On September 2, Atlanta-based experimental musician David Kirby performed at The Stone in New York City, as part of the AMPLIFY 2011: stones festival. He created interesting sounds with two 4-track cassette recorders, a hand-held tape recorder, and an iPad running software he wrote himself that enabled him to manipulate sounds by hand on the touchscreen (see previous post for a video). A few days ago, we were able to talk to him about his recent performance at The Stone and his music.
Why do you use tapes?
As most experimental musicians, I have a day job on the computer all day long. I wanted to make far-out sounds, futuristic sounds, challenging and interesting sounds. A lot of my favorite experimental music is laptop and digital stuff, but being on the computer all day long, I would get home and really wouldn’t want to be on a computer any longer. That actually was what turned me towards tapes, because I can create all of these sounds using this vintage gear. It’s a response to the fact that everybody is on the internet, on their computers 24/7.
What else do you like about tapes?
I just like a physical malleable medium that I can manipulate and record sound to, play sound from, change the pitch, cut it up. It’s not unlike an artist with a computer cutting up sounds, it just takes me a little bit more physical effort to make that happen. I am able to manipulate the tape, speed up the tape, slow down the tape, hold a magnet over the tape, heat the tape so that it warps in certain ways. Because a tape is a physical analog medium, it gives you a lot of ability to manipulate that and it will change the sound. Generally if I do any manipulation of the tape itself it will be before a performance. Also there is an element of decay, the natural decay of the tape. So you definitely get some interesting sounds just from the medium itself.
Are there others who use tapes the way you do?
As far as I know of, there is only one other artist who uses tapes, specifically cassette tapes, for improvised music and in an improvised context, a fellow in Israel who goes by the name Mites. Mites really has focused a lot on those textures that the decay of a tape creates, and that’s really interesting to me.
What are your influences?
In terms of tape there are very few influences. Jason Lescalleet and Guided By Voices would be the two big influences on my love of tape specifically. Jason Lescalleet, who also performed at the AMPLIFY 2011 festival, works with reel-to-reels. It’s a little different from what I do. He was actually a big inspiration on my work. He is a kind of a hero of mine, and definitely his work with reel-to-reel also informed my decision to use tapes and inspired me. I never attempted to use reel-to-reel in an improvised context or not live at least. He kind of mastered that and I can’t add any more to that. In terms of improvised music, there are many influences, but first and foremost would be Erstwhile Records. Jon Abbey, who runs Erstwhile Records, is the curator of the AMPLIFY 2011 festival and has been a mentor to me. Early on we didn’t have very many experimental shows in Atlanta, so I really loved getting the new Erstwhile releases in my bedroom and falling in love with this music. I definitely feel like Erstwhile Records defines a specific sort of subgenre that I enjoy most—EAI, or Electro Acoustic Improv.
Is that what you call the kind of music you are doing?
Well, it’s a contested term, but it’s a frequently used term. I also like to call it “other music.”
How did you get started as a musician?
At an early age I loved playing piano and took lessons and very quickly realized that I didn’t like playing Mozart and Bach and the standards, although I will say I enjoyed a little Debussy or Chopin. So I started improvising on the piano, but there is a limit to what you can do, and it’s certainly not capable of creating some of the sounds I am interested in exploring at this moment. Piano was definitely the start for me, but it’s something that I have never released, something I have never done in public. It’s kind of a private thing for me that’s reserved for those moments when I just need the comfort of playing the piano.
How did you go from there to experimental tape music?
I actually grew up in Atlanta. The rave culture hit big there in the mid to late 90s. So as a teenager in my early 20s I would go out to these parties. In contrast to some of the stuff I do now, a lot of the dance music is not all that out there, but for someone who is raised on the radio that was definitely an eye-opening experience for me, seeing music used in a different format. That led to my interest in electronic music, and from there an interest in experimental electronic music developed. Then there comes a point where you just kind of open up to everything, where it doesn’t matter whether it’s experimental electronic, or avantgarde Jazz, or modern composition, or noise music, harsh noise even—it’s all just separate sides of the same coin, the same music that we are all tapping into.
What gear were you using and what was your process like during the performance?
The main two pieces of gear that I used are two 4-tracks that allow you to record four channels of sound on a cassette tape and mix and EQ them. It gives you a lot of control for recording different sound sources. I love using these 4-tracks because it gives me, in between the two of them, eight channels of sound that I can mix, and I can record from one of the 4-tracks to the other and then back and forth, so there is a loop of sorts which allows me to manually create looping effects. These introduce artifacts and inconsistencies and even, by virtue of the fact that I physically initiate each action, there is an amount of chaos implemented by that. That’s the core and allows me to sort of build up the sound over the course of the set, to introduce sounds and keep them going while I start to experiment with other sounds, so that’s they key feature. I also have a handheld tape recorder. It’s got a knob that allows you to change the speed of the tape. That definitely is great, and I have broken off little pieces inside on purpose to prevent any of the mechanisms inside that stop the head from hearing the tape when you are modifying the speed. The handheld is just as important as the 4-track because it’s a way that I introduce sound into the system. I’ll go through my tape collection, find a tape, put it in the handheld, press play and then I get it on those 4-tracks and then I can start manipulating it. The last piece of equipment on my table is the iPad, a very new addition. In my day job I write software to make a living, and recently I started writing audio software, so I began to work on iPad applications to generate different sounds and I am working on one specifically now that I call Particulator.
How does it work?
Basically you manipulate these particles on a screen and it makes sounds. It’s basically a 3D particle field and the sound affects the movement of the particles. The particles have gravity and velocity and things of this nature and if you move your hands across the screen, it changes the particles, changes their relationships to each other, and the sound is bound to all of these variables—the amount of gravity is going to affect some aspect of the sound.
Can people buy it?
I am hoping to have that available by October and I am going to give away a free version at first and then I’ll probably make a pro version that adds more pro features.
How many tapes did you bring to your performance, and what was on them?
I brought about 300 with me. At home I have got just an obscene amount, and that’s just the result of years and years of being at thrift stores or what have you and grabbing something that’s interesting. When I hit the road, clearly I can’t take all of those, so I have got 5, 6 cases with me, and each of them are different genres. I have a case full of field recordings, just sort of various non-musical sound sources, whether it be a tape of an ocean or a babbling brook, a spoken word or a language tape. I love finding those obscure tapes of just something bizarre, maybe a tape of wolves from Algonquin Park, and that’s just something that you might not ever think to find or put on your computer if you are manipulating digital samples, but you know you find quirky tapes like that.
Do you find all of these tapes in thrift stores, or do you record stuff yourself?
Mostly I look in thrift stores to find source material.
What other kinds of tapes do you have there?
I have got a case of avantgarde tapes. A lot of noise or experimental musicians will release on tape and that’s been pretty frequent these days, and so I’ll buy those shows. I keep a case of that kind of stuff. Rarely do I sample from that, but sometimes you throw it in and it’s a perfect thing for that moment. I have got a box of rock and roll of course, of sound tracks and various artist collections, a classical tape case, and country. In each genre I try to find quirky obscure examples. Although, I have been known to throw down some straight up pop. For example, I played a show in Miami and I opened up for Dino Felipe, an electronic musician who is very popular there. There was this big crowd of kids who would come out see him and they weren’t quite sure what to think of me. So I threw in a Grace Jones tape—Nightclubbing—and all these Miami kids filed in and I had them for the rest of the set. So sometimes it’s fun to take something popular, something that’s familiar and manipulate that.
How do you find the places in the tapes that you are going to play?
There is chaos that’s introduced by the fact that I don’t know where in the tape I am gonna be. Some people are really shocked by that, but for me it is well within the spirit of improv. So I throw something in, and sometimes it’s a disaster, of course. But I feel with music, it’s pretty easy to turn a disaster into something good. Actually improv comedy has informed my feelings on this to an extent because if you are on stage with a few other improvisers, one of the golden rules is to always say “yes.” If someone introduces something, you take that, you work with it, you don’t deny it. I like that idea of saying “yes,” so when I put a tape in, even if maybe I am initially not into what I am hearing, I try to say “yes” to that sound and think about how I can turn it into something interesting or beautiful or try to work with that. So the chaos to me is exciting, it challenges me, and it also produces sounds and situations that I would never have considered on my own. With improv it’s hit and miss, it is chaotic. Sometimes I do like the comfort of the familiar sound, and occasionally I will try to recreate sounds I created in the past, but I find that more often than not it’s just not as interesting the second time around, and I get bored as an artist and I don’t push it to the same extent and it ultimately fails. I try to not fall into any idiom and try to avoid repeating myself.
Have you released music?
I have preferred releasing on the net. I don’t have any desire to make money off of music—it’s a labor of love for me. So I started a netlabel in 2005 called Homophoni. That has been my favorite avenue for sharing my music. I have released discs before, but the stuff I am most proud of I will always put on Homophoni first because I wanna share my music, I wanna give it away for free. I am definitely not opposed to the physical medium but more often than not I would much prefer to release music online. I just fell in love with SoundCloud like in the past six months and have been putting a lot of stuff up on that. I am personally really proud of the stuff I put up on SoundCloud. With that said, I do have a 3-disc record coming out on a label in Florida called Ilse. That’s the duo Astral Waltzes with the Atlanta musician Bradley Bailey, where I am playing tape machines, and Bradley Bailey is doing voice, not singing but more sound effects with his voice. I manipulate his voice, warp it, reverse it, whatever, and so he acts like source material more or less. That was a special moment with Bailey who is really really against being recorded, and I was grateful to even be allowed to release this material, so I wanted it to have a physical form. Then I have a disc on the way from a New York-based label called Copy For Your Records. That one is just a solo called Cittakarnera. It may be a few more months before that comes out.
What would be the best thing to show to people so they get an impression of your work?
Of everything that I have online, the one I am most proud of is a piece on Homophoni called opus. It is six hours long and it’s a single improvization, but you could listen to any point of it, you could listen to five minutes, you could listen to all six hours of it, you could start it in the middle or the end and that’s fine. I kind of intented it to be sort of like “Radio Kirby” in essence. So that’s a piece that really kind of shows the range of my improv and it’s a good example. It was recorded live just in my house in Atlanta.
What are your plans and your vision for the music you do?
I have been intending on doing a 24-hour performance, but I have had a hard time finding an art gallery that’s into the idea. The South is a little more conservative. I bet I would have more luck here in New York. I’d love to make that happen if your readers have an art gallery or something that they want to throw my way for a night. I am also really excited about the iPad and touch screens in general as an avenue to show people what it is that I do, because it is challenging, it’s not the easiest thing to listen to. But I find that when you are actually manipulating the sounds with your hands and it’s tactile and you are in control, you really start to enjoy it. So I am excited about taking these sounds that I am interested in making in an improvised context and writing sound toys to share that with people. I see that as the future of all music. John Cage definitely felt, especially towards the end of his life, that multimedia was the future. I think for music to continue to develop, it’s definitely going to have to become a multimedia thing. You see that with things like [the music video game] Guitar Hero, which personally I don’t really enjoy, but I appreciate its existence because it’s a new way for people to interact with music, and I see that writing audio applications especially from my perspective as an experimental musician gives me a way to show people this music in a new way and I definitely think it’s gonna be a new world very soon.
You said the people in the South are more conservative—so how is your music received there?
Well, it’s changing everywhere. Five years ago, ten years ago, not only did people not understand it or hadn’t heard of it, they felt offended or there was even hostility towards “other music,” especially in the South. But that is changing. The internet has changed everything because people are seeking out things of interest to them. The internet has made the world available to anyone. Everybody is finding the things that interest them and grouping together and connecting via the Internet, so it’s a different time. The climate is changing a lot. Even in Atlanta, we now have a monthly improv night that started three months ago, and that’s huge.
So you won’t necessarily move to New York City anytime soon?
No, I have a little house in the outskirts of Atlanta, it’s a really unique spot and I am a Southerner still at heart. I have dreamed of moving to New York, but I have never actually made the plunge, although I am here for 29 days now, so by the end I might have a hard time coming back to Atlanta. I will say that being here has been a challenge for me musically, because there is a much higher bar. In Atlanta, there is so few of us pushing these boundaries and exploring these areas of music that there is not a lot of peer review, but here in New York, especially at the AMPLIFY festival, every set has been enlightening and challenging.
You said there was some hostility sometimes towards your music, especially in the South. What’s an example for that?
Well, there is so many. I worked at a record store for seven years down there, and we would play experimental music, and people were not only not into it, but offended at times even, saying “this is not music.”
They came up to you and said that?
Oh yeah, that was a very common thing. We got a lot of complaints, and we kind of learned to tone it down and tried to play some of the more accessible stuff, but people would be angry. It was really surprising. You definitely got a lot of heckling. People frequently would tell us our CD is skipping.
[Laughs] And even in the past few years, I had a show in Atlanta where I was performing a composition, which I rarely do. I had worked very hard, very long on this composition, it was 45 minutes long. 30 minutes in, I am just reaching for the climax, and the sound guy cuts me off. He brings the volume down, and I threw a 4-track at him actually. I had worked so hard on this piece and it was right at the climax, and when you are playing music, you are in a really sensitive, emotional, fragile state, and to be cut off right there, right at the climax, it definitely elicited a response. Thankfully I missed—the 4-track didn’t hit him, but it was destroyed.
Where was that?
That was at WonderRoot, a community art center in Atlanta.
What kind of music do you actually listen to?
I enjoy listening to improvised music and I definitely do listen to that stuff on occasion. I will say that I don’t think that this type of music is appropriate for every occasion. It’s something that I see as a meditative experience, so I reserve records by some of my favorite artists for special occasions. While driving up here, I burned a few discs of German minimal techno. There is a certain sound where it’s tastefully done, where it’s reserved and each sound is carefully placed, and I really love that stuff. I love a lot of the very minimal stuff, especially the stuff that’s got a little bit of experimentalism in it. You definitely hear a lot of interesting sounds in parts of dance music. I enjoyed a bit of dubstep for a moment, but I feel like the quality of that music has gone downhill a lot in the past few years. The first time I heard one of those deep squishy bass lines, I was really into it, but now you hear these kids who don’t quite get it right, and it just doesn’t have the same effect, but when it’s done right, it can be really really fun.
Thanks a lot for your time.
Excellent, well thank you for your interest. It’s been a pleasure.