Alan Courtis is exploratory in every sense. He’s forever leaving his home of Buenos Aires, Argentina to embark on international tours (he’s actually on tour at the time of publishing this), each time taking a different instrument configuration or creative premise in tow. He collaborates with all manner of experimental music kinsfolk, from Pauline Oliveros to Daniel Menche to Pain Jerk. Perhaps most crucially he’s an exploratory listener, always in search of experiences that trigger surprise or subvert expectation, pushing towards those sounds that lie beyond the charted soundscape.
The latest title in his expansive discography is titled “Los Galpones” (which roughly translates as “The Sheds”). While it resides toward the “rock” side of the Courtis music spectrum, it’s more accurate to say that it promises rock without ever delivering it. The record is trapped in a cerebrum of hovering resonances and deftly manipulated threads of feedback, while grooves try to force their way in to instigate a more visceral state of being. It never does, and Alan builds expectation with the sole purpose of thwarting it. Below, we discuss the new record, his relentless touring schedule, gigantic old synthesisers, microtonal guitars and his time spent with the late Pauline Oliveros.
While I was researching for this interview, I started going through our email correspondence over the years. In almost every email to me, you begin by saying, “I’m going on tour”, or “I’m on tour”, or “I’ve just coming back from tour”. You seem to play an incredible amount of live shows.
I can do it now, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to do that kind of schedule when I’m 70 [laughs]. I’m in my 40s so I can manage it. It’s a lot of energy, but life on tour is intense and interesting; you learn quite a lot, and you’re focused on what you love to do. You also meet a lot of great musicians. It’s pretty exciting and inspiring.
I’d imagine it now forms a key part of your artistic practice, with your live experiences feeding into your recordings and vice versa.
It’s a little bit of a balance. The live stuff is more energetic and sometimes a little bit chaotic. It’s good to be there, feeling the energy of the audience, feeling your own energy and getting something out of that situation. I like a bit of everything. I’m also trying to change all the time, and trying to avoid doing the same kind of record each time. This new record is like a “rock” record in a way – I mean, it’s not a straight rock record but it’s more guitar-based and has a kind of rhythm to it. If you listen carefully there’s a beat in some parts.
I’m also currently mixing a project that I made in Stockholm on the Buchla synthesiser at EMS. I call it “Buchla guitar” because I was sending the guitar into the Buchla, which is pretty strange. You have the sound of the guitar at some points, but it’s been altered by the oscillators and everything. I think they have the biggest Buchla in Europe there.
When you initial walked into the room and saw this gigantic, somewhat archaic electronic instrument, was there any apprehension over how you were going to wield it and bring it under your creative control? Or were you just excited?
Well I spent four or five days there and I had the key to the studio. I work with synthesisers but I’m not an expert. Some of the sounds you can get from the Buchla are incredible, but I was also interested in trying to get some new sounds from it. For some of it, I was just there for hours and hours trying to get different sounds without thinking about the composition too much. At the moment I’m trying to get some compositions out of the best stuff. The most interesting material I got was when it was difficult to understand what I was hearing, as sound of the guitar was afecting the sound of the synthesizer and vice versa. It was very confusing and that was inspiring; the sounds were affecting eachother and creating this kind of “ghost in the machine” channel via sound. I got about 20 hours of recording while I was there.
When you listened back to the material, was it obvious how you might refine it into something fit to be released?
Some sounds were pointing in the direction of certain ideas, but at a point you just have to start combining things. I think I might do a double album, but I still need to finish the mix. It’s quite a lot of work to shape to shape it into something, and then find a label, blah blah blah…[laughs]. I can probably make 20 records from remixing the same 20 hours of recordings. To begin with I’ll just make one and then see what I want to do with the rest.
The thing for me is that I have a lot of projects in the archives that I still need to work on. When I’m going on tour and recording new stuff, then I’m bringing back more homework. I also have some recordings I made in the GRM in Paris, but again, I still need to work on that. It’s difficult to find the time, but it’s slowly coming together. It’s nice to listen back to stuff I recorded several years ago and go, “woah – what is this?”
It’s almost like hearing a composition by someone else, isn’t it?
Totally – especially when it’s some very specific stuff that you only played through once. In Los Angeles in 2005, I did some recordings on a big Serge synthesiser in a collective session at Calarts with Joseph Hammer, Albert Ortega, Mitchell Brown etc from the Los Angeles Free Music Society. With these huge analogue machines, you don’t have access to them every day. The sounds you can get from these machines…the Serge has a very specific sound, and you can make it work in different ways. I was doing some random stuff and changing things in the middle. You don’t know exactly where it’s going, especially when you’re improvising. It gets pretty unpredictable, which can be amazing.
Do you enjoy the experience of stepping in to the unknown?
I think it’s a very important part of music. There’s a sense of Western composition trying to control every single parameter. When it’s not done in a good way it can kill mystery, which is the worst thing you can do.
There’s often the perception that seasoned musicians have achieved mastery over their craft. I’m always delighted to find that musicians like yourself, who have been making music for decades, are still finding ways to subvert your own expectations and instigate an element of surprise.
The unknown is always there. You can always work on the technical stuff; if you’re a guitarist, if can master tunings, or if you’re into electronics, you can master certain patches. You’re always trying to figure out what you want to say, and there’s always an unknown side of that. With music, we’re working with a lot of areas where we don’t exactly know who is speaking inside of us. Which part of us is speaking? In music, that idea is very abstract. I think the best thing is to keep that unknown side alive. I don’t think it’s possible to control it. Even with language, there are a lot of second meanings. If you try to say something very straight, there can still be a lot of unknowns.
I associate you most prominently with playing the guitar. Are there ways in which you try to alter your relationship with the guitar to prevent it from becoming a habitual instrument?
It might sound strange, but in the past month I’ve been playing quite a lot of classical guitar [laughs]. I’ve been playing Bach, Barrios and things like that. I started playing all this stuff when I was younger, and I think it’s quite interesting to see what happens when you bring it to the experimental side. What I like about the guitar is that it’s very clear that something is vibrating, and there’s something very physical about that.
That’s great. Funnily enough I’ve been working with microtonal very recently myself, with all of the strings tuned to the same note – the only difference being that some of them were an octave apart.
There’s a big technical discussion about just intonation, but what I like is that small variations create a lot of resonance. We have this thing in Western music where we’re trained to listen to melody. I think there are many other ways to listen to music. With this, it’s not about the melody – it’s about the resonance. So how was your guitar tuned?
No idea; I just started aligning all of the strings to a single note. Some of the strings were very old so they all had different textures as well. It’s a 7-string guitar and I think the tuning stretched over two or three octaves.
Is that an electric guitar?
Yeah. It’s a really “metal” guitar that I bought when I was 15 or so.
So you use it with some distortion as well, so it’s like “brrrrrr…”
[laughs] Actually I’ve been playing it clean with a bit of echo on it.
That’s really nice. It’s the same with Indian instruments, in that you have a lot of strings that are resonating; you play one string and you have a lot of strings that work by empathies, as they have more or less the same frequency. It’s not just about working with the note, but also working with the resonance of the note and sonic refractions.
Some crazy harmonic things start to happen.
Of course. There’s a lot of crashing and colliding. When you have two notes that are almost the same but not quite, you get this beating effect – they are trying to get to the same frequency. With this guitar, the strings are less than ¼ tone apart. I’m not very obsessed with measuring things. I just like the effect of this clashing and harmonic colliding.
With your earlier question about how we can refresh our relationship with the guitar…I think experimenting with this tuning is one way. Going back to classical guitar was a way to get some extra information. I use some pedals but I’m not obsessive with gear and stuff like that. Using different tunings, you’re trying to find new ways of using your instrument, which is pretty necessary – if not you’re just repeating the same old patterns, which can be boring.
Speaking of your interest in resonances; you manage to conjure some gorgeous guitar tones on Los Galpones. How did you approach recording the guitar here?
The idea with that record was to go back to rock in a way; in the sense that there’s a guitar, but also there’s a sort of “drum” on there. I worked with different tunings and I think I played one of the guitar layers using a pitch shifter to get some really strong bass frequencies. And then I used this drum that sounds more like metal or something. The name of the record translates as “The Sheds”, although I’m not sure if that makes sense exactly. If you put “shed” into Google, all the photos are of really clean sheds and storehouses. Where I am, “galpones” look abandoned, isolated and rusted. When I was recording those guitars and listening back, I was thinking that instead of being “garage rock”, this music was sounding like “galpones rock” or something. It sounded as though a whole shed was resonating, even though it was recorded at home at my flat. It kept reminding me of those sheds in the rural parts of Buenos Aires.
I also wanted to work with rhythms that were out of focus. Nowadays it’s very easy to program a rhythm, but at the same time it’s not always very interesting. Having a regular rhythm is the easiest thing on earth. I wanted to have a rhythm but not to have it very clear. If you listen closely you can hear it changing with the music, but you can also feel it. So it’s “shed rock” and also “beat music”. For mainstream rock listeners it won’t feel like rock, but I think we’ve been listening to so many rock records over the years that I’m probably working with the “echo” of all the records I’ve been hearing. I don’t need to put the drums and cymbals in really clear; I can just put in a drum rhythm that reminds you of a beat, and then your memory will do the rest.
Are there particular rock records that came to mind for you while you were making this?
Probably just every rock record. Rock is very basic, in that it’s just guitar and drums. I think it goes all the way back to folk music to have a drum going “boom, boom” and guitars providing harmonies. So it’s like going to the shed to research the DNA of rock music. These days, I think we need to work with the listener’s memories and recollections.
What fascinates me about the record is that a lot of the traditionally “loud” elements – the drums, guitar feedback – are trapped at the back of the frame. The music threatens to erupt, but it’s almost as though you’re holding it back from doing so.
When you are building the track, you have to make some decisions. Of course you can put everything up to 10. With feedback, I like not having it in the front too much; it’s such a big presence anyway because of the frequencies. It can be quite interesting to keep it in a place that’s not at the front of the mix. You also need to consider how the track is changing. Some elements are coming in, going out…sometimes there are elements that are only slightly present, but they are very important. We’re very trained to listen out for the obvious parts of music, like, “ah – this is the lead melody”. Everything has to be loud and high-pitched, and I think that’s a very obvious way to think about music. If you listen to these tracks carefully, you can find a lot of small things that are changing. I also don’t want to tell you how to listen to it – I think you can find your own way of getting something from it.
Speaking of listening as an intimate and personal experience…it was interesting that you sent this album to me alongside your article for The Wire about Pauline Oliveros, as I couldn’t help but contemplate her ideas about listening as I was experiencing your record.
Thanks a lot for mentioning Pauline. I’ve been writing to her a lot the past year, as I’ve been involved in translating some her papers into Spanish. We started with one article and I think we’ll do a whole book at some point. Pauline was such a nice person and very open-minded. It was always very inspiring to be in touch with her, and I wasn’t ready to receive the sad news of her passing.
Yeah, I can imagine. Your piece was lovely. It was great to read about her willingness to collaborate with a bunch of 20-year-old punks…
That was super-amazing. On that record, we got some really badly-recorded cassettes and put it through distortion pedals. I was thinking about how someone who is so into meditation…why would she be interested in a bunch of 20-year-old guys putting tapes through distortion pedals? At the same time, I think Pauline’s electronic stuff from the 60s is really amazing and really wild in a way, so she’s also been involved in that sort of stuff. Some of the material has not been released yet, but most it was on the 12-CD boxset released on Important Records in 2012. I heard some of that music, and I knew that Pauline was interested in very intense experimental music, but this was really lo-fi punk or something. I think the record is really “kkkkrrrrrr….”. She was so enthusiastic about that. The first edition of our record together was a spray-painted CD or tape, and it came with a small bag of sand. It’s completely bizarre.
Any reason why?
I can’t remember. We told the label that we wanted a bag of sand on the record, and they said, “this is crazy, but I think we can do it” [laughs]. Pauline was so happy about it. It looks very nice. Nowadays, I would think it’s something to do with the erosion of rock – because sand is made from rock. It might represent that. I don’t really remember why we decided on it, but it’s a nice idea.
What came through so clearly in your article is how Pauline believed in the authenticity of listening as a process, rather than holding sound itself in a state of reverie. She was quite happy to demolish and mangle sound; it didn’t have to be pristine, so long as you listened to the resultant sound intently.
You are totally right. She was working on that side of it with her workshops, or with her electronic music and text scores. I think there were a lot of people coming from different backgrounds; from yoga and new age and stuff. She was also happy to have these punk guys on board. She was really researching ways of listening, and I think that’s important if you’re going to compose and listen to music.
There’s a kind of “infinite” quality to listening. It’s impossible to hear everything. We have a lot of filters, and it’s difficult to open those filters to get more information. We have patterns for listening, and we’re normally not very aware of those patterns. I think that Pauline was trying to make us aware of them, just how I saying that some people only listen for melodies in the high pitches. I’m not sure if many people are listening to what the bass is doing in normal tracks; sometimes it’s super-important, even though it’s further back in the mix. We also need to find new ways to listen, as I think there are many, many possibilities in that sense. We need to teach ourselves how to listen. Pauline was doing quite a lot in that field for everybody, and making people aware of the infinite possibilities for listening.
When I do my workshops, I’m trying some of the techniques I learned from Pauline. I think of listening that’s never considered but that’s always there, and I would call it “imaginary listening”. It’s affecting your listening. If I told you now to imagine the sound of the trumpet, you could do it. If you just sit down and listen for 10 minutes, your mind is producing sounds – it’s not just about the physical sounds from the outside. That process is affecting your whole listening experience. It’s amazing when you realise how much this “imaginary listening” layer is affecting your whole listening. Normally we think about ourselves as passive and that sound comes to us from the outside as fully-formed, but it’s not like that. It’s really complex.