The creative impulse

Like a literary archaeologist, Geeta Dayal uncovers historical fact and opinion by digging into archives and primary interviews to avoid adding to and becoming part of the cyclic verbatim of the Internet. Dayal has been writing about music for over ten years with articles and essays appearing in Slate, Wired, The Wire, Frieze, The New York Times, The Pitchfork 500 and Marooned to name a few and her debut book Another Green World that was part of the 33 1/3 series. With a history in science and technology, Dayal's approach combines analytic diligence with a fascination for the complexities and mysteries of the creative act. A deep love for German culture and technology, has seen Dayal's work hover around the electronic music genre. Having written about everything from Conrad Schnitzler to Daft Punk's latest album, Dayal also serves on the steering committee for the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, and is currently working on a book that explores the history of electronic music. Lecturer, scholar, author and researcher, Dayal's success springs not just from her academic credentials but from her genuine and long-lasting love affair with sound and technology.

When did you start writing about music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?

I’ve been writing about music professionally for a decade. But I’ve been actively engaged with music my whole life. When I was a child I played harmonium and piano; I also spent time learning viola and flute. I’ve been collecting records seriously since I was about 11. In college, I took classes in music composition.

I also travelled extensively when I was small. I remember going to Düsseldorf when I was seven years old; visiting Germany had a big impact on me. I bought my first Kraftwerk record soon after.

I don’t think ‘influence’ really exists, though – ‘influence’ is a word that gets bandied about too much. It’s a stand-in for doing hard thinking. What does it really mean for an artist to be ‘influenced’ by someone else? Mark Sinker, who was the editor of The Wire in the early ‘90s and a fixture on the I Love Music message board in its early days, taught me a lot about ‘influence.’ Mark Sinker and Simon Reynolds are both good friends of mine, and their writing has been a massive inspiration to me. David Toop and Luc Sante are other writers who I’ve derived a lot of inspiration from. My list of favourite writers is long.

‘I Love Music’ circa 2001 – 2006 was also a great boon, in terms of developing my thinking on music in a public forum and connecting with other writers and musicians. Music writing on the web owes a lot to Tom Ewing.

What are your main impulses to write about music?

Well, I write about many things – not just music. I’ve also written about film, visual art, science, technology. The creative impulse is not specific to music. All of these things are interconnected.

Over the past several years, I’ve focused a lot on the history of electronic music – to me, it’s a really important and very underrated way to learn about culture and technology in the 20th century.

What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments and pieces in your journalistic work and/or career?

Over the past several years, I’ve been devoting considerable time to excavating the history of electronic music. These articles are a real labour of love for me. They’re long, heavily researched pieces, and I’ve tried very hard to add something new to the historical record -- insights or new material that doesn’t already exist elsewhere.

Some major recent articles I’ve done for Frieze include the last interview with Max Mathews before he died, a massive article on Conrad Schnitzler soon after he died, a heavily researched article on Conny Plank, for which I interviewed many people, including Brian Eno, who spoke out at length about Conny for the first time (this was republished recently in Germany, in Groove), a big article on Laurie Spiegel, and the longest interview that currently exists with Dieter Moebius of Cluster. Right now I’m writing a big article on David Tudor.

I’ve also done a lot of recent long essays and think pieces recently for Slate, including big articles on Eno, Bowie, mazes and computer programming, and phone hacking. I’ve also been writing in-depth articles on neuroscience, for newspapers like the Globe and Mail in Canada.

When I was at Wired, I wrote a lot of pieces I was proud of, including a massive three-part interview with William Gibson, and several big technology stories.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the city you are currently living in and how important is it in terms of what you're actually writing about?

I currently live in San Francisco, but I’ve only been here for about a year and a half. There’s a great and very supportive group of experimental electronic musicians here; much of the scene clusters around small venues in San Francisco and Oakland. Mills College, which has a legendary alliance with electronic music stretching back several decades, is nearby, and the Mills faculty is a wonderful resource. Terry Riley lives nearby. Several synthesizer inventors, like Don Buchla, are in the area too. It’s an ideal place to research electronic music history. I’m also on the steering committee for the San Francisco Electronic Music Festival, which is now entering its 14th year.

Before San Francisco, I was in New York City, Boston, and Berlin. The cities I’ve lived in have all made a deep impact on me, and my thinking.

When it comes to music journalism, what are your criteria for quality? What are currently your main challenges and ambitions as a writer?

It’s important to emphasize that music writing isn’t just about the music – it’s about the writing. It’s not simply about conveying knowledge about music. The writing itself should be able to stand on its own. Journalism is a craft; writing is an art. Writing about music is a craft and an art.

What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?

Putting a big piece together is a bit like trying to solve a puzzle with 1000 pieces. For me it’s a very labour-intensive process. I start by doing a lot of research. At home, I have many shelves of music books, art books, and CDs and vinyl records. I spend a lot of time reading; I also pay attention to the liner notes that come with the records.

I do a lot of primary interviews. Whenever possible I try to visit the people I’m interviewing in person, in their natural environment. Travelling a lot helps. I take a lot of notes, and cull interesting quotes from archival interviews. When I was starting out as a writer ten years ago, I spent a year working for Simon Reynolds on his book ‘Rip it Up and Start Again’ as his research assistant – Simon taught me a lot about research.

Sometimes I’ll tap various archives to locate specific films. I also go to a lot of museums. I’ll talk to curator friends of mine, and musicians and artists, and I’ll sometimes get useful leads that way. If you just use the web for your research, it’s hard to write an article that’s unique and different. Information on the Web on a lot of this stuff - particularly the obscure stuff – is thin. It’s easy to fall into an echo chamber where you’re simply repeating what others have said. And who knows if that stuff was even correct in the first place.

Nearly every article I write goes through several revisions, ideally through an intense back-and-forth process with an editor.

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