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Let’s ask Donald Swearingen

SFEMF

The San Francisco Electronic Music Festival (SFEMF) kicks off next week, and several of its original founders will be performing in celebration of the festival’s tenth anniversary.  One of them, Donald Swearingen, will take the stage on Thursday, September 17th along with Maria Chavez, Mark Trayle, and Mason Bates.  The show starts at 8 pm in the Brava Theater, 2781 24th Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online or at the door.

It’s hard to coax Donald Swearingen away from his many projects, but I did manage to get him to share some background and a few hard-to-find details about his upcoming SFEMF performance.

S21: How has the SFEMF evolved since you helped found it in 1999?

Now in its 10th year, the child has definitely come of age. It’s grown into larger (and progressively more comfortable) venues, and from embracing primarily Bay Area artists, to an impressive roster of local, national, and international talents, both obscure and well-known. All this is a result of the dedication and ongoing efforts of the steering and curatorial committees, whose vision and energy have been the essential ingredients in the success of the festival. I should mention that I personally have not been directly involved in these activities in recent years, serving only to offer a comment here or there. But I’m amazed at the amount of effort (and it indeed takes lots of effort) that goes into the planning and execution from year to year.

S21: Over the years you’ve been involved in SFEMF, which artists whom you invited to play have been your favorites?

I wouldn’t hazard to name favorites. But, if you look at the list of performers, past and present, it’s really quite impressive.

S21: What’s your nutshell explanation of the world of MAX/MSP for software synthesis newbies?

MAX/MSP is a graphic programming language designed to allow both programmers and non-programmers (musicians and sound artists in particular) to create software designs that can flexibly support their artistic needs. You start with a core of standard graphic/visual “objects” (functional units that perform some action, such as adding two numbers) represented onscreen as boxes with inputs and outputs. The boxes can be connected to each other with lines (i.e. patch-cords) that the user creates by dragging the mouse from the output of one object to the input of another. In this manner, the user can build new, more complex objects, which themselves are then represented onscreen as boxes with inputs and outputs, and which (one hopes) finally perform a useful purpose in one’s artistic activities. MAX/MSP allows you to manipulate both MIDI and control information, as well as perform signal processing (filtering, delays, etc.) on audio signals.

S21: How would you describe your relationship to it as a compositional medium?

For me, it is an indirect compositional tool in the sense that one often finds one’s work influenced by the tools one uses. In the past, for example, if you acquired a new digital-delay device (or reverb unit, etc.) you often found yourself creating new work just from the ideas you got by playing around with it. MAX/MSP is much the same, except that you are creating the devices yourself, so you probably have more of an idea of where their application may lead. But there are still surprises when you start to actually use a tool day-to-day, even one of your own design.

S21: There are still critics who say that experimental electronic musicians aren’t visually performative.  Have you been consciously addressing that in your work with MIDI controllers and interface design?

I’ve been involved in that (ongoing) debate in the past, but it’s not an issue I give much thought to at this point. There’s really no unassailable position from which to argue… take your pick. It’s like debating the definition of art. But I will say that, for me, having been brought up from an early age in a more traditional musical setting, the physicality of music is very important. Historically, up to the age of electronics, the production of music was always associated with physical motion. So, I find it important to maintain that connection.

S21: How does the interface you use in your own performances compare with the control system you created for Pamela Z?

It depends on the performance in question. I’ve designed similar interfaces (hardware and software) for both myself and Pamela, though there are differences in the way we use them. It’s also kind of a back-and-forth thing, since when I’m working on designs for Pamela, I usually temporarily put aside my own development. Then, when I come back to my own work, I find that I want to incorporate the new things I did for Pamela into my setup. And then the process occurs in reverse when I return to doing work for her.

S21: Has the Brava Theater presented any site-specific blessings, or challenges, for your SFEMF performance coming up?

Actually, I’m not familiar with the current state of the theatre (I attended movies there when it was the York), so I hope there are no surprises! (We’ll find out on sound check). But, I’m informed that the comfortable seating and sight-lines are the best yet for SFEMF.

S21: Can you give us any hints about what, or whom, we might hear recorded in the samples at your September 17th concert?

The piece I’ll be performing is titled “Salvation Station. Three (or Four) Interrupted Narratives”. You’ll be hearing all sorts of things, including TV evangelists, dot-bomb ad pitches, plaintive Presidents, and who knows what else. And all this in addition to the usual complement of sampled and synthesized sounds.

S21: Most folks only know of Richard Feynman from his famous space shuttle O-ring ice water demonstration after the Challenger disaster.  What has your study of his life and work brought to your music?

His was a large personality (and, perhaps, ego as well). To list him as one of my heroes will certainly induce prejudice, both pro and con, to one’s opinion of me in the absence of other criteria (such as actually knowing or having met me). I admire first of all the great humanity of the more public persona that is well-known from the many popular books both by and about him. But, even more, I admire his work as a physicist and the incision/precision of his original intellect (the O-ring incident is one among many). His 3-volume “Lectures on Physics” is perhaps one of the most important scientific works ever, full of intellectual rigor, beauty, and poetry of expression. Comparing this to other science texts is like comparing Shakespeare to a toaster repair manual.