An Interview with Carl Stone
You are as likely to hear electroacoustic composer Carl Stone’s works performed through an octophonic diffusion system in a fancy academic hall as you are to find him performing in a small club, set up on the requisite rickety noise table. A new three-LP set on the Unseen Worlds label, “Electronic Music of the Seventies and Eighties,” releases a series of previously unheard works into the wild. Recently I had the opportunity to ask Stone a few questions.
VAN: What was your early music education like? When did you first learn about electronic music? How did working with Morton Subotnick and James Tenney at CalArts influence your work?
Carl Stone: At the time I was set to graduate from high school, CalArts was just getting ready to open. I had already become fascinated with electronic music and synthesis because of recordings I had discovered and I had heard that CalArts was going to have a strong electronic music program, so I decided to apply. I was pretty naïve and was initially rejected, but I managed to prove my motivation and ability to Subotnick even without having official student status and eventually the school took me in and gave me a scholarship!
Studying with both Subotnick and Tenney was great. They exposed me to a lot of music I had never encountered, such as Stockhausen, Ligeti, and Glass, and in the case of Jim Tenney, Ives, Crawford Seeger, Ruggles, and more. They both had unique approaches to teaching us about analysis, form, and structure. Barry Schrader was another teacher, and he deserves a lot of credit for teaching me the fundamentals of electronic music synthesis, as well as advanced techniques.
Could you discuss how you construct your pieces? Do you remember how “Kuk Il Kwan” came about? In the liner notes you mention that it was taken from a live performance at The Kitchen in December 1981 and spliced with a performance from Los Angeles in April 1982.
“Kuk Il Kwan” and “Dong Il Jang” both use the same basic technology, a stereo digital delay/harmonizer box built by a French company called Publison. There were so few of them on the market that they could list all the owners in one short paragraph. Once, I spotted a Publison advertisement in some publication like Keyboard Magazine and it crowed about how their box was used by Stevie Wonder, Peter Gabriel,…and Carl Stone! It was quite an elevation for someone who has been as under-the-radar as I was—and still am.
The Publison was great for delay effects, but I didn’t use them much, if at all. What I was much more interested in was the ability to latch onto sounds and loop them, while flexibly changing the start and end times of the loops, as well as changing the pitch. For “Kuk Il Kwan” I fed field recordings I made in different cities into the Publison, as well as my own voice. In “Dong Il Jang” and “Shibucho” (which is also on the the album) I used an LP turntable and a stack of records.
Stone is as likely to construct a piece from a sample of Purcell’s “Abdelazer” or a Japanese pop star singing Schubert lieder in English as he is to build it off field recordings or samples of familiar pop tunes. The titles of many of Stone’s works, like “Sukothai” and “Kong-Joo,” are references to his favorite restaurants.
Why sampling? Is it simply an easy source of material since we all have albums at home, or at work since you were at KPFK-FM?
I became interested in using appropriated/found/stolen musical material as a generator for my work while still studying at CalArts. I had a work-study job in the music library, and was tasked with backing up the many thousands of LP recordings onto tape for archival purposes. Because there were so many LPs (all different kinds of music, ranging from obscure nadaswaram LPs purchased by a teacher while in in Mumbai to the Deutsche Gramophone Archive series of avant-garde compositions to standard issue classical recordings) I had to do the dubbing using three turntables at a time, in parallel. While I was monitoring the recordings I noticed all sorts of interesting musical collisions and relationships as they played simultaneously. I didn’t think of it as composing, but soon I began to care about which recordings I would match up while making the tapes and how to balance them in my monitoring system. This experience, along with my interest in the appropriated artworks of Duchamp, Warhol, Lichtenstein, and Rauschenberg, and the minimalist art of Carl Andre, Robert Irwin, and On Kuwara, has influenced me profoundly to this day.
Were you influenced by sound poetry or Dada? “Dong Il Jang” sounds like an artificial intelligence trying to learn the works of Kurt Schwitters.
I had been interested in sound poetry ever since I attended lectures by Lars-Gunnar Bodin and Charles Amirkhanian, both on the subject of the text-sound movement. I was intrigued by subjecting text to looping, like I had heard in pieces by Reich, Amirkhanian, and others. I also was very attracted to media driven text pieces by the German sound artist Ferdinand Kriwet, especially his pieces “Voice of America” and “Apollo America.”
When did you first hear sampling in popular music? When did you become aware of the use of turntables and samplers as instruments in hip hop?
Assuming that by “sampling” you mean the use of appropriated material in one’s own music, I think the first piece that I heard was probably James Tenney’s “Collage #1 (“Blue Suede”). But after that I went for a long time unaware of what was going on with sampling in popular music like hip hop. Actually, I went through a long period of disconnection from most commercial music starting around 1974 or so, once I found all those great things in the CalArts library. That’s why when I did use pop music as a source, it was usually referencing the ‘60s. A friend of mine played me a record of Grandmaster Flash around 1985 and I thought, “Wow, this guy is doing it too!” Little did I know it was a whole movement. I was in a bit of a rarified world at that time, for better or worse.
What do you teach at Chukyo University?
I’m in the media department of the School of Information Engineering. I teach music programming, sound design, the history of sound post-Cage, and so on. Some of my students want to have careers in music, but they have a less romantic image of what that means than some. They are pursuing jobs as recording engineers, sound designers, game music composers and so on.
You've been on tour in Europe this September (Full dates here). What will you be performing as Realistic Monk, your duo with Miki Yui?
We are an improvising duo that uses quiet sound sources, field recordings, and controlled acoustic feedback in our performances. Miki is a wonderful artist who works with sound not only in performance, but also makes sound objects and installations. We met in 2014, and I’m really happy to have her as a partner in this unit.
What will you be doing for your solo shows?
New material! My pieces tend to be structured improvisations these days, so I can’t say exactly what it will sound like.
What will you be doing in the duo with Wolfgang Georgsdorf and his Smeller 2.0 Organ in Berlin on September 17?
This smeller organ is a new technology that I’ve never encountered before, so it’s quite different than a collaboration with another musician or even a filmmaker or choreographer. Wolfgang has invented a system where 64 different aromas can be “performed” on a keyboard. Smells can even be mixed of course by playing more than one note at a time. He’s come up with some amazing smells, everything from hay and pine to linoleum, Indian spice, carrion and more. We’re doing it in a specially reconfigured church in the heart of Berlin. I’m quite excited about the whole thing. ¶