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Interview with Cory Allen

img  Tobias Fischer

Many artists like to split their career up into two distinct phases: Before their breakthrough and after. Cory Allen's path in music, meanwhile, seems to be made up of multiple breakthrough moments – and of more junctions and side-streets than his hometown Austin. For most of Allen's current fans, first contact will have been made through The Great Order, a drone-oriented album so rich in sound, dense in sensations and perfectly rounded in execution that it seemed to scream 'instant classic'. Still, Allen has been around for a lot longer, first emerging from Austin's small but influential microsound community with his Gesemi Tropisms release on the now defunct TRANS>PARENT RADIATION imprint in 2005. As accomplished as that album had been, it would take until follow-ups like The Fourth Way and especially the heartbreakingly tender Hearing Is Forgetting The Name Of The Thing One Hears ‎(album of the month on these pages on its release in 2009) that he would develop his unmistakable personal approach and style, increasingly turning toward organic timbres and structures and a growing importance of natural resonance and space. Today, Allen has not only come closer than ever towards achieving a fully fledged, entirely natural blend of these aims, but also made a name for himself as a succesful mastering engineer and a label boss of Quiet Design, which he co-runs with friend and creative sparring partner Mike Vernusky.

On the occasion of this interview, just ahead of the release of a duo album with Duane Pitre and with a new solo album already finished, we spoke to Cory Allen about his past, his perspective on music as well as the ongoing mystery of sound.

You once wrote that "success is truly about the drive to keep going and being prepared to act when opportunity knocks". With regards to your own experiences and insights gained, can you tell me a bit about how the past few years made you arrive at this statement?
First, I think I should define what I mean by success, and that's fulfilling the goals you've set for yourself. In my experience, I learned it takes a lot of tenacity and drive to accomplish things on a high level. But you've got to keep fighting towards what you want to accomplish and, you know, it'll take years but you have to keep that passion fiery. You've got to keep learning, keep your mind open and allow your goals for success to evolve and be redefined as you change as a person. The way I look at is, when you wake up in a year you're still going to be you, in your life system. So do you want to be in the same place you were a year ago or have a year worth of work under your belt?

We all get chances for greater success whenever we're immersed in something, working hard to accomplish a goal. You've got to be on point and have it together so that when opportunity arises you can execute on the opportunity with confidence and sharpness.

Let's go back to the beginning. For a short time, Austin, Texas was one of the hotspots for the micro-sound community, with labels like Bremsstrahlung and Transparent Radiation and artists like Josh Ronsen and Josh Russell. You, too, released with Transparent Radiation at one point. What were these years in Austin like and how much of a tangible 'scene' was there? Why did things suddenly fizzle out, do you feel?
It was a fun time man, there were a lot of people around making that kind of music, and a lot of live performances happening pretty regularly. I didn't think it was that big of a scene until I realized how few people were in other cities doing the same thing. Then it hit me that there was quite a sizable community in Austin. I'd say the best thing about it was the good times. You know, some weird guys with good senses of humor, making music, having lots of laughs, and ripping up some sound waves. Josh Russell and I started meeting for lunch every week back then, and have kept it going till this day. That's the best thing that came out of it for me, I love that dude.

I think things moved on with that scene because, you know, people move on. Tastes and interests change and things evolve into other things as they do. It's a good thing. Things need to die so there's rich soil for new things to grow in.

You recently shared an early release under the former pseudonym of Datalove. It actually sounds astonishing.
Oh thanks man, I appreciate that.

How come you didn't continue in this direction?
I'm guessing you heard 'Another Beat Another Buck'. I grew up as a student of hip hop, growing up in Texas, and I've always leaned, no pun intended, towards the weirder side of music. When I was a teenager in the mid 90's, older friends would bring up DJ Screw cassettes and CD-Rs from Houston, the ones that him and his people were dubbing themselves. Man, we'd listen to those all the time, we'd wear em out. I always loved more experimental hip hop, and of course I love the straight stuff too. So when Madlib and J Dilla started coming with their more eccentric beats, I was way into it. That's a lot of what inspired the Datalove music.

I've always made serious music with heavy concepts and intentions so I decided it'd be a good exercise to cleanse the palate and make some crazy psychedelic beat music for a minute. Just to get a different flavor and have some fun. Give my soul and jazz LPs a little air, you know. But in the end, I just made it for fun and put it out for friends.

At some point, you made the "manipulation of human perception", as your biography puts it, your main goal in music. What, precisely, does that mean?
When I write music, I think about it in a few different layers. One layer is musical, another is vibrational, and another is in terms of presence. The musical layer is obvious, I want it to be correct, interesting, and enjoyable in that way. Vibrationally, I'm mindful of the frequencies pulsing and colliding throughout a piece of music, and how that could physically be hitting the listener. If you do it just right, you can strike a combination of sonic vibrations that become more like a sensation than anything else. A sweet twang, like that feeling under the tongue when you bite into a tart apple. Then there's the presence aspect, which is something I've worked with deeply over the years. It's a way of timing the rhythm of multiple simultaneous sonic arrivals and departures in order to confuse that subconscious part of the human mind that keeps track of time. To help it relax and let go a bit, so you can lose track of time. It's a subtle thing, but the idea is to create an environment that allows the listener to get out of the linearity of the whole thing. You know, sonically cultivating a presence of mind and awareness of being.

In which way does your practise of meditation play into your perspective on art, sound and composition?
It increases my mental awareness and relaxes my meat spacesuit. It makes a big difference in the way I perceive art and the universe. It opens my head up, increases my patience, my ability to perceive the subtle and more energetic qualities of sound, people, and life. While mastering audio, I won't stop dialing the sound and gear in until the vibration of the music shifts my head into a meditative state. When that happens, the room bends like looking into a spoon.

It would seem that The Fourth Way marks an important milestone in your discography. How do you look back on it today?
The Fourth Way was when I got it together and was able to start articulating my ideas in a clearer and more technically proficient way. It was when I planted my feet as an artist and began to execute my ideas how I imagined them, as opposed to just wrestling with what came out. I haven't listened to that album in a long time, but I look at it as the starting point of when I could create something real.

The Fourth Way was also your first album to be released on Quiet Design. How did you and Mike meet up?
Mike and I met over a decade ago. I love him, he's my brother. Back in the day, we were both actively pursuing music and pints in Austin, which hasn't really changed. We realized we had the same interest in the more experimental types of music, but from two different angles. We started doing this thing every Wednesday night where we'd each grab a new type of beer and a record that the other one hadn't heard, and hang out and share both. We'd just listen to the music, drink our craft beers, and break it down for hours. I hipped him to free jazz and deep soul and he turned me on to a lot of 20th Century composers. Funny enough, after all these years, we still get together every Wednesday night.

Why did you decide to start your own platform?
In the beginning, neither of us liked the idea of trying to get a stranger to do something for us. Rather than spend all the time trying to get someone to release our music, we decided that the best thing to do would be to do it ourselves. That way every aspect of it was executed just how we wanted. It's a mountain of work, but you get pure artistic freedom that way. You've got to pay the cost to be the boss.

Quiet Design has provided a specific sound, smooth and steadfast as we say, to thousands of listeners around the world. We've been fortunate to work with some incredible artists. Personally, its been a great platform to release anything I want, how and whenever I want. I'm a very driven autodidact, so its a perfect way for me to be able to pound things out on my own timeline.

Last year's The Great Order has been hailed by many as one of the stand-out releases of 2013 and your best work yet. Tell me about the album's concepts and creative process, please.
Several years ago, I began looking for a way to musically replicate what I perceived to be the structure of the cosmos. I wanted to create an open, naturally breathing, and self-sustaining system of sound that flowed in a self-organized way. I wanted to capture the immaculate chaotic order and rhythm of nature, like a herd of cattle or school of fish. I took my first stab at this on my 2009 album Hearing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Hears. I used complex sine-tones and pitch pools for the pieces on that album. The idea worked, but it was lacking the human touch I was looking for. So, for The Great Order, I replaced the sine tones with instruments and live performers. I continued to use pitch pools, wrote a list of performance rules for the instrumentalists, and recorded the works as single live takes in a studio. The idea came to life as I'd hoped due to the awesome skill and understanding of the performers.

What's your take on the Feldman comparisons, which have come up in critical response to the work?
That's cool man, its good company. But you know, The Great Order wasn't inspired by music. It was inspired by nature. It was a feeling, an idea, a pattern I could observe in our world that I was trying to convey through sound. I wanted to bring the concept to life and let the musicality of it give birth to itself, without letting myself get in the way of the sound.

The acoustic and electronic in your work seem to have a close relationship in your oeuvre. What are their respective merits?
My earliest music was almost completely electronic, but it's slowly crossfaded into acoustic sounds over the years. Actually, my last three records are completely acoustic, not a single electronic or computer generated sound on them. Early on, I was interested in electronic sounds because of the digital purity and amount of control you have in that environment. But acoustic sounds have the potential to have a warmer and more human type of feeling, and that's what I began to yearn for over the years. So that's the direction I took my music.

Over the past few years, more and more electronic musicians are returning to more tactile production means. How important is physicality for you when composing and what are some of the interfaces that work best for you personally?
I've never been one for interfaces. I've had a few over the years, but always got rid of them pretty quickly. I've always recorded my music like it was acoustic, even when it was electronic. That is, adding many takes, over sounds that I've recorded in to my DAW environment as if I was tracking a band recording. Then I'd move clusters or sections of pieces around until they fit together, then draw all of the movement of volume, panning, fades, etc, with the mouse by hand via DAW automation lines. To me, it's like painting sound movement, and is the most precise and detailed approach. That process is what has always felt natural to me and what I believe gives my music a human type of feeling. Of course, since 2011, I've only recorded acoustic instruments into my DAW and have used no effect plug ins other than a little reverb here and there. Even then, I use my friend's live acoustic reverb chamber when I can, it sounds so sweet.

One of the things that, to me, make your pieces stand out is the way you include the recording space into your work. How would you describe the interaction between sound and space, the idea of 'shaping sound' and how you go about including space in your compositional considerations?
I think that the space where something is recorded adds deeply to the character of the performance, energy and tone of the resulting sound. In a technical way sure, the room resonance changes the sound of a recording. Like my album One, where I played a set of tones in different resonant rooms, then used those room recordings as material for the piece. But what I'm talking about is something closer to the intention of the sound being created. To me, the proper feeling in a room, including the people in it, make a big difference in how the sound comes out. That's something I've been focusing on the past few years. I was mindful of this on The Great Order, creating the proper energy in the recording studio. With my new record, I was ritualistic about it. Before I began to work with the music, I lit an incense stick and did meditative breathing exercises every time. The ritual became sort of an on and off switch for the album headspace.

You've described your upcoming collaboration with Duane Pitre as being different from your solo releases. In which way?
Well, naturally, it's different from my solo work because Duane adds his artistic character to the recordings. But specifically, the music is less forgiving on a melodic level, and more tense than my records ever get. In my music, I intentionally create a musical environment that's constantly blossoming with perpetual melodic release. In the collaboration, we take it to meditative places, but we also go into some more intense and angular spots that twist the knife deep in the atavistic.

Duane was a great collaborator because him and I are, in a lot of ways I think, speaking from a similar place. Its something we've talked about for sure. We go about it in different ways, but we're both coming from the internal, trying to honor something old and deep inside that's guiding us. It's one of those perennial artistic things that transcends language, its a feeling, and we feel it in each other.

What do you still remember about the sessions to The Seeker and the Healer?
Love and laid back good times. We spent every night out hitting Eastside bars, drinking pints and just breaking it down, you know. Then at the end of the week, we went into my friend Michael Landon's Estuary Recording studio for the day, armed with iced coffee and Swedish Fish. We had a pretty good idea of what we were going to do musically in the studio. But also, we have that spiritually communicative musician thing going on. We're able to put it down without saying too much, you know.

We recorded a series of duet improvisations on different instruments. When you get with somebody who shares a similar intuition, you can generally create something interesting. So we just let it rip and let that invisible third thing in the room guide us. After that wrapped, I took all the session recordings and composed the final pieces using our improvisations as source material, Miles Davis & Teo Macero style. The work they did together was a massive influence on me as a composer. Listen to the big shapes and you can hear it.

One of the things that makes The Seeker and the Healer so interesting is the inclusion of your self-built Droneharp. What does the Droneharp offer that existing instruments or software don't?
The motivation to design and build the Droneharp came from being frustrated with the current density and fractal state of music. To me, our music culture is so post-post-postmodern that we're living in a creative junkyard of artistic singularity. By that I mean that with the deep and wide reach of the internet, across cultures and history, it's a challenge to hear anything new that you haven't heard in someway before. I concluded that if I built a new instrument, and developed a unique playing technique and tuning, I could pull new sounds from outside the zeitgeist. Apart from its appearance on The Seeker and the Healer, I recorded about 6 hours worth of material with the Droneharp using two Royer ribbon microphones and a beautiful M/S set up. I'm composing an album with that material now.

You're currently busy recording parts for your upcoming solo album. Most artists these days simply compose by playing around with samples in their DAW, but it seems you have a plan. I'm curious about the process of conceiving an idea and then realising it in your work. In which form and how concretely will the initial idea manifest itself?
I'm happy to say my next solo record is now complete and mastered. I put more work into this record than any other. It's my psychedelic opus.

The conceptual process couldn't be more organic. A central idea comes to me, like transmitted from within, from the cosmos. I start listening to that message, and understanding the vibe and feeling of what the music is going to be. Once the picture becomes clear, its as easy as taking the proper steps to fill out the sound I'm hearing in my mind and feeling in my body. That internal voice just lays it out for me, you know. It's like my skeleton is possessed by some other consciousness and the 'I' is simply the meat on the bones. I keep a digital notebook of all the ideas that come to me, so that I make sure that no moisture from the universal consciousness is evaporated in the constantly drying human sponge.

The most important thing to me in music and in life isn't the concreteness of the shape, but the retention of the deepest truth of a feeling. Not a feeling as an emotion, but a vibe, that smoothness and balance in the air. The way a piece of music changes how a person walks, their posture and the energy they feedback from the sound and into the universe. That's what is concrete from the time I get an idea, until the time an album is done. The rest of it is just cosmetic preference, and how that serves, enhances and communicates the original vibe.

Not only are you running Quiet Design and working on your own music, but you're also busy mastering other people's releases. When you're immersed in sound all day the way you are, does it become less fascinating – because you understand the way certain things work – or even more mysterious? What are some of the things you learn about sound if you're constantly surrounded by it?
Great question. For me, being immersed in music all day only increased my respect and awareness of sound. It's like oxygen. A person is surrounded by it, interacting with it all day, every moment of their life. It's just a part of being. But if you deeply study the human-oxygen interaction, the human lungs and how the pressure of the atmosphere allows you to intake a gas which feeds into blood, a complex liquid inside of your body, which takes that atmospheric gas on a lap inside your meat spacesuit, that feeds your system the life that generates the projection of your consciousness, you begin to feel the gravity of the situation of our existence and how oxygen supports that. For me, that type of immersion in the contemplation of oxygen only increases my respect and awareness of it. And this is how I feel about sound. I think about it every day and it just gets deeper.

What have I learned about sound? Well, the simplest answer I can give here is that it's all about balance. From the bottom to the top of the frequency spectrum, you have to have balance of physical sound vibration in order to achieve a clarity and presence that represents life. As the trees are perfectly spaced across a mountain and the sunlight equally reflects across the ocean, frequencies should be balanced across the stereo image.

In your job as a mastering engineer, you're working on genres as diverse as hip hop, folk, sound art and classical. What do you draw from all these musical universes? In an age where the past and the present are more closely intertwined than ever, what's your take on the relevance of influences and inspiration?
Working with people from all over the world, in many genres, has taught me that there's something greater in music than style or what culture it's from. There's something beyond genre, inherent in music itself. It's all the same if you zoom your mind out a few clicks.You know, I think music is a language that humans have come up with in order to try to communicate some of the transcendent aspects of the human experience. It's a form of expression we use to communicate about something larger than ourselves.

The Seeker and the Healer by Duane Pitre and Cory Allen is out now on Students of Decay.

Cory Allen interview by Tobias Fischer
Cory Allen image by Meredith Maples

Homepage: Cory Allen
Homepage: Quiet Design Records
Homepage: Students of Decay Records