July 23, 2012
by Whitney Dail
Michael Hearst. Photo by Chris Smith/Photography, courtesy of Michael Hearst/One Ring Zero (Michael Hearst & Joshua Camp).
“On a fundamental level, music is science… But for me, they really just happen to be two big interests of mine.” — Michael Hearst
Michael Hearst has a taste for the unusual. For the past fifteen years, he has collected rare instruments that most people have never heard of—like Hohner’s claviola or LEMUR’s robotic musical instruments—and made use of one-of-a-kind sounds for his band One Ring Zero. The group is particularly known for its concept albums based on themes ranging anywhere from cuisine to the solar system. Aside from music, Hearst is also passionate about science. One Ring Zero’s album Planets (2010) was a major hit among science enthusiasts and NASA Goddard scientists. But his solo work is just as dynamic. In addition to operating a recording studio and record label, Hearst’s repertoire includes full-length albums, film soundtracks, and a number of short stories published in literary journals including McSweeney’s. His latest album Songs for Unusual Creatures celebrates lesser-known animals that fascinate, for instance, the Bilby, Glass Frog, and Jesus Christ Lizard. The project even caught the attention of Chronicle Books which in October will release Hearst’s Unusual Creatures in book format. We caught up with Hearst via e-mail to hear more about his art-science connection and find out what he’s up to.
NEA: What’s your version of the artist’s life?
MICHAEL HEARST: At any given point, I’m typically working on five to 10 projects at the same time: an album for One Ring Zero, an album under my own name, a film soundtrack, a short story collection, a children’s book, a watercolor series, a composition for a string quartet, and, oh yeah, I’ll take on a mastering job for a record company while I’m at it. Basically, I wake up each morning and decide which project takes precedence (often dictated by deadlines), and almost immediately get to work. But even then, I’ll often start on one project, work on it for a few hours, and then switch to another. I work from my apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn, and some days I find that I don’t even step outside until three or four p.m. Thankfully, I’ve developed a close relationship with my neighborhood (or, at least the four-block radius around my apartment). I can easily walk over to Colson Patisserie and say “hi” to Yonatan, the owner and grab a coffee; or go next door to Barbès (where I also perform quite often) and say “hi” to owners Olivier and Vincent before returning to my apartment to do more recording or writing or whatever it is I happen to be working on that day. It’s funny, I think some of the baristas (and probably many other random people who live near me) think that I have no job, that I’m just wandering around the neighborhood all day being a slacker, when the fact is I’m juggling multiple projects back home, and I just need to step out every few hours to get some fresh air and clear my head. Walking around the neighborhood is my equivalent of taking a smoke break (without actually smoking).
NEA: What do you remember as your first engagement or experience with the arts?
HEARST: As a child, my father played (and sang) Kingston Trio and Roy Orbison songs for me on guitar and piano. My mother also played piano, and has always painted (art, not walls). Growing up in Tidewater, Virginia, my mother was a docent at the Chrysler Museum. I would take the tour with her at least once a week. I knew all the paintings inside out. My favorites were by Paul Klee and Marc Chagall. The Chrysler Museum has always held a special place for me. When I was in high school and driving, my friend Terry and I would actually write fake sick letters and skip school so that we could go to the Chrysler Museum and look at art. Nerds!
NEA: What decision has had the most impact on your work as an artist?
HEARST: Without a doubt, it was the actual act of deciding that I wanted to devote my life to art, a decision I made just after high school. If it had been up to me, I probably wouldn’t have gone to college at all, but my parents were very insistent. In fact, not going wasn’t really an option. I pleaded with my parents to let me at least skip the first semester so that I could try being a “normal person” and work a 9-5 job for a few months. They relented and let me stay behind for a semester, working a job at a screen-printing company in Virginia Beach while most of my other friends went off to college. During those months I had to make some big decisions. I had to decide what I wanted to be when I grew up! Any regular careers that were remotely of interest to me were simply ones that I’d be doing for the sake of making money, and not something I was truly passionate about. It’s totally cliché, but my parents always told me to do what I was passionate about, and [that] success would come. And with that I said, well then, I guess I’ll go to college for art! I think they were simply relieved that I was finally going to college. And for them, it was really about me having a college experience. I decided to go to Virginia Commonwealth University for music composition (visual art was a close runner-up). With this decision, I decided, okay, I’m going to make the most of it. I would put everything into it, no matter how bumpy the road. I would make it my career. Ultimately, I am extremely grateful that my parents pushed me to go to college and allowed me to study what I wanted. It’s always interesting to think where you might be if different decisions were made.
NEA: Your band One Ring Zero released Planets in 2010 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Gustav Holst’s orchestral suite. What role does astronomy play in your adult life?
HEARST: I’ve always been fascinated by science. Along with math and art, science was actually a subject that I did particularly well in in school. (I was terrible at English and history.) Astronomy has always been inspiring for me, and even more so now with all the new information we are constantly learning, and all the amazing pictures coming back from places like Hubble and various probes. Really incredibly stuff. If anything, I think I’ve actually become more interested in astronomy with age. Thankfully, my bandmate and co-founder of One Ring Zero Joshua Camp also loves astronomy.
NEA: Did you or the band conduct any investigations into the solar system prior to composing the album?
HEARST: While working on Planets (three years of production), we spent a lot of time relearning the solar system, and learning new things … like the discovery of thousands of previously unknown exoplanets, and, of course, the demotion of Pluto. I found myself watching NASA TV almost obsessively. The Astronomy Picture of the Day on NASA’s website is a lot of fun, too. And while Joshua and I were both incredibly inspired by Holst’s orchestral suite, we wanted ours to be something entirely new. The end result is as much an homage to Holst’s The Planets as it is us saying, “It’s been 100 years since he wrote his orchestral suite, and now it’s time for a revisit to our solar system.” Ultimately, his compositions were based on astrology. He even starts with Earth and works his way out. Ours is much more inspired by astronomy. We start with an introduction piece, and then head out from Mercury. Our album is only about half instrumental; the other half has lyrics incorporating information about the planets.
NEA: Tell us about your latest album Unusual Creatures. What stimulated your curiosity of the animal kingdom and how did you choose which ones to feature?
HEARST: I’ve always been animal-obsessed. And it’s no coincidence that I listened to Camille Saint-Saen’s Carnival Of The Animals non-stop when I was younger. In fact, I would say, along with Holst’s The Planets, Saint-Saen’s Carnival Of The Animals was one of the main reasons I decided to go to music school. (That, and seeing a video of Leonard Bernstein performing “Rhapsody in Blue” and [conducting] the New York Philharmonic with his eyebrows.) I think the idea of doing an animal-related music project has always been in the back of my mind. I also have a big interest in unusual musical instruments, and often incorporate them into my work. It seemed like a perfect fit to do a project similar to Carnival of the Animals, but inspired by unusual animals, and using unusual instruments. The “Glass Frog” song is performed by Cecilia Brauer on the Ben Franklin-invented glass armonica. The “Jesus Christ Lizard” is performed by Margaret Leng Tan on toy pianos. The “Blobfish” is performed on a tubax and contrabassoon. The “Honeybadger” on daxophone (dax comes from German word “dachs,” which means badger), etc.
In the process of working on the album, I also landed a book deal to write an Unusual Creatures book. It was a lot of fun to research and learn even more about the animals while simultaneously working on the album. It also helped me to formulate which animals were most interesting to me, and would lend themselves to a musical composition. In a few cases, the guest performer would suggest an animal that interested them. Kronos Quartet wanted to do a song for the Weddell Seal, and play along with samples of the animal’s incredible underwater sounds. Wade Schuman wanted to play on a song for the solenodon (a venomous, burrowing mammal found in Cuba and Hispaniola).
NEA: What do you see as the connection between art and science?
HEARST: On a fundamental level, music is science—the way musical instruments and acoustics work: harmonics, wave-lengths, etc. But for me, they really just happen to be two big interests of mine. In the past, I’ve also made connection between art and literature with One Ring Zero’s As Smart As We Are. And art and food with The Recipe Project. Ultimately, I find that just about any subject can inspire art. And, in fact, I prefer to bounce around from subject to subject. But certainly science has been a big inspiration for me for at least the last couple albums. It feels exciting and fresh, and often magical, and so much of science is about continuing to learn beyond what we already know. There’s a whole world of unknown scientific information out there, and that unknown is inspiration in itself.
NEA: What other topics or fields do you draw your inspiration from?
HEARST: Aside from animals, planets, literature, food, dance, and unusual instruments, I’ve also been working on lots of film scores. I’ve always dabbled in film, but over the past couple years, I’ve scored three feature-length films, and I’ve found it to be quite a lot of fun. Ultimately, I think I just like to have parameters. Whether it’s a subject I pick, or a scene from a movie, or a section of dance, those parameters create an environment that forces me to focus on something larger than just the music itself. Writing music for the sake of writing music is still great, but I find it to be even more inspiring if I have something specific to write for. Plus, the subjects I choose for my albums become a sort of self-inflicted college course, and I’ve always loved diving headfirst into new subjects.
NEA: To date, what’s been your most transformative arts experience?
HEARST: Hard to say if one thing in particular has been transformative. It’s so many things combined. I guess, in many ways, it was my coming to understand what it was that I was doing with my career, collectively. The big picture. For a long time I felt like I kept bouncing from one random project to another: an album for a modern dance company, an album with lyrics by various authors, an album about the planets, and album set to recipes, and album of ice cream truck songs, and an album about unusual animals. What do all these things have in common? Well, one thing’s for sure, they all come from me. It was David Harrington from Kronos Quartet who really helped me understand the importance of just that. At some point I was kvetching to him about how I’d put all this work into my current album, and it wasn’t getting any attention. His comment was, “Just keep doing what you are doing, and ultimately you’ll have this incredible catalog.” So simple, and yet so important. Kronos has certainly done just that. You keep moving forward, you keep building your catalog, and that catalog becomes you. Some projects hit, and some miss, but it’s the big picture that counts.
NEA: You’ve performed at a variety of arts and culture institutions including the Whitney Museum of American Art, Jewish Museum, and American Museum of Natural History. How did these environments affect your performance?
HEARST: I personally love performing at museums and cultural centers. People are actually there for the art, and they listen, and are appreciative. You don’t always get that from clubs and festivals. Especially when you create arty music that isn’t particularly mainstream. There’s also another blunt answer to the question: money. The museums have funding. There’s a lot to be said for that. Those places do such a better job of fund-raising than I could ever do on my own. And it’s fortuitous that I’ve been invited to perform at these organizations from time to time. Ultimately, we are all very lucky that museums and cultural centers exist.
NEA: What do you think is the artist’s role in or responsibility to the community?
HEARST: That’s tough. I’m [not] entirely sure the artist should have any particular responsibility to the community, or, at least no more than any other person. The minute an artist feels like he has a responsibility, I think you are likely to lose something. That said, I personally love the idea of being able to occasionally incorporate an educational angle to some of my work, but I don’t think of it as a responsibility. I can always turn 180 degrees and do something else. I also love the idea of sometimes creating music that kids will like, but again, it’s not a responsibility. I think the only responsibility an artist should really have is a responsibility to his or herself to create something that actually feels inspired.
NEA: Conversely, what is the community’s responsibility to the artist?
HEARST: Well, I guess if the artist has no responsibilities to the community, then the community shouldn’t have any responsibilities to the artist. Of course, a community can be very dull without art. It’s up to the community to decide if they want to support art. And then they have to decide which art is worth supporting. And then the artist has to decide if he/she wants to create art that is of interest to the community. It’s an endless loop. It all becomes a bit of a guessing game. Can the artist create something that feels inspired and have value to the community? Will the community find the art valuable enough to support?
NEA: At the NEA, we believe that “Art Works.” What does that phrase mean to you?
HEARST: Art is inspiring for both the creator and the audience. It enables people to think, learn, and look beyond their horizons. The world would be a stagnant place without it—like a swamp, with festering green algae and mosquitoes. Wait, I should paint that, or write a song about it. ”Art works!”