An Interview With Miguel Atwood-Ferguson

Miguel Otarola speaks to The Brainfeeder maestro and multi-instrumentalist about how he blossomed into his own with his 3.5-Hour odyssey, 'Les Jardins Mystiques Vol. 1', learning to be comfortable...
By    November 28, 2023

Image via Hannah Arista

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Five years ago, Miguel Otarola cried watching A STAR IS BORN in theaters for the first time.

In our selfish quest to know everything, we have reached a civilizational breaking point where the daily intensity of news and opinions is so strong that it’s become worryingly difficult to register what is real, what is perverse, and what we care about in the first place.

Bitter and twisted politics, bigotry and the never-ending pursuit of wealth are tough ailments to live with and acknowledge. If you’re reading this, you know that music helps more than anything. But finding silence – pure and grounding silence – seems next to impossible.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson – the conductor and multi-instrumentalist involved in some of the most cherished jazz, R&B, and electronic projects of the last decade-plus – is a fierce advocate of silence. Earlier this year, when he conducted what may be the first and last performance of Promises, the 2021 piece by Floating Points and Pharoah Sanders, he ended the concert by holding his hands up for an extended pause like the one found on the recording.

“I’m just holding up my arms for 40 seconds,” Atwood-Ferguson demonstrated to me over Zoom last month. “Twelve thousand people… Everyone was almost completely silent for that whole time.”

“It was maybe the most amazing, magical moment of my life,” he said from his home in L.A.’s Eagle Rock neighborhood, where he lives with his fiancée and 3.5-year-old Sebastian (named after one J.S. Bach). Atwood-Ferguson, 43, wasn’t much older than Sebastian when he started playing violin. He grew up in Topanga Canyon; his father was a professional musician, his mother a teacher and art lover. After getting a degree in classical viola, he immersed himself into L.A.’s scene of session players and composers.

Today, his career as an arranger, writer and performer spans hundreds of collaborations and credits. There are big artists like Mary J. Blige and Seu Jorge. Perhaps most foundational are his contributions to the Brainfeeder label, where he has worked closely with Flying Lotus, Thundercat, Hiatus Kaiyote and others.

His debut album, Les Jardins Mystiques Vol. 1, was released on Brainfeeder last week. At 52 songs spanning 3.5 hours, the record is longer than his labelmate Kamasi Washington’s The Epic. It’s better to treat Les Jardins Mystiques – French for “the mystical gardens” – as its own ecosystem, one you can enter freely and from any direction. Its songs, some of which were recorded live in concert, capture Atwood-Ferguson and his collaborators swaying around like dandelions in the breeze.

The vast amount of warm and crackling jazz cuts, dreamy piano performances and high-contrast synth escapades on this album makes it wrong to highlight just a couple of its tracks. Their titles are culled from languages and cultures that have spanned civilization, including Spanish, Sanskrit, Hebrew, and Japanese. Listening to it in full, as I did once, is a long but eye-opening experience, not unlike watching Martin Scorcese’s own 3.5-hour epic, Killers of the Flower Moon.

Atwood-Ferguson spent more than 10 years recording the album with players as mighty as Ambrose Akinmusire, Carlos Niño, DOMi and JD Beck, Jeff Parker, and Austin Peralta, the jazz prodigy and Brainfeeder artist who died in 2012 at 22 years old. (Brainfeeder recently announced a reissue of his only album for the label, Endless Planets, due out in February.) Having amassed over 500 hours of recordings, Atwood-Ferguson says a second and third volume in the Jardins Mystiques series will come in the future.

“We all have that sense of discovery,” Atwood-Ferguson said of the more than 50 musicians on the album. “It’s a positive thing that we even have the ability to question and to challenge ourselves.”

Our Zoom call took place three weeks before Les Jardins Mystiques Vol. 1 was released. Like the album itself, it was long, exploratory and often quite spiritual. Atwood-Ferguson spoke about silence, his view of co-creation and his theory behind “Miguel’s Happy Dance” by Thundercat. Read the edited and condensed interview for POW below.

You conducted Promises at the Hollywood Bowl [in September]. I was one of the sad people that did not get to see it, so you have to tell me how that experience was.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Oh, man. It was my favorite concert that I’ve been a part of, and for a couple of different reasons. One of the reasons being that it celebrated silence. I didn’t remember this. I only saw Pharoah play two or three times live, and I hung out with him for one hour once at my friend’s house, and we had an amazing conversation. I forgot that at the end of his concerts, for decades, he would end with silence.

I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for the last 24 years. In the particular sect of Buddhism that I practice, our way of meditating involves chanting. It’s not silence, but it evokes silence and it evokes stillness. I’m very comfortable with silence and I appreciate it, and I actually see it as something that needs to be part of the equation of wherever it is we want to progress as the human species. I think we need to have silence to decompress, to process, to be able to be in dialogue with something that’s bigger than our ego and bigger than our joys and bigger than our heartbreaks and conversing with the multiverse.

When I listen to your new record, it achieves that kind of transcendence. That Buddhist practice, it sort of makes its way into the music.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Most people, when they think of Buddhism, they think of monks and robes or like a fat Buddha or something, and that’s all cool. But this particular sect [Soka Gakkai], there’s no robes. It’s all lay Buddhism. Just common everyday people. And who got me into it was Wayne [Shorter, who died in March] and Herbie [Hancock]. They’ve been practitioners for almost the last 50 years. I was completely obsessed with them in high school, and I’m still completely obsessed with them.

It has been an amazing practice. I’m 24 years in and I’m very proud of it. But I don’t proselytize and I don’t feel dogmatic. I feel like I’m lucky that I found a practice that resonates with me.

What was your original vision for Les Jardins Mystiques Vol. 1? Was it pretty similar to what you ended up with?

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Yeah, just a lot shorter. It started off as a double album. The way I see creating art is, I want to be a co-creator with whether you want to say the multiverse or God. I like to think about what magic might be and I want to be a co-creator with it. I want to be a facilitator for my perception of what magic might be. I really, to my core, think that everyone is magical. The more that I inspire or cultivate my own magic, it’s going to sympathetically vibrate in people throughout antiquity, and it’s going to do its magic.

I was inspired by Quincy Jones talking about working on Off The Wall with Michael [Jackson]. Quincy said that they went through something like 819 or 823 songs before choosing the songs for the album. That really helped me, because I’m not trying to be popular with this album. I’m not trying to win awards. I’m not trying to do anything other than share the best authenticity I can come up with.

The concept of Les Jardins Mystiques is that I think that everyone in everything is its own mystical garden. I don’t think there’s any limit to the potential value and perspective – good, bad, and ugly – that can come from each mystical garden.

How far back do the recordings stem?

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: The first official recording session was with my buddy Austin Peralta, the pianist, and that was from 2011. That’s the first recorded thing that made it onto the album. I think there might be some things recorded before then that might make their way onto volume two or volume three.

You see yourself as a co-facilitator, but this album is 3.5 hours long under your own name. How did you put yourself more front and center?

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: I think my main thing is doing this as a producer and a composer. I do think I am my own artist. But when I say being a co-creator, to be really clear, yes, a co-creator with other human beings, but what I’m meaning is a co-creator with God. A co-creator with the spirit of magic and the spirit of life itself. That’s the particular mindset that works for me.

I want to bring enough accountability and I want to bring enough singular vision – this is what’s really speaking to me – but do it in the context of it being a co-creation with the bigger picture transcending this body. What that means is being able to be flexible enough with the people that I’m making music with and making sure to not just leave room, but cultivate their magic.

What does your album, this first collection, mean to you, then?

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Freedom. Yeah. It’s like my activism. I feel like everyone’s a piece of the puzzle. Nelson Mandela has a saying: “No one person has a monopoly on truth.” I don’t think we need to all be the same. I think when we add up any good intentions we have for ourselves and our communities, I think it’s a beautiful salad that’s created.

Given that it’s a lengthy work, do you have a particular idea for how you’d like people to approach it?

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Yeah, however they like. People don’t need to have a certain experience as far as listening to it. I didn’t create it where you can only receive it if you listen to it from the beginning until the end uninterrupted.

I did that once.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: Wow.

“Miguel’s Happy Dance.” What is that dance?

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: I am curious as hell, Miguel, because I don’t know. Because I love [Thundercat] so much and because I feel so much love from him … I haven’t asked him yet.

I hope he sees this, then.

Miguel Atwood-Ferguson: I have theories, but I don’t feel strongly enough about my theories to jump to a conclusion. I will say – and I don’t know if this is applicable or not – but I have experienced this a lot: Some people don’t understand my positivity, or they might not understand my idealism or my effusiveness. Sometimes I feel like that gets labeled as a “happy dance,” and that there might be some disingenuousness with that. I can tell you [gestures at himself], this is not disingenuous. This is the best I got.

I wonder if he thinks that I’m just putting a positive spin on something. I wonder, I wonder. I’m not going to come to any conclusions until I talk to him I have not felt compelled to talk to him yet about it, but I look forward to doing so.

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