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Interview with James Bohn

Whaddya Want for Free?

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #222, 21 August 1999. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:34:05–1:46:20].

Composer and video artist James Bohn has served as a guest artist at the 7–11 festival in Urbana, Illinois, and at Most Significant Bytes 2002 in Akron, Ohio. His video works have been presented at Most Significant Bytes 2000, MAXIS festival of Sound and Experimental Music, MEDiA CIRCU[it]S, Florida Electro-Acoustic Music Festival, and on the Los Angeles area television program The New Composers 27 Minute Companion. His music appears on several recording labels: Capstone, The Experimental Music Studios, Frog Peak, and The Media Café. James has received commissions from the Bonk Festival, the University of Illinois School of Music, The College of Visual and Performing Arts at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and the Boston and Chicago Chapter of the American Composer's Forum. His book on Lejaren Hiller is published by Edwin Mellen Press.

[Kalvos] James Bohn, welcome to the show!

James Bohn
James Bohn. Photo © Kalvos & Damian.

[James Bohn] Thank you!

[K] We’re going to jump right in and play a couple of your Preludes forpiano. Give us a quick intro, and then we’ll come back and talk about you.

[JB] These pieces were performed by Tomoko Deguchi, she’s a Japanese pianist who did her Masters degree in Montana or Wyoming, I think. It’s been a couple years since the recording’s been made, but she’s a real monster pianist. No. 4 in particular is really difficult, and I never thought it could be played at that tempo, but she pulled it off.

We listen to Preludes, Nos. 1, 4 and 6 by James Bohn [0:35:10–0:38:52].

[K] They have dandy titles. If you just say, a [deep voice] “Piano Prelude No. 1,” it doesn’t sound as good as these titles, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?” and “Slicker than a Greased Weasel,” I like those, I like those titles! They make the pieces better. [General laughter]

[JB] As I mentioned before to you privately, I’ve been working on this series, and I haven’t come up with clever titles for all of them yet, so I haven’t been using the clever titles by and large yet. Once I finish this series, if I still don’t have them all figured out, I’ll have to do some kind of web-based thing, I’m not sure.

[K] We can provide them. Clever titles is one of our sidelines. We’re fairly cheap, too. So, we welcome you to the east, because you are a new [deep voice] academic resident, of the east. Tell us about yourself, how you got here, your background, because you write real crunchy tunes, both electronic and acoustic.

[JB] Well, I started out at Madison Wisconsin, did some schooling there. Then I moved to Urbana, Illinois, did some schooling there, near Paris, Illinois. After I was done with my schooling, I did some work in Illinois State in the tech field, doing some computer work over there. Recently, I’ve moved to University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, which is not to be confused with some school down the road I guess, but it’s actually Massachusetts, not Vermont.

[K] And how is it that you, sort of, float among the academia, especially with these pieces that don’t seem to have any, shall we say… they’re not held back.

[JB] Well, part of it is that my gig over there isn’t actually composition, it’s electronic music. When the youngsters come to me, I always tell them to never underestimate the power of being able to plug things in. It’s a very important skill. But they seem to take my seriously over there as a composer, but, you know, they don’t know me that well yet. It’s a weird compositional world, there’s all sorts of things happening, and sometimes people take the humour seriously, sometimes they don’t. It kind of depends on who’s on the other side.

[Damian] You glossed over your stay at Urbana-Champaign. You didn’t happen to be a [Herbert] Brün baby, were you?

[JB] No, in general I just don’t like to become pegged with “I’m so-and-so’s student, or I’m so-and-so’s student.” One of the things that’s really great about that institution, is just that there’s so many composition teachers. So I really did float around. There’s only one teacher that I studied with for more than one semester, and other than that, I just looked at it as a banquet, try a little bit of everything.

[K] The first music I ever heard of yours was a little piece that appeared both on your website and also on the Frog Peak Collaborations project. You say BABY-lon?

[JB] Yeah, it’s BABYlon.

We listen to BABYlon by James Bohn [0:42:47–0:43:47].

[K] I always wonder about somebody who seems to have a sense of humour. [Laughter] That was part of a collection that was based on the Sound/Text of Chris Mann.

[JB] I can almost perform that… when I have the text in front of me, I can almost do it in a minute 30 seconds. Chris Mann does it in a minute 9 seconds, so I’m almost that hyperactive, but…

[K] He’s very hyperactive.

[JB] Oh, geez, it’s something else.

[K] And he does that live as well, there was a performance that we played an excerpt from on this program a month or so ago, a live performance of a 20-minute piece of his that was non-stop, just like that. I had wanted to save this for later in the program, but a lot of the techniques that we use — and I use the collective “we” here, because we all do them — are familiar techniques. There’s been a discussion recently on one of the lists about music that sounds like the tools used to create it.

[JB] Yeah, it’s a big problem.

[K] [Laughter] You want to do that now, or shall we wait for that one?

[JB] Well, do you want to mention the software package?

[K] Sure, why not?

[JB] It’s SoundHack, by Tom Erbe. The very fast things that flutter from ear to ear, though, are actually my own software, but it’s through one of the old computer languages. But for the glimmering sounds, especially near the end, I used this. Actually, they should subtitle that album “The SoundHack Album,” because I looked through the notes the other day, and every other person is using SoundHack. It’s this great little program that Tom Erbe wrote, and it does convolution, mutation, and all sorts of things with neato space alien type names applied to them.

[K] And what are techniques? Certainly you can see why they’re popular, because they make some neat sounds.

[JB] Convolution is a technique where you take two sounds, the computer does a sound analysis of sounds A and B and it finds what’s in common between them. So you take a C major chord and a rainstorm, you get a C major rainstorm. It’s really amazing stuff. Mutation is the opposite, where you start with one sound and then it gradually becomes the other sound. That’s sort of the quick explanation.

[K] Audio morphing.

[JB] Yeah. It’s really addictive, I mean, you sit there, you find all these sounds to stick together. Sometimes you get great sounds, sometimes you don’t, you just throw them away and you try some new combinations. It’s a lot like the old walking on the beach method of composition like, “Oh, I like this rock, I like that rock,” you know? One of the new things since the recording technology is that the whole montage/collage thing is a lot easier.

[K] And what has it provided? Again, to refer to the discussion that’s going on, there’s a really big argument among folks who are saying, “We have worked very hard to develop skills, techniques, etc. in our electroacoustics, and we,” to put it bluntly, “resent people coming in and using these packaged programs to do every bit as keen sounds as we can do after we’ve worked with them for six months.” So, what’s the result of it? What’s going on right now? Especially when you invite your kids to “come in and learn how to plug stuff in?”

[JB] Yeah, well, people think of electronic music as a new medium, and of course it is a new medium. But in another sense, if you think of it as an analog to older media, you can think of various techniques or software packages as being akin to an instrument. It’d be hard to come up with an argument that only Adolfo Sax can write pieces for saxophone, that he somehow has intellectual property over the saxophone. And of course, Tom Erbe graciously gives out his software as freeware. Anyone who dabbles should download it, it’s really a neat program, and it runs really quickly, it’s a nice program. So to think of it as akin to an instrument… of course, the question is how, as a composer, do you use it so that you don’t sound like everyone else. It’s not that easy a question to answer.

[K] I think that when you write for a violin or a clarinet, you also, kind of, “hear the package.”

[JB] Yeah, exactly. You’re stuck with that chalumeau register, the little midtone register, and the screechy high register, you’re going to get that whether your name is Stravinsky or Schoenberg. It’s part of the instrument. Just like granular synthesis, it’s going to sound granular, no matter what your last name is.

[K] Let’s hear another piece of yours. What’s a good one to follow up this discussion with?

[JB] Uh… probably something that doesn’t use another software package… But we’re still on the electronic thing, why don’t we try Implosion?

[K] Sure. Implosion, this is a very interesting piece, with the vibraphone.

We listen to Implosion by James Bohn, with Geoffrey Brady on vibraphone [0:49:50–0:56:25].

[D] Now this is a key piece on different levels. I mean, there’s a great thread of humour running through it, and there’s some technically neat things happening, and I just want to ask if this was also written to be performed with live electronics? Or how did you put this together?

[JB] Well, the reverb that you’re hearing, the stuff that sounds like processing, this was put on a collection, and the guy remixed it, sort of added stuff to it. I listened to it before it went out. I’m sort of cavalier about the performance of works, in the sense that… you know, often people would play a piece for harpsichord on piano and vice versa, and there’s this sort of interchangeability in it. I don’t believe in that sort of, “you write a piece, and it has to be performed exactly as it’s written.” That if someone doesn’t say that it can’t be done with live electronics, that you shouldn’t use it. It’s something that I’d look at, but it wasn’t specified, a live electronics part. I do have other pieces where I have options where, “If you use live electronics, this is what you do.” But it’s hard to expect people to lug around a lot of equipment, so you’re lucky to get a DAT machine and two speakers. So I’m not going to count on a board and a bunch of processing equipment, I don’t actually have a piece that requires that sort of setup.

[K] But you do seem relaxed about not only how your music is presented, but also in the construction of it. Not to say that it isn’t well done, but rather, you’re not dogmatic about a lot of things. As a matter of fact, you said something that had our sides hurting a little bit when we were listening to previous pieces, that “intellectual property doesn’t exist in a society with Jerry Springer.” What do you mean by that?

[JB] Well, you know, people stake so much upon what they’ve done. They try to make themselves, “I’m part of this tradition, I see myself as part of this tradition.” They have such a vested interested in this tradition, and the thing that’s exciting about our society isn’t any one strain of activity. The fact that there’s all this activity going on out there, so much of which is interesting. This evidence is shown by all sorts of things, not necessarily Jerry Springer, but it’s a very exciting society we live in, and to be dogmatic about, “I’m following this strain of activity,” it just seems very confining and limiting.

[K] How do you go about getting the ideas for a piece and then making one?

[JB] Well, it sort of depends. I fluctuate between being a little, for me, what I consider to be conservative (a lot of people wouldn’t consider any of my stuff to be conservative), and sort of what I like to think of as “freakshow music.” I sort of decide upon a level within that spectrum where I’m going to fit in, and of course, decide what instrumentation, how I’m going to show up at the gig. Then it’s sort of a thing of coming up with what sort of approach I want to take. A lot of it deals with me not being bored when I’m sitting there with paper and and a pencil. You don’t want to write the same piece over and over.

[K] Right. So, how did you start? What was your first time saying, “I want to create a replicable tune, something that I don’t play that somebody else can play?”

[JB] Well, my older brother’s a composer as well. He was sort of a child prodigy musician. He taught himself how to play keyboards, he just picked it up on his own. So I sort of lived in this… my parents have this weird quadrivium. We all had to take piano, another musical instrument, a sport, and we all had to take dance, for various sorts of years. So we were all required to be in music, whether we wanted to or not. Then, since I grew up around my brother (him being an older brother), it was never a foreign idea that a person could write their own music. From my first exposure to music, I knew that if I wanted to, I could write a piece. Of course, I didn’t really do that seriously until junior high, and even then, it’s very embarrassing. You know, I don’t know if anyone thinks back to junior high, but…

[D] We were hoping you’d bring one of those along, just for comparison.

[K] [Laughter] I have a clarinet piece of yours, from then. I have that tape.

[D] We’ll, uh… That’s unfortunate.

[JB] I have pieces from my freshman year in college that I still keep, and you know, if someone would ask to perform my pieces I’d put it out there. But high school, no. I’ve got the scores, but they’re still pencil, and they’re hidden. I can’t even find them, actually, but I know they’re there somewhere.

[K] So far we’ve heard pure electronics, we’ve heard electroacoustics, we’ve heard a performer with electronics, we’ve heard piano. Let’s hear yet another.

[JB] We should probably do one of the tape studies.

We listen to Tape Studies I, Nos. 1 and 2 by James Bohn [1:03:20–1:10:05].

[K] Your music isn’t cluttered.

[JB] Uh, I don’t know, I think it’s a TV generation thing. I’ve got a very short attention span, and plus I’m hyperactive to begin with. And if I’m going to take a stance on the Viennese trinity, I’ve always liked our man Webern…

[K] Well, I’m just thinking in terms of even the piano Preludes that we opened up with. They’re very energetic, but they’re simply not dense, they’re very transparent.

[JB] The pieces are supposed to be funny, cavalier, interesting and difficult to play, but I really do, as always with those pieces, view them being something that you could sensibly program with, you know, your other major preludes.

[K] [Laughter] Shostakovich, Bach, yeah, uh-huh…

[JB] Yeah, if you’re so inclined. So, getting something too thick just wouldn’t really work.

[K] Those two tape studies we just heard, what were they studies of?

[JB] They were studies of computer-assisted composition. That means that, rather than the composer creating a world, and every tree, rock, bush or whatever, the composer creates the physics of that world, they push a button, and a world is created. They don’t specify every element, but rather they create an environment in which things can exist. Which is to say I didn’t write every little note in there, but rather both pieces you heard are the same piece, they’re just different instances of it.

[K] There are people who somehow bristle at that thought, still. And because your music works so well, maybe you can address the question. Why is it that one can compose that way effectively? One can create a world that works, rather than creating every detail of that world, and how you set to rest the idea that maybe we don’t have to sweat that sharp.

[JB] Well, to go back to my analogy, I really do view it as being connected to nature, not intrinsically, but that’s something I always think of, in the sense that people are very hung up in the arts. They want to ascribe human intelligence to everything, and human intelligence is not necessarily the greatest thing in town. If you look at a cloud, there are very few people I know who would say that a cloud isn’t as beautiful an object, æsthetically, as a lot of visual art, and I’m including the masters, I’m not just deriding modern art. But a lot of people would agree that clouds are as beautiful as anything a painter could come up with.

[K] Certainly anybody who’s looked at a replication of that in a Titian painting would say the same thing, that yes, of course, the artist spent such a great time replicating that, that it has some inherent æsthetic that’s absolutely astounding.

[JB] And to me, our music or whatever you want to deal with, is about the product. It’s not about the creator. I’m really not interested in Stravinsky at all. He was a small man, very feeble, just not very interesting, but his music, I’m gonzo about it. I’m not interested in whether a cloud was created by a guy who’s a great artist, with flowing robes and lives in a mansion, or whether it was the result of an intricate process that can be described in terms of physics. Frankly, I often find it freeing in the sense that I’m a very math/science-based person. So, when I’m writing through-composed music, there’s this tendency for me to make logical decisions, and logical decisions aren’t always the greatest thing in art. The potential is that you can have something that’s near-redundant, like “Well, the logical next thing to do is this,” and the composer does it, and you know, how interesting is that? And these are ways to sort of remove yourself from it, but still, there’s an element of control, in the sense that you’re the one who sets it in motion.

[K] Let’s listen to another piece. This is a great way to hear what you say reflected in a piece.

[JB] Why don’t we do one of the second tape studies, Study II.

We listen to Tape Studies II, Nos. 1 and 2 by James Bohn [1:15:45–1:21:56].

[K] I take back everything I said about your music not being dense. [General laughter] Tell us about those two.

[JB] Well… I reduce my thinking in electronic music, that there are two kinds of people: there are knob guys, and there are computer guys. And I’ve always been sort of a computer guy, partially because I’m inclined in that direction to begin with, but also because the great thing about a computer is that if you know how to hack code and stuff, you can do a lot of things. You’re only limited by your ability to hack code, and rather than have some sort of panning thing, where you hit a note and can specify where it goes, you hit a note and you can say, “Well, I want it to make these hundred changes.” You can change knobs faster in a computer than it’s humanly possible to physically turn a knob, and you can do it 400 times a second if you want to. It’s one of the drunk-on-power things about computers. And with that piece, you know, why play one note when you can play 80 at once? And rather than just having an ADSR envelope — I hate to come down to tech terms — rather than just have a four-stage envelope where that’s all you get, those are very complex envelopes that are sort of randomly generated within certain bounds. So that if you listen very carefully, you can pick out a specific pitch, and it comes in, goes from this speaker to that speaker and back again, and it comes out. Then this other pitch comes in and out, and it’s the sort of thing where if you listen to the totality of it, you’ve got a three-minute piece that’s one event, but if you really listen to the details, it’s the sort of piece where you have to get into the details. On a cheap stereo that might not help you out too much, but if you had a good stereo, maybe you were able to catch some of that.

[K] Let’s hear another one, this is getting good, let’s hear another one.

[JB] Do you want to do a non-computer-assisted one? Why don’t we do something that’s a little less funny. I’ve got this piece called Where Do We Go From Here? and it’s fairly subdued for me. It’s a piano piece, played by a fellow named Camille Goudeseune.

We listen to Where Do We Go From Here? by James Bohn [1:25:35–1:31:48].

[K] I want to play at least one more piece of yours. Let’s hear where you’re going from here, though.

[D] Yeah, let’s hear a symphony, or your oratorios, or what about the concerti and the… uh… big choral pieces that you’ve been working on with your librettists? The opera?

[JB] Oh, well, the next piece is for oboe band… I agreed to write a piece for an early music ensemble, and left the choice up to the person I was working with, and he chose oboe band, soprano-soprano-tenor-bass sort of quartet, which is actually an octet. People double. These are all early music versions of oboes, so we aren’t talking about keys, we’re talking about fingers covering holes. There’s some other stuff in the works, one is for trumpet and tape, and it should be interesting. It’s hopefully going to be more theatrical, and should have some good laughs in it. Another thing I’m thinking of it something dealing with Sam Beckett, and I have to go through the text/dance.


Why don’t we do one of the other SoundHack pieces, to bring it back to our friend’s commercially-free available software that you can download, why don’t we do Simply Folk?

We listen to Simply Folk by James Bohn [1:37:12–1:44:00].

[K] Simply Folk. Exactly what folk were you talking about? What tune was that?

[JB] It’s evading me. I was sitting around one day traversing the Internet, as I like to do in my leisure, and I found a site where they sell folk instruments. And of course, as any good commercial product does, they demonstrate it, so any product they had, they would have someone play a tune on it. So there were all these downloadable sound files, and I’m like, “Well, this is just too good to pass up…” So I downloaded them all, and proceeded to not document what any of the names of the titles were, and as you may have figured out, there’s only one tune that I left in there to the extent that, if you knew the tune, you’d be able to recognize it, which of course, since I didn’t write down the title… I can’t share with you. Whereas with a lot of the guitar and mandolin stuff that’s in there, I liked the sound of the instruments, but the progressions didn’t catch me, it just wasn’t up my alley, so rather than present it recognizably, I just made these montages of guitar chords that were fast enough so it was more of a texture than a pitch thing. So you’re able to get this harmonic region without really hearing, “Oh, that’s a guitar, and oh, that’s a mandolin,” but you could actually hear for a while the little violin bits in there. If you’re listening.

[K] James Bohn, thanks so much for joining us on the Bazaar.

[JB] Thank you for having me.

We listen to Prelude Nos. 2 and 6 by James Bohn [1:46:20–1:49:10].

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