Interview with Christopher deLaurenti
Surviving Seven Years
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #364, 25 May 2002. Damian on the road in Seattle WA. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:28:03–1:35:40].
Christopher deLaurenti (1967–2071 USA) is a composer, improvisor, and music writer. His sound work encompasses field recordings, electroacoustic and acousmatic music, text-sound scores, free-improvised low-tech electronics, and compositions for acoustic instruments. About his work, he writes, “I seek not only to capture the ordinary and extraordinary sounds of everyday life, but to bear witness to current crises that touch my conscience and impel me to respond.” Christopher’s best-known pieces, N30: Live at the WTO Protest November 30, 1999 and Live in New York at the Republican National Convention September 2 – August 28, 2004 use the pertinent sonic materials of social change, topical field recordings, battlefield audio, earwitness testimony, and other relevant sonic documents: His latest album, Favorite Intermissions: Music Before and Between Beethoven-Stravinsky-Holst is a collection of surreptitiously recorded orchestra intermissions. Christopher’s music and other writings reside on his website.
[Damian] It’s Kalvos & Damian New Music Bazaar on the road in Seattle, and it’s just such a fun city to be in, there are mountains around, and the temperature’s temperate.
[Christopher deLaurenti] There’s actually sun!
Yes, saw some sun, came over on a boat through my camera in the sound, because it wasn’t behaving well, I felt very good about that. And we’re here today with Christopher deLaurenti, a Seattle composer, thank you, welcome!
Oh, thank you. Great to be here.
Oh good. First thing I think our audience would like to know is a basic background of you, where you come from, and how you got into the new music scene, and where you fit in the Seattle new music scene? Or do you fit?
[Laughter]Well, I guess I have a musical lineage. My father was a jazz pianist in the late 1950s, and as the 60s wore on and the climate became, shall we say, not so friendly to jazz musicians, he worked in jazz funk bands. Actually he ran jazz funk bands around town, just little trios, some quartets. That sort of wore out. He didn’t ever quite go disco, although he did have a group that did a few hot numbers like that. In fact, he was talking about Donna Summer’s Last Dance, and he goes, “Oh yeah, I remember that tune, that was a hot little number for us.”
Yes indeed, we don’t play it often on our show, but we’re about to.
Yeah, well after Donna Summer left that whole Giorgio Moroder thing behind… but anyway, that’s a whole other topic actually. So in the early 80s he wound up doing basically what would be called overturning, in a way, to lounge piano. You know, playing piano bars and that sort of thing. Now, he’s mostly retired. He’ll do the occasional gig for a while. He was doing political functions and weddings, you know, the kinds of gigs that pay real well and that us new music folks rarely enjoy or even encounter.
But… you don’t do weddings?
I don’t… well, I’ve done libraries, I’ve done community college, in fact Gray’s Harbor Community College, I don’t think they’ll ever have me back, but… [Laughter] That was an interesting, not quite the gig from hell, but maybe the gig from around heck. But anyway, before my father, my grandfather used to rent musical instruments to school bands, and he did that in the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s all the way up until his death in the mid-1980s. He also played accordions in various coal mining camps during the depression. He grew up in Newcastle, which used to be the site of a number of coal mines here in western Washington. So… and it goes all the way back, there’s family mythology back to the, you know, fiddler who was burned at the stake in the early 1500s back in Italy. So, you know, whether or not that’s true… but there are a lot of musicians in my family, so that’s partially where I come from, and two… I guess I’m giving you this long digression, and why it’s so important is because my father and my grandfather gave me the resources to start making music. The resources, not only in terms of a few lessons here and there… and actually, my father I didn’t have very many lessons with because his schedule was very crazy, but he basically had two things, you know, “Know what tune you’re playing,” and “Make sure you’ve got the rhythm and tempo right.” Which are two very important questions.
Anyway, as he went through these phases that I mentioned, he would say, “Well, you know, I don’t really need this Moog synthesizer anymore, it’s not really a hip sound. So, here you go.” Or a Mutron phaser pedal, “Well, gee, you know, I ran my electric piano through that for about ten years, and here in the early 80s it’s kind of become a cliché’d sound, take that too.” So, I inherited, as he cycled through these phases, a bunch of gear. And this gear also included several different 1/4-track recording decks, various microphones that generally didn’t work, or say, if a microphone had been abused for five or six years by the vocalist in the group (who was my first stepmother), that would get passed on to me. So, having to wend my way through this ever-increasing pile of musical junk was a real challenge, and it compelled me not only to battle my equipment, and to do contest with my equipment, but to try and make something new and interesting with it. So that’s why I always tend to mention my father and grandfather, because it’s not only my progenitors, but my musical providers, if you will.
When did you start?
Well, let’s see, I’m 34 years old, and I’ve probably been thinking or listening or trying to make this kind of music I would say since I was 14, but I know maybe I first really started trying to compose when I was maybe 9 or 10 or 11. They were piano pieces that were total junk.
You didn’t happen to bring any of those along, that we could play?
Oh, oh heck…
No, no, I do remember the first piece I ever composed. It was called Daybreak in the People’s Republic of China, and that was inspired actually from a trip to France. We would go to France every other summer to see my mother’s side of the family (she’s from France). And at the time, the United States had an embargo against certain products from certain countries, including Cuba, North Korea, the People’s Republic of China, and Vietnam. So, being a stamp collector as I was then, I’m not… well, I’m sort of a stamp collector now, but a passive one, I went to many of the open-air markets in Paris and found these stamp dealers. Of course, what was I doing? Well, my act of teenage rebellion was buying the stamps from Vietnam, Zimbabwe, North Korea, and China, and so I was sort of inspired, “Oh, China,” and you’d see all these Socialist Realist, you know, the most garish yellow you’ll ever see in your life, and I was inspired by that, so that’s probably the root of the first piece I ever wrote. Which I spent way too much time talking about, because it’s total garbage, I’m sure.
Oh, have you revisited it recently?
You couldn’t maybe process it, take the structure of it, and then do something in the style that you’re working now?
No, I’ve found that when I try to go back and fix things, fixing things that I’ve already done is a big mistake.
So, if you wanted to suggest to our audience a piece that would best represent you as a beginning piece, what do you think we should play?
Three Camels for Orchestra. But there are other pieces actually. Another piece that… I don’t know if it really exemplifies… well yes it does. Cocaine is a piece that, if you play and give an FCC language warning, you should be clear to play that. And that’s an “aural safari.” When I think about my pieces and talk about my pieces, I really create three kinds of pieces. One is aural safari, such as Cocaine and N30: Live at the WTO Protest, which I’m giving you here. There’s another piece titled Your 3 minute Mardi Gras, which came out on a CD that no one can find, let alone me, in the UK. And then after aural safaris there are what I call “orchestral projections,” and Three Camels for Orchestra is one of them. There are not very many of those, because basically it takes a long time to steal and wade through, you know, 500 recordings of classical music and re-edit them down into a single piece. The third category would be “routine investigation,” stuff that every composer does. You’re interested in examining rhythm, so you make a highly rhythmic piece. Or, you’re interested in some performance art type pieces, so you do that. There’s one right here, one of my favourites, called By Reading This You Are Performing the Score So Give Me 50 Cents, and you can see here that there are coupons.
There are, look at this! It’s lovely. Oh, we will have to somehow scan this, so we can put this on your page on our site. So let’s hear 2 pieces. Three Camels For Orchestra, followed by Cocaine. We hear them now, by Christopher deLaurenti.
We listen to Three Camels For Orchestra and Cocaine by Christopher deLaurenti, followed by comments and a phone visit by John Levin and Eric Boyer [0:35:58–1:06:25].
We just heard, by Christopher deLaurenti, Three Camels for Orchestra and Cocaine. Rather a difference of pieces.
Yes, but they both embody my obsession, I think, with form, with how a piece is put together. And you know, what’s form? Form is basically, “How should the piece go?” and it’s basically an attempt to answer that question. In Cocaine, as you heard, there are several points where the piece just comes to a dead stop. Three Camels is quite the opposite, it’s very relentless. It just drives and drives and drives and drives and drives. But both of those, I think to me, there are cadences. In Cocaine, there were these stretches of silence, not too long, but stretches of silence. Three Camels is punctuated almost purely by cadences, and starts to really derive its melodic material from cadences, which is not normally a source of melodic material, except maybe in Beethoven. So yeah, there are differences, but I hope there’s something similar too.
Yeah. Where do you find your audiences?
Well, you know, that’s the real question. Usually I find them at the gig, if they show up. I’m also one half a, what I like to call, a free improvising hardcore electronics duo, rebreather.
rebreather, yes. Oh, look! Are you playing anywhere near…
We actually just did two concerts at the Northwest New Works Festival at On the Boards, and they were… well, kudos to them for willing to book a fairly difficult and obstreperous, you know, almost anti-musical group, and to the audience, who hung through it. And you know, with these kinds of gigs, it’ll be anywhere from 5 to 50 people. I talk to my friends in New York, and they tell me, “Well, you know, your 20 to 30 people out there is our 50 to 70 people out here,” that kind of thing. That, and through the radio, for a long time I was just sending my pieces all sorts of places, to all sorts of stations, including to the New Music Bazaar, and I’ve gotten feedback that way. And I’m on the web with streaming audio like a whole bunch of folks. There are music clips, and I’ve written tons of articles about music, some of which are interesting, some of which I’m sure are just repetitive blather, and I think those would be of goodly interest to musicians and composers as well.
But finding the audience is a tough thing, because we are in the business of seduction. I was on a panel last night, and jousting with the local newspaper critic. He was really championing a lot of the, “Well, you know, I’m interested in the people who are kind of incorporating the innovations of the 20th century, but really creating a kind of a fusion with more traditional forms,” and… you know, I said, “Well, that’s really about the middle of the road. And that’s fine, but that’s not what I’m interested in, and I don’t think that’s what we’re here to talk about,” and blah-blah-blah. But finding the audience is difficult, and they are out there.
One of the big problems is that, for example with last night, it’s like, “Where are the people? Where are they showing up? Are people coming to this stuff?” People don’t understand that it takes years, it takes years. How old was I when I encountered George Crumb. Okay, let me think. I was, okay, probably by the time that Mikrokosmos III was done, I think, what, ’74, ’75? And I stumbled into that maybe in 1985, and I was 18. And I got it because some dancer at the UW — apparently she had skipped out on her rent and fees and had to skip town — left all her records behind, the record sat there for several years, and finally someone said, “Well hey, who likes this weird music? Ooh, Elliot Carter, George Crumb, Berio, Xenakis? What’s all this stuff, what are we going to do with it? We can’t sell it at a used record store, they won’t give us anything for it. Hey, there’s Christopher deLaurenti, he’s a kid making some strange music, let’s give him these records.” And actually, among them was a piece by Andrew Rudin. Do you…
I know the name, but I don’t know in what context.
You know, I always ask about him, because he has one record, it was on Nonesuch, I think it was called Tragoedia, I think. It was one of these things that was composed entirely sort of as a sequel to Silver Apples. Of course, Subotnick’s a different person, but Nonesuch was I think getting these people making electronic music. It’s a rare LP, I’ve not seen it released on CD. But anyhow, so it takes time for the music to seep people and for the music to reach people. And there are still people we’re discovering, you know, like Lucia Dlugoszewski. I always stumble over her name. She’s on 4 CDs, she has one CD to her name. During her lifetime, she was on maybe four records, at least the ones that I have from the discographies I can wade through. And yet she composed around 100 works at least, so I’m told, including orchestral pieces. So it takes a while for people to be discovered. And I think about it, well, I’m 34, well hey, I’m just in diapers, you know? I’m just getting started. That’s kind of a terrifying thought, but it takes a while for people to come around, and that’s one of the things that I guess every composer of adventurous music, experimental music has to have, is patience, because it takes a while.
It takes me a while too, sometimes. I also host a radio show in Seattle called the sonic stratosphere, and a few months ago I played a piece by, well, I shouldn’t say his name, we had a rather testy dialogue. But I picked up the CD and he’d emailed me and said, “Oh, you bought the CD and you played it two years later,” you know? And I wrote back and said, “Well, you know, I’m sorry. When I got this CD, I didn’t get it. I did not get what you were doing, and I thought it was junk. But I listened to it last month, I listened to it several times last week, I listened to it again, and now, now I can hear it, and now it moves me. Now I think it’s really cool, but it just took me a while, and I’m sorry.” So, that’s how it goes.
How can he have a problem with that? I think that’s very true, for what you’re doing.
Well, some people are really moody. And I’m sure as you’ve dealt with a lot of composers. I know you’ve dealt with far more living composers than I have on my show, that I’m sure. And you encounter all kinds of people who are in all sorts of strange temperments and egos… Moody’s the word, in a very fragile state. When I send out my playlists, there are composers who have written back to me and said, “Well, you played me, and then you played a piece by so-and-so, and I don’t like so-and-so. Next time, please don’t play me next to so-and-so.” Even though, in my opinion, it was a perfect transition, and the pieces worked together very well. Or maybe it was too close to the bone, maybe the person felt like they had some exclusive hold on some style, and no one does, really. Maybe they felt threatened by that, I don’t know.
Let’s bring this back to some music of yours. Is there another piece of yours that you would recommend?
Uh, yes. This piece is called Malevolent. It’s not for the faint of heart.
Oh, good! [Laughter]
And, I’ll just leave it at that.
We listen to Malevolent by Christopher deLaurenti [1:15:15–1:20:30].
That was wonderful. Who were your friends that you were able to get all your samples from? Wow. You didn’t pay anyone to call you and leave those messages, they just did that on their own?
[Laughter] It’s all real.
Whoof, good life you have, I guess we won’t investigate that. But the CD is part of Seattle Experimental Collective, SoniCabal.
Yes, the SoniCabal is a freeform group. Think of it as Alcoholics Anonymous for experimental musicians, except generally afterwards, there’s quite a bit of alcohol. We get together and talk about practically anything and everything. It’s basically a friendly bull session. We’ve been blessed, because there have been not very many, if any, really egos of people showing up and, “Well, I know all this.” It’s one of those things where it quickly collapses into anarchy, and that’s good. Someone will show up who knows very little, and say, “Well, you know, I just don’t understand the concept of ring modulation.” Which actually, is not something to be surprised about, in terms of many sound processing applications for the PC, actually that’s not very common. Ring modulation is a very 70s thing, and it’s funny how it’s sort of been left behind.
But anyway, so people will show up with all sorts of questions and they’ll say, “Well, what’s better, Firewire or USB?” blah-blah-blah. And generally, there will be someone there, and there are a lot of good-hearted people who are just willing to share their knowledge and impart what they know. You know, everyone’s a teacher, and everyone’s a student at the same time. So it’s very healthy, and of course, it’s not without our occasional royaling troubles as any collective of artists might be, but the compilation has 21 tracks, and it’s a wonderful slice of the experimental music scene in Seattle. As with so many of these new music CDs, it’s hard to find, but I do have clips available on my website, so it is “findable” that way.
Have you produced performances featuring the people of this group?
I’ve sort of taken a break from organizing gigs. I stopped really kind of organizing gigs in 2000. I helped organize the first Cabal showcase that was in 1999, and it was me and a couple other folks who helped with that for the first compilation, which is impossible to find. Actually, it’s so impossible to find that I have one copy. Otherwise, I’d give one to you. My piece, that is on the first comp, is available as a streaming file on my site, and it’s just one of those things where we made it, everyone loved it, and we were so tired after producing it, that we didn’t bother to make any more because we thought, “Well, we’ll just make another one.”
And I take the same approach with my own CDs, too. When something starts to run low or run out, I don’t really believe in re-pressing things. The money should have to be plowed into something new, rather than keeping the same, you know, Charley Pride record out on the record racks. But the Cabal did have a release party for this gig a few months ago. I helped a little bit with that. We all volunteer and chip in, in our own way, from manning the product table, as we call it, from tapping the keg and doling out alcohol, to taking tickets and whatnot. So I certainly don’t want to come across as a lynchpin of the SoniCabal, no, that’s not the case. There are probably 20 lynchpins.
Good. And “lynch” is a good term, since the piece we heard is very David Lynch-like.
Oh, well, thank you.
I just wanted to talk about the Tentacle, which is a publication that no one except people from around here, in the Seattle area, or who go to the Seattle area websites, knows about. Maybe you could talk about that.
Well, the Tentacle, I like to think about it as a lovably-erratic webzine and e-mail. What we do is maintain a somewhat comprehensive calendar. We’re all volunteers aboard the Tentacle. We think of the Tentacle as a ship, albeit it a leaky vessel, and we all have these nautical nicknames. I’m the Ship’s Sturgeon, for example, [Laughter] and the other fellow who handles the calendar chores along with me our Galley Prep, Eric Ostrowski of Noggin, who for the last ten years have been slicing open brains with their brand of guitar- and violin-based noise. There’s also Utility Squid Carl Juarez, and Swordfish (and founder and holy ancestor) Mike Marlin. We published a magazine, and still do from time to time. For a while it was monthly, and it was mainly a calendar of new music events. What I mean by that, is we really strive to fuse, and at least collect, a lot of adventurous but yes disparate subfields.
The last few years, I’ve been lucky enough to visit graduate schools and I show up and talk about my music, and I’ll teach a class on whatnot, either about my own music, or you know, the four major movements in electronic music since 1980, or you know, the basics of field recordings, blah-blah-blah. And invariably, I find that these students, whether they’re graduate students or undergraduates, are generally ignorant of entirely viable and valid, vibrant, swaths of music that are going on. They’ll know nothing about free improvisation, for example, or the free improvisers who are in England and Germany, and even here in the US. Many of the free improvisers I’ve met, although generally folks who are free improvisers tend to be a little more worldly and bit more away, sometimes have no idea who Scelsi was, or Milton Babbitt or John Adams, or whatnot. So the Tentacle, we assume — and whether or not this is actually the case is irrelevant — that people who are interested in the adventurous arts, and adventurous sonic arts in particular, will be interested in new composition, will be interested in free improvisation, will be interested in inter-media or multi-media, however you choose to stripe it.
So we try to collect these things in a single place, so people can see, and hopefully we can get them go not only see some hardcore improvised electronics, but maybe the music of Scelsi, or maybe some late Webern piece or something, and to try and broaden that. The calendar we sent out, it goes out once every week or ten days, listing these events with descriptions. Artists generally provide them, although if artists don’t (sometimes artists are flakes), we try and do that. And we try and remove all the worthless and unhelpful hyperboles, “much loved,” “greatest,” you know, that sort of thing, because everyone is much loved, and at some point or another, at least for a few milliseconds, they’ll be the greatest. And we really try and communicate this. the Tentacle’s not the only outfit of this kind, of course. Our kissin’ cousin in Vancouver, BC, Oscillations, run by Jordan Nobles of Vancouver New Music, and also the Transbay down in San Francisco, run by Scott Looney and Matt Ingalls and that crowd. So, there are these sorts of underground things. The Tentacle went to a bi-monthly publication, and as the issues I gave you there, we got a bit fatter in terms of content. We started publishing bigger and bigger pieces. Of course, we’re all volunteers, and we’re all broke volunteers, so we have very little of our own money to plow into it, so we subsist on advertising and the good will of others. We published an issue last summer, and will probably publish an issue this summer. We publish it when we want to now, and when we think we have enough material. But the real vital heart of the Tentacle is the calendar, and letting people know, that “Hey, there’s something cool going on here,” in fact, at Coffee Messiah, but a few blocks away from where we sit now, some wonderful free improvisers are playing tonight, at eight bucks, or it’s free, and there you go.
So, that’s the Tentacle’s mission, to advocate for that kind of thing. We refuse, and we reject, and we do not list mainstream music, and of course, there are people from rock groups, from jazz groups, who will send us these things, and of course, they’re trying to get all the P.R. they can, because sometimes musicians are a mercenary lot, and we have to say no, you know? Well, we all love mainstream music, and so on and so forth, but that’s not what the Tentacle is about. And we hope that the Tentacle can built a community, and we sometimes have these events, the Tentacle Benefit, we do these gigs. We try and connect people, I’m very big on introducing people to one another, “Oh, if you don’t know so-and-so, well you should go see so-and-so.” And sometimes just a simple introduction can provide all sorts of fruitful collaboration. Of course, the Tentacle’s not the be-all and end-all of new music in Seattle, certainly not, and we are not a utopia, but we are at least a voice and an outlet.
Yeah. Good, good. Where you see, now, yourself going? Do you have any direction, or a plan, do you see yourself writing commissions for large, major metropolitan orchestras?
Well, if there’s the money… Of course, that’s not going to happen soon, because any symphony board… in fact, I wrote an article a few months ago, that if a symphony board came to me and said, “Oh, Christopher deLaurenti, we want you to write something else for us, and money is no object. We’re not going to pay like Xenakis or Danielpoor, but there’ll be a respectable amount of money,” someone on the symphony board is going to say, “Well, let’s see here, let’s see what he’s composed. Hm, okay, well here’s this CD, Three Camels For Orchestra, it looks like he stole the image of Camel cigarettes, and I listen to the piece and I hear snippets of Brahms and Mozart and Stravinsky and lots of people I don’t know, and it sounds rather unpleasant. And then there’s this other piece, N30: Live at the WTO Protest, in this commie-anarchist, red-black-and-blue package that folds out and talks about revolt, and this sort of thing. So…”
Okay, well, we’ll come down from the orchestra, maybe just a string quartet. [Laughter]
Well, it’s interesting. I write for my music to be heard, I make music to be heard. I rarely write acoustic music, because I’m rarely asked. I was asked recently by a guitarist here in town, Michael Nicolella, who is one of those rarest of birds. Not only a virtuosic and talented classical guitarist, but he also comes from the rock world as well. So all the promise of these heavy-metal guitar virtuosi of the 1980s, you know, Yngwie Malmsteen, Randy Rhoads, and that sort of thing, Nicolella is interested in old music and new music, and the music that’s not yet been written. So he commissioned me for a piece, it’s called grey angel, and it’s done. We’re going to be working on it together, I think, in the next month or two, to sort of solidify the whole thing. I’m not sure where it’s going to be. He tours a lot, he plays all sorts of places, in Rhode Island, in the Midwest, California. Every other time I call him, he’s out of town, so I’m not sure where the first performance is going to be.
Is it just guitar, or is it processed?
It’s for guitar, electronics, and pre-recorded compact disc. So it utilizes a lot of the noise floor of the amplifiers, the system electronics of the guitar, and tries to find a… I’m always interested in finding the orchestra, and I think the orchestra is lurking within every object. I often say that… well, I never really took any music classes or anything like. I’m loathe to use the label “self-taught,” because I’ve met a lot of self-taught composers who are pretty snotty and don’t like to acknowledge their debts, and I’d rather not be included with them. Two, I have benefitted from going to music classes. I’ve not paid for them, I believe the best education is stolen, and I’ve certainly stolen my fair share of classes by sneaking in or making nice with the instructor, and they’re like, “Well gee, Chris, I know, [laughter] I can tell by your clothes, you don’t have very much money, but just sitting here, don’t say anything, it’s not a problem, and maybe you’ll learn something.” And sure enough, I do. There are a number of professors at the UW who are very kind enough to let me do that. So I believe in being grateful for that. But I believe that all ideas and objects and material processes are musical instruments in search of a master. So when I thought about the guitar, and the electric guitar, that’s what really came about, at least in my mind, to try and find the orchestra in there.
So, to answer your question, I don’t write for acoustic instruments very often, even though a lot of my music is made from acoustic instruments. You know, I take those instruments that I inherited from my grandfather, I kind of inherited a Noah’s Ark. Two of everything, except the more sexy ones like the bassoon, which is perhaps my favourite instrument. I didn’t get one of those, although I was able to play these things over and over, and I spliced a lot of time. Miles, and miles and miles and miles of tape. I kept the good notes, or the notes that I thought were good, and would bring them together in a piece. That’s how Three Camels came together, or at least parts of Three Camels came together. So, I feel a deep connection with acoustic instruments, it’s just a matter of asking. And I think musicians don’t really interact very much with living composers. So some musicians kind of have trouble talking to composers and, you know, asking them for a piece. Some composers, they just want to be asked. Others have a threshold, “Well, you know, if I’m going to compose for you, I need a little bit of money, at least an honorarium.” And others are entirely unfriendly with the whole topic, bitter, and lurking in their basements.
Yeah. What’s a good piece to go out with?
Well, I think a good piece to go out with would be Harbinger, and that’s the middle track of my WTO CD.
Okay, what can you tell us about Harbinger?
Think of it as Philip Glass meets Conlon Nancarrow meets club music.
[Laughter] Great! Christopher deLaurenti, thanks so much for being on Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar.
Thanks for having me, it was a great time.
We listen to Harbinger by Christopher deLaurenti [1:35:40–1:44:05].