London's Scanner and New York's DJ Spooky have just released a joint offering The Quick and the Dead, so we caught up with them to talk technology...
They're as different as they are alike. Scanner, aka Robin Rimbaud, is the avant-garde techno trickster, named after the police scanner he used to snoop in on phone conversations in order to gain original (if somewhat morally questionable) samples to blend with his recordings. He's hosted the Electronic Lounge club at the ICA, and had performance and composition commissions that have brought him in contact with the likes of Stockhausen. In 1998 he was even awarded a Fellowship in Sound at John Moore's University in Liverpool.
DJ Spooky meanwhile, aka Paul D Miller, is the turntablist who proudly straddles the divide between street culture and academia. He's contributed to highbrow journals, gained recognition in the visual arts and collaborated with people as diverse as Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, the Wu Tang Clan's Killah Priest and, of course, a certain Bethnal Green resident called Robin.
Although Scanner's known for sparse electronics, and Spooky huge beat-collage melting-pots, their joint CD, The Quick And The Dead (reviewed on p116), is an imaginative electronic journey with quite a few surprises. And it's the first in a series of collaborative releases that Scanner's Sulphur Records is about to launch on an unsuspecting public.
"I'm interested in the way one person's work can influence another's," Scanner begins. "Like in science and the way one chemical can affect another chemical. Collaboration is an interesting way of learning to listen, to see when you should and shouldn't play."
So what did the collaboration mean for Spooky? "Well, Scanner's a friend first and foremost," he replies, "so it's like a conversation. I think every time you deal with any different situation you have to get new information, and he uses different equipment, and different frequencies. So my whole take was to figure out a way of exploring these different aesthetics.
"As a DJ I try to mix lots of cultural perspectives together, and show different routes of access, and that's what me and Scanner do. I deal with the disembodied architecture of urban narrative, meaning records and mix tapes, whereas Scanner deals with urban narrative as frequency. So we combine the forces and that's where this project came out."
Spooky's an intense and serious man who views himself as primarily a writer and artist. Right now, he's tired from his recent hectic schedule, and his words are slow and deliberate. By contrast, Scanner's speaking in continual rapid fire. Although every bit as cerebral as Spooky, he desires to communicate with anyone and everyone, and even professes a liking for Crass, the one time DIY anarchist punk band.
"Yeeeaaah, I have a history!" he laughs. "I didn't just appear with strange electronic bleeps. Also, I've actually read every single copy of Future Music. Does that make me sad?"
Spooky and Scanner have reached out to people, not only with music, but also through numerous talks and conferences. But doesn't too much theory detract from the actual feel? "No, everything is thought," says Spooky. "Music is one way of thinking, writing is another. Anyone who says you can't analyse music is full of crap. I get a lot of flak about this stuff."
"It's important to do," Scanner agrees, "but not in a high-brow, scary manner. Ideas should be easily talked about, and be very exiting and stimulating."
Brave new world
These philosophical musos could talk the legs off Plato. They have opinions on most things, such as the onward march of music technology. "The advantages outweigh the disadvantages," Scanner exclaims. "It's extraordinarily positive that anybody now has the possibility to be the producer of sound. Things are becoming far more desktop-based, and software has enabled us to explore new sound avenues, like MetaSynth, which enables you to draw sound.
"I can't think where things are moving to," Scanner continues, "but I've been recording for about 20 years, and when I started I was using reel-to-reel recorders, cutting up tape and stuff, but now things are so miniaturised. Miniaturisation, linked with computer technology, has been the major shift in the way we produce work now."
Although the music of the future may be shaped to a certain degree by the technology available, even tech-heads like DJ Spooky are still at pains to stress the importance of the human element too. "Sometimes, these days," Spooky argues, "it seems like the machines mean more to people than the people. It's all about how you invest technology with conscience.
"I think people lose track of that and get caught up in the equipment issue, and they lose track of the fact that what the equipment is making is culture. As an artist, my whole thing is to try and show people the spaces to look at, the environment we inhabit."
And is Scanner in agreement? "Yeah," Scanner replies, "like I can tell you what gear I use, but it doesn't tell you how I do it. I've read Future Music and some musicians say, 'I can't tell you what exactly I use because other people might rip me off'. I don't know whether that shows a lack of confidence, or a belief that people are gonna go and buy the same gear.
"If somebody uses the same Akai sampler as you for example, they'll probably use it in a different way. If you asked Beethoven what he used, he'd say 'a piano and a piece of paper', but obviously if you or I went and got a piano and a piece of paper, we wouldn't sound like Beethoven. Sure, with certain things there are recognisable sounds, but so too there are with the piano. The most important thing is to get that balance between using technology, and not letting it use you."
So do musicians sometimes wrongly seek inspiration in new technology? "Yeah, some people think you can find solutions in a new machine," Scanner continues, "and obviously it can give you a new kind of language for a short while. It can teach you new things, but the most important thing is not to be seduced too much by that. I still don't think I've explored the equipment I've got to the extreme that I could. I haven't even learnt how to program the synths properly yet.
"Within the Akai S1000 sampler, I'm sure there are probably new things I can learn to do with it. I'm always struck by the fact that I can produce something new, with the same devices. The most important thing is to explore using whatever you have, not to buy new gear for the sake of it. The first two or three Scanner records were done entirely on just a four-track recorder and a Digitech Time Machine, which is like a basic sampler. It has a 7.6-second time delay, an echo and you can feed any sound into it. It's completely analogue."
The bottom line, for both of them, is that the artist should control the machinery, not the other way round. Music software, for example, is now a high street staple, but if used wrongly it can be as limiting as it can be liberating.
"Screen-based software can encourage you to work in patterns that can
be limiting," Scanner explains, "but it's best when it's abused,
like Crass, you know, throw it in the fire. I actually have a problem with
screen-based stuff. We take so much information in through a screen already
and music is about listening, not necessarily seeing."
Spooky agrees. "These days a lot of people complain that music sounds the same because people are using the same software. Software is an input-output machine, but it puts its own stamp on it. Dealing with software doesn't bother me, but I do think a lot of people don't tweak the software or change things up enough. MetaSynth is an amazing program though."
But doesn't all this technology talk detract from the musician being able to connect with the wider culture, and is that important anyway? "Does it matter?!" Scanner exclaims. "Art is not a 'thing' spelt with a big capital A, it's a process. Samples can immediately give you cultural reference points, like when you're listening to a track and you recognise an old disco sample. But what's interesting right now is that music is being produced that doesn't pertain to any of those things. People are using technology as it breaks, as it's almost glitching."
"It all depends what your goal is," Spooky interjects. "Some people don't want to communicate and they don't give a toss whether you get it or not. People like Stockhausen or John Cage, they'll sit there in a room with a coin spinning and they'll do it for an hour, and call it music, and not care whether anyone gets it or not. Ha ha ha."
Keep music live?
Spooky goes on to ponder how the music of the future could be a completely immersive multimedia experience involving bio technology and neural interfaces. It's fascinating stuff, but Scanner's not convinced. "To be quite honest," he sighs, "you have to realise you're asking artists about art, and that's valid, but what about the general public? The
equivalent of Elton John is still gonna be popular in a hundred years time. We'll still be using the same threads and songs. People like an easy life."
Indeed they do, but changes sometimes come anyway. The advancement of electronic music for example, has meant that in some quarters, the importance of live music is being re-evaluated. "I've been wondering about the validity of performing live," Scanner muses. "Does it serve any purpose? Especially with electronic music. What more can it add? I wonder how interesting bald men standing behind electronic flashing buttons really is!"
And what does Scanner's live set-up involve exactly? "When I go live I take miniaturised versions of all the gear I have," he explains, "so I have a tiny Roland keyboard, a tiny Yamaha sampler. It's like putting my gear into a microwave for three minutes and then taking it out in a shrunken format, ready to take away with me. I don't have any drum machines or anything like that."
Scanner constantly explores new methods of operating in the public arena. He recently held a sound installation exhibition at the ICA, 'Sound Polaroids', where he used the MetaSynth program to convert images into sound, to create pieces based on photographs of various London locations.
Meanwhile, Spooky's been mulling the whole live question over, and his thoughts
have taken him to Japan. "If you look at a place like Japan where karaoke
is a billion-dollar industry, there are people co-existing with pre-recorded
material... it's fascinating. It's what hip hop is in a certain sense too.
Karaoke is just Japanese hip hop in a sort of twisted way. I think that you
can really have a lot of different approaches to how you deal with the creative
act "With my last album, Riddim Warfare, we
recreated the samples and went out live. I play double bass too, so for me, it's really not that mind-blowing to go back and forth."
Communication is the key
Artists like Scanner and DJ Spooky might ponder big questions, but their parting shots indicate that, like artists through the centuries, their goal is really quite straight forward: to reach people
"It's important to keep trying, and to get a response," states Scanner. "There's nothing worse than when you see a film, for example, and afterwards you just don't know what to say about it, other than just that it was OK... and that's the worst thing you could say about anything."
"As a DJ," Spooky concludes, "I just try, as far as is humanly possible, to show that there's a lot of stuff co-existing, and to bring it into a context where people can check it."
Scanner and Spooky. Investing the digital ether with soul. They are ghosts in the machine.
Scanner's kit list
Roland JV-1080 sound module
Reaktor - "a sampling synthesis piece of software that enables you to develop your own sound. Great!"
MetaSynth - "You can literally draw the sound, a bit like PhotoShop"
Logic Audio - "I used Cubase for years and found that it was such an appallingly supported program. I had so many problems."
DJ Spooky's kit list
Apple Macintosh Quadra 800 with
Pioneer DJM500 mixer
Mackie 60-channel mixing board
RS900 effects unit
Software - Soundesigner, Cubase, Quadrophonic effects system
Sony MD Discman
"And there's a lot more but I forget off the top of my head."Gal Detourn Future Music 03/00