Created by a conservatory-trained classical composer turned electronica producer, Akara’s mystical dancefloor symphonies are songs of the luminous extradimensional beings, sung across the veil of reality. Manifested by composer/producer Joshua Penman and female vocalist Femke Weidema, Akara’s newest album, Extradimensional Ethnography is a journey through the dimensional landscapes of sound not quite of this world. SolPurpose recently had the pleasure of diving into Joshua’s head, to garner information about his process with music, other dimensions, open source art and his plans for Akara’s future.
1.) Extradimensional Ethnography includes a vast collection of frequencies hailing from an expansive realm of musical and artistic inspiration. From classical and orchestral breathes soar vocals through transdimensional etheric melodies and otherworldly beats, your sound spans a whole gamut of genres and styles. Aside from specific artists and music out there, what are some other influences and life experiences that have been instrumental in developing your sound?
‘Well, I think that the various spiritual searches I have been on definitely influence what Akara is. Also, travelling, which is in a sense a kind of spiritual search. Being in Indonesia and India, and the musics I studied there definitely reflect upon the music of Akara. Thinking about what music means to different people in different parts of the world. Culture, language, what things are immutable parts of humanity and what is learned. Ritual, performance – watching rituals and performances of many kinds, from many different parts of the world. Enacting and experiencing our own, postmodern rituals on the dance floor and beyond in our Tribal culture…’
You were there, among the luminous beings. You did not know how you had arrived, or what language they were speaking, but you understood they meant no harm and they wished to sing you a story.
It was important.
Their words, somehow familiar, shimmered on the verge of meaning. And as their iridescent music enfolded you, you knew they longed for you to understand.
Then it was over, and you awoke, and you were back.
This is what you remember.”
Can you go a little more in depth into this channel? What is the story that they speak through you? What is the experience like when they tell you their story?
‘It’s one of the most obvious questions about Akara: Are the Luminous Beings real? And in a way, it’s an art project, an idea, they’re not real. But also, they are very real, and have a very real connection to me. The truly numinous resists easy definition.
Here’s one way to think about it: with Akara, there’s a lot of music that I write in there. My Western classical and Indian classical training, my multitudinous experiences on the dance floor, my ideas about transitions and groove and sound design… these are all things that I feel, and I put in to the music. But there’s this other part of Akara that I don’t feel I “write” exactly. It feels like something that exists outside of myself most particularly, the melodies, and sometimes, the words. I was hearing these melodies, or something like them, in my head for years before I started this project in earnest. And, so yes, it feels like there is some deep quality of this music – mostly melodic, but also textural – that comes from some place beyond me, and all of the things that I do, compositionally, intentionally, are in a way trying to reflect (or at least not go against) some aspect of that frequency that I cannot touch…’
3.) The powerful currents of time expansion, ascending expressions of co-creative culture, drastic changes in the climate and frequency of the Earth plane reveals that we are all moving through a major transition of planetary change. As we progress through this Shift of the Ages, what energies do you perceive coming into this plane right now? How do these energies influence the sound and intention behind your craft?
‘You know, I try not to consider my music as “relevant” in some deeper way, or necessarily able to effect some kind of mystic or energetic change in the world. I don’t deny the possibilities of either, but I believe that it’s not my job to think about those things. Some say the job of an artist is to be socially relevant, but I think that the deepest kind of artistic good and social relevance is simply trying to make something that is as good as possible, that connects with contemporary audiences (of some kind) in as an effective way as possible, and in so doing say something deep about what it means to be human. (This does not, by the way, fail to include the best dance music, because dance music teaches us a lot about how our bodies want to move.) I see my work as essentially to keep following the frequency of this music, to make it to the best of my ability at the highest quality I can, and to have it connect with as many people as possible. I’ve wanted so long to be a dreamer of dreams for the visionary culture – it’s an honor to have started to do just that.’
4.) Femke Weidema provides the hauntingly beautiful voice of Akara. Her Visuddha vibration is reminiscent of a memory just out of reach. Can you tell us a bit about her and her relationship and contribution to you and this album?
‘I love that people think these songs sound like things they almost remember. That is exactly the quality that I hoped to evoke from these vocals, these melodies. Femke is a studio musician and songwriter. I met her via a craigslist ad and a very long process of listening to demos and auditions. She’s incredibly talented, playing guitar, accordeon, and piano, as well as being a good recording and mix engineer. Her own music is entirely different from Akara’s, and she sings with a different vocal quality. But essentially she has a beautiful voice, is an excellent musician, and we worked together on getting her to sound like this. Essentially, the vocals are my vision, but without her deep artistry, they would not sound as wonderful as they do.’
5.) You have a doctorate in Music Composition from the University of Michigan and were joined by a number of classical musicians in the making of this album. What is the experience of this momentous collaboration like for you? How do the compositions transform and differ from the sound that you have planned in your mind?
‘Well, this album is certainly not the first time I have worked with lots of musicians. In fact, I’ve written pieces for many, many more – orchestras of 80-100 people, even – so I know my way around instrumental composition. I think that more or less the acoustic parts end up sounding the way I had intended them. I produce “mockup” versions of the instrumental parts before actually recording them and I have quite a lot of experience so there are very few surprises. The one thing I do see happen sometimes is that in my arrangement I’ve forgotten how good real instruments sound, and how much aural space they can take up. So then I have to thin out textures and take out synth parts just to make room for the acoustic instruments so they can really sing. It’s certainly a production challenge, to mix the electronic drums, hybrid synths, and classical instruments, since there are basically no models for doing this.’
6.) You also mention that this album is the product of a 12 year process of experimentation and development. Can you tell us a little bit about the process and/or transformation you underwent while recording this album?
‘Well, the vague seeds of this album and project were planted in 1999, when I was studying in the Netherlands. I had some deep spiritual experiences there and had also fallen in love with the music of visionary Canadian composer Claude Vivier. His austere, mystical works for orchestral instruments and soprano, sung in made up languages, telling the tale of a land beyond death, beyond time, had a profound effect on me. I also, at this time, started going to drum and bass and psytrance parties in the famous Amsterdam squats, and was introduced to ambient music – basically the whole TIP/World and Twisted catalogue, and various downtempo stuff like Air, The KLF, Kruder & Dorfmeister… And those Simon Posford productions, like Mysteries of the Yeti, or Celtic Cross, or most importantly, Shpongle, really made a very strong impression on me.
That was the genesis of it, in a way. But the transformation was nothing short of growing up and becoming a complete musician. I went to a lot of music school to learn how to write for classical musicians and to hone my composition skills. And then even after all my school – and I went to a lot – one of the most important musical educations I had was an immersion into Indian classical vocal performance for six months. And then after that, in order to make Akara, I basically had to teach myself how to produce and mix.
In the meanwhile I created a lot of music, trying to explore variously my interests in psychedelic ambient music, medieval classical music, Indian music, minimalist classical music, gamelan, dance music. Some of what I wrote was for classical ensembles, some of it was for electronics. There was a developmental process – some of this music was more successful than others. And so in this process of development, I began to find the things that would weave together into Akara, what I consider the final, mature flowering of the artistic search I was on.
7.) This masterpiece of an album certainly took some time to produce. Is there off-time in Akara’s universe? Do you have other passions that you actively pursue?
‘Yes, it did – about a year and a half. And this isn’t the only music I write – I score films and television as well, and would still write concert music although
that hasn’t happened for about a year. Outside of this I would say my main hobbies are cooking (I think of it like orchestration, and love to create new recipes…) and learning language. I speak French, Dutch, Indonesian, Hindi, and Spanish, at various levels of fluency or scrappiness.’
8.) Extradimensional Ethnography is a tongue twisting exhale of intention. What is the inspiration for the title of your album? What does it mean to you? How does it describe the essence of the album?[blockquote]‘For a little while I got really into anthropology, and I really got in to reading ethnographies, which are books in which an anthropologist goes and lives with some other people and writes about how they live from an experiential perspective. I imagined an ethnography in song of a culture existing on the far side of the veil of reality. These luminous beings are singing their lives, their prayers, their dances, their rituals for you… it’s a recording of their culture.’[/blockquote]
9.) With the popularity of the Internet and the revolution of the music industry, websites like soundcloud, spotify and grooveshark have made it exponentially more possible for listeners to find new music. But with that comes file sharing and copyright conflicts. What are you thoughts on open source art and creating value through your work?
‘I’m not sure I have anything terribly original to add to the debate. I’m not sure I could say what “should” be or how productive that would be – rather I have to interact with the world as I find it. And I do personally like that it is possible – without even breaking the law – to hear almost anything without committing to it. One of the interesting results of the situation is that purchasing music becomes then an individual choice about commitment to the musician. And because most of my purchases come through Bandcamp (though I have yet to see my iTunes and Amazon numbers), I find out about every single person who chooses to support the project in that material way. And you know, it really is meaningful to me, that after all those months alone in the studio making this thing, it resonates with people so deeply that want to support it.
That said, it’s a truth of the business now that most musicians’ revenues come from live performances or (sometimes) broadcast royalties and license fees. But Akara is conceived very much also as a live experience. A classical orchestral ensemble on a festival stage is a really magical thing. When we did it at Beloved, people were completely unprepared to see those instruments there, then, and it was pretty great. And I can’t tell you how satisfying it is to project this music onto a live, breathing audience and watch it envelop them, create an immersive world for them to live in…that’s the kind of experience that cannot be duplicated or devalued.’”
10.) This project feels like the start of something very special. The harmonic blossoming of a dream manifesting at a time where many have chosen to look deep within for healing, understanding, and guidance. What are your intentions for the future of the Akara Project? Where do you see the evolution of this work leading? Would you like to share anything in particular with other inspired visionaries and musicians out there seeking to find ways to express their heart through their craft?
‘Thank you so much. I very much hope that this is something long-lasting which can be special for many people. This work is resonating very deeply with some people, and I think that will promote the longevity of the project. I intend to tour and perform a lot more, doing as many of those shows as is feasible with the large ensemble. I’m also making a second album – which will likely be an EP – right now, as well as coordinating a remix album which will feature Kaminanda, Kalya Scintilla, and Jef Stott. We’re also in preproduction for two music videos – Gelfling and The Emperor and the Oracle. In the long term, I would really love Akara to turn into a very involved stage show, with integrated lights and projections and performers. Originally I had wanted Akara to be an opera. Later I realized it had to be a band, at least at first, but I still hold the vision of a full, multimedia, enveloping experience.
As far as sharing something, with visionaries looking to express themselves… here is what I will share: Make sure you develop your craft. Good intentions are not enough, deep spiritual experiences are not enough. You need the artistic discipline to form that raw matter into something valuable. That said, craft itself is also not enough. Good intentions, deep awareness, and craft, all are needed, together. Make sure each aspect gets some of your time and devotion. When you have devoted enough time to each, the right work will come and you will reach people – until then, keep focused and remain intensely critical of your own work, trying to hone it and improve it at each step.
One of the roadblocks to the necessary level of self-criticism is an over-valuing of our intuition – believing that if we created that particular thing then it must have come from some deep place in ourself and therefore must be valuable. But if our level of craft is not sufficient, then our intuition cannot guide us perfectly because we don’t have the tools to listen to it in the most skilled fashion. So improving our work means always reflecting on what we have produced and whether it represents the highest quality of art that we can aspire to, and fixing it or getting rid of it if it does not. And doing this (what seems like “second guessing our intuition”) actually strengthens our intuition in the deeper sense because in increasing the level of our craft, it increases the availability of our intuition to the production of art.’