INTERVIEW: Joshua Marquez weaves the world around him into a musical Thesis

Photo Credit: Adonis Morgan

I knew right from the start that Interviewing Philadelphia-based Filipinx-American composer, improviser, and sound artist Joshua Marquez was going to be an exciting affair, the man has a Ph.D. In music composition and I just knew that I had better prepare some key questions in order to draw the most wisdom juice out of his brain, So it is with great pleasure that I bring you a deeply insightful and incommensurably valuable interview with an honest-to-God music intellectual.

His answers hit deeper than any Description I could give you. Joshua Marquez is a musician’s musician, a virtuoso, and a holistic thinker. His newest work, “Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies” is a sonic meditation upon ennui and the non-intentional musicality of life around us in its every expression.

As a music fan, I can’t describe how much I love my job in these instances, and if you are a musician yourself, I really hope you take his words to heart

“Sonic imprints and familiar sounds linger in our ears and are often immediately recognizable to us.  We internally process these sounds and they become part of our memory.  Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies is an attempt to deconstruct these familiar sounds.”

Tell us a little bit about your start in music. Where does it all come from for you?

I started in music at a very young age.  Not as a prodigy, but as a sonic explorer.  As a kid, I played around with tape recorders and made sound collages with all kinds of materials.  From everyday sounds to cheap instruments, I found ways to layer these into texture-based compositions.  I would do this by taking two recording devices (usually cassette tape recorders) with built-in speakers and recording layers with one another.  I would record a layer into the first device and then play it back into the second device while simultaneously performing the next layer on top.  After four or five repetitions, the sound became saturated and interesting.  There was a precariousness to this process (that I still use today) and the most beautiful moments were created by accident.  There was something thrilling about recording and mixing in real time. I recorded a lot of music with a toy guitar that I would tune in strange ways to get interesting resonances.  This is where I began to develop a real fascination with microtones and timbre.

Eventually, I went through school and formally trained in music as a guitarist and composer.  During those years, I was able to challenge myself, but I also lost some of the wonder and magic that I had in my previous sound explorations.  It’s inevitable when you study something so intensely that you begin to be overly critical of your output, but it is important to keep the sense of wonder and exploration alive.  In the last few years, I’ve tried to reclaim that wonder and imbue it into my music – that sense of getting lost in a texture or sound.

Aesthetically, that’s where a lot of my creative output exists, but it comes from a very personal place, too.  As a Filipino-American I occupy this liminal space – this in-betweenness.  Both consciously and subconsciously, my work occupies this liminality.  I became hyper-critical of my creative work as a teenager while simultaneously becoming hyper-aware of my ethnicity.  I find this parallel (or really exactly same) journey to be non-coincidental.  So, as I am in the process of re-discovering my sense of wonder with musical expression, I am also decolonizing myself, as well.  These two processes are very different, but are coexisting within me and informing each other in many ways.  In the same way that I am trying to be comfortable in my own skin, I am trying to be comfortable with my musical expression and make work for myself.  I feel as though my work will more deeply impact others if it more deeply impacts myself.  That honesty in the work radiates through, I think.

Please tell us a bit about the techniques used in the creation of this album. What were the most exotic things you used or went into for this?

Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies takes inspiration from the fleeting, ambient, urban sounds that surround me that often go unnoticed.  Using recordings from a variety of sources such as city traffic or people’s conversations on the street, I synthesized and manipulated these field recordings with a combination of analog and digital techniques and additional music recorded on discarded instruments.  I was able to take small excerpts from these field recordings and manipulate them with processes like granular synthesis.  From there, I was able to harmonize these recordings with one another or play the sounds melodically.  Although somewhat removed from the original recording, the spirit of the field recording remains (i.e. the shuffle of footsteps, the rumble of traffic, or the familiar sound of people talking in a crowded area).

Sonic imprints and familiar sounds linger in our ear and are often immediately recognizable to us.  We internally process these sounds and they become part of our memory.  Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies is an attempt to deconstruct these familiar sounds.  Using tape loops and effects pedals, I splice these sounds together to form a new sonic tapestry made up of aural memories.  Additional music was performed on found instruments that were discarded and pulled from the trash (including synthesizers, guitars, and various percussion instruments).  These sound-making devices were never meant to be heard again, relegated to memory.  At some point, living memory of something (or sounds) ceases to exist.  So, we are left with whatever documentation exists, however imperfect.  Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies attempts to capture these moments as though they were a distant memory, echoes of something that sounded in the past.

To me, the most interesting techniques that I used to create this aren’t necessarily that out-there or new.  For some of the textures, I took some 1/8” (cassette) or 1/4/” (reel-to-reel) tape and crinkled it into a ball so that it did not make pristine contact with the recording head (and, eventually, the playback head).  To put simply, I am manufacturing imperfections with little to no control of the result.  I generally know what it will sound like, but the nuance of these sounds is up to chance.  This allows me to not overthink or over-work something.  Beyond that, I recorded with some broken instruments or prepared instruments in unique ways.  For instance, I placed paper clips and springs on a cello to elicit a more unusual sound.  Of course, I applied these techniques as I find that they relate to the overall concept of the album and hope that translates to the listener.

I wanted to know about the track titles.  Some, like “Patina” and “Pixels Smiling Back at Me,” are quite obvious, but others like “Brown Bodied in a White Noise” and “Broken Tongue” seem a bit more “loaded”.  What can you tell us about this particular selection of songs and how their titles reflect the overarching themes of the album?

Throughout the album, the titles are related to one or more of album’s themes – deterioration or struggle in the physical world (Patina, Broken Tongue, Brown Bodied in a White Noise), the conflict between the digital and analog world (Pixels Smiling Back at Me, Digital Skin), or existing in a liminal state (And, Yet; The Earth Stood Still for a Brief Moment That Felt Like an Eternity).  Some of the titles are anthropomorphic in their direct reference to certain body parts (“Brown Bodied”, “Pixels Smiling”, “Broken Tongue”, “Digital Skin”).  This all relates to the title of the album Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies.  It’s this idea that we become something and, eventually, something else completely.  For better or worse, a memory morphs into something else.  Sometimes, we alter a memory to deal with trauma or it fades over time.  These concepts of alteration or assimilation ring true in the titles, but also the process of composition and aesthetics.  I took recordings and transformed them by capturing sounds from the physical and processing them with both analog and digital methods.

On the topic of trauma, tracks like “Brown Bodied in a White Noise” are a not-so-subtle reference to my experiences of racism in the United States.  These experiences are memories, too – they linger and stay with us.  Some fade and some shape us into the people we are today.  I don’t think this album would be complete without those feelings, for me, at least.

Photo Credit: Adonis Morgan

On that same note, the album’s title “Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies” is plenty arcane as it is and I’m not sure I grasp it.

In the process of composing this music, I was thinking a lot about how we remember things.  From the distant past to the most recent of moments, we recall them with certain sensory triggers.  Some person is eventually replaced by their lingering ghost – this memory of them that clings on to us with absolute certainty.  It’s almost as if they are still here – simultaneously vivid and noncorporeal.  Eventually, this feeling fades and we are left with stories – words.  In the best case scenarios, we are left with documentation of a higher fidelity – pictures, videos, recordings.  So, as a ghost will eventually replace a body, so will words eventually replace that ghost.  Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies. 

Although many of the titles refer to some sort of corporeal entity, the spirit of the album is more generalized.  I tried to capture the human essence by recording spaces occupied by humans, without recording any one person.  Most of the source material came from crowded spaces (cafés, street traffic, etc…).  My recording devices were capturing these fleeting moments without any attempt to preserve them in their intended state.  I merely wanted to catch some sounds as they travelled through space.  No conversation is discernible.  No sound is easily identifiable.  The sounds captured floated through the space like a spectre. 

Once I began composing with these sounds, I was able to weave them into a new sonic tapestry.  I was able to take these moments and tell a new story from the fragments that I collected.  These short-lived moments gained new life in their altered state.  When I listen back to this album, I try to remember when and where I was when I collected these recordings.  What I’m left with is the new creation that came out of it.

As someone with a Ph.D. in Composition. What is your take on the current state of music? What can we learn from the sounds and “trends” we hear both in and out of the mainstream? 

The current state of music is different from anything we’ve experienced so far.  I’m sure that may be said in any other artistic or creative field, as well.  We are existing in a space where almost anything is possible to access.  With streaming services, social media, and other platforms, we are able to consume most things in an instant.  As artists, we are also pressured to create for this new way of consumption and navigate our relationship to our art and how we may sustain ourselves to continue creating. 

A positive outcome of this new digital space is that, in some ways, we have seemingly democratized music – anyone may release their music to be consumed.  If we look at this through a utopian lens, this means that we all have equal opportunity to share our creative work with anyone who wants to explore it.  One may assume that we have done away with gatekeepers, in this dream scenario.  However, this is not entirely the case.  Tastemakers and gatekeepers still exist, but there is an added financial pressure to release music for “exposure” with little to no compensation.  Although this is not a new concept, it seems more hyperbolic than ever before.  Streaming platforms pay royalties per stream, but those are currently very low.  With the convenience of streaming music on our phones and devices, there is little incentive for listeners to purchase a physical copy of an album or pay for a digital copy.  Support for artists is, perhaps, at an all-time low.  Artists are making far less than we were even 10 or 15 years ago and in this hyper-capitalist system, it is hard to sustain our practice.

I say all of this because it directly affects the aesthetic and practice of music, right now.  Because the music industry has transformed, so have we.  As artists, we also have the ability to consume a lot of music in an instant and, therefore, we have the convenience of inspiration in an instant, but also the burden of competition in an instant.  There is often this mentality that we need to constantly be creating and releasing work in order to be relevant.  Social media has really amplified this feeling. 

Although I hesitate to bring funding into the conversation, it is worth stating that working artists are really struggling right now.  This struggle really impacts the decisions that we make.  I feel as though I can hear that struggle (or an attempt to escape from that struggle), regardless of genre.  Trends may come and go, but the feeling of struggle (or the absolute desire to escape it) is very prominent in music right now.  Nostalgia is very trendy right now.  Again, I think that has to do with wanting to escape the burdens of contemporary culture.  At the same time many of us want to progress forward, we also have a longing for a time before technology ruled our lives.  I feel as though this concept has greatly influenced my work.  I utilize a lot of “vintage” technologies so as to not be inundated with all of the newest technological advances that we have readily available at our fingertips.  The resurgence of older styles and the embrace of a previous generation’s aesthetic (processed through our own lens, of course) is nothing new.  Eventually, many things come back into fashion.  Perhaps we are just somewhere in that cycle, right now.

I’ve read that you aim to “present music through a decolonized lens.”  One may say that this is about removing, reinventing, or subverting as many elements of Euro-centric composition and arrangement as possible from the music-making process. But what does this all mean in practice and why is it important to you?

As an artist of the Filipino diaspora, I am in a constant state of decolonization.  The Philippines has a long history of colonial struggle and conflict with imperialism.  Some of that history has to do with where I currently live, in the United States.  That history is embodied within me and many generations of Filipinos.  It is important, to me, that I know where I come from.  That understanding includes the struggle and conflict that is embodied within me.  Understanding culture and a sense of self also includes the contemporary and what comes next.  To me, decolonizing myself is not entirely removing a brutal history of colonization and imperialism – there is no way to rewrite history.  Instead, there is a way to work through trauma and acknowledge the pain and suffering that still exists today.  Especially with my music, decolonizing is not removing the influence of Western domination (in the Philippines, in particular).  Nor do I want to pit two cultures against one another.  Rather, I want to honour the cultural history and find ways to move forward by valuing things that have been devalued, undervalued, or erased due to colonization.  Removing the burden of colonization allows a more liberated expression.

Much of my music relies heavily on non-traditional sounds and extended or experimental techniques that reach beyond imperial or sovereign boundaries.  Of sonic interest to me, right now, is the use of discarded materials and waste (i.e. broken instruments, banal objects, found sounds).  Waste belongs to everyone – it knows no allegiance.  We all contend with waste, daily.  Of course, there is an incredibly negative impact on our world, environmentally, to our waste culture.  Material waste is a byproduct of overconsumption in a similar way that colonization is the result of overconsumption – the need for more and more and more.  Acknowledging these concepts and weaving them into my work is a way for me, personally, to heal. 

What’s on your 2023 agenda after the release of “Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies”?

I have a few album releases scheduled for release later in 2023.  The next large project I am releasing is an album titled Recycled Soundscapes, which is the culmination of my year-long residency as RAIR (Recycled Artist in Residency).  For Recycled Soundscapes, I recorded the everyday sounds of the recycling and waste processing centre Revolution Recovery in Philadelphia, PA.  I also created instruments out of waste materials and even salvaged some fully and semi-functional musical instruments that are used on the album.  Recycled Soundscapes will release later in 2023 on my own label, Bahay Records, on 12-inch vinyl LP in addition to digital streaming.  I’m excited that the record will be pressed on an “eco-mix” of recycled vinyl, which feeds directly into the “recycling” concept of the album.  Musically, it relies on similar processes to Words Replace Ghosts Replace Bodies, but also features a lot of disintegrating tape loops.  Like the sound materials, the 1/4” and 1/8” tape that I used to record this project was salvaged from the waste site, too. 

Additionally, I have at least one collaborative record of improvisations planned for release.  Most likely, I will be releasing an album of solo-prepared guitar improvisations, as well.  I have a lot of recordings that I’m excited about and just need to find the time to prepare them and find the right space for them to exist.