Robert Stillman :: The Aquarium Drunkard Interview

On Reality, composer Robert Stillman utilizes a “multi-tracked ensemble of one” to essentially have a lively conversation with himself. The listener is invited to listen in—it’s no coincidence the record opens with a generous invocation called “All Are Welcome.” Originally from Portland, Maine, Stillman currently lives with his wife and daughter in East Kent in the United Kingdom, where he crafts open-ended and spiritually seeking records featuring songs that bask in the middle ground connecting jazz, folk, chamber pop, and classical music.

Like his previous albums, including 2016’s Rainbow and 2017’s Portals, Reality sounds custom-made to accompany thoughtful wandering; whether dedicating compositions to a faithful car or the late John Fahey, Stillman approaches his material with attentive care. When Aquarium Drunkard rang him up via Skype to discuss Reality, he was in a reflective mood, as kind a conversationalist as his work suggests he would be.

Aquarium Drunkard: Reality, like a number of your records, is a solo project. It’s “Robert Stillman making all the sounds with other Robert Stillmans,” but it never sounds sterile or muted. Are there practices you use to open your playing up in a way that allows you to essentially collaborate with yourself the way a player would collaborate with another player?

Robert Stillman: I spent quite a bit of time trying to put myself in situations where it feels as much like a communication as possible. [With Reality], that was really the goal. I wanted it to feel as free as possible, and one way that I achieved that was I went into the recording situation with very little material. In most cases, there’d be just a melody. 

What I tried to do then was not give too much thought to what I was going to [attempt] and try to move incredibly fast, so that I was reacting to the last thing I did and not really giving myself enough time to know it well enough to respond any way that wasn’t spontaneous. All I had was the memory of what I just played, so for all intents and purposes, it felt like something new to me. I have no idea what I’m doing, so it takes me by surprise if I don’t listen to it too many times. 

AD: Did working in a less defined manner require occasionally leaving in elements you’d normally want to edit out?

Robert Stillman: Definitely. I realized that there are so many records I love where “imperfections” are integral parts of the music…those features, [though] maybe imperfect, are understood as intentional on some level, or important, at least. 

AD: I feel like there’s a spiritual element to what you do. I know that’s a tricky word—because spirituality means a lot of different things to a lot of different people—but I wonder if you would describe what role the idea of spirit plays in your work.

Robert Stillman: Let me put it this way: a lot of music for me is an opportunity to tap into something that’s a little bit wider or further beyond the sort of day to day experience. The beauty of music is that it happens in time, and when you’re in it, you’re never anywhere but in the moment you’re making the sound. So music can be a really efficient way of nailing you to the moment. For me, being able to enter that and lose track of the past and future, that’s an important part of music. There are some similarities there I suppose with meditation and prayer practices. You’re trying to access something…an ecstatic experience. That’s beyond, you know? That’s like a trip.  

AD: There is tension and dissonance in Reality, but there’s also a lot of space for serenity and calm, right down to the song titles: “All Are Welcome,” “Peace on Earth,” “The Stars Are Beautiful.” Did hope or peace feel like goalposts in terms of what you wanted this music to inspire in the listener?

Robert Stillman: I think a title can be powerful, and they’re all I’ve got really, as I’m making instrumental music. When I say in those titles, “Sticks are Very Beautiful” or “The Stars are Beautiful…” what I’m saying is that sticks are and the stars just are. That can be a very powerful thing, just to be reminded that something exists; the beauty is just in the fact that it’s there. It’s not like an aesthetic beauty, it’s more like an acknowledgement. 

That’s an optimistic place, because just the presence of something makes it good. [With titles like] “Peace on Earth” and “All Are Welcome,” I’m just interested in [how] you open up that space. I feel like cynicism is so high right now. People won’t even give themselves the chance to put themselves in a place where something [beautiful] might be possible in their own lives. I wanted to see what that felt like to just be completely clear and open it up in that way. 

AD: I think there’s even a sense of guilt associated with focusing on beautiful things in the world. There is so much ugliness surrounding us—so many dire situations in terms of climate and society, it can almost feel irresponsible to focus on lovely things. 

Robert Stillman: I know what you mean about the feeling of irresponsibility about enjoying, but the irony is that a lot of the pain and suffering that’s happening, which makes us feel insecure about enjoying, that’s the result of a long, long process of people denying themselves the opportunity to actually find peace or heal themselves. If we’re feeling too guilty to take that opportunity, in a way we’re perpetuating the problem. You could make an argument that the actual work towards making things better probably begins with healing ourselves on some level. You could also argue that it’s the most practical thing that we can do. We encounter a lot of stuff that we can’t do anything about—or at least it feels like we can’t do anything about it. A lot of the day for me is looking at stuff on the internet that’s just so horrible and I can’t begin to fathom. I think that that can definitely add to a sense that you’ve got no right to do anything except honor other people’s suffering, but I’m not sure that’s the right way. 

AD: I do that too, and in a weird way, it’s all rooted in my ego. When I do that, I’m still putting the focus on myself at the center in the story. It’s not healthy, and it’s not actually empathetic. It enables the very thing I’m trying to avoid.

Robert Stillman: One thing that I was thinking a lot about, especially toward the end of making this record, was the idea of the sabbath vision. Like on the last day [in Genesis] when God looks at everything. I thought a lot about what it means to say, “It is good.” Blessing everything. It’s acceptance. I think accepting ourselves is part of that. For me, that’s a real learning process. That kind of work feels like that’s gonna be the whole process. That’s gonna be my whole life.

AD: Your records have sometimes been a conduit for processing very personal things. Namely, your gorgeous album Rainbow dealt with the loss of your daughter Ruth. How have your reasons for making music evolved since then?

Robert Stillman: Since that period in my life, everything has changed, including music. There was a definite moment around that time, before I made Rainbow, where life brought me to a place where it just tore me wide open. I had to piece my world back together. Part of that was rediscovering what role music was going to play in that whole thing. I think that’s when I started to become more aware of how much I needed music—[similar to the way] I needed the people in my life, and how much power there was in that.

That record, Rainbow, it took a lot. It represented for me a level of intensity of getting things out through music that I don’t know if I’ll ever experience again. It’s kind of messed me up, because it’s set a very high bar in that sense. I think for other people too, I get the sense that they were able to feel something through that record maybe. That’s just what it is. I think sometimes it goes like that. That was a time of change on a lot of levels. 

AD: And these new records, do they reflect the way some of those changes have set into your life? 

Robert Stillman: Yeah, I’m just working on it at this point. There’s a part of me that feels like music is about form and experimentation and learning and working with materials, and then there’s another part of me that knows that music’s just got to be this intuitive, continuous sort of spirit work. Those two things aren’t usually exclusive—they kind of feed each other—but I find that it kind of goes back and forth for me about which music is kind of the hard hat work and which music is just coming out. words/j woodbury

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