The Alien Soundscapes of Kyle Landstra
The only time I’ve ever felt compelled to lie down on a Kalamazoo basement floor was while immersed in the music of Kyle Landstra—and believe me, those basement floors are dirty, what with the stale beer and the sweat and the cigarette butts. But to stay upright during Landstra’s set, to keep my eyes open and active, just didn’t feel quite right. His songs inhabit their own small reality, and sometimes you have to shut everything else off to gain entry. I was equally impressed that Landstra could keep himself from drifting away, from transforming into an electromagnetic mist of stardust and brainwaves, but during his set he stood front and center, twiddling synthesizer knobs and pedals, flanked by a small glowing crystal, barely swaying, deeply focused on his organic compositions.
Kyle Landstra makes ambient music, a phrase that makes most people think “Brian Eno” or maybe “Aphex Twin” but usually “yawn.” And yet, ambient music surrounds us in more ways than we typically acknowledge. It can be heard in public places, museums, movie trailers, documentaries, and video games. It can be found in nature: whale songs, the wind gently shushing in the trees, the sounds of planets, the constant burble of a forest brook. And in fact, the genre itself is based off the idea of surrounding our brains and filling a room; the word comes from the Latin word ambientem, which literally means “surrounding, encircling; lying all around.”
At first pass, one would find Landstra’s compositions engrossing and calming, not unlike a deep brain-tissue massage. But make no mistake, these aren’t simply puffs of soft synths and drawn-out tones; I don’t think Landstra’s goal is to mollify his listeners. Rather, his pieces are ripe for close listening, where the listener can appreciate the lush textures, the play with melody and repetition, the sculpting of the soundwaves. This is beatless music you can put on while you read or do busywork, yes, but it isn’t airy and toothless.
For me, his songs are intensely visual and colorful. They have a subtle way of asking for focus instead of demanding it. As they build, layer upon layer, they reach a certain richness that is hard to describe. I surely wouldn’t call it a groove, but like a groove, the disparate elements seem to line up and work both independently and in tandem. The engine behind this all this music is Landstra’s steady workmanship. His impressive output consists of a wide variety of splits, cassettes, online releases, contributions to compilations, and more (much of it available on his bandcamp). Listening to his oeuvre, you get the sense of a solitary soul, tinkering with mountains of gear late into the night, endlessly shifting these nebulous blobs of sound into ever-new alien worlds, exploring something both internal and terrestrial.
It is this solitary soul that I wanted to know more about, and so I sent Kyle a few questions about his music.
How did you get to this point? What initially interested you in making these ambient/drone soundscapes?
For me (and probably like many other artists), it initially came from being an inspired listener. The more I listened to ambient music, the more I became interested in picking apart the layers of sound that were present in the music and exploring what these layers of sounds were awakening within me. I quickly found that connecting to synthesizers with this perspective in mind could become a very fruitful and cathartic experience. Creating ambient/drone soundscapes became a very personal affair of self-exploration while also being able to manipulate time in such a way that my music could morph itself into some sort of audible landscape around me (and consequently for listeners). It allowed me to connect to a deeper part of myself while detaching at the same time.
One thing that has always impressed me about your artistic approach is your dedication and consistent output. My main focus is poetry, but sometimes it feels like the culture at large doesn’t give a shit about poetry, and it’s easy to become discouraged at that thought. You are working in a genre that is similarly overlooked and under-appreciated. How do you keep going and stay dedicated to your craft?
It can be very discouraging at times when you realize that you have become more centered on getting people to experience your art rather than the love of the craft itself. This is a very dualistic perspective, but remaining devoted to making music for yourself is far more rewarding than looking for acceptance or even attention from others. Creating music became a personal experience for me early on and prior to really opening up to the realm of consistent releases. That sort of intention has stuck with me since then which is inspiration enough. It is so refreshing to head to my synth room, turn on the black light, fire up the synths, and create my own little bubble containing my own soundscapes where time doesn’t exist; this is where I can truly relax and disconnect from myself. Having this sort of relationship with music really keeps me going. I’ve also really gotten into meticulously composing sequences over the past year. This really gives me that “runner’s high” when I fit together a composition like a puzzle, with the various synths, their patches, and the notes played as the puzzle pieces.
Several (most? all?) of your releases are recordings of your performances. Improvisation and spontaneity seem to be important elements in your work. Can you talk a little more about this approach? How does recording and releasing with this approach differ from carefully editing and sculpting pieces over time?
Well firstly, it’d probably be best for me to clarify that on my releases when it states it was “recorded in a live setting” or something similar, it actually means that I recorded the tracks in a live manner, i.e. no overdubs. So typically I was recording them at home, but all in one piece. This has always been important to me as I have always wanted to be able to display the same type of sounds in performance settings as I have in my recorded music. But yes you are correct on the improvisation aspect; all of my recorded material except for “Dream Array” and my track from a recent four way split, “Upon a Field of Suspended Orbs”, have involved many elements of improvisation. The improvisation aspect to my music was very reliant on the gear I had at the time and have since moved to composing very intentional pieces of music. Most of what I conjure up now does not typically lend itself as much improvisation as it had before, but there is definitely something special that is brought to the table when engaged in an improv mindset. The improvisational side of making music for me brought out a lot of character in regards to what I was going through at that specific point in time whereas a strictly compositional aspect has become more of a finely tuned narrative. To say that a more improvised outlook on creating music is any better or worse than something more strictly composed would be in vain. Each has their own unique avenues to explore and that is what is so great about being an artist; different methods may work better for some artists than others. That is where the beauty lies.
The most interesting thing about ambient music, for me, is the way it can be used to change the atmosphere of a physical space. It can be used as an extra layer of background sensory information, working in tandem with a physical space’s visual layers, contextual layers, etc. But ambient music can also be subject to mindful and meditative close-listening. Is either approach preferable to you? Do you create your music with both contexts in mind?
I enjoy both perspectives of ambient music very much. I believe ambient music inherently plays both sides of the same coin in regards to close-listening and observing it as a background aura. There can be a lot of subtle intricacies in this genre because of the wide variety of tools to work with, whether electronic, acoustic, or experimental in nature. I typically create most of the patches on my synthesizers used in my music from scratch, so I really enjoy working with modulation matrices to bring out subtleties in texture and tone (that of which totally caters to the mindful listeners). Both styles of listening can highlight different aspects of your experience, whether close to the music or not. If observed as a background style, it can play as a dim lantern lighting your way on a path rather than the path itself.
In your opinion, who is making the most interesting ambient/drone/soundscapes right now? Which artists in your field excite you the most?
Oh boy, what a question! Well I just received Gora Sou’s “Ramifications” on Orange Milk and it is pristine. Same with the Visible Cloaks release on Hare Akedod. Homies Pulse Emitter, Ant’lrd, and Gardener are constantly and consistently killing it. Joe Bastardo of Bastian Void/ Homeowner/ Looks Realistic/ Gay Shapes has been prolific as of late. I’ve been in love with Mathias Grassow ever since his release “Short Stories” on Cosmic Winnetou and then dove into his deep discography after Günter included a copy of “Behind the Evident Void” with my order. Steve Roach as always. Bitchin’ Bajas have been a definite force in the Chicago area for a while now and each release is totally righteous. And most definitely Alan Gesso; one of my favorite artists in the scene that I feel is quite under-appreciated. I don’t know man, it’s hard to pin down a fixed amount of people who I am inspired by as there is so much out there right now!
Finally, what’s your favorite piece of musical equipment that you use? What’s your signature synth?
Well, recently I sold my Waldorf Blofeld keyboard to purchase the desktop module version (slimming down my setup; no more concerts performing with three keyboards!). I’d say that synth has become integral to my compositions ever since I obtained it last summer. Other than that, my Ensoniq ESQ-1 really got me hyped on menu-diving patch programming. After filling up the sequencer data on that, I got the rack mount version of it because of the thick and lively sounding patches you can create on it. The Blofeld and the ESQ-1/ESQ-M allow for deep modulation and very crisp sounds, so they might be a couple of my favorites. Also, the use of multi-mode on these synths make composing new pieces very exciting for me… this is a dangerous question as I could probably go on forever talking about what I like about each piece of gear I have.