A Conversation With Loscil

“Music intended to serve as an unobtrusive accompaniment to other activities” is how ambient music is defined by Webster’s Dictionary. (Google it, millennials.) Fair enough, except that disregards what Brian Eno wrote in the liner notes for his Music For Airports, which state that ambient music “must be as ignorable as it is interesting.” Scott Morgan, who records and performs as Loscil, has done his part over the course of numerous albums, such as last year’s Equivalents, to create ethereal sound collages of exceptional beauty that reward close listening. 

MAGNET spoke with Morgan about his latest LPs, his approach to composition and recording, and the impact of the current pandemic on his work.

Your music is quite diverse with both soothing and unsettling aspects, which allow the listener to have a varied experience from track to track and album to album. Many of your records seem inspired by a conceptual idea, as with the submarine/underwater theme on 2002’s Submers. This would seem to lend itself to a cerebral interpretation, yet they are also good at evoking a particular mood that doesn’t require deep thought to be enjoyed. How much do you want people to think about your music as opposed to just enjoying it?
I’ve become a firm believer that art is a subjective experience, and what we bring to our experience of a work of art is just as important as what the artist brought in their creation of it. I like to provide context for listening because that sparks something in me as a creative person, but I also don’t consider this context a set of rules that a listener must abide by. If someone were to listen to Submers, taking your example, and think nothing about the life of a submariner, but instead thought of something deeply personal to them, I would be more than OK with that. On the other hand, if fully abstract music doesn’t resonate for someone and they need a guidepost, adding that extra poetic suggestion might sometimes help listeners find a way into the music.

Last year was a busy one for you with a new album, Equivalents, and an LP’s worth of material, Lifelike, for the video game of the same name. Was the latter a commission, and were you tasked with certain parameters?
Yes, Lifelike was a commission, and I was tasked with creating music for each of the levels. I was also in control of the sound design and the interactive music implementation, which is something I have a background with. The experience of the music and sounds in the game is actually quite different than the music out of context because it is tied to the interactivity and the progression. I think of Lifelike as more of an interactive art piece than a game, but ultimately, we were striving for a synergy between the elements.

I believe for many of your albums, you make music mostly using Csound or other audio programming languages. Since there’s no “knob-twiddling,” is it harder to find happy musical accidents or moments of spontaneous musical creation, or is that an incorrect assumption? Do you compose “offline” and transfer the musical expression to a program? I know you also collect “found” sounds and samples as you work.
No, I haven’t used Csound for ages now. I used it a bit in university when I was learning about computer music. I was drawn to the name Loscil—a function in Csound—because it summed up electronic music to me: looping and oscillating. But I transitioned from Csound to Max/MSP long ago and only really use that in the context of Ableton Live now. I have pretty much always based my sound on samples and sound design. I rarely used synthesis in the traditional sense, but I’m always looking for new sounds, so whatever works.

There’s been a resurgence of relatively inexpensive hardware synthesizers and modular gear over the last decade. Does that have any appeal to you? It’s almost the revenge of Keith Emerson with banks of keyboards!
I’ll be honest—I’m not much of a hardcore gear nerd.  I like what I like, and when something really speaks to me, I will adopt it into my setup. I tend to enjoy working with sampled sound—either instruments or field recordings—and manipulating these into playable sample-based instruments. I have bought a few synths over the years, but none of them are really as important to me as techniques like granular processing or convolution, which are both forms of DSP I use heavily to create textures and timbres.

I’ve read you started off as a drummer. Is that true? Your music certainly has rhythmic movement, yet much of it is almost beatless, although not always—as with the track “Persistent” from Lifelike. Talk about the role rhythm plays in your music. 
My true first instrument was guitar, which I still play. I also played tenor and baritone saxophone in high school. I started playing drums because every band needed a drummer, and I was good enough to hold a beat. I then did a stint as the drummer with Destroyer for a few albums. Since then, I haven’t played drums all that much. I do love rhythm. Especially very subtle polyrhythms. I played gamelan for a few years, and I think this influenced my sense of rhythm and polyrhythm. Also dub, prog rock and ’60s minimalism. I do like to return to rhythmic ideas from time to time but also enjoy music that is amorphous and off the grid.

Ambient music must rank with country music for being misunderstood, or often disliked, by those who are not regular listeners. Do you think about genre when it comes to your own music, or is that a loaded question?
It’s a loaded question, for sure. I’ve never loved our incessant need to categorize, though I understand it in a practical sense. I do consider my influences quite varied and just want to be a musician. Too much focus on genre leads down a path of monoculture. Unfortunately, what we call ambient music now has suffered from this a bit. 

Most of the people around the world must stay indoors as much as possible due to COVID-19. Health concerns are paramount for everyone, of course, but do you think this experience will find its way into your music?
It will undoubtedly find its way into all of us. No one will be untouched by this experience. I’ve gone through a bit of creative shock. I’m in shutdown mode for the most part. With many canceled events and projects, I’m having to completely reshape things and refocus. But I’m coming around to the idea of creating again. Mostly for my own sanity. What comes of that, I have no clear idea right now.

—Bruce Fagerstrom