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Interview with Peter Grenader

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello back! I'm alive and well in West Toluca Lake, which is about a mile from Universal Studios in Los Angeles (34.13868/-118.35839).

What’s on your schedule at the moment?
A lot. I produce modular analog synthesizers. The brand is Plan B, which is part of the Electro-Acoustic Research consortium. We've been well received thus far and 2007 is particularly pivotable as we're releasing scads of new products.  Six thus far and more than that sitll to come. The line is quickly maturing into 'system' status. As you can imagine this is an engaging endeavor, yet it still affords time for writing and there's been some renewed interest in a CD project I've been working on over the past couple of years. Too early to name labels or release dates, but things are being discussed and it should be coming together soon.

There are some appearances as well. In June I panelled a symposium on Analog Synthesis with Alessandro Cortini of Nine Inch Nails and Dave Wright of Not Breathing at the 2007 TapeOpCon in Tucson. The three of us also performed there. Dave and I  did this in '06 with composer Steve Roach. TapeOpCon is a first-rate event and is returning to New Orleans next year. In November I'll be performing with an all-analog electroacoustic ensemble at the Redcat Theater at Disney Hall in Los Angeles, again with Alessandro Cortini, along with composers Gary Chang, Richard Devine, Chas Smith and Thighpaulsandra, and a remarkable visual artist by the name of Paul Tzanetopoulos. The show is called AnalogLive!  It's a big production - some of these guys are coming from across the country and Europe to participate.

I'm also going to be working with Morton Subotnick over the summer on a Library of Congress project.

What was your introduction to the world of electronic music? When did you develop the feeling of “I want to do that, too!”?
I was fortunate. My introduction to Electronic Music in an academic sense came early on, in high school. A teacher named John Waddell, brilliant guy and possibly the best theory instuctor I ever had also ran an electronic music course via a Putney VCS3. He had an uncanny ability for igniting fascination and this is where I was turned on to how these machines worked, and to the composers who worked them: Mort’s Wild Bull (which blew me away), to Wendy’s music, to Cage's, Charles Dodge and Babbitt.  It wasn’t long after this that I knew where my future was taking me.

Let’s turn to your time at CalArts: From the notes on your homepage I had the impression, that the contact between teachers and students at CalArts was a very close and cooperative one. How would you rate that yourself?
Close/cooperative teacher/student alliances are inbred into the CalArts curriculum.  Over the course of their academic tenure each composition student is assigned a mentor - a faculty member they meet with on a weekly basis who works with them on compositional projects over and above those assigned in class. Another contributing factor to the student/professor co-op is the student body at CalArts is quite small. 700 for the entire institute while I was attending. Most classes had no more than 8 kids.  Some only three. This sort of front-row view dictates that one remains focused.  You can easily hide in an audience of 50. Take 47 of them away and the camouflage evaporates.

I’ve maintained friendships with some of the individuals I studied with at CalArts:  Barry Schrader, Morton Subotnick and Pril Smiley who I met when she came as a visiting composer in 1975. And my colleagues Gary Chang, Jill Fraser and Darrel Johansen, who was Serge Tcherepnin's business partner for some time and had a huge influence on the evolution of the Serge Synthesizer.

A few years ago I returned to the academic theater as a board member of SEAMUS (The Society of Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States) where I had an opportunity to rekindle associations from the halcyon days - Alan Strange and Jon Appleton, both of whom had been in concerts that I produced in the 70s. It also led to some new friendships with Elainie Lillios, Bebe Barron, Scott Wyatt and Wendy Carlos.

You mention Barry Schrader as one of your personal influences and mentors. What distinguished him as a teacher? And: which other professors left a strong impression?
Barry Schrader is an amazing composer and any infuence he may have cast on me is welcome. His works Beyond and Trinity are favorites, the ladder of which he wrote while I was a student. A matter of fact I was in the studio next door the evening he did it's final mix. I remember abandoning my own work that evening, spending the time instead sitting in a chair against the shared wall listening. It was both a remarkable and depressing experience. Remarkable for obvious reasons, depressing because of the hard realization of just how far I had to mature as a composer to effect others as he effected me with that body of work.

As a teacher, he's thorough. His knowledge of music and the analysis of music is exemplary and he spent a lot of time on that with us, the premise of course being that understanding another's vertical/horizontal decisions will lead to a better understanding of your own. As Babbitt put it, and I'm paraphrasing here - how can we have any idea of what music is or could be if we don't understand what it's been?

Schrader was my mentor for my first two years so we worked together a lot. I can remember presenting my first electro-acoustic piece to him shortly into my first term. It was a hodge-podge of senseless sample and hold motif's entitled Van Dusen Green. Barry was critical of it' structure and devlopment which at the time was deflating, but listening to it now I understand he was being kinder than he ought have been - the piece was absolute crap. He never accepted anything less than he felt we were capable of. 30 years later we remain good friends. Bebe Barron, he and I get together regularly for a meal or whatnot. 

Other professors which left a strong impression were Leonard Stein, Harold Budd and  Morton Subotnick. In 1976 I was selected along with other students to assist Mort in the production and realization of a NEA Grant mixed media project called The Game Room. Watching how he worked was inspiring. A true artist.

But apart from the regular faculty, there were the visiting composers. Mort devised a plan by which one's position in the composition faculty was intentionally left open, instead using that budgetary allocation to bring in composers throughout the term. The list was auspicious: Jon Appleton, Milton Babbitt, Bebe Barron, John Cage, Elliot Carter, Joel Chadabe, Barney Childs, Aaron Copeland, Charles Dodge, Jacob Druckman, Morton Feldmen, Philip Glass (with his ensemble), Lou Harrison, Joan LaBarbara, Gordon Mumma (who I did a live performance with during his stay), Pauline Oliveros, Pril Smiley, Vladimir Ussechevsky, Fritz Wieland, Charles Wuorinen, LeMonte Young... and these are the ones that come to mind. Surely the years have stripped me of some of these memories. You couldn't CGI that sort of experience today and again remember we were a small group. Some of these guys would give lectures at UCLA in front of hundreds of people. At CalArts, it was a army of ten sitting in a circle around them. We could usually book private sessions as well. It was an amazing opportunity.

I could well imagine that to a lot of professors, the technologies and techniques they were teaching were almost just as new as to their students. In what way did that make their lectures different from those at your regular college?
Stepping away from the tech side for a moment, I remember LaMonte Young opened his lecture by lighting a firecracker in the room. That was sort of annoying. John Cage also did some interesting amplifications to his voice in real-time while he spoke to us, blending it into a bit of a performance piece.

The facilities available to composers was impressive. We had three Buchla studios. One with a massive 200, one with a massive 500 system (one of only three ever made) and another with a massive 100. To support the architecture of the Buchla 200, two of these rooms were quad, each equipped with four decks - dual Ampex 440's four channels, two Revox stereo half tracks and four huge JBL 4333's. John Payne, who managed the studios also had a room full of mics, stands, amplifiers, outboard test equipment such as Krohn-Hite filters and whatnot, and all of that was at our disposal 24/7. One just had to mention when and in which studio they were needed and they were sitting in there as your session began. Those were the days indeed.  By counterpoint, I can't get anyone to fetch me a cup of coffee now!

With Mort and Barry around, you can be assured we were heavily into alternative processes. Mort's use of control tracks and system integration (synthesizers used to control lighting, triggering film events, etc. and Barry's control scaling techniques and the four custom modules he had built for the the 200 studio by a gentleman known as Fortune led us into directions that most other schools weren't heading. Add to it that with the Buchla 500 we were one of the few centers in the U.S. capable of computer-generated analog control voltages and triggers. There was no midi at the time, but with control tracks and the Buchla 500's computer capabilities could do a lot of that.

I go into some detail on Subotick's use of control tracks on my site. There are also photos of the room and some of the individuals I speak about there:

How did you approach instruments such as the Buchla? They didn’t always come with a manual, did they?
No, the Buchla's didn't have manuals - but neither do Plan B instruments, so call this a plus. Darrel Johansen however wrote a hard-bound operating manual for the 200 which is still in the CalArts library today.

What I appreciate about Buchla's approach to instrument design is the feature set, the user's experience. He's a composer himself and  produces tools that consider these needs. It's a control freak's nirvana. His stable consisted of an oscillator, a VC filter, a static filter bank, a few types mixers, mic-pre's, a ring modulator and frequency shifter, and billions of control devices. The legacy isn't so much in producing the sound, but what you can do with it after it's creation. On other systems one can create timbres, on a Buchla one can create events. It's a philosophy which has bled to my own instrument design.

I had to opportunity to work with Don Buchla a few years ago just as the 200e was brought to market. He begins shortly after the day begins and continues well into the night. If Don was giving a speech and received a call from his programmer while at the podium I am convinced he'd take the call. Extremely focused at the tasks at hand and a truly brilliant guy. Anyone who doubts this need only spend time at his instruments to quell suspicions.

What would a “regular” day as a student at CalArts look like?
You spend the larger balance of your time focusing on courses related to their major, even in the first years. We were only required to take one class per term on something unrelated. A normal day would start quite early. I was usually in one of the studios by 4AM (comp students were allowed a minimum of 10 hours a week).  Classes started around 9. Theory first, then a two hour Electronic Music tech, history or analysis class depending on the day. Afternoon sessions with my mentor, or solfeggio, followed by a piano lesson. If I were lucky I could catch a short nap in the Library before the late afternoon classes which started about 6. It was very engaging. In previous years Barry held his tech class from midnight to 2AM!!

We must also take into account that we ran on a tri-semester calendar over a comparatively short year (October to May) made for an intense challenge. Taking away the usual holidays, we had either mid-terms or finals every six weeks or so. 

When you started out as a student, what was the scene for electronic music like in the USA? Today’s journalism seems to concentrate almost exclusively on Europe (at least over here).
As a whole there was more work being done with electronics than with concrete sources, and there lies the divide between the the USA v. Europe. Within the U.S. however the EAM scene was highly compartmentalized. Geographic communities harbored their signature sound and approach to solving compositional objectives. On the East we had the Columbia 'school', typified by what I call the 'zip-bang' motifs - Art Krieger being a prime example. California was earmarked the 'West Coast' genre. As a whole, less active in nature, sometimes droney and  the extensive use of quad. Much of the work produced was done for four speakers, which may have contributed to the (worst case) evaporation and/or (best case) swift evolution of the genre in the 80's as quadraphonic systems faded into oblivion.

There was cross-pollination across these extremes however. Pril Smiley was doing west-coast genre at Columbia - her piece Eclipse is an example. 

At CalArts there was also a thrust towards percussive motifs. I think this was attributed to the work Mort was doing at the time and John Bergamo's influence, not to mention the Buchla was so well equipped to produce these types of events. The Voltage Followers for control tracks, the Lowpass Gates, the 258 VCO's reaction to audio bandwidth FM, the immensity of the sequencers (16 steps x 4 banks) and the ability to voltage control their direction. Some of us dabbled with this briefly and moved on, some never left (me) and others scarcely went there. Gary Chang and Chas Smith were two that didn't. Their work was amazing, but much more cerebral and ambient in nature.

Of course today some of the people you met at CalArts are legends. Did it feel like you were working on something “historic” at the time or was the overall mood much more down to earth?
With the visiting composers, absolutely. I can remember the week of the inaugural Contemporary Music Festival seeing Joan LaBarbara escorting John Cage to the entrance of the Music school with Mort, Ussechevsky and Babbitt greeting them. That image struck me as significant. As for the day to day, with Subotnick, Mel Powell, Jim Tenney and Harold Budd, all important figures in 20th Century music we had every right to feel it signficant but we worked with them so closely and in such a casual setting that was downplayed. 

CalArts was an amazing facility on many levels, the equipment and the faculty high on this list. Where the school fell short was P.R. Until the emergence of it's Contemporary Music Festival and the Electro-Acoustic Music Marathons in late 70's there wasn't the national attention and awareness. Centers such as Austin, Columbia, Dartmouth, Stanford, and the University of Illinois were taking all of that. There wasn't even a compilation recording released of Cal Arts composer's works until the mid-90s.

Us being down to earth? Try below earth. Put it this way, outside of Vladimir and Babbitt, there weren't a lot of people wearing neckties and chinos. We would hang out with the composers while they were visiting. We'd take a meal with them, or a swill. It was a great environment to be around. Very low key.

In any case I had the impression that things were just as much serious and “academic” as they were exciting and yet relaxed. Is that a correct impression?
Absolutely. We weren't Ivy League, but hippies can also be serious. The composition program was hard, especially for the graduate students. Some of them were really put to task by their mentors in their last year.  Add to it CalArts didn't have a standard grading system - it was High Pass, Pass or Fail, but score lower than 70 on an exam and one could expect the worst. There were also yearly reviews where you were pulled into a room with the entire comp school faculty and your future was decided before you if you would continue the following year (or not). Apart from exam scores, success was gaged on meeting deadlines and artistic growth. Good training for anyone contemplating a working career in thr arts.

Would you say that because of its rather “controversial” artistic nature, what happened at CalArts in the 70s was “political” in a way? I’m asking this, because it has often been claimed that EAM today is just about sounds, and inherently “unpolitical”.
Has a new art ever existed which hasn't been considered controversial? I think apart from any direct political statements or abstract from the anti-art movement that the art form itself was enough to stir controversy. The timbres, the very fact a lot of it was pre-composed which reduced concert performances to playback in a darkened auditorium was enough. In the 70's it was still a novelty. This is no longer the case as most can manifest these timbres on their cell-phone which has forced the electro-acoustic composer to focus on the writing, and it's high time this happened. Possibly this is an articulation of the point you make?

Something that has evolved today that definitely wasn't as prevalent in the 70's was the push toward technological research as a basis of rank or accomplishment in the craft. This was to be expected once the medium leapt from a traditional studio environment to the P.C. desktop. I see more individuals in the EAM community making a name for themselves now not for their compositional prowess, but more for their research and development in technology advances. I see no problem in this, but i do not consider these accomplishments art which brings me to another point:

After coming back to EAM after a rather long hiatus, I was surprised to see that while the work being done had matured, the general public's appeal had not. At best the two were out of balance. This is especially significant after the onslaught and acceptance of new age and world music into mainstream culture. For this reason I feel the public is ready. The audiences have grown, but still predominantly consisting of others actively involved in the medium - there are just a lot more of us than before. Depending on how one looks at it we find ourselves with either too many or not enough critics which has fueled an 'us against them' mentality that's harmful to the genre.

CalArts has always been both about music and visual arts. Was there any kind of rivalry between the two parts of the faculty? Or rather a healthy symbiosis?
Well, no matter how much it may have been debated over the years, the faculty at CalArts are human and therefore privy to all of the emotions entitled to the species (!). I'm sure rivalries existed, but for me to discuss them would be hearsay. There weren't any that were immediately apparent. In fact there was a lot of cross-pollination. Many film students worked in the EAM studios, a lot of projects both by students and faculty between music, film, dance and theater schools. Things hummed along merrily.

By Tobias Fischer

Peter Grenader/Plan B

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