Interview with Chris Koenigsberg
Difficult Listening; Ends in 'Berg' for $200
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #120/121, 6 and 13 September 1997. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Princeton NJ at the composer’s home. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:36:48–1:24:57] / Audio Part 2 [0:30:50–1:22:00].
Audio Part 1 [0:36:48–1:24:57]
[Damian] We’re in the ’burbs, the Princeton ’burbs of New Jersey. It’s incredible, this entire block of flats and homes has been purchased by Amway, and we’re in the very centre of the Amway distributorship, sitting in a home that I think has been furnished by all sorts of exotic distributors…
[Chris Koenigsberg] Wal-mart.
[Kalvos] Wal-mart. And Floor-mart, and ceiling-mart.
[CK] But watch out, we just got a beautiful bright orange printed notice in our mailbox the other day from our neighbour. He’s starting a Bible study group, and we’re invited to come over.
[K] And you’re all ready, huh?
[CK] One of the seven virtues in something-or-other chapter, this and that or something.
[K] The seven deadly virtues, I remember those. Wasn’t that a piece by Kurt Weil? Yeah, something like that. We are, in fact, in the ‘burbs. We are in the ‘burbs of a dangerous composer.
[D] So I’ve heard. You’ve experienced this first hand, so please tell us.
[K] Well, first of all, tell the name, for any of those people who’d like to call in, and abuse him right now…
[D] Yes, and who we are.
[K] Yes, here on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar, our guest is… and you must pronounce it, because I want to hear how you say your last name, because we’ve been saying “Chris K-ön-igsberg” all week.
[CK] Uh, well, I do normally say “Chris Kone-igsberg”. When I write my name down, I like to say “Christopher K. Koenigsberg” in full, but when I say it, I like to say “Chris”, because I used to get different ID cards and credit cards, and some of them would be “Chris Koenigsberg”, and some would be “Christopher Koenigsberg”, some would be “Christopher K. Koenigsberg”, some would be “Chris K. Koenigsberg”, and some would be “C.K. Koenigsberg”…
[K] Well, we’re okay with the “Chris” part. [Laughter]
[CK] And the last name, actually my mother pronounces it “Kay-nigsberg”, but she’s Italian, so that doesn’t really count. They got divorced and my father remarried fifteen years ago and he’s changed his name now to Koenig. He dropped the “sberg,” so I was thinking of changing my name to “Sperg.”
[D] Or just Chris K., would work well in your medium.
[CK] I use my initials a lot, C.K.K.
[D] Meanwhile, back to the story…
[K] Well, you know, we have been on the air for coming-up two years with our show. Last week we played some of the new releases we’ve received from people, I got a huge pile of ’em in the mail on Saturday, dragged them all with to the radio station as it were, and we’re on this tour talking to some of these composers. I had sampled some before the show, and I said, “I know, I’ll play The Rat’s Nest.” Well! We got three, count ’em, THREEEEEE!!!, calls from listeners, who said, “Take that off!” We had one listener who actually said, “What right do you have to play that music?”
[CK] That’s wonderful. I used to be a DJ on the air, on the Carnegie Mellon radio station, WRCT-FM 88.3 in Pittsburgh, PA, which was a great freeform college radio station. I was actually on the air for ten years, because I took a long time to graduate… I hung around and worked there for a long time afterwards. But we used to count hate-calls, and we used to try to get more hate-calls than the other guy. [Laughter]
[K] Well we really don’t even try, [laughter] you know, and this was just…
[CK] I mean, I did a show once where I played alternating heavy-metal and classical music, because the general manager at a staff meeting, had given an example, that the worst possible thing you could possibly do, would be to play heavy-metal music right after a classical piece, so I did a whole show of alternating heavy-metal and classical. And we would get lots of hate-calls. I had one guy who was always begging me to play Led Zeppelin, and I would say, “Okay, I’ll put on some Led Zeppelin, right after this.” And then I would just put on some kind of random noise garbage, and I’d string him along for hours, and every week the guy would call back. I mean, he was a devoted listener, even though I never played what he wanted. It was almost as if he was a masochist, and wanted to listen to torture.
[K] Well yeah, are you the official sonic sadist, a new technique?
[CK] Well I mean, I sort of like to say that I’m a fish out of water now, because when I grew up and when I acquired some of these tastes, I have buddies and friends, whatnot, people to share some of this with, and now I’m just on my own, people were staring at me saying, “Well, what kind of lunatic are you?” And I sort of turn around to say, “Well, what do you think, guys?” and there’s nobody there to back me up anymore, but at WRCT we had a whole raft of DJs, and there was something called “systems research” where they would play just random tapes of noise, and try to get hate-calls and they would record the hate-calls and put them on the air, mixing them in with the noise. So someone would be calling up, saying “What is this? Take this off!” and they’d be on the air, mixed in with the thing that they were complaining about, and that wasn’t even my idea. That was John Fetkovich, who we called “Fetko,” (affectionately).
I had a freeform improvisation group called The Morphic Resonance Trio, where I played acoustic bass, another guy played bassoon, and another guy played saxophone. We were all three DJs at WRCT, that’s how we met in 1984. We would do concerts at people’s houses at parties sometimes, and one time there was a party, and somebody in the kitchen started banging on a pot with a spoon. I think I joined in, and started banging on another pot, and the whole room started picking up pots and pans and banging on them with spoons and whatnot. And the whole house, something like 30 or 40 people, all were picking up pots and pans and banging on them with spoons and stuff, and people were going nuts. The one guy, who was the business manager at the radio station — he went on to get a job as a Top 40 radio executive in marketing, commercial stuff — he was really drunk, I guess, and he was slamming his body into a counter in rhythm and everything, and this whole thing was going on, and unfortunately they destroyed all the pots and pans in the house, it was just a mess afterwards.
[K] Not to speak of the silverware… [Laughter]
[CK] And then his roommates came home, [laughter] and they were a bunch of football-playing jocks, and they were really upset about what happened. So, at the next staff meeting at this radio station, we took up a collection to replace the pots and pots. It was my idea to take up the collection, and we actually replaced the pots and pans, especially this folding omelette pan, that was the most precious thing. So, I kept the broken pots and pans and we called it the Fetko Memorial Kitchen Orchestra. And the next few concerts after that, when the Morphic Resonance Trio would play, we would hand out the pots and pans to the audience, from the Fetko Memorial Kitchen Orchestra. So that’s the relationship of omelette pans to The Rat’s Next.
[K] [Laughter] Well, the CD, by the way, is called Brains. It’s a wonderful CD, and you call it “audiophile computer music.”
[CK] Uh, yes, I like to provoke interesting philosophical and æsthetic discussions. I like to think too much and talk too much, and there’s a time for playing and making noise, there’s a time for making beautiful things, there’s a time for making horrendous things and pissing everybody off. But there’s also a time to think and evaluate, and discuss things, and if you use certain kinds of words, they have associations and connotations, and they bring up certain kinds of discussions. I was hoping that somebody would understand what I was trying to say by calling it “audiophile computer music,” and the person who seemed to understand the most was a reviewer for Fanfare Magazine. It’s “the Magazine for Serious Classical Record Collectors,” and the reviewer said some wonderful stuff based on the notion that, if somebody claims to be an audiophile, they’re immediately bringing up all these connotations and challenging you, and it brings up notions of people who hand-pick the cotton strands for their speaker wires, and whatnot, you know, and then he said you go to this music and you have this piece, The Rat’s Nest, which seems like such incredible noise, that in one sense you’d think it’d be the opposite of what an audiophile would be looking for, but on the other hand, the noise is so finely-detailed and so intricate, so immaculately complex, that it really is a perfect encapsulation of that idea. So I was really happy that this reviewer got the point of that.
[K] I think we should dive right in and play that as the starting “tune,” as it were. And it’s interesting how you created that piece. We all have different ways of finding our source material, and this is probably one of the most interesting things I’ve ever heard.
[CK] Yeah, there’s the long story and the short story. I guess I’ll give you the short story. I had been doing a philosophical investigation in the notion of ownership and authorship. I used to say that I was not a composer, because I didn’t start with an idea in my head, and painfully lynch it out onto paper and revise it, work on it ’till it was perfect, and then hand it off to musicians to interpret, like the way Beethoven had done. I wanted to reserve the word “composer” for someone who followed that process. I have a long background in improvisation and in jazz, in playing classical music, in playing in rock bands and whatnot, and sculpting pieces in electronic studios, computer music studios, but I’ve never really sat down and composed a work like that. So, I wanted to explore this notion of, how far can you go before you have to give up the notion of authorship?
I was interested in some historical precedence like Marcel Duchamp’s pieces, where he took an existing masterpiece painting, The Mona Lisa, and all he did was add a mustache to it, and he appropriated it as his own work. Or he went and he found what he called “readymades,” he went and found a urinal in a garbage dump, and brought it into a gallery and put it up on a stand, and said that this was a sculpture. So, I wanted to explore that notion, but my feeling was that, aesthetically, I couldn’t really justify something that simple, I really wanted to think of the idea of “value-added,” of how much could I add to the original source material.
[K] “Value-added” music! No wonder we were talking about Wal-mart before.
[CK] Yes, so often the notion of an “artist” is someone who conceives an idea from the very beginning and then brings it into life, through all its trials and tribulations, but there are other notions of an artist who manipulates thing that already exist, and then there’s this question of sampling. There was the controversy when MC Hammer appropriated the bass line of Rick James’s song Super Freak, and made a new song out of it, a new hit single. But, really, the hook in it was Rick James’s, and people said, “Well, why should I say that’s MC Hammer’s song,” when really the essence of it Rick James. So, I wanted to explore this notion of, Where do you draw the line between the previous essence and the new essence if you add something.
In computer music, with computer studio techniques, you can often manipulate something so much as to make it completely unrecognizable, so it almost doesn’t matter what source you start with. You could put it something arbitrary and random and come out with something totally different. There are certain classes of effects, that I call artifacts of the analysis, that come out, no matter what the input is. So there was another series of pieces that I worked on, called the Basement Artifacts series. But meanwhile, I wanted to go even farther and take completely random input, I wanted to find garbage, so to speak, and they say you can’t (I don’t know if I can use this word) polish a stone… an animal’s leftover waste, let’s say.
[D] [fake English accent] It’s a bit of a spore.
[CK] Yeah, but there are people who spend their lives studying spores, and find some kind of beautiful, systematic complexity in the study of spores, I’m sure.
[K] Following the scat, so to put it.
[CK] Right, and that’s where scat singing came from.
So, I searched around for digital garbage that I would appropriate. I tried various kinds of files, computer files, interpreting them as audio. The point is that a sound file on the computer, it’s just pretty much random data, but you have a sound file header, which tells you how to interpret it. So, I could take an arbitrary data file, and add one of these sound file headers, and all of a sudden you’ve got a sound file, even though it was never actually sound in the real world that was recorded or something.
[K] And there’s a utility that is available as freeware called Will Play Anything, and it will take a file and copy it into a new file, put a sound header on it, and then play it for you.
[CK] Ah. I’m familiar with a few different versions of that kind of thing. There’s SoundHack for the Macintosh, or SoX is another one. So, I spent a few weeks exploring and trying the Mac Finder and the VM kernel of UNIX systems and whatnot, and I found that one of the most interesting bits to start with was in the NeXT operating system, the NEXTSTEP system. It has sort of a bug where it allocated virtual memory and kept allocating more and more and more, and never really de-allocated it, never really returned it. So you’d be on a NEXTSTEP computer for a few days, and eventually the swap partition would fill up and you’d have to reboot. So I started collecting those swap files, and the interesting thing is that it’s not just totally random stuff, some of it comes from the space being used by a program, so if you’ve got a drawing program and you’re drawing a picture, the bits that make up that picture are stored in the swap space.
So if there’s a certain kind of a pattern to them, it may show up when you interpret it as audio. I collected a lot of these and worked with them, and I was getting some really awesome, incredible sounds, because there are some stark transitions, from loud to soft or high to low, or something, that are impossible for any sort of living creature to produce. And yet, they sound like gestures, like superhuman gestures, and we have this tendency to look for patterns, whether they’re there or not. Our minds, our cognitive processes, just want to search for patterns. So, you will look in the darkness and you will see things. John Cage even found that it was not possible to have true silence, because you always have two sounds inside your ears, one of them is your blood pressure, the other is your nervous system.
I started getting some really amazing, beautiful sounds out of these swap files. Now, they’re mostly pretty harsh, and sort of violent in nature, so I wanted to work on them and make some more gentle things, and contour a real piece. And again, this is the idea of the value-added business, that a composition has an overall shape and structure that is clearly the work of the human being, thinking and lovingly kneading the clay or whatever. Even if it started out as just some clay, say, some muck that you picked up off the riverbed. So that’s pretty much what I did with that. There are two halves to the piece, The Rat’s Nest. The first half is very extensively shaped and massaged in such a way that they’re very, very delicate, really wonderful things, if I may say so myself.
Listen for these really quiet things. It may get loud for a while and then get quiet for a while. There are just some things that sound like a gesture, but they’re like impossible gestures. And then it leads into the second half, which is pretty much cranked wide open, like the original sound file. But even that, I shape it so it builds up, it has a dramatic curve to it. But I played it for my composition professor, Alvin Curran at Mills College. He said, “Oh, it’s not random enough,” you know, “There should be stuck notes,” and things, you know. So I went back and looked through the swap files, and I found one place where there was a sort of a stingy note for, like, two whole minutes. And there was my stuck note, so I stuck in part of that, and you can sort of hear it getting towards that stuck note, with different timbres going around, and then there’s a fixed sound, for like 30 seconds or so, and that stuck note is my dedication to Alvin Curran.
I wanted to make sure that the ending was really climactic, so I picked the most intense kind of sound that, not just that it’s loud or anything (because you can pretty much turn anything up loud, or turn it down, you know, you may prefer to listen to something at a high or low volume), but the sound itself, some sounds have an inherent quality to them that suggests largeness, or big things happening, or energetic things, large amounts of energy in use. So the ends of The Rat’s Nest has some sounds to it which are sort of what I like to think of as enormous. Even if you play them very quietly, they just have this enormous quality to them. So, the piece starts in the beginning with very tiny things and ends with huge, enormous things, and runs the gamut in between.
[K] Let’s listen to it. Folks, keep the radios tuned right in, we’re not experimenting with your frequencies, or messing around with the transistors.
We listen to The Rat’s Nest by Chris Koenigsberg [0:57:15–01:02:55].
[K] You’re all still there! [Laughter]
[CK] Do not adjust your sets.
[K] Well, depending on your point of view, it goes uphill or downhill from here.
[CK] When I used to live California, I would drive up and down the freeways a lot, and one of my favourite experiences was setting the radio in between stations, and as I would go around curves and up and down bumps, different stations would pop in and out. It would be sometimes just static, but often there would be incredible, impossible segues that no human being, mixing at a DJ desk, could have done deliberately. So I like that sort of serendipitous thing that you find. I also appreciate things that are completely crafted consciously from the beginning, also, and I hope someday to do a piece that’s more like that. Perhaps the next piece that we should…
[K] Well, before we do, let’s hear about you. You mentioned Mills College. Now, Mills College comes up a whole lot, so we’d better hear about your history, where you started in music. You talked about how you did jazz work, you talked about playing acoustic bass…
[CK] Well, when I was about five years old, my parents thought it would be cute for me to play the accordion. So, there’s a photo of me, five years old, sitting with an accordion on my lap, and for a couple months I took accordion lessons. I guess it became kind of clear that it was sort of ungainly and awkward, and this was before the “accordion revival” started by the Polka guys. They switched me to a guitar, a small-sized guitar, and I started taking guitar lessons before I was six years old. So, I was taking kind of classical lessons, pop lessons, and flamenco lessons, all through my early years as a kid. And in flamenco, you’re supposed to improvise, you sort of learn basic themes, and you play them but each time a little differently, you add something or noodle around and stretch something out. So, at a very young age, I was into that idea of theme and spontaneous variations, on the guitar. In high school I realized that I was never going to have the time to practice enough to really be able to master all that’s necessary to be a real, accomplished, lead guitarist. You have so many responsibilities, and you have to be able to cover so much ground in so many different ways. To really do what I would want to do right, I realized that it was just impossible. Actually, I went and saw John McLaughlin in concert, and I just said, “Alright, forget it.”
[K] It’s been done.
[CK] Exactly. So, I realized that I could have a lot more to say with the bass, and I had a chance in high school to play bass sometimes. Actually I got to play drums sometimes. I went to an experimental hippie freak high school, and our high school band was an acid rock band.
[K] Where was that?
[CK] Well, it was an experimental high school outside Philadelphia, that got closed down after a few years later… Yeah, probably for the benefit of all concerned. But, I got to play drums, and play bass, play guitar, and I really grew fond of the æsthetic of playing bass, that you have sort of large notes that mean a lot. You might play them fast sometimes, and other times you might play them really slow, but you’re dealing with large shapes and big things. And that kind of appealed to me, to work on the large structure of the music. Let the lead guitar player shoot out all kinds of notes in small-scale structures, I was going to work on the large-scale structure, like the whole room and the architecture of the columns in the room. So, we had an experimental improvisation band when I was in high school called Quaos, it was “chaos” spelled with a Q. For my senior project in 1976, I produced and directed “Dr. Squeeble’s Multimedia Freakshow,” so I got to sign out some tape recorders, and we had some 8mm film cameras, 35mm cameras, and we went away for 8 weeks and worked on this bizarre show. I was doing musique concrète, mixing things in my basement and whatnot. Then, I took more classical guitar lessons in college for credit, where we had to be proper, and hold your hand in just the right way to get a good grade.
[K] Where did you go first to college?
[CK] Carnegie Mellon University.
[K] Okay, so that was where you were at the radio station.
[CK] Yeah, and I got on the radio, and as I said, for ten years, from 1976 until 1986, I hung out at the radio station almost every day. I lived and breathed WRCT, I was kind of a radio geek.
[K] So, by that time, you had this all in your head, and how did you get to Mills, how did that all happen? Did you make a conscious decision to be become a “composer of…”?
[CK] Around the end of my tenure as an undergraduate. I took six years, because I went part-time after a while, and I was also working full-time before I was finished with school. I got to take a class in computer and electronic music from Roger Dannenberg and Marilyn Taft Thomas at Carnegie Mellon. I fell in love with that stuff so much, and I did some compositions in their electronic studio, and I had an appointment as a “guest composer,” that I could keep coming back and doing more pieces afterwards, and I was an “unpaid research fellow” with the Center for Art and Technology there, again, just because I have a sort of paranoid inferiority complex. I feel as though “I need some sort of justification for being here and working in your studio,” or else they’ll come and carry me away, you know, wrap me up in a straight jacket and haul me off unless I can say I’ve got a title.
So, anyway, I did a series of pieces there that were called Morphic Resonance pieces. Then, with some guys I met at the radio station we formed a freeform acoustic improvisation ensemble called Morphic Resonance Trio, in 1984. I kept that ensemble going until I left Pittsburgh in 1991, seven years later. The two original guys, one of them left town and the other one got pissed off at me and wouldn’t talk to me after a while, so I had to re-form it with all new people. So it went through a few more “metamorphoses,” so to speak, and it became the Morphic Resonance Electroacoustic Ensemble. It had an oboe player, and a guy who played “Monster Feedback.” He had a rack of effects processors that would just feed back into itself. And he would just sit there, turning knobs on this Monster Feedback thing. Then in 1991, I got the opportunity, finally, to go to graduate school at Mills College. I had met some of the people there some years earlier. I had met Larry Polansky and David Rosenboom.
I had had such a wonderful time talking to them about music and things that I was interested in, and they kept saying, “You should come to Mills someday,” you know, a lot of people come to Mills College in the middle of their careers, they take a sort of a break, a vacation for a couple of years to get this MFA degree in electronic music. I kept saying, “I’ll see you there someday, I’ll see you there someday,” starting in 1985 or ’86 or so, and then it was six or seven years later when I finally got to go in 1991. Both Larry and David were gone by then, of course.
But I still had a good time there, and Chris Brown was my advisor there, and Alvin Curran was a teacher there, Willy Winant is a wonderful percussion player who also teaches there. And they’re just really fantastic people, and it was a great opportunity, I made a lot of music, I put on a thesis concert, then I put out the Brains CD of the music from the thesis concert. That all finished in 1993, 1994, and I’ve been dying to get back and do more music since then. I’ve just started to go back to graduate school again for a second Master’s degree, this time in computer science, because to really complete what I want to do, I need both the artistic side from the MFA and the technical side from the MS degree in computer science. In fact, my master’s thesis at Mills was titled, The Insane and the Technical, and the sort of epigram quote was, “The technocrat must set the stage carefully for the madman to dance with the bandit,” and that’s sort of my philosophy, that those two have to work together.
[K] Let’s hear another piece, and then we’ll come back and find out what you’re doing now, and also talk a little bit about your sort of philosophical approach to things, because I’ve read a lot by you for various reasons, so let’s hear a piece.
[CK] Well, let’s put on the piece called Brains, it’s the title track, so to speak, of the CD. Actually, it started with a tape from 1975. Again, back in high school, when I was doing Doctor Squeeble’s Multimedia Freakshow, and all that, some friends and I had an amazing jam session going. There were three people playing one guitar. One guy was playing the top three strings, the other guy was playing the bottom three strings, and I was mixing on a Fender Princeton Reverb amp, with the reverb and tremolo knobs, the treble, bass, volume and everything. We had this just incredible, synergistic, huge monsterous sludge going. I mean, something like The Rat’s Nest now, is the digital realization of what I was doing with my friends back then in 1975, and we were taping one of these sessions when my dad walked in. He was in a bad, grumpy mood I guess, and he yelled at us, and his yelling was on the tape. And ever since then, I’ve always wanted to do something with that voice of his, so I got the chance at Mills, when I had to pretty much show that I had mastered MIDI technology and sampling, this sort of thing where you arrange a bunch of snippets of recordings inside this box, and then you trigger them to play back from a keyboard or something.
Well, I have this instrument called a Buchla Thunder, it’s a MIDI controller, not a keyboard, and has all these different pads that you touch, and if you move your fingers on them, it sends out different kinds of signals. So I set up sort of a playpen to play in, with a carefully-regimented set of the samples of my dad’s original voice, each word separately, and combinations of the words, and I had them in different places, where they would come out in different locations and different speeds, maybe they would loop in different ways. And then the Thunder also had different kinds of controls on it, which would have certain kinds of programs. Sometimes if I would touch one of these pads, it would set up a whole sequence of things, which I could then alter, I could massage it by moving my hands around. So I had a whole playpen of sounds to play with, that was based on my dad’s voice, yelling at me in 1975. Which was sort of, you know, the inspiration, say, for a lot of my noisemaking since then.
Then, I took that into a 24-track studio, and overdubbed it again and again in stereo tracks, so I had like 12 tracks overdubbed, where I began to build up structures through improvisation on this playpen instrument that I had created. Then, finally, I applied my theory of mixing technique to produce a coherent whole, and that’s the piece, Brains. And I was fortunate enough [Laughter] to be able to volunteer for an experiment. After I left Mills, I went to Chicago and I worked at the University of Chicago, and they have a brain research center in the hospital there, and I just happened to come upon an email or a Usenet news article posting that they were looking for volunteers to go into an MRI machine, a Magnetic Resonance Imaging, because they wanted to examine something about blood flow in and out of the brain. They said that normally, people who go into the MRI thing are afraid that they might have cancer or something and they’re being diagnosed, and they can’t sit still, and they have to be sedated with Valium or something, just to be able to endure the process. But I went in and I had so much fun, I thought it was great, I was saying, “This is just like my music,” you know? All these incredible sounds swirling around my head, and I had no problem meditating. You had to lie perfectly still in something the size of a coffin for like 25 minutes, with all these weird sounds going around your head. And I said to them, this is really great, this is just like my music. And they gave me a printout of my brain. I said that if I put out a CD someday, I’m going to use this as the cover for my CD. And it really worked out because of the piece called Brains, and now I had a real picture of my brain.
[K] So that’s yours, huh?
[CK] It’s the title track, and it’s my brain on the cover of the CD.
[K] Here it is, Brains, the title track on the CD Brains, by Chris Koenigsberg, whose brains are on the cover of “Brains.”
We listen to Brains by Chris Koenigsberg [1:18:13–1:24:57], before moving to the second part of the interview.
Audio Part 2 [0:30:50–1:22:00]
[D] Enough of this silly music, what about your symphonic output? What about your string quartets? How about some piano trios, something that we and our listeners can sink our teeth into.
[CK] I really do feel somewhat ashamed and embarrassed that I’ve never written any pieces like that. I mean, I’ve had the privilege of playing in the bass section of a few orchestras, including one professional orchestral, the Wheeling Symphony in Wheeling, West Virginia. The conductor, Rachel Warby, was an amazing woman, and she was the wife of the West Virginia Governor, Gaston Caperton. So that was a lot of fun. I got to play the bass on Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, all sorts of incredible music that I’m really in awe of. So, maybe someday I might approach one of those things. My wife keeps asking me when I’m going to write a string quartet, but I’m afraid to do a half-hearted job.
[K] Do you think any of your work in electronics would translate into that? Do you think you could imagine the string quartet in terms of what you do now?
[CK] Well, with string quartets, you’re getting into notated music with grammar and syntax, and whatnot, and there’s such a long tradition, and I would think that I would really have to study up on all the string quartets that came before me. I mean, I have a book called Beethoven’s String Quartets, which I just flip through a little bit from time to time, and I have a recording of Beethoven’s string quartets by I forget who, but there’s just so much there, and I really am in awe of people who have mastered all that, and I don’t pretend to. I like to say I’m a sculptor of sound, and that’s why I say I’m not a composer, because I’ve never done something like that. I’ve organized things on large scales sometimes, but I didn’t work out all of the inside details of the relationships of notes to one another in every detail. I often took large masses of sound and then worked with them like clay or something, sculpted or subtracted stuff from it, rather than starting with just ideas in my head and working out themes and variations of notes.
[K] But you’re not ignorant of this stuff, because I’ve been following your Usenet postings, and you have a pretty vast knowledge of contemporary music, other music, philosophical issues. Are you just sort of stepping aside from that because at the moment, notational approaches simply don’t address what you care to do?
[CK] Well, I guess you could say I’m a slow learner, or I’m a late-bloomer, let’s say.
[K] Oh, well, ten years at Carnegie Mellon, whatever it was, sure… nah, no evidence there! [Laughter]
[CK] I’m going to back to graduate school for my second Master’s degree when I’m 38 years old now. People I went to school with as an undergraduate are rich and famous millionaires who invented computer protocols and whatnot, or you know, I just looked at the textbook for a class I’m taking in analysis of algorithms, and I see that they’re thanking their colleagues for helping debug the algorithms in the book. And one of their colleagues is a woman that I went to class with as a freshman, long ago. [Laughter] So, I would like to do something large and substantial, but I’m not in a hurry because I do want to do it right, and part of what I want to do is pay tribute, an homage to what other people have done, in that sense of “value-added” and “appropriation” that I was talking about. I don’t want to steal their work, but I want to do, maybe, some scholarly research that involves a synthesis of some things that other people have done. So, not just producing music, but musicological analysis, let’s say, of some of those kinds of things, and then put it together with a multimedia kind of hyper-linked thing of some live performances of music and dance, some stuff in the studio, and put it all together with some signal processing techniques, into a sort of a large mass of stuff that, hopefully, you would be able to take years to work yourself through. So that’s a project I kind of set out for myself when I was still at Mills College in 1992 and 1993, and I’ve mainly been just reading and thinking a lot. I had set a goal of doing it by the beginning of the 21st century, which, as everyone knows, it’s not the year 2000, it’s the year 2001, so I have one extra year before the deadline.
[D] So you could sample the string sections from… Cats, and turn it into a new pastiche. I think the world’s ready for that.
[CK] Well, I’ll tell you, in this idea of appropriation. I was trained as a mathematician, actually, years ago as an undergraduate, and one thing that interests me is finding limits or finding the edges of things, or if something has an edge at all. So, with The Rat’s Nest, I tried to go out and find the edges of the value-added approach, appropriation, sticking pure garbage in, say, as a source and then massaging it. For an exercise in composition, I produced a piece which I consider to be an illegitimate piece, so I kind of defined the boundary of musical composition by going outside that boundary. It’s more in the realm of a performance art piece, a conceptual piece, but there’s a history of that sort of thing. In the 1960s, La Monte Young — who is an under-appreciated, wonderful person — has an exhibit now in New York, I think you can go every Thursday or Saturday and walk through this room where these oscillators are playing and you’re bathed in these lights, and whatnot. But back in the early ’60s, he did a series of pieces, and one of the most famous ones is feed a bale of hay to a piano, and another one is hold an F-sharp and the fifth above it for a long time. So, he had this series of conceptual pieces like that. Yoko Ono used to do things like that, so there’s really nothing new.
They were affiliated with this Fluxus movement, which was influenced by the Dadaists, and it’s kind of traditional, old stuff on the 20th century. You know, we call it “new music,” or radical new things, but it’s really been going on for almost 100 years now. So, I try to go outside and work backwards, let’s say if you’re trying to find the edge of something, but the edge is not quite distinct, one thing you might do is go until you’re very clearly outside of it, and work backwards. So, I tried to go outside the realm of something that could be claimed with ownership, it was the question of ownership. So, I wrote a piece, it’s called Your Life, Up Until This Moment. [Pause]And, I hope you enjoyed it very much. Thanks, now let’s go on to the next one.
[CK] So you might say, “Well, wait a minute… how can you claim that as your piece, when that’s my life?” And so I say, “Okay, well, that’s a good question. Let’s talk about it.” So, the idea is to have a really interesting argument at the reception after the concert.
[K] Alright, what piece on Brains comes closest to the great piece you might do in the future, the great symphonic piece you might do in the future? What is the greatest amount of messing around with the clay?
[CK] Well, the piece that’s called The Free Spirit is one that I’m perhaps the most proud of, but it’s kind of difficult because it’s very long, it’s 18 minutes long. [Pause] Well, alright, if you want to go for it. I want to prepare people: it’s long, and some people like to torture their audience. I don’t really like to, I mean I might like to rouse up certain things at certain times, but I really want you to be comfortable. If I’m making weird noise, I want you to be comfortable while you’re listening to it.
[K] Well, we’ve got an audience listening, what’s the best thing to do at this point? Should they put on headphones, it’s a headphone piece?
[CK] It’s definitely a headphone piece, turn the lights up…
[CK] Prozac, Jimsom Weed, whatever. But, it came out of a series called the Basement Artifacts series. There was a pump in the basement that was just driving me crazy, driving everybody crazy. I recorded it, and I worked for a couple of years trying to extract artifacts of new sounds out of the original pump. On the CD, the pump is presented in its original form in the piece called Basement Artifact #1, where it is slowly transformed from its original form into a musical instrument. In the end, it sort of turns out to be a jazz improvisation with the Buchla Thunder’s little programs going nuts, playing itself like an incredible Charlie Parker run. But, I went through a series of process of transformations, and the most extreme process that I worked with was something that can be done in various ways, but it’s stretching time without changing pitch. Now, if you make a recording on a tape and you slow the tape down, the time will be stretched but the pitch will go down, so whatever notes you’re playing, they’ll come out lower. If you play the tape at half speed, the notes will be half as high, so they’ll be an octave lower. But there are ways to stretch out the time without lowering the pitch, and one of these is this algorithm that somebody discovered a while ago called the phase vocoder.
There had been vocoder algorithms to code voices into different channels for transmissions over telephones, but someone invented a phase vocoder that would preserve the phase, so you could do some manipulations and get back something of a much higher quality. And one thing you can do is you can analyze the sound, and play it back where the time is stretched without the pitch changing, or the opposite, you can change the pitch without changing time. So, I wanted to work on a very long piece. Some people just approach the concept of time without really thinking about it, but I had had a seminar at Mills College with Professor Bernstein in 20th century concepts of musical time. And some people have thought very long and hard about time and duration and what it means, and there are long forms like the gamelan in Java and Bali, in which they believe that the music is going on infinitely, it never stops. What we do is we just sort of segue in, it’s like you turn your radio on and listen for a while and then turn the radio off, but it’s still really going all the time. So their pieces never begin and never end, they just start and stop without a beginning and without and end. But I wanted to do a piece that had a beginning and an end, and had a long form to it, and I chose to use this phase vocoder to stretch out these sounds.
So, I took a small, three-second excerpt, just some little random fluctuation from this pump sound, and it sort of began like the digital garbage idea, that it almost didn’t matter what you put in, and the interesting thing was the artifacts of the analysis. And I stretched that three-second long sound out to 18 minutes long. So small, little, almost micro-fluctuations are stretched out into long episodes of a sort of ghostly quality. And I did it with different ways, did it four different times, and had four different versions to play together, and they all sounded different. Then, I also put this together with another technique which I was learning. It’s a way of taking a recording of a room, what we call the impulse response of a room, and making that into a filter and convolving a sound with the filter. What you’re essentially doing is putting your sound into that room. So you’ve got a recording of the room, and it’s almost like having a reverb or echo unit that you play your sounds through, if you use this mathematical process, you put the sound into that space. So, I had several different recordings of these impulse responses, and I convolved the soundfiles to place them at different spots in this reverberant space, and I had all these different variations. So, I had a very nice, oceanic mix of sound, but then I needed some little events, because these were very big things, slow things like ships passing at sea, ocean liners that don’t go very fast, but very steadily.
I had been working with my wife, Yun Wang’s voice. We had done some concerts together with the Morphic Resonance Ensemble where she read poetry, and I played and improvised music. I had done studio pieces putting different kinds of electronic sounds around her voice, and I had some more tapes of her reading Chinese poetry, and her English translations of the Chinese poetry. And also, her own poems in English, and I wanted to work with these poems somehow, and the opportunity came up that I combine the voice with these oceanic, stretched sounds. So, I think it’s a kind of a shocking thing, I mean maybe I shouldn’t give away the secret, but after four minutes or so, when these sounds have evolved, have deepened and deepened and take you farther and farther away, deeper into a trance, you may all of a sudden be started to hear traces of a voice floating around. The sibilance of the ‘sss’ sounds of her voice start to come out, out of nowhere, just this ghostly voice appears, and that’s the free spirit that’s emerging. Then, later on, the voice becomes more understandable in some parts. Of course, you have to understand Chinese (although there are some English phrases also), but some of these poems are classical Chinese poems that every Chinese person knows. A lot of poems in classical Chinese were about getting drunk and going on a boat in the river. So, one of the last impressions, the piece sort of leaves you with her voice, saying, “Let me splash this cup of wine, an offering to the river moon.” And that’s kind of how it all leads up to that sort of sentimentality. So I think it’s really a romantic kind of thing, but my wife herself, when she listens to it, she tells me it sounds like being trapped on an airplane next to the engine under the wing. So it’s all a question of how open you are to hearing the sounds without prejudice.
[K] Well, I hope our listeners have the headphones on now, because we’re going to play the entirety of the piece.
We listen to The Free Spirit by Chris Koenigsberg [0:48:55–1:07:07].
[K] So you were going to give us some normal music, you said. You promised something that you said was just like…
[K] Cats! Yeah.
[CK] Well, I played in rock and roll bands in my day. I even played out in the woods at new age gatherings, you know, in teepees, where I had to watch out that my bass didn’t get consumed in the bonfire.
[D] I think the last piece was pretty indicative of that.
[CK] Maybe, yeah.
[K] Consumption? [Laughter]
[CK] I used to play in a rock and roll bass, used to really like playing reggae bass, dub-style bass, I like to admire people’s technique at the mixing board, great DJs and dub masters. So I wanted to do a piece that would use some of that. Also, in those days of the new age things out in the woods, I learned something about my voice, releasing my inhibitions, and opening up to the free spirit, whatever.
[K] Whatever. [Laughter] Listen to that, what a free spirit, whatever.
[CK] Well, we did that, the thing in the tent with the hot coals, sweat lodge…
[K] Sweat lodge.
[CK] Those were nice.
[CK] Everybody has to get naked also, that’s part of it.
[K] Get naked, whatever. [Laughter] Thank you!
[CK] Well, this was on Paul Winter’s farm one year…
[K] Oh never mind, “whatever” is the correct term, okay. [Laughter]
[CK] … and then with David Darling a couple times after that, this Music for People thing. Susan Osborne was sort of the singer, the person who coaxed us in vocalizing at that point. So, I did an encore piece that was for the encore of the computer music concert, once you get through all the spinach, you know, you get to have your dessert. I did a piece that sounds sort of like a pop song, but it’s built up in a way, the opposite way, or something. It was kind of an attempt, I wanted to see if it would work, and I don’t know, we’ll just have to say. It’s kind of a head-scratcher, let’s say. The lyrics were sort of buddhist, stream of conscious, love song or something. But it actually began, again as another investigation… we didn’t get to talk much about this LCM concept, but I had done some rhythmic studies with this linear superposition idea, that sometimes a complicated rhythm pattern that you hear might actually be built out of several simpler ones all going at the same time underneath, being brought out one at a time in a certain way, that leads to a complicated output. And one of the pieces on the CD is this LCM for 12 Pianos, sampled. But this last piece, again, working with different rhythms, I wanted to do something at the real live mixing board in the 24-track studio. So, I set up a whole bunch of this MIDI stuff, samplers and sequencers and all that. I mean, it’s fairly common now that people do this kind of stuff in their home studios, or people study music technology… jazz guitarists can just set up a whole orchestra in their sequencer, and not have to hire a real band or anything. I’m sort of sad about that trend, but I wanted to at least try it. One of the real problems is the drummer, you know. I read a quote by Brian Eno once that said that out of all the instruments that you can sample or sequence, whatever, the most indispensable human being among them is the drummer. And if you sequence the drums, you really lose a certain life out of the music. I know that this is true, but I still wanted to try one, so I did sequence the drums, and I wanted to see if I could get a good drum sound. With my old band, Carsickness, years ago after our second album… we didn’t get to talk about that, I forgot, that’s a whole period of my life from 1980 to 1984, that we started our own record label, TMI Products, after the Three Mile Island incident.
Carsickness traveled around the whole Northeast, put out two albums, and there were a bunch of other groups on the TMI Products label. We might actually re-release the old albums, pending some disagreements, but if we can work them out, there may be a re-release of the two Carsickness albums, Shooting Above the Garbage and Sharpen up for Duty. Um, I forget what I was saying.
So anyway, after our second album, we were recording an EP and Chris Butler was producing the album. He was the guitar player of the The Waitresses and Tin Huey, he’s a great guy. He said he had just come back from working in England with Steve Lillywhite’s drum engineer. Steve Lillywhite was a producer who produced U2, Peter Gabriel, the Psychedelic Furs, and he had this characteristic sound on the drums, and Chris was trying to get that sound for us, and I really studied and watched over his shoulder while the rest of the band were off getting drunk or whatever. I really was interested in the studio production, engineering, mixing, mic placement, and whatnot.
So I wanted to see if I could get a good drum sound from this sequencing, so that was one of the points of this piece. And then, this pattern in all the instruments is pretty much going over and over and over again, but there’s a whole bunch of different tracks, and at any one point, you only hear a few of them. So it sounds like there’s a progression going on, that things are evolving and changing and there are radically different sections to the song, but it’s all done at the mixing board. I bring in different subsets, you might call them “choirs,” different choirs, subgroups. There’s this whole kind of bongos thing, and I worked for a long time getting all that stuff right, but it only comes in for about five or ten seconds and that’s it, and then it’s done. So each bit is like that. There’s another thing of these clanging tom toms that comes in for like two seconds, and I worked on that for a while, and I just got to bring these on. These were all part of the bag of tricks, you know, and this was another one of these playpens. Then, I got to play the bass, I took out my old fretless Rickenbacker electric bass. My theory of bass playing is again, looking for large things, structures, and kind of trying to feel what falls out of the sound. If you’re approaching a rhythm section, there are certain kinds of high points and low points in the music. It’s almost like if you spilled water on this table here, the water will seek out the low spots, so my approach to bass-playing is like I am the water that is spilling, I’m finding the low spots in the music, finding all the little nooks and crannies and filling them with a reverberant, resonant sound. And then, as I said I grilled up this pseudo-Buddhist stuff about “It’s all the same to me,” and whatnot.
But then, the real trick is that I actually made a mistake, and I was playing things back and at one point I was overdubbing things with this SMPTE-to-MIDI synchronizer in the studio, and I wound a tape reel, a long one. So one track actually, at one point, things got gradually speeded up towards the end of the song, except the SMPTE code compensated, so it’s sort of like that other piece where I changed the time without changing the pitch. This is the opposite, that actually the pitch got raised even though the time stayed the same. So there was this kind of keyboard sound, you only hear it a couple times in the beginning, the middle and the end, but if you could listen to the real underlying track, you’d see it’s gradually raising in pitch all the way through. So, this voice is saying, “It’s all the same to me, it’s all the same, it’s all the same,” and the secret is that it’s actually rising in pitch little by little until the end. And there was kind of a dub section in the middle, there’s a drum ’n’ bass break where everything stops, and then things are re-introduced. And you really hear the transition as if it’s a real modulation to a higher key, but that’s just because it’s been cut out for a while and this gradual pitch thing has been going on all the time behind you. So, this was really intended to pay you back for being such a patient listener, and all that, and I’ll let you walk on out of the house singing or whistling, or something.
[K] And the name of this one?
[CK] This is called All the Same to Me.
[K] Ah, we might have guessed. All the Same to Me. Whatever. [Laughter] Thanks, Chris! Christopher K. Koenigsberg, thanks very much for joining us on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar.
[CK] Well, it certainly has been bizarre.
[K] Whatever. Uh, no, “All the Same to Me.” [Laughter]
We listen to All the Same to Me by Chris Koenigsberg [1:17:33–1:22:00].