Q&A with local sound composer and musician Alan Jones

Jones recently composed a piece using sounds from the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial

Local audio engineer, sound composer, and musician Alan Jones runs a mastering studio, Laminal Audio, in Tracyton where he recently composed an extensive piece using exclusively sounds that he captured in late March at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial in Eagle Harbor.

Jones calls his dedicated craft “sound art” or “experimental music,” having worked with respectable musicians such as Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth and cellist/composer Lori Goldston. His past experience analyzing, studying and monitoring the acoustic environment of the world’s oceans has greatly influenced his music composition and archival methodology, according to his website af-jones.com.

The local sound-enthusiast has engineered audio and advised for numerous regional and international musicians, as well as performing ensembles as the Chief Mastering Engineer at his studio. He also runs the Marginal Frequency performance series and record label of the same name.

The Bainbridge Island Review caught up with Jones for a Q&A series about his passion, background and purpose for recording his most recent piece from the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, which can be heard or downloaded at https://afjones.bandcamp.com/album/nidoto-nai-yoni.

BIR: Where did your passion for music and film sound design come from?

Jones: My earliest recollection of feeling the integration of sound with a film must be from seeing John Carpenter’s The Thing, at home on Beta or VHS tape when I was a kid. Certainly, Jaws had a subconscious impact when I was even younger. But with The Thing, I have a memory of clumsily articulating in my 11-year-old mind this additional intensity on the screen, an enhancement of the story or landscape through the mood conveyed by the music, and from sound itself. Paying more attention to films in this way in later years, it occurred that these were actual artistic choices. Like most everyone else, you’re flying by perceptions and best guesses at the initial point you dive into these instincts about art, beginning to think more deeply about what constitutes a piece of work, be it a song or a painting or whatever, and any emotional or aesthetic connections to those works, just under the surface of a disciplined conscience about them. Many of these perceptions were validated when I took some film classes for a couple of semesters at the University of North Texas in the late 1980s.

BIR: Do you consider your work a hobby?

Jones: My work was definitely born out of hobbies that I continue to take seriously. At some point and often by surprise, I suppose one’s hobby becomes one’s discipline, unique to that person and affected in ways by individual experience. At 18 I had acquired some gear while in school in Denton, TX, and some word got out in small pockets in the music community centered around the university that I had this recording gear. In addition to beginning to experiment and compose some of my own music to tape, I would occasionally record bands and mix down the audio to provide to them for the purpose of demos that they could shop around to local venues and radio stations. This was always a hobby, and one that I greatly enjoyed and through which I was able to meet a few other like-minded musicians. I guess whatever “chops” I had attained through this hobby in college would unknowingly become the technical foundation for the work that I do now, particularly when I began to re-evaluate things in my own happiness and in my professional life around the 2009 timeframe.

BIR: How much time do you spend composing music?

Jones: My primary responsibilities are with my mastering studio. Whatever time is leftover is often spent either thinking about or doing the composing, either my work or in collaboration with others. Whenever the impulse strikes, I try to act on it best I can, by either taking notes to expand into future work or by spontaneously turning on the gear and dragging tape.

BIR: What kinds of music or sounds do you compose?

Jones: By others’ definition I suppose I’m a guitarist and have been for over 30 years. However, for at least the last decade the guitar has become more of a ready asset in the toolbox than a primary instrument, as it once was. More often than reaching for the guitar I’m using old test equipment to make audio, devices such as frequency generators, and the like. I also spend a lot of time thinking about how audio can be captured. A Slovak company called LOM Audio recently put out a short run of microphones that are actually geophones, pressure-sensitive devices that seismologists use to detect activity in the earth, be it from actual seismic activity all the way out to the effects of dense traffic on roads. The device is aptly named the Geofón. For my work in sound design for film and in my own music practices, this device has opened up a considerable amount of latitude for me in obtaining clear recordings of very low frequencies, which I tend to aesthetically favor. Paired with regular mics, for instance, recording in parallel with a geophone can make the otherwise mundane slamming of a door sound like a major acoustic event in the theater or at home on an A/V system.

In my own music, I resource an almost never-ending practice of recording out in the world or very near home here in Tracyton, either passively hunting for interesting sounds with mobile recording gear or going to a place that I might imagine to have a rich or even a quiet soundscape. It is often through this process of archiving sound, not unlike the way a photographer works in their own practices, that new compositions, pieces of music, or even an entire album is conceived. This “organic” sound can either feature prominently in the foreground of my work or as a subtle layer of synthesis very low in the mix. The results I aim for are pretty much in contrast to the truly wonderful and sincere interest across the world these days in listening to “field recordings”. My own practice of site-specific recording in the interest of yielding musical components through chance — as opposed to recording a place for recording’s sake — is one I’m very comfortable with and unlikely to depart from any time soon. The A Jurist For Nothing LP has numerous instances of this practice.

BIR: How does your underwater experience help and influence the kinds of sounds you compose?

Jones: My professional background is in submarine acoustics and audio engineering. I’ve spent a collective three years and change of my life underwater, most of it listening to the undersea environment, where sound literally bends, refracts, attenuates, and propagates in ways that are impossible through air. My years of analyzing sound through the medium of water revealed early on that what we hear almost always physically passes through a filter of one kind or another. These natural filters — be it the walls in a room, the reverberant and absorbent characteristics of tunnels, or natural sound transmitting through a dense old-growth forest – are integral to the way that I think about how certain sound and music may ultimately be heard, and that musicians and composers have rarely considered,

a broad set of tools available to them through these natural features in doing their work.

BIR: Is your work mostly local?

Jones: It varies. In terms of music, there are many on different continents and throughout the U.S. with whom I collaborate. I also work with and spend a lot of playing with some musicians from Seattle, gravitating toward others who are interested in pushing envelopes. In performance, we routinely improvise as a form of real-time composition. Among some of these brilliant people are the great Lori Goldston, Robert Millis (recent Guggenheim Fellowship recipient), drummer and engineer Dave Abramson, trumpeter Greg Kelley (a musical hero of mine who recently relocated to Boston), and Noel Kennon, a brilliant violist and composer who also curates music events at Gallery 1412 in the Central District near Capitol Hill. Thinking about it, it’s interesting how rowdy and incredibly dark our music together can so often be, given how domesticated that such classical instrumentation tends to be considered.

Locally I have done mixing and mastering work with Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter, whom you might know, The Luna Moth, and some musicians associated with the Jack Straw Collective in Seattle. At present in my studio, I am in the early stages of sound design for the next short horror film from Italian director O.B. de Alessi, and a documentary on the groundbreaking British guitarist Keith Rowe, in addition to mastering projects for Diminished Men (Seattle), synth legend Doug McKechnie (Oakland), and also the incredible cellist Judith Hamann (Melbourne, AUS).

BIR: How can folks find out about what you do?

Jones: Self-promotion is among the most uncomfortable duties that artists have to take on, I think, and I’m not the best at putting myself out there. I see it as an occasional necessary evil for those who believe, naively or not, that the work will just speak for itself. Even in a vacuum, ha! My personal and studio websites are the functional repositories for my interests and output. Some occasionally find out about what I do through the record label I run out of Tracyton, Marginal Frequency.

BIR: Talk about the piece you composed using sounds from the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial.

Jones: Early in the pandemic, in late March, I brought several microphone assemblies including the Geofón I mentioned to the memorial, having been asked to compose a piece for an online music festival. This particular project was one I’d been thinking out for a good while. It was almost disorienting, how much solitude I was able to enjoy while there, recording for four hours without once seeing another human, as the pandemic would have it. I am very interested in surfaces and their material compositions, and the Japanese American Exclusion Memorial has a host of them from wood new and old, iron and mortar, gravel and silt, granite and water. The architecture of the site is gorgeous and my understanding is that there is meaning behind every choice made in its features that we get to visit and take in. In such a space, I do wonder what the materials themselves might have to say, and perhaps what sounds may propagate or not through the surfaces of the iron gate, or the granite or wood, among other potential conduits for sound. To do this I used microphones in open air, a stethoscope, contact microphones, and of course the geophone.

The sounds you hear in the composition vary from characteristic natural resonances of certain materials to the sound of nature, wind, and water transmitted through these surfaces and through air. The big, low-frequency bass you hear at the beginning, for instance, is the iron gate. When I later have the recordings in hand in the studio, I let my own aesthetics tell me what is interesting, such as what audio sequences speak to the experience of being immersed in the site. Using different instrumentation, I then improvised with electronic sound generators in a way that I felt was sympathetic to the recorded natural sounds of the memorial. This is essentially a quite musical process of limited accompaniment, not unlike a rhythm section in a small jazz ensemble providing the foundational anchor for what a soloist has to say with her instrument, but more abstract in the way that I work, and abandoning traditional musical features such as tempo and consonance. I say “limited” because the personal choice is to let the space or the site-specific recording do most of the work, just as it does when I am alone at a site or space dragging tape and listening.

BIR: What inspired you to record a piece about this? Why is it significant, especially locally?

Jones: A few years ago I began writing an unfinished screenplay and one of the characters is Japanese-American, mid-century timeframe. Rather than her character being a product of my own limited presumptions about her experience, I opted to do some research, primarily through reading the book Prisoners Without Trial, by Roger Daniels. I’ve been an off and on Kitsap County residence for 25 years, and it was by way of this book that I learned of the memorial on Bainbridge. I had no idea until 2017 it was there! In learning about Manzanar as the wholly sad and unique experience of Japanese- American Islanders, I knew I had to come visit at some point and do some recording.

The long-term plan was to visit late at night when there would be very little background and human-generated noise. The pandemic brought the opportunity to attempt this during the day, on a Tuesday, in fact. I’m not sure if the memorial is a best-kept-secret of sorts, but I hope that in documenting it that more people are able to learn about it, and become in closer touch with the Japanese-American experience, and what their experience brings to our culture and says about our collective history. My biggest takeaway from the composition was an immediate one: that this unique history gave to me something much bigger than all of us to consider as we have quarantined ourselves these last months, in most cases through the luxury of our own will and predominantly on our own terms. The Bainbridge to Manzanar experience then becomes something that we can all ponder, perhaps more deeply than through passive observation, and its survivors and their families are people I treasure as so powerfully American. Their experience has been inextricably folded into my own activism and the values that I personally fight for, in addition to bringing to light very real risks and threats that are becoming normalized in our world.

BIR: What will listeners be able to comprehend from what they hear?

Jones: I couldn’t possibly speak to that. At 30 or so minutes it is a narrative of its own, I think. That in mind, it is there to simply be taken in… for those who last all the way through it. Any allusory content one might excavate from the piece is wholly a product of the individual, as it should be.