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15 Questions to Billy Gomberg

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I am well. I am recovering from a very very busy summer and fall, the last half of 2009 really kicked in high gear. I'm at my apartment in Brooklyn.

What’s on your schedule right now?

The exhibit I've been touring is on a hiatus until March, so I'm developing some different, high-tech stuff at work in the interim. Trying to book shows, wrangle record labels, clean my apartment.
I have one remix to wrap up and then I want to work on recordings I've neglected. Make some decisions about the recordings made on the Delicate Sen tour. Make some new recordings, I have a new portable recorder so I'm a little extra excited about recording anything right now. I like having things to look forward to.
Every second I think on it, there is something else I could add to this answer - so many albums I'd like to listen to again.

How would you describe and rate the music scene of the country you are currently living in?

Music in the United States is incredibly diverse, this country is large and full of isolated locales existing in contrast to huge metropolitan areas. Touring the west coast this past August (Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, Oakland, Los Angeles) showed me a lot of vibrant musicians, scenes, and interested audiences in places I hadn't been. That was really exciting and a completely positive experience. I also got to meet a lot of musicians that I know from their music and email correspondence, which was very nice.
Different "scenes" of music I find to be very socially isolated from each other. My solo albums definitely fit pretty comfortably in a electronic/computer-based music genre, but I am very active as an improvisor. I've performed in harsh noise contexts. I'll go to "new music" concerts on my own. Jazz, rock, techno (in many of their shades & hues) are all things I actively enjoy and participate in as much as I can. I don't often see social crosstalk between these contexts. When I was in school many years ago I attended a few academic "electroacoustic" music conferences and most everyone seemed willfully ignorant of anything that occurs outside their immediate milieu.

It is very hard for me to find friends to tag along to a particular reggae party which I really enjoy.
I'm surprised that I surprise people by participating is so many different scenes. Whatever. I moved to New York so I could participate in and enjoy the range of music I love on a regular basis, and in this I feel extremely fortunate.

Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?

No. I just make the music, and am happy to let someone else make that judgement.

What, would you say, are the factors of your creativity? What stimulates you to write music?

I love to create music - it is how I best communicate with the world, with friends, strangers, with people with whom I do not share a common language. I also need to create music: while I thoroughly enjoy the act of creating music, it is not something I feel I have any choice about. Everything about my practice stimulates my creativity.

Comme is a very direct result of my impulse to create music. There is little consideration for anything except the material, the playing of music, the emotion and effort, the pleasure and challenge - my work as an improviser, and my relationship with the technology I use to create my work. I'm very happy that this communicates with an audience - this keeps me working at what I do.

Days and Alternates (an unreleased collection) are particularly inspired by the presence of electronic sound in physical experience, and use acoustic recordings (of acoustic and electronic material) as their source. How the materials inhabit the space, seem to emerge from the acoustic environment, instead of being placed on top of an acoustic canvas. A room, the light, furniture and the presence or absence of people. Usually absence - Days is my only collaboration with Anne (Guthrie, whose voice features on two tracks on the album – tokafi) which is not an improvisation, so I was dealing with her sound without her there, and that feeling guided me into the space of the collection. I think of my work physically, as projected sound. I rarely use headphones.

Park (also unreleased) is mostly reflective of my experience laying in Prospect Park one afternoon - there's an urbanity that I would say is present in all of my work, but it abstracts from itself, distracted. I'm really a city boy , and love having such an extensive park so close to my apartment, the design of nature in a city, to walk a few blocks and drift into a bit of reverie or whatever.

I am constantly inspired by the musics I listen to, the musicians I know personally, and those I have the pleasure of performing with. I find improvisation thrilling, and have been very fortunate to have played with sensitive and expressive musicians. I am not, however, particularly inspired by the fire engines that routinely go past my window.

How would you describe your method of composing?

Everything starts with improvisations. I play my synthesizer and software does what I would like it to (or some approximation). I take the recordings and make them fit better into how I would like my music to sound, how it will best communicate with a listener. Any processing and editing is to reduce and refine, bring clarity and dimension to the original recordings. Structurally, if anything, I simplify the relationships of sound material through the duration of a piece. I let myself play - I am not subscribed to a particular doctrine about my method.

Days deals pretty directly with piano, room, and voice recordings, with a lot of improvised material, but also sound which has been drawn from the recordings themselves. Comme is so strongly rooted in improvisations that I hesitate to call it composed... the tracks are from two or three different recordings.

Alternates and Untitled extract from improvised recordings and treat them pretty heavily, simplifying the structure, expanding the moments - these I would say are more "composed" - but the method was to strongly reduce, and extend material from there. I did surprise myself with where I was able to take my sound working in this way. I am always trying to find the clearest expression of my music.

In which way, would you say, is your cultural background reflected in your work?

I can't really say. I'm a well-educated white male raised in the city of Chicago. I live in Brooklyn. I do not think that anything in particular about my life story is reflected directly in my music, and I am not working to make my music particularly expressive of my personal history.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

Sound is material. Composition is the act of organizing sounds (or actions), by whatever means, methods, or course of study one may choose.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
Improvisation is a means of producing musical material, composition is a means of organizing it. For example, I am not going to a concert to see someone compose. Improvising is something done in performance, or in practice, or in recording. My improvisations become the material of compositions.
I think a discussion of the relationship between improvisation & composition, both historically and how it relates to compositional practice since about 1950 is a topic entirely too broad to address here.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?

There is the rare occasion when I hear music and I can say without hesitation that "this is new" - when I can feel myself engaged, really feeling all aspects of the music, being struck by qualities and timings placed in ways that produce an effect within me, as the listener. There is not a lot of music that I can really say is "new," but that is not necessarily a judgement on the quality of a music.

Do you personally enjoy multimedia as an enrichment or do you feel that it is leading away from the essence of what you want to achieve?

Sometimes I find video to be really evocative when accompanied by the right music. Other times I find it to be distracting and pointless. There is an assumption going around that electronic & computer-mediated performances need video to make them interesting or provide meaning to the audience, that they belong together. A musician is on stage to provide music, and an audience is there, ostensibly, to listen. Watching an ensemble perform Morton Feldman's music is not a particularly visually rich experience, but that has never detracted from my enjoyment at hearing his works performed.

When I have provided visuals for performances (always by other musicians), I'm not trying to do a lot, just something pretty, something a little interesting. I try and move with the music - not in sync, but in the same direction - really to give the music its space. I do visuals because I enjoy it and that's all I'm trying to impart there.
My trio with Robert Dick (flute) & Joshue Ott (visuals) addresses this in a very direct way: Joshue is able to draw and render really evocative imagery in response and contrast to the music being created by Robert & myself, and in turn Robert & I can react to Joshue's visuals. The whole performance is improvised, the music and visuals are totally of a piece with each other...."the essence of what [we] want to achieve."

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

A good live performance is a presentation of music in concert done with genuine effort. I do not think that great degrees of performativity & gesture make a live performance "good." I have attended intense and magical performances that were not visually very dramatic. I have seen Julien Ottavi and Shawn Greenlee give extremely gestural, solo electronic performances that I really enjoy. Just look like you want to be giving the performance, that you are interested in what you are doing, focused.
My performances are a good reflection of how I create my music. I have my synthesizer, laptop, a small controller, maybe other devices and I improvise. I don't really give much thought to what my audience is seeing, what my body language is saying. Anne has said I occasionally need to work on my "game face." Photos I've seen of my solo concerts look like I'm sitting at a table playing my instrument. Music is not such a deathly serious thing, and I'd like to give the impression that I thoroughly enjoy performing. I have found other opportunities to rock out.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?

These are two very different questions. Every artist has a duty to communicate (or at least attempt to communicate) with their audience. What an individual artist does with that obligation, how they address their audience (or don't), what they communicate (or don't), is up to them. Some people create in entirely private ways, by choice... engaging an audience is a responsibility and is not for everyone, but if you are going to present your work to an audience, you have a great responsibility to them.
If an artist can communicate political or social messages in a meaningful, understandable, and relatively enjoyable way, they should. I often find overtly political works didactic, selfish, and not very enjoyable. I have seen works with political and social content that have been very evocative, but these are very exceptional.
I find it very very very hard to do so in my own practice.

How, would you say, could non-mainstream forms of music reach wider audiences without sacrificing their soul?
I do not have a good answer for this. Music reaches its audience in so many ways - usually mediated by larger social and economic structures that I won't be able to articulate well here. I find so much music just through the people I know. So tell your friends.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I will try and propose something that has some sort of cohesion. Let's see how that goes:

I would have Zs perform the set they've been doing over the last year because it is burning.

Extra Life.

Improvisers: Tetuzi Akiyama. Kai Fagaschinski. Radu Malfatti. Eddie Prévost. John Tilbury. Jeffrey Allport. Mark Collins. Mara Sedlins. Tyler Wilcox. Wilson Shook. JP Jenkins. Mark Kaylor. Kelvin Pittman. Andrew Lafkas. Bryan Eubanks. Margarida Garcia. Barry Weisblat. Jason Kahn. Sean Meehan. I don't know, let them sort it out.

Evan Parker solo.
Tape & Minamo.
Jason Lescalleet & Graham Lambkin.
Paal Nilssen-Love & Mats Gustafson.
Halflings. Tandem Electrics. Aaron Dilloway. Scabby Hands. Daniel Menche. Telecult Powers. Shawn Greenlee. Joe Grimm. Lucky Dragons. HMS Beagle.
Anything by Georges Aperghis. Please.
Jacques Lejeune.
Eliane Radigue. Stephan Mathieu. Ralph Steinbrüchel. Ellen Fullman.
Reinbert de Leeuw performing Satie.
Print & installation work by Gil Arno & Ben Owen.
Installations by Pierre Huyghe, Steve Roden, Stephen Vitiello, Andy Graydon.
Jason Cady & Nadia Berenstein's opera buffa, Happiness is the Problem: A Phono-Graphic Novel.
A program of compositions selected by Petr Kotik and performed by the SEM Ensemble.

I know what this would mean for my sanity as artistic director of this imaginary festival but I also know that it would be well worth it.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Nope. Maybe one day I will look back and realize some particular work of mine was really fantastic and definitive. Maybe. Until then, I will just keep working.

Amateur Summer (Addenda) 2006
Close (Standard Klik) 2006
Climate (Test Tube) 2007
Live At The Milagro Theater (Noise-Joy) 2007
Necessary Red (Standard Klik) 2007
Comme (mOAR) 2009
Days (The Land of) 2009
Flyover Sound/ w. offthesky (Experimedia) 2009

With FrauFraulein:
Country At The River Of Friendship (Test Tube) 2007
Edition 1 & 2 (Private) 2009
Beautiful Orca, Yr World Is Yes (Compost & Height) 2010

With Delicate Sen:
whiteout/triominoes (Copy For Your Records) 2009

Billy Gomberg

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