Morgan Packard & Joshue Ott
Adventures in Live Cinema
Shaun Ellis - May 18, 2008
by Shaun Ellis
Over the course of three years, several live performances and consistent refinement between man, machine and homemade software, New York’s classically trained Morgan Packard and visual-artist Joshue Ott have honed their captivating and ambitious audio-visual project.
Sonically speaking Packard’s creations are a combination of organic sampling and custom software manipulation, touching on everything from micro-house to textural ambient and minimal techno, contributing to a sound that is utterly modern but beholden to no one. Joshue Ott’s own software programming endeavours resulted in superDraw, a programme that augments simple line drawings in startlingly unique ways. With the subdued use of colour amidst stark black and white, Ott's visual trickery complements Packard’s music perfectly.
Morgan Packard’s sublime album Airships Fill the Sky, which features a 37-minute audio-visual collaboration with Joshue Ott called Unsimulatable, is indicative of the sort of experimentation that sets this pair apart from the pack, but if you really want to get what their collaboration is about, you have to experience their performance in the flesh.
In the run up to their MUTEK performance we caught up with Morgan and Joshue to get the lowdown on, among other things, the art of collaboration, the beauty of programming and err... synesthesia.
You’re friends, collaborators and neighbours. Which came first and how has your professional relationship developed and evolved into 2008?
JOSH: I think it was neighbors, friends, collaborators? It's all a bit mushy in terms of the sequence of events, but definitely a very natural process of growing together.
MORGAN: We actually met because Josh was creating music for a dance performance my wife was in. Through a wonderfully organic process, we began hanging out just as neighbours with some certain shared quirks, going to each others' parties, showing one another the sorts of things we were interested in and working on. On Josh's part, stuff like experimental films by Canadian animator Norman McClaren, as well as his interactive Flash experiments, explorations of some simple but clever sketchpad ideas. On my part, the work I was doing with Ezekiel Honig, the more recent electronic stuff I'd been inspired by, people like Marc Leclair (aka Akufen) and Ryuichi Kurukawa, as well as some of the finer examples of my first electronic music love, drum & bass music, which I still haven't managed to get Josh to love the way I do.
My wife and I did a few tiny parties in my kitchen where we'd invite friends to do whatever ridiculous, short performance they wanted to share. We covered a lot of ground, everywhere from solo acoustic bass performances, to lighting bananas on fire. Josh would project drawings all over the walls and completely transform the little apartment. We moved from that to a series of monthly events called "Shark Attack", which we organized along with Ezekiel Honig and our friend from our drum & bass days, DJ Clever. We'd invite a range of artists, sometimes electronic, sometimes not (one high point a performance of a piece for string quartet written by a couple of really talented artists from New York's lively new music scene, Judd Greenstein and Anna Clyne). Generally, we tried to create a sort of soft, hypnotic vibe, guided by my and Zeke's music, Josh's mesmerizing visuals, and the guest artists we booked.
Throughout this time, Josh and I were having regular audiovisual jam sessions at each other’s houses, locking ourselves in a little room and vibing off each others' work and sharing our approaches to and progress with our respective home-made software. Eventually, we decided to start being a bit more formal about our jamming and try to work on a set piece, with clear sections, synchronizations and structure, and out of that came the Unsimulatable disc packaged with my Airships Fill the Sky album. Recently, I've taken a supporting technical role on a project that Josh has spearheaded, a multi-user version of SuperDraw that can be controlled by audience members using Nintendo Wii controllers. The first public installation of that project was this April at Yuri's night, an event in a giant NASA hanger in the San Francisco area. Ezekiel Honig did some lovely sound for it. It was very different and very interesting, on the same vibe we've all been working around for the past several years.
In general, how do you view the relationship between music and images?
MORGAN: I'm a big believer in the digital music/digital projection combination. My wife has done a lot of modern dance work, and through seeing her perform, I've come to appreciate in a different way the wonderful richness and synergy that you get when you compose across multiple sensory channels. Each aspect of the performance brings life and meaning to the other.
JOSH: I think there's something to say for each separately, but used well the two can be combined with amazing results. I think the idea of "live cinema" and "visual music" both hinge on this, things get interesting when you start mixing sensory input in synesthesia ways, where a sound has a color, and a line has a particular sound. I hold the opinion that combining various art forms can often lead to much more interesting results. That probably started for me in high school when I took an English/History combination class and produced a stop-motion animation piece in lieu of a research paper. I got an A.
Some people argue that a producer sitting or standing behind a laptop is boring. Is this why you incorporate images into your live performances or is it purely for artistic reasons?
MORGAN: This is a funny question! What more compelling artist reason could there be than the fear of creating something boring! As a performer, I want to create a rich and compelling experience for an audience member. I want to transport people, I want people to feel things they've never quite felt before, and I want them to look at the world a bit differently when it's over. These are all formidable challenges, and if the end result of experiencing my performance is boredom, I've failed.
To answer a bit more clearly, I think the idea of sitting in a chair, with my full visual attention directed toward someone fiddling with a laptop on a stage, no matter how good the sound, is a fairly weak performance model. And quite likely boring.
JOSH: Having seen many "boring" performances where the artist could be actually just playing back some pre-recorded track and is actually just checking his email, I think we both want to try to make things interesting for the audience, to give them a reason to be listening or watching a live performance rather than sitting at home listening or watching the same thing. I think a little sprinkling of theater always helps. Incorporating imagery can help to add that, but I also think (and hope) that our imagery and the sound reinforce each other in a way that each becomes meaningless without the other.
What makes you decide to collaborate with someone?
MORGAN: Convenience, fun, friendship, in my experience are the strongest reasons. Of course, there's also the belief that great things often take more than a single person to build and that an isolated artistic mind is a starving artistic mind. I'd like to say that, for me, it's more the second set of loftier reasons, but so far it's really been the first.
JOSH: Some aspect of that person's work should touch some inner part of you. I need to be moved or inspired by some part of what my collaborator does. Morgan's music definitely inspires me, but I also admire the way he works, and the depth that he adds to every piece he makes. He has skills and abilities that seem to compliment my own, and I think we learn from and are inspired by each other.
Do you feel particularly liberated when working with different collaborators?
MORGAN: I'm not so big on artistic liberation. I actually work fairly hard to seek out or build constraints for myself. I would say the magical thing about a successful and close collaboration is not that it frees you, but that the joining of minds creates an entirely new, sometimes quite surprisingly different artistic consciousness, which feels like it has a life of its own, independent of the two collaborators.
JOSH: Sometimes working with a collaborator can allow you to explore aspects of your own work that would otherwise be neglected. At other times it forces you to become aware of flaws or ways that you could do things better or make changes to your working patterns to suit the collaboration. A good collaboration is a mix of both, and hopefully can benefit both artists.
What are your non-musical or non-artistic inspirations?
MORGAN: We both really love the purity, precision, power and pattern-based nature of programming languages. I work with the belief that natural forms are fundamentally more beautiful than those made by people, and have given a bit of thought to what make those forms so pleasing, flocks of birds, and the sound of surf, for example.
JOSH: Ah yes, the beauty of an elegantly written bit of code is definitely an inspiration. Even just the simplicity and beauty of working with numbers, of using and manipulating them to create animation and movement is a pleasure. But it could be argued that code is just another (albeit less recognized) art form.
I have a two-year-old daughter who I am constantly inspired by, not only her constant sense of wonder (which I think is what everyone usually says), but also the way she deals with life. She expresses her emotions easily and instantly. There's something really pure in that, something that is sometimes much more difficult for me to do. Aside from her inspiring temper tantrums another major inspiration for me is traveling. And that includes a long ride to someplace new in my own city, not just international jaunts.
What was the thought process behind Airships Fill the Sky? Was it envisaged as a complete audio/visual project from the outset with an eye on live performance?
MORGAN: It's really two projects. The Unsimulatable DVD packaged with the album is a complete, simultaneously and collaboratively created piece by the two of us. Airships Fill the Sky is my debut solo album.
So how exactly do you work together, what is your MO?
MORGAN: I think perhaps at this point it would best not to show what's behind that particular curtain.
JOSH: Ha, mostly because we have no MO; our working patterns change to suit the project we're working on. It could involve emphasis on a lot of discussion and planning, or could come from a much more fluid and indefinable series of jam sessions where something desirable and often unnamable emerges. Or it could involve a lot of beer.
Are you artists or entertainers?
MORGAN: I was drawn to electronic music in a particularly anti-intellectual part of my life and sort of sought refuge in it from the completely confusing and esoteric ideas and reading I was being exposed to both in music school and in the course of getting an anthropology degree. I loved the lower-brow, functional nature of dance music, even while the stuff I liked tended to be the much more clever, sophisticated, nerdier-leaning music. I know some people may care about the artist/entertainer distinction, but I don't value one above the other, don't know where the line between them lies, and frankly I’m quite happy to leave it to other people to figure that stuff out.
JOSH: I would like to consider myself an artist, but can't deny the pleasure of performing for people. I think in a way all artists are entertainers, but a pure entertainer is focused completely on the entertainment of their audience. For me, the art can't mean anything without a viewer or audience, but must satisfy the artist first.
You’ve both recently developed your own software tools, do you feel limited by the technology on the market, or is it just a good excuse to get all nerdy?
MORGAN: I wouldn't know how to make the sounds I make with off-the-shelf software. Or if I did, it would be so tedious I wouldn't bother. Perhaps more important than the technical possibilities that home-made software gives me are the artistic constraints (remembering that, in my view, constraints are a good thing) and the focus I gain by relying so heavily on my own tools. I want as much as anything to really own my sound, for people to be able to listen to something I've made and say, "Oh, that couldn't have been made by anyone but Morgan Packard". Creating my own software, and relying on it as much as possible means that I spend more time using fewer tools, and that they're tools that not so many people use. My theory and hope is that that's one way to individuality.
Regarding the second part of the question, I see this less as an excuse to get nerdy, and more of a healthy channeling of the insuppressible nerd inside me. If I don't give my inner nerd some solid projects, he will pop out in all sorts of unexpected and perhaps less productive ways. I think that by getting nerdy and making software, I'm able to make music that's a little less nerdy. Hopefully!
JOSH: I came to visualism with no idea of existing software, only a vague sense of what I wanted to see. In fact I was originally inspired by going with Morgan to Share, a sort of ultra-nerd open jam session involving both musicians and visualists where anyone can perform. The variety of performance methods and techniques on display there combined with my experience as an interactive web developer gave me the idea to create my own little piece of software. I wanted it to run incredibly smoothly, and wanted to have very immediate control over what was happening to the image. What I really wanted was a visual instrument, something which was simple to use but allowed the user enough options and freedom to create a wide variety of images. I really didn't even consider trying existing software because it just seemed easier and more fun at the time to create a little toy from scratch. As superDraw grew and became more and more complicated, I realized that the work itself was becoming a form of artistic expression for me, that I was using code and numbers to be creative. I realized that the process itself was becoming important to me.
Now I see something in nature that I'm inspired by or want to try, and I can go home and try to program something that emulates it. I've built a structure that I'm very comfortable working in, and I can easily add bits and pieces. This allows me to work casually, almost playfully. Often I make mistakes and, sometimes, amazing things come from those mistakes. Either way, the act of seeing something, and then trying to create it from scratch forces me to learn new things constantly. That process, and the fact that I can build in weird features or make drastic changes – if I feel like it or if needed for something Morgan and I want to do – combine to make writing your own software incredibly rewarding.
What other projects have you got on the go at the moment?
MORGAN: I mentioned Josh's installation work, which Ezekiel Honig and I have both been helping with a bit. I'm working on a follow-up album to Airships Fill the Sky. I also co-run a semi-regular event series in New York called Fine Diving, where I work hard to create the sort of environment I feel my music (and also Josh's visuals) are best experienced. We don't perform every time, but when we do, it's in an ideal setting.
JOSH: Besides a number of music videos and album cover art, I'm definitely continuing to work on the installation version of superDraw. It's a really interesting project with quite a few potential applications. I’m incredibly interested in exploring the idea of collaborative, multi-user performance. At the same time I'm working hard to create a version of superDraw that I deem worthy of public consumption, which involves the near impossible task of simplifying how everything works to the point that I feel it's a true visual instrument.
Airships Fill the Sky is currently available on Anticipate Recordings.