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John Flomer

Of a Stranger Light

 

Burning Bush

 

"Came forth a genie from the steam of water, heat, and ancient leaf
to guide his carpet through the night with music of a stranger light, it seems."

 

Travel to a magical universe filled with music that is a sheer fantasy of wonder and awe. An incredibly visual soundtrack of delicate piano tones dancing hauntingly over choirs, strings, drums and percussion; definitively underscoring that Flomer is one of the best composers in the genre today.

Artist Notes

I raise the pungent, emerald brew
 in praying cup, to lips, in solitude,
then search for something, anything, that dwells unseen
throughout the vast eternity spread out across the night

And lucid do my dreams come true
with water, heat, and ancient leaf imbued,
I chart my course with stars and aromatic steam
within the vast internal spaces of a stranger light

 

Of A Stranger Light, my third project with Spotted Peccary Music is a natural extension of my previous release, Night in the Vapor Jungle. Many tracks for this album were already completed by the time Vapor Jungle was released in 1999. It reminds me (because it's not an artistic mission statement that consciously drives me everyday) that, for me, a project is never really finished. As stated by Lao Tzu, "a good traveller has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving." There are always new destinations on the itinerary; and wisdom gained from a place left behind can help us understand a new place discovered. And returning to an old place with an expanded perspective allows us to see what was most certainly missed before.
This is a theme I have discovered traveling through my music; and it is not new. It has always existed deep in the human heart, mind and soul, and can be simplified by asking the timeless questions - who are we, how did we come to be, where are we destined to go?
Some may ask the question - why should I care? Well, for them, maybe they shouldn't care. Unfortunately, it is they who are making a mess of things down here. For the rest of us, it sure makes our lives a little richer, a little deeper, and makes us care a whole lot more for just about everything.

We all have our magic charms, our sacred palaces, our interior worlds. We rely on them when we've had enough of the pressures of society; its day to day hum drum, the all too frequent drama, and a slow, simmering mayhem we nervously expect to erupt into a chaotic boil at any moment. Some of our escape vehicles are fairly elaborate, such as a climb up Mt. Everest, or fairly simple, such as listening to "Of A Stranger Light" on your boom box, or simpler still - a fabulous cup of tea. One of my favorite pleasures is to sit on my front steps, in the very wee hours, with a cup of tea, listening to the wind blow through the trees. It doesn't take much. Sometimes you get a whole album of music out of it.

Reviews

JOHN FLOMER
Of a Stranger Light
Spotted Peccary (2002)

I doubt that any other artist is as adept as John Flomer is when it comes to
merging the melodic sensibility of classic new age music with the aesthetic
of ambient music. On his latest album, Of a Stranger Light, keyboard player
Flomer further explores the musical territory he first ventured into on his
last CD, the excellent Night in the Vapor Jungle. Where this artist's
earlier recordings (One, Mysterious Motions of Memory) featured a more
dynamic and outwardly percussive style of EM, Night in the Vapor Jungle
retreated into a more shadowy realm where echoed (digital) piano, synth
choruses, and haunting melodic strains wove a spell that was compelling and
distinctly warmer and friendlier than many "purer" ambient releases. That
same approach has been further developed on the superlative Of a Stranger
Light, which, in my opinion, is the best work of Flomer's career.
Fans of new age music icons Richard Burmer, Suzanne Ciani (from her EM days
of albums like The Velocity of Love and Neverland) and the "master" himself,
Vangelis, will hear both outright similarities and also updated
extrapolations from the works of those three all throughout the tracks on Of
a Stranger Light. In particular, Flomer counterpoints his piano against
synth chorus in a way that reminds me of the best from the Greek superstar
(Vangelis). However, John Flomer distinguishes himself by using a much less
structured and more evolutionary method to his composing. In this way (as I
alluded to earlier) the songs on this CD have a strong ambient "feel" to
them, yet the dominance on some tracks of piano also pulls the music into
the "new age music" camp as well. While musical refrains do exist on many of
the tracks, particularly those that feature Flomer's excellent piano work,
there are also stretches that would fit in nicely on much more floating,
less-structured ambient recordings (the opening of "There Her Forest, These
Her Trees" for example, which is ushered in by lush strings that are then
folded into forlorn piano and other keyboard textures).
However, what I particularly resonated to during the numerous times I
listened to this album (almost always on headphones, since this is a Spotted
Peccary recording and, as such, is meticulously engineered), was the
emotional richness and, dare I say it, the sheer beauty of Flomer's music.
Seldom does an artist find a way to evoke the word "beautiful" without also
dragging along its unsightly cousins, "cloying," "sappy," or "cliché." That
John Flomer composes and performs music that is so damn pretty and fully
human in feel yet also is completely non-pedestrian and devoid of
superficiality is a testament to his unique talent.
From the subtle Asian touches of the title track (with its Eastern
modalities and instrumentation - hand-cymbals and Japanese "violin") to the
lonely piano and pan-flutes that open the next song, the somber and
reflective "To Ponder Many Heavens," to the sprightly "Auroraflora" with
it's delicate yet lively harp-like arpeggios balanced against heavily echoed
piano and cymbal-like percussive beats, Of a Stranger Light is full of music
that is delightful and immensely accessible, yet also mysterious, out of the
ordinary, and boldly unconventional for the genre. Integrating piano,
assorted electronic keyboards, bells, choral effects, and percussion
elements with the dexterity of a skilled surgeon, yet filling the music with
a sense of wonder and a poet's artistic vision, John Flomer has released one
of the better recordings of this already stand-out year. If you have worn
out your copy of Bhakti Point, On The Third Extreme (both by Richard
Burmer), the two Ciani recordings I previously mentioned, or any of Vangelis
more melodic releases, don't despair. Of a Stranger Light will easily fill
the void and also clue you in to one of the more innovative, interesting and
talented American new age/ambient artists recording today. If the graceful
power and subtle drama of the closing track, "Eternal River" (another song
that is somewhat evocative of the Far East through Flomer's choice of
synthesized instrumentation and musical rhythm and structure) doesn't
impress you, you're a helluva lot more jaded than yours truly. This CD is
highly recommended.

- Bill Binkleman -

John Flomer - "Of A Stranger Light"
(Spotted Peccary SPM0703, 2002, CD)

On his third release for Spotted Peccary, and his fourth overall, Flomer has outdone even his previous Night In The Vapor Jungle (reviewed in #20, p.64) which itself was a masterful piece of cinematic symphonic electronic music. Flomer, in his compositions, has the keen ability to relay imagery through sound, going a step beyond the drama and force that such music carries, into areas that truly launch the imagination. Using a variety of synthesizer textures and voices, as well as synth based percussives (sampled?), his compositions carry a magnificent grandeur and shimmering beauty that is at once captivating and inspiring. The pieces tend to eschew some of the more typical trappings of EM (sequencers and such) and develop slowly through the layering of sounds, much as a classical composition would evolve. Sometimes gentle, sometimes powerful and commanding, lush textures drenched in atmospheric ambience typically underpin each piece, which may use a lighter voice (piano, voice or wind patches) to carry the melodies, although he has no set formulas, which keeps the compositions and arrangements full of suspense. While some of the pieces might be vaguely reminiscent of classic Vangelis, there are definitely a lot more surprises in Flomer's universe. Each of the ten pieces exists unto itself, yet - even if only superficially, becomes part of an overall concept theme based loosely around his stylisms. In summary, there is plenty herein to capture the imagination.

Peter Thelen
Exposé "Exploring The Boundaries of Rock"

Interview

A candid interview with ambient artist John Flomer

Even though I have known John for a few years (in fact, we live within a few minutes of each other) , when I read through this interview (conducted via e-mail), I realized how little I knew about him. This is also one of the more candid and personal interviews I have ever read of an artist in this field. I hope you enjoy it.

Bill Binkelman

 

According to your bio on your website, you started out as an aspiring, and then touring, rock guitarist. What was that like?

At first, it was all there was. Absolutely everything revolved around the music. We (my brother Robert, and I) existed for nothing else. We were doing all original compositions at that time, but we were writing for ourselves. We were kind of oblivious to style, trend or opinion, and as a band we had a mission. Even with the pain and torture of trying to succeed, and the personal garbage and artistic conflicts, it was fun. After a few years, I steered the band into doing covers to make a "living." Bad choice. So, then, year after year of doing that and the pain, torture, and conflicts, just became pain, torture and conflicts.

Were there parts of that time in your life that you enjoyed or that you miss now?

When you're doing your own music (and you're clicking), performing becomes like prayer. I enjoyed that immensely - watching and feeling the audience get caught up in what we were into on stage was cool. As far as traveling with a band, I'll never miss that. When I hung it up I never looked back and never regretted it. I do miss playing guitar, though. I started fooling around with my Les Paul about five years ago, and I got to a point were I was smokin' again, but I've since lost some ground. I did manage to write " Aromatic Sand and Steam" from Of A Stranger Light with the guitar.

Do you even still listen to any rock music?

Very rarely. I discovered that when I listen to some of my favorite stuff from back then, it just stinks. I can't believe I ever liked that stuff. There are a few exceptions though, like Pink Floyd, Spirit, Moody Blues, The Beatles - a few others - Frank Zappa.

Like more than a few other artists I have spoken with, your path to ambient music started after hearing some early "new age/electronic music" records. Was it "lightning bolt" like in its effect, as in "Whoa!" or was it more subtle than that?

Oh, really early New Age (ha, ha). It was Gregorian chant in the 1950's, which is one of only two things that I ever benefited from from my relationship with the Catholic Church. The other thing which equally inspired me was the spectacle of the mass. This was in the days when the Catholic mass was performed in Latin - very mysterious, mystical, spiritual - so in a sense it was very subtle because I grew up with it from a point where I understood nothing, to the point were I started to make connections with, dare I say it, my soul. So anyway, I blew away the religious thing until I stumbled upon that same kind of vibe again in 1973 when I had an OBE (out of the body experience) while listening to "Winter" from Sonic Seasonings by Wendy Carlos - that was a "Whoa."

Orchestral music really set me up with the emotional sensibility where I exist as a composer today. So, when New Age came along, the fire was already there. Where the lightning bolt came was in hearing stuff like Vangelis' Heaven and Hell, and a little later, Kitaro's Silk Road. This was the essential "delivery system" that up until that time had eluded me. You must realize that even though my sensibility was in orchestral music, I couldn't compose it because I couldn't read or write music, and the technology hadn't arrived where I had access to an orchestra, you know - sampling technology, but I could do "rock and roll." New Age was the missing link connecting the two.

Many artists talk about "getting my first synthesizer" as a turning point in the road to recording ambient music. I've never asked someone else, so I'll ask you. What was it like when you first got one? Did you instantly realize this was what you always wanted? In other words, not to be an uber-geek, but was it pretty cool to have one?

My first synth was an Oberheim OB-1, that I triggered from my guitar. This was in 1978 or 79. You see, the guitar was always very limiting to me. Up until I the got the synth, I had been manipulating the guitar with unconventional objects like screwdrivers, glass bow, light bulbs, and then later - the original E-bow, Echoplexes, stompboxes, to get the guitar to sound like anything but. When the technology came along that allowed me to play a synth with my guitar, I was able to dump some the gadgets. Unfortunately, guitar synth triggering was terrible, so then I just started playing it as a keyboard. So, it wasn't a turning point for me as a keyboardist, because I was already there as a guitarist. The "turning point" was midi-based multi-tracking with computers! At that point there was practically nothing I couldn't do - except be criticised by snobs for not performing with a real instrument. Getting back to your question, though, it was a blast. The synthesizer was the ultimate "candy." Yes, it was very, very cool to have one, unless, of course, you had a Mini-Moog. You couldn't keep 'em tuned.

Let's get around to the subject of influences. I know you hold Vangelis in very high regard, and some of your music certainly reveals his impact. Are there any others who, consciously or unconsciously, might creep into John Flomer's compositions?

Yes, I do hold Vangelis in very high regard, but I don't like everything he does. When I discovered him, he was doing, on vinyl, what was still trying to break out of my head. Kitaro's Silk Road had that effect too. Up until that time, I had never heard anything like it. I don't think I have been inspired or influenced by any other new age-type artist. Let's see....yeah, Wendy Carlos - I'm rewinding here - Fripp and Eno Evening Star. Maybe Enya, but not her so much (although I love her voice) as her producer- Nicky Ryan - he his responsible for her sound. And it's the production of her music that is the magic. But you see, we're all influenced by everything we hear anyway. Hip hop and Country influence me to stay as far away from it as I can. I'm more influenced by orchestral and film composers - Debussy, Hovhaness (Alan), Ralph Vaughn Williams, Bernard Herrman, Rozsa (Miklos), Jerry Goldsmith - Hans Zimmer, lately. I would like to say that it's not entirely the music of any of these people, but the places their music takes you, the visions and moods they produce. That is the magic of Vangelis. At his best he is connected with something deep, something primal - eternal even. Can't explain it, you just feel that he's plugged into something. He's my favorite Greek, by the way, if you know what I mean.

Who do you listen to currently when you want to hear some good music?

I don't listen to music often - only when I can really listen actively. I do listen to Vangelis. I have maybe a dozen of his albums. I like quite a few of the Spotted Peccary artists. Some orchestral albums, soundtracks...Oh, let me tell you this, though - I'm very aware of his (Vangelis) influence on me, so I make a conscious, active effort to avoid sounding like him. So if you think I do, forget it, it's me.

You released One, your first album, independently. Was that by choice?

Yes. I made a decision to leave a legacy for my son. I wasn't going to wait for some mouth with a cigar in it to say, "get lost." I did select a few labels to approach, but wasted no time waiting for their rejection letters.

What lessons did you learn from the business end of the first album?

It is very hard work to produce and market your own disc. You must be wealthy, connected, or posses the marketing "gift", or all of the above. I had none of those - except for desire. Just to give credit where it's due - I found far less foul behavior in the New Age biz, than rock 'n' roll. Also, I'm with Spotted Peccary because they are really decent people. I'm more of a pain in the ass to them than they are to me.

One and your first release for Spotted Peccary, Mysterious Motions of Memory, saw you recording as John Flomer's Primal Cinema. In your website bio you talk about the close relationship that you believe exists between music and the visual medium of film, even going so far as to infer that music is a visual medium. Can you tell us a little about what you mean by that?

It is a visual medium for me and others of my ilk, like you for example. This is why artists are artists, and accountants are accountants. I look at money very one dimensionally, but music occupies five or six dimensions, at least insofar as my limited intelligence as a human being will allow me to understand. You have the usual three physical dimensions where you hear boom boom, hiss hiss, la la; a fourth physical dimension of sound that occupies a cerebral space where it is translated, in our puny way, to realms beyond 3D, including, of course, time, spirit, soul, emotion; somewhere in the mix is a visual dimension. I'm a poor scientist, but you follow where I'm going with this. Anyway, it's all wavelengths - sound, vision, time, thought... Now when I say I visualize something, it may not necessarily be a visual picture as much as a visual feeling associated with something the music invokes which may have something to do with what I may be reading at the time, or something I've seen, or an image that came to me from God-knows-where. I can tell you one thing, in June 1998, I was on a ten thousand foot peak in Wyoming with my son. I saw a field of stars, planets, with a crescent moon that night in a way I'd never seen them before. It drove me to tears right there and even when I think about it now. I've been getting a lot of creative mileage from that night - "The Power of Stars," "To Ponder Many Heavens" - newer music as well. By the way, THAT'S influence!

Looking at it technically, when you see at how music is constructed its very similar to film. You have your characters as melodies, supporting characters as counter melodies, scene changes as verse chorus changes. You have your moments of drama, interludes, flashbacks, re-statements with variation, all re-inforcing the plot and/or informing subsequent plot development, and so on. Of course, this is something I never think about when I'm writing. It's just an interesting analogy to be aware of I guess.

Mysterious Motions of Memory featured more than a few rather dramatic tracks. On Night In The Vapor Jungle and your newest recording, Of A Stranger Light, you seem to be moving into a more restrained musical arena, where the drama is less in-your-face and the emotions are more subtle. Is this intentional?

Yeah, I see what you mean by restrained, but I'm not sure I perceive it that way. The music is surely getting more personal. The drama may only seem tempered, but I actually see more of it. I'm just exploring a darker region so I think it appears more muted than it is. As for it being intentional - not overtly so. I'm certainly aware, as a body of work develops, where it's headed. I was a little surprised by the lack of up tempo tracks on ...Vapor Jungle, but that seemed to be where it wanted to go so I didn't interfere....same thing with ...Stranger Light.

Does it mirror changes in your life in general (for example, getting older)?

It mirrors the fact that I'm going deeper inside myself - surely a result of depression. I guess I'll bring this up - depression can be used constructively as a tool of personal exploration, especially if your an artist. You can get to some interesting places, get different emotions working, see the world in a "stranger light." Many artists are afraid of being treated because they don't want to lose this edge. "Auroraflora" from ...Stranger Light came out of the condition, and it sounds anything but depressed.

Your music is, sincerely, very unique. I have described it as "new age music with an ambient sensibility." You use piano and swaths of melodies blended with overt electronics and a less structured compositional style. In a way, you've created a true hybrid music. How do you see your music in the spectrum of what is considered "new age and ambient"? Or don't you even bother to worry if it "fits in" anywhere?

By the way, the music is actually very structured. It just may not sound like it, which is a good thing, because in a great film, for instance, you don't notice the structure, you only follow the story. You're right, it's a hybrid style. I don't know if it's New Age - maybe a little. Certainly, there's an ambient plot. Very definitely orchestral, and all electronic, with rock peeking from the shadows and slinking around in there. I really don't worry if it fits in, except that I want people to like it. If I worried about it, the music would be different - what I thought people wanted to hear. I guess if I'm not true to myself as an artist, then what people would be listening to would really be a product, and I would be a fraud. There's a little blurb on my web site that states, "I am compelled to do what I do by something I'm not sure I understand. My relationship with Spotted Peccary has contributed to my lack of worry. With ...Vapor Jungle and ...Stranger Light, for sure, they just released what I gave them. They really don't interfere much with their artists' personal statements. Personally, I don't think I'm New Age. I'm an "electro-orchestral" artist.

You now are part-owner of a Japanese tea house and restaurant. On Of A Stranger Light, there are Far Eastern textures on some tracks. Do you have an affinity for Japanese culture, beyond the obvious (John's wife, Midori, is Japanese).

I am drawn to both Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, but I don't know why except that I've been mystified by those places since childhood. Maybe I'll have my DNA probed for the answer. It is a curious thing, though. Was it a connection to past lives, or am I just an exotic guy? I explored that idea as the concept behind Mysterious Motions of Memory.

Finally, where does music fit into your life? Do you view yourself primarily as a musician? Or is it just one facet to your life?

I'm not really an active musician anymore. I'm really a composer, arranger and producer. Oh, by the way, I don't want people to misunderstood what I do - I totally create this music from silence, I play the parts in real time or in multiple passes, I arrange it and produce it, then travel to Spotted Peccary in San Diego, where it gets recorded and re-produced. In a perfect world music would be the only facet of my life with everything else revolving around it, the exception is my family, of course, but that occupies a parallel timeline. Right now, I'm spread pretty thin, but I still find time to compose. I'd like to compose 20 hours a day if someone will just send me checks.

Album Credits

produced by John Flomer

executive producer: Howard Givens

music composed, arranged and performed by John Flomer

mixed and mastered by Howard Givens at Spotted Peccary Studios

album concept and original art by John Flomer

for she, with whom I orbit - Midori

Aria, Ian, Zaneta, Cassie, John Frederick, MaryAnn, Robert, Grace, Michael, Doug, Joel, Takaharu, Makoto, Randine, Sam, Byrd, all the kids, Max Snyler, Goldie, Little Johnny - come out, come out, wherever you are!), and Howard, JJ, Deborah, Greg.

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