Name: Christopher Farstad
Occupation: Sound Artist, Field Recorder
Current Release: Ghostships of the Great Lake on bandcamp
Recommendations: The Non-Local Society's output
T N Rajaratnam Pillai & Nachiyar Kovil Raghava Pillai (watch/listen on YouTube)
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Christopher Farstad of 555, check out his website for more information and sounds.
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?
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?
There was a Smashing Pumpkins / Blink-182 crust, with a creme filling of Radiohead, and for a while mostly forgettable instances of myself emulating baking this pie at about fifty degrees too hot, leading to a lot of burnt dough lattice and charred grime-goo on the floor of the oven. Then I discovered the power of the Internet and more or less was off to the races. I started writing music when I was about thirteen or fourteen, mostly in some weird miasmic confluence of esoteric hardcore from the midwest, minimalist Western classical like Philip Glass, and iconoclastic creators such as Mort Garson, John Fahey, Phil Elverum, and Aphex Twin. I was drawn to a general emotional catharsis, like any young artistic person, and gained enough support from peers and my sister to start a band and began creating some sort of figgy-emopudding version of indie rock. This lasted until I went off to college, joined a gamelan ensemble, and was made aware of white supremacy and eurocentrism through a few key friends there. Artists like Keiji Haino and a general exposure to ethnomusicology changed everything for me, destabilizing whatever structure of musicianship I had been constructing up until then. I decamped to the caves of experimental and traditional musics, more or less. It wasn’t until years later that I was even aware of synthesizers, really. Through a few good friends and further exploration I became aware of groups like Harmonia and creators like Iasos or Alice Coltrane. I would characterize my musical journey as the product of a generally insulated exposure, “low and slow,” with lots of setbacks and dead-ends.
Emulation is more or less how I learn — everything is filed away and then recombined according to some biological algorithm determined by a mixture of resonant emotional intensity and experimentation. I was never very interested in reading music, and am still more or less indifferent to it. I learn best by listening and mimicry, content to render failings or technical inconsistencies a product of “style.” Coming back to the blank page of creation again and again, I started to see patterns emerge in terms of what felt honest and real and what was ultimately derivative garbage. Eventually I emerged as a plausible version of myself. But even that is ultimately empty, so you have to keep reapproaching it from different angles. Suffering, failure, and frustration intersect with a (hopefully) evolving emotional intelligence to produce work that resonates with people who have seen or experienced similar tropes of experience. Honestly, the majority of my creativity comes from a place of un-learning. I strive to make something original, to ask questions that have not been asked before. I personally feel that the best of human creativity does this. I openly admit to having not always succeeded to the best of my ability, and expect to continue to fail again and again. I emphasize over and over that no other species cares at all about anything that humans have ever produced from the beginning of time until now. So the stakes are pretty low, at the end of the day. The pressure I feel is all in the mind, and it’s helpful to remember that. Humility in the face of profound indifference is the best creative tool possible, in my opinion.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main challenges have to do with recording to a standard where I could feel confident in my creative decisions regarding fidelity—that they were a product of intention and choice, rather than indifference and inexperience. Learning about recording, recording over and over, trying to rescue bits which were recorded inexpertly, doctoring and equalizing a mix, it all takes time to build that competency. It takes effort to develop an ear and to discern what to care about and what to not care about in as far as it serves an artistic goal. It comes down to confidence, ultimately. In music production there is nowhere to hide. A trained engineer can hear within 30 seconds how you could have chosen differently or what you’re propping up. A trained listener and aficionado of music can sense almost instantaneously if you’re faking it, if your education lacks a critical creative touchpoint, or if boundaries are just being massaged versus being broken. Massage is actually a good metaphor — touch communicates so much. You can tell pretty much right away if someone knows what they’re doing or if they’re just phoning it in. I try to listen to well-recorded media and appreciate the craft of it. I try to reproduce what I treasure about clarity of intention and fidelity, wherever appropriate, but like anyone, I am largely limited to whatever I can garnish or afford in terms of equipment and time.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your setup evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
I recorded my first efforts with my family’s computer, pretty awful microphones, digital interfaces, and four-tracks. My setup has evolved since organically, according to my capacity for research and patience. Word-of-mouth and trust afforded through conversations pertaining to specific artistic problems were the building blocks of my gear acquisitions, in general. My feeling is that owning as little as possible is a helpful artistic focus, and I generally try to heavily limit whatever I would potentially bring into the creative process. I am opportunistic to a pretty extreme degree in this regard. If someone gives me a piece of equipment, I’ll try to use it. If it doesn’t serve what I’m doing, I’ll get rid of it. If something breaks, I’ll try to find a work-around. If I’m bored with whatever hardware I’m working with, I’ll pick up an instrument. Music should ultimately live in the body, I feel. I don’t like to spend a ton of time fetishizing or building gear. I find things that I like, and I stick to them. It’s often used, and if it’s new, it’s cheap. Currently my heavy hitters are an Allen & Heath Zed 10, as well as my iPad 2. I use the iPad as a looper—Loopy HD is my favorite program and compositional workbench. I use a lot of guitar pedals to modify signal chains—pitch shifters, delay, and reverb. I have one hardware synthesizer — a Roland JV-1010, but I might pick up one of the new Roland D-05s soon. I try to spend some time each day practicing physical instruments, and I tend to put most of the importance there.
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?
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?
I like using technology in ways that are unintended, or in ways that blur the line between intention and random processes. Most recently I have made music that is purposefully arhythmic or tries to create a kind of suspended feeling of a sound “eco-system,” versus a quantized or synchronized ensemble performance. I think emulating nature is more interesting than emulating established artistic tropes or styles, and I draw a lot of influence from John Cage in this regard. My latest record uses a Cage visual art piece as cover art (generously licensed by the John Cage Trust). I do like synthesizers and new age music, as well as so-called “fourth world” explorations—the mixing of technological process and pre-industrial methodologies or instrumentation is kind of my preoccupation lately. Artists like Angel Rada or Jon Hassell are good examples of versions of this kind of approach, but I wouldn’t claim to be super interested in speaking directly to what they’ve done. I like the idea of taking all the traditional musics of the world and recombining them, folding in 21st century technologies, and making some sort of traditional music that sounds like it doesn’t come from anywhere. Keiji Haino’s approach to hurdy-gurdy or xylophone captures this especially, for me. I enjoy reveling in sound as an individualized emotional investigation, I admire his authenticity in approaching an instrument as a physical object first and foremost, in suspending the hierarchy of intended use or skill entirely to look for a new sound. I’m into an idea of traditional musics from a transhuman perspective, or from the perspective of an alien species, maybe. I like the idea of artificial intelligences or cyborgs making a version of “traditional music,” and a future version of humanity looking back on that as some kind of belated anthropological fact.
In general I don’t really use software. I do all the amending and tooling outside of software, and then use a DAW to record and sequence sound events. It’s not very interesting to me to spend a lot of time inside of a “computer mindset.” I think a lot of people lose too much of their creativity to computer processes and software interfaces. I like to combine trash equipment and pristine equipment and treat the computer as a tool for recombination of these. This might change, though. I want to try to learn Supercollider and maybe investigate more about Ableton to try to explore new things.