to do with the past, are purely incidental, and certainly not in any way harrowing or uncomfortable. They’re just funny little traits, I suppose.
It’s an easy process, a very relaxed process working with Steve. It doesn’t have this tension that sometimes you associate with playing [in a] band with an inherent anxiety attached to it, which just comes from intimacy. In a way, my relationship with Steve, even just from a physical perspective, is quite detached; but in that way, I think we bypass some of the hangups and get to something, a sort-of subterranean psychic space, quite easily. It’s not a coerced thing, it just sort of happens.
His sonic world, in my mind… I can describe it as grid-like, linear. And you can place yourself within them in various perspectives, if you think of sound in a geometric sense. His sound is very sharp and defined, and it’s also totally synthetic. So if you incorporate a human element, it immediately becomes hyperbole. It seems emphasized by its synthetic environment. You can do a lot with that; it gives you a lot of headroom in terms of creating multiple persona or, sonically, with harmonies and arrangements.
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It brings to mind the human/machine dynamic, as we move forward in time and things become more integrated in terms of people and the machines we create. I wonder to what extent music reflects that dynamic — you mention his music is synthetic, I don’t necessarily equate that with “machine-like,” but it calls to mind the same nature of things, something that’s systematic, or chartable, or mathematical. Call to mind the new album, and ask: what [does] it [bring] to mind about the future of music in an environment where humans and machines come closer and closer?
It’s mirroring something in culture that we’re all obsessed with at the moment, which is this notion of singularity: embedding machines with so much consciousness that they will decide for themselves how to most efficiently organize, therefore sort of ruling us out of the equation in order to become a technocratic, space-colonizing, empirical, elite sort of thing. That’s just so fully embedded in the collective mind now — it’s kind of just drama, as well.
The species may evolve in that direction, but it won’t matter, purely just because we are this completely ephemeral… the trouble is, in America or in the West generally, there is this need to become immortal. To impress ourselves on the landscape and to occupy and consume. And the nature of conquest lines up with the hand pointing West and saying, “go that way and plot yourselves there and maintain.” Whereas in the East, the whole idea is: someone who revered is someone who detaches themselves and releases karma so they don’t reincarnate, so they don’t come back, making much less of a devastating footprint on the biosphere.
It’s the war of these ideas, really. They’re just concepts. And there’s this whole world behind concepts, this whole world behind language, the space between our thoughts. Yes, music can exemplify the mechanized reality; but it’s a dramaturgy, it’s showing you, it’s giving you a performance of a potential dystopia or some sort of cataclysmic technocratic apocalypse. It isn’t that, it’s the sign for that.
In a lot of ways, I think of music (and visual art) as a social bellwether, almost a future predictor, of not necessarily where humanity is going, but of where our language is going, where our minds are going: what we dream about, the movies we create, and the dramas we come up with to express how we feel at any given moment. It’s interesting that certainly music plays a huge role in that, and it’s only audio, but it has such a profound impact on [not only] what we think, but also how we express how we think.
Yeah, exactly — and it also has such a huge effect not just on the mind, but such an effect on the body, when you’re generating sound using any instrument — but I would say specifically acoustic resonators, because I think that is the pure act of making sound, or the immediate act of making sound. Just creating it with no capacitors and transistors and anything of the sort. You create kind of a feedback loop, you are the object you make the sound with and the space between, and all the sounds that are going on within your body at that specific time, they’re all being channeled into the music.
It’s a complete form; and also so beautiful and melancholy, because it’s totally non-physical, which had made it the first victim of the patriarchy, because, let’s face it, it’s gotten the shitty end of the stick in terms of the free market and revolution of the Internet. It’s really suffered in terms of where capital is going to keep people afloat. It’s pretty hard out there for musicians, and I think that has to do with its non-physical manifestation, fundamentally, because we live in such a positivist, materialist sort of soul-hardening world. It seems kind of oddly sympatico to pull the rug from under the music industry, or from under music artists, not necessarily the industry — maybe the industry did need a shake-up, just in terms of people making a living out of it.