Mario Diaz de Leon is an artist and professor from the US who has worked across different musical genres and styles as both composer and performer. We had the chance to talk with him over email, a conversation presented below with a few choice edits and formatting for clarity.
David Murrieta Flores (ACL): Hello Mario, please tell us a bit about your background and work, for readers who might be unfamiliar with your music.
Mario Diaz de Leon (MDL): Hello! I’m a musician based in NYC. I’ve been working concurrently in modern classical music, experimental electronic music, improvised music (in the trio Bloodmist), and metal (in the duo Luminous Vault). I would say that the breadth of my work is a reflection of my background. I’m originally from the Twin Cities, and started making music as a teenager in the 90s, playing in hardcore and metal bands, and also going to warehouse raves and creating electronic music. Around age 20 I became enamored with modern classical music as well as improvisation, and at that time I began studying formally and collaborating with ensembles, eventually completing a doctorate in music composition from Columbia University. Over the last 12 years I’ve made as many albums in my various projects and collaborations.
ACL: Your latest album, Heart Thread (2022), follows a series of themes that are made evident by even just glancing at the titles of your discography – theological concepts and the poetry of religion recur throughout. Why and how is religion important to your artistic practice?
MDL: I grew up without religion. My father was raised Catholic in Mexico City, and by the time he became a father he had renounced religion rather pointedly, due to the hypocrisy and corruption he witnessed in that church. My mother was raised Presbyterian in St. Louis (Missouri), and her perspective was agnostic and at the same time very open minded. Since we didn’t go to church, that also left me quite free to pursue my own path spiritually. From around the time I started playing music at age 10, I was very curious about religion and spirituality, reading books on comparative religion, mythology, and asking a lot of questions. By the time I started playing live in high school, I started having supernatural experiences in the form of spirit hauntings. These early experiences were rather traumatic, and at the same time had a big influence on how I approached writing music. So I would say they were pretty foundational, for better or worse. As I grew older the experiences changed in character and became much more positive, and alongside my study of music and spirituality, that’s continued to the present day.
ACL: It is common to speak of a difference between religion and spirituality, usually in terms of religion’s organizations or institutionalization against the individualized, more free-form path of spirituality. How do you see this difference, and how does it impact your work?
MDL: My first experience with religion was around age 12, when I spent time living with my grandparents in Mexico City, who were very devout Catholics. For various reasons, I came away from that experience pretty turned off by Catholicism, but still very open and curious about spirituality more broadly. I suppose my first experience with prayer was as a defense against the spirit hauntings, which I used in combination with votive candles of protective saints. A big change came around the time I was 21, when I started having very intense, spontaneous experiences that were oriented around Jesus Christ. That was much more significant, and over time it’s become more and more important to me. I would say it’s a kind of relationship, a very real one for which I am deeply grateful.
I understand my experience of the divine as centered on the transformative power of the unconditional love of God, which for me is often strongly personified in Jesus Christ, creativity, and relationships. I am utterly captivated by a Jesus-oriented vision of compassion for suffering transposed onto a cosmic scale, with a power to heal the deepest wounds, and contribute to the fulfillment of a society without scarcity. At the same time, my community is a secular artistic one, rather than religious – I don’t present my work as Christian. I understand my place to be a spiritually oriented artistic voice within secular society, rather than in a religious community. That said, I’ve attended church for extended periods of time and connected with church communities, most notably the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City, which is Episcopalian. I also research and read about the many thinkers and communities who I feel have truly progressive and inclusive values. These communities and ideas have helped me reconcile my own transformative, unconditionally loving experience of Jesus Christ with the destructive ideologies that have accumulated over the centuries, and persist today. Just a few examples would be Rosemary Radford Ruether, John Cobb, Alfred North Whitehead, the aforementioned Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and Forefront Church in Brooklyn. In terms of theology, I’ve found the process theology of Whitehead to be very inspiring, for its vision of an profoundly interdependent reality, where the divine and individuals are co-creative of each other. In terms of study and devotional practice, I’ve never limited myself to a particular faith tradition, on the contrary, I’ve always been drawn to comparative perspectives and practices that have been historically marginalized. For example, mind-body work has been a super important part of my life, and I’ve been fortunate to study integrative breathwork with Alice Wells, at Inspiration Consciousness under Jessica Dibb, and alchemical artmaking with Eliza Swann at The Golden Dome School.
ACL: As a live recording, but also musically speaking, Heart Thread seems to pick up on the intimate relation between uniqueness and repetition that is fundamental to any and all rituals. How did you conceive of this aesthetic approach?
MDL: With Heart Thread, I’m interested in exploring longer spans of time through performance. They are 20-25 minute songs that have peaks and valleys, which allow a lot of space and possibility for listeners to orient themselves in relation to the music, a lot of give and take. Back in 2006 I had experimented with expanding verse/chorus/verse structures into around six times the length. So a three minute song would become something like 18 minutes long, and the harmonies and melodies would unfold at a comparatively glacial pace, which I found really exciting. I only released one of those songs (“Gated Eclipse”) and played a handful of solo shows with heavily processed guitar and voice, but had always kept in mind the possibility of revisiting that somehow. So this time around, with Heart Thread, I was drawing from that experience, but with a strong rhythmic orientation.
Coming out of Cycle and Reveal, the idea was to create an electronic ensemble that I could perform solo, that would slowly unfold through the different sections of the song. On a moment to moment level, I’m infusing riffs with probabilistic and generative elements, which keeps things feeling live for me, and hopefully for the audience as well. Alongside the song structures, it brings an element of vivid immediacy that I had missed in earlier projects, when I was performing alongside pre-recorded audio tracks. Working with probability creates complex relationships with the other sound parameters – if there are two or three different instruments playing a riff, each with their own part, there are a lot of possible variations in terms of notes, rhythms, and tone color; I can tune those into something structurally meaningful, for that particular section of the song. So the music takes its time exploring these kinds of details, and at the same time, it’s always in the process of becoming, transforming from the intro to the verse, from the verse to the pre-chorus, etc. And that combination of vivid attunement to the present within the process of becoming, for me, is something beautiful. When everything flows I enter a mind-body space that feels like exactly where I want to be – it’s something powerful, connected to a deep well of source, full of subtle details, and pervaded by a sense of motion.
ACL: You refer to mystical experiences in the liner notes. However, given ritual’s role in religion, mostly as a stabilizing factor when it comes to meaning and experience, it stands in opposition to the mystic’s revelation. How does the aesthetic approach you describe deal with the tension between the unique of mysticism and the regularity of ritual?
MDL: I appreciate the question. The way the Heart Thread instrument is designed, it’s impossible to perform the piece the same way twice, so it’s always a unique realization of the song that changes from night to night. Also, one of the things I want to cultivate with Heart Thread is a music that gives a lot of space for listeners – physical space, mental and emotional space. It strongly suggests EDM/trance music through the repetitive synth riffs, hi-hats, and bassline, and the tension and release around the changes in sections. However there are no drumbeats, no kicks or snares, which gives it a kind of abstraction from that music, it doesn’t assert itself in a way that’s obvious. Also, the music takes its time to unfold relatively gradually, and that invites some degree of patience and easing of expectations on the part of listeners, and in turn offers a space of possibilities, an invitation to fill in the gaps. People might just lay back and listen, some people might dance to it, depending on how they feel compelled to respond.
ACL: With this in mind, what would your ideal listener experience from your work – the reassuring fixity of ritual or the sublimity of revelation?
MDL: An interesting question. I hope that over the course of a complete song, album, or performance, people feel like something significant has happened, that they’re not the same as they were when the music started. So yes! Something like a revelation. I think all of my music is structured like that, with the emphasis on narrativity through songwriting and sequencing of songs.
ACL: Cycle and Reveal (2019) was like an archaic labyrinth at the center of which was a great luminous mystery. The cover was like both a sigil and a map, a set of technologies to aid us in the knowledge of that blinding light. What is the connection between technology, music, and religion/spirituality for you? What is this Heart Thread a technology of?
MDL: Thanks for your kind words about Cycle and Reveal. I created Heart Thread out of a need to transpose that dimension of my chamber music into the electronic realm, as something I could perform live, while also keeping a strong element of improvisation. The more I play it live and in rehearsal, it becomes much more about processing and cultivating the mystical or psychedelic dimension of my own experience, which is made possible by what I described before about creating a space of agency for the listener. It’s a kind of co-creative experience, and I learn a lot from the process of rehearsing the music. The setup is pretty complex in terms of the relationship between the different elements, and the material is arranged very compositionally, they are structured songs. And since I ultimately play the pieces from memory, it takes a lot of rehearsal to sustain a continuous stream of right relationships, while also improvising within them. It can definitely fall apart, and it does all the time when I’m in the studio. But once it comes together, it’s amazing to experience that sense of being held through all of these peaks and valleys, because the music is always in the process of becoming, always revealing itself. And it generally works best when I’m playing it in front of an audience. That sense of flow is something I’d like to cultivate in all aspects of my experience, over days and weeks and years. I’ve stopped and started a lot of projects over the last 10 years, along with big changes in my personal life, and sometimes the experience of things ending or falling apart has been like a collapsing tower. So with Heart Thread I’m starting over with these riffs and their relationships, and it feels like I’m building a path forward, imagining larger spans of time. It’s a technology of flow, exchange, and attunement, and has helped me feel the presence of God in a grounded, real, and sustainable way.
ACL: It is interesting that this is your first fully electronic release. Conventionally speaking, it’d be your most technological album, which is why I would like to ask: are these (musical) machines the key to the aesthetic experience you seek or are they the threshold to it?
MDL: I’m not interested much in technology for its own sake, I’m more interested in the experience that the machines reveal. Of course, I do the tech stuff myself, I spent about a year designing and assembling the system that I use to make the music, but since finishing the tech side, I haven’t changed it very much or looked at the back end of things, I mostly stay focused on writing and performing. So, in the terms you are describing, I suppose the machines are the threshold to the experience, which is the sound itself, and the energy the sound creates with a receptive audience.
ACL: In this line of thought, would you say there is something perhaps innately religious or spiritual about machines used to make music?
MDL: I don’t think so. It really depends on the person or people using the machines, and their intentions. A lot of the machines used to make electronic music developed out of post-World War II surplus parts and military telecommunications research. Computer music was painstakingly developed using machines and programming languages that were designed for totally different purposes. So creative repurposing of military and commercial technologies out of artistic necessity has been foundational. Beyond that, I think it’s really about artistic intention. I would also add that acoustic instruments are also technologies, they are also machines that extend the body, and in that way I don’t see a difference with real-time electronic instruments.
I do think of my work with technology in a sacramental sense, but I don’t view it as as a bridge between something higher and lower, rather, it’s about enlivening and revealing the divinity that is already there. Luke 17:21 says “…look, God’s kingdom is inside you all.”
ACL: In Heart Thread, particularly in the second track, there are moments in which it develops into something akin to dance music. Given that most of your solo work is rather contemplative, it was interesting to feel another kind of connection to it. Would you say there is something bodily to this album? Perhaps even other works of yours?
MDL: I would hope so. I would agree that the dance element on Heart Thread is foregrounded much more than other releases, and certainly for longer stretches of time. At the same time, I think my music has always had qualities that are, if not dance-oriented, then certainly exuberant and physical. In a lot of my earlier chamber music, there are groove oriented sections, like “Sacrament and Labrys” on Cycle and Reveal, the metal-oriented drumming on “Mansion”, and I’ve been using electronic sub-bass tones in my chamber music since 2002. I’m still an active metal musician, and that music is totally oriented around physicality and movement. Which is to say, I understand the association of my work with contemplative states, and at the same time the dance element feels totally normal to me. There’s a quote by Teilhard de Chardin that I keep coming back to, which also relates to the use of time in Heart Thread – “matter is spirit moving slowly enough to be seen.”
In a way, Heart Thread was a conscious quality of life decision, so I could live with mind-body practice more fully, as performer and composer. I needed something to move to, day after day in the studio, as well as on stage. Luminous Vault is incredibly fulfilling in that respect, but I also feel compelled to create music with these machines that feel alive in a way that’s different from metal. Breathwork and creative alchemy have also inspired me to orient my compositional work towards live electronic music, and spirituality more generally has become much more about being in my body, listening to my body, along with all the contemplative things. A few other aspects that go along with that…I’ve been vegan for the last 7 years and I’ve been running since I was very young. Process theology teaches that all experiences are objectively immortal in God, but there is no subjective experience after physical death – the divine, cosmic gift is the here and now.
ACL: I’d like to start closing the interview by asking if you’ve ever had some sort of religious or mystical experience in your life. If so, did you find a musical aspect to it of some sort?
MDL: Yes, I have and continue to have mystical experiences. There are a number very powerful experiences I can recall that didn’t have a specifically musical element, and I’ve created music as a way to cultivate, process, and integrate the experience into the rest of my life. Other times I’ll hear a song or be at a concert, and have the experience of being transformed. In any case, my inclinations lead me towards both the musical and mystical, and they come together.
ACL: Thank you so much for your time, Mario. Is there anything you’d like to add or tell our readers before we finish up?
MDL: Thank you for your questions! I’m grateful to be able to share these experiences publicly after so many years, and it feels like the right time to do so. I would like to conclude with a caveat, that I don’t see mystical experience as an end in and of itself. It’s a gift that has to be integrated in a way that makes sense with everyday life, and that takes work. Speaking from personal experience, I think an overemphasis on mysticism entails many pitfalls, one of which is a kind of detachment from the world, or an avoidance of self. You may have heard the term “spiritual bypassing” – where people chase mysticism like a drug induced high, but when faced with a really challenging life situation, where they have to draw deeply from within to carry on, everything falls apart due to an underdeveloped sense of inner self. On the contrary, for me mysticism is, at its best, a calling to participate more fully in the world, through its unmediated experience of imminent divine grace and unconditional love.