On sound definition, medical anthropology, ritualistic symbolism and transcendence
If you were to introduce Matthew Hunzeker; what would you say?
I’m a musician, artist, husband, dad who loves the outdoors and natural world; these are general things I say to introduce myself.
I’m fairly easygoing, my wife and I live in a really special place, it’s called The San Luis Valley, it’s the highest alpine valley in the world, so we live and work in such an unusual place that would also inform an introduction.
So much to say but I would keep it simple, the small things are what matter, my art and music matters of course in this context so I’d say a bit about that as I’ll do here in this interview!
Concept and name
How did the idea of Of Earth and Sun reveal itself to you, and what’s behind the name?
Of Earth and Sun came from a really old theosophy book I was reading, not anything I was too into at the time but it was an interesting read written in the 1920s in America.
There was a passage that read something along the lines of ‘we are all children of the earth and of the sun…’, I wanted a name that was easy to remember and that was about the source of the music or said something about life itself, so in the book and if I want, I can imagine its use to be ‘of the earth and of the sun’; these are sources of life.
The idea was yet another project I wanted to do where I made all the music live, made most of the instruments from natural materials I reclaimed and put new life into and then my body, namely my voice and so it formed around some bone trumpets I was making.
I make a lot of unusual but functional instruments, weird violins, guitars, Saz, lap-slide guitars, etc. So, I made these bones and they ended up in the hands of a butcher in Chicago I know who had a bunch of bones so I traded him for a set of various bones.
I have since fashioned my own with carved mouthpieces, a little bit of acoustic know-how, I actually sell a good deal of them to fans of either my art or music, not something I expected but I do enjoy making and playing them.
I have been classically trained on the trumpet now for over 25 years, voice too, so they were an easy instrument for me to play, and I had the idea I can throw a bunch of guitar pedals, bones, and microphones into my luggage and do the carry on thing and fly around performing this music which is also recorded in a way which is almost exactly as I would perform them, all live, no overdubs, one track, generally mono; so sort of gave myself limitations to work within which I hate doing in general but for art pieces, it’s helpful to my process.
Anyway, an amazing record label contacted me pretty quickly after the launch of the project and I got to do and put into effect my plan.
It’s sort of inspired by Buddhist music but I think more so in a way that I’m for all purposes a Buddhist and the horns are a ritual instrument (the bone horns are not traditionally used in music that’s entertainment though, in Tibet some of the Buddhist rituals can be considered to have an element of theater to them.
I think that element of theater is heard or witnessed in my work whether on recordings or live on stage. So an art project, audio art that could potentially be flying around on planes with bizarre luggage for ease of travel (though TSA is interesting) was the idea; it turned into something I gather is somewhat bigger than my intention but again, welcomed.
I think if I can share my work share my music it’s the best thing to do, for myself, for others if they so wish to hear it, sharing my art is the reason I create it so that played a big part even though it is sort of practical as well too.
In your own perspective, how would you define sound? And who are among your top sound acts?
Top acts are tough because I’ll unintentionally single people out or forget people I really admire but I will say I listen to a lot of music that’s quite different from mine, a lot of really eerie Americana folk, blues, electronic music, I’m pretty broad in my listening.
I think that sound is the aural effect of vibration that’s happening at all times in the earth or on the earth and also in accord or with interaction with the ionosphere but I could be wrong but it’s vibration. As a musician, I get to manipulate vibrations and energy into a form or song.
Creation to production
Of Earth and Sun is a one-man show, can you walk us through the stage of creating until producing a physical record?
I sit down basically daily, studio time unless I’m heavy in performing or getting ready to travel. I work from home, my wife is a visual artist as well, we both work from home in our separate home studios in a tiny village in Colorado near the New Mexico border.
I sit and let the music, the tones come to me, then I form some kind of a theme and then a basic beat and then a structure, the style is just what naturally comes out of me, I don’t set out to make it sound a certain way it just does.so once I like what I can call a song I rehearse it live using only a loop station and then sometimes a drum machine but generally a piece of sheet metal I attached a piezoelectric pickup to as beat like a drum.
So, no overdubs, I hit record, perform the song live in my studio (sometimes so many times – thanks to my wife Claire for her undying support; she has to listen to these things form and they don’t sound great in the beginning and I do this at a fairly loud volume to make sure I can hear it same as I would in a venue.
So for live performance, it’s fairly easy to say that it’s the same thing. Most venues and acts I perform with know about my music but occasionally people ask where the rest of the band is like they’ve been listening and it can’t be just me but I usually joke like they are in the van unloading then straightaway say no I’m kidding it’s just me that music is pretty much what it will sound like tonight in the venue; I love the look when I tell people that and when they first see it.
I hand a line to the sound guy he runs it into a DI and into the board I have 3 mixers at my feet so he just does his thing making it loud and I do mine performing what were ideas that formed into these songs. The sets vary based on the venue but it’s a straightforward process, I’m pretty easygoing to work sound for and the like so I try to keep it simple.
As a progression to the earlier question, how do you set up and perform your live sessions knowing that Of Earth and Sun is a solo project?
Well given everything I said earlier, and it is more complicated, but basically I go up and people generally quiet down, I start a low drone and then go into my set, I get sometimes very theatrical on stage, sometimes more meditative but I do make a point to put out a huge full sound like a full band because that was the original idea and it has in the past tended to work.
I perform like a front-man of a band would, I’m the lead singer, everything but I look at it like I have to be this force to be just me solo and give and put out a huge sound. It’s my favourite thing about my work.
How do you describe transcendence, and how does it unfold itself in Of Earth and Sun sound experience?
I don’t try to describe it, I’ve heard that Of Earth and Sun music helps people discover a kind of transcendence, but I myself look at it in a different way.
I feel a flow I’d say, it’s a more artistic process, maybe Zen, maybe meditative, I’ve definitely had experiences with certain transcendence but that’s my personal life and it’s not so much in the music as it is for other people I think, at least somehow I’m more removed from that or into it in a different way than someone listening to my music.
Of Earth and Sun albums artwork is probably symbolic and mystical. What is your approach towards creating artwork that reveals the music sense of a certain release?
I basically use a theme and a certain font, but it generally has something to do with spirituality in natural settings, but sometimes the images are my visual art in a natural setting or my bones which are themselves natural objects.
I try to make art universal, not to alienate, not to get too overt…etc. I think the art and images come naturally from my eye as a visual artist and just fall into place with what I think is a general theme that works well with a certain album or body of work I output.
I’m a photographer, so that helps but general the images are more my art pieces in nature rather than a photograph, but I add in some of that.
For “Uncoiled” I took images from manuscripts from India drawn in the 1600s and cut them up and made sort of collage and then digital art, more graphic design.
So, I was doing that, afterward, I wanted to portray things in less of a ‘logo’ or ‘image’ fashion.
I wanted to just put a simple set of representational images together and let that combined with the songs make the album come together.
Horns out of bones
Matthew Hunzeker uses bones as horns or trumpets within his sound composition; what is the story behind that? And how different is the outcome sound from other ordinary horns?
Well, I make a ton of musical instruments, I sell a lot of them, a lot of amplifiers, stuff from junk I find, all recycled, reclaimed…etc.
I wanted to make these Tibetan horns I mentioned earlier, so I made two from deer femur bones and then kept improving on them for better acoustics. It’s a woodier and rather earthly sound, more subdued, quieter in most cases.
I run them through microphones that run into cheap guitar pedals like I do my voice, so I get lots of sounds that way.
I have been playing the horn for around 25 years so I can get different pitches, octaves, scales from a single bone horn. It turned into much more than I intended.
Now I find many all the time, I look at each one, I only take ones I won’t split by cutting them so it kind of blew up into more than I set out for them, but I enjoy crafting them.
I love walking in nature with my dog and wife, or solo, or with one of my daughters and finding them but the walk is good these days, I see bones everywhere – no shortage but lately I don’t pick them up as I’m sort of moving past them using my voice instead where I would use a bone horn.
What does ritual symbolism bring to the Of Earth and Sun sound-scape?
I think that one is up to the listener or the person at the live performance, I don’t put anything in particular or specific into it, in fact, I do my best to sort of flout an image and I don’t try to be overly cryptic or symbolic in a mystical way.
I appreciate that other people come to shows or listen to that and have experiences with it.
I know it’s more than I’m describing here but in general the symbolism is sort of made up on the fly for me unless I’m doing something specific, in which case I’m always happy to explain but more than that I don’t put much of ritual air to the work, it just comes out like that.
It’s just rock and roll for me but slightly more in the spiritual realm, I’m definitely taken over as some conduit for the spirits of my music, but as far as anything specific I just love hearing what others think, it gives me ideas and directions to think about.
Ritual to me is like brushing teeth, making coffee, but I get what you’re saying I just don’t think of the work like that, others do, my wife does in her different ways but in general, the biggest ritual for me when performing in another city is the plane trip, the bus or subway to the venue, shit like that the ritual sound is based on people’s conception of ritual musical form.
I love ritual music in a ritual setting but what I do is for a venue or someplace profane; if I inadvertently turn it into a ritual setting; that is fine by me, but it’s not something I set out to do.
People get into it, close their eyes, are quiet, sometimes loud and it is a rock show, it really just depends, setting and venue do a lot to the atmosphere of my work when it’s performed live.
How did your experience of consciousness change since the birth of Of Earth and Sun?
I don’t have any profound answer for that question other than I’m so happy it does what it does, I didn’t intend a lot of it.
It has definitely changed me in both spiritual ways and in the lessons of life. I’d say it mostly changed my consciousness in how I view and experience art and music; a different appreciation, maybe becoming more appreciative of things that are different.
You were a student of medical anthropology; in what ways did that influence your awareness and eventually your sound direction?
The music of other cultures has been huge for me, so I studied their history of the culture and then the history of music and musical instruments in a culture.
Also, a key thing in medical anthropology is the ways of viewing, understanding and interpreting health and healing cross-culturally. I believe my music has some value in that regard, or I hear that it does from people who listen and give me feedback.
I love that the majority of the fan letters I get are how my music has somehow healed them, that’s the best way I can describe the link right now.
Divinity, death and rebirth
What are your thoughts on these three words; divinity, death and rebirth?
I guess I’d say they are the process of life, we all go through them metaphorically, there have been some good historical and cultural examples but they are limitations on the limitless and only the direct experience can speak to that.
And even if it could, I imagine it would opt for silence in fear of making the divine into the profane, death into life, and rebirth into a natural process after death.
I have no idea honestly I am really spiritual but I think more of the earth of my own spirituality no limitations ideas, inspirations, etc.