Interview with Karl Fousek

Ahead of his performance at La Sala Rossa on the 29th and his Performance Masterclass the following day, we took a moment to chat with electronic composer and performer Karl Fousek about his music.

Karl Fousek (Photo by Brian Young)

Synthèse Montreal:  Do you remember your first exposure to electronic music?

Karl Fousek:  Not really. My dad owned a copy of Switched on Bach, but I’m sure I heard a synth on some pop or rock song before I was curious enough to listen to that LP. The real answer is, like a lot of people, I inadvertently discovered my own form of music concrete playing around with cassettes as a kid. Stuff in the pop culture swirl like Daft Punk, Warp records, drum machines and record scratching in rap and hip-hop were all important coming of age later, but I never really put all the pieces together until I learned about “official electronic music” was.

SM: And once you learned about “official electronic music” how did you go about discovering different artists and genres at the time?

KF: Well, I learned about it gradually so discovering things also unfolded gradually. And for me that all kind of coincided with the internet entering into everyday life: so, early file sharing sites, forums, blogs etc etc were a big point of discovery. Also the usual ways: connecting the dots between liner notes, recommendations, interviews, friends… add to the that the curiosity and obsessiveness needed to keep going deeper.

SM: Was your interest in making music running on a parallel timeline or did that come before / after?

KF: It’s all mixed up. I can remember making and messing with sound (cassettes, windows media player) before being consciously interested in listening to music. Then going through a huge phase of listening and absorbing all kinds of music without really worrying about how it was made. Then maybe the desire to consciously make things came in. But I never really wanted or tried to learn piano or guitar or whatever. So maybe it was always more a desire to use certain tools. The first instrument I can remember being interested in enough to try to learn was a turntable.

SM: What drew you to the turntable specifically?

KF: I was pretty young at the time and didn’t know what sampling or tape music was. So I think mostly that you could make music by distorting previously recorded music kind of blew my mind. Also, something about there being no rules or history of how to play it. At least not in the same way as a piano. So it was an entry point into music that bypassed learning “music.” There was something kind of punk about that. Plus I’m sure I saw it on TV and thought it looked cool.

SM: What was your first exposure to hardware or software synthesizers?

KF: Following the thread from being interested in turntables…the first hardware I owned was actually a sampler. Some Yamaha rack mount thing effects in it. I didn’t know what synths did or how they worked at the time, but not long after that when I started a short lived band with some friend some friend of a friend stole a CS01 from their dad and it got left at my place. So I had that, but wasn’t too inspired by it. Later I poked around with the stock synths in Logic and with Pure Data, before buying a Nord modular. The Nord was really what I started to learn synthesis on.

SM: You mentioned being in a band, during this period were you able to attend live concerts featuring electronic artists?

KF: Sure definitely. I’d always been interested in live music. That’s a whole other aspect of the story: when I was 15 I started working for the Jazz festival in Vancouver on equipment and stage crews. I was exposed to a lot of live music that way including European free improv. So that was kind of ongoing alongside my early discovery and tinkering with electronic music. Can’t say I saw any inspiring shows at that time with respect to playing electronic instruments. It was mostly laptops or CDJs. I never saw a modular synth on stage or anything like that. The free playing of acoustic instruments made a much bigger impression on me… and maybe the use of guitar pedals on things that weren’t guitars. I saw Autechre play on the Quaristice tour, but had no idea what gear they had or how they were using it.

SM: How would you describe your experience / learning curve with the Nord modular?

KF: I got sounds out of it pretty fast, mostly cause I found and downloaded a bunch of patches online and started hacking into them. But I hit a barrier as soon as it came to all things MIDI and doing things like sequencing from a DAW was, for some reason really unintutive or uncreative for me. That pushed me to start learning about about self generating patches etc and to start developing an approach where the “synthesis” is doing all aspects of a composition.

SM: What were some of the touchstones along the path between the Nord’s analogue modeling synthesis to the tools you use when composing today?

KF: I discovered what a pitch quantizer is. If the Nord didn’t have a quantizer module things might sound different today. But to be honest, I only bought my first eurorack module because the Nord stopped working with OSX 10.whatever. A chain of events put into place by the motherboard on my laptop dying at the time.

SM: Interesting to think what might have come to pass if that laptop had been ok. What sorts of choices are the hardest for you today when you begin working on a composition? (edited)

KF: Were to start? When to stop? Overall the hardest part of the whole processing is editing. I don’t have much trouble generating sound. I think I’ve cultivated a kind of “live” approach even in the studio, doing take after take, to keep the editing process to a minimum.

SM: Well on the topic of that “live” approach, how would you describe your live performance style?

KF:  I’ve never thought about naming it before. And it differs depending on context. Solo, I’d say it’s a guided process. I’m trying to guide the overall movement of the thing, the macro gestures, while the micro-gestures are automatic. Someone once said i look like I’m playing chess with my instrument. I think that’s actually pretty accurate.

SM: Would there be any parallels to be drawn from say, the way a sculptor might work with the suggestion of form that they intuit from the raw materials they’re working with?

KF: Sure. Not sure if raw material in this metaphor would be the voltage or the patch. Even if I’m only manually controlling certain gestures live, I’ve also “sculpted” the other aspects of the system that I’m responding to. Double sculpture?

SM: As in the selection of modules in the patch, the cable connecting those modules, that kind of thing?

KF: Yeah definitely. I don’t so much think of it as sculpting, but as one big process of tuning. But it’s the same thing: honing in on some kind of transformation.

SM: My last question for you is what sorts of choices are the hardest for you to make when playing live?

KF: The hardest thing is knowing when to intervene in some process. In other words, how long do you let something continue. There’s no right answer either, since the music has no fixed form. I try to just feel these things out instead of deciding in advance that, say, tonight’s piece will have three movements or whatnot. But I’m always worried about not letting a good moment unfold for long enough.

SM:  Thank you so much for your time today.

KF: Thanks!