Part ambient jazz experiment, part epic soundscape, part improvisatory sonic hallucination, Kansas City's Mnemosyne Quartet seeks to let “music occur out of the natural sonic environment we find ourselves in during the day to day course of our lives.“ Comprised of composers and instrumentalists Michael Miller, Russell Thorpe, Eli Hougland and Ted King-Smith, the Mnemosyne Quartet provides the noetic soundtrack for bystanders everywhere. We are very fortunate to share some samples of the Quartet's music, plus an interview with the group itself.
Introduce yourselves. How did you meet and end up combining forces?
Well the four of us come from different corners of the country. Michael and Russell have known each other for almost 20 years and are both from Oklahoma, Ted grew up in upstate New York, and Eli is from the Kansas City area. All four of us have been active in the Kansas City new music scene for the past few years, and it was through this community that we came to know one another. Last summer (2014) Ted, Michael, and Russell began to improvise together and were soon joined by Eli. In August that year we had our first public performance in Oppenstein Park as part of Art in the Loop’s inaugural season, and have been performing regularly since then.
The improvisational/ambient aspect of the music you create is very intriguing. You incorporate sounds from the environment, building on native bird songs, for example. How did this musical approach come about? How is it informed by the music you each do individually?
We’re very interested in how human brains process the information in their environment and seek to exploit certain cognitive facts to our musical advantage. Through many hours of discussion, as well as playing, we have come to a common vocabulary which we use to improvise and ultimately manipulate the listener’s environment. Each project we take on requires rehearsal and research, culminating in a unique piece and performance. After a year of projects we now have a catalog of works that we are evolving with every performance. This stems from changes in the performance environment and the improvisational nature of our music. A lot of our approach stems from the Art in the Loop performance as it was in a very public and nomadic setting. Ultimately we hope to grab the attention of our listeners, however brief it is, and bring their attention to something in the environment they were unaware was even there.
What are your biggest creative challenges as an improvisational quartet? Do you encounter creative blocks? How do you move beyond them?
The biggest challenge is trying to integrate of all our musical voices into a distinct and cohesive 30-45 performance. We all have varied musical backgrounds and tastes, but we find that once we have a project in mind these differences actually help. Our playing also appeals to a wide variety of audiences; whether it’s Russell’s fast bebop harmonies, Eli’s epic soundscapes, Michael’s schmaltzy melodies, or Ted’s funky grooves.
In our rehearsals we are constantly always making sure we remember and write down what we just did in a particularly inspiring practice improvisation so we can recreate that particular mood in a public performance. This helps us create some continuity between performances, but also serves as a way to move beyond any creative blocks.
Each of you are heavily involved in the vibrant Kansas City experimental music scene. What’s the best thing about living, working and performing here?
How much we see people who make music wanting to work together to make quality stuff. It’s the support for art and artists. We see art as a huge part of the culture in KC, and it’s all thanks to the community that continues to come out and engage with it. That and the opportunities to play in non-traditional spaces like parks, rooftops, libraries, galleries, etc..