Morgan Hendry (interview)

Mechanical engineering and its effects on music are not a familiar topic to me. I would most likely never have even thought of the connections there between if I had not discovered the work of drummer, field recording artist and engineer Morgan Hendry. Morgan recently released the album ‘Longcove’ which in his own words is “an empathetic call to fight climate change”. The album is composed with sounds Morgan collected through an 8 year period during which time the world climate changed drastically as Morgan told me via email:

“I conceived of Longcove 18 years ago in 2000, while I was still in high school. At that time, it was still very expensive to record remotely, and so the idea sat dormant until I returned to Long Cove in 2010. By then, I was armed with a field recorder and a decade’s worth of experience in writing and performing music. The record was completed in February 2018.

From a climate change perspective, nine out of those 18 years have been the hottest on record since we started tracking our climate. Five of those occurred since 2010 when I began recording the source material for this record.

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Photo from a climatecentral.org article from January 18th, 2018.

For the Earth, this is a change of staggering speed. For human beings, it appears slow, playing out over decades. Our perception of human-scale time (80-100 years) vs. geologic time was one early concept for Longcove, and it’s one of the big reasons why establishing consensus on climate change is so difficult. If something isn’t an immediate problem, we tend to ignore it. The thing is, we are seeing the effects of climate change every day – we just have to recognize them for what they are. From the time Trump pulled out of the Paris Agreement to the release of the record, I had to evacuate my family from Hurricane Irma while visiting my mother in Florida and watch my son cough on the acrid smoke that drought-induced wildfires pumped into the skies of Los Angeles. Climate change is very real, and making events like this more and more destructive.

The withdrawal from the Paris Accord shifted the direction of this piece of music from an abstract study of time to a statement on why we need to fight back against this global threat. The other events (Irma, the wildfires) justified my decision to speak out on this through my art.”

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Photo by Robert Hendry

Before delving further into politics I asked Morgan to tell me a bit more about his background in music and, interestingly, in engineering. Since the 4th grade Morgan was introduced to both the drums as well as mechanical engineering and before making activist field recording compositions he toured both the US and internationally with his band.

“I’ve been involved in music since I took up drums and percussion in the fourth grade. I’ve been in a number of projects throughout my music career, most notably the instrumental rock band Beware of Safety, where I played drums and keyboards for over a decade. Our reach far exceeded our humble beginnings, and our music took us all over the US and parts of Europe between 2005 and 2016. During my time with the band, I did a number of smaller projects under my own name and the moniker The Laterite Road.

When Beware of Safety went on hiatus in 2016, I started thinking about what my new musical direction would be. That’s something I’m still working on, but while I’m doing it, I didn’t want to pen myself in with an identity that might not fit my future work. As such, I moved forward performing and releasing music under my own name. It feels honest, transparent, and uncluttered, which is what I think I need at this stage of my musical journey. 

Some recent work includes several live outdoor modular synthesis performances with LA’s Modular on the Spot and my latest release, titled Longcove.”

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Photo by Robert Hendry

“I’ll first say that I receive no compensation or endorsement from my employer for my artistic work, and my opinions are my own. A lot of musicians lament not being able to live off their art, but, honestly, I think you can gain a huge amount of inspiration from non-musical activities. Engineering and music are truly two halves of myself, both of which began in the fourth grade. My grandfather was a drummer in the Navy Band during WWII, student of jazz great Cozy Cole, and my first drum teacher. My father is a mechanical engineer, and his work inspired me to go down a technical path. Both people played heavily into who I became as a person. That said, it took a misguided attempt to “get serious about engineering” and cut music from my life in the sophomore year of college to understand how critical music was to me. 

Engineering affects my art both aesthetically and in how I practice it. Sonically, I’m drawn towards, harsher sounds, polyrhythms, and phasing, which I think comes from my mathematical background and my lifetime exposure to rooms full of machinery operating out of sync. I love to bring these types of influences into my music, either through sampling, composition, or synthesis. I’ve always enjoyed exploring “perfect imperfection” – beautiful sounds out of time, or broken sounds perfectly in time.

Engineering is a way of logically attacking problems, and it has a way of getting into all parts of your life. I was deeply involved in flight projects, spacecraft that had been approved for development and launch, during the time Beware of Safety was actively writing and touring nationally and internationally. The former activity demanded a lot of time, and the latter required me to play drums at my peak. I did a very deep dive into the practice of drumming, and created ways that I could prioritize the maintenance of certain techniques while pushing my drumming vocabulary during the band’s writing process. It was a very focused way to keep music alive in my life during a time that it might have fallen by the wayside.”

Although not all of Morgan’s music has been politically driven from the start, he watched one of his compositions grow more political as the recording location turned to dust in the 2017 wildfires that wrecked parts of California. Now, all that is left besides memories of the cabin where Morgan proposed to his wife and where countless people visited to experience the peaceful nature outside Los Angeles, are Morgan’s recordings from his 2016 album Ojai Drones.

“I worry constantly that Longcove will become something similar – a sonic record of a lost place. Much like photography, I think that field recording can serve as a way to comment on what a place is, was, or will be. I remember one vivid example of this, as told by Douglas Adams. While the story of the recording process is absolutely hilarious, the outcome is tragic: the freshwater dolphins Adams described are now presumed to be functionally extinct, or, at minimum, extremely endangered.”

 

Field recordings and experimental compositions are perhaps not the most commercially viable way of getting one’s message out. Furthermore, it seems that protest music as such is not something all audiences want to hear. What protest music does not have is the numbing factor. Or at least that is what I imagine the reason to be. If music is to obviously political or to ‘radical’ then it seems like the attention fades. Some artists of course manage to grow to such a level that they can at one point make a very popular political song as recently seen in the case of Childish Bambino’s This Is America music video. Morgan is completely aware of these and more barriers he faces with an album such as Longcove.

“The democratization of music technology has enabled anyone to make brilliant art today, but will anyone actually hear it amongst the plethora of music released every day? If heard, will they actually listen to it? Understand it? Act on it? There are huge barriers on all fronts.

Longcove faced an uphill battle from the start. While instrumental music has grown in popularity, it is still nowhere near as recognized as lyrical compositions. Furthermore, someone listening to Longcove without context on its composition or intent would have no idea what it was “about”. That isn’t bad from a pure music standpoint, but from a political one, compositions like Longcove might not be the most effective means to get a specific message across on their own. Finally, when you bill a composition as “political”, you immediately attract those who agree with you and dispel those that don’t. The trick is bringing everyone together in a safe environment to have a productive dialogue. The best art will accomplish that on its own, but I think Longcove fails in that regard.

I know artists and institutions who are merging data with music to get it out to a broader audience. I applaud the effort, but believe that you are, at best, just drawing in the undecideds. Don’t get me wrong – that is both really important and really challenging to do. For Longcove, however, I was more interested in creating something to approach climate change deniers. I am appalled at the anti-fact culture that has taken root in the US, but I also realize that you cannot change the playing field you’re on. As such, I was very clear to keep data out of Longcove (the composition). As an engineer who has worked on Earth Science missions, that was a challenge. My hope is that someone will be drawn in first by the composition and then want to learn more about it. If I did my job right, that curiosity will lead them to the facts about climate change, an understanding of how it plays into their life, and inspire them to take action.

While I avoided data in the composition, the promotional campaign for Longcove didn’t shy away from my stance on the issue. I’m not trying to bait and switch anyone with my approach: my position on climate change is that it is real and that we must act on it. Time will tell if Longcove-like approaches are successful. If not, back to the drawing board.”

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Photo by Skyler King

When I asked Morgan about his activism outside the music he replied that his job as an engineer has always been his way of activism. He has chosen to put his talents towards issues that “better humanity as a whole” rather than going into the defence sector, as so many of his peers. “The aerospace industry is dominated by defense work… I have many friends and colleagues that choose to work on defense projects, and I don’t begrudge them that at all. As long as human nature exists, that work will never disappear entirely. That said, when you choose to engage in creating tools of war, you empower those who look to exploit other people and countries, even if your goal is purely national defense. Technology is neutral, but technology applied is not. As scientists and engineers, we can take that power away, or at least diminish it so that diplomacy reins over force.

This is something that Norbert Wiener talked about in his letter “A Scientist Rebels” (1947), which was extremely inspiring to me as an undergraduate engineer:

“In the past, the comity of scholars has made it a custom to furnish scientific information to any person seriously seeking it. However, we must face these facts: the policy of the government itself during and after the war, say in the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has made it clear that to provide scientific information is not a necessarily innocent act, and may entail the gravest consequ­ences. One therefore cannot escape reconsidering the estab­lished custom of the scientist to give information to every person who may enquire of him. The interchange of ideas which is one of the great traditions of science must of course receive certain limitations when the scientist becomes an arbiter of life and death…The experience of the scientists who have worked on the atomic bomb has indicated that in any investigation of this kind the scientist ends by putting unlimited powers in the hands of the people whom he is least inclined to trust with their use…”

-Norbert Wiener

In regards to climate change, I thought that it was enough to work diligently in the background towards a better understanding of our Earth, and to trust that those who dictate policy would do right by our findings. Unfortunately that is no longer enough. Facts and logic are being forcibly suppressed by our government as we talk about climate change. I really struggled to formulate a response to what is happening in the US right now, and Longcove is really my first foray into “active” activism. It’s hard for me to get too deeply involved, however. My institution prides itself on being non-political, and I’m proud of that fact. As scientific observers of the universe, we need to be objective in our quest for truth and understanding. We need to be willing to reevaluate our beliefs based on new facts every day. That objectiveness is used by deniers to suggest that there is no consensus on climate change, which is categorically false: ~97% of scientists believe that it is fact. So, as an individual who has worked very hard to help scientists illuminate truth in the Earth Sciences, I have limits on my ability to stand by while lies and misdirection are used to formulate policy that will affect every person on the planet. 

So what is more important in the long run? Do I keep working in the background to support missions that uncover our place in the universe, our impact on Earth, and increase our ability to survive as a species? Or, should I give up that (very rare) job to advocate directly for an increase in science literacy and for policies that benefit the Earth? I’ll be working that out for the rest of my life, but I’m fortunate to be in a position that is pushing in the right direction regardless of the the specific path I choose.

If one can wander far enough outside the noise of cities and towns then it is possible to hear the wonders that this world holds. It is astonishing. We humans tend to take it for granted though. Journalism has gained a new member of the team in normal citizens who now have a fully equipped journalist tool at hand everywhere they go. The smart phone captures photos, video and sound; one can edit, write and create on the spot and then upload to some of the world’s largest media companies such as Facebook and YouTube. These recordings of the world we live in today are snapshots that years from now will help historians understand the past. Just as the cave paintings of ancients times. Sound has often been forgotten though in safekeeping of places. A photograph speaks louder than a thousand words and even if a sound file can do the same it simply has not been as popular. I imagine it has to do with humans’ attention span. I asked Morgan what the rest of us can do to start protecting the places dear to them, as he has, to save a memory of them for they might all get lost in noise one day.

“I would start by understanding the facts about climate change. Skeptical Science is a great resource for learning and talking about the topic. Next, learn how climate change affects the places that you want to protect. The Weather Channel did a fantastic set of stories called The United States of Climate Change while I was promoting this record. It takes the global issue of climate change and reframes it on a local level for every state in the US. Today, direct connection and relevance is critical for discussing these kinds of complex issues with people. Start small: your family, your friends, your associates, people who trust you. Listen to them above all else and strive for dialogue. Try to understand why they don’t believe what you do, and craft your argument based on that. Don’t just spout facts. When it’s your turn, present your argument calmly. Don’t try to solve it all in one sitting. 

The usual “call your representatives” still applies, but climate change denial is a systemic problem. We have to work from the ground up to build consensus, and then, hopefully, permanent change will come. If our governments fail us in taking action, then we must enact change at the local level.

I thank Morgan for participating and allowing us to spread his message and music. As always I ask if there is anything else he’d like to shout from the rooftops.

“There is a simultaneous and unrelenting attack on the rights of many people around the world. The goal of these attacks is to push us towards chaos, then inaction, then complacency. After weeks like this past one in the US, it’s easy to want to give up. But we can’t. We have to continue to do something. Even if it is as simple as maintaining the lines of communication with people who disagree with your views fights what those in power are currently trying to do.

Halldór, thank you so much for your excellent questions! You are doing a real service by helping artists with a message get their work out to the masses.”

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