This interview was conducted over email with Jean-Luc Sinclair. More information and examples of his music can be found at his homepage at www.jeanlucsinclair.com and on his MySpace page for Musiques pour cultes at http://www.myspace.com/musiquespourcultes.
SY: Hello Jean-Luc! Thank you very much to agreeing to do this interview. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself?
JS: Hi Steven, it's my pleasure. I am a composer and producer of electronic music in NYC. I do a lot of commercial writing for anything from corporate projects to commercials, and I also remix and produce. I have a small studio in Dumbo where I spend most of my days, away from the sun!
I have released music under the names 'Jean-Luc Cohen', 'Jean-Luc Sincair' and 'Musiques Pour Cultes', which is also my latest release, written almost entirely using Csound.
SY: Thank you! So how exactly did you get involved with Csound?
JS: I was attending Berklee College of Music as a music synthesis major and after about two years as a student I found myself at a crossroad. I knew I wanted to focus on electronic music, but I wasn't finding quite the right outlet to do this. The caliber of the professors was not the issue of course, nor were the studios and issue as they were bulging with the latest and greatest gear, but I felt the curriculum was too safe, and I simply didn't feel like making another clarinet patch on the DX7. I don't mean this as a critic, this wass simply the way I was thinking at the time. I was also feeling increasingly stifled by classical and jazz theory. I didn't know it yet, but I was looking for a way to make music outside the confines of traditional western music theory.
So I took Dr Boulanger's Csound class, and that was truly a life changing experience: working with Csound opened up a world of possibilities. I did find the learning curve was pretty steep at first, and my early attempts at making music with Csound were pretty feeble. I stuck with it, actually taking the class twice in order to get more familiar with the language, and after a few months I finally started to realize some of the possibilities I suspected existed. I was eager to work with sound more than music, and for the first time I had at my disposal a tool which I felt was truly a blank canvas. All the musical instruments I had worked with until then, acoustic or electronic, were geared toward the classical western music paradigm... Even something as potentially powerful as a modern synthesizer is designed with an interface that is optimized for that purpose. I wanted to work with sound objects and express my pitches in Hertz, not on a staff. Looking back, working with Csound was a rather meditative experience. I found myself confronted with the sounds in my head, and I knew I had found a tool to express them with. It's not unlike meditating for the first time, a bit confusing and scary, but you know the rewards are well worth the effort.
SY: Wow, that's really quite incredible to hear your experience with Csound! I know for myself, I also found myself very connected with Csound when I first came across it too, especially in regards to exploring ideas involving time. I often hear many people who come to Csound without much guidance and don't have quite the same strong experiences, but I'm always interested to hear about others for whom Csound has been a very good experience to work with. So how is Csound a part of your musical work today?
JS: Csound continues to be a major part of my music today in so many ways it's almost difficult to answer... I think that the main difference between how I use Csound today and how I used it five or ten years ago is that it's become increasingly easier to integrate it as part of my workflow. It's real easy to run Csound within Max/MSP for instance, thanks to Davis Pyon's Cound~ object. One thing I have always found difficult to do with Csound is to add a GUI to my instruments. Of course, there are many ways to do this, FLTK, MacCsound, Python etc... But none of these options ever felt right to me. Using Max is a lot more intuitive, and allows me the luxury of adding vst plug-ins directly into my signal path. That's wonderful. I've always felt that as a whole, experimental computer musicians don't spend enough time caring for the actual sound quality of their output. That may have been due to the fact that it used to be difficult to integrate some of the more esoteric tools within a traditional production environment. That's no longer the case today. I also do quite a bit of work using Ableton Live, which is a wonderful tool with which to chop up Csound renders and textures. My next release, a collaboration with Japanese writer Kenji Siratori, is centered around that concept.
A few years ago I had the privilege of working with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, and the first thing I did when we sat down to work together was to launch Csound. That was a bit of a gamble. I wasn't sure how he would react to working with non real time tools, but the CD had sent him and which ultimately landed me the job was 80% Csound, and he understood that there was no other way to recreate some of these sounds. Ultimately it was a success and I ended up setting up shop in Nothing's Studio B surrounded by computers running Csound jobs. It got me the nickname Dr. Scientist... Lately I have also been increasingly relying on Csound to perform complex rhythmic manipulations. I have been working with Jake Joaquin on several processes and thanks to his brilliant coding skills we have been able to come up with some truly unique instruments. But I can't say much more on that yet...
SY: Well I'll be very interested to hear your work with Kenji Siratori as well as what comes from your collaboration with Jake! One of the things I've always found interesting is how Csound fits into everyone's musical workflows. Increasingly I find users are using Csound as a part of a larger setup of tools, whether it is very low-level like directly accessing Csound with programming or scripting languages, or higher level where Csound becomes a generator of source material or a processing tool in the midst of many other tools. I also find it fascinating that regardless of how we're all using Csound, we're able to share our bits of knowledge with each other through this common tool and can all learn from each other, even if we're pursuing vastly different aesthetic goals.
(BTW: I'll have to call you Dr. Scientist now in future correspondences!)
Beyond your own musical work, I know you are also a teacher and have taught a computer music course at NYU using Csound. Could you tell us a little bit about the course? I'm particularly interested to hear your thoughts on how effective is using Csound versus another program for teaching. How do students respond to using Csound today, in the age of premade synthesizers with eir many presets and GUI composition environments?
JS: That's a good question! I teach the software synthesis class at NYU's Steinhardt School, mostly to graduate music tech students. The class is taught entirely using Csound, and I try to focus on three main aspects: Synthesis theory, implementation using Csound and compositional implications, which is a tall order. What I have found so far is that it is a bit of a hard sell initially. The current generation of music tech students has grown up with tools that we could only dream about, and we're not that much older that they are! But there are so many fantastic bits of software these days with great looking interfaces and endless possibilities that a lot of students don't necessarily--at least initially anyway--see the point of spending hours learning a language when they can just boot up Logic and make great music almost instantaneously.
But when you start to dig a little deeper you find that because they have such wonderful GUI based tools at their disposal, many of them have never designed an instrument from scratch, or compiled code, or don't really know how a digital oscillator works. The great thing is they are somewhat savvier than the average music tech student was 10 years ago, and past the initial shock of working with code, they are able to run with it and make great pieces very quickly. As for the educational aspect, Csound really is a great teaching tool, which confronts students with aspects of the synthesis process they are usually sheltered from, even when working with tools like Max/MSP. They truly deepen their understanding of synthesis techniques by taking the class and that's an extremely valuable asset because they are able to apply that knowledge to any synthesizer they encounter, even if they've never seen it before. But this goes beyond synthesis and technique, for many students it's the first time they work with code to make music, and that's got huge compositional implications. It all goes back to the interface paradigm. Csound's interface is the code, and they are bound to come up with radically different material than they would if they were sitting in front of their favourite MIDI controller and sequencer. I could have never written 'Musiques Pour Cultes' if I hadn't been working with a text editor.
For that reason and a few other (such as better performance and workflow) the next class will be taught using the terminal only.
SY: Interesting! I'm glad to hear that students can get past the initial difficulties of working with Csound to become expressive with it as well as learn these fundamentals about electronic music through it. Of course, being the author of a graphical environment for working with Csound, I am curious: do you have any plans to teach using Csound with other tools, such as a scripting language or one of the many frontends? I've found that in some curriculums that use Csound, there is generally so much to learn in about just the basics of synthesis and sound processing that there is very little time to discuss other compositional concerns, such as representations of music, the use of algorithms to generate musical effects or higher-level structures, ways to approach the formal construction of a piece(if applicable), etc. Do you get to spend much time discussing musical concerns beyond synthesis and sound processing?
JS: As far as front ends and other scripting languages go, it's a tough call... The short answer is unfortunately no, I don't get very much into any one of them. The long answer is I wish there was more time, more classes. What I've found so far is that, initially, as the students are still struggling with the basic and not so basic concepts behind Csound, front ends and scripting languages tend to introduce a layer of confusion. I think it's very important that students reach a certain level of proficiency with the language and concepts behind it before we introduce tools that will in many ways liberate them from the tedious aspects of dealing with Csound. That's one of the reasons I've decided to teach it entirely from the terminal. I do mention front ends and relevant software, and sometimes students will spend time on their own exploring Blue or Cecilia, in which case I encourage them to share their findings with the class. Ultimately, I would love to teach an advanced level class where we would focus on such tools and compositional techniques...
Don't get me wrong, we do spend some time dealing with musical concepts and composition, but there again, not nearly as much time as I'd like. At the end of every session we listen to and analyze a work that has relevance to the topic of the day, illustrating how a given composer used these techniques in the context of a composition. This is the portion of the class where we can move away from Csound a bit, and discuss concepts, computer music history and trends and just think in musical terms. In many ways, this is the most important part of the course, otherwise it could very easily become an abstract academic exercise. And that's precisely what I'm trying to avoid.
But something really interesting is happening: the convergence of avant-garde, classical and pop music. I believe this represents a tremendous opportunity to bridge the gap that may exist between academia and the pop/production world. In my opinion, artists like Squarepusher are just as relevant to the academic world that they are to the electronica scene. Not only has Squarepusher succeeded in broadening the palette of modern pop music, but he's spearheaded a popular genre of music where synthesis and DSP processes have become an intrinsic part of the composition. In an increasingly complex and technical environment, musicality is a skill that has become more important than ever. All the best plug-ins in the world still can't make up for it, and I can't think of a better tool than Csound with which to illustrate both... It's an incredibly powerful software, but it really makes you think of music in ways that few other apps do. Boot up your favourite text editor and you truly find yourself confronted to a blank page. No staff or equal tempered scales... In order to write even the simplest piece of music in Csound you have to think as a composer.
SY: There's a lot of interesting thoughts here! I think in regards to your description of your course, it sounds like the level of discussion is quite excellent! I think in my question to you I was thinking very much of something like this advanced level class that you mentioned. As it has been a while since I spent time learning basics for the first, I think I often forget how much one has to learn. Perhaps some day there will be opportunities to expand the scope of electronic and computer music courses to cover more topics.
As for a convergence of music, I do not see so much of an aesthetic or stylistic convergence, though I do see a very interesting situation where regardless of style we're all using the same tools or have at least a common language of computer music by which to discuss what we're doing. It's fascinating as techniques to using tools can really propagate from one style to another due to the large variety of people using computers for music making. I think it's fruitful for all parties involved.
I remember reading an article where Stockhausen was mentioning using ProTools in his work and somehow being blown away by that, thinking about how that tool gets used by so many people but how wide ranging the results can be: it's really not the tool but the user in the end. (Strangely, no one ever really discusses how far ranging the results are with standard notation...) I think we have a very curious fascination with our tools these days, because they can have a real impact on what's possible to create.
So getting back to music making, with a tool with as open-ended as Csound, could you describe some of the ways you have used it in the context of your music?
JS: I've been working with Csound in a variety of ways over the years, but it seems there are two main patterns in my work. There are pieces that could have only been written in Csound, such as “Musiques Pour Cultes”, and pieces where Csound is brought in as another tool in a more traditional production environment.
In the case of Musiques Pour Cultes, the entire piece relies on concepts which Csound makes readily available. For instance, there are tons of carefully crafted layers of sound fading in and out of each other and harmonic structures based on mathematical relationships that do not rely on traditional harmony. Certain things are really hard to do in Csound, but these are actually quite simple to achieve with an unparalleled level of control and precision for the composer. The exploration of the perception of time is another theme that runs across the piece, and there again, there are so many ways to stretch, compress, explore and transpose sounds that it is hard to find an equivalent elsewhere. Csound also makes it very easy to explore extremes, which is something I drew me to it right away. For instance, there are tons of granular instruments throughout the piece, but not always used 'traditionally'. One of the ways I wanted to play with the concept of the passage of time was to work with very long grains, well over a second in length, and immerse the listener in a universe that was in fact happening very quickly, but not from their current perspective, which creates a lot of tension I find rather beautiful. Because I really wanted to make the piece as immersive as possible I also played with phase relationships within instruments quite a bit and tried to take it to a level I hadn't heard before. That's another example of something that is really simple to do in Csound. The end result went beyond my expectations and I was able to not only move the sound outside of the speakers, but to create the illusion that sound was emanating from places in the room where there are none. It still took a lot of experimentation of course, but in the end Csound was the ideal tool with which to realize the piece.
The other approach to working with Csound is to consider it as simply another tool in my production 'bag of tricks', almost as a magic plug in that would allow me to do anything I can dream up. So lately I have been using Csound to process beats and breaks and mangle them in ways I haven't found in any plug ins, yet. I'll process a few files, have Csound give me a lot of variations and simply pick the ones I like and import them in Logic, Pro Tools or Live. It's a very different approach than the one I was describing earlier, but it's just as powerful. I've walked in on sessions which had nothing to do with Csound or computer music and in the time it takes o tweak a .csd file and render it, I was able to offer something no one else could. That's a great feeling, and it makes you look more like a rockstar!
For my next release, I'm trying something in between, where the core of the piece is actually written in Csound, but all the sounds are rendered to a file individually and put together in Live or Logic. The first results I've had have been very encouraging, and I am very excited about this approach. I am hoping to have something ready by the year's end, but I keep getting sidetracked working on other people's music. But that's a whole other topic in itself!
SY: Wow! It's great to hear about how the many ways you are working with Csound as well as the possibilities it has opened up for you! Thank you very much for your time for this interview and I will be looking forward to listening to your new works when they are finished!
JS: Thank you!