An Interview With John Eichenseer
jhno, a.k.a. John Eichenseer, is the culprit responsible for many of the plug-ins in the Pluggo collection. A musician and programmer living in San Francisco since 1994, jhno can be found DJing chill rooms in the bay area as well as experimenting with live collaborations in the diverse local scene. In this 1999 conversation with Gregory Taylor, jhno talks about his history, the minimalist musical tradition, and some of his favorite non-musical stimulus.
So how’d it all begin, anyway?
I started playing piano when I was four-years-old, lessons… my parents basically compelled all of my siblings and myself as well to take piano lessons, and it has stuck with me longer than any of them, I guess. I ended up playing piano all the way until high school where I started studying jazz with the local band director who was a jazz pianist. At that time I still really couldn’t play, I had no conception of improvisation or jazz harmony, and it wasn’t until I went to college at the University of Texas at Austin that I really started to understand jazz and be able to play it with any degree of authenticity or authority.
So, at the same time I took an early interest in electronics and computers – probably found it in my father’s vocation as an electrical engineer – and started working with electronics when I was a junior in high school. The first computer I programmed was a patch-bay Heathkit boolean logic sort of educational computer where you’d connect and-gates and or-gates with little cords that were each carrying five volts, wire them to switches and lamps, and watch your little logic operations play out. Then, my dad built a Heathkit 8080, and I programmed that in octal machine code until finally, when we got the big 64k board, we could load Basic from a cassette – and I just moved on from there. By the time I was in high school, trying to think of what I wanted to do in college, it was pretty clear that the two threads of interest were computers, on the one hand, and music, on the other.
So I elected to go to a school to study computers and started doing that at UT Austin, but by the time that I completed about three semesters I realized that if you stuck with a degree program long enough to actually graduate, you come out the other end really thinking like a computer scientist. The course work involved in as rigorous a discipline as that really changes the way that your mind works and it has a huge effect on the way you spend your time, and I realized, fortunately a little early on, that that wasn’t exactly who I wanted to become and that wasn’t how I wanted to spend my time. I decided to switch my major to music instead. I took a degree in music, a very general degree that let me study jazz and classical music theory and composition, and especially ethno-musicology and electronic music as well. The main reason I chose UT Austin is because I knew they had some electronic studios and I wanted the opportunity to use some equipment, because I never had much. I had been scurrying around with a couple keyboards and tape decks, just whatever I could get my hands on, but there was precious little access to equipment throughout high school and junior high. Eventually I was able to work in the studios at UT Austin and kind of cut my engineering teeth there, learning about mixing and recording.
There are people who claim that the kind of formalisms you have to do to make music and the formalisms necessary to handle a degree of abstraction that certain kinds of computer science require are similar – so we get the old saw that musicians make good engineers. I hear you suggesting that they might be at war with one another.
I think that they’re different worlds. There are a lot of computer or math people that are interested in playing music, and vice versa. But I would say that, generally speaking, in my experience in both of those worlds, the really brilliant computer scientists – or scientists of any sort – and the really brilliant musicians are generally mutually exclusive sets. I have found that the musicians that I have a great degree of fondness for tend not to be very computer literate, and the people that I know that are really good at computers, if I listen to their music, a lot of times it sounds like the kind of music that I would expect a computer scientist to make. That’s not always the case, there are exceptions. I think maybe now, in this modern age, those exceptions are starting to become more common. The problem is really, I don’t think it’s an inherent exclusivity of these realms or them being at war with each other, it’s just that in the human life span, and with the human size brain, there’s only so much time in the day, and only so much you can do with your life. Music is an extremely demanding discipline and it takes your entire life to get anywhere musically, and to develop yourself as a musician. With computers it is kind of the same way, to get into it very deeply takes a lot of time, and so it’s been rare that people have been able to do both in the past. I think it’s becoming more common that people can bring them together now simply because computers are accessible enough, and perhaps even music education, well… I guess music has always been accessible. I think that basically, people are able to spend more time focusing on developing both of those aspects within themselves and actually produce a satisfying synthesis between them. Maybe that’s a reflection of the state of technology – maybe that computers are becoming more accessible.
I suppose that every musician is a kind of transitional figure in that respect – probably every period of musical practice finds you suspended between one thing and another. You sort of set off navigating by dead reckoning toward a goal, and the winds of history or circumstance come up and blow you off course, and the sort of zigzag you make as you try to tack [to] the place you want to go… it just happens that now it’s technology. For not being an engineer, you’re fairly familiar with both the use of technology and tools and the interplay between the tools that you use in the works that you do.
Right, well I’ve made my living as a computer programmer ever since I went off to college, working my way through school as a systems administrator. When I got out of college I didn’t start being a musician, I started working for a software start-up doing things that had nothing to do with music, and then on the side I was playing in jazz bands and writing music for modern dance. So those things were very separate and that’s why I came here to the Bay Area to try and integrate them, which, as it happens, worked out better than I could have ever foreseen.
Music and Technology
What you’re saying, music and technology have always had a very intimate relationship… certainly currently the focus is on computers as a very pure and advanced instantiation of technology, of technology as a force in human history. I think you can trace relationships between music and technology throughout the course of history.
Sure. It seems to me that the difference there is that to the extent that any musical instrument is the result of an on-going community argument about how to convert some kind of force to make some kind of sound, there’s a real sense in which the argument that circles around, say, a piano is more clearly articulated, and more general than we find in terms of current technology. You could, in fact, build your own piano, if you wanted to. You could build a piano with nothing but single course of strings, you could change the material. Most people don’t and probably the reason they don’t is because we have a pretty good idea about what we expect a piano to do. Technological instruments have either not been around long enough, or the circumstances of their generation has not been such that those agreements have been easily made, to the extent that there are any agreements… the agreements about the instruments in that rack were made by the people that designed and marketed by them, not by you. You clearly made choices over one set of things in that rack over another, but it’s kind of not exactly like a piano in that sense, so the relationship is both more tenuous, it seems to me, in that lack of agreement gives you more space to work in that you may not have in quite the same way that you have with other instruments, or historically may not have occurred in the same ways.
Right. I think that what has happened that you’re getting at here, is that information technology has created a sort of quantum leap in technology which has facilitated the development of instruments much more rapidly. What I’m really trying to say is difficult to express: I think that if you look at technology as a phenomenon in human history, one of the recurring themes and perhaps the primary theme of technology is the quantifying of an otherwise continuous realm – it has to do with measurement – and basically the process of the mind making distinctions between one thing and another, and putting them into categories. If you look at other technological innovations, this is what they are doing, in different ways. For example, the written language took the continuous spectrum of human vocal communication and basically categorized it into a finite set of fixed symbols and phonemes, or letters or an alphabet that could be recombined to represent really not everything that was said between people but a subset of that. When you do that, the continuous realm of expression is mapped onto a new discrete symbolic representation of the whole, and suddenly you are able to do things that you couldn’t do otherwise. The symbolic representation facilitates activity in that realm in terms of communication: you can write things down, you can remember it, you communicate across great distances with more reliability.
You have ways to say what could be said, you don’t have words for everything, but you have a structure that either lets you do it, or you have a situation where you can mix phonemic symbols with sort of meta-symbols that describe other relationships. The reason that Egyptian hieroglyphics were really difficult to figure out was because that no one really figured out exactly what the schema of representation were until they had the Rosetta Stone.” The reason that Egyptian hieroglyphics were really difficult to figure out was because that no one really figured out exactly what the balance of… until they had the Rosetta Stone, they had this idea that you’d count the number of phonemes and you look at the number of characters that it’s translated into and you realize that some of those symbols must not be functioning as phonetic units, they have to do something else, so the question is what did they do and it was very difficult to figure out. But the idea is that the meta symbol allows you to make, to sort of make different distinctions that are not merely phonemic.
Well, language is probably one of the most complex examples of this kind of technology. There are other technological innovations that I can think of…
A real simple one is making a tape. The transfer of something from the continuous domain of a bunch of guys sitting in a room, to a resulting piece of tape which is a physical, discrete object, which maps some of what happens in the room onto the tape, then you have the physical thing that you can then alter, scramble, and manipulate. That’s a very simple simple version of it, but you get the idea.
Right. I hadn’t thought of that particular case. What I thought of was the case of digital audio, in which case the technological innovation is more clear, I think, because you’re taking the continuous wave format of pressure that is traveling through and quantifying it into discrete steps or samples that can be stored and manipulated in a computer.
Do you think that that insight depends upon the sort of mechanical transcription of the world in physical form first? Things like hygrometers, the technology of the 18th century that takes muscular movement and transduces it to recordings on tape. If you look at the French cardiologists of the 19th century – Etienne-Jules Marey comes to mind, there’s this thing in him about what we do when we do… that is, we take things in the world that happen too quickly or slowly for us to see, or too gradually for us to see, or at too small an increment for us to see, and we have a way of amplifying it so that we can investigate them. Now, he’s not actually using those records to manipulate the heart, but he can see something to it that he didn’t when he started.
Well, that’s a good example. And I think that historically all of those developments must have contributed to what we can currently do with audio, with computers. But they’re not at an abstract level, I think that digital representations of sound are not…
Is that abstract level something you find more… It seems somewhat at odds with your description about what interests you about people’s ability to do music without a lot of technical background. It sounds like the delightful part of what you’re describing requires…
Well, I’m only describing what we were talking about with this relationship between technology and music. To kind of finish my line of thought there, the point I was making is that I think that there is this recurring theme in technology, that these innovations occur where a continuous strata is measured or quantified. We talked about the example of language – I think that money is another good example as the technological quantification of human relationships, and I think film is an example of quantifying the continuous spectrum of light into either grains on a film or, eventually, pixels on a computer screen. More relevant to the current topic is the last one I mentioned which is digital audio, where you measure a sound pressure wave in terms of discrete steps that can be sorted into a computer and manipulated, and once you can do that the range of possibilities for manipulating, changing, analyzing, and synthesizing sound opens up exponentially. Developments in the process of working with sound have… their pace has similarly increased exponentially, and I think if you look at other technological developments, the other area that I mentioned where you’re measuring with language or money, you also see a similar exponential increase in activity and development that can occur once this technological step has taken place where you can now work on this representation of this system, instead of the system itself.
When you work on the representation of the system, what sort of history do you bring forward with you when you do that? What you’re describing sounds kind of like operating on the representation allows you to conceive of what you do as a sort of research project, you have a different kind of material to work on now, what happens if I do this…
I think it defines another dimension of reality in which can take place phenomena with as much subtlety and aesthetic beauty as any. For example, language may be an imperfect expression of meaning, and of interpersonal communication, but language itself, the medium of language has given rise to the phenomena of poetry and literature, much of which is completely reliant on the strata in which it’s conceived. The same with music. I think that if a technological innovation takes place… another good example is the development of equal tempered tuning systems that took the place of previously continuous and pure system of just intonation. Once you create a new system that contains a simpler representation than that which you were describing, then a whole new set of operations and abilities is presented to you. In the case of equal temperment, that technological innovation gave rise to music that could’ve never existed without it… for example, romantic music, impressionists, Ravel all the way up through jazz. The music of Bill Evans and John Coltrane could never have occurred without the innovation of equal temperment. The music that has happened since that innovation has been married inextricably to the equal temperment system in which it’s conceived. I think also that if you look at the development of music, the technological innovation of equal temperment – while it left behind much of the subtlety and purity of just intonation – caused a certain quickening of novelty and a far more creative development to occur faster than before, simply because you now had a sort of simplified system that was a representation that was kind of distilled from the pure strata that it described, and then with that, because of the way that the human mind works, with this simplified symbolic system you’re able to more quickly work with it, and so developments occurred more rapidly. And that’s what’s happening now with technology and with digital technology in particular, is that there’s a similar quickening of genuinely innovative development in terms of types of music and the kind of processing and synthesis that you can do in the realm of sound.
So how does technology enter your life? How does it change what you do or how you think about what you do?
I think that’s the thing that people would be well-served to remember: that these symbolic systems that we use – whether it’s equal temperment or notation, language, digital audio – they’re all describing something that is much more real and much more subtle, and I think that people who work with technology and music can sometimes get a little bit lost in the aspects of working with the technological tools. In my opinion, in my own experience, music is a realm that precedes the symbolic systems that we work with: it is a more fundamental and significant reality. In other words, when I’m working with music I try to be guided by music and not by technology. You asked if they were forces at war with one another, and I think that they are, in a sense, forces that are different from each other and relating. I wouldn’t say they’re at war, in particular, but they are kind of different worlds, they are different aspects of human development, in a way they’re sort of different spiritual domains. I prefer for my focus to remain on music – for that to be my guiding light, if you will. I’m trying to bring technology into the service of music, for the sake of music and the betterment of music and not the other way around, I’m not trying to bring music into technology to further technology. I prefer to do things for the sake of music and if I am working with technology, be it at my own studio, trying to develop my facility with technological instruments, or whether I’m programming software to make tools that I can use or that other people can use, it’s all to work with music. I try to be guided not by what is interesting in terms of the technology, but really by its utility for music and its implications for music.
Techno and the Minimal Aesthetic
So a reasonable, if somewhat waggish question is, given your background in this sort of wonderful, rich electronic tradition and the tools that technology affords you, your interests in serving music as music and finding yourself in the stream of sort of improvised musical behavior, why are you doing all this godless, soulless techno-crap?
Yeah, I would’ve been rather surprised, I think, even three or four years ago to hear then the music I listen to now. If I would’ve heard it then, I would not have heard it as music, I would not have understood, it would not have moved me, my ears have rather opened up to aspects of electronic music that previously seemed to me perhaps soulless.
Can you recover what those were? What do you think would not have been worthy of your attention? It didn’t swing?
What’s most often obvious, and most often criticized about a lot of modern electronic music, especially derived from dance culture, is its repetitive nature. This is a criticism that was leveled at minimalism as it emerged from the more so-called legit music circles, work from Steve Reich and Philip Glass and Terry Reilly. Some people, when they hear that kind of music, and myself too… it requires a different kind of listening that I think, to a certain extent, has to be learned, or it requires a frame of mind, a certain sensitivity to phenomena that are taking place in the music that are different than the kind of phenomena that happen in other kinds of music, like western classical music or pop music, on which most of us have been weaned.
Do you mean in terms of time scale or attention span or rate of change?
I think those are things that people identify as empirical elements of the music that differentiate one kind from another. But, they’re all hinting at some aspects of music that are more fundamental. Those parameters are important, I think, for example just time-scale has a lot to do with it. In a minimal piece, if there’s a passage that’s repeating indefinitely, subtle development of sound could be happening not in the notes themselves, but in the timbre of the notes, or the relative timing or pitch or volume relationships among those notes. So, somehow as a listener you have to make this leap of not just listening to the notes themselves, but listening to these other levels of activity that are occurring in the music, and I think that that’s something that takes a certain amount of sophistication to be aware of. But I don’t think that it takes an awareness of those things in order to be moved as a listener – I think that you can hear very repetitive minimalist music and be moved by it without having the intellectual persective to be able to describe all of these aspects that we’re talking about. There’s a certain sense in which those pieces, like all of music, are trying to relate emotional realities, or trying to describe relationships that exist in the world, and they’re doing it in a certain way, and I think that listeners of any kind can, by hearing this music, achieve an artistic appreciation of what it’s trying to express, whether or not they can analyze it and discuss all of the details of how it’s implemented.
What kinds of recordings or performances sort of helped you change the way that you hear?
That’s hard to say. If I try and look back on how I came to listening to either repetitive electronic music, minimalist electronic music or minimalist classical music for that matter… I mean, when I first heard minimalist composers in the world of new music, I had the same reaction – I just didn’t get it, I couldn’t hear what was happening, I wasn’t having a musical experience, I was just bored. And there is a lot of music that still has that effect on me, but if I look at how I came to appreciate that genre of music, and how I came to recognize the examples in it that I considered to be truly great, I think, on the one hand it was just hearing pieces that did resonate with me and that had meaning for me, which is still kind of a small subset of minimalist music. A lot of it just won’t work for me, it’s kind of a rare piece that will.
How about the decision to actually start making it? Did you want a way to come to terms with how you thought it worked, or was that something that you discovered by virtue of the technology, the tools you were using at the time, or… ?
Well, it’s interesting because you’re asking me this question having heard the records I’ve put out already, which I don’t consider to owe very much at all to a minimalist tradition, and in fact if you place them next to the other examples of electronic music which most people would place in the same category, I think in my music there’s more activity and variety than most, just because I have a background in jazz and in classical music and in other kinds of music where… I like to hear a lot of things going on, I like to hear complexity. The funny part is that in about the last year I’ve been moving steadily toward things that are much more minimal, it’s just that you haven’t heard any of them yet. So you’re asking about something that is a very real part of my current musical development, even though most people haven’t heard it.
I guess what I was thinking about, though, is the notion of locating yourself within the genre… well, let’s put it in this way: whatever your intentions, someone someplace drew some conclusion about the territory in which you work, that may not have been your intent, but it was the case, and my guess is that most people who know your name immediately would say “Oh, he does X”… we have a category of work. How did you decide to pitch your tent in that clearing?
I did not and I think that I never will because I can’t, and I’ve tried before, but it’s just not in me. What I mean is that I have been sufficiently influenced by music that I’ve heard, to make me want to make music that is in the same category… that is, if I listen to jazz, I’ll hear great music, and that makes me want to create jazz music, it makes me want to play the piano, it makes me want to write jazz pieces… and when I hear techno music that I like, it makes me want to write a techno piece… that music is similarly affecting and I love it, but whenever I’ve tried to do that, it has never worked. If I sit down and try and constrain myself to write a piece that’s using the elements of a real jazz piece or a real techno piece the way that they’re traditionally done, the way that their genres have been traditionally defined, I can’t compose in that way. I have never been a very good at constraining my creative parameters to a given genre. What I have been able to do is integrate all of those things as influences, and create music that is heavily influenced by specific genres and that owes a lot of debt to them for techniques and ideas and sounds that I’m using.
But I think, at least for myself, when I look at the music that I’ve made, none of it fits into these genres very well. Even the jazz pieces that I’ve written on the piano, it just seems to me that the harmony that I’m using… I don’t really consider myself a jazz pianist, even though I’ve written a lot of songs, and I play out, it just doesn’t seem that that’s my identity, because I don’t think that what I’ve done fits very easily into that genre, from my point of view. Obviously other listeners, and the music industry in particular, has to pile things into those genres for marketing reasons or just for people to have an understanding of what you’re doing and be made aware of it. Many creative artists reflect this sentiment, that their music transcends genres or cannot really be categorized, but some artists play well within the boundaries of a specific genre. Some people play traditional jazz – that is what they’re doing and they’re very clear about it. People that make house music are intentionally making house music pieces. If you are trying to put out a new 12-inch in a particular style, then you stay well within the established boundaries of what happens in that genre of music. If you step too far out of line, people that are really deeply into that culture will not hear it, it might sound interesting for some reason, but it won’t fit into that class of music. People have a lot of expectations, especially when it comes to dance music and its culture.
Are you speaking from experience?
Well, I’m speaking from dialogues that I’ve had with people listening to music and my music and talking about what those differences are. I’ve made things that have integrated elements of techno or drum and bass, because I’ve heard that music, and some of it has really turned my crank and opened my ears to new things. So, I’ll make a piece that has elements of those types of music in it and say, play it for a friend of mine – I’m thinking in particular of a DJ friend of mine, Lukas Girling in the U.K., who I worked with – and he would say that when you’re making music in one of these dance genres, the music that happens… basically, new and innovative music takes small incremental steps from what is already established. If you’re making a drum and bass track that is part of a particular branch of culture that’s listening to that kind of music, there’s only so much you can do in a single track that’s going to differentiate it from the rest, it’s like the track has to have all these familiar elements and then just a few things can deviate slightly…
Innovations being limited…
…and it’s almost like an expression of a regimented class system where people’s roles in society fixed and rigid. I guess my approach is a little bit more based in the spirit of jazz, and a spirit of free-thinking and directionless innovation where I am just making pieces that sound good to me and I don’t really care if they fit into a certain category or not, I just use whatever elements appeal to me. When I’m making a piece I really have the feeling that the piece itself is some sort of platonic form that already exists, that I’m trying to uncover. The worst thing I can do is try to impose restrictions of a given genre onto it… I think it’s an unfortunate, almost morally corrupt thing to make something smaller and more restricted than its fully manifested self, so I think that I’m always trying to hear the piece for what it is, and let it go in whatever direction it wants, not constrained by any guidelines of style or convention.
It seems like there is a situation in which a custom is accultured, in having these kinds of modes of production, consumption and listening, and that the kind of listening you do as you move is different than the kind that you do when you sit down. So, ideally what you do meets both criteria if it’s done well?
I guess. I’m not even a dancer myself to tell you the truth. I dance sometimes, but pretty rarely – so I don’t feel like I have as much of an understanding of movement, of dance as some of the people that are more inside this culture and making dance music. I don’t think I really make dance music, although I’ve seen people dance to my music – everything from people on a dance floor, to music of mine that’s been used by modern dancers for formal choreography. And so obviously it can work, but that’s not what I’m doing when I’m making music, I’m not thinking about the movement of a body. I guess I have a sense of rhythm enough now that I can hear the way that things swing, and I think I’ve become a lot more sensitive over the years to subtleties of rhythm and of things being in time or feeling good in time, and that’s grown, but it’s not really through moving my body. When I think about rhythm, I think more about the pacing of my mind, and the way that my thoughts occur. I listen to the internal sounds and communications happening in my own, in circuitry that is inside of me and the inside of my body and I think that there are these rhythmic relationships happening all the time within myself, and I try to be aware of them on different levels, consciously and subconsciously, and I think that’s where my sense of rhythm really comes from.
Guiding the Machines
Thinking about rhythm, I wanted to talk to you about the communal aspects music making one hears with your duo project “Spool” and the work you make for yourself. In some measure, there is a sense in which one of that kind of work is heavily moment-based and collaborative… I’m thinking that as you do more improvisation on the continuum, it’s more on that end, and then you find yourself in a situation where you essentially work alone, and in a situation in which technology extends what you can do in terms of allowing you to multiply yourself, and also extends your ability to make and manipulate certain kinds of noise. I mean you may not be able to play the contrabass, but you can come up with something that will function like that instead of having to find a contrabass player.
Well, if I wasn’t an electronic musician I’d have to be a pipe organist because I am very fascinated with this process of being able to create complete works myself. There has never been a generation of musicians that’s been able to do it to this degree, because it’s very recently that recording technology has come about and that electronic instruments and synthesis technology have achieved the degree of sophistication that they have now, so I feel very lucky in that respect, because now we can create pieces that are very musically or spectrally complete, that are very complex and rich, by ourselves. I am a pretty reclusive person, my process just happens to generally be very solitary – even in Spool I end up doing a lot of the engineering and production and mixing of the pieces by myself because John Ridenour lives in Chicago. It’s not because I’m a control freak, or an egomaniac – I love playing with people too and a lot of the music I make which I consider to be the strongest I’ve done has been due to the contributions of other people. When I play jazz I’d much rather play in a trio with a bass player and a drummer than playing a solo piano, because you can just do so much more. But there’s something in me that gravitates towards solitary and contemplative activity and I think that there is a place in my musical life where these pieces are conceived, executed, and created entirely by myself.
There’s a certain freedom you can achieve in that solitary frame of working that is just different from collaborating with others, and I think there’s some things about it that are worthwhile. I would hate to ever do just one or the other. I would hate to just be a purely solitary musician, and never work with other people in a group, because I think that they are both very interesting modes of working musically. I would like to keep exploring them. One other thing I have to say, though, is this idea that as an electronic musician, or even as a pipe organist… or even as a pianist, the idea that you are ever truly solitary is really an incomplete and spurious notion, because you didn’t build the piano, and even if you did you built it like another one… and you didn’t build the pipe organ, you certainly didn’t build all the electronic instruments that you’re using, the sounds that you’re using, things that you sample… you’re drawing on the richness of the world around you and things that other people have created, and so you’re still working in the context of community. You can never really get away from that, so even though I’m creating music by myself, often I’ll be working with recording sounds that have come from collaborations with friends of mine, and I’m using instruments that other people have made, so there really is this richness that can only happen by the contributions of many other living human beings. So I don’t want to give the impression that electronic music is really as solitary and isolating as it seems, because there are a lot of connections.
There’s a sense that there are some people – here’s the plug part that gets edited – in which some people probably encounter the work that you do in terms of signal processing devices that you’ve put together, somewhat idiosyncratically I might add, for Pluggo, in the sense that there are people who probably encounter you live by virtue of the recorded material you make, and now, by virtue of the tools you’ve invented, to make things that strike you as interesting. I’m curious as to the point in your musical development where this change occurred. First, your background in computer science means that you can do things that the average consumer of electronics made by other people can’t do. But what is was that made you start making things that you couldn’t acquire…
Well, it’s a pretty recent development in my musical slash technological life, I think… in the same way that I said before that I’m a musician before a technologist, I’d rather be guided by music than technology; I’d rather prefer that to be my focus. I think that my musical output is a more full expression of myself and what I find interesting than what I can do with software technology. Be that as it may, and that said and disclaimed, I’ve been surprised and rather delighted to find that in the software that I’ve written I still see my character and creative expression. I see the same voice in my software and technological output as I do in my music. I look at them and I think the same person created these things. I like that because it indicates to me in a very personal way that technology has the capacity to be as creative and full of character – and idiosyncrasy as you say – as something like music. I have this same feeling when I see software that other people I admire have written. Things that are very idiosyncratic have an artistic and aesthetic integrity to them and a richness and a beauty that are the hallmarks of a creative person with a sense of vision. The reason I think this is heartening is that this is not always the case; in technology and software there’s a lot of people making things that just seem as soulless and empty as it is often slandered, either tongue in cheek or not, like your previous question to me.
Anyway, to get more to what you are talking about, I think that I was drawn to work creatively in the realm of technology because of its capacity for self-expression, and also because if I look around at the technology that is available, I find it wanting, I wish to contribute to it and bring into being things that I think should exist, or ideas that I think should exist, or ideas that I think should be expressed in this realm. Basically, what it boils down to is that I always think that things aren’t quite weird enough. In terms of technology, there are a lot of straight or expected conventions that are played out. What you can do with musical technology or sound processing tools and what I find most interesting as a consumer of them is that they are truly innovative, or that they make large leaps or do things that are extraordinary. So that’s what I’m trying to do in technology as well as in music, is show what is possible, to try and find genuinely new things. Not all of them will last – not all of the music I make will, I think, stand the test of time, and I can’t even predict what might. Not all the software I make will, but I think that some of it will, so I have to just basically make everything I can think of that strikes me as interesting and put it out there and let it play itself out in the culture at large and see what rises to the surface.
I think that there’s an additional relationship occurring which is that if I can make interesting innovations in music technology, it just happens that those are the tools that I use to facilitate my primary expression in music, the creation of music and sound, and so by participating in the process of the tools that I use I’m enabling myself to go further and achieve a broader range in the music that I create as well. Whereas if I was not participating in this level of creating, my own tools would be restricted. It takes a lot of work to get those two processes to really feed back into each other in a useful fashion, because music feeds back into technology as well. The things that I do with computers are informed by what I’ve learned about music, and what’s happening in my musical life, and so I think the challenge is that they really are two different worlds. While I’m writing software or putting things together on the computer, that is not the same mode emotionally or cognitively as when I’m making music – you have to shift gears a lot and if you’re trying to be a musician making technology or vice versa, you have to start to be aware of this process.
If you start working with technology you have to be careful that it doesn’t sweep you away, because you start to get really excited about things, and if you’re becoming a true geek, that means you’re probably going to spend a lot of long nights writing code and playing with little systems. That’s great, but I know a lot of people who have gotten lost in that and lament its effect on their music making. If you start working on tools indefinitely, then your process of creating music and working within your purely musical world can sometimes be left behind. Like I said, they overlap a lot and back into each other, but they’re still somewhat separate, and when you’re working on music… when I’m working on music properly and working in the world of musical ideas, trying to shape things according to the sound, I’m not developing tools simultaneously, I’m using what’s available to me. There’s an extent to which you can do those at the same time, but at least for myself I consider them to be separate processes, and I have to constantly direct a balance between those so that neither one completely overshadows the other, because if you leave something behind it will atrophy. If you get out of the technology game your skills will deteriorate and become obsolete, and if you stop playing music your chops will deteriorate, and your momentum on your path as a composer… so it’s really quite a balancing act to try and maintain these separate lives, but it’s also a pleasurable challenge.
Look. Listen. Read.
Okay, three things.
Okay, so we have three things to listen to, look at, and to read. Is that right?
Okay, look at is maybe the easiest because that’s the furthest away from the core of my being, just because I’m a little more into language and music, so those are harder. Probably my favorite piece of computer-based art or graphics, visual art, is Scott Draves’ “Bomb,” which is a multi-platform, cellular automata-based graphics program that produces organic moving imagery based on a variety of algorithms that are recombined in a way that I think is rather ingenious. Scott’s become a friend of mine and we’ve worked together a little bit, and I have a great appreciation for cellular-automata in general. I just happen to think that his program is the best instantiation of it so far, from an aesthetic point of view, and I think that just by looking at something like that you can gain all sorts of insight into the way the world works. Other than that, I would look at the structure of plants in the real world. I also feel like I gain a lot of insight about things from the way that trees bifurcate at their branches, and if you look very closely at a flower or a tree then you will see encoded into it just a logical structure that if you understand, you can make relationships between that and music, and between that and so many things about the way the world works. Just try to imagine the DNA sequencing, and the intra-cellular processes that created the patterns that you’re seeing, because it’s all being generated out of these very simple replicating units that occur in all of life. So I like looking at plants.
These are in no particular order, I guess. The other… I would say that all of the elements are pleasurable to look at. Anybody can stare at a fire or ocean waves endlessly, but I like looking at the sky a lot, and that’s probably also because I fly paragliders – I have a new and much deeper appreciation of wind and meteorology than I used to. If you don’t want to fall out of the sky, it helps to formulate a model of what’s going on. Just the motion of fluid dynamics is incredibly fascinating, whether it’s the sky or watching liquids combining, it’s kind of a very similar phenomenon. I just love to see things swirling around… the chaos of dispersion… so wave behavior in clouds and in water is particularly fascinating. It’s great when you combine them like flying maybe 1000 feet above the coast here in San Francisco, and you’re flying through the air and seeing the clouds above you, the sun shining through them, and at the same time you can look down and see the patterns of waves crashing into the cliffs in the ocean.
Okay, what do you listen to?
That’s the hardest of the three, because I’d be incredibly hard-pressed to define three recommendations out of the entire world of music, so maybe I should just not even touch music at all, and talk about other things I listen to. For example, one of my favorite ongoing activities is listening to insect sounds, or other animals that make periodic, and continuous sounds – especially frogs, birds sometimes to a lesser extent, but frogs and insects really draw me in most readily. I’ve recorded a lot of insect sounds, I keep thinking about pieces I might be able to make from them. I don’t know, I’m really fascinated by the variety and subtlety of the noises that converge in nature. If you’re sitting there listening to a field of cicadas and trying to hear the patterns… because it’s not just noise, they’re communicating with each other, things are happening in their world, and you’re just hearing the sonic representation… and trying to make conferences of adjunct stories of what really is happening, what’s behind the sound.
What’s the last old thing you bought?
Yeah. Older than 20 years.
Well, that Marvin Gaye CD is older than 20 years, but that’s not really old and it’s a little bit of a tangent for me. As far as old music, I would say Bach… the Indonesian Gamelan music we were talking about earlier, I have quite a fondness for that. There’s so much indigenous music that’s great – I really have a predilection for the Middle East and Eastern Europe, as far as folk music goes. My drummer friend Bryan Bowman turned me on to a CD called Gypsies of Rajasthan, that’s great stuff – I love music from that area of the world. I love the duduk which is an instrument from Armenia (and Turkey). I got into it from hearing the famous Armenian duduk player Djivan Gasparyan and I even bought a couple of duduks and am trying to figure them out.
Did you really?
Yeah, I have two duduks and a box of reeds. The problem with those things is the reeds… at one point I could play, and I got some good tone. I recorded the duduk on one track of mine – it’s actually one of my better tracks, at least judging from people’s response to it – where after the introduction basically in the beginning of the song before the beat kicks in, I play this little simple line on the duduk and I just love it because I was able to get this big warm sound. The duduk is an extraordinary instrument, it sounds very different in real life than it does on tape, because on tape, like these recordings of Gasparyan…
They’re big, huge, dense, wet spaces.
Yeah, it’s the most timbrally expressive, warm wind instrument that there is, but in real life it sounds much smaller and rather insubstantial, and that’s because of the “proximity effect” of the microphone – the low end becomes emphasized and, as you say, bigger than life.
I think I like the idea of an acoustic instrument that is smaller than you think it is.
I’d like to hear a talented musician play one live. I’ve heard myself, it’s not exactly the same. I still have to get out and hear that instrument sometime. At the same time, I would like to play it more, but the problem is the reeds: you pay like 15, 20 bucks a pop for the suckers and they’re all different, and they end up drying out and getting screwed up.
Where do you get them?
I think they’re generally just imported from Armenia. I bought one of the duduks from Lark in the Morning. They have so much stuff, and they sell reeds too. I’d rather just travel to these countries. I’m sure you can just buy reeds there for 50 cents – of course, if you’re a serious reed instrument player you make your own reeds, but I don’t even know where you get materials for this stuff and it’s just a whole path that I haven’t been able to pursue.
Okay. Something to read?
That’s good, that excuses me from thing number three to listen to, which might be silence, or your own brain, anyway, so that’s a good call. To read, I think I’d have to first identify a book that we were discussing earlier today, which is Harmonic Experience by W. A. Mathieu, because I think that’s the most informative and important book about music ever written – at least that I have seen. I haven’t read all the books there are out there, but I got a music degree, and have seen enough to know what’s been expressed about music. It’s hard to write about music and read theories about music, and to analyze it, and to come up with things to communicate to other people, because so much of it is inexpressible or ineffable, and the people that are sensitive to that don’t want to diminish or cheapen aspects of music by trying to narrow them into inadequate forms of expression by talking about it. I feel that way myself, but his book I think goes further into explaining what is really happening with music and why it is interesting to us, especially from a musician’s standpoint, making music. I think he has more to say on the topic than any other source that I’ve come across. I was simply surprised to read that book after having studied music for almost all my life and gotten a college degree at a decent university, and I started reading that book and almost immediately it occurred to me that this is what music is about, and why didn’t anybody tell me about this before. What it was to me was a validation of everything I was doing in music, because I think that when you learn traditional Western music theory, it seems very arbitrary – and in fact, it is. They are telling you, “here’s the twelve notes of the scale, and here they are and these are their names, and these are the kinds of chords you have” – and a good teacher is also going to be saying: “of course, you know we’re just talking about it, describing, and what you really need to do is play it, and listen to it and have this experience, and that’s what real music is, right” So you do that, and then it’s back to the analysis.
It just seems like it’s a different world, all these arbitrary symbols and descriptions – a system that you make, and then from that comes music. That’s fine, but I think eventually this viewpoint is a little bit disheartening or unsatisfying. What happened with me when I read Mathieu’s book is that I realized there is a reason that music is this way, that our systems of harmony have developed over time in this way, and that’s because physical objects resonate in a certain manner, and they resonate with each other in relationships that are intrinsic to the physical world in which we live. The harmonic series is found in nature and the interaction of vibrating objects, which behave according to certain rules, and what he does is talk about those rules, which I already knew, but he traces the relationship between the way that physical vibrations interact and the music that we’ve made. I knew that, for example, musical intervals were based on the harmonic series. I didn’t know how, I just knew that there was a harmonic series, and then there’s these scales that we have, which are related, but not exactly the same. What he does is tell you why. Other people have done that too, but I think that the gestalt of his explanation is more complete and satisfying than anybody else’s that I’ve heard. [His book] draws a more complete picture of the relationship between basically just intonation and equal temperment than any other I’ve seen.
What else do you read?
I guess Philip Dick has caught my ear lately. In particular I like Valis and The Divine Invasion, a couple of his later books which I think are among his best. Everything he has written is pretty interesting – I’m fascinated by his writing style, and what he has to say. I think he was a very deep and mystical person who had an understanding of the world that is extraordinary and unique. I don’t know if I would recommend him to everybody. There are certain people to whom I recommended him immediately, but I don’t think that kind of fiction is for everyone. I guess if I had to recommend a book most broadly it would be Monkey: Folk Novel of China. It’s a translation of a story which is more like a collection of stories about this mythical stone monkey that comes to life. It encompasses a broad swath of Chinese mythology and Buddhism and Confucianism all thrown together, with a lot of humor – generally just a thrilling book to read. Very fun. But at the same time it has the same epic scope, or the feeling of significance as other spiritual literature like the Ramayana from Hindi literature. It is taking on these heady topics, it has plenty of depth and philosophical significance, and it’s also very light-hearted. Monkey is a lovable character.