Wednesday, November 2, 2011

An interview with Jeffrey Uhlmann

How did you get involved in electronic music?
I think my interest was first piqued watching the film "Forbidden Planet" on television. I'm not sure when it was, but it was at a time when the electronic music left a bigger impression on me than Anne Francis, so I must have been very young. In my early teens I saved some money and wanted to buy a synthesizer. Everything was out of my price range, but the guy at the music store said that something called a Micromoog would be coming out late in the year at around half the price. That was perfect so I placed my order.

Were you satisfied with the Micromoog?
I was really excited for the first few weeks, figuring out what each controller did and generally trying to understand everything that could be done. I spent a lot of time creating emulations of classical instruments, and the way I would work is to let the Micromoog's sample-and-hold (S&H) function generate random tones while I tweaked knobs. Over time I realized that I could create interesting sequences that sounded almost polyphonic. At that point I had no more interest in mimicking classical instruments. In fact, I had no real use for the keyboard because for me the S&H was all I needed.

What prompted you to begin recording?
I purchased analog delay and chorus boxes and experimented patching them together in loops to create layers of sound that I thought were pretty interesting. One day I was at a yard sale where a guy was selling a dual cassette deck. It could record simultaneously from one cassette and an audio input and it could even record on fast-forward. I didn't make much use of those features, but having the deck prompted me to record some of my work. When I got my driver's license in 1978 I was able to go to record swaps where I discovered that there was a lot of trading of cassette albums. Live recordings of well-known bands were highest in demand, and there were some local bands that released cassette albums, but my albums were very different and gave me a nice little niche. I couldn't really sell much but I could trade for people's used LPs.

How did you go about making an album?
I would create master tapes consisting of one 30-minute piece per side of a cassette. Once I had a dozen or so of those I would dub 3-minute excerpts onto a cassette and give them names. The tracks were around 3 minutes long only because that was the convention for pop albums. I'd create an elaborate cassette cover by photocopying elements from photographs or magazines. Photocopying was very expensive back then, so I created only one master tape with a nice cover while the others just had index cards with the track names inserted in the cassette case. I'd show people the nice-looking master, let them listen to it, and if they liked it I'd trade them one of the copies with an index card insert.

Were they very popular?
I could trade them for real LP vinyl albums, which was good enough for me. I really never thought about what happened to them after that. It was quite a few years later that I learned that some of them took on a life of their own through what is now referred to as the cassette underground. That was the post-punk era when people really felt like they were active participants in the process of discovering new artists. I remember going to record stores and heading straight to the import section because I wanted to discover something new that I could tell other people about. It seems that there were other people who did their panning for gold by listening to cassette albums that were being traded around.

How many years did you record albums that way?
I only produced albums using the Micromoog for around five years. My last was in 1982. I was already incorporating other instruments, and eventually I just moved on to other things.

What are your thoughts on electronic music today?
I don't want to sound like a dinosaur, but there are so many software tools now for creating music that at some point there will be too much of it for the public to digest. It just seems inevitable that the single-minded focus on a particular melodic structure will have to give way to an appreciation of richer sound structures. It's like the way the invention of photography diminished interest in realistic painting. Anyone could take a photograph with detail beyond the capabilities of the most skillful painter, so painting as an art form had to move away from the confines of realistic detail to the more expressive style of the impressionists.

Any thoughts on the choice between analog and digital electronic synthesis?
There's no doubt that digital synthesis offers vastly more control than analog devices can provide. However, the distortion and noise processes associated with analog devices can produce textures that are sometimes difficult to simulate digitally. In the early days of sound synthesis people were fascinated by the sound of a pure sine wave because it's unlike anything you hear in nature. Its initial appeal derives from its novelty, but eventually there's a desire to produce sounds with richer textures. To put it another way, if you remove the noise and distortion from a trumpet sound you can achieve a sine wave, but is that an improvement?

What are you doing now with music?
One thing I attempted back in the early 80s was to record a spoken verse that I wrote on the subject of time and stretch it with tape speed so that the words would transform into unrecognizable sounds. Unfortunately it didn't work because the pitch dropped too low. A few years ago I was able to revisit my original recording of the verse and digitally achieve what I wanted. It uses digital signal processing but maintains and enhances the textures of the original analog source. There's a lot more I'd like to do along those lines.

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