Mini Interview: Michael Lowenstern


Michael Lowenstern is a Bass Clarinet player and programmer.

What got you started?

I’ve always been into making music with whatever technology I could get my hands on.

Growing up in Chicago, my room wound up being the place where my parents would store stuff. One of the things that got stuck in a corner was an old Magnus chord organ and I began banging away on that before I could read. Fast forward to about 1981, and friends of mine and I spent complete weekends making rudimentary mash-ups with four tape decks. In college (I somehow managed to get into Eastman) I had my first experiments with guitar pedals — non-composition majors weren’t allowed into the electronic studio, so we would have to just rent stuff from the guitar shop and do our best. Finally, in grad school in 1990, I was introduced to (Opcode) Max, and it was all over. I was deep, deep into Sysex, and found ways to wrench amazing sounds out of cheap little synths like the TG33 (which I wish I still owned). From there, it just got more interesting as hardware and software developed. And thankfully my rig went from 3 flight cases to a laptop and a small suitcase.

How do you know when something you are working on is finished?

You know that King Crimson tune “Indiscipline” where Adrian Belew talks about his wife carrying around a sculpture “for days and days” and then “playing little games like, not looking at it for a day, and then looking at it…to see if I still liked it.”? That’s me. I’ll listen to a tune that I think is done about a 50 times to see if it wears on me, and then I’ll not listen for a week or two (or sometimes a year or two!) and work on something totally different. When I go back to it, if I still like it that’s a pretty good sign it’s ready to leave the nest.

When do you like to use chance or random processes?

Almost never actually. I tend to be a total control freak with my music. I mean, I improvise just about everything I do — especially as I’m writing — but when it starts to take form, I let it gel and keep it pretty much the same. I also practice like hell with my gear and run shows over and over and over just so that it’s bulletproof in a concert. I feel so bad for performers when their setup implodes at a concert, because it’s so awkward for the audience. I simply won’t let that happen.

What’s something that you would like to be able to do with technology in your work but you can’t at the moment?

I would love to use wireless video and toss that out into to the audience. Luke DuBois told me that he once stuck a video camera in a foam ball and threw it into the audience. I’m not sure how he did that… I love structuring pieces for the audience to participate with; right now I’m working on a piece with a bunch of old iphones running TouchOSC. If I could add video to those, that would be just awesome.

One other thing I’m looking forward to is when the SABRe (Sensor-Augmented Bass Clarinet) is complete. It’s been in development for about 6 years…

What inspires you?

This probably sounds very typical, but my colleagues, especially Todd Reynolds, Trevor Exter, Bill Ryan, Dennis DeSantis, Luke DuBois, etc. Beyond that, when I go looking for inspiration, I’m really thankful for YouTube, because there is just so much out there that can spark an idea. it doesn’t have to be some programming whiz, or incredibly accomplished musician, I get inspired by people who find interesting, weird, clever solutions to limitations in their playing, or their environment, or their technical knowledge.

What is the most difficult obstacle you need to overcome in order to do your thing?

This might sound odd, but I need to get back to that place where I had zero money, and had to invent ways to get an idea out without resorting to buying a piece of software or a plugin or some gear. Software and hardware has gotten so inexpensive these days that it’s just easy to find a pre-packaged solution. When I started out, there was no Web, so the best we could do was pop a few No-Doz and stay up all night. Nope, there wasn’t any Red Bull back then either.

Michael’s website