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Monthly Archives: November 2002


Innovative American composer/performer Greg Davis on pastoral technology and the education of an electronic musician

Greg Davis was raised in the suburbs of Chicago. “I lived an hour outside of Chicago,” he says, “and the city I actually lived in, we lived 15 minutes outside of that city, so we were very much in the country.”

To hear Davis describe it, he could just as easily be measuring the distance between the largely urban sounds of contemporary electronic music — the willful chaos of digital hardcore, the nightclub idioms of minimal techno, the mechanical concerns of so-called glitch — and his own compositions, which are rich with pastoral sounds, patient to the point of folksiness. Heck, he even named his own little record label Autumn.

Davis is back in the Chicago area, come the summer of 2002, having completed a graduate degree in music at the New England Conservatory, tours of the United States and Europe with his friend and colleague Keith Fullerton Whitman, and a full-length solo album on Carpark Records. One of the primary accomplishments of that album, Arbor, is its adaptation of acoustic-guitar sounds to the familiar rhythms and textures of electronic music. Much of the guitar was played by Davis himself, but there is one popular track based on a sample of a song by Nick Drake, a legendary figure from the British folk revival of three decades past.

Davis, who was born in 1975, agreed to talk with Disquiet in the small studio he maintains in his Chicago apartment. As the conversation began, Davis was seated at his desk, looking at a sizeable stack of CDRs. He explained that the task at hand involved weeding through recordings of the concerts he performed with Whitman, who records primarily under the name Hrvatski.

In the course of the interview, which appears below in a lightly edited transcript, Davis talked about, among other things, his undergraduate and graduate schooling in music, the hip-hop origins of IDM, and “debunking the myth of the laptop musician.”

Closed Circuit: The insularity of IDM, the myth of the madman, a youth in hip-hop Marc Weidenbaum: So, you’re currently reviewing live material from the tours you did with Hrvatski. Will the resulting CD focus on both your individual performances, or on your live collaborations?

Greg Davis: It will all be stuff we did together. During our U.S. and European tour, each evening we’d play a solo set, and then at the end of the night — usually, depending on the venue — we’d play a 15-minute encore. We brought a ton of instruments and things, and just totally improvised. It’s nice because you get sick of your own solo set, because you play a lot of the same material with some variations, but it was nice to do that at the end of the night, every night, even if it was our own indulgence [laughs]. The audience was generally really receptive to it, but some of the kids were there to hear a lot of the IDM or breakbeat kind of stuff, and they lost patience, because the improv stuff is more abstract. There’s no beats or anything. It’s more textural.

Weidenbaum: It’s interesting that people who enjoy IDM, which has often involves a significant level of abstraction, are uncomfortable with a leap into more textural stuff.

Davis: Exactly. That’s the point of IDM. The reason I was drawn to it originally was that I really liked hip-hop and things like that. I liked the rhythms and the beats of hip-hop, but there were some people who came along, tweaking the beats really far, making them really crazy and complex, and I thought that was cool and great, putting all these little detailed micro-rhythms and poly-rhythms and different beat programming — it just wasn’t a loop anymore, you know? People were doing these through-composed beats that were awesome [laughs]. And I think that’s the basis of IDM, but it evolved into a more generic-sounding music at this point, I think. Like, there’s a formula. Like any music that starts out new and fresh, there’s a period of people trying out stuff, and then eventually there’s a camp of people that latch onto a general synthesis of what all this is about, and it turns into some sort of formula; the original free-spirited thing leaves, for some people.

That’s how I felt with hip-hop. That was one of the things I was into in junior high and high school. I’m a white kid from the suburbs of Chicago but I somehow really got into this music, and you had groups like De La Soul, their first record [Three Feet High and Rising (Tommy Boy, 1989)], which was this hippie hip-hop, or Digable Planets doing jazz and hip-hop together. All these groups that were doing really interesting, creative stuff. Even if you track the evolution of De La Soul, you compare their first album with their most recent album [AOI: Bionix (Tommy Boy, 2001)], it’s totally weird — they’ve become more mainstream, or more concerned with delivering something that people want to buy. It’s like, they know they’re a mainstay of hip-hop, so they have to keep putting something out. Maybe it has something to do with the record label they’re on as well, asking them to deliver every so often, and they’re different people, too, with families and kids.

Weidenbaum: Other people who were pushing the music at the same time as those groups, folks like DJ Premier and Pete Rock.

Davis: Premier and Pete Rock were definitely from the time I was listening to hip-hop. They were the producers. Everyone wanted to have a track by them. And of course there was the Bomb Squad, doing the Public Enemy stuff, and Prince Paul, who was doing the De La Soul stuff. One of my favorite crews of hip-hop acts was the Hieroglyphics — like, that first Souls of Mischief album, 93 ’til Infinity [(Jive, 1993)], blew my mind — here you had this great production, which was sort of different, and then you had these lyricists who were writing really intelligent rhymes.

Weidenbaum: — and such charismatic voices.

Davis: Exactly — you have someone like Del [tha Funky Homosapien], who I still think is the best rapper ever, just because of his delivery and the rhymes, what he writes. That stuff was so exciting to me when it was first coming out.

Weidenbaum: So much electronic music is vocal-free, including your own. Given your interest in hip-hop, do you want to add vocals?

Davis: For me, I don’t think it’s an issue. One of the most recent tracks I did was a Beach Boys cover, and it’s got six-part harmony.

Weidenbaum: Who did the singing?

Davis: I did. I did everything on it. I just multi-tracked everything. That was for a Japanese compilation [on Tropfen Records; Davis did “At My Window,” from the Beach Boys’ 1970 album, Sunflower]. I’m still a little timid about singing and writing lyrics and stuff, but for me it’s definitely a direction I’m going, because I enjoy doing that so much. You have people like Prefuse 73, who are inviting rappers to rhyme over these tracks. So, I think that people are going to add vocals if they want to. It’s another sound to add to tracks. Obviously, if you’re adding lyrics or vocals, you’re adding something representative or literal into your music that could paint a mood or image for people, so it’s something you can immediately grasp onto. If you have instrumental music, it’s an abstraction of something — it’s a different kind of syntax than words and lyrics. Music without vocals is challenging for a lot of people, because they want to be able to follow something. I became a huge jazz fan, so that got me into appreciating purely instrumental music. I studied jazz for years and played a lot of jazz, too, so it doesn’t bother me if something’s instrumental versus being something that has vocals.

Weidenbaum: I like that you used the phrase “through composed.”

Davis: I’ve been trying to write things that are like that, that are A-B-C-D-E progression, but also making things organically evolve from one section to another, and not necessarily abrupt episodes. That’s definitely something I want to continue refining and working on, but also there’s something to be said for a really catchy verse and chorus, and bridge, in a pop song. I try to capture both of those worlds.

Weidenbaum: Part of what I liked about Arbor is that it doesn’t agitate, it’s something that I can pass on to friends as an introduction to electronic music.

Davis: There’s this whole myth about the electronic musician as a solo musician who sits in his room. He’s kind of a madman, anti-social kind of guy, and he’s pumping out this angst-written music, and getting his aggression out, and that’s kind of weird. I mean, if you trace it back to techno, or drum’n’bass or something, there’s a sort of energy there. I think my music doesn’t come directly from that. There’s probably elements of that, but it’s coming from so many other places, that the vibe and the mood of the music is also coming as much from folk music or the Beach Boys as it is from a progressive dance-based music. But, yeah, it’s nice that people are using computers just to make music, and not try to stick to a lineage of one genre, or to extend the drum’n’bass tradition or the IDM tradition or whatever it is [laughs].

Weidenbaum: Some of the best stuff on Arbor has a pastoral feel. It’s beautiful how it can have a summery feel, but not force itself on a listener the way a true pop song might.

Davis: I think when I was making the record, I wanted to make something that was beautiful and pleasing, in my mind. But also, at the same time, I think anything I do is going to be a synthesis of all the things I love, all the inspiration I have from other artists and music. I think a lot of different things found their ways into that, but ultimately the music I enjoy is definitely more peaceful or pastoral. I hardly listen to — I don’t listen to any aggressive music, really.

Weidenbaum: No digital hardcore. For the record, when I entered your studio, you were filing a Carole King album.

Davis: Yeah. And some America albums — that’s my favorite band right now [laughs].

Weidenbaum: Was that the sort of music you listened to before you got into hip-hop?

Davis: Not really. I sorta listened to odds’n’ends stuff in grade school, and I really got into hip-hop around sixth or seventh grade, and that’s the first music I got crazy about collecting, getting everything that was coming out. Before that it was records I borrowed from my parents, like the Beatles and some ’80s stuff, like I took the first couple Peter Gabriel records from my dad. Random stuff, like Lionel Richie and Thompson Twins, Duran Duran. But also a couple of Yes records, the Animals’ greatest hits, random things. Thriller.

Weidenbaum: As a kid growing up in Chicago, for you was MTV the route to hip-hop?

Davis: Not for me, really. I lived an hour outside of Chicago, and the city I actually lived in, we lived 15 minutes outside of that city, so we were very much in the country. I didn’t get cable TV until I was in high school. I haven’t really thought about how I came across hip-hop, probably through one of my friends’ brothers. I do remember my best friend’s brother had the first Public Enemy record, Yo! Bum Rush the Show [(Def Jam, 1987)], and I remember him playing that, and it was real interesting, and probably another thing was I may have bought something at a store, randomly. I did that sometimes: Oh, this tape looks cool. I had a couple of close friends, we all got into hip-hop together, so we would each buy things and dub stuff for each other.

Weidenbaum: How into did you get? Were you breakdancing?

Davis: We formed a hip-hop group. I had turntables, and we were making hip-hop beats. It went that far. It was a pretty serious hobby of ours. I don’t know what high-school kids do, but on Friday nights we would shack up in our basement and write rhymes and I’d lay down some beats, and we’d practice songs, or freestyle. It was a total blast.

Weidenbaum: Did your group have a name?

Davis: Yeah, we were originally called Rhyme Division, and then it changed to Soul Ingredients.

Transitions: From hip-hop, to classical, to jazz; electronic music in the academy Weidenbaum: Can you talk about it about your initial transition to jazz from hip-hop?

Davis: I started learning guitar in high school, and I got to DePaul [University] and it was my first year there, I was just doing liberal arts studies, and I thought maybe I’d find a subject I liked and pursue that. Nothing came at me. And I saw these students walking around campus with instruments, and I find out that they’re music students, and I got really jealous and envious of them — they get to do that for school? I made up my mind, so I started practicing classical guitar and taking lessons and building up for an audition the following year, I just did that; every day I practiced for several hours.

Weidenbaum: This is through your freshman year of college?

Davis: My freshman year, yeah. So, I got good enough to pass the audition and the following year I was in the music school at DePaul, and from there it was just, wow, I got to study music full time. It was amazing — it was funny because I was one of the few students coming in to the music school that way. Most people were high-school band people, or whatever, and I was totally enthusiastic, did all my homework plus more, practiced way more. People were always like, You’re so into this, why? And I was like, I totally want to be here and do this and learn as much as I can about music while I’m here, so I guess the first year of music school I was taking classical guitar lessons, and I was getting into jazz. I think it was the second year I started taking jazz guitar lessons, alongside classical guitar lessons, and that’s how I got into jazz stuff.

Weidenbaum: Are there people you were emulating?

Davis: I was always really into Kenny Burrell’s playing, just because my father liked Kenny Burrell and had some of his records, and those were some of the things I was listening to. I liked his sound, the feeling he had. He wasn’t this technically blazing player, he was very tasteful, and I guess that’s what I liked about him, very tasteful.

Weidenbaum: And great tone.

Davis: That’s another thing, a really good sound, and then I got into other players. As a whole, I’ve never been one of those guitar-god kind of guys. I’ve never been into guitar players. I know there’s a lot of guitar players out there who know everything about every guitar player, and every record. I’ve never been that way. I’ve always not been into too many guitar players. I was more into horn players.

Weidenbaum: Guitar features prominently on Arbor. There are guitars are in your closet, which I can see from where I’m sitting.

Davis: I still play. I just moved into this studio, and that’s a storage area, but I play — I usually, when I play, if I’m working out a new song or recording parts — I mean, all the stuff on Arbor is me, except the one sample [from Nick Drake, on the song “Nicholas”]. Pretty much everything I do is laying down guitar parts, but I like to lay down organ parts and Rhodes parts and everything, but I still do play. But these days it’s most acoustic guitar. … So, yeah, that’s how I got into playing jazz and stuff, and what happened was my interest in classical faded and my interest in jazz guitar got stronger, so I stopped playing classical and started playing more jazz, and my interest in jazz guitar faded and my interest in composing took over, and propelled me through the rest of school.

Weidenbaum: And then you went to grad school — a two-year, three-year program?

Davis: Two-year program, yeah.

Weidenbaum: Can you describe the structure of the academics?

Davis: I went to the New England Conservatory [of Music] for two years for the composition program, and your requirements were you had a seminar, which was every composer who was in your class, everyone was in that seminar, and that was an open forum, with a teacher. And we’d study modern scores and stuff like that and talk about issues involved in modern composition.

Weidenbaum: Who might you have studied?

Davis: The composers I was interested in, maybe we weren’t talking about [laughs]. I was very interested in John Cage, and Morton Feldman — that axis, more experimental composers. In school they teach you mostly starting with Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Webern, up into Messiaen and Boulez and Stockhausen, Elliott Carter, and the more academically accepted composers, and occasionally there’d be mentioned these experimental composers. There was this thread of studying academically accepted composers, and learning what they’re about, which was great, to get to study all that stuff, too. But I was a voracious student, studying all this other stuff outside of what I was supposed to be studying.

Weidenbaum: Were there professors who respected your venture?

Davis: Yeah, there were a couple of teachers who were also into some of the more experimental composers. As a whole the student composers were very conservative, and they were writing very neo-romantic music, and it was kind of weird: here I am doing these pieces that are really different, and I didn’t fit in at all. The majority of the other students were doing neo-romantic film-score-ish music, so that was a little frustrating for me. I wanted to find at least a couple of peer composers who I could just brainstorm with, throw ideas back and forth about doing something a little different, trying different things.

Weidenbaum: Was graduate school time well spent?

Davis: Definitely. It could have been better had there been more of a circle of people who were sympathetic with what I was doing, but I don’t think I could have expected that anywhere, just because of the nature of studying composition in graduate school. I think most schools are very similar, but the time was well spent. NEC was a great school, and the resources were excellent, the listening center was great — I just went to town there. I worked at the library, so I was able to see every score that came through, and I was reading all the books there, and checking out scores. The other thing was getting my thesis played — I had tons of pieces played, and got them all recorded and everything. I had more music played in two years than I had ever had played. I was able to have an orchestra read through one of my scores, and just hearing an orchestra play something you’ve written is an amazing experience, even if they’re messing it up. OK, there’s like 80 people up there on stage that are playing stuff that I wrote, just really weird. You can only imagine so far how it’s going to sound, especially when you’re writing for orchestra, and when you hear it it’s like, yeah, that was cool.

Weidenbaum: Was your orchestral work at all like your electronic work?

Davis: The composition stuff I was doing at NEC was definitely more conceptual and abstract and experimental. Arbor, on the other, hand, which I was also working on when I was at NEC [laughs] — so it’s funny, it was sort of something I was doing outside of school, at home, and following another parallel, definitely doing these two different things. In my mind, I don’t differentiate between, like, John Cage or the Byrds.

Weidenbaum: I suppose one doesn’t attend NEC to learn how to write like Burt Bacharach, or to write songs, except perhaps “art songs.”

Davis: Yeah, exactly.

Weidenbaum: So, did you not bring your electronic stuff to your teachers?

Davis: Actually, I did. There were some teachers who were very open. The thing about being a composition teacher in this day and age is you have to expect a really wide range of stuff coming into your studio, so there were people — there was one student who was aspiring to be a pop-song writer, and he was trying to write very intelligent, well-arranged pop stuff, and this is what he worked on with his teacher, and he presented it at some of the composition forums, too. He’d have, like, a group and some strings or whatever, and there’d be vocals.

I had two different teachers. The first year I had this old, stubborn, codgy guy who didn’t like my music at all and just railed me about what I was doing every time I went in there. And I didn’t like working with him, it was very unproductive, and he didn’t help me in any way or give me any sort of positive feedback or anything. I was just always defending myself in what I was doing. Maybe that helped me in a way, solidifying what I was thinking.

The second year, I switched teachers: a great guy, an amazing teacher, who was open-minded to what I was doing and very interested, and always suggesting alternate possibilities and making me look at my pieces in different ways — and ultimately, I think that’s the best thing a composition teacher can do, is to make you look at your music in as many different ways as you can. I brought my electronic music in to him, and he was also very interested in that, even though it was something that was very different.

Weidenbaum: The people who make electronic music today have a wide variety of experiences — from MFA students to people who came out of hip-hop, conceptual art, indie rock, jazz, or even out of computer programming. Do you work as well with people who do or don’t have a music-school background?

Davis: I think so. In some respects, I think ultimately, it [music school] has just helped no matter what, just having more knowledge about music, and history of music, and just being totally in love with music. I think anyone should study music, if you’re really that serious about it, and serious about being a musician, or trying to do music as much as you can, full time or whatever. So, when I met Keith [Fullerton Whitman], he struck me as being this guy who knew tons about music, he also went to music school, so we had a similar background, though the music we make is very different. There was, though, this common thing where we didn’t — we weren’t only into one kind of music, we could talk about whatever record, and that’s one thing I remember when we were driving around the states. We were listening to an ’80s station and I said, “Turn that up,” and he was, like, “Greg, that’s what I like about you, you have no shame, you like what you like, and you’re not afraid to say it, and you’re into music.” And it was the same way with him, and I think that’s initially why we clicked, we just really love music, and we just happen to be making music with computers. A lot of people have prejudices and say, Oh I don’t like that — to your average listener, your average music fan, who isn’t truly in love with music and exploring the world of music, maybe they’re content with whatever. But there are a lot of people [to whom] genres don’t matter.

Weidenbaum: A few more music-school questions. Are there specific pre-electronic composers who influences your electronic work?

Davis: I can’t pick any one person or thing. I don’t know. I think what I’m very interested in at a particular period of time is going to inform what I ‘m working on at that time. In the case of Arbor, it’s probably listening to everything from Aphex Twin and Autechre to being really into John Fahey and Jim O’Rourke and some other Chicago kind of stuff, and Fennez, but it’s hard to say. I think maybe in the next record, I may be more informed by something totally different — Crosby, Stills and Nash or something. I think there’s sort of sounds that I have playing around in my head, and ideas that are bouncing around at any given time.

Weidenbaum: I’m fascinated with this idea of “processing the present,” that the music is a way to explore the sounds in our head during a given period of time.

Davis: Yeah, you’re synthesizing a pool of music that you like, trying to make it into something new, or something that’s coming out as original. It’s hard to talk about, because you just do it. When I make music, I can’t necessarily place everything and say why I’m doing everything, but these are the things that come out.

Tech Talk: Turning to the computer, educating audiences, sampling Nick Drake Weidenbaum: Can you talk about your transition to using a laptop computer?

Davis: I think that one reason I turned to using a computer is that being a solo artist I’m able to do anything I want with the computer. I don’t have to write scores and have other people interpret those scores. I don’t have to have that layer any more. I can actually take violin sounds if I want and layer them up, and obviously you’re removing maybe some of the human factors that are involved, but if it doesn’t matter as much to you, then it’s OK. I think working with the computer is amazing, because I can lay down, like, six-part harmony by myself in my bedroom. I don’t have to get six people together, and I can play all the guitar parts, and layer ten guitar parts on top of each other, and program all the rhythm parts, and anything I can play and do, I can just layer in there. With the computer you can do stuff that is virtuosic and unplayable, stuff so detailed and complex that no one could reproduce them.

Weidenbaum: Like what Conlon Nancarrow did with his player pianos.

Davis: Yeah. Keith does a lot of stuff like that with his breakbeat programming, just totally insane, but I don’t necessarily do stuff like that. And you have, with the computer, the ability to deal with any sound, analog and digital, and treat the sound in millions of possible ways. So, you have this tool to work with sound that allows you this giant palette of stuff to grab from. The hard part is to assemble this into a piece of music, but I think if you just have two violin players, you have a limited palette compared to what you have if you have a computer.

Weidenbaum: Some of my favorite music is solo, like Bach’s solo cello suites, David Darling’s solo cello recordings, singer-songwriter stuff. And I’m not sure if the laptop is a solo instrument, or if it’s an orchestra.

Davis: I know, it is very interesting [laughs]. It’s a single entity, but it can produce multiple sounds or things going on. It is kinda confounding in that way. It’s hard to wrap your head around.

Weidenbaum: How did you make transition to computers in general?

Davis: I got a Mac clone computer six or seven years ago, and at some point I realized I could record sounds into my computer and edit them, and I thought that was amazing, so I was putting together some hip-hop loops, and then I realized I could make loops so easily, and match them up so much more easily than with a hardware sampler, so I was playing around with that. And at some point, I was recording some guitar stuff into the computer and playing around with it. Basically what I did was get tons of shareware and freeware programs — anything I could get my hands on. Eventually I got comfortable with certain programs, and liked certain programs, and that’s how I came across software, just playing around with as many programs as I could. That’s what I like to tell people now, that I don’t necessarily recommend anyone to jump into Max/MSP. Just go download tons of free programs and play around with them. The reason I moved to Max/MSP was because I got frustrated with the limits of programs that were out there — there were certain things I wanted programs to do that didn’t, and then I realized I could in MSP, because I had very specific things I wanted to do. Some people are more than happy with a certain piece of software, and don’t ever get too frustrated, or can find enough ways to work with the program and keep doing it. I think it’s important to have a piece of software that you become very familiar with, comfortable with, and you can work very quickly with. That’s a good thing.

Weidenbaum: Can you talk through how your studio is set up?

Davis: Yeah. Compared to most electronic musicians’ studios, mine is very simple, and I’ve wanted to keep it this way. I’ve wanted to be able to do everything on the computer, and have external things that I put into the computer, but to work totally on the computer. I have a mixer that’s running into my computer, and into my mixer I can record guitars, other sounds — if I want to synchronize tracks, listen to an overdub, do things like that. That allows me to get any sounds that I can into my computer, through a mixer, and at that point I can arrange, edit and process. I don’t use MIDI, I don’t use synthesizers. Sometimes I will, to get a certain sound or something, but I don’t use samplers.

Weidenbaum: You mean a standalone sampler?

Davis: Yeah, I use software samplers, stuff like that. For the live set up I use Max/MSP and for the studio stuff I use a variety of programs, to make a final track. I use Logic Audio, and Pro Tools, but I use some MSP for doing specific processing stuff, and I mostly use Max/MSP for a live situation, because I was able to build an environment that allowed me a lot of flexibility for improvisation and quick real-time thinking and decision-making, about what kinds of sounds I’m using, and what kind of things I’m doing to my tracks.

[He points at equipment on his desk.] This is the Emagic USB audio — a stereo input and you have six outputs, so you can do multi-channel. Keith and I both use them. As far as USB audio goes, it’s affordable and I have never had any trouble with it at all. Instead of having the cheap 1/8th-inch jack that’s in the back of your computer, that sounds dirty, it’s sending the audio right to this card, and this has a better digital/analog converter, it sounds way better, less noisy. It has digital inputs and outputs — so, you could keep the signal digital the whole way, if you have digital devices, like DAT machines or whatever. It’s really nice.

And, here’s a CD burner, and this [stack] is a lot of my hard drive space, like 180 gigabytes of hard drive space. When you’re working on a track, you’re just filling up a lot of space; audio takes up a lot of space. You have 10 guitar tracks, and at three minutes each, that’s like 30 megabytes each. It starts adding up quick. If you’re working on multiple tracks, you already are eating up a lot of space. I always like to have a lot of space. I just got this large hard drive, so I’m archiving everything, and trying to organize all the music that I’ve done, and have it in one place. I have a folder of all my stuff that’s done. I have a folder of what I’m working on, to-do projects.

Weidenbaum: And they’re all FireWire, the hard drives and the CD burner?

Davis: Yeah, and it’s G3 Powerbook.

Weidenbaum: And that’s the same laptop you perform in concert?

Davis: It’s my one and only computer. I used to not back up anything, and I think when Keith had his laptop stolen on our last tour, I realized I should back up the important data I have. There’s a lot of stuff I can replace easily, but then there’s other things, like field recordings and sound files, things I couldn’t replace, all the work I do with Max/MSP, I’m backing that up. So, I don’t mind, as long as I know I have a backup somewhere.

Weidenbaum: It’s interesting, because so much of the history of the 20th century has been about performing and composing coming back together again — from the emphasis of improvisation in jazz, which is performance as composition, to the history of popular music, in which the singer became the songwriter after a long period in which those were regarded as separate talents — and in its own way the laptop is an embodiment of that transition: it’s a compositional-notational tool and a performance instrument.

Davis: Yeah, I think that’s pretty amazing, to have a tool that can do both those things. It’s also a challenge for people, especially on the performance side of things — seeing a guy sitting up on stage with a laptop and not really moving around or anything, not providing a sense of entertainment in terms of visual cues or anything. I have never had a problem with that, so it doesn’t bother me at all, but people who are used to seeing rock bands or entertainers perform, they really have problems. I think that separates your people who actually listen and people who like music for extraneous reasons: the image, the videos, the entertainment. That’s fine, but I don’t approach music in that way.

Weidenbaum: When you played in New Orleans, where I saw you and Hrvatski on tour, toward the end of the show, two drunk guys came in and said, loudly, “Where’s the music?”

Davis: [Laughs] Yeah. We have to explain. That’s something that happens all the time. I’ll be playing my set, and someone will walk up to me and say, “Who is doing this music?” And they’ll have no idea. I’m like, “Oh, I’m actually performing live right now.” And then they’ll start asking all these questions.

Weidenbaum: While you’re performing.

Davis: Yeah. Keith’s had people request songs. They thought he was DJing or something. “Can you play ABBA?” I think the more people perform with laptops in live situations, the more concertgoers will become used to it.

Weidenbaum: Are there things you do as a performer to introduce your work to an audience, to acknowledge that it’s new to many people, short of being pedantic?

Davis: Not really. The one thing that Keith and I made a point of doing was trying to do away with the myth of the faceless, anti-social music guy, so we’d stand up and say, “Hi, my name’s Greg, I’m gonna play some music now, and I hope you like it,” and then play. Where, normally you think of someone like Aphex Twin — I remember when I saw him in Chicago, he snuck out on stage, and played for an hour, and then disappeared. I don’t think that’s cool. You have to acknowledge the audience somehow, especially if you’re not playing to the audience, like a lot of bands do.

Weidenbaum: As a performer, you’re responsive to the mood of the crowd — do you have light sets and dark sets?

Davis: You suss out the vibe of the venue, and the crowd, and we’re able to build a flexibility into our performance patches that we’re using: I think tonight would be suitable if I did a mellower set, or something really aggressive. It’s awesome to have that flexibility. There’s a lot of bands that go out and have 10-song set lists and they play the same 10 songs every night, fifty nights in a row. When we’re performing, we can tailor our sets. We’re still doing what we normally do, but we can tailor our sets accordingly, to how we felt about the evening or the night. That’s really nice. I think it’s important for people who do live music to do that. People don’t want to come out and hear tracks from your record verbatim.

Weidenbaum: How do you perform live?

Davis: I usually have all my final tracks in my computer, and I normally am playing the finished product, but doing things to it: processing it, speeding it up, slowing it down, not necessarily working with the parts individually. That’s what I usually do. I’d be playing the track from the CD, but messing around with it. For the time being, that’s what I’ve done live, but there’s this whole other element of interludes and episodes I’m creating with other sounds. Basically, I have 10 to 15 gigabytes of sound on the hard drive, and I can pull up any of those sounds any time.

Weidenbaum: How are they filed?

Davis: Categorized.

Weidenbaum: Like sound effects?

Davis: Yeah: drum breaks, final tracks, parts — I do have parts on the computer, so sometimes I’ll do that, have the guitar from one track — field recordings, instrument sounds.

Weidenbaum: What do you do your field recordings on?

Davis: Minidisc.

Weidenbaum: Have you experimented with generative music or randomness?

Davis: Definitely. I’ve built randomness into my MSP patch, specifically with processing, so I do a lot of that, and that’s something I’ve worked on for a while, made it my signature. One of my favorite things to do is to have a sound source trigger random values for parameters in the process, so the attacks of, let’s say, a drum break or a drum sample, will be triggering random values for different parameters of a plug-in, so you get these processed sounds bouncing around, and the parameters are bouncing around as the sample plays on.

Weidenbaum: Is there a track on Arbor where that’s particularly evident?

Davis: If you listen to the drum programming on “Coventry” or “Cumulus,” the drums are triggering plug-ins and processing. Those are definitely two specific areas where I do that. And I was just starting on it when I was working on this record, so I’ve developed it a lot more. For me, the thing about musical random processes is a way to get new sounds that you wouldn’t necessarily put down yourself. And I think it gives you this new well of stuff to work from. Like, let’s say I do something where I have my computer do random processing, and then I’m able to go in and choose the stuff I like. It’s creating all these sounds — if I did it myself, I might get stuck in a particular path, and with this it’s like, Oh, that sounds great — I never would have done that.

Weidenbaum: And they’re reproducible, these randomly generated sounds? Once you hear one you can emulate it?

Davis: Sometimes, and sometimes not. In a live situation I’ll be playing and something will happen, and a lot of people will think something is going wrong with my computer and I’ll be getting totally into it, it just perks up my ear, and I’ll just develop it, or kind of work with a certain thread. To me, it’s very exciting. Especially in a live situation, it keeps me on my toes. It keeps the music fresh, if there’s things I’m not controlling. I feel I have enough control over the general situation, that I can still tailor it.

Weidenbaum: That sounds like a jazz person speaking — making something of a screw up.

Davis: One of the most important things I learned when I studied jazz was that there’s no such thing as a wrong note — you can take it and move it somewhere else, but you have to know how to do that. Otherwise, people will think it’s a wrong note. My teacher would say, if you play a mistake, play it twice, or don’t act like it’s a mistake. If people look at you and see you grimace, they’ll know you made a mistake, but if you don’t acknowledge it, and just go with it — you have to be in that moment to be able to deal with it, and not be sort of worried about what’s happening.

Weidenbaum: I saw Carl Stone perform recently with a laptop as his only instrument. After the show, people from the audience crowded around his machine to take a look, like it was the monolith from 2001.

Davis: On tour, Keith and I got a lot of fans who were curious about how we were making this music, and then we got fans who were interested in what specific software we are using. Some people have certain agenda. They figure they’re music-makers too, or they’re starting to make computer music, so they figure, Well, if I use the same tools they’re using, maybe I can make music just like theirs. That’s obviously not the case at all. It gives someone a place to jump off.

There are a lot of electronic musicians who are very secretive about their software, their set up, and stuff like that. I’ve seen Keith sit there for half an hour and explain his whole patch to somebody. That was another part of the whole “debunking the myth of the laptop musician” thing, too. We wanted to be friendly. That’s part of the reason we did such a big tour. We wanted people to see live electronic music, and there aren’t that many different people who do tours of electronic music. A lot of people are doing one-off shows, festivals, but we made a point to hit every major city in the United States, almost, and just play a show, whether there were five people there or 100 people there. It didn’t matter. It was great.

Weidenbaum: Any generalization you can make about different types of audiences?

Davis: Audiences are very similar. The thing that was comforting to know in the U.S. was any city you go to, any larger city, you’re going to get 15 to 20 people that know about your music or that are there to hear your music, and that’s great. And then you’re going to get people who are just there at the club, hanging out, just part of the venue. I think that was the same for Europe. You get a mixture of people who are totally there to listen, who are enthusiastic about the performance, and then there are people who are just hanging out. And that’s awesome, too, because they get to experience the live electronic music, too. A funny story was when we played Chapel Hill, the second or third show of the tour, and right before I went on, somebody told Keith that a Duke [University] professor had brought his whole class to the show. He was actually doing a class on criticism of rock music, or something, and they were doing some things related to live performance, and women performers, or lack of women performers, so he brought his whole class to the show, and there were students sitting there with notebooks, taking notes.

Weidenbaum: As if they’re at a museum.

Davis: I know — and asking us questions after the show. I can’t remember the questions. They were mostly talking to Keith, actually. It was funny. I think they probably saw there was a lack of women at the electronic show.

Weidenbaum: What’s your daily schedule like?

Davis: Since I just moved, I’m searching for a job. And that’ll be anything, to pay the bills and make money. I hope it will be music-related or computer-related, but I’ve been out of graduate school for over a year now and I was just doing music. Right after I graduated the ball started rolling. Todd [Hyman, owner of Carpark Records] approached me and said, “I want to put out your record,” so I was finishing up the album, and the mastering and the artwork and all that stuff, and then sort of finished that up over the summer after I graduated, got that off to Todd. Then I started working on my live setup, and that took a long time to put together, and in December, Keith and I went on tour for 10 days or a week, and then in February my record came out, and then in March we did the huge U.S. tour, March and April, and then we were home for a few weeks, then went to Europe for two and a half weeks. It was one thing after another, and I never settled into a job, which was fortunate.

Weidenbaum: You’re planning a Japan tour — are there musicians there who you particularly like?

Davis: I like the Nobukazu Takemura stuff, not his recent stuff as much, but his earlier stuff. I remember when I first heard the “Meteor” 12″ on Thrill Jockey, I though that was amazing — since then I’ve been into his stuff. I like the stuff Todd’s been putting out. It’s hard to hear all the stuff that’s going on, but I try and check out stuff as much as I can. I never would have thought a year ago, a year and a half ago, that I’d be going to Europe to play music, to Japan to play music. It’s an amazing opportunity. I have Todd to thank for that, doing such a great job with my record, and doing such a great job with his label. The only semi-negative review I had was sweet and sour — he was saying, this guy has potential, but don’t bother with Arbor yet.

Weidenbaum: There’s that Nick Drake sample on your album on the song “Nicholas.” Were you anxious to use material that was under copyright?

Davis: That’s been a curious track for me. I almost didn’t put it on my record. I don’t like the track much, but everyone loves it, so that’s why I included it, because of the feedback I got from people. So, if you notice, on the vinyl, it’s not on there, partially because I had to fit the music onto two sides, so that’s the one track I chose not to have on the vinyl. And I’ve gotten the most feedback on that track. I like the track, but I’ve gone somewhere else with my music. I decided to keep it on the CD, because it makes a nice peak to the record. It’s probably the most overly emotional and in-your-face track on the record. Everything else is laid back. As far as using the sample, I love Nick Drake’s music, and I was listening to one of his records, and heard the intro to the track and I was like, “I think that’d make great loop,” so I put it in my computer and made a loop, and, being the hip-hop person I was, I thought: if I put a fat beat under it. … And so I found this old breakbeat I had that I liked, and that sounded great together. So, it was the guitar loop and the drum loop, and this was the hip-hop way of working, and from there I cut up all the drums and made these weird rhythms, and took the one sample and did a lot of processing and made that evolve, so all the track is is: the first, maybe, four or eight bars is the A section, with the downtempo drums, cut up, and the B section is the same track, but the next eight bars, when the string orchestra comes in, and I have the same drums, but in a double-time feel, totally processed. So, it’s just three elements. And, through processing and editing, I was able to build up more sound and walls of sound.

Weidenbaum: Where did the break come from?

Davis: It’s from a flexi disc by a rock instructional record for drums, that guy Carmine Appice.

Weidenbaum: The guy who used to be on the cover of drum magazines every other month?

Davis: Totally. And so it was from the ’70s, and I got it from a friend a long time ago. I’ve always loved the beats, because they’re so big and loud and the record’s cruddy. It’s just that quality of the flexi disc, which is so lo-fi already. You can’t press much information into it, because it’s so thin. I took that break and chopped it up, and that was one of the first tracks I made using Pro Tools, editing drums on Pro Tools. I basically divided the sample into snare and bass drum, cut it into 8th- or 16th-note pieces, and then I just dragged around all the parts, and kept listening to it, and took out the parts I didn’t like.

Related links: Greg Davis's Autumn Records website,; the Carpark Records website,

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Click It

Andreas Tilliander, who appears on the Mille Plateaux label's third Clicks & Cuts collection, talks about the hip-hop heart of experimental electronic music.

Several years ago, an employee of Mille Plateaux Records mentioned to me, in passing, that one of the most played songs in the label’s office was, of all things, a remix of a track by r&b singer Aaliyah.

In other words, a record label named for a dense theoretical literary-philosophical tome by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari was pulsing to a song by the teen bride of contemporary-soul man R. Kelly.

The Aaliyah track in question was constructed by Timbaland, the Virginia-born producer known for his work with vocalists Missy Elliott (his longtime collaborator and business partner), Tweet (notably on the single “Oops [Oh My]”), Beck (a cover of David Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs,” as heard on the Moulin Rouge! soundtrack), Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx, and others.

Mille Plateaux is one of the most esteemed electronic-music labels, perhaps best known for its Clicks & Cuts series, the third of which saw release at the end of 2002, featuring music by SND, Geez’N’Gosh, DAT Politics (aka Kid 606), Luomo (aka Vladislav Delay), Ekkehard Ehlers and many others. The series helped promote the glitchy brand of experimental music that, for all its antiseptic and serrated sonics, takes as much inspiration from contemporary hip-hop as it does from cutting-edge digital composition.

The overlap between avant-garde electronica and mainstream r&b is more apparent on this third Clicks & Cuts collection than on previous releases in the series. On the album, Frank Bretschneider’s “Risk” features a house diva repeating the word “responsibility.” Lumo’s “Melt (agf/dlay edit)” cuts up the falsetto vocal until it’s only partially comprehensible, but for all the edits, the voice’s emotion (plaintive, remorseful) is thoroughly retained. And the association between Clicks & Cuts and today’s hip-hop-influenced soul music is not restricted to the inclusion of vocals. Various tracks on the album, from downtempo rhythm of bizz.circuits’ “Grace Under Fire” to the bubbly after-hours romance of Robin Judge’s “Rhizome,” echo the minimalist beats that have been a hallmark of late of such acts as Destiny’s Child and Mystikal.

Contemporary r&b seems more than happy to meet Mille Plateaux halfway. Coincident with the release of the new Clicks & Cuts CD was “Work It,” the Timbaland-produced lead single from Elliott’s album Under Construction (Gold Mind/Elektra). Heard in its instrumental version (which is available as a track included on the song’s CD single), “Work It” has much in common with today’s electronic cutting edge, especially when one listens past the purposefully old-school hip-hop sounds. There are, for example, the rudimentary, dropped in samples (a keyboard tinkle here, an elephant bark there), the persistent use of empty space, and the retro synth flavors, not to mention Timbaland’s emphasis on pointillist percussion and droney repetition.

On the occasion of the new Clicks & Cuts compilation, I corresponded with one of the series’ contributors, Swedish musician Andreas Tilliander, who also appeared on the second volume. His track on the third collection, “Nerdy South,” takes its title from a rudimentary vocal, which sounds like a computer struggling to enunciate over a gentle pulse of an electronic track.

Taking the anecdote about Aaliyah, who passed away in the fall of 2001, as a starting point, Tilliander discussed his youthful interest in breakdancing and his own top-40 aspirations. The transcript of the correspondence appears, lightly edited, below.

Marc Weidenbaum: Are there specific Timbaland productions that have stuck in your head?

Andreas Tilliander: I like the track “Love Me” by Timbaland and Magoo, because of the Vocoders, and of course “Try Again” and “We Need a Revolution” by Aaliyah. It’s not only the production that is amazing. It’s really good pop music, too.

Weidenbaum: Are there other contemporary hip-hop/r&b producers whose work you particularly appreciate?

Tilliander: Yes, the music and production of Dead Prez is really good. And like everyone else I also enjoy the stuff by NERD and the Neptunes. I think that the reason why I enjoy it is because they are trying to do something new, and maybe even experimental in some ways. There are a lot of “Experimental Hip-hop” [acts] although most of them are experimental just for the sake of it.

Weidenbaum: Part of what I love about the music exemplified on Clicks & Cuts is how it insinuates funk, suggesting rhythmic activity with the sparest materials — can you talk about that approach to funk?

Tilliander: I really don’t think of funk when I make my music, and I hardly never listen to it either. There was a period in my life where I listened to stuff like James Brown, Parliament and others, but not that much anymore. I want my music to be “groovy” — maybe that’s where the funk can be heard. Since I’m influenced by hip-hop and hip-hop is influenced by funk, it’s kind of natural that there’s a funk vibe in there somewhere.

Weidenbaum: Electronic musicians have been, with a few notable exceptions, hesitant to include words. Some of the best electronic music that does involve words cuts them up. Does cutting up vocals make words easier to use, because the act of cutting up the vocals makes the words less representative?

Tilliander: I’ve used cut up vocals, especially on an album I recorded in 1999, but I’ve also used clean, unprocessed singing. I guess that the artists who are cutting up vocal samples do so because that’s their way to approach music, and the sounds they are using are often cut up, not only the vocals.

Weidenbaum: As electronic music has developed its own devoted listening audience, is it surprising to you that there are people who might love your music, yet would be shocked at your interest in so-called pop music? Do you find such a scenario frustrating, or an opportunity to open listeners’ minds — and ears?

Tilliander: Every time I get the chance, I’m trying to point out that most of my productions are pop, in my opinion. There are lush chords, grooves and nice harmonies. I often arrange a song in a regular way, with parts that could be considered as “chorus,” “verse,” “break,” etc. Music doesn’t have to get simple and silly to be pop, right?

Weidenbaum: Have you always been comfortable listening to popular r&b and hip-hop, or is it something you ignored for some time and were then drawn to (or drawn back to)?

Tilliander: As a kid I was into breakdance, like everyone else. That got me into Kraftwerk and electronic music, where I was stuck for many years. The main reason why I didn’t like r&b and even some hip-hop was because it’s often sexist. It’s almost embarrassing to buy an r&b album because the covers are always focusing on ass and tits. And a lot of hip-hop is just about showing your nice car and jewelry and that doesn’t interest me.

Weidenbaum: I think that below the vocals of many an r&b and hip-hop hit beats an avant-garde heart, from the weird cartoon-jazz loop in Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style (Oops!)” to the veritable click-hop of the Neptunes’ production for Mystikal (“Shake That Ass,” “Danger”). Is there a top 40 musician beating inside of you?

Tilliander: I would love to produce one of the big artists, of course. I think that a lot of the productions are interesting but I could make it even more interesting and fascinating.

Weidenbaum: Is there specific work you’ve done with top 40 musicians — remixes, production dut)?

Tilliander: Maybe you’d consider JJ Johnson a top 40 musician? At least in some countries — France, etc. I’ve remixed one of his singles and he’s singing on a track for my new album, Elit. Somebody described the track as r&b, actually.

Weidenbaum: The way the beat gets going at the start of “Nerdy South,” your track on the new Clicks & Cuts album, particularly reminds me of how Timbaland — and a few producers like him — take pleasure in positing these beats that are funky and hesitant at the same time. Is that part of what you’re after? Is the title “Nerdy South” meant to reference so-called Dirty South hip-hop?

Tilliander: I didn’t have anyone or anything in mind when I did that track. The song is a remake of the song “DupliCity,” taken from my new album. On the original version I used Fu Dogg, who’s a great rapper. The title “Nerdy South” came up when I was performing in Chapel Hill this summer and I was playing the track for some friends there, who thought that Chapel Hill is more of the Nerdy South than Dirty South. I guess that a lot of the electronica producers and listeners are geeks, including me, so that was a perfect title.

Related links: Andreas Tilliander’s page.

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Danceable Mix, with Footnotes

Scion (aka Rene Lowe and Pete Kuschnereit) was given the enviable task of taking music from the back catalog of the Basic Channel record label, which specializes in bare-minimal techno, rarely more than a thudding distant beat pounding below a single gauzy sound, and turning it into an album-length mix. The result is a nine-track, nearly hour-long continuous listen with the self-explanatory title Arrange and Process Basic Channel Tracks (Tresor). None of the songs here features fewer than two different sound sources, one has as many as five, and all are listed with the original catalog numbers — i.e., “part 02 w/ material from cyrus: presence (BC-05 / BCD), q1.2 (BCD), ‘remake’ basic reshape (PEPCP 2 / BCD), radiance I (BC-08 / BCD), quadrant: infinition (PEQDT 1)” — like so many academic citations. The result is a transcendent ride, dark and trenchant, taut and firmly grooved.

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David Byrne’s Field Guide to Blip Hop

In the face of countless electronic-music compilations, the Luaka Bop record label, run by David Byrne, faux-hubristically titled its entry The Only Blip Hop Record You Will Ever Need — and then added Vol. 1, in order to further hedge its bets. The album’s 13 tracks include work by Mouse on Mars, To Rococo Rot (in collaboration with I-Sound), Doctor Rockit (better known these days as Matthew Herbert), among others. By “blip hop” is meant that pop-minded brand of electronic music that, for all its skittery rhythms and scraped together samples, is still identifiable as pop music, what with its emphasis on danceable beats and soundbite-memorable riffs. The phrase “blip hop” is unlikely to surface as the defining term in electronica, any more than “glitch” or “IDM” or, for that matter, “electronica,” but it is a useful hybrid. “Blip” stands for the simple, lo-fi tones that typify “glitch” electronic music, sounds that often seem to have derived from malfunctioning equipment. “Hop” is cleaved from “hip-hop,” which is to say rhythmically inventive pop music made from spare parts (two turntables and a microphone).

The liner notes, by Byrne himself, confirm his potential as a standup music critic. They evidence the kind of wit and insight associated with his forbearers, the cutup composers John Cage and Eric Satie. The lengthy essay is titled “Machines of Joy” and subtitled “I Have Seen the Future and It Is Squiggly” and it opens with a deadpan reflection on how the “cold damp climate” of Northern Europe, which he posits as the birthplace of the genre, is responsible for everything from the region’s highly “symbiotic relationship” with machines to its inhabitants’ philosophical “inward”ness and, as a result, the music that helps humans dance like computers. Byrne, it should be noted, is Scottish.

Given the likelihood that fans of David Byrne, best known for his work with the art-pop band Talking Heads, are going to purchase this album, it couldn’t have started off better than it does, with Mouse on Mars’ “Mykologics,” which sounds like a remix of the Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody).” To the uninitiated, many of these tracks will sound more like blueprints than like songs, what with their uniformly unflappable spare-ness. Pickadelic‘s “Burn Mamacita,” with its swollen drumming and its light accent of dub reggae, sounds more like the foundation of a world-music cut than a final edit. On first and tenth listens, Mental Overdrive‘s “Gravity Sucks, Maan” will have you waiting for a vocal to, finally, cut in — but it never does. The compilation was made with the uninitiated in mind, and it’ll satisfy curiosity many times over. Much of the music is, true to the collection’s mock-historical liner notes, history: the Mouse on Mars track is from 1999, the Mental Overdrive from ’98, the Pickadelic from ’97; in a kind of meta-compilation mode, one track (Skist‘s “Shift”) is from the original Clicks & Cuts compilation. But there is new music, too, including a vocal cover of an Autechre instrumental (“Gnit,” off Tri Repetae++) by Maria Daulne (of Zap Mama), and a track by Vibulator, which turns out to be Byrne himself.

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Four Aussies Focus on Details

The Dorobo record label has produced a four-track compilation of resolutely elemental sounds. The title of the compilation is Grain, which suggests both the physical-world reality of dust and texture, and the compositional technique known as “granular synthesis.” (Granular synthesis involves the production of a long-form composition as the end result of individual actions made on exactingly brief sound samples.) The album includes work by four Australian composers: Philip Samartzis (“Microphonics”), Pimmon (“Slegner Forgets”), Darrin Verhagen (“_frame”) and David Brown (“Voices of the Air Shaft”). At nearly 18 and a half minutes in length, “Microphonics” is the longest, and most widely ranging, piece on the album. From small scratchy sounds, to nearby bells and distant voices, it might be a recording made of a composer’s workshop with a window left open — while the composer is asleep on the couch. Pimmon’s entry is considerably more static, unnervingly so, with the quiet hum of an after-hours industrial site. Verhagen’s is quieter still, at least at the start, albeit with a more lively percussive element, by far the warmest thing on the entire album. Brown’s “Voices” is shrill and dramatic, and appears to have been derived from orchestral music; there are sounds of string sections and percussion and coarsely edited vocals. It is as eventful as the rest of the album is quiet, and ends even more suddenly than it begins.

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