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The Drifter

Christopher Willits viscerally inhabits the space between what he plays and what we hear.

By Marc Weidenbaum

It often comes down to drift and to folding. Those are two key words in most any conversation with Christopher Willits about electronically mediated music, certainly when the music in question is his own. Musicians, especially those who toil in abstract realms, are known to develop or adopt a select set of terms that serve as guideposts to their ideas, from Steve Reich’s pulses to Brian Eno’s ambient to Lil Jon’s crunk. For some musicians these are verbal tics, or personal flags to fly, and sometimes they take on the properties of a mantra. Willits is unusual in having spent considerable time developing practical, formal definitions for many of the terms near and dear to his artistic activities.

For example, “drift,” which he defines as follows: “Slight randomization within an array of possible settings generates gradual variation.” That’s not a paraphrase, or a transcription from a conversation. That axiomatically concise clause appears in a small lexicon that Willits developed as part of his master’s thesis, written toward the degree he received from the graduate program in music at Mills College in Oakland, California. There he studied with, among others, deep-listening guru Pauline Oliveros and avant-guitarist Fred Frith. It was acceptance at the program that first brought him to the West Coast from Kansas City, where he’d been studying painting and toying with video.

Like many in the Mills music program, Willits became part of the out-sound community in greater San Francisco virtually upon matriculation, and like many of the school’s graduates he chose to remain in the Bay area following graduation — teaching, performing and further developing the drifting and folding that largely define his music. In time, he constructed a unique compositional mode with two key components, guitar and laptop, on records like Pollen (Fallt) and a series of solo releases and collaborations with Taylor Deupree on Deupree’s 12k label, as well as a duo set with Deupree on the Audiosphere label. Willits’ sound has come to be distinguished by gently cascading textures that group into amorphous subsets. He likens these clusters to “balls of geometry” and “centers of energy in time.” His music can be very relaxing, until you recognize how free-floating that center is, at which point it can become vertiginous.

Willits sits in a small Mission District cafe, thinking back to his education at Mills. He’s sipping tea, glancing occasionally at his Sidekick and recalling heady chant sessions in one of Oliveros’ classes. He says he especially admires the success with which she has “folded her life and her music into each other”: “That’s really the goal we’re all trying to get at.” As for Frith, “He really kicked my ass,” says Willits. “He really made an effort, I think, to squish my head: ‘You’re another weird guitarist, fuckin’ big deal.’ You know what I mean?” Frith called him “a tonal freak,” and it’s true that Willits isn’t shy about his taste for melody, even if he sublimates it with layers of processing.

Whether he’s employing “drift” in the transitive or the intransitive sense, the term provides a clear window into not only his own practice, but that of anyone who uses chance-related algorithms to interpolate melodic, harmonic and rhythmic input. Willits’ definition of the word provides a useful description of how subroutines, such as those developed in his software of choice, Max/MSP, can capture, trace and evolve a live input into something quite removed from the original. “I’m recording what I’m playing live,” Willits says of his process, “and that’s being recorded into the computer, and I’m doing all sorts of looping, cutting and folding processes on that.”

Asked to explain “folding,” he says, “It really relates to how I take an incoming stream of data, and skip through it, moving forward and backward in time simultaneously. It’s how I like to develop melodic patterns. It’s a technique that’s generated from constrained randomness. The patterns are somewhat preset but I allow them to drift — I’m using the word again. I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen; I just have an idea of what’s going to happen.” (The term also popped up in the title to his 12k debut, Folding, and the Tea.)

A penchant for musicological neologisms notwithstanding, Willits is anything but dry in person. One of electronic music’s most charismatic stage performers, he opened a 2005 lecture about Max/MSP at the San Francisco Art Institute by describing his early experiments in sound-for-sound’s-sake home recording as a “never-ending quantum orgasm.” One trademark of Willits’ live concert performances is the way he moves on stage — and, for that matter, the fact that he moves at all. He sways to an invisible (and, considering the erratic if soulful pantomime, inaudible) metronome. Abstract electronic music is not exactly known for its extroverts, and whereas many musicians employ a guitar as a simple source of useful textures, for Willits it is first and foremost a guitar, an object. “I just enjoy having that physical interface,” he says. “It’s a melodic interface that I’m comfortable with.”

It can often appear in a Willits show that he’s moving to something different from what the audience is hearing. “I don’t really know what I’m moving to,” he says. “It’s a combination of, I guess, what I’m hearing and what I’m hearing in my head and what’s actually coming out of the speakers, because people in the audience aren’t really going to hear the prerecorded guitar that’s going into the system, unless I bring up in the mix.”

Hearing one thing, producing another, inhabiting the temporal space that’s an end result of that processing — Willits can be thought of less as feedback-enhanced guitarist than as a turntablist, less Jimi Hendrix than Kid Koala: “That’s totally how I think about it,” he says. “I’m like a DJ that’s creating the material on the spot.”

“I get bored if I only have a laptop,” he says. “Also, I also love playing with other people.” He cites collaborations with drummer Gabriel Coan, singer Latrice Barnett (that’s her on “Touch Me and I End Up Singing” off the Ghostly collection SMM Vol. 2) and, most prolifically, synthesist Deupree. “The way Taylor and I work is like my process in general,” Willits says. “The collaborations of our releases always come from a shared moment, a shared improvisation that we’re doing together.” (His debut record for Deupree’s 12k was one of the first, if not the first, of the label’s releases to involve live instrumentation.) Willits is also developing an open-ended artistic community, centered at overlap.org, the name Overlap being a pseudonym he’d once considered using.

Of all Willits’ current projects, the most exciting is the North Valley Subconscious Orchestra, which amps up the guitar quotient considerably. Despite its expansive name, the “orchestra” is a duo, pairing him with Brad Laner (of Savage Republic, Medicine and Electric Company). Together they’ve recorded music thick with shoegazer haze and muffled vocals, what Willits calls an “avant-pop” vibe. The material he’s waxed with Laner is wide-ranging; there are also acoustic tracks and what Willits calls “white noise beauty” and “weird pop songs.” And at the heart of it all is nothing more unusual than a guitar. “But,” he qualifies, “it isn’t familiar when it comes out.”

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