Kim Cascone is probably best know to music fans over the age of 30 as the founder of San Francisco's pioneering Ambient/Experimental label Silent, responsible for releasing the music of The Haters, Asmus Tietchens, Merzbow, and Arcane Device as well as Kim's own projects PGR and Heavenly Music Corporation. Kim studied electronic music at the Berklee School of Music though his first recorded project PGR (Poison Gas Research) received much of its earliest inspiration from the 1980s wave of industrial music. As the 80s progressed the music of PGR grew increasingly more complex and ambitious, culminating in "The Chemical Bride" CD, a stunning work of electronic music that doesn't sound any less earth-shaking today than it did in 1992. The Heavenly Music Corporation was a project born in the days when it seemed "Ambient Music" would take over the world - the four CDs released between 1993 and 1995 are very much of their era. In the last few years Kim has returned to the passions first sparked by his experiences at Berklee in the early 1970s, taking inspiration from the earliest pioneers of computer music. I met Kim in North Carolina during the transmissions oo3 festival.
The interview took place in a restaurant in Carrboro the day of Kim's performance.
01. How do you listen to computer music? And do you listen to and evaluate computer music the same way you would any other music?
Being trained as a musician, or as an Architect, or anything, gives you a certain view or perception of an art form that other people may not have. And I think you can't escape that, having had some training. When you're viewing works of art, or pieces of music, or buildings, or what have you, you always tend to see below the skin, and you see the form, the structure, so I think I listen to most music as a composer, somebody who has somewhat of a background. But with computer music I think it's a little different because you also have to be somewhat technical. Having been involved in electronic music for the past 25 years I guess I know enough technically and aurally to know how things are done, so - like I found myself in your car listening to a CD and going, "oh, I'm so tired of that sound of granular stretching" you know, I like it, but it's a little overused. So you start thinking like that. Rather than just sitting back and having it wash over you, you tend to pick it apart and sort of listen to techniques rather than the overall effect. So I think I do that more with computer music and electronic music than I do with just regular music. I can probably sit down and listen to something as innocuous and banal as Madonna's "Ray of Light" and not get overly involved in the inner workings of it...
02. Have you developed a method or standard for judging good and bad computer music?
I've definitely developed a standard by which I judge pieces. It's strange with electronic music because it is not a medium like classical music or jazz or something where it's immediately obvious how to judge a piece or work of art. Sort of like abstract expressionism, or minimalism or any school of art, modern art, where unless you know what you're looking at, and you have some background understanding of the techniques involved, again you can't really judge it in any deep manner. Like people walk in, see a Jackson Pollock and say, "well, my kid can do that". That is the archetypal statement. But with computer music, there's a lot of academic stuff that I've been listening to for a very long time, which comes out of universities, and it's always suffers from being student work - you can tell. It's what I call wankery - it's sort of "masturbatory" or exposing their prowess with certain techniques in computer music but it doesn't really speak from the soul. I think that's where with any work of art you really have to have that other voice that is developed that says something. Helping the person listening establish some sort of meaning in the work. What I find interesting about the current crop of glitch is that there seems to be a sort of almost hormonal energy that almost infuses an energy into the work. That's what interested me in glitch and in this whole new discovery of computer music and tools and techniques is that it has an attitude. it says a lot - it has a lot of meaning packed into it just by the context of taking academic tools and re-purposing them for street art.
03. In an interview with Urb magazine in 1993 you said, "Anywhere in the world you have spiritual awareness you have awareness of sound." Could you elaborate?
I think that most societies that naturally do music revolve around the idea of some kind of supernatural or spiritual other world that they interface with. I don't think machines are all that different. I think that it's just how western minds perceive the almost animated qualities of machines, what their purpose is, rather, their functions are. So I think that a lot of these functions almost like creating the same kind of effect that you know tribal societies have for the supernatural. Technology is almost supernatural so I don't know if I can explain it better but they tie in because I feel that part of the magic of being able to express an idea creatively is that it comes from a different place that isn't necessarily completely locked into the material realm. It can be called spiritual or creative or artistic or what have you but it comes from a different area of our experience and our thinking.
04. What do you think some of the European people you run into think about these ideas?
I think they tend to see it differently. There's a backlash against the idea of spirituality and technology. Seems to be like people who come from a different era tend to carry through with them these ideas. Maybe spirituality is a word that is too tainted but it 's a realm removed from the material realm. I'm not sure that a lot of people are concerned with that. I know that Oval are very locked into the whole idea of technology and exploiting it. They have a lot of the German sort of Adorno and Heidegger and certain views on technology. I don't know that they grapple with the same kind of like supernatural, sort of alchemical ideas that I'm interested in.
05. You've talked about deriving inspiration from the era of electronic music between 1968-72 - could you explain what it is about that era that fascinates you?
During that era people were getting used to technology. We had the first man on the moon, we had computers coming in and viewed as big brother or technology that was going to replace jobs in the United States and it carried on a rather frightening almost otherworldly view for people. They didn't know what to make of it. I can remember many editorials and cartoons portraying computers as being in control of what we do. I think that's a very antiquated view of course because the desktop computer kind of turned that around but there was this period where people didn't quite know how to integrate technology into everyday lives. So the people who were working with technology, like John Cage, Nam June Paik and Xenakis, didn't have the same mystification of technology. They understood the inner workings and I think they really worked hard to help integrate it in an artistic way into society. But the way that the computer was portrayed in a lot of movies and editorials was a sterile, cold-, sort of aesthetic - it was very clinical. And I found that to be a very interesting view of it. I really like that cold synthetic quality. There's a lack of spirituality there that's implied by it being missing or by us projecting it as being missing. I'm not sure if i can explain that any better.
06. Do you think the computer music of that time was a reaction to technology being cold and inhuman or was it an expression of those qualities?
I think it was both. I think that there were people reacting against that sterility. I remember people saying that synthesizers were so sterile sounding - they sounded very synthetic but I always loved that quality. I found that synthetic quality to be part of the next level of human development - in a way. There are computer composers who were working with sounds to create a more organic feeling. For example Dennis Smalley or Jean-Claude Risset were working with processing sounds and integrating musique concrete with their computer generated sounds.
07. What is Risset's catalog of computer instruments?
Back in 1968 Jean Claude Risset was working at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey under Max Matthews and he started a catalog of many simple computer music instruments. These were collections of unit generators that when placed together created different sounds. He created a lot of these instruments - famous ones, like the trumpet, the snare drum, and the shifting glissando bell instrument...
08. Is this a written series of code that describes or makes a sound when it "becomes" a program?
Exactly. It compiles and spits out audio data, as a sound file. Risset printed these code examples as a little book of computer music instruments that he called a catalog.
09. You said about Risset that there is poetry in his code-
He was one of few computer music composers that had a very strong voice. Jean Claude Risset, Curtis Roads - well Morton Subotnick isn't a computer musician per se but I also found his work had a wonderful narrative quality. Particularly in his composition "silver apples of the moon". "Silver apples" contained the epitome of that sterility; it had an incredible spiritual or supernatural quality. But there are a few composers like Risset who weren't necessarily sterile but had a mix of both and he's one of the few composers who create masterful work. Xenakis also has this quality. There are early pieces by Xenakis that still I'm in awe of.
10. You're talking both about the code and the score as well as the music?
I think every computer music composer has their own elegance in their coding and it's a personal thing. I haven't seen much code except for Risset's. I'm sure Jean Claude's code is pretty poetic but I think it's more of what he does with it that transmits that feeling for me.
11. Does it take years of study and a complete understanding of the techniques involved or can anyone make computer music?
Well it depends. Composers like Hecker, Peter Rehberg and Farmers Manual are very computer literate and I think that's just sort of a natural state for a lot of composers working with technology today. They grew up with Nintendo and were introduced to technology through computer video games and computers, programming and tinkering, that sort of thing. It's a criteria - it's something that you have to know in order to do meaningful work.
12. Isn't there a difference in intent between the composers of the 1968-72 era and the current "street-art" practitioners?
I think the difference is also the tools. Like any technology, if it's accessible to people it has to be made understandable. Whereas if you only had access to these programs in the universities, the only way to touch those machines was to be in a computer science curriculum. Computers were very slow back then so you had to batch run your files overnight or for a few days. Even at that point there were only two digital audio converters on the east coast, so the tools were very advanced for the time but you could only touch them if you had a Phd or were in a university computer music program. Today all you need is a Powerbook and Max or Supercollider. You can learn these programs by reading many of the tutorials and examples found on the internet. The tools are available. It doesn't take somebody with enough interest or knowledge, very long to create interesting work.
13. You're using some visual programming environments now, such as Synthbuilder, as opposed to Csound where you would have to type in code - has the visual aspect affected the way you compose or look for a sound when you work on your pieces?
Yeah. Definitely. "blueCube" was created predominantly with Csound, and required a different working process as opposed to working in Max or Supercollider. There's a waiting period that I had talked about before where you type in some code, start the compile process, wait for it to compile, and then listen to it. You think about what you're writing differently when you're writing code rather than when you're dragging objects into a workspace. it's hard to describe. I do think that working visually and in real time speeds up the creative process quite a bit. Instead of taking a couple of years to make a CD I can get a lot more accomplished in a shorter period of time because I'm not constantly fighting the compile time.
14. What do you think about the idea that an artist must have a specific intent before he sets out to create a work, as opposed to playing around and improvising until you find something you can develop?
It's hard to be improvisational with code. I mean, you get into this workflow where you have an idea or you try out an idea. Let's say for example I wanted to try out some of Jean Claude's computer music instruments so I go into his catalog and I pick one and I type it in or cut and paste it and then I start messing around with parameters or values so it's sort of experimenting: I compile, I listen, and in that way you construct this work flow. In a visual programming environment it's the same kind of process in that you're dragging out oscillators and filters and allocating the patch but it's sort of an improvisational feedback thing where you might start with an idea or an idea may come about through a seed of some sort. It's a feedback circle. You don't always have to approach it with an idea but you should approach it with direction. Maybe not a concrete idea. I'm not a big fan of trying to hear a piece first. I want to hear a certain direction or types of sounds or classification of sounds before I start working and see where they lead me. It's like sculpting - the clay is in front of you, you know you want to work with certain shapes and then you just work. That's my approach.
15. When you're assembling your sounds into a composition, are you recreating something you had in mind or are you improvising?
You can change it in a variety of ways with either plug-ins or by structure so you can get rid of certain sounds or bring in other sounds. There's a lot of that sculpting process that you can do in Protools. Working in Protools is a little different than working in a program like Max - because you're dealing with sound directly rather than generating sound like with Max or Supercollider. When working with Protools you will have all your sounds in a folder so you just drag them in and arrange them. They can live on one track, you can then assign that to an effect, so there's a lot of sculpting possible. It's a different way of approaching sound because your sounds are predetermined but the structure isn't. Your compositional process is a little bit more granular, less atomic.
16. Is that what you do live?
No. I'm working in Max/MSP on a Powerbook. I like to compose in Protools or Vision, if I'm working with other artists' sounds or if I'm doing a remix. But for my own work I prefer using Max/MSP. I've got an environment designed that essentially takes sound files and does kind of what I was attempting to do in England with the 4 CD decks in shuffle mode. So I've designed a Max/MSP patch that does that for me. I have a folder with about 120 files and the patch randomly throws them at me and I mix them on the fly.
17. After "Blue Cube" you said you would be "investigating some ideas about threshold perception and auditory scene analysis". Has that been made as a musical piece? And what is auditory scene analysis?
The way we perceive sound as icons - the way we perceive sounds as isolated events - there is an entire science called auditory scene analysis that basically describes and explains a lot of our perceptual reactions to how we hear sounds. MIT is one of the places where a lot of that work is done. If you have rhythmic sine tones going and then have a different rhythm happening the way that your brain perceives both elements is different than if you heard each one separately. So each one can be considered a scene. And as they group or mix that is also considered a scene. This is a very thumbnail explanation. It goes a lot deeper and there's a lot of psychology involved. it has always been an interest of mine. I'd like to work more in it. I've been away from it for about a year now. Part of my interest was developing sonic icons because I was very intrigued with the idea that we can be notified by sounds in our environments.
18. Could you talk a bit about your new Anechoic label?
It's a vanity label. It's what Silent started out being. Or, actually, it's what Silent started out not being. I didn't want to create a label that was solely about my own work. I come 180 degrees and created a small label called anechoic. I release my own work and collaborations on a square CD format. They are called card disks.
19. In a very old interview in Unsound zine from 1986 you spoke about a sort of "schizophrenia that an artist must adopt in order to co-exist with the business world". How are you dealing with this state in your new label?
It's really difficult to do business and to be creative, and it was something I've learned over a period of ten years. But it became this compartmentalized sort of activity, where when I was being a businessman that was the focus of my day, and when I had to be creative, do a remix put out a record, or what have you, I had to jump into another mode. I had to keep it separate from the business thing. Because it is a different part of the brain. I mean you can be creative in business but to be creative in music it requires a different set of circumstances. The environment you want to be in is very different for creative problem-solving in music rather than business. So you know in that way it becomes a schizophrenia where we do what we have in order to change modes and you find that your personality shifts. Business people have to be more cunning, stable and poker faced when doing negotiations, and a musician doesn't need to be all that, you just need to explore your own ideas. To go into the garden at 3 am, turn on the sprinklers and listen to Bach or something. You're trying to stimulate ideas and rely more on input as opposed to a businessperson who relies more on output.
20. On Silent you were releasing other people's music and now you're releasing more of your own. Is the new label more of an artistic endeavor than a business endeavor?
It's not a business endeavor at all. it is more of an artistic endeavor. I'm not funding it myself so I don't have that pressure of having to make it be a financial success. I know I can move 1000 copies of something. That's pretty much a given. I don't think it's in need of having to make a profit so I can pay the rent and pay salaries and all that. It just has to pay for itself.
21. Are you working on anything other than music?
I'm writing a lot. I've written an article for computer music journal. I'm writing a lot of liner notes for various CDs. I'm writing reviews for ArtBytes in New York. I'm writing a lot more now. Other than that, basically music, yeah.
22. Though originally selling Industrial and Experimental music, the Silent catalog began to also feature the ambient techno outfits that were coming out at the time. How do you look back on that late 80s explosion now and did it affect you as a composer?
Well, as with anything you do in public - there are certain areas that you look upon with fondness and others you don't. You know, the early 90s was a very charged atmosphere for ambient music and techno. What we found was that electronic music started mutating to a point where it started encompassing all kinds of genres and breeding new genres so I had a fascination with how electronic music was crossing a lot of boundaries. There was a lot of hybridization. There were a lot of people who were doing industrial music or ambient industrial now doing ambient techno and more techno based stuff. So a lot of us shifted over and said, "oh, that's interesting, let's try working in this area". Not necessarily for the ability to make money or to be a techno star but just because it was "in the air". It was like a challenge almost. It was kind of like, "if you're involved with electronic music you don't have to stay compartmentalized - you can be free to explore all types of music". That's how I looked at it, more as an exploratory era in my artistic output. But I'm not doing that sort of thing now. I'm back to where I was with PGR or some of my earlier computer music. But it did definitely have an effect. it broadened my horizons in terms of my listening, my exposure, my aesthetic.
23. Eventually the techno stuff, with people like Aphex Twin and Autechre became more of a composer's music rather than club music. Did you like both of those types?
Some of the dance stuff I didn't care for as much. The club music was ok but I really preferred the composer based IDM stuff and drill'n'bass. Some drum'n'bass or jungle I found artistically charged. But a lot of the club fodder, the dance till you drop stuff, I artistically couldn't relate to.
24. What were you using on the PGR "Chemical Bride" CD - it wasn't a computer was it?
At that time all i had was a sampler. The chemical bride was made entirely on one sampler so it was very limited in that respect. But I think I squeezed enough, or a lot of stuff out of that sampler in terms of exploring new techniques like pitching, and reversing sounds and pitchshifting loops. Some of the music that will wind up in an indie film called "Headquarters" is from the chemical bride.
25. What are you working on right now?
Presently I just finished up a European tour. Basically all the material I performed and I will be performing tonight is from a CD called "Residualism" it's the final installation of the triptych, the "blueCube" triptych. The first one being "blueCube", the second one "Cathode Flower", and the third one is called "Residualism". Essentially what it's about is I've taken a lot of the Csoundwork that was generated and sort of recycled it for "Cathode Flower" and I've added some new stuff. And now I've taken some of the "Cathode Flower" and "blueCube" and "Pulsar Studies" and then recombined it into "Residualism". So it's about recycling, distilling ideas or samples of music until it becomes a residue. That's what "Residualism" is. I'm also working on an installation for a gallery in Chicago called Deadtech. The ideas used in that piece will probably wind up on my next CD called "Dust Theories".
26. Do you have labels for those?
I'm working as an artist for Mille Plateaux. So a lot of my output winds up there. A lot of the more experimental ideas I have get released on my own label. The first CD coming is called "parasites" and essentially is a sampling CD. The first piece is a 3-minute composition, and then there a bunch of shorter samples that one can use freely in their own work.
27. Was "blueCubism", the remix CD, the label's idea, or did they approach you?
What I discovered is that I like producing projects and one of the things that I missed after selling Silent was having projects to work on. One of the things I like to do to keep busy and to keep active with artists is to have themes or ideas that I turn into projects. Typically what I do is I initiate a project via email, collect all the sound data from the composers, work them into a composition, and then shop it around. Because of the stature of some of the artists on "blueCubeism" I got a lot of interest from various labels but I decided to go with Digital Narcis because they had an opening in their schedule. Mille Plateaux didn't have a slot open so we went with Digital Narcis. Plus he was able to satisfy the artists in terms of their needs financially.
28. Have you done any remix work recently?
Not in the past few months. I've been really concentrating on getting my tour ready. Part of that was just debugging my Max patch, which was incredibly unstable, and I had to do a lot of beta testing and banging on it. And it took a long period of time to do that. That was kind of like the focus for like two months. So no remixes. I have some collaborations with various artists. One is Panacea; another is with an artist named Andreas Berthling from Norway, who is an Interesting glitch artist. That's pretty much it for now. I'm concentrating on this installation, maybe playing some festivals.
29. I wouldn't have guessed Panacea
It's interesting, he has another project called M2 and it's very much in the clicks and cuts kind of vein. He and I are working on a sample library for Sonic Foundry. He really liked some of the work I'd done and I really liked his work very much, I've been a Panacea fan for a long time. And when he started doing M2 I encouraged him to work more in that area. I really like his output so we decided to work together on a project.
Presently Kim is working on new material titled "Dust Theories" for upcoming performances and CD release, and writing an article for a British Music Journal on mathematics and glitch music. He recently started producing a CD music series for Deadtech in Chicago and finished up a collaboration with Andreas Berthling called "Rust and Blue Dawn" due out on the Anechoic label in March. He will be performing at the MUTEK Festival in April as well as upcoming festivals in the UK, Mexico and Australia.
Kim Cascone can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org