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15 Questions to DAC Crowell

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I wish I could say I’m doing well, but all of us (that being myself, Daniel Patrick Quinn, and Kurt Doles) caught some nasty cold bug during the sessions we just got done with, and mine went into bronchitis, so I’m recuperating right now. The expenditure of energy was worth it, though...the project came out sounding fantastic. Anyway, I’m at home in our 100 year old house out here in the very flat flatland of Central Illinois, two floors below the studio where we were working.


What’s on your schedule right now?
Well, we all just got done with this trio project for Daniel’s label Suilven
Recordings; it’ll be out in January, and it’s called “Don’t Look Down”. I’m
very happy with it...it’s heavily psychedelia-tinged in places. Then next on
deck is a solo thing for Magnatune...right now, the project’s called
“Intercepts”. It’s a series of pieces based around
processed/altered/tampered shortwave audio. Thus far, it’s turning out somewhat
darker and more ‘alien’ than some of the previous Magnatune projects, so it
should be an interesting contrasting work.


You’re one of the artists on the newly-formed Magnatune label. What
attracted you to their basic premises?

The philosophy behind the label, basically. Having been involved with some of
the more mainstream aspects of the industry during my time back in Nashville,
I’ve long been aware of the inherently abusive nature of the artist-company
relationship that largely exists in the music industry. So when John Buckman
came along with this notion that not only should a music company exist in a
harmonious relationship with its customers (which is something you can hardly
say about the ‘Big Four’ labels these days) but in a cooperative one with its
musicians, I was intrigued. Then other points came out, especially the idea
that John was aiming to run Magnatune in a way that a much wider spectrum of
music would be on the label...well, wider than one sees these days; if you
compare the ‘breadth’ of what Magnatune does, it actually reminds me of what
was more commonplace with mainstream labels up until they got so budget-slashy
in the 1970s. So in that way, John seems to be taking Magnatune in a direction
that would be ‘back on track’ with how labels USED TO behave in terms of
releasing things that sometimes might ‘take chances’, as opposed to the
shareholder-slavish hit factory nonsense of today. All of that is definitely
something I can get behind.


One of the ideas of Magnatune seems to be that you can sometimes only truly
assess the value of music AFTER you have bought it. Is that something you
can relate to?

I am just old enough to recall that one used to be able to ‘try before you buy’
in actual record stores. They would have ‘listening booths’ or some similar
means of letting you hear what you were interested in. John’s not necessarily
doing anything new with the downloadable ‘test drive’ MP3s, therefore...he’s
just going back to an idea that made sense back in its day, and which makes
sense now.

Also, consider this: if potential customers can download the whole enchilada
before buying it, it means that Magnatune...nor its artists...can’t hide behind
the Veil of Shrinkwrap and sucker the customer with one or two well-marketed
hit singles so that they’ll waste their money on several more tracks of
mediocrity that’s there to fill things out and make their product more ‘cost
efficient’. It’s an artistic policy of dead-on honesty. If we ‘pad’ the albums,
the customer can easily find out before plunking their hard-earned cash down,
so we simply don’t have the ‘luxury’ of being lazy-ass schlubs or one-trick
ponies. It makes us as artists, composers, performers, and so forth strive to
do better...because we know we have to.


The most basic question: What does music mean to you?
Basic? Uhhh...yeah. No idea. It’s something that’s so integrated into my life
that I can’t formulate an answer. You may as well ask “what does breathing mean
to you?” or “what does taking a whiz mean to you?” or some such.


How would you describe or characterise your composing process?

Composition for me is something that, over the years, has become more and more
driven by processes of intuition. In previous years, especially back toward my
student days, there was a lot of ‘process’ to it, but I’ve gradually gotten
away from things that are purely process.

These days, almost anything from any direction, any sensory input, what have
you, might be something that could be a spark for a composition. I like to keep
myself that ‘open’. Plus, having a studio in which I can work in ways that are
more or less empirical is a big asset; with no fixed configurations or
modalities, the Aerodyne Works Studio is something akin to a single ‘tool’ that
lets me take those intuitive impressions and run with them, using any sort of
electroacoustic working modality from the old ‘classic’ techniques up through
the latest DSP-based methods. So when something crosses my mind and I begin to
think that “...this sounds like...”, well, whatever it might sound like, I have
the available start-points to proceed from.

For example, on the upcoming Magnatune release, there’s going to be a track
called “Blue Texas”. No, that’s not a political reference...red state, blue
state, whatever...but a reference to this place I saw back when I was much
younger. It was up on the Blue Ridge Parkway, and it was this collection of
radomes, big spherical coverings for radar antennas, out in the middle of the
wilderness, very incongruous. That image stuck with me for quite some time. So
the way the track begins, you hear forest sounds...then this very broad,
expansive chord, which then ‘splits’ between itself and a quarter-tone-shifted
‘image’...and then this rhythm starts up which is derived from a CODAR system,
a remote imaging/radar system that operates in the shortwave range, and then on
from there. Now, in just that one opening segment, you have concrete
techniques, use of synths (and probably some of my older sine generators), DSP
techniques for pitchshifting, sampling for the CODAR audio, etc. And this all
derives from not a sonic impression, but a visual one, and trying to express
that not in a literal way, but in impressions and metaphors. Hopefully that’s a
decent illustration.


How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

Sound is just one aspect of the compositional process for me. I also often find
myself driven by visual ideas, experiences, and so forth. These might suggest a
certain sound or sonic palette. Or conversely, a sonic direction might suggest
something from other sensory directions, and then this might feed back around
to directing how those sounds would be shaped. The “Blue Texas” example above
is a very good demonstration of that. Another is “Chime Cycles”, which I need
to finish up for Suilven, as that’ll be my next solo effort there. That work
comes from a couple of drives out in Wyoming, where I-80 curves around this
big, solitary mountain just past Laramie. You drive in an arc of about 120
degrees around this mountain, and you’re quite aware of it, but as you drive
your perspective shifts constantly and so while you recognize the form of it,
other aspects are constantly shifting. So “Chime Cycles” is a little
exploration of shifting perspective, inasmuch as that work consists of a 16-
channel MIDI ‘object’, of which only 12 channels ever appear in a ‘movement’ of
the work, and when they do happen to reoccur, they don’t always enter or exit
in ways they had in other ‘movements’.


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

These days, I’m not performing so much, which is a situation that I find rather
annoying. However, there’s scant few opportunities for me to perform the sort
of work that I create in this region...much of the ‘action’ in the type of
music I create seems to be out on the West Coast, or to some extent out East in
places such as NYC and the like. There’s also apparently a bit of this sort of
electroacoustic scene going on up in Chicago, but since I’m from downstate
Illinois I apparently have nothing of any artistic worth in what I create,
since all of us down here are a bunch of redneck soybean and corn farmers, as
anyone of any hipness in Chicago of course knows.

But I digress...anyway, performing live presents some interesting changes in
perspective for me. Pieces that I perform live invariably contain some elements
which involve improvisatory aspects, even when some of the other parts are
‘fixed’. So these works always change in some way, and these changes always
depend on experiences of the moment, aspects that might emerge in how I’m
hearing the ‘fixed’ parts in a different venue, and so on. This keeps the works
always subject to the intuitive aspects which I prefer to work from, so that
new iterations of the same piece contain aspects of the moment of performance.
When this seems to be working, really working, these works seem to unfold in
new ways, unveiling unexplored interactions between the work and the moment.
It’s a very revelatory experience when it all clicks. Unfortunately, it’s not
an experience that’s easy to express in words...all I know is that it’s
rewarding, and something I hardly ever get to do anymore. Quite frustrating,
really.


What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

“Crisis” would imply something that’s come on abruptly and severely. I wouldn’t
call the current situation in music a “crisis”. More like a “long-running
systemic disorder”. Like some sort of long-term illness.

The big problem has been this slow, inexorable shift toward music being not so
much about art and more about money. Even the whole ‘intellectual property’
dispute, in the end, comes down to money, and who gets it for what use where
and when. Bigger labels take less and less chances, since their modus operandi
is so dependent upon shareholder returns...so gradually, they take less
artistic risks. First thing to go was a lot of risk in artists themselves, so
things which might not sell quite so much as some Top Ten blockbusters would
get dropped. Then those blockbusters would get shoved into making ‘safe’
product, which had one or two carefully-concocted hits, and the rest could be
crap because that sort of practice is ‘cost-efficient’. So in the end, these
labels are putting out pure garbage for the most part, while at the same time
trying to blame the consumer base for their woes...”piracy” being a typical
canard. They like that one. After misinvesting in assloads of disco music in
the 1970s, for instance, that’s when we all first heard that “HOME TAPING IS
KILLING MUSIC” tagline out of them. But the truth is that what’s killing music
are the very people who cooked that slogan up to cover up their own business
incompetence. These days, all the money went into the whole “indie promo”
scam...the ‘pay for play’ machine that still pretty much runs radio...and into
continuing to hammer out product by artists whose appeal has lapsed, if indeed
it had ever been present in the first place. But WE get blamed for THEIR sins,
since we all know, natch, that it’s filesharing that’s destroying those poor,
widdle, innocent megalabels.

And this money fascination just keeps going on down the food chain. Radio
stations consolidate and then start playing safer formatting in order to drag
in more saps to up their ratings, which means they can charge more for ad time,
which is where the money is. Eventually, you can hardly tell the difference
between the content and the ads. And even when these stations come up with some
new ‘edgy’ format such as JACK FM, which claims to play ‘anything’, all you
really get is a wider span of the same blarg that they’d played previously. Or
clubs where the big intent is to get that bar take up as high as you can, since
that’s where the big profit is, so they only bring in acts which are guaranteed
to do this for them...effectively shutting out anyone who doesn’t play that
typical ‘bar music’. That last bit perfectly characterizes my ‘local scene’,
Champaign-Urbana, by the way; if you play quiet, contemplative work around
here, you hardly ever will get to see the inside of a club in this town from
the stage. Even Henry Frayne, whose act Lanterna has a much wider audience than
I do at present, only gets to gig there at best 3-4 times a year. We don’t do
party-down, throw-up, fratboy stuff...so we don’t get to play. We’re not ‘cost-
effective’.

Now, yes, there are some people who, thankfully, do see that money shouldn’t be
the prime mover in the arts. And some of them even have the resources to
circumvent that, either through supporting alternative venues, through working
with independent media, by running music firms that take artistic risks, and
the like. And these are the people that other musicians and people who care
about art should be patronizing and helping. Without the efforts of these
people, things would be a helluva lot worse. And, maybe in time, there will be
more of these efforts so that we don’t slide into some hideous morass of
stagnation...which I note that we still teeter precariously on the verge of
these days, even with all of these efforts. More could be done. Things could be
a lot better.


Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and
everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own
compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?

You mean the situation known as “things prior to the late 1800s”? There’s good
things and bad things about that. Bad thing is, of course, hacks could just
lift your work en toto and claim it as their own, since an artist had little to
no recourse against such thievery. And of course, royalties as we know them now
were pretty much nonexistant. But at the same time, the whole ‘fair use’ issue,
which larger concerns with better lawyers would like to stamp out, was wide
open. It would’ve been a great time to have a sampler.

Seriously, though, the current “war on Fair Use” is both insane and
irresponsible. One can easily cite examples of composers who ‘lifted’ sources
in order to create great works of music, in pretty much an identical fashion to
modern-day artists and composers who use sampling technology to create what
they do. It’s just another example of what I’m talking about above, where money
has become the prime mover, and not art. Companies have to squeeze that last
elusive penny out of whatever intellectual property they control, and for god’s
sake never let that property lapse into Public Domain, as the money spigot
would get turned off at that point. This is how you get situations such as the
Sonny Bono Copyright Act, which was heavily lobbied for by Disney to the point
that it was half-jokingly referred to as the “Mickey Mouse Copyright Act”. They
demanded that copyright be extended to something implausible, the ‘life + 75
years’ provision, so that their characters (and everything associated with
them) could continue being a cash cow until sometime way out in the 21st
century...at which point, I’m sure, some of their lawyers will cook up a new
proviso that lets them keep milking that cow until hell freezes over.

Somewhere in all of this, there has to be a middle ground. But when you have
old fogies making the rules who still think a ‘sampler’ is a box of assorted
chocolates, and a lot of devious and well-salaried corporate attorneys telling
them what to do when making the rules, those of us who know better are
essentially screwed.


Some feel there is no need to record albums any more, that there is no such
thing as genuinely “new” music. What do you tell them? Is “new” an important
aspect of what you want your pieces to be?

I usually tell these people to ‘bite me’.

You can never say there is no new anything. Art, music, literature, whatever.
People have dragged that old saw out many times, and every single time, they’ve
been wrong. All things change. Even old works change in new contexts.

As for trying to create a ‘new’ something when I compose, I don’t consciously
do this. That’s a pointless exercise. All I try to do is to create something
good and interesting. If it comes out sounding ‘new’, then so be it. If not,
that’s fine as well. I’m trying to create MY music...not anything beyond that.


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

I think it can. What I disagree with are those people who think that art MUST
have some sort of political or social importance, otherwise that art is
irrelevant. The ‘jam it down your throat’-type crowd, in a sense. I think there
should be just as much room for art as a personal expression, divorced from
political or social baggage, as otherwise. You need both. To not have both is
imbalanced.

For example, one of the reasons I left the University of Illinois, where I was
working on my DMA, was because composition there was so wrapped up in this
bogus political atmosphere that people had lost clearly sight of any of the
aesthetic considerations of their work. Thanks to the machinations of this
certain group, something of a cult of personality that revolved around Herbert
Brün and some tired, worn-out lefty types who couldn’t be bothered to notice
that it wasn’t the 1960s anymore, you had this untenable situation where it was
DEMANDED that one turn out academic scrawlings with no appeal whatsoever. In
one example that pretty much was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me,
we were trooped into something called “Composer’s Symposium” and made to listen
to this 9+ minute granular synthesis fiasco...sort of like digital nails down a
digital chalkboard...and then people blathered on about the “sociological
ramifications” of this for way over an hour, all but ignoring the real point
that it was utter crap. After that grandiloquent example, I’d had enough.

It’s one thing to posture and screech about ‘revolution’ or whatever. But if no
one wants to listen to your ‘revolutionary’ message, what’s the point? These
people had lost that point totally. They’d clearly confused ‘medium’ and
‘message’, forgotten that getting people to hear said ‘message’ involved more
skillful manipulation of ‘medium’, and in the end were just creating
masturbatory rubbish. When that happens, it doesn’t matter what’s going on, as
those people you’re trying to reach will flee. Art comes FIRST...and THEN
message, if you insist on there being one.


You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be
on your program?

I’ve wanted to do this, actually. Honestly, I think we need some events that
bust the barriers between ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ music, or ‘serious’ and
‘everything else’. I think that’s an incredibly artificial and ultimately
unhealthy barrier. I’d like to see the term ‘serious music’ done away with, to
be very honest.

It would be hard to say exactly WHO to put on this, but that aim there would be
the main one. Considering that ‘who’ would take a lot more time and scope than
I think would work here. However, anyone who insists they’re doing ‘serious
music’ and who has to be set apart from all other musics out there...they’re
out.


A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern
compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border
– and if so, where?

I think you do have works which some people try to qualify as ‘music’ which
overreach that. That’s not to say these works are invalid, however; If
composers and/or performers felt safer with letting their works fall into the
broader spectrum of ‘performance art’, then I think there would be less
controversy about this. However, some composers and/or performers are just
trying to generate controversy, so they don’t want this. At that point, you
have to start asking whether these works then don’t qualify as ‘music’ on the
basis that that composer and/or performer is working from a premise than isn’t
musical in the first place.

As an example, back in my undergraduate days, I did this complicated senior
thesis recital that was a ‘composed event’. In it, there were several works
encapsulated that I really wouldn’t characterize as ‘music’ at all if they were
forced to stand on their own. There were also works that were clearly musical
as such, and one or two that straddled the line between ‘music’ and
‘performance art’. Ultimately, the whole ‘composed event’ was more akin to
‘performance art’ in of itself, since the work was intended to call into
question the entire nature of recitals as such...whether one could have a
formalized, ‘posed’ event such as a recital while, at the same time, being true
to one of the natures of music as ‘entertainment’. At the time, I didn’t look
at the entire work as ‘music’, and still don’t, even though it fits
contextually into the framework of how musical events should work, and even
though it was designed to fulfill the senior recital requirement for
graduation, which is a musical intent. I think this is a decent illustration of
how that line lies, at least for me. It’s a weird, vague zone thanks to
experiences like that.


Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours
would sound like?

Nope! And no, I don’t dream of anything like that. Not these days. There was at
one point back in the late 1980s/early 1990s where I was creating this opera
which was something of a ‘magnum opus’, but it blew apart in a hellbroth of ill
will between myself and the people working with me, and the librettist and a
certain hanger-on of hers. It was a dismal, appalling experience that
ultimately taught me that trying to create such illusory ‘magnum opuses’ is
pointless...all things change, I change, and so on, so one can never create nor
really contemplate an ‘ultimate work’ of that sort. It’s a pointless exercise.
One can only best create what comes from your own mind, as it is, in this
moment now.

Discography:

Releases on Magnatune:
"Red-Shifted Harmonies"
"SPCTR"
"The Mechanism of Starlight"
"The Sea and the Sky"

Releases on Suilven:
"Harmundum"
"04-83: A Retrospective"
"DAC Crowell / Kurt Doles" (w/ Kurt Doles)
"Mercury" (w/ Kurt Doles)
"Cloudland" (w/ Jim Irwin, as LVXUS)
"Don't Look Down" (w/ Kurt Doles and Daniel Patrick Quinn)

Release on Atomic City:

"A Huge and Silent Place" (w/ Mike Metlay, as Project OZMA)

Homepage:
DAC Crowell at Magnatune
DAC Crowell at Suilven Recordings


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