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Breaking sound barriers: Composer Aaron Martin defies definition in his otherworldly take on modern music

Aaron Martin. Photo provided

Aaron Martin. Photo provided

Classically trained musician Aaron Martin always knew he wanted to make music, and he’s made it into an unconventional career. In two years, he helped compose a soundtrack for a critically acclaimed indie film, released two albums, has two more in the works and is eager for more.

Martin, 35, began playing music at age 11, switching between guitar and drums. In high school, he switched to cello, “which is kind of late for a classic instrument,” he admitted, “but I was determined.”

He took lessons through high school and studied the instrument in college with the aid of a Citizen Potawatomi Nation scholarship. He also began performing in orchestras.

After high school, he moved to Topeka from Silver Lake, Kansas, to study at Washburn University, where he graduated with a double-major in music cello performance and English writing in 2005.

“But I still had the idea that I wanted to create my own music,” he said. “So when I was still in college, I started recording my own music with a four-track recorder, and I loved that even more — that really gave me an idea of what I wanted to do.”

He’s been in Topeka ever since. He said he stays in the city because it keeps him connected with his family, and through them, his Native heritage.

He recorded his first album, Almond, which was picked up by Australian label Preservation in 2006. It featured dozens of instruments and ambient sounds. Cello, guitar, ukulele, tambourine, banjo, mandolin, electric chord organ, recorder, slide whistle, saw and glockenspiel can all be heard as well as tones and noises from items like a camera, pie tin, pocket watch, comb and toy school bus. By 2009, he had released three albums on Preservation.

He released Worried About The Fire on the Experimedia label in 2010, Chapel Floor on Sonic Meditations and Comet’s Coma on Eilean Rec. in 2014, as well as collaborations, singles, EPs and DJ mixes spanning 2013 to today with artists in the Netherlands; Australia; Portland, Oregon; Sweden; and Germany.

He and Swedish composer Dag Rosenqvist formed From the Mouth of the Sun in 2011, releasing their first collaboration, Woven Tide, in 2012. Their cinematic sound, blending acoustic and electric instrumentation including cello, piano, guitar, pump organ and banjo, grabbed filmmakers’ attention. In 2016, several tracks featured prominently in composer David Wingo’s score for the Jeff Nichols-directed film Midnight Special.

Aaron Martin and Swedish composer Dag Rosenqvist worked with film director Joshua Z. Weinstein for a year to compose the Menashe motion picture soundtrack. Photo provided

Timing is everything

Film director Joshua Z. Weinstein heard their work and contacted Martin. In January 2016, Martin, Rosenqvist and Weinstein began working together to score Menashe, a Yiddish-language American feature film about an Orthodox Jewish New York City grocery store clerk who fights to keep his son after his wife dies. The project was filmed in Borough Park, Brooklyn.

“He just contacted me out of nowhere,” Martin said of Weinstein. “He heard one of our albums. He was obsessed with it, and he had one track that he just kept playing over and over again.

“What’s interesting is that I watch a lot of movies, and I’d seen a documentary that he did. I just watched it in the middle of the night on PBS,” Martin said. “It was called Drivers Wanted, about taxi drivers in New York. So that was an interesting coincidence, because not many people saw that when it aired.”

The timing was right, as Martin and Rosenqvist had long been interested in working on an original score together.

A prominent, layered sound throughout the film is Martin’s banjo, which he plays with a bow. The result has no recognizable twang of the stereotypically jaunty instrument. It becomes delicate, bittersweet, morose, hopeful — and emotionally powerful.

“(Weinstein) just had a rough cut of it when he contacted us, but we were able to get in relatively early in the process for composers,” Martin explained. “So we were there for the long haul, all the way up to Sundance (Film Festival).”

Martin explained their creative process: “Dag and I both record separately and then send our ideas over to each other — I’m based in Topeka, Kansas and Dag is based in Gothenburg, Sweden. We have never met in person.”

It might seem strange to some, but, up to this point in his career, that’s how Martin has preferred to work with nearly everyone he’s collaborated with.

As a writer and composer, “I like having the space and time to think and work in my own environment, rather than feeling rushed in an unfamiliar studio,” he said. “After working together on quite a bit of music at this point, Dag and I are often on the same page about ideas despite having never met.”

They scored various rough cuts of the film into early December, 2016. In January 2017, the film debuted at Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, where the movie was picked up by American independent entertainment company A24 Films for U.S. distribution.

Menashe premiered July 28 in U.S. cinemas, earning more than $1.7 million at the box office.

In September and October, it premiered in France, Finland, Denmark, Switzerland and the Netherlands; in November, it
opened in Greece, Slovenia, Sweden and Poland; and in December, it debuted in the UK.

Stateside, the digital film is available for rent and purchase from online retailers like iTunes and Amazon, and Blu-Ray editions were released before Christmas. IndieWire film critic Eric Kohn named it one of the 10 best indie movies of 2017.

Continued success

In the meantime, Martin continues creating music. In September, his project From the Mouth of the Sun released Hymn Binding. The cover art was created by Minnesota artist Gregory Euclide, who has also created covers for Bon Iver.

In July, NPR said of the duo and the album single “Light Blooms in Hollow Spaces,” “If their mission in this instrumental miniature is nothing more than beauty itself, they have succeeded on a disproportionate scale.”

Another NPR review summarized, “The stirring arrangement for ‘Light Blooms in Hollow Spaces’ — taken from their third album, Hymn Binding — harnesses the possibility of electronic instrumentation and the warmth of acoustic sound into a resonant, breathtaking melody.”

In December, Martin and Nederlander Rutger Zuydervelt, aka Machinefabriek, released their collaboration Seeker.

“I also just finished up my first solo score for a short film, and that’s being submitted to festivals now,” he added.

He’s also finishing a yet-unnamed solo project he plans to release early this year.

“I did push it back a little bit because it was a really busy release year for me,” Martin said.

Soon, he’ll begin working on another solo project, tentatively scheduled for an LP release in 2019, and will package the record with a book of photography.

And, like he did with the Menashe film score, he records at his Topeka home, globally swapping files and ideas as projects come together, often making music with friends, collaborators, record labels and distributors he has yet to meet face-to-face.

Martin said he moved around a lot as a kid, so his connection to Kansas and the community has been important in keeping him grounded.

“I like it because it allows me to have a quiet space where I can just focus on music,” he said. “It’s been amazing to do what I want to do and not have to worry about anything else.”

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