MESS Artists-in-residence 2017
MESS is pleased to announce that we have begun what (we hope) will be an annual residency program for local artists. Our inaugural residency has been generously supported by the City of Melbourne through Arts Melbourne. The MESS residency aims to select two active electronic sound and music artists whose careers stand in contrast to each other. Our first two residents are Chiara Kickdrum and David Chesworth and both of these artists will be presenting the outcomes of their MESS residencies in a series of workshops and a performance in late 2017/early 2018.
The inimitable Chiara Costanza (aka Chiara Kickdrum) will be working at MESS for six weeks. Chiara is a musical chameleon. MESS co-director Robin Fox was lucky enough to get some conversation time in and ask Chiara a few questions about her journey into electronic music, where she’s at and where she’s headed. A loose transcript follows.
RF: You’ve mentioned your love of the raw Detroit electro sound. Do you remember your first contact with it?
CK: Yes I do! I had just moved to Australia (so twelve years ago) and I remember being alone at my ex-boyfriend's place. He had gone to work and I just started listening to some of his records and ended up listening for days. It was amazing. I discovered Carl Craig and then Drexciya and I was like hmmm I’ve never heard of electro…..and even though I’d heard ‘techno’ I felt like I was hearing the real thing for the first time.
RF: As you say that was twelve years ago, what about before that then. Had you had any real contact with electronic music?
CK: No not really
RF: I understand that you play the piano right?
CK: Yes, so I was playing Jazz and lots of classical music as well as keyboards in metal and death metal bands.
RF: Keyboards in a death metal band??
CK: (laughs) yeah it was a crazy time.
RF: Do you have any recordings of that stuff?
CK: I think I have some VHS tapes somewhere…..Do you know Deep Purple?
CK: Do you know Glenn Hughes?
CK: Ok, well he was one of Deep Purple’s singers for a few years from ‘73 to ‘76 or something like that, and we had a cover band that only did Deep Purple tracks from the Glenn Hughes period. I played keys and sang because Glenn Hughes has a really high voice!
RF: Hilarious! Was this in Italy?
CK: Yes, I grew up in a little town called Chieri which is just outside of Torino. I went to Torino all the time. I studied music there, classical music, for three years.
RF: For most people who will read this you are commonly associated with electronic music and techno, do you still have a fondness for classical music? Jazz?
CK: I loooooove classical music, absolutely. I don’t play it anymore. I don’t have a piano at the moment. It’s definitely in my plan to get a hold of one again. I really miss playing that music.
RF: Favourites from the classical repertoire?
CK: I love playing Bach. I hated it initially, but the thing with Bach is that it’s AMAZING when you’re good at it. Hahaha. And in terms of Jazz I really loved Bill Evans from a pianistic point of view but also Coltrane, Miles Davis, all that stuff.
RF: Did you ever get into the more angular pianists? Thelonious Monk for example?
CK: Yeah I did, I can listen to it a bit, and play a bit, but it didn’t grab me as much as others. I also went through a fusion phase (we both laugh about the dangers of admitting any connection to such a maligned genre) and a prog phase, early Dream Theater etc.
RF: And Metal? How hard did you go there?
CK: Pretty hard actually. I loved bands like Sinister. I would lock myself in my room, dressed all in black, and just disappear into the music. It was a sanctuary. I was in bands and we would rehearse every week, play in pubs etc. My parents were a bit confused about it I guess but then I would come out and play the piano so there was a balance there. A bit bi-polar I guess.
RF: Sounds like a musical house were your parents musical?
CK: My dad no, my mum likes to sing, my brother has talent but never pursued it.
"I thought ok I need to learn how to make this music. So I left my high-powered job in the city, I just couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to reconnect with music."
RF: When did you know that it was music that you wanted to pursue?
CK: Ever since I was 5 years old actually. I always loved to sing and entered competitions etc.
RF: Did you go through a period, as so many artists do, where you second guessed that feeling and decided to do something else? To ‘normalise’?
CK: Yes, 12 years ago when I moved here I started going out a lot and lost contact with music making for a while. I got a job.
RF: Was that a conscious decision?
CK: I think I‘ve always put so much effort into my music. When I was 10 years old I didn’t want to play the piano. I really wanted to sing! I didn’t like applying myself and doing the hard work. My dad really encouraged me but I felt like it had become a burden. So when I came here it felt a bit like a liberation – I walked away from it all for a while.
RF: So the classic question now is…..how did you come back from that feeling and end up playing big stages at festivals? What’s the secret formula?
CK: Well, I started to DJ, just put on a party with a friend. I was collecting records at that stage. That was 5 years ago so it was a 7 year break from performing. I also did a sound art course at RMIT in 2010. I thought ok I need to learn how to make this music. So I left my high-powered job in the city, I just couldn’t do that anymore. I needed to reconnect with music.
RF: But not the classical, jazz, metal?
CK: No, I wanted to make electronic music.
"...the feeling of playing machines live was a buzz. I thought I could really do something with the format."
RF: You started DJ’ing and while a creative process, is more about curating and organising tracks rather than actually creating them, but I remember when we first met a few years ago that you really wanted to play your own music and do that live. So how did you make that transition?
CK: It happened by chance actually! I was playing with a couple of friends at RMIT. I bought an Elektron Machinedrum from Phoebe Kiddo who was moving overseas and I thought – wow – this is the best thing in the world – I’m never going back! And so I started playing some very small shows. Then Kevin Karlberg (aka Stable Music) was putting together a bill featuring Clark (Warp label) in 2012 and he said “OK – Chiara Kickdrum live – in two weeks! After Clark!” And I thought no way! But I ended up doing it – it was a great experience! Most people left (laughs), it was not an amazing set, it was interesting though and the feeling of playing machines live was a buzz. I thought I could really do something with the format.
RF: Well two weeks isn’t a lot of time to forge a musical identity and make 2 hours of great material! It’s a big ask.
CK: Exactly! But it opened my mind to the possibilities of live performance and broke the sense that it was an impossible dream. And then the gigs just followed. People heard the sets and just got in touch. Some people wonder how I can play so much when I’ve only been working for four years. Some people put on parties just so they can play, so I feel very lucky. But at the same time I work really hard and I take what I do seriously. For me it is a profession. It’s fun sure, but a lot of the time I don’t go out I stay home and make music. This is what I want to do.
RF: Well that commitment should come across in the music. I’ve been thinking about my own output lately as a professional musician / composer and it occurred to me recently that I make a lot of terrible music on the way to finding the good stuff. It’s sort of a barrier that needs to be broken. Do you make a lot of music that you don’t like? That you would never play anyone?
CK: Ha Yes! And I feel like I’m hardly ever satisfied with the results even of the stuff that I make public. I listen to a lot of music for inspiration and I’m always struck by new things that I want to try. When I’m making tracks I feel sometimes too close to them as well. Like I can’t really judge them properly. Every now and then I’ll hear something I made years ago and get a pleasant surprise, sort of like I’m hearing it for the first time.
RF: Now every gig is a deadline, which is a good and bad thing right? You’re playing so much at the moment, have you ever had a moment where you’re on stage, you start a track and realise ‘oh no….this just doesn’t work!’?
CK: Ha! Yes, a couple of weeks ago in Auckland….I started a track….the drums were all over the place….nothing worked, so I just had to move on. Keep a straight face haha.
RF: So what’s your relationship with the audience? Some performers introvert onstage, go into their own world and others revel in the dialogue. Where do you sit?
CK: Well, it’s different when I DJ and when I perform live. When I DJ I go crazy! The Italian in me just comes out (laughs). It’s a bit more relaxing in the sense that you put on a track and have time to consider the next move. Playing live has a different energy. I arrived at Meredith recently and saw this massive crowd and thought ‘fuck – are they going to like it?’ which shouldn’t really matter but it does! And the fear of making a mistake is much higher! In that context I get introverted. I go back to my bedroom in my mind.
RF: And was that the biggest show you’ve done?
CK: Yes, and it was so great to get all that feedback on my original music. So much more satisfying than someone saying ‘I loved your DJ mix last night’ blah blah.
RF: Finally, tell me what you hope to get out of your residency here at MESS?
CK: Well it’s a great opportunity to use all of these amazing machines. I just want to immerse myself in them and create a lot of interesting music. I’d love to do a drum machine survey. Try them all out and assess them. I’ve been wanting to explore more effects so the moogerfooger pedals are appealing as well. The Buchla fascinates me so I want to see where I can take that.
RF: And the future?
CK: Basically I want to travel the world playing my music, meeting amazing people and having a good time.
RF: Sounds perfect! Hopefully the residency is a step in the right direction!
David Chesworth’s career has spanned four decades now with electronic music compositions dating back to 1977. He was part of the inaugural intake of the LaTrobe University Music Department, a radical school established by Keith Humble in 1975. The University had an electronic music studio comprising a large paper faced Serge Tcherepnin modular synthesizer, a series of Transaudio educational synths designed and built by Jim Sosnin (we have one available to play here at MESS), a few reel to reel machines and an incredibly rare EMS Spectre video synthesizer (also soon to be available to members at MESS). In that environment David composed such classics as 50 Synthesizer Greats and The Unattended Serge and went on to compose ‘number game’ pieces with the band Essendon Airport - work that was further refined and made acoustic with the long standing David Chesworth Ensemble. After a stretch working on large scale installation works the MESS residency has re-connected David with the joy and frustration of wrestling with machines (new and old) to make music. I had a chat to David about the residency experience and more ahead of the concert culmination on Sunday.
RF: The first thing I wanted to ask you is that, given you have been working with music technology for nearly 40 years, how was the experience of sitting in front of this Make Noise Shared System as opposed to say sitting in front of the paper face Serge at La Trobe in 1977?
DC: Well the first thing I noticed is that these new machines have quantised pitch! That’s both a great thing and an unfortunate thing I think. The aural or manual tuning of the patches are what gave a lot of those Serge pieces their character. I used to work a lot with just-intonation using frequency division and things like that. But returning to modular synthesis feels like returning to a friendly interface. It is as though my neurones are actually there in front of me and I am having an out of body experience where my brain is in front me and I am connecting synapses….it is a really pleasurable activity….
It is like I’m making these little sonic ecosystems or brains, where there is no computer programming involved. Programming is quite conceptual where modular is tactile and while it can be conceptual too it is also tactile and right there in front of you. It’s really pleasurable as a maker….but I guess the question is, and I think we have discussed this before….is it pleasurable for the listener? It’s certainly pleasurable to be assembling these structures that kind of grow organically out of a creative process. It was like coming back to a nice warm creative space. I love the sheer number of modules available. It’s fantastic that you can interface so easily with digital technology as well.
RF: They are becoming hybrid monsters! It occurs to me that working with modular you set up a circuit that behaves in a way, it becomes almost algorithmic by accident, information that spins in a way and wanders along. It reminds me of your early works and your fascination with simple number games and patterns - say with Essendon Airport.
"I’m drawn to making patterns. It’s the human brain’s tendency to want to find patterns and recognise patterns."
DC: I’m drawn to making patterns. It’s the human brain’s tendency to want to find patterns and recognise patterns. A lot of my recent PhD research has been about our durational experience of artworks as opposed to the spatial ones. A lot of how we appreciate artworks is durational, it’s about the time we spend with these artworks. In answer to your question I think that I have an interest in ‘patternating’ my durational space. That’s why I enjoy composing with modular synths and creating these patterned spaces where it hasn’t really got a traditional narrative….because who wants to know where they are going and be predictable. This constant patternating that happens in a lot of electronic music gives us a different experience of our durational life….
RF: It’s almost like you are creating a sampling frequency for reality - you dictate the increments and the rates of change with which people will experience the passing of time. That’s an interesting way to describe music generally.
DC: Well we think about patterns as static visual things but no. Our whole lives are lived through patterns form the moment we get up in the morning and enact our routines and in a way a lot of this modular electronic music making creates these microcosms, these microworlds, and a lot of them are very transcendental….they are hypnotic places….and this plugs into a desire or presents a place where the brain wants to be…and this situation allows for little smart-arse disjunctions and interruptions to those things where you get a conversation going between this state and comments on that state. Whether that’s the interjection of a sound or a gap or whatever. And this makes us as listeners kind of speculate and cling on to these possibilities that are about to arrive.
RF: It seems that that’s really where the composition takes place right?
DC: Well I’ve always thought that the composition takes place in the listener, visitor or experiencer and you set up the situation hopefully where these things can happen.
RF: Listening to some of the tracks you’ve been working with here I have been struck by how accomplished and refined your song writing sensibility is. The production is often surprising and refreshing. A lot of this is not happening in the modular box so there is a whole other part of your work that happens in the studio. You work so well with timbrel combinations, the move from the harsh and distorted to the clean and transparent is really effective. Can you talk to that a little?
DC: I guess you’re referring to orchestration? I tend to make stuff quite dense to begin with and then think ‘arrghhh! this is just a wall of undifferentiated sounds’ and have to spend time pulling things out of the mix. I think that tendency to mix dirty and clean sounds and how something pokes out is all about the patterning we were just discussing earlier - it’s like weaving. It’s a linear patterning that happens where, all of a sudden, a little melody floats in that was buried and does a ping pong thing with another melody and dips down where another comes up. These are all flows that happen in the making of the patterns.
RF: I feel like your interjecting as well and that the results couldn't really be achieved in the modular box in a live way, it grows to be something more than that when you take the materials away and consider it. Sometimes I feel that there is a tendency with new modular to work live and tend not to consider things….
DC: I ask a lot of people how they work in modular synthesis and a common response is that they start with nothing and they build something up by making loads of connections, and while all of that is fascinating to a point, the thing is that perhaps this process doesn’t always go that extra yard, so when things are random you might not get things re-presenting later unless by fluke, so the music doesn’t access complex and potentially interesting structures or you don’t get to play with irony in the music. I really do love this linear approach but I think I have an inability to work that way. I like to record and manipulate in the studio. I like to make stuff I can listen to and I use my boredom as a kind of barometer. So I listen until I need a change then make the change. So I like to get to a situation where I’m immersed in listening to the track and forget where things are going to change in, a way. That takes a lot of refining. It’s very nice of you to notice that trait and see it as a positive thing as I always felt that it was a method I used to compensate for all of the things that I can’t do!
RF: Well I think we all feel individually that we are compensating for what we can’t do but of course in the process we are doing what we CAN do! Now we are sitting here in front of the EMS Spectre synthesizer and one of the things that drew us to select you as one of our inaugural artists in residence was that you have a connection to some of these old machines and have kept a foot in the music scene right up until the present. In fact you brought this machine back here. Can you reminisce a little about meeting this machine and what drew you to it?
"I was interested in the essence of the machine itself, and not in bringing my essence to the machine. "
DC: Well to go all the way back there was the now infamous (or famous) LaTrobe music course. It was very radical with lots of interesting teaching ideas and an electronic studio with the Serge, the Daisy, the Transaudios, some u-matic tape machines and the EMS Spectre. I was interested in all of this stuff just as a young person interested in electronics. As part of the course we actually did synthesizer classes…..everybody did them….we sat in front of the Transaudios and Jim (Sosnin) taught us about sound…Then one or two of us took that further with Warren Burt who was a fabulous teacher. He showed us the work he was doing. Not many people were working with this equipment. Warren was working on some very organic processes for manipulating video with voltage control from the Serge but I was more interested in cutting through the….hahaha….how can I say this… I was interested in the essence of the machine itself, and not in bringing my essence to the machine. Instead of the Spectre being an invisible tool giving us artistic expression many of us at that time were questioning the idea of personal artistic expression….we were all about deconstructing the bullshit of personal expression. So I made some very simple pieces with the Serge and the Spectre that tried to reveal them for what they were. Of course there was inevitably a degree of aestheticization and therefore expression going on. Deep down there is a desire to be expressive but not to….
RF: ….manifest it somehow….yes I know this tendency. It’s a very avant garde tendency.
DC: Yes and these products were seen as late modernist tools for expression and we were a bit sick of being told to keep inventing things and find new ways, for its own sake. And this was pre-computer era so there wasn’t this new way to derive sound and vision digitally or anything. So we just tended to turn these things on their head a bit which is why my early video work is deliberately inane and just repetitive and 50 Synthesizer Greats is another manifestation of that. So, I always say now, be careful when you are trying to be ironic because it has a short shelf life! (laughter ensues) You have to live with those pieces! They’ll haunt you. They are only ironic for the period that that way of seeing the world persists which is about three or four years. By the 90’s audiences didn’t know the difference between what you were being ironic about and the work itself.
RF: Well we could chat for hours so let’s finish with the work you’ve been doing at MESS. How are you feeling about it and the context of presenting this live.
I haven’t made any electronic music like this for years now. I even used a sequencer properly for the first time. People said wow that sounds like techno trancy stuff and I’m like….I don’t even know the genres!
DC: I’ve always had a problem writing electronic music because the process that I have had access to in the past being too formulaic. I used to enjoy working with a reel to reel and multi-tracking because you there was a certain looseness….not being locked into quantized grids and various things like that. But then I found a way, using some interesting plug-ins that started to break things up for me and I started to be able to ‘paint’ with sound again if you like. So, some of the pieces that I’ve made recently are quite long and evolving works, where I had no idea how the music would end up sounding. So I was really keen to use many of the MESS synthesizers and add that! I’ve been collecting things here like ‘solos' and accessing the bigness of these sounds, and the modular thing has been really great too as it guides you in a way towards a particular complexity. I’m quite personally happy with what I’ve done. I haven’t made any electronic music like this for years now. I even used a sequencer properly for the first time. People said wow that sounds like techno trancy stuff and I’m like….I don’t even know the genres!
RF: I think it’s great to be naive about the various genres of electronic music. It frees you up to cross associate without really knowing you are. You care less about the stylistic politics of what you are doing.
DC: Haha. It’s been hard in conversation when people keep dropping these terms. Even certain beats that are part of a genre get manipulated in certain ways and become sub-genres. And its like….yeah… as soon as I lock myself in to a genre its all over for me.
RF: I don’t follow that stuff very intentionally. It just doesn’t matter to me.
DC: Well it shouldn’t really because as artists we create frames for things but they’re your frames. Why would you repeat and knowingly make a piece in a genre unless you can mess with it.
RF Finally the audience. What is your feeling about the audience?
DC: They are my number one. Nothing is completed until the audience completes it. There’s an early Deleuze idea that everybody makes their own maps and connections for things and they each bring their own baggage to the table and you introduce yours, and the environment also brings its and it’s the interaction between these components that is important. At gigs I don’t know what I’ll play until I understand the context. It’s a decision based on all sorts of factors. There is always an element of indeterminacy. It’s a dangerous place because I have to control and wrangle some of these sounds as they happen. There can be really great outcomes and really bad ones….but the bad ones can become something really good again so there is a layer of risk taking that I get preoccupied with while the piece is unfolding.
RF: That’s a really nice description of performance generally.
DC: Well I bought a clip launcher recently and I thought that might be an answer but then I thought ‘I don’t want to know what’s behind each pad’ I mean I want to be expressive but I don’t want it all to be my personal choice which is hard if its all pre-composed. But I guess that’s the wrestle – you’re in the work whether you like it or not but you need to manage your own role in it.
RF: A nice note to end on. Thanks David!