spin: Thanks so much for spending some time with us, Bob. On your ccMixter home page, you describe yourself as “non-musician ambient music creator”. Depending on your dictionary of choice, this might seem to be a contradiction in terms?
Robert: The practice, as an ambient artist, of referring to myself as a “non-musician” involves a bit of affectation, as ambient pioneer Brian Eno described himself as a non-musician. Among noise artists, there is also a vein of “this is not music” spirit that people adopt, to allow sonic experimentation not to be restricted to “musical” ideas. I’m aware of those ideas when I use the term “non-musician”. I aim a bit differently with my use of the term.
My use of the term recognizes that I am only somewhat semi-skilled at a few analog instruments. It’s important to me that we develop a culture in which “making music” is no longer something on a “pedestal”, in which only the chosen can participate. I make music. I am a non-musician. You can make music, too.
spin: Thus you’re reminding us, that music at heart is a participation sport, rather than only a spectator sport. — So how did you first get involved in making music?
Robert: I took piano lessons, with very limited success, when I was young. I took up the autoharp in law school, and the mountain dulcimer in recent years. In 2002, a guitarist and ukulele player friend of mine, Scott_M, and I began to discuss my idea of an album based upon one of my favorite child’s toys, the electric football field.
We recorded a quick album of electric football field music on Scott’s little TASCAM 4-track. We found, to our amusement, that the resulting CD, “Vibrating Electric Fields”, could be sold on eBay, where electric football field enthusiasts bid to own it. It was the ideal kind of amusing DIY experience — absurd, self-generated, and a good anecdote. We got airplay on the Odd Music Show, and that sort of amusing thing.
spin: Now that’s pretty far out even for you! — You’ve been a part of the ccMixter community from relatively early days. How did you first bump into the mixter?
Robert: I credit chess, ccMixter and a song called “Girl and Supergirl” for getting me more involved in music. I remain an extremely interested but rather mediocre (in relation to “real players’) “B” chess player. I met my friend Lisa DeBenedictis through my weblog, and soon, we were playing blitz chess at freechess.org. Lisa encouraged me to come to this website called ccMixter.org. I caught onto the idea of collaborative exchange with enthusiasm. I had been into mail art, so I was all about sharing of art already. It was right up my alley.
My friend Lisa was the “star” of a contest sponsored by her record label at ccMixter. She had posted two a cappella tracks of her singing songs for the contest. I wanted to “play” in support of my friend, but I had zero mixing skills and zero software skills at this type of thing. I went on a quest. I wanted to find inexpensive ways to make music and remix. I found a website, www.ixi-software.net, where they invented all these cool freeware devices for making music very non-traditionally. I also picked up a software music studio program from Magix for 5 dollars. I did two remixes for Lisa’s contest (not counting a third one so awful that I pulled it), both of which were very odd and unpolished. One featured Claire Fitch‘s wonderful work at magnatune, though I hardly did her or Lisa credit. I enjoyed doing those mixes, though, and people were kind to me about my style. The bug bit me, and I began to work on making a more digital form of music than my prior analog.
spin: So chess lead to a site starting with cc, which in turn led you to a lady named Claire playing the cello. I think I get it! 🙂 — What did ccMixter mean to you during those early days?
Robert: ccMixter has been a great site for me. It offered me constructive criticism, and great examples from gifted remixers. I’ve never seen myself as a remixer, per se (though I am guilty of a remix or two), so much as a person who uses samples to create new songs. When I began at the mixter, a potent combination of lack of skills and a very experimental turn of mind led to very unorthodox mixes. I was so impressed with how accepting people were — even those who were not into the mixes at all. I had offers of collaboration from early in, and people have always been very kind to remix my music. I made a lot of rookie mistakes — I once took down a lot of mixes when I was embarrassed by a mix I posted where I could not hear how out of whack the sound levels were, and I nearly blasted folks away. Yet over time, I learned, but more importantly I learned how to grow in the directions I wanted to grow, rather than becoming some archetypal traditional remixer.
spin: I think quite a few of us have quietly pulled or re-posted a remix after listing to it a day later! — What does ccMixter mean for you now?
Robert: ccMixter is still of critical importance to me. I am at a place now in which I would be able to get my music “out there” even if there were no Mixter. Yet I love the sense of community I find here. My music has expanded a fair bit over time, although one could roughly divide into one genre of “ambient” and another genre of “tinkertoy fun”, with perhaps a third genre of minimalist techno. I sometimes will do a “traditional mix” of ambient elements by others, which has been the source of my infrequent editors’ picks. Yet I’m normally more interested in sharing ideas in sound than in traditional mixing. I like the extended interchange, as when Zikweb or Hepepe or Anchor Mejans and I get into extensive exchanges. I also love that we have the sample library links. The Freesound Project is a very important resource.
spin: And for those of us, who have joined more recently: From your perspective, how has ccMixter changed from the early days?
Robert: I am very impressed that not only has the ccMixter “game” been elevated, in terms of amazing mixters like Loveshadow, but also that the breadth of styles and the acceptance of the outre’ is much more noticeable on the board. This is healthy, I think — in an earlier time, it was critical that the board “prove” it “got game” with strong traditional mixes. We’re past all that now — we’re seeking out new places and sounds, while still revering the old ones.
spin: You mostly work on a computer with music software. What would you describe as current favorites in your arsenal?
Robert: I prefer to use shareware and freeware. Because I am so fond of the music of Marco Raaphorst, a Reason-master, I did buy Reason 3.0, but a year or two later, I finally gave it, unopened, to a pianist friend to use. My current favorites are Sawcutter 2.0, a simple stand-alone synthesizer and sampler from cuttermusic.com, Slicer 1.0, a sample slicer from www.ixi-software.net with an intuitive “points on a graph” graphic user interface, Anvil Studio, a simple sequencer with VST support, Coagula Light, the “industrial strength color note organ” which makes music from images, and Ian Shatwell’s “Wave Goodbye“. My kind of music involves a lot of morphing sound, so that converters and slicers and things to help me drone work well. I used to use the Musedit music notation program a great deal as well.
Sawcutter is about twenty five dollars, and an upgrade for VST for Anvil is not much more than that, so that the entire listed rig-out is much less than one hundred dollars to own. I am endlessly grateful to the free software creators, who fuel my creativity.
My softstudio is Magix Audio 10. Magix offers a lot of bells and whistles in a “value” studio, although I must admit that I have not learned how to ring every bell or work every whistle. I’ve begun to learn Bram Bos’ Tunafish, a value sequencer, but I am still in the initial stages with that one.
spin: It’s quite amazing how much creatively useful software is published for free or very inexpensively these days. — How would you describe your creative process? When you start working on a new piece, what kind of things provide the initial inspiration?
Robert: I am often inspired by an idea or a mental picture. Frequently, I’ll work up a melody on Sawcutter and suddenly “see” a theme for the whole piece. The melody will “fit with” something I’ve been thinking, and I’m off to the races. People say I am “visual” when I write or make music, and I think the term is apt. I am certainly not “visual” when I draw, so perhaps it’s one of those blessed compensations. My works are not strictly speaking just songs. I see the text and even sometimes a picture as part of the mix.
spin: Your work doesn’t concentrate on some traditional musical cornerstones like, for example, chord progressions. Even melodies seem to play a different role in your work than in more traditional song based structures. What would you describe as the artistic cornerstones of a gurdonark production? How do you decide what fits and what doesn’t?
Robert: I own a lifetime scholarship to the school of thought of experiencing sound “as sound” and sound “as image”. I am rarely interested in evoking the conventional notions in the listener as in the pop music tradition, although I love pop and rock music. I want my work to be evocative — perhaps to create an imagined visual image, perhaps as a foundation for someone else’s visual image, or perhaps as music that tries to fit a different way of seeing and hearing than the somewhat linear narratives of traditional song structure.
Whether I am a creator or a listener, a melody “fits” for me when it conveys a bit of an emotion or an idea — not with a direct “this is this and this is that” of a wonderful Motown song, but with the sense of ambiance or whimsy that fits my notions. I love the way I can listen to Jamendo artist Henri Petterson, for example, and be transported to a downtempo yet cheerful sophisticated Europe of my dreams, or the way that the netlabel artist Cagey House can envelope the listener with a quirky, upbeat bit of instrumental fun — a kind of new Americana world of familiar sounds, all strange and wonderful. I love the way that great jazz bands often come from Scandinavia or Japan, because people take these wonderful ideas and re-interpret them from an outsider place, to the delight of all.
spin: Do you ever record your own sounds?
Robert: I use self-generated samples constantly. Sawcutter 2.0 permits one to sample little 7 second wave files. Many of my ccMixter songs are created by running nose flutes, kazoos, the human voice, and other home-made sounds through the Sawcutter synthesizer. I love to add a child’s water flute or a pennywhistle sound to my collection. I also have an extensive set of odd little percussion instruments, which appear in my work. I am apt to use home-made or odd instruments from time to time.
NOTE: The following part was featured in the Artist’s spotlight at ccMixter. If you have already read that, you can jump directly to part 3
spin: Your work lends itself very well to be featured in sound tracks for video or film and this has indeed occurred. Which ones of those are the most memorable for you so far?
Robert: Viral video has been very good for my music. My music is natural background work, and both my mixter and my NSI work frequently is used as soundtracks these days.I am working with a friend on a soundtrack on a traditional “film festival” animated film, which is to be done any day now. I have made many friends through ccMixter, and ccMixter is directly responsible for me becoming a bit of an advocate for CC/open source issues.
Many dozens of fine videos and films have used my material, which makes me very happy. I feel almost disloyal to choose any favorites. I’m very fond of the “voodles” of Copenhagen film-maker Sam Rensiew. His “video doodles” eschew traditional narrative structure and focus the viewer on looking at what is there. My song “Moodle” is a tribute to his work, which has a “pataphysical” absurdist quality. He’s used my work in dozens of his videos, and I’m particularly delighted that he liberally mashes and morphs my songs to fit his needs. This is what sharing culture is all about. Here is a video to “Moodle”, accompanying a video of furniture — truly a furniture music.
Film-maker and professor Jennifer Proctor does wonderful small films and has taken my mixter work for her soundtrack sometimes, which thrills me. Here is her delicate use of perhaps my favorite mixter song, “Longing for Home”, in a film called “Lonely Balloon“.
Norwegian film-makers Lomeg_rom make interesting voodles on the theme of contiguity. Here is a recent use of one of my pieces, “Innocence”.
I love practical uses of my work as well as the more abstract. Here a cat, Patches Jeter, gives a wonderful lesson in how to make flipbook animation.
I love all the uses of my work, though, almost without exception. I also enjoy one-to-one-to-share-with-all collaborations such as writing 30 seconds of music for a video-maker in Spain’s, nutxlago’s, lovely youtube bird videos. This sharing of music can be really fun.
spin: In addition to creating music yourself, you have also co-founded a net-label, the “Negative Sound Institute” (NSI) . Many of our readers may not be aware of the thriving net label scene. A net label is rather dramatically different from a traditional record label isn’t it? NSI and many others aren’t in it to make money, so what’s the purpose of a net label such as NSI?
Robert: Netlabels seek to create a new culture of shared music as a clear alternative to the traditional commercial record labels. Almost all netlabels release under Creative Commons licenses, though a few use variants of the Free Art License or other schemes. Some netlabels have a commercial wing. Many of the early netlabels began life as indie commercial labels, whose owners came to realize the greater impact they could have by releasing for free download.
Netlabels are too varied and numerous for one simple description to encompass them all. Many of them work on principles similar to those adopted by the earlier mail art and tape exchange movements. These earlier movements had the common ground that institutional hegemony (whether by art galleries or record companies) created a culture in which artistic expression was challenged by the understandable desire of capital-providing people to commercially succeed. Netlabel owners came to understand that once the whole “make me a star and make me rich” element is removed from the equation, incredible shared experiences between artists, label and listener can result. Although in netlabel culture, only a few adopt mantras similar to the old “mail art and money don’t mix”, similar ideas apply for some folks.
We’ve seen a number of hybrid models arise which are not themselves netlabels, but which are instructed by the principles of netlabels and Creative Commons. Magnatune.com, a label I admire intensely (and buy from regularly) is a great example of such a hybrid model. It’s literally a dream-label for its artists. It’s not a “netlabel” in the sense I mean, but it’s learned from the shared culture ideas and helped explore how they can make a business model work in a shared-music way. CASH Music is doing some impressive things with Creative Commons releases, such as the great Deerhoof decision to release the sheet music ahead of the album. This created a world of remix chances, and Lucas Gonze even converted it to MIDI for easy CC remixing.
When I speak of “netlabel culture”, though, I speak of labels which limit or eschew commercial releases, and which participate directly in this sharing of music. At any given time, my mp3 player is roughly 85% netlabel music, and 15% commercial music. I think that the wonderful thing is that while a huge niche audience has been created for netlabels, the growth of the audience is continuing and is inevitable.
Netlabel culture is about removing the artificial barriers between artists and audiences. I love the music of the English chill artist Psonikadia. I know that not only can I get his music for free download, but also that I can drop him a line and he’ll write back. When we put Verian Thomas’ wonderful guitar ambiance on NSI, we’re not rushing to the lawyers when someone remixes him and releases an album, as Pocka did. We’re delighted. As my friend Cagey House says, it’s a new culture of parlor music. The time is past for rock stars and Watchmen and faded heroes. The time is here for people who make and share music.
spin: Why do the people creating and maintaining these net label sites do it? What do they get out of it?
Robert: I can speak for myself about NSI. We meet fascinating people, who become our friends from afar. We get sent great music to hear, which we will release on NSI when it fits our “sound”. Even the music we do not release we tend to really enjoy. We would probably release more if not for the call of day jobs. We are part of a dialog about sharing music and sharing culture which we value. For a cost that is remarkably inexpensive (thanks to Verian’s web skills), our music and the music we like gets out into the wide world.
spin: Why would an artist want to be associated with a net label, rather than just having their own web site and/or a myspace page?
Robert: That is a great question, and it goes to the heart of a current discussion. Lucas Gonze suggests that the future is in song pages, an internet address for each song. Another discussion suggests that an artist weblog, rather than an artist website, is the way to go. I see a lot of virtue in each of these suggestions, particularly as I reach the conclusion that the interaction we have with one another with music need not be so stratified as the old “recording-deal” world proved to be.
In the world before weblogs, many people believed that there was a group of intelligent people “out there”, in London or New York or Paris, who were the best arbiters of our taste and reading. The self-published and the DIY were viewed with a bit of disdain. Now we all read authors we love whom we know are just the “same old ordinary people” we are, and yet we share these amazing interconnected literary experiences. We don’t disdain published authors — we love them. But we no longer grant them a monopoly on our thoughts.
Music is no different. We tend to see music as “look at me, look at me”. This is the problem with some of the earliest internet music sites, such as two I like, soundclick.com and garageband.com. Everyone wants to be a super-hero. Everyone wants to be a star.
But imagine if music were a weblog post — a thing one shares like one shares an essay or a poem or a personal note or a flickr image. Marco Raaphorst writes soundimages (klankbeelds) — simple free downloads which soundtrack still images. Vlog artists eschew video-as-movie-madness for video-as-weblog.We as music makers can begin to see our work as ways of achieving inter-connection, rather than as ways to get record deals. I think that this need not be a commerce-free affair. I think that Calendar Girl is on to a very great idea, and I have the fond hope that her work proves not only successful but also remunerative.
I believe that the music world is evolving and I do not have a crystal ball. Yet I believe that netlabels have a place. They work more like collectives than like traditional record companies. When I go to webbedhand.com or Earth Monkey or Dark Winter, I know the range of genres I will find, and I know that the owners have done some curation. At NSI, for example, our artists are usually fellow travelers with ambient music, but not often “traditional” ambient. This sense of shared values and a “home” for the listener is valuable and should endure.
spin: How do the various artists and NSI find each other and decide to create this online togetherness?
Robert: Verian and I formed NSI after being weblog friends. I had begun to get my bearings in making odd music, and I suggested we work together. We were very pleased with our resulting songs as the Thomas Nunnally Ensemble. He and I had both done DIY poetry (Verian’s a very good poet who used to run a fine imprint, while I write just the kind of odd little things that get published in just the kind of odd little ways and places one might, hearing my music, expect). He’s got web skills, which I nearly completely lack. We got our site up, and asked a few people we knew to submit. I handle publicity for us, and soon I helped “get the word out”. Before you know it, we had artists approaching us, and other netlabel owners being very kind. It’s like building something, promoting it a bit, and finding that one has joined this amazing community. Our main limitation is that we do not release as often as we might due to our day jobs, as we get some amazing submissions.
spin: To change topics a bit, you’re not only a “non musician”, but also a business lawyer with a thriving practice serving corporations as well as consumer clients. Would it be fair to say, that not only in your art, but also in in your profession have you carved out a bit of a non traditional niche for yourself?
Robert: I know that it is the fashion for people to say they hate their jobs and they cannot stand the engines of commerce. I rather like being a lawyer, though, and I enjoy being a co-owner of a small business. My practice is non-traditional in many ways, in that I work in a small firm in suburban Texas, and yet handle a variety of sophisticated matters. I like to be able to represent both corporate and consumer interests. My practice tends to challenges and problems which provide me with great intellectual issues. A few of my areas of practice are a bit arcane, and somehow that appeals to me.
spin: Now it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination, that someone working in corporate law writes often and well. But you also write creatively, don’t you? And I don’t only mean the legendary comments you leave for many a remix at ccMixter. You also create poetry and maintain a very active and well written blog, not to mention a myspace page and who knows what else. What drives you to be so creatively active? And how do you find or make the time? Do you have a magic formula you can share with those of us who struggle to maintain even a single website or blog?
Robert: From time to time, when I read a weblog comment I made on someone else’s weblog, without adequately proofreading it, I think I should be more creatively active about spelling and punctuation :).
I am all about interconnection. I keep a weblog to connect with others. I make music to connect with others. I post my flickr photos for that sense of sharing. So many of us long to express ourselves — and weblogs and websites and mixter and flickr are places we can go to begin that sharing.
The whole thing is that we’re all “always way too busy”. I just finished my new netlabel release, “Slices of Oz”, a set of child-like melodies which accompany librivox readings from the public domain novel “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”. I had had the songs done for weeks, but somehow I was “too busy” to get them finalized and uploaded for the netlabel to use. Finally, I realized that my “busy-ness” need not keep me from the “business” of getting my creative work “out there”. So often we are “too busy” to do the things we love the best. I am all about seeking to work my time out so that I am able to get things done.
The key, I think, is not to self-hypnotize oneself out of getting creative things done. They’re not “something impossible to find the time to do”; for many of us, they are “things we need to do with our time”.I work hard at my day job, and my family matters a lot to me. But I find time for these creative pursuits — not just because I want to, but also because I know it’s the way to connect with myself and with others.
I also think it’s very important for we who do CC music to realize we are part of an international dialog about changing how music is made and experienced. We can be important parts of that discussion — but we have to write it down, or put it in a song.
spin: As a lawyer you’ve done the big gig in L.A., California thing. What made you return to Texas and start your own practice?
Robert: My senior partner, who, like me, moved to California from Texas, wanted to move to Texas and semi-retire. The time had come for me to start my own firm, with a friend. My wife and I wanted to return to a part of the country nearer our families. I met with a friend and former partner about the idea of starting something in Garland, Texas. We did the proverbial business plan on a napkin, ran spreadsheets in MS Works, of all things, and next thing you know we had our practice. We’ve been here for eight years now. My wife and I loved the Crescenta Valley in California, and we love our life in north Texas.
spin: There are plans by the Creative Commons, who have founded and sponsored ccMixter to send the mixter off to the next stage of it’s evolution, although we don’t know yet quite what that will mean or be. If, as a longstanding ccMixter community member, you were asked to give a brief farewell toast to the Creative Commons, what would it be?
Robert: I raise my glass of diet root beer high, and say with a smile:
“Here’s to Creative Commons, who took an idea and a vision, and turned it into a song.
Here’s to collaborative creation, a world-wide audience, and an unstoppable new music culture.
We know that ccMixter is not a final destination, but an important doorway, and thousands of us, artists and listeners, are grateful that you created this doorway for us to begin to walk through. We will come and visit you, and we will bring tunes”.
spin: We started with an apparent contradiction, so we might as well end with one: You have professional accreditation and experience in patent law and intellectual property issues, yet you are a proponent and participant in open music and open licensing. On the surface that may seem contradictory. Some might even suggest, that open music is a threat to those needing and/or wanting to earn revenues from their art. How did you get to be such a proponent of and participant in open music? In your opinion, is there a contradiction between open art and making a living from art?
Robert: I differ from some in the open source movement. I do not see patents and copyrights per se as an unworkable situation. I do oppose artificial term extensions. Yet I am perfectly comfortable with reasonable protections for artists and innovators.
I favor the “velvet revolution” of voluntary contribution of works into the public domain and the Creative Commons. I believe that the easiest way to create a framework for the collaboration that digital culture will demand is not the eternal fight between silly DRM and needless kids-pirating-Britney. Instead, artists in music, software, literature, photography and science will create for public use a new “sharing culture” of ideas and expressions.
I saw a flickr photo I posted CC BY of a beach I visited in Costa Rica posted on a Costa Rica tour company site, with proper attribution. Did I deprive an artist of a fee? Perhaps. But if my very amateur work satisfied the site’s need, then perhaps the artist is liberated to earn fees from doing more interesting work than mine.
The assumption inherent in the anti-CC forces is that there is some wealth of artist compensation that will be lost if we have liberal use of CC. I find this assumption flawed. I spend as much on music as I did before CC. Now I am apt to buy directly from the artist, or to donate to a netlabel.
Record deals were mostly about corporate control over modes of distribution and really unfavorable financing of recording and tours. The world has changed a lot since record companies first came out. Capital can be raised in other ways. Markets are easy to penetrate. A good myspace site and 100 dollars spent on making downloads available at tunecore or cdbaby may be as effective as a record deal.
I believe that more artists will make a living in the world I envision, although I suspect that fewer artists will be “mega-stars”. Yet in my world, music and the arts will no longer tread this tiring bright line between artistic “haves” who are business “have nots” and business “haves” who are artistic “have nots”. This new world will involve people who work day jobs and play music at night. It will involve people who run their music as a business, and not as a way to get “a big record deal”. A new parlor music is arriving, and we’ll share songs in the way we read one another’s weblog posts.
I get bored with people who illegally download from the majors because it’s so unimaginative. There are worlds of truly creative people out there, on netlabels, on websites, and among us. Why give legitimacy to poorly-chosen music aimed at our lowest common denominator? Before, large corporations could dictate what we discuss at our water coolers. But now we own the coolers, and the softstudios, and the videos.We can create our own heroes, and share with our friends, including unmet friends.
I am all for voluntary open source, but I wish no ill to copyright and patent holders. The systems can easily co-exist. I can make my music, and liberally license it, and the walls of Jericho come down on a certain limited way of seeing music. That’s a trumpet I can believe in sounding. The result will be a culture without certain walls — and a chance for real connection.
spin: And making connections is arguably at the very core of making music. — Thank you so very much, Bob, for this interview! Any final words for our ccMixter readers?
Robert: Thank you for interviewing me!
To any readers, I’d say that ccMixter is not only a site and a form of Creative Commons culture, it’s a communication. The mixters regularly intrigue and impress me. Those who work under Creative Commons attribution licenses often are, like me, completely unconcerned about fame in the traditional senses. We’re part of a dialog about sharing culture and what a change this can be in the way we all experience and make music.
The listener and the reader need not be a passive recipient of the music — you can be a participant. Aside from the obvious path of reviewing or saying a kind word in a weblog, you can step into the action. You can collaborate. You can get soundtracks for your videos. You can podcast. You can have free music for your website. You can even make a musician’s day, with little more than an e-mailed kind word. The words of encouragement I’ve gotten, such as when people drop me a note about using me in their weblog or doing a remix album of my work, or even using me in a school project, make me feel like we’re all getting somewhere. We’re all in this together — and the music and the culture will gain from our efforts. It’s not an “if or maybe” thing. It’s inevitable — and there is still tons of time for early adopters.
Also, thank you to all those wonderful people I have never met who show up here and there listening to my music on the web. Download it, use it, enjoy it. It’s free for you. I have a day job.
Also, if you’ll pardon the stridency, don’t spend your money supporting DRM. You can even buy worthy mixters, like the Calendarsongs Project, Kristin Hersh on CASH, and Fourstones’ amazingly good “La Vie Chill” on Magnatune.
You are part of a dialog about a sharing culture. Sing out!