“I tend to accept whatever happens.”
An interview of Rafael Severi with electroacoustic composer Carl Stone.
Carl Stone is an electroacoustic composer and pioneer of live computer music. Born in Los Angeles, he now divides his time between Los Angeles and Japan. Away from the usual academic context of electroacoustic music, Stone has garnered the reputation of being one of the most important and influential composers working in electronic and avantgarde music today. He will be performing at the Meakusma Festival with the new performance project Realistic Monk, a collaboration with artist and composer Miki Yui.
We talked to Stone about the process of sampling in his music, his musical education at the legendary CalArts, the California Insitute of Art, and composing for acoustic instruments.
You started working with computers in a live context in 1986. Would you already use them for real-time sampling back then?
Ironically I was doing more real-time sampling before I started using a personal computer. I was using stereo digital delays, tape recorders and so on. When I switched to the computer in 1986, they were not yet capable of working in real time with the amount of memory being too low and the processing speed being too limited. I was working instead with a sort of non-real-time sampling. I would prepare my samples in advance and then do improvisational or structured work with these predetermined samples. They would also not be played from the computer itself. I was using MIDI gear like synthesizers and outport samplers.
And nowadays when you do real-time sampling when playing live, how do you go about it?
It is all done directly in that what the performers I am playing with play is instantly material for me. I usually do not prerecord things.
Is there still a processing time when you do real-time sampling on stage?
So you do not prelisten what you sample?
No. Very often in my work, and I am talking about my solo work here, I will use recorded material that I have available on a hard drive. There is a lot of randomness in my process. I am not like a DJ that uses headphones trying to find the right moment to start. I tend to accept whatever happens. It is interesting to me that I cannot predict exactly what is going to happen. I do know my sound sources well, but finding a specific instant of where to start or end a segment is something I do not do.
You played in a garage band in your teenage years?
Yes indeed, based in the San Fernando Valley. One of the members was percussionist Z’ev. He played a non-standard drum set at the time and I played keyboards. We also had an electric bass player. This would have been until 1969. I would have been 15 or 16 years old. We were very much influenced by rock, falling into the broad category of progressive rock. Our strongest influences were The Soft Machine, Captain Beefheart and Frank Zappa. We never used any vocals, it was all instrumental. We also listened to Harry Partch, John Coltrane and so on. We even auditioned to be on Frank Zappa’s label. During the audition, Zappa was not there, but he had sent his associate Herb Cohen. We did not make it though which sort of dashed our dreams.
Ze’v went on to an impressive career himself. Did you follow what he was doing or stay in touch?
Ze’v and I remained friends up until he passed away. He left CalArts after one year. I stayed on for four more years. He moved to San Francisco, started doing events there, fell into the punk scene there based around Mabuhay Gardens, did poetry, experimental writing. We kept in touch till the end.
How would you describe that era, late 60s California?
In terms of rock, California was very strong. Me and the other members of the band were also fans of the Grateful Dead and their long-ranging improvisations. In terms of new music, there was not a lot going on at that time. I think in the more experimental world, where I tended to operate, CalArts was kind of the fulcrum and then you had independent artists like the LAFMS, the Los Angeles Free Music Society. There were a few composers around. Harold Budd comes to mind, he was in Los Angeles. A lot of classical or academic composers were based here like Mel Powell or my teacher Morton Subotnick. So it seemed like an exciting scene at the time.
Your motivation to go to CalArts was to study music?
My motivation to go to CalArts was that they had three large modular synthesizer studios that they were making available. I was interested in electronic music and synthesis. Although I had never put my hands on a synthesizer before my first day at CalArts, I was very interested in the technology and I saw some potential in it for my purposes. I had been listening to electronic music before. Morton Subotnick had just released “Silver Apples” and when I arrived at CalArts, he was working on his third album “Touch”, a piece I still admire very much to this day.
You had a job at CalArts, recording their vinyl archive on tape.
At CalArts, they basically wanted to create an archive of the fantastic collection of vinyl records they had. There were a lot of rare recordings from all over the world, so-called world music, and there was a lot of classical and avantgarde music as well. In those days, vinyl was the main medium for listening. In the hands of students, these vinyl records would get damaged, broken or stolen and so before they went into circulation, the library wanted to back them up onto the best archive medium at the time which was cassette tape. So my job was to dub all these records onto cassette tape.
Was that job experience the trigger for you to start working electroacoustically?
Very much so, yes. First of all I discovered a lot of music that I did not know before, from Africa, India, etc. I got the idea, although I really did not know how, to integrate this music into my music, to develop something from things that I heard. The setup in the library was such that we would not just make tapes serially, one by one. We had three or four turntables connected to cassette decks and we tried to do them all in parallel to try and speed up the process. Just by monitoring this, hearing the kind of collisions that were happening musically when you had some classical string quartet on turntable one and some music from central Africa on turntable two and something else on turntable three, it all seemed kind of interesting and it definitely had an influence on my aesthetic and on my approach.
There were other good musicians floating around CalArts?
Yes, among the graduate students you had Ingram Marshall and Charlemagne Palestine. Synthesizer designer Serge Tcherepnin was part of the faculty. In the undergraduate program you had people like synthesist and sax player Earl Howard, composer and instrument builder Chas Smith, Peter Garland was there who, although he was not working with electronics, was very much a presence in the composition group.
Your piece “Sukothai” is based on Henry Purcell.
Correct. It is from the Rondeau from Abdelazer. It is also the theme that Benjamin Britten used for his seminal piece “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”.
How did you get the idea to use this piece by Purcell? The harpischord is a very particular instrument.
The idea was transformation. You set up an expectation at the beginning of the piece going in a certain direction and if you hate the harpischord, you might be dreading what will follow. It is then transformed very methodically, step by step, into something completely different. I was interested in that. I thought it would be good to start with something that was familiar so that people would recognize it immediately, develop some kind of expectation which I could then break. I was interested in confounding expectations.
But you did like the Purcell piece?
Yes. It is rather naive of course, harmonically very simple. Actually that is one of the things that attracted me to it, that made me think it might work well. Also the fact that it exists in many different forms: Britten arranged it, other people have arranged it. I thought maybe I could use these other arrangements as elements in the overall transformation. In the end I did not incorporate a lot of arrangements, but I did tag my piece in the end with the Benjamin Britten version. The ending to “Sukothai” I find too cute nowadays, but I leave it in because historically that is what it is. If I would do the piece today, it would just end with thousands of layers of harpsichord and fade out naturally.
For your piece “Shibucho”, you used “My Girl” by The Temptations. Same idea and execution as for “Sukothai”?
Sure, I was basically working with a stack of LP records. I am playing with the tension between unrecognizability and the revelation when at a certain point you come to understand what the abstract and very electronic sound that you heard at the beginning is. It becomes something very identifiable, especially to someone who grew up in the 60s and 70s.
Working with samples, pre-recorded material or material that you have recorded yourself, do you ever consider social, or sociocultural implications when you work?
I have to say I mostly approach it from the standpoint of sound as sound. I realize that what I am doing has aesthetic and, to a certain extent, social or political implications and I do not deny them. It is not a statement I am trying to make. It may be implicit in what I am doing.
With a sample, very often, there is a context that is often not of the person sampling or using the sample.
Of course. That is true whether you use a 60s Motown record or the recording of a tribal singer in Hanoi. Especially as an American, what does it mean to sample someone who is vietnamese? These issues do exist, but they are honestly not at the forefront of my mind when I am working.
What do you think The Village Voice meant when they called you the king of sampling?
That quote is by now 30 years old. A lot of new royalty has arrived. Maybe I am the deposed king of sampling. Living in Exile on an island. [laughs]
Sampling is very much present in pop music, club music and commercial music. When did you first become aware of this happening and what was your reaction?
People started to bring me vinyl singles of Grandmaster Flash. They had heard what I was doing with Motown and told me to check it out. I heard what Grandmaster Flash was doing and I really liked it. And I felt like we were kind of, broadly speaking, working in similar aesthetic territory, the difference being that I do not make music for people to dance to and I also have more of a formalistic approach.
I have the feeling that your work very early on left the strict realm of academics. In Europe this kind of music has stayed much longer in the realm of academics than it has in the States.
I do not think my music was ever strictly in the world of academics. CalArts was not really part of any academic aesthetic mafia that you would find in other places. It was kind of a breed apart. CalArts was built to be a hub for the avant-garde. The first year, a lot of people of the Fluxus movement were around, very non-academic people like Charlemagne Palestine were students there, and I was in their thrall. I was never embraced by academics. I have always considered myself to be an outsider to the academic world, even from the very beginning.
You also compose for acoustic instruments?
That is true albeit very occasionally. I improvise a lot with acoustic musicians, something that I have started doing more and more. Traditional musicians in Japan and China, as well as players of western instruments, I really enjoy doing that. Composing for acoustic instruments is almost always a commission. I have written some pieces for solo piano, for string quartet, for the Japanese traditional flute the Ryuteki, etc.
In many of these pieces, my approach is like sampling in a way. I start with the score of another composer’s work, maybe something famous and recognizable, and then I apply a series of processes, though not in the audio domain as in sampling. It is about working with pitch and the tempo information, about doing scrambles, repetitions and inversions. The starting point might be a recognizable piece of music, the end point is always something very different. The end result is a score that a performer can play.
How would you describe your new Realistic Monk project?
We tend to play soft. We like the listener to do a bit of an effort to hear everything. We like playing with limits, like playing just at the edge of acoustic feedback.
Is it true most of your compositions are named after restaurants?
All of them are. In my forty years of composing, there may be one or two that are not named after restaurants. It is just a random system to give titles to my pieces. It is always restaurants that I like. I list them up into a database and at a certain moment, their time comes and they get attached to a piece of music. Basically I hate titles. I hate trying to describe somehow in words what I am doing, trying to be poetic or trying to be academic and dry. My random system works well for me. The restaurants used often serve so-called ethnic food, so the names are often something incomprehensible to the English-speaking or European ear.
Are you the kind of person that applauds and uses every technological invention that comes around?
Actually I am not. It has been a long time since I have followed up on developments in the fields of technology or musical technology. I have been working with basically the same set of tools that have been kind of refining themselves like the programming language Max and the personal computer that I use and so on. Sometimes a nice new interface comes along or a new kind of microphone. I have to teach about technology to my students in Japan so I know what is going on, but what really gets me excited would not be a new piece of gear, rather a new recording from Central Africa.