In a phrase that’s become a thousand memes, the statement that you have to destroy in order to create feels like Carl Stone’s strategy in a nutshell. His approach is one of thoughtfully taking sounds from a huge variety of sources, cutting them into small pieces and then re-arranging them in a host of innovative ways.
He is often cited as a founded father of sampling. His work veers between bristling pixelated electronica and achingly beautiful ambience. In amongst the huge swathes of artists working in similar ways, Stone’s work stands out for being never anything less than beautifully magnetic and welcoming. The avant-garde presented as a thoroughly enjoyably, hugely listenable, warm slabs of sound.
Stone’s work has in the last few years been rightly spotlighted by the label Unseen Worlds in two essential overviews – Electronic Music from the Seventies and Eighties and the recently released Electronic Music from the Eighties and Nineties. His compositions Shing Kee and L ‘Os à Moelle are easily near the top of OBLADADA’s playlist of the best tracks ever.
This interview was conducted at OBLADADA HQ in Scotland, during Carl’s recent tour of Europe and the UK as one half of the duo Realistic Monk with Miki Yui.
OBLADADA: Several of your works contain a build-up or twist where something is revealed or emerges. In effect, there is a ‘surprise’. Do you think of your work more as something to perform live (as a one-off experience) or something where the listener can plot the experience through repeated listening?
Carl Stone: I tend to have two trajectories to sometimes rely on. One example would be where a piece will start mysteriously and the source material or the origins will emerge over time and reveal. Or alternatively the material is revealed at the very beginning, sort of naked, and then transforms into something unrecognisable, except for the fact by sitting through and listening to the process of transformation, you sense a relationship between the now unrecognisable material and where it came from. So, if you listen more than once, of course the element of surprise is maybe mitigated but it is not a parlour game, a Halloween trick or something where I am trying to surprise you necessarily, although you may be surprised upon the first hearing. These things are more like studies in transformation that will hopefully bear the test of repeated listening. If it only works the first time, I think it wouldn’t be a success.
You come from an avant-garde background of music making and theory. Morton Subotnick was your tutor at CalArts – what lessons from early the days have held true? And who was most influential during your formative years?
Well, when I was at CalArts, my main teacher Morton Subotnick was of course a big influence; another teacher there, James Tenney, was very important. And then the environment exposed me to a lot of music not only from the avant-garde but from the early history of classical music – Bach and before – as well as 20th century music, and to be sure, world music. The music department had master musicians from Java, from Ghana, from both North and South India so there was a lot of exposure. The dean of the music school also at that time, Nicholas England, was an ethnomusicologist so there was a lot of exposure to many different kinds of music, and I would say these were all very important. While I was a student there, Steve Reich and his ensemble and Philip Glass and his ensemble came through and performed at the school. The great nardaswaram player Sheik Chinna Moulana came and performed at the school and they were all terrifically life changing to hear.
It seems you’ve always employed different strategies around how you treat the samples. In a way, you could have made Shing Kee with Wonderwall by Oasis rather than Schubert’s Linden Tree. How do you build works? A sound to work with or a structure to be filled?
Both. It could be a process that I fill in with different material. You’re right of course that Shing Kee doesn’t need to a piece of Schubert sung in English by a Japanese pop singer, it could be something else. And in fact, I’ve applied that process to some other sources in sub-compositions. But the identity of a piece is the attachment of a particular source to a particular process and whether I start with the process and fill in the source or I start with the source and then play with different processes and decide on one. I do both, I’m not tied to one strategy.
What was it about the Linden Tree sample that made you want to manipulate it in that particular way?
I don’t know what it was exactly, I mean it was a kind of intangible fascination, I liked her performance – it’s sung by Akiko Yano, a Japanese pop singer – but she was singing these so called ‘art songs’ and there was just something in her interpretation as well as the music itself that I just really felt attracted to at that moment. This happens a fair amount, it might just be a phrase out of a tune or a fragment of a longer piece that especially strikes me, that I enjoy and want to explore – what’s going on in that musical moment. So to do that you take it, isolate it, loop it, zoom in on it, find out what’s going on, and that can be the basis for making a piece.
Sampling sounds from various sources, you use the term ‘re-appropriated sound’. Everything from Beethoven to pop music, field recordings of nature, the city and even fragments of your own work. Some sounds come with an understood cultural history and others come from a sense of universal familiarity. Does that distinction make any difference to the way you handle the material?
I’d say no it doesn’t, your comment is very astute, you are correct, but I don’t typically take a piece of music because of its particular cultural significance. I take it more for its musical value almost always. There might be an exception now and then, something which has a very strong association like an national anthem. But for the most part it’s musical and that’s the way I treat it.
So any kind of additional baggage is just inherent in the sound you are doing something to?
It just goes with the territory. It’s a fact of life. It changes the weighting when people listen because if I’m using source material from Korean classical music, it’s just going to be perceived differently by a graduate student in California to someone in Seoul. That’s just the way it is. I have a piece that goes back to 1987 called Hop Ken which is basically a set of variations on the opening fanfare from Pictures Of An Exhibition by Mussorgsky. There was a conference organised by John Appleton of Dartmouth college at the Bellagio centre for scholars and artists in Italy. It was kind of a conclave; half American composers and half Russian composers. I thought this was a perfect time to whip out my Mussorgsky – they were going to love it – but they didn’t – the Russians hated it, they were tired of the music, they were tired of Keith Emerson beating the bejesus out of it and so on… so it wasn’t a hit. The point is that they didn’t listen to it in the same way as the American composers did.
Do you think they felt you weren’t respecting the music enough?
Possibly. Or that I was working within a cliché of Russian music that they themselves had tired of.
The other thing that reminded of is Stockhausen’s Hymnen, when he took several national anthems and was seen as recklessly taking culturally significant things through electronic filters – reducing them to noise.
Well that’s very political. I wasn’t thinking politically at all, there was just something about the Mussorgsky itself that drew me into wanting to play with it. The whole piece is nothing but taking the opening trumpet fanfare and turning inside out, upside down, backwards, forwards, shifting it all around, turning into the kind of jazz, a kind of Irish reel and so on.
You were making work long before the glitch became more generally into focus in early 90’s electronica. Well known examples like Oval’s Do While (from Diskont94) and Nobukazu Takemura’s Icefall (from Scope) both superficially sound similar to your work.
I feel honour bound to point out the works those most resemble are pieces I did in 1982/1984, approximately ten years earlier.
To my ears though, I think these works are about fragmenting and errors rather than the assembly of yours. It’s a tiny distinction to make. How do you feel about sonic glitches and errors?
To the extent that there are glitches or a sort of irregularity or noise components, those are artefacts. I didn’t cultivate them necessarily, but I didn’t reject them either, I incorporated them, but I didn’t set out to make a music of error.
Terry Riley’s You’re No Good is for me a landmark recording. Taking the avant-garde out of stuffy academia into the real world (a night club owned by one of Riley’s friends in this case), your work gives the impression of working in multiple settings. Do you ever have a fixed idea of a location and what the listener is doing whilst listening to your work?
No, I don’t. I mean I’ve performed in venues that range from small coffee houses and punk clubs to galleries, theatres and auditoriums. Each venue requires a somewhat different approach, some music might work better in some place versus another but overall, I’ve found there is a way to comfortably fit it to a venue of almost any size and any acoustic profile.
Your choice of samples doesn’t differentiate between the archaic notion of high and low art. There is very democratic Cageian openness to all sound. Are there any sounds you are not interested in?
Well, I’d say there are sounds that interest me more than other sounds. I can’t think of any sounds I’d reject by their very nature, in the way I reject liver and onions. It seems like any sound in the world you could find some utility for in some capacity. It’s an interesting challenge to take a sound that puts you off and make something you like from it.
The music that I use as my starting points, not necessarily music that I respect, it might be music that I love but don’t respect; it could be music that I respect but don’t love, very often it is music I love and respect. A challenge would be at some point – maybe someone will commission me to write a piece for music that I neither love nor respect.
Flint’s use of Aquas’ Barbie Girl somehow transports it from what I’d class pop cheese into bulbous dynamic electronica. I suppose your sample usage can err into a grey area and could also be considered a remix of sorts, but have you ever had any responses from artists you’ve sampled, positively or negatively?
That’s an interesting question. When I was in Denmark a few days ago as part of this tour, I did a talk at The Rhythmic Conservatorium. One of the students came up to me afterwards and asked me ‘have I ever been sued by an artist?’ I answered ‘no I haven’t’ and he said he was actually friends with one of the members of Aqua, and he was going to bring him as a surprise him to see what happened. He said that Aqua is aware of Flint’s, the piece I made but I did not hear any assessment – a thumbs up or a thumbs down. But they haven’t sued me so I guess that’s a positive. They probably haven’t sued me as there’s so little money involved, the amount of my cd sales is minuscule next to the original.
L’Os à Moelle remodels what I’d guess is a Byrds loop and reminds me of a bonus track from The Notorious Byrds Brother reissue called Moog Raga. Your piece is a powerful example of seemingly magnifying the essence of what might have been beyond the technical limitations when the music was originally made. What do you think Beethoven, Shubert or the Temptations etc would make of your re-imagining of their music?
It’s hard to say. I’d hope that Beethoven would’nt sue me. More seriously, I don’t know, they might dig it, it’s such a hypothetical question. If you took Beethoven and everything he thought and knew about music, his experience of music in his lifetime, and just dropped him into the 21st century and played him one of my pieces it’s hard to think he would digest it easily. But on the other hand, if he has spent a few days reading The Wire and listening to a few releases on Touch or something, then maybe he’d be more adjusted.
For me there is a musicality to your work – and you’ll understand far more than me what Beethoven was actually doing – and therefore your work is somehow a development of that…
That’s very nice to hear, but I have to say I’m pretty uncomfortable sitting here comparing myself to a bona fide musical genius like Beethoven. That’s the kind of thing Stockhausen would do!
Read parto 2 HERE