From an engineering point of view, noise is literally sound that is not wanted, and that’s probably how a lot of people would make the distinction if they were asked. Sound is deliberate, purposeful, functional, the kind of things you actually want to hear; it means something. The rest is noise. Or is it?
In a society ruled by noise, we can’t help but incorporate the beauty of industrial noise into the properly aesthetic realm of music. With experimental artists like Alva Noto, Ryoji Ikeda and Pan Sonic, the post-digital era music has seen wide distribution thanks to peer-to-peer file sharing services and netlabels offering free releases that fully incorporate the all-popular aesthetic of failure. With that in mind I went to spend some time beside Peter Kirn, DJ/producer, experimental music enthusiast and founder of Create Digital Music, who performed two weeks ago in Before Room, Yerevan.
How did you start DJ-ing?
So, a lot of my introduction to producing electronic music really came from dance music of another kind – I was working with contemporary dance choreographers when I lived in New York, including at my undergraduate, Sarah Lawrence College. And that meant so much of my early exposure was about playing with time and experimenting with sound – creating other worlds. I really would say dance is what got me hooked on music in a lasting way. That’s had more relevance than I ever would have imagined, both in my experimental and club sides.
I also played a lot in New York’s underground live laptop scene, both as a musician and a VJ. And there there were new experiments in how to present these media, including the Eyewash VJ get-togethers (held in a really weird club that had loads of interactive closed-circuit cameras), the Warper live laptop series, and Share – all a bit like open mic night approaches, so totally free from any commercial aims.
How was your style developed do you have a particular genre?
I’m happy to apply “techno” as a genre to at least some of what I do, partly because it’s gotten so beautifully general. It’s almost like saying “jazz.” For me, the culture around this style is amazing, in Berlin but also as I travel the world. We live in an age where there isn’t a clear sense of tradition or folk music. Techno gives us two things. One, it provides limitations, constraints – discipline. Oddly, I struggled with that as a composition student, only to mature into it later via clubs. Two, there’s a sense of immersion, of community. The all-night music experience is I think really important, especially in the west where we’re not so used to it. Indonesian musicians for example have that, having played Javanese and Balinese gamelan myself – and the real practitioners are able to stay up all those hours with no stimulants but tea. We’re at a moment where our sense of time and action is so divided, so ruled by devices and the Internet and commerce. This escape becomes essential.
I’m equally committed to what I’d call post-classical or experimental music – and I hope it can have that same intensity, even if it’s further outside the realm of what people are consuming. I think a lot of us are embracing experimentation but also liberating ourselves from the academic approach that ruled composition and electronic music research alike.
Tell me a little about your creative process? How does it all begin? Do you have any preferences in instruments or visual materials? Where do you draw inspiration for your creations?
That’s totally dependent on project. Sometimes I have an idea that’s very abstract. Sometimes, it is actually about the tech. Part of why I enjoy writing about music technology is, each invention is itself kind of a compositional structure. So you focus a piece around that particular tool. I don’t have this notion of trying to separate music and tools in that way.
Part of why I love collaboration is, that gives you particular materials to respond to. So that’s working with a visual, a concept. I’m responding then to a fashion designer and her aesthetic and vision, or a painter, or a light artist. And I feel like what comes out in that case really isn’t about our individual authorship. It’s a vision of something greater than us.
Does a person need to be a musician in order to become a DJ?
Honestly, because I’ve been immersed in music in some way as long as I can remember, I have no idea what it’s like to come to musicianship entirely through these production tools or DJing. At the same time, I’m a bit jealous of people who have better chops than I do, as it’s clearly much easier for them to construct ideas than it is for me!
But I don’t think that DJing requires musicianship in the traditional sense. I think it’s a new form, something that has evolved out of the sheer amount of production that’s now available. And I think it does some disservice to both musicianship and DJing to try to view the two as equivalent.
Being based now in Berlin, how can you describe the situation there for young creative people?
Well, Berlin is at an amazing moment – overcrowding. It’s now a total explosion of talent and energy and youth. For music – electronic and acoustic, club and concert music, underground and institutional – it really is a global capital. It’s not just hype. And then this insane party culture just keeps going. It certainly still has a lot of freedom and open space, but there’s new pressure.
For me being interested in the overlap of music culture and technology culture, there’s nowhere else like it. There have been few places like it, ever, for electronic musical invention – think Paris, the San Francisco/Berkeley area. You can count Berlin on those handful of locations that have birthed most of the tools we use today. But at the same time, the days of it being a free-for-all are clearly done. Rents are rising, space is running out. I think there’s also a desire for a lot of people to settle down or find steady work, not only because of financial pressure to do so, but as they start to see the city as a place to live longer term. And then you have all the fault lines of what’s changing in Europe, uncertainty about the European project, and increasingly right-wing governments in a lot of the countries people come from. (I was going to mention Poland, Czech, Hungary, and the like, but – oh yeah, there’s also my own dear United States of America.)So I think you’re seeing both the energy level and the stress level cranked way up. Put that against the challenges of integrating, the sometimes destructive quality of the party life, and the challenges of the job market.
It’s scary sometimes. It’s also tremendously exciting. I think Berlin more than any other city in Europe is about change. So while what’s there at this moment won’t last, the thing the Berlin natives always remind me is to let go of this fear of change. (And they should know.) Berlin has this reputation as a care-free party city. But I think it’s the toughness and intensity of the moment that makes it a great place to be.
Is it essential to move to Berlin in order to be successful in this field?
Well, no – of course not. I think actually part of Berlin’s importance is in acting as a hub. That means those of us who live there should actually use it as a lens to better understand other places. Part of what excites me about Berlin is getting to know those other places, and plenty of those places are exciting. I mean, it’s through Berlin that I wound up coming to Yerevan.
We need capitals, but we need a reality outside capitals, too. I think you have to really look honestly at what makes you happy and keep an open mind. I don’t think I’d ever want to live in a place and say I thought it was the only place for me – that’d be so clearly closed minded.
How did CDM get started?
CDM started very much by accident. I was writing a book for a publisher and had pitched the name “Creating Digital Music.” It was meant to be a sort of all-encompassing guide to music production. This was the blog for the book, just a place to put some random interesting tidbits.
Then as I was writing in 2005, I suddenly found I was getting all this feedback and momentum. And I found that there was tremendous interest and excitement not just in the usual music tools, but in the weird and experimental and futuristic. That for me was a tremendous lesson. People are so obsessed with making music accessible and easy. My experience has been that even non-musicians actually love that music is strange and bizarre and loud. Our whole industry had been feeding them exactly the opposite of what they found exciting. CDM remains an ongoing experiment in that.
What are the technological, commercial, and social problems that artists come across today?
That’s obviously a huge list! But I think all of this can be summed up as inequality. I think music and technology are essentially endless in potential – and that includes in how many people are able to become involved in it. Yet we have so many limitations in education, access, and societal freedom that can separate people based on economics, on race, on gender, on sexual orientation, on geography.
I think one clear example is freedom of movement across borders. I have all this opportunity with the “blue eagle” passport I carry; so many people don’t have that. I think we have a real obligation in music to talk about the value of open borders and our own role in exchange of information internationally. There are things I can do with my own government and my own projects. And then I can also just try to be a cultural ambassador myself, sharing my own work and listening to what others are doing.
If you could change something in the music industry right now, what would it be?
I’ll be perfectly frank here – the gatekeepers, the biases, are upside down in a lot of ways. The people at the top have worked hard to get there, but there are way, way too many “middle managers,” way too much of the industry that’s geared against any real passion or emotion. Of course, people need to get paid, and that produces economic realities, but this is more than that. This is an industry that’s grown entrenched and protective, based on too many people who aren’t really producing the music itself.
Now, I think the solution to that is us. We have to love ourselves, love what we’re doing. We have to take care of ourselves, which a lot of us as artists are terrible at. And if we want our passions to flourish in the face of the many dark sides of the music business, we have to double down in our commitment. We have to actively work to celebrate what we believe in. I think just how different our music world would be if we actively celebrated the work of others. I’ve worked in PR; I don’t have any problem in PR people getting paid. But we shouldn’t pay PR people just to tell each other about the music we believe in. That’s only going to make music more banal and ordinary and backwards looking and ensure that marginalized groups get even further off the map. It’s a recipe for death. And there’s no use complaining about it, because we’re the ones who can fix it.
Do you have any predictions of how the music industry is going to change in the upcoming 5 years?
Having said that – I’m critical, but not cynical. I think the reason we should make music more international, and the reason we should support everyone who’s been marginalized is, it’ll actually make the music world better. It’ll make our music better. We want more competition – because creatively, the more there’s quality around us, the more we naturally absorb and respond to it. And, hell, even if not, we’ll get the pleasure of experiencing that wider world of people.
So, we’ve all had a pretty big kick in the pants in the discovery that the Internet isn’t a panacea for that, that the digital revolution is making the industry more entrenched and tougher, that the gap between rich and poor in music – just like in the rest of the world – is widening. I think we can either look at that and give up, or we can see it as a challenge. And I don’t think that has to be some kind of mass market success. Switch off all those metrics and Facebook likes and SoundCloud play stats, and actually listen to a piece of music from someone you know. That’s what we all want – to make some connections one person at a time. It’s totally, completely doable. I’d like us all to have an easier time caring for ourselves and family members, too, but that’s another conversation. At least in the meanwhile, we can really listen.