Interview with Sarah Bell Reid

FLON: So, I guess I’ll start out with some basics. Which came first, the synthesizer or the trumpet and how did you get into music in the first place?

SBR: The trumpet came first for me—long before I got into electronics of any kind. I actually started out playing piano from the age of 4 or so, and then switched over to trumpet when I was 7 or 8 because I really wanted to play in a band and have a portable instrument. At that point I was mostly studying classical music, but I started to play in funk and ska bands on the side once I got into highschool. I didn’t really discover synthesizers or electronic music until much later when I was in grad school in California… but once I did, it was definitely a ‘flood gates’ moment for me.

FLON: So, having some background in piano, were you led into the synth world by hybrid knob twisty keyboards, or was it straight to modular for you? And what kind of electronic music first caught your ear?

SBR: Actually, neither! I first got into the world of electronic music because I wanted to create a sensor interface for my trumpet. I saw some folks performing experimental electronic and electroacoustic music at the university I was going to at the time, and I was completely mesmerized by the sound worlds they were achieving. I didn’t even know what I was seeing/listening to, but it was inspiring enough to send me down a research-rabbit-hole to see how I could possibly combine electronic sound generation with my trumpet playing.

My first real step into the world of electronic music was the development of MIGSI (Minimally Invasive Gesture Sensing Interface), which is a sensor-based attachment for my trumpet that detects gestural information as I’m playing and allows me to use that data as control information for real time synthesis or sound processing. It turned into a multi-year project (still ongoing) that started with just my trumpet, an arduino, and Max/MSP, but since then has taken on many, many forms.

Around the same time I started performing in an improvising modular synth/trumpet duo with Ryan Gaston called Burnt Dot. Even though I didn’t have any background in synthesis at the time, being surrounded by all the sounds from Ryan’s modular system really opened my ears up to new possibilities on my trumpet (extended techniques, noisier sounds, etc). I would practice my “electronic sounds” (noise, ring modulation, filtering) on my trumpet before I had a synth of my own—it’s amazing how close you can get to these sounds/techniques with “just” a trumpet!—and then once I finally did start working with modular synths I felt like I already had a sonic vocabulary to pull from and bridge these two worlds.

FLON: Did you already have a background in circuitry and programming before you started on MIGSI, or was that a learn-as-you-go process also?

SBR: Definitely a (very gradual) learn-as-you-go process. I spent months playing with example code snippets, breaking things, fixing things, breaking them again, and combing through online forums.

FLON: I won’t ask you to get too specific about MIGSI because I know you have detailed information on your website and your YouTube channel. That brings me to another facet of your contribution to music– your video content, which is actually how I learned about you. How did you get into doing gear demos and such? 

SBR: That part of my practice just grew naturally as an extension of everything else I was doing. I tend to get really excited about different compositional ideas or tools that I’m working with, and I love teaching, so those two things combined led me to start making videos so I could share what I was learning and doing with others. I think one of the first videos that really made me realize I wanted to continue making online educational content was my introduction to no-input mixing video. I published it, assuming maybe a few folks would find it useful or interesting, but overall the response has been pretty cool. I still get emails and DM’s from people all over the world who are trying out the techniques I show in the video and are inspired by this strange new sound world they’ve unlocked from a simple analog mixer. I love that! 

FLON: Your willingness to share and inspire is awesome. So teaching…you do private instruction also, right? What all do you teach?

SBR: At the moment, I mostly teach in group settings. I have an online program called Learning Sound and Synthesis that runs twice per year and teaches you how to make music with modular synthesizers (using VCV Rack), from the very fundamentals of acoustics and synthesis all the way through to quite advanced patching, performing, and compositional techniques. I am also currently a university professor at California Institute of the Arts, Chapman University, and Temple University where I teach music technology, physical computing, and electronic performance/composition. This spring/summer (2021) I’m also going to be offering an online intensive all about brass and electronics, so if anyone reading this is a fellow brass player (or acoustic musician) looking to expand into electronic processing and/or synthesis, feel free to get in touch!

FLON: So, you have a doctorate from CalArts, which is steeped in the history of synthesis and experimental music with Morton Subotnick as a founding member, Serge Tcherepnin and their connection to the San Francisco Tape Music Center. Was that an influence in your decision to work with synthesizers, or did you go there because of that history?

SBR: Yes, it’s an amazingly inspiring history, and it definitely had an influence on my decision to start working with synthesizers, although funnily enough when I first arrived at CalArts I’m not completely sure I even knew what a modular synth was! The very first modular synths I ever played were two vintage Serge systems in one of the CalArts electronic music studios. I worked on those instruments for a long time before I ever got any kind of electronic instrument of my own. I would spend hours early in the morning before anyone else arrived onto campus in the studio exploring different patches and getting transported by all of the intricate sound worlds I would encounter…it was by far my favorite place to be. One of my doctoral advisors was David Rosenboom, who played a big role in the development of early Buchla instruments (co-designed the Buchla Touché) and also co-developed the music programming language HMSL (“Hierarchical Music Specification Language”) in the 1980s. My time at CalArts was also greatly influenced by legendary improvisers and performer-composers like Charlie Haden, Wadada Leo Smith, and Vinny Golia, who I had the opportunity to work closely with while I was there. I really think the combination of being exposed to improvisation and experimental composition practices along with access to the electronic music studios and synths was what set me down my particular path.

FLON: So, speaking of composition and improvisation, you have an interesting style of notation. Can you talk about that, and maybe about the postcard project?

SBR: The two composers who had the most influence on me in terms of my notational practice were Pauline Oliveros and Wadada Leo Smith. In particular, I was really drawn to Olivero’s text-based Sonic Meditations. Although not pictographic in nature, they revealed to me that anything can function as a musical score…notes on a staff, a simple set of instructions, or anything in between. At that point in my musical development I had never really considered any kind of alternate musical notation, so this was a hugely inspiring discovery. 

While I was at CalArts, I also studied with Wadada Leo Smith and got to learn a lot about his graphical musical language called Ankrhasmation. I remember feeling immediately drawn to how these alternate methods of notation seemed to be primarily interested in how sounds evolved and interacted with one another over time, rather than any specific technique or instrument. As someone who was getting into noisier electroacoustic music and improvisation, the idea of working with more abstract graphical representations of sound really resonated with me. My first major exploration into this was a piece called “Disonillum“, which involved transparent graphic scores printed onto 3-dimensional acrylic objects. 

Shortly after that I started the Postcard Project as a collaborative project with my patrons on Patreon. It was inspired in part by James Tenney‘s Postal Pieces, which were simple musical pieces that Tenney composed on postcards for his friends. Growing up, I loved snail mail and had several pen pals, so the idea of combining this means of communication together with a long term graphic notation / improvisational collaboration seemed like fun! The way it works is as follows: when people join the Postcard Project, I compose a graphically notated piece for them on the back of a postcard and mail it to them. They are then invited to interpret the score however they’d like, using any combination of instruments. The notation is intentionally left very open-ended and abstract. My primary interest in using these scores is to structure improvisation and to help frame a new perspective toward sound, or a new mode of interaction / listening with your instrument. For this project, I’m much more interested in those aspects than I am about composing specific notes or rhythms. At this point, the Postcard Project has been running for many years and has collaborators from all over the world. Some folks have lots of musical background and training, while others have little to no formal training—and that’s wonderful, because this series is all about the intuitive and personal relationship that each person forms with the notational symbols…it’ll be different for everyone, and that’s the whole point.

FLON: I’m taking a guess that the album art for your previous release was a piece of this kind of notation? Do you usually create notation before recording or perform live?

SBR: Yes, the album art for Underneath and Sonder was a form of this notation. The purpose behind this particular score was actually not so much for myself, but for others—there is a copy of the score included with each album, so that anyone can create their own interpretation of the notation. Sometimes I’ll make the notational element after a piece of music exists, like in the case of Underneath and Sonder, and other times I’ll sketch the score out first…it really just depends on the particular project. For my own solo performances, I don’t always make a score, because I’m often improvising. When I’m working with others in an ensemble setting, however, I tend to create some kind of score element to help guide and connect the players together. 

FLON: Cool. One quick question about Underneath And Sonder– was it always conceived as an album, or were these two distinct pieces?– and then I want to hear about your new release!

SBR: It was always conceived of as one album-length piece with an evolution through and between these two different sound worlds (the first and second halves of the album). 

FLON: Ah, okay. So, can you tell us about the new one?

SBR: My new release, MASS, was created using quite a different process than Underneath and Sonder. For this album, I was really inspired by classic tape manipulation and musique concrète techniques, so I recorded a large collection of sounds and short improvisations, and Ryan Gaston (co-producer) and I worked together to assemble everything into three longer form pieces. The album is a collection of dense, dreamlike collages of shrill shrieks, gasps, corroded brass choirs, and melting modular synth soundscapes—it’s simultaneously noisy, tongue-in-cheek, sensitive, and nightmarish.

FLON: Coincidentally, my next post after this is going to be the first part of a piece about the origins of Musique Concrète. It’s been really great talking to you. Do you have any projects on the horizon that you want to talk about before we finish?

SBR: Wonderful! That sounds like a great article (one of my favorite topics). It has been great talking to you too. In terms of upcoming projects, there are a couple of exciting things on the horizon. I’m currently getting ready to re-open my online Learning Sound & Synthesis program to a new summer cohort, and I’ll be working closely with them for the latter half of the year. I’m also working on a new album of music for brass, voice, and Buchla modular synthesizers. It builds on some of the collage-like sound worlds I have been exploring in MASS, and also pulls in some through-composed and live improvisational elements working with different trumpet/flugelhorn and Buchla voices in a more expanded format. I don’t have a release date set for that project yet, but the best way to be kept up to date on everything is to either follow my Patreon artist page, or to subscribe to updates from Bandcamp

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