Interview with Maggi Payne
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #483, 4 September 2004. Kalvos on the road in San Francisco at Jerry Gerber’s studio. Listen to the interview (RealAudio) from the original broadcast [0:22:12–1:59:55].
Maggi Payne is Co-director of the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College, in the San Francisco Bay Area (USA), where she teaches recording engineering, composition, and electronic music. She also freelances as a recording engineer/editor and historical remastering engineer. Maggi frequently incorporates visuals in her work, including videos she creates and live dancers with electroluminescent wire, and has composed music for dance, theatre, and video, including the music for Jordon Belson’s video Bardo. She received two Composer’s Grants and an Interdisciplinary Arts Grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and video grants from the Mellon Foundation and the Western States Regional Media Arts Fellowships Program, and has received several honorary mentions from Bourges and one from Prix Ars Electronica. Her works are available on Starkland, Lovely Music, Music and Arts, Centaur, Ubuibi, MMC, CRI, Digital Narcis, Frog Peak, Asphodel, and/OAR, Ubuibi, and Mills College labels. http://www.maggipayne.com
[Kalvos] It’s Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar on the road, and we’re about to be intimidated, as is usual for Kalvos & Damian, because you know we’re in the non-academic world and we just don’t have any of the terminology and in front of us we have Maggi Payne, who knows everything about everything, and we’re scared.
[Maggi Payne] Wrong [Laughter].
[Laughter] Welcome to Kalvos & Damian.
Thank you, and don’t forget that Mills College, although termed academia, is probably the wildest place — and I have to admit, fairly non-academic — in what we do. We love the cutting edge, the wildest edge, the wildest people, the people who don’t fit anywhere else, and we like some of those who actually do fit elsewhere, but we’re kinda outsiders, and, you know, the outlaws.
I’m glad to hear that. Damian and I have never actually been there. We’ve never seen it, but every time we talk to someone, at some point, their orbit has touched Mills College. So, although this is sort of unusual for our show, we’re going to ask you, what is it? What is it about? Why are people are attracted to what you do there?
I think it’s the Bay Area, which is an incredible place to be. Not only can you find, you know, ten restaurants in certain blocks, all different nationalities, but you can also find music of every different nationality every day of the week, so if you feel like Peruvian music one night, you can just go out on the doorstep, or, you know, you can find a spot, somewhere in this area that’s going to be happening. But, in terms of Mills specifically, there’s several aspects to it, and one is I think that we’ve for so long had to do with the experimentalist tradition: Henry Cowell, John Cage, Lou Harrison in his own way, you know, very experimental, and it’s just… what we do.
It’s what you do, but how to people make their way to Mills? I mean, we have talked to composers who just come out here for a brief time, some who come out, I remember we talked to Kaija Saariaho, who was out here for a while, and she said what she loved was sitting watching the surfer boys and working, and thinking, “Wait a minute, I’ve never gone to a college where it’s possible to watch the surfer boys.”
Well, at Mills you can’t do that, ’cause we’re in Oakland, there’s no surf. [Laughter]
Well, that’s what she said about it, but still, there was something about the attitude that she loved. So, what, for example, would bring someone like Kaija Saariaho 7500 miles from Europe?
Well, actually I don’t think she came to Mills specifically, but people like David Tudor, and Morton Subotnick was there for a long time, Pauline Oliveros, Alvin Curran, Fred Frith, Ben Johnston (years ago), and just so many exciting people.
Just to talk to other people, be with other people, work with other people.
Robert Ashley, David Behrman, David Rosenboom, Larry Polansky, the list goes on and on and on, and it’s just such an exciting place to be. For students who come in, we accept students whose portfolios we really like, and we think they really have something special to say, that’s their own, and not a clone of something else like this, and they really get in trouble if they sound like any of us. That’s the last thing we want, we want them to develop their voice. The reason why we have the years to give them room to spread their wings, and to learn new and exciting and different, inter-media, to work with dancers, to work with artists, to do art themselves, to dance themselves, or experience it all.
How long have you been there yourself?
On the advice of Gordon Mumma. I was at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I got a Masters degree in applied flute, back in ’69–70, and he said, “Man, you should just check this place out.” I got admitted, and was able to continue at Illinois, but it just seemed so interesting to be out here, so I came here in ’70, and got a degree in ’72.
And you’ve stayed here, and now…;
Can’t just see a reason to leave.
Running the show. [Laughter]
Well, there’s others running the show [laughter]: Chris Brown, who’s the director of contemporary Music with me as well, and we have an incredible faculty.
So, let’s talk about you and your music. You said you had this flute degree early. When did you start in music, per se? Quickly proceed from way back and then how you got into composition.
When I was very young, my parents tried to do the right thing, and have me do piano lessons and all this stuff, and I hated it. [I was in] Amarillo, Texas, up in the Panhandle of Texas. Actually it was a good place to be raised, the desert, it was really nice. When I was nine, somewhere, somehow, I heard a flute, someone playing the flute, and I said, “Yes, that’s what I want to do.” And I was right, that’s what I wanted to do, and I did it then, and I’m still doing it. I have to admit that I had some really wonderful teachers who actually said that it’s okay to develop those whistle tones, it’s okay to hum while you play, it’s okay to blow air through your flute and have fun with it, and that’s when I was nine years old, and that’s pretty amazing. And stuck in the middle of Texas.
So I think I had such an interest in timbre from the very beginning, and it still runs and threads through everything I do. My dad was a doctor, but he was also kind of interested in technology. He made the “mistake” of buying me a tape machine when I was about ten or eleven. We weren’t actually in the city limits, we were way out, and there was nobody around, so this enabled me to play one line of a flute to that, and I could play it back, and play with it, and later things progressed and we got sound on sound… this was a long time ago, we’re talking 50s, right? Then I could record all the parts of the Bach B minor Flute Sonataand then bump them down an octave, and they were right where the sternal is, just sound on sound on sound on sound, I was hooked!
It’s this isolated ritual that so many composers went through in their own bedrooms. I’ve spoken to so many who said, “I had a tape recorder when I was ten years old and it seems to have been the sort of secret addiction of…
Yeah, I didn’t think about it until later, but when I looked back on it, I knew that my dad thought he would give me this and he would look to me so wonderful and all this stuff and that I would just not use it or something, and then he would get it… but he was dead wrong. I have to say another influence along the way was my incredible brother, who is three years older, and he was into electronics from day one, he built his own Heathkit stuff, he built a whole ham radio operator station, and he was one of the youngest kids to ever get into it. He built oscilloscopes, and I loved it, he built his own Tesla coil.
You took up the soldering iron back then yourself?
No, I didn’t have that opportunity until later. [Laughter]
And so, you made the decision to go to Illinois, at that point? Or was there an intervening..
Well, music in Texas was really strong, and we had it all from kindergarten up, and junior high school, played in all the competitions like crazy, all the solo competitions, ensembles, also playing in the symphony since I was fourteen, and all these wonderful opportunities. I also went to Interlochen for three years, so learned that there’s a world out there that’s really interesting.Mmy parents would not allow me to go to a conservatory, because they thought I should be a little bit broader in scope, and it really didn’t help, because of course I was really focused on music very strongly when I went to Northwestern University and studied there, and I loved it, it was just north of Chicago. Northwestern was great, I just had this incredible flute teacher, Walfrid Kujala. He is so fine a player and so thorough a musician, and he taught me so much about composition, it was remarkable. He would teach me Bach, and I taught him Berio’s Sequenza in return. I played contemporary music all through junior high, highschool…
And when did you start making up your own?
Well, I think it’s about when I started playing. But I was really lucky, still stuck out there in the sticks, [to still have] wonderful teachers who introduced me to, you know, Varese’s Density 21.5 when I was still in junior high school. When I was Northwestern, I got in an improvisation group, there were four of us. Elise Ross, who was the singer, an incredible singer and a composer, Dan Stepner who’s a violinist, and Peter Takács, an incredible pianist, he’s now at Oberlin. We improvised like crazy all the time, in addition to all the symphony playing. Did all that stuff, did all the stuff you’re supposed to do. And then went off to Yale, for a semester… it was a little too stodgy for me… No offense to Yalies.
Well, going to the east coast is certainly different.
I loved the east coast, it was wonderful, but I really wanted to immerse in contemporary music, so I ended up waiting a semester, went back to Milwaukee and stayed with a friend for a little bit longer, and then I went to University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, which was hot.
Who was there at the time?
Sal Martirano, Ben Johnston, [Edwin] London conducting, and it was great. With the Contemporary Music Ensemble, we were all so busy, I do remember one rehearsal that the only time we could rehearse was three in the morning, and so the whole group met at three in the morning to rehearse these pieces, and I was averaging six concerts a week, and working with incredible dancers, Al Wong in particular, but many, many others. Gordon Mumma was there that year, he’s just terrific, an incredible person and an incredible composer, and a great mind, so it was an extremely stimulating year. James Beauchamp, incredible. Taught acoustics, I loved it, and that was my first introduction to the Moog synthesizer and to a classical recording studio. And I was hooked.
Let’s listen to something of yours: Apparent Horizon is something we’ve heard on the show before, so I think we should hear that again. Perhaps you should give us your own first hand personal introduction instead of all the lies we’ve told.
Oh, okay, I’ll make up a few of my own. There’s a visual component to Apparent Horizon, so put on your space eyes and desert eyes and think about those beautiful places and how you feel when you’re in those spaces. The video I shot for this piece took six years of various trips to the desert. I love the desert, I’m really a desert rat. I don’t like it when it’s really hot, but the sheer beauty, the vast expanses, and yet the incredible detail, every little gulley, every plant, every little sound. It’s so quiet there, and it’s a little scary because you’re addressing yourself, your innermost…
It may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s absolutely the truth. Something happens in the desert which is quite different from what I call the green slime of the east, which is full of a kind of a richness which is in the way, and the desert strips that away, so that when you see a plant in front of you, it’s like the only plant in the world.
It’s like this intense thing. The rocks, or the tiny gulleys, or the cracks in the earth, or the tiniest little bit of insects that you might hear, or a peregrine falcon zooming over, everything has intense meaning. It’s just so strong, and you look up at the stars, and it’s like you could pluck them from the skies, they’re so bright, they’re right there.
So anyway, I did these shots where it was either panning from one shot across to reveal something about this landscape, like Monument Valley I saw coming across, and all these formations. The canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, or the desert in the snow. I would either be in a tight shot and zoom out, revealing the context, or the inverse, or a pan, or something. But when I started to put that video together, it was extremely boring. [Laughter] So I started thinking that I would really love is the desert above, and I just didn’t have the financial resources to rent a plane to go above it, get a Steadicam, and all that stuff you have to have. So I got in touch with NASA and I just took every resource I had from the space shuttle flights from the Apollo missions and I went through every single one — hours and hours and hours — and picked certain segments that I incorporated into this piece. Kind of interesting, at times it’s difficult to distinguish where these NASA footage comes in versus the desert shots that I took.
For the music, I took sounds from some of these NASA tapes. I took sounds from satellite broadcasts of astronauts repairing various satellites, or whatever up in space, and I took a lot of shortwave broadcasts, so it was all from signals that had somehow gone through space. The stuff I liked the best was not speech, it was when everything broke up, when I was not what for humans is intelligibility. For me that information is so rich, it’s so intriguing.
Your desert, again, it’s…
Yeah, it’s just crackling, I transformed all this using SoundHack, and whatever I could get my hands on, a lot of equalization too. [To] make these into what I’m always calling “other-worldly” sounds, or things that remind me (or tried to remind me) of what it felt like sitting in that desert all by myself, whenever, whatever, and all those things you deal with in that situation, and also in the back of my mind, hopefully kind of what the astronauts mind auralize in their heads as they’re looking down at this incredible planet. As people see this piece, or even hear it, hopefully they’ll get the sense the preciousness of these places, and these are places human beings should not be. It’s fine to visit and tread lightly, and to let it be.
It’s a fantastic piece, I recommend that the other distractions you might have in your life you put aside while we listen to it.
We listen to Apparent Horizon by Maggi Payne [0:42:54–0:54:45].
The interest in ecology, fascinating. Does this infuse your other work?
Almost all of it!
It’s an interesting question, particularly when you look, or listen (in a sense it does have visual content)…
And you’ve seen it!
When you listen to it, it’s very organic in sound, the richness that you’ve created out of that. It’s interesting that you use electronic means when you talk about otherwise natural phenomena. How did you make those decisions?
Well, what else would I do? [Laughter] I do electronic music. Electroacoustic music, I say, because most of my early electronic music was purely electronic, you know, Moog, synthesized bass, Buchla, and then I built my own Aries synthesizer…
But what I’m getting is, as a player of an acoustic music, have you separated your compositional, electronic kind of life from that, in such a way that you'd developed your own sound world electronically, and that this flute is something that belongs to others in some respect?
No, it doesn’t separate out. The flute is still a wonderful resource for me, and I still write a lot of music, I did two solo flute commissions this year, and I do a flute piece every ten years [Laughter]. It’s great to do these commissions, like, “Oh, it’s right at that ten-year mark.” It’s always extended flute techniques, pushing those boundaries, and again, the interest in timbre, is the thread that ties along both of these.
Oh, okay. It’s just because there’s sort of this irony because whenever you hear these National Geographic documentaries, by gosh, that flute comes in whenever there’s a mystery of the desert!
Well, yeah, but actually I used to always take a recorder with me. There’s a wonderful tank in Death Valley, I think it’s called Salt Wells, on the west road, and it’s just a tank. And of course I crawled inside, I didn’t know what it used to carry, but I got two things out of it. One is some beautiful photography, photographs that I took around the sides of this huge holding tank, and the other thing was to go inside and play in there and it was great because it was so resonant. Where the sounds that I chose for this piece do link to the images I chose for the desert, is that these sounds have something that I wasn’t able to get with the electronics I had… you could get them really wild and intriguing, constantly changing, but it just seemed to me that the variability in natural landscape sound was so broad and so interesting and so exciting and very much out of my control, and you know, in my control. I do go there and obviously control it and switch sounds and what sections of sounds I’ll choose, but a lot of it is because of that richness and ever-changing texture, that I just like that to be part of the natural process, and then I work with that, it’s sort of the foundation.
We have some irrational listeners that call us now and again, and if I could speak for some of them, they would say, “Something just doesn’t make sense about using this artificial e-lec-tronics to express natural, talking about natural terminology.”
Yeah, but the origin is electroacoustic, the origin is real sound which you hear, you know? It’s electronically-processed, but it’s natural. And almost everything that everything hears these days is electronic music, because you hear your wonderful Mozart string quartets over of the air, excuse me? There are electronics involved. [Laughter]
And not only in the reproduction, but in the recording process, converting, you name it all, it’s all there from the beginning to the end, from the physical vibration of the string, which might as well be a physical algorithm.
I love acoustic music as well, I mean I love music, so it’s just the direction I’m in right now. And I do write acoustic music. But for this piece, I’ve been doing this acoustic origin for quite some time. I love that sound, the capabilities, it’s just amazing.
Let’s go back to your bio, because we left off. You were in Illinois with some really wonderful folks, and maybe we can hear how your musical loves developed from more of this. Pick up us in Illinois.
University of Illinois, playing six concerts a week, and again, working with wonderful people, Sal Martirano I loved, Ben Johnston could make you love any music, because he can hear everything and anything in them, and teach you to hear wonderfully. And just playing. Playing, playing, playing, so much, meeting so many people. But also, that introduction, from Jim Beauchamp, to the classical studio, I loved it.
What do you mean by the classical studio?
The classical studio, it’s oscillators, you move the dial, you change the frequency [Laughter], you move those pots, and you change the frequencies, cut and splice…
So you picked around the oscillators, voltage-controlled oscillators, the filters…
Not voltage-controlled, classical. No no, this was early. They didn’t have that at all, so if you wanted to change the frequency, you change it with your hand. “Hands on!” Then you splice, splice, splice. It was cool, I loved it. That ability to change the sound palette, expand it. And when I came to Mills, it was really great, I got there about a week early, in 1970. Bob Ashley and Bill Miraldo opened the door to the Buchla studio and said “You’re teaching this next week.” [Laughter] Shoved me inside, closed the door, “Learn it.” It was great, and we had a Moog synthesizer. That Buchla that I’m talking about is the original Buchla, the prototype that was built at the San Francisco Tape Music Center in the mid-60s, that moved to Mills college in ’66. And got re-named from the San Francisco Tape Music Center to the Center for Contemporary Music. We still have that Buchla, we still have that Moog, I still teach on that Moog.
Ah, so they’ve been kept in working condition.
They have a staff of about 40 to replace drying capacitors?
We have one extremely good technical director. The Buchla’s not quite up and running, we don’t use it so much. I would love to, but it would take so much work, and there’s only so much time for our beleaguered technical director. I teach a class, Intro to Electronic Music, in the fall, and John Bischoff teaches Intro to Computer Music, so I don’t want to get in his arena for that, I just want to get into this Moog synthesizer. It’s so great, it doesn’t crash. You can make sound from the second you’re in that room.
And so you have classes in this. You’re teaching technology, a 40-year old technology, almost as though you’re teaching a violin.
For these students, who come from all walks of life, and all interests, and many of them have never played an instrument, [they say] “This is so great.” I don’t play a single electronic piece for them until very close to the end, and by then they know everything that’s going on in those pieces. In many cases they can say “Wow, mine’s kind of better.” I’m just trying to keep them as open, to everything as possible. And I don’t want to have them pattern after anyone.
My question is really an analog-technology-in-a-digital-world kind of question.
I think it’s great. They really get the foundations, you know? Many of them already have synthesizers and stuff, and it’s all so pre-programmed, they’re scared to edit, they don’t know what they’re doing. So this gives them the foundation, the terminology. Partway through the class, I start transferring to the newer devices so they see how that terminology moves over and affects the new stuff, I mean it’s the foundation, right?
Well, I can agree with you, only because I’m as they say, of a certain age… [General laughter]
They’re not confounded by the idea of going back to something that was made long before they were born.
I think they just love that they can plug inputs to inputs, it’s not going to blow up, they can plug outputs to outputs, it’s not going to blow up, it doesn’t crash. Does not crash. It’s just so open and free, and they have to understand the architecture: they’re patching, they’re understanding signal routing, the real fundamentals of how this all works. I spend quite a bit of time on fundamentals of acoustics, so they really understand what they’re hearing, it just opens up their ears, because now they have analytical terms and they can actually relate to that, and they can go “Wow, nice doppler.” They start really tuning into the world, and it’s just so wonderful to watch this happen. I love it.
Let’s hear something more of yours. System Test, let’s go with this one.
System Test also has — it’s fire and ice, parenthetically — a visual component which I’m not gonna go into much because I don’t want to spoil it. The sounds are generated primarily by a Jacob’s ladder that I built, which took less then ten seconds to put together. A neon transformer, AC to… you can use coat hangers, you have the transformer, and the little V that goes up, and from the two antennas, they spread further as you go up, and you plug the thing in…
We’ve seen it in Planet 9 from Outer Space. [Laughter]
And the arc, there’s a charge across these two electrodes and the arc starts very tiny *zzzt*, wonderful sound, and it goes up the ladder *zzzZZT* and it splits apart at the top because it’s too far for that arc to travel, not enough current to zap across. Really great sound, it produces a lot of ozone, very dangerous that way. Of course after recording it for five hours, I thought “This smells kind of funny in here. Oh, I’ve got ozone poisoning.” And also, one should not actually touch the two electrodes at the same time, or one might be out or very unhappy, or not around, it’s very high…
You know, I recall when I was in junior high school, we had a little Earth Science, or whatever that was called many years ago. And we were asked to form a chain of all the students… [laughter] You can imagine how we exploded apart upon the charge, yes, hand to hand.
Well, Nick Bertoni and I also built a flame speaker at the Exploratorium back in the early 80s, and in that case, oh, man, 500 volts DC, I think, or 500… just a humungous mess… Two electrodes in the flame, poured sound… I mean it’s a complicated circuitry, but feed an electronic source in there, seed the flame, the plasma, and it’s a speaker. It was so amazing. We were teasing about making headphones. [Laughter] Ouch! but yeah, we got knocked across the room a couple times, on that project.
So back to fire and ice, you were introducing that, and got distracted.
Yeah, so that was the fire component, the *zzzt*, it has a lot of that going on (you’ll hear it), that has of course been — SoundHack is such a great program, thank you Tom Erbe, we adore you! — [treated with] a lot of convolution, phase vocoding and all that stuff, and the ice part was… I just had a glass of ice water sitting there, it started cracking, making all these great sounds, so those happened to be the two sound sources that I used, primarily for this piece.
Let’s hear it.
And visualize images!
We listen to System Test (fire and ice) by Maggi Payne [1:10:00–0:21:15], followed by friendly chatter. Interview resumes at 1:23:10.
I’m curious as to, in general, how you approach creating a new piece. Everyone is unique, I know you’re rolling your eyes, thinking “He’s asking one of those questions I can’t answer because everything is different,” but you’ve been working, creating things, long enough that you’re not grabbing at the next thing that you’ve heard and said you’re going to do that.
I think my ears are always open to a fault, you know, it’s so distracting having a conversation with me, because I’ll be listening and there’s sound in the room, or space, you know I’m hearing this computer buzzing, I kind of like it, and all this other stuff.
Yeah, or the air machine over there.
Yeah. But, you know, it’s just sounds in the environment, and I’ve recorded sounds in the environment for years and years, since I was a kid, and we could talk more directly about a particular piece that you’ll probably play, which is Fluid Dynamics.
Let’s do it. Let’s talk about it.
Okay, in that piece, there were two sound sources on the Mills campus that I had wanted to nail for a long time. One was this really squeaky gas valve regulator outside the drama department called Lisser Hall. You get the rush in the pipes of the gas going in *whoooooosh*, and then there’s this little meter thing that goes *weeeeeeeerrrrrrk* you know it’s really incredible and kind of a rhythmic sound, it’s all changing in there, the underlying gas through the pipes, anyway it’s a great sound. I thought, “Finally I can write a piece that has rhythm in it,” you know, because it had sort of a rhythm to it. And then there was this other source at Mills, which is in the men’s washroom. [There] was a faulty washer in the sink *ahhchugadachugadachugadachugada--BANG* and then the pipes went crazy and I was thinking “Oh great, another rhythm thing I could use.” So, of course when I get it all in my studio — I’m sitting there three hours recording it some night when, thank goodness nobody was around — and I start doing all the processes I can possibly think of to do to them: slowing them down, speeding them up, EQ… I just get the tiny thread *chinkchinkchink* at the top, and I threw it all out, and just did the other sounds that those things were making in their more steady state.
Yeah, I’m just so hopeless with it, you know…
Oh, rebelling against the sounds themselves, alright [Laughter].
Well no, the rhythm thing… Rhythm, really not so great at it, so you know those things are definitely in there, and I did still use those sources. Often times it just goes to other things: I’ll say “Oh, that sounds cool,” or something else gets inadvertently recorded on those, because sound of course never happens in isolation. Other sounds… I had just built an arts studio of my own in the back of our house and I spent all my money building it, and couldn’t put anything in it, not even a chair. Couldn’t go out and buy anything to put in there, so it was really kind of nice, a large space, 18 by 19, with tall ceilings and everything, it was very reverberant, so of course I get all my brass ball-bearings out and started rolling them across the space.
Ah, hardwood floor, okay.
Yeah, and all the bouncing, and of course major stereo enhancement by mic placement. These larger balls, I don’t know if you know about these Chinese health balls, or medicine balls, they have these sort of *clang-clangy* things inside. And they’re very inexpensive, but it’s very very hard to make those clangers seize so they don’t clang anymore, so just rolling those down the koto and things, with steel strings (it wasn’t a real koto). I just gathered a bunch of sound sources out of there and they have a sort of natural reverb built in, and that forms sort of bookends there, the ball-bearings rolling are the beginning and the koto is at the very end, and at the meantime in the middle, is the gas valve regulator and the men’s washroom.
We listen to Fluid Dynamics by Maggi Payne [1:29:52–1:41:35].
When you’re talking about your studio, that reminded me, that you have another life [of] recording and restoration.
Yeah, the historical remastering, and recording and editing…I also now do recording engineering, but more new stuff as well, which I really love to do. And editing, being involved in literally hundreds of CDs and earlier LPs. I got hooked up with this really interesting company, Music & Arts, that specializes in historical recordings, and early on I had some tools, EQ and some help for hiss and stuff like that. But in ’93 I bought a Sonic Solutions digital audio workstation, and then the world was just so vastly improved. For me, it’s just so exciting to take these recordings from as early as, I think, 1933, up to around the 50s, and to bring these to life again, and I try to have as light a hand as possible. There are a lot of people who really try to change the sound, you know, the “now” sound, but some of these were actually recorded quite well, it’s just that they have technical flaws you have to deal with. A lot of them have tremendous numbers of dropouts, noises…
Well you’re dealing with enormous different kinds of materials, you have paper tape, wire recorders, transcription discs…
And things that cut through to the glass, and..
Early tape, and of all them, early tape, it’s amazing, they play quite well. These dropouts, there’s some fragments, damaged, all that you try to correct that, and most of the time you try to correct it by finding a parallel passage, a repeat, or whatever, and sliding that in, and hopefully it doesn’t have some scar that’s going to be really high-decibel, but also getting rid of all the clicks and pops, and surface noise. But, equalization with a fairly light hand, except getting rid of all the hum, and many of these have been transferred so many times that it’s been, you know, it was transferred originally in Europe, so you get the 50 Hz hum and all its harmonics, and it comes over here and it’s 60 Hz with all its harmonics, and someone did another dub, and I don’t know how many generations down, so many of these sources are.
But it’s so remarkable to hear these performers and to bring them to life again, and to have it really, hopefully, pretty listenable, and remarkable performances. Just absolutely remarkable. And the thing is they’re in real time, they’re not edited. You know, I’m happy to edit, but it’s just different, they’re performances. And it’s also great to work on contemporary things and edit as needed, I love doing that as well, or classical music, whatever, but it’s just a different thing and I’m happy in both worlds. You know, no qualms either way.
Restorations are kind of like going out to the desert, in some way, you know, I find them fascinating. I do a lot of spoken, and to hear voices that were covered by time come alive… I have to interrupt here and give a personal anecdote: I had an opportunity with a historical organization in Vermont, to do a tape that was recorded on the day I was born in 1949 and to hear a voice that was at a town meeting in vermont, in 1949, on paper tape, suddenly go from *rhaghhgh*, to the voice coming forward, and hearing as if you were in the room, such a marvelous experience.
Yeah. It’s just so exciting, and so wonderful to be a facilitator in that way. Also I’m on a big extensive dream here of archiving all the center for contemporary music’s recordings from the 50s all the way up to now, up to transferring them over to CD so that they’ll be available for people to listen to.
There’s no time, where do you find time?
I’ve done 149 CDs worth of material so far, and that’s a little tiny dent, maybe 15%, there’s a lot to go, but I’m still — as you do all the time — seeking grant money into it, to enable this to happen, because it’s a marvelous archive.
Do you, like Rubens, have a studio of acolytes who help you do this work?
No, I just really have to do it, the transfers are so critical, and I want a uniformity, a consistency to how they’re done, and I was at most of the concerts from the 1970s on, which is hundreds of the materials. So, I also take anecdotal notes at the bottom of my notebook, so that later, a researcher will know why Pandit Pran Nath stopped singing 20 minutes into this raga he was singing: all the sound baffles blew down, and he decided that the gods were telling him it wasn’t time. I think he was singing an afternoon raga in the morning or something. I told him it was morning somewhere, or it was afternoon somewhere, sorry. But I don’t think that worked.
To get back to your own music, and we have one more to play today.
breaks/motors, which actually relates to what you were just asking about, because… well, one of the places historical remastering engineers go to track down all these buzzes and whines, hum, to find the specific pitch of hum, is in the breaks between movements symphonies, or whatever.
Right, where it’s exposed and nothing else is disturbing.
Yeah, or just a few coughs or something. Also it can help determine pitch at times, because A440 has not always been A440, so if the hum is at 51 [Hz], then I need to bring the samplerate down to right on 50. But, I decided to loop some of those sounds in those breaks, because they’re often really fascinating, really intriguing, so that’s the “breaks” part in this piece, is taking different samples from all these.
Reminds me of the story Murke’s Collected Silences. Remember that? There was a good story where in a past version of a future world in which sound was constant from the broadcasts, it was never to stop, and Murke’s job was to cut the silences out, and make these things continuous. I’m sorry I can’t remember the name of the author…
[Laughter] We need silences..
…and he would collect all the silences in a drawer.
Oh, that’s beautiful. Which is never silence, there’s no such thing.
Exactly, which is what it reminded me of.
Right, and the “motors” part of the title are these tiny stepper motors that my partner Bryan Reinbolt happened to have use, he was working on one of his robotics projects, and I walked over there and he had one going and it was going *tictictic*, doing one of its thuddy, rhythmic things, and I thought, “I’m gonna do rhythm this time, right!” “Yeah, right.” [General laughter] So, I put them in all sorts of little resonating bodies, an inverted stainless steel bowl, this nice metallic thing, and all the harmonic resonances coming through, and a wooden box, and recorded that, and it actually does have a little bit of rhythm, [laughter] this time.
I’m starting to imagine this and these bowls, and it sounds great.
But it’s teeny tiny little stepper motor’s probably about a half inch, maximum. Really cute.
Those are great little things. Those of us who work in electronics love these little toys. Instead of collected drawers of silences we have collected drawers of motors.
I was supposed to be telling him how great his project was, and all I was saying, “Oh man, it sounds great, but I’ll be right back.” [General laughter] He knew.
Maggi Payne, thank you so much for joining us on Kalvos & Damian. It’s been a long wait and we’re so happy.
It’s been my pleasure.
We listen to breaks/motors by Maggi Payne [1:51:20–1:59:55].