Discussing “Multicultural Chamber Music” with Mike Hovancsek

Posted on Oct 12, 2011

Mike Hovancsek is a multi-instrumentalist, visual artist, and writer from Kent, Ohio. In the late 1980s he founded the Pointless Music label, which was devoted to experimental music releases. In his solo work, and with Pointless Orchestra, he recorded and/or performed with many notable members of the world music community.

Mike’s current musical output, which he describes as “multicultural chamber music,” often combines instruments from several different cultures in unique ways. Reviewer Anastasia Pantsios of Cleveland Scene describes his work as “elegant, textured music that sounds spare and understated yet is quite complex.”

With the re-release of “Temporal Angels“, Mike’s entire solo catalog is now available from Infinite Number of Sounds Recording Co. I wrote to Mike recently to talk about his music…

David: I first met you in Cleveland, at the release show for Temporal Angels in 2003. It was a special experience for me as an audience member. What do you remember from that night?

Mike: It was bitter cold that night. Also, half an hour before the performance we found out that our percussionist was too sick to play. We had to come up with new arrangements for several of the pieces minutes before the show started. That was a nice challenge!

I also remember what an enthusiastic and well-informed audience we had that night. People had been listening to my radio interviews and reading the articles about my CD in the papers.

David: You have been making music for a long time. What was the first music you ever recorded?

Mike: When I was eleven years old I decided that I wanted to invent my own form of music. I found a broken reel-to-reel tape machine and modified it many different ways so that I could layer and loop sounds, add delay, play things backwards, and mess with the tape speed. Eventually I had a couple of different tape machines hooked up together, feeding the signal so it would wind its way through each machine separately. I could create all this real-time sonic shrubbery that way. Then, I plugged an electric guitar into the whole mess and experimented with creating textures using a variety of unconventional tunings. A few years later I found out that most of the things I had “invented” were actually done in the 1950s by people like Otto Leuning and Vladimir Ussachevski!

David: What music were you listening to then?

Mike: I listened to a lot of generic, over-produced corporate rock music back then, which I am ashamed to admit!

David: What is your personal favorite piece that you have recorded?

Mike: Whatever I am working on at the moment.

David: What was the best collaborative experience/moment you ever had in a recording session?

Mike: There have been so many. I’m always amazed when I toss some rough ideas at Samuel Salsbury and he runs wild with them on his violin. We usually get something really wonderful in one take. Joe Culley is a lot of fun to work with too. I’m really blessed to work with so many incredible people.

David: You play many exotic instruments: guzheng, waterphone, koto, tambura, etc. What, is your musical education? How did you acquire the techniques to play all these instruments?

Mike: When I was earning my degree in psychology at Kent State University I discovered that the school had an amazing department of ethnomusicology. I studied Chinese and Japanese music there. I often performed in the recital hall and in other concert venues. I also mingled with some pretty amazing musicians from around the world who came to the school to study and teach. In addition to my formal education, I am self-taught on several instruments. Once you learn the logic of a particular instrument it is fairly easy to translate your skills to other instruments in the same classification.

David: What new projects are you working on?

Mike: I am aimlessly recording a few pieces that may eventually end up on a release. I like to casually record a little bit here and there over a long period of time and then cobble together my favorite bits for a release. I know that in the age of downloads people can release their music one piece at a time but I really like the journey that you can take people on with a sequence of pieces. I guess that comes from growing up listing to vinyl records. I’m also working on my yearly film festival and on a lot of visual art. Each creative medium informs the others.