Before moving to the interview, something really special: From May 1 through May 7, this stream of Peter Kirn’s forthcoming album, Music for Dance, will play exclusively here on Disquiet.com. Below, Kirn talks at length about the album, which collects music he wrote for choreographers between 2002 and 2011:
Many thanks to Kirn for sharing his music with this website’s readers.
It isn’t so much that on the Internet no one knows you’re a dog. It’s that on the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog, as well as a philosopher, as well as a notary public, as well as an expert in early forms of Egyptian currency.
Someone at Make magazine once said that there are many regular readers of the website who didn’t fully understand there was also a print magazine, so deep were those particular readers in the digital projection of that multi-faceted publication.
This goes for individuals as much as for institutions. There are users of MeeBlip, the open source digital synthesizer, who don’t fully get that it is the work of Peter Kirn, best known as the founder of the music-tech website CreateDigitalMusic.com, whose readers might not fully get that he is also a performing and recording musician. Kirn was for a long time based in New York, but recently relocated to Berlin, adding a layer of geolocative dispersal to his already broadly distributed portfolio. A forthcoming record album from Kirn, Music for Dance, will add another dot to that constellation of activity by focusing on his collaborative work, specifically his decade-long history in the world of contemporary dance. It’s a beautiful recording, opening with snippets of broken whispers amid poised tones, and proceeding, true to its montage sensibility, through percussive experimentation, plectrum psychedelia, ominous drones, and otherworldly stasis. Kirn conversed at length about the album and the work that went into it, as well as his other activities. The result of that discussion appears, lightly edited, below.
A side note before moving on to the interview. I asked Peter about the elegant shapes that are superimposed on the photographs that accompany the album, and he provided the following explanation from the album’s graphic designer, Anette K. Hansen (anettekhansen.com), who was born in Oslo and shares a workspace with Kirn in Berlin. She said:
“The graphics are taken from graphic dance diagrams from a specific type of dance called The Hey, defined as ‘the rhythmical interlacing in serpentine fashion of two groups of dancers, moving in single file and in opposite directions.’
“I wanted to juxtapose the type of music and the type of dance that may come from that specific music with a completely different form of dance. I’ve done projects before where I’ve tried to ‘visualize music’ and love sound wave diagrams, etc. Visualizing dance graphically is equally as difficult. But I love how something so fluent can be represented by something so stationary and organized.”
Marc Weidenbaum: Dance and electronic music have a long association, both in the experimental art world — I’m thinking initially of Merce Cunningham and John Cage, and of Lucinda Childs and Philip Glass, among numerous others — and, of course, in the populist realms of house, techno, and more recently EDM. Do you draw more from one of those traditions than the other?
Peter Kirn: Well, my training came mostly from the experimental art music world, so that’s my original bias. Now, living in Berlin, I’ve been soaking up more of what happens in clubs. It’s as much fun to me to do a techno set as a fully ambient set, if I can. And populist or art aside, it’s exciting to be in a venue where the audience dances.
What’s nice about Berlin at the moment, too, is how blurred these scenes are. I’ve played a gallery and then run into audience members and danced until dawn; there are classical concerts at big clubs like Berghain and techno out in the park. I remember in school people regularly saying they weren’t making “beat-driven” music, a meaningless contortion that I presume meant they were rejecting those popular forms. And on the flipside, I’ve known plenty of people weirded out by more experimental work. It’s refreshing to see so many people being open minded.
I mean, to me, all of this stuff is a lot of fun. I don’t want to sound un-serious, but it’s such a deep, sensual, emotional experience listening to music, whether it’s some out-there experimental sounds or a four-on-the-floor dance track. And this technology easily adapts to each, so I’d be missing out if I didn’t get to embrace both, as a musician and listener.
Coming from experimental sound, it’s also wonderful to hear those timbres, performance techniques, and technologies go from the domain of labs and schools to being something approaching folk art. So, I’m always insatiably hungry for more of each.
Weidenbaum: The album appears as one long track, a little under 34 minutes in length. How did you decide on this presentation format?
Kirn: For me, it’s a cinematic approach, a sense that once you enter this environment, everything is continuous. It’s also an extension of the process I had built with the dancers, particularly working with Kathy Westwater for over a decade, where I would constantly be making a montage from previous materials.
Weidenbaum: The person to whom you dedicated the project, Viola Farber — say a bit more about her.
Kirn: Viola was a founding member of the Merce Cunningham Company, and later of her own company. I studied with her as an undergraduate at Sarah Lawrence College from 1996-98, where she ran the dance program until her passing during my junior year. (See her wikipedia.or page.)
Viola was an extraordinary teacher and individual, full of indescribable energy and discipline. She constantly demanded greater effort and ingenuity of her dancers. I was at an advantage as a musician in that I think she was more patient with us, but I also adored her toughness. (I sometimes imagine that drive when trying to get myself to work harder, even now.) She was never distracted or unfocused; she was always fully present. And she seemed to take endless delight in new ideas.
Through John Yannelli, who ran (and runs) the electronic music studio at the college, I wound up as a sound tech for dance shows, doing music improv with the dancers, and eventually scoring dance pieces. (Some of this was electronic; I also did some music as a singer and as a pianist.) I was also in a class she taught on dance and music that was in progress when she became ill; it was one of her last classes. But that was I think the greatest pleasure for me, because, being a musician rather than in the dance program, it was the one chance to work with her directly, making experimental choreography and sounds and music.
One of the things I loved about Viola is that musicians were never just off to the margins. I did several pieces where music was onstage with the dance; in one work I even had a graphical score for performance and movement for myself and other singers. Eventually one of the choreographers got the idea of using non-trained dancers, and so I found myself in a concert as a dancer and not a musician. Being in the middle of the action as Viola led warm-ups across the floor before those performances was a singular experience. She was somehow terrifically lucid in a series of grunts and instructions, bounding across the floor while working against the limitations of her damaged hip.
Part of why I think Viola was so present in her work was that she was able to focus on this ephemeral quality of performance, this sense that dance can’t be stored, that it vanishes — like the rest of us — in time.
Weidenbaum: Talk a bit about the performances that are associated with the materials that served as the source audio for this album. Can you annotate it, perhaps, say with time codes that single out the different subsections?
Kirn: They’re collaged in this way partly in that for me there is a continuous narrative, so I actually find I can’t do that so precisely. Listening again, it’s a bit like you feel in a dream — fragments from different times and places can merge together in a way that isn’t so historically accurate. But they come largely from the Dark Matters cycle I did for Kathy Westwater. There’s Christopher Williams’ incubus, starting around 14:50, working with convolved flute and breath samples with Margaret Lancaster. At the very beginning the materials come from a work called Palinopsia I made with Elise Knudson and Pauliina Silvennoinen. And that’s my voice there at the start.
Weidenbaum: Please take one example of the music we hear here — preferably one that resulted from the most collaborative engagement, in which there was back and forth between you and the choreographer in the music’s development — and talk about how it came to be.
Kirn: A lot of the sound is from working with Kathy, and that is just an endless process of collaboration on the Dark Matter series. It’s actually hard to pick out one example, because we worked in cycles, baking the old into the new. When we first started working in 1999, I would meticulously assemble these pre-recorded scores — the old days — using tools like SoundHack and MetaSynth to make sounds and assembling them into Digital Performer. And I’d go a bit mental, as Kathy would constantly change the length of the piece — sometimes by as much as ten or fifteen minutes — because she had this organic process with the dancers. But what came out of that was that I eventually developed a kind of rhythm I knew would fit with what she was doing — sometimes contrasting, sometimes matching, but that would feel right. And even if there was five minutes of silence at the end, maybe that’d work.
By the time we started Dark Matter, I’d switched to loading sounds into Live (though still often using a lot of convolution, as I was fully addicted). And the back and forth was certainly endless. We’d talk about ideas; Kathy would bring images, which ranged from astrophysics to violence and torture. I’d try to somehow absorb and forget these at once, as I built a sound palette. And I’d spend lots and lots of time in the studio. Often, I’d just watch — ideally whole pieces or sections, but sometimes even spend time watching as they worked on phrases, how they pieces together gestures. And then eventually I’d come in with the laptop and play along, work with texture and sometimes even do sound design as they danced. To make the sound portable, we’d work with boom boxes and CDs at some point. But it was always organic, as the dancers also got to know me and I think we were playing off one another, even as scores were being set.
Somehow, on this, the result you hear now is all of those pieces, and none of them. Two pieces are sometimes playing at the same time; events are out of order. It’s a textural echo of what was.
I hope someone dances around to it, even in their head.
Weidenbaum: What are your mental associations with the album?
Kirn: What’s moving for me as I listen to this is that I remember the dancers, the people, the time we shared in rehearsal studios and venues. Working with Kathy, in particular, I was often making stuff in Ableton Live on the fly while sitting in studios, sometimes recording the sounds of the dance against the floorboard (even with an internal mic), once I started using Live in dance scores in 2002.
The city feels like a backdrop for this music to me. So that’s how I came to assemble these film photos I took, all from right before I moved to Berlin. Ultimately, that felt right, choosing these sort of abstract textures — in the same way the scores were abstract textures made to go with the choreography.
Weidenbaum: It seems like your music education benefited from cross-contamination, as it were, from another field. This question may be going nowhere, but I’ll give it a try: do you have a sense of how musicians reared in a music-only environment, a traditional concert-oriented education, might have to struggle more these days than those with collaborative, transmedia experience?
Kirn: Well, heh, they may be better musicians. I can’t really speak to that just because I’ve always had cross-contamination. The people I know with more focused educations have sometimes found their way to other influences themselves.
Weidenbaum: It would be a missed opportunity not to ask you about your websites, in particular CreateDigitalMusic.com. I have three of these questions. First, how do you divide up your day, or week, to balance your personal compositional and performance work and your online activities?
Kirn: Ha! I wish I had this answer. I’ll let you know if I ever sort it out.
Honestly, I feel like it’s getting better this year in Berlin. I have three spaces: home, a workspace (with Anette, the graphic designer, and two other creative types) in Neukölln, and a studio in Friedrichshain. So that spatial separation helps a lot. And then I don’t touch the Internet in the studio. I’m also fortunate to have gotten to spend some time in the studio of Benjamin Weiss, a collaborator. And increasingly, I’m blurring the two — using that creative time as a way to fuel the work on the site and visa versa. Somehow, hopefully, the discipline of running the site and the synth helps inform creative discipline.
Writing is on a schedule, by virtue of having a daily site and being my main source of income. Very often creative time is more sporadic and comes in bursts, but then, that suits the way I find creative energy.
Weidenbaum: Second, given your dual roles as journalist and musician, what have you observed about how musicians working today differ from, say, when you first launched the site?
Kirn: There’s a great deal more diversity in tools. It was still a DAW-dominated world when I started, though we had people already pushing away from that, using Game Boys and Palm and the like. Now, it really is all over the place, with more of everything. The number of people using vintage tech (even computers), using hardware, using drum machines, using modular, using mobile (iOS in particular, of course), and using DIY tools like Max and Pd and SuperCollider just keeps expanding. I think it’s healthy. More people are working with technology than before, and so they’re making that realm more flexible and diverse in keeping with their diverse musicality.
Weidenbaum: Third, given your history, there is less dance in your CreateDigitalMotion.com coverage than perhaps one might have imagined. Do you think there is a gap yet to be bridged between contemporary dance and the digital arts?
Kirn: That’s an unfortunate oversight on my part, certainly. Motion has had fewer resources, too, and I devote less time to it than I’d like because it’s a labor of love rather than generating financial support. So I wouldn’t say this is disproportionate entirely because of the scene.
At the same time, the dance world definitely moves more slowly. That’s okay — it takes more time to tailor something like live and interactive visuals to dance than it does to experiment with VJing in a club.
I’d love to talk more about this, though. It was great, for instance, to lead a panel with Mark Coniglio, at Platoon here in Berlin last fall, one of the major pioneers of this field, from Isadora to Troika Ranch — and someone who mentored me while I was at Dance Theater Workshop.
Weidenbaum: You said the release will get a “Creative Commons BY-SA” license. That’s great you are allowing derivative works. Was that a decision you gave much thought to, weighing pros and cons, or was it a natural inclination? I’ve been fascinated of late with people who pursue the Creative Commons option but neglect the opportunities provided by allowing for derivatives.
Kirn: I do give it some thought. Just as you have to make sure the packaging and mastering and duration fit a release, you should think about each release’s license.
That said, I value these sorts of licenses generally; it’s part of my life and my livelihood. My site runs on open source software, and the MeeBlip synthesizer we produce relies on the GPL and Creative Commons to allow people to share hacks and modifications. The site’s content, too, depends on free licensing — we regularly rely on CC images from Flickr, for instance, so it makes sense that the site and our media are generally published under the same license. It means we give back, hopefully. And also I think it can clarify what is fair and non-fair use in the Internet age. I wish more sites were smarter about licensing options, clear license information, and — especially — clear attribution.
As far as Music for Dance, the whole purpose of the release was to set this music free. So giving it a permissive license makes sense.
Not everything I think needs to be Creative Commons-licensed — sometimes traditional copyright makes better economic sense. But when a free license is the goal, I think ShareAlike is the logical restriction to add. Derivative works then have to be shared in the same way, so it avoids exploitation. But unlike non-commercial licenses, it’s clear and unambiguous.
Who knows when something is truly non-commercial — maybe on Star Trek where there’s no money. And if you’re trying to avoid it showing up in a car ad without you getting paid, well, let’s see a Volkswagen ad under a Creative Commons ShareAlike license! That’s be kind of amazing.
Weidenbaum: You mention in the liner note that this was a chapter in your life, this work, and the sense is that chapter is in the past. Have you not been exploring further choreography-based efforts now that you are in Berlin?
Kirn: The chapter was definitely New York; Berlin has been a profound change. I have stepped away from working from dance for a while, which I think can be healthy, particularly after some collaborations that lasted years. But I know that won’t last for long; I’ll come back to it and I’m making some of those connections here. And I was surprised to discover Sarah Lawrence has a presence in Berlin, too, so it was great to talk to other alumni who are here, including one of John Yannelli’s more recent students. Life seems to come in cycles like this.
I also have these websites I write every day, and a synth to manufacture, so there is a bit of juggling there, for sure!
But with or without directly working with choreographers, I think somehow dance and movement have to be part of the DNA of anything you do in music. There are always feelings of gestures. In this score, there are a number of made-up instruments that sound as though they may be acoustic but are entirely synthetic. And in (club) dance music you have similar ideas — you imagine a human playing or dancing to a line, or maybe a robot. But you move around. And on the technology side, this is why I’m so interested as a writer in looking at how people are connecting gestures and electronic music. Even if that gesture is as simple as turning a knob, there’s a link between movement and sound.
More from Kirn at pkirn.com.
Photo credits: The image of Kirn’s silhoette is by Brigitte Faessler. The image with his eyeglasses is by Elwira Wojtunik.