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The 2010 Music Exchange, Cape Town

As a “sensitive artistic type” I always get a bit nervous in music industry settings, taking to heart the conflicts expressed in Pink Floyds “Welcome to the machine”. However, when I get over myself, this sort of environment becomes a fascinating and challenging journey of learning and connecting, examining the edges of one’s own perspectives.

Well I overcame, discovered and connected earlier this week, at the 2010 Music Exchange, Cape Town, held at Cape Town’s Protea Hotel, and organised by Peter Lacey and Martin Myers.

Featuring some of the world’s most influential music business minds, the content was a great balance between tried and tested wisdom and the sharp end of progress, specifically regarding the online digital explosion.

Martin Myers and Sipho Hotstix Mabuse

From Major Mogul Charles Goldstuck, via Sipho Hotstix Mabuse’s enduring cultural eldership and SAMRO’s Nick Motsatse’s regal command of his domain, a solid foundation was laid. This lead through to Nokia’s own Led Zep frontman, Jake Larsen, Yoel Kenan’s “disruptive technologies” and Dave Duarte’s hi tech take on Facebook Ubuntu (“I store my knowledge in my friends”). Add to this the creative likes of Neo Muyanga, Macstanleys Andrew Macpherson, and music journalist Miles Keylock, the list of fascinating personages goes on and on. Continue reading “The 2010 Music Exchange, Cape Town”

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Soop – Sound (Waves) Out Of Place

“Which is more musical; a truck passing by a factory or a truck passing by a music school?”  John Cage

Welcome to Moop

One of the many delightful new ideas brought to us via Burner Culture is that of moop – “matter out of place”. Meaning predominantly litter and detritus, but also things inappropriately placed. One of the 10 Burner principles is “Leave no trace”, and is designed to make us wasteful westerners think twice about how we interact with the environment.

Afrika Burn (and far more so its parent Burning Man) is not a simple back-to-nature event, despite a strong stream of green awareness and survivalist minimalism. It is more than that, and incorporates at times almost impossibly complex structures bordering on madness, and requiring truckloads of materials and months of preparation. The central piece of Tankwa Town, The Wish by the Upsetters, for example, is an 8 M high spherical installation of hoops within hoops, meticulously designed, transported and assembled for the pleasure of all. Continue reading “Soop – Sound (Waves) Out Of Place”

Curating Sacred Sound and Image

“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him”

avj twinstar

AVJ Twinstar here: It’s a good time to summarise the state of my art. Like all things, any given expression of our souls is a meeting of influences. Some joined the river recently, others can be traced back to the beginning…

I have just assembled a fully functioning AVJ rig. You don’t know what this means, because I just made it up. AVJ is a multimedia marriage of the DJ and VJ aesthetics, in short, and Audio-Visual Jockey. It must be said I don’t care for either of these terms. Audio-Visual has a technical ring I’d like to escape, and the role of Jockey I feel might better be described as Curator. But AVJ has a certain je ne c’est quoi, and I’ll keep it.

So for near on 30 years I have been a musician. I have been interested in sound, and the organisation thereof, otherwise called music. I have been through several phases in this: Rock, Jazz, World, African, Songwriter, Electronica, ECM, all totaling 3 decades. I whole heartedly pursued the disciplines of music, the techniques of guitar and saxophone, theory, songwriting, and recording, as a sustained journey. Did I master any? I’ve given up asking that question, and there is no conclusive evidence in either direction.

AVJ twinstar rigBut in recent years and months, I have been exploring image. But I’m no drawer, painter or sculptor. AND my eyes are finding it increasingly hard to see the detail of things without glasses, too. But there is something in imagemaking, in how pictures, photographs, movies, symbols, even words interact with us that has me under its spell.

Further to that I suspect that as we emerge from modernism, the role of words as the dominant carrier of truth is no longer appropriate. Images, in the age of Film, TV and the internet, are at least equal partners in communicating any messages. Theologically, it is equally valid to say “G-d as the Logos, spoke”, or that “G-d as the Light, shone”. I don’t see why the language of words should feel superior to images in a post-modern culture. Or that images are only alright if they support our sales pitches, lectures or sermons. Powerpointism … an illustration must know its place, it is to serve the spoken and written message.

Edirol V4What I have assembled is by no means perfect or the ultimate AVJ rig, but it works for me. By acquiring an Edirol V4 visual mixer, I now have the hub of a large range of visual sources. A mixer takes multiple inputs and routes them to multiple outputs, enabling the seamless switching and creative combining of images.

Photographs, scans, words and texts, moving image, input from microscopes, oscilloscopes, skype-o-scopes (I googled that and guess what I got NO matches – what a relief to know there are places the googlebot has never been), browsers with internet content or Powerpoint shows can all be combined in real time.

But the best thing is how live camera feeds can form an integral part of the projected output. This means that Liturgy – the work of the people – becomes enabled by making the content the participants themselves. What is this show about? It’s about US. It is integral to community.

As in good conversation, every idea is fair game. If you want to quote Oscar Wilde and you know him, you can. If you want to press a point a little further, you can. If you want to draw people’s attention to a passing cloud formation, you can. In theory any available image can be recalled and combined as desired.

What this takes is someone who sees film as a performance art, and someone who is accepts the curator’s role. A curator in this sense is not just a functionary: the watchman of premises and its contents, with no real feel for or relationship to the collection of works housed at a point in time. A curator is someone who cares for the images of a community.

Further, it is a creative who does not claim exclusive authorship of the content, or may in fact, have no authoring role whatsoever, but who can present sound or images to a gathering in such a way as to read the moods of the room, and in the case of the sacred curator, the will of the spirit too.

The DJ is perhaps the best example of a curator of sounds, songs or perhaps just clips or rhythm. I’ve had a lifelong prejudice against this emblem of our culture, mainly because I saw myself as an author of music, and the DJ was the slaggard who took whatever glory might be inherent in the music with absolutely no role in its creation. I wasn’t surprised but was still amazed to hear this DJ exclaim “Scheesh dude, I suppose now that S*sha is doing it, we will all have to get into production”. Hey, I thought, all I wanted to do for about 10 years before I could afford a Tascam 4-track was record and produce, and you are moaning about having to mimic some vapid pseudo-creator.

VJing comes into the picture on the heels of the fully ascended (but still none the less visually boring) DJ cult, in which randomly accessible images could accompany the music. This form of expression is moving beyond its eye-candy beginnings, with its new and emerging visual language. Nonetheless, almost all VJ activity takes place in clubland, and the idea of the sacred VJ is virtually unknown. Not totally though, The Work of the People is an example of a similar vision.

motion dive tokyoBack to the rigging: I run 2 laptops, one exclusively for (the rather power mad) motion dive tokyo console, a dedicated hardware/software platform for triggering and mixing on-disk images. It contains visual effects too which enable you to composite 2 images in many ways, resulting in hybrid images which are truly fresh.

Most of my material is my own, but I have a library now of natural and urban scenes, notable movie clips, computery graphics, photographs and texts. Always wanted to publicly intersperse your take on what Seal was getting at in “Crazy”, well now you can by fading in your comment or question while he sings “But we’re never going to survive, unless we get a little big.”

It’s about finding truth in unexpected places. You just need the insight to read the poetry in things, and the faith to consecrate that which you believe to bear the sacred. Most moving images are looped – hyper short form film – and can be left to run with great effect.

As in Orthodox worship, some images are iconic, and their very repetition can usher in the sacred. I tend to mute the sound from clips used in this way, as the assumption is the VJ performance will accompany music. However, I can see the potential for using moving image with mime, textual readings, or many other expressions.

Ableton Live 6The other laptop runs both Powerpoint (for clean slideshows, as if) and Ableton Live, a simply superb musical software platform for production, performance and composition. I have used Live for 4 years for songwriting and production of original music, but now it has become a DJ oriented deck for playing my songlists. Additionally, via midi (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) it is able to trigger images on Motion Dive.

Typically I start a song and have the images set up automatically, then VJ live for the rest of the song based on the set up. It’s finding a balance between automation and interaction. I would also like to hook up a USB microscope to this machine so that a gathering might see the ravishing beauty of lichens at 100X or view some sub-visual life form while musing over the wonder of the created order.

Each laptop goes to a V4 input, using dual screen technology so I can retain the Motion dive and Powerpoint master view on their screens. The other 2 inputs are from a live camera and a DVD player. The DVD is really handy for bringing movies or material handed to me in movie format on the spot, into the mix. Also it will play CDs, so one can treat it as a play-all-discs input.

The Camera forms the last source. This is perhaps most important – we are not merely presenting stock footage with which we might have only a vague connection, but much of the input comes from the life and movement, the stories and gestures, of the participants themselves. This presents an opportunity for liturgy – community, creativity and the sacred all working together. By consciously “mediating” – being the medium for – an experience of community, and then projecting these images back to that community, we fill a key role of reflection.

A community should see itself as others see it, and if we bring the classic priestly role into the mix – those who stand between man and G-d – who knows, we might be showing Him-Her to the world.

I’m hopeful that anyone remotely interested in spirituality will see this as a worthy goal.

the editor is … in the house

At last something to celebrate – Lasse Gjertsen, “superstar video editor”. Here is man who plays neither drums or piano, yet has given us something memorable, not to say funky and hilarious. All it takes is imagination and willingness to engage. Enjoy …

A Worthy Worship 5 – A Poetic God

There are many to whom “Poetry” is that flowery quarter of the garden of life where the sensitive ones go to think sensitive thoughts, while they go about the real business of life, organizing, negotiating, doing battle, surviving. To be sure, poetry itself is hard work, most of us were forced to learn this in school. Its not as though one can easily find an hour to read and decode just 14 lines of a sonnet, for example. Why make all that work for yourself, on top of all the demands of making a living? It just sounds like masochism. 

As a teenager, I discovered my way with words, and started to write with great earnestness, trying to emulate those I had been exposed to – Hopkins and ee cummings are two I recall. At the same time, I started my life long commitment to music and song. By my early 20’s I had decided that I would throw my weight into songwriting, and not pure poetry. Poetry is an art form in decline, I reasoned. 

It has only been in the last few years that I have come to refer to myself as a poet again. Not however because I have started writing any, but because my view of the poetic has broadened to the extent that I recognize the presence of, or at least a relationship to poetry, in all I do. I call this the Aesthetic. (The word comes from the Greek word αισθητική meaning a perceiver or sensitive, and is traditionally a branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of beauty). 

In considering this Aesthetic, this set of principles by which to live, what is important is not so much poetry – the creative use of image and idea in print – but rather, the Poetic. It is not a technique of language, but a set of guiding principles for a life worth living. It affects our words, for sure, but it plays a key role in our communication; written, spoken, and nonverbal, our quality of life and ultimately in our spirituality and our worship.  

I have been involved to some degree in the practice of communal music making in churches, on and off, for more than 25 years. There have been some times where I felt a genuinely creative outpouring, but on the whole, when I encounter so-called “Worship Music” I am left with questions rather than solace or elevation. And I think I now know what that question is … Where is the Poetry? 

I’ll say it straight out – I believe in a Poetic God, who is worshipped and served poetically. According to the gospel of John, “You will worship God in Spirit and in Truth.” This spirit, this truth, is a creative and a communicating spirit, greatly interested not only in what is said, but also in how it is said. 

So do you have to be a poet, or have to like poetry, in order to worship? No, but what you do need is an Aesthetic. OK, so then do you need to be a philosopher to worship? No, you need to be a perceiver. One who sees, savors, learns and appreciates. Having an aesthetic is a key to being human. I have a feeling that not many people are going to agree whole heartedly with me on this. Let me offer some reasons why having an aesthetic may not be considered that important or relevant:

  • Primarily, most of us in the world are “just trying to survive”. Survival is a full time job and more, for many it can be a desperate fight. This needs to be acknowledged, but I believe that everyone has the capacity or call to live at least some of their life beyond the “survival” mode.
  • The fear of pain – the opposite of aesthetic is of course anesthetic, and having an aesthetic means opening up to all that is potential painful.
  • A belief that it is better to view life in black and white rather than looking at shades of grey, this simplifying approach does help us avoid lifes inherent complexity.
  • A lack of curiosity, fear of taking responsibility, plain laziness, and thus defaulting to the “group” way of thinking. 

We need therefore to ask, what constitutes the Poetic? It is a worthy exercise to examine the rudiments of poetry. This means the basic building blocks of how language is used by the Poet. Once we have a theoretical framework, we can start to apply the principles to living. The principles of poetry include figurative language (metaphor, allegory, irony), musical devices (rhyme and rhythm), and pattern. Some of these we use daily without acknowledging; others we might find hard to fit into current notions of worship. 

We may be surprised by how poetic the bible is. Or any Holy book for that matter…I am wanting to read the Koran to gage its sense of both history and the poetic. For where there is poetry, God dwells.  

I believe that if we take the poetic to heart, we will find ourselves in a new world; that of the Ongoing Creation. Words, conversations, movements, dramas, brand new combinations, fresh situations, new aspects of ourselves revealed, sounds and music, images and artworks, new ways of seeing God, spectacular vistas, beauty in the oddest places, points of view infused with hope. Things that we never imagined existed.

Worship, infused with the poetic, is a rich conversation. Think of the life inherient in a moment of awe or discovery – “Eureka!”, a deep deep howl of pain -“Why have you forsaken me?”, a fine musical conversation between master improvisors, the perfect dinner with loved friends.

If we desire this, this place beyond our wildest imaginations, then there is a lot to learn, or perhaps to unlearn, to get back to a place of awe and wonder, of wildness and potential. Poetry ultimately is not a skill for sophiticates, but a way of seeing the world, a way of seeing G-d. It might just be the ONLY way to avoid to state of being described in Isiah 6:9 – “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.”

My New Zouk

zouk.JPGI have a new instrument. An Irish Bouzouki, or Zouk. It’s a relative of the mandolin, having 4 courses (double stings) tuned (like the mandolin or violin but an octave down) G-D-A-E. This means that guitar chord shapes are not very helpful. But it is this fact I love – it forces you to follow your ear not your visual patterns.  

The Irish made this originally Greek instrument their own about 50 or 60 years ago. Donal Lunny is perhaps the Irish Bouzouki’s finest exponent. (Although Monthy Pythons Cheeze Shop Ensemble really catipulted the instrument family to fame). 

It has been used extensively by Celtic bands; a favourite example of mine is the Afro-Celt Sound System. I first decided I wanted one after hearing Blue States “Elios Therepia”.  

This is the first instrument I have commissioned. I asked Dave Shapiro (of Porterville, Western Cape) to build me one after seeing his work. He delivered it last weekend, and boy is it a beautiful piece of craftsmanship. It is made of Kiaat (a local hard wood) for the back and sides, Cedar for the top, and Indian Rosewood for the fretboard.

In this last week I have put bazouki parts down on 5 tracks on my new album, it now feels complete – I had imagined this sound long before I actually had the instrument. More on the recording project later, for those who are interested.

I love these times of newness – so much comes out of them. So many new ideas, themes, sounds. I have taken to acquiring instruments in the last 5 years. Up until that time I aspired towards “specialization”, I have played guitars and saxophones since I was 16, that’s almost 30 years ago. My liberation from specialization came when my wife Ann bought me a mandolin for my 40th birthday.

Since then I have added to my collection a charango (Bolivian stringed instrument traditionally crafted from the shell of armadillo), a bass clarinet, a set of Indian tablas (2 hand played drums), a tunable didgeridoo, and ectara (One stringed Indian instrument), a wonderful Upright Piano (Grotrian Steinweg) which we inherited from Anns aunt, and many more hi-tech electronic tools – Korg Kaoss pad, plus various software systems – Native Intrument’s Reaktor and Abletons Live for example. 

Everyone should take up a new instrument every few years – it’s a great creative tonic. 

Anyone out there done this recently?

A Worthy Worship 4 – Intimacy

Rolf Lislevand - lute

With what attentive courtesy he bent
Over his instrument
Not as a lordly conqueror who could
Command both wire and wood,
But as a man with a loved woman might,
Inquiring with delight
What slight essential things she had to say
Before they started, he and she, to play.

Frances Cornford, “The guitartist tunes up.”

Here we have some images reflecting an artist at work. Or to be exact, involved in the preparations for work. Happily for Rolf Listlevand, seen above tuning his lute, work is play.

What I notice above all things is his attitude. He bends his ear to the body of the instrument, listening for things that very few people might be aware of. He listens for that moment when 2 frequencies become one, vibrate in perfect unison.

This act is almost impossible when there is any distracting noise. It requires a space and a time completely given over to the task, to the relationship between the artist and his instrument. 

These days, given the high levels of energy implicit in much publicly consumed music, we have given this ritual over to technology. We use digital tuners which tell us visually whether a string is in tune or not. I refer to many types of music, but not the classical kind – here the ritual of tuning up retains its currency. Think the Western orchestra, or the Indian Classical ensemble.

So what is so arresting about this mans attitude? For one, it demonstrates commitment, representing years of practice and discipline. It demonstrates respect, respect for the music about to be rendered, the instrument, the exchange. Above all, and incorporating these two aspects, it is an act of intimacy. 

The comparison with an intimate relationship between 2 people as expressed in Cornford’s poem, and the element of play involved in that relationship, is very powerful. It brings the respect shown to a thing or an abstract idea, into the realm of the personal.

It may be a truism but it remains worth saying, that one of the most sacred experiences we can have is an intimate relationship with a lover.  What underpins the power of sex? Here are two answers to this question:

Firstly, it ensures the survival of the species, it leads to procreation. And second, the sexual urge draws to our attention a yearning for intimacy. And the ultimate intimacy is divine intimacy with the Creator. 

I would go as far as to say that the ultimate goal and prize of all spirituality is not escape from damnation, not even the achieving of perfection, but it is defined relationally, in terms of intimacy. And all worship needs to have this as its goal.

Intimacy is a frightening proposition. Fairly scary for women, and terrifying for men, if I may allude to common stereotypes. “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God”, says the book of Hebrews.

Is this because the living God is a vengeful, malicious megalomaniac? I suggest that the answer lies in the fact of Holiness. G-d (at least the God of the Bible) is by definition holy, and that which is less than holy is simply unable to survive in that reality, like straw in the presence of fire. 

But we need to be clear, holiness is not achieved by good works or self-sanctification, it is the gift of G-d in Christ, experienced through faith… this is the heart of the Christian gospel.

I hope that the relation ship between holiness and intimacy is emerging.  Although the Holy G-d can not countenance sin, we are asked to present ourselves, present our whole heart. This means that we bring every part, the light and the dark, all our blemishes, doubts and failings.

Intimacy may be about holiness, but it is not about perfection.  If I am 90% light and 10% darkness, and I present my light, happy-shiny 90% in worship, am I better than he who is 60% light and 40% darkness but presents 100% in worship?

True intimacy in worship involves the whole heart, including what is fallen. In fact it is these very blemishes which are ironically becoming to G-d, and it is an act, perhaps the greatest act, of courage and of faith, for anyone to allow another into the darkness of their secrets.

Religion encourages us to look and act the part of a holy person; but G-d asks for all of us including the our down and dirty secrets. If we were to say that it takes two to be intimate, we will have made some progress. But I believe the journey far goes beyond this. 

Intimacy should become an expression not just of an individual and their God, or of two individuals, but need to become an expression of community as well. It needs to become a quality of life in a group of people.

Worship should enable this process.  And furthermore, as paradoxical as it may sound, we need to become intimate with the cosmos itself. By understanding that the whole created order is not something separate from our relationships with people, our worship will reference the world, the whole of creation.

Righteousness is not a moral achievement, it an awareness. It means to be in right relationship with all that is. If we are becoming friends with G-d how can we not care for the ongoing work of G-d, the ongoing act of creation. This involves restoration of damage, be it relational, ecological, psychological or in any other domain, but more so the ongoing act of creation, in all its forms.

If we strive then for a worship of righteousness, of rightness, in closeness with life, this sense of harmony will begin to emerge. And then we can with our maestro, perhaps begin, “Inquiring with delight what slight essential things she had to say” …

A Worthy Worship 3 – Space and Silence

Deep Sky by Rob Mills

What do we mean by silence? Is it an escape from modern life – traffic, kids or insessant demands? Is it the choice of lifestyle for those called to contemplation? Is it perhaps that terrible state in which all our worst fears come out to taunt us? Is it a Rule called “shhh!”? Or simply the “absence of noise”?

Partly. Actually, not really. The most appropriate understanding of the term, for me, refers to an awareness and inner discipline, a backdrop against which all spirituality is allowed to take place.

It is not necessarily a protracted period of low decibels, it is not necessarily vacuous. It is not a place of dread, but of faith; not a vocation, but a practice; not an escape, but a place to be entered into; not a nirvana without desire, but all about Yearning; certainly not a legislated law, for it is suffused with Grace; and not merely defined in negative – it is not an Absence, but the ultimate, in fact, in Presence.

And Space? Well I’m sure you are seeing that space and silence are closely related. Silence exists in the realm of sound and language; space in the realm of the Earth, our Habitat, and how we order our immediate environment. Silence has to do with waves and space with matter, if you like. And Light, which is both wave and matter – well that’s another tangent for another time.

Everyone knows what it means to “give some space”. It has to do with courtesy, respect, and ultimately love. It has its phobias – claustrophobia is the fear of enclosed spaces, and agoraphobia of open spaces.

It might be helpful to ask, what is noise? What can we identify as militating against the practices of the spirit? Here are a few ideas, a few “sins against Space and Silence”:  

Verbosity – saying it in 200 words when 20 would do. Saying it at all when silence would do. More words, and less communication. This is often brought about by the lack of trust in or confusion about what is being said, so it is over emphasized. Or the lack of the ability to say “I don’t know.” Or, simply, the fear of silence.

Cliché  – the regurgitation of someone’s tired idea, or a tired interpretation of anything new. An indication of the fear of finding ones own meaning, of forging ones own vocabulary.

Clutter and Consumerism  The accumulation of stuff made by some corporation dedicated to profit, with no authentic feeling for the product or artifact at all, in order to fill some fear of being without.

Machismo – The forcing of the self onto the world, to make up for the fact that one does not really believe in ones own worth; hiding behind a wall of sound, to escape the responsibility of being alive.

Unless we develop and cultivate a feeling for space and silence, we will not become worshippers. The Creator inhabits not temples of stone, but the praise of people, the worship of those who believe and belong to him-her. In fact, even inert rock worships.

Is it enough to say, “I am quoting from the BIBLE, this is worship. This hymn is from the HYMNBOOK, of course its worship. We’re in a church, aren’t we? Can’t you see that this is a religious activity, you querulous infidel?”

Well, yes, I can see a religious activity; it’s just that God seems somewhat absent from it, all the religous noise has made it impossible to hear anything of value.

When I listen to the story, the pain or the joy, of another, I create space. When I hold my response, when I am patient, so as to give them time to formulate their thoughts, their questions, I create space. When I listen to the birds, the wind, when I watch the ripples in the grass, I create space. When I allow myself or another to question, verbally or otherwise, without rushing in with a solution, I create space.

When I lay a table with a vase of freshly picked flowers, I create an environment for community. When I allow an instrument to reverberate, to let it interact with its environment, when I don’t impose a response on one hearing my songs, when I let words breathe, and my ego steps back, when I am lost in the wonder of a child’s imagination, when I take a path less worn, honor my curiosity, when I listen, look, or savor, a space emerges which begins to give way to a worthy worship.

Listen to “Space in the World”, off my album “The middle of it all”.

Find out more.

30 seconds of quality silence is greater than 60 minutes of sound.

In the context of producing my 2nd album, I was reflecting on the power of silence, and the ubiquitous nature of noise and sound. Soulmate RuZl has always used the term “gritty” in talking about productions which really stand out, and he feels very strongly about reducing ideas to their bare “gritty” minimum. I have never disagreed, but in practice I find it really hard to par down the large wadge of ideas which come my way.  

As a result of the awareness that less is more, I am constantly thinking, perhaps even with some anxiety, about the value of silence. And what I realise is that in music where silence is observed and allowed, I remember that music for the space it created. Even 30 seconds of low level sound on 60 minutes of music leaves me with the impression of a spatial album, such is the currency of quietude. 

What is musical space? It is not a simple as saying, where the decibel levels are lower, i.e. where the volume is down or off. It can also be created by simpler harmonic structures, production which uses contrast, loud and soft, low and high, uses horizontal space in stereo or surround, and also by repetition. There is something that lets you have your attention back, lets you relax, if the music kicks into groove – this practice, ladies and gents, is known as “Dancing”.

Notable spatial music includes Biosphere, Bill Evans, Brian Eno (Ambient Music etc), John Michael Talbot (well he would wouldn’t he having taken the vows), Paul Simon, Nick Drake, and parts of Peter Gabriel.

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