Interview with Sarah Peebles
Music Unseen; Rhythm and Blows
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #137/138, 3 and 10 January 1998. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Toronto at a noisy café. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:34:40–1:23:50] / Audio Part 2 [0:08:20–0:40:40].
Sarah Peebles is a Toronto-based American composer, improviser and installation artist. Her studies have included violin, composition and Japanese traditional musics at the University of Michigan School of Music, Toho Gakuen School of Music (Tokyo), Tokyo Association of Shinto Priests and The Okada guild (Saitama Pref.), among others. Much of her practice focuses on digitally-manipulated found sound projected via loudspeakers and/or physical objects, and developing distinct approaches to acoustic and amplified improvisation on the shoh, the Japanese mouth-organ used in gagaku. Her activities have included music for dance, multi-channel sound, radio, video/film, performance art, new media and improvised performance. In 2007–08 she is focusing on new a collaborative work with artists and bee biologists, Resonating Bodies, a series of mixed media installations and community outreach projects which focuses on biodiversity of pollinators indigenous to the natural and urban ecosystems of the Greater Toronto Area.
Audio Part 1 [0:34:40–1:23:50]
[Kalvos] Our guest today on the Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar is Sarah Peebles. We first heard of you through a sort of Internet-y kind of news release, and you said, “Hello people,” (I think it was rec.music.compose, I’m not sure, but it was one of the newsgroups), there was this announcement that said, “You want my CD? Send me a note that says, ‘I want your CD.’” And we immediately responded and said, “Yeah, we’d like that CD, that Burnt Amber CD,” or that’s Suspended in Amber.
[Sarah Peebles] That’s how it all came about? I didn’t even know that.
[K] And then we got a note some time later that said, “Oh, we’re sorry, it’s been delayed, and if you really want a copy…”
[SP] Oh you got that from the label? Innova Recordings? They did that?
[K] Yeah, and so we said, “Oh, well, so much for that, another CD suspended in amber.” Then, some time later, I got a note from, I think it was actually you that time, that said, “The CD’s ready,” and so finally it arrived, with the cross-border stamps all over it, into our Vermont post-office box, and then we played it on the air, we like it! So we contacted you and said we’ll talk to you and “Well, we don’t know a darned thing about you,” so you’ve got to tell us.
[SP] Oh, well, okay, first of all, you know what the plan was, I sent out a kind of press release for the CD as well as the Musicworks article, jointly, so a bunch of people played it, thanks to Carl Stone [see interview in this issue of eContact!]. He told me about the people who truly promised will play it if I send it and you were one of those he recommended. So thanks to Carl, here I am with my pack of Peebles, to tell you anything you want to know. I live in Toronto, I’m from Minnesota, I moved here in 1990. I started out writing stuff, and now I don’t use a pen too much these days, so I started out writing new music, experimental music. Started out playing the violin, really, and then I got interested in composing in high school. I was active as a composer in high school, writing for traditional western instruments, kind of interesting combinations, some choral stuff too. I went to the University of Michigan.
[K] Ooh, band school, you went to band school, you played violin, went to band school? Now I’m suspicious.
[SP] Do we have a stigma because of our band?
[K] No, you have reality. [Laughter]
[SP] Well, it may. I don’t know, but the band always got the promos. The good, big board telling everybody when their concerts were on and where it’s gonna be. So I went to Ann Arbor, and enjoyed the marching band. I lived across the street from the marching band one summer, and it was really nice because they were really good. I would go outside just to listen to them practice.
[Damian] A previous guest on our show was in a marching band, and he sang for us, can you do the same?
[SP] No, I can’t. I was never in it, and I didn’t memorize their tunes, in fact, I listened mostly to the percussion, because they had good percussion. I’m sorry, maybe I’ll sing something else for you.
[D] Something from the Golden Gophers.
[SP] Oh, I don’t know. I can sing… [Sings Minnesota sports team song]
[D] That’s pretty good.
[SP] I am kind of a Minnesotan. No, I started out being a Minnesotan, and Minnesota’s changed a lot since I was actually involved in the culture in the Midwest. You know, I’ve been here since 1990.
[K] You’re dumping your accent very rapidly.
[SP] But if I’m around a bunch of Minnesotans long enough, sure, you betcha. How’s it goin’, yeah? You bet! Okie-dokie!
[K] That’s very good. Alright, let’s go back to the music. Come on, tell us what you did and why you got there. In your pack of Peebles, there’s an article in Musicworks about your work using Max, about your sound installations, all kinds of stuff. So, bring us up to date, and what you’re doing, and how you got to this point.
[SP] Well, it was a packed year last year, that’s for sure. I was going to school at Michigan, and there’s a lot of influences going on in my life, I guess, that led me to where I am now, and I was composing avant-garde stuff, studying with all of the teachers they throw at you there like William Albright, William Bolcom, George Wilson, Fred Lerdahl. I had kind of an interesting experience there, and I took basic electronic music there, learned some basic things about electronic music and tape splicing, I became a very good tape splicer, because they have a beautiful tape splicing studio.
[K] But you grew into the digital age, and you were still splicing away? Really?
[SP] Well, no, that was 1983. I was an undergrad in ’83, and we all know that the University of Michigan doesn’t allow their undergrads into their grad equipment rooms. That was a mystery, but I actually did get to work with the Synclavier once with a grad student, who was really nice, and helped me make a little snippet of material to include in one of my piece.
[K] A snippet… Those are tape terms. I think you’re bound into the tape era a certain amount.
[SP] Well, that piece was. We took a tabla sound and we stretched it. It was actually after the attack of the tabla, the resonating sound of it we took out on the Synclavier, and captured that onto tape. And it was used on tape in a piece I wrote in 1988. So that’s what was going on there, in college. I took lots of time out in college, because it was driving me crazy, and it was just a very kind of intense experience, and I didn’t know if it would feel positive to stick around there. So I went AWOL for a while and went to Japan.
[K] Yeah, how do you get to Japan? I mean, did you just take up and leave?
[SP] Well, I was going to be a junior that year, and I decided that in order for me to graduate from this institution without changing institutions, with a healthy, happy attitude, I’d better take some time off. I had been a student of C. Lee Humphries in Minnesota (he’s a conductor). One of his concerts was devoted to music of the Pacific Rim. So, in high school I’d heard of Takemitsu and other people from Japan. I thought this was really an interesting slice of the contemporary music scene, and why not go there and check it out? I mean, thinking of what am I going to do with a year off, you know? Do I want to go to Paris, do I want to go to New York, what do I want to do? My decision was influenced by the fact that I was really actively learning Judo since high school. My high school cultural studies teacher, Mr. Sudo, Yoshimatsu, was a very important staple of the Judo scene in the midwest, or at least at one time he was. He had a club that started me off. When I was going to college, at the University of Michigan, something just drew me to be very physically involved and learning Judo. I think was the pressure, and the pressure of a lot of studying, and I think some of the less positive aspects of being in a music school. Many schools have them, those aspects of people, you know, insisting you prove yourself, and crap like that. There was the added pressure, I believe, of having been the only woman there, and a bunch of boys and a couple men, who were really very into butting heads and proving themselves, and I just didn’t go for that.
So I think that told me to put my heart into a couple other things, and one of them was Judo. I like sports, I’ve always really been into sports. So I thought, “Okay, I’ll go to Japan,” I wanted to see how far I could get in Judo, because my category, 48 kg and under, has very few international competitors, so I might as well just go for it, see how far I get. I enrolled in a music school in Tokyo. With some friends, I had connections, I got into the music school, and I lived right next door to a place where I could practice Judo every day, but I also lived next door to a shrine. I mean, rather, the dormitory of the school was next door to a shrine, and I got some wonderful introductions from the priest, the Shinto priest, who I became friends with, to the traditional music scene in Japan.
I adopted two teachers and two completely different music disciplines, who didn’t — shouldn’t — know about one another. I studied festival music, which is a very folk music kind of thing, Edo Matsuri Bayashi. This isn’t the naked man with the big drum, this is kind of sitting, needling with the small drums and some flutes and stuff. It’s actually travelling theatre, they do a couple of different kinds of music. I studied that, and I also studied court music, through the Tokyo Association of Shinto Priests. It was a group for non-musicians, really, to learn gagaku. Some of them were musicians. It wasn’t a really high-end learning environment for gagaku. I learned slowly, and with amateurs.
On the other hand, it fulfilled another purpose of mine, which was to understand the role of music in Japan’s contemporary society. Why does this stuff still exist, is one of the first things that I’m sure goes through the minds of foreigners. When they get there, they think to themselves, “Why is this here still? Does anyone care, and how is it here?” It definitely goes through at least my mind. So, that was a slice of life for me in Japan. The first time was in 1985–86, and then I also did Judo 6 times a week. That was really great, but it got me really injured too, because I actually was not 48 kilos, at the time I was 38 kilos.
[SP] I was 88 pounds. And now I’m not interested. I’m 4’10, and was 88 pounds. So I just got a lot of injuries because no one was my size, but I had a great time doing music and Judo. I came back to the University of Michigan after that.
[K] Well, that influence has been with you the whole time. I think we should listen to something. What should we hear? Do you have something from that era?
[SP] Of course! Well, how about the first piece on Suspended in Amber, because that is the first piece I wrote for the shô, which is the court music instrument, it’s a mouth organ. I came back, I think a year later, and I was able to get myself a shô in good working order (lent to me from the Stearns Collection at University of Michigan, thanks to Professor William Malm). I goofed around on it, and I came up with a piece that kind of reflected some traditional stuff I’d learned, and some new things I was trying out. It’s performed by someone I have a lot of respect for. His name is Kô Ishikawa, and he’s a really good, wonderful new music performer, and traditional music performer for the show.
We listen to Blue Moon Spirit [0:48:15–0:51:51], followed by Nocturnal Premonitions [0:53:45–0:55:55] by Sarah Peebles.
[K] So, you got back to America after, how long in Japan?
[SP] Yeah, well it was only nine months, my initial nine months. Mind you, I didn’t speak Japanese at the time. I tried to learn from a book, and let this be a warning to everyone out there: don’t do that, it doesn’t work. So, I got a little ways, studying traditional music there with my limited language skills, and I returned then to finish my degree at the University of Michigan.
[K] Wow, that must have been… culture shock in each direction.
[SP] Yes, it was a huge culture shock in each direction. The culture shock goes on and on, and it never really stops. I mean, usually I don’t live in culture shock, but I’ve had many repeated episodes going there and coming back, and I luckily got to study Japanese language while I was finishing my music degree. Luckily for me it was a new program that stressed speaking ability instead of reading ability, so I became a pretty okay communicator in Japanese. So, that taught me a lot, and that’s why I’ve gone back now and then.
[K] So you’ve been back how many times?
[SP] I’ve been back three times, so I’ve been there four times altogether.
[K] So, carry us through the music, how you got to use computers, doing installations.
[SP] After that I continued to do more of the regular acoustic instrumental composition and basic electronic music at Michigan, then I went back, after graduating, to Japan. I hung out and did really intense traditional music study, and then I moved here to Toronto.
[K] Now, why Toronto? What attracted you?
[SP] It’s got kind of two streams of thought. One of them was I working with a dancer here, Renée Highway, who unfortunately passed away quite tragically a couple of years ago. At the time, we were collaborating and we had a gig in Minnesota, to do a remounting of a piece that he helped me do when I was still in Michigan. He was dancing for a piece that I created for a dancer, percussion and tape with a narrator. I wanted to work on that with Renée here in Toronto.
The other stream of thought, or stream of consciousness, maybe I can say, comes in as I had driven here in 1988 to be a part of the Toronto Morris Ale. I was a part of the Ann Arbor Morris team. I played fiddle and I danced Morris, so I came up here for the Ale. My car broke down, I hung out, I heard NEXUS, I heard the Glass Orchestra, I met a lot of really nice composers from when my car broke down, and I thought, “Well, I might as well just hop the border and see if I can maybe get legal someday here, and see if I like it, and live with Renée.” And all these things made sense. It was close to Michigan, all my stuff was in Michigan anyway.
At that point, moving here coming back from Japan, I just didn’t know what to do with myself. I had been so engrossed and involved as an apprentice of folk music and gagaku stuff. I had met a really nice composer here, Bentley Jarvis, who is a professor at the Ontario College of Art [and Design], and introduced me to someone across the street, literally, at the University of Toronto in the electrical engineering department, who liked electroacoustic music and had a DX-7 and an AKAI Sampler, and a soundproof room.
[K] And this is what year?
[K] 1990, okay. Sort of in the heyday of the DX…
[SP] I didn’t learn how to use the DX-7, you know, I just ended up using it in a MIDI capacity. Unfortunately, I missed out on that, it’s a nice instrument, but I can’t say I know it. But I started to sample things, and then I started to sample my Japanese instruments, the shô, and some beautiful bells, prayer bells. Eventually I got together with a calligrapher who was introduced to me, in Toronto. He was visiting from Japan. We said, “Oh, let’s do something together, and he said, “Sure, why not, let’s.” I said, “Oh, here’s my idea,” and I told it to him and he didn’t really like it, and I said, “Well, okay, why don’t you come up with an idea and show me?” So he came up with this whole scenario that suggested a lot of sound. He wanted me to have dawn sounds, bird sounds in the morning, and things like that. His concept was a Buddhist concept known as revolving life, or revolving evolution, Tomoé. You know, the idea of return, and can be returning lives after you die, or the seasons, that whole idea of, you know, the feel of things going around and around. That got me into the environment, sampling the water at Lake Ontario on Toronto Island, the crickets there, borrowing from the Voice of the Loon CD, which is an Audobon release.
I like the idea of taking the language groups that we’ve observed of loons. Not just any old loon sound, but their language, elements of the language, and using them musically that way. I wrote to William Barklow and said “Do you care?” He said, “Go for it, no problem,” and I thought it would be nice to have contact with the person who made the recording instead of just taking it, you know? It was just how I felt at the time.
[K] Let’s listen to something else, while we wait through sound check number two!
[SP] How about the Summertime excerpt of Tomoé (revolving light), you can hear the loons in the background in that, and the ever-present bugs surrounding the actual temple that we did the piece in, and some of the wonderful Japanese cicadas that I sampled and incorporated into our performance.
We listen to Tomoé, part 3, Summer by Sarah Peebles [1:03:20–1:08:24].
[K] Well, talk about installations for a while. You’ve got these lovely installations, and there’s a whole character to the sound. I haven’t been to the installations, but you’ve got these terrific outdoor installations that, these calligraphic things… can you tie that together in, like, five minutes? [Laughter]
[SP] Maybe I can. I can tell you that I’m not really an “installation artist” as such. I’ve done a few things, and the true kind of installation I did was in collaboration with Robert Cruickshank, who’s a Toronto-based composer. This was in Japan. I was in Japan anyway doing some work, so he came and he had been making the circuitry for these by himself, in his apartment before coming over. I had this idea that I originally passed by a mixed-media artist Hirotoshi Sakaguchi, who has this beautiful car buried in the ground. No one knows how they got it there, it’s buried and it’s planted with moss, it’s got some rope in a spiderweb-like configuration above it attached to trees around it, with hosing that has water running through it, because it’s attached upstream to a stream, that goes down up around the car, and back down to downstream, where it empties out. What an elegant idea.
Well, I saw this when I went to a festival a friend of mine told me about, in 1989 or 1990, and that was in Hakushu Japan, and this is a festival that has a lot of Butoh dance, and a lot of visiting performers from different parts of Asia and Europe. It’s run by Min Tanaka, a commune of Butoh dancers, they have this festival. They had this component of outdoor installation art, and you walk through all these farmers’ fields to get to all these different places. So, we wanted to make some sound to go with this very mysterious car.
[K] It is an incredibly mysterious car. We have a photograph of it here, and the car itself almost looks like it’s made of something else. It almost looks like it’s made out of mud.
[SP] Yeah. The sound environment around it has changed considerably since it was planted. It was planted when there were a bunch of trees around it, which gave it a lot of quietness. The trees were cut down because they were grown there to be shitake trees anyway, trees that farmers use to grow shitake under, and when they reach a certain maturity they’re cut down, it’s fairly small growth. So there’s a lot of insects around there now, buzzing, and a lot of hot sunlight. We were staying in a farmer’s house, which was a beautiful place. An old, run-down farmer’s house that we were renting, the whole group of installation artists was renting. It was a communal kind of setting, and we just set our stuff up on the tatami mats, and Rob brought his soldering equipment and his boards, and finished his circuitry in the house. The circuitry has some small sound chips. This is the beginning of the sound chip market. This was when [digital] sound chips were $100 for 20 seconds.
I came up with the design to put the sound in these chips in a certain way, a certain order. Not just samples, but my samples are ranged to be performed back in an improvisatory manner, or a way that you could pre-determine. But at any rate, the point is it’s going to change every time you do it, or you can be real flexible with the sound. So I thought of the design and put little vignettes, what was it? Ten-second vignettes into these chips.
[K] What year was this?
[SP] 1993. I was designing this to go into this circuitry, in the tatami mat space, in this old house. It was a wonderful place to work in, except that we had to make sure I was grounded so that I didn’t get killed, because tatami mats are kind of damp, but at least they’re connected to the earth. But we were in such a rural setting, and it was really beautiful. The general idea behind it is there were eight speakers planted around the car, and they’re just set by trees and camouflaged. They’re very small, mini speakers, and you probably can’t really see them unless you look. The sound is random, you don’t know when it’s going to happen. It might happen every three minutes, might be every 30 seconds, and it’s going to swirl around you in a circular fashion. There are two circuits in two different Tupperware boxes, which we actually had to plant beneath the wheels of the car, so we got our shovels out and dug up the earth again, put in these boxes and covered it up. We took the wires, ran them under the ground, planted in all the speakers, and to the solar panel that powers the batteries. We covered it all up again, replanted the moss and the grass over it. We hope it’s still there, it’s supposed to function all the time, forever. It’s that kind of setup, it doesn’t require any external help. So, for the sounds, I had to pick things that wouldn’t be intrusive, because I had to think, “How is it going to work in winter, how is going to work in day or night?” So I picked some cricket sounds, North American crickets that kind of come in and out, some water gurgles, some bells, these cup gongs, small Buddhist temple bells. They kind of come in and out, and they just come in, in different configurations, and out. It’s pretty simple, basic. We didn’t want to detract from the power of the site anyway. The site is really quite mesmerizing just the way it is. We ended up being able to pull off, and I’m really happy with this, there’s a creek right next to it, so sometimes you confuse between what’s the creek and what’s the installation, depending on where you’re standing. People had real, nice, positive reactions to it. And that was our experience in the mountains, that’s the only true installation that I’ve done, to use that word.
[K] It’s such a wonderful connection, because in 1991 I did an installation called Traveler’s Rest. As part of this installation, I worked with a Sculptor by the name of Fernanda D’Agostino, from Washington State. She built some small buildings on the site. We grew grain on the site, and as part of the installation, I had those same things, sound chips by the way, I’m sure they were the same, whatever the brand was, and I had buried speakers along the pathway and around the building. Some of the sounds were samples that were actually on tape loops, sort of the fixed sounds that were run by a small computer inside one of the buildings. The non-fixed sounds were sounds of people who would visited the site, their speech would be picked up by the microphones stored in those chips, and then randomly brought back a different times, either immediately or shortly thereafter, or sometimes a day later, that piece of sound would be played back along this site, along these pathways.
[SP] And what was the mechanism that triggered the chips to pick up the voices?
[K] It was randomly done, if there was a sound in progress, I had a kind of randomization program running that would decide whether or not to store the sound.
[SP] Wow. Isn’t that an interesting bit of synergy.
[K] Oh, and of course, the site was also self-powered, but we used a windmill and batteries, because there was no power on that site either.
[SP] That’s wonderful!
[K] Ours was vandalized ten days later, however. “Forever” was not in its future.
[SP] Oh no. We don’t know if ours is alive or not. We had this challenge of trying to decide whether to do something way out in a field, really not next to anything, and had to make it something that would last a really long time. So, Walkmans ended up not being a very practical idea, and computers of course were out of the question. So that’s what led Rob to decide on that technology, and I’m less familiar with that kind of technology than he is, so we were both in on it conceptually, I was thinking of specific sounds, and he was thinking of how to make it work, and that’s what we came up with.
Now, the same week, when we were in this wonderful place, there was another installation I’m particularly fond of, which is a copper-plated, geometrically-designed thing that sits, almost like an interestingly-shaped copper table, not very high above the earth in a bamboo grove. Now this, luckily, is not so far from the farmer’s house who tends the whole area, including the bamboo grove. And the farmer was really nice. I watched the guy make this, the person who was friends with the farmer. I watched Henke Ter Kulve from the Netherlands make this and another site several years earlier, at Hakushu Art Camp. I really wanted to play there, because I really liked the sounds that came up in this bamboo grove, especially around 11 a.m. in the morning, and the light around 11 a.m., I noticed, struck the copper in this really nice way, that was the angle of the sun which just seemed a good time. So, I got together with a koto player who was there anyway, assisting one of the improvisers. There was a gathering of improvisers, we playing with Derek Bailey that year. One of them was Sawai Kazue, who’s a pretty well-known koto player. She had a student who was quite interested in doing something with me, so a week ahead of time I talked to the farmer and said, “Well, what do you think?” She said, “Oh yeah, sure,” and I just kind of got to know the guy. I didn’t want to just invade… you know, the festival said to just do what you want, because you already have their permission. I thought it’d be kind of nice if I was more personable about this, and being that I can communicate somewhat in Japanese… I hung out with him a bit, he was really nice. He ended up providing us with a really, really long power cord for my computer and he invited all of the other farmers in his neighbourhood to come, and that was really interesting, because they’re all over 50 or 60. It was just another zone, you know? I don’t think experimental music is something that they’ve ever thought about, or could care less about, needless to say.
Well, if you’re a farmer, what do you have on your mind? Farming, right? That’s natural. So, anyway, they came, and they were interested, because foreigners kind of spices your day up. I think they thought it was pretty funny, because I was accessing sample sounds of cicada which I had taken just up the mountain a couple of years earlier at one of their local shrines that has these wonderful cicadas known as higurash, and they come up around 4 p.m. in August. They sound like birds, but they’re actually bugs, and I incorporated them and some other local insects in what I was doing. So, you know, as you’ve figured out by now, I’m pretty much in the terrain of timbral performance, or timbral orientation and motion of different gestures, gestural performance, not really concerned with melodies and things like that.
And we really had a wonderful time in that bamboo grove, and the things around us reacted to us in a really subtle way, the way bugs will do. Only, the bugs in Japan are pretty loud because it’s semi-tropical, and to me, that’s really engaging and interesting because it’s not like Minnesota, where I grew up. So, I rather enjoyed that. That wasn’t an installation, but I’ve always kept these things in my memory, and the most recent installation, or it’s like an installation, was a local park called the Village of Yorkville park in Toronto has a mini marsh, a boardwalk, a little corridor and a bunch of trees all in the space of a quarter block. It’s lit in a very interesting way, and it’s made by an architectural group here. So it’s not just a park, it’s an architectural park. It has a big boulder in it. […]
We listen to an excerpt of Strange Nature by Sarah Peebles [1:24:55–1:37:00], before moving on to the second part of the interview.
Audio Part 2 [0:08:20–0:40:40]
[K] We’re doing this as a radio event, and there’s so much of it that has visual characteristics, and it’s hard to carry that here.
[SP] And I guess it’s worth saying that in the 12-minute excerpt you just heard, something was a little bit off about it, in that it is a soundtrack to the video. So, all the edits were made with consideration to what you’re looking at. But, the other side of the coin is that much of this is pretty musical in and of itself, and I think you can hear that if you decide, if you have time, to play the 60-minute performance, or excerpts of that performance, you’ll hear that even though you weren’t there, it’s got a lot going on. Takashi Harada is one of the most brilliant improvisers I’ve ever met, and may ever meet. He’s the Ondes Martenot player, and Kazue Mizushima is also really quite brilliant and fascinating in how she deals with string telephones. Now, that’s hard to pick up in a performance, because we don’t have a really good indoor recording of stuff she does in a controled environment. That’s quite visual. I just consider myself real fortunate to work with those two musicians.
[K] How about a little bit about your use of the computer, and working with Max, maybe you can explain what that is?
[SP] Well, and maybe in the context of the Strange Nature project too, here I was in this park and I wanted to diffuse the sounds, so first of all I’ll start by saying I was dealing with computers to deal with diffusion in this case. Not in a real fancy sense of the idea, as you would get in France with, you know, 40 loudspeakers and a huge console. We did have a huge console, but what I was doing was putting a bunch of speakers in the marsh, and a bunch of smaller speakers in the trees, and then two main speakers in the back, and routing the different kinds of samples to those two areas. So, as you guessed, the water, the frogs, the bell sounds, came out of the marsh, and the trees were the cicadas and crickets. Not in total seriousness either, because the park isn’t this pristine natural environment, it’s a reflection of the nature we love, and that’s what the music is. It’s just a reflection of the nature I love. It’s not meant to be an exact replication of that. That would be kind of boring for me.
I like to take sounds that are intriguing, for whatever reason they’re intriguing. They could be natural, but it could be the sound of Pachinko, which is a kind of pinball in Tokyo that has an interesting sound, or whatever. I like to mix it up. So, in doing that, I’ve gathered all these sounds, and then I started working earlier in 1992 with SampleCell, which is an internal sampler in the computer, so you can put the sounds in a kind of order and play them live off the keyboard. So, instead of a traditional scale going up the keyboard, I’ve got a bunch of different water sounds, and I’ve got them organized so that the water that’s been slowed down is on the left hand, lower half of the keyboard, and certain plips and plops and gurgles are on another third and if you press the keyboard with lower pressure, you’ll get the lower sound, actually, sampled at half rate, and if you touch it lightly you’ll get higher sounds. That’s a real basic idea, but now I’ve got, you know, 24 different ones with different ideas for each group I’m working with. That’s the water one. There’s also bells, the different kinds of bugs, the shô, the flute, and Pachinko, other stuff. Add to that, Max. And with that, you can make things sound ridiculously fast, as if you’re on speed or something.
[K] Max is sort of a software front panel for affecting sound, for generating it, modifying it…
[SP] That’s a different Max, that’s DSP. That’s a different function of Max. DSP is a real-time affecting of sound, which you can only do with a different kind of computer than what I have, an SGI or a NeXT. The other part of Max (there are two parts), the part I’m dealing with, is a programming environment for controls. So, it’s real flexible, you can control your lights with it, you can control your security system with it, it doesn’t matter. You’re sending out information.
So, the math part of what I’m doing is real basic, because I don’t really like math all that much. I’ve got some patches which are sending signals every 2 seconds, every 2.5 seconds, and everything 3 seconds and so forth, with information about velocity, range, and different things that MIDI accepts information about. I can ask that to go to any one of my sample instruments. That’s the term they use, it could be a water instrument, a cicada instrument. So, I can get the same effects…
[K] Do you think of them as water instruments and cicada instruments, is that how you think of them in your own…
[SP] Well, this whole idea of “instruments” is an imposition from Sample Cell (from Digidesign, which is now Avid I think, or Opcode), which is an industry approach, hoping people will like it because it’s like a keyboard. And no, I don’t really think of it like that necessarily. I think of it like a bunch of sounds, so we’ve got this bunch of bugs here, a bunch of water over there. The instrument is what I’ve made out of Max. A patch is still an instrument. That’s a graphic interface for accessing all my different bunches of sounds, and I can with my mouse turn them on and off in real-time, and decide what I’m going to do and when. It’s got a limited kind of flexibility, because it’s just a different approach to making sound than playing the violin.
But, what I’ve done is I have some specific patches that I’ve made for the bells, for example, but I can also re-work those to different samples, and I’ll get unexpected things. Sometimes things don’t work very well. I can also route that information to an external SPX, or anything else that… for example, I’ve used two effects, pitch change in real-time, so if I have the Ondes Martenot plugged into the SPX90 for example, and I have the pitch change function selected, we’ll hear him — in this case it’s a D — coming through the effects units. If I select one of my mass functions that goes into the MIDI functions that goes into the input of the SPX-90, it’ll make that pitch change select rapidly. Not randomly, but quasi-randomly, because the patch I made was quasi-random. I can just turn it on and off and kind of play with it. So, we hear him, in this case Takashi Harada, or if you played the excerpt from Cinnamon Sphere, you’d get Nilan Perera on electric guitar, and at the same time you hear that being changed and mixed up, or the tape of the cicada also being pitch-shifted real quickly.
So Max can affect anything that it’s plugged into. It can be plugged into SampleCell, or whatever. And if you play Curse of Border Vacuums, which we might as well play next, it’s on the Musicworks CD, I was first experimenting with radio. So I had radio with pre-recorded presets, and I was kind of surfing, seeing what’s on. I had it pre-set to CKLN, CIUT, our local community stations, and the CBC. Then, I would turn on and off this arrangement that affects the pitch, as I felt like it. At the same time, I’d make some other music with a patch which was attached to the SampleCell, so you got a couple things going on at once. In the case of Curse of Border Vacuums, I’ve got a lot of periodic things going on: I’ve got some periodic cicadas that come on, a wandering bass line going on, and a periodic couple of bugs. And then you hear the radio coming in, and changing around and goofing around, goofy radio. It’s most obvious when he starts talking about Marconi in the second half of the piece, about six minutes into the eight-minute piece. He’ll start talking about Marconi — I was sampling CIUT that day, because I was going to be performing that night, and this was going to be my backup tape in case my computer didn’t work that night. It was for Radio on Radio, and that was a big deal CIUT did last year. It was a symposium on a hundred years of radio. But you can hear him pitch-shifting around, talking about Marconi.
So you can play with context, you can play with sound for sound’s sake, or the context of language, and you can probably do many other things, so those are two examples. The Curse of Border Vacuums is named after a chapter in a book by Jane Jacobs about city planning. I live right next to Pape and Danforth, which is a big border vacuum, and I thought I’d name it after that.
We listen to Curse of Border Vacuums by Sarah Peebles [0:20:35–0:28:40].
[K] Now, we’re going to veer away from your music, because so much of it we will be able to play on other programs. You yourself are a radio producer, you have a cutting edge program here in Toronto.
[SP] Yeah, I try to be cutting edge when I can be. I’ve been involved in community radio since college. I started doing The Audible Woman, which was back then Classical Women, in 1984. I had a professor, Susan Cook, that was her program at the time and she needed some help. I started helping her as a student, and then she had a kid and a lot of stuff to do, so I took it over. I had wanted to make it a grassroots thing, but frankly, I was just too lazy to go to the library and buy stuff, so I started soliciting materials, at that time, mainly to what was then known as the Minnesota Composers Forum newsletter, and they circulated that information, and that got recirculated by a bunch of people who picked it up, all around the world.
That was around 1986, and by then, and I started to get piles of tapes in every week from women all around the world, and this was really exciting. I was doing the show on a weekly basis out of a station known as WCBN in Ann Arbor, which has a very small signal, and is one of the few, kind of, left-wing-ish radio stations from there. Then I went to Japan a couple of times as I said, and when I moved to Toronto, it took about a year or so, and finally I got onto CIUT radio in Toronto, and I did the weekly show for an hour. One point about a year and a half or two ago I switched to doing two hours a month, which makes for a radio slot I actually rather like, two hours. It allows me to have more free time to be a composer.
The point of the show, really, is to expose the audience to work by women because, at least as I found out in the world of the University, women are kind of few and far between, and often really discouraged from being composers. I mean, either in a subtle way, or in an overt way. There were both overt and covert influences at the University of Michigan, I must say, to be completely honest. Anything from professors saying boldly to students on a regular basis, “Oh, you might want to get married some day, you might not want to be a composer.”
[K] This is what year?
[SP] 1983–1989, I think.
[K] It’s hard to believe, at that late a time…
[SP] It’s hard to believe that that particular professor’s well-known attitudes were never questioned, and no one ever slapped him on the wrist. There were other professors who were known throughout the student body, or known to some people in the student body, as regularly hitting on students, both male and female. Which does not encourage you to continue with your work, and actually results in people becoming depressed, because you’re in a position of not having power. It’s hard to know what your rights are, and it’s hard to know what’s going on, what’s happening. So anyway, that’s no help. And just the lack of women around in general.
I think no matter where you go, you’ll hear stories, and they’re all different and interesting, and… unique, about the experiences that women have had. So, I wanted to create some positiveness, some positive support to the composers themselves, who I’ve been in contact with, and I wanted to create that really active environment for our listeners to hear the work of women. And I must say, I’ve really been intrigued by the quality of music I’ve gotten from people. I mean, as with any programming, there’s a lot of mediocre stuff to sift through, but there’s a lot of really, really active and talented women in the world.
[K] Let me ask you this question which is the kind of thing that comes up in all sorts of conversations. Is there a gender difference in the character of the music?
[SP] I think it depends on the person. Because, you know, there are gender differences amongst men. I mean, that sounds like an odd thing to say, but I’m sure you can think of some men whose way of dealing with people — let’s make it not musical, per se — are much less typically masculine than others, right? Just who they are, who knows why they are, but they just are. They could be effeminate, or they could just simply be not what you are brought up to assume, and the same with women and how they deal with people. So, I would think that naturally the same can be said about music. Other than that, I think it’s pretty interesting to speculate about how culture impacts on the decisions people make, and it does.
[K] I think that’s part of the question: does it make a difference in the ultimate musical result, because of the difference in position in the world over time, or…
[SP] You know, the reason it’s hard to calculate that is because there’s a lot of women and men who try to adapt to their environment, and in adapting to their environment, make music that might be different from what we expect. And it’s the same in a non-musical sense, in how we deal with people. So, there are a lot of really aggressive women out there, and is it because of their character, is it because they’re adapting to their environment? I don’t know. But that’s the way it is.
Then again, there are women out there who are really conscious of not being aggressive, really conscious of subtlety and cycle and rhythm, and is that an adaptation as well, or is that being really in tune with social forces? And then again, there are men who are like that as well. I can say, at least speaking for me, that it can be difficult getting the kind of attention that I think I would get if I were more aggressive as a composer, being a creator of music that isn’t that… I don’t know, punchy?
[K] Punchy, punchy.
[SP] Yeah. And all these words, you know, you could study the words in this conversation and write a paper on them, couldn’t you?
[K] Well, you in fact have a context in the magazine Musicworks, what did you call it?
[SP] Oh, it’s the My-tech contest.
[K] The “My-tech” contest, yes.
[SP] Well, my article is “High-tech versus My-tech,” and talking about my experiences dealing with technology and music and improv, and stuff, and I come across a lot of words that really perturb me in computer use and computer speak. The Max stuff has “uzi,” u-zee-i, or rather u-zed-y, to characterize a patch that has rapidly firing signals, or rapidly, you know, “da-da-da-da-da” signals. And I looked at that and I thought, did a 14-year-old make this up? You know, why do we have to be like this? Give me a break. And there’s a lot of this that comes up. I was really stunned when I heard a story, that a local composer Wende Bartley here, who’s an electroacoustic composer, was at a disc-swapping party at Saved By Technology (that’s the name of a store here). A guy came up to her and he said, “Hey, can I rip that disc?” And she said, “What did you say?” He said, “Can I rip your disc?” She said, “Well, did you have to put it like that?” And I don’t think he even reacted to it, you know.
[K] And he meant, make a copy?
[SP] Yeah. That really stunned me, you know, as it did her. I heard about that through Andra McCartney, who does a lot of research into women’s experiences, actually, and a lot of interesting things have been passed on to me from reading and talking to Andra McCartney. And she’s a local composer too, as well as a musicologist. So, some of the other terms, I don’t know, they just come up, you know? And you ask yourself, well, “Why do we say hit?” “How many times has your website been hit?” Why do we have to hit it, you know? How many times has your website been stroked? I don’t know, I mean, who makes these things up? It could say, “How many times has your website been touched.” You know, “How many times has your website been tapped?” What would the world be like if nobody cared, or if people were more oriented towards being really sexual about it, I mean, it’s just a word, but it makes you feel a certain way. Well, we’re desensitized to that after a while. It causes me to think, and act, if I can.
[K] We need to let your music speak for you for the rest of the show today. Let’s hear one more thing, a good thing to wrap up our interview with you. As we have the jazz in the background. [Trumpet soloing]
[SP] If you’d like to end with Cinnamon Sphere, I’ve given you a tape which is a little bit longer than the excerpts on Musicworks 66. So, either you’ll hear 10–20 minutes of a performance with Nilan Perera on electric guitar and myself on computers at the Art Gallery of Ontario, for which you will not see the calligrapher who’s performing to this at the same time, or you’ll hear ten minutes from the Musicworks CD.
[K] Sarah Peebles, thank for very much for joining us on The Bazaar.
[SP] Thank you. It’s been bizarre.
We listen to Cinnamon Sphere by Sarah Peebles [0:42:00–0:48:25].