Sound is defined by space. Waves emanate from a source, reflecting on surfaces and boundaries; vibrations are shaped by distance and displacement. This principle is reflected in “Furniture Music” by Danny Grody, a time capsule of material recorded at a residency in Harrison House near the Joshua Tree. Conceptually, the album is an exploration of Erik Satie’s concept of musique d’ameublement (furnishing music): music to be played by live performers but not intended to engage the listener directly. A major disservice would be done, however, to dismiss this album as a mere cerebral backdrop — it has the depth and colour of a weaving ornamental mosaic, fingerpicked strings ringing off high Californian ceilings and the throaty bottom-end hum of open tunings filling the room.
For those trying to pick these tunings at home, the pieces are mainly variations on the standard Drop D (DADGF#D/DADGF#E) and open G tuning (DGDGBD/DGDGBE); a decision by the artist to return to his musical roots (“the first open tunings I got into when I started exploring finger style guitar. I remember how instantly familiar they sounded to me”), and a return to six-string from his recent Three Lobed, twelve-stringed excursion ‘Between Two Worlds’ (“primarily due to the fact that I hadn’t yet acquired the twelve until many years after these songs were written. The newer pieces I included were also written on the six-string as a way to keep things feeling cohesive.”)
Grody’s guitar roots sometimes reflect traditionalist threads, but often weave in the unconventional: the picking of the West African kora, for example, or plains of New Zealand and New York minimalist drone. His wider musical pursuits know few bounds — electronics, long form improvisation, multiple electric bands. “Furniture Music” is a precise experiment in revised composition, chancing his acoustic playing less towards a melody, and more towards the areas surrounding it.
Location and space were a big part in the project, and Danny spoke to us recently about the Harrison House, the rituals of recording in such a unique environment, and aiming his compositions at peripheral space. The conversation commenced with a request for a detailed description of Harrison House:
The room has a beautiful history. It was originally built for the late great American composer Lou Harrison back in 2002 as a kind of creative refuge for him to enjoy towards the end of his life. It was constructed using straw bale and was inspired by the designs of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy. The building looks like a little cathedral tucked away on the edge of Joshua Tree. Very surreal to see it appear off the side of the road in such an unlikely place. Harrison had the main vaulted space (where I did all my recordings) designed for intimate space for music. It actually felt like being inside the body of an acoustic instrument… even the quietest sound resonated with so much warmth and clarity.
After his passing, a long-time friend of Harrison’s named Eva Soltes transformed the space into an artist residency in 2006 and dedicated it to his legacy. It was an incredible honour to inhabit such a place and be able to record these songs in that room.
How did the residency fall to you?
The residency came about very serendipitously. I had gone to see the première of the amazing documentary “Lou Harrison: A World of Music” with my partner. After the showing we attended an after-party in which many friends and contemporaries of Harrison’s (including filmmaker Eva Soltes) gathered. It was a lovely group of people coming together to celebrate Lou and the film’s (10+ year-in-the-making) world première. It felt like one big extended family. We got to talking with a very nice couple who were close to Harrison. We kept in touch with them afterward and then one day, totally out of the blue, they sent an email, with Eva Soltes copied in, proposing they’d like to sponsor me and my partner (also a composer) to do a residency at the Harrison House.
It came as a shock really because we never spoke much about our work and had no prior knowledge of the residencies’ existence. Eva seemed interested so we drew up a proposal for how we’d spend our time there. After a series of emails and phone calls, we arranged to meet, and it all became a reality. From what I understand, our situation was a bit of an anomaly in terms of how artists get involved in the programme. I think normally Eva tends to reach out to musicians and artist whom she thinks would fit the mission of the Harrison House. We were just very lucky. Right place, right time.
If there was another compositional partner involved, can you describe his or her role?
My partner is also a musician with a background in classical composition. He was working alongside myself, but with his own compositional ideas. We basically split up the day in half, each with a good chunk of time to explore our respective ideas discreetly. There was no actual creative overlap, but it was really motivating to have another person’s creative energy present to help stay motivated.
Did the space inform the development of the music, or was it completed before arrival?
The space played a really huge role in the creative process for sure. I came with a good amount of completed music, but also left plenty of room for spontaneity. The album has a good mix of new and old, some of which were either written or finished while there. It was one of those rooms that seemed to make everything sparkle so it was very easy to feel compelled to try new things.
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Did the idea of theming the work around adorning a space come from this, or was this reflective of the approach taken with the completed pieces?
Before I started releasing music under my own name, I used to go by the moniker “Furniture”. Erik Satie’s concept of “musique d’ameublement” as well as those who built on this idea, like Brian Eno with his development of ambient music, have had a big impact on my creative process.
Space, in both a physical and mental sense, has always had an influence. How a room sounds acoustically, my state of mind, the quality of light, and other environmental factors have an effect on the feel of a recording or performance. Many of the songs that found themselves on this album germinated during my “Furniture” days. My time at Harrison House Music & Art residency was a really amazing opportunity to engage the music in a beautiful context.
To what degree do you feel that your state of mind has impacted on your previous albums? Are there preparations that you make prior to recording to allow for this?
My state of mind has always played a part in how the tone of a particular song or release turns out. Music has always been a vehicle for me to channel spaces, both emotional and physical. As I was writing my previous LP, “Between Two Worlds”, I travelled out to Albuquerque New Mexico to collaborate with my close friend Billy Joe Miller. Billy is the visual artist responsible for many of my album covers, including the last one. During my visit, we took a day trip out to a wilderness area called Ojito. It was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited. After returning back home to SF, I used that experience as a huge source of inspiration in the writing process as well as how I conceptualized the album. The cover is a double exposure of a sunset that Billy took in Ojito. I also named the last song on the album “Ojito, at Sunset”.
As far as how I approach recording, there are definitely little rituals I find useful in getting in the right frame of mind. I like to work at night and sometimes like to light candles. I also prefer a fairly clean workstation so I tend to clear the clutter before starting. I’m not particularly superstitious generally, but I definitely appreciate the ritual of preparing.
I don’t think I’m familiar with any of the Furniture material you mentioned…are any recordings available from around of this period, or is this recording the first document of it?
This album is marks the first time I’ve shared the Furniture material. I have been sitting on this music for quite some time and saw the residency as a great opportunity to revisit some of those songs. There is also a good amount of material that did not make it on the record, which I may decide to rework and make available in future… we’ll see! For the time being, I’m happy to have these songs out there.
How long had the material been mentally archived for? Did it take time to remember it all?
I started writing many of these songs as early as 2005, possibly even a bit earlier. My memory is a little fuzzy, but a lot of the material goes back nine or ten years, give or take. It was fairly natural reacquainting myself with the music. It’s kind of like getting on a bike after not riding for a long time… there’s a certain amount of muscle memory you retain. Even certain associated memories became clear again. It was a really fun process for me.
You would have been still performing and playing in large electric groups at that time, wouldn’t you?
Yeah both my bands Tarentel and The Drift were active then. Tarentel started to quieten down sometime between 2008 and 2009, but The Drift was in full swing.
Was the material written for acoustic guitar or was it written for electric, then?
The Furniture material was written primarily for acoustic guitar. There are a few exceptions that developed from acoustic into songs for The Drift, but for the most part I tended to keep them separated.