Never heard of quackhouse? Don’t feel bad. Until a few weeks ago I hadn’t heard of it either. When I first heard the name I had a vision of an entirely new genre of music, a rude mashup of deep bass and bitcrushed mallards. As it turns out Ducky, real name Morgan Neiman, invented the term to describe her music. It has nothing to do with ducks, or indeed anything. In 2005, when she was in eighth grade, her school required her to work on a year-long thesis project. Morgan decided to release an album. She leaned on her father until he bought her a cheap microphone and a copy of Logic 7. “I wanted to make electronic music,” she told me, “but the only electronic music I knew was The Postal Service.”
Her voice hits like a punch in the gut. Quackhouse or not, there’s a lot to admire on Ducky’s first album. The melodies are smart yet straightforward. Her lyrics attack eighth grade angst with striking maturity and nuance. But her voice stands above everything else, easily cutting through the crunch of her low quality microphone to deliver a sweetness and sophistication totally unexpected in a singer her age. Her voice is at times husky, playful, indifferent and ethereal; often, these are all layered on top of each other within the same song.
But I didn’t discover Morgan through her music. Turns out she’s taking a course on web programming, and one of her classmates is a mutual friend (You can visit one of Morgan’s recent web creations.). Morgan’s interests set her apart from her songwriting peers. When she calls me over Skype for our interview, the first thing she wants to know about is my background in computer science. “How did you learn to program in C?” she asks me. The blue glow of an electronic cigarette haunts the video frame as I think about my answer. Simply put, I wasn’t a talented singer-songwriter, so I had plenty of free time to code. As far as I’m concerned, the question goes more like this: Why learn C when you can sing? When your voice comes with brass knuckles, programming seems a bit superfluous.
Morgan tells me about her musical upbringing. Her first experience performing live came in high school during a stint as a DJ instructor’s personal assistant (“I have no idea how that happened,” she admits). Morgan learned the challenges of live performance through playing sets across San Francisco. I ask her about the relationship between DJing and performance art. “This is something every electronic artist struggles with,” she says. “How the fuck do I do this live?” As a DJ, Morgan has grappled with the tradeoffs of trusting a machine with some of the responsibilities of performance. Snobbery and bitterness have always swirled around the questions of DJ purism: Vinyl or CD? Turntable or Traktor? Morgan dismisses these quibbles with refreshing pragmatism. “All this technology gives people the freedom to do really creative DJ sets.” She talks about the mechanics of orchestrating a one-woman show, dividing her time between the music, the performance and the experience. “I used to do these hedonistic, raunchy-ass shows,” she says. “In exchange for that I was sacrificing the liveness of my set. For me to be free to move around and grind on a speaker, I have to be able to trigger loops with relative ease.”
Of course, a computer can do more than trigger loops. As she looked for ways to bring automation to her set, Morgan eventually discovered Max for Live, downloading other people’s patches and playing with their presets. Now she’s investigating Max for Live devices that inject non-determinism into her music. “Something that I want to play with more is the randomization of things, something that I find really beautiful in sets. Maybe I can control a few things and set up whatever patches and plugins and stuff so that it’s something that grows in a way where I’m not in control of everything.” Unpredictability, fed into the dialog between human and computer, creates inspiration. I’m reminded of John Cage, the well known champion of random processes in musical composition.
Computers can also soak up and sonify parts of the performance that otherwise might go unnoticed. “I’m building bluetooth-wired Ableton controllers,” Ducky tells me, “using the Esplora so it’s all joystick and accelerometer controlled. I like the idea of having heat sensors that tell how hot the room is and that affects your music. I think that sort of physical-music is really sick, especially for live sets.” She says that using the data in Max is pretty intangible, “you have to feel it. What you’re doing is finding physical expression of something human. You can use what’s basically raw data and then interpret it in a way that makes it human.”
Wrapping up my interview with Morgan, it’s obvious why she’s teaching herself Max and grinding her way though C. It’s not about the minutiae of programming, the difference between passing by value and passing by reference, or whether or not the compiler supports C99. Working with a computer is full of exploration and discovery, exactly like composing music. “The computer stuff actually has been nice,” Morgan says. “It’s given me a deeper understanding of how I work with my tools. It’s so fucking cool, and all I know about C is printf and #include ‘stdio.h’.” To put it in my own words, it’s Max, baby. Let’s hook this stuff together and see what happens.
At the heart of her exploration is a willingness and excitement to learn, two things that should be present in every Max programmer. Morgan sums it up nicely in a nugget of Zen-inspired wisdom that I think Max should print every time it boots:
“I intend to be amazing at this. Eventually.”
Let’s call it the Tao of Quackhouse, since it’s all made up anyway.