There's a full-circle element here, because techno was precisely where Horvitz came from. In fact, Horvitz had planned to leave techno behind. A decade making the music as Sutekh ended in boredom. Questing after a new stage of life, the decision was made to study first the techniques underpinning the Western canon—think counterpoint, harmony and the like—then music's most radical expressions and the underlying structure of sound itself.
Horvitz's ears were changed studying electronic music and recording media at Mills College. The Oakland school's music department reads like an honour role of avant-garde icons (Pauline Oliveros, Maggi Payne and Robert Ashley have all been faculty members). Never again would Horvitz be able to un-hear the quivering vibrations of beating frequencies, the atomic symmetries underlying rhythm and pitch, the spectral glitter of complex overtones and the brain fuck of psychoacoustics. Understanding and exploring these phenomena were keys to becoming the composer Horvitz envisioned. They ultimately became the calling card of a new artistic persona: Rrose.
When the first Rrose releases appeared on Sandwell District in 2011, they both crystallised the techno zeitgeist and felt immediately timeless. Here was the size and power of natural forces coaxed into a dance music framework, huge and imposing yet devoid of aggression or manipulative intent. As years passed and techno adopted a self-consciously masochistic stance, Rrose's music only increased its solemn power, largely by staying the same, or "exploring a narrow area," as Horvitz puts it.
This is because Horvitz uses simple means to create results that play with our perceptions in profound ways. It's also because the music just barely betrays its human origins, seeming to have spawned spontaneously in a prehistoric cave rather than a modern studio. This combination—using sound's inherent qualities to play tricks on our ears while reducing the imprint of the artist's taste and ego on the music—gives things a monolithic significance.
When I visited Horvitz's studio late last year, we spoke mostly as if Rrose had never happened, imagining instead that Horvitz's vision of composing came true. This isn't to spite the techno fans understandably curious about the grand master's sound. But as Horvitz says, if you're interested in understanding the artist, you'd best understand their influences.
Amazing getting first-hand tutelage from someone like that.
Also Roscoe Mitchell from the Art Ensemble Of Chicago.
Mental. Name a more iconic duo.
It attracts a lot of students from the free improv world. But there are also a lot of people connected to early computer music. Chris Brown and John Bischoff were there. They were both some of the first composers to use networked systems in computer music.
Maggi Payne was there, too, right?
Yep, Maggi Payne, she was there. She's kind of semi-retiring now but she's super inspiring. She'd be teaching kids how to splice tape and how to understand the roots of how musique concréte was made, using microphones and studio techniques, stuff like that.
So there's a large degree of self-determination. What did you do with that freedom?
When I got there I wasn't sure exactly what I'd focus on. But I came across this James Tenney piece called "Spectral Canon For Conlon Nancarrow." It gave me a spark.
I was thinking, "OK, I've been studying piano for five years but I'm still not that good at playing it. What if I made music for computer controlled piano?" I saw a lot of potential in the simple idea of applying the harmonic series to player piano. I managed to contact Yamaha and got them to loan a Disklavier to Mills while I was there. The school was pretty happy that I arranged that. So they gave me a classroom-slash-studio for the Disklavier because it's a very expensive instrument. I had access to go in and work with it almost anytime I wanted to. So I decided to make that my main project. Another important early piece for me was was Ligeti's "Continuum." Do you know it?
That's the super-fast harpsichord piece? It's the B2 on a WERGO issue of "Requiem."
Yeah well I wrote a whole paper on it, analysing it measure by measure. I don't know how deep you want to go into this kind of thing.
We want to go all the way.
I did other courses where I had to compose electronic music and improvise and all that but my thesis ended up being these studies for automatic piano. So I developed all this work at Mills and my thesis compositions became the album on Richard Chartier's label Line. That's all from the thesis project.
When you explained before what interested you about the Tenney piano piece, you mentioned the harmonic series. For someone who's never heard of it, could you explain what it is and how it can be applied to music?
The harmonic series is just about the simplest thing that every two-year-old learns about. It's the sequence of numbers: one, two, three, four, five, six and so on. That's the harmonic series. But when you apply it to other things, you can generate all this complexity. When you think of it in the realm of sound, the way the harmonic series is usually described is by using the example of a vibrating string. If you have a string pulled tight between two points and then you pluck it, it will vibrate along its entire length. That's number one. This is definitely good to show with a diagram.
It will also vibrate with a division in the middle at double the speed of the first vibration. It will also vibrate at three times that base rate and four times and five times and so on. The loudness of those different vibrations will determine the quality of the sound.
So now we're getting to harmonics and overtones.
Right. Overtones and harmonics are related. Harmonics are kinds of overtones but overtones don't have to be harmonically related so they don't have to be whole number multiples. Another instrument I should mention that inspired me is called the Rhythmicon. Do you know it?
I think it's a primitive drum machine but I don't remember anything specific.
It's sometimes called the first drum machine, yes. It was invented by Leon Theremin. It was a little keyboard that had this ingenious mechanism of optical discs inside. The idea was to connect pitch and rhythm in an instrument. The lowest note will pulse at a certain rate, it's just a regular blip. If you play the next note up, it will pulse at twice that initial rate but also twice the frequency. The third note is blipping at three times the initial frequency and also three times the rate. If you hold them all down at the same time, you get this cascading effect. It doesn't sound very interesting but the idea behind it is really profound.
So you can hear how the pitches of the blips are related directly to the rhythms. The relationship between the pitches is the same as the relationship between the rhythms.
It's a big one—that pitch and rhythm are a continuum. If you slow down a pitch enough it becomes a pulse. If you speed up a rhythm enough it becomes a pitch.
Right, and I guess we'll get to that more directly if we talk about Stockhausen stuff. But the way the Rhythmicon works is fascinating, too. It shoots light through these discs with holes punched in them. I don't grasp how it works really but it's genius. But that concept, as you say, when it's applied to other things, it has so much potential for generating material.
I mean, the Rhythmicon touches on a blueprint we hear in a lot of the so-called minimal compositions coming from the States in the late '60s.
Minimal music often uses these simple polyrhythmic relationships. The Rhythmicon is a very strict demonstration of it.
Should we talk more specifically about the piano pieces now?
This feature could just be "Rrose presents player piano."
We'll get to techno eventually.
Here's one of the piano pieces I made, "Study No.4." This is probably the simplest of the pieces. It was one of the first ones I came up with. The original idea was to apply the harmonic series in the simplest way possible. But I was so blown away by these emergent cascading shapes that you hear when you have these harmonic polyrhythms playing against each other.
That whole concept of shapes emerging from the combination of other elements—that's something that comes up a lot in my techno work, too. I put a bunch of elements together, and if I hear something emerging out of those combinations of elements, that's where I try and investigate further. Instead of getting an idea and thinking, "I want to make something that sounds like this" and then figuring out how to make it, I'm putting a bunch of things in a pot and looking for some weird chemical reaction to follow. I'll use that as a guide for what I want to do with the sound rather than deciding where it should go from the beginning.
This piece demonstrates an emergent pattern very clearly. A lot of the piano pieces were based around one simple shape that was then modified in a very systematic step-wise way. The basic shape of this piece was a slow moving glissando starting from the top white note down to the bottom white note. Just each white key from top to bottom moving at a very steady rate. When the first glissando starts, another one also begins but moves twice as fast. Another one also starts at the same time moving three times as fast, and four times and five times all the way up to sixteen. When they start together, they're all beginning from the top white key. Then as they start to move down the keyboard they drift out of phase because one is moving at a certain rate, another is going twice as fast and so on. The slower one is going to take much longer to get to the bottom of the piano whereas the faster ones are going to go quickly.
When all 16 start at the same time, it's very dense because you hear all these notes at once. So I start everything very slow. As the faster glissandos fade away, everything speeds up. As it gets more sparse, it speeds up. In the second half of the piece, I do everything upside down and reversed. Everything converges and ends on the lowest end of the piano.
When I had the idea to do this, I had no idea what it was going to look like on the piano keys themselves. So when I watched the automatic piano playing it for the first time, I was amazed to see these cascading patterns forming on the keys. It looks like the notes are sweeping up and sweeping down when actually what you're seeing is just the interaction between all those shapes.
The thing I can compare it to is an LED sign. When you see an LED sign with scrolling text from a distance, you just see these words moving. But if you get up close to it, you see each light is just flashing off and on at a certain rate. Nothing's moving, it's just a bunch of lights flashing. When you step away, you have this illusion of movement.
There's something similar happening here and that's something that I also try and achieve in techno—finding those interactions where you step back and you're hearing something that's not really there. You brain is making connections to things that are emerging from the culmination of other elements.
For me, that's a very interesting philosophical question about existence. If you hear something as the result of the combination of things, is that something that really exists or is that an illusion? Maybe everything we experience in the world is somehow a culmination of elements that emerge from other things. That's a really profound area to explore for me.
We'll talk more specifically about this stuff in relation to techno later. Final question on this, and I'm deliberately asking this in a dumb way, but what underlying factors make those scores look beautiful to us? It looks like a Xenakis architecture drawing.
It's funny how these things work themselves out. You were going along doing your own thing without a specific goal and then the next decade of your life randomly opened up in front of you.
A link we're trying to make here is that some of the concepts you learned at Mills can be put to good use in techno. Do you think Ostertag likes your techno because he recognises underlying auditory phenomena from experimental music?
I think he likes the fact that there are subtle changes in the sound. I don't think he likes loopy techno. He's not into this incessant loop thing. He thinks that's pretty boring. But I think he can hear that sonic complexity in what I'm doing. Also one of the things that he understands now is the kind of sexual energy created by this music.
Recently, Bob told me he helped organise a gay sex party and there was an "Rrose room" that just had a playlist of my tracks on loop. And he said it was the room everyone wanted to be in. He called me after that and was like, "OK, I want to figure out how to make music like this, let's do another project together."
How did your approach to making techno change following the Mills experience?
There's one aspect I mentioned before, which is that I learned what I needed to leave behind. I didn't need this reliance on naive, melodic content, or to refer to song structure. Of course, you can make great techno that is based around song form, chords and melodies. But I realised that's not what I wanted out of it. So the first thing was figuring out what I needed to leave out of it.
For me, the Mills experience was about refining my direction. I didn't know it was going to lead to techno. I always admired composers and artists who could find a really narrow area to work in but I always felt that wasn't my personality. I felt like I needed the freedom to experiment, to try out all kinds of things stylistically. I felt like the Sutekh project had branched out in too many directions.
So I found a narrower place to focus my attention. There was also this profound realisation that you can find all kinds of diversity and complexity in a narrow area. I also have these competing aesthetic views. One is like, I love when DJs play whatever they want and clear a dance floor and really mix it up. I totally appreciate that. Or I can criticise a DJ who's super monotonous and narrow. But there's also a way to approach a narrow area and find something interesting in it.
Studying things like James Tenney's music and Charlemagne Palestine, Stockhausen, working with the faculty at Mills, I think it was more about training as a listener than as a composer. I don't necessarily apply so many compositional techniques in the Rrose stuff, but the way I hear music and sound is much deeper after going through that program. So the way I can evaluate my own music when I'm making it goes much deeper.
There are certain things I learned about sound and things like overtones and the harmonic series that I do incorporate in techno. But the more important thing I took from the program was this refined ear of hearing the subtleties in sound. The more complex music you can dive into and listen to and experience and understand, then the more refined your ear becomes and the more subtlety you're in tune with when you're listening.