It is likely that you are familiar with the music of Miguel Atwood-Ferguson. While you may not be familiar with the name of the composer and strings player from Los Angeles, if you have listened to modern American music or watched recent American television and movies, you have probably heard the sound of his bow playing across orchestral strings.
Quietly spoken and typically dressed casually in a faded t-shirt and sweatpants, Atwood-Ferguson is the modest force behind orchestrations and performances for a wide range of artists including Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Rihanna, Dr Dre, and the Roots. Over the last ten years, he has become an integral part of the west coast music scene, collaborating with artists like Flying Lotus, Kamasi Washington, and Thundercat, who are all signed to Flying Lotus’s label Brainfeeder. Bridging the genres of classical, jazz, hip-hop, and pop, Atwood-Ferguson, with over 600 recordings and more than 2,500 live performances under his belt, is the go-to musician for creating moments of instrumental beauty within complex musical landscapes.
In order to maintain his high level of productivity, Atwood-Ferguson has an extremely strong work ethic. He shares, during a video call from his fully-equipped home studio, that he has consistently worked between 10 and 22 hours per day for the last 20 years. He clarifies, “I am not addicted to work, I am simply very dedicated and driven.”
After the arrival of his son Sebastian in 2020, named after JS Bach, Atwood-Ferguson’s work hours have decreased to a reasonable six hours per day. However, he still manages to find time to be creative. “When my son is at school, I utilize his room to record my own orchestral pieces by looping and layering various string parts,” he shares with a grin. “I am constantly seeking new challenges and opportunities to learn.”
I have been involved in various projects such as coordinating a 60-piece orchestra to reimagine the music of beloved hip-hop producer J Dilla for the 2009 live album Timeless: Suite for Ma Dukes, creating string arrangements for Flying Lotus’s soundtrack for the 2021 anime series Yasuke, and most recently arranging and conducting an orchestral performance of the works of the late saxophonist Pharoah Sanders in collaboration with electronic producer Floating Points.
After 14 years, Atwood-Ferguson is finally releasing his debut solo album, Les Jardins Mystiques. The album, named after the “mystical gardens” that make up the diverse world of music, spans over three and a half hours and includes more than 50 tracks with various collaborators. These collaborators range from young jazz talents Domi and JD Beck, to 83-year-old Bennie Maupin, known for his collaborations with Miles Davis. The album explores a range of genres, from detailed contemporary classical to intricate jazz, textured ambient music, and hints of hip-hop and prog-infused synths. This is just the first volume of a planned three-part series that will eventually contain over 10 hours of music.
“I am not focused on winning accolades or gaining popularity,” states Atwood-Ferguson about his work. “My goal is to create something that I can take pride in. This album is not a means to make money, it is a genuine expression that has been brewing within me for quite some time.”
The original plan was to release a two-disc album that would have taken four years to produce. However, Atwood-Ferguson quickly realized that in order to fully showcase his unique sound, he would need more resources and a longer timeline. He explains, “I didn’t want to be constrained by the pressure of having to perfect a specific number of songs. Instead, I wanted to approach it as a laboratory where we could freely experiment.”
Atwood-Ferguson used his own funds of over $100,000 to finance studio sessions and arrange and collaborate on music. He accumulated 250 hours of recordings and spontaneous collaborations, which he then edited and manipulated. This approach was inspired by Quincy Jones, who famously went through over 800 songs during the Off the Wall sessions with Michael Jackson before settling on the final nine tracks. Atwood-Ferguson was also influenced by Miles Davis and his producer Teo Macero’s Bitches Brew sessions, where they recorded various ideas in the studio and later pieced them together to create a cohesive narrative.
Understanding a large amount of complex material may seem like a difficult task, but Atwood-Ferguson exudes a sense of peace and confidence in his pursuit of his passions, regardless of any obstacles. His 24 years as a Nichiren Buddhist likely play a role in this, as he discovered that his jazz idols Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter were also followers. He explains, “I chant up to five times a day and it’s so captivating. I always come away with courage.”
It could also be attributed to his upbringing and cultural background. The son of Steve Ferguson, a musician who played with Etta James and Ry Cooder, Atwood-Ferguson started playing the violin at the age of four and wrote his first orchestral composition at ten, which was performed by the Palisades Symphony. He was initially drawn to western European classical music, but later developed a passion for jazz during high school. He then found a sense of liberation in the political messages of 80s and 90s hip-hop. He does not consider himself a prodigy as his parents did not push him to excel in one specific area; they encouraged him to be well-rounded. He had diverse interests in sports, Lego, nature, and music. From a young age, he understood that true success comes from within and not from external validation.
Currently, success can manifest in various ways. One example is the release of a new album, along with his generosity towards emerging artists. He acknowledges the influence of his own mentors, such as LA producer Carlos Niño who connected him with talented individuals like Flying Lotus and hip-hop producer Madlib. As a result, he now offers free weekly lessons on Zoom to support others in the music industry and share his knowledge. This brings him a sense of fulfillment and satisfaction.
According to the artist, the progress of Volume 2 is at 50% and Volume 3 is at 25%. He also has multiple ongoing projects, such as an album showcasing the talents of the late Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, a film soundtrack, and collaborating with British woodwind player Shabaka Hutchings on an upcoming record. Atwood-Ferguson appears to be at his most creative stage. Does he ever have concerns about losing his inspiration?
The speaker expresses his strong belief that as long as he continues to evolve and develop as a person, his music will thrive and he will gladly invest in it. He humorously mentions if he has any anxieties about stepping into the limelight after spending so much time behind the scenes. Despite feeling youthful at 43 years old, he acknowledges that it is the right time to step forward.
He stops and says, “This is my declaration. It’s the most I have.”
The first volume of Les Jardins Mystiques is now available on Brainfeeder Records.