Jon Hopkins' Expanding Universe
With Singularity, electronic composer Jon Hopkins uncovers a joyful sense of connection at the center of all things. "The idea of singularity is the idea that every atom in the universe exists in the same place, this infinitely small point," he says.
First off, let's get this straight: Jon Hopkins is not especially worried about the robots taking over.
In fact, he says that the futurist concept known as "singularity," i.e. the day when artificial intelligence becomes self-aware and capable of programming itself, is not at all what he meant by the album title. (Though he admits that the title track does have an apocalyptic feel to it.)
"The title to me is more sort of the universal idea of the opposite of separation," he says. "Really, [the] singularity is togetherness, possibly like pre-Big Bang. It's the idea of every atom in the universe being in the same place, this infinitely small point. It's just a nice thought in a very separated world."
Singularity is Hopkins fifth full-length solo album, coming after collaborations with Imogen Heap, Coldplay, the Scottish folk artist King Creosote, and the ambient pioneer Brian Eno. It also follows Hopkins intense engagement with psychedelic therapy, a guided use of mind-altering substances -- in his case psilocybin mushrooms -- to achieve self-knowledge and healing.
The album is, as a result, a journey that composer and listener take together. "Singularity goes through a process of purification and signification. If you listen to it, you can hear quite a chaotic and disruptive beginning and by the end, you're in such an opposite zone. The final track is simple piano, acoustic instruments, and nothing else. I think it transitions through those states in hopefully quite an organic way."
Continuity and Contrast
Hopkins asks that listeners experience Singularity straight through in a single sitting if they can, not so much because it's a continuous narrative, but because it contains so many contrasts.
"I love that tension between machine sounds and organic sounds," he says, and also the contrast between abrasive sounds and soft sounds." He points towards the end of the opening track, "Singularity" where intricate rhythms and lattice-work keyboard figures give way to pure grinding distortion, which in turn melts away gently arpeggiated piano chords. "I love the way those two worlds of sound, if you place them next to each other, they can kind of light each other up," says Hopkins. "That's why it's so important to me that the record is a single listen thing. If people have time. Because they'll get these contrasts."
The tension between mind, body, and spirit also gets a workout in Singularity, as the thumping dance beats of the album's first half give way to serenity and meditation in its resolution. "I think there's a spiritual element to dancing in general. There's a reason why in every culture, dancing seems to be in our DNA," says Hopkins.
"There's never been a time when there hasn't been ritualistic dancing, and I think clubbing is our modern incarnation of that. And the repeating bass drum that you hear on the new tracks, and so techno influence, provides that, but that doesn't mean you can't simultaneously be hypnotic and spiritual in a different way. You could look at the whole thing as a form of meditation really, at first energetic and then more cerebral."
Finding the Sounds
Hopkins started this album, like all his albums, without preconceptions or an advanced plan. "In the early stages, you really don't know what you're doing. Starting an album like this is bewildering and difficult," he admits. "But really you're looking for a sound."
At this beginning stage, Hopkins sits down, by himself, and experiments with sounds. "You're looking for something that inspires melody. I'll sit there, and I'll be playing with something and I may hit on a sound that inspires me. If I hit one, that's it, then I put a second sound on top of the first sound and then it begins that way. Later, when the structures are complete, that's when it becomes way more fun. Then you can start pushing the sonics a little bit more. It becomes really exciting."
Singularity took about two years in total, though Hopkins says the work wasn't continuous. Towards the end, he brought in Cherif Hashizume to help him mix tracks.
"The tracks became incredibly complicated on a technical level. There would be up to a 100 plus tracks, which is really quite difficult to manage" he says. Hashizume helped him simplify and combine those tracks into 20 or so, then took them away to work on them. "When they came back to my studio, all these things had been unlocked because he'd fixed the sounds. He'd just made everything sound amazing, and that inspired me to take it to the next stage."
For past albums, Hopkins had worked alone from the first note to the final mix, and he says that bringing Hashizume in made it much less isolated. "For Immunity, I felt like I was limping through the finish line. With this one I exactly kind of felt like I was jogging comfortably," he says.
The Science of Psychedelia
Singularity is heavily influenced by Hopkins' explorations of psychedelic meditation, an area of fascination for him over the last several years. "As I read more and more about the power of certain naturally occurring molecules, I became fascinated in trying to experience them in a natural setting, a ceremonial setting, with the right integration," says Hopkins. It wasn't about music, particularly, he says. "It's more like these were things I was interested in to try and expand and improve my experience of being alive."
Hopkins followed the work of the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (or MAPS), an organization advocating for scientific study of psychedelic substances. Research has been slow and expensive since substances like LSD, MMDA and psilocybin mushrooms are all Schedule 1 drugs, illegal for most uses and heavily restricted even for scientific study. Yet even so preliminary trials have shown dramatic impact on illnesses including PTSD, depression, and addiction.
"It's funny. psilocybin mushrooms are not toxic to the body, and alcohol is toxic and yet alcohol is legally okay by everyone," says Hopkins. "They're demonized with the maximum legal penalty, so I think people are just starting to create some sort of sensible reassessment of these things."
"The first thing that needs to happen is the rescheduling so that they can be studied easier. Currently, it costs an insane amount of money just to get any amount of psilocybin at all, just because of the legal hurdles, to do research," he says. "This is going to be science based so we need to open that up and let science lead the way."
Hopkins says that psychedelics unlocked insights that he couldn't access before, including a revelation, as one of his track titles suggest, that everything is connected. "Having that revelation of connectivity, it's just so healthy," he says. "It makes you realize more about how you affect other people, how environmental actions affect everyone, and there is no isolated action. Everything has a ripple effect."
And, if you listen to Singularity, you can get a glimpse of that connected experience yourself, he says. "I'm transmitting information that I got through that mushroom to my listeners, and they are experiencing something that came from that mushroom themselves, whether they take it in or not, I think it's quite a beautiful idea, a lovely spreading of content."
- Jon Hopkins: Singularity (music review) ›
- Breathe This Air: An Interview With Jon Hopkins - PopMatters ›
- An Interview With Jon Hopkins ›