Monday, June 10, 2013

Interview with Herman Pearl

Photo by John Altdorfer

Herman Pearl is a musician and producer who creates "immersive audio." His musical resume is about as diverse as you can possibly imagine, including: the political punk-funk of Stick Against Stone, long-running reggae group Chill Factor International, eclectic alternative band Soma Mestizo, house music collaboration 3 Generations Walking, revolutionary collective Indigenous Resistance, hip hop production as DJ Soy Sos, and sound design for Pittsburgh's finest dance companies. He'll be improvising with his modular synthesizer as part of Crucible Sound #2 on June 13th at Modernformations.

What can you tell me about your semi-recent collaboration with Ben Opie as part of the Space Exchange series?

We were asked to do something and we weren't sure what we were going to do. I had the idea to base it around of a sort of Indian raga form, where we would start with an open drone kind of thing, and he would introduce melodic sequences that I would then match on an analog sequencer step by step and then build it into a rhythmic thing. We just gave it a shot and it came out nice. There was no preparation, we just talked about it. He's a good enough player that he can just say "yeah, I understand what that is." Ben and I have known each other for a super long time and we've done a few things together in the past. That was the first collaboration that was just he and I.

I thought it was really interesting that you both were kind of getting outside of the idioms that people usually associate you with - in your case, reggae and hip hop. Did that collaboration suggest any new processes or concepts for you, or were there any things that you have incorporated from that experience into your reggae and hip hop work? 

I was originally a guitar player, and I've become a sound designer and audio engineer. But I've been working with modular synths for about ten or twelve years. I've been wanting to get them out into the field and collaborate with people more. It's been a bit difficult finding people that are interested. But also the equipment has gotten smaller and more performative, so there's more sequencers and touchplates and joysticks that are available now, so you can create smaller stealthier performance systems that are more flexible. I've just been wanting to do that lately. I kind of replicated the concept beforehand, sort of patched something up, because the instruments themselves are a little bit labor-intensive. So in one way it's not like being a standard improviser where you just show up with your horn and then you play it however you want to play it. This thing requires a bit more preparation.

The idea that I've been working with for a long time is of structured improvisation or guided improvisation or form. The thing with Ben was a good exercise in coming up with a premise and executing that, rather than rehearsing a tune. It was more about being prepared to execute and staying within a concept and a form.

Is that structured improvisation approach something that you're interested in bringing to Crucible — walking in with a premise in mind?

Yeah because I'm not a brilliant improviser. I'm more of a conceptual kind of guy. So I think that I personally need some type of a framework. It makes improvisations a little more interesting, especially when you're getting people together for the very first time, or when you're getting people together from wildly different backgrounds, to have some type of an arc that's agreed upon in advance. I think other great things can happen too when you get the right group of people together. But I like the idea of establishing some kind of a form. It doesn't have to be this chord progression or that chord progression, it could be something as simple as: "start out very sparse and get very busy over a period of five minutes." 

You mentioned preparation and how that's labor intensive. Can you talk about how you set up for an improvisation?

For the thing with Ben, I had a very specific patch in mind. I actually came with 2 cases of the modular system and I wired it up in advance. There were a couple of connections that went between cases that I just had to remember.  It was a spiderweb/nest of wires that ended up doing the thing that I wanted to do. In that case, it was very much something that I needed some preparation time for that was best done at home, and then bringing the case knobbed- and wired-up the way it was supposed to be. I just needed a few minute to patch the last bits in together and make sure everything was correct with the headphones before I played it through the system.

For Crucible, I'm thinking about asking that I alternate so I do one piece and then lay out for the next piece. In between pieces, I can prepare something on headphones and do the next thing. Give myself ten minutes or less to prepare new sounds. That way it's not too pre-ordained and it puts me on the spot a little bit, but not so much that I have to try to be ready in ten seconds.

I guess I was asking less about the technical set-up, and more kind of expressively. Are there certain things you're trying to build into the system or certain kinds of sounds that you find yourself gravitating toward?

The types of things that the modular is good for are drone kind of I might want to do a piece where I become the harmonic foundation of an improvisation where we just establish sort of a base tones that lay down the tonic or the fundamental of the piece, and then I can just do sort of floaty evolving kinds of sounds and textures. Another thing might be triggered noisy analog percussion stuff so that I could trigger that with touch pads and play along with somebody. Or melodic or tonal hits that can punctuate certain things. The other thing I'd like to be able to do involves clock-driven sequences where I'm providing the meter. I want to talk with folks in advance and make sure that monitoring is good and specifically the drummer can hear enough. I know that specifically he's done a lot of work with arpeggiators and things like that, so that's good. I just want to have a little advance conversation with some folks about that sort of thing, and just allow myself enough time to set up each thing in advance, put myself on the spot in terms of coming up with something quickly. I have a set of patches that I know will work. It's sort of three distinct voices that I can do.

Obviously modular synthesizers have been undergoing a bit of a renaissance over the last few years. The whole subculture around them is really growing. I've been interested to hear a lot of more generative modular work recently, where people are able to take the device outside the constraints of what we normally expect it to be able to do. Are there things that you're seeing change about the toolset that are encouraging to you? 

For the live thing, analog modular has the restriction of no patch-saving, no memory. So you are under the constraints of not being able to switch from one thing to another rapidly. But you also have the flexibility of patching it up any way you want. You can have wildly diverse sets of sounds that you can customize. The modulation and all the things that are possible are much more extreme than in a hard-wired situation where the signal control paths are already established. I think for the live thing, it just has to be in the right setting. You can't walk into a jazz jam session and just expect to play a Miles Davis tune, necessarily.

How does improvisation figure into your studio and recording work?

I do a lot of sequenced kinds of patterns in my sequencers and drum machines that I then lock up to some type of a tempo generated by Ableton Live. Then what I'm doing a lot of is recording the audio from the synthesizer in sync with the time of the sequence in my digital audio workstation (in this case, Ableton Live). And then I have the chance to chop that audio up. What I generally do is record three or four minutes of variations of a sequence or a drum pattern or some form of rhythm-sync'd modulation. That's been giving me a really wide and varied set of sounds that I can then chop up at will.

I don't really do a lot of melodic kinds of work with that system. It's not really best for that. What I try to do is create generative rhythmic events with the modular. The only thing that I'm doing is basically tethering it to the computer. I'll build something on the modular free-running and then I'll synchronize it to the computer just with a MIDI click, essentially. Then I'll have it in the computer rhythmically in sync with the sequence.

A lot of my sound design with Staycee Pearl Dance Project has been heavily influenced by my modular work and by Ableton Live. I did our last two shows pretty much exclusively with those two sources. It's been some mix of modular and sample manipulation in Ableton.

RECOIL TRAILER from Staycee Pearl on Vimeo.

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