Name: Christopher Paul Thompson
Occupation: Composer, percussionist
Current Release: Chris P. Thompson's True Stories & Rational Numbers is available from his bandcamp store.
Recommendations: Star 93
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When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
Around age 15 -- I had become involved in marching percussion and soon found myself in a drum & bugle corps traveling all over the country in buses and sleeping on gym floors. A big part of that scene is the warmups (often referred to as the "parking lot show") that happens in advance of the corps going into the stadium to perform: the drumlines play a series of exercises meant as warm-ups and to show off chops, often for huge crowds. Starting in the early 90s, some of these "exercises" started to get very composer-y and look a lot more like "pieces"; they were a massive inspiration to write my own music.
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 the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I've done lots of arranging, mostly in the form of turning electronic music into instrumental arrangements for my colleagues in Alarm Will Sound. These experiences were invaluable to me for thinking about sound like a composer and mastering various tools and workflow, yet without having to simultaneously face the mean demons of developing my own voice from scratch.
What were some of the most important creative challenges when starting out as a composer and how have they changed over time?
Ugh ... choosing software to work in and then forcing myself to persevere with it to the point where I can actually feel creatively at home with it. There is just so much out there and it's so intimidating and confusing to figure out what you need.
In 1995 I had staff paper for drum things and a shareware tracker called "MacModPRO" for electronic things. That's it. I literally did not know what reverb was. The creativity flowed. Then each step forward with my tools (and education, honestly) felt like a step backward inspirationally. Becoming consciously aware of that irony and figuring out a way to deal with it was a huge challenge.
Also, managing the barrier between having a musical idea and learning to realize it in electronics can be very tricky. There are approximately 3.4 million tutorials on the internet ready to help you spend an entire day forgetting what your original idea was.
Tell us about your studio/work space, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
I spent 5 years composing and practicing in a 150 square foot room with the walls painted black, a window to a brick wall, and black-metal drummers throwing down 24/7 above, below, and on both sides. I didn't get a real desk until the last year, instead I sat in front of one of those industrial kitchen shelving units. So that was an era that produced music of a very specific kind of mood: gloomy, anxious, uncomfortable, angry.
About a year ago I moved everything home to the apartment and work is much more peaceful, albeit more punctuated by snacks and naps.
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?
Honestly I've forgotten what life was like in the before-times? I can only really say that since March my days include as many anxiety-reducing routines as possible: a combination of meditation, journaling, and doing tabata or yoga over zoom with a supportive group of other musicians in various stages of pandemic-related unemployment. I DJ a zoom dance party on Thursday nights, that's fun and inspiring. I'm always in some stage of cooking. There's definitely no separation to anything when everything is within 10 feet.
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?
The ideal state of mind for me is acceptance of whatever state of mind I happen to be in. Wow, that sounds like a cop-out answer ... I guess the point I'm trying to make is that waiting for, or trying to manufacture, a particular state of mind has not been constructive for me. Accepting that I'm going to be emotionally all over the place from day to day, because I'm human, has been the thing. Practicing meditation is something that has helped me develop that acceptance.
Could you take me through the process of composing on the basis of one of your pieces that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
I typically create bits of material in clips and then improvise playback of the clips into a big, messy arrangement. In the case of Spitting, which is the emotional center of gravity of the new record, the material came from some experiments with trying to keep pop chord progressions on piano in just intonation as they modulate around, without getting too far off into harmonic space.
The most confusing time for me is always after I've created that rough arrangement, but before I've figured out what it is that my subconscious is trying to express. There is always an a-ha moment when I realize what I'm doing, and it's a huge relief and very exciting. It's a lot like therapy actually -- go with what you feel in the moment until you realize how it relates to the big picture. I make notes about it so I don't forget, and then I can finish.
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?
I have a crazy relationship with click tracks, quantization, pitch lattices, midi data, clocks, graph paper -- these are things machines excel at, and I love these things. They are pure comfort to me. No arguments, no ambiguity, they are doing these things perfectly so that I don't have to. I've always been baffled when other musicians don't want to play to a click track because they feel like it puts them in a box. To me a click track is ultimate liberation; to be allowed to be a human being without worrying that the ground is going to fall out from under all our feet if I make a human mistake.
A related question on my mind recently is what do some machines excel at that others don't -- much to ponder on the subject of music in just intonation is a conversation about instrumental practicality. We tune to equal temperament because that's the only practical way we can realize western music on our traditional music-playing-machines. The very recent development of technology that allows one to (relatively) easily realize a realistic recording of justly-tuned music is what precipitated this entire album. Again, liberation to work with something human, facilitated by machines.
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, including the artists performing your work?
I'm a hermit, and collaboration in real-time feels very unnatural to me. I prefer to hand things back and forth with other artists and generally stay out of each others way. I like collaborations that are structured and planned. I like working alone. This feels like a shameful confession; I like to imagine there are others out there who understand ... for whom "collaborating" is a setting on a dropbox folder.
How is writing the music and having it performed live connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
The connection between writing and live performance is backwards and upside-down for me because I'm not writing initially for people. True Stories is meant to be a fully realized work of electronic music that requires no human involvement to be experienced by the listener. Every note is programmed to sound how I imagine I would play it if I could.
Now with that version of the piece permanently in place as a recording, I'm liberated from my need to have control over anything -- I can let go and get really excited about allowing other musicians to do whatever they want with it. It's a really different feeling than writing something on paper and then hoping the musicians will realize it in the way I imagined. Again, here we have the technology covering my bases so that I can feel comfortable inviting a more personal interpretation by other people -- one that probably (hopefully!) has less to do with my original intention.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
Yes I have a theory about that! In music, everything is just time at different scales:
"hear"-able time -- fast and small -- the ears -- pitch, Hz (beats per second), as interpreted automatically by human eardrums.
"feel"-able time -- medium speed -- the body -- tempo, rhythm, BPM with the human heartbeat as a reference point.
"clock"-able time -- large and slow -- the mind -- moments, structure, form -- seconds, minutes, with "moments" of human experience and circadian rhythm as our reference point.
Rather than separating these three scales and giving them each their own distinct music theory, I believe that the same theoretical constructs can be applied to all three areas. That's my compositional starting point.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
Truly no difference to me -- it's all part of composition, from choosing the first pitch to making the final mastering tweak.
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? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
With this project, the overlaps between rates of vibration we hear, feel, and "clock" (as I describe above) were a primary inspiration. Once I started to think of pitches as "really fast tempos" and tempos as a "series of moments" it felt like a grand unified theory of everything. 🤯
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?
Making art is critical to my well-being and feels to me like a basic human need.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
Yes definitely! I'm hoping that western music theory will refine itself as composers re-discover the simple mathematical concepts that explain how our physiological sensations translate to emotional meaning. I believe music theory concepts could become clearer, simpler, and more understandable to general population, and thus music will be able to finally take new steps forward without leaving listeners behind.