Charlie Parker said, “You’ve got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.” This is a quote I took to heart at about the age of 14, only I decided to take a slightly different approach. It was a journey that started with guitar, where the focus was not on playing notes as much as using it as a tone generator and a feedback machine. I eventually moved to saxophone, synthesizer, and didgeridoo. It was in synthesizers and samplers that I really got hooked. Early works for me were equal parts John Zorn and Throbbing Gristle with a hint of Black Flag thrown in for good measure.
Another major, albeit unintentional, influence on me is a learning disability called dysgraphia. It is sort of like dyslexia, only instead of problems with reading, I have problems writing. Words can come out backwards, with atrocious spelling and hideous grammar. This disability made it very difficult for me to hone the fine motor skills necessary to master an instrument in a traditional manner, so I decided to approach instruments in a non-traditional way, with a focus on tonality over notes. Approaching instrumentation in this manner allowed me to discover hidden layers and unlock secret sounds. I can’t play Chopin on the piano, but I can make the piano do things you’d never think it could. Granted, that often involves power tools.
Combine the above with more than a decade spent working on other people’s albums, and it becomes a fairly interesting mix: a music that is foreign and familiar at the same time, harsh and uncompromising yet strangely accessible. Given my history of making difficult music with challenging collaborations presented in a way that was accessible to a larger audience, I really chose to follow the path of collaboration with myself. The composer meeting the producer.
I created this work using a mixture of guitar, synthesizers, soft synths, microphones and voice, not to mention hundreds of plug-ins and software packages. One of my biggest secrets I learned from my friend and mentor, Joachim Roedelius, is to use a color oscilloscope to see if it is balanced visually. I am not of the generation that writes music down before playing; the technology is an integral part of the composition itself.
This shouldn’t be mistaken for improvisation. Structure and ideas are laid well into place, and sometimes these pieces took months to complete. Occasionally the sound itself is molded from a dizzying array of micro samples reconstructed; in some of these pieces there are as many as 1000 such edits.
One example is the piece Blood Mountain). The score is my own shorthand for how the piece is structured. The notes I played on keyboard to get there have little relation to the end result. That is also what makes the tone so bendy. Blood Mountain is a piece about my time on dialysis; its core rhythms are based on those of the dialysis machines, as are a number of the sounds. A very processed repetition of the word “blood” drives the piece along. One of the points near the center is a Zen koan ”the mountain is there, the mountain is not there”. It is a phrase that seemed particularly apt in dealing with the struggles of dialysis: it’s crippling only if you choose it to be.
My work might be outside the traditional palate, but it is by exploring the frontiers that we establish new ones.