Tim Story found his true calling while enrolled at the University of Toledo in the late Seventies as an English Literature major. Upon graduating in 1980, he began recording ambient music, starting with 1981’s Threads. His collaborations with the German musician Hans-Joachim Röedelius began with 2000’s Persistence of Memory. It continues with their recent installation, The Röedelius Cells, showing at the Figge Art Museum from September 25 through 27. Story cordially consented to explain their project.
MH: Is there an aspect of the binaural playback to the process that involves “The Rodelius Cells,” your traveling sound installation, with the eight discrete speakers that you have set up through the environment, and if so, does that involve crosstalk-cancellation equipment?
TS: No. It wouldn’t be an eight-channel experience if it could be translated into two channels, even though we just have two ears. But it’s just this active act of moving through the soundstage that allows you to see what sort of odd and abstract bits that this music, which, if you stand right in the middle, sounds somewhat normal, or at least approximates piano music played with a lot of hands. It’s only when you explore the soundstage that your brain begins to realize what odd little pixels that it’s made out of.
MH: It sounds like the installation depends where one places oneself or where one moves at a given time; turn an angle, and suddenly you’re going to experience a different piece by your collaborator, Hans-Joachim Röedelius?
TS: Yes. There’s sort of a fundamental difference between this and other multi-media, you know, multi-channel – you know, Surround-audio, or quadrophonic. All the music was designed originally to go together. You might have the guitar on one track and the keyboard on another, and the drums, so that you have this feeling that you’re sitting or standing in the middle of this band.
But this is fundamentally different, because it was created artificially, out of thousands of bits of these little samples of Joachim’s playing. Some of them are an entire phase, like eight or nine seconds repeated; some are as short as a third of a second – these tiny, little piano notes that come out; and it’s the addition of all these together that create this experience. But they are made out of quite abstract bits. If you stand right in the middle, and didn’t move at all, you would have sort of a Surround experience: You would hear all these parts coming from points on a circle, this very immersive experience in the middle.
But the reason that it’s made to be moved around in is because the composition, the things that you hear, definitely change when you get closer to the individual speakers. All of a sudden, this sort of connective tissue of the piece falls away and you’re exposed to just the little bits that make it up. In a visual sense, I always think of it as a giant video screen or an Impressionist painting or a mosaic, where if you stand back from it, you see this whole picture that seems to be a landscape scene with a river. But the closer you get, the pixels become – the visible things are the individual pixels or the blobs of ink, of paint. And all of a sudden, the big picture falls away and all you’re left with is these abstract little points of light that are … . That really don’t make much sense to your brain until you step back again.
So the effect is kind of a statement about how our brains – including mine, by taking bits of music that weren’t mine to begin with and putting them in a completely new composition, and then individual listeners who are sort of allowed to do their own compositional process by wandering around this. No two people will have – it’s completely unrepeatable. No two people will ever have the same experience in this. And the farther out amongst the perimeter that you get, the more different these compositions become. You can hear little bleeps and blats of these piano notes, but it becomes completely separated from the other bits that you’re hearing that your brain to make sort of a beautiful sense out of it.
MH: How long does it take for these installations to be set up for the experience?
TS: It’s really not that difficult because it took a lot of preparation to get this to a point where it was easily transportable. But actually, the technology that we bring has all of the pieces. It’s a cycle of about an hour in length and each piece has an individual eight layers that will be transmitted to each of those eight speakers in the space. So it generally doesn’t take more than half a day because it’s essentially a circle of audio speakers, and the technology that we bring, which is just a computer, a solid-state drive, and a mini-computer, and an audio interface that distributes these eight individual, discrete channels to the monitors. That’s one of the things that appealed to me. It’s really elegant in its simplicity. It doesn’t demand – it's not a light show, it doesn’t have lasers. It’s all about this more personal experience, and the technology itself is not that difficult, really, not that complex. The creation of the pieces was much more complex than the technology needed to actually recreate it in the space.
MH: Were you always musically-minded as far back as you can remember, or was it a slow process of pupation?
TS: I always loved music as a kid, but I was never attracted … . My parents always had music in the house – everything from Simon & Garfunkel to Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass [Band] to Stravinsky. Rite of Spring. My mother loved to play piano and loved Debussy. I was exposed to a lot but was never very interested and organized, like, a band or a choir or anything in school. I was more often in my strange little … .
I always loved recording with this little recording equipment when I was a kid. I got a little GE cassette recorder, which was more a miniature reel-to-reel at that point. It was more or less a toy, but it was so much fun to have these little audio plays. I’m pretty much self-taught because I was never really attracted to … . I had guitar lessons when I was eight, but I was never really attracted to “normal music.” I guess.
I got a job under a great manager at a record store when I was in my teens, and just able to hear a lot of the new music that was coming out at that time, including the music of the European electronic bands, especially German electronic bands, that were really pushing past what they ... their history and art, into new directions. And then I was introduced to Hans-Joachim Rödelius’ music and to Cluster, his duo with Dieter Moebius. But that was just one speck of light with a lot of other music that I loved at the time: minimalism, Bartók – I mean, everything. Pop music, Miles Davis, Steve Reich – just a lot of musical touchstones. I think that you can hear … . If you know Steve Reich’s music, there are a lot of touchstones to American minimalism in it, although it’s constructed in a completely different way. It has this sort of shimmering syncopation, with these slowly developing patterns, that I can definitely hear a little bit of that myself when I listen to [my music].
MH: You graduated from the University of Toledo. Was music your academic concentration?
TS: No. It was English literature, actually. When I was a kid, I always imagined myself becoming a writer. But I gravitated more and more, even during college, to doing musical experiments in my basement, and realized that I didn’t quite have the knack or the temperament for writing, but found that incredible creative release that I was looking for, really, in music instead. I was going to college and I had this secret life and I saved my money and I spent it on some of the new … . The late-Seventies was wonderful for this explosion of less-expensive synthesizers, recording technology, four-track recorders that were actually more like bigger studio recorders without the price tag, where people like me could experiment with overlaying bits of music, all of which I played myself. This was not because I thought I was great. It was more out of insecurity that people that I would invite to play instruments would think this stuff is crazy.
So I was more of a hermetic experimenter in my little lab in my parent’s basement in the early day. And I got some interest from record companies in Europe, and had a couple records released about the time I was graduating college. That was it for me. It wasn’t making much money, but it was, like, “Wow! There’s actually maybe people out there that might appreciate this.” And having a couple of very small releases on these European labels, and then one was picked up by PolyGram, a big label in Japan. That was enough for me. I dropped everything after I graduated school, quit my job, and just decided to dive into this and see where it would lead.
MH: To ambience.
TS: Yes. It led in a lot of different directions. The earliest music was very experimental. I was using tape loops and slowed-down electric guitar and whatever sort of kitchen-utensils and garage-sale instruments I could find. But I slowly became interested – I didn’t like the way some electronic musicians were using synthesizers to emulate the existing instruments. Like, me doing Debussy and recreating these orchestral pieces with synthesizers seemed like such a novelty to me. It seemed like it would be as if you’d invent a tuba, and then all you’d do is try to make it sound like a flute because you knew what a flute sounded like.
To me, the absolute explosion of creativity with synthesizers was that it could actually make sounds that were unlike anything else. So I began exploring synthesis and synthetic textures. I thought it would be really great, at least the albums that I did in the Nineties. I really, really worked on trying to make a combination of organic and synthetic, with orchestral instruments – piano, cello, oboe – into an absolute, seamless, new chamber music in a way. Creating absolutely convincing, integrated pieces that just happened to use electronics along with very recognizable orchestral instruments. So that kept me very occupied for about 10 years. And still, of course, to this day, is definitely in my work. Even, I’m sure, in The Rödelius Cells, where we’re using pianos, something that’s really recognizable – probably the most recognizable Western instrument. So it’s a friendly, accessible sound, the sound of piano; everybody knows it.
But that allows you to twist it much better. It allows you really to manipulate things and subvert it a lot more interestingly with … . The way this was put together, I mean, I could have done a Cells-type thing with traffic sounds or kazoos or machine sounds. A lot of people have done this over the years, with musique concrete and other avant-garde music that used recordings of more abstract things. But to me, the interest of this was to take something so accessible (the piano) and subvert it in the way that you’re composing so that people that come into this [installation] feel like it’s very friendly. It’s very musical, in a way. It’s only when you spend a little time with it that it starts to challenge the way you think about what piano composition means, what authorship means. I didn’t play or write a single note of this music, but somehow, they’re my compositions. It’s kind of like the issue of modern art, people like Damien Hirst and Banksy, who are appropriating other peoples’ art and then making something new out of it by adding some new context, some new and different material that changes the context of the art.
MH: Did you consult with Röedelius about your choice of music that you sampled, or did he leave you to your own devices?
TS: This was all recorded here in my studio. He and I had collaborated for 10 years on about four or five different, more sort of traditionally composed projects. But both he and I really enjoyed this process of improvising and figuring things out as we go and shortening and developing and distilling ideas for longer pieces. In the midst of recording all this – many, many sessions of recording here with my piano – I was just one day listening back to this material. And at first, I was like, “Yeah, I can’t use this.” It didn’t have beginnings and endings; a lot of times we’re talking through it because we were actually working out compositions while we did it.
But I ended up with probably eight to 10 hours of piano improvisations and little things, little phrases, as we worked, and I started finding little short bits that I really loved. They didn’t go anywhere; they didn’t come from anywhere; they couldn’t be used as they were unless we completely recomposed and recorded them. But I realized these repetitive patterns, and then I had so much material, so many hours, that I could pull things, that I thought … It was trial and error, mostly.
And Joachim is very … he has challenged the concepts of music since his beginnings in the Sixties. He’s legendary in electronic music from that era. When I told him about this [project], he said, “Yes. Go for it. Let’s do it.” He was very generous in allowing me to completely distort and change his compositions, because there’s a lot of trust between us, both from all these years of working together and his interest in new forms. He was enthused about it. He came to the U.S. premiere of the Toledo Museum of Art [in 2017]. In the couple days that he was here, we gave a little talk about his music. Yeah, he was extremely supportive of this, which was great, because I had started falling in love with this project, and it would have been heartbreaking to me if I would have sent a month’s worth of work over and he said, “No. You can’t do this to my music.” So I’m so appreciative of his openness and his championing of this project, even though it’s a fairly strange construction.
MH: Could you discuss the actual impetus for the initial installation?
TS: For the installation itself, Scott Boberg, who is the program director of the Toledo Museum of Art. He was familiar with my work. I have a fairly low profile in Ohio here, where I live, but he was a big fan of what I was doing when I played Detroit and then Cincinnati. He invited me to lunch one day a few years ago. He just said, “Hey, I know you don’t do much in the area here,” but he said, “I really enjoy what you do and is there anything you can do at the museum? Any kind of project. Whatever. Let me know.”
I let a lot of time pass. I didn’t really create the Cells for this, but the impetus for me personally was just simply musical. I fell in love with this process and I spent five, six months working on this crazy compositional stuff, working with tiny little bits, because it just really moved me in a musical way. And really, in the beginning, I hadn’t thought about doing this as a museum installation. But as I got going and as I would listen to these compositions that I was making, I would pull a few tracks out, and I would realize what a strange, strange new … . All of a sudden, it was just a very strange and abstract piece. It occurred to me instantly that I had to do this where people can explore that themselves. I don’t want to force the absolute composition on them. I want them to see for themselves what this is made out of. It feels like this has to be done in a gallery or museum installation/exhibition type thing. And then it was instant – this, like, “Oh, yeah. Scott. Scott told me if I ever wanted to do something.” And I called him up and said, “I have an idea for you. I have a few pieces. Let’s go to lunch again.” So we did.
The premiere of this ended up being with Röedelius in Vienna [in 2016]. And then, not quite a little later – because it takes a little more time for big institutions to get these kind of things planned – we did the Cells here for the U.S. But really, the personal impetus with me because I had been more and more composing these days using bits of found sound in compositions with traditionally recorded things, like where I would play a very structured piano piece. But I was involving things like using some of my brother’s marching-band, using little, tiny phrases that I would put in because I didn’t mind this idea of using existing sounds that are so rich, so organic – things that you just couldn’t sit down and play on a keyboard. As I was developing more and more of this over the years, it was sort of natural to do something like The Röedelius Cells where I was taking nothing but existing bits of existing music and basically creating a brand-new composition out of it.
MH: Did you use software for editing the Cells, or did it get as basic as taking scissors to tape?
TS: I have so much admiration for people who did that – Holger Czukay and others who did music this way. This literally would have taken until my death bed if I would have done it in an old-school way. This was all done with modern software, ProTools, because so much of it is trial and error. It’s moving things around until you find something that, like, triggers this, “Oh, yeah,” this “A-ha” moment, and then taking that and trimming it.
I won’t say that it would have been impossible to do 20 or 30 years ago, but it would have virtually been impossible to do 30 years ago, because we’re talking about layering thousands and thousands of recycling bits, and I think even the most talented of scissors and razor-blade editors from back in the day would have had an almost impossible time to do it. If we looked at these sessions – just the graphics part of it – you would realize and know how complex they are. Also, tiny little movements to get things to rhythmically work for you, these tiny little movements of something as a second forward or back creates a different rhythm, and so these really microscopic things would have been very difficult without software.
MH: So your general feelings about today’s use of software are positive ones, correct?
TS: Yes. Yes. But I will say I have to use a partnership in a big recording studio with expensive gear and 24-track recorders that always needed maintenance and all this, and it has been completely liberating to be able to have access on my desktop at all times to such wonderful technologies. So I am an absolute proponent of new technologies. That being said, though, I am extremely fortunate, I think, that my initial composition was done on a four-track machine. You need to have discipline, I think.
In this new software, you can have 128 tracks and you can do absolutely everything to them and you can just keep layering and layering. And I know so many people that’s like, “Ahh, I don’t like this song very well. I mean, maybe if I add another track, it’s gonna be better.” In the old days, when you just had four tracks, it absolutely demands discipline. And when you have only four channels, if you put a piano in one or something and a tape loop on another, if each track isn’t doing something really important in the composition itself, there is no gloss – there is no extra cushion of, like, “Oh, that’s a nice sound.” It absolutely had to be something that worked in the composition, or we in the old days would just have to pitch it, because you didn’t have the option of just layering one thing upon another of pretty sound. So I am incredibly fortunate for that austerity – that I grew up with four-tracks. It informs me to this day within my composition, and that is something that I really, really work on, that isn’t just something that … . If something isn’t there just to serve the composition, it should just get axed. Because only your best ideas should end up in the final.
MH: Do you see that discipline from the days of austerity sort of disappearing from the process?
TS: Yeah. You know, there are great musicians and composers who’ll always be great. There’s always a guy with a guitar and a voice that is making more compelling music than somebody that has 500 channels and every kind of processing at their fingertips. And that is one effect that the technology has … . For one thing, it has made it a democracy, instead of the tyranny of the Seventies and Sixties, where you had to have access to expensive recording studios to do anything, and so the record companies and studios were the gate-keepers. Now, there is no gate anymore. If you have 200 bucks and can buy a little laptop with some rudimentary music software in it, you have access to this world of stuff.
But that does kind of promote an absolute glut of music out there, and, of course, when it’s easy to make, it means that there are people … . I'm a firm believer that the cream rises to the top, but it’s an awful lot harder to find that cream when there is just millions of music bits from amateurs and professionals uploaded every minute. The process has been greatly democratized, has been brought to the fingers of the masses, which I think is wonderful. I’m so glad that talented people that didn’t have the resources before can actually create great music. But it also creates a glut of music, both good and bad, that it can be extremely difficult to wade through.
MH: I wanted to get your insights on an individual track Röedelius and you composed for 2008’s Inlandish, called “Serpentining.”
MH: You say that with a great deal of enthusiasm.
TS: I like that piece. I like that album. Yeah. Yeah. I’m very fond of those records that Joachim and I made together.
MH: Describe how it was put together.
TS: Joachim came to my house several occasions to record some of the basic parts. One thing that we like to do often is do something that changes the way our fingers play or the way our minds work. I was experimenting at that time with putting his playing through an echo so that he would play basically with these repeated patterns that he himself was making. And a lot of Inlandish, just the basic parts, had these compositions that basically came about by he and I playing through these echoes, and these echoes would change the way we would create these basic tracks. These basic tracks that were created that way with these layered, syncopated parts, we would refine those while he was here into the composition. And then … because we had limited time with him, I took those later and added other parts.
These other parts were me playing after I had sort of refined the composition that we had recorded into a finite length and a finite piece. I began to add other sounds. Some of it is my playing. Sometimes within Inlandish we found little bits … . The last piece, there’s little voices; it’s a sort of ambient recording of Japanese singers out in a field. There are little bits of orchestral parts that I worked. And so these changing patterns, where your mind hears it as sort of a single melody, they’re actually made up kind of like Cells by a linear connection of these different parts. The first couple notes you might hear are a little orchestra recording, and then they sort of meld into a synthesizer part that I play, and then maybe another little part of a sound that I found from a different part of the session. These recordings were definitely leading up to the idea of Cells.
But “Serpentining” is one of those pieces that has sort of repetitive patterns that develop, and then these melodic parts that are really made up of a lot of different bits, absolutely composed parts that I would play, parts that Joachim played, and then these found textures and sounds that really feel like they belong there but actually come from recordings that were completely separate. That’s the intellectual way it’s put together. The emotional part for me is finding these parts and working meticulously on these little bits until I just had this piece of music that just is its own little world. It’s a little immersive sound-poetry or something that all works together, that just feels like you may not know where it came from – it may be kind of ambiguous – but that seems to me to have a life of its own.
And it’s always that “life of its own” that I’m looking for – something that has real beauty. It may not be made in a conventional sense, but it has this integrated beauty and sort of interesting harmonies and melodies, and I just manipulate these things until I listen all the way through and I go, “Yeah, that’s it. I can’t make that any better. That’s the feeling I want to get. “Serpentining” and a lot of pieces on Inlandish are like that, where there was no set conception at the beginning of exactly how it would end up. But every step of the way, we would find the things that we like until we end up liking the whole thing. It has this perfectly musical experience that we’re looking for. And then it’s finished, and we move on to the next one.
MH: Yeah, with “Serpentining,” because you keep bringing up “life,” that was exactly what I was thinking: It was its own biological creature.
TS: I love that! Oh, my God! That is – yeah! Absolutely! I always think of these as little life forms of their own. And it’s always trying to find the thing that makes it that, you know, that sort of immersive, hypnotic thing where it’s just … . It’s perfect where it is. It’s like I don’t know where that sound came from. I don’t really care anymore, because it does have its own life. When I hear a comment like that, I really feel like we did our job, because in a way, I am approaching these purely as a musical listener that is trying a lot of different things and working on a lot of things until I go, “I love this.” You know, “This is something I would like to listen to.” And a lot of times, it is a sort of finding this fragile little life form, and nursing it along until it's its own little being.