Mini Interview: Keith Fullerton Whitman
Keith Fullerton Whitman is a musician.
What got you started?
I started tinkering around with a Commodore Vic20, then an Atari ST when I was younger, writing little sound-programs in Basic. This was before I played any instruments, although I did take flute & clarinet lessons, and, later, guitar. I can still do a mean Eric Dolphy / Perry Robinson / Robin Trower impersonation, but it’s largely been electronic & computer music for the past 20 years.
How do you know when something you are working on is finished?
After three years, usually. This angers the people at the record labels that want the “product” or “deliverable” ASAP, but my usual gestation cycle for major projects is a full three years. One of recording, one of fine-tuning / tinkering / arranging / embellishing, then one of mixing / mastering / finalizing. I’ve done a few things recently outside of this method, but they’re almost exclusively real-time or “live” recordings. I guess it’s either one or the other.
When do you like to use chance or random processes?
… at almost every stage, actually. within the Max-MSP patches I’m using these days, there are myriad stochastic processes at work. It’s no secret that I’m big fan of Karlheinz Essl’s RTC library, I still use those patches all the time. Even in the older, Max 4.x days (i.e. the Hrvatski & “Playthroughs” patches) there’s a ton of random & chance incorporated into how the delay lines are timed, the spacing & spatialization, etc. I love seeding a random number generator with a conditional value ; the time of day, seconds, temperature, etc. Even when I’m working with the hardware setup, almost everything roots back to a white-noise source at some basic, atomic level.
What’s something that you would like to be able to do with technology in your work but you can’t at the moment?
An accurate system for real-time polyphonic pitch-tracking of an unmodified acoustic or electric instrument would be very welcome right now, but alas we’re only at the beginning of what’s possible there. I’ve seen some amazing demos recently though. Several of the main hurdles in integrating the hardware system with Max have been alleviated in recent times. The Expert Sleepers modules are fairly amazing for how much you can achieve there. I’m struggling with any kind of gestural control over Max that doesn’t either fall back onto the traditional mixer / fader model … or isn’t awful. I tend to choose the former.
What inspires you?
Everything that happens outside of the computer / internet these days in real, breathe-able space. Walking around outside, interacting with neighborhood cats, etc. I’m not a luddite by a long shot, but I really do think we’re all spending too much time with computers & simulations of real human interaction these days. I’m meeting more & more young people these days that have cut right to an amazing grasp of some arcane, beautiful thing … but have eschewed all of the trial & error of living & social interaction to get there. I’m mostly inspired by people & places, travelling, that sort of thing. The kindness of, essentially, strangers, who I get to meet through my work. I get most of my best work done just prior to or upon return from a trip to play music somewhere. It’s nice to get that kick in the ass every month.
What is the most difficult obstacle you need to overcome in order to do your thing?
There’s the constant, perennial problem of balancing the amount of work I need to do to accrue resources to make music, and the energy I have left over from said to actually make said music. I’ve been doing an especially poor job of this recently, all but ignoring my responsibilities outside of music to get through an especially inspiring spell … then ignoring my creative side to get through an especially lucrative one. This push & pull is part of what keeps me going, I guess. I’ve done everything to sabotage my chances at real, meaningful work (teaching, etc.) to extend my adolescence permanently, which, at 40, is where I’m the most comfortable.