Landscapes of Shadow and Songs of Light: A Talk with Morgan Sorne
It was the enticing words of Bay Area artist Lynx that got me out to my first experience of Sorne: “if Tool and Jeff Buckley had an orgy on Peyote in the desert and created a love child, that baby would be Sorne.” I have yet to devise a better description. The live performance weaves together the cycles of a story of five children told through music, visual art, and film. The work embodies transcendence through the telling of a particular story, imminent despite its living “in a time yet taken and a place yet named”. It is a sprouting, living mythos relevant to we who are the children of empire, seeking healing in times of change.
Sitting down with Morgan Sorne during his east coast tour was a multivalent seeing-between, true to the roots of the word interview. Here, he speaks of the influences of his loving family and the landscapes of home in the development of the story and its characters. He speaks of the power of art to make safe the shadows of our human selves so needing of unconditional love. Sorne is rooted in the transfiguration of suffering into something that gives life; the work is reliant upon ingenuity, resourcefulness and human potential against all odds. And the philosophy within Sorne points to a transcendence that praises the very stones which undergird our climbing, and the human hands and feet searching for footholds in which to rest.
Lily Ross: Sorne, as a feminine Basque name, means conception. Can you name the moment when this project, in its current incarnation, was conceived?
Morgan Sorne: I guess it started with a series of short stories that I wrote when I was 17 or 18 years old. These stories were based on family members. I always felt drawn to finding a harmony between storytelling, music, art, and performance. I grew up influenced by pop culture and music, but more than anything else I think the need to do this was a means of coping with some things going on with my family, and my mother’s family. I think it was 2003 when I started writing the story, and as the years went on these characters began to take on lives of their own.
For me storytelling is such a beautiful way to relate to your personal reality, and to relate that reality to someone else, in a way that is free of judgement. It gives permission to explore topics and issues which may be rather touchy, or darker. As I was developing the narrative of these concepts, melodies also came to me. For me there is always melody going on. I wake up with it, I go to sleep with it. Meditating on these ideas, these archetypes, motifs began to surface, and as I was developing the story of it the songs came over the course of the next few years.
LR: Can you tell me about creating House of Stone, the seminal album?
MS: I wrote Overtones and Gigantomachia as sort of the bookends of this overture of the story, House of Stone, in 2006. Recorded them in a bedroom. After I finished at Florida state - I got a BFA in studio art - I relocated to Texas. Being inspired by landscape in Florida, in Texas I was exposed to Big Bend national park when I went down to do an art show. That land influenced the work from that point on. The nature of the work was very simple. I moved to Texas without much money at all to really invest in any recording equipment or a studio. I had built a studio in Florida with a sound engineer from Full Sail in Orlando, but it was really all his gear that he brought in to the studio.
When I came to Texas all I had was a Shure 58 mic and a computer, my dad’s guitar and a few pieces here and there. So I made my own instruments. I used things like canvasses, and sounds that I found within the house to tell the story, to articulate this music. And in answering the Why of the work, it really makes sense to work with what I had in my hands: it spoke to this idea of creating an identity and creating a reality.
LR: And you tell the story through the characters of children.
MS: The artwork in and of itself speaks to this concept of these kids who have adorned themselves in color and pattern that comes from this state of imaginative creativity. Growing up I’ve always been interested in ancestry and anthropology. And with my own family, I knew a little bit about our history; especially with my father’s side there isn’t much there that I really know about. So this idea of inventing culture or creating culture - creating an identity - was really appealing.
As an American kid, it’s hard to feel a sense of rootedness the way you might see a smaller community. In America we are a hodgepodge of different things. I guess I liked the idea of pulling from all these different references to create something that, for me felt fun, and felt new.
So the songs on House of Stone are 13 of around 80 that tell the story of these five siblings - it’s them singing their songs about their life, their father, their relationship to their country, to their self, and really the pieces serve as windows into their reality - speaking to the Why of what is motivating them. It’s the story of a family that is feared and vilified by the outside world; it’s a regime that is holding on to their manifest destiny and trying to uphold it. Even in death. And so the intention there was to tell the story through the eyes of the villain, to speak through - or to listen to - that story. And I don’t know if sympathize is the right word, but maybe understand what is motivating these characters.
LR: To what degree then is this work a social critique?
MS: I think so much of it all is mirroring. It’s relating to the culture. As much as the piece might feel removed in a different time or place, I feel like it parallels many current events. I really feel it in myself very strongly to not make a judgement through the work either way, it’s more or less just speaking to these topics of a paternal age, ideas of the masculine archetype, the concept of the dictator, themes of sexuality, themes of spirituality. It’s more or less just looking at that, listening to that, and imposing questions through the work; challenging the listener, the viewer, to think of these things, to meditate on these things - and bring to the table their own ideas. More or less just to engage someone in a dialogue. I think good art does that: good art begs the question of the viewer. On a personal level, my intention is to sing my song and use the work as means of catharsis. And of course at that same time, present it to a viewer or a listener and allow for that dialogue to be established between the two parties.
LR: There are so many conversations happening in Sorne: with the audience, the land, with yourself; can you speak to this idea of being in conversation with the landscape?
MS: In many ways, I liken it to pitch. Some of us are born with that ability to hear that pitch perfectly. Many of us need something to help us find that pitch; those levels of awareness and levels of sensitivity are a spectrum. For me, even as a kid I have always felt so sensitive to nature. The place where I grew up is a place of peace: there’s very old trees there, it’s very beautiful, and in spite of anything that might have been going on in our lives as a family, that place was such an influence. It was such a beautiful area to feel safe, and to find healing.
I spent a lot of time in the woods of north Florida, playing with my brothers and my sister. I love the idea of seeing awe in all things. I can’t help it but feel that and hear melody when I see certain things. Especially going to places like Big Bend in the South West part of Texas you can feel that there so strongly. And the beauty is that it’s so quiet. You can go out there and you see rain ten miles away. You see the lightning but there is no sound; you can hear your own heart beating. Not to sound cliché, but I remember the first time I went out there I felt this vibration, you can almost hear it, this hum, this tonality. I found that as I traveled around the world, there are places that just evoke these melodies in me.
My uncle Rod and my mother are two people that have always been incredibly good at listening. It’s something that I try to be better at because I just believe intuitively that listening is so essential right now. Being around Rod especially - he’s an incredibly intelligent guy, he’s lived as a first generation hippy and certainly has his beliefs - but he’d be the last person to ever cast judgment on anyone, and appreciates people for who they are and where they are. My mother’s the same way. She has always been so good at allowing people to simply be - it just comes naturally to her. I think that it’s such a nice quality to be be around: you feel safe around these people, you feel like you can make yourself vulnerable around people like that. I suppose I want all of us to feel that way. I want to feel that way with the people that I meet, if it’s possible. Being aware of the environment, being aware of the people around you, it feels important.
LR: Do you feel that the art and the music that you are creating are a kind of sanctuary?
MS: Absolutely. The records, the songs, are a safe place for me, it is a place of healing, and I’m not ashamed to say that. I think all good work comes from a need. For me, the songwriting process, the compositional process, is my art - is my way of bottling those tears - of channeling that suffering into something.
So many of us, we wail and wail, and we displace all of this energy in vices of all kinds. So for me, it’s been a process of learning to channel that energy, that suffering: seeing it as a beautiful thing that is an opportunity to make us stronger and to make us better connected to ourselves and our family and our friends - the people we care about. And so to me, music making, singing, art making, is the way that I have channeled my suffering. In the live performances, the intensity is there because of the fact that I have learned to take all of that emotion and aggression, that anxiety, that joy, that fear, and just let it through the work.
LR: The first time I saw you was at Lightning in a Bottle (2012), and you were raging it onstage, as you always do, and then you walked off the stage and started selling merch and talking to people. You were surprisingly approachable, especially in light of the performance you had just given. It was like you had moved within a few moments from a place of trance to a place of totally grounded presence. How do you do that?
MS: I think in many ways it comes naturally. I think it’s something that I inherited from my parents. If you look at any good method actor and they have honed that ability to access those true emotional states of being - to be able to cry on command, the ability to orgasm on command, the ability to connect and then be able to turn it off; and to do so when the director says action or cut. I grew up theater. I grew up acting. I grew up performing. Having my parents as a model there, I saw that, and I came to it quite naturally myself. For me my emotion will stay so strong, and it’s just under the surface, and yet, I think it’s a process of doing too, where that kind of control, being able to instantaneously go to this place - it’s really an art that you can practice at home. Or that’s what it’s been for me.
I think it’s also important for me to be able to switch that on and off because I want to be able to connect with people on a safe ground, to be able to say “I’m a normal guy, and I’m here to connect with people, this performance here is one thing, but I want you to know that I’m a real person who is just like you.” A lot of that has come with just doing it, practicing that, honing that, and being in touch with that method, that ability to channel the emotion to create the performance. But doing so from a real place, every time.
It’s definitely the actor in me. And I say that in a very honorable way: it’s not lying. A bad actor is lying. I think that is what we are drawn to with acting, we see people accessing those real places; being real with us, telling us their truth through the performance. That’s what’s happening on stage: it’s the same thing, I’m telling you my truth through these stories, through these melodies. And doing so in a way that gives us permission to go there - because if I were to walk into the middle of a food court in a mall and do that, I’d probably get arrested. But if I’m on stage and do that, people are drawn in, are captivated. Otherwise it’s like “who is this lunatic in the food court”, but this same thing can happen on a stage if the permission is there.
LR: If the container is there.
LR: Now, I know you are a NIN fan, and sometimes House of Stone reminds me, a little bit, of The Downward Spiral. Kind of a primordial industrial sound. How have Trent Reznor’s sound and emotive songwriting impacted you as a person and as an artist?
MS: I remember the first time that I heard a song of his, I was 8 or 9 years old coming home from school, the radio was on and Head Like a Hole came on.
I loved Reznor’s music, cause it was so complex: you had four or five layers of polyphony happening. For whatever reason, that type of musicality always spoke to me so strongly. I like music of all kind, and I’m influenced by just about everything. I think hearing that, it was the mix of the sort of electronic thing that I was so into at that age, and also the aggression, and the sort of dangerous quality of the intensity, that spoke to my soul. Cause as a soul I am so intense. Digging deeper and discovering the work, falling in love with the Downward Spiral, and also seeing how intense his live performances were totally spoke to the color of my spirit and the way that I seek to emote.
So it was that ideal blend of all of those things. It was him initially that made we want to pursue this idea of performance in this respect. But I think also it’s the time we are living in too. We have this industrial reality combined with a kind of organic, fleshy existence, so for me it feels appropriate to create work that emulates that: that’s a highbred of this exact precision, almost like a chant or mantra of rhythm or melody, with the beauty of the chaos of the unpredictable. The harmony of those two things happening, there is something there.
LR: It’s interesting that you highlighted the chants as holding that rhythmic piece; so much of his work, to me, is the sounds of the industrial landscape. I feel like I could be in a factory, on the production line, with some of those heavy hitting rhythms.
MS: And there is something satisfying about that exactness - this idea that you know that that rhythm is going to come down the same way every time. There is something that satiates in the self, and I don’t know what that is; if it is the sort of inner rhythm that we all have - it speaks to the exactness of it, the precision of it. It’s very satisfying. And really the music I’ve always responded to has that in it in some way. Not all the time. But I know in his work, it’s what I responded to; those amazing polyrhythms and the layers of texture and sound.
LR: You’ve told me before that the work is abstract to leave it open to interpretation, and to let it have a life of its own. How do you see your own role in relationship to the project as it continues to flourish?
MS: I suppose I just see myself as the storyteller, the channel, the medium that is telling the story. There’s a very specific level of detail: there’s a language, there’s a sort of a geography of where everything is taking place, and yet, in line with that idea of the ambiguity, I’ve only leaked some of that because I like the idea that this story is one that can be reinterpreted, can be given new life by other people. And that’s begun to happen as well, with groups like Woven Feet, this dance troop that has helped with some of the live dance at some of the shows we’ve put on. Stephanie, the choreographer, has creative control to develop movement for the work. That speaks to me, speaks to this power of storytelling: how, in a community, we create the basic construct for story, and allow for others to begin to fill in the gaps or to give it even bigger branches. It’s beautiful.
In many ways, with the live aspect, I intend to continue to go that way. What I first started doing this, it was setting up installations in galleries, doing drawings, and singing and building a vocal landscape - adaptations of songs, motifs out of songs - letting those things just fill a room. And in going forward that is sort of my intention, to be able to do the show we’ve been touring, with this trio, in club and festival settings, and to be able to go into alternative spaces - theaters - and adapt and present this thing in multiple ways so that it transcends and meets people where they are.
LR: Earlier, you talked about listening to the villain, or the one who has been marked in that way. I have a passion for post-colonial feminist theory, and there are few expressions of the wounds of the white male in contemporary culture. My reading of your work hears that voice very strongly. To what degree to do feel that voice to be in your work?
MS: Very strongly. It’s the idea of the Father representing the country, representing the president or symbolizing my own father, my grandfather, the male patriarch that I grew up under; seeing that patriarch internationally, globally, historically, and really feeling a desire to let it die away. But doing so in understanding, wanting to understand where that came from, understand that part of the self, understand that part of masculine culture.
It’s a huge can of worms, but to sort of provide cliff notes, the work is thinking about being a male, an America male, and sort of the inherited guilt you have on your shoulders.
In a roundabout way, I feel that there’s something happening psychologically in the culture, a shift that I have felt for a while. Those technologies of thinking are becoming obsolete or needing to die away. There is a need to forgive that part of the culture. And what a difficult thing it is to say “I forgive you for this”. I think that’s really the role of the Blue Sister, the youngest child, she is one who has learned to forgive her father for what he did to her. She has come home, her face scarred by him, in a state of forgiveness, with a desire to transcend. In the end of this narrative she’s the surviver, she ends up escaping with a child that the First Born rescues from one of the cities he destroys.
I feel like the Blue Sister, I feel that longing - even from a feminine energy within myself - to understand and forgive and move forward. And there is something so powerful about the ability to want to do that.
There was a woman who was a child in Somengla hospital. Somengla was the chief head of the Nazi Party’s medical devision, and this guy was performing ungodly experiments on children. She was a child in his hospital, being subjected to his experiments, and in this time she is going around and speaking about this, and doing so in a way where she is providing a sense of healing to people. To listen to her tell her story from her perspective is a powerful thing, because she truly has transcended, she hasn’t forgotten, she still holds that emotion, but she is doing so in a state of what seems to be forgiveness. I think as an American, and as a global citizen, I seek to transcend, and to let those things die away.
That’s the idea of the First Born dying. We see at the end this character dying, in a sense fulfilling his role, but with the death of the First Born, the sympathetic knife killing that part of consciousness, or allowing it to die. And I think that’s really the point: the First Born is seen as this male warrior who is feared by the outside world, but in learning about this character, you begin to mourn this character’s death - his death is necessary. But you understand what’s happening to a point that you love him for what he is, in spite of the fact that he has done some pretty fucked up things.
I believe we are at the point where the old Gods are dead, and we are still clutching to these technologies, desperately, but it is time to let them die. They must be allowed to die. That’s very true. That is most definitely central in this work. This idea of the House of Stone, this “great unstable house of stone”, that it’s all we know; that’s what the Blue Sister is singing about in that track. It is a gentle and loving call for us all to let go and allow it to crash as we float away with new wings. It’s a vehicle that has served its purpose, it’s time to discover new ways of existing, of living.
LS: It’s interesting, I think one of the important distinctions to be made is that it’s not escapism. I think the impulse, particularly of western civilization has been to grow up, to escape the imminent Earth life. I noticed earlier when you were speaking about transcendence, your hand was moving downward...
MS: Pushing through: the idea of feeling the earth beneath your feet, being in ground, being connected, not escaping. In many ways you think of fiction as escapism, when in fact I think it’s a beautiful way of connecting. That’s what it is for me.Tweet