In Conversation with Martin Conrads
Nicolas Collins: I'm in a sort of a strange position, because I started with Lucier, who was very much into that sort of American experimental electronic music tradition. I worked with Tudor, but I'm not a technical person by background. I forced myself to learn electronic circuit design, because at the time that I was studying electronic music, while I started working with Lucier in 1972, electronic equipment was still incredibly expensive, yet the technology to build things yourself was very cheap and not that difficult to understand. Electronics had reached that funny point where chips were complete functions in themselves. I could buy a chip that was an oscillator and that meant that without being too bright in theoretical physics you could kind of hack together these machines. And some people that weren't very good engineers made some wonderful machines. David Behrman for example did some very beautiful music in the seventies with homemade electronics and stuff. And Tudor always inspired the people who worked with him to make their own circuits. He was quite a master of that, a very good designer. I don't know if there was any kind of equivalent parallel scenes in Europe at that time, but in America you had this sort of minimalist electronic music (Lucier, Behrman, Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma); you had Tudor and that Cage-environment; you had the Minimalist composers like La Monte Young and Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Phil Glass, who also were working with electronics, though in a more "tonal" way.
But for some reason a lot of those people had a very strong reaction against the idea of improvisation. In retrospect I think it was because they were pioneers in developing open form scores: graphic notations, prose scores. Take Alvin Lucier: for many years all his scores were text only. You may know the book of his scores  - instructions, like a cooking recipe. I think they were very nervous that if they didn't write notes on paper other composers would say "oh, its just playing, its improvisation, you don't really have an idea as a composer." And also I think they had problems with bad performances, where people didn't follow the instructions very well, didn't understand the aesthetic of the music. So I remember at the time I was an university student there was very strong prejudice against improvisation, and it took me a long time to get rid of it in myself. It was in the mid-eighties in New York that I developed an instrument that worked very well in conjunction with acoustic instruments. And this is sometimes a problem, trying to combine electronic and non-electronic instruments. When I put this system together I wanted to experiment with different types of instruments in different types of playing. It was the improvising musicians in New York, which at that time had a very strong scene, who were the most enthusiastic about doing this kind of collaboration and experimentation. And so that's when I started to work with people like Zorn. I played in some of his pieces, like Cobra, and also had him work as a musician in a few pieces of mine. I did some tours with Elliot Sharp, Tom Cora, Sam Bennett, Christian Marclay -- you know, those guys from the CD of duos ("100 of the World's Most Beautiful Melodies"). They were extremely generous in their time, considering that I sort of came from nowhere, as far as they were concerned.
That put me in a bit of an odd position, a little different from some other composers in New York, because I tended to move in a few different circles. I used to do these tours where one night I would play at a computer music conference, one night I would share the stage with Lucier or Tudor in some electronic music festival, and the next night it would be a rock club in some Austrian squat with a program that didn't fit into any category. And I didn't really think about it terribly much, except that for a long time I think I was consciously trying to avoid a pattern of personal style in my music. I found that, maybe because of this, anybody could find something in it that worked for their programming, so maybe it was economically (rather than musically) motivated. That's a long answer, but in the end my position is very fluid.
MC: Listening to your CDs, but also to some of your concerts, where youāre mixing samples from drum'n'bass tracks into the music, I thought: Maybe its not a single kind of tradition you're in, because there are so many influences. You're using so many hybrid techniques that you can't find one main tradition in it, besides its technological background. I would like to consider some aspects of your music from an anticipatory point of view, like its heading towards the future. When I first heard your "It Was A Dark And Stormy Night" CD 4 years ago, it was round the time I started listening to some of the so-called New Electronic Listening Music/New Electronica stuff. When you started with the "trombone-propelled electronics" in the 80s, its sound couldn't be combined with things like that because the conscience of dealing with digital audio processing in consumer friendly music/pop music wasn't so present at that time. But now, starting from the early nineties, there is a completely new drive from diverse directions in Pop or even Rock Music. I am thinking of people especially in England, but also in America -- people like Tortoise, who are also combining digital evaluation of music with rock music, and I think of people like Oval in Berlin (the similarity of your Broken Light to Oval is stunning). Nevertheless it is clear that it comes from different directions. The traditional background is different. My question then would be, if that is your working method: anticipating what's inside technological possibilities and putting that in aesthetical terms?
NC: You're right on the mark, and there a few aspect I'd like to address. One is a cultural cliche, this notion that artists anticipate technological change, but like many cliches it tends to be true. I think that for a very long time the so-called avant garde anticipated musical innovations that would then be incorporated into more mainstream forms of music - be they classical or "serious" music, or pop music. And certainly the early use of electronics in pop music (with the exception of the guitar, which is purely a development of popular culture, and I think is infinitely more sophisticated as an instrument in popular culture than it has ever been in the hands of any so-called serious composer) is primitive compared to that in contemporaneous "serious" music: the avant garde music of 1968 is much more sophisticated in terms of its electronic power than the Byrds, for example. But the power shifted in the eighties, I think, as electronics became mainstream in much pop music. It meant that there was a huge amount of money behind the development of new electronic instruments, and a commercial pop studio or a band could afford to acquire and learn technology much faster than a freelance composer or an even an academic institution. I remember going to concerts in the mid- to late-eighties where so-called avant garde composers were beginning to work with FM synthesizers and were using exceedingly dull factory patches, where all the boy programmers from pop groups had pushed far beyond it. Yamaha's DX7 innovation came out of Stanford University, out of an academic site, but the pop musicians ran with it much faster than the academics did.
As far as my own work goes, you have to look at my traditions. One is Alvin Lucier. Lucier is, methodologically, an extremely focussed composer. His pieces are the archetype of minimalist technique in terms of approaching a very specific problem, dealing with an absolute minimal amount of material, and a minimal amount of interference with phenomena. Yet, it is misunderstood as science experiments too often. The science experiments are the ones he throws to the side, and the ones that develop into something magnificent are the ones that have a heart of science but give birth to poetry. "I am sitting in a room" would be a perfect case: a very mechanical process, but the net result is extremely romantic for want of another term. It was interesting being a student of Lucier. He had very few students, and only a handful went on to being at all visible in the public scene. One of the things he used to say was that circuits are flat and acoustics are three-dimensional. He uses electronics in his music, but he never got inside the circuit. I tend to agree with him, that circuits and computer programs tend to be rather flat and acoustical space is wonderfully three-dimensional, but I was always interested in the intersection of these two worlds. So I also worked with David Tudor.
Tudor was the inspiration behind a whole kind of movement in America, of composers who looked inside technology to generate a piece of music, much the way Alvin did it with acoustical phenomena. There were two ways to do it: one was, you took an existing piece of technology and you say: there's a piece in here (like Michelangelo carving David), there's a piece in this circuit and I have to find it. Rather than saying: I've got this song, I wanna use this box. The other route was to design your own circuit -- designing a circuit was like composing a piece, the piece and the circuit were the same thing. The circuit was the score, the circuit was maybe your performer. The circuit had a complex role, and there were some really amazing pieces to come out of that tradition. A lot of composers in this tradition later went off in the direction of computer music, because itās easier to rewrite a program than it is to re-solder a circuit. But there is a clear musical tradition whose roots are in circuitry. I think that a lot of my music has had to do with the implications present in a piece of technology, even very common circuits, consumer electronics: I take a CD player, I modify a radio or a walkman, trying to work at a very low technological level and then customize it a little bit, canabalize it. But I've also built machines up from scratch, and have also done a fair amount of work with computer programs. Its all part of the same stream flowing from the notion of compositions or implications present in technology.
The problem is that sounds kind of stupid, when you talk about it. My music probably is kind of stupid, but it sounds even stupider than it is when you describe it that way, from a standpoint of the "luthier-composer" or "music springing from the instrument". The most interesting music in the world obviously has not come from church organists writing modern toccatas. In my case I use technology as a starting point -- that's where the piece begins but it has to latch onto something else to become real music. What I tend to do is seize a piece of technology and pull it apart rather thoroughly -- literally and figuratively. I've worked with a very small number of devices, electronic things, compared to the average electronic music composer or pop musician. I tend to keep whacking away -- out of one box I get one, two, three, four pieces, and sometimes get lucky and can use it in an improvised context. But there's the problem of finding one box that has an inner complexity that is inherently musical rather than purely mechanical, and then finding something outside it to connect it to.
It's funny, the groups you mentioned, because one of the first people I contacted after arriving in Berlin was Markus Popp from Oval. I hadn't followed that stream of pop music very carefully, but I've worked with some people who were very involved in it -- Jim O'Rourke, Ben Neill -- and they kept pushing names and records on me. To be honest, most of the so-called "Ambient" music I find derivative and uninteresting. The thing I found most interesting about it was that it was the first musical movement in a long time that was not beat-dominated. And beat, in terms of a regular pulse, is something that I've always tried to avoid in my own music. So I thought it was kind of interesting, reminiscent of a lot of the later sixties stuff the early La Monte Young pieces, the David Behrman pieces, a lot of the scores that were done from the Cunningham Dance Company by David Tudor and other composers. On the other hand, most was not sonically or compositionally as interesting as the old stuff. I sound like an old fart when I say this, but that was my general impression after listening through a number of ambient samplers. Then Jim O'Rourke said, "you've got to listen to Oval, because they do the skipping CD stuff," and I said great, wonderful, I gotta hear how they do it, because for me its a very disruptive sound and I couldn't imagine it in the ambient context. And it was the first stuff I heard from that scene that I really liked.
I started to do the CD-skipping-thing in '88 or '89, and used it a lot in live performances, since I tend to do a lot of pieces that are based on processing found sound material. In a nutshell, everything I do has to do with sticking something into a machine and watching it come out different at the other end. I used to work a lot with cassette tapes, I put different material in the left and the right channels and sort of distributed stuff randomly over tape so you would never know exactly what you would get when. And I started using CD players because I could remotely control them very easily, to get access to different parts. I did some modifications in the players just to see if I could manipulate the CD the way you can an LP -- scratching. I came up with a few very simple tricks whereby you can scratch and cue and this kind of stuff.
MC: So you do the tricks on the CDs or inside the CD player?
NC: In the CD player. In terms of history, there were a number of artists -- most particularly Yasunao Tone, a Japanese artists working in New York, who did pieces where they prepared the CDs themselves. They discovered that if you put crayon marks or cellotape on the CD, you can get it to do all sorts of jingling stuff. But I went inside the CD player and looked, because I suspected -- and I was right -- that the laser was always reading information off the disc, even when you're on pause or moving from track one to track 30. It's always reading information, but the control computer "censors" the output, decides for us what is music (i.e., the clean playback) and what is "noise" (scratching, skipping). So I found that control signal, marked "mute" and I simply flipped that pin off the chip so that it could no longer mute anything. And that opened the door to the inner world of the CD: you could hear anything that the CD-player was doing at any time. Later I got in deeper and started to turning in and off the motor and sled, slow it down, make things go backwards, typical screw-up things.
MC: I was asking you before about the anticipation thing. You were talking about the cliche that artists anticipate technology, technological developments. I was reading a text by Simon Penny recently about the role of the artist in technology. He also has the notion -- or questions -- if the artist is the one who in the first place tests new technology for the culture industry, tests it in aesthetical terms for them to bring it to a large audience, buyable and in a more consumer friendly way.
NC: What is Penny's thesis? That this is what artists do, or not?
MC: He regards it more systemic, in terms of a complex interchange. Also he links it to the notion of interaction. In 96 I saw an installation by him on the Ars Electronica called "Sympathetic Sentience", which was kind of an interactive installation where there are several small gadgets on the wall communicating via infrared signals and building up constantly to a cluster of rhythms which gets more and more complex the longer it runs. But when somebody is entering the room and, by chance, crosses any infrared ray, the whole rhythm will stop instantly and will only build up again when there's nobody moving. This installation is about interaction, but it's about negative interaction. The interaction-thing has been promoted much by the industry, by multimedia, also for musical reasons, if you think of things like doing music inside the net. But there are also artists trying to have that notion of negative interaction. You can find that in visual arts and CD ROM production, like with the BlindROM or the AntiROM, where it's hard to get out of the ROM, get out of the program. Concerning your handling the inner part of a CD player I see a kind of negative interaction, too. I think, that this kind of using CD-scratches is a kind of interaction with the listener, but also with the imagination of the listener that somebody/something is interacting inside the CD player. When you combine that with e.g. "I am sitting in a Room" - when you listen to it on CD, the room that is mentioned by Lucier suddenly is the room inside the CD, which is different from the analogue or the acoustical room you're in when listening.
NC: This is very true: The idea of working with the negative aspect of interactivity is very interesting. I can point to a few things. One is the first record I did, which was for Lovely Music: I had one extremely electronic piece, that was recmrded completely dry, without any reverb or room tone, with the idea that - it sounds stupid - it was only coming out of the listener's personal speakers, never coming out of any other speakers before coming out of the user's speakers. So, if it was in concert, it wouldn't sound like that, because you have a concert hall around it. But you would then assume the acoustics of whatever room it was in - it was a piece that really hit the room acoustics. It was a little like the CD-skipping thing: you stand up and walk to the player, because you think it's your player skipping. I produced some Pop records in the early Eighties: I did one whose last track was mixed through a kind of self-gating mechanism; the basic mix was pretty straight-forward, but it would only come through when the volume was over a certain threshold -- like when the snare hit the whole band would come in. It was a very sharp attack. It sounded exactly like -- and this was in the days before the CD --- when you have dust on the needle of your turntable. Every single person I know who played that track got up, picked up the tone arm, cleaned the needle and put it back down. In a sense every performance of that track incorporated this extra sound, because everyone did it. I made another record with sound in the lockout groove, a very insipid riff. I had a manual record player, and I used the lockout groove because I wanted this riff to repeat forever. What I didn't consider was that everyone else's turntable was more modern, had an auto lift-off feature, and went "krrrh". For them it sounded like "I've had enough!", ripping the needle up, because it did go on too long.
I did a piece called "Devil's Music" in 1985; it's available on LP on Trace Elements. This was sort of Scanner ten years before Scanner. It was used live radio and a very simple early system of live sampling and re-triggering of fragments of radio. So I would tune the radio, load a short sample of something in the airwaves -- it would be a very short loop, just one or two seconds, but always re-triggering so it was never repeating as a regular loop. In fact, it was re-triggering to whatever rhythm was coming off the radio at that time. I would cue, like a DJ, from across the radio dial. I would make a sample of a disco station -- boom boom -- but it would be stuttering, like Lucier. I could make a clone of it, and have two copies play against each other. And when I pulled down a cellular phone call of someone saying "I wont be home for dinner", it went, "I won't be, I won't be home, I, I....", just like the format of hip hop and dance-floor stuttering, so I had all the rhythms going tschakatschaktschaka. It was a very nice piece to tour with, because the audience would realize at a certain point that it was local radio, that it wasn't a tape or sampled at home, because suddenly there would be the football scores from the game that night, or the weather report, or they recognized a voice. It reminded me of being a troubadour in the middle ages: you come to a town, you go to the market, and you find out what's going on in town: who is the king sleeping with, did the generals win the last war or not, how are the taxes, are the potatoes good. And then you start singing in the middle of the square (sings:) Oh, the king has a lady who lives down the lane and the generals ran away... , and the people say, "how does he know that stuff? He's from out of town"! The technology to do this piece was very small. When I had to go some place for my day job I'd try to get hold of a local radio stations that played new music. And I said, "look, I'll be in town, could I do a radio concert?" And I'd go do this piece on the radio, which was very strange, because it meant you were listening at xxx mHz and you were hearing slices of all the other radio stations on the dial without retuning. And again, this was a bit like your own CD player skipping: you could do this piece yourself, but people don't interact very often with their consumer electronics. As you say, it is a form of negative interaction, which means, just if something is going wrong will you get up and touch it. But it's very difficult to get somebody interact positively. The "100...Melodies" CD: I didn't make a big deal about it, but because it has around 44 cuts, I wrote in the notes that I have one shape for the CD, but you should play it on random, or you make a version with all guitars or all brass, whatever you want to do. But I don't think very many people did that (although I did get play lists from a few radio stations where they said that they'd pressed shuffle and this was what came out).
MC: I think, the question with the negative interaction is that many things are designed in a way that makes you forget your physical presence as a listener...
NC: As a result of spending 6 years with Lucier I am keenly interested in the notion of the interaction between the sound source and the acoustic space. Some of my pieces have really focussed on that, and this is one of the reasons why this instrument (the trombone with electronics) continues to play a role in my music. It gives you have a speaker that you can aim and focus, that is not passive. I can change the sound physically by aiming the speaker, muting it, moving the slide of the trombone. It has a sort of pedagogic function: it draws the audience's attention to the fact that a speaker is not a passive channel. Do not think that you are here and the composer's intentions reach you transparently through the speaker. It always has a certain influence - and so has the room itself. As a performer I like to work with that interface. I wrote some stuff for a lecture in Darmstadt in 95, that was based on an older essay of mine and an essay of Glen Gould about the future of recording, where I talk about how for most composers (until Lucier) the last point of control was the musical instrument, and once the sound left the instrument it was beyond the control of the composer. Lucier centered his scores on what happens in a room. His intention is to make the room a part of the composition. And clearly I too am trying to get at a similar idea of bridging that gap between the sound production device and the acoustic space.
MC: By inventing new instruments?
NC: Because this one has such an overt acoustic character. In other words, it is electronic music, but the acoustic linkage is made very clear. There are composers I talk to who say, "sometimes I just want to lift up the speaker, move it and aim it," and I say, "why not? This is what I do every night". To show that the speaker isn't a "hole", that it is a sound producing object like any other instrument.
MC: Like with the idea of Speaker Swinging by Gordon Monahan...
NC: Absolutely -- another piece that is very much in that Lucier influence tradition.
MC: Which exactly is the role of the computer when you are working on pieces? I am thinking of the difference between the visual effects when you are composing music at the computer screen and the listening effect of those sounds. Now, I have two questions to this. First: Would you agree that there is a coherence between creating music on the screen, where by digital means, each visual aspect is equalized, and the aesthetical effects of that on the music. And secondly: Musicians more and more compose with an image on the screen. On your CD ³It was a Dark and Stormy Nightć you refer to the story of Han van Meegeren, which is a story on visual art, dealing with the alienation of visual output - paintings in this case. I was wondering if, by telling this story on CD, there might be a consciousness in your work of the idea of the ³pictureć, the ³imageć you use to create a musical output?
NC: Thatās funny, because I never thought on that actually. The curious thing is, that my background, from childhood, is much more in visual arts than it is in music. My parents were both art historians, I am married to an art historian, so itās always been part of my life. But I will have to say I donāt think Iāve ever had a visual image in conjunction with a piece of music. On the other hand, most of my music has to do with ideas, one way or the other. I donāt say ³Oh, there is a nice sound, letās do a piece of music with that soundć. Itās more this thing of ³oh, this circuit has some implicationć, or like in ³It was a Dark and Stormy Nightć: I had this piece that only one percent of my audience actually likes to listen to on the CD, which is ³Tobabo Fonioć. Itās the first piece I ever did with the trombone system. Itās a very acoustic and then very electronic transformation of this Peruvian brass band music. What I often do is, I look back at a piece, which, in my mind, was a successful piece of music. First I ask myself: What made it successful? And secondly, how can I take those characteristics and put them into new context? That is, not use the same sound material, not use the same technology, but sort of get a deeper essence of ³successć. Itās like a business, but I guess this is what composers do when they have teachers: this is the only thing I can do to learn from my own music. So I decided I wanted to re-orchestrate that piece for an ensemble, which is an idea I frequently had, like ³letās take a piece that is completely electronic and figure out how to do it with acoustic meansć. The notes in the record basically talk about what the similar areas are between the things. The thing that clings the two together for me was, that all my music has to do with sampling and stealing sound. This was when the whole Plunderphonic thing was breaking up. Iāve been doing Plunderphonics independent of John (Oswald). We both have been working in the same area, taking stuff and transforming it. So my notion was to do two things: Use text, that had to do with the notion of what is the original and what is the copy, and then to set it in a format that was, what in English is called a ³shaggy dog storyć, which is a story that keeps sort of repeating and not going anywhere.
Music is a poor artform when it comes to analysis in the domain of ideas. Music analysis, with very few exceptions, consists of physical analysis of the score, which is sort of the oldschool of art history, where you analysed a picture for things like ³the virgin is in a lower center of the painting, and the angel here is looking down from here etc.ć, these sort of things. Which is fine for art history, but obviously art criticism has gone into many many more interesting areas than that. But music criticism, with a few exceptions, hasnāt. So it stands to reason that in that piece most of the material came from a visual art or literary standpoint rather than from a musical standpoint. But visual images really arenāt there and itās funny, because thereās so much emphasis placed now on new media, on multimedia, on web-based artwork, interactive CD ROMs. Iāve done a fair number of audio installations, like the piece I did for the ³Sonambienteć-Festival. Iāve been doing audio installations as long as Iāve been doing composed pieces, but Iāve never really come up with, say, a video collaboration or the integration of computer graphics into my performance. Now as that happens, I have this set of pieces that is based on the senses (itās a set that never seems to get finished..), but for smell, which Iāve been working on for a while now, I have this beautiful old film from the thirties, an English film, about a haunted house, where, everytime the ghost is about to make an appearance, itās preceeded by smell. Which, if you read about 19th century spiritualism, is often the case for people who have witnessed various ghostly appearances. Iāve been working with the soundtrack for months, but I wasnāt getting very far. Then I thought about using Quick Time movie clips of the thing and actually use the trombone not to process and scratch audio but to process and scratch the film with audio.
MC: In your sleeve notes to the Alvin Lucier CD ³I am sitting in a roomć, you mention that, at the time this record was made, it was a revolutionary step to describe whatās happening by doing it. The same thing happens on your track ³It was a Dark and Stormy Nightć. Both tracks in this way seem to be connected to some of the topics of postmodern theory - the collapse of the signifier and the signified. Is this what you would suggest as a characteristic for both pieces?
NC: Let me put it this way: At the time I did ³It was a Dark and Stormy Nightć, I felt like this was, what everyone was talking about. Everyone was talking about representation, the real and the fake, replicas, forgery etc. It was a keen area of interest for me. The only thing is, that I felt that I wanted to kind of de-base it somehow, by showing that this doesnāt just have to do with art history, but itās a) an ongoing concern, itās a very old question, and b) it is by no means just limited to abstract intellectual thought, but it happens also on a pragmatical level.
The thing about Lucier is: I owe tremendous amount to him. I walk a fine line - not so fine now as it was 10 or 15 years ago - of making decisions like: ³Mmmh, I can do it this way or that way. This way is too much like Alvin, I better go that wayć. I tried to carve out my own area of work, but Iād been the first to admit a) that Iām very strongly influenced by Alvin and that obvious parallels can be drawn between our pieces and b) that I feel that my music is very conservative and middle-of-the-road and not a terribly radical statement compared to, say, his work. He has embraced much bigger and more universal questions, especially in terms of dealing with acoustical phenomena. He links them very elegantly to standard musical ideas, like very basic ideas of chamber music. I think in my music I havnāt made those strong connections to mainstream musical history on the one hand or total radical invasion on the other. At the same time, I know that my work is developing in a sense that my work, compared to the work I was doing 15 years ago, has to do with some more universal concerns.
You tend to position yourself retrospect to your elders very often. I see people like Lucier or Robert Ashley as making incredibly radical breaks from tradition. And I did come along behind, which is an easy street. Itās like if you have an icebreaker going in front of you, clearing the path. Thereās a little bit ice left, but itās not a big deal. My generation of composers were in a very odd position, because in a sense, a lot of us never had to reject anything. If you think about someone like Cage as a revolutionary, really making a radical break from musical history. And then you get people of the next generation - The Luciers and the Ashleys of this world: They were writing on a professional level much more traditional music until - everyone of them has a story to tell about the first time they heard John Cage: Basically they all had nervous breakdowns. Alvin said: I went to a John Cage concert and for six months I did nothing but eat pasta and drink wine in Italy because I couldnāt compose. For composers of my generation itās like all of a sudden we had an open field in front of us. In other words: Here I was, I was 17 years old, I was going to university and I could compose with a neo-tonal composer, I could study Indian music, I could study Jazz, or I could study with Alvin Lucier. And none of those meant that I had to reject any of the others. In fact I did all four. And I didnāt end up becoming a professional Indian musician, I didnāt end up becoming a professional tonal composer, I didnāt end up becoming a professional Jazz musician, I ended up...following this weird fourth thread. I didnāt have to say ³Oh, fuck you, twelve-tone people, oh fuck you, neo-romanticistsć. In other words: there was nothing radical in taking this path. Which is something that nowadays people accept quite easily, but itās a thing that your grandmother or your aunt - you can talk yourself blue in the face before they would accept that youāre doing this not because you hate Chopin...
last update: 10.10.1997