an interview with curtis roads
immigration is an ever-evolving study of the physics of an interior schism. few things can be used to create an illusion of inclusiveness counter to the outsider feelings it manifests for the people that go through it. money certainly can create the illusion. youth, more specifically childhood, can too. the younger an individual is when the immigration occurs the less likely for this person to be interrupted by a pesky impression of otherness. neither factored in my case. having neither money nor childhood to depend on, i turned to music. sound provided me with a social and conceptual space where i didn’t feel foreign. it functioned as grout, filling and connecting the gaps that are inevitable in adopting a new reality.
when i moved to the us i found people that were just as obsessed as i am with seeking and listening to music that goes outside the expected boundaries. many of them were huge influences in my growth as a listener. a pivotal point came when i met curtis roads while completing my undergraduate degree in santa barbara.
at the time he was the chair of the media arts and technology department at the university of california santa barbara, where my then-boyfriend was enrolled for his master’s degree. curtis is a renowned scholar in the field of computer and electronic music. before ucsb, he taught electronic music composition at harvard university and sound synthesis techniques at the university of naples. he was director of pedagogy at les ateliers upic (now ccmix, center for the composition of music iannis xenakis) and lecturer in the music department of the université paris 8. chances are that if you study these fields you will do so in one of his books as they have been widely adopted as a standard text in those classrooms. oh, he was also the editor and associate editor for computer music journal (mit press) from 1978 to 2000!
but what left an impression on me was his work as a composer. i attended many of his performances while i lived in santa barbara and those changed my view on the possibilities of music. it showed me how sound could be made into architecture and have a fundamentally experiential impact both from an intellectual and physical standpoint. the use of spatialization through multiple sound channels, which curtis often utilized in his performances, was then something new to me and it forever changed me as a concert-goer. i have less patience with places that just blast sound (most rock venues) at me or the less than careful manner many places that showcase experimental music tend to display towards what they are presenting (i.e. loud doors, unnecessary interruptions, understanding volume variations according to performers, etc.). curtis also brought an amazing roster of composers to perform and interact at ucsb. while i was there i got to meet and hear people like zibgniew karkowski, kim cascone, luc ferrari, morton subotnik, florian hecker, russell haswell and bebe barron. these happened on campus and at other venues where i went to see performances in which curtis participated. a very memorable night happened when, along with brian o’reilly and russell haswell, curtis opened for autechre at their show in los angeles. i got quite the musical education by default.
excerpt from volta air, part I, premiered on 19 may 2001, at the concert with autechre, el rey theater, los angeles.
pictor alpha (2003) electronic sound. premiered april 2003 at all tomorrow’s parties (curated by autechre), camber sands, uk.
curtis was the first person to implement granular sound processing in the digital domain and has designed software such as cloud generator and pulsar generator both extremely popular with musicians such as aphex twin, autechre and venetian snares.
last year dr. roads released a new book, composing electronic music: a new aesthetic. the book is an approachable overview and in depth discussion of the aesthetic discourse of electronic music. in writing this book curtis was inspired by a combination of texts in various disciplines. particulaly “books (that) convey specific theories and techniques gathered through artistic practice, while also articulating personal aesthetic visions.” he cites “visual art texts such as Klee’s Pedagogical Sketchbook (1925) and Kandinsky’s Point et ligne sur plan (1926), … Certain books on electronic music such as Trevor Wishart’s Audible Design (1994), François Bayle’s Musique Acousmatique (1993), Stockausen’s Texte (1963, 1964, 1971, 1978) and of course Xenakis’s Formalized Music (1971, 1992).” it was surprising to me finding john cage in his list of inspirational texts since they are in many ways opposites in the experimental spectrum. but as he puts it, “I enjoyed rereading Kostelanetz’s (1988) compilation of interviews with John Cage and was struck again by Cage’s original synthesis of ideas, even though his positions are foreign to me.”
this past month i visited curtis at his home in santa barbara, a place furnished with impressive speakers (the same ones pictured on this album cover and through which this recording was made) and a fantastic backyard with some of the weirdest and healthiest cactus specimens i’ve seen (fish emulsion with kelp seems to be the secret). we talked about the book, his composing process and traced some of his trajectory in electronic music for this interview. i aimed to give as much information as possible by using linked content throughout this text. this way, even without a lot of knowledge about the history of this music genre, it is still possible to navigate our talk and enjoy the music mentioned in even more depth.
faustini: when you’re composing, do you design the pieces taking in consideration the different settings in which that may be experienced? are they mostly designed for head space (headphones) or for (sound) projection?
CURTIS ROADS: I have two speakers in my studio. I don’t have four, I don’t have eight, I don’t have forty-eight, I don’t have ninety-six. So the stereo medium, that’s where I listen to all music; and I think that’s where almost everyone listens to all music. It’s got to work in stereo. And that’s, for me, kind of the ultimate delivery medium. Having said that, I often perform with multiple loudspeakers. I did a wonderful concert in Athens a couple years ago, with thirty-six loudspeakers on three levels. And it was the best sound system I ever had the privilege to use. But I worked in ZKM last November, on the Klangdom, which is a forty-eight loudspeaker half cube above the audience.
I’ve also worked in the AlloSphere, where we have a 54.1 system. I’ve worked at the GRM, Radio France, with forty-eight loudspeakers. Scaling up the process is called upmixing. That’s a very interesting problem that we’re right now facing, and it’s a very experimental area. When you get above the number of loudspeakers that you can control with your hands on a mixer, then you have to incorporate some kind of automation in the process, what I call generative upmixing. There needs to be some kind of algorithmic control. And so the question now is what are those algorithms? I have a theory that I explain in my book, which is the theory of spatial chords. That theory has now been turned into software by my former student, Chandrasekhar Ramakrishnan. It’s embedded in a program called Zirkonium spatial software, and that’s what I used at ZKM to control the spatialization live. That’s a long answer!
faustini: no, that’s a great answer. i always wonder when i’m listening to music, what would be the best way to experience it? played through the room or on headphones…
ROADS: One thing I would say is I see people listening to music on earbuds, and that’s kind of sad to me. For me, the best is loudspeakers. The physicality of sound is something that I think Russell Haswell and a lot of the noise musicians understand intuitively: that there’s a physical component to sound. When you hear it going through space, it’s a tactile sensation. People respond intuitively. When the sound is moving around in an interesting way, people love it.
faustini: i was really intrigued by the title of your new book, composing electronic music: a new aesthetic, because you’re looking through an actual aesthetic approach instead of what you did in your previous books where you were elaborating on the technical and structural side of electronic composition.
ROADS: Varèse is my leading light, in that sense. And his disciple, Xenakis. So I’m following the line. They were close friends and they worked together. The Philips Pavilion, of course, was designed by Xenakis, and the music by Varèse. They were close. And they had a similar aesthetic point of view, in my opinion. Varèse wrote an amazing text called “The Liberation of Sound,” which is a short text. If you read that text, that’s what these 480 pages are elaborating. I’m now saying, what are the implication of Varèse’s ideas, now that we have all this technology? Because Varèse was tragically ahead of his time. He wrote a few pieces in the 1920s and then fell into a depression. He tried to get access to electronic equipment and was rebuffed. The critics attacked him. An anonymous person gave him a tape recorder when he was seventy years old, and he was able to start composing again with electronic music.
And he only composed two pieces before he died. He was way ahead of his time. It turned out that the anonymous person was his wife, who didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was she that got the tape recorder.
faustini: it’s interesting the roles the wives had in a lot of these composers’ output. for example when I met luc ferrari and just observing him with brunhild, who enabled him a great deal, right?
ROADS: It’s the most beautiful marriage I’ve ever seen. Those two people just supported each other so beautifully.
faustini: what triggered you to start the visualizations that accompany some of your work?
ROADS: We could say I was always really impressed by Norman McLaren. When I went to CalArts, I saw a lot of abstract animation with sound. And for me, Norman McLaren was the direction that I thought was the most interesting.
faustini: at calarts you were around a lot of people from the visual arts department. did that inform what you’re doing with sound?
ROADS: Absolutely. I took a course in video synthesis. Shuya Abe and Nam June Paik had been in residence, and Shuya Abe left behind his video synthesizer. So I took a course in video synthesis. And you can drive the video with sound. I had great fun in that class. I was taking modular synthesis with Mort Subotnik and video synthesis with another person, with a video artist.
faustini: was there a lot of creative back and forth with people that you were at school with?
ROADS: I knew a lot of the people that were interested in the animation and computer animation, the early computer animation. So that always seemed to me to have tremendous potential. It came out ultimately as Pixar, which was not really what I was interested in. But then people like Brian O’Reilly came around and I saw that he was very talented. And it was a pleasure to collaborate with him. He got my music and I got his visuals.
faustini: have you been looking at anything that is influencing your current compositions?
ROADS: I’m immersed in a world of visual music. We have fifty graduate students at MAT, twenty-five PhD and twenty-five masters students. And that’s the world that they live in, and I’m part of it. So I’m seeing amazing things all the time. I can show you an amazing piece by Lance Putnam. It’s a work in which the sound and the visuals come from the same algorithm. And we have a number of students that work in that way.
I’d like to make a piece that uses physical modeling. That’s a method of sound synthesis, but it’s also a method of image synthesis, and I’d like to combine the two.
faustini: what kind of physical modeling?
ROADS: Physical modeling is where you build — let’s say instead of sampling a piano, you build a model of a piano inside the computer. It’s the same way they build airplanes and Ferraris. They build a Ferrari inside the computer before they ever build it physically. They model every aspect of it. That’s why they brought me there [in 2007 Curtis was invited by Ferrari to conduct a sound analysis of some of their cars], because their physical model was not producing the same sound as the actual car. So what is the problem with the physical model? They want to exactly model the car, the physical car. So they’ve got to get the computer model to make the same sound as the real car. I was there a day. They gave me a full factory tour. And then they gave me some sounds and said, “Analyze these.” So we did that.
faustini: and what did you find faulty with their whole system?
ROADS: What we did was an analysis on spec, which means unpaid. I’d hoped that they would continue the project, but the project did not continue. It was a one-off kind of experience. But it was amazing. I learned how Ferraris are made and I learned what they sound like, and I can recognize one behind me, if I’m driving.
Let me show you an example of the Ferrari sound. Okay, so this is a Mercedes CL65 V-12. [recorded noise and inaudible voice]. Now they do it to a BMW. And this is a V-10. [recording continues]. Now the Ferrari 599. It’s a V-12. [recording continues] It’s an emotional sound. It provokes an emotion in me. People buy them for the sound.
faustini: you talk in the preface of the new book about obsolete ways in electronic music still being part of the conversation. do you feel like there are some ways that with this book, you’re trying to move the dialog somewhat forward in new directions that you don’t see happening?
ROADS: That’s more of a polemical term [obsolete], and I tried to be non-polemical in the book. Because Boulez, for example, was a polemicist. And I just thought, this is not going to be a Boulez-like book.
faustini: that’s a good observation about him. you could say the same about stockhausen being a polemicist, right?
ROADS: What you can say about Stockhausen is he wrote some amazing music in his youth.
faustini: the impulse to do this interview series for open space came from my wanting to talk to artists that have in common something i found through the writing of homi bhabha: the aiming towards a third space. his framing for the term is from a socio-political stance. but i feel it can be applied towards the aesthetic and the methodology of art making. when you have this and that, and neither satisfies, then you need to create this third thing. sometimes you take aspects from those two elements that don’t work, and you use them to create a third way. which, to me, your music is a full proposition for that. it creates a new sonic space out of hidden existing ones (i.e. microsounds). do you ever feel information from your personal background comes into creating these sonic constructions?
ROADS: I have a point of view that a lot of what’s wrong with the world is aesthetics. That people want clean air, clean water, beautiful things to eat and drink. They want to have beautiful aesthetic experiences. We live in a world where ugliness is being foisted upon us nonstop. I mean, I could take you up on Hollister Avenue and show you these shopping centers that are coming in. I could show you these 350 houses. It’s ugly. Ugly, ugly. It didn’t have to be so ugly. Why do they make it so ugly?
The same with music, same with art. We’re bombarded by a popular culture of ugliness. And so my work is a response to that. I think that one function of art is to awaken human consciousness and to tune our aesthetic discriminatory powers. You know, we want to become connoisseurs. We want to know the difference between something that’s fantastic and something that is terrible.
faustini: i remember right before I moved out of santa barbara, when we were hanging out a lot, you were always listening to italian film soundtracks.
ROADS: I’ve always loved those. Nino Rota.
faustini: do you feel like that narrative film is a source of structure that you consider in your work?
ROADS: I quote Jean-Luc Godard in my book. He has this wonderful quote, which is that every film must have a beginning, middle, and end; but not necessarily in that order. I totally agree. That’s the same with music. If you listen to Stockhausen’s Kontakte, the beginning is in the middle. You’re in the middle of something. It’s not a beginning. [chuckles]
faustini: there is definitely a tradition for filmmakers to play with temporal interchangeability. from chris marker to chris nolan.
ROADS: That’s something we can do in music. We can play that game, too. I’m very interested in that idea. I have a piece that I’ve finished, but I’ve thought of taking the end and putting it at the beginning, just to see what happens when I start playing around with those kinds of narrative structures. Narrative, of course, I devote a whole chapter to. It’s a completely neglected topic in music. Nobody talks about it. But it is, to me, at the core of the discourse.
faustini: speaking of order, what is the initial process of a new piece for you?
ROADS: That’s what the book is about, really. There’s a chapter called “Multiscale Organization.” Usually, I have some kind of conception of a sonic world that I’d like to explore. For example, one of the ones that I’d like to explore in the future is the world of subharmonics. But I don’t know yet what I’m going to do in that world, but I have a model. I have the music of Oskar Sala that has explored that. So I need to listen to a lot of Oskar Sala. Then I will go into the studio. I have subharmonic instruments. One of them is Pulsar Generator, that I designed and Alberto de Campo coded. If I want to begin exploring the world of subharmonics, I’ll make some experiments, I’ll have some material; but it’s not a composition. Then I begin the process of assembling. It’s an experimental process. You try connecting A with B and A with C and then A with D and A with E, and see what works best. It’s a kind of jigsaw puzzle. Often you find yourself in a situation where you have one fragment or two fragments that don’t really fit together; they need something to bridge them. I go back down into the world of synthesis and create something that functions as a transition. I’m shifting the level from assembling the macro form to low-level synthesis to fill in the gap. Then I stand back and analyze what I have and I realize, I need to put this part over here. I begin moving the macro structure around. Then I need to finish it off; I will synthesize some particles and sprinkle them on the piece like salt and pepper. I’m shifting level constantly. I’m moving. I’m starting at the low level with material, then building up the mesostructure, then going back down to create individual sounds to connect the mesostructure together, then assembling the mesostructure to create a macro form.
It’s this process that I call multiscale organization, where I don’t have a preconception of what the form’s going to be. If the form evolves, the form is the result of a process, as Varèse said. The process is the composition process. As I say in the book’s preface, my music is perceptual art. It’s all driven by listening.
I believe that my talent is my ears. At my age, sixty-five, I still have good, amazingly good ears. But it’s the ability to hear things that other people can’t hear that distinguishes one artist from another.
the following are excerpts from curtis’ new piece THEN, yet to be released.
faustini: did xenakis visit your school when you were an undergrad?
ROADS: Before undergrad, actually. I just went to a one-week course of his.
faustini: how was that?
ROADS: That was life-changing. I was twenty-one. I didn’t go to college after high school. I was very alienated from the education process, and it was 1968, ’69, and I went to live in a commune. With twenty-five people. And we had a band and I was the one in charge of getting the gigs for the band. And that worked for a while, and I have amazing stories to tell from that period; but ultimately, I got out of. It ultimately was part of the pop music business, and I really didn’t want to be part of that world. And I’d already worked at the Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois, thanks to a graduate student friend. So I was already on the path to electronic music, computer music. That’s when I saw the announcement of the Xenakis course and I took that in May, and then I studied his book in the summer. I learned the Fortran programming language, and then I went to school at CalArts and started programming there.
That was my path. But it was very good that I didn’t go to school until I was twenty-one years old. I think a lot of students, eighteen-year-olds, are not ready for school. You have to be motivated.
faustini: i wanted to ask you about the allosphere. first of all how did it happen? and what has it enabled in a pedagogical sense?
ROADS: It was JoAnn Kuchera-Morin’s doing, totally. It’s her concept. And she lobbied for media arts and technology to get space in the building that we have. She originally was lobbying to get our own building. But at the last minute, we got folded into the current building, and we got seven laboratories, and one of them is the AlloSphere. We’re housed in the Nanoscience Institute. But we’re not really under them. We’re just adjacent to them. And the AlloSphere is actually its own entity.
It’s an extremely immersive 3-D video and sound environment. You have 3-D like you’ve never seen it before—objects coming at you and through you and going behind you. It sounds similarly coming at, through and going behind you. So that’s not a typical experience for most people, and it’s really a unique, one-of-a-kind, experimental instrument for doing experiments in virtual reality, scientific visualization, sonification and artistic creation. It has 54.1 channels for sound and 27 stereo projectors.
faustini: Have you designed any pieces for it?
ROADS: I’ve done a performance with the Zirconium software that I talked about in February. An audio performance. But it was really more of an experiment and a test. We wanted to keep it short, because you can only fit a certain number of people in the AlloSphere, like forty people. We wanted a one-hour concert that we could repeat three or four times. I just decided to showcase the work of students, rather than myself.
faustini: what was the ircam program that you were in? was it a residency?
ROADS: No. I was hired there to be a manager. And so I was a French bureaucrat for two years. I mean, my first day, I was in a meeting with fourteen people, screaming and yelling at each other, and kind of that lasted for about two years.
faustini: how fun. [they laugh] and how french.
ROADS : After I left IRCAM, I wanted to stay in Paris. I got an offer from Gérard Pape, at CCMIX to work back again with my old teacher, Xenakis. And that’s where I met Brian O’Reilly, who I’ve worked with on many projects. And then soon afterward, I was also offered a position to teach at the University of Paris 8. So I stayed in Paris for another three and half years.
faustini: and you also spent some time back in the eighties at a job in san francisco. what was it?
ROADS: When I went to college, I studied music composition, and I wanted to do electronic music; I knew that very soon. I figured that after I got out of college, I’d be driving a taxi. But I learned computer programming and software development, and that gave me the skills to get a job with Digital Equipment Corporation in San Francisco and I was in the computer industry from 1978 to 1990.
faustini: that’s a good alternative to cab driving, for sure.
ROADS: Yeah, I thought I would be doing that the rest of my life, but it didn’t work out that way.