Steve Barsotti

Steve Barsotti is a sound artist and educator based in Seattle, Washington. This conversation took place over Skype on 10 September 2013. Originally imagined as the groundwork for a potential collaboration under the Atlas Sets project, the interview fits well under the Imprintable umbrella. Note: the term ‘phonography’ refers to the act of recording, collecting, and performing sounds by a diverse community of sound artists, composers, acoustic ecologists, and other audio-centric practitioners.

Glenn Bach
: So, what’s going on right now? The [Seattle] Phonographers Union have a new disc coming out?

Steve Barsotti: We have an LP coming out [the LP is available on Bandcamp–GB].

Designed by Tiffany Lin, photo by Steve Barsotti

We performed in this aircraft hangar in a park in Seattle called Magnuson Park, which used to be a Navy base way back, so there are a lot of hangars on this site that are being redeveloped for commercial interests. The building that we were in, Building 23, is now an indoor sports arena, so there’s a lot of that kind of stuff happening. We went in with a sound system, and we played in this huge, huge cavernous space. We took our typical setup, which Chris DeLaurenti dubbed the Politburo…

Bach: [laughs]

SPU at Chapel Performance Space, Good Shepherd Center, Wallingford on July 23, 2009. Left to right: Toby Paddock, Chris DeLaurenti, Steve Barsotti, Pete Comely, Dale Lloyd, Jonathan Way, Doug Haire. Photo by Daniel Sheehan Photography.

Barsotti: Yeah, eight of us on a platform with laptops and lights on our faces, overseeing the audience. We adapted that form in this incredible space. We performed there two times over the span of three or four years. I recorded both of them, in surround sound and in stereo, but the second one had a more consistent feel. Chris and I took that section and mastered it, and it ended up being our first CD, along with a collection of excerpts from five or six different shows.

We got a residency through this organization called Environmental Aesthetics, and they had access to this nuclear silo down in Elma, Washington. It was to be the largest nuclear plant in the country [Satsop], but it went grossly over-budget in the mid-seventies. They finally shut down the project, but they had already built the two huge cooling towers. No nuclear material was ever installed, and now it’s an industrial park, with different types of businesses. These towers have amazingly unique acoustic signatures. A variety of people have gone in there to do different things.

We went down there with a sound setup, and four of us as the Phonographers Union did a two- to three-hour set inside this tower. So, Side 1 of the LP is going to be eighteen minutes from Sand Point, and Side 2 will be eighteen minutes from Satsop. I selected the excerpts, mixed them, and mastered them. I took them to an old-school mastering engineer in town named Ross Nyberg. I met him through the Art Institute [Steve was the Academic Director of Audio Design Technology at the Art Institute of Seattle–GB]. One of the cool things about that gig is that I’ve met some cool professionals.

Bach: Definitely.

Barsotti: So, Ross mastered the LP, and this guy knows what he’s doing. He has an amazing setup. I went out to his studio in Issaquah, and, he just went through and helped me pull out nuances that sound great. It should be out in November. I put the last final touches on the artwork and text yesterday, as a matter of fact, so I’m looking forward to it.

Bach: What label?

Barsotti: Prefecture, from Paul Kikuchi. It’s an independent label, primarily his own stuff, but expanding into some other things. For me, what he’s doing is like the newer school of labels. There is the typical label, which we all know—and love, depending on whether they release you or not. And then there is the individual who calls himself a label in order to get stuff out.

Bach: Right, right.

Barsotti: More and more, there are these hybrid collectives of people, where artists are getting together to release stuff. They really do look, smell, and taste like labels, but they don’t necessarily use the same business model or structure. Paul started Prefecture in order to release his own stuff, but he now has other artists. The SPU is footing the bill for some of the pressing; it’s a shared responsibility on a lower scale. If we’re talking about community, the smaller labels are doing this stuff, where there is a shared responsibility among the people involved.

Bach: So, what’s the run on the LP?

Barsotti: 250? We also just released a cassette through Banned Production. Anthony King. He’s down your way, actually, in Los Angeles. He just released a 50-run cassette with ten minutes per side.

Seattle Phonographers Union, SPU. Banned Production (bp218), cassette, 2013. Designed by Banned Production, images by Steve Barsotti

We did a couple of sets on KUOW, the local public radio station, in the midst of these hour-long discussions about phonography as part of the Sounds of Winter, Sounds of Summer series.

Bach: I remember those.

Barsotti: We did quick five-minute sets. I put two of them on Side 1. On the second side is an eleven-minute excerpt from our very first performance in 2003 at the Indy Media Gallery, the first time we ever got together and did this as a group. It sounds great. The work is good. I’m still looking for the power cord for my cassette deck.

Bach: [laughs]. Yeah. So, the phonography thing has gone through some iterations over the years, hasn’t it? I remember when I first heard the term, in the context of, the website and the listserv, which is still going.

Barsotti: With these things, there’s a small group who starts them, with conversations that are pertinent to that group. Then other people join, and, to be fair, it evolves over time, maybe not to the agreement of the people who started it, but that’s what you get for letting more people in. That’s what happens.

Bach: Yeah, it’s not like a secret cult or anything. It’s not like we have the corner on the market of recording sounds from the real world. People have been doing that for a long time. It’s not a closed system where only we have permission or the authority to go out and do that. It parallels the idea of the bedroom laptop producer; if everyone has access to cheap software, is everyone a producer? If anyone can go out and record sounds, are all of them phonographers? It really gets down to your state of mind or your intentions.

Barsotti: This isn’t necessarily a push for agreeing with this, but any art movement where you create a beginning, an end, a set of parameters, conditions, or descriptions…there is a difference between the Impressionists and the Surrealists because of their different approaches. I’m not suggesting we’re in the middle of a Phonographerists period. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. The list started out as an idea of sharing a similar way of thinking about that subject, then you start bringing in all these other people…and, like you said, just because someone goes out and records does that make that person a phonographer? Well, what is the definition of a phonographer? Do we want to commit to one?

When I first moved to Seattle, there was a collective called The SoniCabal. This was in 1999, 2000, 2001. It was a group of sound artists and experimental musicians and people doing all kinds of crazy things with music and sound. Some of them a little more conventional or traditional. Others a lot less so. They had already released one compilation, and I was part of the second compilation. We did it collectively. We divided the CD into 74 minute increments, and you paid per minute.

Bach: Okay. Interesting.

Barsotti: If I had five minutes of material, I paid for five minutes of time. It worked. And I also got that percentage of CDs. There was also an e-mail list, and a weekly or monthly meeting where we had the opportunity to talk about what we were doing, listen to others who had something to say, and listen to work. It was engaging. And over the course of five or six years, the group shifted. There was an element that started coming to the meetings and participating in the conversations that ended up basically taking over. And they happened to be a little more…are you familiar with the Decibel Festival here in Seattle?

Bach: Yes.

Barsotti: Some of the early crowd from that group started taking over the SoniCabal, and defining themselves as the SoniCabal. And, I don’t think I really cared, since I had stopped participating…but there were definitely those who were resentful of this newer crowd taking over this collective and redefining it. Based on what they had written about it, the SoniCabal was specifically meant to be open and defined by the people participating in it. And the people participating at that time happened to be more beat-oriented, more involved in electronic music, and less into concrete music. Phonography was still being figured out as a term at that point.

I think a similar thing happened with the list, and it happens often: you have an idea or concept, and you create a structure around it, and you want it to be democratic and open, because we’re liberal and that’s what we think is right…

Bach: Yeah.

Barsotti: And then it changes.

Bach: Right, because that’s what happens when you open it up. When you don’t enforce membership. If, like SoniCabal, the membership is what the members say it is, then the current membership has a say in what it is. And if you suddenly find yourself in the minority, you have to be okay with the floor shifting beneath you.

Barsotti: It’s like the Surrealists, and the Dadaists. And Fluxus especially; they were weird, because they had this dichotomy of breaking open this notion of the art event and the art object on the one hand, and on the other hand, a very strict sense of rules. I took a Fluxus class when I was in school, and we re-realized some of the Fluxus performances. We had to pick from the book of existing works. I suggested that we create new performances in the spirit of Fluxus, but that wasn’t allowed.

Bach: [laughs] Yeah.

Barsotti: These organizations, the people in charge of Fluxus and the Surrealists, said, “if you’re not these things, you’re not in this group, man. You can’t be a Surrealist unless you have weird dreams and paint them,” or whatever the case may be. It’s an interesting notion. And, like I said, I don’t think I am interested in creating a definitive notion of what phonography means, and ensuring that people stick to that. People are writing about it a lot more often now. People are writing about phonography and acoustic ecology and sound, and they want to come up with a theoretical diatribe that becomes the definition of something, because then it gets lodged in the history books. And some people are doing it, some of whom we know, and we see them on Facebook. They’re articulate and academic and they’re writing these things. It’s fun, but, to me, it’s just weird.

Bach: How much of what you do would you consider phonography-related? I would never call myself a phonographer because that’s such a small part of what I do, and even when I practice phonography, I’m not a purist.

Barsotti: Right.

Bach: I don’t use high-end gear to record pristine recordings, and I don’t know if that’s punk rock of me, or DIY, or just lazy. Field recording is simply part of this larger, integrated thing that I do. Can we even talk about these isolated communities anymore? “I am a phonographer.” “I am a poet.” “I’m a this, or a that.” The boundaries between these groups seem so porous now that I’m not sure I can claim membership in such a narrowly defined group.

Barsotti: Well, I have an easy out. I’m in the band, man.

Bach: [laughs] Right, right.

Barsotti: So, I started this term at Cornish [College of the Arts], and, as we all do on the first day of class, I introduced myself, and I found myself marveling at the list of descriptors that I sometimes come up with: improviser, phonographer, composer, sound artist, educator, whatever. It’s in my bio. Sometimes I use those terms to give context. Do I consider myself a phonographer? I’m not entirely clear what a phonographer actually is.

Bach: Right.

Barsotti: As part of the Seattle Phonographers Union, it’s easier for me to use that term because of the idea of the Phonographers Union. We’re not the genesis of this concept, by any means. We’re a realization of an aspect of that concept. We’re a possibility of what that concept can mean. What’s interesting is that each of the members of this group, over the years, has come at it from very different places. Perri [Howard, nee Lynch] is a sculptor; she has public works all over the city. So, there are a lot of different perspectives, which is one of the most fascinating things about this group. We’ve been together since 2003…ten years, our tenth anniversary.

Bach: That’s crazy.

Barsotti: It is crazy. So, hopefully this album will be the grand ten-year…

Bach: That’s fantastic. Perfect timing.

Barsotti. We’ve [SPU] never had a discussion about what phonography is. We’ve never had a discussion about what the rules actually are. We’ve hid behind the general statement, “We improvise, in real time, with unprocessed field recordings.” That’s all we’ve ever said. There seems to be a general acknowledgment, because we’ve said it out loud, that contact microphones, magnetic coil microphones, hydrophones and things like that are allowed, but we’ve never sat down and said, “What is phonography?” Because I think we’d break up if we did [laughs].

Bach: Right.

Barsotti: Because we’d never agree on anything.

Bach: Exactly. And what fun would that be?

Barsotti: Yeah, I know.

Bach: Trying to control that.

Barsotti: We’ll all get rip-roaring drunk and have a conversation about what phonography is and never speak to each other again.

Bach: It’s funny, because I used SPU as inspiration when I was in Wisconsin to start Milwaukee Phonography. It didn’t last long, since I was only there for two years. And, then with the Southern California Soundscape Ensemble, participation and membership waxes and wanes with the collective energy level, but it’s still on the books. The same concept underpinning both of those projects is exactly what you just said: we perform live with mostly unprocessed field recordings. And I use the term “unprocessed” loosely.

Aaron Ximm joined us in Milwaukee, and he used loops. Is looping forbidden? Some people are working with cassettes, Dictaphone tapes, and maybe the pitch is a little different; is that okay? I’m not about to tell people, “No, you can’t do this.” With the exception of obvious processing, like effects or reverb, I think the aim is mostly unaltered recordings. It’s great, because that construct isn’t a limitation at all. It’s actually an open and freeing concept.

Barsotti: It’s funny, because I’ve run into people who initially say, “I don’t understand…you can’t use any processing? Doesn’t that limit you?” Well, no, quite frankly it frees me because I no longer have to be concerned about what processing I’m going to use, or how much flange, or how long the reverb tail should be, or any of that. And I also counter with “it’s not that I don’t enjoy the sound of a good LFO, it’s that I also enjoy the sound of a cricket.”

Bach: By itself.

Barsotti: Yes. I have this electronic music class I’m teaching, and this week is musique concrète. And we listened to a couple of pieces by Pierre Schaeffer, of course, and they’re interesting and difficult for the students because they are immediately dated by the sonic quality. But then there is Luc Ferrari‘s work. Music Promenade, for example, is a gorgeous musique concrète album. And then there is all of Dale Lloyd‘s and/OAR catalog: field recordings, some of it processed, some of it not. There’s so much there. It’s so rich and so wonderful and so beautiful to listen to. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like that other stuff. I just don’t feel the need to do that all the time.

SPU via and/OAR. Left to right: Doug Haire, Steve Peters, Dale Lloyd, Steve Barsotti, Chris DeLaurenti, Perri Howard.

Bach: There’s a time and place for that other stuff. And this [SPU] is the time and place for sounds from the real world. Just let them be what they are. They are musical enough, you put them in different contexts and your collaborators will bring in sounds that you would have never expected, and that’s a remarkable aspect of group improvisation. One of the most exciting things I’ve done in a long time is working with the Soundscape Ensemble because it’s unpredictable, fresh, fun. It tends to not be overpowering in density.

Barsotti: It’s an amazing exercise in restraint to perform in that environment.

Bach: With SCSE, we have two “rules”: unprocessed field recordings, and each person has to have his or her own individual amplification. Since we spread out throughout the space, the audience hears sounds being broadcast from all directions. That’s our mission, and, like you said, it’s this perfect recipe for restraint, because each performer has to listen and pay attention out of necessity, and it does wonders for the group. We can have six or eight people and it sounds balanced. It’s my favorite group improv project.

Barsotti: How many times have you been to a performance where you never really know how it came off, because you were not in the audience? You’re so in the midst of doing your stuff, you get a very different perspective. So, our sets…of course, they vary, thirty minutes, an hour…the stuff we did at Sand Point was four or five hours, over the long haul. But even with the shorter sets, there have been multiple shows where I can say I performed for ten minutes. It is the only performance where I can come back later and say, “I heard the whole damn thing.”

Bach: Exactly.

Barsotti: It’s about trust and restraint. This gets into the improvisational aspect of this. Improvisation, for me, is about listening. And, I think about the concept of improvisation as a metaphor for how one ought to interact with the larger world, not just musically, but socially, culturally.

Bach: Yes.

Barsotti. When Dan Godston started the World Listening Project, and he came up with concepts of what it meant and what it meant for us, I wanted to push the notion of listening as a political act. Where, instead of imposing your beliefs or ideas on other people, you listen to who they are. Take in information in order to learn and grow. Improvisation, musically, for me, has always been about that. It becomes a metaphor. It’s not been perfect for me. I’ve had shows where I’ve performed for five or ten minutes, and others where I performed the entire time, and I look back and think, “Wow, I bogarted that one, didn’t I?”

Bach: Right.

Barsotti: I’m trying to take that into account with my improvisation. In fact, I just read a quote recently from some stupid internet meme: “Listen with the intent of learning rather than the intent of saying something,” or something along those lines. So, for me the Phonographers Union has always been a wonderful opportunity to do that very thing, and it’s a wonderful experience to listen and to really find out if you really should be contributing, or that what you have to contribute really works.

Bach: Yes. To avoid selfish playing.

Barsotti: Self-aggrandizing.

Bach: Simply wanting attention. And I think that’s a perfect way of saying it. “Is the sound I’m about to play a positive addition to what’s already happening? If what we’re hearing is already perfect, then let it be perfect and just sit there and enjoy it.” So, with SCSE, there is an opportunity to be simultaneously performer and audience.

Barsotti: Indeed.

Bach: A lot of times in other improv settings, you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you lose touch with that. With the phonography setting, there are moments when I played only one file during the entire performance; I would bring it up at times, then bring it back out, and there were moments when there was open space, and I chose not to bring it back in, because it wouldn’t have added anything to the perfection and the beauty and delicacy of that moment.

And this is what I’m talking about when I talk about community, when we can find people who are open to that as well, and can appreciate that openness without being forced. That’s a blessing, right? To perform with people who are already there. You don’t have to twist their arms and say, “Let’s be quiet.” It’s such a rare thing.

I had a performance a while back that was the complete opposite of that. And it left such a bad taste in my mouth because it was so dense and so impenetrable that it was really painful. That type of gig is something I said I’d never do again. I’d given that up years ago. I thought it was going to be different, but it wasn’t. When that happens it’s really disappointing, because there’s really no need. It’s walking the talk. When you say you’re going to listen and be open, then do it. Really do it. Shut up for a while and listen and don’t play anything. By not playing anything, you’re still contributing. You’re contributing in silent participation by simply observing and backing out and allowing an absence that can speak just as powerfully as a presence.

I’m really interested in how that comes together naturally, and I don’t know if it’s because of the people I’ve chosen to associate with, or there really is something in the air that we’re all part of? Serendipity? Probably a combination of all of that.

Barsotti: Yes. I think there is definitely something about like-mindedness in terms of the concept of listening. I know that the original impetus for this group was a fellow named Isaac Sterling. Way back in the early days of, 1999, 2000, right after I moved here, the list got established, people were contributing, conversing on there. And then Isaac realized there were a lot of list members here in Seattle: Alex Keller, John Tulchin, Doug Haire, Mark Griswold, Steve Barsotti, Chris DeLaurenti, Toby Paddock, Dale Lloyd. There was a bunch of us who were interested.

So, he called this meeting. It was Isaac who recognized this particular quality in each of us. He had work from all of us, and he noticed that we were all part of this list and said, “Let’s come together and talk about this concept of phonography and play some work.” And, so, the first set we did was more of an academic presentation of individual work. There were seven or eight of us at the table, round robin, where we each got seven minutes and thirty-seven seconds, if I remember correctly, and we just played. Some of us played individual recordings, and others performed a mix. That was the first set. For the second set we just jammed. It was due to the collective interest we all had in the concept of listening, and Isaac recognized that in the field recordings he heard from us in the first place.

I think in order to work with field recordings, you have to be interested in the concept of listening. You go out in the world and listen to stuff, and there is something about that process that engages you so much that you want to grab it, abstract it, bring it home and listen to it in a very different, strange way. That process right there is fundamental to my interest in this. When I collect a recording, I tend to avoid headphones; I check the levels to see I’m not distorting, but when I bring it back into my studio to see what I have, it’s like the old days of film photography when you’d shoot, shoot, shoot, and then only later look at your negatives.

So, all of these Seattle people had these great field recordings and were obviously interested in this concept of listening. And, they also had these other endeavors. Most of the people in our group have been involved in some level of improvisation. Some, like Mark Griswold, had done work with NPR…he was the sound guy; when the story opened up you’d hear car doors and footsteps on gravel. Toby and Doug and Alex and Chris and myself, we had all improvised and been involved in other music creation. But I recognized that these guys loved to listen. So Isaac brings us together and we do this thing and it worked. I wasn’t surprised, but it was still fabulous to go through that.

SPU at Arts and Nature Festival (from left to right: Steve Peters, Jonathan Way, Chris DeLaurenti, Steve Barsotti, Perri Howard. Photo by Dale Lloyd

Bach: It’s amazing that there was this concentration of all those people in that area. That’s pretty remarkable. That doesn’t always happen. Maybe it was just a convergence, where everyone happened to be there at the same time, and you were hungry for it. You have to wonder, would SPU have come about now? If it didn’t previously exist, would your group come together today and have the same longevity and camaraderie and humbleness and confidence? Could that have happened now, as opposed to ten years ago?

Barsotti: Right. Interesting question. It’s hard to answer that definitively. I look at the nature of our group now and it’s never been appropriate to call us a band.

Bach: No.

Barsotti: For the first three, four, five years there was more of a feeling of a band, more interaction between us, events happened more often. These days there is not as much communication. We still have events, but they’re usually a lot smaller. In our heyday we had twelve people perform at the Decibel Festival in 2007.

These days it’s smaller, different types of gigs. We did a thing for KUOW, and there were one or two members who popped up out of nowhere, “Yeah, I’ll do the radio gig with you guys.” So there’s a little bit of that. As far as your question, I don’t know how to answer that. Isaac passed away a couple of years ago. It was a different time, different collection of people, but the concept has evolved over the years. Back to what you were saying about the setup for your ensemble, the Phonographers Union historically has had the Politburo, but of late there has been more interest in attempts to do what you guys are doing in terms of setting up small locales.

Bach. Yes.

Barsotti: We’ve had some opportunities to perform in some interesting spaces. In Seattle there is a space called The Chapel. In the middle of Wallingford, one of our neighborhoods, there is the Good Shepherd Center, with a preschool and community organizations and things like that, and on the fourth floor there is an actual chapel. It’s a gorgeous space, with huge vaulted ceilings and big stained glass windows. Steve Peters from Nonsequitur set up shop there many years ago when he moved back to Seattle and established the Wayward Music Series. I’d say that 75% of the adventurous music that happens in this town happens in that space.

We performed there a couple of times with local setups, but, more interestingly, we got a gig at the Seattle Art Museum. They do these things called SAM Remix, and, on opening night there are a variety of activities, with a more typical musical setup on the main stage. We got invited to perform for the Aboriginal show. The museum has a small Aboriginal collection in two small rooms, fortunately located way in the back away from the main stage where all the loud stuff happens. Three of us set up in there with individualized sound systems. It was cool because of the way we set up, but it was also cool because it was one of the first times we responded directly to a theme. We as a group asked, “What do we do with an Aboriginal show? What are these paintings about?” They are maps, spirit guides.

Bach: Exactly.

Barsotti: There are these notions of guiding us through something. So we said, “There’s your inspiration, go with that.” We each brought in recordings we felt addressed that concept of what these paintings may be about. That was interesting, but, more to the point, we had been adopting these setups with individualized, small locales, individual p.a. systems, a couple of small speakers, or something like that. And people experience it in a different way. You meander, just like your [SCSE] performances. It’s such a great way to experience that type of thing.

Bach: For me, it was revelatory, because it deconstructed, changed, remixed my whole concept of the group improv. For the longest time a group improv meant going through the same p.a. You had four, six, eight sound artists, using electronics, and unless you’re really careful, you’re likely to get a wall of dense, undifferentiated sound.

So, by parsing this out, it solved all kinds of problems. It solved the soundscape issue, monitoring issues, improvisation issues, and having to lug a p.a. around, right? That inspired me to consider sound in space in a new way. Teaching the audio classes, and researching what I was sharing with students, I was able to wrap my head about the idea of reverb, with the direct sound and the series of copies, and what is called the critical distance, the point at which the direct sound is at the same volume as its reflections. At what point do the reflections take over? What about the natural ambience of the space? The normal sound of whatever space we’re in, along with the sounds we are adding to this preexisting soundscape…at what level do these introduced sounds that are contributing to this hybrid soundscape take over and become louder than the original sounds? It got me thinking about my solo work and about threshold, critical distance, and what happens when sounds are blended together at very low volumes, in a space, through speakers that aren’t necessarily massive p.a. monsters.

Barsotti: Right.

Bach: And, so, it was a transformative experience for me, and it changed everything I do as a performer. I’m really thankful that it happened.

Barsotti: It’s interesting. I really like the idea. I think your method of setting these smaller locale systems allows for a lot more interaction with the ambient space because you’re individualized, you’re localized, and, by default, you have less power.

Bach: Exactly.

Barsotti: And you’re less likely to overpower the situation. That’s fascinating. We’ve always been interested in how our sounds combine with what is already happening. I have no end of examples of shows that have ended with an external sound to the space that becomes our punchline, which is really kind of nice. But, to your point about the p.a. system, the history of our performances have been one massive p.a., and our original concern was the wall of mud, with all this stuff coming through. And that’s what really honed our skills as listeners as far as restraint, even more so as we realize we’re all coming out of the same set of speakers.

Bach: It forces you to be mindful of everyone else.

Barsotti: It was a challenge, but I think that on this album in particular, which is a sort of ‘best of’ collection, we made it work. It’s been a really good run for us as far as making that format really successful. The LP that’s coming out, the Sand Point gig and the Satsop, the hangar and the nuclear silo…now, there’s a whole other concept of space involved in those two pieces, but we’re still coming out of a single p.a. system.

SPU at Sand Point (image from SPU MySpace). Left to right: Perri Howard, Steve Barsotti, Jonathan Way, Steve Peters, Dale Lloyd.

Bach: Yeah. You know, it’s part of what makes it experimental music. My friend Alan [Nakagawa] and I had a conversation about experimental music and what that term means, the idea of the experiment. You establish a hypothesis, you think this is going to happen, set up the parameters, run the experiment, test the results to determine if it was a success or not. So the experimental part of experimental music could be what you’re doing with the single p.a., with six, eight members, and the goal is to figure out how to make this improvised, unpredictable collection of sounds work as a unified piece. As a unit, as a band, as a collective composition. The experiment is how to make that work. For us, it’s what happens when we break it off into smaller units. For me that is really exciting. Not knowing all the answers.

Barsotti: Yes.

Bach: I still think that’s a valid thing going forward. What will the next iteration of that be like?

Barsotti: Good question.

Bach: Am I going to insist that SCSE, from this point on, only be involved with field recordings? Do we start to bring in other types of instrumentation? Once we do that, though, then it becomes something else. So, perhaps SCSE could collaborate with different ensembles in order to maintain their own identities.

And this is what I wanted to talk to you about—what happens when those two worlds start to meet again? Before, it was, “Let’s parse out field recording from the rest of electroacoustic composition and improvisation, experimental music, and let’s just give field recordings their own platform and see what happens.” What happens, then, if we allow regular musicians or sound artists to bring in LFOs or composed work or whatever? The stuff that you’re doing with your handmade instruments—what kind of cross-pollination can occur?

I haven’t taken that step yet, because again, I’m so leery of the wall of sound. I’m still not done exploring the delicacy of the SCSE aesthetic. I don’t know how you feel about that…

Barsotti: A few things come to mind. As a group, we talked about this…there are a handful of ways you can approach this. On the one hand it goes back to something we talked about earlier in terms of defining a set of parameters, and then creating a project based on those concepts.

SoniCabal and evolved and changed because of the people who were a part of it. With the Phonographers Union, we haven’t written in stone a manifesto of how we’re supposed to do this, although Chris DeLaurenti has probably been the most consistent in terms of setting constraints. And he’s brought those around the country.

Bach: He did that when he was in Milwaukee. We sat down beforehand and he went over the rules of the game. It was really interesting.

Barsotti: It’s met with different levels of appreciation or skepticism, depending on where they’re coming from. So, for example, we’ve gotten offers from people to show film work during our performances, and we’ve turned them down every time. We have no interest in having visuals during our shows, because what’s the point?

Bach: There’s no need. It’s so visual to begin with.

Barsotti: Right. It’s about the act of listening. It’s not meant to be in support of some other idea. So, there’s that. The same thing with dancers. People have contacted us about having Butoh, or other dance ideas, and we’ve refused all of that as well. Internally, as a group, it’s pretty clear: unprocessed field recordings. The idea of what we’re doing is interesting and unique; there are laptops galore, electronic music galore, and processed field recordings galore. And a lot of this is really good. Again, I go to Dale Lloyd’s and/Oar label. A lot of great stuff. Or Wind Measure, the label out of New York. Those two in particular, the ones I’m most familiar with. Gorgeous stuff. I love everything on Dale’s label, without exaggeration. I really do. But, by sticking to this concept, I think there’s a unique quality to what we’re doing with the Phonographers Union.

You mentioned earlier that there is still a lot to explore there…the idea is still valid. However, what I do think is potentially interesting, and we’re starting to discuss this as a group, although we haven’t really followed through, is what if the Seattle Phonographers Union collaborated with another entity, with these two groups working together, so the SPU could still claim that we work solely with unprocessed field recordings. “The Seattle Phonographers Union performs with Jarrad Powell.” Or “performs with fill-in-the-blank.” So, there’s a very clear designation between these two ideas. We had Bernhard Gal in Seattle some years ago, and we did a performance with him, and it was the same sort of thing. We billed it as the Seattle Phonographers Union with Bernhard Gal. Before his solo set, he did a set with us, and he bent the rules slightly, but it was fun. The idea is that we perform with someone else so that we go from a group of seven to a single entity, the SPU, performing with whatever that other side may be. And see how those two concepts interact with each other.

Bach: It’s like a duet.

Barsotti: Exactly. I think that allows the concept of the Phonographers Union to remain intact. It’s not that I want to maintain some kind of fascist control over what the Phonographers Union should be. But as a concept, I think it’s relevant and important to establish a concept and stick to it.

Going back to the earlier parts of our conversation, it’s as if the Surrealists and the Dadaists decided to collaborate, and these two well-defined ideas did something together to form a third thing. I think that this concept of unprocessed field recordings from this band with a series of reed players, for instance, becomes this duet. That’s a great way to put it. I think there’s validity and interest in that idea.

[Update from Steve: “Since our conversation, several members of the SPU have performed a couple of sets with improvising musicians. The events were billed as ‘Tom Varner with….’ events, so, not SPU gigs. But, we were asked to participate to lend field recordings to these sets. The first one had 7 or 8 musicians, mostly horns of various kinds. The last one was Tom on French Horn, James Falzone on clarinet and other small reed instruments, Heather Bently on viola, and Paul Kikuchi on perscussion. Doug Haire, Steve Peters, and I also participated. It was an incredibly beautiful evening (alas, no recording). As mentioned, not an SPU gig, but it was an interesting attempt to combine what we have been doing with this other idea.”]

Bach: How do you see it in your own work? You practice phonography with the Phonographers Union, and you are an electroacoustic composer, generally speaking, with handmade instruments that you take into these spaces to record. How do you see those demarcations in your own work as a solo artist, and are those demarcations even important?

photo: Steve Ringman. Hear an audio slide show via Seattle Times. Also, read Richard Seven’s article in the Seattle Times, “Aural Auteurs: The sonic artists of the Seattle Phonographers Union.”

Barsotti: As far as the last part of that question, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about those distinctions, so, no, maybe the differences are not all that important. I do think there is a commonality in my instrument building, my electroacoustic compositions, and my field recording. The electroacoustic compositions become the gathering point for all these different ideas.

Bach: Sure.

Barsotti: So, the two albums I have, Along These Lines, and Say “tin-tah-pee-mick”, are really a combination of all the things I’m engaged in.

There are field recordings, which involve going out to some place and capturing what’s happening. There are the recordings of objects that I deliberately interfere with to produce sounds that I wouldn’t put in the category of built instruments. For instance, I’ll record the sound of a can opener because I like the sound of a can opener. Then, there are my instruments. Finally, there is the instrument of the mixing console, having things spread out, and improvising. Earlier I made the remark that that’s how I got started.

Bach: Because you were a recording engineer, right?

Barsotti: Actually, I came from photography. I studied photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and then at the School of the Art Institute, way back in the late eighties. And when I got to the School of the Art Institute, I signed up for a video class, because that seemed like a logical progression in my narrative development. With that, I knew that there was a technology hurdle, in both video and audio, so I took a sound class. Well, the video class ended up not running, but the sound class did.

Bach: Serendipity.

Barsotti: It blew my fucking mind. The idea of thinking about sound in a way that I’ve never thought about before. My earliest pieces…we had four reel-to-reel four-track machines in the studio, a mixing console, and a very small collection of gear, like the SPX90, and the MidiVerb, and some processors and things like that, and a DAT machine, a cassette deck. The first thing I did was bring in my CD collection; the SPX90 had a looper, the sample and hold thing.

So, I started sampling little excerpts out of my CDs, finding things that would loop and feel a bit more continuous, as opposed to having a more repetitive nature. I’d load up sixteen tracks of this information, four on each of these four reel-to-reels. In groups of four they were synched, but the individual decks were not, so there would be variance from machine to machine in terms of timing. Then I’d run them to the console, and I’d set up some kind of effects chain, figuring out how to route to the MidiVerb and to the SPX90, and things like that. Came up with a mix to cassette, and then I’d crack my knuckles, hit play on all four machines, and go to town. They were all one-offs.

Bach: Exactly. They were performances.

Barsotti: They were. That’s where I came from. The recording engineer aspect came later after I got an internship at Experimental Sound Studio and learned way more about the ways of studios and working…and also I started teaching.

Bach: We were talking about the mixing desk as another instrument in your repertoire…

Barsotti: The electroacoustic compositions become this focal point where I can take field recordings, object recordings, instrument recordings, along with technology like mixing boards and tape machines and processing devices, which becomes a fourth sonic element. But the commonality between all of this, which is part of my lineage as a photographer…I didn’t know what it was until much later in my life…is this concept of reduced listening.

Bach: Schaefer.

Barsotti: Pierre Schaefer, musique concrète. What I found myself interested in was the quality of sound, period. The source was not relevant to me. I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I’ve been able to actually achieve reduced listening, and I don’t think I have completely. My interest in instrument building started after I’d find an object and say, “That makes a cool sound. So does this. I need to put them in one place so I can have access to them, interact with them.” I was interested in the quality of sounds they produced. And then the field recordings became the same thing. I started recording things because I liked the sound of this. What it was a sound of didn’t matter. I liked listening to it. And the same thing with the objects, and the process of taking sound and running it through an effect of some kind, coming up with some kind of processing chain; it was very aesthetic: “I enjoy this process, I enjoy listening to this.” The act of listening is the common thread, of being very interested in the quality of the sound regardless of whether it’s from a field recording or a processor.

Bach: That brings us to the idea of collaboration. One of the things we talked about in San Francisco was the idea of a summit. A Phonographers Union summit. Let’s get everyone together. Marcos [Fernandes] with the Tokyo Phonographers Union, Chicago Phonography, the New England group, SoCal, Seattle, and have a huge party. That’s an amazing idea, and I’d love to see that happen someday. That got me thinking about what kinds of activities could happen remotely; you’re in Seattle, I’m in L.A. Common ground could be San Francisco, maybe, but what kind of structure…because in the old days, someone would record something on a cassette tape, drop it in the mail, the second person would listen to it, and add to it. That’s still a valid approach.

Barsotti: There’s Dropbox.

Bach: Dropbox. What types of cool things could we do that would be fun and could incorporate the things you’re interested in, that I’m interested in.

Barsotti: We’d probably need to put more thought into it, but one thing that just occurred to me is that we can talk more about this idea of space. You alluded to the process of how your ensemble works in the space, and I really like your ideas about reverb and ambient space, and how your sounds blends with that and how those two things interact. The work that SPU has done in the hangar and the silo are all about that. An interesting thing happened in the hangar when we performed there. We had this huge debate about our monitoring setup. They wanted monitors in front of us so that we could hear ourselves. I said, “If you do that, you will fuck this project up. We will hear everything crystal clear, respond based off of that, and the audience will hear mud.”

Bach: Yeah.

Barsotti: I finally convinced them to set up our monitors 150 yards away. And we did a great job because we had to interact with the space. Every decision we made was dependent on what the space did to our sounds. When we started doing these small, local setups like you guys have been doing, it makes the sound work in the space in a very different way. I think there is something interesting in the concept of space, and one thing that occurs to me is this notion of re-amping.

Bach: Okay.

Barsotti: Taking sounds, maybe from each other, and bringing them into spaces and broadcasting them and recording them in different, interesting ways. The idea of getting sounds that I may not be familiar with or comfortable with and taking them down to Carkeek Park and figuring out a way to broadcast them in the marsh and then record them. Or take them to the studios at the Art Institute.

Chris [DeLaurenti] is coming into town again in November, and we’re going up to the Cistern in Port Townsend in Seattle [this session was subsequently canceled–GB]. It’s this big underground concrete bunker with an amazing sonic quality that has attracted all kinds of musicians. One of the ideas I’m working on now is re-amping through substance, like sheet metal [moves laptop’s camera to show instrument].

photo by Steve Barsotti

Bach: Wow, look at that.

Barsotti: I have two speakers connected to that. The speakers vibrate the metal, sending vibrations through the metal in different ways, and then microphones are placed in different locations to capture the vibrations. Ideally I’m looking towards a performance with this where I have four or five microphones tied to four or five speakers in surround, so as sound goes through the plate, different nodal points of vibration will give off different qualities, different timbres, and that will surround you…so re-amping through materials like that. I also have these tin cookie bins, and I’ve attached speakers to the backs of them, and I laced the inside with springs, and the speaker excites the springs, which yield more reverb and more space because of the tins, and I stick a mic on the other side, or a contact mic inside the tin, or something like that.

So that type of sound is fascinating to me. To be fair, the sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda …I have three or four of his albums, like Pieces of Air, and The Air Vibrations inside a Hollow. He went around and stuck microphones in crevices like a Coke bottle on the side of the road. “How does the world sound from the inside of a Coke bottle?” So, there’s a direct connection there.

[Update from Steve: “I did realize the performance with the sheet metal. As described, I set it up with the speaker drivers connected to it. I then placed four pencil condensers very close to the plate (5mm or so), in specific locations. Ran tones through the plate creating different vibrational patterns. As the patterns shifted, the sound shifted on the plate. The mics were run to four speakers surrounding the room. The sound shifted through the space as the tones shifted across the plate. Recorded the performance as a direct mix since recording the surround did not make sense.”]

Bach: Sure. We don’t have to solve it now. I see this project as an open-ended series of conversations. I’m thinking of this as simply the beginning of our talk. We’ll sit with it, ponder it, do our own thing, read the transcript later. Maybe establish another conversation after that, talk about stuff we didn’t get to. Send a couple of files back and forth and see what develops. Look at it as an experiment: “How did that work? I sent you three sounds, and you went into the woods and re-amped them; how did that work?” Let it evolve. That’s the organic process I envisioned for this project, and so far it’s how it’s been working out. We don’t have to solve anything right now.

Barsotti: I think that’s fine. Frankly, I’m quite content to let you guide how this proceeds. Whether it takes a long time or a short time. I think that’s a fine, organic way to think about this.

Alan Nakagawa

Alan in the zone, Mi Ranchito, Mar Vista, CA (photo: Glenn Bach)

Alan Nakagawa is a force of creative nature. This conversation took place on July 1, 2012 at the now defunct Mi Ranchito restaurant on Washington Blvd (just off Grand View) in Mar Vista, California. Originally part of my earlier Atlas Sets project, the conversation feels right at home under the umbrella of Imprintable…stay tuned for a follow-up discussion to see what Alan has been up to in the five years since.

Glenn Bach: You were talking about your proposal for Soundwalk [2012]. What was that about again?

Alan Nakagawa: It’s due today [laughs].

Bach: I may just propose to do the docent thing that I did two years ago. I didn’t submit anything that year, but then they asked me if I wanted to lead a tour of Soundwalk. It wasn’t my own work. It was a performance of the process of walking around Soundwalk and leading a tour. So, I may do that again. I don’t want to do the soundscape ensemble again. I’m not in that mode right now.

Nakagawa: I think it’s great.

Bach: So, your proposal.

Nakagawa: It’s called First in Space: The Ride. Joseph [Tepperman] and I have this love for the space program, and specifically their use of animals. It’s a multi-tiered fascination. One is the horror [laughs] of sending these animals up there.

Bach: To certain death.

Nakagawa: I haven’t actually done the research, or as much research as I should, but I have this fantasy that there are these capsules up there with all these dead monkeys and dogs and cats and turtles. Which probably isn’t true; they’ve probably all come down by now.

Bach: Yeah, re-entry.

Nakagawa: Anyway. The whole beginning of the space program is so fascinating, the relationship with the Nazis, all that sort of thing. The use of the animals is great. Joseph and I are animal lovers, so there is this pro-animal thing going on. Not quite PETA, but rather a fun, kitsch type of thing. It’s also nostalgic in terms of this alleged ‘better times’ in America. So, there’s that. First, we created a storybook. There are traditions in all sorts of cultures that use the storybook format as early theater, specifically for kids. There’s a tradition in Japanese culture as well. So that was our first project. We created this TV set box thing. And we made all these illustrations of animals and these fictitious stories about the animals that had been shot into space. And then it was the story, which was very short, and then Joseph and I would improvise a piece of music in memorial to that.

Bach: Nice.

Nakagawa: We performed that for Eternal Telethon. We did it on Ear Meal, of course. We started doing more research, and we realized the actual stories of these animals are far more interesting than our made-up stories. We decided to spend a year researching the program, so between us we’ve read most of the books that are primarily focused on Laika but go above and beyond that.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: There are quite a few books. There’s even a comic book, which is great. Joseph’s fiancé works at the Museum of Jurassic Technology; they have paintings of all the original dogs.

Bach: That’s cool.

Nakagawa: There’s a whole room dedicated to those dogs. And they’re big paintings, three feet by four feet, two by three. Beautifully framed. And so Joseph and I thought we should have something where people experience the voyage. Over the course of several months we developed this very simple idea; no crazy technology or anything.

Bach: It’s just your truck [used for Sound Bed] [laughs].

Nakagawa. We’re just taking baby steps toward what we hope will be a bigger installation. For Soundwalk it’s First in Space: The Ride. That’s what the series is called, First in Space, for obvious reasons. The installation will be a modified tent, a dome tent, in the vernacular of a spaceship, the capsule. So, you walk into the capsule, you sit in a cockpit kind of thing, and then watch these images projected on the side of the tent. You put your helmet on, which has a microphone. The whole thing is an animation that moves forward by voice-recognition software. We are working on this footage that we created: a fictitious reenactment of what we think it might have been like to be one of these dogs. Your experience, through voice recognition, will be as if you are traveling through this space launch.

Bach: Right.

First in Space: The Ride (photo: FLOOD)

Nakagawa: But in the process of doing this for three minutes, you are, in a sense, creating a sound piece that’s visually activated through your voice, and you’re actually commanding the course of the piece.

Bach: So, you actually have to talk.

Nakagawa. You have to talk. And say it correctly, too. If you don’t, it tells you, “Say it again.”

Bach: “There is an error. You must…”

Nakagawa. So, you’re kind of like that dog. The dogs had to do some very simple things. So that’s what it is. It’s very simple. It’s very cute. Yesterday I spent six hours sewing a space suit for a little dog [laughs], which I’m very happy with. I’ll show you a picture.

Bach: That’s great.

from left to right: Giuseppe, Joseph Tepperman, Alan Nakagawa (photo: Elon Schoenholtz)

Nakagawa: [shows photograph on iPhone] I found this silver material in the Garment District. The top piece is the little hat. This thing is the vest. The feet go in there. We’re using Joseph and Ariana’s dog, Giuseppe. So, he’s small. I think those dogs were small. They didn’t shoot any St. Bernards up there. So, that’s the piece. Hopefully they’ll accept it.

Bach: Oh, I’m sure they will.

Nakagawa: They’ve accepted everything we’ve sent so far. Hopefully they’ll continue that tradition.

Bach: Well, I’ll definitely include your piece in the tour, if I end up doing the docent thing.

Nakagawa. Cool. I’m considering buying a telescope. It would be great to have a telescope next to the modified tent/capsule thing. See if they could spot any of these mausoleums floating in space [laughs].

Bach: That’s great.

Nakagawa: But I’ve always wanted a telescope for a long time. You’ve been to my house, it’s a two-story thing with a large attic, so it’s really three stories. I was thinking if you put a telescope on that roof, you’d probably be able to see quite a few things. Because it’s already on a hill.

Bach: Yeah, if you get above everything.

Nakagawa: Do you have a telescope?

Bach: No.

Nakagawa. There is such a huge selection.

Bach: Yeah, where do you start? Okay, you go down that rabbit hole. How many telescope buying guides are there?

Nakagawa. The wife of a friend of mine at work is an astronomer. She’s a telescope specialist at Cal Tech.

Bach: Good person to ask.

Nakagawa: I was going to ask her, but when you ask someone like that, they don’t really know the consumer stuff [laughs]. For twenty thousand dollars…[laughs].

Bach: Yeah [laughs].

Nakagawa: If you have half-a-million, you can get this. They’re on a family trip to England right now, so as soon as they get back I’m going to bend her ear on that.

Bach: So, do you consider the work that you’re doing, like this project, as part of a continuum, or are they individual projects that don’t have a lot to do with each other? Or are they all coming out of the same…

Nakagawa: The thing with Joseph?

Bach: All of it. The thing you’re doing for Soundwalk, the Sound Bed, the IsoCube, the thing you did at the Inglewood Library. Is this your collected body of work, or are they individual projects?

Nakagawa: I see it all as coming out of the same kitchen. Definitely. I think my work changed immensely when I started working…you know I’ve worked with Collage Ensemble [Inc.] for a long time. We were always interested in getting artists together and trying to create something. Sometimes that was successful, sometimes it wasn’t. Some of us remain friends, and some of us don’t. But, we weren’t afraid to walk into this safe zone and have at it, speak your mind.

So, that’s what that was about. It’s not so clear-cut in terms of chronology, but, while that was tapering off the last four years, I started working with Kio Griffith, just the two of us. Ironically, Kio and I started Collage Ensemble Inc. back in 1984 with Luchy Garcia. But I hadn’t seen him in fifteen years. We kind of bumped into each other in front of Giant Robot on Sawtelle. We started talking. Then we started working together, and we called it Otonomiyaki.

And so this ability to create an ongoing vocabulary of work with just one person was good for me, as opposed to Collage Ensemble, where we seemed to change with every project. There were some people who were consistent. Depending on the project, we had to get new, ‘specialty’ people.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: As the only person who stuck with it from beginning to end, I got to benefit from that. Or not [laughs], depending on how you look at it. Working with Kio one-on-one, for two-and-a-half years, was really good for me. It made me focus on the work, and the relationship was okay, as opposed to Collage Ensemble, where, as the lead artist you’re also working on the relationships, and you’re wearing two hats all the time.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: You know what that’s like. I’m not interested in doing that anymore [laughs]. And that’s why Collage Ensemble ended. One of the reasons. And then Joseph and I met. So, we’ve been working together for about two-and-a-half years on this one project. I also like that. I think that’s what you’re getting at, rather than with Collage Ensemble and working from one project to the next, totally changing genres and focus and members, and everything. I like this, working with Joseph for a couple of years.

We have this idea that eventually we’ll create this huge thing, but we’re going to take baby steps, project to project. We also get along really well; our temperaments are really good. He certainly has his solo work, and he also does this duet with Ariana, his fiancé, so it’s not like this is his only thing. So, that’s good. The next phase of First in Space is going to take advantage of his day job, where he is a voice-recognition software person for Rosetta Stone.

Bach: Wow.

Nakagawa: [laughs] He’s really good at it. So, he’s tackling this animation program that could be used with the voice recognition, and that’s what’s going to be projected. I think it’s a great marriage for this project. So I’m really enjoying it. I’m excited for the future of this relationship, because we both know that with this piece, if we get to do it for Soundwalk, that’s fine, but we’re going to keep working on it anyway, and eventually, a year or two down the road, we’ll do a bigger installation.

Bach: Yeah. Write a grant proposal, have it done somewhere like the Hammer

Nakagawa: Something like that would be awesome. But, going back to your original question. One of the things you asked in your question: does this all relate to each other? Definitely. Definitely. With Collage Ensemble there was also this sociopolitical thing happening. Intentionally, or unintentionally, getting people from different generations together, various disciplines. Even non-artists, sometimes. Certainly different ethnicities. Putting all that together was the exciting first step of any Collage Ensemble project.

Collage Ensemble Inc. circa 2000: (left to right) Alan Nakagawa, Brandy Maya Healy, Enrique Gonzalez, Chris Albisurez, Roxana Albisurez, William Archila, and Allan deSouza (photo:

Bach: Putting all the elements together to see how…

Nakagawa: Yeah, there was always this bigger social context to the work, and I think, today, I’m not so interested in the inter-ethnicity experience, because, for one, we did it for so long…

Bach: Right.

Brandy Healy and Alan Nakagawa (photo:

Nakagawa: [laughs] We drove that nail down as far as it’s going to go. So, my work is more about getting people acclimated to the theoretical mindset where experimental musicians and artists live. Because, I seriously think that if I figure that out, if we could figure that out, that that could be a model for better communication. For instance, my webcast, Ear Meal…the reason I’m personally doing that is for the greater good, to document the L.A. experimental sound and music scene. I would like to eventually donate it to an archive, and I feel that could potentially serve a purpose beyond the one-night performance in my garage.

So, for me personally it’s serving as two things. One, it’s teaching me. I’m getting educated with every show. It’s like a PhD or Masters program. I’m getting a survey of what’s going on out there, ideas and sounds and approaches. So, that’s good. The other thing, and this especially works with the oral history portion of Ear Meal…where are these folks coming from? What is their upbringing? As you know, when we did the interview, we hardly ever talked about the music. It’s mostly about your personal voyage of how you got to my garage [laughs].

Alan’s garage in Koreatown (photo: Glenn Bach)

Bach: Which is the basis of my project. My reflection on turning fifty, and where I’ve come from to get to that place. It’s sort of an autobiographical auto-history manifested through collaborations with friends and collaborators. So, the conversation we are having today informs and leads into the collaboration that you and I will do based on our conversations about our interests and the things that overlap. In a way, it’s similar in some way to what you’re doing with Ear Meal, but maybe for a more narrow…not narrow but…

Nakagawa: Specific?

Bach: Specific purpose. To generate the infrastructure of a collaboration, the themes, the motives, the format, the form of what you and I are going to do, to record it for the catalogue.

Nakagawa: It’s a wonderful approach.

Bach: So, I didn’t mean to interrupt you on the…

Nakagawa: No, not at all. It gave me an opportunity to eat some lunch [laughs]. There is a subtext challenge to this interview: the food’s getting cold [laughs].

Bach: I’ll talk, you eat. So, you asked if I’ve been working on anything. The idea of an artist working in a genre, or category, a body of work that has to be one thing or another. And at this point in my life I’m not really interested in those categories anymore. Am I a visual artist? Am I a poet? Am I a sound artist? Am I a musician? Whatever. I’m just going to do what I do. And the transcript of the conversation, for me, is just as important and just as valid a manifestation of my artistic practice as anything else. The process of having a meal, engaging in a conversation, recording it, and, over the next two or three weeks [laughs] transcribing it, and having that record, that’s just what I do.

So, the project, Atlas Sets, was, at first, an attempt to articulate what I do, where I’ve been, and why I’ve been drawn to the people I work with. A means to an end, but also a process in and of itself that is just as interesting. I wasn’t really expecting that. As the project developed, and I figured out how I was going to proceed, the conversations have become as important as the eventual collaborations that we’ll do, along with the recording and documentation, and performances. But I hadn’t thought of it in terms of oral history until you mentioned it, and now it makes perfect sense. It’s not just a discussion of what we’re going to do and why, but it’s also a conversation about…it’s like a snapshot of where we are, July 1, 2012, in L.A., right now.

Nakagawa: You mentioned that in one of your classes you were dissecting film, using it is a case study, if you will, for various things like teaching about story. One of the things I’m interested in, and you probably know this better than I would, has anyone done any research on the phenomena of director’s notes, interviews, things like that on DVDs?

Bach. Hmm.

Nakagawa: Because, and I don’t know how much truth there is to this, but in America we’re constantly told that our level of education is declining, thereby, in a sense, saying that Americans today are stupid, are dumber than they were in the past.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: And yet, more people have more access to information than ever. What used to be just entertainment is also education. For instance, I recently bought Blade Runner on DVD, the anniversary edition, and there are all these interviews, the making of, and all that, and I’m thinking, for the folks who used to make movies back in the forties and fifties, this must be really weird to them. Right, because it’s about illusion. Why would you want to see the Wizard, the man behind the curtain?

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. But, I think people are generally interested in that, the ability to be engaged in the work. What’s that saying again, ‘the suspension of disbelief?’ To be able to gear in and out of the suspension of disbelief; that’s a mechanism that has to be new.

Bach: There’s an article in my textbook that talks about this.

Nakagawa: Can I get a copy of that?

Bach: Yeah. One author takes the position that American culture has been dumbed down, with reality TV and the devolving of culture from a hierarchical high art/low art division, and that the level of discourse in our society has become degraded. The other author argues that, on the contrary, the American public, the media consumer, has gotten more sophisticated over the years because the things we are watching have become more complex. Video games, going back and forth between the suspension of disbelief and willfully immersing yourself in the world of the filmmaker, but at the same time being able to flip back and be reflective about it, looking at the behind-the-scenes and seeing the green screen and how they did this particular effect, but when you watch the movie again you can set that knowledge aside. So the idea that the consumer can exist in those modes, if not simultaneously, reflects a more sophisticated understanding of media.

Nakagawa. Right.

Bach: So, we’re not getting dumber, we’re getting smarter. We’re getting more complex and nuanced in our viewing habits. Just looking at the content of the shows. They compared Dallas, the old soap opera, with some of the shows on now, like Game of Thrones, or The Wire, or Lost, and the multiple narratives and character arcs that are going on in these contemporary dramas have become very sophisticated and convoluted, and viewers are demanding and expecting these complex narratives. Whereas, if you watch some of these shows from the 1970s and 80s, they’re extremely simple. Talking about genre in the class, and how genre is this interface that allows the viewer to quickly grasp the scope of the narrative.

Okay, you go see a western. So, you have this expectation of a singular hero with a dark past, in the wide open spaces of the American west during a certain time period. So, there are all these conventions and tropes the viewer already expects. And the classical Hollywood narrative of the studio system of the thirties and forties counted on those very predictable genres, knowing the shorthand, the easily replicable skeleton on which they could slot in varying details, so that they could crank out hundreds of these films, just by changing a character name or detail. But now, maybe because of postmodernism, because of Tarantino, the idea of genre is…we still appreciate those categories, those easily recognizable motifs, but we’re also hungry for cross-pollination, and we have the ability to go deeper, to understand more complex narratives.

Nakagawa: Maybe in the future we will watch a show, and there will be a sidebar of the psychology of the character and also the actress.

Bach: Yeah, it will get to the point where we can simultaneously…instead of going back and forth, watching the film and being entirely in it, and when it’s done watching the behind-the-scenes featurette to get a different experience, why not combine the two to begin with, watch the film in a suspension of disbelief, but at the same time also be aware of the structure, aware of the green screen, the multiple takes that they used, the actors improvising their lines. So, the idea of a succinct, intact product from beginning to end is no longer rigid. How many versions of Blade Runner are there?

Nakagawa: On my DVD there are four [laughs].

Bach: Yeah, so, for example, the three new Stars Wars prequels, and how much grief they got because they weren’t very good, to be able to go in and restructure the narrative to fit your own…to go in and completely re-dub all of Jar Jar Binks dialogue, different voice, different accent. Or re-cut the scenes altogether in this different mix of the film for your own idiosyncratic purposes. Does it then become a performance? I don’t know.

Nakagawa: I like the audience participatory aspect of it.

Bach: It’s not quite ‘Choose Your Own Adventure,’ but I think the influence of video games and the non-linear, non-fixed narrative is something that has yet to be explored on the blockbuster level. What if James Cameron had dedicated his resources and his money to that, instead of the spectacle of a story [Avatar] that was actually very ordinary and pedestrian?

Nakagawa: Yeah. I think walking towards that arena of focus is something that…I think I’m walking towards that. I’m not sure it’s empowering people; I think it’s offering the audience tools that are beyond just the work. That’s why I’m interested in what people have to say, director’s notes, things like that, in making work. For instance, the piece that we [Otonomiyaki] did, Ginger and Mary Ann, the two bicycles that are fuzzied up to be portraits of those characters from Gilligan’s Island, and they have fishing poles with plastic water bottles on the end, and there are lots of valves and things that jingle, so as you ride them through the streets there’s a clanging and ringing that you can control. It’s a two-bike performance; anybody can get on the bikes.

There are a couple of things going on. There is the actual aspect of making sound, the entertainment-interactive thing that happens, the recognition of bike culture in L.A. and the arts, there’s the nostalgia of Gilligan’s Island, there’s the sexual fantasy of Ginger and Mary Ann. The year when we did it, the gay marriage initiative got canned in California, so in our own heterosexual way we were saying something about that. But, above and beyond all that, it was humor. It was a funny piece. People, whenever they saw it, especially when they were riding it, were laughing.

Bach: Right. I remember that.

Nakagawa: I think laughter is really important because it’s the natural alcohol. It opens your palate, lets your guard down a little bit, opens you up. You become a better listener, or you can. Becoming a better listener is key to why I am drawn to the kind of work that I’m making right now. I don’t know a lot about world politics, but what little I’m hearing seems to be challenged by listening.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: The ability to really listen. Now, maybe a lot of people are consciously not listening, because they have their own agenda, and they want to push that agenda. Traditional political practice is that you just keep pushing your agenda and push to the point where you win. And so, all of these genres, these professions that hold up the political fabric, are also geared toward this, commerce, trade, law, attorneys.

I was listening to something recently about relationships, and this one example of a husband and wife getting a divorce. They were on good terms, they understood where they were, and they said, “This is how we will do it.” She made more money than he did. So she said, “I’m going to give you enough money so that you can have an apartment near where I live so that we can be both close to the kids.” They didn’t know how to get a divorce, so they asked a lawyer. And the lawyer said, “No way are you giving him money for an apartment,” and so it grew into this bitter fight, and it even went so far as to pin the kids against each other. Clearly, had the attorney asked, “What do you guys want? Okay, this is how you can do it,” as opposed to, “She’s my client, so I’m going to do this.” To me that was an example of not listening and this whole idea of how all of these professions are geared toward…

Bach: Implementing.

Nakagawa: Implementing. Not listening. And I see that in the bigger picture of the political spectrum. The worldwide political spectrum is ill because of this virus that has been growing for centuries. So, in my own little way, I was thinking that if I could take this genre that I love, that I’m so passionate about…because, even to this day, I’m not exactly sure I can fully articulate to a novice why I love experimental music so much. So I thought if I could listen to all these people who I respect talk about why they do it, that that would help me to figure out the words I need to use to explain why I love this music so much.

Bach: To a layperson or someone who’s unfamiliar with experimental music.

Nakagawa: Right. What I hear most, if not all, of the artists talk about…because one of the questions that I ask near the end of the oral history…I’m eventually going to donate this to an archive. My dream is that somebody, years from now, uses it as something to learn about the music. Whether it’s a research student or somebody who heard something on NPR, and they don’t know anything about that music, and they stumble on the Ear Meal archive…so, the question is, “What would you say to that person?” When they [Ear Meal artists] talk about their history, there is usually a point where they discover this music. “If you could go back and speak to yourself when you were twelve and you heard that Cage piece for the first time, and it blew you away, is there anything you would say to yourself?”

And it’s interesting to hear what they say. In my own little non-academic way, I’m trying to come to grips with how I can use my art to help people communicate better. How can I make the world better? Unfortunately, I’m very ‘John Lennon’: humanity I want to save; it’s the people I can’t stand [laughs]. I’m aware that I have that problem, so I’m always working on that as well. I think that’s why I work in public art. I’ve been at Metro for twenty years. I think that’s my specialty, to go into a situation and help bridge the gaps.

Alan at Metro (Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. He is now retired from Metro.

Bach: Right, because you’re fluent in both cultures. You’re fluent in the corporate, government sphere, and you’re fluent as an artist, and you can be the facilitator.

Nakagawa: And why is that? Because, I think, more than most of my colleagues, I’m a better listener. I let people talk. I don’t stop them in mid-sentence so I can interject my thoughts. I think that’s very important. I see it done all the time. It drives me nuts. But, I know where it comes from. They’re impatient, or they know what they want already so they just want to get to it, and they really don’t care [laughs] about what you want.

Bach: Or, it’s their inability to keep a thought fully formed for any length of time. They’re afraid that if they don’t get it out, go on the record, that they will flub it somehow. So it’s really important to them that the other person hears what they are saying, but they don’t realize that a conversation is an organic thing and it’s okay if a thought disappears or gets mutated and you aren’t able to articulate it exactly the way you thought you wanted to.

Nakagawa: You know the device to make that happen and not demean the path that you’re on…now, of course, as we’re talking about this, we could easily substitute jamming together…

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I feel like there’s something in the construct of our work that is going to be helpful to a larger body of people, and in simple terms it’s about listening, or the mechanics of listening, the social politics, for a win-win situation. Everyone always talks about a win-win situation, but we hardly ever see one [laughs]. Because of this illness that I mentioned earlier.

Bach: People think that the stakes are one way, but really the stakes aren’t as dire as they think they are. “Why is it so important to interject or implement your vision at this point in time? What do you think you’re getting out of it? Don’t you think it’s okay to let the conversation go where it goes?” I think people misjudge the stakes. It’s a process, because listening is a skill that you have to practice. And I’m guilty, like everyone else, of slipping out of the moment, daydreaming, imagining how I’m going to respond, and I lose the connection, and I find myself snapping back.

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: And I feel a little guilt…

Nakagawa: But being able to snap back is good.

Bach: Yeah. But it’s something you have to be aware of. It’s a mindful practice of non-judgment.

Nakagawa. It’s so hard not to judge.

Bach: Being mindful, being present, you slip out of it, you daydream, and monkey mind takes over. But then you snap back and remind yourself that it’s not a judgment, you shouldn’t feel guilty, you’re not a bad person, and you simply return to the present. It’s just a thought. For me, that’s a model for music makers and improvisation and the collaboration that happens when two or more people come together to make a musical statement.

One of the most profound discoveries that I’ve had recently is what we’ve done with SCSE, with each person having his or her own amp, setting up in different places. We disrupt the traditional hierarchical relationship between audience and performer, where the performer is here up on stage, and the audience is here watching, and it’s this linear thing. We first solved the problem of the mix by taking everyone out of the same P.A, the same stereo mix, so we solved that.

Nakagawa: That’s great. I love that.

Bach: And then we solve the top-down aspect of us presenting this music to the audience by spreading out around the space. And, by doing that, it necessitates each one of us in the ensemble to listen more carefully, because we have to listen to our own sound coming out of our own amp and what other people are doing in the space…

Nakagawa: Especially if they’re clear across the room.

Bach: Yeah, it’s a remarkable transformation of the mix, and the mix is something that I’ve been interested in recently. When you talk about helping people communicate and how you do that…I think one of the things I’m trying to do, similar to that, is bring an awareness, even if it’s just for myself—but I’m hopeful that other people are getting it—of drawing attention to the relationship of the sound source and the listener. It’s a communication through a channel where the sound originates at the source and propagates through the medium and interacts with the space, and by the time it gets to your ears it’s been entirely transformed by the space.

To me that’s a magical thing. It’s beautiful. These sound waves go out, they bounce, and they mix with other sounds. It’s the mix. It’s the natural mix of the soundscape. The soundscape happens 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, everywhere. As musicians we set up and alter it by adding additional, purposed sounds to the existing ambience of the space. So, where does our performative soundscape reach the level of the natural soundscape, where they meet and mingle, where our sounds inform and alter the natural soundscape, which, in turn, informs our performance? And are they are even separate?

So, I want to bring to the audience an awareness of that interrelationship, without lecturing on acoustics, psychoacoustics, or reverberation. I think that just by the way we spread out around the space automatically gets them into a different frame of mind. They have to do a little bit of detective work. Or they give in and close their eyes, and let the performance wash over them. Whether SCSE is active or on the back burner, that revelation alone has been so important for me in what I do and what I’m about. And that becomes my work. That becomes what my work is about. The subject matter of my work and why I do it.

So, it’s self-reflective, but not necessarily formalist, or modernist. How do all of those things come together with what we do? Because you were talking about this joy, this humanistic effort through your art to bring people together, or bring them into a space where they are more open, understanding where people are coming from, or appreciate an experimental music situation, creating the setting.

Nakagawa: A piece I did last year, for one of the CicLAvias, the piece was called Sound Forest. You had to apply and propose a project, so they accepted my proposal. They gave me this little island in the Garment District on 9th and some other street. It wasn’t big, maybe 8 feet by 8 feet. A triangle with a big sign on it. I installed twelve cymbal stands with either a found object or percussion instrument on each stand, with a mallet or drumstick on a fairly long cable.

The city workers put safety barriers, the folding kind without the light, around the area so that cyclists wouldn’t…maybe they thought people would run into this island, I doubt if they would…so I made signs on the barriers that said “Come Play,” both directions, east and west. I set up right across the street at this pizza place for the next six hours, and people would come up to me and talk, which was great, but I was digging watching people on their bikes go up to the island and negotiate their relationship to what the island was.

Some people got it [snaps fingers] and instantly picked up on the thing and started banging on it, and others just looked around and were like, “Are we allowed to…is this okay?” More often than most, someone was already playing, so that was an invitation, “Oh, this person is playing…”

Bach: It gave them permission.

Sound Forest by Nakagawa at Ciclavia 2011 from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Nakagawa: This whole thing of getting permission. That’s a very important word. Permission. Because in art, the permission norm is so drenched in museum visiting. The kind of work that I do, I want to melt that away a bit. I go to museums a lot, as do most of us. I had an experience at LACMA once [laughs]. There was this flat-file drawer, I think it was next to the Schwitters, so I knew there were more collages in that drawer, or posters. So I went up to it and start pulling them, and the guard comes and he yells at me, “You can’t touch that.” And I said, “What do you mean, it’s a flat file with artwork in it. Aren’t we supposed to see the artwork?” And he said, “You’re not supposed to touch the artwork.” Okay [laughs], and I walk away. And that experience was so important to me because the first thing I think of is “I’m the one with the MFA, the artist. Don’t tell me I can’t touch this flat file.” But, I’m also a citizen.

So here’s the hierarchy, the authority telling me I can’t touch it. And, of course, they are the authority; they could arrest me if they wanted to. And so, I’m not going to jail just for a Schwitters piece, so I walk away. The second thing I was thinking was, “Wow, how many people has that guy told not to touch that flat file. Not even can you not touch the painting, which, of course, I totally agree you shouldn’t touch the painting, but you can’t touch the thing you’re supposed to touch. How many first-time museum-goers have been turned off by that guy’s ignorance. And it might not be ignorance; it might be his supervisor who told him.

So, I don’t want to be part of that art mechanism. I don’t like that at all. I think that’s why I like my job, which is public art. Mind you, it’s become very conservative in the past couple of years. But in the past we wanted people to touch the work. We wanted people to engage in the work. We don’t quite have that in the past couple of years because of a conservative maintenance fear that we have as an agency and as a field.

Bach: And liability, I’m sure that plays a part.

Nakagawa. Yeah. I’m not interested in that. I want people to sit in things, touch things, lick things. I really want them to think it’s okay. I want them to have fun, and while we’re having fun I could tell you something you didn’t know. Or you could tell me something I didn’t know, and wouldn’t it be great if we could have a conversation. Like with Suzanne Lacy’s work; that’s powerful stuff. It’s very committed and it’s very empowering to the participants. And I love those elements of that work. And I want to build work like that. That’s why I gravitate to composing things like Sound Forest, and Ginger and Mary Ann

Bach: The Sound Bed.

Nakagawa: Sound Bed, you know, that was a multi-tiered thing. I fell in love with Integratron that year. I had never been before and I had three visits that year. I just couldn’t believe it. That somebody, a non-musician, had created a piece that is exactly what I want my music to do. I just couldn’t believe it. So, I just kept going. It was like an opium den for acousticians, or something.

Bach: Yeah.

SOUND BED by Nakagawa at Soundwalk 2010 from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Nakagawa: So, I wanted to build an homage to that. That’s what Sound Bed was. I also used the bed that my ex-wife and I conceived our two kids on, and all that. We trashed the bed after that night. I told everybody who helped me: this was the last piece of furniture from our marriage. I wanted to use it for Sound Bed, and now we’re going to throw it away.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: It was explained to me that Integratron in its physical construct is a battery. I’m not exactly sure how batteries work, but it has to do, first of all, with the perfect wood dome, the sphere. The cavity under the dome, which was originally supposed to have those metal rods that house the electricity from the self-generating mechanism outside, which he never finished. And then it’s on a part of the Big Rock.

Bach: Yeah, and the ley lines.

Nakagawa. So, it’s actually on the rock, and under the rock there are three rivers. So there are three currents going on, and in that totality as a drawing is exactly how a battery is made. Your alkaline battery, or whatever. So, I love that. Now, could he [George Van Tassel] have really known that the three rivers were under there? Or that the rock was…I don’t think so.

Bach: Yeah, he was tapping into some kind of…

Nakagawa: He was tapping into something. Maybe he did, I don’t know. He was an engineer, so it’s not far-fetched. I would love to romantically think that there were aliens involved [laughs].

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa. We love that story, and we’re sticking to it. Because it’s funny, and it’s exciting.

RED FLAT at the Integratron from Alan Nakagawa on Vimeo.

Bach: It’s got personality, it’s charming and quirky, and it generates a lot of interesting narrative. We went there for the first time…

Nakagawa. Oh! When?

Bach: On this camping trip, a couple months ago.

Nakagawa: In Joshua Tree.

Bach: Yeah, in Joshua Tree. On the last day we went to Integratron and did the Sound Bath.

Nakagawa: Nice. How did you like it?

Bach: You know, Sharon had a pretty intense experience. Our friend Megan did as well. I couldn’t get out of my musician mode, because the docent who was playing the bowls for the Sound Bath…his performance to me felt a little overdone, because he was activating the bowls…and if you manipulate them too much you build up these standing waves and the beats, the wah wah wah wah…for me, those are the types of things I try to avoid in a mix, because that’s just feedback that isn’t necessarily communicating timbre or sonic information that I’m interested in sharing. It’s just a byproduct of the electronic phenomena of using loudspeakers.

So, for me, I wanted to get up, walk over to the guy, elbow him aside and say “Let me get on the bowls and activate a much more subtle performance.” And that was just me trying to control the musical aspect of the Sound Bath.

Nakagawa: Wow! That’s a really powerful experience, too.

Bach: Yeah, it was. And it seemed a little long. So, I had that kind of experience. I’m glad we did it. I think that’s great, that each person will have an individual experience being bathed in oscillating sound. And just the permission to set aside forty minutes of your life, to lie down and be silent and open yourself to a new experience. That, in itself is pretty cool.

Nakagawa: Did you fall asleep?

Bach: No.

Nakagawa: You didn’t? I always fall asleep towards the end. Which I think is interesting. These frequencies are going through my body, I’m asleep, but I don’t think I hit REM. I don’t remember having any dreams. But, that’s also important to me. So, I was trying to take whatever my experience was and translate it to the mobile thing [Sound Bed].

So, the movement of the truck was taking the place of the three rivers and the wood plank was the dome. The frequencies aren’t reverberating, but they’re vibrating. But it’s like the beds in those old motels where you put the coins in. It’s the time element…I didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I didn’t test it out. We finished it a week before Soundwalk. And we never drove more than half-a-block. Lying there at night, looking up, and going around the block really slowly, generally four or five minutes going around, seemed to transform just about everybody who did it.

Now, did it transform them as much as Integratron would have? I don’t know. But I know that it did change them. They did have an experience, whatever that experience was, and I’d like to think that the vibrations had something to do with it, because I specifically used certain tones and pulses. Because when it’s about vibrating wood, it’s no longer about melody [laughs] or anything like that.

Bach: No, no. It’s about sensation.

Nakagawa: It’s about frequencies and pulses. Like Lazy Boy music. So, there’s that. So, the next body of work that I’m working on, and this is completely solo, is based on Royal Rife’s frequencies. My friend, who is a chiropractor, has this exercise program in his office, with all of these machines and steppers, and he has this really great trainer, this big Greek guy [laughs], and I only lasted in that thing for a month. I couldn’t take it. It’s just the wrong atmosphere, but I learned a lot. This trainer found out that I was into sound and music, and I told him what kind of music, and he said, “Oh, do you know the work of Royal Rife?”

Now, he himself is a musician, he plays Greek music, bouzouki, so he understands where I’m coming from, although I don’t think he understands experimental music. And when I explained to him a little about experimental music, he asked if I knew Royal Rife. And I wrote down the name to Google later. He said, “You should research Royal Rife.” And that changed my life. Just that one sentence. “You should research Royal Rife.”

I’ve been working on Rife’s frequencies for about two years now, and I’ve been putting them in paintings and installations, and currently creating a body of sound work based on the frequencies of Royal Rife. I don’t know where I’m going with this, but it’s something that has completely immersed my work. This guy was a scientist and allegedly found the frequencies that kill pathogens; he figured out the frequencies that the pathogens were working on, so he just used the anti-frequency.

Bach: To cancel out the waveforms.

Nakagawa: His research was primarily about that. So he created these x-ray type of machines, but they weren’t x-rays but soundwaves, so they could pinpoint into a microorganism, a very precise area. He also innovated the microscope industry; the perfect guy to figure this out.

The big news, and this was in the thirties, he had one hundred patients who were dying of cancer, and he cured eighty of them, and the other twenty, he changed their frequency and cured them within a given amount of time through very close observation. So, the story is his lab mysteriously burned down, and he was sued by the American Medical Association and basically died penniless. No one really heard about his work until the early nineties when a writer at the New York Times discovered the work and did a short little thing about it. And it just sort of exploded, in terms of the research of Royal Rife’s work, the selling of alleged Rife equipment [laughs], which is probably bogus.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: Now there’s a Royal Rife website where a lot of this stuff is, it’s like a library filled with stuff, so I’m just going through it as much as I can. A lot of the terminology I don’t understand. And the stuff from the twenties, the use of English was so different so it’s hard to understand exactly what they mean. There’s a lot of handwritten stuff, which is hard to read. So, it’s all there, and I’m slowly using it in my visual work and in my sound work. So, of course I’m not really interested in using the frequencies to cure cancer.

Bach: Yeah, yeah.

Nakagawa: I’m not a scientist.

Bach: It’s a translation.

Nakagawa: It’s a translation. A point of inspiration. But I do like the added bonus of using a reference that also points to the political construct of the medical industry, the medical genre in the U.S. This whole healthcare thing; it’s just nasty stuff. There’s the mafia, you know. And I wonder, how many cures for AIDS there are, but they’re not out.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I always wonder. I have a cat allergy. I walked through your house and I was fine. It’s when the cat shows up, and it’s their saliva, I get itchy, and my kids have this too. And I like cats. I wish I could pick them up, but I can’t. How come there’s not a pill for that? It seems like such an easy thing. Claritin works sometimes, but I don’t want to take too much Claritin. There has to be something. Maybe most of the scientists are dog lovers [laughs].

Bach: [laughs] Right!

Nakagawa: What could be the reason why there’s no cat pill out there?

Bach: And it’s almost not important that it’s [Rife’s frequencies] factual…

Nakagawa: No. Because I have no idea if it is.

Bach: It’s more important that it’s inspiring, and it’s an interesting idea. And that it generates artistic activity on your part. It’s like this mode, or node of energy.

Nakagawa: He’s perfect for me, because he has the frequencies, which is sound, and the sociopolitical thing, which is the medical thing. And then I also enjoy the fact that there’s this Tesla thing going on. I like that stuff. I don’t know anything about it, but I just love it. It’s what drives me to sci-fi. Like, one of my favorite movies is Buckaroo Banzai.

Bach: Oh, jeez.

Nakagawa: Yeah. That’s such a goofy movie, but it’s so fun. I’m drawn to sci-fi comedy. I really like that genre of film. I don’t pretend to be a specialist or anything.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I just like that. The gizmo and then the laughter, all in one.

Bach: The mad scientist…

Nakagawa: It’s like rocky road ice cream.

Bach: Weird Science, Real Genius. And I haven’t seen any of these in ages, but Back to the Future. You have this sort of weird, quirky genius; is he crazy, is he on to something? But it doesn’t really matter…

Nakagawa: Because he has the DeLorean and it works [laughs].

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: Well, Christopher Lloyd is in Buckaroo Banzai. So is John Lithgow, who then does Third Rock From The Sun. So, there’s this funny comedy sci-fi thing.

Bach: So how is the Royal Rife stuff manifesting? Are there certain frequencies, like, 80 Hz, or 120?

Nakagawa: 10,000 is very popular.

Bach: Interesting.

Nakagawa: So, I’m drawn to what I know so far. There’s more to be studied, you know. I plan on sticking to it for the next four years. Delving into it, seeing where it takes my work. It’s drawn me to oscillators. I’m very interested in getting a signal processor at some point. I have no idea how to work one, but I thought maybe somebody could teach me.

Bach: Or you just sit with it long enough and figure it out. Now, with the IsoCube, what’s the sound source?

Alan and his IsoCube (photo: Sesshu Foster)

Nakagawa: [laughs] It’s interesting.

Bach: I know there’s a story behind it.

Nakagawa: I put a bunch of stuff in there. There’s one microphone.

Bach: One microphone. So, you’re manipulating objects and the signals captured by the mic and then run through pedals…

Nakagawa: That rig I use mostly with Ear Diorama Ear, with Kaoru [Mansour]. The IsoCube is hooked up to these pedals, and I have another set of pedals that are hooked up to a circuit-bent keyboard, a Skychord, the Utopia pedal. I also have the Glamour Box. I sent it back to him, he said he’d fix it, and that was two months ago.

I don’t know, so I hope he’s okay. I have no other contact info other than the e-mail and the phone number I have for him. I had a friend e-mail him too, without referencing me, and he hasn’t heard back either. I hate to lose my GlamourBox, but I hope this guy’s okay. I’m pretty sure he’s a one-man operation.

Bach: I bet.

Nakagawa: These companies like SkyChord are fantastic for people like us. I just bought the Utopia from a musician in the Universal Studios area, and I asked him, “Are you done with this?” And he said, “Yeah, I got a bunch of synthesizers that pretty much do the same thing. So, there’s no need for it. I bought it for this one project.” So, I took it that maybe he’s a composer who does soundtracks. And I thought, “Yeah, a synthesizer would do this, but it’s not the same” [laughs].

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: Anyway, so I started playing with that. This one has two oscillators on it. The Glamour Box has two oscillators and two modulators. That’s all they are. You don’t know what the hell you’re doing, because there are just dials and switches. No screen or nothing. So you’re shooting in the dark.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa: I like that aspect of it. It’s fun. It has a built-in chance operation. You know the genre of what it will do, but you don’t know exactly what it will do. I like that. And the isoCube was a way for me…because I started as a drummer, and that was the drummer in me wanting to be a guitar player…

Bach: Interesting.

Nakagawa: Because the guitar player gets to play with the pedals. So, [the IsoCube] is a box, you put your hands in there. Lately I’ve been using one hand, and there’s something in there that you play. And it’s usually something that I think would be really difficult to mic with an open mic.

Bach: Yeah.

Alan and the IsoCube (photo: Alan Nakagawa via

Nakagawa: You get feedback, and all of this residual sound, this atmospheric sound through the pedal, which I can’t say never happens with the IsoCube, it does, but less so, and you have more control with the feedback thing. The first IsoCube was a black box, and nobody could see what I was playing. The new box has a window in the front. Double-plated plexi, pretty thick. The intent is for it to be semi-soundproof. It’s not perfectly soundproof because you can put your hands through. I think it’s pretty good. So far it’s worked out really well because the sound that comes out of it is pretty damn pure. It’s pretty close to what’s in there.

Bach: And it comes out of a 1/4 inch jack?

Nakagawa: Yeah. So that’s been my mode of music-making. It’s taken me a long time, as opposed to many of the people who have been on Ear Meal, to relinquish the drumset. To relinquish the instrument you started with. I’m even thinking of selling the drumsets I have. Maybe keep one. I think I’ve finally kicked it out of my system. It’s taken a long time. I love drumming. I love playing drums. Sometimes when I’m in the midst of playing, I’m thinking to myself, “Why are you still playing drums?”


Bach: What is this doing for you?

Nakagawa: What is this doing for me? Keeping my chops up? What for? So, the IsoCube helps me phase into a place I think I should have been much earlier [laughs] in my career. It helps me, because it’s like being a percussionist, but you’re using percussion for sound source.

Bach: Right.

Nakagawa. Not a maraca.

Bach: It divorces the drum kit from rhythm. From providing…

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: It’s a musical instrument, but one of its most powerful uses is to provide pulse, rhythm, and, a lot of avant garde percussionists do that…

Nakagawa: Yeah, who are wonderful. But I don’t want to play like that. I’m not interested. I recently had Ted [Byrnes]…he was recently on two shows this season. He’s awesome. Tatsuya Nakatani is phenomenal. Joe Berardi, these are amazing players, but I have no interest in playing the drums like that. There are some great folks out there lately, turning the drumset upside down. There’s always going to be rock in me.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I was always a rock player, and I still love singing songs once in a while. That’s always going to be in my blood. I’m never going to be John Cage.

Bach: We do what we do, and we have fun, and we explore the interface we have with music, which is what experimental music is. An exploration. One of the terms I’ve seen used in place of experimental music is exploratory music.

Nakagawa: Okay.

Bach: Getting out of the scientific aspect of it, or the trappings of that term. Because how many people think of it in terms of a hypothesis, conducting an experiment, and analyzing the results? Exploratory ties into the idea of looking for meaning, for discovery, for something new, not necessarily new in terms of ‘no one has ever done this before,’ but new to you in terms of “What is this? What is this sound that I’m hearing? What’s happening with this combination of sounds? Did I generate that? If I did, now what do I do with it? The structure of sounds sequentially broadcast, what does that mean? What kind of musical narrative does that generate?”

So, having fun with it. Having a community of artists who feel the same way, or who are at least open to it. That’s why I’ve been so blessed with all the people I’ve worked with over the years, having this shared…aesthetic? Not aesthetic…a shared…

Nakagawa: Approach? Vision?

Bach: Culture. A shared culture of openness and a willingness to treat improvisation in similar ways, with a similar respect. Instead of going into an improv situation and, like you said, imposing. Implementing. “I’m going to do this [mimics wall of sound].” Rather than “I’m going to listen. I’ll see what happens, and I’ll respond, or not, to what everyone else is making, to see if we can have a conversation in the musical moment.” And, as you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Nakagawa: But you’re open to that.

Bach: You’re open to that. And the people we work with share that. And if they don’t share it, we soon realize that we probably won’t work with them very often. Because there’s not a lot of communication. I don’t do a lot of large group improvisations anymore because I don’t like being in situations where I’m struggling to hear what I’m playing. We’re all going through the same P.A., and we’re all competing to be heard, and the stuff that I’m doing tends to be quiet anyway, because I’m interested in threshold, in tones intermingling and having this awareness of where the sound comes in and how it changes as it gets slightly louder. And for that kind of careful listening, it doesn’t really happen much in…

Nakagawa: Right. I read the interview [Atlas Sets] with Jeff and Steve [Roden], and they talked a little bit about that.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I think that’s really important. I don’t know if it has to do with our age, or our experience, but I really feel I’m at a point where I’m saying no a lot. The past twelve months I’ve said no to a lot of opportunities. Where, before I would say, “Yeah! I’ll do that! Absolutely!” Lately I’ve been saying, “No, I’m working on this right now, I really need to focus on this.” That’s not the same Alan Nakagawa from ten years ago, twenty years ago.

Bach: There’s a maturity, a relief, a recognition of quality of life issues. I can accept all of these opportunities, do all these things, and, not only that, but seek them out, and I know I’m going to have certain results from those. Do them enough and you see the cause-and-effect [laughs], the type of result that comes from those types of things. It doesn’t interest me…

Nakagawa: Yeah.

Bach: To know that I’ll be put in those situations and struggle to have a musical experience that makes sense for me.

Nakagawa: Right.

Bach: If it doesn’t make sense from the beginning, I’m probably not going to be able to transform it enough…

Nakagawa: Ah. That’s not good. Why are you there?

Bach: Trying to force it to transform. Rather than working with something that is integrally open and possible to begin with. Work from there, from a good foundation, and nine times out of ten you can get decent results. But if the starting point is already stacked against you, trying to go in and force it to a place it’s not meant to be…I’m not interested.

Nakagawa. Life’s too short. In Ear Diorama Ear, Kaoru is…you know, she’s a fairly established vocalist in this genre, and she’s been doing this for a while. Allegedly she’s older than I am, but I’ve never had the guts to ask her [laughs] how old she is. But, I can’t imagine that she’s that much older than me, but she keeps saying, “You are so young.”

Bach: Ah [laughs].

Ear Diorama Ear: Kaoru Mansour and Alan Nakagawa (photo:

Nakagawa: When we first started really working together, there was this point where we became committed: Ear Diorama Ear is going to last a long time. She said, “I don’t want to be a jam band. I’ve been in too many jam bands, and I already know what’s going to happen, and I’m really not interested in that. I need a structure for each song.” So, she comes in with the structure, the piece. And I bring in things that are almost trying to destroy that structure.

And that’s how Ear Diorama Ear operates. We call them songs. They’re songs because she’s singing, and they’re primarily improv, but there’s a structure. So when I was reading Steve and Jeff and you talk, I said “Yeah, exactly. That’s where we are.” But we weren’t there twenty years ago. Back then it was like, “Okay, everyone, bring your gear and then go,” and someone starts. And when I read that I was like, “Wow, you guys are there too.” We can’t do that anymore. It seems like a waste of time. Really. It just seems like a waste of time.

And Kaoru introduced that to me. I think I’ve always had a structure, because, as someone who was trained in the visual arts, I completely gravitated to non-traditional notation, you know?

Bach: Yeah. Right.

Nakagawa: You don’t need the five staffs. So I am completely not a musician based on that. I’m interested in diagramming in my mind the textures, sub textures, and form of the music. I always think of maps. You look at a map, you know where you’re going to go, but you don’t have to take…there are hundreds of paths to that spot. That is what my music is about. Picking what I think is the right path…keeping myself open to what the right path is to that spot. That’s what my notations are.

Bach: It’s an entryway.

Nakagawa: It’s an entryway. It’s a promise to yourself, “This is where we’re going. We’re not going over there.” But, it’s up to me to completely use the tools that I have, which also includes my openness to accept the mistakes and the new things. I think Steve [Roden] calls them ‘wonderful mistakes.’

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa: I’m open to that. I think that comes out of being trained in jazz. Being open to…there are always those empty staffs on the notation where you’re supposed to jam [laughs], or take a solo. I love that. So my music is completely about that part of the music. It’s still there; we know where we are, but that’s my job, to fill in that improv area of that specific song. I still approach it that way. And, on top of it I want to make this into a painting, or whatever…so, I’m very interested in that.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. Next week [on Ear Meal] we have [The] Royal Us. Which is Max and Heather.

Bach: Heather Lockie?

Nakagawa: Heather Lockie and Max Kutner. Then, after that, the following week will be the last show of the third season, where I will play my latest formation of the Rife stuff. Then I’ll take a seven-week break.

Bach: Because you were at one time thinking that it [Ear Meal] was going to be over, that it was also on its last legs.

Nakagawa: It was. I thought I was going to end it. And then I had a conversation with a friend who works at Smithsonian Folkways. I asked her about donating it [the archive of interviews]. And she said, “A hundred is a good number, but that would never be a big enough number for us.” And I said, “How many would I need?” And she said, “I don’t know, but I don’t think a hundred is substantial enough.”

Bach: Hmm.

Ear Meal intro (photo: YouTube screenshot)

Nakagawa: So, I thought about it for a week, and I said, “You know what sounds substantial to me? Three hundred.” Three hundred shows, three hundred oral histories, three hundred files of photos. That sounds substantial for the L.A. scene right now. So, I said to Mark, “Are you willing to do four more seasons?” And he said, “I’m up for it.” All right, let’s go for it [laughs]. We’ll shoot for three hundred.

Bach: Wow. So now you need to find two hundred more…

Nakagawa: Two hundred more artists.

Bach: Because you’re at a hundred now?

Nakagawa: We’re over a hundred. The first two shows of the next season, season four, will be curated by Craig Cree Stone.

Bach: Okay.

Nakagawa: So he’s going to arrange one show to talk about Southern California Native American sound. And then another one about Urban Indian Southern California sound. Two shows, back-to-back.

Bach: Nice.

Ear Meal HQ (photo: Glenn Bach)

Nakagawa: So, that’s how we’re going to start. So, I guess we’re up for it. Eight seasons [laughs]. I love it.

Bach: Yeah.

Nakagawa. It’s a commitment. You know, when we have these little two-month breaks, you feel it. My body reacts. “It’s so cool not to have to do anything this Wednesday” [laughs].

Bach: Because it’s every Wednesday.

Nakagawa: Every Wednesday. Yeah. As you know, it’s getting things ready…

Bach: It’s a lot of work.

Nakagawa: Coordinating with the artists.

Bach: And then the interview. Which takes, you know…

Nakagawa: It takes a lot. But, yeah [laughs]. I try not to think about it too much, because it gets a little overwhelming.

Bach: But, you know what? It’s…

Nakagawa: It’s great.

Bach: Yeah, it’s great, not only because of the project itself and what it represents to you, and why you’re doing it, but also the fact that you now know a lot of people in the L.A. scene. There are very few people you don’t know. Now you’re asking everyone, “Hey I’m open to suggestions.” Find the three hundred; you just need to find them.

Nakagawa: Yeah.

Bach: Because there are so many little micro-scenes…

Nakagawa: Exactly.

Bach: These kids who are doing their DIY things.

Nakagawa: They’re out there. I think it’s an ego boost, when I walk into a room and I’m introduced as the Ear Meal guy, and people say, “Oh, yeah that’s you? I watch that all the time, or I’ve seen a couple of the shows, it’s great, thank you for doing that.” That’s an ego boost. But then I hear the second thing most everyone says, “Yeah, I wonder why no one has done that before. I’m so glad you’re doing that because it’s important for us to be documented.”

I was recently introduced to Lauren Pratt from Cal Arts, who was married to James Tenney. I met her at The Wulf, and she already knew about it [Ear Meal]. And for someone like her to already know about the show…it’s fantastic, and she was so supportive. She said, “Keep going, this is going to be a lot more important than you think it is. We’re all watching.”

Bach: That’s great.

Nakagawa: She said, “There are a lot more people who know about this than you think.” So, I’m hoping at the end of the road, when we officially say, “Who wants this?” That there will be…

Bach: Some actual interest…

Nakagawa: Some major players at the table. There are some obvious places we could put it, but I really want someone major to take this. Because it deserves that.

Bach: Yeah. For sure.

Nakagawa: I’ve seen it done with things like the L.A. hip hop movement, L.A. spray can art, L.A. surf culture, L.A. skateboard culture, L.A. lowrider culture. Now, of course, those have a lot more pop culture significance, media play, or what have you. So, do I think we’re all going to become rock stars? No, but at the very least, at the academic level, it sure would be nice to be credited for what we are, and not overlooked or overshadowed by other communities.

Bach: And it’s a way to frame the discussion on our own terms.

Nakagawa. Yeah, yeah.

Bach: Because it’s in our own words, and a big part of it is your vision, because you’re the one who’s sort of the gatekeeper, the curator, but ultimately you’re transcribing this oral history. It’s going right to the source. You don’t have a journalist coming in after the fact and trying to pick up the threads after they’ve already gone cold. Like, “Who was active in the scene, and what were the relationships between these people and those people?” It’s all there.

Nakagawa: Right. It’s all there.

Bach: Yeah. It’s cool, man.

Nakagawa: I’m still swimming in the ocean. I haven’t seen land yet.

Bach: It’s this phase in the project. It’s still in the making of it. It’s not yet an archive.

Nakagawa: Not yet.

Bach: It’s still a living thing.

Nakagawa: It’s growing.

Bach: It’s transforming. It’s still active.

Nakagawa: We’re not even halfway through.

Bach: What are you, a hundred and ten?

Nakagawa: A hundred and twenty-three. Not even halfway through.

Bach: It will go by.

Nakagawa. It has. So far, it’s gone really fast.

Bach: You sent out that call, and I’ve been thinking about it, trying to think about who hasn’t been on the show. I may have some ideas, people to send your way.

Nakagawa: Yes, please. I really would appreciate that.