Artist: Terra Ambient
Album: The Gate

Released: August 2004
Label: Lotus Pike

The Gate
On The Gate by Terra Ambient, electronic musician Jeff Kowal leaves the ranks of his synthesizer absorbed brethren to relate his personal musical story through performances on a range of exotic acoustic instruments. With this move, Kowal does achieve multi-instrumentalist status, but does not stray too far from the technology associated with more overtly electronic sounding mind-music. Kowal brings to this genre of "Forth World" tribal-ambient soundscapes an enthusiasm and accessibility that is demonstrated in his album's energetic melodic content and virtuoso musicianship. The mood emanating from The Gate is ceremonial, primordial and enigmatic. Leading the listener across a range of musical terrain, from minimal and dark to powerful and celebratory, The Gate is a dynamic cerebral journey to an internal place defined by the individual.

STAR'S END Interview with Jeff Kowal (Terra Ambient)

STAR'S END: It'd be interesting to know what inspiration and influences were at work on you prior to and during the time you realized/produced "The Gate"...

Terra Ambient (a.k.a. Jeff Kowal): Initially, I would say that the inspiration for The Gate was a burning desire to make primitive music. Bang on a rock. Do something that was not programmed, or MIDI controlled or synthesized. However, once I got into the process of making this music, I would say that the inspiration really came from the 'zen' process of creating the music itself. Many of the instruments that I played on The Gate are ceremonial, primitive and very spiritual. So the culmination of performing on these instruments for long periods of time and so intently really kept the inspiration flowing. Often I would write a part, but by the time I had stopped recording, the music would have taken a completely different (and usually better) turn on it's own accord... guided by spirit.

Is there any particular concept/meaning behind the title?

I like music that tells a story. I am always a sucker for narrative, in any context. When I make music, I try to tell a story with it. The title is derived from the Tao Te Ching, first passage:

    The Tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao.
    The name that can be named is not the eternal name.
    The nameless is the beginning of heaven and Earth.
    The named is the mother of the ten thousand things.
    Ever desire-less, one can see the mystery.
    Ever desiring, one sees the manifestations.
    These two spring from the same source but differ in name; this appears as darkness.
    Darkness within darkness.
    The gate to all mystery.
I built the 'story' of The Gate around this enigma. The mystery of all things, and no things. Awareness of a veiled truth. I suppose it could even be reflective of a place long forgotten and ancient, secretly discovered by the listener.

Has your vision of this work changed at all since you first conceived it?

No, actually. I am pleasantly surprised that the end result is kind of where I was hoping it would end up, musically and visually (meaning the imagery that the music conjures up). I had an idea of the path I wanted to travel with this CD, but the process was so different for me, I didn't know if I was going to be able to stay on it. Fortunately I feel like I was able to stay the course... minus the occasional wandering off.

How do you feel about it now that it is completed?

The Gate was literally a year in the making (that's actual studio time) and doesn't include the thinking about, starting and stopping and general procrastination that I usually go through prior to getting down to business. The process of making the CD was VERY intense. Including my tearing everything apart re-recording parts and then the re-building, and re-mixing that Rob Deaner and I did to the tracks a couple of times towards the end. So this CD was exhausting to make. To that end, I am fairly proud of this work. I set out on a journey with specific limitations set upon myself and feel like I saw it through and with moderate success.

When I listen to the music now, I hear the things I would have done differently, or wish that I could have done better. I suppose that is an ongoing issue for me. On one hand, I am very happy with the process I went through, the amount that I learned in working this way and the fact that the end result wasn't a complete mess. On the other hand, when you do so much live recording, you're really showing off your bay window. You can hear where all of your "weaknesses" are as an artist. So I am sensitive to that when I listen to the CD.

I imagine that quite a bit of 'electronic wizardry' was behind the making of The Gate - but the sound is so organic and Earthen. How was this accomplished?

For this project I wanted to put a certain amount of limitations on myself. I only recorded acoustic instruments. Nothing was done on a synth or with a drum machine. If I couldn't play it, blow in it, bang it, or sing it, I did not put it in the mix.

I did allow myself the use of a sampler to alter certain sounds that I recorded, but all of the samples are from acoustic sources. Once I had my basic tracks down, I did a lot of tweaking with analog and digital filters to achieve the sound stage and level of thickness that I wanted. But the 'organic' feel of it all revolves around the instrumentation and use (or lack of) effects.

The mood of the album is pretty heavy, mystical and ceremonial. I felt transported to a primordial place. I'm guessing that you produced The Gate in the confines of your home studio and not at the bottom of a dormant volcano crater or in the depths of the amazon jungle. Help us understand how you were able to create such an exotic ambiance in what must surely be the spare bedroom of you house?

I think that this was one of the biggest challenges and greatest accomplishments of this CD. You are right; my studio is indeed a spare bedroom and not an acoustically friendly one at that. Technically, I used a lot of close-mic recording with some exceptions. Sometimes I placed room mics to get a deliberately 'off' reverb going. Sometimes I would record in the hallway or in our tile bathroom, just to get a different sound. The one nice thing about close-mic recording is that it leaves you with a fairly clean, unaffected track. It gives you a lot of room for playing with reverbs and delays in post-production. The down side is that often this kind of recording has little soul to it - it's rather flat. So a combination of post-effected tracks and tracks recorded in various 'hot' environments really contributes to the spatial relationships in these mixes. The other important thing was setting up a sound stage for the instruments to live in... then moving just a few of those instruments off the stage with the help of an effect (or lack of effect) just to add some depth and priority.

I think the biggest asset was knowing prior to recording where I wanted this music to live. I knew I wanted it to be in a vast environment. Sometimes just a hint of sound off in the distance, sometimes moving towards you, sometimes moving away. I wanted the music to breathe. I learned an awful lot about spacial relationships in the production of this CD.

There are many references in your music to other releases of 'forth world' or 'tribal ambient' music (in particular those of Robert Rich, Steve Roach, etc). What do you bring to this mode of expression that distinguishes your music from the original classics?

Boy, that's a big question. There is no question that these 'masters' of the genre were (and remain) an influence on my musical sensibility. We all have an A-list of artists who inspire us in everything that we listen to. But I haven't really spent much time worrying about how my music is different or similar to these pioneers. I just go with what I feel is the best way to tell the story in my mind. I don't know if it's a question of being different or unique to a particular genre, so much as does the music work and work well on it's own merit? Does it tell its story?

I think the bigger issue for me was how did I evolve as an artist from my first release to this one. In that regard, I think that there are a lot of positive distinguishing characteristics.

Your previous release was more 'electronic' sounding. Many electronic musicians do not stray too far from what they're known for. It's admirable that with The Gate, you're work has evolved into an area different than that covered on The Darker Space. What has lead you to this new territory?

I had been doing a LOT of work in the electronic arena prior to and leading up to the release of my first CD, The Darker Space. That release itself was very 'electronic' in nature. I realized that my workflow was becoming very much attached to 'the machine'. For The Gate, I wanted to get away from the machine and focus more on the sounds, textures and intimate performance of acoustic instruments. Also, on The Darker Space I spent a lot of time 'building textures', rather than 'writing music'. I wanted this CD to be more musical... to have note structure and composition. I achieved a lot with The Darker Space, it was a great launching pad for me. Now I want to explore new space and go places I am not necessarily comfortable with.

Please provide some insight into the wonderful sound sources on The Gate. Most notably: flutes, percussion, didgeridoo: Do you play all the instruments? Do use samples of instruments? Do you bring in musicians?

I played a lot of different instruments on The Gate. I have a few custom made Bansuri from a wonderful flute maker by the name of David Chu. Also, I used a couple of different Didgeridoo, and whole slew of eastern hand percussion instruments, including tar, frame drum, dumbek, djembe, talking drums, udu, berimbau and congas. Other instruments used include, electric and acoustic guitar, Pipa (chinese lute), electric bass and a lot of my own voice. All of the instruments played on this CD I played myself (some better than others). Part of the excitement of this project was the learning to handle some very unusual instruments.

Will it be possible to bring the music of The Gate to a concert audience through a live performance? or has this been a studio project only?

This project was really developed in the context of a studio project (overdubbing and such), however I do intend to incorporate certain tracks from the CD into a live performance. Tools like Abelton Live allow me to incorporate tracks and loops from the recording sessions into a live environment, along with being able to loop live performance material on the fly, so some of it is portable. But it would be difficult to bring the whole performance to the stage short of hiring a cast of thousands.

Can you share any thoughts on the audience for you music? What do you hope for them while they are listening?

I really can't say what the audience for my music might be. I like to think of my music as being made for anyone willing to be taken somewhere when they close their eyes and listen to it. The biggest thing I am hoping is that listeners will walk away with is a feeling like they just spent an hour or so in a place foreign and mystical (or mythical) and serene to them. That, and if they are familiar with my other CD, they can share in the growth and learning experience that I went through as an artist in the making of The Gate.

- STAR'S END/Chuck van Zyl   23 July 2004