Name: Matthew Aidekman
Member of: TablaTun with David Rothenberg and Mike Lukshis.
Occupation: Sound artist, software developer
Current release: Matthew Aidekman's trio TablaTun has a new live album out, available via bandcamp. For the TablaTun retuning tool, go here.
Software recommendations: I'll be completely honest. I try very hard not to be consumptive when it comes to music software. I make exceptions for when it's something I really can't do myself. David Rothenberg tries everything he can get his hands on and sometimes that makes me jealous. I find that MaxMSP, which I would recommend to everyone, really serves almost all my needs except for sequencing and hardcore audio editing where, sadly, I still feel there's a sweet spot that's not out there.
I feel like that's not really answering your question. So I'd encourage everyone to check out the 15 year old SPEAR (http://www.klingbeil.com/spear/) before it gets eradicated by the transition to Apple silicon. SPEAR is absolutely fantastic and I don't know of any other way to work with sinusoids in a signal. It's an amazing way to spice things up.
If you enjoyed this interview with Matthew Aidekman of TablaTune, visit his website for an overview of his various projects. We also conducted a David Rothenberg interview a while ago, as well as an interview with David about literature.
You're not 'just' a software developer, but a musician in your own right. 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?
My music teacher in 4th grade, Rich Reiter, was an inspired wacked out passionate jazz genius. When the band kicked, it was rapture. When he caught us sucking he'd scream and hack out quarter notes on a cow bell to try and get us to understand what the groove was. He figured out how to sync his VCR to a MOTU's Performer (then MIDI only), and he ran an after school activity where students would take turns recording tracks on a Korg M1 synth (the beast of the day) scoring films. For the remaining hour we'd sit in practice rooms and stare at each other! I had no training. I didn't know what a scale was. I played snare drum (poorly) in band. But for some reason, I remember him liking the results and I responded to that positive energy. The music was unlike music I'd heard until then. Those M1s really shine when they're given space instead of used in bands. When my mom saw how much I loved scoring films after school, she called up a family friend who also scored films. He met us in the city, I brought home a Roland D5, and we set it up with Performer in an office.
Around this time, my dad was designing jewelry and making sketches with markers, pen, and pencil. He also spent a lot of time getting miffed at the computer (maybe I installed a conflict-ridden extension or two) and his mood swayed wildly with the stock market. That's all to say he spent most of his time in his office either being moody behind a computer screen or being creative.
I loved using this stuff but, since I was never taught how any of it worked, I couldn't troubleshoot it at all. Unlike a lot of other music tech geeks prone to taking things apart and "seeing how they work", if I changed something, it would cease to work and I'd get super pissy. So pissy that sometimes my mom would call my music teacher over from the next county to sit and troubleshoot it.
Long story short, just like my teacher, when the music was good it was rapture, and when it was bad I wanted to scream and hit things. And just like my pops, I now sat in an office and managed to combine creativity, technology and having a temper. The rest of my life has been spent relating to and making meaning of my life in that "office." Sometimes I know I've done something to fuck things up and I'm just troubleshooting for hours. Sometimes I run away. Sometimes it's a cruel intergenerational psychological trap. Sometimes I have an inspired week and it's like I'm completely free. Sometimes I'm away and desperate to get back in. Sometimes it's just what I do and it's not emotionally loaded at all. Sometimes it's my entire social life. Other times its a way of isolating. The main thing is that I'm so preoccupied with sound that I'm just barely able to imagine what it would be like to put it down.
That's a long way of explaining I don't think I had musicians who inspired me. I had people who influenced my behavior and music was just a way to get positive attention.
From your perspective, would you say there is a co-authorship between musicians and machines? Does a certain software inherently suggest certain creative decisions? How can the two mutually benefit each other?
Here's my best crack at a slippery concept like authorship: I don't think machines can author music although people can use those words as shorthand. If anything, musicians collaborate with developers. The silence in a concert hall is infinitely less deterministic than anything a machine can do at present and John Cage is still the author of 4'33." I'm not even sure developers can be the authors of music because it remains to be seen if the aesthetic values of the developer really even translate to finished works in any intentional or conscious way.
I mean, the most crude thing people say about machines is that they're "just a tool." And the second most crude thing they say is that they're "becoming sentient or taking over the universe" (or "authoring" things). The moment you tell yourself a machine is just a tool, it takes over the universe. The moment you think it's all powerful, you cease to have a reason to live.
Just stop and make art.
Saying the wizard hat was "just a tool" frames Mickey Mouse as a soulless drone who only needs to get water from A to B. "Taking over the universe" implies Mickey is destined to drown. People forget the wizard was using the hat to make art. He was smart enough to know it couldn't author anything for him.
As for having them suggest certain creative decisions, software clearly does. It suggests certain things by making them either easy or more difficult. It suggests things by making them accessible or hard to use and of course the way they fit into human workflows is biased toward certain things. You'll be prone to make clean lines in Illustrator. You'll be prone to loop things in Ableton Live. You'll be prone to make everything sound like eighth or sixteenth notes on a TR808. You'll be prone to cut things up in ProTools. But do you have to do that? No. Are those decisions value-laden? Possibly.
So, I don't think machines don't author anything. They inadvertently channelize souls. And all I can say is that when you use a machine without proper personal boundaries you lose a lot your claim to intentionality but not authorship.
Was there a catalyst or particular event which triggered you to start developing Tablatun?
David Rothenberg, who has become a friend and mentor, introduced me to some students at the New Jersey Institute of Technology that were working with Tabla. That project didn't materialize, but I was asked to do something on the software side to complement it. I really love the idea of writing audio effects with knowledge of what is supposed to go through them. It's a way to learn something. And once I set it up for the student whose work originally spurred the project, I knew I had something worth working on a little more seriously.
I'm curious about your view on how problematic the tuning aspect is for Tablas when playing them in Western music. In mostly modal music like Tabla Beat Science or Talvin Singh's OK, the issue does not really present iself. But there have been several songs, where the Tabla seems to blend in nicely enough for our ears: "Cherry Ball Blues" by Ry Cooder, for example, "Paper Sun" by Traffic, "Black Mountain Side" by Led Zeppelin – would they sound out of tune to a traditional raga master?
I've engineered a few Indian Classical shows with a Tabla guru present. No Indian Classical authority is going to accept a hundredth of the mangling we do to guitar. In the recordings you've cited, you'll notice that the engineer has mangled (I'm not personally judging) the natural sound of the drum to fit into the mix. So the "raga master" is already pissed off.
Ironically, after doing this so much, I sort of agree. Western ears just barely know what to do with Tabla because it runs counter to our aesthetics so deeply. We want our drums loud, noisy, unsubtle, uncomplicated, barely-tonal, foundational, and just barely changing. That's why you see Talvin Singh laying tons of western drums over it- to western ears, the Tabla barely even reads like a drum. It's more like a combo of washbin bass and agogo bells.
From the perspective of tuning, there's a few things going on. First off, there's two drums. The Bayan (or bass drum) has variable tuning. Good Tabla players can make this sit with a song by choosing their notes carefully. With that said, we're used to the bass being precisely intonated in western music. Bayan is like asking Bob Dylan to sing a bass line. It feels too imprecise to us.
The other drum is the Dayan and, to a western ear it plays two pitches. (For music geeks, the interval is between a M6 and M7). The distance between these pitches does not always sit with western chromatic system. You'll notice in all of the works you've cited the sustain of the drum is downplayed. That's why.
Some suggested records that let Tabla sing in western music: Katy Perry's Legendary Lovers, Stevie Wonder's A Time to Love, Svara-Yantra with Pandit Sameer Chatterjee and the American Beauty Film Score.
By the way, you mentioned Tabla Beat Science. David, Mike and I are huge huge fans of this record and its creators and we see ourselves in dialogue with it. With that said, we regularly talk about trying to go a different direction and I want to talk about why. That record, to me, is the sound of the wall of air between two trains passing opposite directions. That is to say there's a gap between the music-techy world and the Tabla world of musical ideas. David, Mike, and I play because we believe that these worlds have something creative/constructive to offer each other. Beyond just being able to coexist, they can synthesize into a single new solid opaque sonic object, sonic texture, and music. No need for "Tabla... and drum machine," "Tabla... with samples," or "Tabla... through a ring modulator." We just want to create "TablaTun."
Can we briefly talk about the more general topic of tuning in Indian music? In which way is it different from our Western understanding of pitch, temperament and tuning?
As a white male programmer who works primarily with Tabla (that is to say 'as a novice'), I was actually shocked when learning about traditional Indian Classical Tuning at how similar it was to contemporary western ideas. As a musician I heard all my life: "Harry Partch. Indian Classical. They are sooo incredibly different!"
For all of their relative quirks, it's not like Indian ears hear some weird alien fibonacci eigen number based note system. They still work with the harmonic series as we do. They have seven basic pitch categories as we do. (ABCDEFG) Some of those pitches are subdivided as ours are to make twelve semitones (A A# B C C# D D# E F F# G G#). They typically exclude a portion of those notes to make something like our diatonic scales. The main difference is these semitones are further subdivided into a few different flavors. So you can have a F# sour or Gb sweet. There's twenty two of those.
Obviously it would be important for any reader to learn from the source but my experience affirms how much our ears have in common when it comes to pitch.
How are Tablas traditionally tuned?
Indian Tablas (as distinct from Egyptian) have the second most interesting drum tuning method I know of (the first is tuning a drum in fire.) The basic idea is you hit the edge of the head with a metal hammer. If you use the "nail puller" part of the hammer and hit up, you send the Tabla lower. As someone that's only dabbled in Tabla, I find this next to impossible. But I've played drums for almost three decades and tuning a snare drum is basically black magic to me.
There have been attempts to make easier tuning systems. I think I'd forgive westerners for thinking Indian classical players are dogmatically conservative but the truth is there's no better known way to build a Tabla that tunes easier. Same with the drum's construction.
Also, since concerts can be long and the drum is an organic living object, you have to tune mid-concert. So there is a whole world of beautiful mid-music interruptions. It dovetails well with noise-theory where suddenly the non-music becomes the music as the player hammers out rhythms on the braid of the drum. Every player has a slightly different attitude. Some are showy while others downplay it.