Ahead of his performances at Big Ears Festival, the US electronics composer discusses process and his love of radio with The Wire’s Deputy Editor
Electronic composer Carl Stone is preparing for a series of performances at Big Ears in Knoxville, Tennessee, following the release of Baroo, his first album of new compositions since 2007, by Unseen Worlds on 1 March. The label previously released compilations of Stone's work from the 1970s, 80s and 90s.
Big Ears runs from 21–29 March, and Stone will be performing a solo set of new compositions, a more formal presentation of his Fujiken project, based on field recordings and tapes bought in markets across Southeast Asia, and he will also be taking part in Big Ears' 12-hour drone marathon.
A longstanding radio host, Stone is working with Dublab to release the archive of his Imaginary Landscape programmes from the 1980s and 1990s, combining interviews and works by composers including Morton Subotnick, Toru Takemitsu, Steve Reich, David Berman, Frank Zappa, Terry Riley, Chen Yi and more for the Los Angeles station KPFK.
Emily Bick: You’ve described what you do as seeking out fascinating sounds, without necessarily knowing what the attached cultural references are when you get your samples that you compose with. So I want to know what makes a sound fascinating to you?
Carl Stone: Well, I’m afraid that that’s a rather intangible quality. Sometimes I don’t really always know, it’s quite intuitive and I cannot say that there’s always this kind of sound that will catch my ear and fascinate me. It’s just something that pops out for whatever reason. And it’s probably different every time, and what I try to do when I’m composing is to try to explore what it is that makes a particular sound interesting or fascinating to me. That process of exploration reveals the inner workings of the sound. I mean, there is usually something exciting going on inside of a sound, if you will. Kind of at a microscopic level. So you just zoom in, you hold a magnifying glass to it using different techniques, and then you can sort of figure out what’s going on.
Do you ever start out with something that you think that you might want to work with and then find out that it doesn’t have anything interesting to it? Or can you find something that is interesting in just about every sound, as long as you look at it the right way?
Well yeah, I think that even something that’s mundane on the surface – in fact I’m interested in something which could be sort of mundane or trivial at first glance – at first listen, if you tear it apart you could find something interesting going on inside. But of course, the opposite is also true, you try exploring something and nothing is particularly revealed and that is more of the fault of my method. I need to maybe try to find a different method.
One of the things that I think is really interesting is that you have completely catholic tastes in what you choose, and there doesn’t seem to be any distinction between high or low, or any snobbery to it. When you’re doing something like when you sampled Aqua’s “Barbie Girl”, there is nothing winking about it.
Yeah. Well, I have a kind of two-dimensional matrix that I divide music into. There's music that I love and I respect, and then there is music that I maybe respect but don’t particularly love, and then there is music that I love but don’t respect like “Barbie Girl”, and then there’s music that I neither love nor respect.
And when you put something into that quadrant system, does that determine what you do with it?
No, not really. It’s just a general categorisation when I decided to work with something. Again the whole process is really intuitive, as I say, and I’m just kind of sitting there working. As you say, I’m not really interested in distinguishing between the high and low, the sacred and the profane or the trite versus the noble. I’m just trying to – whatever it is, for whatever reason something catches my ear, I’ll try to tear it apart.
I want to know how your brain works in processing what you take apart and how you shape sounds, and how you break things down to such microscopic levels. Because you then build them up to such complexity. You started working on tape and for many years you’ve been working with Max/MSP?
So you’ve been working on compositions with a graphical interface. I’m just wondering how the graphics of the software that you use to process sound and manipulate it, mix it up and move it around, how you think about that when you’re composing. How much is a visual representation of how the sound fits together, and how much is stuff that you hear? How do they influence each other?
A graphical interface is kind of handy to me, because I’m not really a very adept programmer in the sense of the kind of person who sits down and types in code. A graphical interface is much more intuitive. But the graphical interface of a program like Max or Max/MSP doesn’t really represent the sound graphically, at least the way I use it. It’s more just a kind of a toolkit over building blocks that you can connect together to create larger structures which do stuff to sound. There is a program called MetaSynth which does, actually. First it takes a sound and then analyses it and then displays it graphically, and then you can kind of paint with the graphics of the sound to create new sounds. And I have used that from time to time and that’s very interesting too. With Max, it’s sort of in between. The graphics allow you to see the logic of a program, let you scan it with your eyes. Anyway, that’s much easier for me then trying to scan a bunch of coded syntax. Those for me are not so intuitive.
What do you think about people who do live coding, like algorave type things?
Composing on the fly, coding on the fly, on stage it’s an interesting idea, in the same way that rewiring hardware is also interesting. But I think, at least for me, there is a need to sit down in the studio and work things out, and within the proposition that I do when I’m on stage is – I’m not coding any more, the coding is already finished and I’m just sort of working with the code via an interface that I’ve created myself.
One of the things that I’m interested in your composition is that it contains so many different feedback loops, so many elements that feed into and play against each other. In another interview you’ve described computers as instruments that can design their own bits of randomness, so you can put some randomness in the system. Do your compositions sometimes reveal emergent properties, or things that might surprise you?
How does that work when you’re improvising, when the system is also throwing up surprises?
Well, the composition doesn’t have to be 100 per cent set, right? You had a lot of freedom and flexibility, so the randomness of a program provides that extra bit of unpredictability. It’s the same way when you’re working with a program that is designed to have a certain random component to it. It’s kind of like working with a live player sitting next to you, like when you’re improvising and they do something that you didn’t anticipate. You react to it one way or another and that person reacts to your reaction, you have this kind of feedback back and forth. It’s the same way with computer code – it responds in some way or it gives you some feedback, and then you can react to it; if you like it, you can accentuate it and extend it, or if it’s not for you, if it’s not going in the direction that you want, you can suppress it and move to something else. It’s the same way that the computer becomes your improvising partner.
Can I change topic completely and ask you about your longstanding affinity with radio? You’ve been a DJ since the 70s, you still host shows now, and you’ve talked before about having a youthful fascination with Wolfman Jack...
Things that, I guess because I’m American, I associate with classic rock radio, just driving around, you’d hear this stuff in the car. You’ve sampled The Byrds, Beach Boys, Temptations, Jackson Five, all these people, and there is a wonderful sense of driving, freedom and randomness. So I’d like to know what the appeal of radio is to you, and if there’s something about that format and the randomness of it that you never know what you’re going to hear when you turn it on, that also might appeal to you in your work?
It’s the fact that radio is a great medium of discovery. Especially when I was growing up, radio was entering into a new phase of experimentation. There was college radio, there were genre busting rock radio stations emerging on the FM radio band. When I was really young, AM was really the only way to listen to music, or at least pop or rock. Classical music was on FM and rock and pop were on the AM band. But eventually FM began to expand, the quality of sound was much better, and you know it was through radio that I discovered Frank Zappa, that I discovered Harry Partch even, and Captain Beefheart, and so on and so forth. And so it’s exactly what you said. It’s the ability to encounter music that you otherwise didn’t have any way of knowing about.
So I fell into radio actually first through politics because in Los Angeles, which is where I grew up, there was a radio station that was broadcasting the Watergate hearings with Richard Nixon, and I volunteered to help edit the eight hours a day of congressional testimony down to one hour which would be broadcast in the evening. And as a volunteer there, I eventually was given a slot doing experimental and electronic music late at night, and then a staff position opened up and I took that and eventually I became music director and was responsible for all the music programming on the station. So in those days we had a lot of freedom – we could do things like broadcast Erik Satie’s Vexations, which is basically 18 hours of one minute of piano music repeated 840 times; we broadcast John Cage reading his – it’s a long text called Empty Words, which was created entirely through chance operation, including silence, and so we had these extended silences. I think at one point we had maybe 20 minutes of silence in the middle of reading. And this was absolutely unheard of in those days. But we could do it.
Big Ears takes place in Knoxville, Tennessee, from 21–29 March.
The archive of Carl Stone's Imaginary Landscape programmes is available on Dublab.