ON BREAKING THE SQUARE
John Parker and Tom Moody
The following discussion between John Parker and Tom Moody coincides with the release of St Celfer and Tom Moody: eleven tracks on Bandcamp (St Celfer is Parker’s alias). This Q&A was conducted by email from June-Sept 2020 and then edited for continuity.
Tom Moody: I've been re-reading our interview from 2004 and thought it might be helpful to recap what's been going on with the two of us over the last 16 years. At the time of that Q&A my main involvement with music had been working as a DJ of electronic dance music (a bar/restaurant in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a paid gig!) and I was starting to extend my still-nascent blog writing to music coverage. I had made some tunes on my old Mac SE computer and was a music junkie but not a self-identified musician.
Since then I have posted several hundred songs on the internet, the most recent in the form of 10-song releases on Bandcamp. I've performed a few times in New York City, even though I like making music more than “playing out.” You and I have collaborated on several musical projects, including the CD Scratch Ambulance, available on Amazon, Spotify, etc. So in resuming this discussion I'm maybe less of a novice picking your brain about techniques and gear and more of a... dare I say peer?
John Parker: I think it would be hard to say you have just moved up to the level of “peer” when our meeting and discussions helped form my own music. Just discovering your blog and reading your viewpoint not only on music, but also, on art and politics, has always been an inspiration. That interview we did on your blog continues to uphold a standard that I reference from time to time so I can refocus on what I am trying to do.
I think you and I share sensibilities but have evolved conceptually in unique and interesting directions. One difference is our relationship to the machine -- the means of making music. Your skills and interests are moving towards concise, exacting structure while I am trying to break it. I think we both have a reaction to the machine, to not repeat ourselves. Your music has more references to contemporary electronic music, yet we are both “avant garde” in our different ways. This evolved difference interests me, 16 years later.
Also, we both have a visual art background; a shared interest in both sound and vision informs our music. For me, moving to another sense, the aural, frees me from being in the shadow cast by the visual. (What is seen is exhaustively discussed and opined about, unlike what is heard.) I can more intuitively feel around in the dark without the pressure to please the history of painting. Making music also directly links to my other career that involves working with water [John is an Olympic rowing coach and former Olympic rower. --ed.] because sound has liquid-like properties.
Tom: Walter Murch, the famous Hollywood sound editor, wrote an essay where he talks about the struggle between King Sight and Queen Sound. When we’re in the womb (immersed in liquid) the Queen is ascendant. Soon after we emerge into the light the King takes over and dominates most of our lives, until our senses start failing, then the Queen steps in again.
John: Or times have changed, as Marshall McLuhan describes: we have moved from an age of sight, with its organizing perspective, to an era of sound, more instantaneous and immersive and less linear and logical. This gives me motivation.
What do you think of making art in an area that’s a step removed from the one where you’re an “expert?” I’m trained as a painter but beginning to realize I might be a better musician. How do you connect your visual and aural output?
Tom: I don’t, on any kind of conscious level. I’m with Clement Greenberg, who is still an ogre to conceptualists and multidisciplinarians everywhere, that a discipline (such as painting or music) should best remain “entrenched in its area of competence.” As a musician I don’t want to get a pass because I’m “just an artist.” That said, a lot of music theory I find absurd, such as giving chords and scales specific properties. In writing songs I don’t make any qualitative distinction between, say, “D major” and “G minor” – it’s of no interest to me since any chord can be transposed and any sequence of notes (like colors in an Albers painting) is influenced and altered by the surrounding notes. Complex music can be written without committing “the rules” of Western notation to memory. Possibly some of that indifference comes from being an artist first.
John: That’s a great analogy. I think about Albers’ work when I'm making music since it’s about questioning how one’s perspective can completely mandate the meaning of what we see or hear. I'm dubious of rules, tidy step-by-step logic, and linearity and more interested in the simultaneous and instantaneous. I want to break rote, accepted, unquestioned traditions of how we see and hear.
Tom: Since our 2004 discussion you’ve changed aliases and I would say working methods a few times. After your releases as jenghizkhan and collaboration with Cave Precise as Man from Planet Risk, you recorded several releases as earcon, which made heavy (and inventive) use of the Elektron Monomachine instrument. More recently you have reincarnated as St Celfer, and incorporated music into live gallery performance, combining direct drawing of patterns on the walls with the playback of individual tracks of music, dispersed around the space using an array of directional speakers. Could you talk a bit about the origins of the St Celfer name and persona?
John: I needed a new name because it was a new project, which for me means a new art practice. I had quit “art” as an income generating passion in the supposed center of the art world market, New York, where we met. As you know visiting me in New Jersey after I returned to my [rowing] career, I built a soundproof room in my garage along with a small studio where I could paint. The earcon project, one that was still rooted in my New York experience, came together retroactively in that focused environment, an ideal space for creative release from my day job. I tracked out almost a decade of work from my Monomachine SFX-6.
Tom: When you say “tracked out,” you mean you had sequences stored in the instrument that you rendered as .wav files?
John: Yes I recorded the tracks from the sequences and settings I had stored in the machine while I was composing and performing in New York and arranged them into songs on the computer in New Jersey. I had that machine, serial #001 of 500, for a long time and was a beta tester helping in a small way finalize its final form. Strangely my music as earcon sounded nothing like what others were doing with it.
I just now realize I moved those tracks from the aural world with few visual cues -- only those provided by “the machine” and its limited interface -- to one with the visual tidiness of a computer screen.
St Celfer emerged when my day job became particularly stressful to a crisis point near the end of 2016. I did a lot of reflecting on my mental state. St Celfer is simply “reflects” spelled backwards, appropriate for a word that means inversion, when speaking of mirrors. There is, indeed, a mystical element, an interest in the occult, a spiritual pursuit, and a somewhat new age-y-ness; nonetheless, I am an atheist and certainly no saint.
Tom: Can you talk a bit about your most recent project, “Space Between Points”?
John: In manifesto language, I break the plane, dismantle the square, obliterate the corner, and destroy all unnatural delusion-driven concepts that no longer serve a purpose but rather limit our vision. Once bringing focus to obscurity, now, the frame makes anything look good. It is a cage to our ideas and stifles creativity. Death to the tyranny of the square, the lazy convenience of the frame, and the fascism of labels!
Tom: Hard to argue with that! You’ve talked about Kazimir Malevich and I’m curious about his influence here. I know he had mystical underpinnings but most people probably think of him as a “geometric” painter.
John: In the period I mentioned, 2016, I took a real vacation, which meant the rare occurrence of traveling but not-for-work. I visited the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, and saw other collections there, as well as in Moscow and Kolomna, where I became re-acquainted with Malevich but also introduced to Elana Guro, the Ender family, and Mikhail Matyushin, who taught all of them at one time or another. Seeing Malevich’s Black Square (1913) in person is a completely different experience from seeing it in reproduction, as it’s neither square nor black. Interestingly Matyushin was primarily trained as a musician. He and Malevich created a Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun, a combination of visuals, music, and text, where the first Black Square appeared as a backdrop
Malevich was very much a mystic in search of the Fourth Dimension. St. Petersburg at this time was probably the most revolutionary period of the last century, a dynamic era abounding with ideas, many of which actually reached fruition. That trip was an inspiration for St Celfer's “Space Between Points.”
Tom: As I understand it, the recent St Celfer releases on Bandcamp are stereo mixes of the 16 tracks that were used for spatial distribution in the gallery, in the show which you ultimately did in São Paulo, Brazil. Would you say they are partial or provisional documentation of a unique, site specific experience, or are they meant as stand-alone pieces of music?
John: The tracks were made to fit the idea of an “aural tesseract,” a continuum that includes the sculptural array of speakers as well as drawing on the gallery walls. In São Paulo, I adapted the final presentation to the exhibit’s physical location. (It was a great experience to work with curators who were willing to take risks and allow me to fully execute my idea.) That presentation was purposefully improvised on a short timeline, only a week to prepare, in order to create mental stress. 16 speakers in a room dedicated to the work is the best way to experience it, but I am impressed with the music's durability when reduced to left-and-right tracks for headphone or speaker distribution.
Tom: Most recently you've been working on a new setup for live play -- are you ready to talk about that or is it still in process?
John: The new work encompasses much of the same process as Suites #1-9 (the sound component of the São Paulo installation posted on Bandcamp). However, I’m making music in real time (as opposed to tracking and then arranging) by using an instrument, homemade, or more accurately, “gambiarra,” in Brasilian Portuguese, to be played and heard live. I want to transition from an in-studio process to a live and improvised situation. I will be performing or, in other words, responding, in the moment to the actions I am making, rather than looking backwards and taking the best from pre-recorded material and re-composing it. In the 2004 interview I aspired to make new sounds or music, etc. Now I would substitute “explore” for “make.” Trying for “the new” is understood but “how” is more important.
The instrument’s creation is, itself, an exploration. I can never quite wrap my head around it. I am enjoying being lost. I travel step by step, try a decision, usually walk back, then forward again, on each sound generating component. My energies have gone into the creation of the interface between man and machine. It's a monster getting larger by eating itself.
For instance, there are midi converters, which only understand perfectly tuned chromatic input. There is a theremin component, which can be tuned to doric instead of chromatic scale for some added drama. Meanwhile two CD turntables that I scratch are manually wired into the same midi note converters. Cramming two input devices together makes more output unpredictability, with overloaded notes dropped.
Tom: In the 2004 interview we talked about your interest in live digital synthesis, as distinguished from analog electronics, retro styles, and sampling. I'd say that interest has continued for you, and connects all the activities and aliases described above. Do you agree?
John: I agree, but I’m not against analog electronics, retro styles, or sampling, and, in fact, use all three methods in my process. Recently and fortuitously for us, the act of making music became possible for anyone with access to digital means, an egalitarian leveler in the history of music making technology. This is my attachment to digital synthesis: its accessibility and pliability. And I think digital is at the very least the equal of analog. It all depends what you do with it.
Tom: In 2004 you talked about the plasticity of synthesis vs what I would call the brittleness of a sample. As you said, “A sample can only be pulled and prodded to a certain degree. Eventually when it has been modified by effects it will sound just like anything that has a heavy dose of that effect.”
I agree with that, but with the advent of granular-style synthesis every sample has the potential to become a small oscillator, creating new sounds from “invisible” parts of an old sound.
With samples you are also engaging with history, which is a concern of mine as a musical genre-bender, something I want to talk about more as we go.
In fact, on re-listening to your jenghizkhan releases (Brooklyn Sucks, Hooden Knooks, The Noise of Experiments) I found them quite sample-intensive. Typically a sample you’ve chosen – say, a spoken phrase – is distorted or time stretched, then effects are added, then distorted again, and it kind of builds. The listener can hear and think about each change as it’s being made. Meanwhile, little synth tunes are playing in counterpoint to the sample’s changes, and a kind of musical resolution or conclusion is reached. And they are mostly short songs. I’m sure the logic of these tracks influenced me as I started to get a little farther along in making my own music.
John: Wow, that is very well put and completely correct, better than I could have explained it myself. It’s the beginning of a movement!
In my early tracks I wanted to make sure I was not looping, which was all the craze in electronic music, (along with its antithesis, loose mixing of easy-on-the-ears sounds, called “ambient,” but, to me, a rehash of “easy listening” or “elevator music” -- on Quaaludes). For me music has to move you and not fall back into the background. So, the tracks are not quantized, to keep the listener alert by hearing small rubs, imperfections, and, in turn, this forced me to learn how to make a song from core elements. I'm a fan of folk music, believe it or not, and remember on the jenghizkhan tracks that I wanted to make a kind of electronic folk. I used my untrained background to an advantage, and I used painting theory to see the cliches and other traps.
We used to share gear. I know you have gone modular. What is your favorite setup now?
Tom: Those pictures on the internet of dudes proudly displaying their modular racks give me hives. When I was making oil paintings I laid out my palette on a large sheet of glass, worked for a few days until the painting reached a safe stopping point, and then cleaned all the oil paint off the glass. I do the same with gear. Set up some combination of computer and a group of Eurorack modules, record tracks, then dismantle everything and move it to another room, out of sight. I also have a couple of beatboxes that are alternately used and hidden away.
John: You’ve created an impressive vault of music on Bandcamp that maintains a unique vision throughout, and not because you have had a goal to make a huge amount of songs. There is a work ethic. I feel you are trying to make a statement through music. Your phrases are clear, persistent, short tracks that state concisely a stable set of ideas.
Tom: Thanks. I really appreciated it when you said a while back, about my Industrial Nonsense and Hardware Sequencer releases, that “they just fly by!” I’m trying to make music for the short-attention-span era, that packs as much as possible into a small window.
John: In your track "qMI Three Channel Composition (2019)," on Industrial Nonsense, for example, you are showing off your formal ability to move us through blocks of sound and make a statement in just a little over a minute and a half. There is no repetition on that entire album yet it seems to encompass everything I have ever heard you make. With Minutemen-like conciseness. (As in the ‘80s Southern California punk band.) And Schumann-circa-1840-like production. (He wrote 138 songs that year.)
Tom: Earlier you talked about us reacting to “the machine.” Can you elaborate?
John: In these tracks I hear shapes or blocks. Some of them are informed by your expansive knowledge of all kinds of music (evidenced by your extensive yet selective record collection). However, they are not "pop" (as in popular), since you are aware of the references and don't want them to be apparent or an entry point to the music.
In a painting, the canvas is the surface where you apply marks. The machine (or computer screen) is the place you put sounds. So, by "machine" I was thinking your work relates to the mechanical aspect of this. I see cogs. (Maybe this is why you tried to expose your non-traditional way of working by showing your scores.) Sometimes you even make images in your visual work that look like cogs. I know you hear melodies but I hear cogs or units like the ones I see. And, for sure, these cogs could be melodies but I think they are more essentially working and necessary parts of the whole.
Tom: I think this is what Leibniz called “monads,” if I actually understood monads. I’m sorry to say that I think the blocks are just my submission to what you’ve called the tyranny of the square. Those scores I posted are like little Mondrians (with obnoxious secondary colors) but they show how gridded out the typical software sequencer is. You have tracks (horizontal) and you have sections, rests, or movements (vertical). I think you can hear this mechanical structure in the music and for many that might be a flaw. I’ve learned a few tricks for how to dissolve some of those boundaries (using reverb, delay, and randomizing elements) but mostly I just accept them; I guess I’ve learned to love the machine.
John: Hold on. As a clarification, I don’t consider this a “submitting.” It is the reason I want to understand your music better. I think you are remixing, as did Mondrian, moving pieces of colored tape around his canvas, a process captured on his unfinished final paintings. Yours is a beautiful analogy with painting theory. ….And you come from DJ-ing, mixing tracks, or pieces, of a show, or a canvas. Sorry for interrupting...
Tom: Like you, I don’t like quantizing notes to the grid. But I accept it as a presence. Your interest in breaking the square is much more audible in your work, or perhaps, not audible, since I don’t hear it. You may have been using Ableton or Logic on those jenghizkhan tracks but I only hear the sounds; the structure feels fluid and organic. And there is direct continuity between the jenghizkhan and St Celfer tracks. Both maintain a balance between music and “noise” or pure sound elements. The jenghizkhan tracks are shorter and feel more tightly organized (but never machinelike) while the St Celfer music feels looser and more improvisational. Both have a great deal of subtlety in the sounds. As I’ve said before, you hear with more nuance and precision than I do – I’ve noticed this when we’ve collaborated and I see how you do your mixes.
John: Not sure that’s true! But, I appreciate the compliment and even more the insight. This brings up an important reaffirmation of something I said in the 2004 interview that I can clarify. I am not using digital synthesis to rehash music styles for a nostalgic effect, in other words, to get to the same result with a different means. This is why my Monomachine tracks do not sound like anyone else’s. In fact at that time both of us were on the fringes of the 8-bit scene. That was the main appeal of my getting live shows, which was completely unintentional.
You reference your music as “lo-fi.” This could also feel “retro” like the first days of computer music. Do you feel your music is part of these niches?
Tom: In my statement on the old last.fm I noted that I was “interviewed in the documentary film 8-Bit but my music is on the periphery of that scene due to extra bits.” I love the vintage game sounds and use them as some of those blocks or cogs. What I really like is when they rub against a completely unrelated cog, such as 1970s jazz drumming or a juicy analog Moog sequence. A few years back someone described my music as genre-bending; that’s not conscious, as in “I know, I’ll mix ‘A Love Supreme’ with ‘Sympathy for the Devil,’” it’s more of a critical reflex asserting itself. I’m the same way as a painter; working in multiple styles was something I did from the beginning, and later found moral support for when I discovered Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke. I think overall my Bandcamp releases are more cohesive than my visual work, maybe because of the brevity of each song and the 10-song cutoff for each release.
You mentioned "qMI Three Channel Composition (2019).” What else stands out for you in regards to discussing where we have evolved after 16 years?
John: One track that clearly overlaps with my personal likes: "Who Let Him Out? (Ladies' Paradise II)," from 2012, before you started releasing on Bandcamp and which I saw on your live performance archive. You take a field recording that has no beginning or end. Block it out. And cog it into a work with other similar sounds repeating it without losing our interest. For me it shows both your intentions and your skills.
Tom: That one was work-for-hire, an idea pitched by a curator ("make a piece using another musician's ambient sounds"). I was listening to the field recordings of shopping centers for interesting "beep" sounds from cash registers, forklifts backing up, turnstiles, etc. Some of these were already simple melodies, others I could play in the sampler by assigning new pitches. There were also percussive noises from countless bumps, scrapes and jostles, that could be rhythmically arranged.
John: Your track is definitely not ambient. It is so much more loaded than just the sounds.
Tom: From your St Celfer tracks on Bandcamp I especially enjoyed “Serenade No Cry,” “Singspiel” and “March of the Covids.” “Covids” has a kind of glitchy quasi-bassoon (among other intriguing sounds); “Serenade” has a pretty, soprano sax or oboe-like run of notes that repeats. I like having some kind of melody or rhythm to anchor the "noise" elements (as I guess you know). The meat of the piece is the variety and ingenuity of these glitched-out elements but the melody acts as a pleasant bed for this activity.
John: It's interesting that you hear melodies in my music; it's all the talent I had to string a few notes together and put them in a sequencer. Those melodies were just layers of sounds and their cohesive sequence kept that layer from mixing with another one. I need the layers to create tension.
Tom: You’re being modest about your note-stringing ability. That plaintive, recurring “soprano sax” riff in “Serenade No Cry” consists of a note, a triplet, the triplet inverted, and a higher note. (A conservatory musician might care which notes of the scale they are.) If you were a soundtrack composer this would be audio gold. I could imagine a nature documentary of a cheetah running across the veldt, along the top of a ridge, in silhouette, in slow-mo. The music says "he is the last of his kind, he is a beautiful animal, we are sad."
But in your tune it's just one element (a cog) interacting with other cogs, some of which also have melodic content, but not as foregrounded. Different timbres, different moods, possibly time signatures -- at times it reminds me of Charles Ives with several ensembles playing simultaneously, and motifs fading in and out of our attention. But the "sax" glues it together, gives it direction, keeps my ear engaged.
Edward Tufte, the design guru, talks about the use of "confection" in a design, some sweet formal hook that helps to bring boring data alive in a chart or graph. Like a pretty color, or symmetry, or something nice about the line quality. For me the sax is the confection.
John: Your nature documentary analogy gives insight to how you "see" music. Your latest release, Melding Principle, in my opinion is a huge jump forward in that direction.
Tom: A jump forward in being visual? How so? Or did you just mean a jump in quality compared to earlier work?
John: Vision. I am not sure what we would call it in the aural world. I am starting to see where you want to go and, more importantly, what is important in your production.
You may use loops but they are essential elements -- object and subject – that you state a couple times, perhaps with a contrasting counter statement and then, bam, it's over in a quick minute... short and succinct. I especially like the tracks “Melding Principle” and “Melding Principle (Three Nebulaes).” The latter track moves through so many themes and genres, from classical to punk, and even temperaments, from humor to angst. The album as a whole feels less reverent than previous releases, although I’ve always admired your respect for your sources. I like the punk rock feel, like Suicide, the Alan Vega and Martin Rev duo.
Tom: Those guys also emerged from the visual art world. According to their liner notes, they were using the word “punk” in early 1971 (at an event at OK Harris Gallery called “A Punk Music Mass.”) I’ve developed a late admiration for Martin Rev’s writing and playing. I’m not a huge fan of rockabilly but I like Rev’s take on it, banging out chords on a damaged Farfisa keyboard.
John: I’ve been listening to old Nirvana bootlegs. I can say my music is influenced by the smashing of instruments at the end of their gigs. Each one is a unique orchestration but within a structure until it exhausts itself. It’s not random or just noise. There is a timing and build of tension. It’s even more dramatic to only hear it rather than to watch it.
Kurt Cobain used to make music by surfing the radio and piecing it together with no editing, like early musique concrete collages. He had an old cassette recorder where you have to push the record and play buttons together and then push pause. You can even hear the clicks and the getting up to speed and down to stop at the end of each clip. He called it “montage of heck.”
With St Celfer, I am interested in completely free patterns that when mixed unexpectedly change keys or tempo. It is remarkable how durable this process of purposeful chance can be. I can throw wildly different tracks into the blender and am relieved, at the end, that I can distance myself from the craft of making anything “popular.” I guess I create an urgency to find one piece that holds the chaos together.
Tom: You asked me at one point if I consider my music “pop” and if having a fan base is important to me. I’ve shied away from the sites that have a public listener count. These Silicon Valley platforms feel like an exercise treadmill where you are constantly being admonished to “get your numbers up.” If that’s what it means to be popular now I want no part of it. On the other hand, there’s a lot of snobbery in academic music that’s going to frown on all the beats in my tracks. Knowing what audience to pitch your music to is important to its understanding, but neither direction, dance music or sound art, looks very palatable to me right now. The music may have to have to find its own way without much active guidance from me.
John: This interview, as the first, serves as a touchstone for me. It causes me to reflect and to understand both of our creative endeavors. If we grossly generalize and use flawed terms from visual art, I realize I am a born formalist -- a spiral very carefully taped for accuracy is the first painting I ever did as a child -- who yearns to be more “representational, expressionistic, seeking the truth, knowledge, and moral betterment,” which is how Encylopedia Britannica describes the art formalism was reacting against. You’re coming from the opposite direction and I am always impressed by your formal skills, while it’s the content that’s the source of the work and keeps it deep. Fortunately we are neither of these art world cliches meeting in what I consider a very interesting place balanced in the middle.
I mentioned “vision” above. We have a place we can picture when thinking of sight -- a goal we can imagine captured like a snapshot -- but no destination like that for sound. Wherever it is, I’d like to go there.
Tom Moody, Noise Square, apologies to Kazimir Malevich and John Romero
St Celfer, Space Between Points installation, São Paulo, Brazil (photo by Marcus Leoni)
St Celfer, Space Between Points (photo by Marcus Leoni)
Tom Moody, studio
Tom Moody, screenshot of “Melding Principle” in process, Tracktion Waveform 9
Tom Moody, performance, Apex Art, NYC (photo by Aron Namenwirth)