Khôra: The Wavelength Interview

Purveyors of: Drifting forms and formlessness
File next to: Nick Storring, Tim Hecker, Plato’s Timaeus
Playing: WL606: Khôra + Dirty Inputs + Thom Huhtala @ 8-11

Matthew Ramolo has been releasing albums as Khôra since 2006, including his Silent Your Body is Endless, which was re-issued as part of the first volume of Constellation Records’ Musique Fragile series. Taking his name from an untranslatable philospohical concept, Khôra’s music is equally slippery and undefinable — there/not there, secretive, suggestive and a formed/formless wholly Other. Joe Strutt spoke with Ramolo via email on ideas, music, process, and collaboration.

Khôra” (χώρα) is a rather abstract concept — how did that come to be the name of your musical project?

In a manner of speaking, I entered music through philosophy and khôra was a concept that I used to bridge one world and another.  It’s a common noun in Greek, but there is a certain impenetrability that surrounds the notion of khôra as it was deployed early in western philosophy and I came to understand this impenetrability as somewhat coincident with the affects of music and art.  It appeared poetically ripe and, insofar as it could not be said to accord with plenum or void, seemed a worthy marker of an intuited but ineffable unity of existence which reconciled the two, by being both and neither.  As a limit case, it was and continues to be a thought worth spilling sounds and ink over, a vehicle that would receive me, whoever I might be, but which could never coincide with me, since I could never coincide with myself – something I could play out my existence through and against.

The sound is richly detailed, and even in live performance, there’s a certain precision. Are the pieces tightly composed, or is there room for improvisation when you play?

In the respect that there is an iterable sound-world associated with a given composition, the pieces are written — that is, there are chordal or melodic progressions, timbres, field recordings, framing devices, and patterns that are in service to achieve a degree of consistency and recognizability. The above elements in concert make for an intensely layered sound-field and, because they do not necessarily follow linearly from one another, the focus quickly shifts away from prepared materials and settles upon expanding the frame of aesthetics to absorb elements that are beyond my control as performer (the ambient sound that exists in the immediate environment, for example), as well as certain instinctual and mood-based relationships with the room which end up constituting the improvisatory fabric of a piece.  The risk of improvisation — trying to coax out the axes of emotional relation that exist between the performer, the space, and the audience – is part of what makes a live performance impactful and, without that dimension of experimentation, I suspect I wouldn’t perform live very often.  For me, one of the guiding tactics of this experimental and musical playfulness, this tension between improvisation and composition, is to inundate the witnesses with a wilderness of sound but also guide them gracefully through the deluge with entrancing lines in order to furnish the impression that one is hearing beyond the room and into the mechanics of the universe – a counterpoint defined solely as “coincident presence.”

What is the process and pace of work for Khôra? Do you tend to stick with a set of musical ideas, or are you always adding new material? And in terms of gear, do you feel the project is tied to certain instruments (and certain timbres) or that that evolve over time?

The project is definitely something that evolves but is also, try as I may to change it, ultimately tied to boring things like time and the inevitability of having to eat.

I’ve had a regular recording practice within my means since I was about 18 and have large archives of musical sounds, improvised music, field recordings, and loops that I draw from for both albums and live performance. Generally speaking, a Khôra album emerges as a by-product of focussed collaging and re-recording of this archival material under auspices of a particular concept, though new overdubs tend to be introduced as this process is underway to help fully realize a line of exploration. I enjoy effacing the origin of a sound or idea, to make it somewhat acousmatic, so that I can sever my sense of belonging to the material and assume the task of arranging a series of “authorless” fragments. The process is also guided by an overarching desire to hear a music that sounds like it’s emanating from a vital nature and at the same time retains the ligaments of a fractured, human consciousness.  On record, I’ll endeavour to include as many acoustic and electronic sounds recorded in as many different ways as possible. Within the limitations of solo live performance, I do feel somewhat inevitably bound to blending acoustic guitar with electronic synthesis, found objects, and field recording, though I have included erhu, percussion, kalimba, and piano on occasion. These are simply the instruments I feel most comfortable improvising on.

Over the last couple of years I put album development on hold as I assembled and learned about my suitcase modular synthesizer which was a long-time desire fulfilled. This electronic music easel has impacted my approach dramatically and will feature heavily on forthcoming recordings.

This stands very well as a solo project, but there is room for some collaboration, like in terms of some of the very cool visuals I’ve seen you use in the past. How does that fit into the project?

I’ve always wanted to venture into full technical and theatrical assault on the senses but until now I’ve only managed to combine music and visuals and usually do so with friend and artist Joe Dodaro but am also in the midst of trying to forge a fixed work with German based friends and filmmakers, Quimu Casalprim Suarez and Katharina Huber.  With the live videos, I usually approach Joe with a basic concept or principle and we typically capture footage together whereupon he edits and passes the material through technical ruts with ongoing feedback. The process seems to work well for us and usually ties into some other creative work I’m doing at the time, such as writing or photography. I do feel as though shows where I’m performing with visuals specifically designed for the set are generally received well as they provide a kind of visual/rhythmic narrative for people who find it difficult to connect to wordless music. People just like glowing rectangles, I guess.

And speaking of collaboration, you’ve been playing in some other groups lately, including sleep-rockers Picastro and chamber ensemble Bespoken. Did these come about because of your association with Nick Storring? How does your creative work differ in a group context?

I started playing with Picastro last year, just prior to a tour of eastern Europe we did together in the fall. I had email contact with Liz Hysen before that and had known Brandon Valdivia and Nick Storring from playing shows in Toronto.  I originally came on board as a replacement for Nick, who wasn’t able to tour, but am now writing with the band to interesting ends. The process is quite different from my own, but engaging nonetheless.

Bespoken is a group of musicians that Nick assembled and is designed to be an ensemble that performs the compositions of its members as well as those by composers external to the group. It is great to be able to compose for chamber ensemble, play with other talented musicians, and characterize my playing differently after many years of making music in a more hermetic style.

How are you involved with the new Ratio space/venue? What sorts of things can we expect to happen there?

I’m one of the founding members of the collective who runs the Ratio space. Its rudiments: Ratio is an open space of about 1000-1200 sq ft adjacent to Kensington Market and is disposed toward interfacing with arts communities across various practices in hopes of generating stimulating and lasting dialogues.  I like to think of it as a place where art can deliver people back to the malleability of their own lives or as a safe house for experimentation and critical culture — but all with an open mind and good nature are welcome to engage with the programming.  It can be a modest gallery, performance venue, music or dance rehearsal space, theatre, print studio, cinema, study, or general work space. We have a variety of programming in the works but what exactly Ratio will become will depend very much on how the community engages with the space. We have our first-ever events scheduled for the last weeks of July and expect to have more regular programming in order for August and beyond. Once everything is up and running, we hope to be averaging between 3-10 events per month, depending on scope. Keep your eyes and ears open.

[photo credit: Nick Kuepfer]