Keith Fullerton Whitman, Part 1: Puppet Master

Keith Fullerton Whitman, Part 1: Puppet Master

Keith Fullerton Whitman is one of those genius types with an overclocked mind who has no choice but to cram as many words as possible into a single breath. Luckily for both us and for you readers, he gave us about an hour's worth of interview material in only 27 minutes. Hence, we're publishing our conversation in three parts, with the first-- this one-- focusing directly on his forthcoming split with Floris Vanhoof on Shelter Press. Since last decade, Whitman has been exploring the potentials of the modular synthesizer. His process nowadays is one of exploring minute shifts with massive sonic implications, creating self-contained butterfly effects through electronic wittling.

Ad Hoc: We should start off by talking about this studio recording on the split you have coming out on Shelter Press. Is there a bifurcation between your live and your studio material? There seems to be this somewhat academic element to this work, academic in the GRM sense of the word. There's the this methodical progression from tone to rhythm to, for lack of a better term, song.

Keith Fullerton Whitman: That one track with the drums is a nine-minute, more linear kind of thing. I don’t see it as a division, no-- It’s all continuous. It’s funny, because that whole side is the exactly the same set up. It's all the same patch actually. Do I turn the clock station on or do I leave it turned off? The first three tracks, they’re more free-form, but it's literally the same patch, just recorded in four slightly different configurations, in four different ways. It’s funny to make stylistic distinctions because they’re all wrapped on to the music-- all kind of similar. It’s just what you hear that’s very different. It’s funny how the mechanism that makes the music is almost identical.

Ad Hoc: Wow, that’s interesting. I take it this is the same modular set-up that you’ve been using in your performances as well.

KFW: Yeah, exactly. It’s actually the same synthesizer that I use when I play live. I mean, the division’s kind of academic... You know, when I work at home, in the studio here, there's a lot more to work with. But I’ve been liking the idea more recently of putting out these recordings that are just single ideas. So really the whole record came about because I played a bunch of shows with Floris Vanhoof. He played here in town with that guy Dolphins into the Future, and I had never heard of Floris. I knew he had an LP on Ultra Eczema. I saw what he did and thought it was amazing. He built this instrument himself, really incredible. Kind of like a self-built, homebrewed modular. He was just sitting in a folding office chair with the whole thing in his lap, balancing a delay pedal on the corner, all precarious and kind of beautiful. He was doing all this stuff with films and projections at the same time, and it was pretty sweet.

Ad Hoc: Oh, cool. Where is he from?

KFW: He’s from Ghent. You know, there’s like three cities in Belgium that are really close together: Antwerp, Brussels, and Ghent are all kind of in a triangle. So I every time I go to Belgium now I see him in any of those three cities, even though he actually does live in Ghent. He teaches film; he does some experimental film program in Ghent. But yeah, he’s just really amazing. There are a lot of people obviously making that music right now, and a lot of people that are obviously building their own instruments, performing that way. But what he does is kind of more-- he sets up these things. They’re self-sustaining; they go for a half an hour. It’s like one continuous piece. It’s almost like he’s not interacting with his instrument at all, just letting it do whatever it does. I find that approach really interesting. Sort of anti-performance, you know?

Ad Hoc: A generative type thing, almost.

KFW: No! Well, it’s not just that it’s generative; it’s designed to make interesting variations as it goes. I mean he’s the guy that built the thing, so he inherently knows exactly what it’s doing. So it’s almost like the performance act is when he was actually building the instrument, more about how he would perform or automate these choices he would make in real time. But it’s almost like a non-real-time performance, you know? A lot is in the planning stages. The actual execution of it is not exactly happening, because there’s really no performer intervention. But really it’s everything having to do with him as a performer and an instrument designer, having all these things happen at once. Yeah, he’s a really interesting guy, so... it should be a good record.

Ad Hoc: The one-man band of the future.

KFW: Kind of, yeah. He really has that one-man vibe. It’s like Hasil Adkins.

Ad Hoc: That’s a really interesting parallel-- Hasil Adkins as a guy in his shed in the middle of the Appalachian woods versus a Belgian with a synthesizer.

KFW: Well, and it should be. The electronics workbench is based on the workshed in isolation. Soldering iron. You know, making stuff.

Ad Hoc: What is your approach live? Live experimental music tends to be either an intellectual-psychological endeavor, or just a confrontation of sound. What are you trying to do there?

KFW: Well, confrontation is a strong word. It’s also a very limited term. ['80s hardcore band] Negative Approach were confrontational. What I’m doing is not remotely confrontational; it’s presenting something with the synthesizer stuff. You really have to see it like collaborating, [where] the other musician is the instrument. Think of it more like Sun Ra standing in front of his band, sort of conducting them in a way where it's more subliminal than actually him moving his arms. So I’m hovering over this thing, and really it’s just firing on its own accord. It’s just doing whatever it’s been patched or programmed to do. It’s more like I’m a puppet master-- I just sit there and wave my hands every now and then and influence what it’s doing more than actually control it. The language of electronic music is how you can change sounds. But what’s actually happening at the atomic level-- everything is going by so fast, so I have no direct control over that. That’s all being automated. It’s interesting because all those things are happening in real time up on stage, and you’re sort of watching the thing happen. Lights are coming on and off, you know, and sounds are being triggered, fading away.

It’s so orchestrated-- there’s so much of it happening that if I were to just sit there, say, in front of a keyboard just playing one melody by myself-- you know, I only have two hands. There’s only so much I can do. You can put this instrument together that allows you a lot more complexity, a lot more finesse over the individual elements. But really, I let them just make their own choices at each clock. They just go ahead and sound a trigger in ways where I’m not really even listening to the individual sounds that are triggered, but more the overall effect, so that then I can shape that.

And then while I’m in that moment, really, performance is like the last thing that I’m thinking about. Like, I’m trying to concentrate on getting all the things organized that I want to have work in a musical way that makes sense to an audience, and then I almost feel like I’m more in the audience than I am present on stage. But I actually do have control over it, so I can be like, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did this right now?” Oh yeah, I can do that because I’m actually the one playing right now. Cool. So I’m going take that [patch] cord out and put it in over there, see where that goes.

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