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

Heavy Circuits

The lo-fi electronic musician Jamie Allen talks about hand-crafted circuitry, digital academe, and the beauty of the square wave.

By Marc Weidenbaum

At the gallery and performance space Galapagos in Brooklyn last summer, I was fortunate to catch a show of electronically mediated music, art, installations, and short films. Among the participants was a musician and tinkerer named Jamie Allen whose set-up was a revelation in its simplicity.

His instrument was a wooden wine crate filled with custom-made circuitry and six joystick-like levers. Allen called his tool circuitMusic, and it emitted a throbbing, old-school sound — the sort of sound that’s often called “feedback laden” when in fact it was more like he was exploring the feedback, simultaneously navigating and lending shape to the noise. (There is additional coverage of the event, including photos, in an August 2007 disquiet.com entry.)

The music got more abstract as his set went on, and Allen’s hand-crafted instrument provided a comforting focus throughout. Each of its six joysticks was paired with a single headlight on the front of the box. That trigger system, in a highly economical manner, provided helpful signals to the audience: visual orientation amid the increasingly self-obscuring sounds. In a world of ever more powerful technology, it was downright inspiring to experience the sort of communication that could be accomplished with a simple on-off switch.

It’s no surprise that Allen’s skills in communication in regard to electronics and electronic music are not limited to stage performances. He’s taught classes in such subjects as “Performing Technology,” “New Interfaces for Musical Expression,” and “Sensor Workshop” at New York University and Pratt Institute. And after finishing up an early-2008 residency at Eyebeam in Manhattan (eyebeam.org), he’s relocating to Newcastle, England, to help start a new Masters program in Digital Arts with Atau Tanaka, formerly of Sony Paris. “The Masters,” he explained via email, “will be held in coordination with the Newcastle Culture Lab, headed up by Sally-Jane Norman.” (More info at ncl.ac.uk/culturelab.)

Allen took time recently to talk about the tool he played at Galapagos, the implications of musicians crafting their own instruments, the intersection of academia and the electronic arts, and the politics of 8bit music, among other things.

Marc Weidenbaum: When I saw you perform at Galapagos in Brooklyn last summer, you used one machine for the performance, and it was something you’d designed yourself. I’m very interested in musical instruments created by musicians. Could you describe what it was and how it functioned?

Jamie Allen: The rig you saw is a piece called “circuitMusic.” It’s really very simple — it’s a set of square waves built with raw electronic components, inside an old wine box. I have a few ways of varying resistances in the circuit — photo-resistors, force-sensitive resistors, and regular old potentiometers. Each of the square waves is coupled to a set of very bright light-emitting diode arrays, such that whenever a new oscillator is thrown in, a light comes on. There are six sound elements, and six lights.

I really started this piece out of a frustration with the possibilities for improvisation in electronic music. I wanted something I could get lost in while performing. I wanted something that wasn’t just moving through a set of presets or known “fields” I had created prior to a show; circuitMusic often surprises me, as does the incredibly positive reaction I get to the simple on/off “visualization” it provides the audience.

Weidenbaum: You’ve taught courses related to electronic music at a variety of schools in and around Manhattan. I imagine these schools each has a different take on music and technology, and I was wondering what you’ve learned about different scholarly takes on the field.

Allen: The often surprising thing about music in academia is that the spectrum of motivations is really broad. There are many communities, viewpoints, conferences, styles, and philosophies represented. Coming to accept this as a cultural reality when I first became involved was a bit of a challenge for me, actually. I come out of playing in bands, in bars, etc., primarily for the rawness and fun of it — the blood-and-sweat school of music. So I came to computer electronic music with a kick-ass “let’s fucking do this thing” kind of motivation. I had a real problem accepting any motivation other than those that were a direct reaction to the lack of relevancy I perceived in the computer and experimental music scene. As is often true, I’ve mellowed out a lot, because, as I am now quite fond of saying, “Hell, it’s only music.”

There are scholars who approach technological, musical, and other creative decisions as a kind of scientific “problem” to be “solved.” There are a lot of people out to do a lot of things so they can be “first” at it. There are also far too many music-technology scholars in higher learning who use academia a kind of hustle or dodge, or to bolster a failing “commercial” music career — whatever that means these days. The best work, and best teaching I think, comes from people who are primarily interested in music as a method of communication, enhanced and elaborated through technology. In Manhattan, like anywhere else, you find that certain schools and departments do have certain emphases in this regard, based on who’s running them and what their personal motivations are.

Weidenbaum: Do you have any thoughts you’d like to share on the whole 8-bit world of music-making — is that at all where your head is at?

Allen: I’ve always loved the sound of the square wave, which is the timbral indicator for what we think of as “low-fi” or “chip” music. It’s also fitting that mathematically, the instantaneous change from one signal level to another — the Heaviside function, the basis of a square wave, really — at least theoretically, contains all frequencies. That thought alone contributes to my understanding of these somewhat harsh tones as very warm, welcoming, and somehow enveloping.

I’m also sure, as I’ve heard many people comment, that there is a kind of flashback adrenaline rush that comes from hearing these sounds. A good portion of our generation grew up getting their kicks with a side order of these square-wave-based game sounds, so there’s a sense in which it’s just taking you back to that time you kicked your brother’s ass at Impossible Mission on the C64. A happy time, indeed.

Anyhow — I’m not much of a scenester, but I do have a duo with Michael Horan called “Season of the Bit” where we remix and DJ Commodore 64 tunes. The Blip Festival just happened here in New York, and I was really hoping to catch way more of it than I did…

Weidenbaum: I agree there’s a flashback quality to those sounds, and the way musicians and artists — from Scott Johnson’s I.F. Stone transcriptions to Christian Marclay’s use of old video footage and record albums — employ sounds of the past definitely expects that as part of the audience’s reaction. But as the years go on, lo-fi, 8bit music is attracting an audience with no first-hand experience with that original sound. The result is a kind of second-hand nostalgia. This new generation grew up on much more advanced games — do you understand what they get out of 8bit?

Allen: You’re right — this “flashback” quality is certainly not the only motivation for low-res soundscape work — just an often-cited one.

If you’re the kind of person that thinks all decisions are political — like me — you can also think of the use of lo-fi hardware and software as somewhat of a subversion of technological culture. That’s certainly one of my motivations for doing this kind of work. Our culture at the moment values technological advancement and refinement at a level that can sometimes feel dehumanizing, overstated, and boring. There’s a slickness, perfection, and inevitability to the trajectory of ever-higher-resolution-everything we’re on right now that is apparently frustrating to a good number of people’s creative process, particularly in music. This is perhaps why a lot of people compare the 8bit scene to the punk scene, in terms of motivation. The elements you get to lay your hands on in “state of the art” music studios can really suck all the play and fun out of making music.

Weidenbaum: And, to follow up, do you see a music movement based on more recent gaming systems, along the lines of machinima — in which footage of video games is edited to create short films — coming along?

Allen: Certainly — a lot of my students are interested in the effects current video-game culture will have on the musical landscape. What I find interesting is that there are generations of people out there assuming that all their media is interactive, malleable, and essentially a dialogue of some sort. Most of the creative music game developers out there — Toshio Iwai and Harmonix, for example — are already using game platforms to deliver high-level musical decision-making to the masses. I would say that Harmonix’s FreQuency (2001) and Nintendo’s Electroplankton (2005) are existing examples of “musical machinima” tools — although there is certainly room for further exploration and openness in these systems.

Weidenbaum: Of all the different music-making devices you’ve created, do you think any of them might have a wider audience among your fellow musicians — that is, would any of make it in the marketplace as manufactured instruments?

Allen: I think one of the real powers of the configurable prototyping systems available to the electronic artist today is that you are freed from these ideas transferability and permanence in the standard sense. You can pretty much make an entire instrument system, play it once, take it apart, reconfigure it and then play it the next night. Perry Cook, a fantastic guy, technologist, and musician up at Princeton, once said, “Make a piece, not an instrument or controller.” This has wonderful repercussions musically, politically, and socially. In music, there is the new idea of a kind of sketchy, design-oriented approach to performance and compositional process. Politically, we may actually help to break down hegemonic and hierarchical music and art structures in the West that have been so dominant for far too long. It is hard get to the heart of what educational pedigree, for example, even means for self-built instruments that are entirely reconfigurable or performance-specific. Socially, we can think of instrument creation as beginning before the level of “player” and oftentimes blurring the ranks of composer, performer, instrumentalist, and audience.

Needless to say, the marketplace affects everyone’s outlook and work in a broad sense, but it’s not at all a part of my conscious thought process in the creation of music or performance.

Weidenbaum: Which comes first, the music or the instrument? Do you create instruments with a certain sound in your head, or do you create instruments and then, when they’re done, see what kind of music they can make?

Allen: I’m really interested in process, first and foremost. There’s a transparency and directness of communication that I strive for in performance and music. Instrument design is often a way of rendering limitations and facilities into a physical object. Objects are also, arguably, inherently performable, so it can be a way of translating and communicating otherwise obscure processes to other people. Like anyone, I have sounds and sequences and patterns that appeal to me for one reason or another, as in the aforementioned case of square waves. What I find most satisfying, though, is the translation of process as a way of sculpting someone else’s experience in real time.

Weidenbaum: If I am overemphasizing the academic aspect of your work, please tell me so, but I want to ask one additional question about that area. One thing that academia has in its favor is continuity. There’s a tradition, a literature, a practice, or a variety of practices, within each field. Are there performance, or computer-science, or music communities, within academia that you particularly see yourself in the tradition of?

Allen: I really think of myself as a life-long student, and so I think I naturally gravitate towards educational environments. I have a serious addiction to learning new things and being exposed to new ideas. I don’t have a lot of academic aspirations in the more traditional sense, so I can’t really say that there’s a particular history I’m interested in trying to get myself written into.

I do think relationships to specific histories in academia, the arts, performance, and music are changing. I find a lot of electronic and digital artists are less and less concerned with their practice as a “modernist” or “minimalist” or whatever — and more and more concerned with project-specific appropriateness, relevance, and context dependence, which is really very positive all in all.

This has a lot to do with the distributed contexts in which creative works exist these days. An artist can have one piece that looks at something from a certain motivation — say, deconstructionist — and another piece that looks at it from another — say, collagist. There’s no conflict because both “communities” can be addressed through the same varied distribution channels available to the artist. This all reminds me of music-listening patterns in the post-digital music age, to some extent. You don’t ask people, “What kind of music do you listen to?” anymore, because listening patterns are so diverse. Similarly, I don’t ask people, “What kind of artist are you?” because I know they’ve likely got a long list of interests.

So… what kind of artist am I? Well I’m a “post-post-modern- avant-garde-romantic-digital- experimental-conceptualist,” with a limp.

Related link: Jamie Allen's website, heavyside.net.

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