OBLADADA: Your work spans decades of technological advances. You now play a laptop with software you’ve designed yourself. As a listener, the work has always had an intensity and complexity – has the building of pieces become easier over time or does technology allow you to go further?
Carl Stone: It’s both, it has become easier, but it’s also become more complicated because there are more possibilities. You have to spend more time combing through the possibilities, to pick the ones that work best for you. My musical approach is to try to find limitations actually, a world of infinite possibilities is too overwhelming and confusing in a way. That’s why I don’t crave new gear all the time. I like to work with a limited amount of gear, designing software especially for my needs, so that the limitations are part of the creative process. Finding creative solutions through limitations can lead to interesting things. So as the technology gets faster, smarter, cheaper, more powerful, it enables new things for sure, but at the same time, I’ve pretty much kept my aesthetic the same from when I started and it hasn’t changed much although the technology has.
That’s really refreshing. For me in my day job as a graphic designer, I really like to work within a deliberately limited framework because it’s nearest to the essence of what your trying to do. I hate virtuosity – strip it away as much as possible – can you still say it?
I don’t hate virtuosity. A virtuoso modular synth player or a virtuoso didgeridoo player working with the most limited resource, they both squeeze as much juice as possible out of their respective instruments.
You recently took part in LA’s celebration of the life of Pulitzer prize winning food critic Jonathan Gold. Jonathan was a very good friend of yours, and all of your pieces are named after restaurants. It’s clear that your music could be seen as an analogy for food, cooking and as part of your deep friendship with Jonathan. Are you cooking with sound?
(Laughs), yeah, in a way. You’re combining elements, mixing, pureeing, ricing, dicing, slicing, sautéing, sous-viding, pickling… I haven’t specifically thought of it in those terms but now that you mention it, it is like cooking. Taking ingredients from the cupboard, from the shelf, from the refrigerator, from the garden and you are applying different techniques. In the end you end up with something that is hopefully both nutritious and delicious.
Well they certainly are, so why do you name the pieces after restaurants?
Back when I was starting out was trying to find an arbitrary system for titling my pieces. I didn’t feel I was good at it. I didn’t want to come up with fanciful or poetic names. Your pieces need names because they are signifiers and they allow one to be distinguished from another. So I knew I needed a name which I didn’t particularly want to think up, nor did I want to assign a number. So I sought an arbitrary system and needed some kind of list or database or words I could use to assign to my pieces randomly.
The time I started, I was eating a lot of Asian food, especially Thai food and names like Sukothai, Chao Praya, Maneeya, Tepparod meant very little literally to my audience, which at the time was mostly Americans, for they were kind of abstract. They sounded sort of cool, and at first it was just a lark. The list was always increasing, I was an avid eater, I still am. The list was always increasing, if I liked the restaurant and it had a name that was essentially meaningless to an English speaking audience, then I’d write it down and eventually when a new piece was written, I would assign it to the piece again randomly. Eventually, my tastes broadened, or perhaps even like a funny joke, pieces like So Kong Dong or Shibucho, both Asian restaurants, could sit next to a place like Mom’s – a barbeque place. So these days, it could be almost anything. Some restaurant names are too prosaic, I don’t add them to the list, but if the name is half way interesting sounding, I’ll put it on the list – and if I like the restaurant, I’ll put it on the list. Eventually it will find its way into my musical canon.
Duration is an element I’ve been long fascinated by. Your earlier work seems to have been built according to the constrains of vinyl. Woo Lae Oak however is 55 minutes long in its original form. It’s simple interlocking elements could pan out endlessly, almost generatively like a sonic sculpture or environment. Do longer form works interest you now that digital music allows it more easily?
Well Woo Lae Oak, was conceived of as a radio piece, to fit into a one-hour time slot and was for audio tape. The reels used at radio stations were larger than consumer reels, so that meant it was possible to make one hour of music on a single reel. And that was the medium I was constrained by. When I decided to bring the piece out on lp, it was kind of a dilemma actually, as you can’t put an hour on one side, you have to break it up, and that went against the aesthetic of the piece which you described very well. The listener would have to get up in the middle and turn the record over and play the second half – so the lp that came out in 1983 was a compromise. But then we reissued it as a compact disc where you can easily fit an hour continuously. I do like working with longer forms, I like complete sets. But now of course we are returning to the lp record, as a favoured means of distribution. People like records, so these long form pieces are harder to do. But I may continue making CDs, or music for streaming that can last an hour or more.
When you played in Kirkcaldy this July, you performed the beautiful Banteay Srey. Tommy from Unseen Worlds responded to my tweet that I was lucky as you don’t play it that often as it’s a difficult one. Far from you hitting a ‘play button’, it was clear you are manipulating and moving the components around within the piece. Are your works in essence, all live performances?
A lot of the recordings I’ve made are studio recordings of live performances, but quite a number of them are studio constructions as well so I don’t have any particular approach. The reason Tommy said that about Banteay Srey, is that once I’ve brought a piece out as a recording, release it on lp or cd or whatever, I stop performing it, as I kind of think that performing it live is cheating the audience as they can just buy the recording – don’t they want to hear something newer? But some pieces get requests. I’ve noticed lots of requests for Banteay Srey, it seems it’s my Bolero now. So, from time to rime, I do a live version. It’s perhaps the only piece I’ve done recently that also exists in recorded form.
It was fascinating to hear Banteay Srey – a piece that I’m very familiar with – played live. You can see to some degree, the ingenuity – how a sound is a separate element. And in that piece, I could see you were taking elements and fading them in and out slowly, you could see the organic nature. This isn’t some airless digital construction. You said into your introduction to that concert, for the audience to consider you were playing a form of piano rather than a man on his laptop checking his emails! You’re playing an instrument, their may be mistakes, a slither of improvisation in the elements. The result was familiar but different which I loved…
And the two other pieces you played at the same gig were new pieces. I described the first one as ‘mutated pixelated techno with psych smudges’ and second was like ‘afrobeat through a kaleidoscope’. Both were absolutely stunning. What can you tell me about these new works?
What do you want to know?
What are they called – when are the coming out?
One of the pieces is called Sun Nong Dan. The other one is so new I haven’t given it a title yet. Both those pieces are quite new, I’d like to bring them out, I’m searching for labels. If any are interested, get in touch.
I imagine you’re always listening out for new sounds. Does that get in the way at all when listening to music for pleasure? It’s that something you do and what do you listen too?
I usually don’t listen to music for the purpose of sample hunting. But sometimes something will pop out and say “sample me please!” I listen to a lot of world music, music from Africa and Asia, South American and India. I don’t listen to lot of ‘contemporary music’, like new releases of electronic music, the type of stuff you’d see reviewed in The Wire. I should listen more to see what is going on amongst my peers. What I listen to, what I consume most is from Korean, Taiwan, Japan, Ghana, Kenya and Zimbabwe…
In a way, that’s consistent with what you were doing at CalArts?
I was a very avid consumer of rock music in the 60’s. AM radio and later FM radio – I listened to lots of that stuff. Once I started at CalArts I discovered all sorts of music that I had never heard before. I stopped listening to rock or pop or punk or anything of a similar vein for 20 years. The music my friends talked about – punk, anthem, pop and vernacular music for the most part – I didn’t know anything about. So there is a little bit of a gap there. Occasionally something will catch my ear, if I encounter it randomly. Barbie Girl by Aqua would be one example. I should probably listen to more by my colleagues and contemporaries.
You are currently on a European tour as part of a duo Realistic Monk with Miki Yui. How does working as part of a collaboration change your creative process? And is there anyone you’d particularly like to collaborate with in the future?
Working with Miki is a lot of fun. It is basically duo improvisation. We have similar aesthetics in sounds and similar interests. We both use field recordings, voice and mysterious material. I use samples of course, and unlike her I don’t use electronic sounds. When playing as Realistic Monk I’m not focusing obsessively on one source. It’s much more ephemeral, mysterious. We use the room acoustics, acoustic feedback – I use my voice, which I never do in my own music. Because we are like-minded musical souls and improvising with her is so much fun, we like to go deep. The name Realistic Monk is an anagram of our names but there is something quasi-religious in our music sometimes. Our album is called Realm and I think of it as going down to a deeper and deeper level into a new world.
I also collaborate with a singer songwriter in Japan whose name is Akaihirume. Here the approach is very different. She has written these songs, they have lyrics, they have structure, they are sometimes modular. She takes components from different songs and puts them together in the manner of a medley. Then I sample her voice, her keyboard and I add my own elements as well so that’s very different approach. Even although the songs are structured to pretty large degree, there is a tremendous amount of improvisation.
I didn’t know about that project at all…
Well, we have done some recordings, and we have performed in Japan, the US and Singapore. We hope to be playing in Taiwan in January, but we haven’t made it to Europe yet. None of this has been released yet, it’s another thing I’m shopping around.
That sounds great too…
If you had to pick one track from your entire catalogue that best encapsulates your approach, what would it be and why?
What a question! Which of your children would you pick if you could only take one. Maybe the best answer is “The one I’m working on right now.”
And finally, it seems at long last, your name is coming up more and more and you are becoming truly recognised. Many people comment that your work has a musicality and joy that much else growing out of the avant-garde somehow misses. A unique talent! What’s next for you?
More. More music, more composing, more performing. To continue to develop new ways to what I’ve been doing for the last 40 years. Make it fresh with these new approaches, somehow continue to make it Carl Stone.
I’ve been lucky over the past few years, I’ve had people helping me on a management level to get me out more into the world and perform more. I really enjoy that and want to continue to do that.
More, more is what I’d say…
Find out more about Carl Stone here