Christopher Bono is more than a musician; He’s more a visionary artist who handles all aspects of his music and its presentation. He is well known for being the founder of ambient post-rock group Ghost Against Ghost, as well as for his record label Our Silent Canvas. Presently, Bono’s primary endeavour is the experimental ensemble NOUS that endeavours to build communal music relationships to collectively discover new methods of creating works of art. Each “installment" of the project focuses on a different concept in which Bono enlists a separate set of musicians to work with.
The project is named NOUS because of the term’s double meaning. Nous is the French word for ”we” or ”us” and within philosophical tradition, it is at times likened to intellect and used to describe that aspect of the mind which is essential for understanding what is true or what is real. The idea for NOUS came about after Bono had completed work on his full-length orchestral work Bardo. Bardo required two years of hard work which motivated him to investigate other approaches to creating music rather than traditional, conventional methods.
At the beginning of December, Bono revealed the second NOUS album titled Nous II. The nine-song journey was naturally the follow-up to Nous I, with both recordings featuring the exact same lineup of talented musicians. What differentiates Nous II from its predecessor, however, is Bono’s attempt to take the project further into the worlds of post-rock and ambient music. The album stays true to the spirit of spontaneity introduced by Nous I, but this time the compositions contain more melodic and groove-oriented experimentation. Bono has continued to work relentlessly on NOUS as his primary musical project, with Nous III due out on February 28th.
To get into the whole mindset that is NOUS, and discuss in greater detail Nous II, we spoke with Bono about the album, how he successfully harnesses spontaneity in his songwriting, and the risks of experimental music-making.
I have listened to some of the tracks on your new release Nous II and wow, between the electronic, percussion and classical arrangements, this is some of the most original and musically diverse music I’ve ever heard. How do you bring about such a diverse range of musical elements and make them fit together?
Christopher Bono: “First off, thank you for the nice ’wow’ and thank you for the interview. NOUS definitely explores a wide range of genres, really better defined as sound exploration. The key factor I would say is the wonderfully talented group of musicians that came together to create the first installment of the NOUS project. They primarily come from the NYC improvisational music scene and the contemporary classical scene with the addition of the treasure of Thor Harris from Austin, Texas.
As players and writers, we’ve all been steeped in a huge amount of varied listening out of interest, necessity and the desire to consistently improve our skills. I think the majority of the NOUS influences come from listening to the gamut of rock, world, classical, experimental and jazz. For myself, it arrives from an interest in writing in these various textures and styles, I’m assuming for a lot of the players they also have probably played over the length of their careers in many projects that explore these various styles.”
Unlike many other artists, I would say Nous defies all genre labeling because your music just covers such a wide range of territory. How would you characterize your music for someone curious for a description of it?
Bono: “Labels are and will remain to be a challenge for groups in the ’in between.’ For lack of a better term, I tell people experimental or experimental rock. But I also dislike ’experimental’ because it’s so vague, so it’s usually better to explain it in a chain of hyphenated genres like we use in our bio.”
I’m assuming Nous II took a significant amount of time to write and compose. How long did it take for you to write and create this expansive piece of music?
Bono: “Actually, I wrote all the cellular ideas for three albums in about a month. When you bring together players this talented, they don’t need much information to make magic, all you need is a starting point and something interesting is bound to come out in a short amount of time.”
Nous II was released on December 6th, 2019.
From what I’ve heard thus far, on Nous II there is a good amount of a post-rock element, but also large segments of electronics and classical music, as I mentioned. Of those three genres, what were you first drawn to as a musician?
Bono: “I started out in rock, began incorporating electronics early on, and increasingly moved into classical before I began to drift back to rock with Ghost Against Ghost, now I’m zig-zagging back and forth between rock, folk, ambient, electronic, improvisational and classical. Though this year I’m trying to tie up a bunch of projects in the production queue to get back to classical, which I would say is where my heart lies more and more with age.”
The sounds and progressions in the music come about so spontaneously that I’d say your music leaves the listener guessing as to what’s going to come next. How do you maintain such spontaneity in your songwriting?
Bono: “The original intention of NOUS, before a note was written or played, was just to study and explore improvisation from as many angles as I could think of. As I was planning and scheduling the project I was listening to a lot of African and world music as well as noise and experimental music from the ‘50s onward, particularly Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus and John Coltrane’sFree(er) jazz albums.
So when writing the seed ideas, there were some songs that had specific structures and traditional melody lead sheets, while some were visual suggestions (geometric mandalas), or little aleatoric cells inspired by Terry Riley and other minimalist composers, and then conceptual cues such as ‘spend three minutes imagining the moment of the Big Bang, then when the timer goes off play without thinking.’ That was the impetus for ‘World Map One’ for instance.
There was something like 78 ideas written out, but we only ended up using probably 20-30. So, depending on the track the spontaneity is extremely variant, sometimes it’s close to complete momentary freedom, and sometimes it’s improvised within specific limitations. Each track exists somewhere on that spectrum from chaos to order, and each track has a unique characteristic depending on where it lay in that spectrum.”
When you first got to work on Nous II, what were your expectations for this work? And would you say those expectations have been fulfilled?
Bono: “As mentioned above, the expectations were just to explore improvisation within the polarities of chaos and order. Yes, in hindsight, though it’s of course not a commercial success, I am very proud of how well we were able to explore those original intentions. There were some surprising unexpected results though, things that I’ve spent a long time processing after the fact, and that have informed my own work since that period. There were unexpected insights into social order and group dynamics that I did not anticipate. By introducing the ideas of chaos and order over the spectrum of improvisation, as group leader, I also was unknowingly introducing an experiment in group governance, from anarchy to autocrat. Some of these results were particularly personally illuminating and have altered some of my own views on politics and social interaction in subtle, yet remarkable ways.”
With such experimental songwriting, do you ever get concerned about running off course or even getting too experimental?
Bono: “Not really. I know parts of it are unlistenable for many people, but I knew this was not going to be a commercial project from the get-go and would primarily appeal to adventurous and willing listeners. The idea at the time was to go to the far side of experimental within the frameworks set. Within those frameworks, I’d say we were off course at times, but in a way off course was on course. One thing I’ve learned about the creative process is that it is important not to judge the quality of the experience at the time. Sometimes, with distance, those moments when you thought everything was awful may turn out to be some of the most special and interesting moments with the change of perspective that occurs over time.”
Of the nine tracks on Nous II what would you say were some of the more challenging songs to write and complete?
Bono: “Hmm. I’d say probably ’Here In My Chest It Is What It Is’ and ’Look Again at that Dot.’ ’Here In My Chest It Is What It Is’ because it had a somewhat complex score of written cellular motifs with a set of rules to guide the player through, so it just took the longest to internalize. This would be an example of a guided improvisation further to the ’order’ side of the spectrum. And ’Look Again at that Dot’ and some of the other tracks on Nous I and upcoming Nous III (untitled as of now) because they incorporated playing with electronic cells in Ableton Live and that always tethers things in cool, but sometimes unnatural ways.”
Now Nous II includes the same lineup of Nous that worked on your debut release. Would you say that this is the permanent lineup for Nous and will remain this way on an ongoing basis?
Bono: “No, we’ve already done a new incarnation of NOUS in 2018 that will be a huge release (in terms of material). I have one more album with this first lineup, then a very cool album with ambient legend Laraaji and this group. In 2018 I did a special NOUS project that was centered on a collaboration between myself and iconic jazz vibraphonist Karl Berger (founder of Creative Music Studio (CMS), Ornette Coleman, Don Cherry) where we brought in sixteen different musicians, primarily from the jazz world like Billy Martin, Ira Coleman and others but also a few non-jazz players from surprising bands and backgrounds. It’s a completely different lineup and way of exploring improvisation. Karl came into the scene in the 1950s and ’60s and literally played with everyone, so I saw our collaboration as one of learning from and honoring the elders of the improvisation tradition.”
Aside from the five permanent members of Nous, Nous II brings together several collaborators and special guests. How did these various musicians come to contribute to this recording? Were they handpicked for their specific talents?
Bono: “It really became a friend of a friend kind of thing. I would ask friends about specific instruments we were looking for, drummer, guitar etc… and then they would suggest someone whom I would get to know, then after asking this new person for a role they would suggest someone else, and the network just spread until completion. The string players came in as one group through their affiliation with the ACME ensemble. I knew Clarice Jensen (cello) and she pretty much brought in the classical players. They are all exceptional players; it was an honor to make this music with them. I’d say that alone is the single greatest joy of what NOUS has become.”
With the release of the album imminent, do you have plans to take Nous II out on the road and play to live audiences?
Bono: “Unfortunately, not at this time. I did a festival show and a short tour with NOUS last year which was a lot of fun, but my wife and I just our first child this year so I’m focusing more on enjoying fatherhood, finishing off producing ten albums or so for Our Silent Canvas, and composing some new multi-media material for the upcoming years.”