Sonos and The North Face launch new station Never Stop Exploring, with soundscapes from Wilco’s Mikael Jorgensen

Listeners will be able to experience the great outdoors wherever they are through exclusive content on the new station

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Sonos and The North Face have teamed up to launch an exclusive new station, Never Stop Exploring.

The partnership combines each brand’s strengths in the worlds of sound and exploration, and will give listeners the opportunity to experience the outdoors no matter where they’re tuning in from through a range of exclusive content.

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Never Stop Exploring features nine different soundscapes created by composer and multi-instrumentalist Mikael Jorgensen of the Grammy Award-winning band Wilco. Jorgensen has weaved field recordings made during the filming of some of The North Face’s global expeditions into his own musical scores. The soundscapes will take listeners all across the world – from the Himalayas to California’s High Sierra, and from Ethiopia to Japan’s Shomyo Falls.

The station will also feature narration from the athletes, including Alex Honnold, Hilaree Nelson, Matty Hong, and Emily Harrington, that went on those journeys themselves, transporting you deeper into their incredible voyages.

We caught up with Mikael Jorgensen to learn more about the making of the soundscapes. Check out our Q&A with him below.

Mikael Jorgensen wilco
Mikael Jorgensen CREDIT: Harper Point

How did you try and bring each location – including their unique characteristics or dangers – to life in the soundscapes you created? 

Mikael Jorgensen: “I started by watching the films of these expeditions and immersing myself in these remote places and the athlete’s experiences there. Then I went through all the field recordings (20TB worth!)  looking for interesting sounding moments – hammering pitons, the metallic clinking of carabiners, cams, nuts, and other climbing gear on their racks, wildlife, waterfalls, crunching snow, yak bells, and the invisible element that connected all of these adventures: the wind.

“I wanted to capture the experience of the adventure by just using the sounds that were captured on these expeditions. I wanted to avoid using a lot of dialogue to see how far I could get with just utilizing the found sounds and then supporting them with musical elements and movements. I would then choose a style or mood that underscored the overarching spirit of the adventure.

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“As the project developed I became so charmed and enamoured with the personalities of these athletes and their obsessive pursuit of the objectives at hand that I made the focus more on them telling these stories using their voices.”

How did the field recordings influence which direction each of your compositions took? Did you use them as a foundation and build around them, or bring them into the tracks later? 

“For ‘Sawanobori’, I took the sounds of hammering pitons and used them as percussive, rhythmic elements.  I did the same with the different ‘flavours’ of waterfall sounds and similarly used them as compositional elements. You can hear this quite clearly around 1:15. Once I had these percussive elements working together I wanted to find an instrument that would have some relationship with either rock/water/vegetation and landed on a beautiful sample library of a lithophone, which is a xylophone that has stone bars instead of the traditional wood or metal. It’s a rich, deep and inspiring sound to play and I just allowed the feeling to lead me and improvise while thinking about the kind of focus one would need to climb a wet, slippery, mosquito-infested rock wall while hundreds of thousands of gallons of water rush past you each minute.”

In ‘Thanks For The Beta’ you can really sense the journey the climbers go on in the melodies and composition. Can you talk about how that track came together and what your vision for it was? 

“Both Alex Honnold and Emily Harrington seemed to be having a really delightful time climbing The Incredible Hulk, so I looked to a style that had a carefree yet focused feel. I settled on the bands Neu!, Can & Kraftwerk as points of reference to jump off from to create a sense of purpose while simultaneously conveying the buoyant, spacious experience of being up high in the mountains.

“It seemed best to leave space for the dialogue to poke out from time to time and use the natural pace of the dialogue to run in tandem with the music. It felt evocative and cinematic to put these synthetic textures underneath the sound of Alex and Emily continuously making decisions to find the next hold, what technique to use, etc. I looked for moments where Emily and Alex were cheering each other on and tried to convey the quiet intensity of a climber sandwiched between the rock and the sky. In the middle section, I used a particularly sonorous clank from a cam on Emily’s rack, sampled it,  and then layered this new ‘cam-piano’ along with a classic Fender Rhodes electric piano.  The effect was pretty hip. The bass part is doubled with an upright piano there as well and I really liked how that sounded.

“Even though I wasn’t on these adventures, I spent a lot of time with them in their tents, on walls, on glaciers, in airplanes, in the desert, which was an unexpected, and frankly welcome escape during the end of quarantine. I got to know these athletes and their thoughts and feelings about these adventures under the most unique circumstances.”

What were the challenges you faced in making these soundscapes really reflect the athletes’ stories and experiences? 

“It was important to me to try and find the core story or experience that defined each film.  In ‘Pitumarca’ there were several teams climbing and putting up new routes simultaneously and it felt like a party so I thought the music could try and reflect this. I loved the sound of the vocals all chopped up beyond intelligibility and yet, they still sound and feel like communication.  Abstract beta perhaps?  (That should be my new band name: ‘Abstract Beta.’)

“It was the best challenge to have to come up with new ideas almost every day.  This was the fastest I’ve ever worked in my life and it was kind of glorious. There wasn’t time for self-doubt – once there was an idea, there was commitment. Adopting this perspective really kept the energy moving forward. This way of working felt in sync with the way these climbers approached their craft with speed and daily progression.”

How do these soundscapes being composed for Sonos Radio – rather than a more visual project – change how you approached the tracks? 

“I love what James Pearson has to say about this in his introduction to ‘Towers Of Tigray:’ ‘Sound and music evoke an experience in a way that is completely different from images. It’s a physical and emotional expression, like climbing is.’

“One of my favourite details of this piece is when James and Caro’s son Arthur seems to say ‘I love rock’ around the 5:00 mark. I don’t know if that’s what he actually said or meant but it seemed too sweet not to include. It’s a wonderful power to be able to shape and tell a story using just music and sound. In order for these compositions to be ‘successful’, they’ll require a participant: The Listener. And as a listener, you get to build the picture in your mind and each one will be totally different but no less valid, whether you understand the technical nature of climbing or not.

“I wound up listening to these a lot.  I’d get done with a section and then would say to myself, ‘OK, now what should happen?’ and I’d go looking for good dialogue, or sound design elements like skis squeaking through snow or the sound of the helicopter which just dropped you off, flying away. ‘Skiing Lhotse’ was one of the more traditional narrative-based approaches. This achievement by Hilaree Nelson and Jim Morrison was so inspiring that I wanted to figure out how to condense three-plus weeks of toiling up to the summit of Lhotse and then skiing down in 9 minutes. There was so much great stuff to work with: yak bells, burning evergreen branches in a pre-climb ritual, the sound of snow and rock crunching under ski boots, glacier water rushing, and the ever-present invisible character: The Wind. This story was so compelling in chronological order, that I used far more dialogue and sound design than music and generally tried to stay out of the way so as to let Jim and Hilaree tell this story in their own voices.”

What do you hope listeners take away from or feel when they listen to these compositions?

“I would hope that listeners become inspired to try things that exist just outside their comfort zones. Experiences like these, just outside your comfort zone, are where you really learn something about yourself. Whether it’s an utter success or an abject failure: You won’t regret it if you try your best. At least, that’s been my takeaway from having spent this much time listening to and watching these inspiring people going for it. I’d like to say thanks to SONOS and The North Face for having me on this wild, weird and wonderful project.”

In a press release, Dmitri Siegel, Sonos Radio’s VP of Content, said: “What we’ve created with the Never Stop Exploring station on Sonos Radio is so much more than the reimagined audio itself. The creativity of Mikael Jorgensen combined with the openness of the athletes reminiscing on their experiences has allowed us to create something sonically adventurous, offering fans and outdoor enthusiasts a truly immersive listening experience.”

Never Stop Exploring premieres today on Sonos Radio and Mixcloud. Sonos Radio is available in 16 countries around the world, including the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Sweden, Ireland, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, Belgium, Austria, Switzerland, Norway, and Denmark.

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