Posted on 28 June 2012 by Bowlegs

Maggi Payne

In another installment of Bowlegs continuing series showcasing the sometimes unsung pioneers of experimental electronica, we bring you Maggi Payne, acclaimed musician, composer, academic, and electronic innovator. Bowlegs caught up with Maggi as she releases a key document from her extensive back catalogue – the intriguingly titled Ahh Ahh – Music for Ed Tannenbaum’s Technological Feets 1984-1987, a series of mesmerizing electronic compositions composed for Ed Tannenbaum’s innovative multimedia dance troupe in the mid 1980’s. We wanted to give Maggi the opportunity to discuss the background to these pioneering works and also to give us her perspective on another chapter in electronic music’s inspirational micro-history….

Bowlegs: Can you give us a little insight into your musical beginnings and how you started making electronic music?

Maggi: When I was nine years old I heard a flute somewhere, although I don’t remember where, and I adamantly wanted to play that instrument. I loved all of the inadvertent whistle tones, wind sounds and multiphonics that are part of learning to play the instrument ‘well’, which I did learn to do, but I never put those wonderful beginner’s sounds off to the side. I felt drawn to the most contemporary music that I could find, and specialized in contemporary music in college, expanding even further in an improvisatory group of four musicians: composer and vocalist Elise Ross, violinist Daniel Stepner, and pianist Peter Takacs.

When I was around 10, my father bought me a reel to reel tape recorder and I soon became hooked on recording technology. Self taught, I picked up a lot of information from several recording engineers while playing sessions for films, commercials, etc, while in college in the Chicago area. By the time I got to graduate school I was very driven by a desire to further expand my sound palette. I took an amazing course in acoustics from James Beauchamp at the University of Illinois at Champagne Urbana where he introduced some Moog modules. Composer/performer Gordon Mumma and video artist/technical whiz Steve Beck were there at the time and everything fell into place. I learned some basic electronics and built a ring modulator from a schematic that Gordon Mumma designed. Upon Gordon’s recommendation I came to the Center for Contemporary Music for a second graduate degree, this time in electronic music and recording media.

Bowlegs: What were the devices and technologies that you started with and how did these inform the compositions themselves?

Maggi: The Moog 3P was my primary interest. I loved the 4-pole low pass filter with ‘regeneration’; that control voltages could be so easily inverted and mixed; and that it had 12 oscillators. I used it not only for sound, but to generate the images for a couple of oscilloscope films and hundreds of slides that I made. I also loved the Buchla, especially for its multiple sequencers and keypad interface. I built several circuits from scratch – a voltage controlled video colorizer from a circuit Don Day designed, and an Aries synthesizer from a kit. By the time I was at Mills I was equally interested in electronic music, recording engineering, film, video, photography, flute, and dance.

Any instrument affects one’s compositional approach, but what I found most interesting was how much my flute playing (with my interest in multiphonics, wind sounds, whistle tones, singing while playing, etc) influenced my electronic music, and how that in turn reflected back to influence my approach to the flute. The ability of electronic music to be continuous, without being constrained by one’s need to breathe, was a big lure. The ability to record layers upon layers of tracks, and mix to four channels (quad) excited me, as it still does. From the very beginning I worked to find a sound that I felt had potential to evolve, and would let it play out for two or three minutes before transitioning to another section.

Maggi Payne Artwork

Bowlegs: Perhaps you could tell us a little more about the set up you had for this album – we know that you used an Apple II and early sampling devices – could you expand on that and also on sampling as an evolving technology?

Maggi: That was long ago and I didn’t keep highly detailed technical notes on many of those pieces. I was working four jobs at the time, so there wasn’t any spare time to do much documentation.

I bought an Apple II Plus in late 1981, before these works were composed. With the help of some friends I made a Forth program that served as a sequencer. Somewhere along the way I switched to Dr. T’s KCS sequencer program. I’m not sure if I had a SMPTE time code generator and reader when I composed these works, but I think I did by the time I bought the Stephens 821-A 2” 16-track @ 30 ips) in late 1983. I’m not sure of the exact date that I bought a Yamaha DX7 synthesizer but I bought it soon after it was released and I was clearly using it in these works. I had a Soundcraft 400B 16 (24)X4X2 mixing console and a Deltalab ADM 1024 digital delay. By mid-1984 (after Hikari, for which I probably used my Teac 3340-S four track) and before completing Gamelan, Flights of Fancy, and Shimmer I bought a Sony PCM 701 ES Converter (early digital recording system) so those and all subsequent works were mixed to digital. By early 1985 I had an MCI ½ track (15 ips/30 ips), and a Roland SRV-2000 digital reverb. In early 1986, I bought an Ensoniq Mirage digital audio sampler, Apple interface, and VES software which I used on Ahh-Ahh (ver2.1).

I used samplers to sample sounds that I made or natural sounds that I recorded, often processing them beyond recognition. My recordings were often quite long, not short looped samples, so my usage of these devices is at variance with that of many composers and performers. I was just waiting for computer software to enable affordable complex processing, which was realized with Tom Erbe’s groundbreaking SoundHack, which he developed while at Mills.

Bowlegs: Can you tell us something about the multimedia background to these pieces? How did the visual and the interactive influence the music and can you give us a flavour of the performances and their context?

Maggi: Ed Tannenbaum had been the Technical Director of CCM (the Center for Contemporary Music at Mills College). We had a shared love of dance, visuals, and music. He left Mills to become Artist in Residence at the Exploratorium, where he developed many cutting edge live interactive video systems. His artistic vision, coupled with his extraordinary technical skills, brought about his development and construction of his real-time digital video processor. Eddie would often describe the visual elements for his pieces, then I composed the music. He then brought in dancers to fully realize the work. It was quite impressive that the video processing was done in real time in front of an audience. Eddie and I would be off to stage right or left, along with the dancer(s), camera operators, and equipment, and on occasion props. Eddie processed the images of the dancers (who viewed the processed version on monitors) and projected the image on very large screens for the audience. The audience was able to see how Marci Javril (on stage), for instance, was able to look as if she were floating in space on screen in Viscous Meanderings (Flights of Fancy). Eddie has a wonderful ear for music as well, so his timing of switching to different effects, color palettes, camera angles, etc, to the music was impeccable. Sometimes we performed for an audience of 400, at other times, the audience numbered in the thousands.

Bowlegs: We recently interviewed Suzanne Ciani, whose 1970’s and 80’s Ciani Musica oeuvre is just starting to be reissued. She spoke about the desire to create a ‘feminine approach’ to electronics with time-based evolving pieces of synthesis rather than the jerky, ‘thrusting’ aesthetic of much male-centred electronic experimentation. Do you feel that this may also be relevant to your own approach especially in some of the evolving, slower phased pieces on this album? Were you aware of Ciani and other female electronics practitioners at the time and was there a feeling that you were innovating in both your approaches and on account of being a female in rather a male dominated profession/industry?

Maggi: Suzanne and I know each other. We first met when she was a public access user at CCM in the 70’s. I was always impressed with her and her work, and that she could do cartwheels all the way down the hall when she needed a break.

I compose because I must. I think of myself as a composer who happens to be a woman. I’m deeply supportive of women, women’s creativity, and women engaging deeply in technology. That’s one of the reasons why I’ve taught composition, recording engineering, and electronic music at a women’s college (at undergraduate level, co-ed at graduate level) for quite a while. I’m also very supportive of men. I wish for and work for a more even balance between genders in these fields.

It never occurred to me that I couldn’t be a recording engineer, video artist, or a composer. I just pursued my interests. I don’t consciously relate my gender to my approach to my work. What might be thought of as a somewhat slower pacing in some of my works is due to a love of the intricate, continually evolving minute details within each sound, and the constant restructuring/sculpting of the architectural space which unfolds over time.

Bowlegs: Finally, are there any plans to release any more works from this period?

Maggi: I’ve begun transferring my film and video works (1973-present) to Apple Pro Res from the original source tapes so that I can re-edit them (without making changes) without generational loss, in the hopes of interesting someone in releasing Blu-rays of these works. I was waiting for the medium’s quality to improve in both image and sound (many of these works are four channel works and need to be in full resolution in all four channels), and Blu-ray makes this possible. I also have several four channel audio-only works that I would like to release in the not-too-distant future. Hopefully Eddie will release the exquisite recordings of live performances of the works on the Ahh-Ahh LP along with other works.

Get your hands on the record via the excellent Root Strata label – it’s over here

-Interview by Mark Williams-