I’ve been very interested in the output of HOW THINGS ARE MADE (https://howthingsaremade.bandcamp.com) and was honored to be included in a volume.
To me, they inhabit (or perhaps more accurately co-inhabit) a nice realm between performance art & music - Which actually sounds pretty horrible I’m sure, but they pull it off with a great deal of clever insight.
I thought I’d ask Matt Aelmore, Brian Riordan and David Bernabo some questions about this project -
1 What is HOW THINGS ARE MADE?
MA: We are a musical trio that explores new (or new to us) practices in improvisation through technology, experiment, and community engagement. We produce an improvised audio series of the same name. Our next release will be the ninth episode of our third season, or our 37th album. The third season features our performances of music submitted to us by dozens of artists from around the world, our first “call for things”. Our second season was made from a 6 hour concert we produced with 12 guest performers. The first season is just us playing.
2 It seems to me you inhabit a very interesting space between music & performance art - Which of these do you consider yourselves - Both? Either? Neither? Please elaborate.
DB: Matt, what do you think?
MA: Everything we do has a music focus, but we don’t limit ourselves to purely musical techniques. Saying we do performance art would be misleading since our work never seems to be a critique of performance in itself, but we do talk or dance or anything else when it fits the moment and the project. Once a comedian asked us improvise a radio play with musical interludes. It ends with a time traveling farmer’s euphoric realization that his friend and newfound god, Carl, actually lives in a bag of chips. I might call that performance art, but only as a cover for my bad acting.
DB: I feel like the performance art aspects of our practice are more subtle, less intentional. Maybe it’s my own hang up, but I generally associate performance art with live performance or a process that results in an artifact--thinking of Roman Signer’s actions that often end up as videos or photographs--and while we have made 37 aural artifacts, music, no matter its process of creation, still feels like “music” to me. That said, I’m not sure that distinction is too important for what we do. This band is kind of a “let’s pursue any/every idea” kind of thing, in the best way possible.
MA: What do you think Brian?
BR: [washes self with soda, obtains patent for residual liquid in Portugal, writes life story on single grain of rice]
3 When I listen to your output, it seems as if there is a level of respect / importance placed formal music training & composition. What are your backgrounds & feelings about this ?
MA: I am a superfluously accredited, classically trained composer (PhD, famous conservatory, etc.). I also played bass for an AME church choir for 5 years under a master hammond player and have played in a lot of different genres of bands in a lot of bars, house shows, concert halls, art galleries, and coffee shops.
BR: I too am a classically trained composer. But I’ve played in a bunch of different bands from different genres ranging from latin jazz, to hip hop, metal, and bluegrass.
DB: I had early-in-life classical training, high school orchestra and jazz band, but nothing academic beyond that. Played in a bunch of bands, generally rock or free improv or jazz settings. I think we hit a sweet spot of respecting the intentional, the composed, but also the freely improvised and more often than necessary, the silly.
4 If you have a consistent working method, what would you say the unifying factor in this is ?
DB: I think the interest in making recordings is where we started and why we stay so active. Brian makes it easy for us to document everything thing we do.
5 If you had to place your sound output into a category (Field Recording /Noise/Etc.) what category would you use?
DB: Matt, what do you think?
BR: I’m not sure...
DB: Oh sorry, Brian go ahead.
BR: Currently we are debating the concept behind our upcoming seasons which might defy any category we’d list here. The one consistency is that we are an irregularly released podcast.
DB: I mean, free improvisation seems like the most general and immediately applicable term to me.
7 What are your respective main reasons for starting this project? What do you hope to accomplish with it?
DB: Matt, what do you think?
MA: It all started with an idea to combine the work of Chuck Mangione with Chick Corea’s 70’s free jazz group Circle, AKA Chuck Corea. Ideas have progressed since.
8 I feel like your output is something that is deep listening or requires attention. However, some might describe it as ambient or background sound - How would you like your sound to be listened to? Does this change from Live Performance to Audio Document?
MA: I like to put an album on while cleaning or cooking. It blends into the environment so well. At the same time, I like this music for deep listening. There’s a lot to listen to in there. People should listen to it however they like.
BR: Technically every recording is a live recording. Sometimes an audience is present. But we don’t like overdubs so mostly what you hear is what really happened in a single take.
DB: I do think I play differently if we have an audience though.
MA: Yeah, me too.
9 We live in a politically charged era. Do you feel as if there is a political component or message inherent to your work?
BR: (this is a complicated question you guys, what are your thoughts on commenting that it is a political response to the musical climate? Or that it is just an exploitation of the Bandcamp model?)
MA: (Yeah, I mean, we generally agree on politics between the three of us. We haven’t made too many political references outside of that Darlene Harris track or the time I read that awkwardly funny conservative op-ed in a concert.)
DB: (Well, this band was a place for me to forget about politics after the election. Like in a very real way, those Monday night sessions were my only mental break in the week. So, being able to focus on sound for an hour and not think about the news cycle and the rise of American-style fascism was a tangible self-care move. But musically, I think AMM was political and attempts to make music in a similarly free setting post-AMM can never reach the same level of intention and impact. Insert any of the other musicians that came before us here _____.)
10 How important is technology to your work? It seems as if much of it is based on an analog world of objects & instruments. Is the Tech aspect being less obvious a part of the work?
MA: Technology is paramount, but not just the fancy algorithms.
DB: Max software and Brian’s use of it definitely shapes the structure of a lot of our music, but it also depends on the piece that we are performing. A number of the pieces are acoustic and made with objects, but technology is still used to document it.
MA: Thanks, Dave. Good save.
BR: We are using technology to respond to these questions.
11 If you could ask your favorite artist one question, who would it be & what would you ask?
MA: I would either ask Charles Ives if he’d like to buy me lunch, Robert Ashley how to write a libretto, or Miles Davis for his forgiveness.
DB: I would ask Leonora Carrington about Mexico. Just like, about it.
BR: I would ask Google’s Deep Dream how much longer until the robots take over.
12 What is your schedule like? You seem fairly prolific in the time I’ve been aware of you - is this a conscious decision? What determines the pace of your output ?
MA: We generally record for an afternoon or evening two times a month, nine months out of the year, plus live shows. We split duties and edit, master, promote, and create album art remotely. Production time and busy lives dictate the pace. Whenever we have a backlog we try to release two albums a month.
13 Do you think it’s important that your audience Get/understand what you are doing?
MA: Not really.
DB: I think a high percentage of our small audience does get what we are doing. I think it is helpful knowing that creations are not solely destined for the void.
14 You seem to have a lot of collaborators - What determines the collaborative process?
DB: Mainly the project concept. For the concert where we recorded 13 albums with 12 guests, collaborators were essential to concept. The “call for things” inherently requires collaborators. Organizing a call for scores or guest musician sessions is more work, but the collaborative aspect gets us out of our comfort zones sometimes.
15 Do you feel like your sonic output is reflective of your geographic locale?
MA: Pittsburgh is a major research town for artificial intelligence tech, especially when it comes to human centered design and automated vehicles. Even by coincidence, a big part of our work is finding newly productive ways of new interactive technology. So there’s that.
16 What draws you to where you live & how does your work interact with that area?
DB: I grew up here and it was cheap, a city flush with old steel and coal baron money that is still funneled into the arts, a city with shifting but always present art and music scenes, a city that can never quite get it together to make anything lasting or build profitable arts infrastructure for bands or individual artists, but at least there is plenty of opportunity to create and show/share work.
17 When I hear your sounds, I get a sense of restraint & order, even in the more erratic work. Is this a conscious choice? How much does loud & chaos matter to your work?
DB: I think there is a sincere interest in playing together and not over each other. Chaos is a void state, right? Unconscious, indifferent. I’m not sure we could get to that state especially since we’re always so concerned that the record button is on.
18 Apart from Sound, what are your primary respective creative interests?
19 In the time I’ve been actively involved in the music “Scene” it’s changed dramatically. What are your thoughts about the current state of music, esp. the realm you inhabit?
DB: I still can’t separate ownership and music listening. I like records that I own as a physical product better than records that I hear through the ether.
20 If there is a feeling that you would like associated with your work what would that be?
21 What was the last recorded music you listened to?
BR: Someone performed a musical game I created. I’ve never heard the piece until now. They recorded with their phone and I just finished listening to the product. I had no idea at all what the thing could sound like.
DB: The self-titled debut album from The Roches--my idea of a perfect record! “Sometimes our voices give out but not our ages and our phone numbers.”
MA: Robert Ashley, Improvement. “The offering of images, as a spiritual activity, replaces the impulse to find a personal vision--an icon. As a spiritual activity it distracts the individual from the task of finding and recognizing a singular true path.”
22 How do you determine what objects you will be working with?
MA: There’s a Canadian public television show that uses a high speed camera and narration to describe the mechanical production of industrial goods. We follow the objects as they appear in that series.
23 Any Pet Peeves/things you would like to get of your chest?
DB: I hate the sound of delay. I suppose I can get behind tape delay or an Echoplex, but I hate hearing how a delay pedal overrides the instrument or the musical idea.
BR: Most of the live processing that is done in our recordings is based on delay.
Neal D. Retke