See Me, Hear Me: A/V Circa 2008

R. Luke DuBois at the Columbia University Computer Music Center

A conversation with Frank J. Oteri
April 8, 2008 — 4:00 p.m.

Transcribed by Julia Lu

One of my favorite CDs of 2006 was R. Luke DuBois’s Timelapse. When I first heard it, the sound of the dense clusters of tones cascading into one another on the opening track Billboard sounded like a strange new kind of tonality—completely unhinged from functionality, yet it somehow cohered. This was before I picked up the CD booklet and learned that what Luke had done to make this piece was to generate clusters replicating all the frequencies of every Billboard Number One pop song and present those clusters for as many seconds as that song had charted. Billboard, like most of Luke’s work, has a video component as well which identifies each of the songs so referenced, but from only hearing it I had no idea. Once I learned what he was really up to, though, I was even more intrigued. I subsequently became enamored of two additional works of his which were more visually oriented—Playboy, which cascades 50 years of magazine covers, and Hindsight is Always 20/20, which re-orders each of the State of the Union addresses according to word frequency and presents them as eye charts. While neither of these were musical compositions as I have defined music—well, Playboy does have a soundtrack, but Hindsight does not—there seemed to be a common language in what he was doing with sound and what he was doing with visual images, so I was eager to talk to him about the relationship between the two. In so doing, I learned that, for Luke, it’s all music.

—FJO

name
R. Luke DuBois

Frank J. Oteri: Music is pretty much the only one of the art forms that isn’t perceived primarily through the eyes; it’s something you hear. So A/V is an interesting phenomenon from this perspective. You’ve said you feel limited by the term “composer”. What is the more primary impulse for you—the music or the visual—and which comes first?

R. Luke DuBois: Well, I always think of what I do as music. It’s not so much that I feel limited by the term “composer”; I’m not really crazy about labels generally. One big example is I have a minor beef with the term “sound art”. I really don’t like being called a sound artist; it seems bizarre. I have a lot of stuff that’s pure visual art, but I think about pretty much everything I do compositionally. When I show that stuff, I’m always sort of billed as a conceptual artist or a computational artist. They have all these neat little catch phrases that they land on me. But I always think of it as music.

This is a dumb definition, but one useful definition for music is that it’s a flow of information unfolding in time. You’ve got notes, you’ve got pitches, you’ve got performance instructions, all that kind of stuff, and there are all sorts of other things that are pure information unfolding through time in art. So I tend to just think of everything I do as working in that medium. And so I think of it as music.

FJO: So then, would dance and film be music in your estimation?

RLDB: Dance and film can be. But there are some things that change that, with film anyway, unless you’re a big auteur. (Film is such a crazy kind of collaborative effort, Hollywood filmmaking anyway—the relationship between author and executor and all that stuff is really muddled.) You’re constantly editing and doing all that stuff. And you do that with recorded music, too, but it’s a little bit easier to deal with. But when I look at films by Lars van Trier, I think they’re very musical. He stripped things down and got rid of all the special effects and all the artificial lighting and all the artificial sound. You can think of that as compositional.

FJO: It seems like there’s always a tight connection between your music and what’s going on visually in your A/V laptop sets.

RLDB: I’m trying to make synesthetic objects. This is another thing we can argue about ad nauseum, but I have this theory that the computer has no business making sound because it’s a piece of plastic. It has no body. It’s just a bunch of silicon and numbers, and so it’s just doing math. So I think it’s important to reinvigorate these machines with a body, if possible. And so a lot of times I work with a singer or a violinist, or whatever. It’s a way to insert it in there where all I’m doing is processing their sound. This is kind of a boneheaded idea maybe, but I got it into my head that if I could create these kind of 3-D shapes, these sort of visual engines that were sort of creating geometries and then the sound was literally just some sort of really simple kind of scan of the geometry, they would sound really related. It would give you the idea that a body belongs in there again.

There’s a guy named Michel Chion, a French film theorist who writes a lot about sound in film. He has this book called Audiovision, and he talks about this thing called synchrosis. This is sort of a gestalt psychology thing. If two senses are stimulated close enough in time, you automatically associate them. So, like, if you hear a loud noise and your head’s suddenly in pain, you know that the thing with the loud noise is the thing that’s causing the pain in your head. So if you see something and it’s tightly synchronized enough to the sound you hear, your suspension of disbelief is incredible. You will believe any kind of image could be creating any kind of sound. It’s really amazing. So, that’s kind of why I do that stuff.

FJO: You mentioned that you do visual art that doesn’t have a sonic component but you think of it as music anyway. Is there any music at this point that you do that doesn’t have a visual component?

RLDB: I have a couple of things I have kicking around, but not very much. I’ve done a couple of recordings that don’t have anything to look at. Um, but in terms of the stuff I release, there’s usually something to look at.

FJO: But if someone were to listen to, say, your Timelapse CD that Cantaloupe released, if you put it in your computer, text will fly across the screen and what not, but if you’re listening to it on a Walkman or on an iPod or on a stereo, you don’t get any of that. So does that experience offer someone an acceptable representation of your work?

RLDB: I think so. It depends on how nerdy you want to be. Those pieces are two things. They are a sonic imprint of an experience. What I was trying to do with all that stuff was to figure out the sound you have ringing in your ears when you leave the concert hall, which is a weird exercise in metaphor. Do you remember the last thing you heard? Is it the favorite thing you heard? Is it the thing that you heard when you spilled a drink on your girlfriend, or some other faux pas that sticks in your mind? Or is it some kind of gestalt thing? I always think of it like some sort of overview. And so by making these weird sonic averages, you get this kind of experience. The first one I did was a remix of Handel’s Messiah for Cantaloupe.

But there’s also this more conceptual thing, especially with the Billboard piece where when you’re looking at the titles and you know what the actual sounds are, you’re doing an exercise in musical memory. You’re surfing your own personal canon of pop music. If you grew up listening to pop radio, you have part of it memorized, even if you hate it. And so you look at it and you’re like, “Oh, I remember when that was #1!” And if you were into that kind of music, you have really specific associations with it. So I can look at that piece and be like, “Alright, I lost my virginity right there.” Or, “This was #1 when I like broke up with my girlfriend in college and I had to listen to it all the time.” Or, “This was the #1 song when I went on that weird vacation to London.” You have specific memories with it. That’s why I like having the text. It’s this trip down memory lane in a weird way.

FJO: The first time I listened to it, I took the disc home and put it in my CD player and just listened to it. So I didn’t have any of that experience. At first I didn’t even realize there was more to it than that; I hadn’t looked at the booklet yet. But I still got a lot from it as a purely sonic experience; I loved the wash of sounds. I wasn’t really distinguishing one thing from another. They all sort of blur together and I loved the way that sounded, but I suppose that the blurring is part of the point, too.

RLDB: Sure, there are some formal trends that unfold if you just listen to it as a 37-minute piece of music that are kind of interesting. Things get bassier and bassier, which follows record production trends. And the key regions generally change. So like in early rock and roll, you have way more brass keys than later on. You start out with lots of stuff in B-flat and E-flat. All of 1978 is more or less in the key of F for no apparent reason. All the Bee Gees songs; it’s like Andy Gibb can only sing one note. Every other #1 song is some disco tune that either is the Bee Gees or is trying to sound like the Bee Gees. By the time you get to the ’80s, everything’s in A. So there are these musical formulations that are weird. In the early ’90s, once Billboard gets bought by Nielsen, the company that does Soundscan, the whole chart comes to a crashing slow down. There are only six #1 songs in 1997. Once they have it hooked into a national sales database, the whole pace of change slows way, way down. So Boyz II Men have spent more weeks at #1 than The Beatles, because their songs lasted, like, 17 weeks at #1 and The Beatles only spent, like, three weeks at #1. It just has to do with the sales. It’s interesting.

FJO: It’s interesting that although there’s a conceptual basis for all of this, there’s also very much a musical basis in your conception for it.

RLDB: That’s why I actually think of it as composition. I’m very aware of harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, and orchestrational concerns. If I were just looking at it as a piece of conceptual art that happened to be sound, I wouldn’t necessarily fret so much. It’s not even fretting—it’s a conceptual piece, so I’m not going to rearrange things. But I’m aware of them, and I try to make sure in all of those pieces I do that I can be articulate about them. I think that’s an important thing to be able to have when you’re making weird conceptual pieces out of other people’s music; you need to be conversant in that music in order to sort of articulate it. And I always got that sense from people like John Oswald, you know, the Plunderphonics guy. He can actually speak with great alacrity about the pop music he’s sampling. He knows a lot about it, way more than when I have undergraduates who are just taking random shit off CDs and cutting it up and whatever. I’m like, “Well, what’s that?” And they’re like, “I don’t know.” He’s really thinking of it as a composer’s materials.

FJO: Now I wonder how that plays out in terms of the listener and the concept. Maybe “listener” is the wrong word. Maybe a better word for it would be the “experiencer.”

RLDB: The experiencer. I’ll buy that.

FJO: I’m thinking of the Playboy piece, which has a sonic element but the concept is the visual element. It’s all these cascading images of Playboy covers. What’s so interesting is, just like with the Billboard-charting songs, they all sort of blur together. The eyes are all in the same place, so you wind up seeing this composite person. And you even did a composite image of them, which is reproduced on the cover of the Timelapse disc. But similarly with the Billboard piece, I wonder how much it matters to the appreciation of the work if someone doesn’t know where this stuff originally comes from.

RLDB: I never really think about it too much. I don’t think they need to necessarily know. But the Playboy thing is obviously a bunch of women, and if you’re smart enough to pause the film you can sort of figure it out. There are a couple of key clues. Like the first image is Marilyn Monroe, and it’s a fairly iconic image. So most people, when they see that, they’re like, “Oh, these are Playboy centerfolds.” Most people can figure that out. And that’s because it’s an image. That’s exactly like your earlier point. With the Billboard thing, you don’t get any clues if you just heard it. You’ll just hear it as these weird tones changing every once in awhile kind of randomly, haphazardly. And so for some of those pieces, yeah, I think it’s important to contextualize it. I’m not a big fan of ridiculous program notes. It’s kind of a one-liner. All you have to say is, “This is every #1 song and it’s sped up to one second for every week it’s #1.” I don’t have to give people a big discussion. I really like to screen it in bars rather than concert halls. It’s a good conversation starter. People can sort of look at it and be like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe, you know, whatever, like, the freakin’ Lulu song was, like, #1 for 12 weeks or whatever.” People have a pretty strong critical reaction to it. And a lot of things that you assume about pop music are not true. The most iconic songs you think of in rock music, like “All You Need is Love,” only spent two weeks at #1. Bob Dylan never had a #1 song, simply because he never released singles, so he never charted. A lot of bands that are considered seminal in rock, like Metallica and Nirvana, never charted because they never released singles. Bruce Springsteen, etc. It’s just an interesting trip down a very specific memory lane that has a politics to it.

FJO: Speaking of politics, another really interesting piece of yours—and I wonder if you think of this as music since, as far as I know, there is no sonic component—is Hindsight is Always 20/20, the piece that you did last year with all the State of the Union addresses.

RLDB: I think of it as a score. It’s a text piece. It’s sort of the CliffsNotes to the presidency, presented as the eye chart. It’s two things.

One is it’s a comment on tag clouds. Do you know what those are? It’s this thing that they do with data mining now on the world wide web. If you go to The New York Times website and you click on, I don’t know, the Washington desk, the politics section, or whatever. Often in the lower right hand corner, they’ll have words in different fonts. The frequency of those words over the course of the week is an interesting visual indicator of where reporting and journalistic rhetoric is going. But I have this fear in the pit of my stomach that those types of data visualization schemes are giving you either a false impression of what’s going on or, a lot of times, people will just use those instead of reading the articles. And I think that’s bad. So that’s one thing.

The other thing with that piece is that the cool thing about the State of the Union Address is it’s our only constitutionally mandated piece of political theater. By constitutional law, every year the president has to schlep in front of Congress and give this address. He can do it in writing, but basically since FDR, it’s usually been delivered verbally. And it is a very important thing in the way the government works because it’s a way to bring home the fact that Congress is sovereign. It’s “We, the people,” not “I, the President.” In a very specific way, the State of the Union Address is there to remind us that Nancy Pelosi is George Bush’s boss. If she gets enough of her colleagues behind her, she can fire him. So Congress has the power over the presidency. The presidency has no power over the legislative branch other than to veto bills. That’s something we’ve forgotten recently. We’ve had an imperial presidency for the last eight years and the State of the Union Address is a really excellent reminder of that power relationship. It’s actually the center point of that power relationship. The president is accountable to the people through their congressional representation. And that’s why when he begins the speech, he has to say Madame Speaker—he’s addressing it to the people via the leader of Congress. So I think of it a little bit as a weird kind of reductive score, a lot like the Billboard thing. I’m taking these speeches and crushing them down to just 66 words that are iconic for that presidential administration.

FJO: Now this can take us in two completely different directions. One is individual inspiration versus a work with a process that creates itself. The other is taking work based on pre-existing work, which opens up the whole question of intellectual property and copyright.

RLDB: With the Billboard thing, those are resynthesized statistical averages. There’s no sample in there. I basically analyze the sound, all the frequencies, create a huge statistical accumulation of them, and then just recreate that sound. So there’s no sample in them. It’s not technically a copyright violation. There would be no way to reverse engineer the original or anything. It’s sort of a harmonic kind of gestalt thing. In some of the other time-lapsy sound pieces I do, there is more of the original in them. It’s more of an acceleration. And that hypothetically, I suppose, could get me in trouble. I’ve been in a certain amount of trouble over the Playboy piece. But my interpretation of fair use is that I always think of what I’m doing as a comment on the original. I wouldn’t have a piece without the original, but I don’t really think of it as me borrowing to create new work as much as making work that’s like a meta-commentary on the stuff that I’m falling into. That may or may not be the same position as other people who sample really heavily, like hip-hop producers or people like John Oswald. They might have a different spin on this, but I definitely think of what I’m doing as providing a temporal perspective on what’s gone by.

I have a piece called Academy which I showed at Sundance last year. It’s the same exact thing with the Academy Award winning movies: seventy-six Academy Award movies, one minute each. The whole freaking movie is in there, sped up in one minute. And so image-wise, yeah, I could see them suing me. Yeah, I could see United Artists, or whoever owns United Artists’ catalogue, throwing the book at me if they wanted to. But the way I always present the work, and the way I present it at film festivals, is that it’s kind of a Valentine in a way. It’s a look at our cinematic history. Here are some interesting things about the way in which it’s progressed. This is really cool if you zoom it out this way. It would take three and a half weeks to watch all these films, but if you look at them my way, you can do it in an hour. And you get this kind of weird impression of how things go over time.

FJO: But it’s very different than a film like that three-hour movie That’s Entertainment, that gigantic film about films, which must have been a clearance nightmare. Your piece creates a very different type of experience because when images are moving that quickly you can’t consciously take in everything you’re seeing. Something else is going on.

RLDB: You’re just experiencing some sort of weird impression. But when I show them, I can point out stuff. And it’s funny. When I was at Sundance, there was this kid whose parents, I guess, were distributors or Hollywood producers. I don’t know. They were there looking at a bunch of independent films. They came to my screening and afterwards came up to me. He was maybe 15 years old or something like that. He was a huge film buff, and he was like, “Wow, you know, it’s really interesting how the shot language of the early Paramount films is so different from the Columbia Artists pictures.” And I was like, “You’re hired. Oh my God, you’re my docent. I need you here at 2:00 p.m. every day for the next week. And I’m going to take you out to lunch, and I’m going to give you a copy of it at the end.” And his parents were incredibly grateful. They were like, “Oh my god, thank you. Take our son so we can go wheel and deal.”

I think I spent three days with this guy. He was such a film buff, which I’m not particularly, at least not of mainstream Hollywood movies. We would sit there and watch and realize all these amazing things from repeat viewing. My favorite one he turned me onto was On the Waterfront. It’s a watershed film in how the actors move. Before, whatever it is, 1954, in the sped up Academy piece, the main characters are in focus and all the supporting cast are blurs. And then after 1954, it reverses. And it’s because of Brando. When you look at old movies like Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart is standing perfectly still delivering his lines. Even those scenes like Rick and Elsa walking through the bazaar, they’re dead center in the frame. It’s a dolly shot. They’re tracking them perfectly. And all the merchants are flying all around them. It’s proscenium style. But once you get to On the Waterfront, Brando is standing up and sitting down while delivering his lines, kicking over furniture and running up and down and all the supporting cast are still. They’re watching him. And after that it goes that way. So by the time you get to the ’70s, you can’t make out Gene Hackman in The French Connection because he’s in constant motion. I think that’s really interesting that that happened. The advent of method acting flipped something in the way cinema works, but you’re not even conscious of it unless you speed things up. And this kid noticed it. I didn’t notice it.

FJO: Which returns to the question of individual expression in an artistic work. Does every work of yours come as a response to other things that are out there, or does it ever happen that you’ll just create something just to create it?

RLDB: I definitely have a muse, someone who inspires me in a pretty specific way in my life, and my relationship with her is a pretty big inspiring force. I’ve had people like that or situations like that my whole life. When I was in a band, we would be our own muses. The act of working with three other people on a regular basis provided that inspiration.

I have obsessive compulsive disorder, so when I stumble across something that’s interesting to me, I have a nasty habit of trying to find out everything I possibly can about it. That doesn’t mean I remember it or anything like that. But I go crazy. I spend an alarming amount of time on Wikipedia, which is kind of ridiculous. If I see a movie, some, like, period drama about Henry the Eighth, I will suddenly find myself wasting three days reading everything I can find on the web about Henry the Eighth.

So with a lot of those pieces, like the Billboard piece, what happened was I was thinking I’d come up with this time lapse cinematography thing, and I needed something to apply it to. I had been making mix tapes, and I was sort of on a pop music kind of kick. And so I was like, that’s it! I’m going to do all the #1 songs. And so I did them. And then I started thinking about it because I started showing them to people and I had them on the web for a while. And I realized that people had this personal connection to it because of that canonicity thing because everybody has their own personal #1 chart in there somewhere. And so I decided to do an art show about it. That’s also how I did Playboy and Academy. I was trying to make a show that looked at a gestalt overview of our popular culture and tried to critically look at how it unfolded historically and also how we choose those things as the best.

For better or worse, those lists are the best of something. The act of getting a #1 song means you’re the best that week. Even though, honestly, the guy who has a #2 song is probably pretty good, too. It’s a matter of statistics, right? It’s interesting how those things are chosen. We live in a democracy, yet a lot of our cultural canons, like those things we put at the top, are not democratically selected at all. This is where I start sounding like a pinko; you’ll excuse me. In order to get a #1 song, you need the collusion of several major multi-national corporations, right? And the people who vote for the Academy Award for best picture are the people who are eligible to win the Academy Award for best picture. We didn’t vote for Gone With the Wind. A bunch of directors voted for Gone With the Wind. It’s a peer review. It’s a group accolade process, not unlike the Pulitzer. It’s not voted on by a mass population. I think it’s interesting that a lot of the really significant canons in popular culture are not democratically selected. I think that’s weird, but nobody thinks about it. So that was the inspiration for that.

But, sorry, this is a really round about answer to your question. I will occasionally just write music.

FJO: Well, that raises an interesting question because these non-democratic processes are the processes that determine your composition. It’s predetermined for you.

RLDB: Yes. It’s algorhythmic. And that’s a weird authorship thing, because I don’t necessarily think of it as composition. I also think of it as this weird kind of curation. That isn’t quite the same as composition. I’ve surrendered a lot of control. Once I create this system that I’m going to use, I just kind of run it. I don’t edit. I try very hard not to edit. In Academy, I did it, like, just a blind procedure. I got a movie membership at every damn rental store in the five boroughs and ran around like a jackass for six weeks. I was bursting into movie stores being like, “Do you have Grand Hotel?” And they’d be like, “What?” I’d be like, “Come on, man!” That kind of thing.

The same thing with the State of the Union Addresses: I did a residency to get that data, but once I figured out the metaphor in the system, I just let it run and it just shat that thing out. And I was like, “Oh my god, wow; that’s cool!” I like working that way, though. I think it’s better. I’m inspired a fair bit by people like Andy Warhol. You know, his films like Sleep and Empire? In Empire, it’s like, you know, he was a powerful guy, but he can’t make the rain go away or the clouds move in a particular way or whatever. It’s just an observational film. So I think of what I’m doing as more observational than inserting myself into it.

FJO: Now when you worked with a band, that was a very different kind of music making.

RLDB: The Freight Elevator Quartet was this thing where we were trying to create something like the musical equivalent of Steam Punk. You know what I mean by that? Steam Punk is a literary genre of science fiction written from the historical point of view of the Victorians. Wild, wild west and stuff like that. It’s the present imagining the past imagining the future. And so you’re writing in the 1980s or whatever about the future, like 2050, but without knowing about electricity and nuclear power. So it’s called Steam Punk. Right. So you’re talking about people having these amazing diesel spacecraft and stuff like that. So that’s what we were going for. We had a didgeridoo player and a cellist and I would play analog synthesizers and go out with a bunch of drum machines. By totally confusing the temporal reference point of the music, we were trying to create this kind of weird ahistorical kind of take on dance music and electronica. It wasn’t as a conceptual project; it wasn’t necessarily a success at all because people don’t receive dance music in that way. They’re not thinking on that plane when they’re out with friends partying. And we tried a whole bunch of things by inserting imagery into our work with video and doing all this kind of stuff. But it ultimately was just about making really killer tracks with really cool sounds, and eventually we just surrendered to that idea of it. But we always had these kind of weird conceptual underpinnings. The record we did with DJ Spooky was kind of an album-length meditation on futurism. Again, it was a present imagining the past imagining the future. Like if Russolo and all those guys wanted to make techno, what the hell would they do? That’s how we were trying to think of it, but I don’t know if anybody got that from listening to it. You know, it’s in the liner notes, maybe.

FJO: Since we’re talking about the present imagining the past imagining the future, I’d like to acknowledge this relic we’re sharing our space with, the old Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center RCA synthesizer. Here we are in one of the centers of academic music—indeed, an iconic place for academic music. And you’ve been here for 15 years. Technically, you’re an academic composer.

RLDB: Technically. Yeah, I am. I even have a DMA. I think this goes back to that classification thing that I hate, this sort of high art, low art, classical, pop, yada yada thing. Genres are fine for describing music, but they’re really useless for describing people. This is a really easy case to make with film. You can say Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action film, but if you call Steven Spielberg an action movie director, he’ll get really upset at you. But we have a kind of double standard with that in our culture. We don’t apply genre to film makers, but we apply them to musicians all the time.

That’s one of the problems I actually have with sound art and with people calling themselves sound artists. There are certain people who are definitely working with sound from a very kind of fine art, art historical perspective. People like Stephen Vitiello and Janet Cardiff. But—this might get me in trouble—a lot of times when I see sound art, I think a lot of sound artists are just composers who are scared of their own shadow. You know what I mean? They’re creating music, but they don’t want to deal with the baggage of 500 years of music, or however many they have in their cultural tradition. And I think that’s a betrayal of Cage, honestly. John Cage spends his whole life trying to expand our definition of what music is, and then you’ve got people working in what is clearly music and saying that it’s something else. It’s almost a surrender, in a weird way. It’s almost like saying, “I really don’t want to have to have an argument with anybody about the formal heuristics of this piece or whether the harmonic structure is too static or whether the use of these kind of gestures is not cadential enough at the end. I just don’t want to have to deal with that. So as a result, I’m gonna just say, ‘You know what? It’s not music. It’s sound art.’ Therefore you have to address me on an art conceptual plane, and therefore I’m immunized from talking about harmony, melody, rhythm, timbre, orchestration, dynamics, and any of that stuff. I’m insulated from it because I can just tell you, ‘Screw you; it’s conceptual art.'” And I think that’s wrong. So that’s why I stick to my guns and say I’m a composer and what I do image-wise is composition, because I’m trying kind of push it out even more.

The thing that’s interesting about working in electro-acoustic music is it’s one of the ghettos again, one of the subsets of music where people in academic traditions and pop traditions are fairly conversant in each other’s work. You get people like Autechre in England, that dance music duo. They know everything there is to know about Morton Subotnick. There’s no particular reason why a singer-songwriter would be conversant with Charles Wuorinen or Milton Babbitt. But when you’re engaged in this way with technology, you tend to know about each other through the tools. So people who really love the sound of the Buchla synthesizer, regardless of what style of music they’re working in, end up stumbling across all this kind of work that’s in a completely different mindset, whether it’s academic or ’70s experimental, or whatever. And I think that’s kind of cool.

So, yeah, I’m an academic composer, but I’m an academic composer who can fairly fluidly move between scenes. Part of that is just because I’m a technologist as well, so when I’m working with musicians from different sorts of scenes and genres, we’re usually geeking out and talking about this stupid piece of plastic in front of me. We’re not necessarily having some argument about whether or not we think our music is any good. And so, as a result, I’m pretty flexible. And that lets me get away with a lot. My dissertation music was sort of a meditation on a lot of the theories of Fred Lerdahl. But I can also produce records for Bang on a Can people, and I can also play with Elliott Sharp, and I can also do dance music. There’s no conflict there; it’s just interesting to see that there’s a big diversity of language. But yeah, I guess I’m an academic.

FJO: I want to bait you, though.

RLDB: OK.

FJO: When you were talking about sound artists, you were talking about when you “see their work.”

RLDB: Yes, when I see their work.

FJO: As opposed to when you hear their work.

RLDB: Well yeah. OK, that’s fair enough. I mean, you got me on that one.

FJO: This strikes at the heart of the whole A/V thing, which of course is a label, too.

RLDB: Yes, that is a label.

FJO: Do you accept that label?

RLDB: Yeah, I’m OK with that label. One of the things that I think is really important is that a lot of the people who do live performance imagery, like live video, are semantically, for all intents and purposes, acting like instrumentalists, like VJs. That’s very much like an instrumental performance practice. They’re engaging with an audience through a tool, which is what an oboe player does. And so the discourse of that type of performance is so close to instrumental music.

I’ve started doing this thing where I’ve been encouraging friends of mine who are VJs to apply to composition programs. They have nowhere else to go. A painter is divorced from time and can’t really have that conversation with these guys. So I’ve written recommendations for them. What they are doing is painting on a screen, but the way in which they’re doing it is entirely consistent with instrumental practice. There’s nothing non-musical about it. It’s all about time and gesture and space. Musicians are the only people who can address that. And that’s why they collaborate so well with musicians: they know they’ve got to start at some point, and they’ve got to end at some point. They go on this journey. Good musicians who work a lot with visualists—people like Elliott Sharp whose wife is a video artist, or Ikue Mori or Zeena Parkins—are watching, and they’re very much in it. They’re very much, like responding to what they’re seeing. And when really good visualists—people like Josh Goldberg and Chris Jordan—are working with a musician, it’s very much like jazz improvisation. They’re very much attuned to what’s going on. And that’s music, man. There’s nothing else to it. So I always think of them as musicians, and I treat them as musicians.

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