The Wire

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The Mire: Tangents, threads and opinions from The Wire HQ

The Keith Fullerton Whitman Notebooks

Derek Walmsley

My recent interview in East London with Keith Fullerton Whitman, the starting point for the piece in The Wire 326, meandered down almost as many byways and dead-ends as we found wandering about the canals of East London that morning. In almost all magazine pieces there's interview material which doesn't make the cut, but in this case the extra detail – technical walk-throughs of his projects, reminiscences of eternally unfinished schemes, excited talk of madcap projects in his garage – seemed to present just as compelling a picture of the man as discussing his music, and sometimes a whole lot more fun. It's not just the detail, but the way he tells it – the breathless description of routing options, vocalisations of the sounds, and his engineer's eye for chip numbers and synth esoterica, all give a vivid sense of how the composer/musician connects (and connects with) the elements of his soundworld.

This set of notebooks or appendices can be considered extra technical information for the Keith Fullerton Whitman interview in The Wire 326, a snapshot at an ever-changing constellation of works-in-progress, the love-letters page of a synthesizer fan club magazine, or an intellectual portrait in appropriately fragmentary form. The interview transcript has been edited thematically to present an alternative route through his work. The interview took place in London on 19 October 2011.

The pinball piece (part of a commission for the Kontraste festival, Krems, recorded at GRM, Paris, October 2011)

“The pinball machine thing was a sound that was in the middle of the GRM piece, a crucial bit of that piece where it's all based around these rhythms – lots of field recordings of discrete events where there was a lot of rhythms going at once. So the pinball arcade was a great example. The flipper noises, they're arhythmic, it has to do with a function of the game more than anything musical.

“The sound the game is making is this raw, late 70s, early 80s digital, the TI 76477, the Space Invaders chip. There's this video arcade in New Hampshire where there's like 20 of them all next to each other. And I use this recording, and any time it would cross the threshold of an attack it would go into the synthesizer, it would cut off all the noises between the clicks. It's gating – a comparator – so when it goes over a threshold it turns it on, when it goes below, it turns it off.

“So, I've got an audio editor open in the computer, and all it's doing is playing this mono, 15 minutes, lo-fi phone voice memo recording of the arcade. The phone was taped to the bottom, where the speaker is on this Hyperball video game. It's a pinball machine where you're rapid fire, tsch-tsch tsch-tsch-tsch. It's the noisiest thing I've ever seen in my life, so loud, violent, but weird, 1970s, 80s punk looking, gnarly. It's Bally or Williams, one of those companies.

“That recording, it's coming out of the headphone out of my computer, it's split, even though it's mono, it's going into two, audio input and a comparator in the synth. That's triggering, based on the audio going into the gates, you know the low pass gate. All the synth is really doing is taking the structure of the attacks. It's using the audio, but only over the threshold, so all you're getting is the click of the flipper, and then whatever little bit of the music of the game is going on at that second, so you hear this neoh-neoh-neoh, but all you hear is nip-nip-nip. The attacks are flashing random values from like a sample and hold thing, maybe a series of eight of them coming out of a shift register which is more like a canon generator, so every time there's an attack it pushes the next value down the line. And then those values are controlling, say, the frequency of the filter, it's this quite resonant high pass filter that's ceow-ceow-ceow, moving within that range, there's two of them, one for each channel, hard pan left and right. And then other values are being flashed to control, like, the gain, the placement in the stereo spectrum. So it's really quite an advanced patch that I could never perform that with just two hands.”

Assembling a Tamiya Frog remote control car, 25th anniversary replica edition

“Ah man, I stalled out so heavily on that. Rear tire assembly. The steps are long, there's 16 grand steps but each one is like several maneuvers. That was 15 I think, and 16 is putting the body on. Oh man, so frustrating. It's sitting there, wounded, all but the back two tires. I tested it, the mechanics, the electronics, everything works beautifully, it's oiled. Looks lovely. What a funny, frustrating thing. It's the 25th anniversary of that car, and I'm 38, so I built it when I was 12, 13. You know, it took three months as a pre-teen, and as an adult, it took three days or something like that.

“Just lacking the finger strength to do the penultimate step. Oh my god, so frustrating. And I had everyone who had strong hands come up to the house for like two weeks. OK, just, tire, this thing inside, the hub, put it in there, do it. Ply them with tequila and whiskey, get the internal strength going ... nothing. It's physically and physiologically impossible ... And the other route was ebaying vintage assembled tires from the 80s. I went to three or four hobby shops in the interim to find assembled tires or different tires, slightly more pliable, nothing. The only thing I found were these foam tires, but that's not the original. The idea is it has to be the thing, you know, it has to be this absolute recapturing of this youthful energy in this present thing.

“You know, the thing that I built to go on it was this synthesizer controlled by the servos. Originally I was just going to build a remote controlled synthesizer. It's quite an advanced thing, it's a trigger control that goes both ways, front and back, and then a steering column, but then there's also switches, so it sends, like, six or seven commands over one radio frequency. So the idea was the trigger was going to be LFO, speed, and then this was going to be oscillator speed, frequency, and then the trigger here, so you could actually play 'zing, zong zang' notes, and then have the switches be the shape of the trigger, ramp up, ramp down. So you could sit in the audience and have it go through a computer system, where, boom!, you could trigger a note and have nice quantised gradation, have control of the pitch, and build like a maze of all these individual things to fit into a tape delay.

“And then I thought, I could just have the thing that's controlling the mechanics control the car as well. It's a 9.6v giant battery pack putting on quite a lot of juice, quite a lot of amps, so you could power a speaker with the same battery that you're powering the car with, so why not just put the circuit on there? The same voltage that powers the car, can also power this EXAR 2206 chip, it's like a little digital oscillator chip that's got an FM input built into it and stuff. So it was really great, it was like two chips and a board, a couple of resistors and power.

“So now I have this awful, wounded, like a bird with a broken wing, sitting on my kitchen table, like a constant reminded of failure. It's so sad. And the funny thing is, after I came up with the idea of the speaker, you know what would be hilarious – we paint it like a jamiacan soundsystem, like a truck with the speaker built in? I could do dub sirens, I would have a little Jamaican car that would drive around and make dub sirens.”

“I was aware of those instruments, the Publison (DHM 89 B2 rack unit / KB2000 keyboard), the Coupigny, and I had read quite a bit about them before I got there. The Coupigny - all those analogue sounds in those early Parmegiani, François Bayle pieces, or there's a late Schaeffer piece [Le Triedre Fertile] - having experience with the Buchlas and the Serges, I was like, OK, this is maybe kind of a take on that, but it's coming from more of a scientific thing. It's like a machine shop, a machine you'd see in the dentist or something like that, these giant knobs. I figured out what it was, it was some LFOs and oscillators, it's a pin matrix like a VCS3, you had quite flexible routing options for how everything is talking to each other.

“So the Coupigny, a lot of these low range passes sound just kind of muddy, br-br-br-br, pulse wave. And then I would bring them up to 2 or 3k and that was gorgeous – oscilators that are very closely tuned, moving through ranges where you get this kind of sideband woi-woi-woi-woi kind of stuff happening? That's it, that's your François Bayle sound. That's just a fascinating group of sounds, and that's what this one machine does quite well. It doesn't do basslines, it doesn't do leads, these 1980s constructs of what synthesizers do. It's a scientific machine, it's meant to generate a tone, and then you can control how it's routed. There's a group of capacitors and resitors sitting in a box, you just turn it on and it makes a feedback loop and makes its sound.

“The Publison is an effects box, first and foremost, that's all it is – a digital delay line with a pitchshifter built in. Cheap, early granular, before we really knew what that was. Homemade granular, or boutique granular. So that was like, I bet sustained sounds will sound great. Big, complicated, two octave wide chord of reed sounds, like saw tooth kind of sounds. And I put that in there and of course immediately reducing the bit rate to the range in which it works, 5k, 10k. That sounded great, cut off all the high end. And then as it's jumping around in the buffer, you know, maybe a second worth of audio stored in there, it really accentuates little bits of where the harmonics are meeting each other within it. So it's just this little bit frozen, just this little bit frozen. And then as it starts jumping around and scaling through them, you're really accutely aware of the harmonic strata of this rich recording in there. I was like, this is really useful, because it puts a laser-like focus on individual harmonic components of this one static seeming sound, but in the act of freezing it, it creates this other harmonic on top of it, and you freeze it and the most pronounced thing is this eleventh or twelfth harmonic way up there, its way out of the range of the instrument. Really fun, and like the act of using it is fun, it's like using a toy or something.”

The recording set-up for the Generator and Generators albums

“I found a quick cheap and dirty way to make these neat little canons, little Bach-like motor rhythms, very straight, 16th note, 8th note, pulsing, beautiful sounds. It's a very small part of the patch, it's just like four oscillators, the slow one doing the rate of the melody and the other one doing the clocking of the melody, going through a quantiser. Simple, just a few modules. And then I play with that for a few weeks, and I'm getting good results. Detuning each oscillator so there's static intervals in there, like static third, static fourths, octaves of course. And then I got to a set of rules within the piece the more I played with it.

“It was almost like the exploration itself dictated the piece more than I was as a composer. I was sort of thinking what kind of results can I get from just using this very simple small thing. And then I found a way to have the whole thing be in this loop where the first oscillator the pitch was being analysed, and then was controlling this whole other group of things, so it's taking the seed from this one reciprocal thing, and then feeding it into another patch, and that got really interesting. Sort of like, this is going half the speed of that, so it's kind of accurately tracking this, but not successfully, so you get this ghost in the machine thing, where little bits of that were just off. Or it was maybe making a bad decision guessing what that was doing, feeding like polyphonic material into a monophonic pitch shifter. You play an octave pedal and you start geting those blrlr-blrlr-blrlr kind of things? OK, this is really cool!

“And then very slowly built it from one tiny little case with just eight modules, then one suitacase, then two suitcases, and then it just got ridiculous. In one year it went from the string quartet to like the Vienna Symphonic version of it. It's no better, it's just gets more complicated with the same tonality. And then I had drums, I was having this kick drum every ten beats, and hi-hat every, like, 17.... it was getting like prime number things, it was getting Prog. It was Pentangle turns into Genesis.”

Soundtrack commission for Deepak Chopra’s computer game Leela

“They just asked me, out the blue. We know you're into acoustics and tuning systems and all this stuff, and we like your music. One of the producers, this guy Lewis, had heard maybe the live guitar CD, the Recorded In Lisbon one. And I think he thought that would be a good starting point to talk about music for this one level of the game, which was the crown chakra at the end of the game – the actual, ultimate, you've achieved enlightenment. There's no goals of the game, but there's seven chakras, and you've achieved enlightenment by the seventh.

“I gave them this folder of everything I was working on just as examples. He pointed to this two minute segment of the Lisbon thing. Like squarewave, pulsewidth modulation, there's a little bit of psychoacoustics, and then this guitar overlay, like, sparkling. I spent months like almost trying to deconstruct my own music and redo it, but in a way that would make sense in the tuning scale of the root frequency of this particular chakra. It's neat, because some of the sounds are in Just Intonation, and sound of them are in equal. So when you first hear it it's really disorientating, especially because one sound comes in, and another comes in in a completely different tuning. There's these static notes but the harmonics are so prevalent that it's really constantly buzzing, almost heterodyning. and the frequency of the hereterodyning is the root frequency of the chakra.

“We analysed this harmonic so the beat frequency was the actual root frequency of it. It had to be a lot of Max. A lot of IRCAM high end spectral analysis, we're talking like floating point digits of like five values past zero, and figuring out, charting it out on a blackboard, and then finally, it's going to be exactly right. And I got it and I nailed it. And then on top of that there's a lot of analogue synthesizer, and the frequency of that pulsing is a sub-sub-sub octave, 1/32 below the root. Way down at the point where you're hearing it more as rhythm that an a picth. And then there's a lot of guitar on top playing this sparkling, Playthroughs-like floating bandpass fizzle.“

The Krems commission and Francois Bayle's acousmonium sound diffusion system

“The first six minutes of that sounds very done, I'm very confident that the last day I was in the studio, it like sculpted this six minutes. Everything lines up beautifully, it's great. there's drama in there, there's a narrative, it's very apparent that it's these sounds coming in this order because they're different clases of sounds, different ranges, and then it completes one solid image of all five, low, low-mid, medium, mid-high, high, at once, coming out of different speakers. And then they all every couple of seconds synchronise. But the rest of it's like, yeah, there's a lot of, like, this sounds cool, there's one of a fan, ventilation fan on the top of a building, doing this beautiful, slightly detuned major sixth kind of drone, and that's being gated by another class of sound, fireworks in the distance going off, and it's using the rhythm of that to control this static bah-bah-bah kind of thing. And then it goes into other things, barring the rhythm of this with the sound of this, not vocoding, just doing it, this gating this. I don't think I'll ever finish it. And it's arbitrary, the commission was for a 30 minute piece, and it's 30 minutes two seconds. What you have is akin to an orchestra of speakers.

“It's really all about particular frequency ranges that are best represented by each kind of speaker. The trees, the elements on it are only about two inches in diameter, subs are about 18 inch. So it's all about finding a way to compose that makes sense of each set of frequencies. I thought about the piece from the top down, like, hi-hat sounds are going to be high frequency coming out of small speakers, the bass elements generated by the synthesizer trying to track the pitch of the hi-hat will be this super bassy sound, so that should go to the subs. The whole process was really about categorising each particular sound in the entire piece and thinking about where it was going to take place. I had to do all this assigning of stuff from the get-go, even when I was just recording I was making notes, like, these fireworks sounds, this big bassy brrrggghhhhhh, they're going to come out of the subs. And they can also be doubled coming out of the directional, because they're fireworks, so they have to be in your face. The drum sounds can be different, they can be farther away from you, but stuff that's loud has to be right there. All the Publison and Coupigny sounds are more ethereal and more mid range, so they can kind of go up, the speakers kind of go up at the ceiling. It's really kind of massing in the ceiling of this giant church, with this huge ceiling, 100ft high arches. That stuff can live up there. But anything that's present and punctual and pointillist has to live on the ground.

“It was one of the few times in my life where I had a very strict idea and all this research on the Acousmonium. It was such a great experience, knowing enough about the technical side to be able to prepare the music side of things so that it made sense. Obviously it's something that I lionise, the GRM thing, the sound. The ability to walk into this very high tech space and kind of pull it off, that was also really a big ego boost. They were like, you know what you're doing, just do it. They don't know me, they don't know anything about it, they were just like, I'm a weird heavy metal guy.”

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