Name: Byron Westbrook
Occupation: Composer, Sound Artist
Mirror Views CD is out September 17 on Ash International
The Harmonic Series II, an LP compilation curated by Duane Pitre is out now on Important Records [Read our Duane Pitre interview]
Recommendations: "Oranges" by Madalyn Merkey - This is a really colorful and thoughtful piece of computer music that appeared in a very low-key way last year and should have received a lot more attention.
My Magic Dreams Have Lost Their Spell by Nick Storring - This record uses dramatic tropes in a way that is extremely tasteful and considered and is just super refreshing.
If you enjoyed this interview with Byron Westbrook, visit his personal website for more information. You can find current updates and music on his Instagram-, bandcamp-, soundcloud- and twitter accounts.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I always listened to music from a very early age and had a pretty heavy intake of whatever was around, pop music or things on the radio and MTV. I was always drawn to the reflective aspects of music, which definitely mirrors my personality, so playing and making music has always been an outlet for a reflective sensibility.
I played instruments when I was younger; piano, saxophone, then guitar. I had a David Bowie phase at age 9, which was maybe a bit unusual for a 9-year old, but that was the first time I sought out music that wasn’t what my parents were listening to. I accumulated most of his catalogue up to that point (1986) and sometime in there I got a cassette of Low, which I wasn’t sure what to make of at the time but it was certainly influential in terms of what I’d create later on. Then as I developed as a guitar player I had a Jazz phase where I was fixated on John McLaughlin’s guitar playing and John Coltrane, which ties together because McLaughlin essentially wanted to be Coltrane. The textural aspect of “sheets of sound” was something that made a very big impression.
I’ve been through so many phases of music listening though, it’s pretty hard to keep track. To mention a few other particularly influential things: The low-res Fairlight CMI sound from Kate Bush and early Peter Gabriel records, guitar feedback from Sonic Youth, Nirvana, tuning systems from Tony Conrad, Terry Riley, La Monte Young, and the physicality of Phill Niblock and Maryanne Amacher.
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I certainly spent a lot of time trying different emulations of others. I played in bands and made songs for years that were pretty terrible. I thought if I kept making them I’d improve with practice but this just wasn’t the case.
Ultimately my recording, arranging and mixing skills were strong and after a certain point I realized I could deconstruct and reconstruct my practice around my strengths. Then by 2004 I had found myself working with Phill Niblock.
I had always been drawn to sonic textures and timbral relationships and Phill’s work is sort of the apex of sonic textural studies in a very pure way. Phill introduced me to a lot of music and people who guided me towards making things that feel like they are coming from my voice.
Having said that, I don’t feel that every musical artist needs a distinct voice and I don’t claim to have this. I associate the need for a distinct voice with branding and see it as limiting. It’s more important to me that someone have a meaningful experience with my music than that there be consistent signs and signifiers where the listener says “Oh that’s a Byron Westbrook piece”. I think there can be something below the voice, a sub-voice that is more about intentions, sensitivity or sensibility. I think that is where the consistency lies in my work, because I intentionally make very different sounding records from release to release.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
Early on I spent a lot of time trying to translate music that was in my head to recordings. This was a laborious process that really didn’t leave room for a lot of play or showcase my strengths.
It really opened things up to shift to a compositional methodology that was more improvisation-based and built around play and discovery instead of premeditated composition.
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
In a way I made a full-circle because when I started more seriously recording music, I used a midi-centered studio to record and arrange songs. Now I use a midi studio to compose, but the midi aspect is more related to capturing improvisation and/or allowing me to assign midi control to less typical things, to mangle a sound.
I’ve gone through a lot of different gear phases over the years and honestly it always sounds a bit like I’m playing guitar, or has aspects of my guitar playing no matter what gear I use. I would also say that for me, not knowing how to use something generates more interesting creative ideas, so my learning and research tends to be part of the composition process. Once I know how to use a piece of gear or instrument it becomes too precise and makes less interesting work. I think my best work captures a sense of discovery and tension in its near-precision. This is why I almost never play guitar on my composition work - I know what I am doing too well and I can’t access any amount of unpredictability to get to that tension.
Have there been technologies or instruments which have profoundly changed or even questioned the way you make music?
I have used a Yamaha DX7 for 20 years on and off and my relationship to it has evolved. I went from programming traditional “synth” sounds for pop music to really doing weird improv things with the system+menus, and now I’m very deep into using it for its microtonal tuning capabilities.
My Otari MX5050BII reel-to-reel was also a game changer for me because it forced my recording process to just stick to 2 channels at a time, so that I had to really focus on the stereo field. This changed my way of composing significantly; The limitation allowed me to create work that played well as stereo recordings, which ultimately made it much easier for me to release LPs tapes, etc.
In the years prior to 2013, I’d been doing live multichannel audio performances that were extremely hard to translate to recordings, so my recorded output is very sparse before the Otari.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Nearly all of my collaborators are visual artists, and I have really enjoyed working with pairing my work with images. It has been really important to me in terms of the development of my work over the years to see how it plays with images. I also share ideas with fellow artists and ask for whatever feedback they can give. I have certain people who I go to when I am stuck and need perspective, and everything that I have released has been shaped for the better by the feedback of very generous friends and peers.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I meditate, make coffee and then do email. I exercise first on certain days of the week. Generally if I am working on music composition or recording it will be in the afternoon, and/or in the evening just after dinner. I usually take a walk or hike just before or after dinner and watch the sunset.
Breaks and exercise are important, as is visual stimulation. I tend to operate in multi-month blocks of a particular fixed schedule that is shaped towards a certain end, then the dynamic has to re-shape, so it’s very hard to give a clear picture other than that there is a lot of structure.
I go through phases of input and then output, taking in information, listening to a lot of music, watching movies, reading, and then phases where I don’t do much of that at all and am just spending all of my time working to finish something.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
The most breakthrough piece for me is "Spectral Ascension", the first track on my LP Precipice that was released in 2015 (recorded in 2013).
This piece was where I decided that I should use my name for my work instead of my Corridors alias that I’d been using for a while. It was also the first piece of mine that made use of the harmonic series as building blocks, so it was my gateway to using Just Intonation. It’s built around a long improvisation on a Korg MS-10 with a lot of external CV control of the filter, but I layered it with a bunch of granular-processed guitar and DX7 tones and even re-amped the MS-10 track through a huge amp stack. It was unique because it really felt played, like an instrument, even though for all purposes it was programmed. The piece is extremely busy and active for the first two-thirds and then is nearly completely static for the last section. It has a lot of very different approaches to time happening simultaneously, and then peels them away over the course of the piece’s sixteen minutes.
I am really interested in the idea of sonic after-image and the idea that what you’ve been listening to is still resonating internally even after it has stopped playing. I feel like this piece is one of my most successful experiments with this idea, where the long static section at the end still changes if you listen to the piece through, because of how persistent the first part has been and the process of recalibrating from activity to inactivity.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I would say a state of play and lack of expectations is the best place to be.
It often comes in the way of constructive procrastination and is also often hard to plan for. I sometimes feel that I have to trick myself into falling into a productive creative state. For instance, I’ll tell myself that I am going to spend five minutes exploring a synth patch in the studio at the end of a night of working, and of course I’m actually going to spend a couple of hours and record it to tape at the end. But I need to not have high expectations of making something spectacular to get myself to fall into the state where something useful and playful can emerge.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
I have found that at least with abstract sounds that are not melodic, people can experience them on a pretty wide spectrum of association, which ultimately depends on what they are bringing in psychically/emotionally and how their nervous system is calibrated.
I once presented a sound installation that featured a very loud, constant textural sound. I remember one visitor telling me that it was absolutely terrifying and horrifying for them where they couldn’t stay in longer than a minute, and then another visitor describing it as extremely soothing to the point where he had fallen asleep in it. The major challenge that I see is for people to get comfortable being alone with their thoughts. This is something that is being lost more and more with our media and devices and it hinders the ability to experience music and abstraction.
I think the ability to listen internally creates an ability to experience music more deeply, this opens up greater possibility for healing, as healing often comes from facing fears. Having said that, I do not think that there should be an expectation for music to heal. I think a complex range of experience and possibility should be the base expectation.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
I definitely have synesthesia and think of certain sounds and pieces as having colors. For instance, I think of "Spectral Ascension", the piece I described above as being a lot of gradients of green and yellow. I am very sensitive to color and I am attracted to particular timbral relationships and qualities in a way that is a lot like color association.
In general I’m thinking of the way that I organize sound as visual arrangements, on axes in space, where I am organizing the objects within environments to create shapes with qualities of physical material, like color, texture, weight, etc.
As far as other overlaps between senses, I’m always fascinated by how sense of smell can trigger very specific memory that has been logged away, as well as feelings associated with that memory. I often think that the concept of “five senses” is really overlooking how integrated it all is.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
I’d say it certainly gives an expanded language to the concept of loss and pain. Seriously, how many songs or pieces of music are about loss? It’s something that is certainly more complicated than language allows that everyone has to cope with at many points in life.
I consider human-created abstraction to be an extension of language. Music (as an ideal at least) offers a way to extend language to allow people to connect on shared experience where language fails.