Name: Reese Williams
Occupation: Producer, Sound Artist
Current Release: Plains of San Agustin on bandcamp. Also coming up: Moon's Bright Path on Love All Day
Recommendations: The book "Devotions" by Mary Oliver. This is a collection of her poetry which spans five decades.
The artwork of the Nigerian sculptor El Anatsui. His wall hangings shimmer and pulse like music.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with Reese Williams, listen to more of his music on his personal website.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I started out in the early 1970s, making paintings and installations in art school. Sometime during my junior or senior year, I read the book Silence by John Cage and experienced an expansion in my thinking and sensing, including a gravitation toward “sound art.”
A few years later, I was in California in the MFA Art program at UC Berkeley, and almost all of my projects involved sound in some way. The San Francisco Bay Area was rich territory for learning about experimental music and friends introduced me to works by Morton Subotnick, Terry Riley, Meredith Monk, John Coltrane, Brian Eno and dozens of others. And, down the street from my apartment was the Center For World Music where I had the chance to attend many concerts of traditional music from India, Africa, Indonesia and Japan. All of this music, the contemporary experimental music, as well as the world music was tremendously exhilarating for me.
My first “composed” piece was Sonance Project (1977). I sent it out into the world as a self-released LP and also exhibited it as an installation piece at SITE, an “alternative space” in San Francisco.
What is most interesting for me as I answer this first question is that last year I decided to read Silence again, and I couldn’t get into it at all. A book that was so important to me in 1972 was of no interest in 2018. A reminder, I guess, of the fast changing nature of things.
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?
In the 1960s and 1970s a number of composers and artists were experimenting with using tape recorders to generate their sound/music. Perhaps the most prominent in this group for me was Steve Reich with works like Come Out and It’s Gonna Rain. I was very attracted to all this “tape recorder work”, but it wasn’t that I wanted to emulate one specific work. I just wanted to venture into that “realm” and explore. So I got some tape recorders! I’m very grateful to those composers and artists for pioneering that realm.
This same dynamic happened again in 2010 when I returned to sound/music after many years away from it! The digital music revolution had taken place and people were making all kinds of sound and music with their laptops. This was very attractive to me, so I jumped in. Again, not to emulate a specific work, but just to enter the “realm.” Again, my thanks to the software developers, composers and sound artists who pioneered working with laptops.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
My work has never had a compositional intention or goal in the traditional sense. It has always been based on “making experiments” and improvisation and then letting things slowly build up by resonance, so I haven’t faced the kind of compositional challenges that you may be referring to. Over the years, my “way” of making experiments has definitely changed. I’m more patient now and willing, if need be, to spend an entire morning on one detail. I’m also much better at tracking my intuitions and subtle emotions and letting them guide my process.
As far as production challenges, in my early work (1975-1980), the main challenge was getting the money together to buy some high quality tape recorders. In the later period, (2010-present) the main challenge has been the issue of running out of CPU on the laptop.
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?
My first studio consisted of three tape recorders, two mics with stands, and one of those little aluminum tape splicing blocks. When I resumed sound work again in 2010, and continuing to this day, my studio has consisted of a laptop computer, headphones and two monitors. I don’t own any gear, just 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 someone who works on a computer, my work is rather “low-tech”. Although I have great admiration for composers who have created complex software to create their sound, I make simple setups with the usual “off-the-shelf” software.
Software is valuable for me in several ways. First, it allows me to make very long control signals. For example, I can have a clip envelope gradually change one of the parameters of the sound over the course of several minutes. Second, software allows for many ways to add “uncertainty” or randomness to the sound – you can build a little “ecosystem” of interacting sound processes. Third, software can concentrate the controls for all the parameters onto one screen. Typically, I have several dozen buttons or dials readily available to make changes.
However … humans have the intuitions, emotions and psychic energy that drive almost every aspect of composing or playing.
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?
An interest in “respiration”, ranging from micro pulsations to vast, slow cycles, permeates almost all of my work. Software allows me to bring this dynamic of to any parameter and allows the dynamic to be very subtle or quite strong. When I am improvising, I am sensing the interactions between of a number of different cycles and then making subtle changes to the parameters and relationships.