Junto Profile: Kel Smith (aka Suss Müsik)

From Pennsylvania: handmade electroacoustic instrumentation; reducing complexity

This Junto Profile is part of an ongoing series of short Q&As that provide some background on various individuals who participate regularly in the online Disquiet Junto music community.

What’s your name? My name is Kel Smith, although I’m better known among Disquiet Junto participants as Suss Müsik. The project started in 2016 as a vehicle to create what I then called “post-classical ambient minimalism for crepuscular airports.” I also record in a music project called Egret Zero, collaborating with the very talented guitarist Wm. Wolfgang Allen. As midlife crises go, making strange music is deeply satisfying and relatively benign.

Where are you located? I currently live with Mrs. Suss Müsik in Pennsylvania (USA), located between Philadelphia and New York City. I once lived in Baltimore, went to art school in Italy, got married in Greece, and from 2007 through 2018 traveled extensively for work. (This is how I gained my expertise in crepuscular airports).

What is your musical activity? In a recent piece on CKRL, roughly translated from French, I was described as a sound artist “with a mind haunted by the numbers.” That’s about as good a description of Suss Müsik as I’ve ever heard or read.

I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between machines and human capability. In a way, Suss Müsik is the distant product of research I conducted for a book I wrote in 2013 called Digital Outcasts. My work at that time detailed the historical significance of disability on today’s design innovation. During the period of writing this book, I interviewed subjects with disabilities who achieved a high level of acclimation using tools they personally designed or retrofitted.

Looking back, I now recognize the inevitability that these influences would have in formulating my creative practice — especially a sonic discipline that blends science and art. Much of Suss Müsik’s output is generated by handmade electroacoustic instrumentation. Some devices are built from archaic consumer technologies (like 1990’s hard drive enclosures), while others are custom-designed and manufactured via 3D-printing or other methods.

Conceptually, I enjoy the ironic duality that results when limits are extended and redefined: the reclamation of outdated machines being repurposed for a new use, for example, or the digital replication of sonic behaviors native to acoustic instruments (such as when we hear breath through a flute or the abrasive scrape of a violin bow). A large component of Suss Müsik’s aesthetic lies in the existent tension between these formative states.

As my mechanical skills have grown, the devices have gradually become more consistently reliable in performance. Similarly, I’d like to think that my compositional techniques have grown sharper. The current version of Suss Müsik is less ambient and more minimal in parts, yet still crepuscular.

What is one good musical habit? Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson once said: “I am driven by two main philosophies: know more today about the world than I knew yesterday, and lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

I think it’s important to consciously expose ourselves to new ideas, new philosophies, new ways of working, and new forms of sonic expression. At the height of Suss Müsik’s ambient phase, I started taking djembe lessons. One wouldn’t necessarily imagine African drumming as being in the same family as ambient soundscapes, but both musical disciplines address the corporeal body as a conduit; a vehicle through which our understanding of time and space can be temporarily suspended. There’s always a richness to be uncovered whenever we explore new things, even if the benefit is revealed in the form of a happy surprise.

Participating in the Disquiet Junto has been a genuinely rewarding experience. I’m thankful to be a part of this network of talented individuals, many of whom have provided sincere encouragement that has elevated my practice. Somewhere along the path of my 160+ Junto projects, I feel I’ve learned a bit about making creative choices within a timestamp of four minutes.

More important, though, is the opportunity to return the favor with Junto participants via weekly projects or the Disquiet Slack channel. It takes zero effort to offer a bit of positive feedback, yet the impact can be transformative. It’s as if we have this safe, secret little snow-globe of creative energy that crosses geographic and demographic boundaries—a bit of stability, perhaps, in times of turbulence. As I’ve grown old(er), I’ve learned to appreciate that dynamic and avoid taking it for granted.

One technical item (and I’m sure everyone already knows this): it took me way too long to discover the importance of a good set of headphones. For too long, I could never figure out why my mixes sounded so tinny compared to everything else I heard. I recommend the Audio Technica brand.

What are your online locations? To date, the Suss Müsik discography features eight proper “albums” and a handful of EP-length releases. Some of it makes me wince today, especially the way they were recorded, but I accept that as part of my learning journey. More than a few Junto projects have been reworked for release; in fact, one album titled Ex Post Facto is nearly all former Junto offerings. All Suss Müsik releases are available in the usual places: Bandcamp, Spotify, etc. The latest (and arguably best) is New Hopes, released in 2022.

There is a Suss Müsik website that I don’t update nearly as often as I should. People do find me via the contact form, so I suppose it must be doing its job. A number of Junto participants have indicated that they enjoy the written texts that accompany Suss Müsik contributions, so it’s nice to have them all in one place as a sort of archive.

Egret Zero releases are also available on Bandcamp. My favorite is Exploring Shackleton, mostly because it has a photo of my grandfather on the cover and got a nice review.

Soundcloud is sort of the Suss Müsik sandbox: Junto projects, failed experiments, etc. I’ve been considering some form of exit, but for now it’s still in the portfolio.

For those who enjoy seeing digital instruments pushed beyond the precipice of functionality, Suss Müsik offers a YouTube channel and an Instagram presence.

I’ve long since given up on Facebook and Twitter as vehicles for omphaloskepsis.

What was a particularly meaningful Junto Project? I love all my sonic children, but not equally. I have a soft spot for Junto 0247, because it was my first. I still fondly remember how surprised and delighted I was upon receiving a positive response. I also really like my contribution for Junto 0334, mostly because the text I wrote for it actually happened (more or less), and I recall Junto 0320 being a particularly fun assignment. But if I had to pick just one, it would be a sentimental favorite: Junto 0454, a numerically encoded tribute to my then-five-year-old niece.

Your mention of a good pair of headphones suggests a question, which is what advice do you have for people looking to listen back to their own music more critically? Listening back to some old Suss Müsik recordings, I’m often dismayed at how busy a lot of them sound. There were good ideas in there, but they were buried in excessive instrumentation (you know your mixes are too thick when you have a track for “tambourine #3”) and effects (reverb-erb-erb-erb). Sometimes we have to examine our work critically in order to fairly assess it, and for that it means removing the clutter. I’ve subsequently imposed limits on myself when reworking old material, allowing more dry space to let things breathe a bit. I believe this intention to reduce complexity has been a benefit to my overall creative practice. Whenever something doesn’t seem to be working, I always ask myself: “What doesn’t need to be here? What can be removed?”

People don’t act on the invitation to provide feedback as often as they might. Do you have any advice for people who are hesitant to do so? It’s a tricky dynamic I’ve observed in my non-Suss Müsik world as well: there are always one or two contributors who have no hesitation in providing feedback, and others who choose to be more passive. I believe these tendencies are the result of the confidence heuristic, a psychology term to describe how people are more willing to provide feedback when they feel their contributions are assertive or persuasive. I think the most important thing to remember is that it’s okay to be selective in how or when we offer feedback; sometimes people simply don’t feel up to it, and that’s fine. For those who have a tentative yearning to be part of the discussion, I’d say: use your reticence as a strength. Be sincere, be constructive, be open to dialogue. And for those who receive feedback, always remember this: even if you don’t agree, there may be a finer point in there worth investigating. It’s all subjective anyway, so be nice. As Pere Ubu’s David Thomas once wrote: “Artists can produce anything they want. And people can like whatever they want. That’s why there’s always disappointment on both sides.”

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