Name: Allen Ravenstine
Occupation: Composer, synthesizer player
Current release: Between 1975 and 1989, Allen Ravenstine was an essential piece of the sometimes surreal, sometimes poetic, sometimes poetically surreal puzzle that was Pere Ubu. After leaving the equally influential and inimitable "avant-garage" band in the early 90s to become a pilot, Ravenstine seemed – and, for two decades, effectively was – retired from music. Since returning in 2013 with two new full-lengths, Farm Report and City Desk, his career has entered a new phase – even less in the public eye and ear than during his time with Pere Ubu, but possibly even more meaningful to a small crowd of aficionados. Ravenstine's work with modular synthesizers is explorative and forever-curious, but it is also intriguingly beautiful and narrative in a way that most releases in the field could never be. On two new releases, both published via Waveshaper Media, he continues to hone this fascinating creative identity – which, as he claims in this interview, he's not even aware of having: Electron Music/Shore Leave and Nautilus/Rue Du Poisson Noir combine a total of four EPs worth of material each into two remarkably coherent, expansive albums.
If you enjoyed this interview with Allen Ravenstine, visit his personal homepage or bandcamp account for more information and music. For a deeper look into Pere Ubu, visit their webspace.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I began working with synthesizers in 1972.
My mother enjoyed classical music, my father liked jazz. There was a piano in the house. I tried to play the trombone in grade school, the guitar in high school. I had no capacity for the discipline of practice.
When I got the synthesizers I also got a tape recorder. I liked that I could make multitrack recordings. I suppose I was practicing but, it just seemed like making things which kept it from being monotonous like playing scales.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
In the early period of my work with synthesizers I was not listening to others who were working with the instrument. A piece that I composed got me an offer to join a band that was starting up called Pere Ubu.
It was largely through my connection to those musicians that I learned of what other folks were doing. But, by then my own approach was already established.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I’m not aware of ever having had a sense of identity.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The challenge has always been to find a way to create what I hear in my head. I never get all the way there.
Also, in the beginning the well seemed bottomless, as I age the work gets harder.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
Any new instrument creates a new path and I often think a new toy is the answer. Sort of like thinking a baby can save the marriage.
I remember reading that the photographer Edward Steichen took something like a thousand photos of a teacup and saucer. Sometimes it’s best to limit myself, force myself to do more with less.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I really don’t make an effort to keep up with things.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
For a number of years, I worked with the band Pere Ubu and as the result of that with some other groups as well. I didn’t enjoy live performance. And after those years, I stopped making music altogether for many years.
Since I have begun again, my collaborations have been very limited. Mainly, folks have been invited to add tracks to work I have already made. In some cases, their additions have caused me to add more tracks. But, not often.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I am a regimental animal. Very much locked into a routine. I am up early, have a regimen of exercise and meditation followed by breakfast and then a period of work followed by an outing of some sort - often just a walk - and then another period of work after lunch.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
Now and then I have the experience of hearing something I have made and can’t quite imagine that I was the one who made it. I wonder where it came from and fret some over ever being able to make anything that good again.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I don’t rely on inspiration. I try to work everyday. To make something every day, even if it’s just an edit. I make the effort to have my hand in the work every day. A lot of things don’t come to much. I guess it’s a little like fishing. You don’t always catch anything but, you won’t ever catch anything if you don’t have a line in the water.
Sometimes I make something and I don’t know where it came from, that’s the work that interests me but, I have never found a way to make it happen. It comes when it comes
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
No doubt sound can be disruptive, can put you on edge. I don’t know about sound that heals but, I do know about sound that can bring tears. Someone singing "Shenandoah", or "Danny Boy", or Leonard Cohen’s "Hallelujah" always moves me. Beauty moves me.
I don’t make things that I think are ugly, not unless there is also some sort of redemption to the ugliness.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
The unconscious mind can get up to all sorts of things so I’m not sure I can say that I have never appropriated something. Certainly I have used field recordings, found sound if you will but, not as a root. I have not composed something out of samples. Although, I’m not sure I understand how that would be any different than collage art. It doesn’t interest me but, I’m not going to pass judgement on it.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I have no experience that addresses this question.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
I make art because I am driven to do so. I don’t approach it from the standpoint of having something to say that I need to get out. I rely on the unconscious mind for that work. I make a sound, and that leads me to make another and so on and eventually I have something to edit.
First, you write the story, and then you throw out everything that isn’t the story. In my case it’s a little more like making a rock and then trying to find out what’s in the rock.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I have no idea.