Tag: sampling

Joshua Fried: Let’s Dance

Joshua Fried

Joshua Fried begins each of his RADIO WONDERLAND shows with a spin of a boombox radio dial, snippets of caught commercials and DJ chatter popping out of the static and drawing his audience’s ears in on a raft of mainstream culture before he starts cutting it apart.

There is also a boombox in nearly every room of Fried’s apartment, which after a few hours in his company chatting about processing sound, seems to be not just a fun decorating choice but also an illustration of how connected he is to his music-making tools.

More than sharing space, however, it’s time that Fried has invested deeply in his music, labor-intensive processes becoming something of a hallmark. As a result, his projects have a tendency to spiral out across years of his professional life. Splicing elaborate tape loops and coding his own software have been just par for this artistic course—intimacy with the tools and materials an essential part of the work.

Yet whether in a dive for self-preservation or simply a yin-yang bit of balance, Fried sets up his musical game boards with elaborate care, but then prefers to play out the final aspects of his creative process live in front of an audience. In the ’90s that meant feeding his performers their material in real time over headphones. Since 2007, it most often finds him alone on stage, a couple pairs of men’s dress shoes concealing gate-triggering microphones and a Buick steering wheel drawing the audience’s eyes as he grabs bits of radio chatter from which he builds each RADIO WONDERLAND concert.

His creative path has led him from The Pyramid Club to more esoteric new music circles, but he hasn’t abandoned his pursuit of great grooves, and it’s a prime driver of RADIO WONDERLAND. “I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable,” he explains. “As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on.” In live performance and in track after track on his just-released album SEiZE THE MEANS, the drive of the pulse, the transparency of the process, and common commercial radio core prove to amplify rather than dilute the music’s broader unique aspects.

Fried anticipated that his lack of interest in “high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about” might result in his work being dismissed in certain circles, but while that has happened, he has actually felt accepted and free to pursue the work he wants even if it comes attached to a beat that encourages serious toe tapping. It’s not something he’s looking to transcend. “I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.”

Joshua Fried in conversation with Molly Sheridan
November 10, 2016—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Joshua Fried: I think I have long had this idea that I’m going to be the thorn in the side of some establishment that isn’t going to like me, and it turns out they do.

Molly Sheridan: But you don’t trust that?

JF: I have a little bit of imposter’s syndrome, but I’m on much more solid ground than I was when I started. It’s funny because “new music” is awash in people doing sophisticated things in funny meters and odd things with tonality and pitch, and whether I do or don’t, I tend to be accepted and no one has a problem with 4/4. It’s kind of amazing to me. I’m sort of waiting to be dismissed—and that’s happened to me—but I feel very accepted and able to pursue what I want. It just so happens that what I want is rather clubby, especially with RADIO WONDERLAND.

MS: I actually wanted to start by just talking about the evolution of RADIO WONDERLAND, especially for readers who may not be familiar with this project. It seems to me there’s a sort of ritual to these performances and to the pieces you create, including the equipment that you use and have used for a number of years now.

JF: Oh, yeah.

MS: So I want to trace the evolution of that visually and sonically, whether you have to go back to 1987 to do that, or just 2007.

JF: I have been cutting up sound and processing sound since I first started composing, and I started using radio really early on. I did one piece where I would start with FM radio playing the easy listening station—cascading strings and completely mellow “beautiful music”—and then cut to this underlying tape loop that was cut up very precisely. I would do it several times and it was random what I got from the cascading strings station. Then I was performing in clubs in New York with multi-channel tape-loop processing. Basically I was taking the technical structure of dub reggae, only instead of remixing an existing reggae song, I would remix a multi-channel tape loop that I had constructed laboriously and do that live.

I also had a thing where I would use something to trigger a gate. Like I would speak into the microphone, but it would be opening up a gate on a tape loop. It was theatrical. As a performative schtick, I started hiding the mic inside various objects. I put the mic inside a shoe and took it to the Pyramid Club where I was performing live, and I was whacking the shoe with a drumstick so the tape loop could be in time with my underlying groove. Then as I evolved as a composer, I wanted to do more with gates, so I said, let’s have four shoes. And this is 1988 at the La MaMa New Music Festival. I had the shoes and a radio—two channels of shoe-controlled gates from radio and two pre-recorded ongoing sounds.

Fried's stage set-up with shoes

Fried’s stage set-up with shoes (Yes, that’s Todd Reynolds in the background!)

Then a few years later, I realized I could do something that’s all radio. What I had to do next was the club-oriented funky tape loops that I had done in the ‘80s, only make those collages in real time in front of an audience and all out of commercial radio. I could do that with technology. I didn’t know what technology, but I knew I could do it with technology. I could trigger the radio with the shoes, but I wanted to do more. What I was doing in the ‘80s in clubs, these tape loops that I mentioned where I did things based on dub reggae, got increasingly intricate and I would do very high-precision tape splicing. As digital sampling was taking off, I would kind of say to myself, oh, I can do that with splicing and I would end up with something that was like those samplers, only more hi-fi because I had a quarter-inch tape deck, which was giving me better quality than the 8-bit or 12-bit samplers at the time. So there was this kind of odd period where, because I felt that I would live forever and it didn’t matter how long a project took, I would just do even more labor intensive, high-precision tape splicing.

But I slowly transitioned to MIDI and sampling, and so getting back to the beginnings of RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized that I could use technology to precisely cut up the found sound that I got off the radio and turn that into a groove. I have notebooks full of notes about what I could do and the more I thought about it, the more I got serious about it. I went through a period where I thought: how far am I willing to really elaborately process? Because what I love most in processing is the cutting up, running backwards, playing at different speeds, collaging as opposed to the high-end signal processing of very theoretical stuff that you do your Ph.D. thesis about. The simple processing that has a big musical payoff is more fascinating to me. What’s the least I can do, the most transparent processing I can do, and have it give me my musical result?

Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is.

And I had this metric, which is that I wanted it to be actually danceable. As a creator, as a composer, to have that metric and believe in it, to me, it’s not a cheap thing in the least. It’s so helpful. Sometimes you need a framework to hang your musical efforts on. And sometimes I think it doesn’t matter so much what that framework is. You need it. Especially when it comes to structuring things over time.

I was doing the tape loop stuff in clubs, and that was more or the less the ‘80s, and in the ‘90s it was the headphone-driven performance, [concert work that requires performers to try and imitate vocal sounds that are played over headphones]. Then halfway through that, I realized the next thing I wanted to do was club-oriented again, but by that time, I was so steeped in sort of the new music scene, it was no longer the Pyramid Club, it was the Bang on a Can Festival. And so when I first started doing RADIO WONDERLAND, it was music festivals and electronic nights, the Juilliard Electronic Music Festival and Boston Cyberarts. It didn’t really steer back to the clubs until I went through this long, long period of software development and then started channeling it to the clubs, and that’s a transition I’m sort of still making because I had so many years with the—if you want to call it—new music audience. The NewMusicBox audience! I still sort of feel like I’m steering back. In the late’80s, I was known if you read Billboard and not if you read the American Composers Forum newsletter. And then that switched. I still sort of feel I’m switching back.

MS: Was that all self-selected or did you feel pushed?

JF: It’s funny because I’ve sort of been following my nose the whole time as far as what I do. I was so involved with the clubs in the ‘80s, and to me it was equivalent with innovation. No, that’s not right. It’s not that simple. I was doing experimental stuff, and I was working a lot with Linda Fisher who’s a composer who worked with Cunningham and David Tudor and Douglas Dunn, who was a Cunningham dancer. But I was focused on the clubs; I was working in clubs. I could go on stage in any open-minded nightclub if I had my tape-loop act—I say open-minded, because at the time there was a certain population of people who enjoyed popular music but had to see a drum kit and/or a guitar on stage. There was one guy who said to me at the end of a gig, “If you had just had someone with a guitar on stage, even if they were just standing there, it would have made me feel more comfortable with what you did.” I was amazed at that. And I also really appreciated his honesty. He knew how absurd it was, and he was being completely real about it.

And then I got a record deal with a big record label. It went nowhere and it’s a long story, but it was a great thing that happened to me. I think I was kind of blown away emotionally, because I had this major label deal and I sort of didn’t know what to do with it. I didn’t have the skill to adapt. I tried to write some conventional pop songs for the occasion, but I didn’t do very many. They didn’t really fit. I needed to be like Howard Jones or M, the guy who did the song “Pop Muzik,” but I wasn’t versatile enough to do that. So I was just the tape loop guy doing my innovative stuff—which certain people really loved—marketed the wrong way.

It took me a long time to sort of get over it and decide what to do next. I didn’t have a next step for the record label, or I guess for the clubs. And then the headphone-driven stuff kind of took off, although it’s a slow motion take off. Over a few years, I did a lot of that stuff, and then the Bang on a Can All-Stars said, “Well, can we perform it?” And I said okay and I worked with them. I basically won’t let people perform this work unless I feel that they can do it—because it’s so awful if people don’t have the proper training. It’s hideously boring and uncomfortable, and it gives me and it gives the music a bad name. But if performers can handle it and they have worked with me or someone that I’ve worked with to know what I want from it, it can be this compelling, rigorous, worthy stuff. So anyway yes. The Bang on a Can All-Stars did it and then other people said they wanted to do it, and it had this life, including a 16-week series at HERE Arts Center in 2001.

It was so enormously labor intensive. It was amazing to be able to do it, but each performer can do each headphone role only once, so I rotate through performers. We had a total of 64 people over the course of this run. I would have to get more and more performers. How could I tour with this? I decided that this piece, if it can’t walk on its own, is going to have to be set by the side of road where if it wants to walk, it can walk, but I can no longer be pushing it along. I need something more practical, and that was going to be this radio, found sound, groove-based thing.

That’s also solo, so it makes so much more sense. Then all that was left was the years of doing the software programming. I did it myself in Max/MSP and it was a wonderful adventure, but it took years. It was absurd. By fall of 2007 I realized I have not utterly, thoroughly 100% debugged my own code. However, the state of performing this is hampered more by my lack of knowing how to do it and lack of rehearsal than by the bugs. I could put this on stage, work around the bugs, and six months of being on stage is going to put this out in the world. And it’s going to get that much better. Better than six more months of programming to iron out the last few bugs or add the last few features that I want. So all of sudden, I realized, oh, it’s not a matter of being done and then going on stage. I’m going on stage now. Let’s start gigging!


I decided that for a year I would just perform any and all performances—paid, unpaid, bring my own PA, what have you. This adventure started and I was going to do this for a year and then record. So that was fall of 2007. And then 2011—that’s a year after, right?—I realized I was doing more and more gigs. I started going out of town. I performed at this big sort of techno/rave-y complex in Venice, Italy. It was so great, but it was also crazy. I didn’t have a record to sell at the gigs. It seemed almost counterproductive. And also I didn’t mention, I made a deal with myself: not only was I going to stop coding—only since it’s Max/MSP, it’s drag another line with the mouse—but I was declaring a technology freeze. I wasn’t going to upgrade any piece of hardware or software until I had that record out. So I figured I’d gig for a year, do the record, upgrade the software. Instead it was a few years of gigging. Now, it’s antique software and a G3 Powerbook. It’s the same thing with my tape-loop stuff. When I started doing tape loops, it was high tech, but then I did it for so many years. Same thing kind of happened with RADIO WONDERLAND where I had a Powerbook that was state of the art and I just kept it. And I was so glad that I did.

Now my case might be extreme, but there are musicians and composers who are upgrading so fast, I feel like they’re not going into depth. On the other hand, they don’t need to go into depth the way I do. I get really involved with materials, the tools, and that is a big part of what I’m doing. Other composers are different. They’re pursuing other things, and they can have a—not a derogatory use of the term—more shallow connection with the nuts and bolts of their technology and it’s not such a wrenching big deal to upgrade. If they throw out their old software and have new software, great. They take advantage of that.

Fried's boombox collection

For me, it just couldn’t be that way. I wrote this software myself. I’m very intimate with it. It’s just not the same deal. I love that kind of intimacy with tools and materials. I guess for some composers, the intimacy is on the level of the score, or the concept, and the technology is secondary.

MS: Okay, that was a lot of answers to a lot of questions.

JF: Whew. So we’re done?

MS: We’re done! No, we’re not done. You were talking about intimacy, which makes me think about your use of commercial radio as your raw material. I’m curious, of all the things you could pick, what is your attraction to that specifically as your primary source?

JF: Well, there are a couple things that really dovetail nicely. Since I was kid, I’ve had this attraction to the commercial stuff and just reframing it as something that’s funny. When I was in fourth grade, we had a field trip to the L.A. airport and we got to walk inside an airplane. Then the next day, or maybe that afternoon, we were back in our homeroom in my elementary school, and we were asked to write about it. I wrote some spiel and at the end of it I wrote, “Welcome to the friendly skies of United.” It was a laugh line that has a certain needling twist to it.

Maybe that’s the whole sort of appropriative, ironic shtick that we’re all so tired of now, but I think I am of a generation where that is compelling to me. It’s a way of talking and of negotiating the world by quoting the mainstream stuff in this kind of snarky way. I feel in many ways, culturally we’re past that, but that kind of appropriation is like a language. And maybe this is a loaded word, but it is subversive. It is knocking, needling, and when I am cutting it up, it is cutting up the mainstream culture. It may be very basic, but great—be basic. Also, it’s ubiquitous, so it’s something that’s familiar and when I process the familiar, the process is that much more transparent. Just like when you do a cover tune, if you have an odd musical bent, your odd musical bent can be revealed by performing someone else’s work.

That’s why Devo’s version of “Satisfaction” is so satisfying, because we know this song and you get what Devo is. FM radio is dynamically compressed and has a decent frequency range. It is made to be grabbed and sampled. It’s so technically easy to grab the pre-compressed feed from FM radio. I know exactly where I have to put the volume control on my boombox. I don’t change the input level on my rig. I haven’t had to. And that’s great. It is perfectly pre-processed for the stuff that I’m doing.

MS: Is your choice of controllers born out of that same instinct—the steering wheel, the shoes? I mean, is that a joke? Is that a commentary? Is that playing off familiarity?

JF: It’s not the subversive appropriation kind of thing. I’m not knocking the industrial age because the steering wheel is a symbol of something evil. Arguably, it is. But I am doing it because of the transparency of the process when the controller is so large. I don’t want a tiny little knob that no one can see, so I want this object that’s the wheel.

Instead of the shoes, I could use electronic drum pads, but they have this sort of added message to me that you have to have something that looks like fancy high tech music hardware in order to whack something. But this is a completely un-acoustic instrument. The sound that you’re triggering has nothing to do with the physical makeup of the thing that you’re hitting. There’s this disconnect between the controller and the sound that results, and I want to underscore that disconnect. It’s a funny thing, and I’d rather have it be that funny thing than have it be like the cool drum pad. If you had the money to buy this in the music store, you could have this cool drum pad. I don’t like that.

Fried takes the wheel

Fried takes the wheel

Once I had the shoes, I knew that I wanted to have not just a large knob, but an ordinary object taken from life and give it that surreal feeling. I was really taken by surrealism when I was kid. It’s that kind of twist I was talking about before with appropriation. There’s a different, maybe related sort of twist when there’s something absurd. I just love it so much.

Another thing about the wheel is that, technically, it’s no different from the little knob you can get in the portable controller, which is a lot easier to pack on an airplane than a steering wheel, but you would never play a melody on that little knob. With the steering wheel, I can, and so now I practice the wheel, and it’s become this whole other level of instrument that I didn’t even realize. The quantitative difference of size is a real qualitative difference, and it’s so much fun.

MS: You’ve been working with commercial radio for a long time now. I’m curious if you’ve noted any changes to that particular stream of media and how that’s impacted your work.

JF: Well, part of it’s a little sad because when I started doing this, radio was more monolithic. Everybody knew half the songs on any of the pop stations. I don’t feel that’s the same thing now. Radio, even mainstream commercial radio, is in its niches. There was a sort of lingua franca of pop in the heyday of Michael Jackson and Madonna and Culture Club. They were so ubiquitous and corporate and massively popular. I was dismantling this common mainstream.

I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes.

I have developed my aesthetic, but I haven’t really adapted. That’s just the way it goes. My projects take absurd numbers of years to fully play out, and that’s more acceptable in the movie business than it is in the music business. But I’m here, and so part of what RADIO WONDERLAND signifies has evolved out from under me. I’m using vintage technology now in a way that I wasn’t back then by virtue of not changing the technology. Very recently, I decided to use AM radio because I need more topical stuff because of what’s happening in the world. That’s one thing that I decided only in the last few months. It’s not enough for me to know that crazy stuff is happening in the world. They’re kind of talking about it on NPR, but I want to be dealing with more commercial culture and they’re not talking about global warming on the rock station.

MS: Not just RADIO WONDERLAND but also your work with headphone-driven performance leads me to thoughts of how it pushes and pulls on the ideas of Cage, which is something you address specifically on your website:

It celebrates randomness in a way that’s utterly different from Cage.  Chance choices can be simply betterin the right context.

What are the elements of that “right context”?

JF: Well, there’s no one right context. But if you can create a context in which the best choice is going to be by the roll of the dice, you’ve created a beautiful situation.

I guess what I’m talking about is hey, we’re stochastic instead of completely random. I like the negotiation of what’s chance and what’s not chance, and also the extremes of how much I prepare, how much I work on my algorithms, and then how much I’m dependent on what happens to be on the radio or, with headphone-driven performance, how rigorous my input is and how it interacts with the complete lack of control of the performers. The chance choice can be the right choice, if in the right context. Building the kind of context that can do that gives me something that to my ears is just better than any other way. And it’s such a beautiful thing. You feel like you’re tapping into something, instead of sort of cheating it. Well, there’s my chord progression and if I avoid all the leading tones in the first half of the phrase, and then I hit octaves in the second half, then it will kind of cover up the fact that this is a lame chord progression. No, no, no! I want this. I want the dappled sunlight to fall on my fabric and it just has to be good enough fabric so that it looks good, however the sunlight falls on it. Something like that.

MS: I want to dig further into the process of the headphone-driven performance and learn more about what is really happening in those headphones—the audio score, if you will—that is generating the performance you want. Can you pull the curtain back? I’m sure that there’s a lot of thinking that went on with why you’re even doing that in the first place.

JF: You want to understand the mechanics.

MS: Yes, but you can be philosophical too.

JF: What the performers are hearing is mostly spoken word and some singing, and a lot of the spoken word is taken from very expressive, emotional parts of old movies. Like Richard Burton bellowing.

Just to be clear, I have six different channels of headphone material, all independent. So they can be unison or not, and they can have conversations and such. But it’s completely, rigorously timed because they’re not separate tape decks that are running out of synch; they’re all coming from the same multi-track sound source. The synch is maintained, and the accompanying music is on two additional tracks for left and right playback over a PA system. So the musical accompaniment and all six headphone tracks are audio scores—or audio parts, you could say—sent out via a headphone feed to the performers.

My instruction to them is not to repeat immediately after the input, which would be a sensible thing to do, but my instruction is to talk along with the input, which is not sensible. It’s ridiculous. It’s impossible. I’m asking them to be listening and talking at the same time, which kind of ruins their chances of hearing most of it, because they’re talking over it. But the headphones are fairly loud. They’re listening, they’re picking up stuff, and they’re vocalizing and catching stuff as they can, and as the headphone material repeats—and it repeats a lot—they get more of it and their proportion of gibberish to regular language gets more towards the regular language. I work with performers, one-on-one or in a group of two or three people, I demonstrate, I have them try this. It takes some understanding and most people don’t really believe until they try it that this really means doing this ridiculous thing of talking over. Now, sometimes your cue to start talking is the input itself. So obviously at that moment, the performer will enter late. I know that. That’s just the laws of physics. But I tell them, don’t think about that. You are there the whole time; just imagine that and keep on jumping ahead to the present moment. Try this for about a minute, and then you’ll kind of find a place where you can just go.

Headphone Driven Performance (demo)

Practice track for two performers (stereo)

One thing I say to them is you are doing this with utter confidence, believing that you’re absolutely getting it. That input, as you are saying it to yourself, is you. You are that accurate and you have that much confidence. At the same time, I’m not saying just pretend everything’s perfect because I told you to. I want the performers to really be trying. It takes effort. It takes a lot of concentration. You’re tuned into what’s happening. You’re picking up stuff, so you’re keeping these two things going. You’re working, but you also are constantly outputting with complete gusto. This kind of conversation over a couple of hours of demonstrating gets good performers in a place where I need them to be to do this, and so it comes out this sort of proto-language—half gibberish, half non-gibberish.

This evolved from a party game with these performance artists that I was collaborating with, and they called this party game the Nancy Sinatra game, because they were using a cassette tape of Nancy Sinatra’s greatest hits. I kind of took the idea for my own compositions and started making my own source tapes with the musical accompaniment. That covers a lot of it, doesn’t it?

MS: That does cover a lot of it, and it leads me very neatly to my next question, because even before knowing that bit of backstory, I was already struck by how big a role the aspect of game play or a puzzle to solve in the moment figures into both in the headphone-driven performance and RADIO WONDERLAND. Because you have a structure and there are rules, but then you’re getting things that are chance-y that are being thrown into the mix, and then you’re having to do something with that for an audience.

JF: The game is how I handle the input. That makes it exciting for me. One thing I sometimes say is that I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it, what’s that? You can’t do that. That’s just cheating. That’s not anything. Where we come from, live is where you deal with life as it comes, or something like that.

I feel like I come from a planet where it’s not live music unless it’s completely unexpected. If it comes from a score and you’ve rehearsed it? That’s just cheating.

I don’t actually come from that planet, but this sort of thing is compelling to me. It is such a great discipline, and it also puts the emphasis on things that I think should be emphasized. In this case, when it comes to RADIO WONDERLAND, it’s the process. It’s the juxtaposition. It’s what I do with it, as opposed to choosing the perfect sample—which would be, I think, just an awful way for me to compose. I’m kind of a perfectionist. So, given that, what would I do? I’d go over what’s in the commercial media and decide what’s best to dismantle because it’s sonically good, but more importantly, the content is what I think is just the thing that needs to be interrogated and subverted. I’m exhausted just thinking about that. I don’t want that. It’s not a good compositional challenge for me. It might be sort of a moneymaker, if I can grab something that’s so telling and it’s so hysterically funny. Then maybe I have to bargain to get the rights to it. Then I cut it up, and I make it into a dance track that could be fun and maybe get a lot of attention, but that’s so not the discipline that I want. To me, if I can develop the algorithms and train myself as a performer to deal with it as it comes in, those are good musical processes. That’s good performance training. It’s going to be a good performance.

It’s amazing how well things fit together, how the synchronicity seems to come up again and again. I remember one time when Will Smith, the movie star, was in the headlines a lot. I got the name Will Smith off the radio, and someone said to me, “Unbelievable! How did you get that? It’s so amazing that you got that because he’s iconic, and it’s such a coup.” Well, but that’s how this thing works because the stuff that’s the most popular comes up the most. And I love that. I find I’ve really learned a lesson that you can take two different pop songs from two different times—let’s say a commercial or a station ID and a pop song—cut them up, try to juxtapose them tonally, and your odds are better than even that they will somehow work.

Inside Fried's home studio

Inside Fried’s home studio

Now maybe I’ve had this sort of brilliance at improvising and choosing things that I don’t give myself credit for, but I think a big part of it is that there’s more sense in the stuff that we would grab by chance than we ever imagined. When I first made RADIO WONDERLAND, I made sure that there would be a means to take any of the individual bits and suck away the pitch—the De-Pitcher, I called it. Turns out what I used was ring modulation. Boom! Computationally, it’s incredibly cheap and easy, but I found after a while—it took me a long time to even believe it—I almost never have to use it! The pop song that I get 15 minutes after I grab the other pop song is gonna work. Or I can transpose with the wheel, so I have these five different bits from a pop song or a commercial from 15 minutes ago. Here’s a new slab of audio. I take a couple of different bits, juxtapose them, they’re in rhythm and maybe two thirds of the time I need to transpose with the wheel. And that’s it. I never suspected it would be that easy. I was kind of terrified. I figured you take two random songs, even if they’re both based on A-440, then we have like 24 different choices of different modes and stuff, different keys. They’re not going to match. They’re going to be badly dissonant in that way that’s just not fun musically, especially when I’m trying to be funky and groovy and melodic in a more-or-less conventional sense. It’s just not going to work out, and I’m going to need the De-Pitcher. I’m going to have to transpose like mad, that’s just how it is. That’s going to be part of the game of RADIO WONDERLAND. And it turns out that it wasn’t. It just tends to work.

MS: Does this process ever feel like it “fails”? Or maybe just that you couldn’t easily see how you were going to make it work in a way that was going to satisfy you and you had to sweat through that on stage? It sounds like that hasn’t happened.

JF: Oh, it happens and of course I blame myself. To the extent that I take credit when it works well, I also blame myself when I think it isn’t funky. I’m highly self-critical and I also have this absurd metric where I want it to be as danceable as my favorite dance track, even though that was worked over in a studio for three weeks and I have five minutes in front of people. I do have to scramble, and a lot of it has to do with timing. It’s also a question of how well I can hear, because it’s a most unforgiving set up in terms of monitoring.

If you’re in a rock band, or even if you’re playing from a score in a formal concert setting, you know your instrument is tuned. You know where the underlying beat is. You know what the conductor’s doing. You know where your hands are. You’re okay, even if you can’t hear that great. In a rock band, things are loud and chaotic, but your guitar has frets and you have your tuner. You feel the kick drum. You’re good to go. But with me, I don’t know what my instrument is until I’m on stage with it. I’m taking a piece of radio, usually around one second, and I cut it into eight bits and deploy them. I need to get a sense of how they differ from each other and what they sound like, and then decide how I want to further deploy them and transpose them. I have to hear them really well. I can’t decide that since my finger’s on the right fret and I know my telecaster and it’s in tune, that I’m okay. I’m kind of sunk. So it really depends on them.

MS: Why is the dancing so core to you?

JF: It’s a metric that I can believe in, and it’s so great to have that metric as a composer. I almost feel a little embarrassed because it’s so basic. A lot of my favorite music has never been assessed on the basis of whether or not people dance, and it’s successful on the basis of much more subtle things, but I’m in this situation.

But in addition to that metric, I love dancing. I sometimes find myself bopping my head in music concerts when it’s not really thought of as head-bopping music, but I’m hearing a pulse. Okay, maybe in that situation, maybe you could argue that I’m missing something. But there are many cases where I feel like no, I’m not. I am moved and I’m moving, and I’m immersed and involved. And I just love it.

And when the emotion isn’t completely positive, when it’s not just catharsis or love, when it’s sad, angry, difficult, and it’s danceable, oh that’s so powerful. It’s dark, but there’s this cathartic dancing. It can work so, so well. And I go out dancing; I’m still going to clubs. I feel a connection to that culture or cultures. I am also looking forward to going back to other stuff. There are areas I want to go with it that aren’t quite so dance-y, but the initial concept is so focused on that, mostly because of this idea of a metric.

And what a great guide it is. Because otherwise, if I was going to do a sound collage with radio and sophisticated algorithms, it doesn’t matter where you go with it. To put RADIO WONDERLAND through this almost absurd metric of having to be done in real time, without choice of material, and have it be danceable, to sort of make it through to the other side gives me these incredibly powerful tools, software which I intend to finally further develop now that I have the album out. I think I’ll be able to do longer-scale things and different time scales. It won’t be as much about dancing, which is a little bit like the dance music artists that branch out.

I kind of imagine that trajectory. This first album is basically a bunch of dance tracks with kind of a slower one at the end, but even the slower one at the end has this boom-boom bass drum. I like that trajectory, not because it matches to some sort of commercial flight pattern, but artistically, that discipline and those rules are putting me in a great position for the next step.

It’s a little bit like my performance technology which, believe it or not, does not allow me to loop anything that I have just played. It allows me to loop what was just on the radio, but when I process the radio with the shoe or the wheel, that doesn’t loop. It’s crazy if you think of the current state of Ableton Live and live processing technology, which is all about the live looping. You’re a soloist with your instrument and a bunch of pedals and software. You play your thing, you loop your thing, you play over the thing you looped. I don’t do that with RADIO WONDERLAND. If I’m not hitting the shoe, that sound doesn’t come out, and it has been such a discipline over the past few years to perform that way.

Now I’m ready to revise my software and say okay I’m going to include the ability to retain that pattern. When I transpose on the wheel, I’ll make a riff, and here’s this piece of radio, it’s deployed over one bar. It’s got some nice syncopation, but it’s all taken from one second of radio. Then I transpose it with the wheel, so all of sudden we have a four-bar phrase, and it’s fun, it’s tonal, and there’s something cool about the transition because it’s transposing a whole chord, which is a little bit like classic house music where there’s a sample and the musician just has one finger on the keyboard and they’re transposing the sample of that. That’s part of the house music sound that I really like. I do that with the wheel, right now, but if I have that four-bar pattern, it stops being a four-bar pattern when I turn away from the wheel and go back to the shoes, or what have you. But it’s been I think a more interesting, at least for now, that I got to this point without these various crutches or enhancements.

Fried's software

MS: So you’ve mentioned a few times since we’ve started the milestone position this record has in your mind. Let’s talk about the fact you have a new record out.

JF: That’s right.

MS: Congratulations!

JF: Thank you very much.

MS: Why did this record become so important for you? Every bit of the philosophy you’re underlining here is how exciting it is that it’s live. It’s live radio. You’re doing all the processing live. Why the hell did you want to make a record?

JF: You know, it’s funny, the turntablist Maria Chavez has talked about how she does not release recordings. And boy, I respect that. I’m a good candidate for not releasing recordings, but I wanted to. For one thing, and I’m glad you reminded me of this, one of the motivations of RADIO WONDERLAND was to become prolific because my process became slower and slower. I had this thing that became Headset Sextet. I finished it—or so I thought—in ’94, and then about three days before the opening night at La MaMa, I realized no, this is too good not to make it right. So I renamed it Work In Progress, and then I spent about another five years revising it, but the time scale is indefensible. It’s just absurd, but I’m proud I finally finished it.

But with RADIO WONDERLAND, I thought okay, let this be a ticket to being prolific. The album is part of that process. Can I be prolific in that I generate this new material and can have it out on recordings, which do this great job of representing you when you’re not there playing it? I never had a full album out, which seems crazy because in the ‘80s I had a record deal on a major label. I worked on remixes for famous recording artists. I work with recording technology, and yet I didn’t have my own album.

So the emotional stakes became kind of high, and it’s too bad because I’m older now, and maybe I’m less resilient as far as the sheer emotional strain of getting it all done. Part of the test of RADIO WONDERLAND is: Are these algorithms, or the algorithms plus me manipulating them, are they so robust that this can be a dance groove even without the loud PA and me up there in the excitement and electricity of live radio? I love that electricity. I live for it, and it is still fundamentally a live show. But I wanted to put it to that test.

Given that I wanted this album to sound good to my ears, I knew there was going to be some post-production. Well, how much? That is something I had to answer by doing it. One thing I’m happy about—and this had a lot to do with my co-producer Marcelo Anez—is that each track really is taken from a single concert without any non-radio overdubs. Some of it is highly processed—more processed by a long shot than anything I was able to do on stage. But a lot of this extra processing I can do on stage in the future. So it’s somewhat of a prospectus for new projects.

seize the means cover

Listen/Buy via Clang/iTunes/Spotify. Also available on vinyl or USB drive. No CDs!

MS: What about that fact that you’re going back and revisiting the work for this, because you’ve avoided that in the live version quite explicitly. It was all about the new, the first brush, and now you’re going back and not just looking at them once, but looking at them many times as you crafted them into an album.

JF: Well, I did resist that. I did a sort of test album—it was just three songs—a few years ago, where I chose three different concerts that I edited, not very carefully. I have hundreds of concert recordings, so isn’t it the perfect test of RADIO WONDERLAND to pick concerts at random and see how well they work as recordings? That was really dumb. What I want to do is choose the best concerts, and for me, a lot of that was the best grooves. It makes it a heck of a lot easier to go through hundreds of hours of concerts when you’re looking for good grooves, as opposed to simply looking for the best music. In order to favorably represent RADIO WONDERLAND, I realized what I had to do was listen more and edit less. So I went through and listened and listened and listened, and chose the best shows, the ones which needed the least amount of editing. And that felt fine. I’m very focused on live and real time and all the ephemeral stuff that we talked about, but I also like to geek out in a studio. I’ve long used recording technology and I love making records. This was a good reason to go and get into that headspace.

Some of the issues that I had to address on the album were almost purely technical having to do with the low end, and I can address that with the next iteration of the software, and that’s a really exciting prospect. So maybe instead of working on a track for three weeks before it’s really ready for a final mix, I can work on a track for a day before it’s ready for a final mix. My fantasy is that I will be able to put out as a live recording whatever I did that night without any post-production.

MS: But weren’t you distilling to a larger degree, because these tracks are like seven minutes, and it does seem like there’s a ritual to RADIO WONDERLAND performance. I don’t know if they’re always 30 minutes, but it has that kind of scope. And then you’re condensing it in some way.

JF: Oh, absolutely. Part of the process is to distill a 30-minute concert into a four- to eight-minute album track and not to pretend that they’re mini RADIO WONDERLAND concerts. The idea is to take a half hour to create a great groove, and that’s going to create a monster five-minute radio mix and twelve-minute remix of a dance track. It is perhaps an easy adjunct to the RADIO WONDERLAND concert format, but that is the needle I seem to be trying to thread. And it’s worked out okay. But you’re absolutely right. That’s a crucial part of it. Yes, I’m condensing them.

Oh, you brought that up because I was talking about releasing a live concert as is. Yeah, that would have to be a different thing. But that’s not what the album was. The album was to see, if I throw you right into the middle of the groove, is this going to make sense without the construction of the groove and without me jumping around and spinning wheels and stuff?

Fried's desk

Jazz Remixes

Jazz Remix

Photo by Jimmy Baikovicius, via Flickr

I don’t place a lot of value on originality in music. My tastes lie mostly in blues, jazz, R&B, and hip-hop. While there’s plenty of creativity in all of these forms, it’s built around shared musical materials: stock licks and phrases, standard song structures and schemas, frequently borrowed beats and samples. Hearing a familiar blues riff or funk break is like encountering an old friend, and the intertextuality created by all of the shared musical DNA enriches the listening experience.

The title of this post could be read a couple of different ways. You could take it to mean “people who electronically rework jazz recordings.” Jazz has certainly been a bottomless source of inspiration for hip-hop producers. A significant portion of my own creative output is based on samples of my favorite jazz recordings.

By the way, if you’re looking for a good break, let me recommend the drumming of Sam Woodyard in the late-period Duke Ellington Orchestra; he’s a gold mine.

Really, though, the title of this post refers to jazz musicians themselves. Jazz is all about repurposing pop and folk material for new expressive ends, and the greats were remix artists before the term existed. Even the most prolific and brilliant jazz composers, such as Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk, devoted album after album to arrangements of standards. Nobody arranged standards more radically and personally than John Coltrane.

Some of Coltrane’s most compelling statements of musical truth are renditions of extremely corny pop songs. The best known one is “My Favorite Things,” from his 1961 album of the same name.

Coltrane’s arrangement of this tune bears the same relationship to The Sound Of Music as “Hard Knock Life” by Jay-Z bears to Annie. Jazz uses different technology than hip-hop, but it makes the same musical statement: putting a stamp of personal ownership on a piece of public musical property. The lawyers among you will probably now want to jump in and point out that neither The Sound Of Music nor Annie are public property. Even though both function the way that folk songs do, they’re both very much under copyright. Music has always consisted of endlessly reinterpreted and recombined folk memes, but now most of the really good memes are privately owned. It makes for some legal and cultural awkwardness.

I bought My Favorite Things when I was eighteen or nineteen after reading a Jerry Garcia interview in which he raved about it. (I have never been steered wrong on a music recommendation by Jerry Garcia.) On my first listen, I wasn’t impressed. A show tune I sang in middle school chorus played on soprano sax, whee! Now I experience Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” as the mind-expanding flight of imagination I was promised, but I had to grow up a little to appreciate it. And appreciate it I did, to a point of near-obsession. When I had a jazz band, I insisted that we perform it regularly, and that we include it on our one album.

Coltrane had a way of anticipating what music would sound like in the future. He was particularly prescient about the importance of looped bass lines. Jazz bass is usually a complex semi-improvised stream of quarter notes. But Coltrane liked to have his bassists play strictly unvarying two-bar loops. On “My Favorite Things,” Jimmy Garrison plays a few simple octave patterns on the root and fifth of the key with no variation for the entire duration of the song. This kind of bass line anticipated the looped, sequenced, and sampled bass parts in hip-hop and other electronic music.

Coltrane was also prescient in his liking for open-ended loops on a single chord, or a few repeating chords from a single scale. This is the basic structure of nearly all forms of electronic music, and most contemporary pop too, but in 1961 it was a radical departure from most of the music in the air. Like James Brown and the hip-hop artists he inspired, Coltrane relied a lot on the “repeat until cue” instruction. In between the phrases of the “Favorite Things” melody, he inserts open-ended grooves, first on E minor, then on E major. He and McCoy Tyner play each groove as long as they want, signaling the band that it’s time to continue to the next section by playing the “raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens” melody. Coltrane was a great admirer of Ravi Shankar, so much so that he named his son after him, and you can hear the influence of Indian classical music on this recording.

The album My Favorite Things is most famous for its title track, but it also includes three other startling reinterpretations of standards. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is played double-time at an extremely slow baseline tempo, stretching the melody like Silly Putty. “Summertime” is played fast, with an angry feel and crunchy, dissonant chords built from the melodic minor scale. Finally, “But Not For Me” is transformed almost as radically as the title track. Here’s a conventional version of the tune by Judy Garland:

And here’s Coltrane’s version:

The most obvious change is the first four bars. In the Gershwin tune, the line “They’re writing songs of love but not for me” runs over a simple ii-V-I progression in E♭. Coltrane’s first four bars are a sprint through the keys of E♭, B, and G via those keys’ respective dominant chords. The bass line spells out the descending E♭ whole-tone scale: E♭, F♯7/C♯, B, D7/A, G, B♭7/F, E♭. Coltrane rewrites the melody completely to fit this new chord progression. Coltrane also inserts some new structural elements of his own. He adds a long tag section where he lifts unexpectedly up to several distant minor keys for eight bars each. There’s also the extremely extended open-ended tag on the ii-V-iii-VI turnaround. Should we consider Coltrane’s arrangement to be the same piece of music as the Gershwin original? Certainly, if you want to play the Coltrane version at a jam session or a gig, you’d better come prepared with charts and a lot of explanation.

Radical jazz adaptations of standards raise the same questions about authorship and ownership that sample-based compositions and remixes do. Where do you draw the line between an arrangement, a new melody written to existing chord changes, and an improvised solo? Bandleaders like Duke Ellington and Benny Goodman routinely used improvised phrases by their band members as the basis for new tunes (and were not overly concerned with crediting those band members). The borders between arrangement, interpretation, improvisation, and composition are blurry at best. Should we consider “Whispering” and “Groovin’ High” to be the same song? How about “I’m In The Mood For Love” and “Moody’s Mood For Love”? Or “I Got Rhythm” and the uncountable bebop heads it inspired?

Jazz was largely built on a scaffolding of show tunes and other pop songs. The ones that have emerged as standards share certain musical characteristics that make them more amenable to jazz adaptation. They have singable melodies with rhyming lyrics accompanied by a simple chord progression (or sometimes not so simple, but always intelligible to the ordinary person’s ear). They’re repetitive and predictable. They follow a small set of conventions in their structure: four-, eight-, and sixteen-bar phrases, repeated two or three or four times, with the larger grouping of phrases repeating more or less intact for the entire duration of the tune. There are some recurrent harmonic tropes involving counter-clockwise trips around the circle of fifths. The modular structure of standards makes them amenable to disassembly and reassembly. These jazz compositions and improvisations are constructed from a giant box of shared musical Legos, rearrangeable at will on paper or in the improviser’s head.

As with harmony and form, there’s a finite toolbox of riffs, patterns, and scale runs you can use to build your jazz melodies and solos. Blues is particularly reliant on Lego-like modular riffs. Jazz and blues intros and endings are few, highly standardized, and easily interchangeable. One much-recycled ending is the one Count Basie uses in his performance of “Fly Me To The Moon” with Frank Sinatra.

Another basic Lego is the Duke Ellington ending, as in “Take The A Train.”

Miles Davis turned this ending into an entire bebop head called “The Theme.”

You can hear a stretched-out but still recognizable rendition of “The Theme” at the end of each set on Miles’s Fillmore East performances from March 7, 1970.

The distance between a jazz module like the Duke Ellington ending and a sample like the Funky Drummer break is short. In my own experience, the creative process of writing a jazz tune based on licks and progressions from existing songs feels much the same as building tracks from samples. It can’t be an accident that the most creative jazz musicians are the ones who borrow the most heavily from one another, from pop culture, and from themselves. Coltrane’s tune “Impressions” is a mashup of “Pavanne” by Morton Gould and “So What” by Miles Davis (which is itself partially inspired by “Pavanne.”) The 6/8 single-chord grooves in “My Favorite Things” also appear in Coltrane’s versions of “Greensleeves,” “Spiritual,” and “Afro Blue.” And why not? That groove never gets old. If the most creative artist in the history of jazz is doing so much sampling, I think everyone should feel emboldened to do the same.

Mad Fresh

The most sampled recording in history is probably “Change Le Beat” by Beside and Fab Five Freddy, which was produced in 1982 by Bill Laswell.

If you’re listening to this song for the first time right now, you might be wondering what’s so special about it. You’d be right to wonder. Even Fab Five Freddy was reluctant to have his name on it. The special part of the track comes at the very end, when there’s a beep, followed by a vocoded voice saying, “Ahhh, this stuff is really fresssshhhh.” Hip-hop folklore has it that it’s Fab Five Freddy speaking the line, but it’s actually Bill Laswell’s manager Roger Trilling—he was playfully imitating Elektra Records head Bruce Lundvall. As Dave Tompkins puts it in his book How To Wreck A Nice Beach, “One of the most cloned hip-hop noises was but an imitation itself, mistaken for someone else in disguise, imitating the imitator on the A-side but replicated by a machine.”

The words “ahhh” and “fresh” are for hip-hop turntablists what the twelve-bar blues is for guitarists: both an entry point for beginners, and a bottomless resource for master practitioners. “Ahhh” and “fresh” are comprised of filtered white noise, which always scratches well. The “ahhh” has a distinctive attack and decay, so it’s easy for turntablists to keep track of where in the sample they are. And “fresh” is, well, fresh.

There are several different definitions of “fresh.” As a synonym for new or different, it can refer to food that isn’t canned, frozen, or otherwise preserved; a well-rested, energetic, healthy-looking person; an inexperienced noob; someone recently arrived, as in “fresh off the boat”; water that’s good to drink and not salty; or air that smells clean, pure, and cool. Fresh is also a dated slang term for impudence or impertinence. In hip-hop culture, fresh is on the endless string of synonyms for cool. Neither Roger Trilling nor the record executive he was mocking knew the hip-hop sense of the word when “Change Le Beat” was recorded, but that’s naturally the sense that turntablists intend when they scratch it. Thus you get Doug E Fresh rapping, “You’ve got to be [fresh], to rock with [fresh], and I’m D-O-U-G-I-E [fresh]!”

The wonderful thing about the hip-hop usage of fresh is that it could be referencing any of the various original senses of the word: new, refreshing, appetizing, attractive, or sassy.

fresh yogurt

We in Western culture have a habit of reflexively using “original” as a synonym for “good,” especially in music. I’m going to argue that originality is not actually a virtue, but rather, that freshness is. The concepts are related, but not identical.

In the strictest sense, we can understand originality to be a measure of information entropy, the information in a system that’s novel or unexpected. A song’s information entropy is high the first time you hear it, and then drops precipitously on each subsequent listen. Once you’ve thoroughly memorized and analyzed the song, its information entropy approaches zero. More generally, the music with the highest information entropy will be the most dissimilar to music you’ve heard before.

Producing original music in the information-theoretic sense of the word is trivially easy. Pull note names and durations out of a hat, or get a toddler to bang on a MIDI keyboard, or consult the I Ching. If you want to be really novel, you can generate audio files by randomly filling an array with ones and zeroes. The result is likely to be either tedious or annoying, or both. You’ve generated a lot of new information, but without a pattern or structure, it’s just noise. Now of course, some people like noise, and good for them. But even noise music is more structured than complete randomness. Most of us don’t want total originality in music; we want small variations and hybrids of known ideas, a delicate balance between novelty and familiarity. That balance will tilt one way or the other, depending on the listener.

Very often when we praise music for being “original,” we mean that it’s new or surprising to us personally. Surprise is entirely a function of your expectations. Recently, a student of mine presented a song by a self-described “experimental” Korean band called Clazziquai. I was expecting some kind of skronked-out punk, and instead was greeted by tame electronic pop with some occasional audio manipulations and stutters. Within the formulaic confines of K-Pop, no doubt these effects are startling. If you listen to a lot of Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, however, Clazziquai will hold no surprises for you.

Rather than evaluating music in terms of its originality, we need a criterion that gets at more meaningful aspects of musical quality: emotional truth-telling, recursive patterns of symmetries and asymmetries, intellectual depth, danceability, and so on. We should be judging music by its freshness. We can use exactly the same standards for music that we’d use for produce. A carrot doesn’t have to be unlike all other carrots that came before it; it just has to be crunchy, tasty, and nutritious. Unlike vegetables, music can retain its freshness over long time spans, and can even get fresher over time. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” epitomized freshness when it first came out—the album it appears on was named Future Shock for a reason.

This song exemplifies the ’80s so perfectly that it was inevitably going to become dated and lame after a while. But then, like many artifacts of early hip-hop culture, “Rockit” attained a retro freshness that will never wear out. The documentary Scratch features a series of turntablists who cite “Rockit” as their first inspiration. I incorporated some of them into my own remix:

“Change Le Beat” itself was never all that fresh, and it probably never will be. But just like a rotted log feeds a whole new miniature ecosystem, the “Ahh” and “Fresh” samples are inexhaustible sources of new music. No track that includes the samples can be original by definition, but they can most certainly be fresh.

Biting Breaks: Sampling and Ownership

sample break

This is my first post on NewMusicBox, and I’m delighted to be here. Over the next four weeks, I’m going to be looking at music composition through the lens of electronic music production, specifically the kind based on sampling. This music raises some tough and intriguing philosophical questions: Who is the composer of a sample-based track? Are tracks and notated works equivalent? Are producers “composers”? What even is a composer?

All of these questions are brought into stark relief by “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y.)” by Pete Rock and CL Smooth, a classic of ’90s hip-hop.

The track was inspired by the life and early death of Pete Rock’s cousin and friend “Trouble” T Roy of Heavy D & the Boyz. In a 2007 Village Voice interview, Pete Rock gave the backstory:

I had a friend of mine that passed away, and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can’t believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying.

The Tom Scott record in question is his rendition of “Today” by Jefferson Airplane. The great sax riff comes at 1:37.

Here’s a transcription:

“They Reminisce Over You" sax riff

“They Reminisce Over You” sax riff

And here’s the original Jefferson Airplane song at the head of this memetic family tree:

The chain of musical inheritance doesn’t end with Pete Rock and CL Smooth. Their song has been sampled and quoted many times. Hear my mashup of some of them here:

I’ve debated the musical merits of sampling endlessly with my friends and students, musicians and non-musicians alike. “T.R.O.Y.” is a perfect example of why sampling is so valuable. There would have been no other way for Pete Rock to have arrived at his sound, not even if he had hired Tom Scott to come in and play his sax riff live in the studio. They could, in theory, have painstakingly recreated the instrumentation and ambiance from Scott’s original recording, but the result would still not have had the effortless, tossed-off feel of the samples. Playing a riff from a chart sounds very different from discovering it in the heat of the moment. Pete Rock’s looping transformed unprominent pieces of Tom Scott’s shaggy improvisation into laser-beam-focused funk.

In hip-hop terms, a “break” is a short segment of recorded music that can be sampled and looped. The term originally referred to drums and percussion, but it was later generalized to mean any kind of sound. In his book Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop, Joseph Schloss argues that Pete Rock created the Tom Scott sax break by sampling it:

On a conceptual level, this means that the break in the original jazz record was brought into existence retroactively by Pete Rock’s use of it. In other words, for the twenty-four years between its release and the day Pete Rock sampled it, the original song contained no break. From that day on, it contained the break from “They Reminisce Over You.” Producers deal with this apparent breaching of the time-space continuum with typically philosophical detachment. Conventionally, they take the position that the break had always been there, it just took a great producer to hear and exploit it. Record collecting is approached as if potential breaks have been unlooped and hidden randomly throughout the world’s music. It is the producer’s job to find them.

For a hip-hop fan, listening to ’60s and ’70s soul albums means regularly encountering familiar breaks. When I first heard “Are You My Woman (Tell Me So)” by the Chi-Lites, I immediately recognized the horns and drums from Beyoncé’s “Crazy In Love.” While I understand that, logically, the breaks in the Beyoncé song are really from the Chi-Lites, I still hear them as “belonging” to Beyoncé’s producer Rich Harrison.

Among sampling musicians, discovery has the same creative status as invention. DJs always want to play something that listeners don’t already know but that they will immediately like, and hip-hop producers have inherited this attitude. In a world saturated with recordings, creating more music ex nihilo is not the valuable service to humanity that it once was. I make sample-based music because I feel like it’s more worthwhile to identify existing sounds that have been overlooked, to bring them to fresh ears, and to give them fresh meaning in new contexts.

Theft is frowned upon in the hip-hop community, but the concept means something different from its traditional sense. If I were to use the Tom Scott break in a new track, without intending it as an homage or reference to Pete Rock, I would be “biting” his idea. However I would not be biting Tom Scott, or Jefferson Airplane for that matter. Copyright law disagrees on this matter completely, but sampling artists have never been overly concerned with copyright law, unless they’re forced to be.

Pete Rock’s moral ownership of the Tom Scott break is complicated by the fact that he wasn’t the first hip-hop producer to have noticed it. Slick Rick used it a year earlier on “It’s A Boy.”

Did Pete Rock bite Slick Rick? Is it a case of convergent discovery? Or is Pete Rock’s track just so much better that his ownership overrides Slick Rick’s? I don’t know the answer, but I suspect it’s the latter.

Even after 30-plus years of hip-hop, a lot of people continue to feel moral discomfort about sampling, especially when it happens without permission. Samplers themselves wryly acknowledge the moral ambiguities—see the Beastie Boys’ “Rhymin’ and Stealin’” or Ice Cube’s “Jackin’ for Beats.” Why does sampling need so much defending, when everyone long ago made peace with collage in other media? Maybe it’s because sampling amplifies the unreal qualities that all recorded music shares. Simon Reynolds observes:

Recording is pretty freaky, then, if you think about it. But sampling doubles its inherent supernaturalism. Woven out of looped moments that are like portals to far-flung times and places, the sample collage creates a musical event that never happened; a mixture of time-travel and séance.

Maybe our anxiety about sampling isn’t about ownership at all. Maybe we just don’t like being confronted so directly with the uncanniness of recorded music. While we might like to pretend that recordings are essentially documents of a performance that actually took place, sample-based music reminds us that this is totally untrue. Our discomfort with sampling is probably also the basis for the often-repeated statement that producers aren’t “real” musicians, that sampling is “just pushing buttons.” Having created music both with instruments and software, I can tell you that making good music is not any easier with the latter than with the former.

In the past, it made sense to conflate musicality with technique, because instruments are hard, and music is hard, and by the time you’ve learned to play, you’ve probably spent a ton of time learning the other. Music editing software is comparatively easy to learn, but you still have to master the music. Consider Microsoft Word: any reasonably bright person can quickly learn how it works, but learning how to write well is another ball of wax entirely. So it is with digital audio production. I can take any motivated student and have them chopping up samples in an hour. But are the results going to sound good? That’s where the musicianship comes in, and it takes as many dedicated hours of practice to attain it as with traditional instruments. Hip-hop has made any attentive listener into a potential composer. Now it’s up to us to use our ears.


Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein

Ethan Hein is an adjunct professor of music technology at NYU and Montclair State University. As a founding member of the NYU Music Experience Design Lab, he researches and designs beginner-accessible interfaces for music learning and creation. He maintains an active and widely followed music blog at ethanhein.com.

Ikue Mori: At Home in Strange Lands

Ikue Mori in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
July 16, 2009—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation filmed and edited by Molly Sheridan

Thirty-two years ago, a young woman from Tokyo decided to visit New York City to hear live some of the punk bands she knew only from recordings. It was the first time she’d ever left Japan. Visiting the fabled CBGB decked out in punk regalia, Ikue Mori stood out. As she points out, “Asian punks were very rare.” She quickly caught the attention of Lydia Lunch and James Chance, who would soon emerge as the leaders of the No Wave scene in downtown Manhattan. Only months later, despite a limited grasp of the English language and having never performed music before in her life, Mori found herself playing drums in the Arto Lindsay-fronted band DNA, whose music was compared to Webern as well as free jazz. DNA quickly became a major No Wave act, getting recorded alongside Lunch and Chance on Brian Eno’s seminal compilation No New York, and Mori never went back home. In fact, Lunch and Chance helped land her an apartment in the East Village where she lives to this day.

In four years DNA ran its course and Mori found herself in another scene-the burgeoning world of Downtown improv. Soon she was playing drums for groups led by some of the most intrepid improvisers—Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Anthony Coleman, Tom Cora, Wayne Horvitz, Jim Staley, and perhaps most importantly John Zorn with whom she continues to collaborate to this day. Mori grew tired of lugging a drum kit up and down the stairs of her sixth-floor walk-up and decided to explore the sound world of drum machines instead. But regular beats held little interest for this iconoclast who found a way to make drum machines “sound broken.” According to Mori, “If you take off the quantization, then it just makes sound.”

About ten years ago, Mori switched instruments yet again, to her laptop, a device even more portable than her three drum machines plus various effects units. And the laptop is also capable of myriad more possibilities. Mori’s sensitivity to sound and pacing, from intuitively exploring rhythms first behind a drum set and then with an array of drum machines, have made her one of the most in demand performers on this 21st century musical instrument. The laptop has also allowed her to expand her artistic imagination beyond sound into the realms of graphic design and animation. Armed with a laptop, Mori continues to perform in a variety of contexts including the improvisational trio Mephista (with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and percussionist Susie Ibarra), with Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth, in John Zorn’s Electric Masada, and numerous projects of her own.

A couple of weeks ago we visited Ikue Mori in her apartment. She had just returned from gigging in Poland with Zorn. That trip was on the heels of a concert tour of Japan, where she now returns twice a year but still feels culture shock upon arriving on either side of the Pacific. Sipping cold green tea and surrounded by walls of LPs, CDs, VHS tapes of classic Hollywood films, and a small drawing of her made by Jean-Michel Basquiat, we had a delightful afternoon conversation which was part reminiscence and part lecture/demonstration.


Transcribed by Daniel J. Kushner and Frank J. Oteri

Frank J. Oteri: One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about your career in music is that you grew up in Japan and were not really involved in performing music there at all. But then you came to New York, not even knowing how long you’d stay here, and you found yourself playing—the very first time you were playing music—in one of the most significant rock bands of the late ’70s/early ’80s, DNA. How did that happen?

Ikue Mori: I think it had a lot to do with what was happening in New York in the late ’70s. I had good timing and was in a good place. It had a lot to do with chance also, because I really didn’t plan to be a musician in New York. I just came to see what was going on in New York. That was my first time outside of Japan; I was just out of school. But I was with my friend; he played guitar—he was already a musician.

I was familiar with the music scene in Japan, but there was no motivation for me to play music there. It was a very male-oriented world; not many girls were playing music. It had a lot to do with discipline and show business. But then I came to New York and it was all much closer. It was the time when people who weren’t really musicians just started making music. Arto Lindsay was a poet, and another colleague—a keyboard player—was actually a visual artist. And all those people just started picking up instruments and then tried to do something with it. So it was easier for me to get into, because the idea wasn’t really about playing and technique. It was more about the idea and to have something for yourself, not just to be in the audience. I think it’d be different if it had been ten years later or ten years before. I think I just came to the right place at the right time.

FJO: When you were growing up in Japan and as a young adult, when you were still living in Tokyo, what was your exposure to music? What were you listening to? What was interesting to you?

IM: A lot of music was available in Japan, and I was definitely growing up with rock music, like ’60s American rock music, like [the] Doors to Jimi Hendrix. Rock music has really influenced me, and I was really listening to them. Also I had grown up with all the traditional music, which was always part of my life. My grandmother was singing. I was surrounded by all that music, but I really start listening to music as a teenager. I was listening to music from outside of Japan; I wasn’t really into anything Japanese. There was a lot of rock influence, and also hippie culture influence.

FJO: Did you listen to any sort of experimental music or free jazz when you were in Japan?

IM: During high school we started going to this jazz café. There were a lot of jazz cafés. A lot of places would just play the music all day long and all night long; you could have a long cup of coffee and sit for hours just listening to all those records. But I wasn’t really living in the jazz world, and nothing made me want to be a musician.

FJO: The music of DNA was compared to free jazz and even to Anton Webern. So I’ve always wondered if any of you had even heard any of this music, or if you all independently created a similar sounding musical vocabulary.

IM: I think we created it, because of the different backgrounds of the three of us. Arto Lindsay really has an influence from Brazilian music, and I think he really taught me a lot. In my background, I was [hearing] taiko [drumming] and different kinds of beat counting, and this keyboard player from the art world was more into conceptual art. I think those mixed together and then made something unique. It’s not just based on the rock beat—it was in the beginning, but it was so limited. Our technique was so limited, and then [we] somehow created something else to communicate and express; and it also was the end of the punk era, which was all anger and attitude and powerful music, too.

FJO: There’s this revolutionary aspect to punk, and you were very much interested in that, leaving Japan and leaving those traditions behind. But you’ve just said now that taiko drumming was an influence on you; that’s certainly a very traditional thing.

IM: I did not really study rock beats or jazz beats, so that’s what I had naturally and it made me play drums like a taiko drummer. I think that I cannot help it; those things influenced me without my really noticing it.

FJO: Lots of people tell stories about the late ’70s in New York, CBGB and that whole cultural milieu. Clearly something happened that transformed you. You were not a musician; you didn’t play drums— now all of the sudden you’re in this band as the drummer. Where did you get the drums?

IM: In the beginning, because I came here with this rock guitar player, we were hanging in [clubs like] Max’s Kansas City and CBGB to see all those bands that I was always interested to see in Japan, like Patti Smith and Television, and all those successful bands in New York. The main reason I came was to see these bands because my friend was really interested in the music. I was too, but as a fan, and he as a musician. Then we met Lydia Lunch and James Chance—in CBGB maybe. Back then both me and my friend had short hair and were really punk-looking, and Asian punks were very rare. So they came up to us and said, “What do you do? What are you doing here? You play instruments?” So my friend was scouted to be the bass player of Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, Lydia’s band; then they are always in the rehearsal room with a bunch of young artists there looking for the next band. The people from Mars, Connie Burg or Mark Cunningham, were there. They were always jamming. And then one day Arto asks me, “What are you doing? Why don’t you just play drums?” And then I pick up the drums and that’s it. And Arto goes, “OK, you are the drummer of my band.” And I became a drummer. And then we put together a cheap set of drums and then three months later, we had a gig in Max’s Kansas City. That was the beginning.

FJO: You mentioned Lydia Lunch and James Chance and Mars. Did you all remain friends with each other or was there a sense of rivalry at some point?

IM: Not at all. I mean, Lydia and James were really nice in helping to get me this apartment actually. Not everybody had the same history and background in music. James Chance was already playing music in the jazz scene, but me and Lydia and Arto hadn’t really played in a band before. So we brought in different ideas, but these bands were pretty close. We’d been hanging, playing the same double bills together, and were associated as friends.

Ikue Mori as drawn by Jean-Michel Basquiat

FJO: It was a very tightly knit scene, and it was something that was known by a select group of people. But then I think the thing that made it become legendary was the fact that Brian Eno heard it and then recorded all of you and put out that record, No New York, which was a landmark. How did Eno find out about you?

IM: I’m not really sure what the beginning was, but we heard he was looking for some band to produce; but there were a lot of bands, not just us. In SoHo, there was Glenn Branca and Rhys Chatham. I don’t know why he picked these four groups—DNA, Contortions, Mars, and Teenage Jesus.

FJO: What was it like working with Eno? Did he have much of an input in the studio?

IM: This was my first recording. I don’t really remember if we had a meeting or a discussion about music or anything. He’d come to the studio and just make little suggestions and tuning on the drums for me or just on the overall sound. But it wasn’t so much tight communication.

FJO: Now one of the things so many of these bands had in common was that most of them didn’t last very long. Within a three-year period, Lydia Lunch had formed and dissolved Teenage Jesus and the Jerks, 8-Eyed Spy, and 13.13. There were so many different groups that fell apart after maybe two or three months. You know, Glenn Branca and the Theoretical Girls lasted for a very short amount of time. But amazingly, DNA survived four years—that’s an eternity in terms of what these groups did.

IM: Sonic Youth has been together for more than 25 years.

FJO: True, they’re really the last surviving manifestation of that No Wave scene, and it’s unbelievable that they’ve kept going for so long. And it’s really atypical.

IM: It’s amazing, but four years with the same band is already a miracle, I know.

FJO: Yet even though you were together for that long a period of time, you never made a full studio recording. There are the four tracks that Brian Eno recorded for the No New York compilation and one EP, A Taste of DNA, and then some live things.

IM: Yeah. That’s it.

FJO: Was that because you thought of yourselves more as a live band?

IM: Definitely, I think it became more exciting live than in the studio. But towards the end, when the CBGB recording came out, it was already kind of past the peak.

FJO: What’s interesting is that once DNA broke up, the worlds that you floated in became very different. Suddenly you went from being part of this experimental rock scene to more sort of the Downtown improv scene, the fringes of jazz, the fringes of experimental music, new music— people like John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, Anthony Coleman, Jim Staley. Some of these people had connections to the rock scene, but it was a very different crowd.

IM: Things kind of overlapped at that time. At the end of my DNA time, James Chance was already crossing over and playing with John Zorn in the experimental jazz scene. After DNA I was really searching for what to do next. I tried rock bands, people from that scene. But then I met John Zorn through Arto Lindsay, because Arto and John and David Moss were playing together. And then I met a lot of interesting, great musicians like Fred Frith and Tom Cora, and like you said, Wayne Horvitz, and a lot of different kinds of players. It was really a different way of relating from this attitude I started out from, playing in DNA. I could go more in depth and I was really searching my own vocabulary to play some kind of language. And then also I was changing instruments, cross-fading electronics with acoustic drums.

You know, it’s funny: DNA was often mistaken as improvising all the music, but there was actually really a set of music that we were practicing, and then it was always the same songs. We would jam first and create certain form of song from it, but once it was made as song, there was no improvisation. Everything was all set. In the end, DNA was becoming like music theater, even though we were playing rock music. It was more like ritual music than free jazz, I think: really short and really intense, and then that primitive drumming. And for three years we were playing the same set: 30 minutes, and every song was like one minute long. So when I was first asked to improvise, I really didn’t know what improvisation was and how it was different from jamming. But it was really fun to play the concepts live in front of an audience, to play something that I just made up. It was a different way of interacting with another musician.

FJO: Over the years, you have also gone back to more rock-oriented things. You eventually made an album with Kim Gordon from Sonic Youth.

IM: Much later, yeah.

FJO: But you did not completely leave that world.

IM: No, no. I still like playing clubs full of audience members, concerts with young people. I think I need both.

FJO: What led to giving up playing drums?

IM: A lot of reasons. Even when I was playing drums, I thought like a drum machine; the way I played was a lot like playing the programmed drum parts. And when I started programming drum machines, I noticed that I really loved programming rather than practicing. And with those drum machines I could recombine the beats and manipulate their sounds. I wasn’t really interested in playing a beat, the same beat continuously. The drum machine became more like a composition tool. It’s easier to think song structure than when playing drums. But at first I was playing half drum set, and one drum machine. Then it became two drum machines and less drum set, and then it kind of crossed over in the course of ten years. In the end, the drum machine became more like a synthesizer, like the way I would play three drum machines with big effects on them and a mixer, until I encountered the computer. Then I realized I could do everything in the computer and I changed to computer.

FJO: Before we talk about what you do with laptops, I wanted to talk some more about what you’ve done with drum machines. It’s fascinating to me that you were able to do so much with them. When drum machines started proliferating in the 1980s, those machines were very limited at first in terms of what they could do. The manufacturers of these machines created them for people to do various sorts of normal 4/4-type beats who maybe didn’t have a drummer to work with: press a few buttons and the machine is doing the drums, but very rudimentary. But I’m sure if the folks who made these things had heard what you were doing with them, they would have been surprised that their machines could do that.

IM: It sounded defective. [laughs]

FJO: It was also kind of like what Colin Nancarrow did with piano rolls, creating music that a human being could not do. You just described it as a compositional tool. Were there ideas in your head that were different from what you or anybody else could do physically in real time? Was the only way to get those ideas across through using machines?

IM: Well, in the beginning, all the drum machines, of course, were very limited. Later on you could program more. But then if you don’t think about drums, and just make a tune with all triangles or cymbals and treat it with processors and effects, they are not at all sounds like drum samples. I was more into sound than beats or rhythm. I just didn’t really like the continuous, same beat at that time. I wanted to make it sound broken.

FJO: So how would you get a “broken” sound on it?

IM: If you take off the quantization, then it just makes sound. And then this naturally repeats in loops, but it could also get really kind of broken, just bits of pattern with two repeats. Even though now I’m playing a computer, it’s still really based on these kind of interwoven lines and patterns and combinations—layering them. That’s really still my basic playing idea.

FJO: You made a CD, Garden, which consists only of drum machines. In jazz there have been recordings that were just drums. Max Roach recorded unaccompanied drum solos. And Sunny Murray, whom Lester Bangs once compared to you, made an all-percussion record. And in rock, Ginger Baker did really extended drum solos. But before Garden, I don’t think anyone ever made a recording that was just drum machines. And what you did is extraordinary, because you’ve taken drum machines and taken them beyond the role of time-keeper to reveal an extraordinary array of not only rhythms, but also timbres and even melodies. And it’s you and nobody else. I’m curious about how that particular project happened.

IM: I really wanted to make compositions from drum machines that eliminated continuous beats. I made this one continuous beat with drum machine in a band recording, but that’s the only one I have—Painted Desert. That was really loops and then Marc Ribot and Bob Quine played over it. That was my first record with drum machines. And then one year later I made Garden, which sometimes eliminates continuous beats and is just melody and sound and sometimes layers of beat which make polyrhythms with three different beats going on.

FJO: Eventually you decided to stop using drum machines and just use computers for everything. And that’s been about ten years now.

IM: I started [doing that] in 2000.

FJO: It’s obviously way more portable to bring one laptop than it is to lug several drum machines.

IM: That’s really the main reason. I started realizing that what I was doing with all the equipment and cables that I was carrying, I could just program it on a computer. That was my liberation.

FJO: So, in a way, it’s been a progression towards more and more portability. First you had the drum kit, and then the drum machines which took up considerably less room. And finally, the laptop.

IM: Living in this city on the sixth floor with no elevator, you have to think about equipment. But also I’ve always liked to take small compact things and make something maximum out of it.

FJO: Since you’re working on a computer, how much of what you perform is worked out before a concert and how much is happening during the concert in real time?

IM: It’s half and half. I always have a preset of something to be a starting point. And then spontaneously, I react with people—I’ll change the set of sounds, so instantly I’ll have to prepare some sounds. And then the processing happens live. But I always use something that’s been prepared.

FJO: So, basically what exists in advance are the timbres.

IM: Yes. The diversity of the sound library I have. But in order to layer them, or for it to be just one strong sound, I have a set-up like a sampler so I can bring out different sounds with the key pad.

FJO: So where do the sounds in your library come from?

IM: In the beginning I wanted to play drum machines on the computer, so it’s a lot of sounds that I was using with drum machines. Then later on, I added sounds that were more processed: like processed, processed, processed sound—a third generation of sound—is now in the library. So I create from these sounds to make new sounds. Also by mixing sounds, like factory sounds or sampled string sounds, and layering them to make melodies.

FJO: So when you use your keypad to trigger specific sounds, are you triggering single sounds or a whole sequence of sounds.

Inside this laptop is Ikue’s entire musical and graphic universe

IM: I’ll show you. This is one of the patches I use, and this particular one I use with Zeena Parkins in our Phantom Orchard Project. We use visuals in this, so this screen [points to window with visual imagery on computer] goes out from the back [of the stage]. This project plays a lot of compositions, and I have to be right on, so there are a lot of presets— everything, including sounds and visuals. I have four players here, so there are four different sound layers I can make. There are about 40 sounds altogether that I create from, from beats to just sounds. And I can also change things with filters and reverb. So from all this, the different sounds and visuals come together.

FJO: How many different programs are you using to make this all happen simultaneously? I see you have Max/MSP open.

IM: For the music, this is all Max/MSP; the controller is Max/MSP and Jitter. And this is another effect. And I use GRM [plug-ins], and in that way I relate to physical musicians, but otherwise I’m not really physical at all. For the visuals, it’s a whole bunch of things made using FinalCut and then Flash to put together the animation.

FJO: So is the video component improvised in real time as well?

IM: Yes.

FJO: How long were you working with laptops before you began incorporating a video component into your music?

IM: I think I always wanted to work with visuals, but I started to develop this system three years after [I began performing on laptops] and somebody helped me to organize this system here so it would be easy to put together these separate programs. And then when Jitter came around, it gave me much more speed; the computer became faster and much more powerful and then I could really use visuals with the sounds.

FJO: And on your latest CD, Class Insecta, which was just released a couple of months ago, there’s one track with video animation. But seeing it made me wonder how much I’ve been missing as a listener on the earlier laptop recordings, not being able to experience the video component.

IM: Music can be music independently. It would only be missing when I’m playing live for an audience. When I play a live performance, I feel there’s something lacking if I’m only playing sound. Somehow we have a wall, so I started using visuals with it. CDs or recordings could be just music. But I do like to also make DVDs that could have a visual story as another element.

FJO: With laptop performers there frequently isn’t much to look at. You’re often just watching somebody occasionally making a few key strokes. The joke is that they set off a series of algorithms and then they’re just surfing the web.

IM: I’ve been playing in lots of live bands with “real” instruments and always somebody in the club says, “So what are you doing?” and I always say, “I’m checking e-mail.”

FJO: In all these different groups you are a part of, I wonder how much input you have. When someone brings you on board to play laptop in a group, do they necessarily know what they’re going to be getting? How free are you to do whatever you want? And if they have a specific idea in mind, what kind of guidelines do they give you?

IM: Basically I get to do my own thing, because you can’t really write a classically notated score for me. Sometimes there are graphic scores which specify very basic requests, like a really low sound at one point or a “monster coming” kind of sound. But most mainly just say when I should come in and out. So as long as the exact in and out [points] are set, I can do whatever I want, whatever I feel [during the performance].

FJO: So in something like Zorn’s Electric Masada, with which you just toured to Warsaw a couple of weeks ago, what kind of instructions would you be given in advance?

IM: Electric Masada is much looser. When you’re pointed at, you just have to play. But there’s a John Zorn’s score, Orphée, that has a lot of graphic things, showing high-pitched sound, sparkling sound, etc., when I come in and out and what instruments I’m playing with.

FJO: Still, there’s quite a bit of interpretive leeway in how you’d respond to such a score.

IM: The rest of the score is quite precise, except for me.

When you need someone to read a score like this, contact Ikue Mori

FJO: So you’ll interpret the score your own way. But as a result, could it ever come to a situation where he would say, “That’s not what I wrote”?

IM: No. But of course we talk about it and go through the sounds. And I’ll say, “How about this sound?” And he’ll say, “Maybe add something more.” So we do have to talk about it beforehand.

FJO: So given the kind of flexibility that others have working with you, how precise are you in keeping notated records of your own work? Is this even something that matters to you?

IM: For my pieces, my system is all numbers and I remember it all with these numbers. It’s only me that understands these. I don’t know how to explain it for anybody else to play using my system. But I use it to remember songs and structures.

FJO: In your ensemble pieces, like 100 Aspects of the Moon or the tracks on B-Side and Hex Kitchen, how much do you predetermine what others play?

IM: 100 Aspects of the Moon was the first time I wrote something for other instruments, and there are just very basic melody lines that I gave them. There are different kinds of things going on in there, like game play or structured improvisation, as well as scored things. I like to make up a score to give people, but it’s all mixed.

FJO: So individual players have a lot of freedom within that framework?

IM: Yeah. I have to have this place with improvisation in it for my pieces.

FJO: So if other people than the ones who recorded it were to play it, it could potentially sound like a completely different piece.

IM: It depends on the musicians, but I think so, especially in the improvisational parts. 100 Aspects of the Moon is very basic, but it’s more set things. But unfortunately it wasn’t something that we could play live so much; we only played it once.

FJO: You said that nobody else really understands the number notations you’ve made for yourself. Might you ever be interested in a situation where someone else would be playing a laptop in one of your pieces? Maybe you’d want to do something involving multiple laptops?

IM: Not right now. I would rather play with other instruments.

FJO: One group you’re involved with that I really love is Mephista. And part of what I find so interesting about it is that here you’ve put yourself in a situation where someone else is playing the drums—Susie Ibarra—which frees you up to do less rhythmic things, but given your rhythmic inclinations, it also frees her up to drum more melodically. And then with Sylvie Courvoisier on piano—her playing can be very rhythmic at times and at times can also be very atmospheric, like the things you do on the laptop. So in a way, you all share multiple roles here.

IM: Another drummer I like to play with is Joey Barron. A couple of times we’ve done a duo project. I can be a percussionist and I can also be a sound maker. But Mephista is a special band for improvisation. Piano and drums are great to play with.

FJO: Would it be fair to call the music that Mephista performs jazz?

IM: No. It doesn’t feel like jazz so much. With Phantom Orchard also, we’re not classical, we’re not rock or pop, and definitely not jazz. There’s really no place to put it. And Mephista also is not really jazz. Sylvie is more influenced by classical music and Susie is now really more into her own music, and then with me, my world is a very peculiar place, I think.

FJO: It’s been several years since the last recording; is Mephista still active as a group?

IM: Right now it’s very rare that we have a performance, but Sylvie and I have a lot of different projects together. We just did a tour in Japan with a Japanese vocalist, Makigami Koichi—we have this band, Agra Dharma. It was the band’s first tour there, and it was really great.

FJO: I wonder what it’s like for you to go back to Japan as a musician, which is something you did not explore until you came here. The scene is certainly totally different there now than when you left thirty years ago.

IM: My music developed here in America, so my connection is still much closer to America as a musician, but I still have a lot of friends in Japan and I like to play with musicians there. I’ve actually been going back to Japan twice a year. There are a lot of great improvising musicians. But the public is very small; it’s not like in Europe. It’s very hard to book a tour and find places to play. Every time I go back to Japan I get a big culture shock. And then I come back to New York and also get a big culture shock. I feel at home here, but some things are easier in Japan. I’m still Japanese, but I’m happy to be in America and live in New York.