Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Warren Burt interview

Warren Burt has to be one of my favourite composers, up there with the likes of Sun Ra, Merzbow, Morton Subonick, Pierre Henry, Parmegiani etc yet his recordings have remained unheard by the masses. Even today people interested in early electronic music may have missed his recordings.Thankfully they are available via his web site http://www.warrenburt.com/

Warren Burt interview with Ross Healy – 20-23 Dec, 2008, via email.

Can you tell us about yourself, your background in electronic music.

In high school, I began what I call my "search for the weird." I knew there was a more interesting culture than what I was growing up with in the small upstate town of Waterford, New York. I had seen glimpses of this in visits to summer festivals from things like the New York City Ballet and the Boston Symphony, but thought that there must be something more modern than what I was experiencing. I remember seeing a CBS-TV documentary on Igor Stravinsky, and it talked about his most recent works, written in something strange called the "12-tone system." This intrigued me greatly.

At the same time, I had heard some wonderful and strange sounds. I would listen late at night to AM radio, and heard, on WNBC radio, New York City (not receivable during the day because of the distance we were from New York City), the all night Long John Nebel talk show. It had a wide range of mind-stretching intellectual guests (including science fiction writer Frederick Pohl), and a theme song that featured a strange sounding instrument, that in retrospect I realize must have been a theremin. From the local public library, I had borrowed a record of a piece by Olivier Messiaen, "Three Petite Liturgies of the Divine Word." This had a prominent part for the Ondes Martinot, an early electronic musical instrument. And NBC radio had a weekend nationwide show called "Monitor," which had an electronic theme "sting." I have since downloaded this, and it was an early example of modulated telephone tones, Morse code and tape splicing. (http://wapedia.mobi/en/Monitor_(NBC_radio)) These three sounds were in my mind, so when, in April 1967, when I went to check out one of the universities I had applied to, the State University of New York at Albany, and was shown the brand new Moog Model 2 synthesizer (serial number 0003, by the way), by Joel Chadabe, the electronic music teacher there, I decided that I should find out more about this instrument and this kind of sound.

In September 1967, I started studying at SUNY-Albany, and by the following February, was starting to learn electronic music - learning the basics of the Moog, along with tape splicing and mixing. I also finally encountered the “weird” culture I was looking for, which, refreshingly, turned out to be not so weird after all, but very very interesting. Later, around 1970, Joel and SUNY acquired a giant Moog system, the CEMS system (see picture 3), which featured 8 sequencers and a custom made digital clock which provided timing pulses to the rest of the system. Even at this early time, we were involved with not just the idea of electronic sound, but the idea of control, of setting up systems which told the oscillators and filters what to do, and of finding out what the implications of each particular control system were. That is, we weren't just involved in making electronic sound, but in the idea of composition, and of structuring sound. The main way we were interested in structuring sound was with real-time interaction with algorithmic processes. That is, a process was set up with sequencers, LFOs, and other control devices, which usually combined its predetermined elements in unpredictable ways. This process was then improvisationally modified in real-time by the performer. This working method not only showed the influence of John Cage (who would himself compose “Bird Cage” for the CEMS system's unique abilities in 1972), and Iannis Xenakis, but also the influence of structuralist composers such as Elliott Carter. At SUNY-Albany, my two closest musical associates were my fellow electronic music students, Rich Gold and Randy Cohen. On graduating from SUNY Albany, they would both go to California Institute of the Arts to pursue post-graduate studies in Electronic Music, and there they would encounter Serge Tcherepnin.

(Some of the pieces I composed with the “little Moog” at Albany include “Clam” and “Tauermusik” from “Anthology 1970-73” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 3, and “The Rhythms of Wattie” the 1st movement of “The Scarlet Aardvark Strikes Back!” on “Trilobites and Aardvarsk” - Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 1. All the pieces mentioned in this interview are available from www.warrenburt.com. Some pieces composed on the “big Moog” include the rest of “Trilobites and Aardvarks” - Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 1; “Rain at Dawn, Late Autumn, Saranac Lake” on “Sketches of Scenes and Seasons from Upstate New York” - Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 2; and “for Charlemagne Palestine” on “Anthology 1970-73” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 3)

I worked with the big Moog at SUNY Albany until I graduated from there in June 1971, and even afterwards, on return visits in 1971 - 74. In September 1971, I started post-graduate studies at the University of California, San Diego. At San Diego, my composition teachers were Robert Erickson and Kenneth Gaburo. I also studied electronic music techniques with Pauline Oliveros. Robert Erickson was mostly known for his intense studies with musical timbre, musique concrete and instrument building. Kenneth Gaburo was known for his work in electronics, the voice, linguistics and intensely complex musical structuring. Oliveros was known, of course, for her work in analog synthesis, and also for her work connecting meditation and music. Working with these three, as well as other faculty and staff at UCSD, had a lasting influence on me. Also of great influence, thought not personally, since I never met him, was Harry Partch, who lived and worked in San Diego. Two of his personal assistants at the time, David Dunn and Ronald Al Robboy, were my closest friends and artistic associates during these San Diego years, and their ideas, (Partch - tuning and wholistic theatre; Dunn - evironmental art; Robboy - conceptual art) as well as Partch's continued to direct and inform my compositional interests.

At UCSD, I had access to a large Buchla Series 100 synthesizer, as well as a smaller Moog synthesizer built into a musique concrete oriented studio. I worked with both synthesizers extensively, composing a number of works with both the Buchla and the Moog. On the Buchla, I composed the first of the Aardvarks IV series of works, which developed a "waveform synthesis through sequencing" idea that Joel Chadabe had first developed. Chadabe used the idea to make elegantly shaped harmonically changing drones. I decided to set up two drones like this, and see what happened when they frequency modulated each other. The dual patch-cord nature of the Buchla seemed to frustrate this, so I made up a number of custom patch-cords. The sounds made by these "drone-sequencers" frequency modulating each other were raw, raspy, exciting, full of compositional interest, rich texture, and noisy as all get-out to boot. I knew at this point that I needed my own equipment to pursue this idea further.

(Pieces composed with the UCSD Buchla include “Moist Days in Mid-Winter” and “Afternoon, Late Spring in the Taconics” both on “Sketches of Scenes and Seasons from Upstate New York” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 2. Pieces composed on the UCSD Moog include “Real Science Comix Funnies No. 1: John Lilly Meets the Dolphins,” and “Across 110th Street”, both on “Anthology 1970-73” Scarlet Aardvark CD. No. 3)

At this point, computers were too expensive for individuals (especially poor post-graduate students) to afford, but TTL logic, and other integrated circuits were cheap, and easily assembled (especially if one was surrounded by the do-it-yourself culture of the Center for Music Experiment at UCSD), and so I decided to build my own equipment to do the waveform synthesis I was interested in. This became the box of electronics I called Aardvarks IV (see picture 4). In building Aardvarks IV, I took a most idiosyncratic attitude to building electronics. For example, Aardvarks IV had 16 digital random voltage generators, made with shift-register feedback logic (which generates patterns which can be chaotic in their logic, although we didn't know this at the time, as chaos theory was only just getting started). In order to use these patterns, digital-to-analog converters were necessary. Out of economic necessity, I decided to build my own. I used 8 resistors of descending values in a ladder as the DAC, but rather than use highly accurate resistors, which would produce similar results in each 8-bit DAC, I used 20% accuracy, very cheap resistors, so that each DAC would have a unique output. As well, following the lead of my teacher, Kenneth Gaburo, we tried lightly tapping each resistor with a hammer, to perhaps introduce cracks into the carbon substrate of each resistor, producing further instabilities. This did, indeed produce instabilities - about half of the DACS in Aardvarks IV used these "prepared" resistors. I used Aardvarks IV continuously until about 1997, and unexpectedly, none of the "prepared" resistors ever failed.

While I was engaged in building Aardvarks IV, I had also become employed, as a student assistant, at the Center for Music Experiment at UCSD. I was put in charge of their Analog Electronics and Video Synthesis Studio. Knowing about Serge Tcherepnin's "People's Synthesizer Project" through my contacts with Rich Gold and Randy Cohen at CalArts, we decided that I should go up to CalArts (300 km north of UC San Diego) to build a Serge Synthesizer to our specifications. This was in 1973. For video, we acquired a video encoder from Steve Beck. This simply generated video sync signals and accepted voltages into red, green and blue inputs. This would enable the Serge, the Beck and video cameras to all interact with each other. Further, since everything used the same kind of patch-cord, we could freely use any voltages for any purposes whatever.

A side note - during the winter of 1972-73 - I was back in Albany and New York City. A friend in Albany, George Kindler, had a SynthiAKS, the VCS3 in a briefcase. I borrowed this synthesizer from him for a few weeks, and wrote a piece with it, which I used in a concert in New York City at the Kitchen - my New York debut, or if one wishes to be less pretentious, the first concert that I gave in New York City. As always, my approach to the VCS3 was compositional, and structural - what structures were implied by this particular set up - what were the potentialities of having a 256 note digital sequencer, a touch sensitive keyboard and a pin matrix in one unit? The piece I composed "Lullabies II," used a two tape recorder tape delay, and extensive amplitude modulation possibilities to generate changing timbres within a fairly complex counterpoint produced by the juxtaposition of the sequencer and the tape delay.

(“Lullabies II” for VCS3 and tape delay is on “Anthology 1970-73” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 3. “Aardvarks IV” is on Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 6. A selection of pieces made with the Serge at CME, some under computer control is found on “Harmonia Mundane” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 4. “Bobo the Clone” (referred to below) is Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 5.)

Meanwhile, back at UCSD, the completed Serge (which is indeed now in the collection of Ken Stone), the Beck Video Synthesizer, and the PDP-11 computer at UCSD continued to interact happily. In 1974, I did indeed make a trip up to CalArts, and at Serge's house, we did some repair work on the Serge, and after the repairs, I did indeed make the piece "Bobo the Clone." In San Diego, by 1975, I finished work on the piece for my Master's degree, "Aardvarks IV," using the Aardvarks IV box, the CME Serge Synthesizer, and a Tascam 4 channel mixer. In June 1975, on finishing my Master's degree, I left UCSD, and moved to Melbourne, to begin teaching at La Trobe University. At La Trobe, I was put in charge of building the analog and video synthesis studios. In negotiations with Keith Humble, the chairman of the La Trobe Department (and a family friend of the Tcherepnin family) we had specified a very large Serge Synthesizer to be built by Serge, and supplied to the La Trobe Department. This large Serge (owned now, I think, by either David Chesworth or Graeme Gerrard), became the centerpiece of the La Trobe studio. The studio consisted of the Serge a John Roy DAISY unit (a shift register feedback random control voltage generator designed by Joel Chadabe), and an EMS Spectre Video synthesizer.

While at La Trobe, I combined Aardvarks IV, and some of the Serge boxes into a larger system I called "Aardvarks V" and gave an hour-long solo melody performance with them. As always, my interests were not only sonic, they were structural - in each piece, I try not only to express myself, and make interesting sounds, I try to propose problems - musical problems, listening problems, structural problems. Here the problem was - how could I make a single line melody that implied counterpoint, maintained interest for an hour, and perform it in real time?

While at La Trobe from 1975-78, I also built two more electronic music systems - my own Serge modular system, and Aardvarks VII - a box of CMOS counters and dividers, designed to do frequency division, so I could perform in just-intonation, and incorporate ideas I had picked up from Harry Partch's work. With my own Serge Modules, Aardvarks VII and Aardvarks IV, I composed and performed the composition/installation "Aardvarks VII - Le Grand Ni" which I installed an performed in a number of places including the Experimental Art Foundation, Adelaide; the Palais de Beaux Arts, Brussels; and the Experimental Intermedia Foundation in New York.

Also, during this same period at La Trobe, Julian Driscoll, at that time the Music Department technician, embarked on building his own analog synthesizer modules. For my purposes, the most unique and powerful of these was the “Divide by 32” counter, which enabled me to have just-intonation pitches based on factors of up to the 31st subharmonic.

So there were three Serge systems I was involved with:

a) The CME Serge, which I built, and eventually went to Clifton Hill Community Music Centre, then eventually Rainer Linz, and eventually, Ken Stone.

b) The La Trobe University Serge, which think, eventually became the property of either Graeme Gerrard or David Chesworth.

c) My own Serge modules, which I still have, and which are in storage in my garage.

It might also be mentioned that in 1984, I also worked for Serge Tcherepnin at his home in San Francisco. For 3 months, I was an employee of Serge Modular Music Systems, building systems, helping in design work, and in general, helping the flow of the business.

(Pieces made with the Serge System at La Trobe University or with my own Serge and Aardvarks IV and VII can be found on the following CDs: “Four Quartets and a Canon” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 9; “Aardvarks V” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 10; “Pastorale” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 11; “Le Grand Ni” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 12, and “8-8s: Four Pairs in the Shape of a Piece” Scarlet Aardvark CD No.13. The two major works I made with my own Serge are “Four Pieces for Synthesizer” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 21, and “Studies for Synthesizer” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 22.)

Between 1981 and 1985, I also worked on another system. Aardvarks IX was an AIM-65 microcomputer that I programmed in FORTH. I used it in a number of ways, but one that bears mentioning here was the use of it as a super-accurate set of 3 square-wave oscillators. The AIM had 3 clock outputs. Each clock could divide the clock frequency by any number. I took these three outputs and processed them through the full range of Serge, Driscoll and Aardvark electronics. The results combined the precision of computer control with the free-flowing processing of analog.

(“Aardvarks XI” is available as a 4 CD set – Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 24. It includes all the pieces made with the system, as well as a live performance of “Australian Memories for Iowa.”)

More information about all this equipment will be found on my updated website which I hope to launch by mid-January 2009. On the website, I'll have a page or three on “My History with Music Technology,” which will have pictures, sounds and descriptions of all the systems I've worked with in the 40 years of my career in electronic music. This includes not only the analog synthesizers described above, but also other electronic music equipment, such as the cassette recorder processes we used in the late 70s, computer systems, both high and low tech, circuit bent devices, and the use of electronic “toys” in real-time performance.

Tell us what it was like in the early days working with Serge Tcherepnin. I have a recording from 1974 (Bobo the Clone Gets Screwed up the ass by a bunch of raving Gila monsters while Baboons piss on the dark side of the moon) where you were over at Serge house's, working on the Serge system and created this track. Its an amazing soundscape of stretched electricity. What do you think of that track now as opposed to when you originally recorded it.

Working with Serge was a lot of fun. He had a most whimsical sense of humor, while being very serious at the same time. As for "Bobo the Clone," on some re-listenings it seems as energetic and lively as when I first wrote it, but on some other listenings it seems surprisingly gentle, not at all the piece described by it's Burroughsian title.

Do you still use the Serge modular? You built yours yourself? What was that like to build your own system? Isn't it now at Ken Stones house? It is in a large frame with paper faceplate. http://www.cgs.synth.net/

As mentioned above, I was involved in the building, or use, of three Serge systems. They were a lot of work to build, but the hours passed by pleasantly.

The last time I used my Serge was in the late 1990s. Probably about 1997 or 1998. By that time I was using computers for most of my composing and was using analog electronics less and less. This was mainly because I was doing live interactive electronic improvisational performances at this time (such as my "Sorrento Suite” Scarlet Aardvark CD No. 55), and working with a laptop was much easier in terms of portability. Also, by this time I was working with software designer John Dunn on his ongoing series of programs ("Music Box," "KMM," "SoftStep," and "ArtWonk"), and these provided me with the compositional control and potential that I had been searching for.

What made you choose the Serge over other modulars at that time.

Price, ease of access, and the fact that you could specify systems, and design modules to augment the system.

How do you find using the computer to create sounds ? Do you prefer it over modular synthesis - how does it differ?

My approach to computer synthesis is just like my approach to analog synthesis. I connect modules to make sounds, and devise (hopefully) elegant control systems for them. The sound synthesis programs I work with, such as Martin Fay's Vaz Modular (which I was a beta-tester on for many years), reflect this "analog into the computer" philosophy. In fact, currently, my favorite virtual synthesizer program is Arturia's Moog Modular V. I love the way that one can have a copy of an early Moog on the computer screen, and how one can program the sequencer and the oscillators to function like the old Moog modules. This is not only nostalgic for me – it constitutes a way of working that I find very much in line with my own compositional thinking. Further, working with a program such as Plogue Bidule, or AudioMulch, which allow any VST plugin to also be treated as an "analog module in the computer," and this also reflects this modular ideal. Even programs which do not use the patching paradigm, such as the Composer's Desktop Project, I also treat as patching programs, but here, the patching occurs one module at a time, out of real-time. But for the most part, I prefer programs which are patchable, and which feature real-time interaction. It should be mentioned that all of John Dunn's programs also are real-time patching paradigm programs.

VICMOD are group of 20 people in Melbourne, Australia, who get together once a month to build Ken Stone/ Elby Design modular kits. The idea was thought of when I read about the days at the Center for Music Experiment at the University of California. Were you involved in this original group building?

The original Serge synthesizer group building took place at California Institute of the Arts in 1972-73, not at the Center for Music Experiment at UCSD. We (CME-UCSD) only purchased a Serge, which I built after the initial group build. But I encourage people to build their own tools, whether in hardware or in software, because it's the best way to get custom stuff that you want, as well as the best way to understand the implications of the equipment you're working with. Even when I buy a piece of hardware ready built (such as the Korg Kaoscillator which I recently purchased), I try to spend a lot of time with it, "sinking into" it, so that I can understand the sonic and compositional implications of it.

Have all your recordings been released or are there more to come?

On my existing website, I have 77 albums of music listed. I have recently updated this list to 90 albums. This covers most of the electronic music and algorithmic music I've done. It doesn't cover a lot of my instrumental music. I will continue to release albums as I continue to make music. In fact, with my new website, I hope to be much more aggressive in marketing and distributing my music.

If people are interested in buying your early music, where can they get it?

From my website, which is currently www.warrenburt.com, and will probably continue to be that, once the new website is launched.

Did you ever get to use the Buchla systems or the EMS systems? How did you find them to work with compared to the Serge?

As mentioned above, I worked with both the Buchla and the EMS during my UCSD years, 1971-75. Each system has it's own possibilities, its own sound, its own potentials. They're all unique. That said, I gravitated towards the Serge because of its modulation and control possibilities, which were in line with my compositional interests, and my pocketbook.

Looking at the titles of your tracks there seems to be a sense of fun or where you one of the original outsiders taking the piss out of the academic world?.

There's definitely a sense of fun there. But even though I've been critical of academia, I haven't been an outsider, or an insider, taking the piss out of it. This is a complicated issue in Australia, where people seem to have a chip on their shoulder about academia.

To explain - in the US, where I grew up, being a "college teacher" was no big deal - it was just another job, like being a plumber. But Australians seem to have some sort of different idea that an "academic" is something special, either better or worse, depending on who you talk to.

In the US, there was a particularly nasty and vicious form of racism called the "one-drop rule." No matter what the colour of your skin, "one drop of blood of African ancestry," and you were black. Similarly, George Lewis, in his wonderful book "A Power Greater Than Itself," a history of the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, sarcastically invokes the "one-drop rule" for music. "One drop of blood" of African ancestry for any American composer, no matter what you write, means that you're primarily a jazz composer, and will be judged by those criteria almost exclusively. Similarly, I would say in Australia, there's the "one dollar of income" rule. One dollar of income from an academic institution, and you are henceforth and forever branded "an academic," and any street credibility you may have had will be in tatters. And the biggest perpetrators of this fraud are, guess who? - academics - who seem to perpetrate that social stigma they pretend to despise.

So, yes, I have fun with my titles. But no, I'm no outsider taking the piss out of academia. If anything I'm an outsider to everyone, and also, at the same time, an insider with all, and I don't know if I'm taking the piss, but I do maintain the right to have satirical fun, even with things I deeply believe in.

Do you feel your music has often been overlooked or misunderstood?

If my music hasn't gotten around as much as I hoped it would, it's probably due to my being too busy making newer music. This continually making newer music has gotten in the way of marketing the older music, but that's the way it goes. Hopefully, the new website will address some of this.

I guess like most people into synthesis there is the need to search for excitement in new sounds and sound design. Do you still have this desire nowadays?

There is a constant search for new sound, new structure, new contexts in which to place the music. Music is first and foremost, a social act. Without two people, there is no music. This even applies to bedroom composers. Who made the parts you assemble into your synthesizers? Who listens to your music? Many people use music as a means of affirming identity, and of having familiar, affirmative experiences. Some people like to use music, as well as that, as a vehicle of exploration. This exploration is both of sounds, and also an exploration of the way that open-minded listening to sound can change us into more open, generous people. This latter kind of exploration is what most interests me.

Do you have a favourite sound, like birds, rusty door hinges etc?

I have lots of favorite sounds. I think that one of the most interesting things we can do is to continually be alive to sound in all its complexity. As for particular favorites, lyrebirds are pretty good, as are very glassy sounds. Sounds with inner shape and life are pretty neat. Slowed down sounds (like hummingbirds) often reveal lots of beautiful spectra. I could go on and on. But I think the main thing is always to be listening, and asking oneself, "if I like this sound, what is there about it that I like? And what is there is my tastes that enables me to like this sound? If I change my tastes, can I like this sound more? If I don't like this sound, what is there about it I don't like? What is there in my tastes that is preventing me from liking this sound? If I change my tastes, can I learn to like this sound? If I do change my tastes, what are the implications for me? Can this make me a better person?" Etcetera. Things like that.

La Trobe Uni Studio 1977 with Daisy Uni and Serge System

CEMS System and Joel Chadabe, SUNY Albany 1970

Aardvarks V system - Warren Burt, La Trobe Uni, 1977

Warren Burt and Aardvarks IV - San Diego, 1975.

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