Sunday, April 28, 2013

Interview with Maurice Rickard

maurice rickard
Photo by flickr user krosswords

Maurice Rickard is a sound artist whose recent work has ranged across digitally-processed solo guitar mindscapes, mischievous circuit-bending, and beat-driven tracks created on an iPhone. He'll bring his own playful, sonically-rich mixture of the technical and the philosophical to Crucible Sound #1 on May 9th at Modernformations.

I was intrigued by your recent installation combining bubble wrap and a Pure Data patch. Many improvisers strive for immediacy, a pure expression of their intentions. But in this case, you have inserted an unpredictable actor, resulting in a sound that's maybe distant from any intent. What interests you about this kind of willful mediation?

This situation in particular was a collaboration: the other people involved (from Wall-to-Wall Studios) knew they wanted to use bubble wrap as a theme, have a room covered in it, and they wanted an audio component to the experience. They gave me carte blanche within those starting parameters.

Right off the bat, I'd have unknown collaborators in the people who walk into the room, popping bubbles, yelling, talking, or whatever, so the source material for the piece wasn't in my control: exactly which sounds, when they're made, how frequently... I couldn't specify anything that'd ordinarily be in a score, so the piece couldn't depend too much on any traditional expressions of compositional "intent." A piece that would depend on people making certain sounds at certain times (which is maybe the most general abstraction of a composition) would be too fragile for this situation. To work, it'd have to be more flexible, and more robust.

Better — more interesting to people, and potentially more fun — would be for people to come in, pop bubbles (as they would), or make other sounds, and then hear stuff happening, whether or not they connected the two. Maybe it's better to have some question about it — the room then becomes a place of discovery. "Where's the sound coming from? Was that my voice?" It was neat to be able to watch people try to figure that out.

Sonically, there's not a lot that's interesting about the pops. To keep them from sounding the same, I decided to shift the pitches, and introduce delay to build rhythms. It'd be boring to set some effect parameters and leave them that way, so the parameters ought to change. There are a lot of ways to make them change — using algorithms, or tables of values... but the way offering the greatest variety is also the quickest: to choose values pseudo-randomly. For even greater variety, I decided also to randomize the time between updates of the values. The environment could be always changing, but would still have a kind of identity, even with a variety of inputs.

Randomness — or openness to chance, perhaps — seems to be a recurring theme in a lot of my work, probably from my interest in experimentation. Even in compositions, there's that essential "What would happen if I did this?" question driving the process. There are a number of ways of experimenting with compositions, but there are a lot more parameters to be opened up to chance with generative systems (like the Pure Data patches) and in working with other people, particularly in improvisation. I prefer being pleasantly surprised to knowing exactly what will happen.

Do you think of the sounds created by other people in an improvisation as a type of source material to be processed in that particular environment? How and when do you introduce your own aesthetic identity into the system?

Sometimes, yes. That was much of my collaborative approach in The Bureau of Nonstandards — Kevin C. Smith brought the circuit-bent sound-makers, which might or might not make a certain sound at a certain time, and I'd grab loops of their output and build the loops into structures, live. My aesthetic participation was choosing certain things to loop (or trying to — some things were one-time events, and if I missed it, I missed it), choosing subloop points, juxtaposing this with that, stopping these other things, bringing them back in later, changing their speed or direction, etc. Even if I wasn't generating the sounds, there were a lot of other choices to be made in building the arrangement or shape of the output. Sort of like the cooking shows which give chefs the same ingredients and time to prepare something — their aesthetic sensibility comes out in choosing what to do with those starting materials.

For Crucible, though, I'll probably be processing only my own contributions.

How do you go about merging or balancing your processed sounds with unprocessed sounds created by others in the context of an improvisation? For Crucible #1, there will be two woodwind players (Ben Grubb, alto saxophone, and Ken Haney, clarinet) participating. Does that present a special challenge for you in terms of melding with their playing or balancing across very different tonal qualities?

Timbres are indeed something I think about, though the actual approach is something I can only feel sure about in the moment, based on whether or not they're amplified or playing acoustically, and their playing styles. It's going to be an experience of discovery, I think. Sax is pretty close to a square wave, with all those overtones, and clarinet is more of a complex sinusoid, with the odd-order harmonics. Margaret's work has a very wide sonic range, so it could be anything, so I see myself weaving in between what else is going on. Kind of difficult to say for sure until we're playing.

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