In July, percussionist and sound artist Adam Holmes released a remix of his fall 2019 debut album, Compartments, on slashsound. This version features four remixes by composers Brooks Frederickson, Adam Cuthbért, Phong Tran, and Cassie Wieland — one remix for each of the tracks on the original album. Over the past few weeks, I sat down with each composer to discuss their creative processes, but we ended up covering so much more than just the nuts and bolts: community and friendship, the effects of COVID-19, trying new musical styles, Spongebob, you name it. Here’s the first in the two-part series.
Brooks Frederickson is a composer whose practice focuses on texture and rhythmic influence. His work has been released on New Amsterdam Records, and has been performed by numerous ensembles, including JACK Quartet, Bearthoven, and Sō Percussion. He’s currently a PhD candidate at Duke University. What follows is an edited transcript of our conversation.
VANESSA AGUE: So Adam told me that you were the impetus for Compartments Remixes itself!
BROOKS FREDERICKSON: Yeah. In some ways I sort of forgot about that, it was just such an offhand thing. I’ve known Adam for years and years, he and I were at NYU together. I think I saw he posted a video when he was in the studio of him recording “Platforms,” and he was using those opera gongs, and I just offhandedly messaged him like, “Oh man, that sounds cool. I’d love to get my hands on that audio and start playing around with it.” And then he was like, “Oh yeah, that’d be cool. And maybe we could get other people in on this.” So if I was the first little bit of inertia, then he took it and really actually did the thing.
VANESSA: So are you a percussionist or are you a composer only?
BROOKS: Sort of a percussionist, when I did my undergrad, I had to declare a major instrument and in high school I played bass in bands, but then played percussion in the band. I felt good about playing electric bass, but I couldn’t play upright, so I couldn’t go to music school to study bass because I couldn’t play classical music.
VANESSA: That’s a whole other conversation in and of itself.
BROOKS: I know. So I studied percussion in my undergrad and I got pretty proficient. I was in all of the ensembles and played gigs and played in bands, and I had a really good time doing it. I love percussion because it’s such a weird, deep world. I also love gear and the tactileness of percussion music making. So then, when I moved to New York, right after undergrad, I was like, “I’m going to be like a percussionist/composer.” But then I saw Matt Evans play, and I was like, “Oh, no way, he’s so good. What I should do is I should become friends with him and then have him play anything that I would write, and he’s going to do it much better.” So I basically did that. And so when I was living in New York, I stopped playing music. I wrote a bunch and just focused on that. I ended up going to the Sō Percussion Summer Institute (SoSI), then working for Sō Percussion, and I was able to do both of those things because I had this extensive training in percussion. I understood what they need, how to work with them, and how to understand their language without actually considering myself a percussionist anymore.
VANESSA: That’s so important, to understand the nuances of it since like you were saying, it is such a wide field. That’s why I have to ask. Honestly, it’s so interesting to me, because there’s so many ways that you can be in that area of music making. So when you create a remix for percussion, do you feel like you have an inherent knowledge of it or is there anything specific that you want to bring out with it?
BROOKS: Yeah, sort of, especially with “Platforms.” The opera gongs that Adam was using, they have a really complex set of overtones, and depending on where you hit the instrument, it registers different overtones. And so, knowing that and having that knowledge, I really wanted to accentuate that by taking these things that sound like individual hits and really getting inside of them and pulling different sounds out of them, or transforming them into big washes or walls of sound.
VANESSA: You can really hear that on the track. So is that instrumentation what led you to pick “Platforms” or was there any other reasons?
BROOKS: No, I was assigned, and I think it was because that was the video that I commented on. I don’t know how he divvied the other three up. What’s really cool, too, is that we each got our own track to work with. And so in that way, it was really egalitarian and I wasn’t feeling like I was going to step on anyone else’s toes by using the same samples as somebody else or anything like that.
VANESSA: Totally. And it’s cool that everyone makes their own remix, but then it comes together and it still sounds really cohesive. Do you do a lot of remixing or is this a different type of project for you?
BROOKS: It’s sort of a newer way of working. When I was in New York, I mainly wrote music for people to play. I love working like that, and I was super fortunate to be around a ton of incredible musicians up there that I could give just the hardest, wildest stuff to, and they could make it work. But living down here in Durham, I don’t have access to a community like that anymore. There are great musicians down here in Durham, but I lived with Pat Swoboda from Bearthoven and we lived around the corner from Matt Evans and Karl Larson. They were literally right there. So down here, I’ve been working a lot more in the computer and opening up my practice to include working directly with audio. I’ve been thinking about audio and the materiality of audio, and of how you can process that, exploit that, and really dig into that.
VANESSA: Is that process coming through a lot in the “Platforms” remix?
BROOKS: Yeah. One of the other things that I’ve gotten into is spending more time with code and doing some more creative coding projects, which is something that I had gotten into or gotten introduced to when I was at NYU, but then have dived into pretty deeply down here. Part of this remix process was to build a Max for live device that is like an overtone filter, so audio is coming in, then if I hold down a key on my midi keyboard, it only lets audio through at those particular frequencies or overtones of that particular frequency. So I was using that to bring out the overtones of the gongs that Adam was playing.
VANESSA: When you’re creating a remix, do you have any sort of broader philosophy that you like to take with sampling and remixing?
BROOKS: Sort of. There’s a composer named Matthew Herbert, he’s done quite a bit of remixing and he has his manifesto about remixing, which is like, “you can only use the sounds that you’re given, you can’t bring in any other outside sounds, no presets on effects.” It’s a list of restrictions that he imposes upon himself. I like that, but I don’t hold to that exactly. I let myself cheat on some of those. But with this one, I did keep to the no outside sounds rule. There was a moment where I had some outside sounds, but I think I removed them. So in that way, I limited myself to only using the sounds that Adam gave me and limited myself to the tools that I use, which were that Max for live plugin that I made, then an old vintage Eventide DSP7000, which is an old rack mount, like one of the first digital delay and echo units which I’m borrowing from a professor. And so I kept myself restrained to those things and tried to see what I can make with a limited set of materials and a limited set of tools.
VANESSA: I’m curious about this instrument that you’re borrowing. What is it?
BROOKS: It’s from the late eighties, it’s a rack mount effects processor. It’s huge. And it was back when computers didn’t have the internal capacity to do that, so you had to have a bunch of outboard gear to do your signal processing. It sounds awesome. It’s so good, so weird.
VANESSA: I always find it’s cool to look back at the history of how the sounds that we have now kind of came to be, and then look back at those older ones, too.
BROOKS: Yeah, and along with that, I’ve been getting into modular synthesizers. I’m limiting myself to a really basic modular setup that is basically just subtractive synthesis, which is the type of synthesis that Moog synthesizers use or do. And there’s still an infinite world of possibilities within there.
VANESSA: It’s great how there’s an infinite possibility in just one instrument or one genre of instrument.
BROOKS: Right, and there’s also an infinite number of possibilities within an audio sample. That’s something that I really struggled with at the beginning of this remix process, because the piece that Adam sent me was six or seven or eight minutes long. And I ended up using five seconds of the piece for the whole remix, because you can do so much with just a little snippet. You can twist it inside out and send it through things and sample that, and then send that through things and then sample that, and then send that through things and sample that. At a certain point, you can get paralyzed with the possibilities, or the process. Even though I went through an iterative process over and over and over again, and I could have done that six steps back and ended up with something totally different, at a certain point I just had to commit.
VANESSA: That’s so much of the editing process though. You just have to get to that point where you say, “okay, we’re choosing this section and that’s what’s happening.” How did you choose that specific five seconds that you’re using?
BROOKS: I don’t exactly remember how, because I worked on this remix in spurts. There was a month or two where I worked on it, then some other things got in the way and I didn’t look at it for a month or two, and then I looked at it again. And the first time I was looking at it, I pulled out a couple of samples that had a cool rhythm and felt good if you loop them. I used those as placeholders to test out different processes and build some Max devices and run that audio through it, just to see what would happen. So I did that, and then I walked away from the project. Then when I went back to it, I started looking for other samples and pulling different things out and was like, “well, what about those ones I was looking at originally?” And so I went back to those and listened to them again and realized I really liked them. They fit really well together and I could manipulate them really easily and they were doing what I needed them to do. So I just stuck with them.
VANESSA: Yeah. That’s probably the perfect reason to choose them, they’re doing the right thing, you don’t need to mess with it anymore. On a whole other topic, you met Adam at NYU and you’ve known him for ages, I’m going to assume? But how did you meet at NYU? Did you play together? Did you write together?
BROOKS: Adam was an undergrad when I was there doing my Master’s, and we overlapped at SoSI, and we would end up talking to each other after concerts and things. He had a percussion quartet and we talked about doing a piece together for that, which didn’t work out. He was also a part of Echo Chamber, and they commissioned me to write a piece. So I wrote a piece for them and worked with him really closely through that. It feels like I’ve known him for a really long time, but I can’t pinpoint exactly when we met.
VANESSA: It’s that kind of working relationship that just never began and it just took off. Do you have anything else you’d like to add?
Brooks: I’m pumped to be a part of this project, and because it is the first time I’m working like this, it’s fun to expand the way that I think about making music and writing music and participating in music making.
Phong Tran is a Brooklyn-based composer, electronic musician, and visual artist. He works as a solo artist, sound engineer, and with violinist and composer Darian Thomas in a collaborative duo named MEDIAQUEER. We chatted a couple of months ago about his remix of Goldfeather’s “Valentino Pier,” and in the following edited transcript, we add more to that conversation. You can check out that interview here.
VANESSA AGUE: How did you get involved with Compartments Remixes?
PHONG: I think the whole thing started with Brooks. I think Brooks was the first one to take one of Adam’s pieces and do his thing with it. And then, I think Adam rallied the troops together and organized the thing. I think Adam picked all the people who he wanted to actually remix it. He asked Adam Cuthbért, and then asked me and Cassie.
VANESSA: Did you pick “Cambium,” the song you remixed?
PHONG: I think I was the last person to reply to the email, so I think everyone had claimed their dibs and it was like, cool, so, Phong gets this one. I wasn’t mad about it, I was pretty happy with it. It felt really focused. I liked that Adam had a very clear idea of what this was. You would think that because there’s so little other material besides the wood pitches and that beginning motive and the repeated pattern at the end, or towards the middle, you’d think that there’s not a whole lot you can do with it, but that’s my wheelhouse — taking a super small thing and just exploring the full depth of it.
VANESSA: We talked about that a lot in the last interview. So you’re using that same technique this time?
PHONG: Yeah, essentially. There’s definitely more going on with the original track than what I just said about those two things, but those are the two that I’m taking. Everything is so tightly woven already, but I think you can mess with it even more.
VANESSA: What tools did you use to make the remix?
PHONG: It was mostly running the samples through my modular synths, so processing them through a granulator of sorts, a reverb. It’s a multi effects module that I just got that does bit crushing and filtering and delay. They call it 3D processing, there’s three parameters, I guess, but it was a fun thing to work with it. The original piece felt very organic in a way. It’s called “Cambium,” which is the rings on trees. Thinking of that very natural thing and then putting it through my own wheelhouse of electronic things felt like I was making a weird hybrid metal organic tree, like the chrome future I want to live in.
VANESSA: What would that look like to you?
PHONG: As I’m explaining it, I’m picturing SpongeBob, the episode where he’s in the future. I think it was shining and metal, but it’s these shiny metal plants or whatever.
VANESSA: Yeah. He falls asleep in the refrigerator. It’s cryogenics, and then he wakes up. I feel like I always hear a lot about melding electronics with organic sounds, and it seems like you have a concrete way of doing that.
PHONG: That’s an idea I’ve had my head in and around for a while. I think nothing I’ve actually released is explicitly about that, but a lot of my projects right now have been about simulation theory and what is reality versus technology. I’ve talked to a bunch of people about the singularity, which is when humans and technology have become one entity, which we’ve essentially kind of already done with an iPhone. When is the last time you didn’t have your phone? You have the information of technology at your disposal at all times. So it’s kind of already there. It’s just the final step of imprinting that biologically, of becoming part cyborg or whatever, that level of singularity.
VANESSA: Did you write this remix during the pandemic?
PHONG: Yeah, I think we were all emailed about it way before the pandemic, but then I think everyone involved had their own projects and stuff going on. I think the first deadline that we had proposed was March, and then the beginning of March rolled around, pre-COVID, and we’re like, “maybe let’s think about a summer release.” That was a good call! April is when I really started rolling on it, I think, I honestly don’t even remember. I just know I was in Georgia when I was doing it, I was in my sister’s basement. I think it was during the two weeks I was just down there. I didn’t have anything else to do, I was stuck in this basement. So I might as well work on a project that I am going to enjoy doing.
VANESSA: Do you feel like it reflects any of your feelings about the broader world? That might be a stretch.
PHONG: I think to some degree it’s in there, but I don’t think I was overtly making a statement on the state of the world right now. I think I needed something to occupy my brain space right now, and this is the closest thing to normal that I could be doing. I definitely had ideas for the piece, I had been thinking about it and I had plans for it well before I actually fully went into the production process for it. And this is back in February, I had random ideas in my notebooks. Then I had the time to dedicate to executing these ideas and exploring them. And honestly, I think at that time, it was so early on in the pandemic where I was like, “this’ll pass and we’ll be back to normal soon.” You sweet summer child, how naive!
VANESSA: I know. Remember when we thought it would be two weeks? To change gears, I know that you and Adam are friends, but how did you two meet?
PHONG: We both went to NYU together, he was finishing his last year of undergrad when I started my first year at grad school.
VANESSA: Did you play in ensembles together or take class together?
PHONG: Even at NYU, new music is such a niche thing. There are a ton of performers, but then only a handful of new music performers and he was one of them. So we definitely connected through that mutual relationship. And then also one of the other composers there, who’s a really good friend of mine now, Kyle Tieman-Strauss, he introduced me to Adam because they were all in an ensemble together.
VANESSA: How was it to remix your friend’s music?
PHONG: I think it’s the same scenario as the last remix interview that we had. I don’t normally do a lot of remixes. It’s very far and few in between. I think remixing friends’ stuff feels safer because I have permission to do that, which means I can post it. But then I also think there’s a trust there because we’re friends. I know Adam asked me to do this because he knows my work and he knows my sensibilities of music. So I know that I can do whatever I want with it. I know that we mutually trust each other’s instincts on it and whatever I do, he’s going to be cool with it. And if he’s not, we have a relationship there so we can collaborate on it. It’s an understanding. I think the big sampling remix horror story I remember is when Kanye sampled Chaka Khan, and then Chaka Khan got furious and was like, “why do I sound like a fucking chipmunk?”
VANESSA: Yeah. That was a scandal. It’s nice to be able to have that relationship, though.
PHONG: It’s good. And it’s, I think it’s also a sense of community. It’s different when it’s a stranger asking me for a commission. It sometimes feels like I’m going in blind or I’m going to do what I’m going to do and then I hope that things come out right on the other side. There’s a degree of blind trust there, versus when I’m working with friends, it’s like, “Oh, I, I know you, I know what you do.” And I can play into that. Or if I’m going to push you on something that you’re not normally doing, I know that you’re going to be able to rise to the occasion and you’re going to fucking nail it. I’ve seen the proof in the pudding.
VANESSA: Do you have anything else that you’d like to add?
PHONG: Stay safe and wear a fucking mask! I don’t know. I’m working on more and more projects, I feel like I’m able to do things I physically can’t do live. I feel like I’m more able to explore and pursue these things, and make them as fixed media content because there’s no expectation of me right now to be able to physically go out and perform them live. I think that is something that I want more people to do now. I’ve been seeing a lot of people posting videos and performing and it’s great that it’s still happening, but the world has rapidly changed and I think I’m ready to see more art that has changed as a result of it.
No matter what it’s going to be like, “is this pre- or post-COVID art?” I think that is going to be a defining moment in American history, world history, and of course music history. Holly Herndon has a term called net concrète. I would like to see that as a full cultural thing. If we can’t perform in person, we can make shit that we physically can’t perform anyways. I’m working on a project right now that the editing of the piece is the piece, the focus that I want to draw attention to is the fact that it is heavily edited.
VANESSA: That’s something that you talk about a lot, making art with the tools that you have at your disposal. It’s really kind of prominent now.
PHONG: Yeah, because you have to. I know there are discussions with venues about when they’ll open up. They’re probably going to have to open up at lower capacities, if that, but regardless, I think venues are going to start incorporating live streaming performances, whether that’s buying a ticket to the live stream pass or whatever. That is another avenue of creativity, thinking about visual elements and thinking about what it means to be in front of a camera and to present a visual thing with your music. Recordings have been around for a while. People have been doing Twitch streams of their concerts and stuff like that or Instagram live or whatever, but they have to make it a point like, “Oh, this is happening right now. Live in front of you or on a camera.” Do we really care about that if the end result is that we’re viewing it through a screen and on our speakers?