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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

The Unessentialist

Christopher Bissonnette talks about music on the periphery.

By Marc Weidenbaum

The computer-enabled musician Christopher Bissonnette doubly subsumed his source material last year. In the production of Periphery, on the Kranky record label, he employed recordings of instrumentation associated with the classical symphony orchestra, including strings and piano.

But by the time Periphery was complete, those elements were, by and large, more present in Bissonnette’s memory than in the actual sound of the album, a wide aural swath that is luxurious even if its elegance tends toward the rarified. There are hints, like the burbling cello lines that hover below and the individual piano notes that skim the surface of the opening track, “In Accordance.” But the music on Periphery is more along the lines of a composed drone than a minimalist concerto. (I included it in the list of my favorite CDs of 2005 — the list is here.)

And then, when packaging the album, he purposefully left out any explanation of his process, leaving the album to speak, quietly but forcefully, for itself. As such it marked a distinct departure from at least one previous Bissonnette release, the album anonymous, which came out on the Thinkbox netlabel in 2002. (Bissonnette is a founder of the Thinkbox collective, at thinkbox.ca.) That earlier album was brittle and stark, where Periphery is warm and inviting. What both albums have in common is an attention to detail and a comfort with making the most of small impressions.

Bissonnette took time this year for an interview in which he unpacked some of the process that went into Periphery, talking about the nature of recording live in the studio, how he hones software tools for specific tracks and the importance of making peace with mistakes.

Marc Weidenbaum: The album credits you with having “recorded and produced” Periphery and someone else, Joshua Eustis, as having “mixed and assembled” the album. Could you describe Eustis’ role in the making of Periphery?

Christopher Bissonnette: The recording and production was completed by myself in my home studio. As this was my first attempt at a full-length album, much of my material for Periphery was selected from a large body of experiments, live excerpts and completed tracks — none of which had been specifically planned for a collection together. Once I had selected the tracks that I felt had a certain coherency, I shipped the individual tracks off to Joshua Eustis, of Telefon Tel Aviv, in New Orleans for assembly and final mastering. I did not feel completely confident in my engineering skills to provide a balanced mix for my debut release. Joshua is a trained recording engineer and had mixed our last Thinkbox release, Guitar. We were quite satisfied with the results so I felt assured that with Joshua’s help with Periphery, the album would sound the best it could.

Weidenbaum: Like many experimental electronic albums, on Kranky and on other labels, Periphery is almost entirely devoid of explanatory text. Press releases, though, included a fairly good bit of background description, in which we learned the album “is a collection of piano and orchestral based material.” Was it a conscious decision to keep that information from the listener, to have them listen context-free?

Bissonnette: No, I don’t believe that is was a conscious decision. I designed the album art myself, and being a minimalist at heart, I quite simply and likely unconsciously excluded a great deal of information for the sake of a restrained design. In retrospect, I may not have even provided that information in the press release as I’ve been told by quite a few people that is was unnecessary — that the work was capable of standing on its own. My process for producing the work was quite important to me, and perhaps is of interest to other experimental electronic musicians, but may not mean a great deal to the majority of listeners.

Weidenbaum: I’d love for you to explain what’s inside one of the cuts, to in some detail describe the recording and production process of a track. It might help to focus on “In Accordance,” “Comfortable Expectations” or “Pellucidity,” since excerpts of those are available for free download from the Kranky website (kranky.net).

Bissonnette: Much of my process starts out the same way for many tracks. I’ve usually scanned endless samples before singling a few out. Many of the tracks I produce are constructed from only a few samples and at times, one well-constructed source. Once I’ve chosen a good piece, I then follow a process of isolating selected portions and through a custom granular software patch I begin to develop sustained sounds. Once I’ve produced a handful of designed sounds, I then begin the process of composition. I then produce a custom patch for each track that allows me to set up random changes but still grant me the control to construct the composition. I usually spend a few days getting comfortable with the patch and the sounds it produces. Once I feel confident with how I can control the results, similar to how you might acquaint yourself with a new instrument, I then record a few sessions. In the case of “Comfortable Expectations,” it turned out to be one take. Even if I attempted to re-record a track like “Pellucidity,” it wouldn’t likely sound the same as the cut on the album. Much of the composition comes from knowing the patch and knowing that a part of the results will be beyond my control. I believe this recording technique allows for a more intuitive construction, free of over-thinking.

Weidenbaum: That’s very interesting that each track has its own patch — your approach blends the idea of programming and composition. Are these in the software Max/MSP? What basic tools do you use?

Bissonnette: Strangely, I don’t really see myself as a programmer. I have simply spent a fair amount of time with a couple of programs. I use a combination of programs that include Reaktor, Audiomulch and, for some compositions, Ableton Live. I use Live for performance, but I’m not sure there are many laptop musicians who don’t anymore.

Weidenbaum: I’m intrigued you don’t think of yourself as a programmer — I wonder if that has something to do with the increasing fluidity of the music-software interfaces?

Bissonnette: Yeah, I’m not really much of a programmer. I think you’re right, many music programs have improved, their developers now understanding that musicians or artists aren’t necessarily technically minded. I think Ableton is a great example of a company that understands that music software is ultimately for musicians. It just has a well-understood, intuitive feel.

Weidenbaum: You mention that you record a few sessions — by that do you mean that each performance we hear on Periphery is, in fact, a live run-through? If so, are any of them edited, in post-production, aside from things like fading in and out, and clipping for length?

Bissonnette: That is true. Each of the tracks on Periphery is a recording of a live mix. There is minimal editing, but as you stated it is mostly fades and alterations to track length. Of course there is some post equalizing and subtle mixing but all the tracks are recorded live in a way that doesn’t allow me to reconstruct the composition. This is a limitation, but I’ve found that if I set some restrictions it allows the work to have a life of its own, so to speak. I have learned to accept the mistakes, glitches and unplanned moments as part of the work. It also prevents me from overworking a track, which can often result in a sterile composition.

Weidenbaum: Does the word “glitch” resonate with you at all? There is music on Periphery that has the textural abrasions and semi-random minute fissures that have been described with that word. I was wondering what those sonic effects mean to you, from a compositional point of view.

Bissonnette: As I stated in the last response, I have learned to embrace error in my work. Kim Cascone wrote about the use of digital “detritus,” “by-product,” and “background” in his essay “The Aesthetics of Failure.” Periphery is an embodiment of this theory often referred to as “unessentialism.” The album is constructed from the “in between” sounds and textural moments found in the background of recordings. My approach has not been to acquire glitch as a part of my palette of sounds, but rather accept it as a byproduct of my process. My work has been at times described as “ambient,” which is by definition not inappropriate, except for the association with the term “ambient music,” which carries strong sub-cultural associations that emerged during the era of rave culture. Although I attempt to create an immersive experience, I believe that allowing the process of production to be revealed through glitch, distortions and error, grounds the listener and prevents the track from falling into the entrapments of the “chill out” experience.

Weidenbaum: The record includes a small line of text that tells us to listen to it loud. I suppose you meant it in part as a joke, since the music and the packaging suggest a somewhat more placid experience. Still, can you talk a bit about composing quiet music that’s intended to be listened to loud? I consider listening to something loud inherent in listening to it closely.

Bissonnette: I believe that the instructions to “listen to it loud” may have been included in the press release. Although these are not my words, I believe that at times, gentle, subtle music requires a bit of volume in order to appreciate the details hidden below the surface. Stephen Mathieu, known for delicate and intricate soundscapes, has also suggested that his music be experienced at a reasonable volume. I think that this may be in response to a growing interest in “lowercase” sound, which is nearly imperceptible at moments and ultimately requires dedicated listening. I could only hope that Periphery might be listened to with a certain undivided attention, avoiding the epithet of “good background music.”

Related links: Christopher Bissonnette's website, christopherbissonnette.ca.

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