For some people, breathing deeply while visualizing a calm place is enough to stay grounded. For Chuck Johnson, an experimental guitar player and composer, all he needs to do is listen. A student of Pauline Oliveros’s deep listening program, Johnson has honed his ear for tuning, resonance, drone, and pitch-seeking through explorations on the six-string guitar, modular synthesizers, and most recently, the pedal steel guitar.
His latest release, Balsams, is his most meditative work yet. It’s an instrumental record featuring his first primarily pedal steel compositions with song titles that reference healing and relaxing substances. “In spiritual terms,” Johnson says of the album, “…it’s sort of like seeking. Trying to find a unity of some kind, to reconnect with something bigger than you, or deep inside.”
Composed while he was caring for Bubbles, an injured dog, Balsams is inspired by the science of alternative tunings and Johnson’s years studying Oliveros’s deep listening techniques. As the name suggests, Balsams is a salve to the stress of today’s unending press cycle, a breath of fresh air for the listener to stop, relax, and regain control.
The Balsams listening experience, as with previous Johnson records, is both otherworldly and strangely familiar. The tonal shifts, accentuated here by synth bass, feel like they were written in the stars at the beginning of time. These six tracks feel less like pieces composed in a traditional sense; instead, under the direction of Johnson’s deft ear and smooth instrumentation, they feel more like sounds found on a direct channel hidden deep within the human experience. “I think there are a lot of universal reasons why humans are drawn to it,” Johnson says of drone music, “…universal, meaning something we all have in common in our DNA.”
We talked with Johnson about the many meanings of balsams (and Balsams), applying previously learned concepts to a new instrument, music as meditation, and one of his earliest sonic memories.
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How did you arrive at this sound and instrumentation? Was it a conscious decision, or more happenstance?
I had this block of time when Marielle [Jakobsons], my partner, left for two weeks at an artist’s residency, and I thought, ‘Cool, I’ll approach this as my own residency.’ I had the place to myself, so I spent a lot of time in the studio. And as it happened, at that time, her dog, Bubbles, had this terrible spinal injury right before she left. So Bubbles was convalescing here at the house where the studio is. I started recording knowing that I was going to work on this album for Steve [Lowenthal, of VDSQ Records], but I also had to make music that would help Bubbles stay relaxed. She has very specific musical tastes. The sound of Date Palms and Marielle’s solo music has, in a lot of ways, been shaped by what Bubbles likes, and doesn’t. [Bubbles] lets you know if she doesn’t like it [laughs].
It was stressful for me to be taking care of this dog who had this really serious trauma happen to her. I started playing around with looping the pedal steel with a tape loop approach, where you just let the length of the tape loop determine the loop, rather than trying to sync it to anything. And then, over time, a tape loop degrades, and that affects the sound and frequencies, certain resonances build up and it gets more lo-fi over time as it keeps looping. I was really enthralled with the sound of the instrument looped that way, I would add more and more layers, and then record bits of that. That ended up being the foundation for all the tracks on the album. And then I went in and added the melodic things that happen over those loops, add textures and bass lines. It really happened organically.
With regard to your previous music and the new record, did you have to rethink composition and writing? Did the new instrument change your approach to writing music?
Yeah, definitely in the sense that on this record, the composition happened in studio. In other words, if I’m working on a guitar record, I’ll work out A to B structures, and have more or less a solidified arrangement of a song already before I start recording. This record, however, the compositions were more or less assembled in the studio through that process I was describing. I would find a loop that sounded interesting and let it degrade until it had this tonal quality that I wanted to capture and record. Then maybe add layers to the tape loop and see how that fits for a little while, then record that. Parts like that would then be assembled in ProTools.
A lot of those loops would suggest a chord progression, and then I would play melodies over those, as kind of tonal shifts, and then that would suggest an even stronger progression under which I could play a very specific bass line with a synth or programmed. I’ve seen Marielle put records together this way, and I don’t think I’ve ever put together a record this way. Even when I was releasing electronic music, it was usually stuff I recorded live. So really, assembling something just in the studio, is a process I’ve admired, but this is really the only time I’ve been able to work that way.
What did you learn about your writing and recording process from Balsams, and how are you applying that to whatever is coming next?
I really like this music, and this setup that I’ve built, and [I] also [like it] for presenting live. I imagine I’m going to stay with this for a while. I definitely see myself recording this way again, even if pedal steel isn’t the main voice. I’ve done some recording since then, nothing queued up for a release or anything, where it’s even more… ‘Ambient’ is a tricky word for me, I understand why the label set it up that way, to provide context with the other things I’ve done, but there is a strong melodic component to this record. The bass lines, even though they’re slow, do propel the music in a more linear way. I don’t think of it as ambient music in the same way that I think about the ambient music that I listen to and love, like current artists in Japan that’s really just environments, like Hakobune, Chihei Hatakeyama, or Rhucle. I think of my music differently than theirs, but I am working on music that might be more closely related to that sound, where it’s built on degrading tape loop textures, but it’s not as melodic.
I’m interested in your experience of music as meditation and as a healing agent. As a performer, composer, and listener, how is crafting and rehearsing your music a meditative experience for you?
Without thinking about it that consciously, I can look back over my life and see different times where making music and having a practice of working with sound and music, has been kind of a place I can come home to, in a way. I center myself, and even if I don’t have the conscious thought of ‘Now I’m going to meditate with music,’ I can still find that headspace somehow. For me that’s how it’s always worked, and how it continues to work.
Because I make records and stuff, it’s easy to fall into this goal-oriented way of thinking, and it’s also easy to get too analytical about what’s happening, but there are times where I can not think about any of that stuff and focus on the sound that’s happening at any given moment. That, in itself, is like a kind of mindfulness practice. That may have been something I was doing intuitively for years, and then I encountered Pauline Oliveros and her deep listening system, which is a little more systematic.
About 12 years ago, I started a correspondence with her and then I eventually went to a couple of her deep listening retreats. Then, I started thinking about [making deep listening] more of an actual practice. To boil it down, it’s an idea that at any given time or location, sound and what’s happening in your sonic environment is a composition in that moment. You don’t have to be in a quiet place or anything. But that idea opened a lot of doors for me. It fed back into how I was making music, and how I’ve made music since.
It’s not even about playing an instrument. It’s about connecting to yourself, finding a place where you can be centered, and using your sonic environment to refocus and pull back inward. So, I think for people who are musicians and composers, they tend to be the people who are drawn to that thinking, and Pauline’s work, sound makes sense as a focus for mindfulness. Obviously in other practices it’s your breath or maybe some kind of visualization or something like that.
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Are there environmental sounds that you’ve found yourself drawn to in your deep listening experiences?
Yeah, definitely. I live in California, and I have a lot of access to some really amazing natural places. One thing that really struck me was the first time I hiked in a big redwood grove after I moved out here, and how quiet it was. If you’re in a redwood forest, you don’t really hear a lot of animals, or much of anything, like you would in another kind of forest. I don’t know what it is, maybe because the canopy is so high [that] birds are really far away from you, and because the ground is so thick with the redwood needles, and the only other things growing there are ferns. It is a very otherworldly space to be in, and that was something that really stuck me sonically as much as anything. It still does when I go to those places.
It’s funny, a few years ago I was trying to think about why does music with a drone appeal to me so much. I think there are a lot of universal reasons why humans are drawn to that style, universal meaning is something we all have in common in our DNA. But, I remember an early memory from when I was a toddler, is when my mom would vacuum the floor, this is back when vacuums would be a device on the floor and she would be somewhere else in the room with the hose. I would like to lie down next to the vacuum, and listen to the sounds of it, on the floor. Maybe that explains something in me, where it still appeals to me somehow.
Do you think you’re personally inclined toward sound orientation than another form of stimulus for mindfulness? Are you programmed, for lack of better word, to be drawn to sound? Or is it something that you’ve learned through life, experiences like the vacuum, that have led you to seek out sound experiences more often?
Maybe it’s a combination of both. I feel like, in the experience of being a musician, you train yourself to listen. I also do a lot of studio work, so that’s another level of listening that I’ve trained myself to do over the years. But then I also feel like people have certain capacities, some people are naturally built to lead one way or another, when it comes to sensory input. I’m not very good at visualizing things. We just built a deck in the backyard, and it would be impossible for me to draw a plan of how that deck should have happened. I know someone who is really good at that, someone who could say ‘It needs to be like this,’ physics and all. I’m not wired that way, but I know people are. Just like I know some people aren’t wired to pay a lot of attention to sound. Things can be learned, also.
With regard to pedal steel playing, and your particular style, it doesn’t seem to be a very visual playing experience. It seems like one could close their eyes and feel the sound, and feel the tone you’re trying to capture, particularly in the slide aspect. It’s not a matter of catching they right fret or key, as in guitar or piano, it’s more a matter of grasping at it. Would you agree?
Yeah, I mean, there are visual cues, there are lines like on a guitar, it looks like a fretboard, but it doesn’t actually have frets. They give you an idea of where you should be, but ultimately you have to hear it, or else you’ll be out of tune. It’s definitely something you navigate with your hearing as much as you do anything else. Another instrument that doesn’t have a fixed pitch is a violin, something like that. And because the instrument has so much sustain and glide, there is a sense that you’re moving sound, maybe more so than playing a guitar.
You can play a chord, and it rings out for a long time, it has a very long sustain, and either by moving the bar or with the pedals or knee levels. Both knees are involved, there are two levers on either side of your legs, and in some cases there’s one you need to push up with your knee, then you can have any number of pedals. The most basic system has three pedals. So, it’s like your whole body is involved, and it becomes much more of an element of muscle memory than anything that’s based on what you can see. You can’t look at your feet or your knees really, so you have to know where those things are. You have to use your whole body in a way.
There are a few instruments that [are like that], like drummers use their whole body, or an organist uses both feet and hands. But the pedal steel is interesting, it really feels like a machine, it’s definitely a product of the machine age. All the parts are made out of metal, and it almost feels at times like I’m operating a forklift of something, but I’m trying to do it in an expressive way.
I imagine the right pitch is elusive too, especially if you’re doing it all with your feet, knees and hands. There’s a point to hit, and you’re aiming for it in a way. It’s interesting to me to be able to capture that seeking in sound. It makes sense you would practice something like that in the studio, rather than having something written. More like finding your way across the music, rather than having an expressed path. And with regard to mindfulness, if you ever lose your concentration, you could possibly also lose your pitch. It forces your whole body to be part of what’s happening.
The idea of composing using tuning is something I’ve been interested in for a long time. I haven’t really released [much of] this [kind of] music, but, I went to Mills [College] for graduate school. That’s why I moved out to California in 2007. And a lot of that had to do with my experience with Pauline Oliveros, who was also on faculty at Mills, but I’ve also been long interested in just intonation [and] other ways to approach tuning which are outside of the Western equal-tempered tuning system that we use by default.
The idea of being ‘in tune,’ like, what does that mean? It really means different things depending on what part of the world you’re from. It’s possible that you can create your own scales and tuning system that are in tune in a scientific or mathematical way, based on the harmonic series and how your ear really hears things. And then there’s a way of being in tune that’s based on this heavily compromised tuning system that we have in the West, that came out of trying to tune pianos and make it possible to play in any key, things like that. So I did a lot of work when I was in graduate school, mostly with electronic music, but also with some acoustic instruments.
I did pieces with the intention of being ‘in tune,’ and the interesting part of the music being that you’re trying to find that tuning. You’re shifting from being in tune here in this region, to being in tune in this region over here. That’s a big reason why I like Indian classical music. It’s definitely based on very precise tuning, but [a] different kind of tuning. It’s also a system of music where pitch is always very fluid, and it’s gliding in between the notes, finding that place to lock in. The real expression comes from seeking these notes, in spiritual terms. Trying to find a unity of some kind, to reconnect with something bigger than you, or deep inside. A lot of different ways to think about it, but yeah, it’s intrigued me for a long time.
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Has your experimentation with pedal steel influenced your understanding of the subjectivity of tuning?
More the other way around, really. I’m still pretty new to pedal steel, I’ve only been playing for like four or five years. I’ve wanted to learn how to play it for years, because I grew up listening to cosmic country music, and the more experimental side like Susan Alcorn or Daniel Lanois. Jerry Garcia is also a huge reason why I wanted to learn how to play. I picked it up at a time where all that work with tuning was still pretty fresh. That was something I realized about the pedal steel right away, it’s an instrument that was invented and built to play a very specific kind of music, but it is in a way very flexible. You can be very precise in how you tune it, and you can customize the tuning of it. So people who play, even within country music, there are several different ways to tune it. Whereas with a guitar or a piano, there’s kind of a standard way of doing it, like with a tuner, etc. Pedal steel guitarists however develop an ear for what being ‘in tune’ really means. It involves a lot of compromises. It has so many strings, and you also have to tune what every pedal and lever does, there are just so many ways people tune it. That fascinated me, of course, I had this background in studying tuning systems.
In a way, this is an opportunity to apply what you learned, maybe in a different context than what you were once doing.
Yeah, it was a way for me to combine all these different areas of interest. And get at things the way I would with electronic music and tunings, but also my interest in solo guitar, which to me is about resonance and what’s happening with the sound in the room. And concepts as to what can be done with melody, but still with a minimalistic approach. Yeah, I could apply all those things to pedal steel. I don’t know if I did successfully, but there’s the potential to do that.
We discussed briefly the healing inspirations for the record. How is this record oriented towards healing, and do you think it’s successful in doing that?
The titles of the songs came way after the fact, they always do for me with instrumental music. I knew I wanted to call the record Balsams. Balsams means a lot of things, but at the center of the word is ‘balm,’ like some sort of medicinal substance, usually from a plant. Interestingly, in Lithuania, balsams is more like a spirit, an herbal liquor, that people like to drink, also originally a kind of medicinal thing. Just like bitters, things we drink in cocktails now, a lot of them had medicinal uses. So I started going back to the earliest records we have of creating balms and balsams, thinking about other plants or stones that, at some point in human history, we discovered—or decided—had healing properties. Something that a lot of them seemed to have in common is a relaxing effect, and an adaptive effect. It does make sense, if you have an ailment or you really need healing, it’s hard for that to happen unless you can relax and let go in some way.
These were ideas that were floating around, not in any real methodical way, but it for sure informed the titles. Also, as I said, the setting of what was going on when I was recording, and the healing experience there. And, at last, given the political climate recently and how things have been developing over the last few years, I had some mixed feelings about releasing a record that had this certain tone, because, in a lot of ways, it seems like what the times call for is fighting and not chilling out. [Laughs] We’re in a situation now that calls for resistance, fighting, and struggle, but I don’t make fighting music really. I think there’s a place for that, but also, in this cycle of, ‘OK, we’ve got a lot to struggle against now,’ there will also be times to heal. You fight, it’s taxing, and then you have to heal. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that this record does have a place and purpose within that frame.