A R T I C L E S
Density, Mystery and Wonder...
The Strange Case of Biota
published in the UK magazine 'Rubberneck' (#20, December 1995)
Giuseppe Colli interviews
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.
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.
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.
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
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
I'd like to know
if, from the point of view of the visual possibilities it offered,
you mourn the demise of the LP.
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
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!
you talk about the new work, Object Holder, and some of the new
challenges and directions that came up while working on this
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
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
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!
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.
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)
B A C K