We Work on the Other Side of Time: Tobias Butler ’13 on Music and Time

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On Thursday, March 28, as people noshed on Thin Mints and sipped Moxie before the senior recital of Tobias Butler ’13 seemed to begin, the music was well underway. Crouched in a corner of the main room of 200 Church, Butler seemed to be manipulating his Macbook to produce a series of chromatic-sounding mutant robot noises. As the performance began and audience members trickled in, a sign was hoisted requesting visitors to visit http://t.obi.as on their mobile phone browsers. As Butler explained to me, it turns out that each visit to the website and the scrolling of each user was what was controlling the sounds.

I sat down with Butler to discuss the technology underpinning this portion of the performance, his composition techniques more generally and what led him down this kind of musical path. Click through the break for the full text of my interview with Tobias Butler, after some introductory thoughts by yours truly.

This first portion of Butler’s recital, the installation for mobile browsers and web server, gradually built into an expansive, thumping mass of wonky beats and siren-like wobbles. Eventually, in the second or third movement of the piece, percussion was introduced with drone-y growls placed over top. Bells and bumping beats ensued. As Butler made clear to me in our interview, his background in Korean drumming and South Indian and West African music informed the polyrhythmic structure of this music and the philosophy behind the piece. Butler explained to me that in his experience with this range of music, he learned to appreciate music rhythmically rather than melodically. It was apparent that this was what he was trying to do for the audience here.

The theme underlying the first portion of the recital was ratios, something apparently pretty important to Western music. The sounds triggered were integer ratios, and this same approach popped up in the second half of the recital. After the laptops were closed, Butler sat down behind the drum set and was joined by Jack Singer ’15 on bass, Tennessee Mowrey ’14 on guitar and Ashlin Aronin ’13 on keys (also known, as Tobias pointed out to me in our interview, as Shloggfather, whose music this blog has reported on previously). Aided by Singer’s solid foundation on bass, Mowrey’s honking guitar and Aronin’s 70’s cop show-sounding keyboards, Butler’s drumming was powerful and decisive, characteristics that proved to be especially important given the math-rock-cum-Stereolab sound of the band. Each composition featured ratios in time that were reflected in the intervals played as melody notes. That is to say, a perfect fifth is a 3:2 ratio. If this harmonic relationship was being played by the band, individual band members would play notes in groups of three or groups of two, syncing up every six notes. The penultimate piece was composed for Professor Neely Bruce‘s 20th century compositional techniques class, and requires each band member to play a particular note each time he exhales. As Butler said, and succeeded in doing, this “makes us aware of some of the intervals in our lives that we usually don’t think about, in a musical context.”

I’m interviewing…

Tobias Butler…

About his…

Senior project and recital. It was last Thursday. It was a music senior project about different ways of interpreting time and different ways of exploring that within both experimental and more approachable frameworks.

So could you say a little bit about what was experimental about it.

Well, the first portion was an installation using Max MSP which was a program that I learned to use in a music class last semester by Paula Matthuson. And what that lets you do is create essentially these musical toys on your computer. We were studying it last semester sort of in the context of the experimental music that people were making in the middle of the century where it was the beginning of this sort of DIY electronic situation, and people could get these different components and wire them together and make interesting sounds.

And Max MSP essentially works the same way. You get like a graphical interface and you wire using virtual wires that are just drawn as lines on the screen these different components together and then you can build new components out of other components so you can make these things that get very complex. And it lends itself well to music that is not deterministic, you can say; music that results from the interaction of the person who is using it in new and interesting ways that aren’t possible with traditional instruments.

So, in this case, there were some elements of the installation that were being played that were based on different algorithms or chance processes. But it was also being controlled by a website people were visiting on their phones during the beginning of the concert.

How did that work?

I made a very, very rudimentary instant messaging system between the phones and my computer. The phones are on the website and every few seconds it makes a connection to a web server somewhere that runs a little bit of code that writes just in this text file that lives on the web server, like, this user which has been assigned this user ID scrolled four hundred pixels downwards. And then my computer is doing a similar thing, they’re connecting every few seconds to the same server and just reading that text file, and saying, “Aha! Somebody scrolled.” And it can say, like, ok, we’ll make this noise whenever this user scrolls.

I wanted to sort of try to make people not really sure if they were controlling the music and kind of give them hints that what they were doing on their phone could be connected to what they were hearing but make them not sure of that. Because I think the internet, obviously, has all these dynamic possibilities and it’s very easy to see it as just a place for static content. Which it was designed to be, originally, and in many ways [it] still has many remnants of that.

I mean, a web page is a holdover of a physical metaphor that isn’t really applicable now that web pages can be crazy games and things like that. But I wanted to try to make something that was a little bit deceptive in that it would look at first glance like a normal kind of document – in this case, it was the program for the show – but it could be connected to the environment that the person is in in interesting ways that they aren’t expecting, which I think is basically the cool possibility the internet gives us.

Yeah, I showed up relatively early and the music was pretty tame compared to what eventually it built up into, so that was all the result of more people trickling in and looking up the program on their phone web browsers?

Yeah, some of the process was a result of that. And there was also sort of a schedule of these four different segments that happened, just four different experiments with time. I could pull them each up and tell you about them.

Sounds good. [At this point, Butler showed me his Max MSP programs on his laptop.]

So this one just makes pitches at different ratios to one another.

And this was which segment of the piece?

This was in the first segment. Well, I guess it was probably like the third. But, yeah, there was essentially, this one just makes pitches at different…there we go [laptop begins making noise/music]. So this is just pitches made from the collection of the same ratios of, I’ll take a couple numbers between one and eight so maybe you’ll get seven to four.

If you take a pitch at one frequency and do another at seven fourths that frequency, it’ll come out very close to an interval that you would hear on a piano or something like that. In the real world, they’re slightly adjusted so that we can switch keys easier, but these are the sort of unadulterated ratios.

So could you say a little bit more about the role of ratios in the composition. I think that might be something we can discuss later when we talk about the composition you had for the four piece band that you performed with, but maybe describe a little bit of the role that ratios played in the recital and the composition thereof and sort of what led you to your curiosity in that.

I think a lot of the ratios thing just sort seemed like a common thread in a lot of the different music I’ve been exposed to at Wesleyan. In general I’ve been exposed to a lot more percussion at Wesleyan than I have before. I started playing drums when I was a freshman here and ended up doing Korean drumming and West African music and the result, I feel, has been two things. One is that I feel like I sort of interpret most sounds rhythmically rather than melodically, which, coming from playing the piano and stuff, I basically felt like the melodies were the only thing I could really hold onto, and the rhythms were just a consequence of the way the melodies moved around, but since then I’ve become more interested in how the timing of different sounds can relate to one another within a sort of rhythmic context.

And so these different music classes at Wesleyan have exposed me to all these different ways of thinking about. In South Indian music, the way they organize a lot of their music, rhythmically, is just by saying this has three groups of four beats, or it’ll get more complicated than that so you might have three groups of seven beats, and that is not especially strange, it’s just another way to combine those numbers. And it’s sort of all fair game there.

In West African drumming, they have all these sort of polyrhythms where there will be one drum dividing the time up into four parts and one drum dividing it up into six parts and you get to hear the way those interactions play together.

The interesting thing is that those ratios in rhythm are mirrored sort of on another scale when you hear pitches because if you play pitches at ratios to one another, we hear that, maybe you could call it a micro rhythm between the two rhythms where there are these two pitches happening in proportion to one another.

Which, in physics, are called beats, which I think is interesting.

Yeah, I suppose so, if you’re talking about waves and oscillations. But we hear that rhythm as pitch. What I think is very interesting about that is that we have these two different ways of interpreting distinct events across time. Because I feel like we’re not particularly good at perceiving time, it’s definitely pretty subjective, yet if we hear these things happening in these different ratios, maybe it’s just a very common cultural product, but people just have these interesting responses to how these things happen over time.

And it’s completely dependent on time, because you can’t hear more than one part of a sound at once. And if you shrink sound down to the infinitesimal moments like we hear it as, the sound actually becomes impossible to sort of define, because if you get smaller than the waves then you lose the crucial elements of change that actually creates the perception of the sound. So I think it’s very interesting that somehow we’re able, I guess from our memory and from out expectations of what’s just happened and what comes next, we’re able to perceive really interesting things about the ways these phenomena are distributed over time.

Could you say a little bit about the second portion of the recital, which was performed by a four piece band featuring you on the drum set, and maybe about how this relationship between pitch and rhythm informed the composition of that.

The second piece featured me, Tobias Butler, Ashlin Aronin on keys, Tennessee Mowrey on the guitar, and Jack Singer on bass. It consisted of five pieces, and four of them I sort of composed with a similar technique. And the way ratios play into that is that I would take one time signature, so the first piece starts out in the 4/4 time signature we know and love, but there are parts that happen over it that are happening in sort of three beat cycles. The result is that those musicians that are playing the three beat cycles will be counting in units of three and they’ll hear these longer cycles of the song as a set of four three beat measures, whereas the people playing four will see it as three four beat measures.

What you kind of have to do to make that work is not really obsess too much about the way the rhythms sound, the way they’re going to fall together. If you try to predict the way things are going to fall, it’ll just mess you up, it’s not totally intuitive, especially if you’re doing something that’s a mix of five and three. So what you just sort of have to do is figure out your lowest common denominator rhythm and just be focused on that, counting that and just trusting that when you play your fourth cycle of three or your third cycle of four that you’re going to sync back up. I see that as sort of a creation of a kind of rhythmic harmony, because it’s the same sort of thing where you’re getting pulses going at ratios to one another.

And when we sing in harmony, you know, perfect pitch is very rare, but if someone sings a note, it’s much, much easier to just sort of say, “Oh, I’m going to harmonize with that.” And you’ll kind of be able to intuitively sing with something, creating pulses with your vocal chords that are very close in this mathematical proportion to the motion of the vocal chords of whoever is singing next to you. And you can do that by just, I don’t even know, just going for it, and listening and listening to what your ears tell you.

Do you think, in a sense, we’re hardwired to intuit certain fundamentals of what we conceive of as music?

Yeah, I mean in terms of pitch and that sort of thing, I guess it’s just the very interesting consequence of, if you’re going to take an evolutionary perspective, whatever gave us the need to detect vibrations in the air around us. And I guess knowing what we know about waves, I guess pitch, amplitude, those are the basics of what music breaks down to. You’re creating these devices that can exploit physical properties to create these different frequencies which can’t occur naturally.

I think anecdotally, Pythagorus first discovered Western music when he heard somebody hitting hammers against, I don’t know, something hard, whatever you hit hammers against, in Greece. And he thought, “That sounds amazing!” And somehow thought to check the ratios of the weights of whatever the people were hitting the hammers [against], or maybe the weights of the hammerheads themselves, figured out that they were at a whole number ratio to one another, and started devising this musical system based on these relationships.

And so the way those play into our lives now is that, things aren’t built exactly on the ratios anymore – there’s a thing called equal temperament where things cheat a little bit – but still, you know, an octave is one frequency that’s twice another frequency and that’s a pretty universally recognizable sound, I would hesitate to say. And so I think Pythagorus really took advantage of that, he figured out if you pluck a string and make it half as long and pluck it again, you’ll get the pleasing sounds that we today know as an octave. So, I can’t really remember how I got on this Pythagorus track, but rhythmic harmonies. That I guess is what I was trying to do.

And another aspect of that that I sorted wanted to work in there is something that, I took a class on the Westernization of Chinese, Japanese and Korean music and what happened when those countries became more open to the West, to their music. Their music eventually became very Westernized in order to fit it into their educational system, to generalize, but in their musical traditions they share a lot more attention to heterophony rather than polyphony and monophonic sound that is sort of the basis of Western music. And the way that works is that you have two people sort of playing at the same melody; they’re not really doing it exactly in sync, they’re just sort of moving along the same line, and its more about the way they interact than any rigid definition of the way the parts should line up together.

So how difficult, keeping all of these things in mind, was it for you to perform these pieces? I mean, I’ve seen you play with more typical rock bands that definitely adhere to a pretty much 4/4 pattern of what we know. Maybe if you could mention a few of the bands that you’ve played with and how your experience playing here was different and also the relationship between you as a performer and you as a composer. What’s it like for you as a percussionist being the lead of the band now?

I guess most of my arranging experience comes from messing around making music on the computer, doing multitrack things. I got Garageband along with so many others when I was, I don’t know, in middle school, and had a lot of fun with that. What I ultimately did was [take] an approach that was in many ways similar to how you assemble music in audio software where I just wrote a bunch of motifs and then structured out how they were arranged together. So each sort of motif had a letter and there were these charts that showed vertically where each part was supposed to come in.

And so the result was the overall of structure of the piece was obviously defined but the length of any given section will usually be determined by one of the individual instrumentalists. They would sort of just play a certain cue to move things to the next section, and often since people will be playing in two different time signatures at the same time – for instance in the five:three piece, there are a bunch of places where I’ll be playing a thing in five on the drums and the bass will be playing three, and to cue them back, I’ll do one cycle which is ultimately fifteen beats where I’m doing it in three beat units so they’ll know that when the rhythmic shift happens, one of them will change to the next part, which might be in a different time signature or something like that.

But, I guess that particular aspect was probably inspired by the West African music class here and also Korean drumming where the different instrumentalists will give cues for the next portion of a song to go. We were doing so much counting anyway it ultimately wasn’t too hard for us to get used to the weirder time signatures but what was hard was remembering, OK, you have to count three measures of five, because that can be very awkward to count to fifteen. Musicians are way more used to counting to sixteen.

Speaking of the musicians in your band, was it difficult to assemble or to find a group of interested and talented enough performers with the requisite counting abilities?

It was difficult for me to get around to doing it. You asked me to talk a little bit about the other bands that I’ve been in, one of the bands, I haven’t done as much composing on the drums in my time at Wesleyan with these bands, although I do find that when you’re playing the drums in the band, you kind of get to do a lot of composition in a certain sense anyway, even if you’re not defining the way the songs go. You have a lot of control over the way people hear the different parts of a song. I mean that might be a little drummer-centric view of things but I’ve been on the other side of the drum set, too. I mean, it’s interesting — the drummers know they have a lot of power. That’s why they’re smug. If you talk to a drummer, you’ll notice their smugness.

Borneo is a band that Tennessee Mowrey ’14 started his sophomore year and that band featured me on drums and Jack Singer, who was also in my senior project, on bass. So I sort of knew that the three of us would work together well. And Ashlin [Aronin [’13], I heard the music he’s made as Shloggfather, which is really, really incredible stuff, he does these crazy arrangements of sounds, a cool mix of his really broad tastes from electronic dance music to like, I don’t know, stuff that I don’t know that much about. I mean, his music thesis was on 19th century French modernist organ. It’s cool stuff. I’ve been in a bunch of classes with him, done stuff with him, so I knew he was good to work with.

With my advisor, Bill Carbone, who’s been my drum teacher in my time at Wesleyan, we had done a bunch of things where he’s like, “Explain this to me like you were going to explain it to a person in your band.” And that helped a lot. There’s a lot of this that’s weird and amorphous and in my head, to sort of have to get it out and explain it concisely, which I’m still working on. Bill has done a lot of teaching, so he has experience with that, so he was a good resource for that. But, yeah, I knew that they were cooperative people that I would work well with and we did some very long practices, so I valued the patience of each of them. It was a great group. I was very lucky to get to work with all those guys.

So what does the future hold for you, personally and musically?

Well I’m currently working on a piece with the brand new Toneburst Laptop Ensemble, which is directed by Paula Matthuson. It’s a new class this semester and we’re going to do some performances around the school later this semester and possibly a performance on WESU. We’re performing a piece that I wrote last semester for that same seminar that I did with Paula Matthuson, my final for that class. It used a similar system to the barebones instant message system I mentioned for the program of my senior project, but rather than having the phones control the computer directly or the computer making sound directly, instead I had my computer on stage and people would visit a website and that website would make sound that would be controlled by me. I’ve been working on how to reconfigure that piece for an ensemble and distribute the different things that can be done for different members and we were trying it out in class on Monday and it seems like it’ll be pretty cool. So look out for the Toneburst Laptop Ensemble’s performances later this semester.

Great. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Yeah: thanks, Bill Carbone, thanks, Paula Matthuson and everyone out there.Thanks everybody who came; it was a good show. I’m really happy with how it turned out.

One thought on “We Work on the Other Side of Time: Tobias Butler ’13 on Music and Time

  1. Batte_A

    This interview was easily cool enough to make me regret missing Tobias’s thesis. You do you, man.

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