Electronic Un-Dance Music
Interview and discussion between Damian Barbeler and Paul Mac, September 16, 2019.
For a year in 2017 I found myself in the curious position of doing films for an album by EDM composer and DJ Paul Mac. This was curious because I am a composer myself. I’ve spent the last 10 years making films for my own work, but this was my first film-making gig where none of the music was my own. Previously I did everything my own way. In this case Paul was of course the central creative force. He was very collaborative however in is attitude and so our creative relationship became more of a productive tussle. Of central concern was how often the visuals should directly mirror the music. In short, Paul loved the idea of geometric shapes pulsing in time with the music: the kick, the percussion, the melodies… everything. He complained of previous collaborations where film makers had always tried to add a narrative. I on the other hand am interested in more loose and organic relationships between visuals and sound. I like visual and sonic textures flowing past connecting occasionally, mostly at structural points.
This tension was in the end highly productive. Far from being frustrated we both enjoyed the regular discussions about my drafts…. Him pulling me back onto the beat, and me pushing for more organic development.
A year on I thought it would be interesting to go back and talk with Paul about our collaboration and capture the process. And so I went back to his place and we sat down in his studio to watch Flamenco, a track which is a favourite for both of us, and reflect one year on this most productive of collaborations.
Picking up discussion at 2:57 in the track…
D: So this is the first time we get what you always wanted: a block of colour flashing on the screen [both laugh], no narrative. And the thing that was interesting in the creative process for me was the legitimate healthy tension between my tendency to want to mess things up and your tendency for things to be really-
P: Direct synesthesia
D: -yeah, and in fact you often pulled me back that direction. And after a while I started to just say in my mind ‘what would Paul want?’ and I would start to pull myself back that way, you know?
P: But there was also the thing when we started talking about phrasing as composers, that you knew how I like the [musical] phrasing to be reflected.
D: Yeah. It’s pure musical phrasing, not narrative phrasing.
P: Yeah, yeah.
D: And I mean, in this middle section, all of this is stuff is about ‘how can I have my cake and eat it too’ because we have the direct synchresis - that’s the direct point to point connection - but then around it I’m putting other fuzziness in there. I mean the original source recording for this track was a flamenco rehearsal, t’s really crisp but it has a sort of dirtiness to it also. So all of these visuals on the one hand have a crispness or a cleanness or a blockiness, a hard edge, but then they have the messiness in there as well on another level.
P: Yeah, yeah. (at 5:30 of the work) I really enjoy how this section, because it’s such a loose section it’s just floating and breathing and it’s such a nice contrast from the blocks.
D: I had to find other ways to directly connect to the music here so, it was all just the shaping of this wshhhh, shhh, and they sound like it’s being bent or twisted or whatever, so just intuitively I’m bending and twisting the imagery - it just automatically links up.
P: Yeah, yeah. It’s also the mental state of it. It sounds like aliens breathing. It’s almost the effect of like if you were breathing not enough oxygen and each breath was like a visual simulation of what you’d be experiencing, that’s what I always enjoyed about that section
D: [at 7:23] And then we just go for it [both laugh].
P: Back to the bleeps and squares!
D: Well it really is just saying ‘here’s a flashing box; let’s see what happens!’ [laughs]
P: Still never bores me, ever.
D: It’s funny… if I had to remember how much it’s synced I would’ve gotten it wrong, because it is more synced rather than not, it’s just there are messy textures in there.
P: Well you can’t sync every element, so it’s like ‘what’s the important thing in thing in each section?’
D: Can I ask you, in terms of synesthesia, does this hit the spot for you even though there’s all that messy stuff going on?
P: I think with this section in particular [9:40 of the work], it starts off more literal. It just tunes your brain to go ‘hey we are in sync’ and even if it’s messy, you still register the connection. even if it’s a big wobbly blue square, you start looking for ‘what’s it in sync with’ and everything else around that is just extra interest or part of the puzzle, but the message is still ‘we’re in sync’-
D: -but then everything around that is just interest and movement, it’s just sort of enjoyable,-
P: Yeah, yeah.
D: Every time I hear any of these pieces, to me, it’s often dirty sounds but presented in a blocky faction. You must be aware of doing that.
P: Now when I think of, say, my level of ‘electroacousticness’ versus techno: particularly in the third section, the sort of alien breathing section, or even in the opening section, what’s the difference between this and electroacoustic music which is using the same software and similar techniques it’s that everything still happens in, you know, but lots of 8 bars like a techno record would. Even though it’s not a techno record, I suppose my brain still arranges mentally like a techno record even though the sounds are more abstract and furry and, um, weirder than synths and drum machines in this track.
D: You’ve talked in that past about narratives not satisfying what you want and I wonder whether the problem is that a narrative is inevitably of higher importance than the music.
P: Yeah I think you’re absolutely right to make the visuals be in the service of the music, the visuals have to line up with musical things, because we’re not looking at a white square going that, uhh, what was that sound, a rimshot or something?-
D: -we’re not going ‘that rim shot is happening because there’s a white square blinking’, no we’re going ‘there’s a white square blinking because there’s a rim shot!’
So, back to the interaction of the visuals and the sound can I ask you why do you feel in the first place that you so desired to have just this straight musical connection to the visuals? An example is the start of Cataplexy where I really just went ‘okay Paul, here you go! Here is just dots flashing’ and you were very excited about that.
P: It’s, it’s because, it’s a direct memory of when I was about twenty-two and I went and saw Severed Heads and, who were a Sydney techno, experimental,industrial noise [band] but on the way to dance music, and I went and saw them play at this venue in Redfern and they had three screens and it was one guy on the music mainly, and another guy with a Fairlight video synthesiser and the music was predominantly loop based so say that you had a four track tape loop machine, so there’s only ever four sounds happening at once, maybe in sync with the drum machine, and I, say if a sound happened that was panned centre, there was a visual representation not too dissimilar from say the bluer blobs from flamenco, sort of blob based distorted visual from whatever technology that an 80’s Fairlight visual could provide, and then a sound would come hard left and then a blob corresponding with that happened on the left screen and likewise thirdly on the right, and I just found it so overwhelmingly powerful that I actually, at one point ran out of the room, it just, it, really-
P: (well I was stoned), but it was so powerful, the full synesthetic thing that it just stuck with me for the whole of my life, and so with Itch-E and Scratch-E, every time we found a visual artist we were trying to do that same concept there was a, you know we had this ridiculous period where we had this music, you know bawowowowow bombombombom bawowowowo and we just simply wanted a red blob for the kick and a visual that went bawowowowow that went with that, and it was just this thing that I thought would have as much power as that Severed Heads gig had on me and we never found that video artist ever, which is, they always inserted a fucking narrative, which got in the way to suit their needs which is fine but we just… we didn’t have the technology ourselves to know how to do it, so I suppose this time around it felt like the perfect opportunity, and in fact the thing I love about Flamenco, it does, it even references those three screens idea.
D: [laughs] Oh right, I didn’t even know I was doing that! [laughs]
P: That to me when you first did it, that’s what I loved about it, it was like, even though it wasn't truly stereo representation of something or the right and something on the left, but there’s something incredibly powerful about the hypnotic effect of the synesthetic, because it means that there’s just no distraction from what the music is trying to do because the video is just complete, for me, it’s just going ‘alright, you’re not looking at somebody dancing, you’re not looking around the room, you’re not looking, you’re just literally looking at what the music sounds like’ which is, you know, an extremely egotistical position of the musician to say, but to me that’s kind of the experience, I just think there’s power to be had, more power to be had from the music when it’s backed up with a kind of literal representation. Having said that, it did, as we discovered, it does get limiting, so I think the, the furriness or dirtiness that you extrapolated from that initial concept provided that extra interest for me, it took it somewhere new… you could get bored with just blobs and squares bouncing forever.
D: Yeah, so there is this sort of balance, isn’t there?
P: Um [pause], I think, I think you struck a good balance, because then it would be, if it was following the dancer’s story, then suddenly it becomes a, it becomes a different clip, it becomes something else, it becomes, like the music becomes the score to this other thing,-
P: -that immediately I [pause], I always find frustrating, but other people don’t, other people, that’s what they, they like that because they, it’s how different people experience music, it’s, if you interview a bunch of people after listening to a piece of, whatever music, be it classical or anything, it can be, they will describe in different ways, people will describe either it as colours, or some people will imagine ‘I was going over a mountain range’ or ‘I was flying’, you know, they will all ascribe a visual narrative to it anyway.
D: Ah, because that helps. People tend to do it because a lot of music they hear is with movies. They try to make visual associations or narrative associations.
P: Particularly if they’re not musically educated, it’s the only way they can express what they’re getting from it and they can’t talk about the technicalities of what the melodies or the arrangements and the stuff-
D: But they’re well versed in narrative structures.
P: -yeah, and I think everyone does experience it differently like I think when I close my eyes listening to music, I would see the blobs and the boxes and I would, like I think my brain, it’s like a literal tapping of the synapses you know of kind of like what the sound is doing particularly in electronic music because it’s, it’s so pure and focused and pinpoint.
D: That’s what synesthesia is, it’s sort of a connection across senses.
P: It’s a very good way of putting it.
D: I’ve learnt as a rule of thumb in art that if you keep things strictly anchored on one hand, thenthe messy stuff looks after itself. If you encourage the mess too much, it overwhelms the piece [laughs],-
P: Right, right.
D: It’s like, it’s like an entropy view of art making that things tend toward the messiness anyway, so you need to try and keep on the cleaner side [laughs].
P: Right, right, right.
D: I think it’s the same here that by the time you’ve got the music, the visuals, that guy on the street, there’s people, he’s got headphones, he’s got this look, there’s already so much other stuff going on,-
D: -so basically, all you need to do is line things up and the rest, you get that free messiness.
P: I was thinking about the people on the street and that, um, there’s also another level of humour going on-
D: [laughs] Yeah, that’s true.
P: -that’s important because it’s not a po-faced piece of music, there’s a lot of other technicality going on. At the end of the day, it’s a really silly melody and and really there’s a lot of silliness in that music, even though it’s quite serious.
D: Unexpected combinations of sounds is one of your things. You seem really comfortable to just chuck different sounds at each other and they just work, so the unexpected combination of the dancer on an everyday street is a similar effect.
P: Well, and that, you know, that little kid in the car looking out and laughing and the blue bicycle wheel and the blue square, aqua square and all of that, it’s just fun, it’s still got a sense of fun to it for this ten minute art piece that fucking goes all over the place, and I think, I think he, Mazio adds a humanity to it as well. I think my electronic music is really human and often melancholic, but it’s also very, it’s more emotive than not/ I think that’s another thing about the video that was that by putting a human face in it, it does help you somehow focus on the human dimension to it.
D: The worst experiences I’ve had in terms of concerts is sitting in concert halls listening to fully electronic non pulse music on a pair of speakers in a crowd of people just going ‘why am I here?’, but then as soon as you put a human element into it to balance it out,-
D: -there’s a tension there because it becomes the synthetic versus the natural and that it points out that tension in the music then because we’ve got the synthetic treatment of how he looks and everything but there’s the beauty of the natural movement of this beautiful man with hyper-saturated contrasty colours, all of that is a replica of the kind of natural sounds that have been processed electronically, like near the end like biieeeeh biieeehbiieeeh biieehhhhh and that Blade Runner-esque kind of synth cheese. [laughs]
P: But even that cheese that’s actually to me one of the highlights of the piece,-
D: Ah yeah, it’s great!
P: -it’s such, such, it’s such rave language but there’s a, um, there’s a hyper emotion that goes on with that. It just cannot fail to move you.
D: Now one last thing I wanted to mention… at one point a while ago I wondered, with a piece where people could be quite confused: let’s say it doesn’t have a pulse… it’s not in a key… things flowing through each other… I wondered ‘if I give them visuals, what would happen? Would people then suddenly understand the music?’ And so it proved…. and your music in this case is quite dense and it is verging more on art music, and so I feel like the visuals are doing the same thing here, they’re helping people to unpack what, for some of your audience would be something a bit more adventurous than they are used to.
P: Absolutely, I couldn’t agree more. I think that without that video for Flamenco, that, that ten minutes is a big ask for my audience. I think even particularly going back to the live show, if they were sitting in a dark room I think a lot of them just would have not got it. It’s certainly provided a better entry point for the music, it gave people something to hold on and not be too freaked out by the weirdness of the music.
D: And of the things you probably were most emphatic with was the visuals had to show the structural phrases.
P: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
D: If I ever moved from one colour to another colour before the cadential point, or before the change of chord you’d always go ‘does that line up?’ and I’d go ’no it doesn’t Paul but we’ll make it line up’ and you’d go ‘ah that’s it, that’s it!’ Maybe we both knew we’re trying to give people an entree, trying to let people understand what the hell’s going on in this slightly more complex music.
P: Yeah, yeah yeah. I think you hit it on the head, it’s because of that direct cadential fucking line up, [Damian laughs] you’re absolutely right. I think it provides a more welcoming experience.
D: Well alright, well that’s good!
P: Is that enough?
D: Yeah, that’s excellent. Can’t think of anything else.
Published October 8th 2019.