Artist Focus: Phil Maguire


    Phil Maguire has gained praise across the web as an artist using sine tones, everyday found sounds, and amplified noise, with Max/MSP being one of his main tools, . His minimal yet engaging textural environments have been suitably described as “A popping, whirring, stuttering thing”. Phil recently took some time to answer few questions about his music and unique process. Could you describe your work and talk about how you got started using Max? I'm a musician and artist working in London, making composed and improvised music with computers and various pieces of obsolete/damaged hardware. My main focus when writing, recording, and performing, is investigating very simple sounds and structures and getting as much from them as possible. I primarily use sine tones and noise, but sometimes use samples and field recordings. I call the music I make 'reductive', because some kind of simplicity is always at the centre of what I do; whether it's a piece made from a single recording, or something more complex, but where I have little physical control of what's happening. I started using Max as an undergraduate, around 2009. Originally I used Max as an extension of my guitar, building an FX chain, and various abstractions that sampled the guitar, or ran the signal through VST plugins. Around 2013, I became frustrated with this system; it was unwieldy and difficult to use at the same time as playing an instrument, so I put down the guitar, and started exploring Max itself as the instrument. Since then, I've developed pieces in which I have very limited control. Most of my patches involve pressing 'GO' on some kind of process, and then reshaping it live, for example structuur and there will be no miracles here. I like making patches that do one or two very basic things, so I have to really explore to find something interesting to do with them. How do you work with simple Max patches while maintaining a personal voice in your music? By nature I'm a quiet person that leans towards observing, so I think that's fed into how I put write patches. When I was first learning Max, I would build something very simple, like a looper, and play with that for hours. That informed a practice of writing pieces with Max that used a handful of simple components. In my guitar-playing days, these components multiplied and got out of hand, so after my frustration of trying to play an instrument and control around a dozen sub-patchers with minute control all at once, I pared down the control I have to almost nothing. Now, most of the time all I can do is bring levels of various sounds up and down, turn them on/off, or toggle levels of 'activity'; usually slow/fast, or a simple effect (e.g. ring-mod/no ring-mod). I'm not very technically-minded, so even though I've been using Max for 7 years, my patches are still very simple! I think this has fed into my practice and helped me keep a personal voice to my music, even when it's so heavily informed by Max. Most of my patches kind of work, in that, they do more or less what I intend, but there's often a quirk or two present that I hadn't planned, that open out the possibilities some more. This could be something like the probability on a glitchy sample player set very low causing some interesting pitch-shifting, or some tone beatings I hadn't planned for. I like to keep my level of planning quite low, work intuitively, and embrace accidents. In relinquishing control I've also become less of a perfectionist - I feel like the way I can make electronic music that has a human feel is for it to be a little rough around the edges. How do you interact with software and hardware in your work? I use hardware mostly for recording - I have no interest in 'gear', so will use anything that I find, rather than go shopping for equipment! At the moment I'm having a lot of fun with a cassette 4-track recorder, and some degrading tapes. I've released music on tape a couple of times, and I feel like beyond its low-cost, you have to engage with the mechanics of cassettes and cassette decks, rather than try and ignore them. I've made a couple of pieces recently, strooken and strooken #2, that play with this idea. They're simple recordings of a tape loop degrading over time, and the squeak and hiss of the tape and tape decks are really present. After I made the tape loop and recorded a few seconds of audio to it, I didn't have to do anything except hit play on the tape deck, and send the output into a digital recorder. I really like that; it's quite a natural parallel to how I work with Max: I present the technology with some source material/ideas, and it does whatever it does. When performing, I either use my Max patches, which I control simply with a NanoKontrol and a Launchpad Mini, or I use my Raspberry Pi instrument. This has an incredibly simple patch loaded onto it: four forms of filtered noise, and four sine tone oscillators that generate random frequencies within a set range. These eight layers are all always running, and I can control simple things like levels, or locking frequency combinations that I like. This instrument runs through a mixer, which has a feedback loop.
    The Raspberry Pi is my main instrument for improvisation. Because it mostly just does what it likes, I'm forced to listen much more closely, and I'm always on my toes. This brings in some really interesting situations when I'm playing with other (human) performers. Whichever one of these instruments I use for performance, I like to have as little visual feedback as possible. My Raspberry Pi instrument runs without a screen, so all I have are some lit buttons and fader positions on my NanoKontrol. When I use my laptop, I usually only have info like whether a process is set on or off. If I add anything else, it stops me listening as closely, and pulls me out of the performance, rather than helping me. I'm not interested in novelty forms of control; only the sound is important for me. What kind of source materials do you work with and how has that changed during your evolution as a musician and sound artist? I feel like I'm still not quite settled on what 'my sound' is, but the last few years I've been drifting towards lo-fi, static, structureless work. I use sine tones and noise almost exclusively. Before 2013, I used guitar, VST plugins, field recordings, found sound... and it was a mess. As a response to that I threw out almost everything except what I feel are the most basic components of electronic sound. Restriction is something that I need as an artist, otherwise I can't get anything done! Since that initial cleansing of source materials I have brought some back; mostly found sounds and field recordings. I use these both very sparingly, as with the voices that punctuate there will be no miracles here. Sometimes I make pieces with field recordings. I've always been interested in this, and try to think very critically about why I make them. As such I've developed a few pieces that subvert the 'field' in one way or another; recording rain by placing a recorder outside, in a plastic box on a rainy day, or simulating rain by recording the input of a soundcard with nothing connected, and boosting the input by 12dB or more. Is it true that you do not own or use any speakers? It's true! I originally didn't use speakers because I couldn't afford any. At one point I was mixing everything on some old iPod earbuds; it was all I had. Now, I don't have any speakers because I'm so used to working on headphones. I have some nice studio monitor headphones these days that give me a nice, clear image of the sound(s) I'm working on. Whether it's true or not, I feel like I've learnt to listen more closely because of this, though I do now test my mixes on various studio and hi-fi speakers from time to time, when I can access them. Maybe in the future I'll invest in a nice pair of studio monitors.