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Billy Gomberg, Carving Towards Coherency

HannesHannes

My first contact with Billy Gomberg’s work happened almost by coincidence. In the early days of Mutable Instruments’ inception, we were among the few people to get hold of a Shruti-1 kit. The community was still small back then and, obviously, we all knew each other. His minimalistic approach to making electronic music, the peculiar mix of ambient and electro-acoustic elements and the captivating mood of his pieces caught my interest from the very beginning.

Tracing an overview of his musical trajectory so far isn’t an easy task, interestingly his roots are in Chicago’s 90’s-era industrial/gothic/ambient scene (something you might still be able to hear in his music, vaguely) but he quickly developed his very own characteristic sound, located in the intersection between contemporary ambient, improvisation & electro-acoustic practice. So far he’s released several albums, both solo and with his duo project Fraufraulein (together with his wife Anne Guthrie). His latest album Beginners has just been released on Dinzu Artefacts, see release page here: www.dinzuartefacts.com/dnz26

Update: here’s a video of the track Hesitant in Neon, from the album Beginners.

A detailed account of his musical roots can be found in an interview he and Anne Guthrie gave for the Fraufraulein album Extinguishment on anothertimbre.com:

[…] Any concert my friends were going to I went as well and this started with Nine Inch Nails in 1994.  I got kicked in the face. Musically & personally there were more formative concerts, but the fall season of ’94 was less uncorking the bottle and more like smashing the bottle to christen the ship.  A few more pedals and a four track recorder followed and then I had to have a synthesizer and that’s a standard, very slippery slope.  Most of what I experienced was more left field alternative rock or industrial/gothic/ambient as both of these worlds had big footholds in Chicago in the 90s.  A cousin in San Diego sent me tapes of bands he was seeing at the time.  I went to a lot of concerts and DJ nights and poorly lit parties and in general had a very immediate, physical experience of music. When I was bored or slacking on the weekends I’d walk up Clark Street and do a run through the used and specialty record shops – 2nd Hand Tunes, Reckless Records, etc.  I watched a lot of movies and those also served as an introduction to a lot music I wouldn’t have heard otherwise – listening to Kubrick, Lynch and Greenaway films, I didn’t know what I was really hearing at the time.

His first contact with music theory was during high school. This gave him the basic tools (chords, rhythm) to play in a band, where he could do “sad, dark music together”; Making music “wasn’t so much a solitary practice” anymore. Later he did an MA in Computer Music (2005) and spent most of that program in the New Media/multimedia and sculpture courses, and working with Reaktor and Max/MSP. The computer was later replaced by a eurorack modular… which is where our interview begins.

August ’17 in Brooklyn. Photo by Jonny Butler

Horizontalpitch: When I first (virtually) met you, it was through the Shruti DIY synth. You were, like me, one of those “early adopters” of what later turned into the Mutable Instruments Shruthi. Now, I see you are using mostly the modular to make music. How did you first find out about it, and when did you know that you wanted to use one in your music?

Billy Gomberg: I built the Shruti because I wanted a small, flexible, and possibly hyper-functional synth that I could (if necessary) power off a 9v battery. I also needed to discover some soldering skills. We had done a trio tour (Anne (Guthrie), Richard Kamerman and myself) from vancouver down the coast to LA in the summer of ’09 and my setup (MIDI keyb/virus desktop/macbook) was just too much stuff. I am always looking for a small, super effective instrument like that – I have an MFB Microzwerg (almost the same footprint, has CV), and a 1st generation MicroGranny as well. These are the instruments that really moved my practice around, working with a small footprint in a more straightforward way.

My first encounters with eurorack did not inspire me. I didn’t even see it as an option for me, most of what I heard or saw wasn’t compelling or I couldn’t hear how I would use it. This was 2010/2011. I’m unsure if I would be using eurorack if Oli [from Mutable Instruments, eg.] did not intervene.

Oli got in touch about eurorack in 2014: did I have any/would I be interested in having any MI? Of course: as I wrote above the Shruti was a great instrument for me and is on a lot of releases from 2011 through 2016. Oli expressed that he wasn’t satisfied with the work people were posting of his modules. Elements I think was one he felt was not being pushed nearly to its edges or possible uses. He sent me 104hp and a tweaked firmware for Braids with a phrase/loop generator. This was awesome and totally worth every “meh” experimental/electronic music experience ever. That first 3u is what made Transition and material on some other upcoming releases.

As one does, I added modules bit by bit after Elements swapped out for Rings, then another row, then a 6u case. The used market is very helpful.

I’ll take whatever credit is available for pushing Oli to make something like Marbles. I’m super grateful and humbled by this level of inclusion. Prior to even plugging in that first system, when discussing the kind of module I’d want for my music, I was basically saying “Marbles please.”  Marbles reflects some key functions and interactions I used in Reaktor but with a deeper creative intelligence in there, and I’m already looping back to the kind of ideas from Comme or Slight At That Contact.

Above: Video Art for Conditional Malaise, a collaboration between Billy Gomberg and analog-video bender Rob Feulner.

HP: I like your use of modules like Rings. Your name is mentioned often when people say “Rings makes everything sound the same” and somebody counters by saying “listen to people like Billy Gomberg and you’ll hear that it’s not true”.

BG: Yeah this is a huge compliment I’ve received often. It’s probably why Oli keeps sending me things, it’s why he sent me a MI build in the first place! Rings (and Elements) have been very influential in my process – so many inputs! – as subtle ways to shape sounds or to create new ones. I use them both to process multiple sources at a time (oscillators, field recordings, feedback from each other), they can be subtly, but responsively, pushed around by audio input. Every track on Beginners uses these modules in that combined fashion.

Casual observers have put this into language as “I see you have a lot of MI, you must be into DSP and effects” and “your setup is more about processing sounds than building them,” which is not so much how I see my instrument. The modules I have are effective in helping me create the work I want to, and allow me to find new articulations in that work. No one says: “oh wow you are the guy that likes multifunction modules!”

HP: Seems like a weird train of thought, but yeah, I guess I’m too much into it to be able to judge it objectively.

BG: As am I. It’s a bit of Internet Culture too. I try and avoid any kind of argument that fixes what gear means what, about someone’s creative work. Knowing exactly what someone has and how they use it is informative, but it’s their own practice that turns it into worthwhile music.

I view my synth as an instrument and don’t expect a new module to magically snap my skills into place. I want to see a window appear, I want to let that light in and see how the room changes, open the window to feel the air. What’s the view outside? How can my work change? Is it my guides that change or my destination (or both, of course)?

I also have “gotten into eurorack” completely sideways – I didn’t think about what kind of sounds I wanted (I know already), or how to make them. What’s always been the most fun for me is how the sounds interact with each other in terms of processing or feedback, but also how they interact over time.

Rings & Elements on the other hand, would not be what I would “see myself using” – I come pretty strongly from “East Coast” analog instruments and boutique devices (the Shruti-1 being delightfully in-between), soaked heavily in years and years of Reaktor and Max/MSP and overgrown (Clouds was an easy fit). Both Rings & Elements have gone a good way to a slow redefinition of my palette, linking back to the prepared bass guitar playing I do in Fraufraulein (with my wife Anne Guthrie) but also to the computer based processing I explored but never really found a way to “play.”

Photo by Paloma Kop

HP: That’s interesting. I feel like your sound has always been very consistent over the years, despite being in a steady state of evolution. There’s a lot of “concrete sound” in there, and the overall aesthetic is very strong and personal. How would you describe your process when creating your tracks?

Yay this is another compliment I’ve heard before and love to hear again. I always try to start in the same (or same enough) place – you can see where Beginners comes from as a title, settled into a new instrument, new life w/baby, getting ready to move, many things are still beginning.  Whenever I get a new instrument, I try to make it sound like the last one.

For me albums tend to come together retroactively.  Very rarely do I begin with a very concrete structure, system, or concept, and work toward that as a goal.  Even when I do work that way, the goal is not to achieve what I initially set out to do as a replica of this thought, but to see where that idea takes me.  I do as much practice and recording and listening as possible – I love to play and explore. Start in one place, end up in another, maybe it was the same place the whole time. It’s usually at least a month or two until I have a good vision of what I’m really working on. What is on an album is a product of edits from that viewpoint and new material produced from there to complete the expression. I’m playing, I’m listening, I’m editing, I’m listening, and some weeks go by before I get the feeling that an album is really there, and I start to carve towards something that is coherent and hopefully under 40 minutes.

[…] Beginners is pulling out of the darkness and relative density of A Changed Meaning – using the same or similar approaches to voicing, “sequencing” and events, finding patterns and gestures, a different way to bring those sounds and moments into a physical or sculptural feeling, a kind of “thereness” that I’m really always trying to articulate with quite abstract materials.

[…] Crafting a sense of completeness in an album is as crucial for me as a single piece being “just right,” and a lot of material gets scrapped or left on the hard drive this way.  It is through listening and reflection that I really start a new piece, or a new collection of work.  Sometimes there is something concrete like “I want to use a kick drum in this system” and then there is a material change in what I’m doing or how I’m doing it, and that’s an easy place to say that here is a streak on the glass and everything on this side is New. This gets shuffled when I’m assembling an album and, as on Beginners, there’s material from the other side of that streak that puts the album in the right place.

Other times, I am reflecting on a particular experience, or exploring a particular sound or relations of sounds, or things like timing and duration. Any one of these entry points will pull along the others in different ways.  Most often I find a sound, or a relation of sounds, get comfortable, and go from there. This is what makes me say “okay, lets make space for a kick drum and see how that changes things.”

This piece below (which is about half the overall track) is a good example of setting out with particular materials (field recordings from a location), intent (to work, slowly, from the field recordings out into a more poetic or abstract reflection on them), and synthetic sources from my system.

HP: Can you tell me a bit more about how you created the tracks in Beginners?

BG: I was in a very comfortable place with my setup for most of 2017 – I expanded to 6u specifically to use Rings and Elements in tandem.  This can be heard on A Changed Meaning, in a different, more static, fashion.  […]

Beginners summarizes a second turn with this approach, much less hazy in how the material is expressed, with new(er) approaches to timing and pitch and more apparent looping and repetition.

[…] Pitch would be coming from one of two places: a Korg SQ-1 or Telephone Game (likely sourced from Wogglebug) into Quantimator.  Gates from either the SQ-1 or Pittsburgh Timerunner, and further distributed by Branches (where some get patched back into Timerunner). I would send Timerunner’s clock to Telephone Game, divide it in Telephone Game, send it back to Timerunner just to slow it down further. This sounds like a complicated way to get less things happening but I think of this kind of musical instrument as a relationship, as a body, and I what I want out of a module, regardless of function, is for it to relate to what else is going on. Timerunner, which has very few demo videos (all of which are beat-oriented), is great for this. I recently took Timerunner out and I lost all the “feel” I had for playing.

HP: Let’s get back for a moment to what you said earlier about the “material from the other side of the streak”, what is that streak exactly and how does the “other side” of it manifest itself?

BG: I articulate it like this for the release blurb:

Becoming the glass in front of you, the streaks of dirt outside and hands inside define a moment or a movement, are still the pane. Synthesis, field recordings you may have heard before, made hybrid in process and subject to transparency. Begin to think we are somewhere new.

Which is inspired/based up this piece from Cole Swensen’s The Glass Age (included in the j-card):

Early photographs were taken with such long exposures that someone could walk through a room and become a vague streak of white against a window opening on to more light, and so on.

This is more about how we both perceive this kind of music while listening, how the world bends around it, than about a particular process or intention of mine.  This is more about how I reflect on my work, when assembling an album like Beginners, than an approach I have to my work, which I follow.

This can appear quite simply: Beginners, like other albums of mine, is mostly built from a concentrated period of work, yet contains material completely separate from period. On Beginners, one left (A3) is from March ’17, and the rest of the tape is from late August & September. On Slight At That Contact (Students of Decay 2016), Mammals On Stilts (B1) is from I think October of 2012, and the rest of the LP from at least a year later if not more.  Placed in the context of an album, that streak I perceive becomes another element of that context, the depths and surfaces that I work with, and those that the listener hears, now without the previous context it came from.  The listener brings this as well: it can be their own listening environment, their day or their memories, the language they bring to listening.

There are more material ways to read this: I am certainly interested in “smearing the glass” and working with the time domain that are poetic cousins of concepts like “exposure.”  I do not consider the field recordings I use as unique materials – I’m sure those used on Beginners were used on other recordings and will be used again!  I am not sure a listener will perceive that kind of material effect on my work over time, given the plasticity with which I use field recordings, but it is this type of effect that informs my own view of my work, and that I hope pries it open for a listener.


Cover photo by Paloma Kop
Thanks to Konstantine for coming up with the title!

More about Billy Gomberg: website / Bandcamp / Soundcloud

Graphic designer, illustrator and modular synth enthusiast. Founder of Papernoise, a small design studio located in northern Italy, specialised in graphic design for the world of music.

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