We make music through objects, whether instruments or machines. And so we have this relationship between our ideas and those objects, between our imagination and the imagination of the people who built them. Talking to Keith Fullerton Whitman about his suitcase of modular gear, then, wasn’t just geeking out. It was a chance to understand how he relates his music to those bits of gear, and the community of people who make them. (For another glimpse of that community, see our tour of a booth of a passionate distributor at Musikmesse.)
Keith joined us at CTM Festival, Berlin, over the winter, as part of our MusicMakers Hacklab. I had a long conversation with him, in which he talked about why he works with modular and how he uses it in performance. We also took questions from the audience, and he demonstrated with sounds. (Not heard on this recording: audience members hung out with Keith for what must have been well over an hour, as seen above, to get an inside look at how modular music making works.)
“Modular” and “analog” are often assumed to be synonymous, but in Keith’s rack, they definitely aren’t. A growing number of digital modules takes the software that previously ran only on computer and encases it in these small boxes, allowing software to be patched with cables instead of operated, as I say in the audio, via a “folding typewriter” interfaced of a laptop.
None of this would mean anything if Keith didn’t make good music. If this were beard-scratching music, he’d have the beard for it, but it’s more than that. I heard Keith’s live performance this year first at Berghain, the cavernous former power station dance club in Berlin, and then in a pristine array of speakers provided by GRM at Paris’ Présences électronique.
Keith’s music is, to me, eminently sensual. At Berghain, rumbling bass found its way into the gut as sounds splashed against the concrete walls in spinning, dizzying succession. In Paris, those same points of noise were more crystallized, in a jazz-like display of syncopation and oozing entities of sonic color. This is not just the fuzzy sounds of analog you might know: it’s a full range of sound possibilities as complete as that of any computer. And, in some sense, it is an array of computers, using only a different interface.
But it’s also emotionally motivated. And so, in addition to the interview, it’s worth taking a listen to the twelve (yes, twelve) hours of music inspired by childhood experimentation. Keith explains his motivation there. Music, electronic or not, seems at its best when personal and intimate, and here, I think he gets right at how that works for him. Thanks, Keith; I look forward to more.
“Greatest Hits” (2003-)
… on the eve of my 30th birthday, I began rendering “automatic” “enhancements” of only the most salient points of the pop music of my youth ; a line, bar, or fragment of a particular song (after being heard out in “the wild” in the present ; akin to running into an old friend on the street) was chosen based on how much my nostalgic recollection of it differed from its contemporary reality. Each was played back at exactly half-speed, then run through a series of time- and gain-based processes that slowly & meticulously chewed through the audio, revealing hidden layers of content, context, and temporal / spectral production details … shining a flashlight into the dark corners of each selection, revealing the ghosts lurking within.
I’ve worked on these on & off over the last 10 years, largely as a form of therapy (a way to combat insomnia ; a way to reconnect with my younger self) … This year, as I approach 40, I’ve decided to make public the first 100, dovetailed into a single just-shy-of-12-hour block. Hopefully at least one of these will trigger a fond memory for you (especially if you grew up in the shadows of New York City during the 1980’s) … My only request is that you listen to these either on proper speakers or good headphones (due to the nature of the alteration-process there’s a fair bit going on in the low-end ranges ; all those crisp LinnDrumm kicks and chorused BassLines, when sent wholesale down an octave, simply will not be reproduced by your laptop speakers or cheap earbuds) …