Name: Carl Stone
Occupation: Composer, sound artist
Current Release: Stolen Car on Unseen Worlds
Recommendations: Gödel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter; Formalized Music by Iannis Xenakis; Spem in Alium by Thomas Tallis
If you enjoyed this interview with Carl Stone, be sure to visit his homepage and facebook page for more information and music.
Many, many years ago, Carl answered a previous version of the 15 Questions interview. Read it here.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
The first present I remember receiving as a child, at the age of two years or so, was a 45 rpm record player, because my parents had detected that I loved music. I studied classical piano from the ages of five through ten and would often add little flourishes and cadenzas as I read through the Mozart and Bach. My teacher would become irritated and told me to stop, and said that if I wanted to add material I should write my own compositions. So I took her advice to heart.
The first composition I wrote was in the spirit of Karlheinz Stockausen’s Klavierstȗcke #9, (of which I had zero awareness) insofar as it was a single chord repeated over and over. Unlike the Stockhausen however, my chord lacked any dissonant complexity or particular interest – it was merely a C Major triad banged out for three minutes. Perhaps it was less in the style of Stockhausen but rather a crude anticipation of Terry Riley. In any case, while it might have been a valiant effort at the age of six, I have chosen to exclude it from my published canon.
For most artists, originality is first 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? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
As a teenager in high school I was a member of a band, (along with the percussionist who later became known as ZEV) that was inspired by the British group Soft Machine. We saw them open for Hendrix in 1968. We played open ended jazzy but somehow not jazzy improvisations and in particular I think I sought to emulate the sound of that band’s keyboard player Michael Ratledge. Once I started post high school classes at CalArts I studied with Morton Subotnick and as you say, my first attempts adopted many of the stylistic elements of his synthesizer performances and the episodic and formal nature of his compositions.
As time went on I began to discover new approaches that were unique and began to fall under the spell of a lot of the world music recordings that were in the school’s music library, where I worked. I was also particularly interested by the early music of Steve Reich and Philip Glass, both of whose ensembles having come to CalArts to play live. Alvin Lucier’s “I am Sitting in a Room” was very moving and in fact seminal for me, and a few years later I adopted the piece’s self-referential and regenerative techniques in my piece Sukothai from 1977.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The biggest challenges came after I graduated from CalArts in 1975 and found myself suddenly without access to a $50,000 studio replete with a Buchla synthesizer and many multi-track tape recorders etc. I needed to find a way to make my music with whatever gear I could get my hands on.
I worked in a radio station and so at least I could access tape recorders, microphones and a music library. It was in this environment that my pieces Sukothai and Woo Lae Oak were composed.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
Actually, until I came to Japan and gained access to a university recording studio, I’ve never really had a studio in the traditional sense of the word. I have usually worked from home with my live performance gear set up in a way that I could workshop and practice.
Aside from a tape recorder, the first piece of gear I acquired was a Publison DH89 delay/harmonizer. It cost about as much as a small auto at the time, but I was fortunate to have received a grant from the Aidlin Foundation to purchase one. I fed it with cassette tapes, LP records and my voice for my performances in the early eighties. You can hear examples of this in my compositions Kuk Il Kwan, Dong Il Jang and Shibucho. The Publison was stolen from my home – twice.
After the second time, in 1986, I used the insurance settlement not to replace it but rather to buy an Apple Mac Plus, as well as some MIDI gear like a Yamaha TX16 synth and a Prophet 2002 sampler. This was my performance set-up for a few years until laptops became fast enough to do digital signal processing in audio, around the year 2000 or so, at which point I abandoned the MIDI altogether and just began performing with a laptop only, using MAX/MSP software.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
For me the most interesting thing about music technology, and this dates back to as far as the earliest modular synthesizers, is the fact that it has allowed composers to hear the results of their efforts in real time.
Of course someone writing for a solo instrument could potentially hear the results as they composed, assuming they could play the instrument they were writing for. But on the whole anyone writing for an ensemble or certainly an orchestra or even for the first generation synthesizers like the RCA Mark II which needed punch cards and overnight batch processing, had to wait days, weeks, even years before they could hear what they had composed. If at all! So the immediate feedback that technology has provide has been an enormous boon to creativity in my view.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
What you say is undoubtedly true. Composing for an instrument, whether it’s a violin, a MIDI keyboard or even a computer, presents you with a set of limitations and musical (not to mention cultural) biases. Software in particular can guide you, sometimes rather subversively, into tacit assumptions about form and style. And I think the most interesting work being done today by people is when they figure out ways to work around those assumptions or just bust them up. It’s not that hard to do actually, if you have a mind to it.
In my case, I work at one step back, because I write my own software tools using the programming language MAX. It’s pretty much tabula rasa because you literally start each programming task with a completely blank page. But even a program such as MAX, which is very wide open and freewheeling, has its own biases and makes some things easier than others to do, which is something I keep on the lookout for. As my friend Pamela Z often says, “If it ain’t broke, BREAK IT!”
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?
I’ve done all of those. Before I moved to Japan I rarely improvised, so jamming wasn’t something I did much of. But when I arrived in Tokyo a lot of people wanted to play with me and so I began to write software tools that allowed me to perform more flexibly and improvise. I found it to be a lot of fun and have worked to develop proficiency. Now even my solo sets have greater elements of improvisation than they did in the past.
File sharing is something I have done a few times, the first in 1995 with Otomo Yoshihide. This was before the world-wide web had been adopted outside the academy, so file sharing was done old-school, by passing DAT tapes back and forth serially, using FedEx and DHL. This was essentially the same method use for my collaboration with Tetsu Inoue in 2001. By then the WWW had been fully integrated, but the limits of file transfer speeds and storage capabilities still meant that the postal service was the best way to collaborate. The REALISTIC MONK project with Miki Yui used recordings we made together and also separately, and then editing and mixing was done collaboratively, using the modern internet.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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 didn’t use to have a have a strict routine, but because COVID has kept me indoors most of the time each day tends to have several regular areas of focus. Mornings are for business-y stuff like answering emails and other so- called paperwork. I like to cook, so in the afternoons I’ll work on preparing meals. I usually work on my music upon the arrival of evening, and into the early hours past midnight.