The Doctor of Sonology

Avant-garde composer Carl Stone uses computers to study the inner workings of sound

Relaxing in the living room of his Bernal Heights home, decorated with exotica from around the globe, avant-classical composer Carl Stone explains how a potentially devastating incident plunged him into the world of computers. During the holidays of 1985, the Los Angeles native returned to his Hollywood Hills home to find it had been visited by burglars. "It was just a massive takedown," Stone recalls. "The place was empty."

A crushing Christmas present, to be sure, but the subsequent insurance check also opened a window of opportunity. "I was using this digital delay which was pretty expensive -- a $6,000 delay at the time," says the 42-year-old musician. "I said to myself, 'Maybe it's time to move on.' And for $6,000 you could get a Mac, a sampler, and a synthesizer and just go."

And go he did: From that point on, Stone has been at the forefront of computer music, developing a stellar body of work that he performs using his computer, both solo and interactively with other musicians; enormously respected in the new music community, especially in Japan, Stone's oeuvre includes three full-length CDs and contributions to more than 15 compilations. But how experimental musicians use computers in their art varies tremendously. While the Mills College crowd (see "Machine Dreams") get to know their machines right down to the source code level, Stone views the computer as more a powerful tool than an instrument in and of itself.

"I know other people have been really getting down and hacking machines since the '60s and '70s, but I'm not that kind of person," says Stone, who has used Macintosh computers to primarily deconstruct and manipulate samples and sounds since 1986. "I use a computer and I don't think about it that much. Frankly, it's just a means to an end to me."

Stone describes his music as a sort of "sonology," a study of the inner workings of sounds. Freely sampling everything from classical and Motown to the traditional musics of various world cultures, movie soundtracks, and ambient noise, he stretches, compresses, scrambles, and layers his sources, representing them in new and provocative ways. The resultant pieces run the gamut from dense, dadaist sound collages to lulling, euphonious tapestries -- sometimes within the span of a single piece. Far from sterile, digital blippage, Stone's works can be organic, melodic, whimsical -- even funky. They can also be jarringly disorienting.

"Basically, I work in the time domain," explains Stone, whose first forays into composition in the early '70s were of the electro-acoustic realm. "I kind of shatter sound like glass. Then I pick up the pieces and reassemble them in a sort of mosaic. I usually don't distort the sound, or change its basic sonic characteristic except in time." He adds that this fascination with chronos was instrumental in drawing him to computers.

"I was interested in a more exact control of time, which I didn't have when I was just twiddling knobs on my digital delay," Stone says. "The kinds of things that you can do with computers are the things that I was dreaming about 20 years ago."

Stone further itemizes the advantages computers provide the musical artist: You can store parameters exactly the way you want them. You can create environments for yourself and tailor them exactly to your needs, save them, and later recall them. Heck, you can even balance your checkbook on a computer. I have to ask: "Uh, you do back up your stuff, right?"

"Well," says a sheepish Stone, "I learned the importance of that through bitter experience. It was a big concert in New York. I had done my setup and we were sound-checking, when someone in the light booth cut the power to the stage by mistake, and of course it crashed the system and corrupted the file. I didn't have a backup, and basically was fucked. That's the dark side of performing with any kind of technology, especially computers."

Stone notes that even when everything is running smoothly, there's always a chance the complicated programs he constructs will do something wholly unexpected, that one wrong keystroke could trigger a cascade of unintended events. Not that he'd find the situation too troubling.

"I might lose control for a moment, but that's one of the interesting aspects for me," he says. "There's a kind of creative tension about the whole thing.

"Plus," he laughs, "there are times when the computer seizes control that actually might be more interesting than what I would do.

 
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