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Openness, Density, Mystery and Wonder...
The Strange Case of Biota
First published in the UK magazine 'Rubberneck' (#20, December 1995)

Giuseppe Colli interviews William Sharp

American composers Biota are based in Fort Collins, Colorado. They started out as Mnemonist Orchestra in 1979, but by the release of the 1989 album Tumble had sub-divided into a visual arts group, calling itself Mnemonists, and a group of composers working under the name Biota. Both groups collaborate to produce extraordinarily complex and ultimately unclassifiable aural/visual artworks which take the form of CDs accompanied by elaborate booklets of paintings, drawings, collages, etc. Their latest collaboration, Object Holder, was released by ReR in May 1995. This seemed like an ideal time to set up an interview with Biota, who on this occasion were represented by one of their founding members, William Sharp.

Could you begin by talking about Mnemonists, how they got together, their influences, backgrounds, aims, etc.?

WS: Mnemonist Orchestra came together in March 1979 as a group of friends from different backgrounds and training: musicians, visual artists and scientists. We were initially interested in the possibilities of spontaneous interaction amongst the diverse group in a live studio setting - a single event of sonic overload, loosely directed. Conceptually, we were questioning the effects (largely negative) of technological bombardment on young children. But more importantly, in retrospect, we were interested in environmental stimuli as both content and form. Though our present day compositions are structured very differently (i.e., slowly and methodically), this attitude toward environmental sources remain with us. It grew partially from our respect for the musique concrete tradition and partially from film. We were influenced by directors who had drawn sound sources from location environments and transformed them into musical information for soundtrack use. Lynch and Splet's work in The Elephant Man is a good example of this. In the film, they amplify normal background to such a degree that it effectively becomes bigger than life, more organized than random. And thus, more music than noise.

What strikes me every time I listen to a record like Horde (1981) is the acoustic, as opposed to electronic, nature of the work - a characteristic which has remained a feature of Biota. A conscious decision, of course. In my opinion it doesn't resemble pioneers like Vladimir Ussachevsky or Otto Luening, maybe a bit Tod Dockstader or people like Pierre Schaeffer, the French musique concrete school.

WS: Our work involves electronic processes, but the compositions are built with acoustic source material. Achieving a mysterious ambiguity between the two elements is a challenge that has attracted us from Horde onward to our present work. We hope to retain the human-played characteristics of the acoustic parts while at the same time transforming them in important ways. Tone color and temporal variables can certainly be severely altered in the studio environment, and such experimentation does go back in history to the earliest recording media manipulations. Today, the techniques are in widespread use, both in and out of the music mainstream.
In keeping with Mnemonist tradition, Biota today works very methodically, gradually building arrangements from multiple acoustic sources, some of which are electronically treated at an early stage. These arrangements are then intertwined in lengthy linear development. Along the way, the played source parts are themselves played in a second generation of performance tied to the active mixdown process. The procedure is a fluid one, incorporating elements of careful forethought and of spontaneity. And it is full of surprises and unforeseen opportunities for the composers.

In the old ReR Quarterly (Vol. 1, No. 3, 1986) essay, you defined your work as "programmatic, pictorial, emotional." Even if your ideas have changed, talking about the Horde period, at about 3/4 of Side One there is something that sounds like a tracked vehicle and a machine gun that starts shooting. Now, by your aforementioned definition, was your intention for the listener to say "Here starts the battle," as opposed to "That envelope is pretty peculiar"?

WS: Yes, "here starts the battle"...or any one of an endless number of possible interpretations, each unique to the individual listener. But, yes, excepting the special case of music practitioners who might see such manipulation in technical terms, our sound is intended to work at an emotional level. All music, for that matter, operates primarily on emotion, even if some composers are unwilling to admit it. Throughout the production of Horde, I as co-composer felt that the retention of this mystery of source and process would ultimately encourage in the listeners a personal interpretation of the activity in the space.

More recently with Almost Never (1992), we have revealed in writing the identity of the sound sources that contribute to specific passages, an action that would seem to contradict the goals I've just explained. Yet, given the obscurity of these sources' roles in many situations, this added knowledge may in fact provoke the listener to peer more deeply into the environments in order to sort out the action occurring there. The listener's involvement in this way as a co-composer is important to us.

Usually, the less determined, the more open-ended is the "meaning" of a piece of music. By "meaning" I mean its internal organization; the more the listener is given the freedom and the responsibility to find his/her own meaning. The danger I find in this situation is that since a piece can have "emotional meanings," but no overt, conventional, musical meaning, there is the danger for it to become a new form of easy listening, of wallpaper music, albeit for a minority audience.

WS: This issue has always been of great concern to us. The music must balance precariously; it must be sufficiently open to personally involve the listener via his/her memory and present exp. yet it must also be carefully structured and shaped in order to give purpose to the listener's efforts. If the structure is adequately compelling, the music can avoid being purely "background" or "wallpaper." It can convey a certainty of purpose - that it is not arbitrary or accidental, and that it is worth the listener's energy. Composers must, over time, develop and refine a language of substance, yet in order to effectively reach the listener, composers must seek that listener's participation beyond the level of purely surface enjoyment. The language, therefore, must be innovative and approachable. It must, like Sun Ra and Captain Beefheart, embody tradition yet threaten to leave that tradition behind, pulling the perplexed listener along.

For those readers not familiar with the Re Quarterly essay, could you explain the way you used the recording studio circa Bellowing Room (1987)?

WS: As I hinted at before, the arrangements were built from purely acoustic performances. By this I mean the playing of both literally acoustic and acoustic-electric instruments, such as guitars and organs, in a natural space. In the case of Bellowing Room, these performances occurred variously in solo and small ensemble contexts.

The instrumental parts, as well as field environmental recordings, were subjected to subsequent levels of electronic processing and combining (sub-mixdowns). I suspect that the peculiar density of Bellowing Room and other Biota works may be due, at least in part, to the formation of these periodic submixes which are themselves combined in a final mix to create a yet more massive ensemble. At numerous points along the way, there is opportunity for electronic mutation and tape editing.

Over the years, I've sensed a move from a pictorial dimension in Biota's work to a state where sounds start to be assembled in a way that begins to resemble a "language."

WS: The pictorial emphasis was never abandoned in our work, even to present day, where it receives primary consideration. But the language you identify is perhaps the very organization, or structural fabric, that I referred to earlier as giving purpose to the pictorial or narrative development.

Over the years, we have accumulated techniques that are no doubt woven into this fabric, not always consciously, but ultimately in a way that gives our music a stylistic identity. As we refine it, the language of our composition is hopefully becoming more compelling without overwhelming the underlying mystery and thus the invitation to the listener for personal interpretations.

At the time of "Early Rest Home" (1986), you worked all together in the same studio, but since Awry (1988) I notice the drums have been recorded in another studio.

WS: We have customarily built compositions from a variety of performance settings, both solo and ensemble. And the source parts have been recorded using a wide range of techniques. The drum work done in outside studios has been both a technically interesting and logistically convenient recording variation for us. Many of our source drum kit recordings since Bellowing Room have employed a useful acoustical separation between the many kit components. We've been able to achieve more interesting variations on this by experimenting both inside and outside of our own studio.

We often record the drum kit and other essential rhythmic variables early in a composition's development but not always. For example, our most recent pieces incorporate dense passages that were built up from both extremes as starting points - from delicate solo piano or accordion performances to roaming drum kit work. So there is no rule of assembly order.

What were the aesthetic reasons for the introduction of overt jazz elements on Tinct (1988) and American popular music on Tumble (1989)?

WS: There was never a clearly calculated decision to introduce any specific jazz, folk or rock element - as a genre element - into the music. We are a collection of diverse listeners, and, at heart, we're tied in important ways to what we've learned and enjoyed from others over the years. I don't believe any musician can detach her/himself from such history. What has variously revealed or obscured our influences has been the evolution of our own peculiar language of assembly, as you identified earlier. But I'm confident that each of our finished compositions houses most, if not all, of these ghosts from our past. In retrospect, we have often taken pleasure in the intracompositional shifts, whether devious or abrupt, between these various stylistic period forms. The new work, Object Holder (1995), has had its rewards for us in this regard. If there is one general, underlying narrative thread that ties all of our works together, it is the concept of travel - of observational flight over historical time and over geographical distance.

At first, personnel and instruments were listed collectively. Starting with Tinct, we became aware of who played what instrument. With Almost Never (1992) we knew the instruments track by track. Why did you decide to make each member's contribution apparent?

WS: This more conventional method of crediting performance should give listeners more direct information about interaction within the group. For example, specialization versus overlap among the players. And I think, given the present sampling technology, that it is important to clarify that group personnel actually play all the instrumental parts that go into the mix.

With Almost Never, we reveal something more about the development of the compositions by listing the acoustic sources from which each subsection is built. If desired, the listener can attempt to sort out any differences between what is expected and what is perceived. It can be argued that some of the mystery of the process is lost, but, if so, I think new mysteries are created when such clues are revealed.

At the time of the Re Quarterly essay it was said that all Biota members operated both as players of the source instruments and as players of the electronic processors, but now it seems that there is a sharper distinction between the two roles.

WS: The personnel credits on projects released since the Re Quarterly might indicate increased specialization among the players, but in fact the duties have remained about the same. I, for instance, tend to spend more time with electronics and related engineering concerns, but at various stages of tracking and mixdown other players are also engaged in electronic manipulations, often in real-time as players.

I'd like to know if, from the point of view of the visual possibilities it offered, you mourn the demise of the LP.

WS: Absolutely. It is likely that some of the visual pieces that directly apply to our sound activities will simply not reproduce adequately at CD size. This dilemma has already surfaced as we try to adapt earlier LP packages for CD reissue. But, for the future, we certainly look forward to designing visual packages around the format's many possibilities.

Intricacy of line and color, presented densely in the tiny format, can be highly involving for the viewer yet difficult to plumb. In this way, i find the format very appropriate in conjunction with the sound component of our projects.

Who are the artists you feel have been an influence?

WS: If you have the visual arts in mind, that's a particularly difficult question to answer. I would say that influences on the group from visual art history are even more diverse than those from music.
For me personally, two filmmakers immediately come to mind: the Quay Brothers. Their meticulously structured environments, and the remarkable density of details populating these spaces, are certainly something I can sympathize with. The Quays' work is a model of that delicate balance I spoke of earlier - between openness, mystery and wonder (for the viewer) and structural refinement (for the composer). There is a compelling intentionality present in their stories, yet the characters and narrative can effectively belong to the viewer's personal world. It is important to clarify here that I am not advocating escapism. Rather, a refined approach that draws the viewer (or listener) into a collaboration with the composer. Communication, not alienation, is the result.

Elsewhere, I feel Max Ernst was a master at achieving this state in a variety of media, not just during one inspired period but throughout his working lifetime. Perhaps most exceptional, he never sacrificed innovation in the process.

This might sound like an IRS question, but since your records don't sell in large numbers, one wonders about your day jobs - especially given that your records are not a presentation in order to do live gigs.

WS: Our day jobs are the typical mix one might expect. They can be a nuisance to group work, but they do help us to meet all sorts of expenses so that, ultimately, the musical work can continue. In taking on the costs of building our own studio, we've also seen the benefits of being able to compose in that environment, at our own pace and with an eye on the clock. Outside, we've been graphic artists, salespeople, journalists, waiters and cooks and bakers, students and teachers, curators, engineers, scientists, and ushers. The IRS is still trying to sort it all out!

Finally, could you talk about the new work, Object Holder, and some of the new challenges and directions that came up while working on this project?

WS: We began work on Object Holder in early 1991, completing it in the fall of last year. It proved to be our most involved and labor-intensive project; four years later we remain enthused, so the signs are good. Susanne Lewis (of Kissyfur, Hail, Thinking Plague) joined us for the work, so we enjoyed the challenge of a natural human voice - a change we welcome; this in contrast to our processing non-vocal instruments to serve a human voice function in the mix.

Rejoining us is Chuck Vrtacek of Forever Einstein and solo fame (on the ReR, Cuneiform and DOM labels). We've long felt his piano in the perfect element to offset our typical density and to provide incentive to just back off a bit once in a while. Spatial processing - setting up the environments for the listener - has always been of great concern to us. So it's good to have the discipline of working up from the delicate, refined solo performances such as Chuck's.

And on the topic of welcome challenges for us spatially-oriented types, Chris Cutler is in the Object Holder line-up with his "electrics." These pick-ups, applied to traditional and found percussion, have inherent to their sound the most fantastic, in-your-cranium, claustrophobic quality. When you take them out into the expanse from there the results can get pretty interesting.

Other acoustic sources new to the mix for Object Holder include the rubab, a Central Asian fretted instrument with resonant head, and the nae, a Thai "double" reed shawm that actually employs six reeds in a leafy arrangement of three cane layers on each half of the mouthpiece. We've also greatly expanded the roles for various electric guitars, accordion, and hurdy-gurdy on this project. in all, we're optimistic there'll be a few surprises and, hopefully, a sense of evolution in store for the listeners/viewers.

I almost forgot! What's a Marxophone?

WS: Ah, yes, one of the surprises of our last project. I'm glad you're giving us time to explain because the beast makes yet more appearances in the new work, Object Holder. The Marxophone is indeed real - a "hobby" instrument that time forgot. Manufactured by the Oscar Schmidt Company in (we think) the 1930s, it's a curious autoharp-like thing with 15 spring loaded hammers that bounce on the strings. There are also additional open strings for strumming or plucking.

In our new compositions, you'll also hear the Hawaiian Tremoloa, a cousin of the Marxophone made by the same company at about the same time period, we think. It's a truly oddball invention. Again based on the autoharp body, it has open strings for strumming, plus one baffling feature: a single tunable string stretched between two bridges that is played with a combination metal slide and thumb pick attached to a jointed, pivoting metal arm. The player simultaneously plucks, frets and bends the note with this contraption.

Object Holder also features the Clavioline. One of the first vacuum tube electronic keyboards, it was built by the U.S. guitar-maker Gibson in France in the early 1950s. It has 18 two-position switches, or "stops," that combine to modify the sound. The small keyboard mounts on a sort of telescoping camera tripod that was intended to be positioned in front of the standard acoustic piano keyboard, allowing both to be played simultaneously. A veritable "orchestra at your fingertips," as the Clavioline owner's manual proclaims!

Biota line-up for Object Holder (1995) is James Gardner, Tom Katsimpalis, Steve Scholbe, William Sharp, Gordon Whitlow, Larry Wilson and Randy Yeates. Plus guest appearances by Chris Cutler, Andy Kredt, Susanne Lewis and C.W. Vrtacek.

Mnemonists artworks for Object Holder are by Ken DeVries, Bill Ellsworth, Tom Katsimpalis, Dana Sharp, Stan Starbuck, Ann Stretton, E.M. Thomas, Dirk Vallons, Larry Wilson, Kyle Yeates and Randy Yeates. (U.K. distributor for Biota: ReR Megacorp, 79 Beulah Road, Thornton Heath, Surrey CR7 8JG. Tel: 0181 771 1063)

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