Douglas Appling, the Portland based electronic musician known to electronic music enthusiasts as Emancipator, takes a natural approach to his art. The classically trained violinist, and veteran of more traditional bands during his college years, grew up in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Listening to his parents’ wide ranging collection of albums – Kraftwerk, Orbital, Fleetwood Mac – as well as the African sounds his mother discovered during her years in the Peace Corps, profoundly influenced his expansive approach to music making.
“So much credit goes to my parents and the music they curated at home,” Appling says. “My father had a tasteful, largely indiscriminate record collection. Instrument wise, there were dulcimers that he himself built, kalimbas and shakers that my mother brought back from Africa, an upright piano from my grandparents, and an infamous Casio keyboard. That says a lot about my sonic DNA. The folk elements come from growing up listening to bluegrass, and all kinds of music, on the radio.”
Appling’s ideas about music are influenced by a degree in psychology but, while he was in college, he was also studying music theory. He began revisiting the multi-layered sounds he was creating on Acid Pro during high school and expanding upon them.
“I was a second year college student when I released my debut album, Soon It Will Be Cold Enough. I was performing at the Meridian Coffeehouse in Williamsburg and taking handmade CD-R’s to the post office every day. I was getting orders from around the world on my Myspace page. During my junior year, Hydeout Productions, a label in Japan, owned by the legendary producer Nujabes, contacted me. He released my album on his label. I got an offer to tour Japan just a few months after I graduated.”
After graduation and his Japanese tour, Appling moved to Portland, lured by the promise of a thriving electronic music scene. After relocating, he released four more albums, slowly evolving toward the sounds he created for Mountain of Memory. “To me, the music feels like a wave of memories, a geological archive of sounds. These songs were created layer by layer, each element a sedimentary piece of the bigger picture. The songs have become stronger over time, throughout various waves of creativity and entropy. There is a of feeling of building upon the past and looking toward the future. We are all standing on the shoulders of giants.”
The music on Mountain of Memory, continues to refine and consolidate Emancipator’s creative ethos. The free flowing tracks effortlessly encapsulate his entire musical history, without sounding forced or overly complicated. Mid-tempo dance grooves, solid boom bap hip hop beats and calm, reflective tempos blend with electric and acoustic guitars, classical violin, Persian dilruba, cimbaloms, finger snaps, symphonic strings, bubbling water, Latin and African hand drumming, music boxes, Baroque flutes and opera singers, who add unexpected vocal ornamentations to accent certain melodic phrases. Underlying it all, is the bed of sound Appling produces using electric pianos, ethereal synthesizer washes, processed and almost inaudible vocals, soothing ambient textures and the pulsing of an infinite heartbeat produced by electronic bass tones. “The album has a loose narrative of rising from the swamps, to the summit of a mountain, and the journey of enlightenment in between. By the end of the album, you are standing atop the Mountain of Memory.”
Live, Appling reproduces these sounds with the help of his Emancipator Ensemble. “We expand on the album versions of the songs, taking them to higher dimensions. The group features Ilya Goldberg on violin, Asher Fulero on keys, Mub Fractal on bass, Colby Buckler on drums and myself on beats and guitar. We play live instruments, along with tracks and samples cued up from the laptop.
“The biggest challenge is shifting gears from a producer mindset to a performance mindset – finding ways to integrate a wide range of sounds into something cohesive in a live setting. This includes the process of deciding which parts of the original song to keep, to perform, to improvise on and re-arrange. Some songs don’t translate to the live ensemble as well as others.
“I never used to think – ‘How is this going to be performed?’ I was just making songs that sounded cool. Now it’s in the back of my mind. Is this going to be something I can play at a show? Does it have elements I can perform live? It’s important to think about those things, but I don’t want to let them dictate what I create. It’s important to make music that resonates with myself. If you make music for yourself first, there will always be other people who like it.”