In one song, “The Possibility of Flight,” local band This is a Process of a Still Life twines the bend of a chord with chiming guitar melodies and crisp progressive drumming—all without a single vocal utterance regarding flight or possibility. This is the mystery surrounding instrumental music, where story is informed by instrumental cues and embedded in a wordless soundscape.
“It’s like using instruments as a voice in that sense,” says guitarist Scott Kennedy. “Something I really like about our music is it always seems to change at the right moment as if there would be lyrics there.”
For guitarist Ben Rouner, the absence of vocals is necessary to the idea of the band.
“I don’t want to spell it out for people,” he says. “I don’t necessarily want to describe a specific experience, you know, like love lost or heartbreak. I want [the listeners] to be able to relate their own experiences to it just through what they’re feeling from the music alone.”
But even keeping their music open to interpretation, members of This is a Process acknowledge that the better part of their artistic intent springs from a specific muse (vast as it may be): Montana’s landscape.
“Montana’s been my biggest influence in writing, especially Missoula,” says bassist Jason Ward. “It’s so majestic and just really inspiring—I would say more than any place I’ve ever been.”
This is a Process of a Still Life began its instrumental endeavor in the spring of 2003 after Rouner and Ward moved from Roanoke, Va., to the Missoula valley. After a few changes in lineup and a debut recording, the band recently finished its second album, Light, and is currently touring the country to promote its Sept. 20 release. Their five-week tour extends from Athens, Ga., through the midwest, with a stop in Missoula for their CD release party before heading toward the California coast. Gas prices being what they are since Hurricane Katrina, Rouner says that the band is struggling to keep its head above water financially, but so far they say they’ve been lucky with shows.
“Just for scope,” says Rouner, “we’re playing so many places that we’ve never played before and it’s been really great that we’ve had the crowds that we’ve had and the reactions that we’ve had.”
One strange success turned up in Dallas, Texas, when the band obtained a last minute gig at a Border’s bookstore after failing to lock down any other venue. Unrehearsed, they had to bring their noise level down a notch and slow the tempo to fit the mood of wandering book worms who turned out, Rouner says, to be surprisingly receptive.
Drummer Baine Craft, whose rhythmic background is in marching bands and the varied tempos of jazz, says that playing instrumental music for live audiences has some advantages over recorded efforts.
“It’s a little more energetic,” he says. “And whereas the album can’t always show if something is hard to do [instrumentally] or going to be emotional, it seems like it’s a little easier to communicate that live.”
The emotional aspect of Light may be up to listener interpretation, but Rouner and Ward both say that the key ingredient to recent compositions is hope. Along with current national crises, it’s been a year of personal tribulations for the band, including the death of their good friend and supporter Greta Wrolstad, who contributed photos to the CD insert .
“There’s just been a lot of personal issues with everybody, a lot of sadness,” says Ward. “At some point it was like, ‘Holy crap, can the year get any worse?’ [But] we’ve all pulled together and we’re not writing sad, sappy music because of that. This tour has been amazing for us to kind of focus on our lives…just taking a breather from everyday things.”
This is a Process of a Still Life’s optimism extends beyond songwriting. Despite a certain ignorance they’ve encountered on the road regarding life in Montana (“People expect that maybe in addition to doing music that we’re also big Unabomber supporters,” Rouner says, laughing) the band members consider it a bonus to be from a state identifiably different from other places. Furthermore, Missoula provides a niche for an instrumental band in a genre that’s not oversaturated, but at the same time boasts a sturdy enough support system to allow them room to grow.
“I’m not interested in making music that’s pretentious or artsy or has some high-minded lofty message,” says Rouner. “I just simply hope that I can create something that reflects that beauty I see in the world.”
And though some of that beauty may be in the context of darker times (hinted at by song titles like “All My Blessings Are a Curse” and “Constantly Under Surveillance”), it is the band members’ sentiment of hope and musical possibilities that gives instrumental songs like “The Possibility of Flight” meaning.
This is a Process of a Still Life plays a CD release party for Light Saturday, Sept. 17, at 8:30 PM, at the Crystal Theatre. Purrbot opens. $5.