Interview with Barry Schrader
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #527, 9 July 2005. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:14:58–2:01:58].
Barry Schrader has been acclaimed by the Los Angeles Times as “a composer born to the electronic medium,” named “a seminal composer of electro-acoustic music” by Journal SEAMUS, and described by Gramophone as a composer of “approachable electronic music with a distinctive individual voice to reward the adventurous.” Computer Music Journal states that Schrader’s “music withstands the test of time and stands uniquely in the American electronic music genre.” Schrader's compositions for electronics, dance, film, video, mixed media, live/electro-acoustic music combinations, and real-time computer performance have been presented throughout the world. Schrader is the founder and the first president of SEAMUS, the author of Introduction to Electro-Acoustic Music, and has written for several publications including several editions of Grove, Groliers Encyclopedia, and Contemporary Music Review. He is on the composition faculty of The Herb Alpert School of Music at CalArts. His music is recorded on the Innova label.
[Kalvos] Barry Schrader, welcome to Kalvos & Damian, So, you’re going to tell us about you. We learned of you, first through your music, and secondly because Suzy Allen, a former guest on Kalvos & Damian said, “Ah, Barry’s my mentor.”
[Barry Schrader] Was. When Suzy was a student at CalArts, back at the very beginning in 1970, ’71, ’72, I was her mentor, and now she’s Assistant Dean.
[K] And you’re still…
[BS] No, she’s more my mentor now. [Laughter]
[K] So, how did you get into music? People have heard some of your stuff on our show, and it’s very rich, electronic, and a very sort of passionate electronics. How did you come to music, and electronic music after that?
[BS] Well, I started taking piano lessons at the age of five. So it’s been pretty continuous.
[Damian] Was that in California?
[BS] No, I was born in Jonestown, Pennsylvania. So, I’ve been in music most of my life. I was a graduate student in Musicology at the University of Pittsburgh, when they decided to build an electronic music studio at the end of 1968.
[K] What were you doing being a graduate student in musicology? I’m confused about that.
[BS] Well, I had gotten my undergraduate, my Bachelor’s from Pitt, as we call it. Then I had gone to Rutgers, unfortunately, for one miserable term.
[K] Yes, and you were there the same time I was, interestingly enough.
[BS] And I quickly left, went back to Pittsburgh, and made pizza for a while, until I could get into graduate school there. At that time, they didn’t have a composition program. I was very interested in old music, medieval music, and they had some really excellent people there. Dr. Robert Snow, who had worked a lot with Willi Apel.
[K] Willi Apel being one of those people who created the book that we all had stole from the various college libraries, and that was The Historical Anthology of Music, for those of you who were wondering about Willi Apel. It’s a great collection, late 1940s, and…
[D] Or, if you’re a librarian, wondering where they went.
[K] Yes! You could be wondering where they went.
[BS] But he also did the text on transcription of medieval music. So, I was doing that when they decided to set up an electronic music studio, and lo and behold, they made me the TA. So, that’s how I got into it, and I’ve been doing it ever since.
[K] And you hadn’t done it before, this was new to you? You just went in and said, “Oh, I like these buttons, I’m going to push some?”
[BS] Pretty much. I knew about it, I had listened to some, but I was fairly ignorant of the medium and technology, and had to learn it really quickly because I was expected to teach it to other people.
[K] Well, this is interesting, because this will be sort of like coming around on the old guitar again, when we talk about what happened to you later, but what kind of stuff was in this studio?
[BS] It was a Buchla 100 system, and two stereo tape recorders. That was pretty much it.
[D] Just two-track.
[BS] Yeah. two tracks, a piano and a microphone, so you could ring modulate something with… the piano. [General laughter] And a desk, and a telephone, that was pretty much about it.
[K] Did you spend a lot of time learning this Buchla synthesizer?
[BS] Yes. I had Hubert Howe’s book that came out with the 100. Or did that come out later when CBS took over? You know, I don’t honestly remember. I’m not sure, I don’t think it’s ’69 that it had been printed yet, because CBS I think bought it the next year. I learned what I could. Morton Subotnick was there about three days every two weeks, and he would show me how to do something, and then the rest of the time I was on my own, so that’s how that worked.
[K] Did you start composing before then, and then switched over to electronics?
[BS] Yeah, I started composing on the piano, and I was the accompanist for various choral groups. I had done some choral pieces, but then I just switched over, and ever since then I’ve been doing primarily electroacoustic music.
[D] We’re always keen to hear people’s early music, so if you have some of those Piano Études, we’d love….
[BS] Oh, now that those have been removed from my, uh… performance catalogue. [Laughter]
[D] Aw… aw…
[K] [Laughter] We’re happy to embarrass ourselves, so we like to embarrass everyone else.
[BS] The earliest pieces, I will admit to at this point, are from about ’70, ’72.
[K] So you accompanied stuff like Frostiana, or what is it you accompanied when you were playing?
[BS] [Laughter] Well, actually, a lot of stuff. I was the accompanist for the Glee Club, which did a lot of touring. Also, I was the organist at Heinz chapel —. Not the official organist, but the organist for high mass every Sunday.
[K] Did that mean you only played the keyboards, and not the pedals?
[BS] No, I played it all. All four keyboards and the pedals.
[D] Now, I didn’t know CalArts had a Glee Club, but I can see that see that. [General laughter]
[BS] No, that was the University of Pittsburgh Glee Club.
[K] Yes he’s still there. They have the big Bessemer converters in the background, along with the electronics. [General laughter] Alright, enough of this funny stuff. Do we have anything early of yours at all we can play? From your early electronic music that we can hear?
[BS] No. Well, the earliest you have is the analog music on the Lost Atlantis CD, and the earliest piece there is Trinity, which is from 1976.
[D] Oh, we’ll do ’76, that works.
[K] Yeah, that’s a good start. That’s about 15 minutes worth, which means we’ll have a chance to come back and you give us the official station ID after we hear that. Our guest is Barry Schrader, and he’s going to entertain us the whole time, because this only gets better when you hear some of the things he has to say, and who he disses on our program today. [Laughter]
We listen to Trinity by Barry Schrader [0:22:12–0:37:25].
[K] Wow, it’s comin’ back!
[D] What, the analog?
[K] Analog, yes!
[BS] It’s been back.
[K] Well, let’s hear about this story. You made a transition for a while, after you were working with the analog material, to some other stuff, and then you made your way back, tell a little about…
[BS] Well, no, I didn’t make my way back to analog, but a lot of other people have. This was done on a Buchla 200 system, it was originally a quadrophonic piece. This has been mixed down to stereo by Gary Chang, who’s done an incredible job I think going from the old masters. I stuck with analog up until about 1984, and then in ’85, I transitioned to computers because I figured that the analog situation had sort of had it. Nobody else seemed to be hanging around, but now, in the last several years, analog has come roaring back. There are a lot of people who are collecting and rebuilding old equipment and a lot of people are building new equipment, and many, many people are composing with analog, and I hear a lot of it in the commercial world, film and pop music.
[K] Well, tell someone about your composing, and how you work. Particularly about, I don’t know what the right word is, but the organic way in which you work.
[BS] Oh, well, with analog, I think one of the beautiful things about analog, especially if you had a large system such as the Buchla 200s that we had at CalArts (they were really huge), and in addition I had special modules built for me by an engineer from Yamaha, that I used in these pieces. He was in residence at CalArts in the early 70s, we called him Fortune, and he eventually became one of Yamaha’s acoustic engineers. But he built several modules which were referred to as the Fortune modules, which I no longer own. CalArts sold them out from under me, unfortunately. But the thing about working with these large analog systems was that you could compose, from my point of view, what I call a Gestalt method. So you could think of all the musical gestures that you wanted to create at once, and just sort of create it “wholesale,” whereas if you were writing for instruments, or if you’re writing for computers, pretty much even if you’re thinking on the Gestalt level, you have to analyze down until you get to the specific details on the dimensional level, and then figure out how to build that back up to what it is.
[K] Why does the analog system allow you to work that way? You just sort of turn the knob and say, “Oh yeah, that’s what I wanted?” I mean, maybe a better look at that.
[BS] In doing a patch, as you well know, you could connect all of these modules together, again, if you had enough. If you had a little VCS3 or something you couldn’t do this kind of thing, but the Buchla 200 systems we had, I don’t remember how many modules were in this system, but there were at least 50, and we could bring in extras and plug them in on the side. So I was never at a loss for equipment in the studios at CalArts in those days. You could deal with things like the nature of the pitch, the nature of the rhythm, the nature of the timbre, the nature of the dynamics. If you wanted to have multiple envelopes doing X, Y, or Z, or whatever, you could you set all of this up. Unlike in the classical studio, you know, when you’re cutting and splicing, you got instant feedback from what you were doing, so you know, “Yeah, this is what it is that I want.”
So then, the problem was recording, and getting a good recording of it, hopefully before the next person was coming into the studio, because if you had to tear the patch out, it was a problem, you know, could you get that patch back? I eventually developed a system using a Volt-Ohm meter, where I would take voltages down to two decimal places, so I was able to get stuff back absolutely precisely for my next session.
So, that’s what I meant by being able to get everything at once, all of the gestures that you would want in a particular musical Gestalt. And then experiment with how you could change that, like in this piece one of the things I do, which is part of I think almost all of my composition, is deal with timbral transformations and creating timbres which are changing through time, they’re not steady-state or stagnant, and you could hear that happening in real-time.
In fact, in this piece, or even in almost all of my analog stuff, I never did any cutting and splicing. I was lousy at that, I really couldn’t make a clean splice, so that I learned to do was program the analog equipment so that I would be able to get for a specific section everything that I wanted, and then I just did the kind of A-B technique that I was used to doing from doing some early film scoring, whereon a flat bed you would have the 2 or 3 soundtracks and you would simply be able to fade things in and out, multiples. So I had to have multiple tape recorders to be able to mix down, and when you get down to the master of the pieces, it’s usually 3rd, 4th, 5th generation, because I’ve mixed down so many tracks. So it wasn’t unusual for me to have somewhere between 20 and 40 tracks in the final version of a mixed-down piece. I didn’t have to do any cutting and splicing.
[K] So you were essentially playing each one live, as you went ahead.
[BS] Each track.
[K] Each track live.
[BS] Right, and I would make up timing charts, so I would know when to press what button when, and turn this pot whatever, and I would rehearse it just like you would rehearse performing a piece, and then I would record track by track by track. It’s a very laborious process, and what you’re always sweating is, you know, “Is this recording going to be okay?” You have to listen to each one after you make it, were there any pops or click that got in there, from a water fountain that went on outside, or something. That’s how I proceeded, but I think there was a sort of power in being able to create directly from what you could think of in terms of the patch, whereas when working with a computer you have to start at the lowest level, creating the information that you’re going to build up. I think it’s only recently that I’ve been able to get back to something that sort of parallels that kind of Gestalt thinking by using the computer.
[K] What has made that possible? The technology has gotten more powerful, more plug-ins or something, what do you mean by that?
[BS] Well, yeah, I think that’s part of it. I also think it’s just having done it for so long, that my facility is better. I think that if you listen to my earlier computer stuff, it’s more what I call “event-based” than Gestalt-based. Whereas I think a lot of the more recent computer stuff is more Gestalt-based.
[D] Sounds like he’s ready for some piano music.
[K] [Laughter] Yes, event-based!
[D] I think event-based piano music, yeah, I think that’s coming up.
[K] Do we have something from that middle period we can hear? Give our audience an example of what you mean by that.
[BS] Well, the earliest finished piece I did with a computer was Bachahama from 1976, it’s on the EAM album. Unfortunately, this has been compared (well, unfortunately, from my point of view) to Wendy Carlos’s work, which is absolutely not the idea at all. But I took…
[K] So, tell us quickly what the idea is, so that people can sort of peel the onion skin off here.
[BS] Okay, well, this is in three short sections, Fugue 0.1, Air, and Fugue 0.2. The fugues are based on the C minor, a fugue from the Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Air is based on the Air on the G string. What happens is the fugues start out sort of similar, playing the music straight except in multiple voices, and extremely fast, but then I dissect all of the pitch information, and it radically changes, and also there are different kinds of delays and electronic treatments of it. The Air is also playing with the idea of what you know, what you expect, and changing it around. So the pitched material comes back in a very different way, and there’s a long transformational timbre that’s used here, so it keeps layering over itself. So even though you’re just hearing one pitch at a time, it layers into these vertical structures that keep constantly changing, because each one is fading away at a different rate.
[K] From the EAM CD, this is by the way on the Innova label, as are the other CDs, Lost Atlantis and the upcoming one as well, Beyond.
We listen to Bachahama by Barry Schrader [0:49:14–0:56:22].
[K] You were saying some things to us while that was playing about how you work, and particularly how people get familiar with the equipment they’re working with, and if they don’t, maybe they don’t get to be real masters of that equipment. Maybe you could run through that again. It’s an interesting concept.
[BS] Well, I think in the area of electroacoustic music, you’ve gone through so many changes. I mean, if you go back to 1948 — from which point you have a continuous history — Pierre Schaeffer started out of course working with turntables and discs, and he was very reticent — after having perfected his techniques in the early 50s — of moving it to tape. It was actually Pierre Henri that forced him into getting tape machines and using those in the studio. So, you go through that kind of classical period with the tape manipulation techniques, then you move into the analog area, and then you move into the computer period, which has several different incarnations, starting at Bell Labs, but in terms of most composers, really beginning with when the laptops became affordable in the middle of the 80s.
All the time you’re going through new pieces of equipment or new techniques, new pieces of software, and you’re constantly learning and trying to keep up. I think it becomes problematic, because you master one situation and then before you know it, you have to go into another one. I’ve seen several people who have gone through maybe one change, or two changes, but have just not been able to constantly keep up. Some of the pioneering composers I’ve known in my life in the field of electroacoustic music never really made it into the computer situation, because they just felt much more at home in what they had learned years before.
[K] And it seems like that’s actually not a problem, from what you’ve described. Particularly with a kind of interest in technology, particularly analog technology undergoing resurgence, it sort of suggests maybe that there is enough technology to effectively carry off the kind of composition that one might want to do?
[BS] Today, that’s absolutely correct. Especially outside of the academic world. But inside the academic world, there are always pressures. Outside of that, I don’t think there is that pressure. I remember writing an article many years ago in the early 80s, talking about a time when analog and digital would co-exist side-by-side, and people thought I was nuts. But now that’s true today. So, you can pick and choose what it is that you like, but in some quarters, there is a kind of technological snobbery, and one or more of these people that feel this way might not value a particular piece if it’s not done with what they consider to be a relevant piece of software, or something like that.
[K] Yeah, we were actually talking about that over lunch today, because I know that I’ve experienced that myself, because I do a lot of electroacoustic music, which gets a certain amount of interest in certain quarters, as you say, until I mention that I make those creations with software that runs under Windows. Then I get folks who begin to diss it, because it obviously couldn’t be well-created if it weren’t done in the realm in which…
[BS] Right. I remember once at a conference years ago, somebody asked me what I did a certain piece with, and I told them, and they said, “Oh, yes, somebody I know used that, they did everything they could possibly do with it.” And that reminded me, way back in 1970, after CBS had bought out the Buchla 100 system, they asked me to do some demos for them, and they sent me to the University of Chicago, which was going to set up an electronic music studio. The week before, somebody had been there demonstrating a Moog, and that week I was there demonstrating the Buchla 100. I was very naïve, I was 25 years old, and even though I’d been used to the academic world, I was not really prepared for what happened, which was that most of the people were there to attack the system I was presenting, and I guess secondarily to attack me, but especially to attack the entire medium.
So the first range of attacks was, “Well, the reason you can do more with this equipment is because you’ve got more modules than the guy had from Moog.” And after that — which was the much more serious attack — was “Everything that’s been done in electronic music has already been done. Stockhausen, in Kontakte, had created everything that was possible in the realm of electronic music, and it’s really a waste of your time and our time to even consider this stuff.”
[K] Well, it’s true, you know… [General laughter] Between that and Gesang, you know, in 1957.
[BS] That was my break into the realization of this attitude.
[K] Well, how did you respond? I mean, did you respond, or were you just stunned into just doing your demo?
[BS] I was sort of stunned. I mean, I said, “Well, respectfully, I disagree.” [Laughter] But yeah, I was pretty stunned, I didn’t have a very good comeback. Not especially when you add multiple faculty, ready to gang up on you.
[D] Who were some of these?
[BS] I do not know any of these people. There was an audience of about 40 or so people for the demo, and I didn’t know any of them. I realized from that point on that there were always going to be people who were going to attack perhaps the medium itself, or certainly any particular piece based upon the technology that was used to do that piece. For [this] reason I really don’t like discussing the technology. I mean, I will with my students, and go into detail on that, but in general I believe that what’s important is the music, not what made it, and if a composer is able to achieve their goals and create something that works in their terms, with whatever technology they want to use, I think that’s terrific. I think the technology is always secondary to the product.
Actually, I think the composer is much more important than technology. Another thing about the field that’s always amusing me is that people are always blaming the equipment. “Oh, I can’t do this, because the program won’t let me do this. The equipment won’t let me do this.” I hear this a lot from students, but…
[D] But it’s a good cop.
[K] Works every time, yeah. [Laughter]
[BS] But the problem is, you’re always faced with the limitations, so you try to make plusses out of those limitations, and you take that as a given, and then you do as much as you possibly can. I really makes no sense to blame the technology, whatever it is you’re working with, for some shortcoming that’s really your fault.
[K] Let’s hear some more…
[K] Product, yes, let’s hear some product. Suggest some product for us. Perhaps something from Lost Atlantis. Unless you want something else, or something from your new CD product.
[BS] Good heavens, I wasn’t prepared. How about going back to analog, then Lost Atlantis. Well, my favourite is The Destruction of Atlantis. But I think you already played that.
[K] Well, we did, but now this puts us in context.
[BS] Oh, okay. This is in two parts: The Destruction of Atlantis, and then the epilogue, which is And Atlantis Shall Rise. Especially in the epilogue, the second part of this, is a really extreme example of what I call linear timbral transformation, that was done with analog equipment, where the timbre is just constantly evolving from a very simple, almost sinusoidal sound, into eventually these huge waves of noise, and then back again at the end.
[K] Crank this one up, folks, because this will give your system a test. We love this part.
We listen to Destruction of Atlantis and Epilog: "…and Atlantis Shall Rise" by Barry Schrader [1:06:30–1:14:40].
[D] You know, I heard water even though there didn’t seem to be a water sample or anything, but it just felt… fluid.
[K] Use the Q-tips, it’ll get much better. [General laughter] So, where are you going with this now? I mean, this piece dates from when?
[BS] This is 1977. I stuck with analog up through… the last big piece I did is called Moon-Whales and Other Moon Songs, which very well may be lost. That was from ’82–83, maybe into ’84, and I was using Ampex 456 and when I took those masters out to try to transfer them…
[K] It just jammed the tape recorder or just stuck.
[BS] … they’re all warped. So, I have mediocre transfers, but I wasn’t able to get transfers from the masters, so that may be lost, I don’t know, but…
[D] There’s a service that’s available through this website.
[BS] Even for warped tape?
[K] Alright. So, what did you run into as your biggest problem, psychologically, when you started using digital technology?
[BS] The fact that I couldn’t do Gestalt composition.
[K] But you’re doing that now, so how did you overcome it? Did you change, or did it change?
[BS] Okay, let me tell you what I used to do. Like when I was doing Atlantis. I’m a night person, basically. Right now, this is sort of morning for me, in my normal life. So I would work all night, and I would start off maybe going to a coffee shop with a lot of pieces of paper, and a pencil, and I would make these sketches that would be the basis for these pieces, these analog pieces. I still have some of them, I thought I’d thrown them all away, but a few years ago I found some. They were meaningless, of course, except to me, but I was able to deal with the whole shmear, the whole concept all at once. Then when I got into computer stuff, I realized I couldn’t do that. I had to say, “I want this frequency for this duration, at this amplitude, and the timbre has to be constructed,” da-da, da-da, and so forth.
So, what’s happened to me over the years is that I’ve just gotten more and more used to working with the computer, it’s become more second nature. I work mostly in event lists, and then I use also editing software for constructing the timbres, using additive synthesis, frequency modulation, amplitude modulation, transfers, I mean, all of the usual culprits. So, what I will do is I start out now (again, I have a notion of what the thing is going to be), and the first thing I will do is design the timbres for the piece, because I want the timbres to do certain kinds of things, and so they have to be specially designed to do that. Then, after I’ve designed the timbres, of which I usually make families, I’ll start composing the piece in the event lists. But I’ve had to analyze down from the overall idea, the Gestalt, the gesture, whatever you want to call it, so that I know that putting all of this dimensional information together will give me what I want. I’ve already designed the timbres so that they’re always time-variant structures, because I think one of the killers with computer music is, for lack of a better term, “steady-state” kinds of timbres.
[K] The correct term is boring.
[BS] [Laughter] So they have to be time-variant so that they seem to be, you know, natural in some way, even though they’re not to the ear. After years of doing this now (we’re talking about 20 years), I just hopefully have gotten better.
[K] You say you work in event lists, though. Are the graphical interfaces not satisfactory to what you do?
[BS] Well, I work with event lists inside programs that specify, you know, the pitch, duration, stuff like that. But I also — now more and more, going to back to Gestalt ideas — I’ll generate electronic material, because everything we’ve heard is electronically generated.
[K] Yes, that’s another question I was going to get to.
[BS] I’ve only ever done one totally complete, computer concrète piece. So, I’ll record the electronic material, and then I’ll take it into a program that will allow me to manipulate it in a lot of different ways. At that point I’m not working in event lists. At that point I’m really working closer to what I had been doing in the past with analog equipment, because I’m dealing with different ways of processing that, in a sense I guess in real-time. I’m hearing it instantly, to make sure that I’m getting what it is that I want. So, I don’t work entirely in event lists anymore because very often I’m working, especially in Death and certain sections, with sound masses, similar to the section of Atlantis we just heard where there were a lot of mass structures.
[K] And it gets to that question of the generation of the material. You work with the generation being electronic, rather than snatching segments of acoustic sound from other things like instruments or voices, or concrète sounds, or garbage can lids sampled.
[BS] Right. Well, it’s interesting when you go back, again to the beginning of the continuous history from ’48, most of what Schaeffer was doing with his cohorts in Paris then was concrète, using acoustic generated material. Then you had the other camp, with Eimert and eventually Stockhausen over in Cologne, using only electronically-generated material, and there was a kind of a little war going on, in maybe the first half of the 50s. You know, either it was concrète or it was electronic, and then people started mixing them together. In the analog days, everything was electronic, but in Europe, concrète stayed very popular because they weren’t using so much analog, they were staying mainly with the classical studio techniques.
When the computer came in, and MIDI equipment, at first I think people started experimenting with electronics, but eventually, in the United States, what has become primary for computer-based works (I mean non-analog equipment, because a lot of analog equipment is controlled by a computer now) is computer concrète.
The philosophy there is that if you take a sound that was acoustically-generated, it’s already going to be complex. It’s going to have a complex timbre structure. It’s going to have a time-variant timbre structure, and there are a lot of ways that you can manipulate that, and that therefore is going to make an interesting composition. I would say that the overwhelming majority, from what I hear, way over 90% of what’s coming out, especially of music done by academic composers, is computer concrète. But for some reason, I have remained interested in electronically-generated material, and I think part of it is that I want to be able to design my timbres from the ground up. I want to be able to control them, as I said before, maybe design a specific timbre for a specific piece because of something I want it to do. It’s part of, if I can use the word “fun,” but it’s certainly adventure, in terms of…
[K] You’re not in academia now, so you can say “fun.”
[BS] Okay [Laughter]. It’s part of the thing that interests me in the whole process, and I know that I’m not entirely alone, but I’m close to being alone, in terms of working in that way at this point in time.
[D] You mean your students don’t follow this line of thought?
[BS] Uh, no.
[BS] I do have, in one class, have them create an all electronically-generated piece, and it’s probably the least favourite of the assignments that they have to do. They definitely like the concrète pieces better. I’m not trying to denigrate working with concrète stuff, but it can be maybe easier if you start out with something that’s already interesting and complex. If you start with electronic generation of material — and I think this is what the students don’t like — you’ve got to know some theory. It’s never too popular when I start putting some formulas and soforth on the blackboard. [Laughter] But you do have to know some theory in order to understand what it is you’re doing, whereas with concrète stuff, you can be more intuitive. It’s pretty hard to be intuitive if you’ve got a bunch of sinewaves coming off the computer, and you’re wondering what to do with them. But, for me it’s fascinating, and I’m always seeing how far I can keep pushing the envelope (to use the cliché) in terms of creating sounds, and a lot of people are surprised when they find out that my music is done with all digital, electronically-generated material, as opposed to some concrète. Or even analog — some people have thought some of the electronic stuff I’ve done is analog, when it’s actually digital.
[K] Let’s hear something more recent. Something short to start with, and then we’ll listen to something a little bit longer later.
[BS] Okay, well, do you want to listen to the one and only, totally concrète piece at this point?
[K] Why not?
[BS] Okay, this is called Beyond, and it is from 1992. It was composed — I will get a little technical with this one — at the University of California at Santa Barbara. It uses two sound sources: waterphones and a harpsichord sound. It was done on a workstation that they had there, that was called a Waveframe. Yeah, I don’t think you need all the fingers on both hands to count up the number of academic pieces that were done with this system, because the University of California at Santa Barbara is the only place that has one. They were primarily designed for work in Hollywood, and Warner Bros. used them for many years in the late 80s through the mid-90s — before the software that exists today became common — to mix down especially dialogue and stuff. And the reason that UCSB got one for free, is that they have an extensive ethnomusicology collection of instruments, non-western instruments, and they allowed the company to sample all of their instruments in exchange for getting one of these. They started at about $100,000…
[K] At the time.
[BS] At the time.
[K] Now I can probably do it on my desktop, right?
[BS] Yeah. It used a huge computer which had to be a proprietary computer, which had to be in a different room because it was so noisy. Then, on top of that computer was a, I think it was a 286 at the time. Then on top of that was a Macintosh. So you were dealing with three computers at once to use this, and it was constantly crashing. And the software was divided up so that different programs would deal with different aspects of what you were doing. There was one program for mixing, one program for dealing with wave formatting, I mean, it was a little complicated. So, I did this piece on that system, which for the time had absolutely incredible control and incredible facility, but you’re right, today you could do it in your living room.
We listen to Beyond by Barry Schrader [1:30:54–1:38:00].
[K] That’s from an upcoming CD. What will the CD be called?
[BS] Beyond, it’s named after that piece.
[K] Okay. And, your point with this one was?
[BS] [Pause] Well, that’s my only completely concrète piece of music. Computer concrète.
[K] And the source material was what?
[BS] Harpsichords and different kinds of waterphones.
[K] Now, in terms of the results, now this is interesting, because we were talking earlier about how you don’t talk about the equipment you used. But, you don’t talk about the source material necessarily, or even if you talk about the source material, if the results are similar, or just as gratifying, or whatever way you want to talk about it, why do you work largely with electronic generation and avoid the computer concrète.
[BS] Well, the reason that this is computer concrète is because in order to use the Waveframe, you had to have pre-existing sound sources.
[K] But you could have madethose electronic and used those as your sound sources.
[BS] Not in that room. Not in the studio that the Waveframe was housed in. I would have had to have gone to a different studio and dragged some files in, so I didn’t want to do that. Also, I hadn’t done a purely concrète piece, so I thought it would be interesting to try it once.
[K] Yeah, but to the question itself though, if you can do it with that, and if the results give that sort of, that feel, the “Barry Schrader” feel, is it familiarity that keeps you working the other way, or is it because you like that control at the very outset?
[BS] Well, both. The way I used the concrète material is very similar to the way I would use electronic material. I took the samples and broke them up, piled them up into timbral structures. Many people have said this sounds more analog than concrète, which is sort of strange, and I think it’s because of the way that I use it. So I had the same attitude as I would in terms of creating something electronically. And you put your finger on it, it’s because of the control. It’s the way I’m used to working, and the way I’m used to thinking. I’m not saying anything against…
[K] No, no, I was just curious, if you can produce that distinctive sound either way, why was that your preference? I think you answered that.
[BS] Right. As we were [discussing] before, about the idea of what one is trying to accomplish in music, when I talked about trying to regain that sense of magic, that sense of creating an individual universe that I felt in terms of listening to music as a child, I think that being able to create your own timbres from the ground up goes, for me, somewhat more to the heart of that. It’s a very personal thing. Maybe I can’t really give a satisfactory answer. And I can’t honestly say that for the rest of my life I would never veer off again to working with concrète, but right now, and for most of my career, it’s been electronically-generated material that has really fascinated me.
[D] Have you heard anything that made you think, “Oh, I want to try to do that,” but you have such a singular repertoire, I mean it is so “Barry Schrader,” as Kalvos said. Do you ever think of just going out and doing something techno?
[BS] [Laughter] No!
[D] Oh, okay.
[BS] To be quite honest, no. I think the closest I got to doing something that maybe wasn’t so much me, was a commercial horror sci-fi film that I did…
[D] We love these.
[BS] … in 1982, I think. It was a Roger Corman movie.
[D] Our favourite man!
[BS] Galaxy of Terror, a film which I believe is fortunately unavailable.
[D] Oh, no!
[BS] At least in the United States. That was an interesting experience.
[D] I think we’re doing a Galaxy of Terror search!
[K] We’re doing a search right now, we’re going to see if it’s available.
[BS] I think it’s available in Europe, but not in the United States, on a DVD. It was not exactly one of the great classics of cinema, and that was done with the Buchla system.
[K] Ah, there it is, Galaxy of Terror, available in the US still on VHS. Available in the UK on DVD, as well as VHS, so…
[D] What are the credits?
[K] Full cast and crew? Well, we’ll check that out right now. It says down here, “Original music by Barry Schrader.”
[D] All right!
[K] It does not, apparently from the user comments, get really high…
[K] It’s not highly regarded.
[D] Is that Eddie Albert? Edward Albert?
[D] All right.
[K] “As is the case with a slew of Roger Corman produced films, this flake underwent several title pages,” and it goes on from there.
[BS] It’s not exactly 2001.
[D] Speaking of 2001, we haven’t heard anything from the new millennium of yours.
[BS] Oh, well, we have several things here. Actually, from the last few years. Let’s see. Well, here’s something that I just finished, but you know what? Well, do you want to be adventuresome?
[K] You betcha.
[D] Well, yeah.
[BS] And use this CD that’s never been played?
[K] I think so. This virgin CD, we love those.
[BS] Hopefully it won’t skip.
[D] That could be part of the process, too. Part of the product.
[BS] It’s true. If you’re a fan of John Cage, that’s certainly true. Let’s listen to First Spring, which is very recent, from 2004. There’s a long story behind this I’m sure you want me to tell. I had been commissioned to do a piece for violin and electronics by a violinist at CalArts, Mark Menzies. He’s a really terrific violinist. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t have an idea. I was cleaning up around my house one winter day, and even though I live in California, I live up in the high desert, and it gets cold in the winter up there. It can even go down almost to zero at night, sometimes. I found, outside of the clothes dryer vent where the lint comes out, that a sparrow the night before had made a little nest out of the lint, and died there. I was very touched by that. This bird, seeking some comfort in the last moments of its life. I started to think of what might have been going through the bird’s mind as it died, what it might have remembered, and it was out of that that this violin piece came, which is called Fallen Sparrow. The first large section of the piece is called First Spring, because I imaged that it was probably very impressed with its first spring, when all of the various forms of life were new to it. While I was doing the electronics for the piece, I really began to fall it love with them, and I decided to make a solo studio piece out of it, just a solo electronic version, different from the accompaniment that would go along for the violin piece. That’s what this is, First Spring.
We listen to First Spring by Barry Schrader [1:46:59–1:53:04].
[K] That’s coming up on a CD?
[BS] Beyond. It will be released on Innova at the end of September.
[K] Of 2005, yeah.
[BS] And maybe available a little earlier. People should check my website, and if they want, sign up for my newsletter, and they’ll know when it comes out.
[K] Ooh, newsletter! barryschrader.com, by the way, and you can find it. He’s got good pictures.
[D] Free lint with each recording.
[K] Free lint! Yes, free lint, we love the free lint. Gotta have the free lint. We’re going to wrap up with Duke’s Tune, tell us a little about it. But before that, what are you doing next? What’s coming up for you?
[BS] I’m working on two pieces right now. Monkey, which is a huge multi-movement piece, the first movement of which is going to be premiered in Beijing in October. It’s based on the Chinese classic, The Journey to the West, the central character of which is Monkey. I’m also working on a collaborative piece with jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith which will be premiered in November, on his concert at REDCAT, at Disney Hall in L.A. So, that’s what I’m currently working on.
I’ll tell you about Duke’s Tune. We’re just going to be able to hear a little of the beginning of it. This is also coming out on the Beyond CD in September. We are into pot-bellied pigs, we sponsor a shelter for pot-bellied pigs in Solvang, California, run by Susan Parkinson…
[K] And lint?
[BS] No, we’re not a fan of lint but the shelter’s called Lil Orphan Hammies.
[K] Oh, ow! You may leave now! [General laughter]
[BS] One of the pigs there, his name is Duke, and he plays several instruments, one of which is xylophone, and Susan videotaped him playing the xylophone. I took the tune that he played on the xylophone and transcribed it, and that’s the basis for this piece. The tune goes through, I don’t know how many dozens and dozens of transformations, what you hear at the very beginning of the piece is the original tune, and then it’s all over the place.
[D] So are we. [General laughter]
[K] Yes, Barry Schrader, thanks so much for joining us on Kalvos & Damian.
[BS] Thanks for having me.
We listen to First Spring by Barry Schrader [1:56:32–2:01:58].