Originally published in SPECIAL INTERESTS #2 (2010)
Interview by Markus Metsälä.
You have been involved in the experimental/noise music scene for a very long time, starting from the mid-80’s. How did you originally become interested in “unconventional” music? Can you recall any single event that might have been the start of your artistic path?
I can remember hearing a ken nordine record when i was young, called “word jazz”. there’s a piece on it called “the sound museum” that really got to me. there are examples in it of sound paintings that i found fascinating. imadeatapeof this piece without the narration, so i could listen to just the sound paintings. this is my earliest recollection of being aware of listening. i can remember later on wishing that certain records had more “weird noises” and fewer songs on them…
Has your motivation for doing music remained the same over all these years? Has it been normal artistic evolution or have there been some specific experiences or events that have changed the way you approach your art?
I’m not exactly sure what my motivation is. it occurs to me to do things and these things “nag” me if they don’t get done. i’d say it’s more that i have found a justification for my attempts, which may or may not be that important, but it gives us something to talk about.
i wouldn’t venture to guess what “normal artistic evolution” is. i can say that i did have a revelation of sorts after i found a community of musicians with similar interests. once i started improvising with seasoned players and began really listening, i started noticing things. these led me to thinking about what it is that i’m doing. what music is “for”.
What are your feelings on the state of the experimental music community today? You were there to experience the heyday of the cassette culture and have seen the change as we moved to the new digital millennium. Do you miss anything from the “good old days” or have things mostly changed for the positive?
There’s certainly more of everything, “good” and “bad” (or should i say interesting and uninteresting?), and the internet has made everything almost instantaneously available to anyone with a computer. this is the biggest difference. there’s so much stuff that it’s difficult to get a handle on any of it,
people tend to specialize and so i think it’s actually a large number of communities, not just one. i don’t miss anything about the “good old days”, no. i’m not sure that i’d have the energy to do things that way now.
Your discography is massive, you have participated in literally hundreds of releases. Is it possible to divide them into different categories? I mean that some of them would be more like pages from a diary and some would be finalized documents of a certain idea. Are they all as important to you or do you put more time and effort to some?
My work can be relegated to categories, for the sake of talking about it, (free improv with conventional instruments, field recordings, drone works, sound collage, found instrument improv etc), but i don’t really see it that way. it’s all giving people a chance to listen. i put more time and effort into the recordings that require more, or that cause questions to arise about the mechanics of their production. how do i put this together? how can i make this action happen by itself, etc. all my recordings are equal to me, they’re all folly….
In addition to your solo work you have been a part of many groups (Blowhole, Animist Orchestra etc.) and performed with many different artists in duo/trio kind of collaborations. How do you approach playing with other people? Do you have a singular vision that runs through everything you do or does collaborating with people bring out new directions for you?
Playing with other people can bring out “new directions” because it can throw you a curve, so to speak. i approach all playing in the same way, namely i listen and respond to what’s happening. and i try not to get stuck in my patterns of playing. sometimes other people have ideas or agendas, and if that happens it’s something to work with.
One cannot say that you have been stuck to any specific sound. You have done quite noisy releases as Hands To, played free-jazz-rock with Blowhole, released unedited field recordings (aarc tapes) and so on. One unifying theme I can see in a lot of you work is improvisation. What does improvisation mean to you? Does it hold some deeper meaning to you, something more than “playing without prearranged ideas”? Does improvising with other people differ fundamentally from solo improvisation?
Improvisation is the oldest way of making music that there is. beyond that i can’t attach any meaning to it, it’s the way i prefer to work most of the time. for years i played in bands that had a fixed repertoire, and rehearsed it and played the same music all the time, and to me it just sounded dead after awhile. it’s like work, it can be drudgery. improvisation is more like life. playing with other people is the same and it’s different.
How should one approach the unedited field recordings you have done? Are they music on the same level as everything else you have done or should one listen to them in a different way? Is it just a case of transferring the sounds from a particular time and place to other people via recordings or does something special happen to the sounds once they are recorded? Do the sounds become something more/less/different when they are on the tape?
I’d say they are the same as music if one listens to them in the same way. it depends on what one uses music for. people are going to approach things in the way that they do, and that’s fine, i don’t think i should tell others how to do it. recorded sounds are not the same as the sounds we hear while recording, so the artifact is different than the original experience, and this is neither good nor bad, it just is. the recordings can be interesting in their own right. otherwise, why make them?
Do you place an important role for the act of listening? A lot of your work is quite silent and it seems to force the listener to listen more intently, to concentrate on the sounds. Do you think that we use the sense of hearing to its full potential?
I’m not sure that we use the sense of hearing much at all. people don’t listen mostly. we spend large amounts of time trying to limit or change what we are hearing, or we try to cover up the sounds around us and occupy our minds with themselves. why do you think it’s called “paying attention”? one has to give up something in order to really listen. that said, it can’t be done all the time, one has to work, drive, interact with others etc. but i think that in the right circumstances, really listening can show us things.
Are there important concepts behind your work? Do you only care about the resulting sounds or is it essential for you that they arise from ideas and constructions that you find interesting? Are you interested in theorizing about sound?
I’m not that interested in theorizing about sound. others do it (and some quite well) so i don’t feel the need to do it. of the things that can be done with sound, listening interests me the most. years ago i was interested in this, and my works then often began from ideas, now they begin from sounds, or how to get sounds to happen. or getting to make sound with others.
Simply put, i think that theorizing about sound falls into the realm of entertainment. sophisticated perhaps, but it’s all just playing with the mind.
You are obviously inspired by the natural world for many of your recordings. Are there some specific things in nature that interest you or do you find everything in the great outdoors fascinating? Are you ever inspired by human creations, urban environments and such?
I can find everything fascinating, if i let it be so. the mind is the greatest block to this experience, and i’ve been trying to break it down.
As I understand you live in a small town in Arizona, close to a desert. Somehow I get the feeling from your work that the desert plays a big part in your life, is this true? Is there something special in the surroundings that you live in?
It’s quiet here, that’s the biggest thing. and life has a slower pace. living in larger cities often wore me out. i love the desert. i can’t really think of anywhere else i’d rather be. this may enter into my work, but i don’t think it’s by design, it happens by osmosis 🙂
Are you interested in the technology of recording? Many of your releases are recorded on fairly lo-fi equipment (by today’s standards at least), is this a conscious choice or do you just use what you have available? Does the gear you use have significant effect on the artistic outcome? Is there something special about tape as a recording medium?
I use what i can obtain. right now this includes many analogcassette recorders, a mini-disc recorder, a digital four track recorder and my laptop. it’s not so much a conscious choice, i find things and it occurs to me to do things with them. digital recording has it’s limitations, as does analog. the gear i use has an effect on the sound, but not generally on the artistic outcome. the special thing about tape recording is the friction of the medium against it’s device. this doesn’t happen in digital recording.
I think you perform live quite often. Are live performance very important to you, do they motivate or inspire your work in general? Can you separate your recorded work from your performances or are they inseparable parts of your art?
I don’t perform as often as a lot of other people i know. i like being able to work in different situations and live playing is one of these. the difference in performance is that i don’t (or can’t) do everything. for example, getting some of my sound automata to a performance space would be difficult, unless i can drive there. lately i’ve been trying to do different things in performance though. especially if it’s close to home.
I have never gotten the feeling from your releases that there would have been other agendas beside the sounds themselves. Is this a fair assessment? Are you interested at all in delivering a “message” (what ever it might be) with your music? Is it even possible to successfully integrate e.g. politics and music?
Yes, that’s a fair assessment. i’m not interested in messages, and i think once one starts mixing art and politics one is wandering into the area of propaganda. which is fine, but i’m not interested in it. i’m also not interested in displaying my particular pathology to anyone, so “self-expression” in general doesn’t interest me.
If you’re not interested in expressing yourself through your art, then do you consider yourself more an explorer? Somebody who seeks and discovers interesting sounds and sonic phenomena in the outside world. Or maybe a craftsman?
Craftsman, sure. i’ve always considered myself a musician, but the music i’m interested in making or finding suits a different purpose than other kinds of music. it is perhaps the old “sacred/profane” dichotomy, and while i wouldn’t say i play sacred music, it definitely isn’t “normal” entertainment either…i think most of the stuff that passes for art is actually just entertainment, ways of playing in/with the mind.
Do you want to say something about your on-going group, Animist Orchestra? There are quite a few people involved and everybody plays instruments/ objects extracted from nature. Are there some other preconceived ideas behind the group besides the instrumentation?
I think the main idea behind the A O is to get a group of people to work together toward a common goal. in this case the common goal would be to create a soundworld or “field of sound” together. hey! maybe that’s political ! the use of natural detritus happened largely because the A O is an outgrowth of my solo “object improv” work. i had an idea years ago to build an orchestra of instruments made from natural materials and write music for it. this is where that idea ran to.
Could you list some cds/LPs/tapes from other artists that you consider especially important or satisfying? Some classic stuff that continues to be inspirational year after year.
Lately i’ve been trying to find copies of stuff that i was into during the ‘80’s, post-punk stuff and early industrial or lo- tech electronic music. i don’t know that i find it inspiring, i just like listening to it, especially after all these years. it’s interesting how my perception has changed and some of it sounds very different. i do have favourite records, but i don’t listen to them very often. the question of inspiration i find very interesting. i’m not sure what it is or where it comes from, but i’m not sure that i get it from other people’s music. if it happens while i’m listening to some music, does that mean it’s coming from the music? or does it come from the fact that i’m really listening and my mind is not blocking inspiration? in which case the music might be the catalyst, but not the thing itself.
Can you give examples of artists/ bands that have inspired you recently? Do you actively follow new artists and releases?
Again, the question of inspiration…i don’t know. i tend to become obsessed with things and focus on one kind of music or even one artist for long periods of time. as it happens i’m not doing that so much at the moment, i’m kind of all over the place. the post-punk stuff i mentioned earlier, lots of african music (especially solo string players and singers).. for awhile i was very into the magik markers and tried to find all their records etc, but that’s kind of passed now. i find it difficult to follow all the new stuff i’m interested in, there’s just so much of it. and meanwhile, all the old stuff keeps piling up…(at the moment i have don cherry playing on my computer…)
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