An experimental musician finds a dreamy new voice on the island of Hawaii
Composer M. Geddes Gengras came to Hawaii to get away from it all — finding something deeper within himself in the process.
The island of Hawaii is as rich geologically as it is culturally. Also referred to as the Big Island, the locale is perpetually growing bigger thanks to the hardened lava of the active Kilauea volcano. One of five volcanoes on the island, the lava flowing from Kilauea prolongs the island’s lifespan and expands the region’s circumference, all while simultaneously retaining a specific spiritual significance. Kilauea is the pit of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of fire. Among native Hawaiians, Pele is both revered and respected.
This connection between the island’s cultural history and the natural world is something inhabitants of Hawaii island learn at an early age. Hawaiian hula teacher Micah Kamohoali’i spent his life teaching native Hawaiian’s about this order. He ascribes the uniqueness of Hawaii island to its variety: “[With] 11 of the 14 biomes on Earth … you can go from erupting lava flow, drive about 15 minutes away, and you’re in a wet, dense rainforest.”
Growing up on Hawaii island, Kamohoalii got to know the land through his family, who taught the creation story as an inseparable aspect of the landscape. He learned that the second child of the gods was stillborn, and was buried, producing the first kalo plant — a staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet. The third child was the first Hawaiian. Kamohoalii explains that “every inch of the land you live on is your family.”
For Hudson, New York based composer M. Geddes Gengras, this dynamic was more than apparent on his trip to the island in 2017. Of the many things he took away from his visit, one fact remained especially imprinted on Gengras’s memory: The island of Hawaii felt like a “living” thing.
Originally, Gengras had come to Hawaii island to unwind, but his vacation took on a more meditative role when, 10 days before his planned departure date, his dad passed away. “I just had a feeling that it would be a heavy trip,” Gengras said. “I [needed] the distraction [of composing] … on that trip. I’m also a pretty bad insomniac, especially in times of duress, so I needed something to do at night.” While he would spend his days relaxing on sandy beaches and exploring the island, at night he would record alone in his hotel room, headphones on and peering out onto the dark sky.
Gengras began making music while a resident of Los Angeles. Starting out in 2005, Gengras performed in several different projects over the course of his career, beginning his musical ambitions with tape manipulations before eventually moving onto synthesizers and using his given name as a moniker. Gengras took to his introductory synth, the Moog Rogue, because of his love for avant-pop band Stereolab and because “it looked like the easiest thing to play.” But he would later change his setup, and then change it again, continually opting for new techniques, embracing an element of chance in his music. This manifests itself not only in Gengras’ instrument selection but also in how he interacts with each environment he inhabits. Prior to Hawaii, the last time his travels produced an LP was while he was in Jamaica, recording with psychedelic band Sun Araw and the Jamaican vocal group The Congos on what would become an LP entitled Icon Give Thank.
The work of writing music tied to a specific location became what Gengras referred to as “a world-building exercise.” Within the confines of one world, you create another, he said. “It’s creating an environment — there’s colors and textures and tastes and smells. For me it’s best when it’s environmental, it’s something you can be inside of.”
And on the island of Hawaii, inside a hotel room, Gengras ended up producing an album unlike anything he had ever recorded before. Hawaiki Tapes is magnificently simple and yet full of melody. While most of Gengras’ discography is composed on modular synthesizers, on Hawaiki Tapes Gengras used the Korg Volca FM, a tiny throwback to the humble Yamaha DX7 synth; the “quintessential ’80s to early ’90s synth” Gengras said, with “really corny, glassy pianos and bells and xylophones.” As an even smaller, cheaper instrument, the Volca FM packs the DX7’s bright, exotic timbres into a plastic box the size of a desk calculator. Hawaiki Tapes is an exercise of all that the Volca FM can do, largely unedited and recorded exclusively at night.
“The melodies and songs themselves were just plucked out of thin air. It really was me just sitting down, playing some notes and seeing where it led. My last record, Interior Architecture, was like six or seven years’ worth of material, taking a minute here, 20 seconds there… [Hawaiki Tapes] was definitely a step way in the other direction.”
The result includes dreamy, minimal sounds, at once relaxing and pensive, evoking serenity and yet longing. Gengras said the music seemed “hyperreal” to him, its volume seemingly louder in contrast to the ambient wash of island sounds around him. This sensitivity to noise made Gengras pull back and create something more gentle, more delicate and something seemingly mystical.
“Going out and soaking in all of these majestic vibes, plus trying to process this death, it was like a meditation practice at that point,” Gengras said. “Spending time in those landscapes really soaks into your blood, and it has to come out some way. All those things made the music what it is. … All these weird, arbitrary little decisions you make become this sort of mythological framework for your art. … I think most people who make stuff are trying to express things that are bigger than ourselves, or bigger things inside of ourselves that we have a hard time putting language to. And we sort of create these interior mythologies that give meaning to this sort of stuff.”
Gengras tapped into a special place on Hawaiki Tapes, channeling the rain, the waves, the lava and his loss into one of his most prominent releases. Fittingly, Gengras named the album after the ancient Polynesian motherland.
Whether he intended for it to happen or not, Hawaiki Tapes became one of Gengras’ most storied releases, and he’s better for it. A contemplation on life and the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of it; an exercise in minimalism and an understated tribute to family; a reflection of an awe-inspiring island and the calm that it affords to creatives. Much like the lands of Hawaii are linked to the island’s mythology, Gengras’s Hawaiian excursion would be forever linked to the artist’s identity, through an artifact that others could experience, like a window into another world.