July 30th, 2015 | Published in Articles
Joe Panzner is a composer, mastering engineer and musicologist based in Ohio. For nearly a decade now he has been building what is, for our money, one of the most consistently exciting & intelligent bodies of work in noise & computer music. In all of Joe’s work – from early solo effort Clearing, Polluted, through his two duos with Greg Stuart, to last year’s monolithic Tedium – there is a concern for the perceptual properties of layering, an acute sensitivity to the details of sonic surface and an instinct for proportional rightness; qualities which never fall into academicism, but instead bind together in a celebration of sonic pleasure and visceral white heat immersion.
The same assured sensitivity to the surfaces of sound that drives his own work also sees him increasingly in demand as one of experimental music’s mastering engineers of choice, so that his name is increasingly as ubiquitous on the packaging of contemporary out-sounds as Rashad Becker or James Plotkin. Somehow, in the midst of all this, and while being pestered by email with BTB’s interview questions, he’s had time to finish a book – The Process that is the World – which argues for the work of John Cage as a philosophical practice with affinities to the thought of Deleuze; published by Bloomsbury later this year.
I remember hearing Clearing Polluted for the first time and thinking how remarkably fully formed and distinctive it was, given how little of your own work seemed to be out in the world. I’ve since realized that you were pretty active before this, with Mike Shiflet (and probably others?). For anyone new to your work, can you give us a quick rundown of how you came to noise and experimental composition, and how you ended up making the kind of records you’ve ended up making?
It’s funny you ask this right now, as I’ve been forensically piecing the story together in recent months. I’ve hit a weird point in life, shared by a lot of my American friends, where I started something with a vague hunch when I was twenty and woke up almost fourteen years later trying to figure out what the fuck I have been doing with a third of my life.
I think it goes something like this.
In your teen years, in the highly-normalized Midwest United States, you develop a dim inkling that the world is far weirder than you ever realized. Usually there is some basement or warehouse or something that does this. My place was this hole in Cleveland called Speak In Tongues. I saw a ton of weird rock bands there, computer stuff like Oval, a bunch of noise acts I cannot remember very well. I would spend three or four nights a week there until the small hours of the morning, and I realized that I wanted some part of that for myself.
I went to college to study music. I played the flute, and I loved playing the flute. About a year and a half into my studies, I realized that my hands were all wrong. My fingers would curl unpredictably. It got worse when I practiced. Years down the road, I would realize that I suffered from focal dystonia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Focal_dystonia), which was probably the best/worst thing that could have happened to me. I had come to a point where I felt extremely uncomfortable with the disciplinary regime of music school, and the discomfort was made considerably more intense when it became clear that my body was not going to be compatible with that program.
So I had a couple years of bad depression and social anxiety isolation, which I used to immerse myself in MAX/MSP and eight-to-ten hours a day of listening to weird records. During that time, I had the good fortune of running into Mike Shiflet, and we’ve been involved in a great years-and-years long R&D project and an even better friendship. Those years were crucial to forging a sensibility – having a friend that understood the DIY background, the experience of doing weird stuff in Ohio, had an intellectual ambition and musical ambition, dead serious but self-deprecating… it was more or less everything I needed at the time.
joe panzner and mike shiflet (photo by jeff chenault)
Mike forced me to make my first solo record in 2006. Listening to it in hindsight, it’s astonishing how not-embarrassing it is, given my complete technical ineptitude. As usual, I turned my discomfort with my ineptitude into a years-long project that straddled self-improvement and self-flagellation. By the time I made Clearing, Polluted, I was a thousand times smarter and a thousand times more self-critical. Listening to that record is a weird and uncomfortable experience, in that I am impressed by what a leap I felt like I’d made, awkward-feeling about a number of details, and generally mystified by how I put it together.
More recent records have been more psychologically-controlled and less-volatile experiences, and in many ways more personally and musically satisfying. Dystonia Duos was an incredibly fun project-of-discovery with Greg Stuart, another incredible human living a distant-brother parallel life with my own. Tedium was a project where I decided to scrap a perfectionist streak and use a bundle of live recordings from clumsy or otherwise uncomfortable live shows. White Metal was a big celebration of friendship and camaraderie with kindred spirits, in this case, Greg and Michael Pisaro. I have, in some ways, an inkling of having found my people.
I’d wondered about the title of Dystonia Duos, that’s really interesting. It sounds like you really had your plans pulled out from under you though, and pretty much had to start again, find a new way to work? You’ve ended up working with recording, signal processing and DAWs, but with your classical performance background, did working on paper feel like an option? What led you to working the way you do?
After I realized that performance really wasn’t going to work for me, I had an awkward period of wandering in the music school wilderness. I tried composition for a while, but it was totally a bust. Part of this was the setting – I was in a place that was in the business of training ‘professional composers,’ and they had little patience at that time for the kind of work I was trying to do. And part of it is that I have very little in the way of musical imagination. I cannot think of a single time in my life where I could hear or imagine something in my head and then produce it. Everything I’ve done (and this is not simply a matter of self-deprecation) compositionally or otherwise has largely been a process of trying to attract and capture accidents. In some ways, I am thankful that the emergence of a serious physical impediment helped throw this into relief for me, even as I am still unpacking some of the psychological damage it’s done.
Fortunately, this coincided with a musical moment that really excited me – the glorious G3 Powerbook era of extreme computer music. I loved the performances that created a strong disjunction between the seen and the heard, the black box nature of that early Mego aesthetic (‘harass programs until they do something wrong’), and the willful anti-aesthetic impulse in a lot of that music. It also dovetailed nicely with my social situation, which more or less required total DIY exploration of my interests. It was, for better and worse, a way to be both self-contained and experimental, using the computer as a means of tweaking the boundary between control and chaos in the absence (for a while at least) of collaborators with similar sympathies.
Curiously, Greg and I had been living roughly parallel lives without knowing it – performance studies, discomfort with said studies in terms of their disciplinary schema, growing interest in philosophy, refusal of the rehearse/refine/reproduce strategies of performance. We only discovered this spooky similarity while we were working on the record, I think. The album’s name is a play on a title by Antoine Beuger, and the curved fingers on the cover are mine.
It’s interesting that you say you don’t “hear” the music first. I think that’s probably true of a lot of people but at the same time there’s still all this cultural baggage tying musicianship to intuition, so it’s good to have that expressed. I’m interested then, for example with Tedium, how did the work come together? When you were working on that, were there formal concerns, or aims that drove the piece, or was it more about having this material and wanting to find a shape for it that worked?
So Tedium is a medley of parts from three different live performances, with slightly crafty transitions edited at crucial moments (about forty-five seconds or so total, this rest is as it was). Each of the three shows was marked, at least in my memory, by some degree of personal/technical awkwardness that really clouded my judgment of whether I thought the performance was any good, so I stuffed all the recordings in a folder and buried them deep in my hard drive and figured I’d sort it out at some less irritable point. When I did, I discovered that some of the parts weren’t as awful out of their personal/technical context, so I started to excise the better parts and stitch them together. I vowed that, save for the transitions, I wouldn’t try to fix or add anything other than an overall shape. In the process of putting it together, I came to the frustrating realization that I’d put them in my ‘favorite’ formal shape (fractured/surge/ringing coda), but I again decided that I’d keep that as a kind of mistake I plan on not making again.
As self-critical as that all seems, it was actually pretty liberating to put it together that way, and the heavy-handed title is a bit of an inside (hell, it’s just for me, so it’s probably the ‘most inside joke’) about listening to myself and trying to figure out when you’re consciously or unconsciously done with a certain handful of ideas. Marcio Matos, the Noisendo label operator, drew the tired ghost on the cover. It looks like a Guston hood-figure on its smoke break, which is more or less how I felt when I was done
Joe Panzner & Greg Stuart New England Conservatory (photo by Lucas Schleicher)
Going back to something in your first answer, I’m interested in the names you mentioned when you say you now feel like you’ve found your people. It seems to me that your work sits on the borders of what might at first glance appear to be quite contrasting approaches to music making. Michael Pisaro’s work for example is often quite discursive – very often seeming to proceed from (materialist) theoretical concerns. But the textures of your music, and that of Mike Shiflet seem to have more in common with noise and extreme computer music, where practice and sensation have tended to run ahead of theory. Do you think there are common connections between these approaches, and do you give much thought to the relationship of your work to the work these guys are making? Particularly, I guess when you were realising, (Michael Pisaro’s composition) White Metal?
As someone with materialist or radical empiricist philosophical commitments, I’ve never really felt much of a tension between that intuitive/sensory approach and a conceptual/discursive approach – I recognize them as differences in degree rather than differences in kind. Sensation is always conceptually inflected, and concepts the accretion and abstraction of sensation. I don’t think that it was an accident that my interest in this line of philosophy tied together these different colliding vectors, like the unconscious revolt of my fingers, the interest in music that was much more directly involved the movement of electrical current, and so forth.
Because of a certain degree of uptightness and because of my slightly eggheaded/introspective approach, I never really gravitated too much toward the transgressive or party-hearty streams of the noise world, though I do love and respect a lot of that. I tended to love the more aloof and austere streams within noise, and I have always adored the David Tudor/AMM model of square-looking citizens producing radical music and ideas.
As for ‘White Metal,’ I never once felt that Greg and I were working on a particularly perverse reading of the piece. When we first looked at the score, I think we both had an idea of the kind of acoustic weight/density/activity that we felt it required, and though it’s very loud, I felt it very much in keeping with what I appreciate in Michael’s theoretical interests – exploration of degrees of environmental occlusion and transparency, the manner is which perception effects a reduction of impossibly complex environments, and an interrogation of matter and the perception of matter under conditions that aren’t habitually normalized. Extreme volume and extreme quietude are both far-from-equilibrium situations, and both tend to rupture habitual assumptions about the transparency or fidelity of perception – they both allow the seams and the malleability of the senses to be felt/thought. Making that version of the piece did help confirm, for me at least, that Michael’s music and much of the more ordinarily raucous stuff I’ve always loved exist on a continuum rather than in separate spheres of activity.
Joe Panzner & Greg Stuart New England Conservatory (photo by Lucas Schleicher)
I definitely didn’t mean to suggest that your White Metal was perverse! I actually think it makes perfect sense, and it’s a great record. As you say it’s not in the least incongruous with the ideas Michael’s music explores, or for that matter with the score itself. I guess the sense that it might be perverse comes from the idea people have that Wandelweiser compositions are characterized by this calm, gentle surface aesthetic. But I remember when we performed (Pisaro’s) July Mountain, Michael wanted it quite a bit louder than we could actually get it. In the space it almost felt like a composerly take on HNW.
At the risk of sounding like friend/fan-boy, Michael is completely awesome like that. He is the single most deep and diverse music listener I have ever met, and his quiet compositional pursuits are really just a tiny sliver of his thought. He’s also someone that trusts his performers in a way that’s very unusual for composers. The score becomes a bounded-yet-infinite place for the imagination to run, and I never once felt like we were breaking some unspoken Wandelweiser code because we pursued something intensely maximal. On the other hand, I am the person that listens to their recording of Christian Wolff’s ‘Stones’ with the volume maxed out.
Out of nosiness more than anything; who are your touchstones for the “materialist or radical empiricist” philosophy you mention? Your engagement with that kind of thought maybe points to an interesting tension in this area of music. It is so obviously thoughtful, intelligent music but, in contrast with the case of paper composition, that intelligence isn’t recorded in symbolic notation and so the decisions and thought can be more difficult to read off the surfaces. On one level that’s a maybe a virtue, in that it resists systemization and forces other approaches to listening and reading the work. But perhaps it also makes the music quite resistant, not only to academia (which needn’t be a problem) but to discourse in general? As a music academic yourself, how does your composition fit into your academic work? And outside of, say, Michael Pisaro, do you think there are interesting conversations going on around this kind of music – whether in academia or elsewhere.
Ha! Now we hit on the thorniest issue in my life right now, and a good part of why this interview has taken a very long time to complete. I graduated in 2012 with a doctorate in musicology, and it’s been a tough road since then. I recently completed a manuscript for Bloomsbury which is a revised version of my dissertation research. It’s called The Process That Is the World: Cage/Deleuze/Events/Performances. While not completely analogous with my present positions on certain philosophical or political issues in experimental music, it has served as a useful bridge between my view on the musical world and the world of academia. We’ll see how well that holds up after its publication date. For now, it’s functioned as something of a user’s guide to the ‘zone of indiscernibility’ between Cage and Deleuze, and people in classes and some readers have found it helpful not just for understanding the principles of ‘our line of work,’ but also for generating new performances. I consider this a high compliment, and it helps ease the anxiety about having grown (slightly) out of portions of it.
The work has been a long time in development, even longer than the actual time spent writing or researching. About the time that my body began resisting my ‘will,’ I became more or less obsessed with the materiality of sound production as a conjunction of meat/electricity/wind/etc. and a broader array of institutional forces (disciplinary situations like schools, music schools, prisons, etc.). It was by sheer accident or fortunate coincidence that I stumbled into a bookstore, decided it was time to read Deleuze, William James, De Landa, whatever – something, anything that could help provide me a new angle on a world I was thrust into or thrown out of. I had no idea how this stuff would end up changing me as a person and a musician and a scholar. Sometimes I think I might have stayed clear if I’d have known!
The point about systemization is well-taken and I think it’s one of the greatest strengths of this music, but it’s proven to be a bit of a hurdle in my professional life. There’s a stubborn resistance, especially in an entrenched or antiquated realm like musicology, to DIY practices and to anything that actively attempts to evade certain analytical programs. The near-total neglect of this music is definitely starting to abate, but there’s still little that feels close to my understanding of how the music and the community operates. Within academia, there’s also an interesting current that aims to deflate some of the Cagean/post-Cagean legacy; while sympathetic with some of its attempts to broaden the perspective on the contemporary music scene, I’m less sympathetic with some straw-man versions of experimental music presented therein. All in all, it is heartening to find a bit more representation in the critical realm, even if our efforts still feel somewhat disjunct and exploratory.
As for how my compositional work fits into my academic work… It’s an integral part of how I’ve developed any theoretical/analytical approach, but it is almost completely unrecognized in any ‘official’ capacity – not many people I work with are aware of composition/performance work I do. That’s fine, in some sense – it does provide me with a degree of independence I find valuable. It’s less fine when I’ve been actively discouraged from pursuing it. The typical level of interest is ‘benign neglect,’ which is how many interesting things flourish, though it does generate its fair share of practical difficulties. I’ve had good fortune with friends, however, and they’ve provide me more legit-looking opportunities than I ever planned on having. There’s a certain thrill to playing a concert at Harvard or New England Conservatory or something like that; it’s less to do with prestige, and more to do with performing something very singular in a place that I could not, in a million years, audition my way into.
And as for whether there are interesting conversations, I think there are plenty, though many of them appear in flickers on social media sites, blog comments, even the occasional message board. I do tend to worry a bit when a community becomes overly preoccupied with its down discourse, so the dispersion is a bit of a blessing and a curse – it prevents too much widespread dogmatism, but also prevents much coherent motion within the group (and certainly makes it harder for outsiders to find or embrace it).
greg stuart and joe panzner in oberlin (photo by jason brogan)
Dan Bennett is a musician and programmer from Bristol, England.