(World)ly Sounds in Isolation
‘The band is just me in my room, with my guitar and my computer and some synths’ paints a picture of John Braner’s instrumental companions. John Braner creates instrumental music in his home studio in Edinburgh. Since the 1980s, he has travelled from recording his guitar notes in a 4-track cassette recorder in New York to collaborate with computer-based instruments in Edinburgh. His musical journey has not only passed through technological developments but has also incorporated music inspired by the world. Now, he is looking for opportunities where his music can be used in film projects and by film students. In the following conversation, I explore Braner’s thoughts on the expression of instruments and their ability to cross boundaries.
Not a lot of people think of making music for the film industry. How did you realise that your music is fit for films? And how did you think of approaching the film students at the University of Edinburgh?
I didn’t start out thinking that I would make music for films specifically. I don’t have any vocals for my music, first of all. A lot of people would tell me that you need to have vocals for making your music recognisable but I like to make music with just sounds. I am not trying to please anybody but myself. While talking with other people I also realised that my music would be good for films. I have been meaning to send out emails to film schools and just see if anybody wants to use it — you can get in touch with me and get the files to put it in your films but I don’t do it specifically for films. My music can be for anybody who likes to listen to it.
When I heard your first music on Soundcloud Waving to Wendy, I was surprised to hear the sounds of the Tabla instrument which originated in the Indian subcontinent and is widely used in South Asian classical music — it instantly reminded me of my home. How did you get to know about the instrument and what is the significance of Tabla in your Rock music?
I like to listen to all kinds of music. I like when music from all over the world surprises me. I love to put in surprises like Tabla in my different genres. I love to build layers and make my music look like a collage of different bits of instruments from the world. This kind of fusion in my music is inspired by artists like Trilok Gurtu who is a wonderful Indian percussionist. He mixed the sounds of Tabla with electric guitars and drummers of the Jazz and Rock musicians. People in rock bands have been inspired by instruments like Conga drum and Afro-Caribbean percussion. The music genre of Jazz and rock coupled with an instrument like Tabla is an experiment to bring out something different from mainstream Rock. I started Waving to Wendy with a little loop of Tabla and got music on top of it which I really liked. Such kind of little obstructions are famous in Indian music but not in the UK — it attracted me.
You have been so vocal about doing instrumental music rather than adding lyrics to your music. Does your music affect your perceptions of looking at life?
Oh, that’s a deep one — I think more than affecting my perception of life, it has given me new perspectives of music itself. Whenever I listen to music I always listen to the music before the lyrics and I think most people are the other way around. But mostly you’ll see if that music gets in your head even when it is not expressed by words — the tune remains in your head. Music has certainly given me more freedom to work on something that I didn’t use as a means to earn money. When money comes in between there’s a lot less freedom to explore what powers music can hold.
Sometimes I also think about how people can find a connection with songs irrespective of their language. Even if people don’t understand the words, they can feel emotion through music. Like last week my Bulgarian flatmate discovered an Indian rap artist and she loved him even if she wasn’t able to understand a single word. With the absence of language, how do you think that instrumental music can convey the emotions that you are trying to express and can promote transculturalism? Does the release from the weight of words help in establishing a connection with people?
Music does not need the weight of words to connect. I have loads of CDs by artists from around the world with their vocals in languages I do not understand. I am interested in the workings of sound. Music can exist beautifully without any vocals and if the vocals are in a different language that doesn’t matter. Like Trilok Gurtu performs the Indian tradition where he is not singing words but sounds — Ta-Ta-tak-taka-tak — those are not words of a spoken language but just sounds of the instruments coming from his mouth. A lot of Brazilian musicians do that too. They use their voice like an instrument like I would use my guitar — they are not using any words. It is always interesting to see performances where musicians come together on a stage with their various musical knowledge and present a new kind of melody which goes beyond boundaries.