A Peek at Speckman

NICHE: A WEEKLY PEEK AT AN AREA ARTIST

Mark Speckman

By JILL RENAE HICKS

Sunday, August 14, 2011

When the first pulsing minor notes of the locally made documentary “Zielinski” ushered in clips of the oft-controversial and eponymous central figure of the movie, viewers at True/False Film Fest might have been lulled into thinking synthesized sounds were everything composer Mark Speckman was about. The gloomy and rhythmic bloops of “electronic music” — Speckman’s term — set up the tone of the film with a pounding aura of mystery.

But film viewers might have missed the strains of glittering piano that wound throughout later scenes of the movie in song snippets like “candlelight lounge,” grazing the ears with enough musical propensity to hold their own on the soundtrack. The soundtrack itself has a wide spectrum of grooves, droning tones that aren’t quite notes, woozy chordings and kit sounds that anchor more upbeat, danceable tracks such as “Raven Adara” and “ladeda.” The latter includes some of the vividly kaleidoscopic runs typical of The Who, as well as some carefully placed loops of laughter.

Speckman’s music is nothing if not exploratory. Having gone through periods of relative composer’s block and contrasting times of great prolificacy, he sees music vaulting into his future to take a more primary role. Born in Eugene, Ore., before his family moved to Columbia, he studied piano and percussion while growing up. Later on, in high school, he was introduced to electronic sounds, “but it wasn’t very good,” Speckman said with a laugh.

“The first techno song I ever saw was Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’ on MTV,” he said. “It blew my mind.” In 2001, he obtained a copy of the software program Reason from a friend, which allowed Speckman to begin recording his songs almost completely on the computer. There were a few years in which he varied in the amount of other music he imbibed: “I don’t buy music. … I think when I was first getting into electronic music, I would go … and I would just buy whatever looked good without listening to it. And so I listened to all sorts of different styles.”

But while working more intensely on his own work, he didn’t listen to other music nearly at all. “I was pretty insulated, and I felt like that was making it original. But I also felt like there were periods that I missed of techno styles” during the 2000s. Speckman loves synthesized music for the range of expression it can contain even without using actual tonal notes. He makes liberal use of filters and even orchestral sampling in his music; he also loops external sounds into certain pieces, including children laughing and whale sounds in the track “xmasnwhales.”

Early problems hindered putting the “Zielinski” soundtrack together quickly. He has suffered multiple setbacks, including breaking his speakers, injuring his finger and blowing out his eardrums. “The last day before my deadline, I realized that I couldn’t hear a specific range,” he said. “There’s probably a whole register I’m still missing.”

But during times of health and physical recovery, Speckman could become incredibly invigorated. “It’s like an emotional inspiration,” which is often the pilot light for his creativity. He doesn’t know whether his music is so much catharsis as it is the working out of various obsessions, he added.

When Chase Thompson and Ryan Walker, the directors of “Zielinski,” approached Speckman about making music for the film, he agreed. But a long time — about four years — passed in between that first inquiry and the actual coming together of the film. During that time, he composed many songs, which he simply needed to go back to touch up and master. Thompson and Walker picked musical cuts for the film based on the mood of each song, focusing on particular tracks with more laid-back feels and aspects of melancholia.

Having produced three CDs and working on his fourth album, “Purple Starship” — as well as maintaining his website, markspeckman.org — Speckman said he is thinking of expanding his repertoire even further into more house and trance music that can be sampled easily in more venues. He already has sung on a few of his own tracks and is planning an album of piano songs, a throwback to his childhood days of formal training. “Ten years ago, … I started playing piano again, and it dawned on me that I could make my own music.” No one had really informed him of that possibility as a child. “So there’s a lot of pent-up creativity,” he finished.

That creativity has flamed forth at varying degrees of brightness throughout the past decade, which, for the viewers of “Zielinski” and fans of Speckman’s music, has been a fortuitous result, indeed.

Reach Jill Renae Hicks at 573-815-1714 or e-mail jrhicks@columbiatribune.com.

This article was published on page C3 of the Sunday, August 14, 2011 edition of The Columbia Daily Tribune.