Mini Interview: Brian Crabtree
Brian Crabtree creates objects, music, and objects that make music.
What got you started?
just prior to my teenage years my slightly older uncle showed me a video of himself and friends taking turns trying to sever aluminum cans with a homemade ninja sword. the soundtrack that played from a boombox in the background was depeche mode and nine inch nails. that pretty much set the stage.
i was fortunate enough to have grown up programming computers and making music at a young age. but the two didn’t collide until i unknowingly found myself in classes taught by miller puckette and peter otto. commercial music electronics didn’t do anything interesting, and computer programming wasn’t very musical (computers were just at the threshold of being able to do live processing.) max/msp deeply changed the way i thought about composition, performance, recording and audience interaction– many months were spent in the computer lab in an altered state of reality. so many possibilities began to unfold.
i changed my performance software every day, sometimes radically. this led to the necessity of a comparably adaptable physical interface. a minimal decoupled grid proved to keep up with this sort of drive for discovery.
now we ship these all over the world and people do things i never dreamed of. many share these creations back with the community which fosters an incredibly regenerative creative energy. for this i am very grateful.
How do you know when something you are working on is finished?
i suspect nothing is ever finished, which is both compelling and horrifying. a sense of completion would only signal a new transformation or journey which may include the destruction of the previous accomplishment. i feel like i’m constantly refining and redefining my work, so i prefer to think in cycles and continuums. i’m wary to assign the quality of finality as i’m sure i’ll feel differently about it soon thereafter– consider how we’ve somehow changed just barely our hyper-minimalist grids over the years. striving to make a simple idea almost imperceptibly more simple. it’s nonsense. but it’s real life, too. the new grids we are designing right now are totally going to be the best and last version, by the way.
with qualitative work, for example music, the situation is even more ridiculous for me. one of my favorite compositions started as a long improvisation which i painstakingly edited down, then unconsciously undid each edit until i was back at the full untouched recording. this took hours. it was a spectacular and somewhat annoying epiphany.
When do you like to use chance or random processes?
i frequently reach for indeterminacy when trying to model some sort of organic process– like two performers falling out of sync or tune, or pairing sets of tones together arbitrarily, or trying to recreate a forest full of birdsong. computers are really good at being computers. i enjoy trying to make them dress up and pretend they’re something else.
i often get nervous calling this composition, however. i perhaps over-romanticize the scene of someone in a secluded cabin in the woods with a piano and some paper and a pen and firewood and enough rice and kimchi to get through the winter. sometimes it is too easy to let a machine generate art and then we take credit for it. this is perhaps why i’m most attracted to machines that can be completely redefined, to be used in ways the designer of the machine did not intend.
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 aim to make the technology invisible. i often don’t want to think about technology. it should be transparent and not get in the way.
What inspires you?
energy is an exchange. we give and graciously accept, changing its form and method of delivery. the simple act of thoughtful transference tends to multiply its magnitude– heedlessly disobeying laws of physics. i find an overabundance of this energy in nature and in many forms of community (particularly of the local variety), in architecture and food and ideas, in conviction and in openness. it can be a fleeting smile or a three hundred page novel about rocks.
What is the most difficult obstacle you need to overcome in order to do your thing?
often the most difficult obstacle is deciding what to do, in the broadest of terms. there’s this sentiment that things get easier the more you learn. i feel the more i learn the more conscious i am of what i don’t know– also more conscious of the universe of things i could be doing otherwise. so for me the opportunity to know more just leads to more of the unknown. it can become an overwhelming and noisy feedback loop. sometimes i have to inject some sort of randomness to stabilize, to become human again. see a foreign place. hear someone else’s story. reconsider my belief in my own internal narratives.
it’s all nonsense. really important nonsense.