I met Stan in a small Facebook group that focused on electronic music philosophy. Many topics within the realm were and are currently discussed and dissected. One particular topic that comes up often is the means by which people make music or create sound. Some are operating with classic hardware such as various synthesizers (currently there is a huge trend in modular), acoustic instruments and drums for sound sources etc. and work with tape as the main medium. Some work fully in the box with soft synths and virtual instruments or ios/Android synths, for smartphones and tablets, and record using a DAW (digital audio workstation) such as Protools or Logic. Some people use a combination of mediums both digital and analog to achieve their desired results. There are frequent debates as to the merits of these various paths and what constitutes music vs. noise vs. sound vs. sound art etc.
Stan popped up one day with an open call for collaborators in a project he’s been developing called Optonoise. His post caught my eye as he stressed his desire to get away from computers in music or sound work. Not to entirely abandon the computer since it’s a great finishing tool but to steer away from it as the main source for instruments and sounds as well as the main work station. This appealed to me as I generally come from a background of recording using 4 track tape machines. I track into a DAW but I have yet to use any soft synths or VST’s. The only virtual instruments I do use are various ios or mobile apps such as synths and samplers for portability etc. and an ipad which at least exists outside of a laptop or desktop set up, and can be essentially used as an instrument, it has that playability element. There is also that desire to keep the visual element alive in performance. There is still nothing more boring than watching someone on a stage sitting in front of a laptop.
I believe I was the only one to take him up on the open call to collaborate, and since then we have been doing just that. There are a bunch of tracks in the works and hopefully we’ll get some sounds out there by years end. In the meantime it has been really nice getting to know Stan, who lives in England and it’s been interesting learning a bit about the process and experiences, he’s even taken his set up to the Tate Modern for demos! Of course it has been really fun taking these sounds and manipulating them, they lend themselves to the ‘sound collage’ approach I generally utilise. Stan is also constantly tweaking and improving on various contraptions, and is full of ideas, so there are no limitations to the creative aspect of it all, and I look forward to the developments, innovations and their sonic results over time.
Check out the following video clips and below is an interview I did with Stan about the project and what motivates him to do it.
Here is a playlist of a few really short demo clips from the Optonoise Youtube channel.
Here’s an excellent presentation and performance from MTF Music Tech Fest.
INTERVIEW WITH OPTONOISE
Start with a bit of your background and why you decided to explore this medium. How you discovered it etc.
My earliest attempts to express myself creatively were thwarted in my late teens by the onset of chronic illness, isolation and destitution. Fixing all that took a long time. On my feet again, I decided I needed to say something distinctive, creative and powerful. Some were able to do that through the medium of piano, guitar or traditional electronic music, skills learnt from the safety of middle-class bedrooms or music classrooms. But I had to show my rawness and vision and hope that it connected, some other way. During those wilderness years, punk had died, hip-hop become commoditised and popular music had become formulaic and nostalgic, even electronic music. I think that’s part of why we are all more backward looking at the moment, scared of the past repeating, because in the background that’s what radios are playing us interspersed with depressing stories. What interested me was what was next. What was going to come after our love affair with digital music? Would music ever move a generation to delineate itself again?
Having a keen interest in science, I decided to look to other mediums. What was new but not digital? Lasers, solar panels and optoelectronics seemed viable, and how was I going to express this new music? By drinking and bemoaning the lack of the money for an oscilloscope to random passers-by, of course. That is until I met a stranger at a bar who told me about community workshops. Old machinery and tools were being stockpiled by enthusiasts to create workshops that anyone could use for a small monthly contribution. This was a turning point. I will be eternally grateful to the London Hackspace. I quickly joined and within days had the pleasure of meeting an incredible bunch of people, not least Dr Ed Rosten, a lecturer in Electronic Engineering at Cambridge, who, for the customary fee of one fresh pizza and a beer, helped me move my ideas forward. A few weeks later, my new team and I were at the International Music Technology Festival in Sweden bewildered by the midnight sun and bewildering the crowd even more, and just days after that, demonstrating in the Tate Modern’s Turbine hall at full volume. Perhaps this was something revolutionary, or perhaps just another micro revolution in the grey postmodern tumult of nothingness and other micro-revolutions. Only time could tell.
Explain some of the basics of what is involved equipment-wise and how sound is generated and how you interact with the machines to manipulate the sound.
The basics are pretty simple. A solar panel wired to an amp and some light. That’s it, no need for computers. Then you play with the light. I normally give the example of a leaf. Spin the leaf. Point a laser beam through the leaf so that passes through onto an amplified solar panel below it and hey presto, you hear the texture of the leaf as a sound. The whole world becomes your pallet filled with as yet unheard sounds. With decent enough recording equipment sounds can be stretched and new patterns can be found not unlike zooming in with a microscope to see different structures as you look closer. I think that’s an interesting concept as most of us think what happens on a large scale is the same as on the small scale, but in nature it’s simply not the case. Once the sound textures are possible, there’s a whole world of different physical mechanisms you can use to arrange and alter those sounds. I won’t list the mechanisms I’ve used here, there’s a fairly nuts and bolts YouTube channel of them. It’s not my primary output. In fact, my primary output is more proofs of concept rather than finished products. One experiment that didn’t work so well was my laser kazoo. After managing to get a laser beam to bounce off the thin membrane onto a solar panel and creating a sound for not much more than 4 seconds, it caught fire. Not quite Jimi Hendrix but I think he would have enjoyed it all the same. At some point, I may go back and try adding a sheet of gold leaf to my kazoo. Optoelectronic voice manipulation is definitely one of my goals.
I’m not the first to play with sound made from light, there are others out there who have played with lasers and solar panels, Leafcutter John for example, but I’ve made it my main focus because I really believe this is just as versatile as digital music and often a more immediate route to an escape through original beautiful sounds.
Talk a bit about the evolution of the process and the equipment used, i.e. what kind of trial and error experiences you’ve had in the development of the process and techniques applied.
My broader methodology though revolves around a fairly specific loop. Make something analogue, sample the sounds. Take them to a digital production tool (which I consider a design tool rather than my primary medium) and make something musical. I play with almost randomly chosen elements of music theory.
If there is something I want to do with the sounds digitally, for example make a beat, I will then go back and make a physical device that does that part and reiterate. I’m basically deconstructing the digital. Some of my favourite devices have been those for composing experimental melodies. Complex and chaotic pendulums particularly. These have created some of my best pieces to date to my mind, but I still understand that to connect with people, melodies more approaching the traditional forms are going to have to be part of what I do. For me this is equally exciting.
Music is a mysterious abstract narrative, not of my making, but an effective way to draw the listener into the landscape of my sounds. It’s also a way for me to express my emotions from a very fundamental level, not unlike a Rorschach test or a Freudian interpretation of my dreams, but on a sub-linguistic level. Interpreting music form is the history of humanity through a unique lens. Perhaps rich analogue forms are the next step.
At the moment, I’m looking for collaborations from all disciplines. One of the things I’d love to do would be to listen to foil clad dancers through the movement of lasers reflected off them. I find the immediacy of trans-sensual analogue circuits to be quite profound. For example, lasers attached to the fingers can give the physical sensation in the fingertips of touching things at a distance when watching the dots of light move across a surface. Projecting through sound every nuance of someone else’s dancing body I’m sure will prove to be an equally mind-enhancing experience and hopefully a musical one too.
Aside from the produced sound, many of the instruments simultaneously create light shows as a direct bye-product. The beauty of the patterns of light heard are almost always matched by the beauty of the reflected light seen which fills the ceiling pulsating exactly in time without digital delay, expressing the different textures of the sounds with super intricate patterns. The super intricacy is lost on YouTube. I believe for something to be truly transpositional it needs to satisfy, perhaps even overwhelm, all the senses.
I’m also working full sized keyboard with interchangeable tone disks. Even a child will be able to use a pen or paint or anything really to make their own sounds to play with. Beethoven’s fifth in the key of crayon has a nice ring to it I think.
With my health now fully restored, I’d love to travel with my pieces.
What else interests you in music today?
Tracks using field recordings. They can be incredibly powerful. Like I am being told a real story in music rather than the story of someone stuck in their bedroom or a grubby recording studio. Matthew Herbert achieves this to great effect. Dani Siciliano has some personal stuff too. Her emotional power can be hard to listen to sometimes, but that’s important in music. Wishmountain are making incredibly strong music too.
Their music, like mine, really shines when sounds systems are highly tuned. If only venues would pay more attention to high class sound amplification, I’d probably get out of the house more often. I do worry sometimes that the trend towards listening to music through crumby earbuds is lessening the skill of listening and heightening the demand for dumbing down shock hooks and strip club fodder.
What else are you working on at the moment?
For a while now I’ve been working on different ways of looking at the internet. I grew up when the internet was far less dominated by Google and even the concept of search and I’m a little disappointed on how’s it’s turned out. One project I have is called Micelll. It imagines what a super-efficient internet might look like. Collecting tools into geometrically optimised structures. That’s what I think the internet should be, a collection of tools so everyone can develop skills, not just an alternative stream for established media channels and angry journos pushing ever more extremist political agendas. I believe geometry and a broader understanding of forms can solve a lot of the World’s problems.
I’m also working on a video with an ecological theme. I’m interested in the patterns made by the spread of toxins in the environment and this will make up the visual element.
Tell me more about the Tate Modern? (get into the public experiments and the museum show you did.
The Turbine Hall has unparalleled acoustics. Being told we could play over speakers instead of giving the public headphones was a great thrill and honour. I immediately plugged in and started to play. The Tate organisers milling around would occasionally wonder over with a strange expression on their faces. Each time I expected to be told to turn it down and each time they said they loved it and each time as they walked away I turned it up a bit more. The whole hall, stairwell, landings and probably a good part of the galleries on the day where reverberating. One of the disks I brought was a large sugar crystal that hadn’t quite solidified. It created a wonderful mist of sugar filaments that gradually covered the interior of the protective case as time went on. The traces are still there.
Apart from lasers and spinning disks we gave the public tv remotes which created sounds from their infrared signals when aimed at the amplified solar panels. I had gone out the day before to all the local car boot sales in Dalston to buy up as many old ones as I could find. Mysteriously the price seemed to go up the more I bought. Perhaps word got around. They had a kind of post-modern irony but mainly it was about having fun. The people loved it, kids, old people, men, women even the people who had clearly only came because of their partners had a cheeky look of hidden intrigue.
An estimated twenty-seven thousand people passed through the hall that day all entertained by the interactive optoelectronic sound of the first portable iteration, The Epsilonograph. My visits to the Tate got me hooked on the idea of engaging with the public on a large scale.
(This last question was inspired by a conversation we had regarding finding ways to perhaps give these sounds a wider appeal, such as having a producer arrange them to fit in with various genres of music such as IDM or electropop perhaps.)
One thing I’d like to follow up on, which is interesting to me, and you do have some interesting ideas for experimentation, like the ‘foil clad dancers’… but why develop a medium that is pretty far out there, admittedly to get away from computers and conventional tools for music making, but then seek to have these sounds somehow arranged to resemble some form of pop music? Why introduce that structure? In essence knocking off the edges to create music that people can palate. The potential for major abstractness is huge, and I’m reminded of guys like John Cage and Harry Partch, who built his own instruments and strayed from western scales and tones altogether, Cage who did all sorts of things to avoid conventionality…why seek structure in this realm?
about structure and structurelessness:
Structure is difficult to avoid. For me it’s about journeys between the two extremes. I feel equally as uncomfortable with persistent order as I do with persistent disorder. Some bland formulaic tune played with no feeling with a generic voice singing over it, perhaps with heartfelt lyrics, but trapped in a cage of machinery, fills me with disappointment.
A long experimental soundscape exploring places I could never have imagined, fills me with an incredible sense of wonder, but can lack a sense of purpose.
The great music veers between order and chaos. I’m thinking of Jimi Hendrix, off on some insane solo that he pulls back to the full throttle lick we all know and have learnt to love. An adventure that ends back at our home or perhaps some other new safe place to rest.
I think whatever clarity and positivity we have in our minds in life, it will never fully work, never be in the most perfect focus and rarely make complete sense, in all situations, all of the time, but we have to try to stay true to what we are, if we have the courage to decide what that is. Powerful music should reflect that.
Having said all that I’m thinking of recording a purely experimental album entitled ‘Quiet People doing Quiet Things’, with minimal arrangement, which would at least have a purpose in encouraging people to appreciate the power or quietness.
I don’t think I’ll ever make a track that’s is pure pop, but I will continue to play with elements of music theory for my own enjoyment and to make it a more shared experience.
The broader state of affairs in the music industry fills me with despair. Some of this comes from the lack of direction in post modernism in art. Yes, we live in a complex chaotic world, but if there wasn’t any truth we’d never have moved forward. That has just degenerated into pure business now and no raw expression, even rock and roll as become lame, and I don’t think people should be shy about complaining. We need a new Disco Sucks moment. The sexism in the industry especially needs to be dealt with. Online collaborations, not sleazy hotel room negotiations
I wanted to express myself with a new sound, a distinctive step outside the soulless music meat grinder manipulating people with choking cloud of psychological algorithmic doublespeak noise. I want to complain loudly and not be dragged back into it.
I want a lot of people to hear it and I want a lot of people to have the same opportunity to separate themselves from the artificially intelligent exploitative machines that we’ve wrapped ourselves in. Optoelectronic music is different. Either it’s being composed with light or it’s not. Can I see what I’m hearing or not? A concept we should perhaps consider in relation to our leaders.
It’s a new universe waiting to be explored. I don’t want algorithms controlling my life. I don’t want to have numbers shoved in my ear when I’m winding down and I don’t want to listen to ex-Disney channel presenters having another all too predictable mental breakdown after realising that people want to sell them as nothing more than glitter covered sex objects.
I need to escape to a future of new abstract textures, and sense enveloping experiences and I want it in a format that can play at my local bar or a massive stadium. Right now, everyone’s a lonely alien in their own technically manipulated bubble. Maybe they should just listen to a leaf.
Stay tune for our collaboration, in the meantime here’s a sampler of some works in progress: