please briefly describe the future of electronic music

I’ve been asked to perform at a “Non-academic Style Electroacoustic Music” concert at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music as part of The 2009 Shanghai International Electroacoustic Music Week. The concert’s being put together by Zhao Junyuan 昭骏园, also featuring Wang Changcun 王长存, Torturing Nurse, Mai Mai, and Junyuan’s band Power Wood Quality 木电质. Our concert occurs on the afternoon of October 21 from 2pm-5pm (discussion included) in the Conservatory’s Reporting Hall, 20 Fenyang Lu (near Fuxing Lu). I plan to present a concert version of Kaleidoscope Music.

The festival runs October 19-23 (plus workshops extending on either side), and the whole week should be fun. There’s lots of other good stuff on the program, including another visit to Shanghai from Neil Rolnick, and a performance by Bang on a Can All-Stars of works by Conlon Nancarrow, Steve Reich, Julia Wolfe, Tan Dun 谭盾, and others. Check out the complete schedule.

I’m looking forward to seeing Neil Rolnick again. He’s a computer music pioneer, and I remember listening to his A Robert Johnson Sampler as an undergrad at St. Olaf in the mid-90’s. He was in China last year for a show at the Central Conservatory in Beijing, and he stopped by Shanghai to play at a NOIShanghai event at Live Bar. We had a fascinating chat over Hunan food; he’s got interesting stories about everyone in music. (You can download A Robert Johnson Sampler and other works on his music page.)

I got to say, I’ve criticized the Shanghai Conservatory in the past for being insular and not taking a leading role in the city’s cultural life, but I have to publicly eat my words. It’s a really great gesture for them to invite other parts of Shanghai’s active new music community to come participate in this event. Good on ya, Shanghai Conservatory!

In preparation for the concert, I was asked to respond to the following questions.

1. your definition to electronic music?

I don’t know if electronic music has a useful definition anymore. Everything we listen to now is electronic. Most music is produced on a computer, even if it starts off as an acoustic recording. And almost all music we listen to is coming from an electronic device, a CD player, an iPod, a television, etc. Even most acoustic performances, other than strictly traditional classical performances, are usually amplified, with sound coming from speakers that are plugged in.

2. your opinion on “electronic music and noise; sound equipment, multimedia, new media”?

Probably the most worthless of those terms is “new media.” To me that just means, “We’ll think of a better term for this later.” All media was new at some point. Even so, I find myself using this term as an umbrella term out of convenience sometimes, to indicate recent art involving electricity that doesn’t fall into a clearer category.

“Noise” isn’t very useful either. The most useful definition of noise is something unpredictable, a series in which there’s no relationship between what’s happening now and what’s come before. In a computer, a stream of random numbers sent to the sound card is a literal definition of white noise. “Noise” has come to mean something harsh and anarchic and aggressive, but in fact, noise is a component of almost all sound. The lulling sound of waves on the shore or wind in the trees is noise, but it doesn’t come across as angry; it’s just nature.

I usually use “digital art” to describe my work, since a lot of it can only be done in the digital domain, using a computer. But I suppose if you really wanted, you could find analog ways to do a lot of what I’m doing.

3. please briefly describe the future of electronic music

Coming from a background in videogames, I fervently believe that interactivity and real-time algorithmic procedures are going to play an increasing role in how we experience music. People like me have been talking about this for a long time, but I don’t think it’s a failed vision of utopia; it’s just that there’s a lot of work left to do. On one hand, it’s the future of the CD, not as a physical medium, but a digital format. It’s also the proliferation of sound installation-like artworks in virtual spaces. Some things will be interactive, some things will non-interactive but ever-changing, and some things will continue to be linear experiences; it depends on what’s right for the idea the artist is trying to convey. We need to devise new formats and new experiences for these formats, rather than to try to retrofit existing, linear music into non-linear formats.

I’d like to think multi-channel sound will play a prominent role in the future of music, but I’m somewhat less optimistic on this front, given that most people can’t properly set up a 5.1 system in their living rooms. But we can hope. And of course, there needs to be compelling content authored for multi-channel formats to encourage people to configure their systems properly. When we finally get to the point where we can beam music directly into peoples’ brains, then this problem will finally go away.

4. please recommend a electronic music work, and your comment on it?

A piece I’ve been talking about a lot lately is Brian Eno’s 77 Million Paintings (2006). It comes very close to the idea of a virtual, portable audiovisual installation. It’s not a CD or DVD, but a program you install on your computer, and every time you run it, it generates a new version of the piece; hence the 77 million paintings of the title. The audio and visual components are not synthesized, but prepared in advance, which gives them a rough, natural, hand-manipulated quality. But the juxtapositions are determined in real-time by the program, so that you never see and hear the same thing twice. The images change very slowly, to the point that you’re not sure if the images are changing or if your eyes are simply adjusting to the color. I think that’s part of the genius of Brian Eno, a quality shared by his iPhone application Bloom, operating on the edge of perception.

I think the piece is almost perfect, but it’s still got a problem regarding the forum in which it is appreciated. Since you’ve got to install the program on your computer, you’re probably experiencing it on a computer monitor, sitting in an office chair, with your face several inches from the screen, alone, listening to the sound on poor quality computer monitors. It lacks a sense of space. The ideal forum for a piece like this is a living room. If the program could be run on a game console such as an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3, you could watch it on your HDTV, listen to it in 5.1 on high quality speakers, while lounging on your couch with friends. The game console is the closest thing we have to a distribution platform for sound installations.

5. what’s the foundation to learn electronic music? is it necessary to learn classic music first?

If classical music is well taught, there is no difference. Music is sound organized in time. Digital sound synthesis is music theory. Composers have always tried to organize sound with the tools at their disposal. In order to create more sophisticated structures, systems were created, rules were established. Rules and systems must serve the music. Common Practice Era harmony is one possible outcome of this line of thinking, but there are others, and thinking evolves over time. In music, as with the other arts, we are in a continual conversation with history, as artists have always been, and a responsible artist questions what is received from history before putting it to use.

I have very little patience for arguments that there’s some inherent difference between music and sound. This usually stems from some poor or incomplete musical training; people think that if something can’t be played on a piano or written on a five-line staff, it can’t be music.

6. please talk about electronic, compute, hearing, technology and perception

One observation I’d make is that all music is indeterminate in some regard (and no music is indeterminate in every regard). A group of musicians performing a piece of acoustic music will play it slightly differently each time, with subtle inconsistencies in phrasing, volume, articulation, intonation, etc. In fact, these inconsistencies are often desirable, resulting in what we call “warmth” or “richness” in a performance. Even purely electronic pieces vary from performance to performance, depending on the playback equipment, the acoustical environment, and the audience’s position in it. And even if every other parameter could be fixed, the listener’s psychological state would be different at each listening, if for no other reason than the very fact of having heard the piece one more time.

Having acknowledged this, I find it useful to explore indeterminacy as an overt parameter of my music, to write music that encompasses all possible permutations, and to try to quantify what these permutations might mean.

7. please let us know your personal understanding of electronic music.

I’m interested in using electronics exploring non-linear structures. If you define a structure that has some variability built into it, a computer is the most efficient tool to quickly examine and evaluate all possible permutations of that structure. I think this is a unique aspect of modern existence, with which everyone must grapple, consciously or not. So much of what we encounter everyday is non-linear, web pages for example, and mediated by technology. The sheer volume of information coming at us is so much greater than any previous generation has encountered, and we need tools to navigate it. Our lives have become tangled up in technology, which creates new challenges, but in understanding technology we can find new perspectives on the world around us.

The Most Relaxing Blog Post…Ever!

I visited my favorite massage parlor, 龍之道, yesterday. I’m not sure I want to publicize the address, as I generally prefer to be the only bloated foreigner in the joint, but they provide rigorous Chinese massage, medically sound, with skilled practitioners, and the whole array of treatments (incl. hot cups) available as necessary, none of this froofy Dragonfly shizznit.

The only problem was the music. I think they must hand out a complimentary CD of English language adult contemporary dreck when you pick up your business license in Shanghai. Those who have been here a while can fill in this list on their own, but all the classics were in full effect during our hour and a half visit:

The Eagles, Hotel California
Phil Collins, Another Day in Paradise
Whitney Houston, I Will Always Love You
Celine Dion, The Power of Love
Simon & Garfunkel, The Sound of Silence [actually, I like this one]
Michael Bolton, When a Man Loves a Woman
Bryan Adams, Everything I Do (I Do It for You)

We made a little game of guessing the next tune, and I was afraid I’d lose until they played Richard Marx’s “Right Here Waiting” as we walked out. (I never heard “My Heart Will Go On,” but I did doze off for a bit.)

I’ve long thought that a massage parlor is an ideal place to implement some of my ideas for indefinitely continuing music (just like in a videogame), totally ambient (no pre-rendered dramatic climaxes), non-looping, real-time deployed. It’s still a back burner project, but I’ve been hoarding ideas for Project Dragonfly for at least a year now. Stay tuned; it’s gonna be absolutely, unequivocally gorgeous.

Compiling this list reminded me that way back when I did that interview with Morgan for SmartShanghai, I shared my Chinese experimental music starter kit, which didn’t make the final edit of the already exhaustively comprehensive interview (I’m still so impressed that Morgan took the time to transcribe all that babbling).

So here ya go, my Chinese underground/experimental music starter kit (which admittedly betrays a marked ambient bent):

Li Jianhong 李剑鸿 + 10, See You New World (2Pi)
718, An (Kwanyin)
Lin Zhiying 林志英, [I actually can’t tell what the title of this thing is; might be “II,” and the label might be “21 Floor;” album art is B&W photo of a lot of people going over a bridge with umbrellas and a TV in a vacant lot]
Wang Changcun 王长存, Parallel Universe (Post-Concrete)
AITAR II, B6 and MHP (Isolation Music)
V.A., Music for Shopping Malls (Kwanyin) [featuring Zafka, Yan Jun 颜峻, and 718, and Eric Satie]
V.A., Landscape 2 (Shanshui)
V.A., The Sound of Silence Project (Reconfiguration)
And one of Torturing Nurse’s 9,382,521 CD’s; I’ve given out the one they did with Tokyo-based Polish noise artist Zbigniew Karkowski and Hong Kong-based Dickson Dee a few times as gifts, “Penetration” (PACrec)

Now the bad news: last time I was at Sugar Jar in Beijing, I wanted to pick a bunch of these up as a gift for a friend of mine (the fine composer Kevin Siegfried), and most of them are now out of print. So if you ever see ‘em, snag ‘em!

BTW, when I read that SmartShanghai interview for the first time, I had a mad impulse to annotate and expand and fill in some of the gaps, but I resisted, seeking to preserve the integrity of the barroom ramble it was. Now that some time has elapsed, in an effort to wring more mileage out of it in the time-honored tradition of the director’s cut, I would offer the following additional comments:

I got distracted by some other idea and totally skirted the question about being proud of my work on EndWar, but yes, I am quite proud of my work on that game. I think it’s a great game, and I think it includes some technological innovations in the sound department that hold great relevance for the industry at large. Hurrah for EndWar!

I started to answer the question about what exactly I was doing at Ubisoft with a long answer about how my previous roles led up to my most recent role, but then I got lost my train of thought. But the short answer would be that I was the lead audio guy on the project, and my job was to convey and support the primary vision for the game in sound. Read all about it here.

I might have clarified that the original lead singer of Petra, Greg Hough, lasted only one and a half albums, soon to be replaced by Greg X. Volz.

Had I considered the question a little more closely, I probably would have said that classical music is the midpoint between Christian rock and Torturing Nurse, rather than INXS, and then I would have blabbed on about extracting the creative impulse from its varying manifestations and achieving some kind of enlightenment that encompasses all sound as music or some such drivel. I also feel bad that I didn’t give Depeche Mode appropriate props as an influence in this interview, and perhaps also Michael W. Smith.

And I flubbed the details of my frustration with those damn Elvis Costello reissues. The first reissues (of all the pre-Warner Bros. stuff, during which time he was handled differently in the UK and the US) were done by Rykodisc, as single disks with bonus tracks appended. Then Rhino did 2 CD remastered editions (which also included his Warner Bros. releases), and now Universal is re-re-re-releasing all the pre-Warners stuff. I have This Year’s Model on cassette, LP, and Rykodisc CD, not to mention the Warner Bros. release of All This Useless Beauty as well as the Rhino reissue. In general all the bonus material consists of rough demos, too, which in most cases only tarnish the final versions. There are not nearly enough rare B-sides, especially from Mighty Like a Rose. And can you even get “A Drunken Man’s Praise of Sobriety” anywhere anymore? Although I would love to get my hands on that short, live, promotional EP he did with the Brodsky Quartet following The Juliet Letters, which had a Beach Boys tune and some Tom Waits, I believe. What was the question again?


Hey, check out my new song, “口口口口口口口口.”

Perhaps some explanation is in order, especially for those readers living outside China (such as the Russian spambots that frequent my blog—hi, fellas!). The Chinese character 口 is written “kou” in Chinese pinyin, and it’s pronounced like “comb” without the “mb.” It’s pronounced with a falling-rising tone, classified as the third of Mandarin’s four tones. Especially when first learning Chinese, I would sometimes involuntarily bob my head while speaking to help me reproduce the proper inflection.

I’m no professional etymologist, but basically 口 represents a kind of archetype mouth. It’s not used to refer to the mouth of a person (that would be 嘴, or zui, also third tone), but it’s used for doors (门口), entrances and exits (进口 and 入口, respectively), mouths of rivers, and such. It also functions as a component (or “radical”) of more complicated characters, usually indicating that the character has something to do with the mouth (as in the aforementioned 嘴), or that it’s an interjection of some kind.

Most foreigners living China will be familiar with the phenomenon of receiving a Chinese text message on a phone that doesn’t recognize Chinese characters. The text is therefore displayed as a series of boxes, which, as the astute reader will have noted, closely resembles the character 口. So I used to make a little joke of feigning ignorance on the subject, delighting myself and friends with the apparent ability to read a text message comprised entirely of 口’s. And that, pretty much, is the idea behind this song.

That’s Torturing Nurse’s Xu Cheng 徐程 on guitar. I wanted to do a noise solo, thinking about garbled communications and such, and while pondering how to accomplish this, I decided, well, why not just turn to the pros? I had gone to Xu Cheng’s house for a Torturing Nurse rehearsal in 2006 (Torturing Nurse being Shanghai’s seminal noise band, who just celebrated their 5th birthday 2 weeks ago) and recorded some of his guitar playing for the piece Mobile 3 that I performed at that year’s 2Pi Festival in Hangzhou. I asked Xu Cheng if I could reappropriate some of this material for this song, and he graciously agreed. I think it fits the song super well (in fact, I think the end result is probably more successful than Mobile 3).

I had a bit of an agenda for harmony in this song. A lot of pop music I hear seems to rely on volume, distortion, and aggressive delivery to convey, you know, angst or tension or whatever. But to me, harmony is the real source of angst in, for example, Nirvana’s best songs, distinguishing them from, you know, Warrant, or so many punk bands that posture angst on top of common practice era chord progressions that could have been lifted right from the pages of Mozart. So especially given that my sound palette mostly revolves around shiny synthesizer tones, I wanted to try to get the frustration and uncertainty of the song across harmonically.

The song is basically built around a whole tone scale, though I switch whole tone scales a few times. This shifting between whole tone scales (there are only two) happens with increasing frequency in the longer, louder second verse section, trying to settle into something that won’t be pinned down, but at the very end approximating enough of a major scale to suggest a half cadence. There’s usually a constant drone in the background, and tension derives from these two musical ideas trying to fit together somehow, to forge some meaningful relationship. I think this is the neat thing about harmony; it’s not just a metaphor for something not fitting in; it is literally the same thing.

At the same time there’s only one chord type in the whole song, a major triad, and it’s always presented in root position. I did something similar in “Hack Coo!” from Stranger Personals, a setting of personal ads from The Stranger for voice and piano, where almost defiantly optimistic major chords are lost in a cascade of other notes, depriving them of their tonal moorings. Since the roots of the chords conform to alternating whole tone scales, but the chord type is major, the hegemony of the whole-tone scale is constantly being thwarted by the fifth of the chord. At the same time, the constant transposition of this immutable voicing causes harmony to move towards the realm of timbre (like a pipe organ, or Ravel’s doubling of horn with piccolos on the upper partials in Bolero), so that the chord starts to fuse into a single musical entity.

The bridge breakdown is the only part of the song that exists entirely in a whole tone scale, with no perfect fifths to get in the way. While this keeps it from resolving in a traditional tonal way, the fact that it belongs all to one scale provides a kind of respite from the conflicts of the rest of the song, creating this brief cocoon of tentative intimacy before exploding again.

Around the time of his death earlier this year, I was rereading George Perle’s The Listening Composer, in which he points out the prominent role that symmetrical structures play in the music of Berg, Varese, Stravinsky, Bartok, and other giants of the early 20th century (an aspect that unifies these rather diverse composers). [A symmetrical structure is basically an interval sequence that eventually gets you back where you started. If you move by half-steps or fourths or fifths, you get the whole 12-tone chromatic scale; but if you move by whole steps, you get the 6-tone whole tone scale; a half-step plus a whole-step will get you the octatonic scale, etc.] So I still had these ideas on the brain, although I’m sure this song wouldn’t have earned much more than an eye roll from Mr. Perle. While the verses are mostly wandering adrift in whole tone land, the chorus and breakdown shout-out sections are working through different cyclical structures; for example the breakdown repeats the same material at (negative) minor third transpositions until arriving back on the initial pitch. The chorus pattern basically short-circuits a circle of fifths progression by the introduction of a minor third, so that the figure leads straight to the tritone transposition and back again. (For another, prime example of symmetrical partitioning in a pop lick, check out Prince’s “P Control” from 1995’s The Gold Experience.)

My original concept for the vocal delivery of the song was to have it kind of shouted, kinda rap or sprechtstimme, to keep things floating and unresolved, and at several points during production, I fought the urge to turn it into a conventional melody. There kind of is a bit of a hidden melody, a simple, slow-moving ascending figure in the fuzzy drone part during the verses, but I only vaguely follow the contour of it, not matching any pitches. As is probably quite apparent, I was thinking very much of Elvis Costello, in particular “Pump It Up” and “Playboy to a Man.” That squawking sound is something I’d heard Prince do (and Elvis, on rare occasion), but never figured out how to do it (by inhaling) until going back to the source, some old James Brown recordings. Of course the shout-out stuff is very Prince inspired.

Can we have that 800 number again?



[Addendum 9/22/2010: I forgot to mention there’s also an oblique reference to Sylvia Plath’s poem “Metaphors.” Extra points if you can find it!]

Diary of a Madman

Last weekend I attended Lu Xun 2008 鲁迅二零零八 at the new, still under construction home of DDM Warehouse. They have moved from Dong Da Ming Lu, now nestling in at that sculpture park complex on the west end of Huai Hai Lu, whatever it’s called. This traveling theatrical performance commemorates the 90 year anniversary of the publication of Lu Xun’s short story A Madman’s Diary 狂人日记, in which the narrator becomes convinced that he is surrounded by cannibals. The production was a joint venture between Shanghai’s Grass Stage Theater Group 草台班, led by Zhao Chuan 赵川, and companies from Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo.

At first I was irritated at arriving about half an hour late, but as the performance continued, I started not to mind so much, as the piece was very loose and very long. For something that moved so slowly, I would have expected a higher degree of polish, perhaps nudging the action in the direction of ritual or choreography. In the absence of this, the piece would have benefited from greater density; nothing seemed to need to take as long as it did, and the transitions weren’t very tight. There were some recurring elements (laughter, a single character walking back and forth along one wall), and some fun ways of playing with the space (banging metal on concrete in the dark behind the audience, actors wandering about and speaking different languages), but the overall structure didn’t seem to hold these ideas together very successfully. The full dorsal male nudity and fire breathing felt completely gratuitous. But as I’m unfamiliar with the original Lu Xun work, it’s possible that some of the subtleties of the performance were lost on me.

I also caught Torturing Nurse’s gig the week prior, quite an usual set for them. At this, their 20th NOIShanghai concert, sound artist Yan Jun 颜峻 (who was down from Beijing to play with me and Bruce Gremo in a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play, part of the Shanghai eArts Festival 2008 in Xujiahui Park) decided he was going to turn the tables by torturing Torturing Nurse (in his pajamas). Xu Cheng 徐程 was tied up in a bag with a microphone, Junky was tied to a table in a raincoat with a contact mic taped to his throat, and Jia Die 蛱蝶 was taped up to a microphone and chair. (And that’s all she was wearing; as an unintended encore, we got to hear her improvised offstage vocalizations as the tape was removed from her more sensitive regions.)

It was a fun set and a departure from their usual routine, but since Yan Jun led each member onstage to get gamely tied up in full view of the audience, any illusion that we were hearing the sounds of an actual struggle was punctured, robbing the piece of some potential punch, and the sound generated didn’t really live up to the spectacle’s promise.

Also on the bill were Justice Yeldham, the Australian whose instrument is a contact miced shard of glass, Japanese artist Noiseconcrete, and the live debut of Lao Yang 老羊, proprietor of Beijing’s venerable Sugar Jar shop, the best place in China to pick up underground or experimental music. Check out Gregory Perez’s pics (he’s also got some great ones from the Halloween show at Yu Yin Tang)!

After taking in these shows, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend about “experimental” art. I’m all for experimental art; in fact, I tend to think it’s the most interesting kind. But I always keep in mind something Richard Karpen said when I was studying with him, which is that you must consider the scope of the experiment you’re undertaking. Is it an experiment whose results might impact a broader section of the populace, or is it more of a junior high science experiment, which is done primarily for your own education and development? (He could be harsh.) Labeling a work “experimental” in no way absolves it of the need for logic and cohesion of some kind. Personally, I know I tend to sometimes be more lenient in evaluating experimental work, just because I’m happy to see this kind of inquiry going on, but ultimately experimental work requires the thoughtful criticism of artists and audiences to develop and grow, to help gauge the success of these experiments.

This leads to another issue. A lesson I learned from my pal Korby Sears back in Seattle, to which I return again and again, is the idea of sympathy; from an artist’s perspective, you’ve got to give people a reason to want to take the time to engage your artwork. Of course audiences should ideally be open-minded and receptive enough to meet you halfway, but you’ve also got to convince them it’s going to be worth their while and help them fill in the gaps to understand the context of your work. The people behind both of these performances, Junky of NOIShanghai and Zhao Chuan of Grass Stage, are doing exactly that, working to foster a scene in which new pieces and new ideas can be tried out, providing a regular forum in which people can experience new works, and that’s great to see. Putting these two ideas together, experimental exploration with sympathetic attention and criticism, would seem to be a template for a healthy scene.

BTW, Yan Jun and Torturting Nurse were just profiled in Time Magazine, along with Sulumi, B6 (whose new album comes out on the 15th, looking forward to it!), and Shenggy. Check it out!