When you think about it, it's rarely whole pieces of music that move us. Usually, it's one or two bit, for which the surrounding composition works as a set-up. We sit there, knowing it's coming, hearing the notes rush inevitably to...that moment. Would we be as engaged if we could just take that bit and somehow get its impact directly?
Good question, and one that plays a significant role in the work of American composer Carl Stone, who will be at the SONAR Festival in Barcelona on June 14th. Armed with a couple of samplers and a Macintosh computer, he's been systematically dismantling small pieces of music and looking at them carefully for almost 10 years. With the addition of a portable CD player he can even manage it live, as I saw him do for 90 minutes recently on his "Acid Karaoke" tour of Europe. And, as his work with karaoke backing tracks indicates, it's not only the beautiful moments that attract him. "Sometimes," he says in an interview that's part of the liner notes to his 1992 album Mom's (Mr. Stone names nearly all his pieces after restaurants), "I'm simply attracted to a kind of wonderful moment in an otherwise dreary piece."
I have no idea where the three-note slide-guitar figure that forms the basis of his 1991 composition Banteay Srey comes from, but this lead track from Mom's is a perfect example of how he works. He loops the sample, occasionally stretching it out, superimposing it on itself, running it backward, constantly playing with it's minimal content, so that we hear everything that's there. Imperceptibly, an electronic organ comes in, underpinning some of the overtones and turning them into a chord progression. The loop drops out as the organ continues, and then it fades back in. A three-second sample becomes a fully realized 14-minute piece, full of wonder and beauty.
"I'm working in the tradition of Rauschenberg and Warhol." he explained the day after his Berlin concert (in Honigmond, a restaurant of course). "I use appropriated materials, but I rework them. My general approach is using the technique of variation, but extending it beyond its normal life. I'm looking at the microbiology of the piece itself, with a change of perspective."
When he was young, Mr. Stone's parents exposed him to the folk music of the world, and he became "a secret Beatles fan" on his own. As a teenager, he had a couple of rock bands in which he played keyboards that were strongly influenced British avant-garde bands that skirted the periphery of jazz and he became fascinated with the way he could change the sounds of his organ. Studying at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia California, he decided to become a composer and started working with computers. "When computers came along, they eventually developed into actual performance instruments...I've made that my focus for the past 10 years." He hasn't scorned the classical heritage, since he's composed for a string quartet, but, he says, "I'm more interested in using familiar music as a starting point. Eighty percent of what I do is sample-based."
The repetitive essence of his compositions has put the 42-year old composer in an interesting position: he draws his audience from the cutting edge of both the classical and rock worlds. Mom's came out on the "new music" New Albion label, while his latest work, 1196 is on the British em:t label, whose catalog is filled with items from the world of ambient pop music, quiet pieces not meant for dancing. He differs from this school of composers, though, in one important way. "I'm not prolific. I only do four or five pieces a year, and only did three in 1996, including 1196 and an hour-long, site-specific piece for a columbarium in Oakland (Calif.), a repository for people's cremated remains designed by Julia Morgan. "My piece was set up in the Chapel of the Chimes, a beautiful place for it."
His most recent endeavor, the Acid Karaoke tour, comes from his association with Min Xiao-Fen, a performer on the pipa, the classical Chinese lute, and, secretly, a karaoke champion. Ms. Min has worked with a number of jazz artists since arriving in the U.S., but when Mr. Stone stumbled on her karaoke award, he says, "suddenly I had this stupid idea" of touring with her and manipulating samples of the karaoke tracks while she sings, also allowing her solo spots to showcase her traditional playing and singing.
The karaoke performances were definitely over the top, with the already over-produced tracks laid atop each other, sometimes vertiginously stretched, slowed-down, or sped-up: stupid, perhaps, as he said, but a lot of fun., especially watching the composer squint at his Powerbook screen, occasionally arch an eyebrow, and execute precision keyboard commands with a good deal of showmanship. As contrast, Mr. Stone also improvised some pieces, using bits from a couple of Miles Davis albums, one of which sounded like a be-bop group trying to play punk rock.
The Berlin Acid Karaoke performance was at a former communist youth club deep in the east of the city, and the tour was promoted by a student fan in Lucerne, Switzerland [web editor's note: the tour was actually promoted by PlanetRock/Christoph Linder of Konstanz, Germany], all of which indicate that, enthusiastic words from the contemporary American master Steve Reich notwithstanding, Mr. Stone's still well outside what might be called the avant-garde establishment. He doesn't teach or have an academic post. "I'm basically a free-lance composer, making a third of my money from touring, a third from grants and a third from commissions."
Still, no serious observer of the current musical scene can deny that the worlds of "serious" composition and the outposts of electronic pop music are drawing closer together, and it's people like Carl Stone who populate the beachhead where they'll meet. From the evidence, there will be some exciting music made there.
-- Ed Ward
1997 Wall Street Journal
June 6-7 1997