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MRH: When you were listening to certain pieces, whether they were vocal or percussion, some of them must have been sacred pieces, and I’m curious if there were any restrictions on what you could incorporate, or what they would allow you to hear?


AL: Well, there were two sides to it. I wanted to make sure they understood what I was going to use it for, and that it would be used in a fictitious context, not in a documentary or preservation context; and secondly, my understanding of what I could and couldn’t use.

I was privy to a lot of things. The communication was interesting. Sometimes one guy would say to me ‘You can definitely use this, but our religion dictates that no women can ever hear it.’ Obviously there was no way I could to use it then, so I kind of had to be my own policeman. Everything that I used is really, really ancient; it’s almost similar to the raga format in Indian music:  they have certain rhythms which are ingrained in the culture that are very base-form, and have been around forever.

I originally thought the instruments I encountered would be as important as much as anything, but I came to learn very quickly that they have just a completely different way of thinking of rhythms and drumming. For example, they had this syncopated element, where they do this quick syncopated one-two hit with drum sticks. The speed of that syncopated hit is played identical, whether you’re playing something really fast or really slow, so it doesn’t vary despite the fact the tempo of what you’re playing could be three times faster.

Rhythms in Western cultures are based on cycles: it’s a pattern that you repeat. What the Papua New Guinea musicians played might notever repeat; if we were notating, bar 57 wouldn’t look anything like the previous 56 bars. Much of their music was like learning a thousand hits and time variables, as opposed to memorizing two bars and repeating it fifty times.



MRH: From your perspective, at what point did you feel you’d reached the saturation point where you had enough exposure and research, and were ready to compose?


AL: Some of the tribes we were visiting had never been heard or even recorded, so it was a bit of a Hail Mary, in the sense that I knew I would get something interesting but had no idea what it would be. I had some sense of what the instruments were like, but it was very hard to research it before going there because so much of the trip was research in and of itself.

I’d written some of the main themes, and I knew kind of what I was looking for. I was having experiences where I’d hear 70% or 60% of what I could work with. But it was at my very last session when one of my guys turned to me and said ‘Ah, you heard it, didn’t you?’ and he was right: I was recording these old rhythms, and I went ‘Oh my gosh, this is it!’ and it was a 100% eureka moment. I knew exactly how to incorporate this into the orchestral score.’



MRH: Compared to 10 or 20 years ago, did you find the amount of technical gear that you needed to bring was a lot smaller and compact, but could basically do what was impossible 20 years ago?


AL: Even a year ago. It’s amazing the advances that have happened in a year. I had to bring a lot of stuff and have redundancy because we wouldn’t have the ability to recharge batteries or replace something. I climbed up unto the jungle and I hiked for three days to get there. If my recorder broke down, I was just out of luck, so I actually brought three recorders with me, six microphones, tonnes of cables, and lots of extra stuff. The technology was amazing. These recorders that were relatively inexpensive compared to what you would’ve bought even a year ago or two years ago did such a magnificent job.



MRH: What were some of the recorder models you used?


AL: A good friend of mine, a great recording engineer, Ron Searles, recommended the Zoom model.  It has two microphones built in and records on flash drives.  It also has two XLR inputs for external mics and can send phantom power to them.  I took 3 of these for redundancy purposes, but ultimately decided I might as well be using all three at once.  Sure enough I'd have one fail on me just about every day due to the excessive moisture we encountered.  They never failed during recording but at the end of the day one would fail to turn on or the screen would go bezerk.  I'd heard about jungle humidity wreaking havoc on electronics so I'd brought a remedy.  Whenever this happened I would place the recorder in a ziplock back with two or three gel packs and close it up for the night.  These were gel packs that you find in running shoe boxes or electronics when you buy them.  The things that say "Do not eat" on them.  Silica packs.  I'd collected them and had 7 or 8 with me.

When I awoke in the morning the gel pack would be bloated with moisture and the recorder or video camera would be working again.  It worked like a charm.  



MRH: I guess my fear has always been that with flash gear is that something can go horribly wrong – the chip can no longer be read – and all these hours of material is gone, whereas at least on a tape, if it gets jammed you can fix it with a splice or at least try and do something with it.


AL: I had the same fear, and actually one of the things I brought with me was one of the little MacBook Airs that came out maybe 13 months ago, and a card reader. I also had an external flash drive that was USB, and every night I would back everything up as fast as I could because I knew I couldn’t recharge my computer at all on the trip. Each time it was a matter of turning the computer on, get it copying, and then turning the dimness down on the screen to the point that it’s black so that I discharge the battery as little as possible, but have a safety of what I recorded over the course of the day.

Behold... The Zoom H4n!


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