In a previous post I mentioned stumbling across this intriguing ensemble based in Salt Lake City. I don’t know what rock I was hiding under in 2002 – I was living in Salt Lake City and did pay some attention to the music scene. Oh well. Their website has a lot of information about them as well as links to hear, see and buy some of their recordings. So far their career has seen great fluctuations in personnel as well as collaboration with the likes of poet/sonosopher Alex Caldiero (I just saw one of his poems in an installation at USU) and My Education. Ryan Stanfield was gracious enough to answer some questions and give an introductory physics lesson.
The following interview questions have been answered by Ryan Stanfield of Theta Naught. The answers and opinions expressed are his alone, but are probably shared by most, if not all, of the other members of Theta Naught.
What can you tell us about the initial concepts behind θ₀, as well as the processes that led to forming it?
The name Theta Naught (θ₀) comes from the physics/mechanics use, where the Greek character ‘theta’ (θ) is used as a variable to define angles, and the subscript zero (0), or naught, is used to denote ‘initial.’ Thus, in this context “theta naught” can mean “initial trajectory” or something along those lines.
The concept behind Theta Naught was somewhat different. It started as most bands do, just two or three of us kicking out some tunes in the basement. The other co-founder of the group had a difficult time remembering song structures / chord progressions [etc] so we decided to turn it into a more open, free-form group. We found that this sort of instantaneous, improvisational composition lead to pieces that we really “felt.” It’s interesting because the name “Theta Naught” fits well in this context. We were much more satisfied by those pieces that we would compose instantaneously. In general, it was/is the initial trajectory of the piece that we really “feel.”
And by “feel” I mean things, or specifically music, that we feel good about, and makes us feel good. It’s a difficult thing to describe sometimes. It does have a close tie with the metaphysical or spiritual. It’s the art of creation, and the creation of art, and being able to do so on a collaborative basis makes it so much more fulfilling [to us].
As a specific sub-question: where and how did the first musicians meet? (I was living in SLC in 2002 and had I known what was going on . . .)
Mutual friends. Most of us were students at the University of Utah.
Your online bio states: “Mathematics has been and will continue to be a central tenet in Theta Naught composition ideology” – do you care to share more about how this influenced the formation and how it affects the way you compose and improvise?
The group was initially composed of engineers and scientists. Some of those people have left the group or that field of study, and other people have entered. Being “math nerds” or “geeks” gives us something to talk about both inside and outside of music. We’ve brought several mathematic concepts into our compositions…a lot of it being number theory. We’ll base time signatures or chord progressions on irrational constants, like pi (π) or phi (φ). I was, and still am, enamored by the golden ratio, or phi (φ). It’s fundamental beauty and presence in art and nature is overwhelming to me. Several tracks on our Abacus album were based on or around phi.
How would you describe the balance of composition and improvisation in how you work together?
This has changed and evolved over the years. Sometimes we start with a chord progression or a jazz standard or something concrete, and then we break it down and improvise off of it, layer it over and over, find kinks and work them out, and then make more kinks, sweep it under the rug and then throw the rug out the window. Most of the time we’ll just call out a key, scale, or mode and go with it. Someone will start, usually bass or drums, but other times cello, guitar, or harp, and everyone else will fall in/get in when they begin to “feel” it. It’s an enjoyable process, for the most part. You’ve got to keep an open mind and an open ear. You have to actively listen to everyone. Sometimes everyone is just three of us, and other times there are thirteen of us on stage. Achieving balance is a lofty goal when the members [and number of them] are rotating or changing on a frequent basis.
What observations do you want to give about how θ₀ has evolved over the last nine years?
See above. In general, we’ve moved from a structured-improv group to a more free-form improvisation.
How have musicians come into and gone out of active involvement in it?
People come and go. We all have priorities and responsibilities outside of music. We love music, but we also have families, careers, and other interests that depend on our care and involvement, and we love those things too. Most of the time people leave the group due to outside circumstances (pursuing education or a career that takes them out of state, etc), only on rare occasion has someone left, or been asked to leave, due to internal disagreements or conflicts. We’re a pretty mellow and understanding group…compared to other bands I’ve been in. Other members have been brought in from time-to-time on a temporary or long-term basis, usually to fill-in where a void has been left.
Has anything like a general pattern established itself or been visible?
Yes, see: chaos theory.
What are the prospects for this current lineup and for the group? I see that you just recently played at the SLC Public Library.
We’ve actually done a fair amount of touring this year  already. We hit Austin, TX twice this Spring – South by Southwest Music Fest in March, and Austin Psych Fest in April/May – and several other venues and festivals along the way (Neon Reverb Music Festival, IndieFest, etc). We’re kind of re-grouping at the moment. We lost our “new” cellist – he moved back home to Florida just last month [June], so we’re auditioning/interviewing new ones. The library show was a fun one, and one that we really enjoy doing. We usually play in/around the SLC area on a monthly basis when we’re not touring.
We released a new album [Omnium-Gatherum] last year, and another one just a few months after it. The newest one is called Sound Mass. It’s a collaborative, improvisational project between Theta Naught and My Education [from Austin, TX]. We’ll keep pushing these new releases for the time being, and probably record again sometime soon.
Where do you see θ₀ in five years?
Still creating music, with some luck.
Who and where are your listeners?
Good question. Lots of friends and family. But also a lot of other people we don’t know, but wish we knew. We have a lot of album sales in Europe and Japan. I’ve heard there are a lot of un-legal downloads in China, too. Y’know, I don’t want to sound conceited, but we make the music for ourselves. We enjoy playing it, and we enjoy listening while we play. That’s not to say that we go home and listen to our own albums all day…that would be extremely far from the truth. Suffice it to say that we enjoy what we do. Whenever we hear from someone (via e-mail or a listener at a live performance) that says they enjoy our music, it makes it much more fulfilling. Even if we only get one person at a performance that comes up to us afterwards and says they enjoyed it, it’s a great feeling.
How has θ₀ interacted with the larger music scenes in Utah and elsewhere? Who else nearby, if anyone, is making music in similar ways?
Another good question. I don’t know that we’re part of any music scene. We do try to perform in Salt Lake City on a regular [monthly] basis. We like the idea of bringing something new or different to the local music scene. This is probably difficult to do after nine years together, I dunno. We don’t really have a local venue that we play on a regular basis. I like to perform at non-traditional venues (art galleries, warehouses, etc). We play outside of SLC more than inside though. We do our best to make every live performance a different, unique experience for us and the listeners. We like playing on a bill or line-up with different bands. Being instrumental and improvisational lends us the latitude necessary to cross over through different genres of music. I love playing very mellow, relaxed music when we play with metal or punk bands, and playing loud, heavy, fast music when we perform alongside singer-songwriter, acoustic, or tranquil groups.
We’re also quite keen on collaboration. We’ve been doing a lot with My Education as Sound Mass lately. But, in the past we’ve done a lot of collaboration with other groups, too. Our third album (Sound Weave) is a collaboration between Theta Naught and Alex Caldiero [poet, sonosopher, artist and faculty member at UVU]. Last year we did a few collaborative performances with Anne-Marie Hildebrandt and Citrine. We’ve also performed with dance troupes and film projectionists.
I don’t know who makes music in similar ways. There are a lot, I’m sure. I tend to identify with jazz or electronic musicians more so than others. While the end product can sound quite different, there are similarities to our respective (improvisational) approaches. There are a few local instrumental acts, too, but I don’t know if the way we make music is similar or not. I really like instrumental locals Birthquake, I Hear Sirens (I played bass for IHS for most of 2009), and the Daniel Day Trio, to name a few.
The Linescratchers Golden Question, as it were: for those in the group who are LDS, how does your faith influence or interact with how you make your music? Specifically for Naughtians: how does your faith relate to your work in mathematics and science?
It’s difficult to say. We don’t have lyrics so it’s not like we have an agenda or message. With that said, I think that instrumental music, in general, can have an inherent ability to be connected with the metaphysical or spiritual. For an LDS example, I’ve heard of and known mission presidents allow their missionaries to listen to instrumental music…any instrumental music. I know this because we’ve received several e-mails and orders from LDS missionaries who want our music to listen to during their once-a-week preparation day activities, etc.
Personally, I’m both spiritual and religious. I’ve heard several people say that they are one but not the other. I’m both, and I know that most of my LDS friends are also both. For me, making music can be a spiritual experience…especially improvisational music. Not spiritual in the sense that my testimony in a specific gospel principle is being strengthened (although that may be an intrinsic feature), but spiritual in the sense that I am/we are creating something from the mental or metaphysical into the physical or temporal. Through that process I learn more about myself, and when I learn more about myself I learn more about God.
I think there are enough books written about the links between science and spirituality that I shouldn’t have to say much. I agree with the authors that I’ve read to a certain extent. As someone that pursues both scientific knowledge and spiritual enlightenment, I feel and know that the two schools of thought are not in opposition, but quite the opposite. I believe that I understand science and religion/spirituality better because I have both. I believe that principle of understanding and comprehension applies to all aspects of life, whether I’m studying another religion, another language, a scientific theory, or understanding what another person is doing, saying, or feeling.