Name: Kurt Uenala / NULL + VOID
Current Release: Cryosleep on hfn music
Recommendations: I love the art of Sam Rolfes. He does crazy 3D stuff. See it here.
I got into visuals that react to sound ever since iTunes introduced the visualizers (hit ⌘T) and downloaded some independently created ones that were fun but this guy Joshua Davis perfected the art of visualizing music.
Website / Contact: If you enjoyed this interview with NULL + VOID / Kurt Uenala, visit his Facebook profile or personal webspace for further information.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What what is about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
When I first saw the movie “Merry Christmas Mr. Lawrence” on VHS and the title track by Ryuichi Sakamoto came on, that touched me deeply. It had such a sadness and a feeling of resignation to it. And it was quite a synthetic arrangement.
For most artists, originality is first 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? What is the the relationship between copying, learning and your own creativity?
I am still learning and figuring out how to achieve a certain feeling or a certain sound. It’s often more sound and synthesizer programming specific rather than writing/composing. I hear a certain sound and I try to get close to that with what I have at hand. Or at least figure out how it’s done. That is of course super helpful and no shame in that. I still do it constantly. When writing, I try to stay playful and let things happen. The most depressing thing to me is when I collaborate with someone and plug in their phone and say, listen to this, let’s make a song like that.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
It used to be quite cumbersome to get computers, samplers and synths to sync up properly and now, in software, it’s automatic. I am still punishing myself and work with old gear but at least in a pinch you can do things easily in the box. Another big challenge for me was to be able to sync different laptops or workstations. Now, with Ableton Link, it’s a thing of the past.
What was your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces of gear for you?
My first studio was a Fostex 4 track cassette recorder and a drum machine I borrowed from my brother. I still would immediately recognize its sound. My brother felt it sounded so stupid and I kind of agreed but I had no money so it was good enough for me. Hit one snare or a tom and I would know it’s the old Roland DR220e.
How do you make use of technology? In terms of the feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans excel at, what do machines excel at?
Machines excel at keeping record of what has been created. A valuable task if you are a bit chaotic in your workflow like me. Boring chores such as writing down settings on s synth or a compressor can be replaced by using a model that has memory. In terms or newer technology, I am still not too impressed with touch screen interface but I have a feeling we are maybe 2 years away from it being perfect.
Production tools, from instruments to complex software environments, contribute to the compositional process. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
I often use synthesizers and they have their quirks. Sometimes I tune an oscillator but I forget the the other one and suddenly there is this wonky chord that just has a charm. Also, I use an analog sequencer quite often that is very easy to program and transpose so there are lots of happy accidents. I often kick myself for not hitting record before tweaking.
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?
I prefer to collaborate with singers. I work in a slow and detail oriented way so that collaboration would become quite annoying for the other person. I have done it though. Then I often slip into a producer role and not a writer/composer. Even though we might work on an idea that I have prepared but it’s hard for me to come up with good, original things on the spot. That’s the tough part with collaborating or co-writing. You might resort to the easy “tried and true” chord changes or beats and not take risks because time is limited and you don’t want to look like a fool.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work? 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 wake up everyday around 7AM and have a coffee and a Swiss muesli. I rarely go for breakfast and am still very excited to go to the studio. I live in upper Manhattan so I bicycle down the Hudson river towards downtown, which is where the studio is. I stay there as long as it feels good which often means I come home late. Not many other aspects in my life I am afraid, except going to meet a friend or seeing someone play a concert.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed in your mind, what did you start with and how do you refine these beginnings into the finished work of art?
One song that is dear to me is the track “Foreverness”. I tried to capture the longing for someone that has gone. To imagine if you could have preserved a part of their being, their essence, and still would be able to tap into it and maybe communicate with it. But it is incomplete and deteriorating which makes letting go even more painful.
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?
What helps me is that you make sure that the last thing you hear before you enter sleep state is the song you are working on. No music at home if possible while you work on a problematic song. And by the morning, you will quite often have solutions. If it’s not there yet, lay half asleep and think it through and listen to it in your head. Solutions present themselves. It truly is magical when that happens.
How is playing live and writing music in the studio connected? What do you achieve and draw from each experience personally? How do you see the relationship between improvisation and composition in this regard?
Playing live is often a little adventure as you never absolutely know if it will sound like you imagined. I can get close with my setup but there are so many variables when performing with hardware. I have the main sequences as midi data preprogrammed but the arrangement and the sounds are quite free. So depending on the mood of myself or the gear, it can go in a many directions. It’s very different to writing as you can’t hit stop and tweak something.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
I feel composition is often overlooked in today’s electronic music. Many times I was in sessions where hours are spent on the sound of the bass, only a boring 16 note sequence is playing on one pitch or maybe the octave here and there. But hours are spent tweaking that sound instead of building a more original bass line. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I wish I could be more minimal. But I think it’s good to be aware of the power of note choices, rhythm and when to leave out a note etc.
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? What happens to sound at its outermost borders?
There is a strong connection to visual stimulus and of course memories that are associated with the images. Music can create a feeling of light or darkness. Chords have a color. A singer I often collaborate with, describes what he would like to to hear with visual references such a grey or even hairy, haha.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
My approach is that it’s a very personal viewpoint and often tries to capture a moment, a memory. The art you create can of course take on its own life when people listen to it and they interpret it in their way. So then it will take on a new form and that might be political. Especially with instrumental music which is what I mostly do. For songs with lyrics, it is much more obvious, depending on what kind of lyricist you are.
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be beyond its current form?
I hope it will continue to grow and with the help of technology continue to be accessible to everyone. It is amazing how it has changed over the last decade already with mobile phones and downloading. Exciting times ahead!