Interview

Holy Endeavors: An Interview with Filippo Sorcinelli

Holy Endeavors: An Interview with Filippo Sorcinelli

Most people who recognize Filippo Sorcinelli's name will know him for his fragrances released under the UNUM and SAUF brands. Most famous of these is LAVS, an austere incense perfume that was originally a room and clothing spray for Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis. Earlier this year, he released Io Non Ho Mani Che Mi Accarezzino il Volto—a spicy, medicinal blend of cinnamon, clary sage, tobacco, and resins.

But more than just a perfumer, Sorcinelli is a painter, an organist, a photographer, and graphic designer. He has also designed sacred vestments for the current and previous pope through his LAVS Atelier. Sorcinelli discusses the inspirations and aspirations for his numerous creations below.

Korean Flavors: An Interview with Songwriting/Production Duo Caesar & Loui

 
caesarloui
 

Daniel Caesar and Ludwig Lindell have been making music together since they were six years old. Decades later, they're still working together but under the joint name Caesar & Loui. They're currently signed to The Kennel, a music publishing, production, and management company based in Sweden. As with other songwriters and producers on The Kennel, Caesar & Loui write songs for pop stars all over the world. Recently, they wrote and produced new singles from LOONA, Red Velvet, and Girls' Generation. They touch on the process of writing those songs and more below.

 

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Tone Glow: As you two know, a lot of people are involved in the release of even one K-pop single. And naturally, it's the actual members of a group who get all the recognition. One of the reasons I wanted to interview both of you was to shed some light on those in the industry who work behind the scenes. So to keep things very simple: who are Caesar & Loui, and how did you two meet? How long have you two been making music, both in general and together?

Caesar & Loui: Caesar & Loui consists of Daniel Caesar and Ludwig Lindell. We met when we were 6 years old in school and have been best friends ever since. We started making music together early on, in the beginning by just recording ourselves with a room-microphone and playing 4-hand synth—both playing on the same synth :). At the time Daniel took lessons in guitar and Ludwig in piano. When we were 16 years old we both applied to the same music high school in our hometown Linköping.

When we were in high school we really started getting into music and we wrote and played together in different bands. We also had our own projects at the time. Ludwig was really into jazz-piano and started playing with a trio. Daniel sang and played guitar in a rock/punk band called Blunk. We also had our own band at the time called Giano that we wrote and recorded/produced music for. It was mostly for fun, nothing serious but we really learnt a lot about Cubase (software that we used at the time for recording our music, we use Logic now).

After high school Daniel went to Santa Barbara City College (US) and studied production/songwriting/acting for one year. After that he applied for a production/songwriting school up north in Sweden called Musikmakarna. It was through Musikmakarna that we got in contact with our label The Kennel.

Ludwig took another path after high school. Wanting to be a musician, he applied for different schools in Sweden. He studied for one year at Skurups Folkhögskola, which is located south of Sweden outside of Malmö. At Skurup, Ludwig studied jazz-piano and played with different groups. Afterwards, Ludwig applied for the royal music college in Stockholm and studied there for three years (which was also for jazz-piano).

When Daniel had his internship through his school (Musikmakarna), Ludwig and Daniel teamed up and worked together as a team. We started off writing music for The Kennel before we signed there as songwriters/producers. During our first three years as songwriters we worked as a trio called D3O with our friend Olof Lindskog. After 3 years we decided to split up and Caesar & Loui was born. Olof continued working by himself with the name Ollipop!

 
 

Despite the split, you three still collaborate—as was the case with Netherlands-based Angela Vero on "Work It"—so there's presumably no bad blood here. Was there any particular reason for the separating? Both of you guys are working together under a single name so I imagine there's an understood synergy between you two. How are the dynamics of working on a song as a team? And in general, what would you say you individually bring to the table that the other half perhaps doesn’t?

We started working as D3O and it was a really good time for all of us. We managed to score a lot of cuts (cuts = released songs with artists) together and had some really fun moments! After 3 years we all felt like we needed to move on. The reason was simply because we wanted different things so we decided to split. And it’s no hard feelings after the break, we’re still really good friends working from the same house and we still write music together.

Since we’ve (Caesar & Loui) known each other for such a long time we have a really strong connection together. So after the break from D3O there was really no question about if we would continue as a team or not. We really trust each other and have always had the same goals in music/life so we’re probably gonna go on for ever! :)

Since we have different backgrounds, we have a wide range of skills together as a team. Daniel comes from a rock background playing the guitar and singing in different bands. So all the guitars in Caesar & Loui's productions are almost always recorded by Daniel. Ludwig on the other hand comes from a jazz/R&B background so he has a lot of knowledge about chords and of course playing the piano/synths. We are also both singers so we usually sing on our demos when we write music for boy bands and male artists. We also both produce, and it’s really nice for our workflow when we have a lot of productions to finish up.

Writing songs together is always different. Sometimes we come up with ideas on our own and then work together from the idea. Or sometimes we start from scratch. We also have sessions sometimes working with other talented songwriters and for those, we usually have tracks and ideas prepared for the sessions. We really like being prepared to make the workflow better. We both feel like when we write the best songs, the ideas come to us quite quickly. After we have the main ideas recorded we start to look more closely at the details of the song. Since we're both producers we can really go back and forth with ideas on the production, which can be really nice when we get stuck or when we just need some inspiration and push.

Sometimes we even split up and work alone or together with other songwriters. We just try to be open and let the inspiration flow. But for probably 99% of our songs we write them together.

The Kennel is based in Sweden and does indeed make songs for Swedish artists, as was the case for C&L with The Fooo. However, The Kennel has songwriters and producers who work with artists from around the world. Can you discuss your experience with The Kennel and explain what the process is like for getting songs for these international artists? For example, are record companies often coming to The Kennel to get a song written? Is there a pool of songs that artists/companies are free to choose from? On your Facebook page, you guys mentioned that it was your dream to write a song for SHINee back in 2013 and eventually did last year with "Wishful Thinking". Do you two have significant say in the artists you want to collaborate with?

Almost every time we write music for artists, we have some kind of connection with the label the artist is signed to. That connection is usually made through The Kennel via email. Then we get an email explaining details about the artist, maybe some links to their previous releases, and an explanation for what kind of songs they are searching for at the moment. Sometimes we have meetings directly with the artist/management. And sometimes we get the contacts on our own via networking and so on.

For example, with The Fooo we had a meeting with their previous manager and talked about what kind of music they were searching for at the moment. After the meeting we got into the studio and started working on songs.

We write a lot of songs each year and of course not every song will find an artist straight away. So all of these songs are available in our catalogue for artists to try out if they want. These songs are handled by our creative manager Pernilla Svanström who works at The Kennel. Her job is mainly to send songs and handle the contacts to score the best artists as possible. And of course we can pitch these songs ourselves if we think we have a suitable artist for the song.

We can of course request artists that we wanna write songs for but as we mentioned before, it’s really important to have a good connection with the label/artist first. For example, take the SHINee song "Wishful Thinking" that we wrote with Andreas Öberg. We wrote that song aimed for the Korean/Japanese market but didn’t have any specific artist in mind beforehand. Since we have good connections in South Korea/Japan via The Kennel, we managed to get the song to SHINee and they liked it. This is different with all the songs we write, sometimes we have a really clear picture of which artist we wanna aim for and sometimes we just write a song that we like.

How would you describe the Korean/Japanese market, and how would you say it differs from others you write for? And similarly, what keeps you interested in writing songs for this market?

What we’ve always thought was really interesting and fun with the K-pop/J-pop market was the variety of styles and sounds in the music. It feels like the labels are always looking for something fresh and new; they're not afraid of taking chances. If we compare this to writing for the Western market (US, UK, etc.), it feels like a music style will stay longer on the top charts and the leads (leads = what the labels are looking for) for artists refer back to the same songs for a longer period of time.

Also, what we really love about the K-pop/J-pop market is the effort put into the songs' videos and choreographies. It was the first thing that we really fell in love with when we heard/watched our first K-pop song!

It feels like the K-pop market especially has a really global and viral spread right now. And every year it grows a little bit more. We feel like it’s a cool journey to be a part of and also, of course, it gives us a lot of opportunities to get our music out. Since we have both the K-pop/J-pop world and the US/UK market to write for, we tend to always find a home for our songs!

 
 

You two wrote Girls' Generation-TTS' "Stay" as well as f(x)'s "Spit It Out". Like many other songs you've written, those definitely felt like they were chosen for the perfect artists. Did you have these artists in mind when writing these particular songs? And do you recall what the influences and inspirations were for them? And more broadly speaking, when writing songs for Korean artists, how often would you say you're taking influence from other K-pop versus pop that comes out of America or Europe?

Both of those songs were written specifically for SM Entertainment and their artists! We had the girl bands in mind of course when we wrote those songs. SM are really good at picking songs for the right artists and making them their own. But we thought—let’s just write good songs for the girl-groups at SM. We have to mention that both of these songs were written as D3O, so Ollipop is a writer/producer on the songs as well!

For "Stay" we had the idea of making a future disco beat with a big chorus. We wrote it with Kennel writer Hayley Aitken, who has an amazing voice, so we were really able to get the vibe right for the song! We thought it would be fun to make a disco type of drop after the second chorus. We kept the piano in focus with typical disco chords and had an R&B-ish melody on top of that. It feels like the song has a really special vibe with those elements put together.

”Spit It Out” was actually one of the first songs we wrote together as D3O. Our inspiration for the song came from hearing Girls' Generation's ”I Got A Boy” for the first time—we thought the sounds and the melodies were so special and cool.

Inspiration comes from all different genres for us. Especially for tracks, we have a lot of producers that we follow and listen to. For example we love productions from The Struts (Tove Lo, etc.), Skrillex (Justin Bieber), Mura Masa, Diplo, etc. And of course we follow the latest K-pop trends for inspiration. But basically we just take inspiration from any great music we hear.

 
 

More recently, you two wrote "Singing in the Rain" for JinSoul of LOONA. Blockberry Creative is a rather new label so I'm interested if they were the ones who first got in touch with The Kennel. Its release seemed perfectly timed too, coming after the moody electropop of Kim Lip's "Eclipse". I know you stated that you'll have songs written that won't be used until later but how much time was there between writing this song and its eventual release? And how much time, on average, would you say there is between any song being written and its release?

We came in contact with them when they said they wanted the song. We don’t know the whole story about how The Kennel came in contact with them!

The song was written during one of our own camps called "Camp Awesome". We had it together with our dear friends Ollipop, Cage (producer/writer at The Kennel) and Oneye (producer/writer at The Kennel). The idea of the camp is to write great songs together during a whole week and end it with a listening party. It’s a really fun and creative way of writing songs and all of us can come in and give feedback during the process of the song-making. This song was found rather fast by LOONA, it took only a few months until they wanted to record the song.

On average we would say it takes about six months to up to a year before a song gets cut. But it varies a lot, we’ve had songs laying around for two to three years before finding its home and sometimes it happens right away!


I find the song super exciting because it seems to take sounds from the post-dubstep scene of the early 2010s but also feels right at home in the landscape of K-pop today considering the more contemporary dance music sounds that have existed since 2015. I'm thinking of stuff like LDN Noise's work with SM as well as last year's "Promise (I'll Be)" and "Think About You" from 2PM and Jun. K, respectively. Can you discuss what you two were aiming for with this song?

Actually the song is a mashup of two different productions. The drop part was made by us like 2-3 years ago. We actually re-produced the idea right before the camp! The other part of the production (verse-beat and the part before the drop) was made by Oneye right before the camp. During the session of making the song we thought, let’s put the productions together, and it worked! After that we top-lined the track and came up with the title "Singing In The Rain". I think the main idea of the song was to create something groovy and danceable. It felt like LOONA really understood that, the video and the dance moves looks great.

 
 

Red Velvet's "Red Flavor" is a massive hit and it is, in my opinion, the K-pop song of the summer. I feel like you don't really get a sense of how propulsive and joyful the song really is until the song slows down with Wendy's final line. Even then, there are a lot of details in the song that I feel like are easy to miss. What was the process like for writing this song?

This one we wrote by ourselves. It was actually aimed for the UK band Little Mix since we had a meeting with one of their A&Rs at the time. But we felt like it could work for the K-pop market as well! The song started with the track and the low voice you can hear in the intro and during the chorus. After that we just wrote the melodies and played around with the track. The result was the song "Dance With Nobody". It was the original title before the lyrics were translated into Korean. We hired our good friend and great singer Ylva Dimberg (writer; f(x), Girls' Generation, Taemin, etc.) to sing the demo of the song and you can actually still hear her background vocals in the pre-chorus! Finishing this song actually took a little bit longer than usual. We took a break from the song for a few months before finishing it just to listen to it with fresh ears. We’re really happy with how the song turned out. Red Velvet and SM did a really good job with the song!


Both "Singing in the Rain" and "Red Flavor" feature interesting vocal snippets. In the former, you have the vocodered bit that first appears in the second chorus and in the latter you have the titular line that sounds like someone slurring their speech after a few drinks (which, coincidentally, fits in nicely with the video!). Were these samples? Or were they things initially sung (by the members, by you two) and processed later?

Both of the voices that you refer to are recorded by us. The "Singing In The Rain" voice is actually from the demo version of the song. It’s Ludwig's voice pitched down to make it sound like some kind of a robot. In "Red Flavor" it’s Ludwig's voice recorded through an iPhone microphone and then processed through Logic with a bunch of effects. The "Red Flavor" voice was inspired by the song ”Run The World (Girls)” (Beyonce, Major Lazer).

You two helped produce "All Night", one of Girls' Generation's brand new singles. It's especially exciting because the song and album were released 10 years after they debuted with "Into The New World". To further commemorate this anniversary, SM released a "Documentary Version" of "All Night" that finds the girls reminiscing on their time together. The girls also handpicked some songs from their discography for an Apple Music playlist. What significance does Girls' Generation have to you two specifically? And if you had to choose one or two songs that hold special significance to you, be it from their Korean or Japanese releases, what would they be and why?

Girls' Generation was one of the first K-pop acts we listened to. So they kind of introduced us to the K-pop style. We thought it was really cool how they could have such a big group but still make it work. The choreographies and the harmonies in the vocals were really new to us.

If we had to pick two songs we would pick "I Got A Boy" and "The Boys". "The Boys" was probably one of the first K-pop songs we heard and we were really amazed by the cool production and the well-made video for the song. We also really loved the harmonies in the vocals! Especially in the intro of the song when the vocals are alone.

"I Got A Boy" was written by one of our Kennel writers "Sarah Lundbäck Bell" so we got to hear the song in its early stages. We thought the style and the tempo transition were really cool! The song really inspired us to think outside the box and, as mentioned before, we wrote the song "Spit It Out" after we heard it.

 
 

Was "All Night" another song that you had specifically written for SM? Tiffany's rap in the second verse and the synth ornamentation in the bridge bring to mind "Stay", funny enough.

We wrote the song together with our friend Olof Lindskog a.k.a. Ollipop! We thought it would be fun to bring back the old team (D3O) so we sat down and wrote the song "All Night" specifically for SM Entertainment. The song came to us pretty fast and we had a really fun time making it. The idea of the song was to mix two styles together. We have the 80s analogue synth bass line in the verses with playful melodies on top. It leads into the chorus that has more of a trap sound to it and a powerful melody that leads into the hook "All Night". This gives the song a special vibe we think. For the demo vocals, we asked the amazing Hayley Aitken (Kennel writer). She really took the song to another level!

We think we subconsciously took some inspiration from "Stay" when we wrote the rap. Usually when we write the rap parts we just freestyle and sometimes we maybe use the same rhythms as another song we've made. For the instrumental part we also just freestyled the lines in the synths. And yeah, it reminds us a bit of "Stay" as well!


Both "Red Flavor" and "All Night" feature lyrics that were written by Kim Yeon Jung aka Kenzie. Were you ever in contact with her during the process of writing/producing the song or afterwards? Or was it more so that you had the song sold to SM and then she essentially took over and changed the lyrics? You stated that "Red Flavor" originally had a different title—did "All Night" have a significantly different title/lyrical themes beforehand as well?

She's a really good writer and a wonderful person. For these two songs we didn't have any contact with her during the process. We just sent the tracks and she took over with the lyrics! However, we have worked with Kenzie in South Korea once before! "All Night" was actually the title we had for the demo version. So in this case they kept the title.


You two have visited South Korea multiple times. Do you have any memorable stories of meeting and working with any of the artists there?

We have met a few artists while being in Seoul! One of the strongest memories was when we were writing songs at SM entertainment and we were told that Girls' Generation had a meeting outside the studio. We were supposed to wait until the meeting was finished. But after a few minutes we were told to go out to the meeting room and we were introduced to the whole group. It was a really special moment since it was our first time in Seoul. We also met EXO at a TV performance (when the song "Growl" was big). It was really cool since we really love EXO!


Are there any artists, be it Korean or not, that you still haven't worked with but would love to in the future? And any particular reasons why?

In Korea we would love to have a song with EXO someday. Just because we love the songs they are releasing and their skills in both dancing and singing are just flawless. Our dream is also to release big songs in the US. We don’t have any specific dream artists in mind, more so collaborations with writers/producers. One of our biggest dreams is to work with Max Martin and Shellback!

 
 

Aside from the songs you've written, are there any recent K-pop songs that you've really enjoyed?

We really like NCT's song "Cherry Bomb". The song has a really nice swag to the beat and the dance moves in the video are crazy good! We also love the M8 part when the chords go into more R&B vibe!


And are there any songs you two have coming that K-pop fans should be looking forward to?

Not at the moment! But we're planning on going to Seoul this fall, so we'll probably get some nice songs out of that trip. :)


I just want to thank you so much for taking part in this interview. Is there anything you would like to add?

No actually not! Great questions and thanks for wanting us to participate in this interview! :)

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Caesar & Loui K-pop/J-pop

Production Discography


4minute - Whatever
VIXX - Hyde*
Shinhwa - Scarface
Boys Republic - What Up
WA$$UP - Nom Nom Nom*
4minute - Wait A Minute
Super Junior - Swing*
f(x) - Spit It Out
C-Clown - Let's Love*
Girls' Generation-TTS - Stay
Taemin - Pretty Boy
Zhou Mi - Why (Color Blind)
TVXQ - Special One
Boys Republic - Pump
BTOB - Giddy Up
SHINee - Wishful Thinking
Pentagon - Pretty Pretty*
Shinhwa - Super Power
EXO-CBX - Girl Problems
EXO-CBX - Diamond Crystal
LOONA/JinSoul - Singing In The Rain*
Red Velvet - Red Flavor*
Girls' Generation - All Night*

*lead single/has a music video
 

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Forever Exploring: An Interview With Mike Cooper

 
 

For more than five decades, Mike Cooper has been making music that's run the gamut from blues and folk to ambient to Greek Rembetika. Last month, Room40 released Raft, the sixth album in his 'Ambient, Electronic, Exotica' series. Influenced by voyages made by William Willis, Vital Alsar, and Thor Heyerdahl, Raft finds the Austalia-based musician further honing his craft. Below, Cooper discusses the album in depth and also touches on his field recordings, the process of performing live, and some of his favorite books.

 

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Mike Cooper: Go ahead --- talk to me ...

I guess we are supposed to talk about Raft, my upcoming LP on Room40, right? Raft is part of a series of 'Ambient, Electronic, Exotica' records that I have been making over a number of years. The first was titled Kiribati - which is an island nation in the Pacific. Because of an interest I had (and still do) in small island cultures, I wanted to make some music which might have come from an island or exotic place which didn't actually exist. This wasn't a new idea, as you might know, in the 50's there were a few composers who did something similar; Martin Denny, Les Baxter and Arthur Lyman were among them. They created a kind of lounge, jazz, easy listening, tiki bar genre which I wanted to pursue but with less focus on melody and more on ambience. I am a lap steel/Hawaiian guitarist who loves Sun Ra, electronics and free jazz and this was the pallet that I used to create these pieces.

I have travelled a lot in South East Asia, the Pacific and Australia and in the course of 25 years of doing this I have amassed a shit load of field recordings from many of the places I have visited. An artist I like called Nandita Kumar recently wrote—"Nature, imaginative by necessity, has already solved many of the problems we are grappling with: energy, food production, climate control, non-toxic chemistry, transportation, packaging, and a whole lot more."—and being a fan of nature I like to include it in my work. Hence I use field recordings as often as possible in my music at some point. I try not to meddle with it and just let it be what I happen to capture.

One of my mentors is the musicologist/anthropologist Steve Feld who wrote at length about the Kaluli people who live in the highlands of Papua New Guinea. Steve Wrote in a book (together with Charles Keil called Music Grooves) about something the Kaluli called 'Lift Up Over Sounding'. It had to do with the music of nature which to them was the nature of music: " ...the quality acousticians call 'rustle time', the mean time interval between clicks, noises, or non pitched sounds, heard so prominently in the pulsating sound densities of Kaluli rattles and environmental sounds." The looping, out of phase, electronic sounding qualities of insects and birds in the day time and night time (both different) became important to me, especially after a month as artist in residence on Pulau Ubin, a small island between Singapore and Malaysia, where I learnt the difference.

 
 

Lets talk about Raft now.

During my final year at school (1958) I had to read two books that became an important part of my life - The Tempest by William Shakespeare and The Kon Tiki by Thor Heyerdahl. The story in The Tempest is concerned with (amongst other things including drinking) Prospero, who was the Duke of Milan until his brother Antonio, conspiring with Alonso, the King of Naples, usurped his position and he was kidnapped and left to die on a raft at sea.

One of my favourite quotes from The Tempest:

 

Be not afeard; the isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometime voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again: and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open and show riches
Ready to drop upon me that, when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

 

In 1947 Thor Heyerdahl set out with his crew on a raft to prove that the Polynesian people had drifted from South America and by chance had arrived on the various islands they now inhabit. He was wrong. He only drifted (didnt sail) 4,500 miles across the Pacific Ocean. William Willis, an American sailor built a raft in 1954 and sailed solo from South America to American Samoa - 6,700 miles and 2,200 miles farther than did Thor Heyerdahl on Kon Tiki. His raft was named "Seven Little Sisters" and was crewed by himself, his parrot, and cat. Willis was age 61 at the time of this voyage. Ten years later, at the age of 71 on his second great voyage he rafted 11,000 miles from South America to Australia. This raft was named 'Age Unlimited'.

The Spanish explorer Vital Alsar led two raft expeditions to cross the Pacific Ocean. La Balsa in 1970 and Las Balsas in 1973 from Ecuador to Australia, setting the record for the longest known raft voyages in history - 8,600 miles and 9,000 miles. Vital Alsar is still alive and voyaging and living in Vera Cruz, Mexico. Vital sailed with three rafts and a crew of 12 on that second voyage and one of the rafts now resides in the humble maritime museum in Ballina, a small town on the East Coast of Australia near the new South Wales / Queensland border.

My album Raft is in no way meant to musically illustrate their voyages but is merely a dedication to them inspired by their courage and sense of adventure.

 
 

Tone Glow: Raft marks the sixth release in your Ambient, Electronic, Exotica series (the others being Kiribati, Globe Notes, Rayon Hula, White Shadows in the South Seas, and Fratello Mare). You've cited different influences for these various records, such as with James Hamilton-Paterson's works in Globe Notes.

Mike Cooper: I was very impressed with Seven Tenths by James Hamilton Paterson; one of favourite books and writers. It is a history of our perception of the sea. I have a weird relationship with the sea and water. I never learnt to swim until I was 50 years old and I still am very wary of the power of the ocean despite now being a 'beach freak'. My album Reluctant Swimmer / Virtual Surfer is a reference to this and boats and water play a large part in my life and work.

You also mentioned the disastrous effects of global climate change on the island nation Kiribati on your album of the same name. Marked on the back cover of that release was a specific instruction written in all caps: "LISTEN AS QUIETLY AS POSSIBLE." As far as I know, that isn't something you've asked of listeners for your other releases, and I imagine was intended as a way for listeners to understand and empathize with what was happening to the island's coral atolls.

I hoped people would listen to it quietly. It is not a record that you get any physical or aural 'extras' out of by playing loud. There is a rock thing about playing loud that I sometimes indulge in but there is also the 'quiet music' school which I subscribe to as well and, partly in jest, I was hoping to encourage people to lay down and listen to Kiribati. Although I am not sure that my urging people to do anything in a sleeve note would encourage anyone to do anything... in my most optimistic moments maybe yes. Better they be encouraged to go to this year's Venice Biennale and go to the Kiribati artists installation there. A very moving thing and continues to make the point about a disaster happening... I can't describe that installation here obviously but sufficient to say it is small but significant.

Another of my inspirations for that album was reading A Pattern Of Islands by Arthur Grimble. He was posted to Kiribati as an 18 year old in the British Civil Service (it was a British colony) and he fell in love with the place and its people and never really ever left. He wrote several books on the culture but Pattern Of Islands is my favourite and if ever i see a copy I buy it and give it to friends. Kiribati continues to battle with the rising sea levels and will one day be no more.

 
 

I also know that White Shadows and Fratello Mare were intended as soundtracks for their respective films. "Raft 21 - Guayaquil To Tully," however, was accompanied by a video that I'm assuming you shot. Was there an entire film that you had created for this film? And was the music made as a response to the film or vice versa?

Part of my live repertoire is playing live music to silent films, something I have done (and still do) for more than 20 years, including those two films you mention. They came about as a live performance before they ended up on record. I am, as you noted, also a film and video maker and my live performances these days usually include projection of some of my video work. There is a longer version of the "Raft 21" video and also two alternative videos. The promo version that you know was shot mostly in Vietnam before I made the record. I tend to wander around with my video camera in my pocket and just shoot stuff with no particular intention and I edited it after into something. I had made the record and needed to make a promo video and the idea of floating on water was the main inspiration to use those particular shots. They seemed suited to the musical content of that particular track.

Broadly speaking, how do you think you've grown as an artist since 1999 with regards to making this specific type of music, and how would you describe Raft in comparison to those other five albums?

The earlier albums, in particular Kiribati, Rayon Hula and Globe Notes were made under very different circumstances than the later albums. The first three were made in my very primitive studio which was a four track cassette recorder and a couple of mini disc recorders and I still have that set up. I didn't start using the computer to record and edit stuff together until much later. I still only use Garage Band to record and I am a believer in what I like to call 'domestic technology' - in other words I dont pay for any extras after I have paid for the machine. What it comes with I learn to use in as creative way as possible that suits my needs. I am a Lee Perry disciple. One of the things I have learnt is that for me music happens in a live performance situation and I try and capture as many live gigs as I can. For a while I had this split musical personality of live solo performance, where I am a singer and guitar player, and recording the Ambient, Electronic, Exotica instrumental albums.

With Kiribati, Globe Notes and Rayon Hula I had some difficulty, at first, with how I was going to present them in a live situation, if at all. It would rely on a lot of pre-recorded elements being played back and me playing something across the top, which at first I was very unsure about doing. The issue was partly solved by presenting them with, or as, a film soundtrack and also I was starting to get asked to just do the ambient music without singing and I needed to find a way to do that in a way which musically satisfied me. I am not someone who can go on stage and press 'go' on my computer and stand there and watch it churn out. I realised there was space in the pieces, or I could create space, for me to improvise lap steel guitar parts. Or I took the album tracks and with various bits of digital effects I could make new versions of them in a live situation, and screen my own video films as background. That seems to work ok for both me and the audience. Some of this technology has an annoying way of being 'upgraded' as they like to call it and suddenly something doesn't work like it did before, or even not at all sometimes and I hate that. The mini disc became replaced by small digital recorders, which is ok, but Apple Mac have a way of manipulating the market which I hate. I fortunately still have my little white macbook which has a separate input and output mini jack sockets allowing you to monitor and record at the same time. My macbook pro doesn't allow this and soon there will be no headphone sockets at all. Fuck 'em. Now you can lock up your record/cd collection and just yell at your loudspeakers 'play me some Mike Cooper' and it will stream my entire life for you while you lay in bed and dream about tropical islands that probably no longer exist or never did maybe?

 
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I think it's quite clear that you find inspiration to create your art from a variety of things. However, would you say that music plays a significant role in shaping and influencing the art you create nowadays or do you feel like it's primarily extramusical stuff? Obviously you've covered numerous artists and songs in the past and have made explicit references to Pharaoh Sanders ("Pharaoh's March") and Peter Brötzmann (the Machine Gun Co.) but what sort of music, if any, inspired your work on Raft?

I made that album in a small apartment in Spain, near Valencia, where there was not much distraction musically actually, mostly some Hawaiian slack key guitar CDs that I had stashed there and some flamenco. Not much evidence of the latter on Raft though I suspect. I have been, and did use, some apps that I have on my iPhone and Samsung tablet and there is evidence of those on Raft. The app thing came about from Warren Burt, an American composer who lives in Australia. He is a friend and has a wonderful blog where he often posts reviews of recent digital downloadable music apps and recently had a video of him exploring the possibility of using small mobile devices for making music. I have been watching this with great interest and exploring this route myself. I have also been listening a lot to Bob Ostertag and watching his adventures recently while travelling with a laptop and little else to some very interesting parts of the world and giving electronic music concerts in some highly unlikely places.

You mentioned that you try to utilize field recordings as often as possible in your music. Can you talk about the field recordings present on Raft, where they were recorded, and how you feel they impact the songs they're on?

There are field recordings on the B side from a temple in Vietnam; a long house village in the jungle in Sarawak and some bird and insect recordings from Pulau Ubin, a small island in between Singapore and Malaysia. The temple recording and the longhouse recording both actually set the context for what happens around them - they are the composition really.

Each track on Raft is labeled with a specific number, do they have any significance?

No none at all!! I think they were the numbers of the files in my computer that's all.

 
 

You recently released an album with Tasos Stamou entitled London Taximi. It's certainly a different beast than Raft: raucous, highly improvisatory, and inspired by Greek Rembetika. Can you talk about your relationship with Stamou and Rembetiko music in general?

I met Tasos first in Athens where he was sharing the bill with me on a concert. We became friends and eventually he moved to London where I introduced him to the improvised music scene there - in particular the London Improvisers Orchestra which he joined for a while. I usually go to England once a year and we have for the past few years played together somewhere. We both have a love of Greek Rembetika, mine stemming from a collaboration I have had for many years with Viv Corrigham, a singer and soundscape artist. We have known each other for many many years, going back to folk club days in the 70's. At some point in the early 80's we both discovered Turkish and Greek Rembetika. Viv was married to a Turk and in fact lived in Turkey for a couple of years. I think it was there that she realised that she had an ear for the modal melismatic music from both countries and could sing it with some conviction. She has made several records of her own of that genre. We had (still have maybe) a collaboration we called Avant Roots. We made one CD under that name together. It covered quite a bit of musical ground, from Blues to Rembetika, electronic music and improvised passages in the free improv style. Over the years we refined it to what we now call Rembetronika, a kind of avant version of Greek Rembetika. There are some recorded evidence of this project around and a very nice live at Cafe Oto concert which is awaiting a release (anyone want it?) My collaboration with Tasos is along the same lines minus the voice of Viv.

In an interview with your collaborator Grayson Cooke, you mentioned that "improvisation is what [you] do—full stop" and that you are "not interested in anything else." How does improvising with someone else compare to performing solo?

It's harder work solo. It's a bit like juggling playing solo - keeping all the balls or clubs in the air. What I meant by the last half of that sentence was I am not interested in playing notated music and maybe not even graphic scores which are open to interpretation. I like to see where the music takes me when I make an input.

 
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You've been living in Rome for a long while now but have traveled extensively around the world, is there a specific country or location that remains your most memorable?

I have found most places have some quality that remains forever imprinted and always seems to be calling one back. I don't really have a favourite place although as you know I love islands. Our main focus (my partner and I) in travelling has mostly been toward islands. Marie Galante is pretty special.

Is there a place you haven't visited yet that you would still like to?

I have never been to Kiribati and would love to before it goes beneath the waves.

In addition to the release of Raft and London Taximi, you've had two of your old records reissued—the aforementioned Reluctant Swimmer / Virtual Surfer and Blue Guitar—are there any other CDs from your Hipshot imprint that are set to get reissues soon? And is there anything else you're working on, music or not, that your fans should be anticipating?

I am always working on something. I am using my Bandcamp site now as a digital version of my Hipshot CDr label, so any new stuff not placed with a label yet is up there. As for unreleased Hipshot records there are a few things if anyone shows interest. Discrepant, who put out New Kiribati and Reluctant Swimmer, are going to do some film track pieces that I have from my silent film repertoire next year; some of the Asian films that I do.

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After conducting this interview, I asked Mike Cooper if he would be interested in sharing a list of things—be it music, film, books, food, *anything*—that he was interested in or influenced by. He decided to compile a list of eight books and describe their significance to him. At the time this interview took place, Cooper had just finished his "Listed" feature with Dusted Magazine. As a note, there is some overlap present between that list and the one here but the accompanying text is different.

 

NOTES FROM A PACIFIC BOOK COLLECTION - MIKE COOPER

These are some of the titles from our collection of books on the South Pacific that we have found during our travels and which inspire my work.

 

 
islands
 
 
 
crossings
 
 
 
catstable
 
 
 
soundandsentiment
 
 
 
trial
 
 
 
restless
 
 
 
seaworthy
 
 
lasbalsas
 

A Pattern Of Islands by Arthur Grimble

One of the first books I bought which dealt with Pacific culture and inspired a whole collection which we now have. Whenever I see copies of this book I buy them and give them to friends. The book which inspired my Kiribati ambient record. Grimble was posted to the Island Nation of Kiribati after joining the Civil Service at age 18 in 1914 where he became a cadet administrative officer. He became resident commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony (Kiribati) in 1926. He remained there until 1933. His book A Pattern Of Islands was published in 1952 and is a record of his time in the islands and his experience of living with its people (who he loved) and learning their language, myths and oral traditions. I bought this book in Basement Books in Melbourne, no longer there, which was a treasure trove of second hand books with a huge Oceania section many of which ended up in our collection.

 

Beach Crossings: Voyaging Across Time, Cultures and Self by Greg Dening

I was with my friend, the then radio producer Brent Clough in the Museum Of Contemporary Art bookshop in Sydney some years ago and this book virtually jumped into my hands. The title was enough to encourage me to buy it and when I looked briefly inside it was mine. Greg Dening (1931—13th March 2008) was an Australian Historian who explored a fascination with Oceania and the encounters between indigenous peoples of the islands and outsiders who visited or lived on the in-between space of 'the beach' -- which became a metaphor which he pursued and developed. The book Beach Crossings is an essay on 'first encounters' between local and strangers coming together. It is an imaginative exploration of the symbolic strip between low and high tide where the ocean meets the land on the Marquesas Islands in the South Pacific and its bloody and tragic history of those who lived and some of those who left. Greg wrote, "I cannot cope with an anthropology of natives and a history of strangers. I have ambitions to do an anthrohistory of them both." I wrote a radio play inspired by this and other books by Greg Dening.

 

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

I am not much of a fiction reader but there are some exceptions; Sam Shepard, James Hamilton Paterson and Michael Ondaatje are some of them. I have read everything of his I have been able to find, including most of his poetry. This book appealed to me in particular because at the same age (11 years old) but a year apart, we both made the same voyage but in reverse. Him from Sri Lanka (it was still called Ceylon then) to London and me from London to Australia (via Sri Lanka). My brother and I were being taken by my parents as emigrants to live in Australia. Ondaatje's (fictionalised) account of his trip as an unaccompanied young boy resonated deeply with my own experience of that voyage of discovery. For both of us it became a floating island and one where I could disappear from my parents' sight, probably for the first time really, for days on end without them worrying too much where I was. Apart from falling overboard there was not much that could happen to me. This only occurred for me between sustained bouts of sea-sickness. Something that became so acute that I was nearly put ashore at one point apparently. Apart from that it was an exotic experience that marked me for life; travelling for eight weeks half way around the world on a ship that stopped at some very interesting places that I have never forgotten and some I have even revisited.

 

Sound And Sentiment: Birds, Weeping, Poetics, and Song in Kaluli Expression by Steve Feld

Back in the mid-90s I was playing in a jazz festival in Canada with an improvising trio The Recedents who were myself, Lol Coxhill on saxophone and vocals and Roger Turner on drums. A group that lasted for 23 years until Lol's untimely death. Back at the hotel in Canada I got into the lift followed by a person at that time unknown to me. When the lift stopped at his floor he turned to me and, dropping a cassette tape into my shirt pocket as he left, said "I think you might like this". The doors closed and the lift continued to my floor. The tape was called Voices Of The Rainforest and turned out to be a soundscape of 24 hours in a Papuan rainforest. I remembered that during our Recedents performance I had used some field recordings of birds made during a recent trip to Australia which was probably why Steve Feld gave me that cassette. We became long distance friends and when I discovered that he was a writer as well as musician I began to seek out more of his work as an anthropologist and musicologist. They included Music Grooves co-written with Charles Keil and the title mentioned here. Difficult and complicated to explain here but it led me to continue to make and use field recordings in my live performance and to pursue music which is made up of out-of-sync loops of live sampling of my own playing, across which I sing these days.

 

The Trial of the Cannibal Dog: The Remarkable Story of Captain Cook's Encounters in the South Seas by Anne Salmond

When Cooke and his crew arrived in the Pacific islands for the first time the locals were not really sure if they were in fact humans. They called them 'Sky Bursters' imagining that they had burst through the bright blue bubble that they imagined covered their Oceanic island nations. In fact voyaging in Cooke's time was a bit like being an astronaut and the Polynesians were literally 'starsailors' – navigating, although Europeans had a hard time coming to terms with it, by the stars without compass or clocks. This volume is one of the best books on Cook and his adventures.

 

Restless Spirit by Cassi Plate

As a fan of Jack London's writing from an early age I am always on the look out for real life characters who seem to come right out of his novels. Adolph Plate was one of these; a European traveller to the Pacific, a painter, photographer, collector, sailor and settler. Written by his grandaughter, Cassi Plate, after she had discovered a trunk containing some of his treasured belongings as a child. A collection of his photographs, paintings and other collected objects; all memorabilia from his travels from Europe across the Pacific Ocean Islands and then across Australia inspired the book and an exhibition of Adolph's paintings. The author and subject are the restless spirits of the title.

 

Seaworthy by T.R. Pearson / Las Balsas by Vital Alsar

I have put these two books together because they were the inspiration behind my most recent recording for Room40 titled Raft. Both books are about sailing rafts across the Pacific Ocean from South America to Australia. The longest raft voyages ever made.

Seaworthy is the story of more than one attempt, the final being successful in 1964, of William Willis who made it, as a lone sailor. At one point in his drift towards Australia, at the age of 71, he suffered a hernia and had to hang himself upside down with a rope tied around his ankles to move his intestine back into place and relieve his pain. This was his second attempt to cross the Australia, the first voyage led him only to Samoa, still a significant 9,500 km. His successful voyage (17,000 km) led him to Tully on the east coast and he was towed by the Australian Navy to Sydney.

Vital Alsar sailed to Australia twice on rafts, the first voyage in 1970 was one raft with a crew of 4 and a cat which lasted 160 days from Ecuador to Mooloolaba on the east coast of Australia. This raft now resides in Santander where Vital was born. The final voyage was in a convoy of three rafts and a total crew of 12. The voyage was completed in 1973 after a total distance of 14,000 km. One of the three rafts survives and is in the small maritime museum in Ballina. Vital Alsar is still alive and recently sailed a tri-maran replica Spanish Galleone around the world on a piece mission. He lives in Vera Cruz, Mexico.

The importance of these voyages are that they proved that it was possible to actually navigate solo and with several rafts together across the Pacific. For years people, including academics, thought that the Polynesian peoples drifted and arrived by chance across the Pacific to the Islands. These voyages and the work of people like David Lewis (We The Navigators) and Ben Finney, founder of The Polynesian Voyaging Society, proved that the Polynesian people were expert star sailors and long sea-voyage sailors long before the Europeans arrived.

Neither William Willis nor Vital Alsar are celebrated to the extent that Thor Heyerdahl and the Kon Tiki voyage is. The Kon Tiki voyage is quite insignificant when compared, having only sailed 7,000 km in 101 days, only halfway across the Pacific and yet the Kon Tiki museum in Oslo receives millions of visitors a year and is supported and celebrated by the Norwegian Government.

Improvising with Seoul: An Interview with Kevin Parks

Kevin Parks doesn't have too many albums to his name but each one of them, including last year's Severe Liberties with Vanessa Rossetto, is great. If you listen to any of those releases, it's clear that he's a very astute musician, able to shape the way he plays his guitar or utilizes his electronics to compliment the musicians he's performing with. He currently resides in South Korea and has been involved with the experimental music scene in Seoul for over a decade now (you can watch some live performances at the Dotolim YouTube channel).

Despite his busy schedule, Parks took the time to thoughtfully answer the numerous questions I had for him via email. A big thank you to Parks for his generosity and patience throughout the entire process.

 

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Tone Glow: I just want to start off by saying thanks for doing this, I really appreciate it. One of the reasons I wanted to do an interview with you was because there isn't a lot of information about you online. You're currently a teacher at the Catholic University of Daegu and are involved with the experimental music scene in South Korea. What led you there and how did you end up becoming involved with those musicians (e.g. Hong Chulki, Ryu Hankil, Jin Sangtae, Choi Joonyong)?

Kevin Parks: I am indeed currently a teacher at Catholic University of Daegu. But my Korea story is a long one that has too many twists and turns to tell in detail. I first came to Korea in the mid-1990s as a student off winning a small scholarship. Sometime in the late 80s/early 90s, I took a strong interest in Korean traditional music and that led me to attending Yonsei University for a semester to study Korean. I had an option to stay the whole year, which I very much wanted, but I was working my way through school and had to be back for the fall term. So I stayed as long as I could but that experience was transformative and I knew I would find a way back. It was an amazing eye-opening experience for me, having barely ventured more than a few hundred miles from New York. I grew up working class. People in my family never travelled abroad unless they were in the armed services or whatever. Korea then was a bit harder than it is now but I just loved it instantly. I still do.

Not too long after that I returned to Korea, did a few more semesters studying Korean at SNU, and then walked into a job teaching computer music at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. I was not much aware of what noise or free jazz or improv was going on, other than Kim Dae Hwan (Percussion)—who I learned about through Korean traditional music circles—and Kang Tae Hwan. I heard Park Je Chun (he taught percussion at the same school I worked at) and Miyeon and maybe a few things here and there but I was not actually doing much improvisation at that time (late 90s). That flame was rekindled when Joe Foster arrived. He was looking to play and reached out to me to let me know he was coming to Seoul. I had previously done a lot of AMM-esque experimental free improv at Brooklyn College but I had sort of left that and fell down the computer music rabbit hole. In any case, things started to gel in Seoul around the time Joe showed up (coincidentally) and he was much involved right from the get-go. He was the one who got me interested again and introduced me around.

 
 

Kang Tae Hwan (Alto Sax), Choi Sun Bae (Trumpet), Kim Dae Hwan (Percussion) - "Seoul Free Music Trio" from Korean Free Music (1989)

Joe and I jammed a little, but more importantly (at that point), I went to many of his shows. That is where I met, over time, all of the rest of the gang, Chulki, Sangtae, Joonyong, Hankil and Seungjun as well as meeting others who were playing a lot, like Sato Yukie and Alfred Harth. Through Joe I also met Bill Ashline who has been such a vital part of the scene in a myriad of ways. Bonnie Jones was there for a year or so as well and Bonnie and Joe, of course, did so many interesting things together as English. Additionally, though never resident in Korea, Bryan Eubanks visited a few times and he is friends with everyone and a frequent collaborator with the Seoul crew as well. I then decided to pursue a PhD and went back home, though you would not hardly know it as I returned literally every year while I was doing courses at Virginia, some years twice. But one of the very first things I did when I returned to the US was start looking into playing live improvised music again. I became pretty active in 804.noise (Richmond VA) and other activities and most importantly, played very regularly in a trio with Wendy Hsu and Carey Sargent, which was a really great experience. We played at home most Thursdays and did lots of gigs. I like to play a lot. I also developed by playing in ad hocs and jamming with friends, and played as much as possible when in Seoul. I returned to Seoul in 2009. Joe and I had already done Ipsi sibi somnia fingunt in 2007 and we followed that up with Prince Rupert Drops and then Acts Have Consequences at the same time I did the Celadon Records recording with Sangtae and Chulki. While there were other things in the mix (disillusionment with computer music, a general overall interest in improvised music and a desire for a messier, more social musical situation), Joe Foster’s arrival in Seoul just after the 2002 World Cup was key; it was through him that I met and played with all the other Seoul folks.

There are numerous factors that led you to becoming a full-on improviser but I imagine part of it had to do with the positive experiences you've had collaborating with these various musicians. Are there any specific ways in which these collaborations have helped you to grow as an improviser?

Just generally I found that writing scores and doing computer music could be a solitary way to be in the world. I didn’t want those to be the only ways that I made music. I was keen to work collaboratively and to make a more social music. I don’t think there is any way that you come away from a significant collaboration without some new notions, new fascinations and a few new riffs even (let’s be honest) but I think it is often hard to say specifically what those things are, but you know you are a little different for having shared that effort.

The collaboration with Carey Sargent and Wendy Hsu was important because of the many hours we spent sitting in a room making music together. We had a kind of deep trust and friendship that allowed us to risk mistakes or explore something that might not be fruitful and it also allowed us to really get to know each other. We got really good at reading each other’s signals and interacting, and yet there were always new things and surprises. No question I have learned from playing with all the folks I have recorded or shared a stage with. Playing with different groups always presents a set of challenges unique to that configuration of instruments and personalities (for example playing with folks who tend to come from a more harsh noise background can be tough for me when I show up with just my guitar) but perhaps I am just too close to it to say specifically what those things are. Making and performing music well is not easy and one of the things that helps is to just put yourself in as many different situations as possible. I try to do that, to a point. A last thing about challenges: I have played several times with one improviser in various settings, on two continents and for whatever reason, despite all the people we have in common, I will confess that I have not yet felt like I have really played a great set with this person. This player is always wonderful enough that folks in the audience may enjoy the set anyway, but I always feel like I have somehow been confounded. Perhaps not entirely a bad thing! And it shows me I still have more to learn.

Can you speak a bit more on your time with Carey and Wendy in Pinko Communoids? I know you three came together while at the University of Virginia and played numerous shows together, even touring in Taiwan at one point. How was that whole experience, as well as trying to create a close community in Virginia through the HzCollective?

Wendy, Carey and I got together really just for fun. I think I might have sent around an email asking folks to jam and they responded so we began meeting regularly on Thursdays to jam and played some shows around Charlottesville just for fun. Subsequently we became involved in 804.noise in nearby Richmond. Richmond, Baltimore and DC all have pretty good size noise scenes so we were lucky on that score. What happened at 804.noise is a story for Kenneth Yates to tell but we later formed the HzCollective with him and Jonathan Zorn and others and played regularly and organized shows and even a festival or two at the BridgePAI in Charlottesville. That Virginia had such a bustling little improv noise scene at that time is at least partially due to the tireless efforts of Kenneth Yates. I met a lot of nice folks through the Richmond noise/improv scene and through Kenneth, players like Jimmy Ghaphery, Cory O’Brian, Clifford Schwing and others. Many folks who were playing Baltimore and, say, heading down to Asheville would pass through Charlottesville and also Richmond so we got to meet and play with folks that way as well as playing with a lot of folks who were resident Mid-Atlantic.

You've studied composition under numerous composers. Most of them have devoted a large part of their career to computer music but you've also studied under Christian Wolff. Is there anything in particular you've gained from your time spent with him?

Christian had a dual appointment in classics and music and liked to teach music courses with groups of students but was much less keen to give individual composition lessons, I think due to the very loose nature of the lessons received from Cage. He’s a genuinely humble person so perhaps that traditional authoritarian “master-student” type situation that prevails in music as a teaching model is something he is not keen on participating in but he sensed I really wanted to work with him so he agreed. I think I wrote a pair of string quartets and an electronic piece with him. He was really focused on very practical things and gave lots of good advice particularly as regards to orchestration and instrumentation. I was working a lot with microtonal stuff then and he didn’t do that himself and likely did not want to get too deep in the weeds of all those tuning ratios but he listened very carefully and gave really solid pragmatic advice. I wish I could impart some amazing profound zen-like nugget of wisdom but it really was nuts and bolts stuff. The result was my pieces were ready, rehearsal time was not wasted, and I got fantastic readings of my pieces by the quartet that came in to play them. As a student, that is the maximum experience. If you write a piece and stick it in a drawer a lot remains unknown. But to make a score, rehearse it and have it played in concert completes the feedback loop. You hear it and learn what really works and what doesn’t. Christian really helped with scoring and notation and gave smart and insightful feedback. It was critical feedback too, he is one of the nicest people you can meet, just a lovely human being but he will tell you if he thinks something you wrote doesn’t work but generally he is very enthusiastic and encouraging. It was also nice that so many amazing people came to visit him. He would bring them around and you could hang out with them. I spent a whole week brown bagging it with Gordon Mumma. Hugh Davies also dropped by as did several others. Christian would just bring these folks around to talk to us.

I'm not entirely sure how it's structured at the Catholic University of Daegu but has he affected the way you teach your own students? And in general, can you touch upon your experiences as a teacher?

I learned so much from all my teachers and I have an especially warm feeling for my time at Brooklyn College because I was so rough then and likely a pretty big problem for all my early teachers. I went to NYC public schools, so it was a lot of babysitting. I arrived completely unprepared for college and it was hard for me to find a path forward. Making things worse, I had a severe hand injury that required extensive surgery and physical therapy. I don’t want to use that as an excuse, but it held me back for sure. I really did not know what hit me when I first arrived at college. I was plenty used to hard physical labor, but I hadn’t the slightest idea what it meant to do an original research project or how to fulfill college level assignments. I was lost with little in my background to prepare me for what I was up against. Fortunately, some fantastic music teachers—Charles Dodge, Noah Creshevsky, Sherman Van Sulkema, Carol Oja, H. Wiley Hitchcock and Curtis Bahn and several others—helped me figure it out. By the time I left Brooklyn College I was in on a path. The experience with Curtis Bahn was key. I was, I believe, his first real composition student. He really helped me out and under his eye I was able to be truly productive with live electronics, computer music, and writing scores. I then followed Charles Dodge to Dartmouth and then later on went to the University of Virginia (after a long stint in Korea). At UVa I primarily worked with Matthew Burtner, Ted Coffey and Judith Shatin. I haven’t talked much about that which makes it seem unimportant. That isn’t true. It is just a bit too close to the present time to know how to talk about but I learned so much from them and also from my fellow students. I remember we would all go walk home from our seminars almost high talking about the music we were working on in class and that is a great feeling and those discussions were nourishing.

Still, I have found things have bogged down for me when I get deep, too exclusive, with academia and forget about my non-academic musical surroundings. How many times I have been seduced by writing code or some big project and lose my focus on producing music regularly with the tools and people already at hand. I think that has to do with the monumentalizing of everything that happens in an academic setting. That aspect of it is unhealthy and I work hard to keep my students loose and try to steer them away from the academic ramifications. I try to keep them focused on the task at hand, which is to make a piece of music (however long or short), that they are proud of, that broadens their experience and makes them feel a kind of satisfaction. Sadly I often fail to take my own advice. But the whole improv/noise world serves as a great foil for all the crap that big “C” composers laden themselves with. Think of someone like Jack Wright, still traveling around from town to town, flopping on people’s couches, still playing house shows, no gig too small, no improviser too unknown to gig with. Think of Kevin Drumm. He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s not getting some sweet tenure track gig or some high dollar “Genius" award, but he puts out a ton of just staggering music. I remember a long day tweaking some supercollider code ended with me seeing a show with Joe Foster in which he played a killer set using mostly just the objects in the room. I mean here is a dude with a fucking chopstick and a broken guitar pedal doing something vastly more interesting than my fancy pants algorithm was outputting. I try hard to keep all that in mind.

As for the guitar. That took a long time to figure out too, and in a way Christian Wolff’s example was key in that. Depressed, I hadn’t even owned a guitar after Dartmouth. But obstacles and limitations can lead us to interesting places. It is weird to me now that I actually even play the guitar but I have played guitar since I was 6. What else was I going to do?

 
 

Your live performances and albums are primarily improvised and collaborative. As you've previously mentioned, this is at least partially a natural response to your academic focuses and the time you spent making computer music. Are you generally uninterested in performing solo or composed music then in this non-academic area of your life? Most of these Seoul musicians are improvisers so I imagine it's also the way things work out when being involved in this scene.

I am interested in playing solo but I feel like that is a very different thing from playing in small groupings (as is large ensemble improvisation, which presents its own unique challenges). Playing solo involves lots of things that are unique to it and it is missing that interaction that comes about playing with another person and as a result is harder to sustain and harder to make interesting for the audience. I am sure more solo playing is on the horizon for me and I have done some but this last little stretch has really been about getting in a room or on a stage with two or three other players and seeing what happens and that still remains really interesting to me as there are seemingly as many ways to do that as there are people doing it. I do play at home by myself sometimes and have enough recorded for like 4 solo records but I am still really getting so much out of playing with others. This project with Vanessa is a great example. So many things that she did that really made me think. There are things that happened on the record that I would never have come up with left to myself and my own poor ideas. How will that experience change my ideas about sound? How will that filter into what I do next? How could you not want to do more of that? But I do also want to see what happens when it is just me up there. I think of someone like Keith Rowe playing these long solo sets and sustaining that interest, which is fascinating as well.

Over a decade ago, you spent some time with the Sadari Movement Lab working on a theater piece entitled Spectrum. I'm assuming that was one of your experiences creating music that was both composed and with a larger group. How did you end up getting involved in that and what did the music sound like? Many of its shows sold out and it seemed like it was a huge success—have you been involved with them in any way since?

That was a great collaboration with a really amazing group of folks. I don’t even know how to describe it, part mime, part dance, part experimental theater. There was sculpture and interesting lighting effects and projected video as well (which had to be carefully aimed at moving scrims). It was based on a sort of Koreanized Hamlet but the script itself was very short. We did that show several times including a 3 or 4 day run at the Seoul Arts Center. The music for that was all pretty much composed and worked up in rehearsals. The director of that group is a brilliant man named Im Dowan and he has the actors all work on designing their own costumes and concepts for the characters including these dynamic masks and props that all moved when the actors moved. I went to rehearsals, read the script and edited my music to fit and made some new bits as well. It was a lot of work but so exciting. It was all computer music and I triggered it from the computer while watching the action on the stage and one bit was generated in real time with supercollider. It was a ghost scene that seemed to be a little different each night so I would have to adjust the timing of that. I used filtered noise bands that I could control in real time, the sharpness and tuning of the filters. Much of the music was done with granular synthesis (opening and closing) and there was some sampled prepared piano as well. The music was highlighted in that production and was not just incidental. I loved that project and those people and would work with them again in a heartbeat. I was asked again to work with them on another project a couple years ago but for health reasons I was not able to. I was sad to have to turn that down. I have many nice memories of that project and am still kind of proud of how that turned out. We wanted to do it as multichannel audio but that was the one thing we couldn’t manage. If I were to do that again I would like to do something more immersive with 4 or 8 channels of sound.

Spectrum sounds like it was phenomenal and it's always nice to hear about experimental art being done in Korea. It also seems like it was perfect for you considering the intersection it presented between your own musical interests and Korean culture at large. You've studied Korean traditional music and taken lessons before but have you ever thought about incorporating some of those instruments (or some of the "Korean sounds" that were part of your library project) into your main musical endeavors?

I have actually. I have a whole big opera (for lack of a better word) that makes use of a series of poems by the Korean modernist Yi Sang. One piece, Flowering Tree, features haegeum sounds prominently (as did Spectrum). I own a haegeum which I bought on my first trip to Korea and have done a bunch of pieces using samples of me squeaking on it but I can’t really play it. It is very difficult to control. A piece that features a written out gayageum part is called Remourseful Chapter and that was played live a couple years ago but I have not been able to get the gayageum part recorded. The whole long (2+ hours) cycle ends with a piece called The End, which features some samples of me playing janggu. It is a big project, some 22 poems and 16 pieces of music, most of which has been played in concert over the last few years but I am hoping to put it all together as a 2 CD fixed media project. I just need to get that one last gayageum melody recorded. I would have done more but it is the same problem as always. Money. Performers need to be paid. I hope to do more in the future including perhaps writing some acoustic music for mixed ensembles. I love the sound of Korean instruments. The timbres are so rich and complex.

 
 
 
 

How did you end up getting into Korean traditional music in the first place? Are there any specific pieces you particularly cherish? I would love to hear any and all recommendations.

When I was an undergraduate at Brooklyn College the student body was diverse. There were also many foreign students, particularly in the Conservatory. I made friends with many of the Korean students and through them I got to hear some first rate Korean music (I previously didn’t know much about it and had some vague misinformed notion about how it might sound). My first recording, probably like many people, was that famous Nonesuch Explorer Series record P'ansori (Korea's Epic Vocal Art & Instrumental Music). That knocked me out, especially the two P’ansori excerpts. I mean, Kim So-Hee that is going right to the top of the mountain right there. So there wasn’t much easily available beyond that, but I got the idea that I could get more by hunting in Korean book stores in Korea town, which I did and I also wrote to the National Gugak Center asking for information. Not long after that King Records re-issued two CDs of Korean music and the film Seopyeonje, came out. By then I was long since hooked. I was armed with recordings and information the National Gugak Center and the Korea Overseas Information Service sent me, and what I could find out at the Korea Society Library and buy at the Korean book store at 32nd street. I remember getting a lot of those “Deep Rooted Tree” series CDs and LPs, those ones with the brown covers. It got out of hand pretty quickly. I was working at Joseph Patelson Music house then, we would get paid Fridays in cash and I would go home through Korea town every Friday eat Korean food and buy some recordings to explore. I was interested in it all but my initial interests were folks genres, p’ansori, sanjo, sinawi, minyo and shaman ritual music. Like a lot of young working class radicals I was less keen to celebrate the aristocratic side and Lou Harrison’s approach (look they have a sophisticated elite too!) kind of bothered me, but I was not immune to that music’s charms either. I go around in circles. My current interest is in the “in between” stuff, if you will, the semi-aristocratic songs and regional julpungnyu. Please don’t ask me how many recorded versions of julpungnyu I have, but as you know julpungnyu music is variable. Unlike the grand style of the National Center, the regional variants are often played in smaller mixed ensembles of who ever showed up that day and these various smaller instrumentations are endlessly fascinating to me. Incidentally, around that time one of my favorite pieces was Hymnkus by John Cage. As you know that is that way too. There is a large number of parts and you can mix and match any number of them you want depending on who is available to play. I love that. The smaller, more localized folk style of julpungnyu is so full of charm and beauty and also, it is only there that you can hear that music’s connection to sanjo. When you first hear that sanjo might have some roots in that music you might be mystified if all you know are the large grand performances of it. But listen to regional hyangje chul p’ungnyu (Gurye Hyangje Julpungnyu, Iri Hyangje Julpungnyu) and you can hear more of a connection.

I wanted to spend some time talking about Severe Liberties, the album you and Vanessa Rossetto released earlier this year. Was this something that Jon Abbey set up or had you two known each other prior to recording the album? Your previous albums had all been mostly, if not completely, improvised while Vanessa has more of a compositional mindset—was there any preparation that was done before going in to record because of this?

Vanessa and I knew each other on-line but had not met in person. I am a big fan of her music and like her very much personally. We never worked together since she was in the US and I was in Korea but I followed her music closely and with great interest and enjoyment and we sometimes exchanged messages. I actually once asked her to listen to something for me and I believe she once did the same (it was a mix I was unsure of that was eventually released) but this pairing was Jon’s idea. That is one of the things I think that helps set Erstwhile apart as Jon puts thought into new groupings and genuinely functions as both curator and a producer. He pushes for new and interesting situations for people, especially groups of folks who have not worked together before and I think the success rate is remarkably high on that front.

Originally, being separated by thousands of miles, we were going to do the record as a long distance collaboration. I was ill for a while and when I finally had a moment where I was, after several years, able to travel home and visit my family I thought we should meet and actually try to do the record together. So I spent a couple days with Vanessa recording. I took the smallest rig I could carry (a handful of pedals, a D/I, some contact mics, etc), picked up a guitar I keep at my parent’s and we just sat down and recorded for a couple days. It was wonderful and a great deal of fun. But there was no plan really other than to sit and record for a hour at a time several times each day and then mine those recordings for subsequent mixes. We decided that we were not going to limit ourselves to what we could do live but allow ourselves to mix, cut, layer whatever or however we wanted. For this project that seemed like a good idea and i think it worked out well. So it wasn’t a pure improv record or really a long distance collaboration, it ended up somewhere between.

 
 

In what ways would you two have limited yourselves? And do you think being together in person impacted this decision, or affected the recording process in general?

It is hard to say how we would have limited it, but I’ll admit that I occasionally make little puzzles and games for myself when I play, but I usually keep them private and I don’t like imposing them on others or even divulging what they are, but they are usually dumb patterns and things I do to keep myself on edge. It is sometimes fun to lay down some parameters for a project. For example, the record we did finally do, while we took liberties at the mixing stage, there were some self-imposed limits. For example I think everything we put on the record came from our recording sessions or environmental sounds that were done in the immediate area. Everything was local to the recording site.

I am sure being together impacted the whole thing, but perhaps that is hard to measure or define. I am exceedingly glad it came about that we could do it that way. I am a really big believer in the whole eye to eye, person to person social music making aspect, it is one very big reason why I do this music and, of course, Vanessa was wonderful to spend time with and get to know. I feel like watching her work also allowed me to understand and appreciate her approach to sound more.

I know you recently got married—huge congratulations! How has married life been? I imagine the past few months have been very busy but is there anything you're working on right now?

Thank you. Yes. Busy. Very. There are good reasons why there are whole books about getting married in Korea. This wasn’t going to city hall and celebrating with a hot pretzel ha!

I have a project or two on the back burner but I don’t want to jinx them by blabbing about them out-loud. Also, when I work with someone I try not to step on their toes (one reason interviews make me nervous). I have enough material for a couple of solo records, if I can find a label that might be interested I really would like to get one out there. I have never done that, put out a record with just my name on it. That’s because with improvisation, I am more interested in collaborations and the kind of interactions I rarely get with composed music and, as mentioned, every new collaboration or show feels like a new situation for me to navigate as a player. But I do hit the record button at home and fool around and I have a pretty big pile of unreleased stuff that might be fun to get out there.