Son Lux: A Composer’s Mind, a Sampler’s Perspective, and an Unlikely 28-Day Challenge

Son Lux: We Are RisingSon Lux: We Are Rising (Anticon, 4/26/11)

Son Lux: “Rising”

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Chances are that you’ve heard compositions by the classically trained Ryan Lott more often than you think. His day job at Butter Music and Sound finds him writing 30- to 50-second tracks to be used for television ads, often cranking out two in a day. He composes original pieces for dance and theater troupes, his work has been featured at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, and he has participated in multimedia installations.

But despite the percolating buzz around his name in the art scene, his talent remains unknown on a greater scale until 2008, when Lott made his debut as Son Lux, his first major foray into releasing music for himself. His first album, At War With Walls and Mazes, introduced the world to a nigh-uncategorizable work, a blend of hip-hop beats, electronica, delicate vocals, neoclassical flavor, and both melodic and chaotic instrumentation.

It was an arresting and unique debut, released by the indie-rap Anticon collective, but his newly released sophomore album, We Are Rising, is as notable for its quality and diversity as it is for its method of creation. Essentially on a dare from National Public Radio, Lott wrote, recorded, and arranged the album entirely in the 28 days of February 2011.

Son Lux

To most, a task like that would be unfathomable. Especially considering Lott’s usual method of composing, it seems unthinkable that he would be able to complete this challenge.

“What I normally do is come up with an idea and drill it into the ground for a few days,” Lott says. “Then I leave it and let it sit for sometimes months. By the time I come back to back to it, if I still think it’s magic, I’ll keep it and I’ll keep going — I’ll keep experimenting, pull it apart, try it from all different angles.”

But Lott knew that despite the restrictions that such a time limit would put on his primary method of creating music, the opportunity — and the publicity — were once-in-a-lifetime chances. Luckily, he has experience in composing under short notice due to his professional work as composer (and if a musician has to have a day job, hey, you could do a lot worse). And though he has received commissions for longer pieces, the time constraints were never nearly as tight — an hour of music would be expected in five months, a breeze compared to completing an LP in four weeks. In the end, it was the project’s seeming impossibility that made it so enticing.

Son Lux

“I really had to do it,” Lott says. “It’s not going to happen again — this imposition of force that could really bring out something wonderful.”

The resultant album, much heavier on orchestral flair, is nine tracks of otherworldly musical mosaics bursting with fragility and introspection. “Chase” finds percussion alternately rumbling and pattering, with swelling trumpets and strings coexisting with haunting synth lines, and eponymous “Rising” mixes stuttering flute lines and gently played strings with crashing percussion and distorted harpsichord-sounding synthesizer, with a catchy vocal performance above it all. The languid “Leave the Riches” features a steadily ticking beat overlaid with chiming and droning synthesizers (and also features vocal assistance from Jace Everett, of True Blood theme fame, organized and recorded on the same day). The songs sound fully formed, as if they were swimming in Lott’s mind for weeks before he let them flow out in the studio. The truth, however, is far different and exemplifies the mind-bending composing, arranging, and performing that goes into creating a piece of Son Lux music.

“I’m a samplist. I’m a collagist. Yes, I’m a composer in a classical sense, but I’m also a hip-hop producer. And those two, in Son Lux, they get along. They get along great.”

“I decided ahead of time that no matter what, I was going to do all my tracking in the first two weeks,” Lott says. Rather than write songs completely, he came up with 10 kernel ideas for songs (one of which was left off for sounding like “a bad Philip Glass film score”) and recorded instrumental tracks with the intention of creating a palette of samples. Never mind, of course, that Lott had not completed composing the songs at the time of recording.

“I essentially plan to sample myself, and in the process of sampling myself, create my arrangements,” Lott explains. So though each instrument played a composed part, the part itself was never intended to be used in a track as recorded. After the first half of the month was spent gathering raw sonic material, Lott chopped up his recorded passages and mashed up the sounds — some intentionally off-key, some recorded with three mics that were each manipulated separately — until Son Lux songs emerged. With only parts of the songs being conceived during recording, it’s easy to think Lott would get lost in uncertainty and confusion, but to him, this new way of making music opened new creative doors.

Son Lux

“It’s another limitation that helps me come up with more creative things I wouldn’t normally,” he says. “If I wrote out every note in advance, it probably wouldn’t have been as good as the results of experimenting with the audio after the fact.”

A first-time listener likely won’t hear Son Lux’s self-described hip-hop influences, despite the act’s inclusion in the venerable underground rap label Anticon, and understandably so. Lott sports a vocal style that’s more in line with the indie rock of Sufjan Stevens and others, and his percussion is far from the 4/4 boom-bap beats that are virtually synonymous with the genre. But though Son Lux may not seem born of hip hop to the ear, ideologically, Son Lux can fit comfortably next to Pete Rock and Prince Paul as a producer. Lott refuses to let his music be stagnant, changing his sounds and sampling himself relentlessly to construct his songs. Discovering new avenues of creativity and beauty by sampling and juxtaposing existing sounds is one of the cornerstones of the philosophy of hip-hop production, and We Are Rising does that splendidly, creating cohesive, beguiling melodies out of the sound fragments he arranged on the track.

“I hated piano lessons all the way through college,” Lott says. “The moment that I realized that I could sort of change what was on the page and maybe come up with my own ideas — that’s when music happened for me. I’m a samplist. I’m a collagist. Yes, I’m a composer in a classical sense, but I’m also a hip-hop producer. And those two, in Son Lux, they get along. They get along great.” The unique mixture of a lifelong student of music and an unabashed sampler also brings an emphasis on percussion and rhythm to Son Lux. Theoretically, it might be easy for a Son Lux song to drift away from listen-ability into a formless morass of sounds, but Lott’s rhythms keep them anchored.

“Rhythm is, from theoretical perspective, the most important thing about my music,” he says. “I think in rhythm before I think in anything else, and I will winnow out texture and melody through experimentation and hard work, but I hear rhythm and feel it in my body.” The aforementioned “Chase,” for example, was built on its percussion track — in fact, an unused improvisation by Mutemath’s Darren King and Midlake’s McKenzie Smith from two years ago. Lott’s favorite track on We Are Rising, the closer “Rebuild,” is so cited due to its rhythm, which opens the track with skittering, clanging percussion before being replaced with staccato bursts of synthesizer and trumpet. None of the beats are overtly propulsive, but they create an essential structure — in Lott’s words, to keep the songs so that “you can, for the most part, bob your head to it.”

Son Lux

Lott was already in the midst of an album, one he had been working on for years, when the challenge came to record We Are Rising. After this album’s inability to support open-ended compositional processes, Lott is curious about where his songwriting and composing will go. Though he seemed convinced that the time limit precluded experimentation, it instead opened a new avenue, one where split-second decisions colored entire songs and the pressure of obligation forced out ideas. Turning his eye back to his “paused” album, Lott recognizes that some of the things he wanted to do for that record were already accomplished in We Are Rising. However, he is currently back to work on the record, reassessing where he will take it and what self-imposed limitations will bring out the best results.

Meanwhile, the cult of Son Lux is growing. Choreographers continue to commission Lott to write original music for dance performances, but some are beginning to ask for Son Lux material. (The Atlanta Ballet just premiered 20 minutes of new Son Lux music for the “Flux” portion of Ignition, its newest performance.) The NPR challenge has led to press from the public-broadcasting stalwart as well as from major newspapers and independent-music publications, and the blogosphere is buzzing. Though Ryan Lott doesn’t have trouble in getting his music heard, Son Lux is well on its way to sharing the same luxury.