Student Spotlight: Alexis Walter Blaess on How Music Can Flow Unpredictably

Alexis Walter Blaess plays keyboard in his home studio

Alexis Walter Blaess plays keyboard in his home studio

In no small way, Alexis Walter Blaess is an artist whose music makes the world a slightly better place.

I know this because when he first joined our community at Soundfly, he posted his recent recordings to introduce himself, and I immediately felt immersed in his wondrous sonic world. But I also know this, now, after speaking more intimately with him about his process, because he’s striving to achieve a means of musically communicating the ills of humanity’s relationship with nature, but with a positive spin; a light that shines on the beauty of the natural world, and makes us feel closer to it.

Alexis’ music is also brilliantly technical. He’s a master synthesist (our Advanced Synths and Patch Design for Producers course is the reason he initially came to Soundfly) and a talented composer and performer. He talks about getting lost in the details, and about how music sometimes just flows naturally. For us listeners, it’s simply a joy to exist in the brightly-hued totality of synths and field recordings brought together under his creative auspices.

Read on to learn more about Alexis’s artistic journey.

Q: Hey Alexis, from the looks of things, it seems like you’ve been pretty busy musically, lately. I want to touch on some of the projects you’re working on but let’s start with a more general question. Your bio says that your work “is inspired by his respect and love for nature and the social and environmental issues of our times.” Can you expand on that? 

A: Thank you for the chance to talk about the work I do. Since childhood I’ve been fascinated by the beauty and mystery of the natural world, and by its sounds. As a kid I used to spend a lot of time in the mountains, observing trees, plants, clouds, birds, critters and insects, feeling a connection with everything around me. And when I began to study music, the images I had stored in my mind, and the emotions that were attached to them, came to me every time I sat at the piano.

When I make music, I want to express this connection I feel with our world, a mixed bag of joy and sadness. Joy because we are part of a community of amazing living beings within a miraculous planet, and sadness because we humans keep assaulting its fragile balance. I think as a result of these two conflicting emotions, my music tends to be melancholic, and sometimes dark and moody.

To that end, in 2021 you released an album of incredibly resonant, pristine instrumental and electronic music under your Supernova Goldfish moniker, A Future For All. Congrats, firstly! How did this music come together during the pandemic?

Thanks for your kind words, it means a lot to me. First a confession. I stopped composing for many years after the well of creativity in me seemed to have dried out. But in December of 2020, when my wife encouraged me to rekindle that lost fire, I decided to give it another shot, and something magical happened… music started flowing through me again!

And I mean a lot of music. It was one idea after another. And they were all inspired by the same concept — the current state of our world (you know, climate crisis, deforestation, the plight of wild animals, social inequality), so I thought of producing an album that would encapsulate some of my core beliefs. Then the pandemic hit and my employers were forced to shut down. Bitter sweet news, I suppose, because on one hand I was out of a job, and on the other I had time to produce the album I had envisioned!

At that point I had completed the first draft of the first track in the album, which I named “First Light” because it was the first piece I had composed in years. It felt like the light of a new day shining after a long dark night. It had the energy of a new start; bright, strong, pushing forward.

After several major changes to the original idea, I finished the fourth and final draft of “First Light” around February 2020. My goal was to release a full-length album by September, so I spent the next couple of months composing and building the rest of the tracks, adding harmonies and expressive touches to the basic melodies, removing excessive ornaments and unnecessary repetitions, reworking drums and percussive elements, finding the right sounds.

Then I had to tackle the hardest task; mixing and mastering. As a composer, I’ve always been more focused on the creative aspect of music and not so much on the technical side, so this was new to me. And since I was on a budget, I couldn’t hire a professional to help me. It took several months to get to the point where I was happy with every single track, a lot of trial and error. But the end result was very satisfying. I’m sure it could have been better with the help of an experienced engineer and a producer, but sometimes you have to work with what you have.

“You can tell there’s an elephant sound somewhere in there, but it is reworked in such a way that it becomes one more instrument.”

The themes of nature and the environment are prevalent in a fundamental way conceptually, but also sonically as a bunch of the tracks incorporate field recordings. How do those themes play out across this album and its tracks?

One thing that was clear to me from the very start was that all the tracks were going to have some sort of field recording incorporated into them. Infusing them with a real piece of natural and/or man-made sound was my idea of maintaining a conceptual thread throughout the entire album.

I searched online for all kinds of sounds, from whale songs, wolves’ howls, chirping birds, running streams, crashing waves, rain and thunder, to gentle water droplets, distant whirring helicopter whirring, wood hits, radio static, finger snaps, etc. Then I manipulated the sounds during the composition process.

For instance, I found an elephant trumpet that I really liked in a public sound library, downloaded it and imported into my DAW, then I selected the section that I wanted to use, and meticulously trimmed and rearranged it so that it would have a rhythmic quality to it. When you hear it by itself, you can tell there’s an elephant sound somewhere in there, but it is reworked in such a way that it becomes one more instrument. This sound helped me to accentuate the dramatic crescendos in “Astral.”

Another example is the track titled, “Deep Connection.” Here I used radio static, the rewinding of a clock, different electrical crackling sounds, and the hissing of an old record player to create a very soft rhythmic pattern.

Overall, I used field recordings in three particular ways:

  1. as background sounds,
  2. as melodic elements, and,
  3. to create rhythmic sections.

In a couple of tracks the field recordings are obvious, but in most of them, they are seamlessly interwoven with the music.

How did you arrive at this overall sound you’ve developed, which includes harmony driven by piano and keys, synths for embellishment and sound design, and drum machines as a synthetic, motoric heart beat?

Finding my own sound was like following fireflies across a shadowy forest — the further I went, the clearer the path became. I didn’t start the process thinking, “the album has to sound avant-garde, retro, techno, or futuristic.” I just followed the fireflies of inspiration down a path that led me to a place where I knew that melody was going to be king, and everything else would wrap around it. Pianos, plucked synths and lush pads were going to be the guiding sounds, and strong drum patterns and bass lines would become the driving force.

I didn’t want the parameters of certain music styles to restrict my work, so I decided to be as eclectic as my tracks needed to be. For instance, “Beautiful Wild Planet” uses expansive and lush synth pads, while “The Void You Left” is mostly orchestral instruments, pianos and some atmospheric sounds. Or take “Deep Connection,” which is mainly a piece for a lush Wurli piano with atmospheric sounds built around it. And in “This Wounded World,” I fused an acoustic piano with a very strong instrumental synth-driven section, and it miraculously worked.

When it came to sound design, I tweaked many of the synths I used, changing their basic parameters and wave forms, nothing too complicated. I was simply after lush and expansive sounds. And in terms of drums, I wanted to have my hand on every percussive element. So I designed all the patterns myself, using mostly Logic Pro X’s drum sounds.

One thing that became clear was that the drums needed to be incredibly present and powerful, otherwise the music was going to lose sonic presence and emotional impact.

Alexis Walter Blaess' keyboard in his home studio

Because your music is so naturally cinematic, what do you think is the ideal listening setting or engagement environment to experience it?

Naturally, as a musician, I would recommend that people find a quiet place to listen to my music (or any instrumental music) so that they can be transported to a different space. Listening to music is like looking at a complex painting — you won’t get all the nuances of shades and color, or the intricacies of composition and form, if you’re just glancing at it while walking by.

Contemplating any type of art requires attention to the details. And music has a direct line to the spirit and the power to connect the listeners with their own emotions. Giving yourself time to sit down and appreciate music to a deep level is not only a nice thing to do, it’s necessary soul food.

“Finding my own sound was like following fireflies across a shadowy forest…”

Speaking of cinematic, you also contribute regularly to media sync and scoring contests, and create entire banks of music to suit film and visual libraries. Can you tell me about that work?

This is the second Spitfire Audio contest I’ve entered. Here, the participants were tasked with creating a 2 minute-long soundtrack using mostly a sound library designed by the electronic duo Darkstar. The video is very dynamic and visually creative, and there is a sense of emotional detachment to it; of fragmentation. The images suggested to me the isolation of individuals in modern society — it was like observing people through a distant lens.

After watching it a few times, I sat at the piano, selected one of the synths from the Darkstar sound library, and what came out was a melancholic and groovy idea that I thought reflected the emotional tone of the video. Splitting the score into two distinct parts happened quite organically while I was composing. Then I had the choice to be more experimental with the rhythm section, but the video was so dynamic I opted for rock-like drum beats that I built using Spitfire Audio’s LABS acoustic drum set. It created an interesting contrast against the pervasive synth sounds. I also used Other Desert Cities to give the plucked instruments a certain amount of delay and a more ethereal quality to them. Now whether my score fits the video or not is up to the viewer.

The previous challenge I entered was about using orchestral instruments to score a video for the Hans Zimmer Month contest. This was quite fun as well because I love orchestral music, and I had to create a very short, memorable piece using mostly orchestral instruments.

In addition to these two contests, I’ve been posting short pieces of music on Instagram as part of a challenge I gave myself over a month ago — one piece of music per week for as long as I can. I called them “Petitudes” (“Petites Etudes”) because that’s what they are, short studies.

These Petitudes have been a refreshing and invigorating challenge because I get to compose a different piece every week.  I can be as experimental as I want, use any kinds of sounds, and the only rule I must follow is that they have to be a minute long or less. Some of these Petitudes came to me right after waking up, when out of nowhere a tune popped in my head, and some were born while I was improvising at the piano, exploring melodies that could fully develop within a minute.

You’ve been a member of the Soundfly community for a little while now, what drew you to Soundfly initially?

I came across Soundfly when I was producing A Future For All. At the time I was working on the album in my home studio, feeling quite isolated, so finding a community of musicians who were actively supporting each other’s work felt like discovering gold.

There are several things I love about Soundfly: the thoughtfully crafted courses that help with the many creative and technical aspects of music making, the mentoring program that gives members the chance to work with experienced musicians, and the supportive community Soundfly has built.

I would recommend joining the Soundly’s community to anyone who needs to enhance their musical skills and knowledge, and to any musician wishing to connect with a supportive community of artists.

+ Learn production, composition, songwriting, theory, arranging, mixing, and more —  whenever you want and wherever you are. Subscribe for unlimited access!

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Which courses have you taken so far, and have you been able to employ any of the learnings in your personal practice or process?

In the six months that I’ve been a member of Soundfly, I have taken two courses: Advanced Synths and Patch Design for Producers and Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords. As a composer, I find that Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords helps me understand music at a deeper level. And working on the assignments is fun and creative. One of the tracks for my next album was actually born from the very first assignment in this course!

Now as a producer, the synths course is extremely valuable and packed with practical advice. I am still working on this course, but the further I go the more I learn about sound design, and the less intimidated I am about creating sounds from scratch.

What’s next for your musical career?

Besides composing weekly Petitudes, I am currently working on a very exciting second album quite different from A Future For All, which will be released around September of this year if everything goes as planned. Scoring films and/or TV shows is another path I’d like to explore. I love film music and this field offers composers an incredibly expansive canvas for creative work. Collaborating with other musicians on joint projects is another goal of mine.

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