Distant Animals (Daniel Hignell) Makes Music For Your Soul

Photography by Kaleido Shoots

Daniel Hignell who goes by the name Distant Animals has a wide catalog of records he labels as avant-garde. The Brighton, UK based artist first started out as a punk-rocker spouting off left-wing American-centric politics despite being from South England in the mid-90’s at a very young age. Upon the release of his eerily haunting output – Everyday Violence out on Engram Recordings, Daniel talks about violence towards the people of certain class and race, privilege, the Black Lives Matter movement, his influences, creative process, and life during the pandemic.

Anuranon Magazine: Hello Daniel, how are you doing during this pandemic?

Not too bad, all things considering. Juggling childcare, poverty and the collapse of the art-world. 

What first got you into music? When did you start writing/producing – and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I started out in the mid 90’s as a very young punk rocker – I started my first band when I was 14, spouting off left-wing American-centric politics despite being from South England. I took up drumming at around 16, but wasn’t very good, then eventually moved slowly into synthesis and piano over the following decade. I basically wanted to be Jello Biafra up until the age of 22 or so. Then I met a girl and followed her to university, inadvertently discovering the world of the Avant-garde along the way. 

What artists and/or works do you cite as your most influential?

I have never been strong on ‘genre’ music, and find myself enamoured by works that appear to question both the possibility of their chosen form, and the way that form is framed or contextualised by its audience or listener. Whether that is something like The Broadways ‘Broken Star’ – a punk album that almost entirely eschews the idea of verses or choruses in favour of long, caustic political narratives; or Christoph Schlingensief’s ‘Please Love Austria’ – which isn’t a ‘musical’ work at all but rather a piece of astute political theatre; I have always been drawn to the resonant gaps between distinct disciplines. On a more strictly compositional level, the runts of the Darmstadt School and its wider family have always seemed to me the pinnacle of musical idealism, a brief window in time where anything seemed possible and there was actually an audience and enough financial support to explore some truly ground-breaking ideas. Names like Mauricio Kagel, Luigi Nono, Charlemagne Palestine, Max Neuhaus…

How did the name Distant Animals come about?

The name comes from a quote by the philosopher Jacques Ranciere – ‘Distance is not an evil to be abolished but the normal condition of any communication. Human animals are distant animals who communicate through the forest of signs’. It chimes with a lot of my research into the social function of art-making, wherein the act of creation is itself a means of interrogating the space between self and other.

How has your musical journey progressed over time?

My musical outlook has always been shaped by the socio-political possibilities of sound. To begin with, this took the form of a love for Operation Ivy, The Dead Kennedys, NoFX, SNFU… I loved the idea of music as a sort of embodied anarchism. Later, I discovered The Fluxus Movement – and in particular the work of LaMonte Young. I soon realised that this was as ‘punk’ as anything I was currently exploring, perhaps more so. This in turn led to my fascination with certain strands of conceptual and performance art. It’s funny – as I write this it occurs to me that electronic music has always been a means to an end, a way of exploring sonic and social potentiality, rather than something I am drawn to as a genre or specific form. 

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work?

As a rule, the works I feel to be my most incisive, are those that generate the least interest. My Hallow Ground albums, Lines/Weaves/Threads, represent nearly 4 years of research, and I am still immensely proud of them. I was very interested at the time in distilling composition to extremely base elements, and allowing often minor nuances to define the structure of compositions, locating them both as a performance of musical material and a performance of being, on a philosophical level. If that sounds perhaps a little academic, another work that seemed to articulate its point particularly well took the form of an impromptu drunken choir covering Mariah Carey’s ‘Without You. It was the only time I have ever been punched whilst performing..

Can you tall us more about creating Lines/Weaves/Threads? How did the idea come undone?

The idea was to develop an approach to composition that could be applicable to a wide range of processes beyond musical production. I wanted to construct a score that could just as easily be used to perform a piece of music as it could to fix the sink, or go for a walk, or have an argument. I created a wide range of outcomes from the project – art installations, street theatre, land-art sculptures, organised walks, video-art, performance art – and these Lines/Weaves/Threads represent the musical outcomes. In essence, the score uses text to direct a performer to undertake certain actions, without prescribing the interface or otherwise limiting the context in which such actions could take place. Future actions are built upon and determined by the outcome of the previous actions, allowing the work to develop in a somewhat organic, autonomous fashion.

What do you usually start with when working on a new piece? Do you always work on a new track with an album in mind? Or do you just work on an individual track?

I either begin with a concept, or some piece of research I wish to undertake. From here the question soon turns to whether I currently have the capacity to explore the given concept / undertake the research. Usually, a period of reading and development occurs, in which I produce one or two interim works that explore the technical requirements for realising said concept. They might have their own scores, or simply be extended improvisations. Later, once I have developed the skills required, I will produce a much larger work, with the whole process from seed to finished artifact lasting three or four years. 

In terms of noise/ambient/experimental music, are they what you listen to as well? What do you listen to?

I try to maintain a broad taste in music, and not worry too much about such labels. That said, I find the conflation of noise, ambient and experimental music to be amusing, as noise and ambient are often to my ears the least experimental forms. That whole scene seems to be in a strange place at the moment – its got very popular, and the result is that many of the better labels don’t have the time or resources to take on ‘new’ artists, and many established artists seem to be making the most of their newfound acclaim by knocking out a new album every couple of months – with little in the way of quality control. In the last year or so I have taken a lot more time to really listen to a more select array of music, and there are some amazing composers and groups operating in the last few years. I would point anybody – regardless of the types of music they typically like – in the direction of Thomas Ankersmit, John Chantler, Siavash Amini, Duster, Ann Cleare, PUP, Ludwig Berger, Marcus Fjellstrom, Matana Robert, Machinefabriek and Wojciech Golczewski, to name but a few.

What do you think what makes music an experimental/ambient piece? What do these terms mean to you?

I have a very clear definition of experimental music – the artist in question should be truly experimenting, attempting something they have not done before and for which the outcome is unknown to them. It doesn’t matter if its a fifteen-year-old kid trying to write a pop song for the first time, or an established ‘experimental’ composer – if the work doesn’t firmly embrace (the chance of) failure, it can’t possibly be an experiment. I have no idea what ambient music is.

How would you describe your noise/experimental music? Do you just label them as avant-garde?

Avant-garde is my preferred description, largely because it presupposes some sort of academic grounding. Whilst such grounding is by no means an important part of all music, it is an important part of mine, since I have spent the last fifteen years in Academia. It does somewhat depend who I am talking to – if I am trying to describe my music to someone with no knowledge of the field whatsoever, I often revert to ‘the sort of stuff you hear in science-fiction and horror films’, which whilst not particularly accurate, nonetheless conjures the relevant ballpark.

Do you always have a visual in mind while working on music?

Visuals, no. A concept, yes. It is rare that I don’t have some sort of aesthetic plain from which my work stems, but it is as often literary as it is visual. Many of my later works revolve around the use of text as both a means of scoring and a source of inspiration, whether my own or another writer. By way of example, one of my forthcoming albums explores the writings of Fernando Pessoa as a tool for structuring and defining musical/sonic content. 

How is the noise/experimental music scene in the UK right now? What do you think is the future of these genres in 10 years?

The UK scene is, as always, unwell. Whilst there are some great promoters and venues putting on some excellent shows, the UK as a whole is massively geared against the sort of small, niche shows that experimental music relies upon. There is very little funding for music in this country – particularly compared to mainland Europe – and the government taxes venues so highly that they can neither afford to pay performers nor host shows unless they are nearly at full capacity. This has of course been exasperated by the pandemic, and it is unlikely we will see formally staged experimental live music in any capacity for the foreseeable future. People are creative though – I have some plans for temporary street installations to get around this, and I suspect others are developing similar tactics.

You are constantly working on projects across Europe, from spanning classical composition to field-recording to modular synthesis to experimental performance to writing and you also have received a PhD from Sussex University in 2017. How do you manage all these? Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other – do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?

I try to make time for working on my composition, writing and performance art every day, though it is not always possible. I recently started a production company, 7000 Trees, which takes up a lot of my time, though often doing fun things like making music videos or composing soundtracks. I have a young family, and of course that is a full time job in itself. I try to get up at 6 and work on the business, my family, my own composition, and my writing in rotation, then collapse at midnight and repeat the process. I start lecturing again in October, so will have to find a way to fit that in too!

There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you?

Space, and silence. I need space to reflect upon the context in which I am producing, silence to clear my thoughts from the myriad of distractions that consume modern life. It is important to feed the mind in one way or another so that you have a constant stream of new ideas and perspectives to draw upon; conversely, it is important to empty the mind of unnecessary thought and unhelpful, inflamed reactionism. If I were brave enough I would unplug the internet and stop reading newspapers entirely – such bastions of noise do nothing for us, nothing good at least.

What’s more important to you as an artist: a visceral creation/reaction or evoking some sense of imagery or imagination?

Are they so different? Imagination is simply an ability to perceive, however slightly, other positions than our own. Given the degree to which our own sense of ‘self’ has been unnaturally tied to a fixed epistemology – that is, we have learnt not to see ‘our’ world but rather ‘the’ world – anything that pushes beyond our limited understanding should create a visceral reaction. I am fascinated by the conflict between intellectual understandings of the world and emotional understandings – though of course, these two things go hand in hand. Ultimately, I believe that all art shows us how facile and artificial the processes by which we share space truly are, and in doing so, invokes change. From this position, all art is political art (though I am aware this has become a deeply unpopular view). 

Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music?

No. Art is a form of communication in and of itself. As such, whilst other forms of communication might supplement the work in some way, they are not important to the integrity of the work itself. Context, however, is important, since all communication relies on context in order to ‘make sense’. This does throw up a conundrum, however. There is a fashion for conceptual stories, biographies if you will, to house new music, without drawing upon or contributing to the process of the artefact in any meaningful sense. It increasingly seems that the fact processes and ideas are obfuscated within experimental and Avant-garde art (as they should be), results in a posthumous application of a concept to a work that never had one. I am drawing broad strokes here as I can immediately think of contexts where that would be fine, but it seems a problem to me nonetheless. Better to think of a process or concept as embedded within the communicatory framework of the art itself, rather than something that needs to be explained by it or alongside it.

In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences?

There is certainly no escaping culture, particularly within a capitalist society. Whilst numerous aspects contribute to creativity, culture tends to provide the limitations – it first defines who we are relative to our society, then our capacity, then the lines of potential that we either use to guide us or rally against. Increasingly, it feels as if true creativity relates in some way to finding an escape from the domination of culture, to force the mind into a position where it must operate outside of the lines laid down before it.

The relationship between music and other forms of art, like painting, photography, video art, and cinema has become increasingly important over the decades. Do you feel that music relates to other senses as well than hearing alone?

Yes. In fact, the distinction between art forms is a relatively new invention. I am yet to ‘hear’ a piece of music without incursion from the other senses – the material of the chair beneath me, the smell of the room, the changes in light and shadow. Even traditional composers are largely composing for a specific controlled environment – the concert hall, for instance. I’d go further – all artists, across all disciplines, are composers of events, the intersect of sensations in which their work is experienced. 

How do you see the relationship between the ‘sound’ aspects of music and the ‘composition’ aspects?

On the one hand, composition is simply the determined arrangement of materials – in music’s case, sound. On the other, composition presumes some level of interference, whereas ‘sound-art’ does not. Composition also comes with a lot of colonial baggage, and there is no escaping the fact that much of the Western Classical Music tradition is built to facilitate rich white men in communicating with one another. 

Have you ever experimented with binaural beats?

No. Though I have an album coming out later in the year, ‘The Frequency of the Heart at Rest’ which uses a tuning system based upon multiplications of the frequency of heartbeats during differing stages of sleep. I tend to prefer to use these sort of things as compositional tools rather than scientific imperatives – I am a strong believer in specialism and expertise, and when artists explore music as a therapy, or specific physiological effects, I vastly prefer it if the relevant scientists are actually involved. 

Do you think it’s important that artists don’t feel constrained by a genre or expectation of a genre?

Not necessarily. Genre can be useful, in so far as they are a ruleset or series of limitations by which a work must abide (if the goal is to be part of the stated genre). It can be very helpful to understand such limitations, and it seems that you often find that the best experimental composers are extremely well-versed in one or more genres – even if they choose not to compose within them. More troubling, is the use of genres as a lazy way of describing music without really understanding what that genre is. Certain notable music critics use genres such as Punk or Ambient or Avant-garde or Minimalism as catchall terms to describe a whole range of unrelated artefacts, often to the detriment of the genre with which they are crudely associating.  

Do you ever feel that music of these sorts should not reach to a wider audience, so the original value that makes these genres so authentic never loses its norms?

The only thing that precludes experimental or avant-garde music from reaching wider audiences is the sorry state of popular culture. Which is not to say that popular culture does not produce great work – it often does – but that it has been developed, as a facet of capitalism, to violently exclude failure, experimentalism, discomfort, otherness and the obtuse. I would love to live in a world where mainstream culture celebrated the Other, in all its shades, but alas – we are left only with a shiny pastiche of a commodified ‘foreign’ in lieu of actual difference. Jesus, I sound like Adorno.

Your music has evolved a great deal in just a few months, yet you have been able to maintain a strong aesthetic which is very much your own, where do you see it going next?

Thank you! I spend so long working with certain themes and concepts that I sometimes feel I lack evolution entirely. I suppose I have always been interested in the conflict between density and simplicity, and this is reflected in all my art. Over the last year I have been increasingly focussed on harmonic development – which feels a little like selling out after years of timbral composition. 

Where does the title Everyday Violence come from? Tell us about creating Everyday Violence… What was the motif behind the mood of the album?

‘Everyday Violence’ came about for a couple of reasons. I had recently started taking on more commercial composition work, which involved making much more traditional, even mainstream music. It occurred to me that though I was somewhat going against the grain of my own personal tastes, there was still compositional value to the work I was creating, so I began to develop a system by which I could use these more commercial stems as a basis for experimental composition. I constructed a custom granular synthesis fx chain and used this to pull apart my original material, and found, through this process of experimentation, such surprising and exciting results. What had been pleasant string compositions and vaguely coffee-table beats, were imbued with an overtly angry, caustic aesthetic that seemed to mirror the then-brewing socio-political storm that we find ourselves now ensconced within. The title was as such self-explanatory – everyday, even hum-drum elements recast as violent, disparate eruptions. 

What does Everyday Violence mean to you?

The term is knowingly Hegelian for sure. But more than that, I wanted to explore the location of violence within the everyday, and its relation to class, race and privilege. For me – a white, ostensibly middle-class English man – violence is an extremity, something that occurs on the rare occasion that things go very wrong. For the majority of the world, however, violence is a part of life, of survival. It is disgraceful that it took the Black Lives Matter movement to remind us just how shit things are for so many people, how violence is a part of the everyday structures of life. I grew up walking past statues of slave-traders and thought nothing of it, reduced them to a meaningless historic artefact. Our lack of empathy, compassion, and even observation, is both omnipresent and infuriating. On some level, I wanted the album to be infuriating, and the production reflects this – the whole mix is deliberately off-centre, which goes against so many of our expectations for ‘proper’ production etiquette. 

Your latest output Strangers On A Bridge seems a bit more classical driven. Can you tell us more about creating Strangers On A Bridge?

My first proper album was recorded in 2009, an album of field-recordings on the Triple Bath label. I then spent two years undertaking my Masters in composition, and produced a follow up album – but not a single label was interested in releasing it. It is a strange album that prompts many of my later interests – alternative scoring techniques, site-specific recording, a mixture of classical and electronic instrumentation – and represents an incredibly experimental period in my life. I didn’t entirely know what I was doing, but I certainly experimented! Over the years I kept trying to find a home for it, and 8 years later, Obseqvivm contacted me and asked if I had anything I wanted released, and here we are.

Is there anything you are working on right now? What can we expect from you in 2020 and 2021? Do you have any more projects coming up?

I have a few albums lined up for release. ‘The frequency of the Heart at Rest’ is the soundtrack to a live audio-visual performance developed to express the near total lack of sleep I experienced after my daughter was born, an affliction that is thankfully just starting to wane. That comes out on Aphelion Editions later this year. In early 2021 Fallen Moon will be releasing an album of modular synthesis that uses the writings of Fernando Pessoa as a form of score. And Liburia Records will be releasing a cassette of reinterpretations of older compositions in October. I have spent the last 11 months working on an album exploring the application of krzysztof penderecki’s sonorist scoring techniques to electronic synthesis. It is scored for a large string and percussion ensemble and an open electric conduit, which is as exciting as it sounds.


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