September 2003
interview by Ian C Stewart

Avant-garde composer, instrument maker, session musician and Cold Blue Music solo artist Chas Smith recently spoke with Mouthy.

Smith describes his early musical experiences as a reluctant piano student. "I grew up in a very insulated small town in Massachusetts, where my mother was a church organist and pianist, so I got the obligatory piano lessons starting at age eight. She expected me to be a little Mozart. It had to be around 1958 - I was ten and I heard Link Wray's "Rumble." I literally wore out the 45. I also had Duane Eddy's LPs, The Astronaut's Baja and the Ventures. I wanted to be a guitar player."

"I bought a guitar and learned enough chords to play in a band. Around '65 I got Freak Out, by the Mothers of Invention and the first record by the Fugs. It was proof that there was something else going on somewhere. Keep in mind that except for American Bandstand, the Ed Sullivan show and a radio station in Boston, there was practically no way to know if anything was happening. Freak Out had the quote by Edgard Varese, "The present day composer refuses to die," so I had to find out who Varese was and eventually got an album of Varese conducted by Robert Craft which coincided with my introduction to LSD. I'm a little vague on the chronology here.

"There was a lot of music going on in the '60s that seemed to be relevant, meaning that it seemed to be intertwined with what was going on in my life. I had made the decision that I wanted to be a musician around the time I was fourteen and by the end of the 60s I was fully committed. I was at Berklee College Of Music in Boston to study composition and arranging, and I wanted to be the next Bill Evans, but no matter how much I practiced the piano, I just didn't have it.

"A major turning point was when I heard Gyorgy Ligeti's Lux Aeterna and Charles Ives' Central Park In The Dark and The Unanswered Question. Lux Aeterna was the first time I had heard moving clusters and the Ives pieces, in particular, The Unanswered Question, composed in 1908, is like a suspended hymn with lines and fragments that just hang in the air, much like the title.

"After hearing Silver Apples Of The Moon by Mort Subotnick, I decided that I wanted to study electronic music with him. I was accepted at Cal Arts in '72 where I studied with Mort, James Tenney, Mel Powell, Earle Brown and Harold Budd.

"I think everything you come in contact with affects you, one way or another, and in particular, your teachers, and that it's important to be exposed to different kinds of music and be challenged as to what it is or could be. It might have been the first class I had with Jim where we were all blindfolded and led through the building to listen to the different sounds and shapes of the rooms. When we got back, he posed the question, "was there anything that you heard that did not fulfill all of the qualifications to be music, and why?" Another time we had to bring in an example of bad music and explain why it was bad. That wasn't as easy as I thought it would be and I wasn't able to explain why it was bad, only that I didn't like it.

"All of these guys had the gift to be able to look at what I was doing and ask the appropriate question.

"Earle Brown was one of the pioneers of open-form notation around 1950. He told a story of how each day he went to work and passed by a Calder mobile. Every day it had a different shape and yet every day it retained its identity. How do you do that with written music?

"In the early '70s, Harold Budd and Daniel Lentz began doing beautiful music and, as I understand it, to distill it down to its essence. At the time it seemed pretty avant garde for the avante garde and I realize that may not make any sense, but from an academic perspective, music builds on and extends its history and I'm not aware of a precedent for beautiful music in the avante garde. By doing this, it gave license to write beautiful music, for better or worse.

"I spent about five years working with the Buchla 200 synthesizer. Keyboards, twelve-tone tempered tuning and diatonic harmonies are an anathema to patch-point synthesizers and I got into Just tuning systems which led to Harry Partch. Among other things, he built his own instruments and devised a micro-tonal scale to work with. I look at him as having created his own world to work in and that was the model for what I wanted to do.

"There were a lot of steel guitar players starting with Ralph Mooney and Buddy Emmons. About eight years ago I built a guitar for Joaquin Murphey, one of my heroes, and got to hang out with him before he checked out.

Detailing why he started making music of his own, Chas Smith says "The easy answer is I wasn't very good at reproducing other peoples music. The real answer, as you can imagine, is a lot more complicated and looks like it borders on escapism, but I think it's more than that. Composing is an extension of playing, and playing and composing are probably the most satisfying and enjoyable things I do. So it becomes a way of creating an environment or another world for myself. I look at my studio as my Sanctum Sanctorum. A refuge where I can shut the door, time stops, the world goes away and I get to work with the real magic.

"When I was younger, and into my early teens I used to have a series of repetitive dreams. In one of them I was in a domed room and caught up in whirlwinds of sound, at first they were nightmares, but later they became places of refuge. Then when I was twenty, we were sitting in one of those archetype old New England churches on one of those perfect October days, but it was my father's funeral and I was in shock. The organist had been one of my mother's teachers and at the end of the service, which had been very emotional, he played an interlude that started out lightly. The congregation was pretty moist and it was like we were caught up in a suspended moment. Then the music began to build and about eight hundre people were collectively on a surge of emotion. You could have gone surfing down the aisles. The music peaked and then he brought us all back down, we recovered and went out to the cemetery to bury the body. Afterwards, I was thinking "what the fuck just happened?" And that's the direction."

When asked how his music comes to be, he says "this is the kind of an open ended question that could lead to a dissertation or a religious quest, so I'll try a simple answer. Anyone who works with their hands and/or builds things out of wood, metal or whatever knows the satisfaction and immediate gratification of watching what it is they are working on materialize. When it's finished, you can look at it and get the sense of completion. It's a very powerful moment, it validates who you are and what you can do, you can see it and show it off. When I build my instruments, I also try to make them look as good as possible. This showcases my skills and on a more practical level, makes my environment more pleasurable, I don't want to spend days in a room full of turds.

"It's the same thing with working with sound. When I build an instrument, I have an idea of the kind of sound I want to hear or I want it to make. One of the rules here is that the instruments have to be made from the junk, surplus or leftovers from the jobs I work on, unless I really need to get something I don't have or can't make. This is a way of limiting the palette, because sometimes there are too many choices and they step all over each other.

"I used to design and build the rigs for motion-controlled camera systems. Every job was: What's it got to do? When does it have to do it? What have we got to work with? The camera has to make a move from here to there and the thing that moves it has to be somewhere else, so the design starts with a connect-the-dots.

"There is a collection of metal dropoffs, leftovers and surplus and I'm going to build an instrument out of it. What does it have to do? What have we got to work with? That design also starts with a connect-the-dots.

"I have a collection of sounds that I love to hear and love to work with that get placed in time and are connected to each other. All of the problem-solving techniques for working with metal, working with words and working with sound are the same, it's the materials and the tools that are different. Because sound and music are abstract, ephemeral and such a powerful force and because it affects myself and a lot of other people so strongly, I feel that when I'm working in my studio, I'm working with the magic.

"If you've listened to what I do, it's mostly based on long tones and events of complex sounds that evolve at different rates at different depths. If I can get the music to just hang in the air, like a tapestry that's rich in details and the details draw me in, then the magic is happening."

He also builds his own instruments. "Most of them are based on metal rods and plates or discs. Some are electric - the Pez Eater has 36 steel 16-gauge Tig welding rods mounted vertically in front of three bass guitar pickups. DADO is a floor-mounted roll-around which has six steel plates that have been cut into tines or had springs welded on them and spin over twelve pickups, for the Doppler-Leslie effect. Tio has 24 hardened drill rods welded around the perimeter of what was a sixteen inch saw blade that spins over a couple pickups.

"Lockheed is a two dimensional 3'x5' welded titanium structure that makes a different sound each spot that it's struck. Mantis is a three dimensional welded titanium structure that spins. Both are made from the half inch thick titanium holders that were used in anodizing aircraft parts over at Lockheed.

"The Copper Box - I kept trying to come up with a more interesting name, but no matter what I named it, I kept calling it the Copper Box - has a couple of twenty four inch diameter steel discs that have quarter inch silicon bronze rods welded around their perimeter in the shape of a helix, thirty six inches above, thirty six inches below, and are suspended with an aircraft shockmount in a chamber that feeds a folded horn resonator. The rods can be bowed or struck.

"Bass Tweed was the first of the elaborate instruments. In 1992, there was a litigious assault on the Land Of Chas perpetrated by the antichrist herself. In difficult times and emotional stress, I seek refuge in my shop and studio. So I decided to build an instrument. My defender took all of the money, thus I had to build it out of what was laying around in the back yard, where the junk rule came from. It has quarter inch bronze rods welded around the perimeter of a twenty four inch disc and some of them have extenders on them up to sixty inches. This is mounted on a metal Dobro body. I welded Dobro bodies for a while, but that's another story. I used a 2x4 square tube as the neck, with a right angle on the end to funnel the sound into the plywood resonator. There was a plywood resonator, left over from an unsuccessful instrument involving sawblades, that had become a major breeding ground for black widow spiders. The aluminum plate on the top of the resonator was left over from a Coke commercial, some aluminum bar stock was cut, welded and machined into a twelve-string bass headstock so it has twelve bass strings over pickups that can be tuned to the rods and vibrate sympathetically. The rods and strings can be struck or bowed and it's a roll around.

"Guitarzilla is a triple neck steel guitar console with two ten-string necks - a long scale and a short scale - and a five-string bass neck. Each neck has pickups on both ends and the fret markers are mathematical divisions of the strings - nodal points - based on the twelfth fret, the center of the string. So I can weave stuff in the strings, like drill rods, springs, kitchen things and hit the strings with hammered dulcimer hammers. Each pickup hears something different, but it's all related because it's generated by the same tuning.

"For Desert Center, I welded-brazed steel, Chrome-Moly and Inconel 625 rods onto thin steel flat stock so they stick up vertically between the strings (a total of sixty six rods, eleven per piece) and I position the rods near or over the pickups. There is a texture phrase that runs through the track "Absence Of Redemption" that is done with these things.

"Junior Blue is a six-string bass, non-pedal steel guitar, with pickups on both ends of the neck, machined from 7075 aerospace aluminum. Simese is two Dobro bodies welded neck to neck with stainless bowls where the cones should go and ten strings that cross both of them.

"The two newest are the Sceptre, which is a forty eight inch tall structure made from fourteen sawblades and steel plates that rotates and is suspended from a stainless steel structure with a DC servo on top. It's seven feet tall. It can be struck or bowed with metal files. All of the ones that rotate or spin - DADO, Mantis and Sceptre - drew blood when they were being tested. The other newest one is a 3'x5' sheet of 421 stainless steel suspended by the nodal points with a couple of eyelets that have quarter inch piano strings through them. When I bow the strings, the sheet acts as a resonator and adds a little thunder.

"The oldest, from 1977, is a two octave micro-tonal chime made out of aluminum tubes tuned to a forty five-tone octave Just scale that is based on the Harry Partch scale. It was originally a prototype for a larger mechanical chime that was to have 1200 pipes. Plus there's a lot of small things around here like a chromatic three octave set of steel crotales, a stack of machined aluminum plates and on and on."

When asked to recall the strangest recording session he was ever part of, Smith offers "I'm sure that many of them have been unusual. After thinking about this, I'm not sure that I know what strange is anymore. Each one has odd aspects that seem normal at the time and keep in mind that the purpose is to be professional and businesslike and deliver the best possible performance and recording. One might be in studio A at Capitol Records, which is like walking into a shrine, the next one is in someone's living room where they have Pro Tools set up in the bedroom.

"I started out, thirty years ago, playing B3 on porno soundtracks in a garage recording studio in Redondo Beach. If the actress was jogging around the pool, we were expected to keep time with her bounce. When I was in school, I don't remember any classes for conducting with the breasts, even though I'm sure they would have been very popular. We were also expected to keep time with some of the other acting activities. We got really good at speeding up and slowing down.

"About twelve years ago I had a couple improvisational sessions, and, to set the mood, we spent the first two hours drinking beer, abusing coke and watching porno before we cut a few tracks. I think we proved that these are not performance enhancing techniques.

"Ronin, art ensemble that I played with, was trying to record a live performance of one of the pieces which was a very delicate minimalist piece for vibraphone and every time we tried to record it something would happen to ruin the recording. We had two concerts left, one was in a performance space with hardwood floors and brick walls. Very live and a great space for this kind of stuff. We locked the doors so no one would walk in with clogs on. This happens when members of the audience need to be noticed. Everything was going well until a brick fell out of the wall onto the floor. The physics of that happening are basically impossible. So with one concert left, it still looked promising. We were on the second floor, with limited access and a metal covered door. We posted our largest and most imposing member at the door and hit record. About 2/3 of the way through we heard loud whining and scratching noises. The doorman said that everything was going fine outside until two Great Danes came around the corner, charged up the stairs and tried to claw their way through the door.

"I've been on movie soundtracks where I had the click and the tracks in one ear, my sound in the other, I had to watch the screen to follow the action or the dialog, sometimes I had to read, although I usually get the "steel plays here" chart and I have to play a pedal guitar. I also have about two takes to justify my being there and determine whether I'll get a call back.

Then there was the time...."

He occasionally performs live as well. "I don't normally play out my own compositions, but I do play in bands. One is a metal-noise band called Tack, another one does 30s and 40s "American Songbook" called The Mobile Homeboys, although I liked it better when we were called The Incontinentals. Tokyo 77, an art ensemble, occasionally played live and I spent years in roots country, honky tonk and western swing bands.

"I never intended my instruments to function outside of the controlled environment of the studio. Since I see myself as a composer, rather than spending the time to become a virtuosic performer in all aspects of what they can do, I concentrated on extracting the sounds I wanted to use at the time. If it's a lead phrase I'm working on, I'll spend however much time is needed to get it and then I'll cut a number of takes until a get a few good ones, later, I'll practice it into the night, until I'm too tired to think straight, and then record it some more. Afterwards I'll go work on something else, give it a couple weeks to air out, then go back and comb through all of the takes looking for the hero.

"Performing live is another magnitude of difficulty beyond just making an instrument and composing. Designing and fabricating instruments, recording and composing are all solitary occupations. Performing in concert requires a series of collaborations with players, producers, the audience and ultimately the performance space. It's no longer about the abstract of music, it's about putting on a show, and the carny aspect of showing up with a bunch of unusual-looking instruments is going to create a lot of expectations that might be unfulfilled. I hate to suck in public. Also there's the logistics and economics of rehearsals and touring with professional players.

"When I had an ensemble in the mid 80s and we played a few locally, there were pieces where we would go from chord structure to chord structure on cue. If one wasn't happening we'd move through it fairly quickly, but if it was alive, we'd sit on it and enjoy it.

"About a year ago I played a solo set at The Outpost in Albuquerque, which is a great place to perform. At the moment, I don't like the idea of playing along with a CD for a live performance, even though a lot of other people do it. So I got a couple of loopers and I spent several months working up a performance where I could record and loop a couple of cloud phrases on Guitarzilla that had been prepared and run through the rack and then play into that with a pedal guitar and a lap guitar then fill in the bottom with Guitarzilla's bass neck. It seemed to go pretty well, so maybe there will be more of that.

"I played in the Burning Man Opera for the 2000 festival and I sat in with the band afterwards. There were thousands and the stage was filled with naked people dancing. I think it was the most fun gig I've ever had." Favorite places to play live include "The Outpost in Albuquerque, Zona Rosa in Austin, Cafe Du Nord in San Fransisco and I've been enjoying The Cinema in Culver City. Years ago, my ensemble played The Anti-Club. I also really enjoy the places that have history, like DeMarco's 23 and the former Palomino."

As for current artists Chas Smith is into, he responds "with the exception of the roots music programs on the local NPR stations, I've pretty much stopped listening to the radio, I haven't had a TV for over thirty years, I don't know too many people who are plugged into what is happening today and I'm really out of touch with what is happening in contemporary music, so I kind of feel like a dinosaur.

"Looking at pop music, I can't help but feel that, at least on the surface, that it's worse if only because there seems to be a shit-blizzard of mediocre product with a mind-numbing sameness and that the emphasis is on promotion and placement rather than developing good stuff, assuming that there are producers in a position to develop good stuff since it's much easier to crank out mediocre stuff, and from that perspective, it would be in their best interest to suppress the good stuff. Then again, good stuff and bad stuff is all subjective opinion.

"Anytime you have huge amounts of money around, you're going to attract the money and power people and the ethics and values they bring with them, who are also going to want to consolidate their power. If you look back to the movies Jaws and Star Wars, that's the defining moment when the corporate world looked over at the entertainment business and realized they could make as much money in one week as a regular corporation could in a year. So now it feels like they are stripmining the talent and every film or album is expected to be a blockbuster upon release. If a film or major album tanks and it affects Wall Street, it sure as hell isn't about making art anymore, if it ever was. There's a reason for the old cliche, "it's show business, not show art" and from a corporate perspective, it's better to put out the sure thing and not take any chances.

"Recently I read a positive review of a foreign film that was described as not "having the stink of Hollywood on it."

"An easy example of power consolidation is how many companies own most of the radio stations. Whoever controls the distribution network of oil and energy, controls the world. Who controls the distribution network for music, controls what kind of music most of us listen to and if they're the ones in charge of producing it and/or determining what kind of music gets produced and they can convince the listener/buying public to buy the new crap they are offering this month, even though it's the same crap they bought last month, then they maintain their power base. There's another way to look at this. What if pop music isn't about music, what if it's more about social phenomena and demographics that uses music as its idiom. By that I mean we have an idea of who we think we are or who we want to be and the group we want to be allied with has a look, so we buy the clothes and accessories that go with that group and we listen to and buy the music that that group listens to. Each of these walking theatres has its own soundtrack. Perhaps later we decide that some other group is hipper so we get all the stuff that goes with the hipper group and discard the stuff of the former. It's the job of the marketing departments to convince us that we're hip if we buy their product and inadequate if we don't.

"Serious music - there was and is a division between serious music and pop music for publishing - isn't supposed to be about pandering to an audience. It could be an extension of the music or ideas from that genre and/or it could be entirely self-referential, which means that it creates its own environment and parameters and exists in that framework. Consequently, it's very difficult to market and get product tie-ins.

"If we don't have the access to the NPR programs that play this music or classroom experience that might teach the history, how do we know what it is? I have friends that teach composition on the college and graduate level and they are getting students who have never heard of Webern. Not that you need to know who Webern is to write interesting music, but the more knowledge you have, the greater the resources you have to draw from.

"To keep selling products, marketing departments have to create an obsession with getting the new thing and discarding the old, so phrases like "it's so yesterday" or "it's so twenty minutes ago" come into vogue because it's important to erase memory and ultimately everything becomes disposable. If it's intended to be disposable then it inherently has little or no value. What does that say about the kind of stuff we surround ourselves with, the kind of world we live in and the quality of our lives?"

Smith also has mixed feelings about the internet. "Besides having greater access to products and communication, it has definitely expanded my visibility. It's also become a platform for the debate, which we're all familiar with by now, about the ownership of and compensation for art which has become entangled in the downloading battle between record companies and the people doing the downloading. I see them as separate issues and thus I have conflicting feelings. In the long run, it appears that the internet is going to shift the balance of power. Whether that's good or bad remains to be seen.

"The conflicting feelings I have are: on one hand I see it as a class warfare between the corporate and the consumer and that the downloading is a form of guerrilla warfare. It also assumes that the downloader would have bought the songs if he or she couldn't get them for free and I don't think that that is necessarily the case. Since I come from a blue-collar background, I have an inherent antagonism towards the suits and the upper-classes.

"On the other hand, for an example, there are at least two sites that offer CD copies of my works that were released on vinyl. I'm happy that someone liked my pieces enough to offer them, but I wish they had had the courtesy to ask me how I felt about it and would I like to share in the largesse, especially since, at the moment they made their first dollar, they were about 6000 ahead of me for those releases.

"The larger issue is the one of "something for nothing" which permeates our culture and is also considered a business acumen. It brings up another question about the ownership of the art after it has become a commodity. From my perspective, it's one piece and since I composed it, I feel that it's an extension of myself and no matter what happens to it, I still feel that it's connected to me. But then it gets replicated at least 1500 times and anyone who bought it now feels like it's theirs to do with as they please and I have no reasonable argument against that.

"I can't help but think that copying has become so ingrained, that even the people who decry copying are themselves doing it, so perhaps it's a form of word-of-mouth. However, it touches on the financial issues of making art and continuing to make art and if it reinforces the idea that art should be free and the artist shouldn't be compensated for their skills and efforts, I don't agree and I think it's wrong."

Smith is still friends with Harold Budd. "I spoke with him right after the baby was born. A lot of the people I know, myself included, tend to be reclusive. I live less than a half an hour away from a number of people that I love and we talk to each other every once in a while. It's pretty strange, if I think about it."

Other musical collaboration isn't out of the question, but "again, my ignorance is showing. I've played steel guitar on other composers' pieces and there's always the issue of leaving too much of my signature on their work. On the other hand, I don't want to discourage the possibilities.

"Tom, Rick, George and I, as Tokyo 77, worked well together since we are four individual composers coming from four different directions doing, for lack of a better term, gestural improvisation. Also we've known and worked with each other over the better part of twenty years. You can't overestimate the importance of having a comfortable rapport."

He has a good relationship with his record label. "I'm pleased. Cold Blue is a vanity label, which means that I write, record, produce, master, get the art work and deliver the finished CDs. Cold Blue is in charge of distribution and promotion and then we split the imaginary profits. In return I exist as a composer under the aegis of Cold Blue and I own my own music. Given that practically anyone with a computer and a minimum of equipment can put out a CD today, and in fact that seems to be what is happening, I think it's important to be allied with a label that has a good reputation for whatever kind of music you're doing. It's important to me also that I own my compositions because I see them as extensions of myself."

Next on the agenda: "I had a call last month to design and build an instrument that would sound like "warm and pretty sails moved by the wind with low Ds" for a series of sessions. So that one, as yet unnamed, the Sceptre, and the micro-tonal chimes, that have functioned as burglar bars for the past twenty years, are going to be part of the backgrounds of the next CD. I almost never think of composing as a left to right, top to bottom process. Most of the work starts in the middle somewhere and I'll work backwards and forwards from those spots. I'd like to spend about a year or so on the next CD. Aluminum Overcast was done in two six-week, twelve-hour-day sessions spaced a month apart. Desert Center was eight weeks of long days and I was still tweaking and changing things the night before mastering. I'd like to think I could step in and out, but my experience is, if I don't have a deadline, nothing gets done. I think Tack is getting booked for a Lollapalooza show, the Mobile Homeboys will be holding forth at the Cinema and you never know who is going to call next..."

Parting shots? "Well, I don't know, I suppose I could launch into a pontification on something or other. Politics, the economy, where we seem to be headed, why the rest of the world doesn't like us. I've been thinking a lot about the kind of reality we're living in where we're cocooned in a bubble of lies. A recent example being when the economic bubble popped. More recently, we initiated a first strike attack on a sovereign nation that was promoted like a sporting event and televised in a bloodless, dead-body-less, sanitized fashion so as to not disturb our collective somnambulism.

"I've worked with people who would go to work then drive home and turn on the TV for the rest of the day. That means that half of their waking reality was manufactured in Hollywood. When they would repeat the latest catchphrase from the beer commercials or the quips from the sitcoms, it meant the producers did their jobs well, and the advertisers got their money's worth. It invariably sends me into an existential dilemma of what kind of reality am I creating for myself, because that's how it works."

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