I met with Ben Zimmerman to talk about The Baltika Years, a collection of recordings created between 1992 and 2002 mostly using a Tandy DeskMate computer and just released this June on Daniel Lopatin’s Software Recording Co. label. Despite the instrumentation, this music feels oddly personal, almost like a diary, where one can write about whatever—the minutiae of everyday existence interspersed with moments of extreme drama, bizarre juxtapositions, and enormous gaps in narrative. Even the narrator’s voice can change according to whim. The operative motif is non-sequitur. There is no audience, therefore no need to follow any logic but one’s own. That’s how these recordings work. They don’t hold our hand, but they do pull back the curtain on Ben’s world.
The compilation of tracks, culled from a massive collection of tapes, opens with an epic swell. It is almost as if the soul of the computer is rising from the depths, a hydra-headed creature from an outmoded technology swamp, dragging with it a wide range of references to classical minimalism, the downtown New York ’90s avant-garde music scene, and hip-hop. The sounds we hear in that first minute are organic and warm, almost like a pump organ—corporeal, yet otherworldly at the same time. With these recordings as the backdrop, Ben and I found ourselves conversing about beats, nothingness, rhythm, and our mothers.
Sara Magenheimer I was remembering what was happening on the radio back when you made these recordings. I thought specifically about Jermaine Dupri’’s production on “Shorty Swing My Way.” I love that style of production: the rhythm feels fast, but the speed is all happening in the treble, and over top is a really kind of slow melody. It’s a fast song and a slow song at the same time. Some of those rhythmic patterns are very Drum-n-Bass-y—something I hear on your album, too. Were you at all interested in hip-hop and RnB?
Ben Zimmerman The first concert I ever went to was LL Cool J, and when the first Run DMC album came out I was really into it. There are a lot of early hip-hop samples in my music. Because rap music sampled James Brown, I figured I would take another step and sample the rap music that was already sampling the James Brown.
SM Yeah. I can hear a lot of sampling in the music.
BZ Definitely. It’s all sampling. I learned about John Oswald at a very young age. This guy from The Village Voice, Kyle Gann, gave a presentation at Brooklyn College, and I’ll never forget when he played Oswald’s song “Dab.” It’s on that record where he had Michael Jackson looking like a naked lady on the cover [Plunderphonic], and it’s all these Michael Jackson samples.
SM I think John Cage said, “Nobody owns ideas,” though maybe that’s an inherently unattributable quote, or should be.
BZ Oh, I thought you were going to say, “In the future, records will be made from other records.”
SM He said many prescient things, but I always think about “Nobody owns ideas,” and it gives me permission. We’re always borrowing from each other. I think it’s tragic when people shut down the fluidity of that movement by fixing ideas to a single product. It’s so capitalist. It’s only capitalist. As a person committed to being an artist, I also feel committed to being a vessel for something that needs to be expressed generally, not necessarily just by me.
BZ Actually, I wanted to ask you about your use of the computer voice in Seven Signs that Mean Silence.
SM For me, the defining thing about that video isn’t the fact that there are synthesized voices speaking, but how what they’re saying relates to our desire to synthesize meaning from nothingness. I was interested in the materiality of the voice, trying to get at the total breakdown of the sign system that comprises language—at what happens when they’re broken down into non-verbal utterances, almost like a glitch. It became this sort of relationship between the real and the artificial. Computer generated voices were a good way to get at those things, and also a way to have a lot of back and forth with my “actors” and with the script. I could alter the script based on what the voice evoked.
BZ You did the guttural sounds you don’t normally hear—
SM Right! Like the coughing. And then I sang, letting my actual voice enter, and not just symbolically, then it went away and never came back. I was thinking about the voice in terms of your music, because there are a lot of sampled voices on this album, and I was wondering about that in terms of—
BZ My mom?
SM Yeah, your mom. Her sampled voice contextualizes other sounds in terms of a body, or they insinuate that there’s a physical presence—even a protagonist, an observer, or a narrator. I found your music evocative of cinema, so I kept thinking of it in narrative terms. At times, it called to mind John Carpenter. Do you know the band Goblin?
SM They did the soundtrack to Suspiria, the Italian horror film by Dario Argento.
BZ Are they a stoner band?
SM They’re an Italian prog rock band. But your music actually references so many different things—and maybe that’s just because you made it over the course of ten years. That’s a pretty long time.
BZ I actually came from a singing background. I sang in high school for two years, and at Brooklyn College for two years. So, that’s a big part of my musical development.
SM In choir?
BZ Yeah. I sang a lot of classical music. The first record I ever bought was a mixture of classical and electronic music. Around that time I was really listening to a lot of European minimalism—the Arvo Part stuff, John Tavener, and Gorecki.
SM So, for this period of time, from 1992–2002, was when you were more invested in classical music?
BZ No. Actually, it was after I had gotten my feet wet, but I was seriously into American minimalism. I saw Philip Glass perform, and John Cage right before he died. I got heavily into some of the New York people—La Monte Young, who sings ragas now. He’s sort of the reason I got interested in this North Indian classical ensemble I had at CalArts. I think I incorporated some elements of that music—like Sargam singing, which is sort of their version of solfège—into some of my more pop stuff, like the first 7-inch. I experiment in a lot of areas. But, the Tandy stuff was sort of—well, the way I look I at it, I saw Harry Smith’s “Heaven and Earth Magic” and was just blown away. He did stop-animation stuff. But people ask me: “Why did you use the Tandy?” Because it was there!
SM Referencing Harry Smith makes me think that your relationship to the Tandy was almost diary-like.
BZ I actually like that fragmented quality. I was trying to do it in between states of consciousness. That’s the way his film made me feel.
SM Snapshots of consciousness, in-between moments of unconsciousness.
BZ I make these tapes to play in my car on the way to work. Seriously.
SM So they were just for you? Would you imagine an audience?
BZ I never imagined that. They always seemed like sketches to me. Now I feel like I can code a little bit. I love coding and Processing. I make my own synthesizers and effects in chucK, which is a text-based programming language. I’ve changed from being an end-user, to creating my own tools. I was playing with gear around the same time as the Tandy. I was into the Oberheim VX-1 machine. I was trying to make that into a drone instrument.
SM You were trying to make a drum machine into a drone instrument? How were you doing that?
BZ Basically by doing trills. I would string together 192nd notes. The thing was very good—you could get it to a higher speed. It sounds awesome. The cool thing about this instrument is that, when you open it up, there’s two main pods for each voice. So, that’s how you could change the timbre of the drum—and that’s what drew me to it.
SM I’m also a drummer and play drum machines.
BZ Which ones do you play?
SM The MPC mostly, or my iPad, iPhone. I have an electronic tabla, too. I’ve actually recorded a whole lot of music on my MPC, but I’ve never done anything with it—it’s just on some hard drive somewhere. I was thinking about your relationship to the Tandy in terms of the things I’ve done with the MPC or, years ago, when I recorded a record at this studio outside of Chicago—they had this thing called an Optigan. Have you ever heard of it?
BZ Yeah. It’s made by Hasbro, think. The Optigan.
SM Right, like a big toy organ, but it plays optical tape. It was so evocative! I felt like it had a magic that began in an analog world, but opened up another space through the back door. I remember sitting down at it and all this music pouring out. It was like a different voice came out of me, literally and figuratively, because this instrument wanted to make certain kinds of sounds, and that made me want to utter different kinds of utterances. I took a cue from the sounds it was giving me. So, I was wondering if you felt that way with the Tandy, like you were taking cues from the sounds it wanted to make. Or, also, if you felt liberated in some way, because of the limitations of the machine itself?
BZ When I started it seemed to be taking over, and I was sort of learning to deal with it, learning what works. I was sampling records in strange ways. I would just put the record on and record it like that—intentionally all warbly. It was an interesting machine, but I knew it was crap compared to Brooklyn College, where they had this computer lab, and Charles Dodge and Curtis Bond, who were teaching there. I decided I could do the same thing on this really cheap, crappy thing I just have lying around.
SM You were at Brooklyn College and then CalArts?
BZ Yeah. I dropped out of Brooklyn College. I was there from ’91 to ’92, then CalArts 2008–2010. But, I feel that what you were saying about “sounds”—I get that now from synthesizers and synth patches. You’re talking about the Optigan, and when I make any sound, or any beats it’s like throwing paint on the wall. It looks like something, and you say: “Oh, well yeah, that’s interesting.”
SM You have to ask it what it wants to become, in a way—to kind of respond to what the material is doing.
BZ For example, my Mom’s glitching voice was not intentional. I kept it in the piece because it worked so well. So, there’s some stuff in there that’s similar to found sound.
SM I was going to mention the thing about “granular” sound. In the liner notes, you said that you were sampling beats and experimenting with theses granular sounds in the late ’90s. In video, I think about something similar—the pixel and politics, or the social implications of pixelation. A lot of things should be very low res, if that’s what they want to be. In video, making the pixels visible is so much about calling attention to the medium itself, a degradation that reinforces presence. It can also be about traces of use, of time’s passage, or of sharing—like generations of loss as files are compressed and recompressed.
Maybe you just like the sound, but I guess I’m curious why you tend to gravitate to this aesthetic? Is working granularly about evoking something in particular for you?
BZ I could say in certain pieces that it may have been used to mask the sound sources, so I don’t get sued. That’s why I smear sounds the way you smudge paint. So, sometimes I do that. And, I do a lot with pixels, too, you know, in Processing. In fact, I’m working on an interesting installation that uses colored water and motorized pumps to create a controlled light source that will interact with my software.
SM Do you think about visual environments in tandem with soundscapes?
BZ Okay, that’s a touchy subject, not with me, but in general. I wonder about that. I do like the idea of synesthesia, possibly, and I think that’s why I really got into some of the early “flicker” film people—Paul Sharits, Ken Jacobs, Byron Gysin, the Dreamachine. And on the other side of that stuff, the head of music at CalArts, David Rosenboom, at that time back in the ’70s, made music from brain waves as well. Some of the really psychedelic films of, like, Scott Bartlett—who used music in all his films, though Stan Brakhage didn’t and I find some of his a little strange to watch.
SM Silent, much of it.
BZ You experiment also with Seven Signs that Mean Silence—experimenting with darkness. There’s just a blue square, and then there’s light.
SM Seven Signs that Mean Silence is very minimal visually, with virtually nothing there but lots of room for people to imagine things. People enjoy imagining things, and the things they imagine are far better than anything I could put in a video. So they enjoy the video because they attribute their own imaginations to me. But really I just created a context, a vessel, and tricked them into filling it up.
I’m creating rhythms comprised of moments of absence and presence. Or, a symbol that signifies “nothing” or “absence,” but the symbol itself exists to signify that there should be nothingness, which seems like a paradox. Like, now you should have nothingness for one beat, and then something, you know? You were talking about smearing out information in a way to sort of make it unrecognizable, which made me think of your track called “Reverse Me.” There’s a voice in it, which is why it stuck out to me, and it is totally indecipherable.
BZ That was actually influenced by a record from Mike Ink on Warp Records, something called Paroles. And it had sort of a distorted voice, and it’s kind of backward. When I first heard that record in like ’96 or some thing I jumped on that bandwagon. During the ’90s I also got into a whole bunch of other music. I discovered the whole Japanese scene.
SM Yeah, I was wondering about—some of this evoked Susumu Yokota.
BZ I liked this guy named Aube. His schtick was the single-sound source, like water, light, fire, pages from the Bible. He passed away about two years ago. He had a really cool tape label called G.R.O.S.S. and I thought of him because I was reading an article about you, and there they mentioned Kraftwerk’s “Computer Love.” Is that one of your favorite songs?
SM Oh. My mom was a dancer, and she used to play Kraftwerk records around the house a lot in the early ’80s.
BZ That’s awesome—to have a mother who liked Kraftwerk.
SM She took me to all these super out-there dance performances. She was just on these mailing lists, so we would just go to everything without really knowing what it was. Can I ask you about nostalgia and loss? Obviously, because you’re working with this obsolete technology, it sounds like itself, and it doesn’t sound like “now.” It sounds ambiguously like “the past.” It makes us think of loss, of time’s passage. But, at the time you made this music, did the Tandy already have that intrinsically? That sense of nostalgia, of obsolescence?
BZ It definitely did. I’m thinking of a piece where I sample an Oscar the Grouch 7-inch record I had in my childhood. I just decided to throw it in there randomly with a Judas Priest record. I was trying to do weird juxtapositions of—I mean, vaporwave didn’t exist. Hypnagogic music—whatever that is—didn’t exist. Ghost Box Records didn’t exist. I was trying to fuck the sounds up a little bit.
SM It seems related to the granularity and pixilation we were talking about earlier—a way to call attention to the material itself and the process of engaging it. I could see how maybe, by fucking it up a little, you also kind of focus on it.
BZ I definitely did. And, the main part of the Tandy program is all based on pitch—of detuning the sample pitch. So, you’re already experimenting as soon as you’re using the samples. Nowadays, when I make a piece I don’t necessarily leave it a certain pitch, because I’m the only one who knows the orginal. So, I can put it perfectly. I can skew it. At the end of the Tandy stuff, it was all about microtonality. I was using very small loops, like milliseconds.
In 2000, I took all the floppy disks and ripped them to hard drive, and I am now in the process of playing these pieces live. I opened this Pandora’s box of MIDI files.
When I left school I bought like $10,000 worth of gear. There they would, like, stick it to me. The jazz guys would say, “What instrument do you play?” And I’d say, “I play the sequencer.” And they’d say, “What’s that?” (laughter)
SM I never had a computer, or any video equipment or anything, until college. Now a fourteen-year-old boy can teach you anything you want to know on YouTube.
BZ I used to go to a lot of concerts while I was doing all this Tandy stuff. And, at every performance I liked, I also asked myself, “How did they do that?” And, I would try to replicate it. I think that’s where a lot of the Tandy pieces came from. A lot of the experimental electronic musicians I was exposed to—I was bringing them home with me and injecting them into my music. I feel like I wake up with a song in my head every day.
SM It’s so important to act when you get those ideas. Inspiration feels so real and tangible when it hits you, permanent almost, but it’s actually so fleeting.