An Interview with Wendy Carlos
by Alan Baker, American Public Media, Jan. 2003
ALAN BAKER: I wanted to ask you to think back to like when you were growing up and what sounds were around you, and did they have an affect on your music later on.
WENDY CARLOS: I suppose I was affected by raw sounds and timbres more than a lot of other composers. Had I been involved with orchestral composing, I think the aspect that would have most endeared me to that field would have been the orchestration. When new media trends started to blossom, my interest in different sounds naturally whet my appetite for exploration. The electronic medium, as I knew it back then, was by and large so experimental. Of course, you have to consider that it had already been in progress for fifty years. You can go through precursors back to the 19th century too. But it was approximately a half-century, maybe a little less depending where you want to draw your styling points. And so, at that stage, you might have thought well, gee, it's been around for fifty years, it should be a mature art form.
Wrong! The trouble of course is that it wasn't the pace of the musicians and composers that was determining the progress, but the technology. The instrumentation had to catch up with the ideas. And at the time that I was first aware of it, it was almost insurmountable to make something that you produced from laboratory equipment sound like music. It was only a very few hardy pioneers who managed to get things done. Now that I think about it, there was an LP released in the middle fifties which had Henk Badings and Dick Raaijmakers and a few of the other practitioners of northern European electronic music, and they had found many methods to instill in this new medium. They used the elements that I recognized as being desirable like melody, counter-point, harmony, and orchestration. That was, of course, in addition to just the overall form, which is the only part of those underlying elements that you found in most electro-acoustic music in the fifties.
There was not much melody, certainly no harmony that you could speak of. Timbre on melody could lead to timbre harmony, but I think that's a stretch. And counter-point, well, I guess if you have patterns of sounds going against one other, that's contrapuntal. Okay, I'll give it to you that way, but seriously, it sounds like I'm quibbling to try to fit components to a specific category.
So that recording . . .was that a real revelation to you? Or were we just happy to trip across it?
I was happy to trip across it. I had also had the good fortune of running across a student a few years older than me, who had gone to Brown University to study physics. He came up with a recording that he thought was a joke, and so he played this tape for me. He said, "You gotta hear this. You gotta hear this." And it turned out that I was hearing a very melodramatic Greek tragedy on a processed piano.
It was a prepared piano, actually like something John Cage would use. There were also echo chamber or tape echo effects, and kithara or plucked and drumming styles of some early instruments. There were a few other slams, bamms, and crashes, which clearly could have been boxes and metal containers that were used as improvised percussion instruments. The whole thing caught me off guard because it was so very melodramatic; I've always been fond of theatricality. I think that music is an art form that is well served by having some drama within it, if it doesn't go overboard and become overly corny. I think the dullest music is that which doesn't pay any attention to that side of human nature.
And that is something you've been interested in, and so you drew the distinction between the early electronic music that didn't have melody and those other items that lend themselves to drama.
Right. Well, in this case, the piece in question was called "Veil of Orpheus" by Pierre Henry. I didn't check recently, but I think he's still around. He did the piece when he was fairly young. He and Pierre Schaefer were part of the French electronic acoustic lab. This was a dramatic reading of sections from the actual Orpheus legend, done in actual Greek, so I didn't pick up on the French connection (chuckling) at all. It wasn't until gee, a few years later that I found what it actually was. And then, of course I was angry because, you know, I thought that somebody might have been pulling my leg…
So they say it was electronic music as opposed to processed . . ?
It was. . . As I said, it was presented to me by this young physicist friend as a tape of something that had been done in Brown University in one of their new music research labs. But that, of course, was simply an invented story. It was a good story, but . . . he went looking all over campus for the source of this tape, you know. Granted, he was only a freshman and I don't know, someone might have slipped something by him, but, well, the truth is, he never found any sort of electronic facility on campus. There was none at that time. In fact, when I was there as an undergraduate in music, we had to improvise with whatever little spaces and whatever little equipment we could get, because they didn't get a proper lab until maybe even another ten years later. It was probably not until my first album or two came out that you began seeing a lot of the universities and colleges add electronic music centers to their facilities and their curriculum.
So when you were in school, were you in a standard, typical university music track?
Well, actually I first tried to go into physics because I had quite a few friends who were physicists, and I've always maintained a very strong love for matters scientific. Part of my whole personality is really much more that of a person who would work in the sciences. I don't find very much disparity between the sciences and music. I mean, its kind of like I couldn't . . .I couldn't cut the mustard. My skills in math were not quite strong enough; the field was just a little too clumsy for me. I certainly did not have good background in my undergraduate training, or before that in my high school and grammar school training, and it left me on the short side of the fence. That's a terrible metaphor. Anyway, I came up short when it was time to ask myself to put up or shut up, could I really make a successful career out of physics. And I couldn't, although I still love the field. So it went from being what was going to be my vocation to being my hobby, my interest. I've stayed in touch with the sciences all of my life.
Actually, we still get so many science magazines that it fills up the loft, or much of it. I'm a skeptic, you know. I don't believe anything unless I can see some pretty rational reasoning for it. I think that makes me a little more like a typical Yankee, which is where my roots are. I think it was Fred Frith who said that I'm from the tribe of Ipswich, or one of those things, but New York is my adopted city, and well, I've been here for most of my life anyway. It's a good niche to fit into.
How did you, when did you make the switch from physics to music?
That was made when I realized that I couldn't make the grade level. I went from being one of those top of the class people, to being right at the very bottom. It was a very traumatic time for me. I was trying to rush to get into something that I had been ill prepared for, and the mathematical side of it particularly got to me when I got to the part on differential equations. I had never had analytic geometry and a lot of the other . . . not even spherical trig, or any of these things. I was on the short end of it as I said a moment ago, which meant that I couldn't keep up. At that time, I had a physics advisor who really was the pioneer of a field, which he called biophysics.
Of course, now it's a real field. But when Professor Nyborg had come up with this field, it was considered to be his funny little field. You know, we all kind of winked knowingly as we'd go by him. Obviously he was really pioneering ahead, so I guess we really should have encouraged him. I guess to use your word, he was a bit of a maverick. Anyway, he told me, "I don't see any reason why you have to make the decision of being only in the sciences or only in the music. Why can't you combine the two of them and do something that embraces both the scientific side that you're interested in; acoustics and all of these things, with the more artistic creative impulses that you feel?" Then he called up the head of the music department at Brown University, Professor Arlan Coolidge, may he rest in peace, a wonderful, wonderful man. Professor Coolidge was bright and open minded, embracing the best of academia. He said he didn't see any reason why we couldn't combine all of these things together, and he went through all of the work with me, and outlined what might be a good way of filling in those things that I lacked from my poor background in the sciences. I wasn't going to take many more science classes at that time, but they were going to develop something for me through their special projects program, which were courses that were offered without any syllabus, without any restrictions. So it was pioneering, I guess.
So, you didn't have a typical musical education. You pioneered your trail through and into electronic music from the moment you decided to pursue music seriously, it sounds.
It's all so easy to let your memory play tricks on you. Now this was many years ago. I'm not totally sure on all these details by now. Some of them you remember. You know, things that happen to catch your fancy, you might remember for the rest of your life. But, in general, a lot of the other things are sort of gray. In this case, I am aware that we were improvising; the whole idea of the special projects class was improvised. There were really no other people in this field but me. I was the first one in the institution to the best of their knowledge who had ever tried to do something so strange. Brown, at that time, was a liberal minded university, and they loved it and encouraged it. I had found a niche for myself in deciding that I didn't fit any of the niches. Of course, I still had to take a lot of the required classes. There are only so many ways you can be flexible at an academic institution.
But in any case, even with the required classes, I wound up on the Dean's List. So obviously, something was working for me to go from, you know, basically F's to A+'s. Of course, things got easier as more people started to accept my work, but maybe having to go at it alone is . . . not such a bad method. Maybe the whole theme of your broadcast is really a very good one, one that we should all be wise enough to make available opportunities for young people who don't fit within the egg compartments.
It also got easier in part because of the work you did.
I guess so. That's what people tell me, which is a nice thing for them to say. I don't know if I really half believe it, but then again I don't believe my own PR most of the time anyway.
What did your first music sound like? The first music you were making.
It was over-reaching. I was much too disorganized. I was always out trying to put the final touches on something that I hadn't really thought through. So it was very eclectic. I had heard a lot of classical music; certainly I had been to some opera and ballet and concerts, but not a lot. You know we were a very poor family, and I heard most of my music through radio and eventually recordings. I had an early hi-fi system that I put together because my parents encouraged me to do what we could with a shoestring.
That was back in the days when you would build things: cut wood to make a loudspeaker enclosure, get the soldering iron and learn how to wire at least a kit, if not actually to design some of your own things yourself. I did all of those things, and I got involved with audio. Eventually I helped out older people who needed help with those things. I guess I was somewhat one of those, you know, smart-ass, nerdy little kids who could catch on to something quickly. It was certainly helpful for me, because I learned a lot about the stuff and ate it up regularly. You know, I really gobbled up the diet of all the terminology of the medium, as it existed then, which isn't all that different now. Of course, now you're talking into hard disc instead of using tape, which had just come in at that time. But, that's not an essential difference; it's just a variation on the same tune.
As you were kind of learning what you wanted to do musically, when do you feel like you emerged with what is your mature style?
Gee, I hope I get there some day.
(Laughter) I was going to say maybe you're not, you know. . .
No, I don't think I'll ever get there. I used to have fears that it would all be over, like, oh dear, I just used up some of my best ideas. That's it. I'll never have another one. Or well, at least this is the last good piece because I've really put it all in there. You know, you have these funny little; I don't know if they're fears or conceits or what they are. That stopped, oh gee, by the time I hit forty, I think. I was . . . It was too evident that if you just continue to give away the best you have, you find more. And so, the rational side of my brain kicked in, and said, gee Wendy, come on, don't worry about it. You've got it made. That doesn't mean that all that stuff is going to be great, but it does mean that you're not going to run out of ideas. That's a different thing. So I guess by that stage, I must have hit some kind of musical maturity too, but I have no idea where exactly it occurred. Let historians put a flag on that moment, if they can find one. I can't.
To me, it's all a continuum. I think most of these categories don't really apply, unless you see people, you see people who have been writing very conventional diatonic tunes with simple triadic harmonies all of their life, and then suddenly discover and embrace something like serialism. …Myself, I could jump into any… I mean, I love jazz, I love certain aspects of popular music, and, you know, I'm not really particularly knowledgeable of pop music. What goes for pop music now days, ever since rock took it over, much of it is just too simple minded to satisfy me.
I need a little more meat on the bones. So I look elsewhere. I think what went on in a lot of the twentieth century is very dry. There's again, not much meat on the bone. So you have to borrow the elements that seem to work for you without much disregard for where they come, except to steal from the best, like the old sages say, and try to put it together in some way that makes sense. And I think that the process is more disciplined than it sounds to describe. It's just that the verbal appraisal, the narrative of it, is difficult to come up with without recourse to metaphor. And I have great problems describing how the creative act works although it's tangible, it's real, it's not mystical or anything like that. And yet, it's an old friend that I cannot quite describe. And that's the same with your question here too.
Let me pick out a mile stone that many people remember you for, and that's Switched on Bach, the first classical album ever to go platinum. And that's clearly . . .
Well, yes, but that's not all about me; I am not Spock. I think I know what Leonard Nimoy must have gone through; it must have become irritating for him later on. Well, it's not so much that you're irritated about it, it's that there is a certain kind of mindless mantra that is intoned by people who may not really be your fans or who have no curiosity and so they never perceive past that one idea they have of you. If it were part of a totality, it's perfectly fine of course, and you can't, you know, be schizo about it, cut out parts of it. You have to learn to move, on, to take baby steps to get beyond what people may see you as. It kind of denies me the right as a human being to mature and to become an adult and to move on. I don't do it to try and confuse the issue. The reason I move on is really because I'm curious and I want to know what . . . and you can't be curious about looking under one safe tree with the sun coming in at that angle, sitting on a favorite chaise lounge, reading the same book you have read over and over and over again. You're going to go out of your tree, if you can survive it. And you certainly won't come up with anything new and creative. So, of course, I've moved on. Everyone does, I think, if they have anything going for them at all.
But, that was really ground breaking. With Bob Moog you had…
Bob Moog helped me came up with the tools. At that time it was kind of a sellers market. There weren't a lot of electronic instruments that were around and so, with no disrespect to Bob, we . . . his name is an interesting name . . . Moog and all. There are a lot of good reasons why it's become well known as it did. But anyway, I found that the instrument I used was merely the best one that I could find at that time. And now when everyone still sanctifies it, and I think Bob would agree on this, it seems a little disrespectful, because it was such a limited device. It wasn't much of a musical instrument. It was very lacking in any form of expression, and the proof of it is that there were very few people who used the instrument who did anything much interesting with it. The reason being, it was damn hard to do. I mean we had to have a kind of skill ourselves to try to come up with the idea. People overlook the amount of personal invention and cleverness that we put in to make up for the fact that the instrument was so deficient.
There were any number of techniques that you had to develop to overcome limitations in the instrument that seemed to be before their time, with some of the multi-tracking and having to take things apart in order to put them back together to form the whole. And the orchestration in how you broke that down and to reassemble . . . it seems very overwhelming for a non-musician to understand the level of detail you had to put into creating the music.
It was very much what the Disney animators do when they produce one of their large features. It required that you step back from your inspiration, from your right hemisphere of creativity, and call on the left hemisphere to do a thinking through and an analysis. Hopefully you won't inhibit yourself when you do this, because thinking too much about something can be dangerous. I mean you have to really take apart what it is you're trying to get at and analyze where the deficiencies still remain in order to go in and prune those, or at least attempt to prune them. You don't always succeed. You do the best you can.
You're constantly stepping back from the canvas if you're trying to paint a real scene say, not a metaphor, a real one. You've got your oils and you've got your scene or a person posing for you, and you try and see what is wrong with your representation. You know, you've got the right shape, proportions look good, the basic perspective looks right, I've exaggerated a little bit but that's good, it makes a more dramatic picture. I'm using a lot more ochre than is really in the real thing, but it's going to be a warm painting. I'll even use some yellow golden glow on the skin of the person, if there's a person there. Anyway, you have to think like this when you're working with an electronic machine. . .all right, here's where we're heading. Boom. Did we get there? No. We missed by how much? Which direction? All right, let's re-aim. Boom. Did we get there? No, we're closer. All right, which way do we . . . well, actually we didn't do quite enough. All right. Boom. Maybe we over shot it. All right, but are we any closer, right? It's this kind of a loop that you go through. And I think that people simply were unaware, especially a lot of people who bought the early instruments, they thought that the instrument was sort of like a Thomas organ, I guess. They expected to plug it in, press a few buttons, and sit down like a pit pianist, you know, and just crank out, you know, like a cocktail pianist. Some people did do that. In fact, actually, the whole field of synthesizers is really just like that. And the idea isn't mine.
This fear or warning sign is Vladimir Ussachevsky's, who was one of my teachers at Columbia University where I went to graduate school. He was frightened that Bob Moog was ruining electronic music by putting a keyboard there because people would get the wrong idea. And they did when Switched on Bach came out. They thought that the synthesizer itself, the Moog Synthesizer, was a real musical instrument when all it really was, was just a collection of fairly limited sounds extrapolated from what had been available in the 50's, put together in one extremely nice package with a nice consistent interface and a keyboard that could supply voltages so you could . . .and triggers . . . so that you could play notes. And that was about it. The rest had to come from you and your own background and other pieces of equipment. And one note at a time, as you say, was all overdubbed. That was not because we wanted to it that way, in fact, that's a terrible way to perform, but there was no choice. Today things are so different. I'm just now putting together a new instrument rig, which is sort of more like a big pipe organ console with lots and lots of manuals and everything, and using the Kurzweil 260's. I'm aware, gee, how this would have been a complete breath of liberty, of freedom back when I started. But we didn't have such a thing at that time.
You have to be able to reach out, use all your fingers, and have all the voices sound.
Yes, you have to do that, but I'd also go back and tinker. In the end, it would end up being a lot of individual solo lines, because in an orchestra everyone's the boss of one note at a time. And, boy, do they worry over that one note, or maybe a few for like a harp or something like that. That means you get a certain dedication of a performer's expressive gestures on each note. You can't get that if you're a pianist, and you play with your fingers down. At most you can . . . or if it's an organ, I guess you can shade the volume as a group. I think, in the end ideally, I'd like to have an ensemble of musicians because I feel that one of the biggest sacrifices I've made in staying with this field is loosing the performance interaction. I think that that's where music comes alive in many ways. I'm surprised when I hear some of my old recordings that still sound like music when I know perfectly well that, like my analogy of animation, it's drawn to look that way, stupid. But, it isn't really happening that way. We've been know to have a camera and if you film the animators, you'd have months and months of very tedious drawings that would look nothing like the illusion of life as the story goes.
You ended up being a performer . . .
. . . as a result of the path you took and the instruments you were writing for. Didn't you . . .you had to make it all yourself.
Doesn't that make you the performer?
Yeah, in fact, you're right. I get a little bit uncomfortable, like a lime green nausea quality when I think that a lot of people were exposed to some classics and to Bach's music too in particular with me playing it. It's like . . . wha, wha, wha, wha, what a joke! I am not a musicologist; I'm not a well-trained performer. I can play like a composer can play. Throw some notes in front of me, bingo; I'll start reading them off for you. I can usually get through almost anything including some fairly testy passages and that, but my technique is nothing to write home about. It's enough that it serves me as a composer. And there are a lot of composers who talk the same way. In fact, I think most of them are a lot better than me. Wasn't there a performance of "Les Noces" by Stravinsky here in . . this might have been Town Hall back in the late 40's or early 50's, and there were some fine American composers who had been enlisted to perform and so they would . . . Aaron Copland, I know for sure was one of the pianists, and I think Sessions performed at it too. I'm sorry, its been a long time since I've read this anecdote. I think there were a few pictures of it that were taken. Umm . . . so there you have composers playing like they're performers.
Now some of the composers really are fine performers, of course. I mean, many of us can play after a fashion. Certainly Philip Glass and Steve Reich are among the currant composers who can perform. But, gee, Copland was actually a very good pianist. Stravinsky could manage on his own, and we're overlooking Rachmaninov, and Leonard Bernstein, both of whom, I think, were overshadowed in the publics' eye by their performance skills rather than their composing skills, which must have driven them nuts. I know what that must have felt like. Well, they would say, you know, gee, he . . . he writes good music for a conductor. Or, he conducts pretty good for a composer. And ahh, it's . . .I mean, I understand what its about, I guess, you know, we can all get testy and crotchety as we get older. Anyway, Alan, it's not a big surprise. Umm . . . I just feel that it would have been better if people who were exposed once to Bach would go and listen to people like my champion, Glen Gould . Listen to a real musician perform my stuff. You'll see there's a lot going on there that I didn't even touch. That's as it should be. Nevertheless, I'm glad if it would mean that some people who would never, ever have been exposed to classical music, did get to hear that there's an art form which can be transcended in its depth and it's . . . it's like having fast food all you life and finally discovering a really fabulous restaurant or learning about some of the wonderful ethnic cuisines of the world . . . Thai cuisine. You know, there are so many levels going on there. I can't imagine why anyone would be satisfied with a diet of just, you know, going to McDonald's. There is such an ignorance, an appalling lack of curiosity about the art forms of music that go behind all of the music that we are constantly exposed to.
I think the outlet . . .I mean you mentioned radio as an outlet where you learned . . .
Not anymore. You can barely. . . In fact when you turn it on here in New York City, you'd expect to find some rather good serious music. You can get a few decent jazz programs. Some of course, the usual plastic ones, you know, where they only play . . .I'm not going to name names . . .what's the point? Umm . . . and if you think that's bad, listen to what they've done to classical. It's now a jukebox of favorite themes and favorite short movements from only the most obvious possible works . . . and usually it's the nineteenth century composers. No 20th century, not even very much before the 19th century. But, of course you will get Mozart, yes. Schubert, and Beethoven, and Brahms, yes. Maybe occasionally they'll try Mendelssohn. Wah, wah, wah. That's pretty risky. It's an appalling lack of curiosity once again. It's playing it safe, it's a kind of invested conservatism of the kind that I think is terribly sad.
I don't know that it's the audience that has that feeling as much as it is the people who are programming radio stations and find safety in a certain narrow . . .
There are places where there's room for the majority, but there's also some room for other things as well. Things that might be . . . a little more special. A little more memorable. A little more lasting. All classical music means is that it's a classic. It's been around for a while. Nothing more. It doesn't mean stuffy or boring. If it's stuffy and boring, people make revivals of it, and play it because it's old. You know, there's equally stuffy, boring things by some modern people they wouldn't touch. So that can't be the important thing. Play the best of music from whatever period, that's what I think you should do. And there's a best in every field, of course, and every style.
Talk to me a little bit about orchestration in your approach to how you craft a piece.
Orchestration is essential to my music. I cannot write just a simple piano piece, although I do every so often compose just as an etude for myself, you know, as a means to keep the gears moving. And if it works alright, you say, alright then I guess I know what I'm doing. It's hard to just sit down in front of 88 notes and come up with something which in and of itself has cohesive form and unity, yet quirky here and there, that has that nice balance of between being predictable and being completely surprising. It also has to have the element of humanity and the theatrical elements that I spoke of earlier. It's tough to do a good job. What we all do is we tend to fall back on models, things that we like, what we love, or even other people's music and sort of copy cat it. If that gets you moving, if it gets the juices going, our creative juices, it's fine. But, I guess, you should move off of that and try to find your inner voice, because your inner voice is all that you really can offer anyone in the end.
If you don't have an inner voice, you might as well find that out fast. If you aren't a composer, of course, if you're basically a performer, then that kind of question doesn't come up, although interpretation is really its own form of composition. Now, I'm talking strictly as a composer, not to play short stick to anybody, anyone else who is in any of these other related fields. Anyway, I think of sound as wedded to its own color inherently. If I'm writing music, or if I'm even just trying to get to sleep, frequently great washes, passages of music come into my head. And I stop trying to say, "What am I hearing?" You know, you begin analyzing it. I think there're some French horns there. Or yeah, but what's that thing there? Oh, yeah, that's a gated pulse wave. And there's some key white noise alternating with some cymbals. And ah, there's a low string passage here on double basses and a cello, and it's really the way I'm hearing it. It has those colors, like a techinicolor kind of dream in which you wake up immediately and try and say, "Alright, what were the colors in that section you were just dreaming?" That's what I try to do. You have to grab it before it vanishes, because if you give it an hour, it will probably be gone.
I'll often curse as I scribble something down so that I don't forget it. Sometimes my best themes or harmonic passages come to me when I'm trying to sweat something out and I can't get it, can't get it, and can't get it. Finally, I just say, "To hell with it." And I go to bed. And lying there, bingo, my brain must have been working without me knowing it because there's the answer! It's an interesting process. You don't feel the authorship; you just know that you're part of the process and you're glad of it. Somehow all of my music feels like its filtered through me, but I don't fully understand how. Since I'm a non-mystic person, I don't ascribe anything else to it. Its just how our brains can deceive ourselves, or at least the constructions that go on within our brains are things that happen within and of themselves, without conscious volition.
So, you're trying to make something that you hear yourself physically real.
Yes. I don't much care for music that's basically 100% improvised. I mean, I do an awful lot of improvisation too; it's a highly important part of music. But, you need to have this meat filtering through your innards. It's like taking a pulpy, a bad piece of fruit and squeezing it through a sieve or something to get the pulp out to get at the actual juice. It concentrates it. It's as though you distill it and you get at its essence. Otherwise, it's too facile. I think that there's room for creativity of all levels of depth. The most superficial things of all are done glibly and without much thought or concern. Most composers can take their instrument and improvise something off of it right away, but I think they do a little better for themselves if they were to digest . . .well, I mean anyone who's involved in any of the creative arts knows that my little morality tale here is basically just common sense. I mean, of course you need both . . .its like using the two sides of your brain really. You need both working in conjunction with one another to make it the best that you can do. It's not a big deal.
In my case, I happen to always hear sound locked in with the timbres that it has, so I would never want someone to tinker with my sounds. Although, I guess if it's a piece of music that I would have preferred to have done with orchestra…but then people just tend to avoid me when they're a part of orchestras . . .I mean, its just a weird situation. I feel like a Maverick in the sense of being an outlaw, being . . . you know, not part of any group. I do it with my own technology. And I'm grateful for that technology, even though, if I had my druthers, I'd rather use both. If someone were to take some of my pieces that were done within studio media, and amplify part of it with a live group performing the same functions, that would probably work very well too. If only you just get my sketches and my scores and worked it out so that live performers could do the same thing… In fact, I wish I could do it myself. I guess as long what sounds like an oboe is played by an oboe-like sound, you're not harming anything. But, if you take that and do it on something like a xylophone or a burst of tuned white noise, no, you're changing it then. And if I'd really wanted that kind of a sound, I would have done that type of a sound in the first place, assuming the technology allowed me to. There are a lot of sounds you can't do really. I mean you're always frustrated at what you can't do and try to use the limitations of what you can do as the container within which you work.
You've also got options that are just inconceivable to someone who's writing simply for conventional instruments.
It's a different hat. I mean, if you had to make your own instruments first, you'd know more what this is like. If you were to say, "Alright, you know the principle of the guitar and the violin. Make a new string instrument.'' Make a family of them so that you can have musicians, hopefully not too disparate from what we have already, so that you can find someone to play them. And Harry Partch, of course, did do that to a large extent. There are other pioneers. I mean, that is another path that's very parallel to the one I'm on. There are a lot of ways, you know, to get at this. You kind of by an accident of history fall into the particular things you do, but it isn't always because you chose it to be that way. I did not choose to be exclusively a composer for the electric acoustic media. It chose me. Kind of. At least that's what it feels like.
You've seen the development of synthesizers that were single voice and very limited, to now fairly complicated and able digital tools. What do you feel the landmarks are in electronic music? You talked a little about the French connection and the sounds that you heard on records from them.
They were important. I was also obviously struck by pieces like Stockhausen's "Gesang der Juenglinge". There were a few pieces that caught my ear back then, but I could also hear things of my own, since by that stage I had been messing with things in my parents' downstairs basement, where I had sort of a little studio with home tape recorders, and all that. That's the way a lot of people start out. I did the same kind of things, and I already knew what an oscillator could do. I mean, I made a gating envelope box with photo cells and light bulbs and things that could make percussive sounds, and so when I heard these pieces, I realized kind of what they were all about. I also heard that the technology that they were using was probably controlling the piece more than the composer was in some ways. I guess to some extent that's true of all music, but I could hear that there, and it wasn't like, "Oh wow, listen to all these strange weird sounds." It was more like, "Oh, they seem to be using silent A's and they have some kind of a filter there. It's not a moving one; it's a static filter. Oh, yeah." I was aware that whatever they could do had to fit within the particular colors that they had. So if somebody gave them blue, and orange, and mint green, then that was it. They were going to get the best painted picture they could with (Chuckling) blue, orange, and mint green. That is what it would have felt like to me. And now it feels like we've got, not a complete spectrum, but much closer to one.
You've worked with Ussachevsky at Columbia. What was he like as a man?
He was a very real human being. He tried to fit in within the academic world, and I don't think, in many ways, that it was natural to him. He's a very one-on-one person, very warm and very human. All of his music is that way too, if you listen to it. It has far more heart and soul, if you don't mind such terminology, than most of the music written by people of his day within that field. He was extremely modest, so he never imposed his ideas on anyone, and it would only be through osmosis that you might find yourself emulating some of his work.
Who are other composers that you feel, that you respect their work in electronic . . .
You know, before I came to see you, I went to look up the idea of . . . one of the definitions is a political candidate who's not affiliated with any party. And of course then there's the small steer, you know the cow who is not a member of any of the herds. That idea of not belonging is something I identify with very strongly. When I looked at your letter before hand, I realized, yeah, I guess I'm a Maverick, though I never really think about it that way. I mean one doesn't, does one? But, because of that, I feel like it's a good thing that I didn't have the same misfortune as Mozart and die very young, because I would have produced next to nothing. The path that you take when you don't have an established style, an established ensemble, the kind of repertoire to fit into the niches that the music can be used within, all of those things make it more efficient for you to produce a lot of good music if you have it in you. Or at least a lot of reasonable music.
With the electric acoustic, it's been such a chore. I mean you use up probably 90% of your time dealing with the fact that you've got this constraining medium that you've got to hammer and bang into shape. I guess it was worse with the old Moog synthesizer, but it still happens now. And so logically, a quantity of your creative effort still goes into things that are not involved with writing music, and that's very frustrating. You'd really like to just get about the business that brought you here in the first place, and instead, there you are, preparing for the big party, polishing the silverware, dusting, and vacuuming, and cleaning, and it feels like the housework, the bookkeeping, is never done. To do Switched on Bach required a tremendous amount of bookkeeping, as all of the projects require, because without it, those tools were so primitive in a lot of ways that you wouldn't get very much out of them. It required the discipline that the animators at Disney used to partake and probably still do for that matter. It is an inordinate gesture of will.
In my case, I have tried to push the medium as best I can for it to be as musical as it can. And it still has some ways to go before it can duplicate the wiriness of what goes on in the room next door to us here in Carnegie Hall building. The truth is, it hasn't arrived yet. If people stay as uncurious as they have been right now, I guess it will be like the Apollo Program that ended just thirty years ago, it just won't move. And that's what happened right now, it's not moving. I find my models come from composers of, oh gee, the last 200 years. They're not particularly electronic composers, because electronic music as a medium prevented that really deep and rich-in the sense that I seek when I approach in the best of jazz and pop-music from being made. Mostly, for me, inspiration comes from classical music.
Just to mention names, I find that Brahms is still one of my favorite composers. I don't know why. I've not outgrown it, as it were; many people do. I guess because I've been exposed more to Chopin and Liszt when I was young and not to Brahms, Brahms became a young adult discovery for me and has stayed with me, although I've tried to find some of the less well-known pieces as well. Among 20th century composers, I was enamored by Stravinsky very early on and Bartok, of course. And then there's Prokofiev who is, in some ways, lighter in the cerebral parts of his music, but also more human in some ways too. These things are all so silly, aren't they! These distinctions. Respighi's later music after the famous Roman Trilogy; "The Metamorphoses", for lack of a better example. They're sublime works. There are depths in them that are just totally ignored right now, as best that I can see. When I went to Patelson's, which is just across the street here, a few years ago, to try and find some of the scores for some of the late Respighi pieces, they had to be special ordered from Italy. People don't read that stuff; no one cares. It makes me feel alone. That's the one problem with being a Maverick. One feels so alone. I would love . . . I'm basically a chatterbox and I like people a lot…I would love to have, you know, interaction with other kindred folk, you know, people of like mindset.
Are there any around? I mean Morton Subotnick or any . . .
I know Mort. I think that he's very much a part of the same feeling that I have, although he is a little more involved with academia. Academia routed me out right away. I mean they wanted nothing to do with me. My feeling, and this is just all subjective, is that they didn't like the fact that I tended to laugh at a lot of the pompousness that went on in those days when the serialists were in firm control. All they would talk about were permutations and combination theory and all that. I had studied all that material and was not impressed by what they were doing. It just sounded like they were grabbing at material that they didn't fully comprehend and using it to snow the audience, or to snow themselves, or one of the other composers. The material just sounded so poor in the end. They all sounded so alike. I guess it was a good way to hide, if you didn't have very much originality. There are of course exceptions, but, by and large, it was a rather sad movement that succeeded in alienating the audience to such an extent that we've never regained it again. I think it is mainly the reason why classical music is nearly dead in this country, if not the whole world, right now. I think that that arrogance of people like, well I'll even say Milton Babbitt, who's somebody who I like and admire a great deal…his comment, which was in a different context, "who cares what you think?" (Laughter) It's a kind of arrogance that I just don't abide with. I feel that art should be communicative.
His point was that he's working on a play just as a physicist would. Why should the public understand it? Right?
And that seems to be a very different pursuit than what you . . .
I don't think they're comparable with one another. People are very polyphonic, you know. There are a lot of things that make up a human being. We have our beast things- -our gut instincts, you know. There's a brain with its intellectual things. We can deduce patterns; even see them when there aren't any. That's why there are hoaxes and urban legends around, because, boy, we're good at seeing something even when it isn't there. And the physical movement, and sin-sex, and all these things that play a different role in what music can relate to or can use as a point of departure. I'd like to see it all in there. I'd like to see the most cerebral elements and also the most human elements. We're all of us human. I think composing music is a very human activity. It's not going to be done by computers easily, if at all. It's something that embraces so much of our humanity, if we let it, and we don't inhibit all of these things by rules and regulations like was done when I was a student. If you repeated a meter for two measures in a row, you were already a suspect. You could see the sourpuss expressions that you would get if your music was not confounding. I thought that it was all BS, and I still do. I think that it toppled the whole house of cards down upon itself. The last straw came with the commerce and greed that came about with the recording industry for easy marketability, when there was very little concern over the artistry, if it could be marketed. That was the coffin nail, the last coffin nail that we needed. It's pretty much all killed off music. I think music is dead. All of it. I don't see any. At one time . . .
No bright lights?
Yeah--I think we're starting in again, but it's like rebooting a computer, you know. We've now got the operating system sort of up and running, but there are no programs, no applications at all. It's sort of sad; I'd like to see things sparking along. There's no inherent reason why all of this can't happen. We have marvelous tools right now. We have some bright, brilliant people, almost all the people on your list of mavericks, for example. I mean these are all bright, wonderful, wiry, you know, cussed people. I mean, they're people with great opinions, and we could have a great debate going between a lot of us here. Isn't that what you want? That's a very human thing. That's what I get excited about. But, if you listen to a lot of music, the music doesn't have what they have themselves. And I wonder, why not? Is it that we've got to walk this gauntlet first? Maybe it can't be rushed. Maybe it'll never happen again. Or maybe it will finally happen, but I won't be around to see it. That will leave me pretty pissed off.
Well, what do you feel you're talking about, you know, wedding the analytical and the scientific and the human side of things - - -which of your pieces do you feel is the most successful at that?
None of my pieces are very successful. I keep trying, and I keep hoping I'll get it right. I like to sometimes hear the cleanliness of it all, because I'm a compulsive person when I work, and I won't let any iota get by without all of the dots in their proper places. I really hate it when I let something go by. I mean, there were a few things in some of the early projects where I was talked into that stuff, and fortunately, with the new digital technology, I've been able to go back and patch up some of them a little bit. But there are some implications of you not letting something go unless you've gotten it as good as you can: one, you won't have a lot out there. Two, what you do have out there, even if you hear it ten or fifteen years later, how bad can it be? I mean, you might laugh at the motive or the idea, but you're going to have to ask yourself, how the hell did I have the patience to do that? It's going to be something like that, you know. And that's what I kinda get, so it's not like I'm hitting myself on the head with a stick, cursing out anything I've done earlier. At the same time, I don't take any of it very seriously. I guess I would if other people did, but no one seems to either, so I don't have any evidence that any of this really matters. It's been interesting. It would be the kind of thing that I think would, you know, be nice to share with the next generation. Like a relay race, you know. Say, tag, you're it. You take the stick or baton, whatever, and you run off and do your bit now. That's how we do it. So there'll be people who can run off, and I hope they have little bit more freedom and a more receptive music world to greet them, so they don't feel quite so sad as I do.
I find that music is a bittersweet feeling. I've done a lot of work on my web site, just as a gift back to the people who I depend on for feeling like I'm not just working alone in a cave. It does have that feeling of Desert Island, being a Maverick. You feel so noninvolved, and that means that the pressure to complete your pieces has to totally come from within. That's always hard. As you get older, you have a little less energy to spare, and so it becomes more of a push. Which is why, if you look at most artists, they're density of pieces, paintings, novels, or whatever the medium we're talking about, is greatest in their 30's and 40's. Then it tends to ebb a little bit in both directions. There's a ramp up and a ramp down.
I think that's what it is; it's a fighting of the energy. I'm not exhausted to the point where I can't continue yet, but I'm at least able to see where that day could come. I can see why Aaron Copland reached a stage where he was still bright, cheerful, intelligent, and he could laugh at jokes. It wasn't like he was infirm in any way at all. But he said, "Gee, I guess I wrote out everything I had to say, because I don't have an urge to do so anymore." He didn't write very much at all in his last ten years.
Well, don't you feel like you've built up such a set of skills and knowledge that it gets easier and you have . . .
It never gets easier.
In fact, I think it gets harder. Well, some of the steps are easier, and you at least know what was hard the last time, so you try to make a plan for avoiding that when it comes around again the second time. I guess the technology used to be much more in my way. It's less in my way now, but it's not completely gone. The expressive interfaces are still not quite there. Yes, we have tons of continuous controls, but these quasi rather costly stream of data all work on MIDI, so if you try and move things very fast, you get an awful mess of data that clogs up. . . all those other little things that… I don't mean to insult anyone who's not in this field, but there are technical limitations you are aware of. You try to work within those limitations, and you better be aware of them. I don't think ignorance is ever bliss. I think you damn well better know what it is you're about, if you have any hopes at all of doing more than a few interesting, quirky little things in your life.
But even if you try to plumb the depths, you still need the tools and the knowledge to get there. We couldn't have gone to the moon just by trying to emulate some Chinese fireworks, and strap people, and shoot them out of a big gun nozzle like something from an H.G. Wells story back in the 30's. That doesn't work. We didn't know why at that time, but we sure as hell do now, and I think that knowledge is very helpful. Then you have to learn to not let the knowledge inhibit you. Otherwise, you can become so brainwashed by the knowledge that you're like the centipede that was asked how each of his legs moved while walking, and suddenly the centipede couldn't walk anymore. You don't want to become that neurotic about it. Writing music is not a neurotic thing. In fact, it might even help you to purge some of your Neuroses. I don't know. Not a reason to recommend it as a profession, but there you are.
You've worked with alternate tunings now that synthesizers are much more adept at . . .
Now they can, yeah.
Talk to me a little bit about why you do that, and what affect you're going for, and how you use the different scales.
…Among the things that interested me early on was alternative tuning. I came across a book that was a reprint that Dover had done on Sensations of Tone by Herman von Helmholtz. The English editor and appendix writer, Alexander Ellis, described in more detail than Helmholtz had, the fundamentals behind how scales are tuned, the twelve tone scale, why we have what we have, and what alternatives led to it, such as mean tone intonation. Ellis described why all of these systems kind of ended up in the equal tempered scale, which is really about, 200 to 300 years old. Actually, the British were unwilling to let go of mean tone until about the end of the 19th century in some things like the pipe organs. So only if you're really young and very ignorant and very proud of being ignorant, can you get the impression that we're inventing it all now. It goes back very far. The Greeks, the Indians, Asians - -my goodness, there are an incredible amount of tunings that have been used. Well, anyway, since I've studied acoustics and understand what goes on with these things, it was only natural that I wanted to play with alternative tunings. Some of my very earliest music, even some of the earliest electro-acoustic music, involved tuning various items up to different pitches. Oscillators would go on my parents' small spinet piano and retune it and record the different tuning strokes onto tape with those funny cacophony and also pure intervals. It was fun.
But this experimentation didn't grow to beyond mere tinkerings until 1984 and 5 when Stoney Stockell, digital sound engineer and brains behind the synergy and the GDS digital synthesizers, which are early 80's instruments, for those who haven't heard of them, allowed me to go in and retune my instruments, at will. He showed me how to do it and where to get to it. He told me where the data was, and then I had to learn enough of RS232 interfacing and all these programming things to figure out how I was going to use that information which took, you know, probably a good half year. Once I was in there, I could tune all of those notes up to any pitches I wanted. Then I began trying to work with them. Out of that came "Beauty and the Beast", which has just recently been re-mastered. That was my first experience composing deliberately with alternative tunings. But those were really baby pieces of some kind. I mean, I knew how to compose, but I didn't know how to compose with a lot of those scales, and a lot of them could not even be notated. What would you do?
Notation is based on meantone really, if you want to know where the mean-tonal pieces came from, yes, I could notate. But, by and large, I couldn't use notation as much as I wanted to. So I knew I was going to have to rely more on improvisation, which I do always in my pieces anyway. Like I said before, that's one of the key parts of composing, even if it's not the only thing. The best music, I think, uses all of these things. Since I couldn't write the music down, I put it on a tape, and I could play the sections over and over again to simulate what would I do on a score, except I was using the actual sounds. It's a clumsy, much less convenient way to work, but you can do it; that's how I did that piece. It has a little looser overall structure than I'm comfortable with now, but it's not bad. The structure could maybe be tighter if I had done this with tools that don't still exist, but it was very heartfelt music. You know, a very sincere kind of self-revealing music. I've had people tell me that they didn't like it in the beginning, but on second listening, they absolutely loved it. It's kind of an odd . . . you hate it or you love it. No one is lukewarm about it.
I thought the cutest expression was from a composer friend of mine who had helped me out with some of my film score work. When he first heard it, he just said, "It sounds so out of tune." I said, "Well, if you think so, but actually its in more tune than anything else you've heard. A few years later, he said, "I want to tell you something. Wendy, "Beauty and the Beast" is some of the hippest music I've ever seen." I thought, YAH! George has arrived. It was just one of those wonderful moments, because this was somebody with excellent ears, a really sharp, sharp person. I've had a few other similar experiences with other people who usually aren't quite so skilled in the field, so it never quite came across in the same way. I hope to get back to it. In fact, "Tales of Heaven and Hell" has some alternative tuning in it, although that was not the theme of that project. There's also some Werckmeister circular tuning, which is a wonderful, lovely way to work. In fact, I will probably use that a great deal in my music because, if you write with regular equal temperament, the Werckmeister, if you can pick a key at a particular moment, sounds better. It's more euphonic. The notes sit together better.
I was going to ask you how you chose the divisions per octave. I gather it's all on the type of tuning?
I wish I could take credit for it. I didn't. It chose itself. I wanted two different end runs and they collided in the middle. I was trying to find something that I could do that would split the minor third into equal spots in either two steps or four steps. That was one thing I was looking for. At the same time, I was looking to find how I could make an equal number of steps from C up to G, which is a fifth, that would divide the minor third and the major third, E flat and E natural. I wanted to be sure that all of those steps were the same size, but with no beats at all. I didn't care where the octave came out; I just threw the octave away, and I said, "Let's just do those steps." Out of those two things, I found the same answer. It came up with a scale of 78 cents per note. Seventy-eight cents is something like three quarters or, you know, well, 78% of a semi-tone. That's a very strange interval to make melody with.
I just wanted to ask you what your most currant project is and where your passions are taking you now.
I've got an awful lot of pieces that I've been sketching out lately and, they're in various stages of completion. I had really wanted to do a project that would use surround sound, which is another thing that I've been playing with since, I guess, I was in high school. Bruce Jessie was somebody who allowed me to fool around with the Columbia surround setup there. It became something I've always loved, and most of my music and repertoire is recorded in surround sound. I wanted to do a project that would make five channels around the room make logical sense as a piece of music and as a sound vehicle. I've been sketching out things, and I thought I would do an album that had waltzes that would dance around the room with fox trots, and all kinds of rhythmic things.
At the same time, one of my earliest loves is the pipe organ. I never much cared for B3's, you know, or Hammond Organ and all those things. Well, I understand where it's coming from, and when I think about equal tempered harmonics, I think, you've got to be joking. Forgive me; I get snobby about these things. It just sounds so foul to me, out of tune. Yet I know that it makes for a certain type of sound, which within its own particular narrow constraints, is extremely powerful and can be expressive in its own way. It's a very popular item right now. Pipe organs have a very broad base of historical information behind them, the way mixtures and mutations, stops, and all these things are used. I've gone back to some of my roots that went into my love, I guess, of wanting to work with a synthesizer, and getting all sorts of sounds out of organs. There are an amazing number of sounds that you can get out of old cinema and Wurlitzer organs.
I'm trying to put something together which will embody all of these things. Now I don't know if the pieces are all going to be done with alternative tunings with a pipe organ sound. Nor do I know if they will be both classical and theatre organ sounds. Those are very, very different. And will they also use electronic types of sounds, or maybe more traditional instruments that we can do now pretty well in a studio? I'm not sure. I guess the answer is all of the above. It sounds like a nice Mulligan Stew, the kind I enjoy a great deal jumping into. The limitations, because it's always good to have limitations, will be that it must embody, not so much dramatic music, but music that just envelops the audience in a spatial way. And so, that's where I'm heading now.
It sounds ambitious.
Does it? I don't know. To me it sounded like a necessary step. I don't know where this is all heading, but this seemed to be the stone that I needed to step on before I can then go on to the next one. And so, I will be working on it while trying to get the next re-mastered albums out at the same time. Unfortunately, the new instrumentation I'm putting together . . . that's taken so much time to do. You have to build on your own thing. I've even put together a pedal MIDI board, because there were no good touch sensitive ones I could find on the market. You end up, you know, cutting wood, and soldering, and bending metal, and assembling things with this wonderful ultimate support, and stuff. That's just a wonderful way to put together a rig. You wear many, many hats, and they're all fun, but you feel that you're a tinkerer rather that a real composer. It's a funny position to be in. I was going to suggest Nancarrow. I see you've got his name on your list too. Well, Partch also got his hands dirty with the instrumentation too. A lot of these people did. Pauline Oliveros is always amusing. There are a lot of neat people. I mean, if you're going to pick worthy, you know, the pulse of living music is, I think these candidates are very good, don't you think?
I think so. Do you know the interactive telecommunications program at NYU? They've got an art program aimed at teaching people how to build instruments. They also work with all sorts of electronic and physical input devices. It's a really interesting, interesting program. I'm sorry to bounce off topic, but you talked about cutting wood and bending metal and I was just at their shop last night and it was very interesting to see all these kids just heads down with wires and pliers. And it wasn't just code. It was like the real physical . . .
Wow. Well, code can be part of that too, of course. I think all of us have to be, at least, if we're not good with it, we're aware of it enough to tinker to get something together or get the basic algorism going so that somebody can maybe help us, if we needed help. Certainly there have been some remarkable tools that have come along. In the process, was Theodore Sturgeon, the science fiction writer, who said that 99% of everything is crud. Oh, maybe the word he used was a little less delicate, but the truth is that that's the case also with the tools we use. At some point, maybe fifty or a hundred years from now, people will look back and they can laugh at some of the things we have to go through here. So, those of you in the future who have all of the hindsight, the 20/20, you know, think of what it feels like back here in the box. It's not so easy to figure it out from our perspective.
(Chuckling) Very good. Well, thank you for your time today. It was a pleasure.
You're very welcome.
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