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Interview with Chris Brown

The Electronic Offense; Journals

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #491/492, 30 October and 6 November 2004. Kalvos on the road in San Francisco in Jerry Gerber’s studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:15:57–1:00:38] / Audio Part 2 [0:19:33–0:34:04].

Chris Brown with guitarist Mark Trayle
The “Wing” instrument fabricated by Brown, used in Alternating Currents (“Rogue Wave”, Tzadik). With guitarist Mark Trayle, co-member of The Hub. An excerpt of the performance pictured can be heard on Falling Edge (“Boundary Layer”, Tzadik).

Chris Brown, composer, pianist, and electronic musician, creates music for acoustic instruments with interactive electronics, for computer networks, and for improvising ensembles. Collaboration and improvisation are consistent themes in his work, as well as the invention and performance of new electronic instruments. These range from electroacoustic instruments (Gazamba, 1982), to acoustic instrument transformation systems (Lava, 1992), and audience interactive FM radio installations (Transmissions, 2004, with Guillermo Galindo). Recent recordings of his music include “Rogue Wave” (Tzadik), “Talking Drum” (Pogus), a duet with Fred Frith titled “Cutter Heads” (Intakt), and “Suspension”, with the CBD Trio, on Rastascan. He is also a member of the pioneering computer network band The Hub, which has just released “Boundary Layer”, a box set recording celebrating over 20 years of music on Tzadik. He is a Professor of Music and Co-Director of the Center for Contemporary Music (CCM) at Mills College in Oakland, California.

[Kalvos] It’s Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar on the road. We’re here in San Francisco, we’re talking to a composer who was an inspiration to both Kalvos and Damian in the course of their careers, someone whose work has been out there. Our guest today is Chris Brown, welcome to Kalvos & Damian.

[Chris Brown] Thank you very much, it’s great to be talking to you.

If you will, be so kind as to give us your bio, your history, the highlights of your developments and your inventions, if you will, and tell our audience what might be the reasons that we found your work inspiring.

Well, I guess the main pursuit that I’ve been following for a long time has been the idea of the composer as instrument builder. I really began my interest in experimental music when I was an undergraduate at U.C. Santa Cruz, and including some students that were active in that area, I ran into these great mentors, William Brooks, who was for a long time a teacher at Illinois, Champagne-Urbana, a great composer. And Gordon Mumma, and that’s where I first saw live electronic music performance, and met this composer who was building circuitry, and essentially creating the sound for each piece, from scratch. That was ’74, ’75. I was in Santa Cruz from ’70 to ’75. I’d grown up in Chicago and did a classical piano background, and began to pursue that in college, then ran into this other kind of music that just blew my mind. I started reading John Cage, and at that point decided that was really where I wanted to go. So after that, I was involved with piano performance for most of the 70s, and extended piano. I got interested in improvising, and…

Extended piano, meaning?

Well, playing inside… I did a lot with the music of Henry Cowell. I did a little prepared piano, but not really into the literature about as much.

Like Cowell pieces like The Banshee, the famous one where you play inside…

Exactly. I mean, I discovered the Cowell record that was on Folkways. I think that must have been about ’73, or something that I found out about that.

That’s where Cowell plays himself, and actually in The Banshee introduces it. With that wonderful nasal voice.

Right. And I just loved the music, it was so different but yet so accessible, so folkloric in a certain way, which has always been something that appealed to me about certain aspects of (especially American) experimental music. It also sort of had a local connection, because Cowell used to wander the Santa Cruz hills, and the energy that I was feeling at that time, having come from the big city, Chicago and the Midwest, out to the West Coast into this gorgeous landscape, I just connected with it. The piano sounds that he was getting, the physicality of playing Cowell’s music is not something you can get, or can really know, just from hearing a record. Playing tone cluster music with your shoulders and arms, it’s like an athletic event, really. I really got into that. I happened to meet Olive Cowell, who was Henry Cowell’s stepmother, and I played in her home in San Francisco, where she had a concert hall built from Henry Cowell, basically, to play this music. I met Lou Harrison, sort of made these connections with people… John Cage came through Santa Cruz, because he was hanging out with Norman O. Brown. That was sort of the 70s part. Then I got out of college and started moving up to the Bay Area, and did a little more piano work, but I was sort of moving towards electronics. I knew I wanted to study electronics, but I was not really scientific or technical by nature. I hadn’t grown up with that, I was more into the music and the poetry, literature, that side of things. So one of my friends from college essentially tutored me in building your own circuitry.

And were you working in analog, or did you do both?

Analog. Yeah, I was not clear on what digital was, exactly, you know? Actually, I’d done a little bit with computer stuff, but in those days it was like taking a stack of punchcards, throwing them into the bin and coming back the next morning after it’d run on the mainframe. That was where it was at in the early 70s.

But this friend of mine was in a group that started at U.C. San Diego called Confluence, and the principle of that group was that all the players built all the instruments that made the sounds. Nothing else was allowable, you had to build your own instrument.

And that would be acoustic and electronic?

Well, they were electroacoustic, essentially. They had been influenced by David Tudor, and had learned about contact microphones. They started experimenting with metals and different kinds of surplus, putting them together with the contact microphones, and then starting to build circuits like mixers and filters and things like that to alter the sounds. But they were physical objects, they were sculptural. Essentially, I joined that group when the group moved out to San Francisco, and immersed myself in learning how to solder and build instruments. To me it seemed like a natural thing, sort of in the Partch tradition, that we’re going to start from scratch, use the materials that are around us, we’re going to make music with that. The music’s going to reflect the environment we’re in.

I’m sure some of our listeners’ heads have just snapped up, saying, “Wait a minute, instruments, soldering iron, I don’t understand. Instruments, rosin, strings, I understand.”

Well, that’s the point, you know, is that what is the technology of today, or what is the world we’re living in? At this point, it’s dominated, it was already clear that it’s very much electronic. I mean, my first musical experience that I remember is with my head next to a loudspeaker.

And that’s true, you know? I think almost all of us, that was our first musical experience, and I think now from infancy, it’s true. So I don’t think that anyone would have any question about that, it’s just that the adjustment, that you make it that way.

I love acoustic music, concerts and concert halls. On the other hand, I realize that that’s about 5% of my experience of hearing music. I mean, not counting the part where I’m playing it myself. All of our experiences, either through the radio, or through recorded media, they’re often reflections of acoustic situations, but yet, there’s that medium again. So I just felt that as a composer, that was there to be dealt with. Certainly seeing Gordon Mumma deal with it in a highly virtuosic way… I don’t know if his contribution to the development of live electronic music is really widely enough appreciated. Actually, I’ll say it isn’t. [Laughter]

It is not, no. I think the name is probably not very well known, except for certain collaborative pieces, where his name is attached to others, and for which recordings were issued. The coasts may remember the name, and certain areas of the Midwest where he worked, but…

It was pioneering work, I mean, the fact is that there are probably a few films of his pieces in performance. But having seen them, they were incredible interactive electronic music pieces.

Describe one of them.

Well, for example, there’s his piece Hornpipe, where he’s playing all kinds of reeds and noisemakers into the French horn. He’s an accomplished French horn player, he’s played in orchestras and such, but he was using the horn as a resonance chamber, and basically putting these broadband noises into a space. He’d built what is essentially an analog computer that he wore on his belt, and he would move around the space with a tether to his electronic equipment, basically putting these broadband spectra into the space. The circuit that he was wearing would analyze the response of the room to that broadband sound, and gradually build up information about it, and by the time it had developed some kind of picture about it, would start to feed back at the resonances of the room.

Now, this is an incredibly complex system, that most of the users these days of Max/MSP or SuperCollider or whatever… to accomplish that kind of thing is very difficult, even with the high end tools we have, and he’s doing it with a soldering iron and transistors. I mean, I’m still in awe. Plus, it was a spectacular live performance event. It just was something to watch, as well as to listen to.

So it makes perfect sense that with the context of who we are today, that building an instrument is probably going to lean in the direction of building a device that is powered in some way, versus some sort of squeezebox.

I don’t mean that there aren’t things to do acoustically, obviously there are. Yeah, what you’re saying, I basically felt was true, that this is where the resources of the culture are going, and this is where a lot of work remains to be done. If we can really take this new potential and make something new out of it, rather than trying to recreate what the old music was.

So where did you begin taking this, when you started working?

Okay, so I was working with this group Confluence, and we were doing improvisational music with electroacoustic, amplified equipment. That went on for a while, we did some wonderful events with it.

You said everybody had to build something. What did you do?

the Hot Lunch instrument
An electric fiddle built on a plastic lunch-tray, the Hot Lunch instrument.

Well, one of the instruments I built was called the Hot Lunch. It was built out of a plastic lunch tray, like you get in the cafeteria, you know, that rectangular shape. I cut into it so that it had a little bit of a neck, so the bottom of it looked like a lunch tray and the top part tapered to a point. I built a little piece of wood, a fingerboard, and turned it into a fiddle that I played on my knee. So it was kind of upright. There’s a Greek instrument called the lyra that’s played that way. It was kind of modeled on that idea. It had four strings on it, but on the lunch tray, the main thing was it was a percussive surface, and I put all kinds of things that could be scraped or rubbed with the fingers, to create some Cuica-like sounds. The sound of all these noisemakers on the tray would get picked up by the contact microphone and be really loud, and you could use them as an interesting noise source.

Was it mono, spatial, did you have multiple microphones?

No, it was just one, $1 piece of…

Radio Shack, gold-coloured, right?

Not Radio Shack, actually, better than that. Anyway, that was one, but there were a lot of instruments in the group that were made with sheets of stainless steel balanced on balloons. This was an innovative technique that a composer named Prent Rodgers came up with. A balloon is a great surface for making a piece of metal resonate for a long time.

Prent Rodgers does a lot of wonderful microtonal music today, and continues to work highly experimentally, as well as lush sounds.

[…] I made electric versions of these instruments, so you’d put the contact microphone in between the plate, and I had a sort of wing-shaped piece of steel with bronze brazing rods attached to it, and then I would play those with the bow. So I would bow the rod and the sound would go into the plate, and make a very resonant, singing kind of tone that way. Eventually, being a pianist, I was sort of starting to miss the physical interactivity that I had with that instrument. I was also at that time surviving tuning pianos and rebuilding them and such. So I had all these guts of pianos around me, so I said, “Well, I’ve got to turn this instrument.” So I made this instrument called the Gazamba, which was essentially an electric prepared piano, using pickups from a Fender Rhodes. I took one section of an upright piano action, and built a little small keyboard with I think about 24 keys, and each of the keys his different metal pieces of junk. Springs, pieces of spring steel, a little bit of strings that were prepared roughly, with all kinds of different objects. So I had a percussion piano that was set up only for that purpose, and I used it in the group. Eventually I started writing pieces for the instruments. One of the earliest compositions that I got performed and got some notice for was called Alternating Currents, and it was actually just released this year. It was sort of the thing where Kent Nagano, the conductor that conducts a lot of Messiaen and a lot of other contemporary music, went to school at the same time as I did at U.C. Santa Cruz, and he had just gotten this appointment at Berkeley Symphony. He was looking around, sort of in the mode of Messiaen, for orchestral pieces that used invented instruments, since Messiaen did of course also. So he asked me if I’d come up with something, because I told him what I was doing, so I wrote this piece, Alternating Currents, for the symphony, and I included parts for the Gazamba and for the wing, and also for a percussion soloist and so forth. Actually, the recording that just came out is a synthesized version of that orchestra piece, but with the solo parts enhanced in electronics, and it’s out on Ecstatic Peace.

We listen to Alternating Currents by Chris Brown [0:32:05–0:46:50].

This is wonderful.

It was interesting, because Thurston Moore, who is the producer of this series and the label, of course… when this came about, I was a little bit skeptical, why are we putting it on LP? And then I heard it. He was saying, “Well, this is a collector’s series, and we do only the finest pressings.” It blew me away. I was re-convinced that LP sounds in a certain way more natural.

Yeah, I mean, that’s been said over and over, and I think it has to do with some of the naturalness of using a physical motion versus a reconstruction and interpolation.

Yeah, I think that’s in the recording somehow. I mean, it’s kind of hocus pocus and I don’t usually subscribe to hocus pocus, you know… it colours it.

…and it colours in a way which is warm, and it’s always been said, and it’s absolutely true.

Right. So, in a way, it sort of brings back what’s been important for me in a lot of my music, which is that while you’re using electronics, you’re not thinking that the entire music is in the electronic domain only, you know? That it really comes about through physical gesture, and also through electroacoustic transpositions. That was also part of the David Tudor tradition of electronics, is that it really isn’t about abstracting the music in the electronic mode, it’s about using the sound that the electronic medium provides as a new resource, as a new kind of experience.

Yeah, it can remain very much a physical experience, and that also helps it be an effective performance experience. It’s pretty deadly when you go to a performance, when the extent of the physical event is a mouse and key clicks.

Yes, it’s a problem, such that I think that we’re moving towards a kind of musical environment now, for electronic music, that is moving away from the stage. It just is not interesting to watch laptop players on stage. The best you do usually is close your eyes.

It doesn’t mean the music isn’t interesting. We just have no performance paradigm for electronic music.

So, it makes more sense that the audience not be confined to hearing it from one point of view. That’s sort of been my solution to that particular idea. I guess that leapfrogs us up to the present.

One of the latest projects I’ve been doing is with the Guillermo Galindo, and this is a project called the Transmission series. Basically, it’s taking this idea that electronic music, again, is a physical medium, and it depends a lot on the way that the sound is actually transduced in space. I got interested in the idea of using radio, radio transmitters, as channels for electronic music, and having the audience be able to pick up that with their own personal radios. So the idea is that we perform quadraphonic music, but each one of the channels in the quad is going to a different FM radio transmitter. These are little six-watt transmitters that will work, depending on how they’re installed, anywhere from a block to a couple of miles. Basically, we perform in an installation in which the audience is partly the sound system, because they bring their radio, we give each one of them a frequency, and they become one channel in the composition, and they move around with their radio, and change the relationship of the sound, as it’s created live, to the other channels, and create this sort of multi-focal mix.

Some people always thing quad or 5.1, okay, this is the way to really control the experience to the audience, but this is kind of emphasizing the opposite. This is the way to make the audience part of an experience in which everybody’s part of the control system, and it’s not the composer imposing a spatialization on the music, or on the audience, but the audience participating in the process of hearing multi-source, point kind of music.

Portable audience performers has also been explored by Phil Kline [see interview in this issue of eContact!] in New York. He does pieces for boomboxes, in which there are identical recordings given to each person, but because of the variations in speed among the…

Right, I did one of those actually in the 70s, at the San Francisco Art Institute, I had that same idea. I took the class out to a shopping centre with the boomboxes and had them all start together and move out. You’d kind of get this choreography of the sound, and then you’d start getting delays as the boomboxes go out of sync, it was gorgeous.

And it changes the space as things move, it’s really quite a wonderful concept. The whole idea of involving an audience as not an unwilling performer — which was part of the avant-garde tradition — but here a kind of willing performer and creative performer.

Right. Just in the same way, I think Tudor moved towards sound installation, and really pioneered that medium in the 70s. He sort of moved away from doing pieces on stage, and he’d already been working with dance, of course, and had this multimedia sort of idea. But he started creating Rainforest, for example, where you have this installation of objects where sound is being passed through, and the audience can move around within, and get different vantage points and really become part of the whole performance. I think this kind of thing is where electronic music is going, even in the popular medium with DJs and various kinds of dance clubs and such, where you’ve got different music going on in different places and audiences moving through. I think that’s a compositional medium at this point, and it’s one aspect of it that I’m really interested in right now. So we’ve been doing this… we’ve done about five different ones.

Same material?

No, different every time. The first one was in Mexico City for part of a radio festival, so it was the perfect launch for that. We just barely got the equipment running, and it was great. It was evening, outside in the plaza. A lot of times it works better outside. Then we did it here about a year ago, in a meadow at Mills College, at twilight. We used more natural sounds at that point. The first one in Mexico City, we used texts a lot, that were transformed electronically as part of the performance. One of them was in Spanish, one in English, and there was kind of a dialogue going on between the texts. The one which was called Transmission Temescal. Temescal’s a neighbourhood in Oakland. We were focusing on the natural environment of Oakland, and the California environment. At the same time, the frogs were going and the crickets and everything, so it sort of melted into the landscape that way.

Does the system you’ve created to do this provide sort of a feedback to itself as it’s working, or this exclusively transmitted outward and then, sort of “mixed” by your audience?

It can provide some feedback. I think we were not working very much with live microphones, but that’s a good idea. Maybe we’ll have to extend that. But we have a recording that maybe we can play now, of Transmission Temescal, that was done a few days, maybe a week or so later, on what’s called the Artship, which is a ship that was parked in one of the berths in Oakland and was used for art events for quite a long time, for a couple of years. A guy named Hugh Livingston, who’s an active cellist and composer in the area, was doing a series of musical events on the ship, and so we did one from there, and that’s where I found out that actually these six-watt transmitters can go several miles. One of the participants was in the show and left a little bit early, drove back to his home, and kept a channel on the radio, and got it all the way six miles away.

Oh yeah, along the flat surface of the water.

We listen to Transmission Temescal by Chris Brown and Guillermo Galindo [0:55:48–1:03:45].

Actually the Transmission we’re really looking forward to now is Transmission Mission, the Mission district in San Francisco. We just got a grant from a local foundation to produce an event in downtown San Francisco at the Yerba Buena Gardens, which is an outdoor public park area where there is a performance series that goes on in the summer. So next summer, early summer, we’re going to do a Transmission that involves recorded sounds from the Mission district, which is the district in San Francisco that culturally is the centre of the Latino community.

It seems like this opens up all sort of possibilities of, for example, using live microphones, feeding the system back and then transmitting it out, having kind of a long delay loop as it’s working, so that the material recurs and is re-transmitted and heard again, and then picked up by with the system with new sounds. The opportunities to make kind of an ongoing and constantly mutating environment out of these sounds seems just marvelous.

That’s a great idea, maybe you’d like to come out and help us do it. [Laughter] As you can imagine, it’s pretty complex already. With these transmitters and everything, and getting the audience to realize what’s happening. It’s interesting in this project, it’s hard to describe. But the experience of it, as soon as people experience it, they say, “Oh! That’s what you meant.” You know? “Oh, okay.” It’s kind of simple once you get it going, but to actually communicate the concept… people don’t have the idea with radio, I’m sure you know, that it comes out of the æther and who knows where it comes from. Even to get people into the idea that there’s something going on live here, that is creating this sound that they’re receiving.

Radio and radio considerations have always been kind of a compositional stepchild, if you will. They have been with us not only since the day of broadcasting, but also radio-controlled devices like the theremin. Radio’s a really important part of who we are as composers.

Right, and especially in the history of electronic music and support for electronic music. I mean, one thing we don’t have in the U.S. is much of a sense of radio art, and that of course is much more of a presence in Latin America and in Europe, where there are commissions specifically for pieces to be done on radio, and that’s what part of this radio festival was, that we went there to Mexico to start this piece with. So, I think we as radio producers (I actually have a show here on KPFA), we need to keep reminding people of that existence. Actually, I’d like to give a tip of the hat to Free Radio Berkeley, a website where you can get information about how to make your own radio transmitters. It’s been around for 15, 20 years, it’s a real Berkeley liberation idea, empowering people by giving them access to the media. They make kits that can be purchased by anybody, but especially they bring them to third-world countries, so that people locally can have ways of creating their own radio stations, they can create community with the radio. I’m using their kits to do this, and it was a great education into what radio technology is like.

This may be a side-step, but what’s your feeling about the whole status of radio in the States right now, particularly the deregulation question that’s come up?

Well yeah, deregulation, but deregulation is essentially meaning the majors gobble up everything.

Another thing about radio is that it’s one of the limited resources that we have, because of the nature of it. There’s only so much transmission that can occur within a geographical area, in a band. The government has protected those for many years, from monopolistic practice.

Right. It’s interesting, that this project has given me an insight on this whole issue… if I set up in my room or in my backyard with a six-watt radio transmitter, and I raise up my antenna high enough, I can really dominate, and sit on the same frequency as some commercial station. I can dominate my local area, because I’m closer to my own antenna than I am to their antenna. So in fact, it is a very uncontrollable medium, if people actually had access to transmitter technology. What’s really regulated and which is not being unregulated is that. So, this is a political issue, actually. It’s really about, if people knew and had access to the technology, where they could broadcast their own programs and their own information, we’d have a huge proliferation of sources of information and great stuff. So, I’m kind of an advocate for this point of view. So in that sense, that would be deregulation. Instead, what we have is the government saying “you may not.” Actually what I’m doing is technically illegal, though what they don’t want you to do is go to a frequency and stay there, and keep broadcasting there without permission. If you just set up in a guerilla fashion and communicate on one frequency for a few hours, who’s going to know? It’s not going to get back to… it’s unenforceable, that’s the point.

Yeah. Geographically, the area is go vast, and you sort of count on the government being unable to be there when you are.

Yeah, I think it takes a couple of months. [K laughter] To send the guys in suits down there.

It would take a couple of months to care. [CB laughter] Let’s get back to you, and some of your transitional history back from where we left you off, which was in the 1980s.

Okay. Mid-80s, I started working a lot with a couple of great musicians who are also involved a lot in the Bay Area new music scene. William Winant, a percussionist, and Larry Ochs, who is one of the saxophones in Rova Saxophone Quartet. We had group called Room during that period, which was the three of us to begin with, supplemented eventually by an electronic music composer named Scot Gresham-Lancaster, who has worked as a technical director at the Center for Contemporary Music, and currently at Heyward State University. Very interesting composer/experimenter with electronics. What happened in that group is we started out as an improvising group, and I was playing my electroacoustic instruments. And gradually, they were such virtuosos on their traditional instruments, that I started jonesing to get back to the piano, and started playing the piano too. But I wanted to keep it sort of extended, so I brought in the electronic transformations, first on my own equipment. Then I started thinking, “Well, this’d be interesting if I started to pick up sounds from the other instruments.” So this was an interactive electronic group, with 3 improvising players on acoustic instruments. We did some great concerts, I think.

One of the highlights was we played at the Moers festival, in I believe 1989. It’s a great festival of new music that’s in Germany. We played for thousands of people, I had a little Macintosh computer onstage, and it was monitoring input from pitch followers and changing the program that was transforming their sounds as they played. It was all very much an information feedback oriented kind of thing. What happened when I was designing these pieces for the group, was that it got too complex for me to operate and play at the same time, so eventually Scot was operating the controls and sort of mixing the music, which became a big part of it. We put out a few CDs and had a little nice run with that group for a while. So that was a big part of my interests, I was composing pieces that involved electronic programs that were interacting with improvising musicians. Then there were notes [laughter], there was the traditional music part very closely melded with the electronic part.

Tell me about improvisation. Improvisation was not a primary concern for quite a number of years. It would come and go, but we’ve seen a dramatic rise of it in the past 10, maybe 15 years, in new non-pop. Why is that? What has happened?

I don’t know. I mean, to me, it always seemed like a natural thing. There was kind of an element in the Cage and the post-Cage generation. Basically John Cage liked to distinguish between what he was doing, which was indeterminacy, and improvisation. It seemed to me that he had some points to make, and it clarified something about what he was doing, but I felt that some of the new music world took that as a dogma, and felt that they needed to distinguish what they were doing as composition, from improvisation. And I think there was a little bit of a classical/non-classical… class issue… that was involved. That people don’t take you seriously in the “serious” music world if you’re an improviser, and all of this comes down to cultural and social sorts of issues. I was a bit confused by that, because I loved the Cage tradition, but I also loved improvising music traditions. So I sort of tried to ignore the issue, kept improvising. From the late 70s I was doing improvising, and I think a lot of the people who became prominent in the, let’s say, late 80s and 90s and the improvised music movement, were doing it the same way. A lot of them were involved in jazz in some shape or form. I wound up playing with a free-jazz group, the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which morphed out of Room at one point in the early 90s. We added another drummer, and Glenn Spearman, who was an incredible saxophonist and who had played with Cecil Taylor… I’d always been a Cecil Taylor fan. To me, Cecil Taylor and Henry Cowell, they’re part of the same idea. Now, I think a lot of people don’t feel that way. But they were a part of my world, and I felt that they both fit in the same kind of area.

So, I don’t know. To me, in my music it was never an issue. I wanted improvisation to be a part of it, I wanted the musicians to be an active, creative part of the music-making. I still think the composer has a role with the idea, you know? The composer creates ideas and brings things to the musicians, but I personally have never really been interested in the idea the the performer, the great performer, is a re-creator only, is only realizing the idea of the composer. I want the performer to take idea, and take it somewhere and put their own musical imagination and spirit into it.

Then, as a performer, because I’ve always been a performer as well, it’s better music to me. There’s more interaction going on, there’s more life in what’s going on onstage. So, it’s just the way I’ve embraced it, as part of my musical practice. I think audiences, especially younger audiences, growing up with rock and jazz music being music that they know, I mean, this is music based on improvisation on one level or another. Also on composition, you know? So from my point of view, it’s just coming around, and that issue that was sort of holding up something in the late 70s and early 80s is going away.

So, it’s not that the process of improvisation has increased necessarily, but visibility has increased because the, sort of, denial has begun to slip away.

Yeah, I think that it really has to do with that the reason for denying it has gone away, and the politics has changed. Generations have changed, and you have great performers of written, fixed music like Frederic Rzewski, who’s also an incredible improviser. We have to get over this idea that somehow if you’re improvising, that it’s “lesser” than if you’re not improvising. I think for most of our points of view, it’s clearly not that way, improvisation is an incredible aspect of all music-making, and was when the classics were created. Somehow between 1880 and 1980, there seemed to be the idea that music was going to be frozen, or something. [Laughter] Even though it never was.

Maybe it was hand in hand with recordings.

With recordings, that’s another long topic we could go into.

Let’s hear something.

Okay. Yeah, let’s see, what will it be? Here, Hall of Mirrors, from the CD by the same name, with the group Room.

Here it is.

We listen to an excerpt of Hall of Mirrors by Chris Brown / Room [1:18:43–1:33:34].

What are you doing now? You talked about building instruments long ago, what are you building now?

Well, we talked a little bit about this Transmissions piece, so the transmission system is an instrument, I consider. I’m really expanding the idea of what an instrument is: it’s not really been a physical instrument, so much, in the last decade for me. I’ve also gotten involved a lot recently in software synthesis. So I’m building instruments by programming them. I use the SuperCollider programming language that James McCartney began, and is now a free software synthesis system.

We see SuperCollider everywhere, in projects that are from students, through composers who have been working for years.

Well, it’s a nice model, I think, for the way that this development should go, in that he’s made it free and open source.

What is it exactly? Give our listeners some background.

It’s a set of software tools, which include oscillators and filters, all those kinds of synthesis modules, that you use in writing programs that you can then play. You play them either by typing commands on a keyboard, a computer keyboard, or you can control them using MIDI or any other kinds of controls.

Live sensors, inputs, just about anything that you can get to the program, can be used as a control.

Right. It’s not an easy system to use. I’ve been, at this point, programming computers for doing music for almost 20 years, in one form or another. Starting from nowhere, I really didn’t have a technical background that way, but now it’s very familiar to me, and I enjoy it, programming is a creative activity. A lot of the instruments I’m building now are software systems that include samples, and oscillators and things like that, that I perform. I’m performing in a group now called Fuzzybunny, which is a trio with Tim Perkis, who was one of the members of a group called The Hub. This is another historical thing. There is a web site about The Hub for anybody interested, on the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art site, and you’ll find a lot of video and sound and stuff about that.

Tim Perkis, Scot Gresham-Lancaster and I are in this trio, and what we’re doing now is pilfering all kinds of popular culture for samples, and creating an improvised music that’s a cut-up sort of DJ-like music made with computers. Scot actually plays a guitar through a rack of synthesis gear. It’s a serious music based on pop sources. What you find is all these pop songs for the last 30 years are like triggers in people, they have the same kind of emotional effect that a chord used to have. When you play a diminished chord, everybody would feel mystery, or a minor chord would make you feel sadness. Now, when you play Heard It Through the Grapevine, everybody gets that wistful kind of feeling. If you play just two bars of it, they know what it is.

Yeah, I think John Oswald, with his plunderphonics, really delves into the constant stream of memory triggers, sonic triggers.

Yeah, he definitely is the pioneer in that, and we’re sort of following along as a live version of that, we’re improvising.

Did you get into trouble ever, on this? We’ve got such an intellectual property morass going on right now, with “That’s my sample, that 1.3 seconds is mine, it’ll cost you x.”

Well, you know, we’re not on Sony Classical, or any of the major labels. [K laughter] So we’re kind of flying under the radar, and if we ever got to the point where somebody wanted to release it in a big commercial way, I’m sure we’d have a lot of dues to pay.

There’s groups like Illegal Art, and Negativland, working hard to say that there are some places where if you go there with iron-bound intellectual property rules, what you’re going to do is trash the creative seeding that has gone on in music for centuries.

Yeah, I think this is unstoppable at this point. Recordings are replicas, and that means that they’re easily replicated. Especially with digital versions of them, I don’t care what kinds of copy protection they put in place, it gets defeated within a few days after it’s been released. So, I think there needs to be a different paradigm to have musicians make money. I mean, none of us are going to be able to invent it, it’s something that’s morphing out of the natural growth of these systems. I read recently an interview with a musician in China, where of course, 95% of the CDs that people listen to are pirated, and they basically just take the point of view in creating the CD, that this is a way for them to get performance gigs. Now, there’s something nice about that. It’s ironic, I mean, it’s too bad there’s not the big recording contract, but how many musicians have really benefitted from that. Not that many. Now the idea in making a recording, is that we get to play live, because people know our recording and they want to do that. We get paid for our live performances, and in a way that’s kind of a righteous return.

It is, it’s an interesting turn of events.


Let’s hear another piece, and we’ll come back and ask a few more final questions.

Let’s see, what should we hear? How about if we put in a little bit of this piece called Lava? This was kind of a milestone for me, where after doing all this work with signal processing and improvisors, I had a grant to make a long piece, and I made it as a quadraphonic installation piece, with four brass players and four percussionists. All scored, and with the electronic effects all meticulously planned, sort of worked out in the sequencer, it’s a one-hour piece, it’s called Lava. It was designed to sort of imitate the flow that hot molten material that, in this case, percussion instruments and brass players could provide.

We listen to an excerpt from Lava by Chris Brown [1:41:44–1:49:45]. Interview resumes at 1:51:15.

You teach.

Yes, I’ve been teaching at Mills College now for about 13 years, and at the Center for Contemporary Music, which grew out of the San Francisco Tape Music Center. We have a wonderful continuing tradition of home-grown new music resource, that the San Francisco Tape Music Center was. We’re now getting all the archives up and available, and we’re hoping it’ll really be something we can continue to create a historical tradition for that means something in the whole history of experimental music. One of the things way out here on the West Coast, is that you realize that the things that happen here don’t really get into circulation in the same way that things are that happen on the East Coast, they just don’t.

Is that true?

I think it’s pretty clear. Of course, New York is the magnet for all of the attention, and for the business. So if you’re doing it in New York, it gets distributed, people hear about it faster. If you doing it on the West Coast, part of the glory of it is actually that you don’t have the glare of the media, and you can really experiment without feeling that what you’re doing is prepared for the market. That’s both good and bad, you know, it makes it harder to market it and be self-sustaining, but at the same time, you have more space. You can take time to make experiments and have failures, and in a certain way I think there’s a reason why John Cage and Henry Cowell and Harry Partch, a lot of the people who were really experimenting a lot, wound up out here, or started here. It’s a breeding ground, I think.

So, on the other hand, we’re trying to establish that there is a tradition, that there is a continuing tradition in the Bay Area that’s meaningful, and that has been important. At Mills, we try to carry that on. We have a graduate program that brings in students from all over the world, who are interested in participating in that kind of way. Fred Frith teaches there now, but we’re talking about a tradition that had Anthony Braxton there, Terry Riley, Robert Ashley, and on and on. There’s a CD that has examples on it of the current residents at Mills, which include Alvin Curran, Fred Frith and Maggi Payne, who I think has been here, and Pauline Oliveros, who’s still affiliated with our faculty. It’s called Oasis, so maybe we can listen to a track from that.

We listen to knottyspince by Chris Brown [1:54:06–2:00:38]

Part 2

Audio Part 2 [0:19:33–0:34:04]

You have something else on this LP release that we have in front of us, the Kalvos & Damian privilege of having an LP in front of us. This has Alternating Currents on one side, but the A-side?

The A-side and the title track is a piece that’s called Branches, and its subtitle is Invention No. 7. This was the last in a series of inventions that were really attempts to work with computers and rhythm interactively, with different players. This piece was composed for one of the Other Minds festivals here a couple of years ago, and it was to feature my great friend and collaborator, William Winant, on percussion, but also someone who I’d started to work with earlier in that series, the Invention series, a DJ who came out of the Mission district here, named Eddie Def. And this guy just convinced me that DJ’ing is like playing the violin, if you get far enough into it. He is able to match pitches, to exactly respond to any kind of rhythmic gesture that I can come up with, and he was a total virtuoso. I’d never seen that kind of virtuosity with turntables. So I decided I had to make a piece that he could be part of.

So this was a trio in a way, kind of like the Room idea, where you’ve got three players who were working with material but also improvising. Eddie, of course, doesn’t read music, but he had a track that he was listening to and responding to, Willy had a track he was listening to and responding to, I had one, and we’re all working with tempi that are in different meters at the same time. So it was a big polymetric stew, and all of us synchronized, but somehow in our own space at the same time, trying to create a vast, churning rhythm, that the listener can move up and down through a big texture and listen to. So people move out on one branch of the rhythm or another branch. There’s a lot going on in the piece. So that’s the title track, and we played it at the festival and recorded it a year later, and I’m very happy about it.

This is a studio recording?

It’s a studio recording, yeah.

We listen to Branches (Invention No. 7) by Chris Brown with William Winant and Eddie Def, from Ecstatic Peace [0:22:10–0:32:58].

Chris Brown, with William Winant and Eddie Def on the wonderful LP. I just love saying that word, we have so few opportunities to say that.

Well, I know that they’re in the stores now, but there were only 400 of them pressed, it’s part of the series. So hopefully we’ll get a CD release further down the road. It’s kind of a special thing that Ecstatic Peace does.

Any advice to composers coming into the field now?

[Pause] Make your own. And don’t be afraid to move away from your model. Work with what’s local, try to bring your local colour into what you’re doing, and just don’t let people tell you that what you’re doing is somehow not valid. It’s valid, and you just need to get behind it.

Chris Brown, thanks so much for joining us on Kalvos & Damian.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.

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