Technology and science-fiction are common themes Shannon’s music, the product of a childhood saturated with computer games and Ray Bradbury books. Shannon’s roots as an avant-garde electronic artist go back to composing on his Commodore computer at age 9. Since then, he’s come a long way, his music having been featured heavily in films and television.
Jason’s latest work, “Life On Earth,” is a winding, expansive piece that features over 100 different instruments including analog and digital synthesizers, mellotron, sitar, celesta, harp, organ, tabla, bass, drum kit, timpani, full orchestral string and brass ensembles and a soprano choir. Mood-wise, the piece unfolds as if a condensed musical representation of evolution, from the first single-celled organisms to modern humans and into the future. Along the way, “Life on Earth” is both electronic and organic, intense and pensive, corporeal and surreal, creating an epic and moving soundtrack that celebrates life and its primal cycles.
The accompanying video follows suit, a computer-generated model created by Glenn Marshall (Peter Gabriel’s “The Nest That Sailed The Sky”) that winds and twirls like an expanding neural network, fractal, or root system, furthering Shannon’s unique blend of the organic and synthetic.
Jason Todd Shannon – Life on Earth from Jason Todd Shannon on Vimeo.
Amid the warm amber glow of a vintage analog recording console, composer Jason Todd Shannon is tracking mandolin for his new album, TheWorn Out Air, in his hideaway basement studio in East Atlanta. It’s only February and the studio is almost 90 degrees, the air conditioning unit struggling to keep up with the heat yield from the preamps, tube mics, computers and analog synthesizers. In a few months, the temperatures will run even higher when the blistering Atlanta summer returns, but Shannon says it’s a small price to pay for that perfect sound. He can usually be found here in his studio on Moreland Avenue, re-patching a modular synthesizer, writing a string quartet for an independent film or experimenting with music-production software. This week, he’s been scoring an episode for a History Channel pilot, but he takes breaks whenever he can to work on writing parts for his forthcoming instrumental album.
Shannon is a professional composer, orchestrator and producer and is a co-owner of Tunewelders, a custom music production company based in Atlanta. Left to his own devices, his sound is an eclectic multi-dimensional hybrid of styles that incorporates folk, electronic, experimental, orchestral and world-music influences. Technology and science-fiction are common themes in his original music. He claims it’s the product of a childhood saturated with computer games and Ray Bradbury books. His studio is a tapestry of unique instruments. Within arms reach and at theready—a grand marimba, sitar, charango, theremin, a variety of strings and all manner of musical whirligigs and contraptions hanging from thewall and rafters. How many will make an appearance on the new album? All of them, he claims.
Shannon began his musical journey composing on his Commodore computer at 9 years old. “While my classmates listened to pop music,” he says, “I studied and tried to recreate my favorite 8-bit video-game scores.” These interests evolved into sequencer programming, synthesis and an unstoppable drive to try and learn every musical instrument he could get his hands on. “My passion for composition was born in front of a computer, but my ear for orchestration is a product of endless pawnshop and thrift-store searches as a teenager—I was always looking for a new instrument or sound. I’d blow my paycheck on instruments I had no idea how to play, but I’d try anyway. I think you have to spend a lot of time with a new instrument to really understand its timbre and its unique character. I’d experiment constantly—multitracking different instruments and trying to understand how the sounds all fit together.”
Shannon studied at the Ali Akbar College of Music with MacArthur Fellowship recipient Ustad Ali Akbar Khan then later went on to study Composition and Orchestration at Berklee. His musical experience is wide-ranging, as he’s played everything from folk, bluegrass, prog and experimental music to mandolin interpretations of Bach’s Cello Suites. Shannon says that the Internet and mobile devices have enabled immediate access to an infinite library of information, which has led to a diverse set of influences. “In a matter of seconds, I can download a full conductor score of a Gustav Holst piece, find a detailed analysis of a Bill Monroe mandolin break, then listen to a Ravi Shankar raga. The amount of information at our fingertips is incomprehensible. And the opportunity to fuse music together in new and interesting ways is fascinating,” he says. “The problem for me has always been an identity crisis—with my diverse musical experience, training and influences, I’ve had to struggle with understanding where I fit on the musical spectrum. But the moment I realized I had to create my own musical universe—one where no rules or expectations apply—was the moment I was liberated.”
Shannon’s first official album, Centuarus A (2015), was a modern interpretation of those early computer-game scores. “That first record was dark, cinematic and textural,” he says. “I really tried to get back to that place I remember from my childhood—the mood and excitement I’d feel from those classic games.”
The first single (and video) from forthcoming record The Worn Out Air is called “Life on Earth,” which Shannon describes as a celebration of evolution and the cycle of life. “It’s about this unfathomable moment of chance that we’re all living here together in this tiny fragment of time and space.” “Life On Earth” is a massive composition that features analog and digital synthesizers, mellotron, mandolin, sitar, celesta, harp, organ, tabla, drums, bass, a string quintet, taiko drums, timpani, full orchestral string and brass ensembles and a soprano choir. Nearly 100 individual instruments were used in its production.
The video for “Life on Earth” was created by Prix Ars Electronica-winning video artist Glenn Marshall, whose original work inspired themusic. “Glenn created the accompanying generative art in this video with only mathematics and code using something called processing language,” Shannon says. “When I first saw his work, I was immediately struck by how wonderfully organic it was, both in terms of its stunning visual texture and its fluid motion. I wanted to take a similar generative approach to the music, which is why I used modular sequences that grow and expand and serve as the basis of all the other instrumentation. I was striving for a juxtaposition of the synthesized and the organic elements in a way that was musical and interesting.”
Looking ahead to the forthcoming album, exciting things are happening—Shannon is embracing new technology by utilizing fiber optics and low-latency recording techniques to track other musicians remotely in unique acoustic settings. “I’ll be working with the New World Symphony in Miami to track solo players and ensembles with this new technology,” he says. “It enables real-time bi-directional video and multichannel audio. This innovative technical approach is setting the stage for tremendous creative and sonic opportunities.”
Technology and science will play an important role on the new album, both technically and creatively. The next piece scheduled for release, “26.8%,” is a tribute to the life of late groundbreaking astrophysicist and women’s advocate Vera Rubin, who discovered the existence of dark matter. The Worn Out Air will be self-produced and co-engineered and mixed by Vic Stafford.