Nick Zammuto on how the music he makes with Zammuto is different from the Books
The Books were known for introducing unique sound-making devices. Did you bring any of that sort of thinking and technique into Zammuto?
Yeah, there's quite a lot of that in this record, and I think it's something I'll continue on with more ostensibly in the future. For now, it's a background, textural thing for the most part. I still manipulate vinyl a lot because it's so satisfying. I'm not really doing it live so much, because it's such a delicate sound that it doesn't translate well on stage. But for records it really adds this dimension that's kind of amazing.
A friend of mine made a little video of how I work up here, so there's kind of an illustration of one technique that I use in that video. You can find it on the website. So actually scratching patterns in the silent parts of vinyl and having that be an impulse to send through things like PVC pipes and things like that to give it tonal color makes for this sound that people have no name for: "What is that?" I love those kinds of things that really disarm any categorization.
You have a "song" on the album called "Crabbing" that sounds like a sample of someone who is speaking and singing on a fragment of old reel-to-reel tape. How did you achieve that kind of sound, and what about that interested you for a 37 second song?
It's more like a sample. It's not a song I wrote. It's literally a straight up sample of a record that I found. It was the most mysterious record I found last year. I found it in Brattleboro, Vermont, at a thrift shop just going through the bins. It's a totally white, well, now kind of brown, record cover that had one word on it, just "Conchology."
It turns out that this was the high school class musical for the class of 1963, or something like that. It all takes place under the sea, so the voice in that song is the voice of the misanthropic crab who is very wary about the presence of humans underwater. So this crab is singing about how humans are going to destroy their world. It's like this, I guess, cautionary tale of exploitation.
For me, it had a lot of other meanings, so it made sense to throw it on there. This whole record has a lot of dejection and disappointment in it for obvious reasons. And I guess there's more universal meaning to it as well. For me it summed up how I was feeling at the time. I'm sure that record was one of fifty records for that class to take home as a souvenir or something like that. I can't say for sure exactly where it came from. That's the only information I have.
Someone who is new to your music will hear, for lack of a better word, organic instrumentation mixed in with electronics. What about using all of that together continues to appeal to you and how would you say it has evolved since you started making music like that?
I don't really have an answer for that. It's really an intuitive process for me. When I sit down to work, that's what happens. I don't have a good explanation. I'm totally self-taught so there isn't any real intellectual underpinning to what I do. It's all built from what I have around me, so I kind of have to live in that world because I don't have access to any worlds outside of that.
Given where I live now, which is pretty isolated, it's getting even more idiosyncratic as I go. I work in an old tractor garage in the middle of a mountain meadow. It's a very weird place to make electronic music but it's always surrounded by a lot of uncontrolled, organic elements.
In working with things readily on hand, did that inspire you to create things that made sounds that weren't created by pre-fabricated instruments?
Yeah, totally. I studied the visual arts before I studied music. And I actually think I have a pretty visual aesthetic when I make music. Obviously the interfaces that you can use on a computer to make music are very visual. They definitely have an influence on the output. So yeah, when I was in college I was making paintings and then sculptures and then the sculptures started to include a sound component either through mechanical means or through installing electronics inside them. I needed a way to document the sound because just taking a picture of it wouldn't mean anything to anybody without the sound.
So I invested in one of those DAT recorders back in the late '90s, and the first recordings that I ever made with those just totally changed my life. I never really had the ability to make high quality stereo recordings before. The first few that I made with that field recorder were, just, wow. As a sculptural medium, there is nothing better than sound, especially given how easy it is to cut it now. It opened up my ears in a way. Everything became music at that point when I started making those recordings. I think everything came directly from that.
That kind of relates to that thing on your website where you talk about this thing you built that integrated laser with the sound where the sound kind of guides how the laser patterns are created?
Yeah! You'd have to see it. It's hard to explain. But basically what happened is that I broke the side view mirror in my car. When you go to the auto parts place, the cheapest option is to get one of these little, flexible mirrors that you can cut into the shape of your mirror and stick it on there. But it gets totally warped so it's almost useless as a side view mirror because it vibrates a lot and it just doesn't work.
But the cool thing was that I was driving down the road and my car was old and shaking a lot, and when I was looking in the mirror, all the street lights and things like that, because the car was vibrating, were making these incredible patterns, like looping patterns, figure eights and circles depending on how the car was vibrating. And I'm like, "That's gold." So what I did was took an old speaker out of a cheap speaker set and attached one of these flexible mirrors directly to it, so I could put any sound I wanted through the mirror and then shined a laser pointer off the mirror and projected it onto the wall. Through experimentation, I found that you can really manipulate that picture into almost anything you want -- to kind of compose visually.
It's almost completely subsonic. It's only sounds below twenty hertz that really make the picture move a lot. It's kind of a way of making music without sound at all. It's kind of interesting. I think it might be a set piece in our show at some point. Maybe in the fall. But I'm not bringing it along this time. I want to build a song around it and have it be more than just this kind of oscilloscope experience. I'd rather give it more structure and it's going to take a little time.
What lead you to finding out about Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language," and what ideas in there did you find especially interesting and appealing in using in modifying your own house in Vermont?
I think his focus is on how scales are related. Everything from the smallest scale to the largest scale and trying to make sure there's some continuity between those. I really think it is really the continuity between scales from like something you'd hold in your hand like a doorknob to how do you position your house on site, there has to be a continuous chain between all of those elements that creates a feeling of flow.
That's what I learned, more than anything, from that book was how to pay attention to how those scales work together. I think you can apply that way of thinking to almost any field. And I think, actually, computer scientists have picked up on his ideas of architecture for designing computer interfaces and things like that. It's just a classic. It's a great book because it has a spiritual side to it as well as a very practical one.
I heard about the book on the radio. It was [part of] On the Media on WNYC -- it's a really good show. They mentioned it one time. They were doing a story around Christopher Alexander and I thought I should read it.