Messed!Up

The slow glide of electronic curtains: Solar Fields interviewed

J.N. July 5, 2020

“In 1978 I released the first record which described itself as Ambient Music, a name I invented to describe an emerging musical style”, one of the fathers of ambient music, Brian Eno, writes in “Brian Eno’s Ambient 1: Music For Airports”, named after his seminal album that same year. The album was the introduction to a new music genre and the first in a series of “environmental music” projects that sought to create relaxing and soothing sounds that could be used to enhance the feeling or mood of a particular place, and today Eno is widely credited as an innovator of ambient music

However, since the late 1970s the diverse genre known as ambient music has matured and together with The Berlin School and bands as Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze, it branched into a wide range of sub-genres like space music, downtempo, drone and the whole psybient scene sharing the stages with the psytrance community.

Out of this mix of ambient sub-genres my own interest in the overall ambient scene started in the early 1980s. First with the major band in The Berlin School scene, Tangerine Dream and their 1970s works, and later continuing with the new age scene and Jean-Michel Jarre and Vangelis in the second half of the 1980s and morphing into the massive dance-oriented ambient-influenced scene of the 1990s and bands like The Orb (who doesn’t love “Little Fluffy Clouds”!?), The Higher Intelligence Agency, Saafi Brothers, The Future Sound of London and, above all, Boards of Canada.

At the beginning of the new millennium, a new scene would rise. After a brief detour into the world of goa trance I found my way back to my roots when a friend gave me two CD’s of “music you [I] would love” – Craig Padilla’s “Genesis” album and Solar Fields debut album “Reflective Frequencies”. At the time I was travelling across Europe a lot at night and needed music to help me reach dreamland, and these two albums were basically the only albums I listened to for a year while sitting on a flight or in a train waiting to arrive at my final destination.

While Craig Padilla quickly faded away from my interest, save for the awesome 2016 album “Heaven Condensed”, Solar Fields just continued to release ground-breaking ambient music, and records as “Leaving Home” and “Movements” are on my top-10 list of ambient records ever released. As impressively seamless as all his recorded works, the swooping soundscapes of “Movements” makes for the most memorable array of sounds present, but the whole mix is crucial to becoming fully encased by the music of Solar Fields.

Nineteen albums – one record a year – into his career as Solar Fields, Magnus Birgersson is one of the most experienced ambient producers in the modern ambient scene. And then we haven’t listed all those albums he made under monikers like H.U.V.A. Network and TSR.

While staying in exile in Gothenburg due to covid-19, we grabbed the chance to meet up with Magnus, film a special live session in his studio and sit down for an interview. And we start off in the fact that 2020 is the 20th year of Solar Fields works, starting from the debut album year 2001.

Twenty years of ground-breaking ambient music

This year is the 20th year of Solar Fields releases if you take your debut album ”Reflective Frequencies” as the starting point.
That’s right, it is twenty years! Isn’t that amazing! But from my point of view Solar Fields already started in the 1980s when I was doing a lot of stuff on synthesizers for the first time.

Did it ever crossed your mind at the beginning to do this full time or was it going to be just a hobby next to working with something else?
No, not at all, I never had the slightest idea what would happen or never thought it would turn out as it did. It would have been great to know it from the beginning because it would have made a few life decisions easier, but for me being creative, the creativity side of music, is more important. As long as I have the opportunity to create music I’m quite satisfied with most things in life.

But when did you realize that Solar Fields would become a full-time job that you would live off?
I started to realize many things when I ended up working with the score to the first Mirror’s Edge game. But although the Mirror Edge series was important economy-wise at the beginning, I’ve built a career on my own releases now. Don’t forget that I have released lots of music; it’s nineteen albums as Solar Fields, three albums with H.U.V.A. Network and three albums with TSR [with Daniel and Johannes of Carbon Based Lifeforms]. And I’ve also done four albums with a super-secret project nobody knows about (laughs).

I became aware of the fact that it was going to be my job about twelve years ago, and if it was going to get me somewhere I needed to treat it like a full-time job. Working with the Mirror’s Edge score was very time-consuming and I realized I wouldn’t make it if music was just a hobby, and I left my ordinary job. It turned out quite well, didn’t it (laughs). That’s how it all started.

Solar Fields and ambient music has defined your music career considering the wide range, and vast amount, of music you’ve released in the genre, although you also have a diverse background in music. What sparked the interest and made you get stuck with ambient?
I wasn’t that much that I got stuck, it just happened when I started to write electronic music in the 80s and what I wrote had an ambient feel to it. For me it was just insane what you could create with synthesizers, and that inspired me a lot.

But although I’ve played in bands and played different types of music, ambient has always stayed with me.

How much of your approach to music has changed during these twenty years? Creativity tends to change with experiences of music production and new influences.
It may sound a bit strange but I don’t have a special approach to music, I just do what I feel for in the moment I create something. If I want to do heavy rock as Solar Fields, I’ll do it, if I want to do trance music then I’ll do that. There’s no strategy or approach to music that drives me to do what I do.

Look at the ”Random Friday” and ”EarthShine” records; they’re great examples of me thinking “Let’s just do it like this now”, and it ended up as trance music. Why limit yourself or stick to a niche? That’s not what Solar Fields is about. It’s electronic music and electronic music has very few limitations, just use that freedom to create what you feel for.

Staying authentic: The creative processes of studio work and live shows

Although it’s often devoid of lyrics, a hummable melody and pop song structures, ambient music is about the creation of an environment around the listener. It floats in the air like a fog, creating a kind of acoustic tint that can be truly affective.

But ambient’s steady demotion to the status of textual modifier also suggested the increasing fervour with which barriers separating styles were up for dismantling in the atmosphere of the mid-90s post-rave experimental underground, a process that gave birth to more variations on the theme of electronic dance music in four or five years alone than in the previous two decades. And the process prompted dozens of new genres, subgenres, and sub-subgenres – ambient dub, dark ambient, ambient jungle, electronica, atmospheric post-rock, experimental ambient, etc.

On the back of such a wide historical legacy, creating something unique and new requires some sort of authenticity to avoid being engulfed in the vast sea of ambient music out there. And taking those audiovisual soundscapes live put even higher demand on being creative.

Many fans of electronic music I’ve spoken to consider ambient music being some sort of art project, and as such, there’s a pressure of sustaining a sort of authenticity. In another interview you said that it’s important to free yourself from influences of other bands and their music and work with your own creativity, especially what comes out of it. At least for me, that’s a sign of being authentic. How important is it?
It is very important! When I’m in my studio and write new music it’s all about being free in my creativity, how I write those songs and what sounds I use. I never care about what people would like to hear, what’s trending at the moment or what I have done on other records; I never look back and think “The ‘Movements’ record did great and was super popular, let’s do a similar record”. It doesn’t work out like that.

I just don’t like trends (laughs).

But when you worked with the Mirror’s Edge games, for instance, I guess you had to adapt the music a bit, although I know they wanted your music “as it sounds like”.
Yeah, it required some minor re-arrangements because of the contexts where my music was used. You can’t use bubbly synth basses in a combat scene, it has to be aggressive to reflect the dramaturgy of the scene. That’s the sort of adjustments you need to deal with.

But I love games and don’t really see it as adapting my music to something, it’s creating music for a context I get inspiration from.

Speaking of contexts; ambient music live is much dependent on the visuals, very often digital backdrops that create contexts for the music. Do your work with the visuals yourself and adapt it for your music?
Not at all (laughs), it wouldn’t work out because it’s very time-consuming. If I would start doing it I wouldn’t have time to write any music.

I’m very picky with things, especially my videos because I’m a videographer and have worked a lot with 3D graphics and special effects before, and if I would start to work with the visuals I would be too picky about it and there won’t be time left to do a show (laughs).

But you’re not tempted, like many other artists in the genre, to move in the direction of scoring films especially when you have experience from the gaming arena?
I would love to compose film scores if it’s on my terms, it is difficult for me to compose on command and try to audiolize someone else’s visions. How I want it and my own creativity have to get enough space in that process if I ever would write a film score. 

It’s a massive workload and you need to put all your effort into it for the time that it needs, and then I would ask myself “Do I want to this for such a long time and nothing else?”, and I don’t.

One of the major challenges for electronic acts is to take studio music to the stage, to make it live, especially if you don’t have a band that back you. How do your work with transforming Solar Fields from studio music to a live set?
I already had lots of live experience the first time I brought Solar Fields on stage. Already at the end of the 70s I was on stage, playing drums when I was seven, and I’ve been a guitarist in thrash and metal bands, and a pianist in jazz bands many years before Solar Fields even started. It’s nothing new, I’ve been on stage basically my whole life.

For electronic music in general and Solar Fields in particular, it depends on how complicated you want to do it live. In the beginning, when I planned my first shows, I was in my studio and thought “I’m gonna this and that, and then this as well”, creating a very complex show, but when I was on stage I didn’t remember anything (laughs).

But how do you experience playing live comparing to staying in the studio where you can be creative in calm and quiet? Electronic music, especially one-man projects, requires a complete change in setup when bringing it on stage.
To me it’s two completely different processes; studio work is my own creative process and live music is just a different process. But I don’t really waste time thinking about it much. I never write music on the back of the thought that it has to work in a live setting; that part of the process happens much later.

Live performances are always unique for every new Solar Fields gig I do because they all require a lot of preparations especially when you do it yourself, and that’s a different creative process I need to go through every time I play live. It has been twenty years of Solar Fields live shows by now and twenty years of unique shows because of this process.

It is special to perform your songs live in front of an audience and to re-create songs live that sounds different than the album version.

You never felt that it would be great to have a band with you or play in a band just to have someone to tour with?
It’s not going to happen as Solar Fields, that’s not what Solar Fields is about. And I’ve also stopped doing things with bands completely because I grew tired of it, it was always tricky to get everyone together, plan for more people than myself, people having different opinions and all that stuff. It’s way beyond 18 years ago I did something in a band.

I do have some projects coming up in some sort of band settings, and will, for instance, continue to work with Krister Linder on an album. Let’s see where that turns up in the long run. And I’m just about to start a new project going in the direction of krautrock.

*****

Twenty years as Solar Fields and you have released nineteen records; that’s amazing productivity for any artist out there. What’s left on the bucket list that you haven’t done yet?
It’s just one album a year, that’s not much (laughs)!

But there’s actually no bucket list at all for my music. Just as simple as that.


Photographers: Krichan Wihlborg and Richard Bloom.


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About The Author

Music researcher with an unhealthy passion for music and music festivals. Former studio owner, semi-functional drummer and with a fairly good collection of old analogue synthesizers from the 70's. Indie rock, post rock, electronic/industrial and drum & bass (kind of a mix, yeah?) are usual stuff in my playlists but everything that sounds good will fit in.

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