We have a fancy name for what Michael Futreal has made of himself—an autodidact—which means he is self-taught. He has taught himself to be an outstanding musician, composer, and instrument builder. Truth be told, as I have gotten to know Michael over the years, I have learned that this description barely scratches the surface. As he explains: “I fundamentally don’t care about musical genre, but instead pursue a free-range approach of modal and impressionist ideas, branching out as takes my fancy. Nevertheless, since people love to ask ‘what kind of music do you play?’ I usually say things like interplanetary mountain music, rural space music, and such—playful terms meant to open more space than they delineate.” (Teach yourself more at michael.futreal.com).
His affinity with twentieth-century avant-garde jazz performer Sun Ra strongly influences the elaborate web Michael weaves in his music. “Sun Ra” writes Michael “was one of the most brilliant musical minds of the 20th century, completely iconoclastic. He’s a key inspiration for me because he so fundamentally did his own things, and they could include most anything you could imagine as music and many things you wouldn’t.” While Sun Ra claimed to have descended from the planet Saturn, more reliable sources tell us he was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama, as Herman Sonny Blount. Ra called his band his Arkestra, and his inspirational musical vision looked backward into Ancient Egypt and forward into science fiction and space exploration. Although little about their respective musical styles is similar, other than a shared spirit and taste for adventurous exploration, Michael makes music following nearly identical principles and paths.
Michael’s early musical awakening occurred when he first encountered the dulcimer. It was an especially fateful, fruitful discovery as it steered him, via libraries and used bookstores, down a path leading to English folk music. Michael describes the old time Appalachian music of his native region as “essentially English folk music that got left out in the woods to undergo divergent evolution.” So, he began teaching himself how to play these rustic string instruments so common in his childhood surroundings. When he discovered that his bank account was not deep enough for purchasing the instruments that would give him the tonal quality he sought, he decided to build his own using the natural materials of his environment. It’s not only the local mountain dulcimer that he has taught himself to build, but also chromatic dulcimers, tonehole flutes, and a unique stringed electric gourd (he calls it his “gourdtar”). He uses homemade instruments to produce, in his words, “music that evokes both the familiar and the otherworldly, projecting how they are, or can be, intertwined. If it’s mountain music,” Michael says, “I want it to be Martian mountain music.”
Michael speaks fondly of his early years in rural North Carolina, an environment where he was encouraged by his parents to cultivate what he calls his “maker mindset.” “When I was very young,” he muses, “I was quite taken with fantastic imagery in the movies, particularly the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen and his disciples. It wasn’t enough to enjoy the fantastic imagery of the movie worlds, however, I had to know how this kind of filmmaking worked so I could create worlds too.” He did learn and he now applies those lessons by mixing from a rich, colorful, multiple media palette (You can get a taste of his audio and video creativity at youtube.com/buckofutreal).
Since building his own recording studio, Michael has brilliantly crafted the Michael Futreal/Twang Darkly universe we know today. He records, produces, and distributes his work in ways that fall outside the boundaries of the standard commercial music business model. You see no talent scouts, record label promoters, or booking agents. Nearly all of his work is made
available online in a vast collection of digital formats. Material objects you can hold in your hands are also available at the Agora Borealis in downtown Shreveport.
Fortunately for us, the Shreveport artistic community is enriched by the presence of creative producers and makers like Michael Futreal and Twang Darkly. He presently sees his role in his adopted community with clear, bright eyes, saying “I think it helps any community to remember that serious, ambitious artists aren’t only from ‘out of town.’ We’re right here too, drawing attention from other arts folks around the world.”
Michael’s artistic standing has enabled him to be twice selected by highly regarded organizations as an Artist-in-Residence. When asked to explain the value of his Artist-in-Residency experience, he noted, “both of my residencies have taken place in nature preserve settings, and it’s very compelling to take part in the interpretive work intended to help folks more broadly feel the value of unspoiled natural settings. If I can create a piece of music and film that evokes the wonder of being in a particular landscape, that’s a role I can play in steering society towards being a bit less cavalier about seeing the world only as a pool of resources to be exploited.” Michael brought his rural space music aesthetic to the Red Rock National Conservation Area in Nevada in 2015. In 2017, he was in Sweden capturing images and sound samples to be used in upcoming pieces. He brings it all back home saying, “I hope my experiences encourage other Shreveport artists to seek out residencies and similar opportunities. When stories are told of local artists being invited to create outside of our community, that’s a reminder to Shreveport art patrons that we’re making a ‘scene’ here that they can help to reinforce and grow.”
Michael Futreal will be dropping a new solo recording called Woodshed this fall. Please dig deeply into this magical bag of gifts and tricks.