Back row l to r: Serena Rose (Ensphere), Rebecca Bushner (Odaiko), Michael Ludovici and Randall Swindell (Ensphere), Rome Hamner and Tracy Baynes (Odaiko), Ryan Stertz (Ensphere), Kristin Block (Odaiko). Front row l to r: Karen Falkenstrom and Nicole Levesque (Odaiko).
On a mid-September afternoon, Randall Swindell, lead singer for Tucson’s on-the-rise prog-rock ensemble Ensphere, and Karen Falkenstrom, founding member of local taiko powerhouse Odaiko Sonora, met with us at Epic Cafe to talk about the unique collaboration between the two musical outfits in store for this year’s All Souls Procession Grand Finale ceremony.
jhon: I know both of you have had pretty extensive involvement with All Souls Procession for several years now. Do you want to start by telling me about that?
Randall: The first All Souls I did was 2004, and I think I was 17. That All Souls was the day that I first joined Flam Chen, that was the first performance I did that I consider a collaboration with Flam Chen. I was one of the four-legged stilt creatures, the Kokopi’s. Every All Souls from then on I’ve been either a part of the stilt crew, or for the past few years I’ve been the Fire Director in charge of organizing all the fire performers and the choreography for that. This is the first year that I’ll be a Musical Director, which is something I’ve been dreaming about ever since I joined Flam Chen. I’ve always had the vision of combining my band and the music that I hear in my head with the visual theatrics of Flam Chen. And then Rhythm Industry came into the picture too. Flam Chen moving into Rhythm Industry, and Ensphere rehearsed there for a bit; to me, all of it is still so involved around the All Souls Procession, all the groups that are in that circle. And what I see is all these elements merging into this central focus.
Karen: Randall and Michael (Ludovici, drummer for Ensphere) came and took some taiko classes with me when they were rehearsing in the space. I think maybe that was when the seeds were planted of working together.
Should I tell my story now?
Karen: My buddies back in the early nineties were talking about doing this new kind of processional thing that was going to be downtown. They invited me and said we’d be making masks and everything. I couldn’t go to it, but I remember I had to be downtown for some reason –I think I was working– and seeing like 50 people in white, during the daytime, walking down the street. I never got involved, but I knew all these people who were involved.
In 2005, Nadia (Hagen, Artistic Director for the All Souls Grand Finale) asked Odaiko Sonora to play music in the finale. And I have to admit that I’d been so wrapped up in literature for those past 10 or so years that I hadn’t paid much attention to All Souls; I was really busy with the Poetry Festival and Kore Press and the Poetry Center, and I just really didn’t get out of my bubble much. So when we went to play All Souls and the Finale we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into! Our group was really new, we were only a couple years old, we had the big drums but we didn’t have a whole lot of good players yet. We had this one song, and we didn’t know how long we were going to have to play it for, and we were up there almost dying just pounding away on this one song over and over again. And then I remember the aerialists coming over the backdrop, and I was like, “This is incredible!”. It was a late night and it was wild and wonderful and ever since then I’ve just wanted to be a part of it.
For me, it really resonated with a lot of the things I missed since I’d moved to Tucson. I grew up with a lot of Korean family, and we had lots of traditions that were very culturally based. There was a lot of high context value in our understanding of those cultural moments, and I really hadn’t had that since I moved to Tucson. The closest thing to that for me was when I’d go and observe the Yaqui Easter ceremonies, but that’s not my ceremony; I can’t own that, all I can do is observe and feel moved by it, but I can’t be a part of it.
So that first year for me was like, “Oh my god, this could be something that I really get to be a part of”. I started doing some research, and I asked Nadia if we could put a drum on the Urn Cart and ride along with it. I’d studied Japanese traditions of procession, there’s a lot of parading in festivals in Japan. So following kind of a Japanese model for our participation in the Procession, we started with putting the drum on the cart, then the next year I started training some dancers –we’d teach community members and then we would dance behind the Urn. But then they got the new, souped-up Urn cart and we couldn’t put the drum on there anymore, so then i built an actual wagon on top of a wagon and we would pull the drum behind it.
I really wanted to create an Obon tradition in Tucson, except Obon…well, first of all, we don’t have a Japanese-American Buddhist church here. Obon season is July and August, which is stupidly hot and you don’t want to be outside dancing for hours. And the other thing is we didn’t really have songs and dances that were traditionally played. In Japan every village has its own song and its dance, that’s what they do at the Obon.
jhon: And Obon, this is the Japanese Festival of the Dead.
Karen: Yeah, exactly. And the Koreans have one which is associated with the Harvest Moon called Chuseok, also an ancestor worship festival. So All Souls became for me a way that I could plug not just my art-form but my own being personally into a tradition that belonged to this city, and really try to make that something special.
jhon: The sound of Ensphere is in some ways kind of a departure from the type of musics we’ve had involved in the Finale for the last few years. How similar is what you have in mind for the Finale score to what you would typically do in a live Ensphere performance or a recording, your usual sound?
Randall: I think it’s very similar to what we would do in a live performance, like the show we did at the Rialto the other night (the Santa Muerte Music and Arts Festival on Sept. 11th- jhon). What we normally like to do is create multi-media presentations, using video projection, lighting, sculpture, stilting –that’s stuff that’s always been an element in All Souls– so it’s going to be a magnified version of what we’ve been doing, times ten. We’ve never collaborated with a full taiko ensemble.
jhon: Is this composition for All Souls Procession something completely original that you’ve never performed before?
Randall: We’re starting with a few pieces that are originals that we have performed before, and I’m hoping that with Odaiko we can improv and create based on those pieces.
jhon: So it’s still a work in progress.
jhon: Tell me a little bit about how Ensphere came together, and if there is an underlying philosophy behind the band.
Randall: The word “ensphere” means to encompass something, like the ionosphere enspheres the Earth. A sphere is feminine in nature, and we’re really involved I think with female energy, in the sense of willpower and intuition. Our music is geared towards trying to instill a willful presence in the listener, and to ensphere people. As an audience member when I go to a concert or to an event or festival, I like to feel like I’m enveloped in a field of something that tunes out what my mundane reality normally is from day to day, a total immersion. Something that inspires, and you can feel a sort of electro-magnetic presence, chills up your spine, feelings that you had when you were a little kid imagining and daydreaming. That’s the idea of the word Ensphere, literally a testament to that very thing that happens when you feel inspiration. You feel ensphered by something, it’s encompassing you, you’re immersed in it for the time being. That’s the intention.
It’s a project that’s been growing since I was about 12 years old, me and the drummer Michael Ludovici, he was about 13. And him and I developed the term Ensphere when I was about 14 and have been jamming and creating music ever since we met. We’ve never stopped creating music together. Even when I joined Flam Chen when I was in high school I was still building Ensphere, rehearsing three times a week if we could and writing music for years before we even started to perform. I had gained so much experience from traveling and performing with Flam Chen, being a part of the All Souls Procession, it had opened my mind and my eyes and my spirit to a huge scale of arts and performance. I never wanted to be just the average rock band to begin with. I learned a huge amount about tech, pyrotechincs, lighting, stage rigging, safety, how to handle huge crowds, and I applied all of that to Ensphere. In a certain way it’s like I got to download the cheats for my band; I got to take on all this experience from elders who’d been doing what I’m trying to do twenty years ahead of me. I got to go and apprentice with them. And so Ensphere has the privilege of being a direct effect of the All Souls Procession, and now Ensphere in turn is going to affect All Souls. We get to create the future for ourselves, we get to create our own realities with our imaginations. I couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to have my band create music for this festival, and those imaginations are coming to fruition.
Karen: Can I go back a moment? What I find about the United States in general is that people don’t recognize that they can create their own rituals. That’s what I love about All Souls. And I’m kind of glad that I never got an Obon festival off the ground because it wouldn’t really be genuine, it would sort of be like me watching the Yaqui ceremonies. And the thing about All Souls is that it really is the real deal in terms of a modern ritual that’s by people who participate in the ritual, who invite others to participate or observe the ritual. It’s a real contemporary urban ritual, and I think that’s a perfectly valid cultural mode to be celebrating. Just like I think Ensphere’s music is its own culture.
It’s not Scottish, and it’s not Indonesian or Japanese, it’s not one of those ethnic traditions, but it’s still a cultural expression.
Randall: It’s being our culture for what our culture is.
Karen: It’s just as valid to say that their music isn’t that big a departure from previous years, because their music is representing another kind of culture.
And then for me, the interesting thing about working with them is that, taiko people are not creative musicians, we don’t even know what keys and chords are usually. [Ensphere’s] musicianship is superb. Taiko comes from a tradition of people who aren’t musically trained, that’s why it exists. In order to create complex compositions, they had to break it up into many different parts. So, low requirement for musicianship but high demand for communal thinking and communication and precision.
I’m getting away from the subject, but I did want to speak about the cultural thing a bit more. A lot of people think we’re doing Dia de Los Muertos; it’s not, it’s something different, and it’s so genuine. It truly grew up from those fifty people and Susan Johnson into this truly authentic contemporary ritual. It’ll be whatever you bring to it.
I think that these days we’re so used to having holi-days and sacred times marketed to us that we don’t recognize the real deal and the real sacred time when it comes.
jhon: What kind of territory does Ensphere explore lyrically?
Randall: It’s heavily geared towards emotional healing. We think in terms of polarities a lot, male and female, and so it’s having to do with the idea of there being an imbalance of our poles as individual people, and that we as a society are collectively male-polarized; we think very logically, we’re trained and taught to deny our intuition, emotions, our non-logical processes; our dreams and desires get shoved aside often in the name of regimentation, structuring our society, following the clock, which isn’t synched up with any natural cycles of the planet. So the music’s more about de-tuning from that. It’s the pathway to light through the darkness, going into the places that don’t have the light shed on them in our lives. To do that, you have to go to the dark places and vibrate those places out, and once they’re accustomed to having the light shined on them, that’s when the healing starts. Our music does deal with dark content, but there’s so much light in it. For us it’s really will-oriented, it’s about growing a strength in your will as a person and realizing that you and you alone have the power to do whatever you decide. And growing that strength and will is a matter of emotional healing really.
It’s fitting in a way for the All Souls Procession. We’re not going to stick so much with Ensphere’s specific lyrical intention as a band. For the All Souls we’re really going to try to vibrate along with the intention of commemorating the dead, but in celebrating Life also. The All Souls is all about recognizing those who have passed and celebrating their life, and that can be a dark thing to do but at the same time it’s about going through the darkness to see the light.
Karen: Ensphere’s music is really perfect for it, because I feel a lot of times like you think of this dark sphere but there’s this light burning through it. And I think that’s perfect for what the All Souls Procession is kind of about; we have this thing that we think is dark with all of the grief that sits in us, but really what’s happening is there’s a light inside and you have to go through these rituals to allow it to burn through and feel peace.
Randall: The goal of attending in a way is to lose yourself. And maybe you think about what your life means, as you think about so many who have died and what their lives mean, and celebrate the lives that have passed before you and think about the fact that you are currently still in your path, your life. Not to think about the laundry and the bills and all that stuff, but really think about what your intentions as a being are and what your impact on the world can be.
Check out Ensphere’s website at www.enspheremusic.net. You can also find them on Facebook and MySpace. Their new album “Corpuscle” was released over the summer on PitBall Records and can be found locally at Zia Records and online at cdbaby and iTunes.
All Souls finale musicians rehearsal @ Rhythm Industry, 9/17
Gerry Loew’s Procession 2010 promo featuring Ensphere and Flam Chen @ Santa Muerte Music and Arts Fest, 9/17