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Crashing by Design

One of electronic music's great live performers, Thomas Dimuzio talks about improvisation, music education and his longtime collaborator: feedback.

By Marc Weidenbaum

Noise regularly becomes sound art in the hands of Thomas Dimuzio. But contrary to appearances, the pursuit of the N word is not an intrinsically chaotic one. Here in Dimuzio’s home studio, on a high hill in San Francisco’s Sunset District, he must first isolate and eliminate certain noises before he creates his own. The small studio, a windowless room within a room on his house’s ground floor, contains racks of equipment, stand-alone instruments, noisemakers, the requisite lava lamp, and a broad mixing board. The Apple G4 that powers his system, however, is relegated, courtesy of some precisely drilled holes and a fair amount of insulation, to the other side of the wall.

This audiophilic architectural detail might surprise people who know Dimuzio from his recordings, such as his 1989 solo album, Headlock, and 2002’s Uncertain Symmetry, a collaboration with Arcane Device’s David Lee Myers. These are not albums with a particular emphasis on the purity of silence. These are albums on which all sounds are contorted. Now, Dimuzio doesn’t simply twist sounds until they become unrecognizable. In his music, the twisting becomes the performance — one listens to him like one watches fireworks, not for a single frozen instance of beauty, but for the way the beauty unfolds over time.

The pyrotechnics metaphor isn’t haphazard. When Dimuzio talks about noise, as he does often, particularly about feedback, he talks about it the way a firefighter talks about fire, with that familiar undertone of respect and caution. “I find feedback really interesting,” he says, “because it’s really alive. You can push it with the controllers I’ve assigned, and it keeps you on your toes, because it does certain things, but you can’t really predict what it’s going to do.”

He makes this statement in the process of talking about his life in music, about growing up in Pennsylvania and weaning himself off progressive rock (“Even in high school bands, we were pursuing improvisation”), about studying at the Berklee College of Music in Boston (“I realized early on that I hated the place and I wasn’t going to stay there, but made a lot of good friends”) and about relocating to San Francisco, with its welcoming out-sound community. What began as a single conversation before a gig with fellow local electronicists Scott Alford and Chris Fitzpatrick at the 21 Grand, a venue in nearby Oakland, subsequently expanded to include two evenings at his home studio. Dimuzio’s generosity with his time provided a first-hand experience of a demeanor that’s helped him become one of electronic music’s most gregarious collaborative improvisers. As he puts it simply: “I would rather play than not play.”

Random Acts

The unpredictable is the core of Dimuzio’s work, not only due to his embrace of feedback, but because of his emphasis on improvisation and collaboration. In all the creative situations where he finds himself, one thing is constant: he welcomes an unknown. That may be a random sound source, an unmapped compositional territory, or another performer’s point of view, but in every case he willfully relinquishes control.

Asked to talk about improvisation, Dimuzio replies with characteristic thoughtfulness: “In my eyes, someone plays that first note with intention, and the music can sort of take over and push it to where it needs to go. Everyone has to be on the same level, not necessarily have the same understanding of what music is, but just be there, in the moment, not necessarily thinking about what you just played, or what you should play next.”

Around the San Francisco Bay Area, such openness has helped make Dimuzio a ubiquitous live-concert presence. Since moving here from Boston in 1996, he has performed regularly, more often than not in cahoots with another musician, whether local heroes, like Wobbly (aka Jon Leidecker) or the duo Matmos, or a visiting luminary, like Anla Courtis (of Reynols) or Nick Didkovsky (aka Dr. Nerve). Some of these team-ups take on the feel of a long-term partnership, like Dimmer, which pairs him with Joseph Hammer, the tape-loop virtuoso, or the extensive touring he’s done with Chris Cutler, the legendary British drummer from Henry Cow. (On several occasions they have performed as a trio with another Cow alumni, Fred Frith, currently teaching at Mills College in Oakland.)

Says Cutler of his experiences with Dimuzio, “As an improviser, he is both modest and intelligent — and completely reliable. All his effort goes into making the music work and not into making his own playing shine. It’s a great quality. And he is completely on top of his technology: sounds follow Tom’s intention, they don’t lead. At the same time he gives them time to evolve and breathe. Add heightened sensitivity and a subtle ear and the result is musical depth.” And, says Cutler, “He has ears like a bat.”

Other Dimuzio gigs have the passion, and the risk, of a one-night stand — a show at the San Francisco Art Institute with laptop-demolition specialist Blevin Blectum, in a series hosted by Matmos’ M.C. Schmidt; a duet with fragile-sound expert Michael Thomas Jackson at the seventh annual Activating the Medium Festival. His activities are charted in detail on his website, thomasdimuzio.com, and on gench.com, the portal of his studio and label. A recent double-album, Mono::Poly, documents his live resume, including performances with Cutler and Frith, Arford, Wobbly, Sensorband’s Atau Tanaka, and even the famed Scratch Piklz turntablist DJ QBert. (A sign of his entrenchment in local music, he’s even begun working with Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart.)

In almost all these performances, one key ingredient is that Dimuzio takes a live feed from his partner and works it into his banks of loopers and sound manipulators. Says Wobbly, who has experienced this on numerous occasions, “Thomas is always capturing and throwing back dozens of little transformed mirror images, augmenting and filling in the sounds I’m sending out — although at the same time, what he does with those sounds is always very personalized and distinctive; he makes the sounds his. Even in a concert where his sole source is the other performer, there’s no mistaking his presence.”

No matter the circumstance, Dimuzio’s emphasis in collaboration is on balance: “Someone’s influencing their will, so I try not to impose — I mean, there are points where I will be over the top, but I think it’s in the context of the music, not because I want to play something loud right now.”

His silent studio notwithstanding, Dimuzio embraces the peculiarities of each new enterprise. When he performed as part of Aaron Ximm’s Field Effects concert series, held in an old industrial loft in downtown San Francisco, he put a microphone on the roof, better to catch the wind. When his Dimmer duo played the Luggage Store Music Gallery, which has great view of San Francisco’s noisy Market Street, he invited the noise in: “Why not embrace it, you know? We had the mic out the window, and I thought that worked well, because it was feeding both of our rigs, and then each of our rigs were feeding one another.”

What did that fishing expedition yield? “It’s mostly traffic noise,” says, “but you do hear conversations, errant comments and such. I enjoy that, because again, like feedback, where there’s this element of, you sort of have to go with it, you can’t necessarily control it, and factoring that in to something that you’re sampling and processing in real time, it’s just nice. It just throws a curveball every now and then. It’s interesting, actually, to mix into a sampler in real time. It’s bizarre. It’s taken me a while to get used to it, and get over it.”

Dimuzio is more than happy to talk about equipment, but he downplays the constituent parts. “This gear is nothing but an instrument to me,” he says, by which he means his rig of sampler, mixer, sound sources, loopers, etc. “It’s taken a while to evolve this instrument to where it’s at, and I’d love to take it so much further, but there’s only so much you can do, not being an inventor, not having the resources, or the know how. I just like to abuse and use this stuff.”

Abuse is both his avocation and his vocation. By night he plays live in the city, or on tour, or holes up in his studio. By day, he works at Digidesign, whose Pro Tools is the industry standard in audio production. What does he do there? “I break Pro Tools,” he says with a smile. “I do quality assurance testing. I break Pro Tools for a living, beat the hell out of it.” He isn’t the only Bay Area musician employed by Digidesign. Wobbly works there, as also do Craig McFarland (M.I.R.V.), Larry Thrasher (Psychic TV, Big Swab, Thee Majesty) and Tim Walters (Doubtful Place), among others.

It is this work that brought him to San Francisco in the first place. After opting out of Berklee, he resorted to a strategy that many a film-school grad has utilized: education by plastic. “I just got some credit cards and bought gear,” he says. “I’d already amassed a bit of student loans and debt, so I bought an eight track and a sampler and just sort of went from there.” He ended up working for a small firm (OSC) that produced Deck II, an early audio-production tool, and when that company was acquired, he was relocated to the Bay Area.

Professional Catalyst

It’s a Saturday night in mid-February 2005, and Dimuzio is hosting a recording session in his home studio, Gench. Here he’s done work for labels like Apshodel, Cuneiform and Cutler’s ReR, and artists like Scot Jenerik, Tom Cora and Rova Saxophone Quartet. Upstairs his wife, Anne, prepares fresh biscuits and cornbread. Gumbo simmers on the stove. Down in the basement, today’s client, Mark Hosler, a founding member of the group Negativland, is working with Dimuzio to put the finishing touches on something Hosler never expected to be doing in the first place: a solo album, complete with an actual love song.

Hosler explains that the sequencing of his album, which will contain a planned 18 songs, has proven difficult. All albums by Negativland, the culture-jamming specialists who have blazed a parodic trail of copyright-challenging audio collages for a quarter century, are concept albums, and each album’s concept has determined the order of the songs. In contrast, this strange beast, this solo record, to be titled Thigmotactic, is concept-free, just “a bunch of songs,” as Hosler puts it, that he’s written and constructed over the years. As Thig currently stands, it’ll open with “Richard Nixon Died Today,” a solemn piece in which his singing overlays quotes from the disgraced former president. Other cuts include “Bulbs Flickering,” which has the feel of pop minimalism, and that love song, titled “Extra Sharp Pencils.” (The album is due out on Negativland’s label, Seeland, which is also releasing another Dimuzio-helmed project, Poptastic a mix of post-production tomfoolery and, of all things, teen-pop lampoons, the brainstorm of musician Chris Fitzpatrick.)

Hosler first approached Dimuzio to master his record, but the relationship flowered into something more collaborative. Hosler recorded the dozen and a half songs by himself and provided them to Dimuzio. Along with each track came a set of typewritten notes, descriptions of things Hosler wanted done with (or to) the tracks. Dimuzio says that he carefully read the notes, considered them, dismissed almost all of it, and proceeded to add to each track what he thought best suited it. Thus, “Extra Sharp Pencils” features an effluence of upbeat digitalia in its second half, a flourish of pixel dust that takes an unusual item (an irony-free love song by a member of Negativland) and ups the ante, turning it into an irony-free, radio-friendly pop song.

In a sense, what Dimuzio has done with Hosler’s solo recordings differs little from the majority of Dimuzio’s collaborations. He has plugged Hosler’s stuff (i.e., a sound source) into his own bank of equipment, processed some of that original material and added a bit of his own. Hosler is nothing if not receptive to Dimuzio’s contributions. At least on this evening, whenever a sound element is interrogated — French horns, keyboards, noise, layered vocals — Hosler’s instinct is to increase its prominence. The only exception is a high-pitched whine on a track titled “Critique,” which Hosler asks him to remove, suggesting that only his canine fans would miss it. Hosler also jokes about having to occasionally excise the very sound that first attracted him to Dimuzio, what he calls “the Dimuzio haze,” a mash of din that he imitates with a moist Bronx cheer.

The Long View

Dimuzio takes a break from his studio and heads upstairs to the living room. It features an enormous single-pane window that frames an expanse of heavily populated South San Francisco and, further still, the Pacific Ocean. He’s come a long way from Boston, from Berklee, from an institutional mindset that at best served as a sounding board for his distinct and contrasting opinions: firmly held thoughts about technology, composition and improvisation that are the bedrock of his life and work. The room’s long view confirms a sense of distance and time.

Upstairs, in this carpeted space, there are no feedback machines, no computers — just an old Wurlitzer electric piano, his first instrument, circa 1979, and a small assortment of guitars. There isn’t any recording equipment up here, and its notable absence, combined with the vista and a couple of soft couches, reinforces the space’s role as a refuge from the studio.

Asked about the guitars, Dimuzio relates an anecdote about a much-loved ’64 Fender Stratocaster he babysat for a friend, Sensorband’s Tanaka, but the longer he talks about the instrument, the more it becomes clear that he’s talking about tone and timbre. Even amid these six-strings, he’s talking texture and feel, not composition and song structure. “I come from playing notes,” he says, reconciling these traditional tools and the noises that emanate from his studio. “I like to play notes. It’s just not something you hear a lot of in my music.”

The above profile originally appeared, in lightly edited form, in the fourth issue of e/i magazine in 2005 (more information at ei-mag.com).

Related links: Thomas Dimuzio's website, thomasdimuzio.com; website of Dimuzio's studio, Gench: gench.com.

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