Thumbnail Music Redux: Part Five - Stewart Walker
This interview, originally published on Urbansounds.com in October, 1999, is part of a series of reprints I'm publishing here, intended as a look back at the rise and fall of minimalism over the past decade.
Stewart Walker is probably the "dark horse" among those featured here. He has only been releasing music since late 1997, but he's quickly earned a reputation for his textured, nuanced techno, with releases for Belief Systems, Tektite, Tresor, and Force Inc., among others. Sparse if not necessarily minimalist, Walker's music is exemplary of the extent to which minimalist techniques have filtered into the work of artists exploring other concerns. His latest album, Stabiles, was inspired by Alexander Calder's sculptures. It's a collection of tracks that hover like mobiles, shifting internally but never changing position in absolute space. I caught up with Walker earlier this year, just after his move from Wisconsin to Boston, and before departing for his first German tour.
Do you consider yourself a minimalist?
I do. But it wasn't my original goal to make minimal music. I just found that my production style gravitated toward minimalism as the years went by. The confusing part of me calling my music minimal is that I don't know what the opposite of minimalism is. You never hear an artist called "maximal," although I would suggest that the "we-sound-like-Autechre" faction fits that description by placing hundreds of samples and fills into a single track. For me, it's an issue of control, and musicality. I hear music with many changes and it just interrupts the all-important "flow," which is what I personally am aiming for.
Were you inspired by any of the "original minimalists," such as Reich, Glass, Conrad, and so forth?
I have enjoyed certain pieces from Glass and Reich. I realize Philip Glass is considered a minimal composer but too often his repeating melodies make me seasick. It's only the pieces where he exercises some control over dynamics that his music works for me. Specifically, I like the Brief History of Time and Thin Blue Line soundtracks that he wrote for Errol Morris. Also, some of the classics like Einstein on the Beach are good. I have less exposure to Reich, though I have a copy of Music for 18 Musicians, which is fantastic, though not a minimal work in my mind. It recycles similar phrases throughout, of course, but the orchestration builds up to create a very dense soundscape. I don't believe I was actively influenced by these works, but I have appreciated them occasionally in the past. I can draw an unconscious comparison between the rhythmic mystery of 18 Musicians or Drumming and my own Stabiles record, but I hardly ever listen to neo-classical works by any composer.
How do you approach repetition?
Repetition is the source of all of my recordings thus far. I will work on a particular one-measure loop for hours or days until I think it cannot be improved. As I'm perfecting it, I set aside parts that can be modified or re-inserted to keep the composition interesting. Also, by leaving the structure -- or sequencing -- alone, I can focus more closely on timbral modulations. For any piece of music I'm working on I know hundreds of ways to modify the sound, but only three or four fit the context of the mood I'm trying to achieve.
So is a track for you primarily about mood? Are you trying out certain *formal* experiments? One thing that struck me about Stabiles is the way the four-to-the-floor was subverted, almost, by a kind of doubling up, where the downbeat and the beat on three overlap. So what would have been "regular" 4/4 techno becomes a kind of relentless rhythm machine.
A track is all about mood for me, about ambiance or setting. When you ask if I have done formal experiments, I imagine sitting in front of my computer screen with a notepad and a stopwatch and no I don't do that. Occasionally, I do have "what if" thoughts and break out the calculator when I'm away from the studio. And I have been known to mix time signatures (most often 3/4 and 4/4), and I really like the way that comes out. I'm also on the prowl for a formula to smoothly shift tempo in a track by mixing half-speed and 3/4-speed breaks with the standard 4/4 kick-drum pattern. To speak about that standard four-on-the-floor feel: I really love it and this came only after the realization that, with a dancefloor sound system, you don't "hear" the bass pattern as much as you feel it. On a home stereo it is a little obvious though, so I work around it by trying to weave macro-rhythms and phrases on top of the kick. So, I imagine that the kick is clear in the beginning of the track, but as I progress and add more elements the kick is obscured and becomes only one voice vying in the mix. I like your phrase "relentless rhythm machine," and I take it as a high compliment. But I wonder how I can apply this rhythmic indecision to dance-oriented tracks. I'm going to address that question on my Tresor full-length (once I begin working on it after my German and U.S. tours).
How does technology affect your methods?
The technology of the '90s enables me to make music period. If this were 1989, I'd probably be saving to afford a reel-to-reel recorder, or one of the early DAT machines. But composition-wise, I think the ability to listen to a loop playing forever really affects my decisions when I'm writing music. If I was writing each note out by hand I would be less likely to repeat phrases so often. But when using software, you can leave one repeating phrase alone for a time while focusing on other parts that you want to alter.
What are you using to make music, by the way? Is it all software-based? You don't need to tell me all your gear secrets, I'm just curious about your methods.
I don't have gear secrets. I wish I could lie like Richard James and say everything I use is custom-built, but I'm a musician, not a technician, so it's my job to excise my sounds out of off-the-shelf equipment. So, briefly, I use an Akai MPC-2000, a Waldorf Microwave XT, and a Macintosh running Logic Audio with a small collection of VST plug-ins. Most of the bits and pieces come from outside the computer, whether it's a rhythm or an individual sound. Then it goes into Logic for sequencing, re-effecting and then, occasionally, dismissal.
The tracks on Stabiles, as you state in the liner notes, are fashioned after Alexander Calder's sculptures, and you expressly refer to them as "home listening" tracks. Have you composed for installations, or done any site-specific work? How do you reconcile the opposition between the home and the dancefloor in your music?
I have never created music for art installations. If my music were to play a secondary role to a visual component, I would prefer to have it heard in movies. I just think of art exhibits as bright white rooms with people talking in them. Movies are a completely immersive experience, and if my music were incorporated into a soundtrack it would add subconsciously to the environment. I would love it if my music were used in a heavy talking movie like Metropolitan or Two Girls and a Guy. You know, the characters walking around on hardwood floors discussing the appropriate metaphysical topics. But then, that would just be a reconstruction of my own life.
Ideally, music written for the home would be equally useful on the dancefloor, but I think the majority of DJs prefer music that makes no concession to subtlety and instead drives the dancers forward with clichés like 16-measure percussionless interludes and snare rolls. It's trite for me to complain about these methods but artists still use them to this day. That makes me think that dance music genres have petrified and no new methods are possible, but then you've got DJ's like Jeff Mills, Misjah, and Surgeon who can precisely control their textures and progression by using three turntables and a capable mixer. Furthermore, they accomplish this without resorting to the obvious DJ tricks.
I've been playing with the idea that in minimalism, form (or repetition) takes precedence over content (the severely limited musical material -- sometimes just a few loops or drum patterns). Have you thought about the form/content opposition? Are you consciously making tracks that do more with less?
To be brutally honest, I don't have a million ideas when I sit down to write a piece of music. Instead of pre-planning what's going to happen, I start making sounds and sequences until a greater pattern emerges. I compare my process of writing a track to painting myself into a corner. When a sound occurs, it is because that's the only event that can occur at that moment and still fit the theme I'm trying to create. It's not as precise as mathematics, because I'm still the judge of the aesthetic beauty of what I record. Also, what I'm describing is more theoretical than what actually occurs when I'm in the studio.
Are you interested in expression, in emotional content? Some of your track titles would certainly seem to indicate that.
Yes. Well, I am interested in emotional content, but I don't love describing my goals as emotional. Pop music aims to purify emotions into very, very happy or very, very sad. What I'd really like to accomplish in the next few years is to really control the mood of tracks so that more than one emotion is expressed. Also, there are location descriptions like dark, eerie, and cold, which could apply to human moods or exist without humans at all. These ambiguities of first-person vs. no-person and then the hoped-for mixing of moods will serve to make my music more interesting. When I first began releasing records, I wanted actively to shun emotional content (thus titles like "Stoic EP"). But I've made the decision recently that the old techno metaphors such as "the future" and "space" are really dried up and boring. This is why "new" electro that is designed to sound like "old" electro, which was trying to sound like the future, ends up being self-contradictory and ridiculous.
Somehow, listening to your music and reading your track titles, I get an impression of austerity and cold. I think I read an interview where you mentioned Glenn Gould and the Solitude Trilogy. Is this a factor in your work?
I got the Solitude Trilogy for Christmas last year, and after listening to "North" a couple of times, I realized it did not give me the feeling I wanted. But I was still fascinated with northern features such as snow, wind-chill, white-outs, and the effect these non-Earth-like conditions had on Earth-dwelling humans. Most of my neighbors just wiped the snow off their cars and drove to work not taking into account how bizarre it was to live easily in such a harsh climate. Many of the song titles were derived from my experiences in Wisconsin. Walking across a frozen lake with a friend, or staring after the horizon on a snowy day but not finding it because everything was white, quiet, and hazy. I felt extreme isolation from the outside world during these experiences. And as you point out, austerity. Another cool thing about the snow that I should mention is that it too minimalizes the landscape, drowning out color and depth of field.
Do you think your music requires different listening habits than other forms? I tend to think of minimalism in terms of its effect -- extreme reduction and repetition has certain effects on the listener. What is it that your music does?
I hope that my music is easy to listen to. I think it's well-suited for both micro and macro listening, one being attentive concentration and the other being as background music. I created it in part because I felt there was a shortage of quality home-listening music available to me at the time, and I really wanted to create music that I could listen to often without getting annoyed with it.
I think that minimal and repetitive music has the ability to hypnotize and soothe the listener. So it's great to sleep to, or smoke weed to, or otherwise relax to. I don't think you should listen to it while driving at night, though. It might be too lulling.