by Andrew Duke
Kim Cascone is a sound designer and composer based in California. He operated the seminal ambient label Silent from 1986 through to 1996 and was involved in film work in the 1990s, including work as assistant music editor on David Lynch's Wild At Heart and Twin Peaks. He writes for the Computer Music Journal, and, in addition to his music recordings such as the recent Cathodeflower and Pulsar Studies 1 - 20 projects, is involved in sound design for a number of computer games such as Nascar Revolution.
The Cathodeflower release, with material that is 100% computer generated, is the second in your Blue Cube triptych. What did you set out to do with this series?
"It started when I working as a sound designer and composer at a company run by Thomas Dolby called Headspace. A lot of people came through hawking their wares as most Internet startup companies have, there's a lot of people trying to share ideas and get things ignited and started. So one day there were some people from the Berklee College Of Music and Analog Devices trying to show us an extension of C Sound a programming language which can render audio by using various styles of synthesis. They were talking about some of the extensions to the language and how it could run on hardware and I got very interested in learning C Sound. Plus a person from my alma mater, Berklee College Of Music, was encouraging and said that I should just grab the (C Sound) manual and just start doing it. I came up with a piece called 'Blue Cube' and sent it on to him and he really liked it. He was really positive about my work and encouraged me to keep going. So I started thinking it would be a good release, approached various companies, and Rastermusic agreed to put it out. I think that the triptych idea came from basically having a body of work I needed to 'get out'. It didn't seem like the compositional process could stop there so I extended the process by wanting to take material from the 'Blue Cube' and to play with it in the digital realm and create new sounds of it. So I was using my own work as fodder, as sample material, for generating new work. And that's what 'Cathodeflower' essentially is, a mixture of taking the previous work, 'Blue Cube', and mixing it with new work I was developing with Max. The third release will be out next year on hopefully Mille Plateaux or Ritornell. I'm still working on some compositional ideas, I'm going in a new direction, kind of like with the 'Pulsar Studies' release, but I'm incorporating some other styles of synthesis as well."
Tell me about Pulsar Studies 1 - 20. This is a work that is available only as an MP3 download from Falsch, not as a CD that can be purchased.
"There's a style of synthesis called Pulsar Synthesis that I learned about while I was taking a class at Cnmat (the computer music studios at University of California Berklee). Some of the courses they offer deal with Max, MSP programming, and Super Collider-which is another MSP-type mangling program. So I took that class and one of the speakers there was Curtis Roads who is very well known in the computer music school. He gave us a lecture about some of the styles of Granular Synthesis that he's been playing with and one of them is called Pulsar Synthesis. He sent me a copy of the patch which could yield pulsar-type data, and with that I did some reading on the subject as well and started messing around with the processing and using the data to create new sounds, essentially. What the raw data is isn't probably very interesting by itself, but when you use it with other data, when you convolve it with other data, or do ring modulation, so on and so forth, it can create very interesting textures that evolve other time. So I just basically worked up a whole palette of files and then incorporated them into a final piece as I went. So I just created these little one minute studies. I thought they were pretty successful in terms of having some organic life to them. I played them for some friends and they were pretty impressed, so I thought it would be interesting to do an MP3 release and that's where I hooked up with the Falsh guys and they were interested in putting it up on their website."
What do you think about the fact that it's just going to be available on the net, not as a hardcopy on CD like Blue Cube and Cathodeflower that people can physically go out and buy?
"Well, it's something that I've been wanting to do for a long time. When I was still running Silent Records, there was a dance conference in town and various people from record labels were there. I started mouthing off how within five years everybody would be downloading CDs from the Internet. And there was a contingency there that said, 'aw, that's not true, everybody will still be buying CDs.' I just kept feeling that I would love to create a work that was available solely through the Internet. And, of course, in the four or five years that have passed, various people have done that so it's nothing new really, but I just felt that it would be a good way to get my work a new vehicle. In the past, vehicles have always been distributed traditionally and somewhat limited, and here (via the Internet) it's only limited by the fact that the URL isn't known and that's pretty easily solved by finding groups of people who have similar interests and being able to broadcast the URL so that they can go to it. It's a lot cheaper than advertising, it's a lot cheaper than radio promotion, and the Net just has a way of creating these means that tend to grow and travel. So it's amazing how something like the movie 'The Blair Witch Project' sort of ignited because of the Internet and I think a lot of people are experiencing that sort of wildfire effect with certain kinds of means like travel on the Internet."
It seems like today a lot of people, artists and labels, tend to cram 74 or 79 minutes of audio on the CD format because they can, because the possibility is there. It's sort of a case of they feel they can get that amount of audio on there, so they're compelled to fill up that space. Albums used to be 30 to 39 minutes long when they were available only on vinyl, but now they can be twice that length on compact disc. The perception of the album has changed. What are your thoughts on the word 'full length'?
"'Full length' is a matter of speaking, it depends on who you're talking to. Some people feel like a full length should still be 40 minutes plus, other people are cutting back on the idea of what goes into a full length. I call this 'container anxiety'--it's like you have a container that is so large and you feel the need to fill it so it achieves some kind of value. When I was running Silent, it was a big problem in terms of people feeling like they're getting their 'money's worth'--if it had an hour's worth of music it was OK, but anything less than that, people were like 'well, it only has 40 minutes of music, so I don't see why I should have to pay $15.95 for a CD that only has 40 minutes of music'. So it became less about the statement or the intent of the artist and more about how much music they were getting, in terms of minutes, for their money. Part of that is the record industry who was very guilty in justifying the expense of CDs early on by saying that a) it was digital and new technology, and, b) they were getting almost twice as much music for twice as much money. They tried to assuage the public's pain in term of coughing up more money per release."
Do you think the obsession with the amount of music on a CD that some have is a reflection on our consumer society where many feel bigger is better and quantity, not quality, is what it's all about?
"There's a few things that are inherent in the bit realm because it's bits not atoms. Traditional methods of distribution deal with atoms, so vinyl, CD, anything that is made up of atoms, it's costly and ineffective in terms of distributing and dealing with intellectual property in that form. With bits, there is no such thing as an original and everything is a copy, so when I put work up on the web page, it's in the form of bits and there is no charge for the pieces that go up on the web page at Falsch. And the other thing is, what is a 'full length' in terms of files? It sort of breaks the whole paradigm in terms of having a physical container that has a finite amount that it can hold. Here there are files you can download, and yes, I can call it ('Pulsar Studies 1 -20') a 'full length' because there is no reference in terms of how many 'files' go into a full length. Because you could, for example, fill up your whole hard drive and call it a release or you could fill up a floppy and call it a release if you wanted to. The container is less fixed (in terms of releases on the Internet)."