Transmissions 002

by Chuck Johnson for Transmissions Festival, Apr 1999 (Chapel Hill, NC, USA)


Hi Rafael. My name is Chuck Johnson and I’ve been asked to interview you for the Transmissions festival.  We can do this via email and the interview will be posted on the festival’s website (

I was wondering if you could describe the development of your music – especially your solo “ambient” material as it has progressed from “Sound Mind Sound Body” to “Wave Field” and then “Aeriola Frequency.”

Sound Mind Sound Body is based on a few methods of composition, such as repeating patterns of different lengths and superimposing these to obtain unpredictable harmonic changes. Those methods were in some way inspired by similar ones used by Brian Eno, whose work was a big inspiration to me in those early days. I was fascinated by the idea of a process that, once set in motion, could produce unforeseen results to which the composer becomes an audience.

Some time later, i began to move away from writing music on paper, as most of Sound Mind Sound Body is. I was much more inclined to work with sound itself as a composition material. Meanwhile, i started becoming interested in a kind of ambient music that would include some dirt and grainyness, “ambient with distortion”. I started doing some small pieces but i’d only fulfill this interest in a more complete way with “Wave Field”. By this time i had become very inerested in Alvin Lucier’s masterpiece “I’m sitting in a room”, in which he used the resonance of a space as a musical instrument. “Wave Field” is a lot about resonance. On the other hand, this noisier approach to sound brought me closer to the universe i originated from, rock music. This piece became a sort of distillation, a search for an abstract vibration of rock, as if it could be liquid.

In more recent years, since i’ve always been working with guitar sound transformation with electronics, i’ve been having an increasing focus on electronic circuits and equipment. At some point i found myself doing things which had a result to which the guitar was almost irrelevant, i could do the same without it. One piece that resulted from this aproach was “Liveloop”, a delay loop with a few pedals in the feedback path. A simpler version of this would later become “Aeriola Frequency”, in which i found myself working with resonance again, but now in the domain of pure electronics.

This doesn’t mean at all i’m puting the guitar aside, just that often i don’t need to use it…

Your most recent release, “Aeriola Frequency,” is a departure for you in that you don’t use the guitar as a sound source.  Could you explain the self-generating system you developed for this recording?  Will you be performing any of this material at Transmissions?

Well, it’s not really self-generating. It’s self-processing. The first tone is a direct feedback, and that is the primary sound from which everything else results. Basically, it’s two delay units in series with a feedback path (the output routed back to the input) that goes through a four band parametric equalizer. The delay’s direct out goes to a mixer, which is sometimes used for auxiliary routing to a low-pass resonant filter and to an effects unit with a resonator effect on.

I don’t think this material is suitable for live performance. The circuit can go “wrong” too easily (many takes were attempted when recording). And it would be boring to play it live, i think. I’m more likely to present a version of “Wave Field”, which was made specifically for live performance. Also, things are shaping up for a performance of Phill Niblock’s amazing guitar piece at Transmissions…

How have your audio engineering and mastering experiences affected the way you approach your own music?  It seems that you master your own records since you do a lot of post-production work on the computer.  This sounds like an ideal setup for the kind of music you make because you have such control over sound.  Or maybe I should say the technology you use allows the sound to develop organically.  (By the way, don’t be afraid to use technical descriptions because much of the audience here will be interested in the technology angle.)

Yes, it definitely wouldn’t make any sense for me to go to a studio to record music!… There’s too much slow-developing experimentation, only at home would it be possible.
I just had to surround myself with the appropriate tools for making music the way i wanted. I use the computer not only for post-production but also for recording, mixing and editing. I would say technology is not very important in determining how your work succeeds. It’s a brain that stands behind a good work, not technology. Technology is just a (possible) choice about the way you work and the degree of desired control over the result.

You mentioned in an interview that you would like to make recordings of bridges.  Have you done much electro-acoustic work using field recordings? Do you have plans for such a project?

I do have over eight hours of bridge recordings. It’s a project i still didn’t start working on seriously yet. No, i haven’t been using field recordings that much. I think i’d like to, but in order not to get lost, i have to limit the options. Exploring the guitar itself kept me busy for years!…

This year’s Transmissions Festival will include sound installations and multi-media projects.  Since most people here know you from your recordings, could you talk a little about “Flyability” and your work with Acqua Matrix?

’m interested in the possibility of using video as a sort of screensaver for a TV set, like a video painting. I’ve been making video pieces, which i often use when i play live (at oo2 you’ll be able to see “Power Field”), which basically apply an ambient concept to a visual level – something that is unfolding but doesn’t demand attention, it’s available for eventual use but is always present. This concept was also inspired in Brian Eno’s own video work. There are three such videos, “Flyability”, “Power Field” and “Air pass” (from which the cover of “Aeriola Frequency” was taken).

The Acqua Matrix experience was something really different, having not much to do with my current work. Acqua Matrix was the nightly multimedia show which closed each day at Lisbon’s Expo ’98. It had lots of giant moving structures, a 30m high inflatable egg on which images were projected, advanced pyrotechnics and lots of stuff going on. I was asked to make a piece for boat horns, which was meant to call for people to come to the dock area where the show would happen. It was really nice to do, and being a part of that team.