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Interview with Carl Stone

The Long Jump

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #36, 27 January 1996. Telephone interview. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:14:30–1:29:30].

Carl Stone is one of the pioneers of live computer music, and has been hailed by the Village Voice as “the king of sampling,” and “one of the best composers living in [the USA] today.” He has used computers in live performance since 1986. Stone was born in Los Angeles and now divides his time between California and Japan. He studied composition at the California Institute of the Arts with Morton Subotnick and James Tenney and has composed electroacoustic music almost exclusively since 1972. His works have been performed in the US, Canada, Europe, Asia, Australia, South America and the Near East. In addition to his schedule of performance, composition and touring, he is on the faculty of the Information Media Technology Department, School of Information Science and Technology at Chukyo University in Japan.

[Kalvos] It’s Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Sesquihour once more, on the telephonic road, on the audio superhighway, out to the west, the Eisenhower Interstate of telephonic communication.

[Damian] Not me, I’m still here in the studio.

[K] Well I’m squeezing my way on the wires, and it sure is comfy. Our guest today on the show is Carl Stone. Welcome!

[Carl Stone] Hi.

[K] Hi! What are you doing out there, what’s the weather?

[CS] Well, it’s rainy here, but I dare say it’s warmer than where you are.

[K] Not necessarily, because it’s raining here!

[CS] Well, it’s about in the mid-50s here, what have you got there?

[K] Oh, you win.

[D] We’re up to 60, I think, and climbing.

[K] Yeah, in this room anyway. And raining. So Carl, you are, how can I say this, probably the best known of the least-known composers.

[CS] [Laughter] I take that as a compliment, I guess.

[K] It is. Your work is groundbreaking, supposedly. Now, I put it that way because it has an accessibility which almost denies “groundbreaking-ness.” So what are you up to?

[CS] Well, first of all, accessibility or inaccessibility are things that I personally don’t give that much thought to. I mean, I make the music that I make, and if people find it interesting or enjoyable, then that’s great. If they find it oblique and obscure, I guess that’s okay too. I’m really sort of writing for myself and, well, I’m very happy if people enjoy it. It’s not really the main reason why I create. So I guess if I’ve been referred to as groundbreaking, I don’t know. I do use technology as part of my whole musical process, and that may be why some people think I’m onto something new. And I do use sampling, and that’s sort of, in the whole musical history, a new phenomena, although there are a lot of precedents there.

[K] Well, it’s a new phenomenon not so much, or it seems not so much, in pop, because we hear it so much now, but I think it certainly doesn’t follow any traditions or trends that we can point to in the other side, and I know you don’t like the sides, so I’m going to bring that up right now. Where are you, in this?

[CS] I’m going to disagree with you about that there aren’t really historical precedents to sampling. I think that’s not really the case. When I talk about sampling, by the way, I’m talking about usually a collage fashion of musical material not necessarily by myself, but maybe familiar musical material from another musician or composer, or whatever.

[K] Ah, theft!

[CS] Well [laughter], you could call it that, in which case you’re going to be accusing a lot of people, not only people in the music world, but the people in the visual arts and so on, as being thieves. In music, there are a lot of precedents to the use of appropriated musical material. I’m going back to as early as Bach and Beethoven, Handel, all those guys borrowed from the vernacular music. They also borrowed from each other. I mean, all you have to do is look at something like the Brahms Variations on a Theme by Handel or Variations on a Theme by Haydn. That’s a kind of musical sampling in that he’s doing what I’m doing, he’s taking familiar musical material and doing arrangements, permutations, and variations on that. And that’s really all that I do.

[D] We thought that with your predilection towards naming your pieces after restaurants, that you tended to sample the buffet bar.

[CS] Well, I do name my pieces after restaurants, but it’s just a dumb idea that I had a few years ago. I got tired of trying to think up either clever or meaningful names for my pieces, and I decided to just sort of come up with an arbitrary system for naming my pieces. I could have used a numbering system, or some other kind of system, but I just thought that, you know, these restaurants that I was going to, they were usually ethnic restaurants and they usually had kind of exotic names like Chow Trya or Suko Thai, or something like that. It didn’t mean anything to me, and I didn’t think that it would mean much, literally, to most of the people in my audience. So, it was just a kind of way of combining two obsessions I have: one is musical, and the other is culinary.

[K] Well, let’s listen to something first, I think that’s a good idea. Let’s get a flavour of what you did about 10 years ago. This was from your, well, when I use the word “groundbreaking,” apparently those of us on the East Coast were to learn some of the new music composition on the West Coast based on this original CD, Four Pieces. And it’s kind of become a classic since then. We’re going to listen to the first cut on that. And again, a restaurant?

[CS] Yes, it’s a now-defunct Korean restaurant in Los Angeles.

We listen to Wall Me Do by Carl Stone [0:20:50–0:30:20].

[K] A very energetic piece, a very dance-y piece, and again turning back to the whole question of where you are in the spectrum of music. And I ask that because Damian and I both have a sort of categorization dilemmas about ourselves. We don’t know where any of us fit, and I wonder if this is an affliction of composers who are often self-taught. Are you? You are, aren’t you?

[CS] No, I’m not self-taught.

[K] I thought you were largely self-taught.

[CS] I studied classical music performance when I was young, and then I attended the California Institute of the Arts and studied composition and electronic studio techniques. My main teacher was Morton Subotnick.

[D] Oh, well that’s the same as being self-taught. [General laughter]

[K] No, I thought that you were sort of self-directed during that period of time.

[CS] Well, that’s true, I mean I was kind of independent, worked on my own projects, and was kind of cranky, actually, about following the directions of class. But CalArts was a pretty loose place, and they fortunately gave me that kind of freedom. Categorization is definitely an issue, and it’s really a problem. It’s only a problem in the minds of marketers and the record stores, though, I mean I don’t know, when I go into a record store looking, say, to see if they have my own CDs, I don’t know if I should look in the Classical section, or the Experimental/Avant-garde section, or in the Noise section, where it sometimes shows up. Or if there’s a New-age section, it occasionally shows up there. These days, there’s so much work falling between the lines, crossing categories, that eventually all these kinds of classifications become more or less meaningless.

[K] Well, when they become “meaningless,” how do we begin to listen to the music? There’s a multiplicity of components, it’s not just a sort of auditory one. There’s kind of an “understanding” one, as well, to most of the music we hear on one level or another. Do you sort of… not care about that level, or do you not want to give anybody anything but the sort of “sonic ladder” to work with?

[CS] Well, I want people to listen on their own terms and without regard to what category they think it might or might not fit into, I guess that’s the point. It’s kind of like what I was saying before about titles, why I didn’t like to give my pieces fanciful titles, because it would predispose people to listening in a certain way. I wanted people to approach my music always with an open mind, and provide their own sort of mental dreamscape or picture to it. So, I guess that’s sort of what I’m saying when I say that categories are really kind of irrelevant. You simply abandon all thought of whether this is “minimalism” or “post-minimalism,” or this is “pre-maximalism” or anything like that, and you just listen.

[K] It does absolutely draw you in. We have played Shing Kee on the program, and the reaction to it, we had callers who thought it was an extraordinary piece.

[CS] Well, that’s nice to know.

[K] You’re very modest about that particular piece. I wrote an email to you and I called it a “masterpiece” (which I truly believe it is), and you had sort of an “Oh, well gee, thanks,” kind of response to that.

[CS] Well, I mean, what can I say? “Oh, alright, you’re right. It’s a masterpiece.” [Laughter]

[K] To which I read this one sentence written by a reviewer in Optionmagazine, who said, “Whatever it is that Stone does, no one does it better.”

[CS] Well that’s nice too. Those kinds of things, yeah, are very nice to hear.

[K] Let’s listen to another piece. Let’s do Gadberry’s. When I first played it, we thought “Cadbury’s,” and that was our first thought that maybe we were talking food.

[CS] Gadberry’s is a BBQ shop, again in Los Angeles.

[K] We’re bring it forward in time here a little bit. This is what, four years after Wall Me Do?

[CS] Gadberry’s was done not quite four years, about three. Yeah, several years later.

[K] That definitely has a different feel.

We listen to Gadberry’s by Carl Stone [0:35:17–0:44:50].

[K] A composition from 1989. How do you put together something like that? I think most of our listeners have had some background in how the instrumental people work, and even how some of the new age people work, with MIDI equipment and so forth, how do you put something together?

[CS] Well, technically, or how I approach it compositionally or æsthetically?

[K] All of the above, we have plenty of time.

[CS] Basically, I very often approach a piece of music, in the early stages, as a kind of play. And by “play” I really mean what you might call screwing around with a particular idea or a particular technique, or something. And without any specific idea as to where I’m going to end up, without any predisposed idea about form or content, or anything. And that’s true in the case of Gadberry’s, where I did a little bit of programming on my computer to generate some of these rhythmic patterns and put in the pitches. Then i just sort of turned it on and let it happen for a while, and as it was happening, I sort of grew to understand what was going on, and I tweaked it a little, began to shape it and form it into something. It was all pretty intuitive. As I say, I didn’t really have a fixed idea of what I was looking for, so I just let the music lead me around, and I inserted my hand once in a while, and that’s really how it ended up. I used — for the tweakheads, the gearheads in the audience — a Macintosh program called M, to get the whole thing started. M is what’s known as an algorithmic music program. It’s not like a sequencer where you put in all the notes and then you hit a button and they all get played back. Sequencers obviously have a lot more capabilities than that, but that’s basically the function, sort of a glorified tape recorder, using computer data instead of tape.

[K] We did have Joel Chadabe [see interview in this issue of eContact!] on last week, and he explained how he did some of that.

[CS] Well, Joel Chadabe’s the person who developed M. So, for you listeners who tune in every week, it might be redundant, but in case anyone missed Joel, basically, M looks at a stack of pitches and a stack of rhythms and it just figures out (and this is oversimplifying it greatly) all the different combinations, and gives them to you. You can sort of train it to do certain things and you can limit it, sort of focus it in one part of a musical world or another, but that’s all you’re doing, and that’s really what Gadberry’s is about.

[K] So from what I read, you’re heard a great deal in Japan, and not as much in America. Why is that?

[CS] Why is that, I don’t know.

[K] Does it have to do with technology?

[D] Or the restaurants?

[CS] I think that it is true. For some reason, I have a kind of enthusiastic following over in Japan. Not a huge following, but as I say, kind of enthusiastic. So I’ve been fortunate that I’ve been able to do numerous projects over there, and have gotten a fair amount of attention. Why that is, I don’t know. I don’t think it’s as much because I’m using technology, as maybe — and I would hope this to be true — for more musical reasons. For some reason, I think the Japanese like in my approach, what I was talking about earlier, the kind of “bring your own dream to the concert,” and “supply your own mental images.” The Japanese listen very intuitively, in fact.

[K] Are they very different from Western listeners? The European audience does not cut it at that?

[CS] Well, of course there are a lot of people who are interested in Western classical music and European-based music. It’s not to say that, but I think that there are other ways of listening, and some of the Japanese anyway seem to like my way, or the way that I suggest to them. So I feel kind of fortunate that I can have fans over there and the opportunity to go there. I like Japan, I can sort of find my around, speak a little of the language, and have got a lot of friends over there now.

[K] Let’s listen to… the masterpiece. [Laughter] Let’s listen to Shing Kee. Let me, just from my own perspective, say that I found that to be one of the few pieces that actually attempted, it seemed, to suspend time, that actually succeeded in doing it. I have lived through my share of stasis music and minimalist music, and have written my share, we’ve all written our share of this stuff and it is rarely successful when you get more than a year or two away from it. This piece goes back half a decade or more.

[CS] Wow, you know, when I think about it, it’s now ten years old. Yeah, it was 1986 when I wrote that piece.

[K] Oh yeah, I’m living in the past myself, I guess.

[CS] Well, but that makes me shudder. Where did it go, all this time?

[K] Really. But it is captivating and gripping, and you cannot get out of it. It pulls you into it. Just quickly, technically, what are we hearing? We’re hearing 19th century song, sung 15,000 miles from home.

[CS] It’s a song from Schubert’s Winterreise, sung in English by a Japanese pop singer.

[K] Amazing, and an amazing transformation has taken place.

[CS] It was amazing, and that’s what attracted me to it when I heard this on a CD. The singer is Akiko Yano, and she’s a pop singer who put out this interesting collection of art songs on a Japanese label, and I heard this. I liked the whole CD, but there was this one phrase that really stuck out, and so I said “I’ve got to get in, and I want to explore this phrase, I want to see how it works. I want to get in at the atomic, or molecular, level and really see what’s going on.” So the technique I use is a kind of time-stretching. You take a phrase of music, and you stretch it out, you can really get in and examine it, and that’s really what I’m doing there.

[K] Just quickly, how much original material was there? I mean, what length of time, if you were to take the actual snippet of the recording that you used, how much was there?

[CS] Well, about 12 seconds maybe, altogether. There’s this one phrase which is bisected, and the first half of the pieces uses the first half of the phrase, and the second half of the piece uses the second half of the phrase. This is actually one of my most formal pieces, although I started doing it in a kind of theoretical way. It has probably one of the most rigid forms of any of the pieces that I’ve done in a while.

[K] Let’s hear it. Our listeners should put on their headphones or close their eyes, or something, so that they are not otherwise distracted by the world around them.

[CS] Yeah, it’s good to listen to in the dark.

We listen to Shing Kee by Carl Stone [0:53:13–1:08:37].

[K] You were described at one point as a very “user-friendly composer.” [General laughter] That piece is not so much friendly, it seems to me, as it is demanding and like a siren, like an enchantress that will not let you go.

[CS] That’s nice, thank you.

[D] Do you have a day job?

[CS] No, I’m a full-time composer. I’ve managed to sort of make out a modest living as a composer, and I’m sort of proud to say that I’ve never taught at a university, I’ve never had a university teaching position…

[K] Ah, not an academician.

[CS] … and I’ve never done a Hollywood soundtrack. So, I feel blessed.

[D] How are the rates over to Japan? I mean, do you have a lot of frequent flyer points by now?

[CS] Well yeah, as a matter of fact I do, that’s helpful too. And I guess I was also helped out with my situation in Japan, by the fact that the dollar has been pretty weak in comparison to the Japanese yen, and so that’s been accrued to my benefit, I have to say.

[D] Are all the titles of your pieces for restaurants in America, or are you international?

[CS] Most of them are American. A lot of them are from Los Angeles, where I used to live, and now you’re starting to see some San Francisco restaurants and a few Tokyo restaurants, and places like that.

[K] We’ve played often enough for our listeners to remember, music by Conlon Nancarrow. And he was struggling with mechanical devices, long before sequencers and synthesizers were possible. What would you be doing without this?

[CS] Without my little computer? Well, that’s a good question. I mean, I’ve been interested in technology of one form or another since the late 1960s, so it’s hard to imagine not using some form of technology. I mean, I did a lot of work with tape and in the recording studio long before computers were really practical for people like me. But, if you sort of stuck me in a desert island, unplugged, no electricity…

[K] Yeah, right, if you were on a desert island, or for some reason the Star Trek time warp just sort of sucked you back to 1945, you know, in Des Moines.

[CS] It’s an interesting question, but I really don’t know the answer. Using a computer is pretty much fundamental to what I do, it’s almost hard to imagine. What the results would be, I do not know. Would it stop me from composing? No, because regardless of what I do, I am actually interested in limitations. I have a fair amount of equipment in my studio, but when I do a piece, I will usually say, “Okay, for this piece, I’m going to use this one piece of gear. I’m not going to use anything else, and I’m going to explore this one piece of gear. As a kind of challenge, I’m going to limit myself to maybe one aspect of this piece of gear, and really try to squeeze all of the juice out of that lemon.” So, if I was on a desert island with just a bamboo flute or something, I guess I would start working on my embouchure, and see what I could get out of that.

[K] Let’s listen to something else from a new CD, and then get back with a couple more questions. Just a very short cut from the new CD, Kamiya Bar, this is Gild.

We listen to Gild by Carl Stone [1:12:50–1:15:44].

[K] This is from your new CD, and having heard the whole thing a couple of times, it’s very different. To my ears, these jumps from ’85 to ’90 to ’95 are very different, I don’t hear the progression. But before we talk about that, how the heck do you perform live?

[CS] Well, my performance setup is pretty simple. I like to keep it simple, and I really admire people like solo instrumentalists like John Zorn, who can just sort of pick up his saxophone, hit the road and go. So, my setup is not quite that simple. I have a Macintosh Powerbook, and a sampler, a small, one rack-space sampler made by a company called Peavey and a synthesizer, and that’s basically it. It has a small MIDI interface, and that’s all I require.

[K] So that’s it look like when somebody watches you perform? Is the visual important?

[CS] Frankly, no. I kind of de-emphasize the visual thing, because there’s not that much to see. I’m looking at a computer screen, and I’m actually touching the keys of the computer. I don’t have a keyboard or a drum kit, or anything like that. These days, I stand up and play. I used to sit at a table. In fact, once we thought about doing a concert where I’d be sitting at my computer, and I’d be staged with a telephone and a desk calendar, some pens, and it would sort of be like “Carl in his office.” But basically, there’s not a whole lot to see. I do sort of get into it and rock out, but I like to sort of turn down the lights and emphasize the sound as the component. I don’t really go to concerts to watch people, I go to listen. That’s kind of what I encourage other people to do as well.

[D] So each performance is different.

[CS] Oh yeah, definitely. Sure, absolutely. Each piece is different. One or two pieces are the same almost every time. Shing Kee is one of those. Some pieces are almost completely different every time, and a lot of pieces sort of fall in the middle, where basically they have a lot of similarities one performance to the other, but a lot of details are different, as well.

[D] Quite a bit like eating at restaurants.

[K] Depends on who the chef is that night, right.

[CS] [Laughter] Yeah.

[K] Let’s listen to another brief section of a longer CD, Kamiya Bar, by Carl Stone.

We listen to Young Jump by Carl Stone [1:19:30–1:23:55].

[K] That’s what I meant earlier, with this piece Young Jump by Carl Stone, when I said it was different what I thought we’d heard before. What’s the story behind this whole CD?

[CS] Well, this whole CD is called Kamiya Bar, and it’s a piece of music that was commissioned by the radio in Japan, FM Tokyo. I’d lived in Japan on a grant, kind of a cultural exchange program, back in 1989. I had a little DAT machine and a stereo microphone, and I would walk around the city and just try to capture as many sounds as I could, with the idea that at some point, I would do something musical with it. This commission sort of gave me the chance, and basically many of the sounds you hear are samples from the city of Tokyo, it’s a kind of urban sound portrait of Tokyo, which is a very special sound environment. So if you listen to Kamiya Bar, you hear the voices of the television or radio, you hear the right-wing politicians lecturing on the street, you hear the sounds of train stations, you hear the sounds of the fish auctioneers of the early-morning fish auctions near the bay. The elevator girls, just a lot of different things. It’s very disorienting to be in the middle of this kind of sound environment, and I tried to sort of capture that disorientation at times, and also organize it at times, make it more rational. It’s in a way a sound portrait of Tokyo, and in a way it’s just something else altogether.

[K] What questions should we have asked you? What’s the question you most wanted to answer?

[CS] Well, I thought “What’s for dinner” was pretty good.

[K] Well, everybody’s got a message, I think, sometimes beyond the actual art they create. Have you got one of those?

[CS] Yeah, there are a bunch of questions which I am interested in being asked, but I don’t have good answers for any of them. Well, the thing is that, for example, as a creative person, I could have, I suppose, chosen to work with words to be a writer, or to be an architect or a visual artist, but for some reason I chose music, I chose sound. And I’m not sure exactly why that is. I mean, I guess I have nothing to do to explain that, except that sound has always been the medium that communicated to me more than any other. I’m not a particularly visual person, in fact. I love literature, but I never ever considered doing anything else but being a composer. And I guess that’s not really a question… I don’t even know what that is.

[K] [Laughter]

[D] Have you considered politics?

[CS] [Laughter]

[D] I think there’s a trend for musicians to segue into politics.

[CS] Oh yeah, for example?

[K] Well, like John Zorn for example, isn’t he in the White House right now?

[CS] Oh, that guy, right, yeah. Well, it’s an interesting point. There are a lot of composers who have tried to use music as a political tool, a means to an end. I find those things generally don’t work very well. But people try them.

[K] Well, we’re leading you astray, here. I think we should finish up the show today with one more piece of music, Cooking Papa! Love that title.

[CS] [Laughter] By the way, this is also from Kamiya Bar, and in this case, I did use another arbitrary system for naming the sections of Kamiya Bar, and these are all named after comic books in Japan.

[K] Ah, Cooking Papa.

[CS] Cooking Papa’s a comic book.

[K] I won’t ask. There’s a very collage-like feel to this one. To my ears. Rather than a kind of woven-ness, or a thread-ness, this one feels like a kind of pasting of many pieces and chunks together. Did you head in that direction? What were you looking to do there?

[CS] Yeah, I think the way you describe it is pretty accurate, there are a lot of things going on. It’s better if people just listen.

[K] Okay, they will. Carl Stone, thank you very much for joining us today on Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Sesquihour.

[CS] Thank you, it’s been a lot of fun.

We listen to Cooking Papa by Carl Stone [1:29:30–1:40:20].

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