Toiling in Musical Obscurity, Volume 1: 1999​-​2005

The tracks in this compilation were taken from the “live performance” phase of Distance to Jupiter (1999-2005). All tracks were performed and recorded live.

This compilation is a playlist crafted by Pete Muller. I first met Pete in the hallowed YakYak forum, the virtual home of Jeff Minter and Llamasoft back in the late 1990s. Pete hails from Adelaide, Australia, where he’s been consuming whatever the fringe has to offer for years (and by “fringe” I mean the Adelaide Fringe, which is the largest annual arts festival in the Southern Hemisphere, held in the South Australian capital of Adelaide). Pete is a prolific writer, blogging at length about his consumption of Art year after year, and fittingly, somewhere along the way, he became interested in Distance to Jupiter – which is about as fringe as it gets. Now many years later, Pete probably possesses more rare editions of Distance to Jupiter albums than anyone else on the planet. That said, back in 2007, Pete compiled the list of tracks for this compilation. For him, these were Distance to Jupiter’s “greatest hits” during the period 1999-2005, and his choices surprised me in multiple ways. Obviously, Pete had concerns: Would these tracks all fit on a standard audio compact disc? Yes. Would these tracks suitably represent the albums they were taken from? They do. But for me, this compilation is vital to gaining an understanding of this strange body of work. Maybe it’s Pete’s attunement to the fringe, but he is clearly seeing/hearing things that I was unaware of. Think of these tracks as a set of skeleton keys for the 11 albums represented. They unlock a prolific period in the history of Distance to Jupiter – a period in which every single track (120 of them, possibly more) is a live performance, recorded direct to MiniDisc. Perhaps this helps explain how 11 albums came to be in six short years (no time-wasting do-overs, no endless tinkering in software; just one performance leading to the next). I tend to characterize these tracks using simple words like abrasive, dissonant, challenging, and haunting, but I’ll let Pete describe this compilation, as he did in an email from 2007:

“‘Message’ is still a natural opener, and the flow through to ‘Alone’ was too good to miss. ‘Alone’ also sets an unnerving tone to the compilation, something which I tried to foster through equal parts ambiance and beats. Likewise, the transition to ‘Outward’ was just too good to avoid; it also allows for an up-tempo transition. Whack in ‘Move’, it goes with the groove, but with sufficiently different instrumentation. Drop back down to a gentle ‘Collapstar’ which trades some speed and abrasion for a touch of sweetness, before a mildly worrying edge. Forget the worry: now just bliss out with ‘Galileo’. Reflect in a maudlin manner with ‘Red’, then push through the shadowy branches of ‘Pluto’. Suddenly, we’re in the open: ‘Turn’ is crystal-clear; it knows exactly what it’s doing. It’s a gear-change for the mind as, rather than creeping along in our own heads, we’re grabbed by the hand and told where to go. We’re led through the rains and portent in ‘October’, before being scraped through an uncomfortable memory with ‘Transform (Fragment)’. And now we’re into the heft, the weight. The meat. Straight into the simmering opus of ‘Gundam’. It bubbles away, poking without intent at the mind. ‘Firmament’ provides the perfect backdrop to reflect upon that which has gone before. ‘Infinite Unknowable Abyss’ activates the brain once more, seemingly innocuous soundscapes that suddenly dissolve to a land of menace before returning us to safety – or not? As the rumbling conclusion is inconclusive, we rely on ‘Ohm’ for context: gritty excitement, constantly on the edge of our seats. Oh yes. ‘Crate’ lulls in with a half-drunken swagger, before organizing itself into an assertive direction. Showing no sense of urgency, it pointedly indicates how we should be packing our bags and sends us home with ‘Overdrive’ – which is just a fucking magnificent track.”

Pete Muller, May 27th, 2007.

Though Pete later remarked “…this reads like A-grade wank” he was just being even-handed (and hilariously honest) with that comment. But his descriptions of these tracks manage to encapsulate and represent the albums from this period in a way I had failed to do time and again, and I’m grateful for that!

This album is avaiable for $0US at Bandcamp. Name your price!

A Skeleton Key to Distance to Jupiter’s “Long Shadows”

On July 31st, 2012, I walked from the backyard of my parent’s house into their carport. I’d been in the small guest house outside for many hours, and the passage from this outer building to the carport is mostly covered, so I could not see the sky. As I walked to my car, which was parked next to my dad’s SUV, something seemed very strange. It was a typical blazing hot Arizona day, and yet, all around, the landscape was in shadow. However, beyond that shadow, all was bright. Confused by what I saw, I walked into the light and looked up. In the sky, directly between the blazing star at the heart of our solar system and the house I grew up in, was a lone, ominously black cloud. It cast a column of shadow directly onto the property. The sky was a brilliant blue in every direction. There was not a single cloud in the sky – except for this one:

“On that day, the temperature had eclipsed 100 degrees, and though the historical record shows scattered clouds in the region, at this moment, there was just the one.”

This photo has haunted me since the moment I took it. This was a mere three months before my father died of complications (read: gram-negative bacterial infection) from liver cancer. Throughout the year prior, I was at my parent’s house daily, operating a business from the converted guest house out back. I’d been watching my dad purging his belongings for weeks. Each day, as I’d arrive, I’d see him in the carport, filling the back of his SUV with an endless stream of things from his life, which he’d then drop off at the local Good Will. I never let it get to me, because we all knew he was quite sick, but those moments were far more haunting than I realized, for they colored everything, coating each day with a form of dread I’d never experienced before. So when I saw the long shadow in the sky that day, I knew something was coming. My dad’s “purging of his possessions” phase was over; it had ended that week, in fact, and he hadn’t been as active around the property. This acre lot had been his long form project since the family moved in, back in July of 1977. Being a civil engineer, his will to shape the landscape ruled his existence. He’d always been outside, working, digging, crafting, shaping, and engineering. He’d entered a new phase, however, where his energy was low and he often remained couch-bound, trapped between his failing liver and the curse of my mother’s addiction to the relentless mediocrity of daytime television – a blessed noise to her which seemed to act like a protective barrier between herself and reality. An infection seemed to take hold of my dad on October 26th, 2012. I was almost home (25 miles away) when I got the call from my mother that something was profoundly wrong, and I quickly turned around in rush hour traffic. Two days later, shortly after midnight on the 28th, he died.

In January of 2013, I began work on the sixteenth Distance to Jupiter album, code-named “October Mind.” This title, I suspect, was a nod to my dad’s death, since the words had manifested during one of my silent commutes after he died; the words had bounced around in my head for months. The music that was emerging, however, was incredibly difficult to dissect or understand, and it wasn’t until the first anniversary of my dad’s passing that the tracks began to evolve at a panic-inducing pace. From October of 2013 to the last day of the year, these seven tracks took their final form (they are unrecognizable when compared to their earliest incarnations). Track names and order had been set, so the next step was to find the album title. “October Mind” now felt worn out to me, but as I listened to the final mix of track #6 (“Long Shadows”), an array of visuals filled my mind’s eye. Columns of shadow bled from a darkening, innermost sky. It all became understandable:

I then turned my thoughts to the cover design. I had been experimenting with older artworks (based on custom filters using integer maths) from the late 1990s and early 2000s, trying to repurpose them into something that captured the moods of the music, but as I rummaged through my digital archives, I strayed upon that series of photos I had taken of the long shadow darkly cast upon my childhood home. I had never explored these images. I had taken them, and simply forgotten they existed, subtly frightened to look too closely. Would there be an obvious pattern? A leering gaze from a reaper in the sky? As I explored each photo, I couldn’t help marveling at the occurrence itself. This bizarre, singular black cloud that had been so ominous and direct in appearance and meaning was truly stunning to behold. On that day, the temperature had eclipsed 100 degrees, and though the historical record shows scattered clouds in the region, at this moment, there was just the one.

“Long Shadows” takes listeners into a realm of cryptic silhouettes, arcane secrets, pulsating rituals, and haunting frequencies. Once again leveraging the “film score without a film” approach, this enigmatic work is a journey into a cloaked realm of tonal mysteries and flowing rhythmic pathways.

The final image has been heavily processed. The orbs of light and the lens-like structure that surrounds the cloud is a nod to the camera itself (an iPhone 4S), which preserved this event. It also recalls the eye, perhaps both of the viewer and of this unknowable “thing” in the sky. The design is bisected on the horizontal by the logo and title. The DTJ logo has always been rendered in Arial Black Regular (a seemingly irrevocable design decision steeped in the long ago, circa 1996); the title was rendered using the font Eurostile. The image ultimately denotes light (top; above the cloud) and dark (bottom; below the cloud), and perfectly captures the mood of the seven tracks that make up the album. I still don’t know if this finished piece honors the situation I found myself in at my dad’s side in the hospital, just a few short months after the original photo was taken.

As I raised my camera towards the sky on that hot summer day, the cloud felt like a gentle but ominous warning, on a scale that dominated the firmament. The final image, I hope, captures some sense of that, but there is an echo of something else. Though my dad suffered from liver cancer and its complications, his official cause of death was listed as respiratory failure. The truth behind that failure, however, was the gram-negative bacteria that resisted everything the doctors threw at it, even experimental antibiotics. So the circular form you see in the image is also a bacterial cell, the perimeter a plasma membrane, the interior a frightening cytoplasmic mix. Making music is a form of escape, and while none of the tracks on the album are specifically keyed to this interpretation, the presence of gram-negative bacteria in our world is an idea I’ve been running away from since the day my father died.

“October’s Shadow” video, from the album Long Shadows.

The majority of Distance to Jupiter albums all represent a form of personal escape for me: not only of past events and present struggles, but of future potentialities. My father’s end was something I knew was coming, and it had been inducing existential panic since 1999. Now that this overarching event has come to pass, it isn’t clear where the Distance to Jupiter project will go next. New aural impulses are emerging, but everything feels different.

“The City’s Lights Always Burned” video, from the album Long Shadows.

Long Shadows is $7US at Bandcamp. The full digital album comes with copies of the album’s cover art in common aspect ratios and resolutions (from 1024×768 all the way up to 1920×1200) suitable for use on your computer’s desktop, as well as parallax wallpapers for iOS7 devices (iPad 2, iPad mini 1st Gen, iPad Retina, iPhone 4S, 5, 5C, and 5S)!

The Origin of “Hemegohm’s Tendril”

This article is part of an on-going series intended to clarify and expand upon elements of the dystopian novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism and its sequel Hemegohm’s Tendril.

The title Hemegohm’s Tendril is an anagram. I’ve debated for years whether or not to tell anyone this—but there it is. From the expression’s first appearance in chapter 67 of the novel The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism, to Horim Fildsbel’s final vision in the sky above Emcast in the story “The Gulf of the Architect” in Hemegohm’s Tendril, little is truly established about what it is, what it wants, or why it may—or may not—exist. That is the point, however. By design, there must be something very large and mysterious hanging above the heads of every character—in both the novel and the short fiction cycle.

The novel and short stories have all emerged from bouts of automatic writing, usually after story elements manifested in a state of half-sleep or within a dream. Though the term “automatic writing” itself is a bit cringe-worthy, I can’t negate the fact that a lot of what has emerged has come from a wholly subconscious source.

The protagonist Simon Shadow employs the use of an artificial intelligence program during the creation of his sacred book (as part of the process of creating and registering his new religion; see chapter 16 of the novel). He later employs an algorithm to extract the two most frequently used words within the body of every single religious work throughout the colonized worlds: golden and shimmering; thus, he generates the title of his work: The Golden Shimmer. The title itself is a nod to the golden mean in philosophy (Simon exists in a dystopian realm, and his writings are aimed squarely at the World Order’s excesses), as well as the golden ratio in mathematics and even the concept of the golden age—or in this case, the lack thereof.

As previously noted, the novel was published in March, 2001, and the expression “hemegohms tendril” (lacking the apostrophe) manifested in October of 2004. I woke up with it stuck in my head, and I immediately knew it described the Tigris spider problem in the novel. When I had the chance to update the novel in November of 2004, I decided to add the expression to Ren Pello’s dialogue in chapter 67, primarily because the idea of the Hemegohm as a hyper-dimensional species parasitic to humans was already in play, though unnamed. The expression had also begun to influence the novel’s sequel, which I subsequently abandoned after a strange event linked to a set of Scrabble tiles, wholly inspired by the film Rosemary’s Baby.

I had collected the expression’s tiles from the bag—hemegohmstendtril—and then I stirred the tiles around on my desk. Almost immediately, I formed the word THE. The G tile was close by, and just adjacent was the O tile. It took only a matter of seconds for me to pull together GOLDEN. The other letters were in disarray, but the two M tiles stood out. I placed them together, and all that remained were the S, H, I, E, and R tiles. You can probably do the rest. Just as I did.

hemegohmstendril = thegoldenshimmer

I now understood this would be the title of whatever followed The Rise and Fall of Shimmerism. Admittedly, there are other anagrams within the novel, all meticulously and quite consciously crafted. Yet this anagram—Hemegohm’s Tendril—came from a very mysterious place—a realm which over the subsequent eight years bestowed a fully-formed trio of stories in much the same way.

The Hemegohm’s Tendril soundtrack for this series of short stories has been released via Bandcamp for $5US. Consisting of a loose assemblage of ambient tracks recorded between 2002 and 2011, all are linked to the creation of the triptych of short stories that comprise the work. Tracks 1 and 7 are previously unreleased. Track 8 is from the “After Math EP” which has never been fully released online.

The Origin of “Distance to Jupiter”

On October 23rd, 1999, the planet Jupiter was very close to Earth. Jupiter was at opposition (opposite the sun as seen from Earth). This opposition occurs every 12 years or so—it’s happening again this October—but the distance to Jupiter from Earth varies. On this particular day, the distance was about 3.96AU (592,407,567.93 kilometers, or 368,104,996.78 miles). I was at my parent’s home, in their backyard, with a telescope (a 9″ reflector), gazing up at Jupiter and its sparkling moons. I’m not sure exactly when, but at some point during this simple run of observations, I had come to the decision to start releasing experimental electronic music. I know that makes little causal sense, but I had always been drawn to music which tied itself thematically to the wonders of the solar system, perhaps the result of growing up to the tune of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. I owned the soundtrack to that series and I’d usually fall asleep each night listening to Vangelis’ “Alpha” and “Heaven and Hell, Part 1” on perpetual loop, my mind voyaging out there, watching safely from my spaceship of the imagination as inscrutable empires waged war on the other side of the Milky Way.

So on this cool, October night in 1999, I found the phrase “distance to Jupiter” stuck in my head. The media had relentlessly hyped Jupiter’s proximity to Earth, and perhaps that’s why these words were lodged there. But my mind was oscillating between two powerful forms of awe: 368 million miles was an immense distance, but it was also minuscule, especially when compared to more distant planets, objects, or other stars. I remember thinking that someday, a journey of 368 million miles would seem trivial to the human species; that at some moment in the future, a sight-seeing day-trip to Europa would be common for the citizens of Earth.

The distance to Jupiter is important in other, less-fanciful ways, too. The planet is close to the inner solar system, and it possesses a vast gravity well. Many astronomers believe this casts Jupiter in the role of protector, partially shielding the planets closer to the Sun from comets and asteroids; some astronomers believe that Jupiter has the opposite effect—drawing comets from the Kuiper belt dangerously toward Earth. Either way, the distance to Jupiter from Earth might affect our survival or destruction. Beyond the planet Mars, Jupiter and its moons could harbor extraterrestrial life. There is evidence that the moons Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto possess underground oceans of liquid water, possibly capable of supporting simple plants or micro-organisms. All these ideas are tied, in some way, to distance.

Yet after returning home that evening, those three words—”distance to Jupiter”—did not immediately coalesce into a designation for my music project. Even though I’d been recording tracks since 1996, it had simply never occurred to me to “name” the project, since my rig was so crude and simple. It consisted of a solitary Roland MC-303 Groovebox (both a sequencer and a synthesizer) and a consumer-grade Sony Minidisc deck. I had tied these two devices together to record live performances. As awful as that might seem, the performances themselves were constructed with loops—sequences of notes and rhythms—not just single tones or random keyboard wanderings. The loop-based approach led to surprising complexity, and the maximum approach to minimalism on the hardware side led to focused creativity. Thus, inspired by visions of Jupiter, I cracked open a fresh MiniDisc and inserted it into my deck to try to capture some of what I had been feeling a few hours before. The unit asked me to name the disc, and I pulled my keyboard close. Those three words emerged—perhaps solely as an honorific—and I’ve never once reconsidered the project’s name.

Later, I extracted the music from the MiniDisc and brought it to my friend Chris Bailey, who put a final mix together. I called the album “To Sleep To Music” (a nod, perhaps, to that habit of childhood) but the title’s palindromic quality then caught my eye, and “Music To Sleep To” was released via on October 31st, 1999.