Name: Keith Fullerton Whitman
Occupation: Composer, improviser, sound artist
Current Release: Keith Fullerton Whitman's most recent releases are Resonators (1) and Contemporary Drummer [Redactions]. Both are available digitally and as limited run cassette tapes via his bandcamp store.
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Where does the impulse to create something come from for you? What role do often-quoted sources of inspiration like dreams, other forms of art, personal relationships, politics etc play?
Possibility; I often wonder if something is possible, both physically & logistically. I tend not to make art that “can” be done, easily, or that has been done a million times. I’m such a voracious consumer-hoarder that I usually have a sense of what is being done and what has been done in a given area of thought and I tend to think about what regressions or progressions from the current state of things would be fruitful, or even simply enjoyable.
I also love finding a particularly great dead-end within art (a cul-de-sac, so to speak) and then wondering (aloud) around “what if so-and-so had just kept going with this” and whether their reasons for stopping had anything to do with institutional or resource breakdowns despite a desire to follow things through to their conclusions.
I think about Walter Marchetti’s sentiment all the time, about wanting to get to the “bottom” of music and in many ways I feel that I’m just getting started in this quest.
For you to get started, do there need to be concrete ideas – or what some have called a 'visualisation' of the finished work? What does the balance between planning and chance look like for you?
I do generally tend to envision an end-result, although it rarely matches what I end up doing identically; I feel that this would be a failing, an unwillingness to let outside influence seep in. The balance is a scale (in the Themis sense) where the “chance” side has a Darwinian pile of all that is good and right in the world, and the “planning” side has all of the things that keep me up at night.
Is there a preparation phase for your process? Do you require your tools to be laid out in a particular way, for example, do you need to do 'research' or create 'early versions'?
Yes, I often get stuck in the “research” phase of a given project, often for the majority of the time spent on it. I finish so few things these days, but I’m learning every day.
If I’m working with/in a new or unfamiliar methodology, I tend to want to start from scratch; with a new tool or system, as this helps me assess what is necessary, and also helps combat this sense of relying on decades-old solutions when newer, more efficient ones are just a step away. This is especially true within computer software, and my 20-year love affair with the tactility of physical electronic instruments has certainly been supplanted recently by the versatility of contemporary software solutions, and I’m in no way apologetic for this shift.
Do you have certain rituals to get you into the right mindset for creating? What role do certain foods or stimulants like coffee, lighting, scents, exercise or reading poetry play?
While being somewhat reliant on caffeine for the doubt-removal aspects of the creative process, I absolutely loathe my relationship with it; coffee turns me into something of a monster (many can attest) and virtually any distraction from the task I am setting out to accomplish becomes a huge annoyance and I lash out, usually to the person that is closest.
I have tried virtually every other stimulant/depressant on the planet in hopes of finding some new way of betraying the brain chemistries I have been granted, but other than caffeine (for that brief, initial short-sharp-shock of an artificial push into activity) and LSD (for detachment, stepping out of daily roles and schedules and for putting wonder into the mundane) I haven’t found it, but I’ve also never committed to the contemporary wave of psychotropics that work so well for so many of my peers (maybe it’s finally time).
Reading is also a great way to reset any hard-coded aesthetic tendencies; I will get in the head-space of a good book’s world and live inside it and ride that out for some time within my contemporaneous work.
What do you start with? How difficult is that first line of text, the first note?
These days, usually a process; or a blank slate that leads into one. Since eschewing most of the hardware I had been linked with, topically & commercially, over the past 15 years during the pandemic (mainly due to resource-strain) I have greatly enjoyed the empty Max-MSP patcher as a broader signifier for possibility.
I often have to trick myself into making the first, perceivable sound; the structural and topological signals almost always come first, although I have recently found a great micro-miniature portable recorder that has me interfacing with raw “sound” in the hear-able sense for the first moment in some time. Sometimes it’s as simple as just pressing record and wandering around amidst the tools and instruments you’ve accumulated, forcing interactions until something clicks and the brain takes notice.
Once you've started, how does the work gradually emerge?
By being receptive to which actions ensue endorphin rushes (or denials) across a fairly chaotic workflow. I’ll start with that uncarved mass of an idea and gradually whittle it down to a perceptible shape, then refine and remove and renew until it’s laid bare.
Many writers have claimed that as soon as they enter into the process, certain aspects of the narrative are out of their hands. Do you like to keep strict control over the process or is there a sense of following things where they lead you?
I’m not a big master-narrative person, in general; I’m not really all that concerned with how something will be perceived, although I acknowledge this as privelege. I do paint in broad strokes, and often the context is something that I will laterally apply to a fully-formed work long after the fact. If I’m working on a piece that has equestrian connotations, I am not constantly thinking of horses, although I will maybe have the sense of being a child at The Meadowlands and what it felt like to land a trifecta, always, at the back of my mind.
Often, while writing, new ideas and alternative roads will open themselves up, pulling and pushing the creator in a different direction. Does this happen to you, too, and how do you deal with it? What do you do with these ideas?
Apply them (all of them).
I’m very into this idea of synergistic conception w/r/t the temporality surrounding a project. Nothing is fully accidental, and even a stray cover of a birdswing that flies by while I‘m having my Laska at lunch outside the studio usually ends up being involved in the day’s work somehow.
I often pair sound with imagery that just happen to align, temporally and geographically. I know this is a cliché, but the connections of place and time are powerful signifiers, and so easily lost.
There are many descriptions of the creative state. How would you describe it for you personally? Is there an element of spirituality to what you do?
There is no element of spirituality in what I do, whatsoever. That said, I have largely waged war with muse, and have suffered a pyrrhic victory only on occasion, mostly pausing just before sending a battalion over the lines of demarcation at a well-timed second guess.
Those rare moments of unbridled possibility are not often within my windows of activity; as a parent, sure, but as an intensely curious person with an appetite for experience and sustainance first & foremost, a desire to create these perhaps less so.
Especially in the digital age, the writing and production process tends towards the infinite. What marks the end of the process? How do you finish a work?
I finish a work by rendering it complete, usually offline. I learned long ago to never fall prey to the endlessnesses of engineering; what’s done is done.
Once a piece is finished, how important is it for you to let it lie and evaluate it later on? How much improvement and refinement do you personally allow until you're satisfied with a piece? What does this process look like in practise?
In the past I had a ritual/sacrifice wherein I waited a minute (maybe a month, maybe 6 months) before re/assessing something. I don’t do this these days as we’ve long been granted the tools to instantly air and broadcast our work w/o the lead-times of marketing and regionality; but alas the arrival of this is also a signifier that there will be far less scrunity, across the board.
I do perhaps miss having the time and resources to fully future-proof work, but culturally speaking music rarely exists in a finite condition these days; everything feels like a work-in-progress and we’re simply granted differing views of it along its plane of existence.
What's your take on the role and importance of production, including mixing and mastering for you personally? How involved do you get in this?
I do everything myself; mastering for vinyl is the only process I don’t get involved with firsthand (I trust Rashad Becker for this, implicitly). I’ve recently been mixing and mastering music for others, and that has been a fascinating process, to branch out.
For as much as I’ve lionized the single vantage-point of an artwork over the past few decades, it is important to optimize music across all of the tools that are available, not just the ones that we have an understanding of, or even access to.
After finishing a piece or album and releasing something into the world, there can be a sense of emptiness. Can you relate to this – and how do you return to the state of creativity after experiencing it?
Sure; I mean I’m battling a daily emptiness these days, and the idea that I’ve put some well-concealed ideas into a vessel only to launch them blindly into the ocean to be set alight with arrows by others isn’t always something that fills me with a palpable optimism, but it is a nice feeling when these things are uncovered (occasionally), let alone unlocked (rarely) and then deeply considered (never).
Creativity can reach many different corners of our lives. Do you personally feel as though writing a piece of music is inherently different from something like making a great cup of coffee? What do you express through music that you couldn't or wouldn't in more 'mundane' tasks?
Writing a piece of music is nothing at all like making a great cup of coffee; the latter is a science, an often lucky, stumbled-upon result to an ongoing controlled experiment with a million variables that you slowly rein in on and refine. Music is not something that can be measured, at all.
Keith Fullerton Whitman
Fort Greene, Brooklyn
May 20th, 2021.