(Sorry for the long prologue, but I need to get it all down while I‘m thinking about it… getting there…)
Since my illness caused me to lose a semester at school, it would have been awkward to graduate after a fall semester, so I opted to skip the fall semester of ‘98, to balance it out. I was 23, and up until that time I had only lived either at home or in a dorm. It was time for me to get my own place. I was tired of living ‘on the hill’ as it were. I grew up in Andover, MA, a somewhat snooty middle class suburb of Boston, and although I didn’t attend the famed academy there, even the public school felt a little stilted. From Andover High I went straight to Williams College, in Williamstown, MA, which in many ways was a smaller microcosm of Andover, albeit more rural. Don’t get me wrong, my parents gave me the gift of an amazing childhood, but I started to feel very out of place in those towns. I craved a more ‘real’ place, where the struggle for survival was a bit closer to the surface. North Adams MA, a dilapidated mill-town gutted by outsourcing in the ‘70s, was very much the other side of the tracks from Williamstown, and I knew that was where I wanted to set up shop:
This was my first apartment there. It was a building with four apartments and only two were usable. I moved in the early summer of 1998, into a sprawling two bedroom with extremely warped floors… so much so that if I spilled water in the kitchen it would flow all the way into the second bedroom at alarming speed. The rent was $280 per month. I had just bought my first computer (a Gateway P166). Up until then I had only used campus computers, and happily lived without email. A friend of mine had recently introduced me to the music of Tom Jenkinson (Squarepusher), Richard D. James (Aphex Twin), Boards of Canada, Tortoise, and Oval. The extent of my musical experience before then was tooling around with a bass guitar (starting late in high school) and listening to rock, mostly Rush at first, and then later Primus, Fugazi, NIN etc.
When I first heard ‘Electronica’ it changed me. It was like being given permission to make the music in my head. It was music that completely swapped foreground for background. The inhumanly fast drum beats of ‘Feed Me Weird Things’ and ‘Boy/Girl Mix’ took the lead while chords and melodies carried the rhythm. DSP replaced instrumental swagger. Vocals were completely forgotten and not missed. ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die‘ was the sound of band recorded, fetishistically deconstructed and reassembled, essentially using the studio as if it were an omnicient member of the band. ‘Systemisch’ was just the sound of broken cds… the original music flattened and re-inflated using glitches as percussion. It was subversion bordering on perversion. I was a moth to the flame.
Although I always loved music, instruments tripped me up, and band dynamics seemed an impossible hurdle for my introverted self. When I realized that you could make records without having a band, at home, in a manner akin to building with legos, I was immediately hooked. I won a small painting prize, and with the cash I bought a sampler/effects unit called the Ensonique ASR-X and got Cakewalk for my computer, a couple midi cables, two cheap condenser mics, and I was ready. The summer of 1998 was one of the best of my life. I worked without speaking to anyone for days at a time. By design, there were no distractions, and I was completely absorbed and in love with sound. That first summer I made three records. Here are some of the tracks:
The first record was a 70 minute long bass guitar improvisation made by playing my bass through two independent loopers, and then post processing with radical EQ changes. This idea came from a series of late night ’concerts’ I did on weekends in our dorm, where my friends would come and immediately fall asleep.
The second record was 60 minutes and made entirely of the sound of vinyl records, scratched in rhythmic patterns, recorded into the sampler and sequenced using midi. It‘s practically unlistenable! (I still use this process today as seen in Matt Days video):
The third record was a much more varied, songy approach, with pseudo verses and choruses. I switched from Cakewalk to Sonic Foundry’s ‘Sound Forge’ and ‘Acid’ around this time, which were better at dealing with a lot of samples. (The first track is a section of the ‘record scratch‘ tracks above, rerecorded through PVC pipes with controlled feedback):
This last track came directly out of the Clinton impeachment hearings and was my first foray into spoken word sampling.
Around then I started building simple contraptions to re-record sound through. One of the first was a three foot diameter ¼” steel plate with a miniature subwoofer installed directly at it’s center. I recorded simple tones and samples through it, based on the natural resonances of the plate, and then sequenced those recordings into a set of three tracks called the Plate EP. Here’s a track:
By the end of the summer I was out of money and needed a job. Because of my connections in both art and chemistry I had previously volunteered at the Williamstown Art Conservation Center, and got to know James Martin, who was head of the analytical department there. Jamie was (and still is) king of the microscopes, and he hired me to help out at the lab, preparing slides and running infrared and electron microscope scans. Mostly we were identifying materials used in famous works of art for the purposes of restoration or dating and authentication. For example, certain pigments became commercially available at specific points in history, so if you identified ‘titanium white’ as a pigment, you knew the painting was made after 1920 or so, and the information could be used to root out fakes.
Somehow, the combination of doing microscope work by day carried over to the way I would work on music at night. Around that time I got my first stereo tape recorder (a Sony DAT, with a stereo condenser mic). The first recording I made with it was a walk around North Adams, during an evening outdoor market. I walked in and out of all the buildings, through crowds and down alleys, and along busy roads, and when I got home I immediately got in bed, turned out the lights and listened to the recording. It was a deeply spiritual experience (for lack of a better word). Since I had never experienced audio of that fidelity before, it was as if time itself was somehow physically captured on to tape. Every detail was present in a hyper-real kind of way, even more so than experiencing it first hand. In the recording, every building had it’s own sound, and space would shift and open up as I would pass through a doorway into the crowd outside. Sounds were arranged in 360 degrees, with volume and color of reverberation describing distance and direction… an incredible amount of information captured in such a short period of time, as if a single second could expand to fill an hour. I remember thinking that it would take months to describe everything contained in the recording… again I had that feeling of brightness from when I was sick; that nothing is ordinary. And now I had the ability to capture it and build with it.
I started making a lot of recordings and cutting out the moments with the clearest brightness. I would never make a recording with the intention of capturing anything in particular… it was more about just having an open net to catch what would drift by. I liked to be physically moving while recording, and to be able to change course quickly if need be. I would then bring the recordings home and pore over them, trying to hear what was actually there rather than trying to reconstruct the narrative around the sounds. There were always moments that went beyond all expectations… maybe just one sound in a hundred or a thousand, but enough to make it a positive gamble. Like the sound of stepping on a pine cone, or a car driving over a loose manhole cover, or a knife cutting through an apple, or the drone of a certain air-conditioner. All ordinary things with spectacular sounds, useful in music if placed in the right context: a comfortable pocket that could bring out their transcendent qualities. This is how my sample library began, and I would always have it handy while working on tracks so I could quickly audition a lot of unexpected combinations to see what worked. And I found I could hardly predict what would work, it was mostly trial and error. It was a good feeling to divide work into two parts. First: open ended enrichment of the library, and then alternately: intensely focused compositional work. The two activities refreshed each other and kept me engaged.
I met Julie Wolfe at the conservation lab in late 1999, just as I was re-entering school for my last semester. She was working in the objects department and we started seeing each other often, connesting over our mutual love of art and science. My final classes were all art classes except for a great class on geo-chemistry and mineralogy, a subject I still love (rocks). I finished up an art thesis based on the ‘sound sculptures’ I had been making. Here’s a video of some of them.
Later that year, Julie ended up getting a job in the conservation department of the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, and moved down there. I would visit her often in the apartment I would eventually move into in Inwood just north of Washington Heights. I was not a fan of the city. It put me on edge to be there. The first 24 hours were always exhilarating, like a sugar rush of stimulation, followed by a strong feeling of sensory exhaustion and existential dread. Yet I loved my time with Julie, getting to know the city together, and taking advantage of her citywide art pass that she had as a Guggenheim job perk.
After graduating Jamie put me on a project to examine common pigments in colored pencils, to determine which were archival quality. I received 212 colored pencils each with the manufacturers names scraped off of them. I cut the tip off of each one, ground it into a fine powder, extracted the pigments with a series of solvents, and allowed the solvents to slowly evaporate, leaving beautiful crystals of pure pigment behind. Each crystal had it’s own inner logic which helped with identification, along with their infrared fingerprint which we collected by rolling a fraction of a milligram of the pigment out on a tiny diamond window and carefully aiming an infrared laser through the area we wished to study, using a specialized microscope. The results lead to somewhat of an exposé of the crappy pigments used in the colored pencil industry, and the introduction of archival grade pencils by several manufacturers.
After the pencil tip project was over I moved in with Julie. She allowed me to set up my studio desk in our tiny living room next to a baby grand piano left by the previous tenant. Julie played piano since she was young and would play it often. Julie’s sister, Lisa, a concert violinist, lived across the courtyard in the same building. She was good friends with a cello player named Paul de Jong. Julie knew a duet for cello and piano and invited Paul over to play it, and that’s how I met him.
I’ll continue here in the next entry…
Thanks for reading!
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