Kim Cascone

An AmbiEntrance Exclusive Interview

Kim Cascone:
"blueCube( )" Interview

(AmbiEntrance© - 1998)

We speak with one of the more influential "voices" of modern ambient/electronic music; Kim Cascone tells about his newest release and about his genre-shaping history as a recording artist and head of Silent Records. Many thanks to Kim for taking time from his busy schedule!

(Photo contributed by Kim)

Link: blueCube( ) is your first solo release in how long? How would you describe the sounds within?

Cascone: blueCube( ) is my first release since 1995 when Silent released Anechoic. That CD came from a place where I was exploring a transition phase back to more of a synthetic, computerized sound. I spent a lot of time recreating computer music type sounds on my Roland MKS-80 and trying to establish an interesting context for them to inhabit.

The time between that CD and blueCube( ) was spent in gathering the skills I ultimately needed to start constructing a new class of sounds from old computer music instruments. the sounds produced for blueCube( ) are mostly derived from a catalog of computer music instruments and reflect my interest in revitalizing these old instruments from their historical grave. the period of computer music from 1968 through 1972 interests me the most and most of my work is consumed with re-immersing myself in this cultural time period. blueCube( ) is the first experiment in this area.

Link: What's the difference between the "old" and "new" sounds? Is it more of a technology difference, an actual sound quality difference, or what?

Cascone: It's a combination of things: technology, philosophy, & aesthetics... it is hard to define but it isn't any different than going back to the 70's and recapturing some of the analog synth sounds... 68 - 72 is just a time where technology and philosophy collide... this period was a very exciting period in which alot of experimentation took place... the sounds are much more crude and simple than the current computer music sounds but again it's really no different than having the same fascination with analog synth sounds...

Link: Why that particular "era"? Which artists from that time used these sounds?

Cascone: The people who were active in computer music during that period were Max Mathews, Jean Claude Risset, Iannis Xenakis, Lejaren Hiller, Herbert Brun, James Beauchamp to name a few...a good place to start learning about the history of computer music is the The Historical CD of Digital Sound Synthesis Computer Music Currents 13 on Wergo...there are some very nice pieces on the CD from that period...

Link: What's the story with the title and its "spelling"? Is that a Csound reference?

Cascone: the word blueCube( ) comes from various places. one of them is the "cube" sculpture on St Mark Place in NYC. When I lived there I liked visiting the sculpture and seeing how people would hang out and sit in it. Another source is a dream I had about the sculpture but it was made of industrial blue plastic and it made sound as it rotated. The sounds it made were very synthetic and bleepy sounding. it became a symbol of a mysterious source of sonic information for me. the spelling is a loose interpretation of Hungarian notation used in writing C code (not necessarily Csound) . Actually, I think the proper notation for a C function would be BlueCube( ) and not blueCube( ) but I liked the way it looked better starting with a small case "b".

Link: What can you tell us about working with Csound? What about your upcoming book project?

Cascone: I started working with Csound in 1996 after finally having the time to pursue my interest in computer music. I was fascinated by the language Csound and finally got the chance to do something with it when I was invited to write a piece of music and an article for a book project for MIT Press that Richard Boulanger was working on concerning Csound. I started out by investigating the historical instruments created by Jean-Claude Risset in his catalog of computer music instruments. from there I started modifying them by exploring other regions and using them in ways that suited my aesthetic.

Csound is basically a macro-assembly type language that is used to construct sound from various styles of synthesis. the company I am working for now (Staccato Systems, in Mountain Valley) makes a similar tool called SynthBuilder which is sort of like Max and Csound rolled into one environment. It's an amazingly powerful tool and I plan on using it on my next CD.

Link: What's your job function at Staccato Systems?

Cascone: I work for Staccato Systems as a Voicing Engineer...essentially I'm a sound designer who straddles that world between C level programming and knob twiddling... I am very pleased to be working in a stimulating environment where I can get to play with all the various flavors of synthesis I like without having to work in a text based environment like Csound... I still like working in Csound very much but I can get more work done in a visual programming environment like SynthBuilder... it's kind of like MSP/Max for the PC...

Link: Dang... just came back from Staccato System's website... Any chance SynthBuilder will be ported to the Mac platform?

Cascone: We get asked that question alot but it really depends on the market demand... the user interface is written so that it can be ported to the Mac easily but the main synthesis engine would need some work to run on the Mac...

Link: You've also worked with Thomas Dolby's company, Headspace... What's Headspace about? Is that Thomas "She Blinded Me With Science" Dolby?

Cascone: I *was* working as a sound designer/composer at Headspace until May of this year. Headspace is a company that makes an Internet Audio tool called Beatnik that is essentially a General MIDI like softSynth that resembles DLS in a lot of ways. you can create MIDI files and have them played back on web pages or you can author pieces that use custom samples and export them as a standalone for playback on the Mac platform. Yes, it is the same Thomas Dolby that wrote "She Blinded Me With Science".

Link: As a sound designer, what exactly did you do there?

Cascone: I constructed soundbanks, wrote music, worked on designing sounds for various projects, and produced an "Electronica Collection" of RMF files for them. I started out there working as a sound editor/composer on the CDROM game "Obsidian". a very interesting game that was never a big success financially but very successful from an artistic standpoint. you can probably pick it up really cheap now and is worth it for the surrealist visual content alone. I was very proud to be a part of that project.

Link: When I hear the name "Kim Cascone", I immediately think of Silent Records. How long was Silent part of your life?

Cascone: I started Silent in 1986 and sold it in 1996...I took a brief break from things when I worked in filmsound for a few years (1988 - 1990)... Silent didn't become a full time job with employees until shortly after my return from filmsound... I decided to leave the filmsound world to pursue building my label into something more than a hobby and I also started a distribution company in order to get our music into stores... There weren't too many stores back then who had electronic/noise/industrial music sections, so we wanted to help raise some consciousness around it. If Silent is known for anything, it would be that we really helped a handful of indie stores to start stocking noise and industrial music... Once the distribution company got started we were able to focus on the label again and started releasing work at a more frequent rate... the period from 1990 to 1996 was a very hectic and stressful time and I am glad that Silent continues on to this day under someone else's supervision...

Link: Can you encapsulate the lifecycle of Silent for us?

Cascone: 1985: released first PGR LP titled "Silence" but still no identity as a label per se

1986: officially started Silent Records - released the Haters LP - took a while to recover finances due to establishing relationships with distributors who bought the record...

1987: released Organum/Eddie Prevost split LP - traveled to England to meet with David Jackman concerning the record and hand carried the master tapes back to the US for release...

1987: released Architects Office LP... While I was on tour with Thessalonians in the Denver/Boulder area I had the chance to hang out with a community of experimental musicians who worked in noise and musique concrete... I thought it was interesting that there was such an active scene in Boulder and liked what Architects Office was doing with soundscapes... they were involved artistically with Stan Brakhage who is my favorite independent filmmaker...

-- this period was characterized by a focus on ambient industrial music and musique concrete. I also started listening to a lot of acid house around 1989

-- break due to work in filmsound --

1990: PGR/Arcane Device "Fetish" CD - at this point Silent had taken over the loft next door to where we were living and we were grappling with desktop graphics and CD replication technologies

1990 -1992: more releases in the ambient industrial vein and the start of Pulse Soniq Distribution in 1991...demo tapes start pouring in at an increasingly rapid rate from musicians doing techno and ambient music.

1993 - 1996: started four other labels showcasing various styles and genres of electronic music: Silent, Sulphur, Flask, and Furnace... Pulse Soniq was in full swing and this period saw Silent move solidly into the ambient techno genre...it was also at this time that Silent/Pulse Soniq moved offices in order to accomodate the increase in employees and stock...in the fall of 1995 I decided that the Internet provided a more interesting set of possibilities...in early spring 1996 I sold Silent/Pulse Soniq and took a job working as a sound designer for Thomas Dolby's company Headspace...

Link: I believe Silent (through its many artists and compilations) really helped popularize Ambient/Electronic music; what do feel was Silent's greatest achievement overall?

Cascone: I think Silent's greatest achievement was to give the musicians on the label some exposure and to help build the ambient genre in the US... I tried to impart a philosophy through Silent but it mostly fell on deaf ears... my philosophy was based on context and open systems being evolutionary rather than entropic like closed systems are...so that meant trying to include all kinds of music that communicated a quality of trancsendental context.

ambient became a catchall phrase for this style of music but ambient encompassed many styles and influences. towards the end of my work with Silent I tried to fold in more of the experimental electronic work of composers like Michel Redolfi, Micheal Von Hausswolff and Waveform Transmissions. The biggest problem for ambient music was that it had been reborn as a sub-genre of techno and hence experienced a short life cycle due to it riding the back of dance music culture...

Dance music culture has to create new material on a short cycle basis in order to perpetuate it's economy and this condition created a glut of ambient material released by labels trying to catch the wave... but because this music wasn't tailored for the dancefloor the economic base wasn't there to support it. So as the main artists who were making it went onto to do more lucrative styles and ambient got folded into other genres such as drum 'n bass (ie: LTJ Bukem et al) so ambient became last months flavor... Silent had walked a tightrope by trying not to be a part of all this by maintaining a focus on developing a label philosophy and image but we still had to acknowledge our core audience and cater to them to some degree...

Link: In your opinion, what was its best release?

Cascone: that's sort of like asking a parent which is their favorite child...I don't feel there was a "best" release although I do have some personal favorites..."Kill The King" by the Hafler Trio, From Here To Tranquility 5, Tox Utat, 50 Years of Sunshine, Waveform Transmissions to name a few...

Link: You've been involved in numerous projects, most notably PGR and The Heavenly Music Corporation; can you give us a brief breakdown of your various musical incarnations?

Cascone: I've been involved with Thessalonians, Spice Barons, and other projects on the Unidentified Floating Ambience compilation...I started PGR in 1984 and it was sort of the impetus to start Silent in 1986 so I could gain more control over my own material. I ended up not releasing any of my own work as PGR on Silent during the first phase because I didn't want it to be perceived as a vanity label.

I did release a Thessalonians LP just before I stated to work in filmsound... When I started producing ambient techno I was working with of the members of Thessalonians and we recorded 2 CD's of material (the second one has yet to be released). now I am concentrating on my own work and not hiding behind any project titles.

Link: I'm sure this has been covered elsewhere, but... what *does* PGR stand for?

Cascone: Ah, a long story. In 1984 I was playing with some people in a loft in a bad part of Oakland, California. The guy who lived in the loft/rehearsal space told us this story : after moving in to the neighborhood a local gang member visited him to find out what this whiteboy was doing living in this converted loft/storefront in his 'hood. Feeling a little frightened, my friend blurted out "poison gas research" and they never bothered him again. So we kinda decided that since it was the sign on the door that it became our reason for being there.

Link: I've been listening to "A Hole of Unknown Depth; can you reveal what daily life environments were "embellished" here? In what ways?

Cascone: It's an embellishment of various sonic environments that I had visited (not on purpose). It's a result of being in the right place at the right time: experiencing the right reverberation, the right early reflections, echoes and room EQ. by hearing it "wrong" it can color the environment and change it into an entirely new sonic space. This CD is basically a collection of spaces I mentally cataloged and wanted to recreate.

Link: You spent your early years in New York; can you tell us about those days?

Cascone: I grew up in NY and went to Berklee College of Music in Boston around 1973... At that time electronic music was just getting started at the school... They had one studio with an ARP 2500 and one 2600... I took both of the electronic music courses there and in 1976 I returned to NY to study privately with Dana McCurdy at the New School in Manhattan until 1978... I also became a roadie for his electronic music duo called Ear Food... They played a lot of loft parties in the late 70's where there was free flow of wine, weed and floor pillows which served as a prototype for the chill room... Dana heavily modified his 2600 synth (this was common practice among the hardcore synth hackers) which stimulated my interest in electronics and spent some time building my own modular synths and designing patches.

I started composing monochromatic textural material using feedback based synth patches. some of this material lead up to my work as PGR. At that time I worked for Crumar Synthesizers and Eventide Clockworks as an electronic technician and this gave me some solid experience working with electronics... and lived on 19th street in Manhattan until 1983 when I moved to San Francisco...

There wasn't much happening in NY except for the downtown scene which was a mafia, the free improv scene and the fallout of musicians from the new wave and punk scenes that were doing experimental music.

Link: What do you miss the most?

Cascone: I miss the energy and sophistication of NYC... NYC has high sense of culture and fashion that used to be lacking on the west coast. I lived in the same neighborhood as John Cage and would see him often at the laundromat on Monday mornings... I certainly do not miss the crime or the cockroaches...

Link: What can you tell us about your film work? Which was your favorite film project, and why? Will you be doing more soundtrack work?

Cascone: I really liked working on Twin Peaks because I learned alot about building backgrounds from a sound editor... this is the single most difficult type of sound to build well... I also liked Driving Miss Daisy because I got to do some foley... No, I don't think I will be pursuing post production work in the near future but you never know what the future holds...

Link: What is Kathleen up to these days? Will she still be contributing artwork to your future projects?

Cascone: Kathleen is working as a graphic designer for a large design firm in San Francisco... she has worked on web sites multimedia presentations, and graphics for Newton, IBM, Trimble and Apple to name a few. We are both working full time in creative jobs and raising our son Cage who is now 5 years old...life is busy... very busy...

and yes, Kathleen is still contributing artwork to my music projects...she is currently working on some dimensional typographical design concepts for my next CD of computer music...

Link: Can you give us a preview of what sort of projects you have planned for the future?

Cascone: I am currently in pre-production on my next CD of computer music... the blueCube( ) series is designed to be a triptych; the next installation will be a departure from the sound of blueCube( ) and will be investigating some ideas I have about threshold perception and auditory scene analysis... It will be alot more minimal and stark. Some other things I am working on are: sound design for a Japanese anime game, a collaboration with Bochum Welt, and a sound installation for a corporate lobby using SynthBuilder...

Link: I always like to ask the pros... What advice do you have for those wanting to enter the world of ambient/electronics?

Cascone: Make sure you work on developing your own voice... familiarize yourself with the history of electronic music. Consider releasing some of your work in the mpeg format online so people can get a chance to hear your work; the mpeg spec is a very important format to learn about...

This interview posted October 31, 1998

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