Michael Stearns interview

Featured interview in Dreams Word #10
An Interview With

DREAMS WORD: What are your earliest memories about music? Did you have a very musical family?

MICHAEL STEARNS: No, not overtly musical. My mom was in her role as a housewife and my dad was a medical doctor. Still when I was very young, my dad had a fondness for classical music and on Sunday mornings we’d have a quiz. He’d play various pieces from different composers and the kids would try to figure out who it was and what piece it was. l grew up in Tucson Arizona.

DW: How did you start out as a musician?

MS: l started out by playing surf music back in 1962 at the age of thirteen. It was instrumental music. I played in a number of different bands. The first band l played in was called the Breakers, which lasted from about 1964 to 1967. l think the highlight of that time was about 1966 when our band got to play backup for Paul Revere and the Raiders and, a few weeks later, the Lovin’ Spoonful. That was the height of my surf music “career” so to speak.

After that I went away to college and started smoking these funny cigarettes. I got into playing acid rock and listening to Cream, Jimmy Hendryx, Blue Cheer… you name it. I was in college from ’68 to 69. Then the big explosion happened. I dropped out. Everyone, including myself, had all these expectations that I would go to college and become whatever I would become in a professional sense. When I dropped out, I was stopping the momentum of my life. lt was a way of saying “No, l‘m not going to fulfill those expectations. I am going to see what is being asked of me.”

When I made this decision, I had already paid for the rest of the semester’s room and board, so I arranged to stay on campus. I took all the instruments I had from playing in a band called The Universal Joint. I brought them all into a room, borrowed a couple of tape recorders, and created my first piece of music that was the forerunner of the kinds of things I do now.

I like to think of that first unusual piece of music as a metaphor for that release of energy that occurred by stopping the momentum – by stopping my world. When you stop your role-playing, all the energy it takes to maintain those expectations is released and is available for creativity. In that moment, that first piece of music came through. It was the explosion that foretold what and where I was going to be.

DW: Did it survive on tape?

MS: Yeah, it actually did survive on tape. (Laughs) l’m not exactly sure where it isl

DW: What happened from there?

MS: I got drafted. I did not want to go to Vietnam and I was able to get into the Air Force as a linguist because I already knew Spanish. I was never anywhere for very long and I ended up spending a little time in a lot of different places. I went everywhere from Monterey, California to Washington DC to Key West, Florida toOmaha, Nebraska. After about a year and a half, they needed some Spanish linguists to cross-train to Haitian Creole which is the language spoken in Haiti. Then I was stationed in several places as a Haitian Creole linguist.

I was a voice-intercept processing specialist. I had a rack that had all these fancy radios with demultiplexers and tape recorders. It looked very much like the recording studio I would have in later years.

The whole time I was in the Air Force, I was still playing music. I played in bands in various places I was stationed. I did a lot of solo work in coffeehouses and things of that nature. In the last year before I got out of the service, I was working at my job at the National Security Agency during the day in Washington, DC, and I also had a job as the assistant production director at a radio station in Maryland. I was saving my money and buying guitars, tape recorders, etc., things I knew l’d need as soon as I got out of the military.

DW: It’s interesting to know that you were listening to Cream and smoking funny cigarettes and then ended up in the military.

MS: Oh, I did some great things in the military too, but we’d better not talk about those because I had a top secret security clearance! (laughs)

DW: Good one! I love it. So you were buying music equipment while you were in the service. What were you doing with it then?

MS: I continued to work with this other music l had discovered when I had stopped my world. After I got out of the service and moved back to Tucson, I continued to go back and create for myself different experiments in music. I had no public context for this music then.

DW: And of course, people like Tangerine Dream were active in far away Germany and totally unknown to you.

MS: After several years in Tucson, I still had no context for this music which was so important to me. I was supporting myself by playing in a group called Magic at that point, which was a Las Vegas show review. I had been studying different spiritual disciplines since about 1970. So, in 1974, I decided that I was going to sell all of my musical instruments and recording equipment and study with a sufi master who was running the Sufi Press.

Just when I made that decision, I heard about a workshop that a woman named Emilie Conrad was coming to Tucson to do. Emilie had lived in Haiti for five years studying the Voodoun rituals, dance and music there. Since I had studied and spoke Haitian, I thought there might be a connection. The workshop was a series of meditations, ritual exercises and movement exercises. It was all accompanied by music that was being played by her friend Gary David. He was playing the same kind of music that I had been developing! Gary had taken a little snippet of sound from a 1958 album called “Word Jazz“ by Ken Nordine, slowed it down to half speed and was playing it backwards, as a loop. He was playing things over the top of this sound on his Mini-Moog synthesizer.

After the meditation, I walked over to him and said, “That’s absolutely incredible! How could you think to have taken that eight-second piece of music, slow it down to half speed and to play it backwards?” He looked at me with a strange look on his face and said, “You are the only other person in the world that would know how I did that, let alone know where I got the material from!” Later I showed them some of my ideas about the importance of spatial sound which I now manifest in my work in spatial and surround-sound music and sound production. I had a quadraphonic system set up in my bedroom. Gary and Emilie said, “Why don’t you move to Los Angeles and set up a quadraphonic system in our studio?”

So, two weeks later, I had dropped everything I was doing in Tucson – including all of my ideas about becoming a Sufi mystic – and moved to Los Angeles to study at the Continuum Studio with Gary and Emilie.

DW: What did you do there?

MS: The first year I just took classes with Emilie and studied with Gary. Two other musicians played for the classes; Don Preston, who was the keyboard player for Mothers Of Invention, and Fred Stoflit, a percussionist. After about six to nine months, Fred asked me if I’d join him playing music for the classes. There were all these very strange instruments that he had gathered from around the world. He would play them with bows and do all sorts of creative things, which, of course, was perfect for the kind of work we were doing at Continuum. I would mic his instruments, and send them through echo and reverb and swirl it around through the quadraphonic system. I would also play synth along with it.

Then about 1976, I was introduced to Craig Hundley, who later changed his name to Craig Huxley. Craig is a wonderful virtuoso keyboard player, and he, Fred and I formed a trio called Alivity, which lasted about a year. We began to play clubs and concerts. After a while, Fred stopped playing at Continuum, so I took over his slot. Around 1977, Don Preston left, so that meant I started playing for his classes too. By them I was playing quite a bit of live music for people who were doing rituals, movement meditations and dance. The Continuum classes became the context in which my music developed.

DW: Wasn’t it in 1977 that you released your first album?

MS: Yes, “Ancient Leaves.” That was the beginning, starting my record label, which l’ve had for a number of years. I called it Continuum Montage because I was interested in a lot of different forms, not just formal western music but also music from other cultures and what I call pre-music; the place where music comes from. I was interested in the art of montage as a medium of sound rather than with visuals as you would normally expect. There was a lot of stuff going on at that point. I was studying microtonal tunings with Irv Wilson. Gary and I published a number of recordings together: “Sustaining Cylinders,” “Sleeping Conches“ “Underwater Witnessing” and “Desert Moon Walk.“

Then in ’79 I spent some time traveling down in Mexico gathering ambient sounds. Recording and using ambient sounds in my music has always been important to me and has given me the opportunity to travel to some unusual places. When I came back, I published “Morning Jewel.” Then came “Planetary Unfolding” in 1981.

DW: As I understand, you got into some filmwork around then.

MS: Around the time I did “Planetary Unfolding”, I started working with Craig Huxley again. He had started doing some film work so he invited me to come up and start working on some projects. They were mostly exploitation films; “Schizoid”, “Motel Hell”, and “The Disappearance”. They were all definitely B movies; deep B. This is how I started to ease into the film world, to feel comfortable scoring for film and learning to use the specialized equipment. Through my work with Craig, I had an opportunity to work with Maurice Jarre. With him, I worked on “Firefox” with Clint Eastwood and another film called “Dreamscape” with Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw. It was great fun to work with Maurice. I learned a lot from him.

DW: “Chronos” was your first IMAX film score. How did that come about?

MS: In 1983, I got a phone call from a fellow by the name of Steven Marble. Steven told me that Ron Fricke – who had been the cinematographer and editor on “Koyannisquatsi” – was doing an IMAX/OMNIMAX film, and was interested in the possibility of my doing the music for it. It was interesting to me because many years before, I had been sitting in an OMNIMAX theater down in San Diego. I was so blown out by it that I said to myself, someday I want to do something with this medium.

DW: That was one powerful wish!

MS: I asked Steven how they had heard of my music. He said it was during the time when they were cutting “Koyannisquatsi” to Phillip Glass’ music. Phillip’s work gets to be a bit repetitive, especially if you must listen to it day after day after day while you’re editing to it. They found they could edit to other people’s music, then put Philllp’s score to it, and it would almost always work because of the nature of his music. That’s how they had heard about my music. They had actually used it for some of the editing of “Koyannisquatsi”.

DW: Where were you at that point musically? Were you actually able to support yourself by your own creative work?

MS: I was pretty much supporting myself both with my music and working on those great B movies at Craig’s studio. Anyway, Ron and I met and had a number of talks. Towards the end of ’83, I heard the news that I had been selected as the composer for “Chronos”. In ’84, they invited me along on their filming trip to Egypt. Ron said he wanted me to go so l could get some inspiration from being there. So I did.

DW: So you were at the scenes as he shot them… is that how it worked?

MS: Only for the Egypt section. After Egypt, they went on to Greece and Europe. I came back to the United States and started composing the music. It took about three and a half months to compose and record the music for “Chronos”.

DW: Would you consider “Chronos” a major turning point in your life?

MS: It changed my life in that it gave me an incredible musical challenge and the financial means to open my own recording facility in Santa Monica. (He has moved since then. -ed.) There, I installed a multi-channel surround sound system. lt made me expand, now that I could compose not only in terms of the music, but also in terms of the sonic space the music was going to live within. An architectural score, so to speak.

DW: Before we go on, I’d like to go back a little and talk about the Lyra. Could you please tell us about that project?

MS: In ’83, the year before “Chronos”, my main solo project had been a work with George Landry, who is an artist here in Los Angeles. George and I built a huge musical instrument called the Lyra Sound Constellation. The Lyra was like a huge harp, about 36 feet across and 25 feet high, with 156 strings. It was beautiful. You played Lyra by actually moving through it and playing the strings. I did a series of concerts over three or four weekends, playing synthesizer, and Lyra with George and four dancers.

DW: Where is it now?

MS: It is in storage. It hasn’t been put together since that time in 1983. In 1988 I produced another musical art installation piece with George titled “Landlight”. Landlight was made of 3000 pounds of quartz crystals that seemed to float off the floor, with music and light emanating up from beneath them.

DW: Let’s talk about your projects after “Chronos”.

[ final pages are missing; I need a Dreams Word subscriber’s help to locate and scan the end of the interview ]

Update by Christopher as I post this in late 2015:
The official web site for Michael Stearns is http://www.michaelstearns.com/.
In several conversations with me through the years, Elana referred back to visiting Michael’s music studio. Hearing his music through the surround sound, IMAX-volume configuration was one of her very favorite, most cherished memories of all the experiences she got to have through Dreams Word. That moment was a profoundly moving type of spiritual experience for her.
My personal reflections on Michael’s musical biography and the connection between him, Elana and this site, are posted here.