Amnon Wolman creates music with technology and for instruments with two distinctive features: first, a subtle and complex relationship with popular culture and second, a concern for the dramatic nature of sonic evolution. His first release on the c74 record label is “Dangerous Bend.” In this conversation with Ben Nevile, Wolman discusses his romantic compositional techniques and reveals the unusual nature of his introduction to computer-based music.
Can we start with a bit of your history? Where do you get your ideas? What are your earliest musical memories?
I was born and raised in Israel. In 1968 I spent a year in Los Angeles which connected me to American popular culture in a way that was not present in my life before. I played classical instruments throughout my early years. I served in the Israeli army for three years – compulsory. Not a pleasant experience but not very traumatic either. I first acknowledged to myself that I was gay when I was 17 and to the world when I was 25. That was not a simple or easy route.
My first musical memories are of family singing. We had Friday dinners at home with the whole family and we would sing together. It was a highly physical activity. I felt the music in my body and mouth and ears more than hearing it as an outsider and an audience member. The first major classical piece that I was involved with as a youngster singing in a children’s choir was Bach St. Matthew’s Passion when I was 12. It made a huge impression on me and is probably the single moment when I realized that I needed to be a musician. It was like a drug, I felt elated.
So how did you become involved with computers?
In 1981 when I was completing my masters in composition at Tel Aviv University, the Lebanon war started in Israel. I wanted a way out, so I applied for a student exchange scholarship from the government of the Netherlands. I received the grant to do something in music that I could not do in Israel. I heard that there was a small group at the University of Utrecht – Institute for Sonology – that was working on computer music. At the time I was this strange combination of a politically minded, conceptual, somewhat minimal romantic composer… and I suspect I still am. I guess some conceptual music is highly romantic, and to be political implies some romanticism and naiveté too…
Anyway, I decided to go to Utrecht because I thought that using the computer to create music was a terrible idea, that it was cynical and mechanical. As often happened to me at that age I had very strong opinions about things I knew nothing about. I decided that I needed to know more about it in order to talk intelligently against it. But I was bitten by the bug, and the idea of creating sounds on my own has been very exciting and the highlight of my day ever since.
Tell me, was there something specific that caused you to change your mind?
Yes, it was working with sounds that changed my mind. I love imagination, and when working on a score for instruments imagining what it would sound like was a wonderful fantasy. But now, since 1982, I can put my hands in the dirt. I can design the exact sounds I want, and just listen to them evolve – not pitch, not rhythm.
After Utrecht I applied for graduate studies at Stanford where I was off and on until the end of 1989. From 1990 I’ve been teaching at Northwestern University, and from 1994 I also hold a position at Tel Aviv University.
How does your time at the two schools compare?
I feel safer as a teacher in Israel. I never question my language and my cultural references. My English is good, yet still I am not sure which words I may use with which person. When is it appropriate to use a slang word and which one, and what does it say about you when you use it? The same is true for cultural references. I know what it says about me if I say that I like the Beatles, that is safe, but when I say that I like Madonna, Tom Waits and Xenakis I know what it would mean for my students, and maybe my colleagues, but my other friends? People I meet in political activism groups? In Israel I feel that I know exactly what they mean, even though I may be wrong. I have less definition as a person here. For a long while it made my life easier because I could define myself, but now I miss being clear.
I really like the music on your C74 CD. I find it incredibly soothing.
I can’t decide if I like the description “soothing!”
Well, it’s soothing to me. Most of the music I listen to is jagged… it’s nice to hear something smooth. Is that not how you think of your music?
Interesting. It is not how I think of my music, mostly because of my politics. I guess for too long I’ve stood on barricades saying that music is an art and as such it presents many things, not just beauty and relaxation. But then I go and create music that is soothing… it feels weird in the context of my self-perception. But there is not a whole lot one can do about this. There is always a distance – huge I suspect – between the ideology and the art one creates. In the end I sit at the computer and listen to what I create and decide if it is what I want to create and ideology is never in the room during those times.
Is there anything that you’ve composed that comes more from an ideological standpoint, or has your creative process always been quite separate?
I think that the creative process is always an amalgamation of everything, the intellectual and the emotional. But I guess what I am talking about is the rigors of taste. That is, if I have an ideological or conceptual vision for a piece, by the time I work on it the final choices are about “what does this sound like” and “I like this” or “this is too much” or “this is too beautiful, what will the neighbors say.” I don’t have many voices of this last kind, the “what will my colleagues and friends say,” but every once in a while I realize and chuckle when I finish a section and think to myself how so-and-so would like this…
But to make a long answer even longer, I think the final cut is irrational, and I’ve never finished a piece where I thought, “oh it does exactly what I decided in advance – so it’s okay, even though it does not sound so great.” I’ve always gone and fixed it, started all over, or scrapped it. I hate to admit my romantic streak, but the final decision is always left to my senses.
What compositional techniques did you use on this CD, both inside and outside of Max?
Mostly I used processed sounds. I have worked in the past with synthesis, but the last several years have been almost entirely based on processed recordings. I make recordings everywhere, with people and in nature, and then I process them in different ways. From filtering to different versions of granular synthesis using the recordings as the basis for the brain. I use a lot of time distortion, and different algorithms of phase vocoding.
I think that the idea of processing a recording of, say, a family conversation is very powerful. Somehow I feel that the essence of the sound stays. Even if I am the only one who knows where the sounds came from, some of the magic of the personality and the situation are folded into the sounds. Obviously the actual physical properties are inherent to the sound too. I think perhaps the most personal statement I can make about the pieces you called “soothing” is that I don’t hear them as such because I listen to the sounds. A slight change, a disappearance of a harmonic, or an emphasis on a group of harmonics makes huge dramas in my listening experience and does not sooth me… but I know I hear sounds differently than other people.
Can’t Face the Music
Sure – you’ve made the sounds, so you understand them in a deeper way than anyone else, and your listening is therefore completely different. What has had the most direct effect on the romantic inclinations of your musical direction?
The most important musical influences were my teacher in Israel Abel Ehrlich, and John Cage- I met him in Stanford in 1985 and we remained friends until his death. Other influences have been friends and colleagues, usually young composers who were compatriots as students or faculty members and then a few of my own students. There are a few prominent names: Chaya Czernowin, Osnat Arbel, Yuval Shaked, Bill Schottstaedt, Joanathan Berger, Richard Karpen, Michael Pisaro, Jay Alan Yim, Kunsu Shim, Gerhard Staebler, Jeff Kowalkowski and Jenny Walshe. Most are not computer music people, and represent either an influence on my conceptual/intellectual side or the romantic side.
Listening to the greats, some of whom I had the luck to study with, has also obviously refined my process but listing them seems a little more removed from my day to day activity. With everyone on that list I can recall numerous conversations that altered some part of my thinking and helped me refine my own sense of music. I have no doubt that my personal relationships changed my sound world drastically. Most importantly there’s my partner Eyal Levinson who helped me get back into listening after several years of trying to avoid music…
In the last little while several composers have told me they don’t enjoy listening to music any more. What pushed you away?
For many years it was hard to listen to music “for fun” for me. It was too much work. I enjoyed silence. I still would rather get home to a quiet house. I know for a fact that it is hard for me to work on creating music while listening to music. If I wake up in the morning and listen to the radio it’s hard for me to get into composing. This is why I’ve become a morning person, and compose before anything else. Also I think I became a musician because I like being active at this game, the playing of music. Listening to music is a passive activity, you don’t get to do anything, and it’s a different activity, a luxury. I know many musicians who are bored in concerts unless they are on stage.
Yes. So how does that relate to something like “the communal techno machine,” where there was mass participation… or was that something completely different?
Hmm… that started because I wanted to create a piece based on the Andy Warhol Diaries. These were not really “diaries” as such. He would call “the factory” every day and tell the person who was keeping the diaries, Patricia Hackett, what he did the day before and how much it cost. This was done because he was audited yearly by the IRS. But little details crept in. For example, and I am paraphrasing off the top of my head, “I had lunch with Jacqueline Onassis, she had a great hat, $10…” etc. It describes an important period of US history between 1975-1985, for me, and it describes it as a pointillistic picture full of insignificant or important details without a hierarchy. This period is when the liberal community’s only ideology was “live and let live” and the right wing community developed a very clear ideology and agenda. It is also the period of the last big gay parties and the beginning of AIDS.
I decided to use the texts and realized it would have to be a really long piece – 11 hours. At the time Canton Becker was a student of mine, and he was a rave fanatic. I knew nothing about it and he introduced me to techno music and the rave scene. I suggested to him that in order to create music for the piece he should build the communal groove machine, which would, with the help of others on the internet, allow us to create the music needed for the piece. He built it under my direction. Indeed at the last moment I discovered that we forgot to add a transposing element to it, so most of the piece is in C…
Ha, that’s funny. How long did you say the piece lasted?
The piece was eleven hours.
How were the people on the internet able to affect the music? In what form was their input?
The techno machine had a library of rhythm sections, bass lines, chord progressions, and feels – tempo accents, etc. People would respond to questions by choosing or entering new bass lines, or new rhythms and then it would create the song that they imagined but could not hear. The resulting information was interpreted through a MAX patch written with Matt Moeller that allowed us to mix the songs. The final production of the songs was done with the help of other students, most prominently Andy Knight. The piece also involved three actors/singers for which I wrote parts and a series of videos created by H.D. Motyl.
It was a fantastic experience. The communal groove machine was interesting in many ways, but most profoundly, for me, because it gave me a glimpse on how many people compose and have a clear idea of what their music should sound like, even though they are not musicians. You must remember this is the internet before browsers, only text was moving around. As part of the machine we asked people to include a description of the songs as they thought they should come out, hoping to use it as an indication for the mixing and production. People were very forthcoming, very clear and precise. I was very excited: composition was no longer an artistic activity for specialists, it was open for anyone who had ideas.
You mentioned The Beatles, Madonna, Tom Waits… how has your relationship with popular culture affected your artistic output?
I have a relationship with popular culture. It is part of who I am, part of my thinking and musical world. How it falls into my work is hard to explain. The Andy Warhol Diaries is a clear example where an element of popular culture was the impetus for the piece. In other pieces it may be a sound, or a formal musical element using only four chords…
It’s hard to explain. I don’t write popular music, that is, I have not in 20 years. But I do listen, when I listen, and it’s a part of my sound world. My friend the composer Michael Pisaro once suggested to me that in order to incorporate pop music successfully into classical music you have to let go of your respect and love for it. To my mind, most composers my age find that hard to do. So the pieces seem to be orchestrations of pop music with a large orchestra, or with computer music. It seems that I may have decided that perhaps I too can not do it, so I just don’t try. I don’t try to create popular music with my music, but I use ideas from popular music as metaphors for some of the pieces I create.