Artist: Jan Koekepan
Keywords: ambient, ambient electronic, dark ambient, electronic ambient, electronica
Walt Whitman once asked, “To me the sea is a continual miracle; The fishes that swim–the rocks–the motion of the waves–the ships, with men in them, What stranger miracles are there?”
Mr. Whitman, the answer to your question has arrived. Depths by Jan Koekepan is the miracle you were looking for.
I came across this delightfully nautical masterpiece in the mysterious corners of irc. The benevolent musical creature known as Koekepan is a regular at one of the music production channels I frequent. Like a wise merman, with trident in hand, sitting on a rock protruding from the sea, Koekepan patiently listens to songs and works in progress of all the sailors who arrive to his rock in search of his musical advice and wisdom. This is no ordinary musical creature. This is a creature that is always willing to share an ear, a helping hand, and a good ol’ hearty chuckle.
One day as I was out to sea, I saw Koekepan sitting majestically on his favorite rock waving his non-trident-holding hand in the air, beckoning me to swim up to him. He had something special to share with me. It was the bandcamp link to his new album, Depths. I thanked him very much, copied the link, dove back into the water, and swam back to my favorite buoy to paste in the link and listen. After the first listen my sailor life was changed forever. I now became a sailor with a muscle-clad desire to tell people about this amazing concept album from the wise merman on the rock.
As I was starting to share the tale of Jan Koekepan’s Depths, I found that the best way for me to explain Depths is to just say ‘Listen to Depths by Jan Koekepan, it’s the best ambient album you’ll hear all year, maybe even this century, here’s the link.’
You see, I’m just a simple sailor with simple words. I realize I lack elegance. But that’s okay, I know of a wise merman that will generously share all the delicious knowledge of what one can know about Depths. He’ll even use the tips of his royal trident to pierce through the delicious pieces of knowledge, hold them up to the sun for a nice warm cook, and then lower it down to your head so you can enjoy eating his perfectly cooked knowledge. Kinda like eating off of a giant fork. He’s careful not to poke you with it too.
The following quotes underneath each of the song titles of Depths are not from Mr. Walt Whitman. They’re from someone much better. They’re from Mr. Jan Koekepan.
“Well, obvious track is obvious, I guess. It’s an opening to plummeting down through depths. The first step is to hit the surface. Splash.”
“I used the KORG Kross to sequence itself, but also my volcas for those sounds. That tinkling, falling arpeggio that heralds the splash? That’s a Volca FM. Classic FM sound, too.”
“Splashdown is the first track on the album, but not actually the first one that I wrote. That distinction belongs to Twilight.”
“When I wrote it, I had in mind a bathyscaphe or similar vessel being let down from a ship, to drift down into the waters. So the track starts with a splash, and then settles as the waters take hold.”
“Waves actually took me a long time, and I got very frustrated.”
“I did Waves on the KORG Krome (yes, I have two affordable KORG workstations). The Krome is in some ways easier, because it has a touchscreen with a piano roll, on which you can draw automations, and it has more powerful, flexible effects than the Kross.”
“I had several false starts, and I would realize that I was going nowhere, and then I’d ditch my scribblings and start fresh. Interesting thing was, I guess, to get that wavelike swaying feeling, I used 6/8 time. It’s hard, perhaps, to tell because it’s not an overtly rhythmic piece, but it’s in there.”
“Waves still feels incomplete to me, unless I listen to the whole thing. There’s so much space in the arrangement, but it needs to be there. I am a proponent of the japanese concept of ma, of artistic negative space, of emptiness in music. It means that I will never make Top 40 radio. That’s OK.”
“Photic, I changed direction completely. I’d been so frustrated with composing Waves that I knew I needed to change direction, so I went to VirtualANS. VirtualANS is very good for doing layers of sound, and the photic zone is so productive, in the ocean, that I knew I would have a lot of things to represent. Plankton, fish, whales, everything.
VirtualANS has this noise option, which produces that sort of warbling feeling.
I exploited that, and faded it in and out to lend a feeling of the texture of light, and it also does these amazing pure tones that I used to represent (in my head) shafts of light penetrating the waters.”
“Because VirtualANS gives me a view of the spectrogram of the music, I used it to explicitly emphasise deeper tones as the tune progressed, to reflect moving down through the photic zone. Definitely a tune that rewards a setup with good bass delivery. Definitely a tune that can cause fights with your downstairs neighbours.”
“Twilight was basically all KORG Kross. I used the BCR2000 to automate the layers of sound in the Kross, and read those MIDI instructions into the sequencer of the Kross, so that I could render it all pure and clean from the Kross itself. So everything, down to the panning on the beeps, was hand-entered or played into the sequencer.”
“The beeping is reminiscent of machinery intruding into the vast murkiness below. It’s a definitely electronic sound. On the other hand, it’s a very lonely sound. It contributes to the feeling of space, and of spaciousness. Some might think of it as a more space music kind of track, but there are strong correspondences between oceanic and space exploration, and I am comfortable with that.”
“The Bathyal zone is the zone below the photic zone. Its upper layer is considered the twilight zone, but once you’re beyond that you’re in the bathyal zone proper. And it’s dark. This is the regular, deep ocean. Very few living things. Big whales, giant squid, angler fish, things like that.”
“This one was also done on the Krome. The arpeggio was intended to represent the slight bioluminescence of the creatures that live here, but also the comparative emptiness. The lushness represents the currents, the depths, the space. The vocal patches that I used I tried to use to represent space as well.”
“Abyssal is seriously deep ocean. Literally, you’re in the Abyss – like that horrible movie. The Abyss is largely empty, and full of crushing pressures. It’s an incredibly harsh, cold environment.”
“Sound travels strangely under those conditions, and an earthquake or volcano under the sea can rumble audibly, very far off. Abyssal is supposed to be the first really alien layer – although some of the sounds hark back to the earlier layers, to be in keeping with the theme.”
“Hadal is the Hadal zone – and that’s even deeper than Abyssal. It’s the zone that’s so far down, basically only ocean trenches are that deep. And again, it’s supposed to be alien, and even a little alienating”
“I don’t tend to use rhythm a lot. I’m not a stranger to it, but rhythm doesn’t work for me the same way that harmony does. The rhythm was intended to represent less biological activity, as opposed to geological and chemical, and also the drift of marine snow that gradually covers the bottom of the ocean, and is one of the most important nutrient factors.”
“I think that one may have been all Krome. I don’t think I added any other synths to that.”
“The Demersal zone is the area just above the sea floor. So it’s not actually the sea floor itself, but extends a way above it; the area in which the sea floor has a direct influence, you might say. There are lots of fish that live in the demersal zone, or visit it regularly, and also plants and so on, because technically the demersal zone doesn’t matter how deep it is; it could be all the way up near waves, or down at the bottom of the ocean.”
“Demersal was sunvox. There’s a definite waltz influence in Demersal. That was to reflect the sort of swaying this way and that of water over the bottom. I like to break up the feel, to reflect the diversity of the zone. It’s everything from coral reefs to jagged seamounts.”
“Benthic was where I got back to the Krome. I wanted to get some more real instrument patches into the sound in Benthic.”
“What I did was to very slowly automate up the speed, so there’s a gradual tempo increase across the progress of the track. It was a gentle, but persistent move. As I said, the idea was crawling your way up and out, along the ocean floor. Almost, in a way, a sort of musical homage to Ravel’s Bolero.”
“Another very effective thing (well, to me) was how I gently brought in the bass strings, to lend depth to the texture. That’s around minute 4. I will add that this, again, showcased the Krome’s strengths to me.”
Bonus Koekepan Quotes
“As strong as I think Depths is (and it is strong – I surprise myself when I listen to it again): if you enjoyed Depths, go back and listen to Colony Flight as well. OK, self-promotion, ego, etc. etc. but the fact is that Colony Flight was in its own way a strong statement, just a more science-fictiony one. Both albums (well, Colony Flight is really a double album) reflect motion, and a travel to a destination that is different from the origin.”
“My inspirations for concept albums – well, I’d say (and this is a hell of a cliche, but it’s true) start with Pink Floyd. Pink Floyd really illustrated to me the idea that a track is OK, but a concept album can convey a whole different level of understanding and complexity.”
“I’m a big fan of narrative in music. If I were to explain why, I’d have to start with the idea that music is a form of art typified by organised sound – and as such, it is not well matched to the role of communicating reasoned argumentation, but is very well placed to expound on feelings and emotions.”
“If I’m going to write an album, it will have a theme, and development, and a series of perspectives as the situation behind the central concept changes.”
Depths, by Jan Koekepan, is available here: http://jankoekepan.bandcamp.com/album/depths