How else would it start?

I grew up in a music loving family, conducting along to the Boston Pops on PBS and plunking out notes to play along with recordings on my toy piano. I mostly listened to Bach‘s organ music and Harry James‘s big band. Switched-on Bach scared me silly. I played trumpet in the school band and became the musical smart guy. I never had the stamina to play super high myself (due to a really inefficient embouchure I didn’t fix until it no longer mattered), but my friends would eek out high notes and ask me which notes they had reached. My first gig was transcribing merengue music for my classmate’s dad’s band to play—this was before I knew how harmonies worked. I did it all by ear and brute force.

Man, I used to hate that avant-garde junk.

One particular concert band piece really angered me. Now I realize it was a knock-off of Penderecki‘s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima, but I still maintain that band piece was just no good. Anyway, it angered me that anyone would try to make music do such unpleasant things when such beautiful things were out there. I was listening to Debussy, Copland, and (yes, I suppose it was) smooth jazz from Chuck Mangione, Herb AlpertAntonio Carlos Jobim, and Weather Report (but NOT other smooth jazz…).

I auditioned for the wrong group!

In college, I saw a world fusion band that excited my Weather Report-loving side, and I jumped at the chance when I saw a poster for auditions! I didn’t notice that the band’s name was slightly different on the flyer and I auditioned for the wrong group: the New World Music Ensemble instead of the New Baru World Ensemble… (“Baru” also means “new,” in Indonesian.)

They tricked me! Or they let me trick myself…

At the audition, they sat me down, put a graphic score in front of me—just some swirly lines—and asked me to play it. “This is interesting…” I thought, and I gave it a shot. Right then, I was improvising avant-garde music. But I couldn’t say it was garbage, because I was the one making it! We continued and did some group improvisations using a technique called Conduction, created by Butch Morris, who had recorded an album (Conduction No. 41) with that group just months before.

(No relation.)

I played with them for several years, and everything “out” made sense to me—or it confounded me in thrilling ways. A new world of new kinds of beauty opened up to me! But I was also interested in technology…somehow. I almost majored in Electrical Engineering, but I had decided I wanted everything I’d get out of a Music degree before I left anyway, so I majored in Music and have been filling in the technology ever since. I had no idea that what I do today was even possible back then; I aspired to make multimedia CD-ROMs of some sort. Then Joseph “Butch” Rovan came to Florida State, I saw his interactive performances with innovative control interfaces (“You must see the man with the glove,” as one professor put it), and he taught me how to compose with digital audio and by programming interactive performances in a graphic programming environment called Max. He also showed me how to use this different mode of thinking in my acoustic composition. (I was also reading Gödel, Escher, Bach at the time.)

Pitch, pitch, pitch—it’s all you ever do!

I used these new ways of thinking to figure out once and for all how to make music. There is an infinite continuum of pitches to be played, and I wanted to settle and find the right way to organize them. I got far into alternate tunings (dude, those discussion forums…) and the physics, perception, and cognition of music. But I eventually realized that there was more to music than pitch, and properties like texture and timbre were much more salient, expressive, and powerful. Since then, I’ve been seeking a “raw” musicality in situations and ideas.

It’s not always supposed to be fixed.

But I was only composing sheet music or “fixed media” (what used to be called “tape music”). After several years of that, I ached to make music in real time, to feel it made instantly under my fingers. I started performing with live electronics when Butch (Rovan) brought German cellist Ulrich Maiß to play with us. Since then, I’ve been using what that Butch taught me to build different types of performance environments: structured digital situations (or predicaments!) in which art would emerge. I drew on my knowledge of Butch Morris’s work, performing as a conductor for an ensemble of improvisers: he had no idea what his performers would play, but he was on the spot to roll with it and mold it into a cohesive, expressive performance. I saw myself that way, wrestling with my algorithms and feedback loops running live. (I did get to work with Butch Morris directly after being influenced by his legacy so long, in a long residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts. That was an intense crucible for me as the only computer performer, when everyone else’s instrument was already built and tested over centuries!)

But Switched-On Bach still freaks me out.

One approach I’ve used a lot is live sampling. I never had the patience to collect and organize disks full of sound samples to use in performance, so I built performance environments that couldn’t make any sound on their own. I go in with open ears and an open mic, and I grab sounds from my improvising partners (usually playing acoustic instruments) live, during the performance, and I transform them into my unique voice. You could call it a twenty-first version of century imitative counterpoint, where one musical line is folded on itself to build up rich, complex textures, like when you sing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round, or in J. S. Bach’s famous fugues.

But “Butch and Butch” is a jazz tune! (from Blues and the Abstract Truth

So I merged my experiences in free improvisation (via Butch Morris) and in live electronics (via Butch Rovan), but I had abandoned jazz (as one of my jazz teachers had informed me). Well, no one else may hear it, but my early jazz training still informs a lot of my thought processes. I’ve found that many times, the premise of my music making is so far out that I can play more familiar, gratifying, expressionist gestures and still have it come out as unique because of the odd situation I’m playing in. I think of how, without using a musical key, Ornette Coleman could just play blues and have it sound “out”—but also really sound right. Many times, I also feel like there’s an elusive sense of swing to be had, even in the absence of a steady beat; whatever that is, I’m often glimpsing and chasing it in the music I perform.

Interfaces

This is why I’m excited that my first full CD album features free jazz legend Karl Berger on vibes and piano and NYC dynamo Joe Hertenstein on drums and found percussion. In the album, we take various approaches to fitting the computer into a jazz trio naturally, without dominating it, like how Ornette saw pianos dominating jazz ensembles and avoided the instrument for decades. I use a variety of digital interfaces I’ve built, we enter into various performative predicaments, and we seek what beauty would emerge from the situation. In this, and in my other less overtly jazzy work, the stuff above is what’s going on in my head, anyway. It’s where I’m coming from.


I’m excited to share my first album: live sampling and jazz with Karl Berger and Joe Hertenstein, on Ravello Records!

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