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Army of One

Hrvatski (aka Keith Fullerton Whitman) got his allies Thurston Moore, Jim O'Rourke and Kid606 to remix his music. Now he talks about split identities and a favorite laptop accessory: his guitar.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Hrvatski is the best-known pseudonym of a Massachussets-based musician named Keith Fullerton Whitman, who on two recent albums has explored mirror-image extremes of electronic music: the communal and the hermetic, the brash and the ethereal, the studio experience and the live performance.

The album rkk13cd collects remixes by various musicians of work from an earlier Hrvatski album, which was titled Attention: Cats. The original album purported to be a compilation. The tracks were all attributed to different acts, but since then Hrvatski has allowed that most of the music was actually by him, recording under various pseudonyms. He promises that none of the 35 remixes on rkk13cd are secretly by his own work.

The names of many of the contributors to rkk13cd, in fact, are more familiar than his own. Thurston Moore, of the band Sonic Youth, provides a piece laced with a radio bootleg of the Ramones. Also aboard are Jim O’Rourke, perhaps best known for his work with Gastr Del Sol, and a wide range of notable figures from the world of electronic music, including Kid606, Chessie, Push Button Objects, Kim Cascone and Pimmon. It took Hrvatski three years to compile all the tracks, which range from ambient backdrops to blistering sonics, with diverse variety in between.

If rkk13cd, which was released on his own label (Reckankomplex), is the work of a musician-entrepreneur reveling in the strong community that is electronic music in the year 2001, his other recent album is a purposeful expression of how electronics allow a single musician to compose and perform music that has the richness of a group effort. The fact that the music was recorded live only serves to highlight his accomplishment. The album 21:30 for Acoustic Guitar is a solo work that features Whitman playing guitar live, utilizing a variety of software and hardware to transform his notes as he plays them. It consists of two pieces of almost equal length, both of which embody the kind of palpable resonances and Zen-like pulsing that have come to be classified as minimalist classical music. (The album originally appeared in a limited release on his own label but has since been issued commercially by the New York-based label Apartment B.)

It’s quite likely that someone who takes pleasure in one of these records will not enjoy the other, and that seems to be not only of little concern to Hrvatski, but actually what he’s up to in the first place. Someone attuned to the textural bliss of the guitar album might find the remix record to be noisy, chaotic and hodge-podge. Someone whose ears are aligned with the remix record will readily acknowledge those three adjectives, but accept them with positive connotations, appreciating the record as a kind of data-intensive jigsaw puzzle, splendid in its complexity.

The following interview is the result of an email correspondence, during which Hrvatski discussed the two projects in depth. He talked about remixing, and the opportunity afforded him by multiple identities. Given that he is employed by Forced Exposure, the record distributor, he shared the perspective of an experimental musician who engages with the commercial music industry on a daily basis. And he explained in detail the process that led to the guitar album, and also gave a more general explanation that won’t scare away a newcomer. Marc Weidenbaum: You have used the word “allies” when describing the folks who contributed remixes to the rkk13cd album — can you dig a little more deeply into that word? It seems that electronic musicians have developed, in the absence of a mass audience, a strong peer support network, in part thanks to the Internet.

Hrvatski: In essence that’s exactly what they are. I can’t say “friends”; in many cases we’ve never met in person. I’m not even sure what the names of the Farmers’ Manual [members] are (they have codenames like Hiaz, etc.). But we’re on the same plane, we share mutual appreciation of each others’ work. With the exception of my brother ([who records under the name] Blitter), I met everyone on the rkk13cd through music, in some way. It still is a little unusual to hear that someone is making electronic music. The fact that it’s not really understood by the public at large, mixed with the fact that we’re 99% solo acts, lends to a certain sense of camaraderie. We help each other out in myriad ways. I’m sort of the “industry” guy, endlessly getting label folk in touch with distributors, radio stations, pressing plants, etc. And in exchange I’ll get the email address of an artist who I’d like to work with, or a promoter in Italy. All through email. I can count on one hand the number of music-folk I have regular phone conversations with.

Weidenbaum: Do you feel like there’s an Axis to your electronic alliance? Is there any sort of understood nemesis — alt-rock radio, technophobia, what have you — that aligns you and your allies?

Hrvatski: The only antagonist I can think of off the bat would be the impatience of those coming at electronic music from a rock or pop angle — especially evident in the live setting. There is also a certain hostility toward very inquisitive fans that I’ve noticed at shows (this seems to go across the board). The “what software are you running?” type inquiries. The first couple of times, you’re glad to have met a kindred spirit, but after a while you just sense that no matter what you tell someone, they’re going to forego any research into developing their own working methods in favor of a proven route. Sort of like buying the same drum kit as Neil Peart [drummer from the rock trio Rush], hoping that the tools themselves will get you up to par. College radio, especially over the last six months, has been very receptive to this music. There’s always been a lineage of electronic-music fans at college radio, whether they’re coming from industrial or goth or krautrock or what-have-you. And it’s not as much technophobia as techno-apatheticism. Everyone’s got a computer, everyone plays MP3s. Very few seem to want to get into production themselves, as if acquiring the software and giving it a go were taboo in some way.

Weidenbaum: Do you worry about focus on process and technology detracting from considerations of your music that are broader, aesthetic-minded, more tangential or associative?

Hrvatski: There will always be a sect of people interested in hearing new sounds, so in theory those in possession of the newest gadget/software tool/etc. will be on top, to some extent. Of course, there’s the composition of interesting music to worry about. Ultimately the ones who have that notch in their belt will be in demand the most. The ideal would be someone with an open mind, keeping in [touch] with new developments in technology, while keeping his ears in shape.

Weidenbaum: Working in the record industry, does seeing all that music cross your desk during a given week make you hopeful or hopeless about good music getting heard by a broader audience?

Hrvatski: A little of both most days. Hopeful, in that a fraction of what I hear is truly forward-thinking stuff, technologically progressive, trailblazing. That I can be involved with that in some level is inspiring. I do my damnedest to promote that stuff without being a “salesman” (despite the fact that a “salesman” is exactly what I am). I think my enthusiasm rubs off on people, though. The other 90% of what I come across is mindless, derivative, bandwagon-jumping, if not blatantly commerce-oriented filler (poorly thought-through compilations, tributes, expos&eacutes, etc.). A good deal of the “experimental electronic music” I’m hearing these days deviates very little from (or improves very little upon) its direct antecedents, which really makes me question the experimental tag. I mean, I can’t think of a more formulaic, form-oriented music than the IDM. People seem to be releasing their “examples” or “test pieces,” instead of really honing things, getting that step ahead. A lot of “settling for what we have”; quality control has gone way down. I can’t think of anything less appealing than a CD of “bedroom computer music 101,” especially right now. It’s a little past the point where using a computer alone will make your music stand out. But, then again, even out of every 100 or so anonymous self releases, there’s some miracle happening.

Weidenbaum: Are any of the remixes on the album actually by you using another pseudonym?

Hrvatski: Well, I could get academic and say I got the idea from [Fernando] Pessoa, but I won’t (The Book of Disquiet was only a recent discovery, thanks to Reckankomplex resident Marc Lowenthal, Damon & Naomi’s “employee” at Exact Change [the publishing company run by Damon Krukowski and Naomi Yang]). It’s more of a measure of respect, limiting particular production tendencies to discrete “artists.” Don’t get me wrong, I’m as into subversion as the next guy; I just try to do it in a bit more obscure ways. My fantasy would be to create as many of these heteronyms as possible, each with a unique audience, with no overlap in fan base or method. I’ve been involved in music for so long now that it isn’t feasible to limit myself to any particular genre statement. Thankfully, nothing I’ve done has gotten all that popular, which gives me more room to stretch out. And no, none of the mixes on the rkk13cd were done by myself. I had enough fun composing the original pieces back in 1995 to 1997. Which isn’t to say I hadn’t toyed with the idea; [I’m] just not all that into putting my own music on every release I’m involved in.

Weidenbaum: There’s a bit of the Ramones playing during one of the remixes: track 22, by Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. It’s seems like an homage. It specifically brings to mind the question of whether punk rock provides electronic musicians with role models for how to make music that challenges pop music, from the DIY standpoint to the idea of injecting noise into a system. Is that true for you?

Hrvatski: Well, that particular mix was done at least two years ago, definitely before Joey [Ramone]’s passing. I’ve no doubt that Thurston’s love for Joey is strong. When he gave me the DAT with the mix on it (in a church, of all places) he described it as his “dada/fluxus” spirit coming out to roost. Which I found highly appealing. I was worried about that [material] at first, before I noted that the Ramones “sample” in question is from a radio broadcast on WNEW-FM, which has been off the air since the early ’90s. (Pretty sneaky, Thurston.) The DIY aesthetic in electronic music comes more from indie rock than [from] anything else. I mean, there was no punk where I grew up, in my high school. I wasn’t exposed to any of it until college, and even then it was more the no-wave, art-punk stuff. Eighties hardcore never figured in. I know it has been a major influence on most people, though, but of course it’s the punk aesthetic filtered through indie rock, hip-hop, etc.

Weidenbaum: Can you explain what you mean, copyright-wise, in regard to the Ramones bit being from a radio broadcast?

Hrvatski: I’m not even sure if that’s an accurate copyright loophole, but there’s something about recording radio broadcasts that’s alright. Plus, there’s definitely a stipulation regarding the sampling of chunks instead of full choruses. Were WNEW still on the air, I’m sure there would be an issue about using their “tag” so blatantly in the middle of a song. I’m completely out of the loop with recent copyright legislation. It’s gotten a little out of control recently …

Weidenbaum: The following question may sound self-evident, but I do speak with musicians for whom remixing (letting one’s music up for reconsideration and re-figuration) is not easy: Are you at all hesitant about passing your music on to other musicians?

Hrvatski: It was easy with this project, as the whole point of the Attention: Cats LP was that every track was built exclusively from samples (save for the Gai/Jin track). Most of my newer music is based on instrumental parts, performances — so, yeah, that’ll be trickier if and when the concept of remixing comes up. It’s not that I feel like I’ve [gotten] the ultimate statement out of any sound set; it’s just that when you present a finished piece of music with its individual parts to someone, it rarely comes back all that different. I mean we have DSPs [Digital Signal Processors] and things to alter sounds that we didn’t years ago, plus “conceptual” remixing has come a long way, so I suppose we’re better off these days.

Weidenbaum: Does the likelihood of a remix — given how electronic-music activity encourages such — make it easier or harder for you to “finish” something: does the potential for a remix make you leave loose ends loose, or do you end up wanting something to be as complete as possible when you’re finished with it?

Hrvatski: As complete as possible always. Remixes give you the chance to break out of your present distribution channels, so you have to be at your best. I really sweat remixes, try to do a bang-up job every time. The downside is that I hardly ever finish them. I’m at least 10 deep at this point, some are around two years old by now. I just noticed a CD release that I was asked to do a remix for just a few months ago is already out! Guess I should scrap that one.

Weidenbaum: I think I wasn’t clear, sorry — I meant, does the fact that your work will get remixed affect the way you compose?

Hrvatski: I never used to save my sounds. I’d finish a piece, mix it, then erase everything. Now I kind of have to archive everything, on the possibility that someone might want to version it. I’m into presenting a prospective remixer with nothing but the sounds I used to create a track. The ideal situation would be barring the remixer from hearing the original track at all, instead having them construct the puzzle from the pieces in their own way. Remixes performed from two-track masters often aren’t as interesting to me, but there are clever things being done. I was working on a remix of a Q-Tip song (for fun, before the current trend of versioning radio hits became so de rigueur) wherein I only had the instrumental and the radio mix. I inverted the instrumental and mixed it with the final mix, which resulted in a full cancellation of the backing tracks, leaving only the vocals and some slightly off-time percussion. Working with digital sound we can now get away with such things.

Weidenbaum: Given the name recognition of several of the contributors to the remix record, it’s likely that many people will first hear your music filtered through these remixes. Was that a concern for you, or simply a welcome opportunity?

Hrvatski: It is a concern. I was completely against the idea of putting my name on the packaging anywhere, as it’s a ruse for me to claim that I was involved in the final outcome of the music on the rkk13cd in any way. By merely offering sounds to a group of producers I’m not a co-composer. An analogy would be asking for writer’s credits on an album by a band to whom you lent instruments. There is a definite tendency to brand a project with the tag of the organizer (see: “kid606 presents: kid606 and friends, starring kid606,” a record which features not a single production by the artist in question). I like to receive as little credit as possible.

Weidenbaum: Remixing has a kinship with a variety of responses to music. It’s like criticism, in that it can draw attention to parts or themes in a performance that the composer hadn’t necessarily been fully aware of; it can be like collaboration. Is there some other cultural activity that remixing brings to mind for you?

Hrvatski: Remixing’s getting a little out of hand, I think. For most, it’s another way of stretching out the life span of a given music. The worst faux pas is the contemporary “revitalization” of a classic music by getting young producers to “pay homage” to their “idols” by adding house beats, etc. to their already proven formula. There have been some scary ones recently: the Can remix album (it’s funny, I played a concert recently in a quartet with Michael Karoli, Malcolm Mooney [both were members of Can] and Lary 7, during which I asked Michael what he though about the Can remix record. His reply was something along the lines of “Oh, well, that one exists, doesn’t it? …”), the Einsturzende Neubauten one, the Neu one (in fact, all those Cleopatra [Records] ones, a la “A 2-Step Garidge/Ragga-core tribute to Roger Waters’ The Wall Live 1980“). I always get so flummoxed when these things appear. I can’t wait until I’m of the cultural relevance to get involved with these things; I’m just going to start handing back exactly what I’m handed. I was asked to do one, a Conrad Schnitzler remix project. Which of course was a great honor. I just made a new track from scratch using the same production methods Con used to make [the album] Rot, as well as I could do it. I’ve yet to do a remix that was a “collaboration.” In most cases, the tracks I’ve been asked to mix were constructed completely of samples not of the producer’s own creation. So essentially, they’re new tracks. In the case of at least one track I’ve submitted as a remix, I took an existing track and added “vocals” about the producer in question, and something like two sounds from the 100 or so from the track I was supposedly mixing. Which turned into a nightmare as the producer in question immediately took said track and made it his own.

Weidenbaum: Your recent album 21:30 for Acoustic Guitar was released under what I take be your given name, Keith Fullerton Whitman. Did you consider releasing this as a Hrvatski album?

Hrvatski: No, actually. I mean, when I played the concert that led up to this recording, it was billed as Hrvatski, but that was only to get people to show up. I’ve always had plans of someday working on more “academic” music under my own name. In fact, I’ve been working on a musique concrete piece of all piano sounds (while traveling, I record a handful sounds from every piano I come across) for close to eight years now. With the sudden realization that, with a full-time job, there would never be a point in my life where I could really concentrate on music full time and thus realize most of the music I’ve always wanted to, I kind of let go a bit. I’d like to think of Hrvatski as the one of my aliases that stretches out a bit (and seeing as he’s by far the most popular, this would be a surefire way to even this out), so it would have been conceivable.

Weidenbaum: Could you explain a little more the process that went into 21:30 for Acoustic Guitar? I find the music very beautiful. The word “textures” has become something of a crutch, but I think it begins to get at the sense of what’s going on there, the way the strings and the editing — at least I understand it to be a matter of editing — complement each other.

Hrvatski: The system I put together to make those pieces is the most basic play-through setup possible. The process itself wasn’t as important as the note choices (it’s all improvised). But essentially it’s this: An acoustic guitar is pre-amped, then sent into the audio input of the laptop. The first object it goes through is one that senses the pitch and envelope of the signal and sends out a sine wave at roughly the same velocity as the input (I have control over the envelope as well, the octave of the sine wave, the wave itself). From there it goes into a 4-head tape-delay simulator with a very high feedback/repeat rate, with each head repeating at a slightly shorter period than the last (I use something like 2 seconds, 1.98 seconds, 1.96 seconds, 1.94 seconds) — so that, for example, a percussive sound would repeat every two seconds, give or take, and slowly drift apart from each other, so that the four ululations would become more and more audible as they slowly die away. So essentially, a single sustained note folds upon itself 4 times after 2 seconds, 8 times after 4, etc. This creates all sorts of phasing with hundreds of instances of the same few notes after only a few seconds; overtones become more prevalent, similar to the theory behind a tone-wheel organ. From there, the signal goes into any number of things (I’ve used ring modulators, granular shuffling algorithms, more delays, spectral effects), ending always with a reverb plug-in (for even more dispersion). I have to be very careful of the note choices, as one bad note (or one misinterpretation of the note I’m playing; the pitch tracking plug-in isn’t all that accurate but the imperfections are what make the resultant tonalities so interesting) can ruin a whole piece. I’m working now within Max/MSP [a programming environment] to create a more streamlined version, as there’s this great pitch-tracking object called “fiddle~” that works ten times better than the MDA Tracker I’ve been using.

Weidenbaum: Could you rephrase what you just said, in more general/layperson terms? Imagine that you were explaining it to a friend from high school whom you hadn’t seen in a long time, someone who is uninformed but genuinely interested.

Hrvatski: Sure, I understand. Essentially, I’m playing guitar into the laptop. The computer first figures out what note I’m playing, then makes a simple tone at that pitch. Then it runs this pitch through several different delays so that the note repeats near-infinitely, creating a sustained note. Then this drone goes through a system where it randomly grabs same-size chunks of the drone and plays them back in a random order. Finally it goes into a reverb, making it sound like the sounds are being played back through a large space, like a cathedral or a concert hall.

Weidenbaum: If you could invent an instrument, technological limits be damned, what would it be like?

Hrvatski: Something akin to [Alvin] Lucier’s brainwave-driven sensors, controlling most conceivable music variables through thought. That would be nice. Something that would allow me to perform INA-GRM [the Paris-based Institut National de l’Audiovisuel — Groupe de Recherches Musicales] style concrete in real time would also be nice: individual control over dozens of antiphonal channels, etc.

Weidenbaum: I’ve read references to 21:30 for Acoustic Guitar that mention composers Terry Riley and Steve Reich, both estimable role models, certainly. But I was wondering if Robert Fripp’s work using delays live with his electric guitar was at all an inspiration for you.

Hrvatski: Oh yeah, definitely. I spent my youth acquiring frippertronics bootlegs. I only mention Terry Riley and Steve Reich because the process I’ve devised owes a lot to [Riley’s] “Time Lag Accumulator” and [Reich] pieces like “Piano Phase.” Fripp’s pieces involved much longer loops (12-30 seconds) wherein he builds a chord cluster out of various slid or bent notes. You can hear the Fripp influence toward the end of the second piece on 21:30, definitely.

Weidenbaum: 21:30 for Acoustic Guitar brings to mind the fact that multi-track recording owes so much to Les Paul, whose invention was so futuristic but whose own music was often so plainspoken and humble. I feel like there’s some of that paradox at work in your music.

Hrvatski: Interesting parallel. As a guitar player and somewhat of a tech-geek, I’ve always been fascinated with Les Paul. Seen him a number of times at his regular weekly gig in New York. Some of the Les Paul/Mary Ford sides are incredibly experimental — double-time guitars, backwards tape, all sort of harmonic no-no’s. The fact that they can fit all those interesting variables into a pop setting is very intriguing to me.

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