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Interview with Fred Szymanski

The White Duke of Noise

Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #335, 3 November 2001. In the WGDR studio. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:33:23–1:52:40].

Fred Szymanski is a sound and image artist who lives and works in New York City. He has composed audio works under the project name Laminar, with releases by Asphodel Recordings, JDK Productions, and Soleilmoon Staalplaat. His piece Flume was part of An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music from 1952 to 2004, and his CD Nozzle was released in January 2004. The multimedia piece Flexors was selected at the 34th IMEB (Bourges, France). Friction Sticky Rough, an installation for multiple image projection and loudspeakers, was premiered at the Diapason Gallery (New York) and included in the show What Sound Does a Color Make? at the Eyebeam Center for Art and Technology (New York) in 2005. Group shows featuring his sound and image work include the Abstraction Now exhibition (Vienna) and BitStreams at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His works have also been performed at festivals including SonicLIGHT 2003 (Amsterdam) and the 2000 ICMC (Berlin).

[Kalvos] Our guest, Fred Szymanski’s here, welcome!

Frederick Szymanski performing
Frederick Szymanski performing.

[Fred Szymanski] Thank you.

[K] This is great. You are here at the associated institution to the WGDR, Goddard College, on a residency. Tell us about yourself. We met very quickly online, because we had a call for scores for new pieces for our September 11 Musical Gallery pieces created in response to September 11, and you sent a very exciting one along, called Wedge. And then you said you were going to be in the area, but beyond this, there’s a wonderful quote, which I’ll read, of this piece which we’re going to hear today. The reviewer said:

“The Thin White Duke of Noise,” Fred Szymanski. “Thin White Duke?” you say, “What's that supposed to mean?” Well, Fred is to noise music what David Bowie had been to, well, all the different kinds of music he's influenced. Now, to be fair, Fred is no Ziggy. He's not pushing the envelope so far as the way he looks (unless he secretly looks like a Smurf, and he's just pretending to look like Fred). Fred pushes a whole new kind of envelope; an envelope of terrorsound and hatesound and fearsound, and many other sounds that no one else wants, and sounds that most people would happily throw away or never even notice.

[D] Wow.

[K] That was exciting!

[FS] That’s by Kirin. I don’t know who she is. She’s one of those web reviewers that turns up. I think she was on some large website, and she was thrown off. She’s very controversial. I took it as a compliment. Some people would not. I actually sent the review to a friend, collaborator and mentor, Agostino Di Scipio, and he was insulted by those words. Not for my sake, but that people would use metaphors and such powerful language to describe the material of sound. He’s coming from a European tradition, very purist.

[K] Right, exactly.

[D] And do you come from a European tradition? What is your genesis?

[FS] No, I come from a North American perspective. I’ve been influenced by the Canadian soundscape work, the World Soundscape Project and Barry Truax, Hildegard Westerkamp and Murray Schafer. I studied electronic music, analog synthesis, at Brown, when I was an arts student at Rhode Island School of Design. So, I have a visual arts background, and I have a film degree. I came out of the independent film movement.

[K] You won an award a couple of years ago, as well.

[FS] Yeah. I’ve actually begun to work in video again, because of DV and the technology, and I’m recombining the two mediums at this point. But in studying electronic music, I realized I was working with tape loops, film loops and continuous optical printing. I used random, stochastic and aleatoric strategies to compose these visual pieces at the time. It was so much cheaper to work with tape recorders.

So I came to New York, I started working with tape recorders and synthesis, and studied, again, synthesis with Jan Hall at PASS, at the beginning when PASS was just PASS. Public Access Synthesizer Studio mutated into Harvestworks, which is a little more of a developed institution. At that time, in the 80s, I worked in live electronic music in more of a group setting, when people were forming groups and performing live, and trying to get the kudos that way. I’ve always had an interest in pure sound, in material and synthesis, and in the early 90s I started working on my own. I started doing what I’m doing now.

[K] Let’s hear something. What’s a good starter piece for us?

[FS] Should we play Wedge?

[K] Sure, let’s do that.

[FS] This is a remix. The genesis of Wedge really came out of a project I was working on, a remix project for Asphodel that’s upcoming, which is a remix of Iannis Xenakis’s Persepolis.

We listen to Wedge (remix) by Fred Szymanski [0:39:47–0:46:56].

[K] So tell us about the piece and about the techniques you use to achieve it. These are techniques which are simply not part of the lay vocabulary, so give us a rundown.

[FS] They’re actually not part of the standard synthesis routines that one would discover in electronic music studios. They’re called “non-standard synthesis.” The reason they’re called “non-standard,” or are very experimental techniques, is that really there’s no model or instrument that the synthesis is using in the analysis stage. The work is done through a nonlinear function, and if I can simplify that, it’s a nonlinear function that is actually iterated on itself. One is sampling the phase-space, and the sounds actually come out of the bifurcation of the phase-space.

[K] Let’s back up even more to the beginning of that. If you will explore very quickly, what sounds are the origin of it, and what sort of approach you take to developing the piece, before you get to the technique. In other words… we have the images, everything from the romantic Brahms at the piano, to the person who’s sampling and reconstructing through samples. Where do you start? Where does your idea come from, and how do you choose one of these techniques.

[FS] Essentially, one is confronting two, in the tradition of the orchestra and score. This comes out of modeling and synthesis that emulates the traditional instrumental music, and that division of the two is pretty much inherent in working processes in electronic music as well. You’re probably familiar with that. In sampling, one takes a sample and then one creates some kind of event or note or latticework, to place it in time. In contrast to that, conceptually I’m working with technique wherein the technique that produces the sound actually produces the form. So the duality is overcome, if you can put it that way. You’re producing the iteration of, or the feeding back of the sine wave on itself, and produces this type of erratic, fluctuating sound, and I try to capture that. Part of the æsthetic dimension is capturing that perturbation, and using it as the form as well as the origin or the production of the sound.

[K] Take us back to baby blocks on this. The simplest possible function, and how it would sound.

[FS] Well, it’s hard to describe. It’s pure synthesis, first of all. It’s not a sample, it doesn’t come from nature. It just comes from the generation of the numbers itself in DSP, in digital signal processing. It’s a set of code that actually works in CSound, and I have written models. CSound is an extension of the Music V language that Max Mathews developed at Bell Labs. I’ve taken Cecilia, which is a graphic interface that sits on top of CSound. That was developed by Jean Piché at the University of Montréal, and it allows me to draw the various functions, graphic breakpoint functions, little graphic diagrams…

[K] You draw them rather than create a formula for them?

[FS] The formula is set, but I’m accessing the formula with these breakpoint functions. So the breakpoint functions are graphic displays or line diagrams that progress through time. The model, the original instrument was not developed by me, it was developed by an Italian composer named Agostino DiScipio. I’ve taken his instruments and ramified them, or expanded them, into this other program. I have the model, I write the breakpoint functions, and then I ask it to re-synthesize from scratch, and I produce the sound through these nonlinear functions. It tends to be very noisy at times, and that’s based on the fact that the iteration feeds back on itself and has this tendency to create this kind of pointillistic sound that’s very similar to granular synthesis.

[K] Okay, let’s get back to granular synthesis the next time through, let’s hear something.

[FS] Okay, I’ll play an earlier Laminar [CD] piece, Sector 4. This is granular synthesis, also using some iteration, but it’s not functional synthesis. It’s actually using samples, and those have iteration within, which is just the type of feedback technique, which I can talk about.

[D] And where does this sit in your œuvre?

[FS] This is the beginning, I would say. At least this type of raw material.

[K] Okay, and in fact the review that we read by Kirin was about this. So we have an emotional context, of response, and your descriptive context of creation. So let’s see if we, as listeners, and our listeners, our audience, can synthesize that [laughter] as they listen.

We listen to Sector 4 by Fred Szymanski [0:54:12–1:00:54].

[D] Now, see I found that just fascinating! A lot!

[FS] Really?

[D] Yes, I did!

[K] We promised ourselves a show full of unlistenable stuff, and then we got that very elegant, sort of sweet piece.

[FS] Well, I think we should possibly… I’m going to step back a moment, if you don’t mind, and play some soundscape material. It’s hard to go from soundscape to where I am now. It’s hard to imagine how I came from soundscape, but…

[K] Let’s have your definition of “soundscape.” A lot of these terms get very personal, so let’s hear what you mean by “soundscape.”

[FS] Well, you know, because I’m presenting it and working with the students here at Goddard, I try to come up with a useful, at least credible, definition of soundscape. So I try to take it from Murray Schafer, who said that is working with the environment: that can be the environment itself, it could be collage, or some kind of abstraction from the environment, but it entails interaction with the individual in the environment in some fashion.

[K] Interaction in the process of composition, or in the process of presentation, or both?

[FS] Both, yeah. It would be in the composition if you were working with a collage or musical piece, and deriving musical content from it, and/or presenting a musical context. Or just doing an analysis of a soundscape in the environment, like working in an area of noise pollution, let’s say. There’s an interesting article by Andra McCartney, who’s at Concordia University in Montréal.

[K] Right, which is kind of a hotbed of electroacoustics.

[FS] Exactly. And her article, it’s online, you can find it very easily. It’s about soundscape composition as subversive to the electroacoustic norm. Her contention is that soundscape, which has been going on since the late 60s to early 70s, in Canada, in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University, threatens the instrumental content of electroacoustic music, and has been pushed to the side…

[K] Why is that? Explain what that means.

[FS] She thinks there’s a bias towards it, and it hasn’t been covered in books, and it’s subversive in the sense that people find it difficult to analyze. Pretty much it’s an analytical problem, because one is dealing with the sounds in their purity and looking for the morphology of the timbre that’s inherent in natural sounds, and composing, manipulating, and transforming those properties. And so it eludes typically analytical techniques, whereas electroacoustic music might seem like a radical thing in a sense, but it is very related and very similar to instrumental music in the history of Western art music.

[K] It’s kind of an interesting thing. There’s almost a kind of cultural, or even a class, dichotomy between soundscape and electroacoustics. Because soundscape has that personal character, indeed with the audiences that listen to it. We had David Stephens on the show a couple of months ago, and he was making a point that — and he wasn’t specifically talking about soundscape, but at least pieces that are somewhat in that realm — [they have] more to do with the chillout room in the pop scene than they do with the university — kind of more abstract, as you would say — heritage of the instrumental music scene. Yeah, so there might be that difference too. Almost a rivalry.

[FS] Yeah, exactly. There’s this tradition of it. There’s a purity, a kind of a rigid aspect of the soundscape, where it must have the property of the original sound and doesn’t deviate from that, because they feel it would become electroacoustic. I don’t really follow that. Well, Trevor Wishart is a perfect example of someone whose work is contextual. You can really hear the environment he works in. But, it’s quite easy to go beyond that, because the transformations he works with are software-based, based on CDP, the Composer’s Desktop Project. He has written extensively about that, and he was at IRCAM also. A lot of the original techniques, phase vocoder, timescale transformations and mutation all are derived from Trevor Wishart’s work.

[K] Let’s hear it. What do we have here?

[FS] We have 3, 4 and possibly 7. The title of the piece is called Attendez, and it was recorded in Paris in 1992. I hope to have conveyed the feeling of being in space with people, in the language of French.

We listen to Attendez, parts 3, 4, 7 and 11 by Fred Szymanski [1:06:53–1:25:58].

[D] Those are wonderful.

[K] Soundscape!

[D] Yes, they are. What is the genesis for say, one section of those? How do you start?

[FS] How do I think about it, how do I approach it?

[D] Yeah.

[FS] Well, there was some background. I had been listening to soundscape work, specifically composers like Barry Truax and Hildegard Westerkamp. Hildegard usually uses gesture, and she integrates the space. She works in the ecological electroacoustic (or acoustic) domain, and just does not transform the sound at all. I actually transformed the sound a lot, as you could tell, but all the sounds originally came from Paris. I was thinking about changing the context rather, more like a cinematic change, in a montage-type consciousness, where one can go very quickly to another space. So it’s a sonic space, rather than conforming it to a bird, or a specific animal and placing it. I actually haven’t really replaced anything, everything is exactly as it was recorded, but I quickly go between different spaces, and social spaces. I was interested in language spaces, where people are gathering, walking and moving, and then you feel like you’re drawn through those spaces. Then there were some other electroacoustic techniques thrown in there.

[D] That’s exactly right, I was drawn through. I was on a little travelogue, I thought, “Oh, this is Walt Disney”… Well, sorry, it’s better than Disneyland, it was better than being there.

[FS] It’s more like the Wisconsin Dells.

[K] There is so clear a distinction between soundscape and your material that’s not generated out of existing sounds. You would think that, coming from the same composer, the relationships would be clearer than the distinctions. Is the nature of how you make it so strong, that you can’t make it integrated? Or, you just simply don’t choose to?

[FS] Well, I think it is related, but I don’t know if I can articulate it. What I was talking about earlier, going through spaces physically in the soundscape, I actually move. That’s a macroscopic notion of phenomena, a social space. In the synthesis work, I’m actually working in a microscopic area, you know, like with granular synthesis. But I’m actually moving through the space. In my visual work, I’m very interested in how motion is causal in the production of form.

[K] So, if we were to listen to Fred Szymanski over the course of a few days, and just absorb your work, we would hear those relationships?

[FS] You might not hear them, you might conceive of them. They’re not really related timbrally or instrumentally or traditionally (in an analytical way), but they’re related conceptually, because I’m interested in motion. I think my soundscape work was a launching pad for me to go into synthesis, and to think about the microscopic and macroscopic coming together and producing form in the synthesis routines. And a way of coming to terms with that as well.

[K] Because there is a known, familiar sound for the listener to “hang on to,” it would seem that the soundscape has sort of a high-accessibility level. I know this is the ultimately dreaded question every time it’s asked, but we repeat it: How do we listen to the generated work, coming to it from the outside?

[FS] Right, how do you approach it?

[K] Yeah, as a listener who’s largely involved in listening to pop over the course of a lifetime, or background music, how does one approach it?

[FS] It’s hard for me to answer, of course, but I look at it as a pure form, it’s material in and of itself. That’s the way I intended it to be in the production of it. I do have some concern for the listener. I do arrange it in some way, and try to make it, constrain it within perceptual limits for the listener. It can be challenging at times, but there’s two ways to listen to it, sort of like Frank Zappa or maybe Eno would say this. If you listen to it very low, it’s ambient. If you listen to it at a high dB, in a large way, it’s noise music, it’s about noise.

[K] I found it interesting that there are inaudible sounds in some of your work. I downloaded the samples from your website, the three short samples. I didn’t bring them along, but I listened to them, and I was wondering if there was something I was sensing but couldn’t hear. So I threw the waveforms up onto my sound editor, and I noticed that there were subsonic frequencies pretty close to DC in there.

[FS] Right.

[K] Why is that? How do you account for the presence of these subsonics, are they deliberate? Are they sort of a “hidden message” of some sort?

[FS] Well, thank you for doing that, for putting them up on your scope, and doing a sonogram. But it’s a byproduct of the technique, of the iterative functional synthesis. Like with the last piece of Laminar, it sounds noisy, it’s a loop, and I do the transformations, and the iteration magnifies the frequencies in high and low, and yeah, it spins out of control, so to speak. It’s dangerous. I’m very interested in the nonlinear behaviour of speakers and sort of pushing that limit, in what can be reproduced and what can be heard.

[K] So you’re expensive, are you, on equipment?

[FS] [Laughter] I have blown out headphones and speakers, yes. While listening to them.

[K] Let’s hear another.

[FS] Okay. This is an upcoming CD that will be released on JDK Productions, which comes out of Amsterdam, in 2002. Let’s hear 3fold-1, etcetera. It’s called Manifold.

[K] Oh, we have something in common with James Bohn. [see interview in this issue of eContact!]

[FS] I saw that.

[K] His variations are called “Manifold.”

[FS] I noticed that.

We listen to Manifold Feed: 3fold-1, 00phase-f, Feed4, 0Feed2 by Fred Szymanski [1:35:00–1:51:30].

[D] We were playing it at a low-volume “ambient,” as opposed to a high-volume “noise.”

[K] Right. 3fold-1, and what do we have there, 00phase-f, Feed4, and 0Feed2, four sections of that piece.

[D] So he’s working on his titles there.

[K] Yeah, titles are improving.

Well, thanks so much for joining us. The time has just gone by, and we have a couple quick pieces to play. You were going to tell us a little bit more about the next composer.

[FS] Yeah, he’s a good friend and mentor, Agostino DiScipio from Italy. This is some new work, it’s called Emerging Rhythms, it’s granular synthesis, and I hope you like it.

[K] Fred Szymanski, thanks so much.

[FS] Thank you.

We listen to Studies in Emerging Rhythms, #5, #1 and #4 by Agostino DiScipio [1:52:40–02:00:00].

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