by Ben Kettlewell, Summer 1997
How did your interest in electronic music and just-intonation evolve?
As you can see, Harry Partch and Terry Riley were two early discoveries for me, and I liked the sound that just intonation brought to their music. I was also attracted to the mathematical elegance. As I developed my musical chops, the idea of JI made more and more sense, and I began exploring it as soon as I could. I couldn’t tune my homemade synthesizers acurately enough for JI, so I went out and bought an $80 lap steel guitar, which is fretless and inherently microtonal. I tried to find synthesizers that I could retune, and started pestering the synth manufacturers to put that functionality in their machines. As the ’80’s progressed the tools improved, but my requirements for tunability still limit my palette to certain synths. Perhaps for this reason I continue to build my own acoustic instruments, and I keep discovering and learning new approaches each year.
One of the most facinating aspects of your earlier career which you’ve brought back recently were the “sleep concerts” you did while you were attending college at Stanford. Can you tell us how the concept for these concerts evolved?
The Sleep Concerts grew out of several converging interests. At a sonic level, I was expermenting with a technique I called self-determinate synthesis, where I tried to create patches on my modular synth with complex constrained randomness built in. I would leave the synth playing itself for days at a time, listening to the constant subtle random variations. I began to appreciate these extended quasi-musical structures, in part because of their trance inducing qualities. I tried to think of ways to introduce others to this slow-motion music, trying to circumvent the normal audience expectations at a concert. Inviting them to sleep seemed the most obvious way to change their approach to listening. This idea coincided nicely with my fascination with altered states of consciousness, trance and dreaming. It occured to me that I could structure the slow music so that it could stimulate an awareness of internal states during the night, especially dreams and hypnogic imagery. So at a sensory level, Sleep Concerts are a pure exploration in sound immersion, while at a psychological level, they provide an environment for exploring conscious states and internal imagery.
I should point out that I’m not the first person to perform all night concerts. It’s common in many cultures throughout the world. Javanese wayang puppet plays go all night, as do some classical Indian concerts. Terry Riley used to play 8 hour organ concerts. John Cage did an all night reading with Marriane Amocher’s live electronic music. Perhaps my only innovation was to aim the music specifically at sleep states.
You’ve been heavily involved with micro-tunings and just-intonation. Can you briefly tell us about these tunings, and the impact they have on your compositional style?
Just intonation involves any tuning system that uses small, whole numbered ratios between the frequencies in a scale. This is the natural way for the ear to hear harmony, and it’s the foundation of classical music theory. The dominant Western tuning system – equal temperament – is merely a 200 year old comprimise that made it easier to build mechanical keyboards. Equal temperament is a lot easier to use than JI, but I find it lacks expressiveness. It sounds dead and lifeless to me. As soon as I began working microtonally, I felt like I moved from black & white into color. I found that certain combinations of intervals moved me in a deep physical way. Everything became clearer for me, more visceral and expressive. The trade-off is that I had to be a lot more careful with my compositions, for while I had many more interesting consonant intervals to choose from, I also had new kinds of dissonances to avoid. Just intonation also opened me up to a greater appreciation of non-Western music, which has clearly had a large impact on my music.
Your 1985 album, Numena, was recently re-released along with your ’87 release Geometry on a single disc on the the Fathom label. These two albums marked a transition from Trance music to more rhythmic structures. Did your growing interest in African and Indonesian music have any influence on this change?
Definitely. I had been introduced to non-Western music back in the ’70’s through an excellent radio station in Berkeley, KPFA; but it wasn’t until I began explorating just intonation in the early ’80s that I gained a new appreciation of it. I became interested in incorporating complex polyrhythms that would mirror some of the harmonic relationships. Rhythm invited melody, which increased the compositional structure, and I found myself creating a much more active music. On the flipside, I must confess that I am a restless and curious person. I don’t like repeating myself. When I started making more melodic music, it also came from a desire to learn new techniques and discover new approaches. I felt that I had done “slow music” enough for a while, and wanted to move on. For similar reasons, I came back to slow music a few years ago, and now I’m swinging back into an active territory again!
There is sort of a metaphor in your liner notes between credits for “glurp” and “shimmer”. Can you explain what these symbolize in your work?
Glurp represents a sort of psychedelic squishiness that I find attractive, sonically and elsewhere, a surreal reminder of our liquid animal nature. Shimmer infuses structure and symmetry into that purely animal energy, it’s the balancing texture which reminds me to seek for the meaning behind appearances. Together they make a sort of sonic Yin and Yang in my personal cosmology.
Did Terry Riley have much of an impact on your early music? Were there other artists that you found to be inspirational?
Riley had a huge impact on me, as he did for numerous others. I consider him a shining star both as a composer and as a person. As a lover of music, numerous people have inspired me, but I try hard to digest all of the influences completey, so that when I work on my own music it sounds like an organic whole rather than a collection of influences. The list of inspirations would even be longer than the list of influences. I suppose at the top would be Hamza El Din, Hariprasad Churasia, Javanes court gamalan, Gnawa trance music, J.S. Bach, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, Jon Hassel, to name only a few.
When you collaborate with other artists such as Alio Die or Steve Roach, are the pieces actually composed in some way, or improvised?
A bit of everything, usually. It’s always a blurry line between improvisation and composition, especially in a studio environment where you can take apart a performance and re-shape it into new structures.
The collaborations you did with Steve Roach sounded very different than your own solo projects. Did his sound have a big influence on you? What was it like working with him?
Steve and I have very different approaches to our music, which is one reason we worked so well together. I wouldn’t say we influenced each other so much as we found ourselves on converging paths, which allowed us to discover a new sonic territory together. The best collaborations take on an extrapersonal dimension, where individual voices dissolve and fuse into a single unified sound. The collaborations with Steve definitely landed in this higher ground, so the question of “who did what” is totally immaterial. Our creative energies merged for a short time to become a single creative mind, and it’s that third “person” who made that music. But separately, our music follows our individual courses.
Do you compose from an acoustic palette, then integrate electronics, treatments, etc.?
It moves in both directions, depending on the piece. My favorite territory opens up when an acoustic timbre gets transformed beyond the familiar, into a complex hybrid of acoustic and electronic. The distinction between the two gets blurred.
How did you start your band, Amoeba?
The new CD, Watchful, grew out of the 18 year close friendship between Rick Davies and me. Rick and I have been best friends since I was 15 years old, soon after he moved to California from England. I formed my first group with him when we met in 1979, and we have played together off and on ever since. Unfortunately, Rick was not involved in the first incarnation of Amoeba, which released a rather bizarre 5-song CD in 1992. I wanted to see the group go in a different direction, and Rick and I shared so many musical reference points that it just seemed natural for us to work together again. We share a love for a certain breed of abstract pop music, a stream which runs from Robert Wyatt to Durutti Column, David Sylvian, or the final two Talk Talk albums. I’ve always enjoyed good introspective vocal music, and it seems quite natural for me to be singing again – although I would never claim to be a great singer. (I used to sing in choir as a kid, and I even sang in all of the bands I was in as a teenager, but I have a thin and rather quiet voice.) Some people may find it surprising for me to be pursuing these avenues, but it’s really a natural outgrowth of my musical background.
You are one of the few American electronic musicians to actually make a living from your music. How did you acheive this seemingly impossible feat of financial independence?
I treat my carreer the same way any self-employed person would treat a small business. I try to stay disciplined, organized, and professional, but I realize that I’m most successful when I follow my heart. It’s not very lucrative, so do I have to be careful to have a backup plan during the slim months! I am lucky that I have a range of technical skills that I can fall back on when album sales aren’t paying the bills. I master, mix, and engineer other people’s recordings when I’m not working on my own. Occasionally I also write for magazines like Electronic Musician. The most important thing for me is that I can continue to make music that interests me, and that will always come before money.
What is your favorite album that you have ever produced? And,……..which was the most successful one?
The second half of the question is easier – my best selling CD is Rainforest. The first half of the question is hard, because each album explores something a bit different, so I consider them all individually. They’re like children – I don’t have any clear favorites.
Do you feel pressure to produce a certain type of album from HOS or do they give you a lot of artistic freedom in your releases?
I deliver to them a completed album, and they decide whether or not they want to release it. There’s never a question of artistic freedom. I do whatever I want to do, and if it doesn’t fit their style, they’ll pass on it and I’ll release it elsewhere. Amoeba is an example of an album that didn’t fit their label identity. They also passed on two releases that you’ll see on other labels late next year (a re-release of my 1985 live album Inner Landscapes on Projekt, and a very experimental sequel to A Troubled Resting Place called Below Zero, on Side Effects.)
What are some of the side projects that you are currently working on?
“Side project” is a bit of a strange phrase for me, since I try to devote all my attention to each project as it comes. Currently I am completing my next solo album, tentatively titled Flux, due out in February on Fathom. After that I plan to work on a new Amoeba CD with Rick. I hope to release a 6 hour Sleep Concert edition after that, and I have plans for the next solo album after Flux… but we’ll see what comes up as it happens!
Do you perform live?
Last year I was on the road for 3 months, performing 26 concerts accross the country. About half of these were live Sleep Concerts on radio stations, and the rest were either evening concerts or all-nighters with live audiences. In about a week I leave for Chicago to perform at the Projekt Festival, along with Steve Roach, Vidna Obmana, Ben Niell, and others. I guess the answer is “yes!”
You’ve certainly been prolific in the past twelve months. Can you tell us a little about all the releases that have surfaced since last summer?
There has been a total of 4 releases in the last year, A Troubled Resting Place, Amoeba Watchful, Fissures with Alio Die, and Numena+Geometry. A Troubled Resting Place came out last Summer, collecting some very abstract work that I had been doing for compilations and limited edition releases. I wrote each of the pieces with the album in mind, designing them to flow in a specific way from one to the other. This is a musical territory that I feel very comfortable in, and I really like the way this CD turned out. In April, Amoeba’s Watchful came out on Lektronic Soundscapes, which Rick and I had worked on throughout 1995 into early ’96. Finally, Fathom just released Fissures with Alio Die, along with the 2-CD rerelease of Numena+Geometry, albums I recorded from 1985-1987. I am very pleased with the repackaging of Numena and Geometry, which I consider to be pivotal albums in my musical developement. Finally these two titles are on a solid label with good distribution, and the new artwork is beautiful. Fissures was a very special experience for me and Stefano Musso. We worked and lived together for a very intense one month period, in the remote town where I was living near Big Sur in California. When it wasn’t raining we took breaks, hiking the woods picking gourmet mushrooms, fishing for eels and collecting mussels and clams during low tides. We worked hard and ate well! It was a time of connection. I think those experiences crept into the music. The album feels very warm and human to me, mysterious but comfortable. I feel that Stefano and I solidified a deep friendship during that time.
Future plans,…….where do you see your music going?
I have already mentioned recording plans that will span the next two years or so, but it’s hard to say beyond that. I tend to follow my curiosity wherever it leads me, and hopefully I’ll surprise myself with a new discovery, a set of new questions to ask. I can’t predict where that’s going to lead me!
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