infinite grain 05: kim cascone


[infinite grain is a series of interviews inspired on microsound procedures, exploring a wide variety of topics in dialogue with artists who work with sound on installation, composition and improvisation]

Some people are hard to locate in common categories because of the way they develop their own spot in the collective consciousness. Kim Cascone is a perfect example of that, a person with a great imagination and a clear perspective towards his work, being able to cross the frontiers of what is already conceived in order to propose new ways of developing and transforming our connection with reality.

He has an open and fresh way of thinking about sound, where rather than giving rigid statements, he leaves questions and invites people to actually go beyond the boundaries of the usual conceptions of the sonic phenomenon in order to face new possibilities of it. An example of that is his theoretical work, but also (and mostly) his practical exercises, such as the workshops on listening and the concerts he currently gives aiming to trigger particular ways of perceiving and experiencing both the inner and outer worlds, with that entering into a reflection of technology, art and the mystery of sound itself.

Cascone is considered as one of the most important figures in the development of microsound, not as a scene or genre, as he has said, but as a vision towards the way we understand sound and interact with the sonic manifestation. Since the end of the 90’s, Cascone has also published compositions on important labels such as Mille Plateaux, 12k, Raster-Noton, Sub Rosa or Monotype, where his granular and ghostly ways of treating sound matter have become a must-listening for many.

From designing sound for David Lynch, to his research into glitch and computer music, until his current subtle listening workshops, Cascone has shaped a perspective capable of transcending the mere places of electronic music or sound art, thus taking experimental composition into the fields of psychology, philosophy and science, shaping a holistic view towards sound and listening that actually has led him to a hermetic and profound craft in which sound is valued as a powerful medium of psychic/psychological processes.

Conversing with him has been very inspiring personally; we started to share ideas some time ago (he has already shared some of his essays in our reading section) and in our e-mail exchanges, I proposed Kim we formalize our conversation in an interview for Infinite Grain. He graciously agreed to the idea and here is the result:

Kim thanks for accepting this interview. What are you listening to right now?

I’ve been listening a lot to the work of La Monte Young as well as Eliane Radigue. Both artists have a highly intuitive sense that goes well beneath the surface of music or sound. They operate on a very subtle level and employ a highly developed sense of spiritual perception. This is something I find missing in much other sound art and music these days which claims to be spiritual or occult. Most of the work coming out of these two currents tend to be more focused on being fashionable than providing a conduit for the listener.

What led you to explore sound, what aspects do you find most interesting and how have those interests evolved until today?

I noticed as a young child that sound held a special power for me, one that stimulated my imagination. My first transportive experience was while I was taking a bath around 5 or 6 years old. I heard this shimmering gauze of harmonics generated by a distant propeller plane, I was transfixed by this and always kept an ear open for propeller planes while in the bathroom. This led me to become very aware of reverberant spaces later on. When I was a little older I recall getting a cheap portable reel-to-reel tape recorder for Christmas and playing with it for hours on end, recording my voice or sounds in the house and slowing them down or playing them backwards. So it seems the first step was recognizing the effect it had on me and then the power I had to manipulate sounds with tape recorders – and later on with synthesizers and computers.

On several occasions, you have mentioned a “problem” you see regarding imagination in today’s sonic art. Could you expand on that opinion?

It’s a deep issue, one that has grown to encompass not just sound art but many other aspects of culture today. Technology has transformed the act of creation into little more than playing a video game so it’s no surprise that many of the controllers look like something that could be found in a video game arcade. But this problem is much more widespread than just being an issue particular to the arts, it’s a disease that in part is caused by the shrinking attention span of the public. The population’s attention has been reduced to an infinite “moment of now” where immediate results, consumer convenience, instant-on, anywhere access to social networks and gadget narcosis are now directing our attention and our behavior. This makes the job easier for opinion shapers in corporate media. Much of the corporate cultural output in music has been disposable and immediately replaced by the next shiny bit of plastic coming at us a nanosecond later. Artistic imagination takes time and experience to develop and doesn’t happen at the push of a button. Today there is no slowing down and as a result very little contemplation or thought is put into much of the artistic content – you only need to browse the exabytes of content made available to the public via portals like Soundcloud or Instagram to witness this trend.

Do you think listening practices are a way of “slowing down” or at least retrieving what’s missing in today’s culture? If so, how?

It depends on the inner development of the listener and the framework used to interface with the sonic phenomenon. Much of the current praxis introduced by field recordists privilege a materialist mode of perception, i.e., reducing sounds to event-objects which are cataloged, collected and put on display like butterfly specimens. I don’t think there can be a real “slowing down” until we develop a different mode of consciousness, one of being fully present and open to the aliveness of nature. The sensory event we call sound is only the outer shell of that phenomenon, there is much more that lies beneath that and this is rarely dealt with, if at all, in sound art. Retrieving what’s missing in today’s culture isn’t accomplished by slapping another coat of paint over the old one; one has to work at peeling back those old layers of paint in order to reveal the wood underneath.

Following that, I’ve seen that you have developed a very unique way of working with sound over the years. I wonder why you stopped releasing compositions and why you say (Twitter) you don’t want to be considered as an artist nor your work considered as art. What’s behind those statements/decisions?

Claiming to be a sound artist or a composer carries a lot of baggage today. It no longer means anything and because our current economy no longer supports the artist and her lifestyle I felt that I needed to rethink that title. An unfortunate effect of technology is how it has sucked the financial potential of earning a living out of the arts which has served to devalue the role of the artist in society. Cultural content is expected to be free because with the right digital tools anyone can make it. All they need is a laptop, some software and an Internet connection and they can be an “artist.” This is not to say technology hasn’t unearthed some amazing work by people who otherwise might not been heard of – but the price we’ve paid is much too high. We can’t innovate if there’s no way to survive from our work. Culture today resembles different brands of bottled water all competing on the packaging to grab the public’s attention rather than the content. The mantra seems to be “repackage, re-brand and resell.”

It’s actually interesting because the ancient perspectives towards what’s today called “art of sounds” were usually outside the consumption system we can see nowadays and were actually used in favor of consciousness development, spiritual growth, health etc. Would you think your perspective might be a kind of return to those alchemic or archetypal aspects of creativity where the act of art was a profound transformative process?

The act of transforming an idea into a material object via intention was/is considered a sacred act by many cultures and this process was not taken lightly. Not only did the creator experience something akin to giving birth after the act of creation, but others were able to perceive the energy the creator transferred to this object. These objects were batteries that stored the psychic energy of its creator so that others could draw power from them. The only way we can recover this mode of consciousness is through an awareness brought about through meditation. Meditation opens channels in our perceptual apparatus that the media and Western society are gradually trying to seal us off from – and, from the looks of things, they’re doing a pretty good job at it.

How do you see the role of sound and listening in the evolution of consciousness? What would you think is the importance of sound in our current era and what artists could do in order to get into deeper realms of sonic exploration?

In my essay titled “Transcendigitalism” I point out how many current approaches to “learning how to listen” are based on a materialist-reductionist mindset. Many of these approaches mix in some bodywork and other New Age techniques but ultimately miss the point entirely; the point being that new sensitivities need to be in place before one can sense the world in a new way. Once these organs are developed then one can be open to the holistic nature of reality. I think all media arts and music schools should incorporate meditation into their curricula. This is the one practice, above all others, that best develops these organs of perception – and it requires much more time than a weekend seminar to do this. It takes years of practice and a lot of study to nurture these new abilities.

How do you relate meditation and listening in both your daily practice and what you propose in your work? Would you think listening opens not just the ears but other aspects of perception, as if it can be understood just as a form of meditation?

Once you develop this type of perception you begin to understand that there is no separate act of listening, seeing or feeling – they are all one. The act of splitting off a single sensory input – like listening – as a separate mode of perception is exactly the problem we need to move beyond. There are no “aspects of perception” or “listening” – one comes to understand that they are merely our limited ability to engage with our surroundings in physical space. This is what art should do – encourage us to move beyond the limitations of our understanding, lift the veil, so to speak and provide a bridge for the percipient. Once you move into this space you understand that all our ideas about forming sound and light into “art” are very primitive and that, as a species, we have regressed, we have become hyper-literal. Technology, unfortunately, perpetuates this state of mind rather than transcend it.

A quote I like by the British artist Cecil Collins:

“Our civilisation has a brilliant technological surface to it, but underneath there is emptiness; hollowness and deprivation of a man of his soul. We have a highly specialized external world which in no way reflects the inner life of man, the psyche, so he goes through an absolutely–from the point of view of the human being–meaningless landscape. It’s an environment without being. Man’s inner nature must have a world and an environment to live in as well as his exterior nature, and art is an instrument for building that world for his inner nature, for building his archetypal home. It is not necessary to understand in order to create. But it is necessary to create in order to understand.”

I like your way of inviting sound creators/listeners to focus on the consciousness toward the machine rather than just being “used” by them. In your essay on “transcendigitalism” you talk about how artists can develop a better connection with the tool and expand their imagination process. I wonder if there is something in particular you think artists should focus on and why.

To quote Einstein: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” In order to break the bonds of materialism we must abandon our old ways of thinking. Only the ones who are able to do this will move into new aesthetic territory and stake out new land.

The tool is merely a conduit – by itself it does nothing, it just sits there waiting for someone to manifest their consciousness through it. That being said, the tool is never transparent, it has an agenda built into it and many people are blind to this as well as the psychic energy siphoned off from the creative process by that agenda.

What do you think nowadays about microsound and glitch and how is their integration in what you’re currently doing? I wonder how your approach to those fields has changed until today. What are you currently experimenting with?

I’ve never considered .microsound as a genre but more of a way of viewing music and sound. It’s a broad spectrum of styles and philosophies all situated under one roof. I think the square cd series I produced in the early 2000’s on my label anechoic contained all I had to say in that style…I was interested in mangling sound in ways that was antithetical to “academic computer music” – taking ivory tower tools and trying to find areas that were overlooked or not explored. But at some point I began to feel that technology was taking up too much room in my work so I returned to the way I worked in Industrial music e.g., I processed field recordings into cinematic soundscapes. I have always attempted to let the percipient to take an active role in the production of meaning and to create an environment that stimulated their imagination – which go hand-in-hand actually. I began meditating again on a daily basis and my internal landscape became very clear: I needed to work with sound in such a way that would help people to enter their subconscious more directly, without distraction. I began researching various ways of inducing altered states of consciousness and researched the phenomenon of binaural beats and brainwave entrainment. I selected the frequency of the beating effect based on the brainwave frequencies I wanted to induce in the listener. Currently, I’m exploring intervals found in the harmonic series instead of arbitrarily selecting those beat frequencies. I think intervallic relationships – in all forms of energy – are hardwired into our psyches and offer a potent way for us to enter our unconscious. Intervals can act as sound emblems which in turn can behave as conduits by activating certain parts of the brain.

Why the subconscious? What have you found or think that sound causes over there that makes you so interested to navigate in those dark territories of the mind? Why do you think is important to use sound specifically to trigger those states?

Because we’ve lost contact with that part of our psyche. As a society we’ve developed a highly abstracted language which packages the unconscious as dark and dangerous and better left alone…best to close it off and stay focused on our literal, material lives. But the unconscious is where art flows from – the unconscious encompasses much more than we think we know about it today.

I also wonder how do you conceive sonic matter and how your ways of working with it have changed, for example in your composition workflow or objectives regarding materials’ transformation and choosing?

I find the tools which allow me to channel parts of my unconscious into the world. Tools that allow me to manifest, conjure, transform, traverse territories, make maps, annotate marginalia and/or leave pebbles along the path for others to find and follow. So I like to work in a sound laboratory of sorts using tools like Pure Data. The interconnections in a dataflow language are like lab glass: I can connect a group of functions into larger systems that allow me to channel some aspect of my “inner world” to the “outer world.” I like to deal in atmospheres rather than narratives.

Technology has always been an important aspect in your work, especially in your way of developing your own applications in environments such as Max or Pd. I wonder how that non-linear way of working influences your work and if those algorithmic approaches have some specific connection to your aesthetic/perceptual interests. Also, is there a reason for choosing Linux and open source systems as Pd?

I’ve been working with audio programming since the late-90’s when I learned Csound and used it to create my first piece of computer music called “blueCube().” Programming in Csound was like working with analog synthesizers in the 70’s. The main difference was the routing signals and functions moved from hardware to software. After that I switched to Max/MSP and developed a patch I used in live performance for approximately six years. Then in 2009 I switched to Linux after a series of expensive technical failures and philosophical differences I had with Apple. I won’t rehash all that here (you can read about it in an article I wrote for createdigitalmusic.com – http://goo.gl/X22P1). But in brief, I didn’t want to be held hostage to vendor lock-in, i.e., forced to upgrade not only software but boutique hardware that would only run newer versions of an operating system. But while I was still using OS X I also was using Linux on a netbook in order to watch how the audio progressed and improved. Once it became friendly to working with audio on a professional level I switched over and have been 100% Linux ever since. I like it because I am not beholden to a corporate agenda and I don’t have to run the hamster wheel of constant and costly upgrades. As a creative I can’t afford to spend a lot of money on gear. Now I use a second-hand Lenovo ThinkPad running Linux Mint that I got for free and I use it for both business administration and sound development. The three main applications I use are Pure Data, Ardour and Audacity in addition to a handful of Linux sound utilities and plugins.

I know you’re deeply involved with ancient wisdom and especially with hermetic philosophy. How has that aspect influenced your work and how do you manage that dialogue between the occult and technology? What do you think today’s technological-materialist world can learn from those kind of spiritual-holistic systems?

All one needs to know about this is embedded in my work and if you know how to read it you will find everything you want to know there.

There has always been a deep connection between sound, speech and listening in many ancient traditions, as is the case of alchemy. I wonder if you have any particular way of examining that parallel between alchemy and sound matter transformation, composing and perception. Is alchemy sonic and/or is sound alchemic?

It’s all in my work – those who know will find it there.

I wonder how’s your perspective towards “divination” when applied to sound technology in general. I mean as if we could value the machine as “sacred”, as a “tool” of revelation, of symbolic knowledge, a way of transmitting and receiving “the message”. Do you think we could develop a kind of spiritual relationship with technology, perhaps considering it as part of nature? In which ways would think those esoteric and technological approaches converge?

Everything is a part of nature, nothing can be separate from it. Any person wishing to see this just needs to develop new perceptual apparatus.

What normally happens in one of your “Dark stations”? How did you start with the concept, what’s the process behind and how it relates to your subtle listening approach?

A “Dark Station” is simply a label for “concert” or “performance” which doesn’t really describe what this event is. Physically, a triangle of speakers is arranged in a room with a large sub-woofer in the middle. The audience is seated within the perimeter of the triangle, the space is darkened then the sound is diffused. I am not on a stage, or performing “music” or making “sound art” or presenting any sort of aesthetic work at all. I consider it purely sound material designed to help people explore their subconscious realms. It is really that simple. People have recounted their experiences after the event, I’ve heard about out-of-body experiences, vivid hallucinogenic visions, meeting deceased relatives and even experiencing nothing at all. Every person is at a different stage of internal development and hence each person has a completely different experience.

I wonder if you give any kind of guidelines, suggestions or exercises to the audience before or after playing the sounds.

Only that the audience should close their eyes and focus on their breath. Anything more would be setting expectations and this goes against wanting people to be free to explore their psyches in the way they feel most comfortable. I don’t want to impose a narrative which helps set people’s expectations.

Also, if not aesthetically or conceptually, how do you choose the material to be performed? Is there any criteria or process behind that selection?

I test the material on myself during meditation sessions to see if it induces deeper states of consciousness. It’s a little like hypnotism in that you need to be “open” to the process, letting go of being in control, trusting the experience and not being afraid of your unconscious. I use only sinewaves and various colors of noise in order to reduce any associations while listening – hence no musical instruments, synthesizer sounds or field recordings are used. Lately I’ve been using the harmonic series to generate interference beats with sinewaves. Since each person reacts different to the stimuli the criteria is derived intuitively not empirically.

When presenting your work, what are the optimal conditions in terms of space, distribution and audience’s attitude? What do you want to create for the experience?

The best environment so far has been a sacred space. People situate themselves in this type of space very differently due to having a different set of expectations as opposed to a music space, theater or gallery. I don’t want to create anything for the audience…they are the true creators, not me.


I also wonder about your preferences towards the speaker array. You seem to have a specific way of organizing the speakers and distributing the sound over space. Why that decision? (I remember an image you shared to me that I found similar to Paul Laffoley art works)

This arrangement is derived from the fact that it is difficult to aurally locate sounds emanating from behind our heads – as a result I only use one speaker in the rear so the listener doesn’t get distracted by trying to locate where a sound coming is coming from. I place two speakers in front for stereo location while the sub-woofer is situated in the middle of the triangle and pointed up towards the ceiling. This is done so that the low frequencies from the sub-woofer radiate upwards and interfere with the sound emanating from the triangle of speakers around it. I’ve been able to achieve an interesting effects with the sub-woofer positioned this way, it seems to modulate the sound in the surrounding speakers – I’ve learned that this effect happens in the inner ear, not acoustically.

Finally, I wonder what do you think about silence and noise. What those concepts say to you how are they present in your work/life?

To paraphrase the composer Claude Debussy: all music is contained between the notes. 🙂

Interview conducted by Miguel Isaza in August, 2014.

Miguel Isaza M

Listener, speaker.