Name: Tyler Friedman
Current Release: Epiphytic on Kontra Music
Recommendations: “The Xenogenesis Trilogy” by Octavia Butler; “The Democracy Project: A History, A Crisis, A Movement” by David Graeber, recently departed …
If you enjoyed this interview with Tyler Friedman, visit his minimalist website or soundcloud profile for more music.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I grew up weirdo in SoCal surfer land. Relatively limited musical horizons. But a constant ebbing wash of white noise from the Ocean down the road. As a preteen, I got obsessed with alternative (early 90s, right?) and proceeded to burn my way outwards from there, through everything I could get my hands on seemed to lead further away from wherever I was at that moment.
Playing and making was a natural extension to this. Wanting to be part of the flow rather than just witness to it. At the time, I used what I had access to: played guitar until my fingers bled and hazily experimented with a multi-fx pedalboard, trying to coax something [else] out of pitch-shifters and delays …
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 relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
Originality is a nice fantasy; it has a mythical, unicornal appeal. But every piece of music is inevitably an echo of, extension of, fusion of or [at best] an alchemy of previously existing points of reference. Instruments and genres tend to produce their own canons and any engagement with them codes itself in relation to this history as analysis or excavation, commentary or an expression of enthusiasm. Emulation is a mode of this engagement.
I am [still] a fan of reverse engineering, but I guess a prerequisite for its meaningfulness is a genuine inquisitiveness, an openness to distraction and wilful misinterpretation. Without this, it doesn’t extend much beyond mechanical gesture. Of course, I’m referring to stages beyond basic literacy: you can read someone else’s script with “your own voice”, but first you have to be able to read …
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Compositionally, I’ve always been attracted to and chased complexity. Getting complex layers and structures to feel intuitive and ‘natural’ can take a lot of time and focus and frankly doesn’t consistently work. Finding the life space to concentrate and be empty enough to go forwards and backwards without being dejected when the way is obscured is even more of a hustle.
Production wise, it was pretty difficult to get things sounding “right” at the start. I think a large part of this was the technology of the era, but I also had a purist streak (no compression, don’t ask me why), which probably got in the way. Experience, +20 years of tech development and better kit sorted a lot of these things out.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
First studio was a shared band rehearsal space in what was then warehouse drughead land behind the San Diego Sports Arena. The complex was run by a Rasta collective; our room was coated floor to ceiling in multi-colour reggae concert posters. The space was actually a gutted mini-recording studio.
After coming to Europe my setup necessarily became more compact and I started to chase the laptop dream of nomadic production, which had only recently become feasible. I got pretty deep into programming processing matrixes in MAX/MSP. When I finally became more located and stable, I started to get into Eurorack. After years of working on a laptop, analogue hardware immediately lived up to its promise of immediacy and sound solidity.
My setup has expanded quite a bit since then, but the modular is still a centrepiece of my practice and studio.
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?
There is no human without technology and vice versa. The debate on whether technology is a means to an end or if it also pre-figures those ends is an old philosophical discussion. All instruments are technology, including the voice. The opposable thumb is one of terrestrial evolutions greatest technological innovations.
But if we focus on machines: prior to sound recording and reproduction technology, music was—barring a few specialist examples—entirely dependent upon a human hand for its existence. It needed to be played, in real time, in the same space as its audience. Machines’ great talent was and still is the severing of this dependency. Autonomous sound, no longer reliant on tensions of muscle and bone, manifests itself external to its operator and requests guidance and then, after development and growth, a dialogue, engagement.
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?
Most of the time, I have an idea as to what I want to do and try to figure out a way to do it. Naturally, certain pieces of equipment nudge you towards certain approaches.
For example, my record CCC:BB:BBB:JJ was almost entirely sequenced on chained Doepfer step sequencers alongside a considerable arsenal of switches and logic gates. Sequencers sequencing sequencers. It was rather laborious to set up and there were still limitations as to how much variation could be programmed over time. This means that certain note and rhythm changes, accents or inflections, needed to be performed on top of the running sequence. I guess this is a rather standard hardware workflow.
Since then, I’ve been primarily using the Sequentix Cirklon and find myself increasingly inclined to sequence every tiny modulation and detail instead of physically touching anything.
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?
Many of my collaborations in the past decade were with visual artists rather than musicians. Exchange necessarily happens on the level of ideas and concepts, with their transduction into sound generally being the aim of my work. This can be a difficult and precarious process, with the results not always living up to the intention, but this is part of the risk inherent in collective experimentation and cross-disciplinary engagement. The amazing part, however, is that each project becomes a distinct constellation, with its own cloud of references and discussions, and demands equal parts of learning and unlearning.
With other musicians, jamming or writing together always pushes you a bit outside of your comfort zone. You have to let go a bit of yourself and try to find a point to meet in the middle. I like to build project specific systems, which is great when its tuned and working, but does slow things down a bit …
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?
I don’t really have a fixed schedule. My energies can be pretty manic. If I am in a composition or deadline phase, I generally go to the studio in the afternoon and stay until late, ignoring everything else around me. This can be pretty all consuming. Casual engagement doesn’t really work so well for me. For better or worse, I don’t have the luxury of having this as a default state; life imposes a balance one way or the other.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album 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?
Epiphytic started with a shift register and the microtonal quantizer from Tubbutec. I had been listening a lot to Keith Fullerton Whitman’s Generators release and, as always, Dervishes era Terry Riley and wanted to do something in that direction, rather than something explicitly beat based. And I wanted it to be performable.
As such the “composition” process was more of a system design, with the patch revealing possibilities and expressing desired directions during improvisation, and evolving to enable them. At some point I started to record things. PTC-2 on Haruka Enomoto’s Protection label contains two of those recordings. Epiphytic is another. All of them are clean, one take performances with limited edits. On Epiphytic, the cuts were only made in service of the vinyl pressing. I don’t really consider the system to be finished—I was hoping to get deeper into the tuning question (Epiphytic is in a 7 limit Just Intonation, which is not particularly esoteric as far as these things are concerned) in conjunction with live shows, until now scuttled by the virus.
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?
At least as regards sequencers and modular programming, the ideal is to ramp from autistic focus into manic enthusiasm. Life is the main distraction. Emptiness, emotional and relational, goes a long way—you have to enter into the zone totally unburdened. There are a series of stalling rituals, which help me to get there. Honestly though, the best way to get to that state is just showing up and making yourself available to the process day after day after day. At some point, you slip into it.
Acoustic instruments are the absolute opposite—they are mediums for channelling energies and don’t respond when it’s not there to give.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
You can play live in the studio, but you can’t do “studio” composition on stage. The studio permits attention to be given to every individual element, inflection and possibility—as much as there is time and will for. Live is more about a moment; there are things that work perfectly in a club, which would sound terrible at home. Setups are also necessarily reduced. Improvisation leads to composition in the studio and vice versa on the stage. Though I think the two strategies are more intertwined and fluid with each other than the apparent binary indicates.
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?
I take a holistic approach to sound design and composition. I don’t think you can place them on separate planes. Almost everything I have done in the past 10 years has been almost or entirely modular based and every sound gets patched and built from scratch. No samples. Sound design can be experimental, explorative and un-determined. A lot of the time though, I hear what I want in my head and program it. There is always an element of serendipity in that process, of encountering something unintended, getting distracted and changing the direction entirely.
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?
I’ve been quite fascinated with impossible sounds as described in literature. Beyond the classic Homerian sirens, H.P. Lovecraft is chock full of references to uncanny noises, indescribable aside from their madness inducing disconnect from the familiar and the human.
In Samuel Delaney’s Nova there is the famous “sensory syrinx”, a future-instrument, which in the hands of skilled performer can coax sound into a sort of hologram, blending music into visual media – at higher amplifications it becomes a weapon: sound becomes light becomes incineration.
JG Ballard’s short story The Sound Sweep, in which a device called the “sonovac” removes the urban cacophony’s “resonating residues” from architecture and music has become ultrasonic, exerting its effects without vibration, as if heard through a different sensory apparatus. Examples are many.
Outermost borders being extreme frequency ranges and amplitudes? Steve Goodman’s book Sonic Warfare tells that story pretty well.
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?
I guess I have an inordinate amount of faith in abstract sounds’ utopian potential. Encounter and engagement with unfamiliar sonic patterns enhances the brain’s empathetic and imaginative capacity. Essentially, over time, exposure to radical sounds can be transformational; it destabilizes individual certainty, the desecration of which is an essential precursor towards polyphonic engagement with the world outside of your inherited community of birth. I find that words, on the other hand, often interfere with intuitive meaning.
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?
I think there is still a lot to be done with what I would call Installed Music. By this I mean compositions made directly for specific architectures and use functions. This could be a form of Muzak in the right circumstances—there is no reason Muzak needs to be as tasteless as its reputation holds—but I am imagining something more involved and foregrounded. I see a huge potential for this in the extended contemporary art context, which offers meaning production mechanisms, spatial design possibilities and funding models distinct from that of commodity items, radio, clubs and concert halls and furthermore operates unmoored from any need to satisfy the desires of the night. This variation should be not be confused with Sound Art, which I understand to be a formal exploration of sound as a media and is generally incredibly fucking boring to boot.
To situate music in this context—absent performer or its subjugation to visual media, which should not be necessarily excluded, but rather rendered in service of the primary content—might offer an alternative paradigm for composition, where non-linguistic forms of analysis and intellectual engagement orient affect rather than the other way around. I mean to suggest an unmediated meta-discourse of rhythm, harmony, melody, structure and timbre with potential historical, political and para-pedagogical resonances. I’ve been terming this compositional approach “Performative Analytics” for a few years now and intend to do more with it, both installed and not, in the coming period.