Name: Doug Bielmeier
Occupation: Composer, sound artist, recording-, mastering- and mixing engineer, curator, teacher
Current Release: Ambient Works on Albany.
Recommendations: The Drone Zone and Soma FM is San Francisco based internet radio station that provides a plethora of distinct channels and playlist. There is everything from electroacoustic and drone music, to underground 1980s pop and Americana.
I would also recommend my podcast, The Process: a podcast about creativity and experimental music. The podcast aims to understand the creative process for experimental music by listening to new works and discussing them with their creators. New Episodes every other Friday.
If you enjoyed this interview with Doug Bielmeier, visit his exceptionally informative website.
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?
Growing up in a working-class suburb of Buffalo, NY in the 1980s and 1990s, I listened to a healthy dose of grunge and alternative music. I chose to study music and composition at the conservatory level with Robert Carl (Student of Iannis Xenakis) at the Hartt School and Elainie Lillios at the MidAmerican Center for Contemporary Music. These teachers instilled a sense of experimentalism that was rooted in traditional composition and electroacoustic music. In addition, I established a strong foundation in Sound Recording and learned the importance of quality sound recordings to convey musical intent.
After graduation in the 2000s, I worked as a staff recording engineer in DC and Nashville, working with bands and rappers spitting over MP3s. Surprisingly, I learned that music outside the conservatory had rigor and meaning equal to inside the conservatory.
Currently, I am a professor of music at Northeastern University, but remain a product of slacker culture: I am sceptical of authority and anything that is too polished, enthusiastic, or makes broad assertions. I’m drawn to music that is raw, authentic, smart, and oppressively beautiful. My new album Ambient Works, on Albany Records (Troy1860), examines my desire to reveal the context and emotion often missing in modern computer and electroacoustic music.
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?
I believe my voice is defined by the combined musical and extra musical experiences of my life. My perspective is informed by my classical training in piano and composition, work as a staff recording and mix engineer, doctorate in education, teaching at Northeastern University, and hosting of a podcast about experimental music. When creating, I try to let all these aspects of my life into the work. My new release album Ambient Works, on Albany Records (Troy1860), can be considered an exploration of defining my voice over the last two decades. Ambient Works serves as a musical travelogue of experiments in the world of electroacoustic, ambient, and experimental music. Each piece serves to punctuate my eclectic industry and academic career path.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
I have always thought of myself as a Creator, or more precisely a Music Creator. When I use this term, people are often confused. Conversely, when I use the term Composer, most people say, “ah, yes,” and nod in confirmation. However, I have increasingly become less comfortable with the term Composer because it comes with a lot of baggage: expectations, elitism, and irrelevance. I don’t want to be beholden to music written 300 years ago, or even 50 years ago.
While I may borrow or be inspired by music of the past, comparison to iconic composers can be crippling for a new creator. Instead, I try to follow my instincts, not expectations. In Ambient Works (Albany, 2021), I draw inspiration from classical works while expanding the ethos of commercial ambient music in tracks, such as “Another Pilot Down” and “No Time.” In addition, “Photo Lab Sanctuary” and “Manumed” aim to extend the definition of a soundwalk piece, and “St. Martin’s Summer” is a fresh take on a Schaefferian sound object montage.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Finishing. If you are a creative like me, then you probably have several unfinished albums of music. Only recently, have I finally allowed myself to finish something. It is scary to declare a piece finished! Once it is out there it can be judged, hated, panned by a critic, or worse: ignored. Since 2017, I’ve been consistently putting out albums and been part of several recording projects including Monophonic (SEAMUS, 2020), Beast of Bodmin Moor (Noisy Buffalo, 2019), Mind & Machine (Ravello, 2018) and Betty and the Sensory World (Ravello, 2017). My ability to finish pieces has inspired me to be more creative.
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?
I know a lot about gear and have some strong opinions about it! I have two decades of experience as a studio and live-sound engineer with a stint as a freelance engineer in Nashville. The pinnacle of my live-sound work was a gig at the Kennedy Center, in Washington D.C. for (then) Vice President, Joe Biden. Next, I went on to design and manage the C.L.E.A.R. Lab recording studio at the Purdue School of Engineering Technology: a state-of-the-art facility for the recording and mixing of electroacoustic works. Over the years, I have personally curated a stockpile of audio gear used in different projects.
However, when I’m creating, I don’t think about any of this. Instead, my focus is to get the idea out of my head and into the corporeal world as quickly as possible. In the 1990s, I recorded my first compositions via a 1980’s boom box set on the music stand of an upright piano in my Family’s living room. This music and recording were for me to hear only. Now, I work in state-of-the-art studio spaces to mix and master projects for clients. These projects will be heard by lots of people throughout the creation process and there is an expectation about quality. My boom box recordings are equivalent to the phone and computer recordings of this new generation of creatives. However, today’s technology easily allows for additional layers of complexity and flexibility, which I feel can be freeing and/or overwhelming.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
At the Hartt School in the late 1990s, I could access DAWS and programs, such as Max/MSP and Finale, which had a huge impact on my ability to write and create music. However, eventually I found that the use of computers also increased complexity to my creative process, which could easily lead to distraction and dead ends. At some point, I started limiting what parts of the process I’d use computers for. My process of Windowing is a truly stripped-down method of digitally processing sound via computer software.
Windowing refers to the manipulation of found sound files by the stretching and compression of time, sample rate, bit depth, and window size. The layering and temporal placement of these windows creates larger sonic landscapes for the creation of musical works divorced of their source context. In Ambient Works (Albany, 2021), you can hear how this process has developed from a very glitch and machine-like process, especially in “Backscatter,” into a more diffuse sonic landscape, as in “Largo, Montego.”
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?
My recent collaborations with musicians, ensembles, dancers and visual artists has encouraged me to develop a variety of skills needed by the modern Music Creator. Writing for visuals is a skill I developed through my collaborations with Michael Ryder, Christopher Konopka, and more recently with the Unheard-of Ensemble and Allison Tanenhaus on the work “Corporate Responsibility Pledge.” My work with the Hypercube Ensemble on “Burning Old Man Summer,” aided specifying the special quality of unique ensembles and musicians to translate the abstract into performance.
Similarly, my collaboration with Eric Salazar (also known as the Clarinet Guy) and Michael Drews resulted in our trio performance of “Electric Rodeo Revival.” I extended my knowledge of recording and producing experimental music as session and mix engineers for Recording Artists Jordan Munson (New Amsterdam Records), Eric Salazar (Centaur), and Robin Cox (Iridian Records). Currently, I’m really excited about my 2021 Nomadic Soundsters Residency working with Sammy Gerraty, Christian Preski and Erich Barganier.