The Potential of Heavy Color’s Music to Heal & to Manifest Real Change

. September 23, 2020.
Heavy Color
Image courtesy of Jacob Knoblauch

Heavy Color Discusses their Soundtrack for the Documentary Film ‘Invisible Hand’

Transcendent is a lofty word to apply to a piece of music, or its songwriters. But I really can’t resist it when I’m listening to a piece by Heavy Color. Even just the name of this Toledo-based avant-psychedelia/electronica duo would be indicative of their characteristics — a build toward, or a cadenced acceleration toward — a sort of elevation beyond the weight of existence and ascending into the sublime polychromatic patchworks of an idealized vision — a waking dream. And, yes, their aspirations are typically that high when they approach a new production, but the listener’s experience is infinitely more chill, soul-calming, and altogether load-lightening. 

When Heavy Color came onto my radar a few years ago, it was from their work as part of a musical exchange program co-coordinated by the northwest Michigan-based nonprofit Earthwork Music Collective. They created a ‘future beat’ album that doubled as a travelogue and anthropology project during a trip as musical ambassadors to Africa. That resulted in the release of a full-length album of dreamy fusions of atmospheric electronic music and afrobeat called River Passage. 

Their newest release is, again, not your typical album — but, instead, a soundtrack. Actor Mark Ruffalo is the lead producer for a new “paradigm shifting” documentary film called Invisible Hand, which is about the creation of the ‘Rights of Nature’ movement. The Rights of Nature movement is an internationally-aligned effort of connected environmentalists and conservationists working to have species and ecosystems recognized as something more than just resources for humans to use, but also as living entities with rights of their own. The film is described as featuring the defining battle of our times — where nature, democracy, and capitalism face off in rural America. 

The film is directed by Joshua B. Pribanic and Melissa A. Troutman, and is currently available to download or stream online. (via the film’s website www.invisiblehandfilm.com)

But we wanted to chat with Heavy Color about their opportunity to create a score for this powerful film. 

Heavy Color are songwriters/producers/multi-instrumentalists Ben Cohen and Sam Woldenberg. We started our conversation by asking about the interesting connection between this new film, Invisible Hand, and their hometown of Toledo. 

INVISIBLE HAND – Rights of Nature Documentary from Public Herald on Vimeo.

Ben Cohen (BC): In 2014, the Lake Erie Algae Bloom reached a critical point, and Toledo water was deemed unsafe for consumption or even showering. That algae bloom can be traced to rising levels of nitrogen in the shallow lake due to agricultural runoff pollution, along with multiple other factors. So, local activists formed Toledoans for Safe Water, a grassroots organization that has crafted the Lake Erie Bill Of Rights. LEBOR, although it’s consistently been challenged in court, has become an inspiration to many around the globe in the Rights of Nature Legislative movement that asserts that “natural ecosystems have an inalienable right to not only exist but to flourish.” The fight for the Lake Erie Bill of Rights is a central storyline in the film Invisible Hand and ties Toledo to this worldwide movement. 

Current Magazine (CM): How and when did this project come your way? Was there an audition process, or something? 

BC:  I approached the directors of the documentary Invisible Hand because we were seeking ways to further align our artistic voice with our ideals. I had seen some press about Invisible Hand and was inspired to reach out to offer our music for a future project as well as to connect the work being done in Michigan via the organizations Title-Track and the Clean Water Campaign, and in Toledo via LEBOR with the directors and reporters at Public Herald. We were certainly surprised when Joshua from Invisible Hand responded by asking if we could write and produce the score in less than a month. 

Leading up to the pandemic, we had been working on compositions for a currently postponed multimedia installation and film with Toledo native and Brussels based artist Haseeb Ahmed that had us thinking about wind patterns and currents. So the music we had been approaching was already heavily influenced by our natural world. After speaking with the director over the phone about Invisible Hand, it was apparent that there was some deep alignment. We sent over some sketches of how we wanted to approach the music and the film team liked it. So from there we hustled like crazy to create the score in about 3 weeks. 

CM: In what ways was your approach to a project like this similar to and different from something like River Passage? Not even just in the sounds and vibe you chose, but even in terms of the emotions that were stirred up while creating it…

Sam Woldenberg (SW): I think in both cases it felt like pretty heavy subject matter. And while some of the process was different (we composed much of the score during the peak of COVID-19 lockdown) the approach of finding an underlying holistic narrative to guide the music made both projects an emotional journey of sorts. Working with the folks at Public Herald and Curious Music made the generative process fresh, exciting, and collaborative. To have that kind of cooperation and support is special and we all share the common goal that we can accomplish something good with this work and enact real change or help spark action. 

BC: Since the start of River Passage, throughout the recording of our forthcoming album Soft Light, and now for the score for Invisible Hand, we have been collaborating consistently with this group of musicians. I think more and more, we find ourselves writing and approaching new compositions with their individual voices in mind. That familiarity of process and refinement of communication, creating that shared language is really special and ties the various collections of work together. 

CM: What’s distinctive about your choices as composers for this batch of music — specifically in terms of arrangement, instrumentation, vibe, etc? 

 BC: When composing the movements for the film, we explored the different pieces by assigning them elemental properties. This allowed us to consider nature or at least these representations of nature in an intentional way. Limiting ourselves to certain aspects of each element.

Air: for movement and change. 

Water: for life, emotion and humanity.  

Fire: for injustice, for outrage, for power. 

Earth: for grounding, for patience and strength. 

Each of the musicians we worked with embodied these themes so fully that the music would not breathe in the same way without their voices. They are: Patrick Booth (Winds, Horns), Estar Cohen (Voice), Mike Savina (Electric Guitars), Jeffrey Niemeier (Electric and Acoustic Violin), and Wesley Hornpetrie (Cello). By approaching these compositions from a more sculptural point of view rather than from the more painterly and densely layered approach found on River Passage or Soft Light, we were able to keep the music focused and minimal in a way that was unique to us. 

Image courtesy of Nikki Eggerstorfer.

CM: Why was it important for you to commit to this project? To be the devil on your shoulder, there’s plenty of incentive for an electronic music artist to make dancebeats and try to get virally-popular. But, springing from River Passage, you’re continuing to chase projects that some would deem to be heavy, sobering, and even humanistic!

SW:  We want to be part of the solution. The world feels very heavy. We think music has an incredible capacity to heal.

BC: There are so many ways the arts connect with us as emotional beings. We have been striving to find a balance between making work that we find personally interesting but is perhaps more esoteric and projects that are rooted in tangible issues that align with our ideals that can help manifest real change. It is important for us to use our platform, however small, to help shine light on injustice and offer whatever hope we can. Being a member of the Earthwork Music Collective has been an ongoing inspiration to keep that alignment front and center as a guiding principle.

CM: What was the recording experience like?  And, was there anything else, perhaps from a non-musical and non-compositional standpoint, that you particularly enjoyed about this whole experience? 

SW:  It was our quickest turnaround from composing to releasing a project and that in itself enabled us to really sharpen our focus. Composing for these specific scenes, for lakes and rivers and for the persevering human spirit provided an emotional backdrop that guided our choice of tones and textures and a more minimalistic approach. 

BC: Working with the teams at Public Herald and Curious Music has been a really great experience. They both have given us a lot of support and creative flexibility while keeping so many moving parts organized and on time. It is also an honor to be able to align ourselves with something as important as the Rights of Nature Movement as it continues to gain momentum around the globe. I’m excited to see where these new relationships lead. 

Heavy Color’s first album, Arise Ye Spiritual Machine, came out in 2014, and recontextualized archival music in a modern beat-tape format. River Passage was released in 2018, and following their work on Invisible Hand, is their forthcoming album entitled Soft Light

CD copies of their soundtrack for Invisible Hand will be available Via Curious Music in October, followed by vinyl copies in January. A virtual release party & performance is scheduled for October 10.To keep up to date on the latest with Heavy Color, check out their website and their Facebook. For more ways that you can help nature preservation, check out the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund.

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