“I’m a bit of a music technology omnivore…I have always loved learning new instruments and new ways of working with sound. The endless fascination for me is in how different instruments and interfaces facilitate different modes of musical expression and different sets of aesthetic possibilities based on the materiality and the logics they present. If I roam around genres it is probably an outgrowth of that sort of multi-instrumental, multi-pronged, technological curiosity”
Photo credit: Bruno Destombes
. what’s your current favorite piece of gear?
Well, I love different instruments and tools for different purposes. I am especially appreciating my Vermona DRM-1 mk III these days. It really is a singular sort of drum machine. Many drum machines follow the classic TR-808 and TR-909 in tone or logic, and I like that the DRM goes its own way. Beautiful tonality, tunable percussion, and new sounds that surprise me even after some years. With its capacity for tuning and its punch, its voices really sing in a mix.
. what are you listening to? what music-making people or communities particularly interest you?
As I write this, I’m listening to Miles Davis’s The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions. In a Silent Way is my favorite album. Every so often I enjoy going back to the sessions to listen to the ideas in motion around what eventually congealed in the album’s final form.
In general, I try to keep an ear toward jazz and improvised music, as well as some old and new techno, house, and electro; also pop and hip hop that stretches the parameters of what we might hear as popular vs. experimental. I guess a shorter way of saying this is that I pay attention to where improvising and studio craft are at, across genres. That nexus of improvisation and studio craft is mostly how I work. As a self-taught musician who learned by ear, I feel like an outsider whenever conventional notation is involved! It’s harder for me to find points of entry to music where that is central, even if I can appreciate the work in the abstract.
Locally, we’re lucky to have Rhizome DC as a venue and community for experimental and electronic music. The music happens on the first floor of an old Victorian house and it has felt truly special to hear in such an intimate setting artists like Moor Mother, Luke Stewart playing Works for Upright Bass and Amplifier, and David Dominique’s ensemble touring with his brilliant new album Mask. I’m always interested in what’s happening there.
. now almost 10 years on, what’s the resonance, for you, of your book?
It’s hard to believe we are coming up on 10 years for the book and 20 years since the Pink Noises website launched…
Honestly, one surprise is how much the book still resonates. When I was working on it, one of the main challenges was how to handle the subject of contemporary music technologies and practices in a way that would stand up over time and not become dated as technologies change. That was one reason why I used very open-ended questions in the interviews. 10 years on, it’s nice to see that this maybe worked! The artists’ discussions of their creative processes are so rich and still relevant; I think this is one reason why people can still pick up the book now, even for the first time, and find it useful. Of course, the book is also still relevant because problems it identified with the centering of white men in electronic and experimental music histories and cultures persist.
The book has also resonated around the world to an extent that I never anticipated. Something shifted in this regard a few years ago as PDFs began to circulate online beyond the book’s formal distribution channels. I wrote Pink Noises as an intervention against received histories of electronic music that are common in mostly anglophone contexts in the U.S., Canada, and U.K. And despite the multinational and transnational influences and identities of some artists in the book, the anglo/North American framing of the book is a limitation, for sure. So it’s been interesting to hear from people who are now reading the book in other parts of the world—like the Czech Republic, Poland, Argentina, Ethiopia, India, Japan, and New Zealand, and to find out that electronic musicians in Cuba have been downloading Pink Noises and sharing it through peer-to-peer file sharing networks there. What’s interesting to me about this is that the book is resonating in places that may have quite different histories of electronic music technology and practice than the particular historical narratives that Pink Noises was responding to. I think this speaks to how the artists’ work and their insights about creative process are able to connect with many other musicians and fans wherever they are. I’m glad the book facilitates those connections. It’s always been my hope that it would teach something about electronic music history while also serving as a resource that inspires creativity with sound.
. in your book you define ‘technoscientific priorities’ as “aesthetic priorities of rationalistic precision and control” that “define ‘hard’ mastery in electronic music production.” What are your relationships to technoscientific priorities while making your work?
Ahh! I wrote this as a first-year PhD student and it always makes me cringe when the words are read back to me 🙂 I would probably say things a bit differently now. I think what I was getting at there, as well as in my subsequent PhD research on the roles of metaphor in audio-technical discourse, is that sound textbooks and histories of electronic music practice have often privileged a relationship to sound material that is about control, or even domination, through technological mastery—a pervasive mythology of “taming unruly waves,” if you will. What I also try to point out in my research is that this, like all technoscientific practices of classification, ordering, and control, is inextricably entwined with histories of racism, colonialism, sexism and misogyny. That western sonic and audio-technical epistemologies are built on these problematic foundations.
I think one misreading of this line of thought is that to be in opposition to logics of control of sound through technological mastery, one’s music must necessarily sound a particular way—like sounding “out of control” or against precision. I think a better question is: how do we instead cultivate relationships to sound that practice or point toward ethical ways of being in the world? Approaches along these lines have been around for a long time. Pauline Oliveros’s Deep Listening practice is certainly one touchstone for me. As are Eliane Radigue’s insights informed by Tibetan Buddhism—like, how do you perform with or edit sound in a way that attends closely to that sound, following it through to where it needs to go? There’s a humility there, and a recognition in Radigue’s approach overall, I think, that our sounds, technologies, selves, and environments are deeply interdependent and the music we make necessarily comes out of these complex interrelationships, far exceeding whatever we might imagine to be within our control.
Maggi Payne, whom I studied with at Mills, also has such a significant influence on my work. We know that Maggi’s standards are nothing less than precision and mastery! Certainly by the extraordinary attention to detail in the example of her work. And yet, implicit in what and how she teaches is a practice of care when working with recorded sound. Almost like a reverence for the material, where your responsibility for all the details is about taking responsibility for the communication you are putting forward into the world. Like Pauline’s work, for me, this has a dual implication—it’s about the music you are making, yes; but it’s also a practice of being in the world that is about listening, attentiveness, responsiveness, care.
. you’ve offered music to several distinct conversations — for example, Fundamentals (1432R 015, 2018) is in the house / techno world / marked by analog synths and drum machines; Butterfly Effects (self-released, 2007) is ecological / algorithmic / ambient (if not exactly soothing) / marked by SuperCollider noise ugens; Ocean State (self-released, 2007) is pretty wide-ranging in its materials and genre-wise, pretty assemblage-like — but generally it’s in orbit around jazz piano and free improv. logics. Like a lot of us, you seem not only to be culturally omnivorous (Peterson), but also you’re making really different kinds of work.
It’s true I make very different kinds of work. I think one of the things you are sensing is that I’m a bit of a music technology omnivore… I have always loved learning new instruments and new ways of working with sound. The endless fascination for me is in how different instruments and interfaces facilitate different modes of musical expression and different sets of aesthetic possibilities based on the materiality and the logics they present. If I roam around genres it is probably an outgrowth of that sort of multi-instrumental, multi-pronged, technological curiosity.
I’m not sure I would identify as “culturally omnivorous” though, if it implies a kind of dabbling or tourism through different music genres or practices. I try to be more the opposite, at least in terms of a devotion to staying close to my influences, especially with regard to jazz as a primary influence. I feel accountable to that. And, for better or worse, my listening habits are more deep than broad—I’ll get stuck listening to a handful of recordings hundreds of times over many years (cf., In a Silent Way), trying to figure things out. Periodically I pull my head out of the sand and listen to a bunch of new things and check in across genres, as I noted earlier. And then I may find something else to fall into and listen to repeatedly and obsessively for years… and on and on.
. how do your poetics / techniques / compositional approaches inform one another across these diverse categories? What techniques and processes are common? Which are not? Does imagining sites of reception have any effect(s)?
One way of hearing it as a body of work is that most everything I do musically is traceable to the modes of listening I cultivated as a self-taught pianist from an early age, and to my exposure to both jazz music (pre-midcentury solo jazz piano traditions particularly) and hi-fi audio and computer technologies in my household growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Even a computer music piece like Butterfly Effects, which may not be as recognizably in conversation with jazz improv as a project like Ocean State or my recent release sketches with piano + analog noise, reflects an ongoing interest I have in arrangements of parts and wholes in music composition. This very much comes out of my way of hearing music from the perspective of a solo jazz pianist, where you’re always thinking in terms of how to isolate and synthesize various lines and patterns that emanate from a single sound source.
Another connection across different pieces is my interest for about 10 years now in composing systems that have harmonic depth and complexity, often achieved through algorithmic or instrument-specific variations that aren’t entirely predictable. By harmonic complexity here, I mean some sort of compositional system in which unpredictable, interacting overtones are a substantive and deliberate part of the piece. The means of achieving this can be very different, but it’s the same sort of musical question.
Butterfly Effects was the first piece where I took this on. In SuperCollider I coded many different arrays with sets of numbered frequencies where combinations of frequencies and overtones would be called algorithmically throughout the piece, always slightly differently given the significant amount of randomness embedded in the routines and the numbers of processes going on at once. More recently, in some of the techno tracks I’m making, it’s analog synths and drum machines that have a certain inherent harmonic richness that is then enhanced or varied, either in combination with other analog instruments, or by the addition of digital effects. Another approach in electroacoustic composition is there in the first two tracks on sketches, which use randomized sample slicing and distortion effects to do unpredictable things with piano overtones.
I’m interested in harmonic complexity as a kind of blown-out timbral dimension that can tell an alternate story while other things are going on in a musical piece… like, if we use terms like lines or patterns when we refer to melody and rhythm, a complex system of interacting overtones is more like the impossible staircase of M.C. Escher, yes? Because it can lead you through a piece in all sorts of directions depending on where your point of entry is or how you focus your listening. And electronic and electroacoustic music is especially well suited to working within this dimension. Both my research and creative practice have a long-term relationship with approaching sound as material and metaphor. So, there are usually questions that guide my work in the studio—like, does sound have a surface? What tools and techniques can we use to create a sense of depth with sound, or to create various kinds of experiential pathways through a musical piece?
Imagined sites of reception can for sure have some effect on the process. This is especially true for the techno, where it might take only hours or days to draft a new track, but then weeks or months to settle on an arrangement that feels right, so that the track works in conversation with genre conventions and can be playable by DJs, and so the mix scales well to a large sound system. That’s a very different process than composing the more experimental or electroacoustic works, where the composition or recording phase can be more time consuming than the mixing, and is also less concerned with following any particular genre convention.
. what are you working on? what’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on a remix for a DC-based band—my first remix in many years, which is fun. Also trying to finish the arrangements and mixes for 4 techno tracks for a follow-up EP to Fundamentals.
And I’ve been fortunate to make recordings on some rare, vintage modulars in my travels in recent years—including the Moog IIIP at Mills College, the ARP 2500s at Brown University and University of Virginia, the E-mu System at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and hopefully the modulars at EMS in Stockholm soon. My next step is to spend more time with the recordings to figure out what sorts of pieces might emerge from those. I’m aiming in part to create a long-duration performance of ambient music over some hours that combines and processes this source material. Performance is often a first step for me, like a working session, to feel out what will eventually become recordings.
. [ bonus question ] what did you think of our Arp 2500?
Having worked with this instrument now on two occasions, I understand how Eliane Radigue worked with nothing else for 30 years! It really is remarkable. I mostly spent time with the noise generators and filters, and with generating varying patterns with those. With this instrument, as with the best analog instruments in my view, you get a sense that it has its own sort of interior life going on behind the surface of its matrix. And, as a performer, when you pass by to visit it, you are just activating or surfacing some of the complexity that is already happening and that will go on without you after you leave. That’s a nice feeling. An honor to do that, really.