In July, percussionist and sound artist Adam Holmes released a remix of his fall 2019 album, Compartments. I had the chance to sit down with each of the composers who worked on the remixes to discuss their creative processes and how their involvement with Adam’s project came about. This is the second part in the series, featuring composers Adam Cuthbért and Cassie Wieland. You can read part one here.
Adam Cuthbért is a Brooklyn-based composer and sound designer whose work centers on creating sound environments, and is heavily inspired by their experiences with game music and as a DJ. In addition to their work as an artist, they run the Brooklyn-based abstract music label, slashsound.
VANESSA AGUE: You’ve been doing a lot of remixes on slashsound. How did the remixed version of Compartments come about?
ADAM CUTHBERT: Well, it was really from an Instagram DM. The very first thing we recorded was “Platforms,” and Adam and I went into Mike Tierney’s recording studio to do a video. We were going to do a live video of him performing the gongs and just sync that to the studio recording. So naturally I was just chilling as the label rep, hyping it up on Instagram, and Brooks wrote in was like, “yo, this sounds awesome, I want to do a remix of this.” And we finished one cut and I’m like, “Adam, do you want Brooks to do a remix?” He’s like, “yeah, absolutely.” And then that snowballed into, well, who else is doing interesting electronic music in the classical composer realm? Because there’s not that many of us.
VANESSA: Did you choose to remix “Deluge” or did Adam assign it to you?
ADAM: The only stipulation Adam gave was that he wanted one composer on each of the four tracks in the same track order. Brooks already chose “Platforms” because that was the beginning of the whole thing, and I think Cassie had already chosen hers by the time I came along. But I absolutely wanted “Deluge.” The others seem fun, like “Cambium,” that’s the one with wood block polyrhythms. I feel like that would be the most popular if it were open to the world. But the thing that I was stoked on about “Deluge” is that it was the sparsest. It was the most placid of the original tracks, it’s really deep reverb or just some accents, a little nudging of the flowerpot. It was already a sound environment without a lot of motivic occurrences. It felt super organic and that’s the vibe I like to go for in this kind of project. It was already set up for my favorite little engineering technique, so I was super ready to go. I also had a video in mind, which maybe I’ll get to it eventually, but not yet.
VANESSA: What draws you to your favorite technique?
Adam: I did a bunch of studying with a sound design teacher, Raz Mesinai. He’s on a bunch of early Tzadik records and he was the first Ableton Certified trainer. He taught me the power of engineering with the EQ Eight tool. It’s a series of eight bandpasses. I watched him work a little bit through our studies, and he’d make these bands really tiny and scan the whole frequency spectrum of a simple sound until it’s resonating, and then widen the band a little bit. And then just set that there and make another one. Sometimes, if you pull out a frequency that’s lower in the spectrum, it’ll pry out the higher overtones of that sound, too. I thought that was fascinating. I also love that it’s therapeutic to get that much into a flow state where I’m looking for something and finding a resonance somewhere in the sound that’ll make something in my room vibrate, so now the poster behind me is vibrating because I pulled up this frequency. That’s so cool to me.
VANESSA: It’s really cool, it’s like everything’s connected. Like a visual representation of that and audio representation of that.
ADAM: And it contributes to sound being an environment that you can sit in and exist in. I feel like there’s no greater flow state inducers than sounds, but there’s a lot of sounds going on that really stimulate across the stereo spectrum. It’s a deep listening practice, I guess, very Pauline Oliveros, very John Cage, very John Luther Adams. So a lot of my practice, and this goes for mix engineering and for composing and remixing in this case, is a game to develop this organic feeling, this landscape. I like to imagine I’m in the woods or something. It’d be crickets over here and rustling leaves over there and birds chirping. “Deluge” was the track on the original EP that felt like it was already approaching that direction, so I wanted to take it into my universe.
VANESSA: When you’re making a remix, it’s a sort of a reimagination of the topic. So it makes sense that that would draw you in as a topic you can reimagine in a new way.
ADAM: Yeah. In fact, I was reading when you talked to Jordan and Phong about the Goldfeather remixes, and they had opposite ideas. Jordan’s like, “yeah, it’s a reimagination, it’s a chance for you to take these sonic resources and put them in your own world.” And Phong is like, “let’s sample them and go in a completely different direction.” And I think he did that again on “Cambium.” He went into the noise wall, which I’m living for.
VANESSA: Listening to the remixed album was fun because it takes you into four different worlds, since it’s four different people remixing. I really liked that.
ADAM: Did you feel like they were all very different? Because I felt like they were remarkably cohesive in spite of the fact that it was four different producers.
VANESSA: I felt like it was so cohesive, but each piece was different. It makes perfect sense together, but each one is offering me something unique.
ADAM: It’s nice to have a couple of fixed elements. Mike Tierney did the mastering on this one again — he did the recording on Adam’s original stems. There’s these consistent stamps between the remix and the original, which I think ended up being enough of a cohesive glue. It did end up feeling like they remain in the same world, or they’re reflections of the same original object. But I also go back and forth. When I listened to my own, well, I had to put it down for weeks, but that’s usually what happens. I finish a piece and then I hate it and I don’t want to listen to it. I’ll come back a month later.
VANESSA: It’s so hard, you always have to remove yourself a little bit from things before going back.
ADAM: Definitely. So that’s the thing that I come to expect now and this turned over at a pretty quick rate. And then pandemic mode, everyone was working on it in March and then it was mastered in April. Just enough time for me to not want to listen to it for a month, and then listen to it again because it’s time to release it.
VANESSA: When making remixes, do you reimagine or do your own thing entirely?
ADAM: For me, the game isn’t as much to make this as distant as possible from the original, but to find what I like about the original samples that are elements that I like to work with anyway. It’s about identifying the common ground between Adam’s creative choices and my tendency towards creative choices. Adam and I have things in common, and we also have our own creative processes, but I think there’s a lot of overlap. We have shared conversations and shared sensibilities for aesthetics. I’m definitely aware that this is an Adam Holmes remix project. I want Adam to like it, too! And based on what Compartments sounds like, we know what Adam likes. I have my own toolbox, let’s see what it sounds like when I add my toolbox.
VANESSA: What tools specifically are you using there?
ADAM: The original “Deluge” is only four stems. It’s the flowerpot, it’s the reverb of the flower pot, it’s a little percussion, like a triangle beat or something grinding against these accent points, and then, maybe it was a piece of wood on the table it was sitting on, but Adam would just pick it up and pop it and make a bunking sound. And that was it. It was so sparse. I knew I wanted to look at the waveforms on this, I wasn’t thinking about time or tempo, I’m just looking at shapes of sounds in the DAW. I find the point of resonance, and I make another one and then I’ll put modulation sources on them so they dance a little bit at different alpha rates. You start to hear all the partials one at a time like it’s a melody. So that’s what you hear in the background.
I do that and I send it through some processing and I make it a new sample and then I do it again. Sometimes, the game is how many times can I do it before it starts to lose its integrity and become this other different sound? I’m into breaking sounds and turning them into new things. It doesn’t matter if I can’t tell that this is a flowerpot scraping. This project was very out in the outer space sonically anyways. So I just worked on this drone until it started to have its own contour, and I printed it four or five times through various processing tools: synthesizers, outboard recording studios, a nice compressor that I like to use that adds some extra resonance. The more you do this, the more that the shape of the waveform changes. And then visually, that shape ends up becoming my macro structure for the piece.
So, whereas the original was along the plane, this thing gets really loud at certain spots. It gets really soft, it gets dense. There’s loud, and there’s dense, and there’s sparse, but then there’s also loud and sparse, and soft and dense. I also use some modulation sources that are doing these patterns that create different patterns, different contours, melodies, and everything. So then I have this thing that I can start orchestrating around that becomes a skeleton, like the new composition.
I just put that in the oven for a little bit, and then I went to the flowerpot, which eventually became the drums in there. Like 20 times in the original piece, there was a bump. And they were low, quiet percussive sounds. Sometimes they were high, but I cut all those out and put them in the drum rack, processed them a little bit, and then I threw an arpeggiator that’s supposed to go up and down scales. It’s just cycling through these drum hits in different patterns. I made a macro instrument in Ableton that would change the route and the path of the arpeggiator. If I don’t do anything, it just goes through all 28 and it’s a boring pattern. There’s another little change, how many notes it’ll hit before it repeats, and then under what circumstances it repeats, and then what pattern it makes before it repeats. This is another fun thing that I like to do with other people’s sound sometimes, is to make an instrument based on just that sound. By instrument I just mean four knobs that I can press record and twist and it makes its own contour and a repeating rhythm or something. It’s not as complex as a violin or something, but it’s an instrument.
VANESSA: Yeah. It’s a different kind of instrument.
ADAM: Yeah. And this is where the editing comes in. So, a lot of times, I’ll just press record and literally just be vibing on four knobs for an hour. And then the editing comes, because it needs to be six minutes. Oh, that was another thing that I forgot. I gave myself a stipulation that I wanted it to be the same length as the original. I don’t think it was exactly that, but that was a roadmap. I don’t want to make another fucking 15 minute remix. [laughs] I tend towards long form also, so putting time limits is helpful to me.
VANESSA: I mean, with what you’re doing, it lends itself to long form.
ADAM: Yeah. It comes from my techno background and game music background. Game music will just repeat forever. Then techno is the DJ looking up, being like, “well, is everybody vibing? Okay, we’ll keep rolling on this for a little.” But if not as many people are dancing, well, let’s change it up. It’s a very responsive type of music and it’s an improv too. So I try to keep a little bit of improv in every step along the way. I’m improvising with moving these bandpasses on the frequency melodies, and then I’m playing with the way the drums are coming out.
Another process is firing these samples through the modular synth and finding different modulation patterns that will change timbres. I didn’t use any synth sounds for this remix, it’s all just Adam’s sounds. I wanted to do lots of improv on all of the original sounds, so I didn’t need to add my own timbral path. That’s for another project.
I ended up with hours of material. I look at the shape of the waveforms and see where it gets large, where I can sync it up, where I can arrange it with other moments that get large or soft at the same time. That’s where the editing comes in. And first you have to cut your hour drone down into the best six minutes, or maybe 10 minutes, and then you make a couple of tracks and you layer it on top of each other a little bit as well.
VANESSA: How do you choose what’s best?
ADAM: There are a lot of times where I’m just like, “well, this is good enough.” It’s going to be chocolate and vanilla, no matter what, and I have to make a call. Michael Gordon told me once that sometimes the composer’s best friend is the trash can.
VANESSA: That’s a good one.
ADAM: When I’ve generated four hours of sounds out of this project, I can’t keep all four hours. Sometimes, there’s an act of bravery where I’m just like, “I have to delete this now. I just recorded it an hour and you know what? I only like 30 seconds of it.” So I delete and keep going. But eventually you generate enough content and you slap it on your DAW and then you start arranging. This is where I turn the grid off, too, so I can get super granular lining things up. At that point it’s orchestrating, and you do the broad strokes and then you do some detail work and go back to some broad strokes and go back to the detail work. That’s the point in the process where I have an idea of where it’s going to end up being, but I just
have to do the tedious work.
VANESSA: It seems like there’s a lot of experimentation in the broader swath as well as in the more detail-oriented editing.
ADAM: I guess for me, experimentation comes down to timbre. It comes down to sound design more so than arrangement. Sometimes it feels inevitable after the sounds are what they are. I trust that I’ve worked together with the sounds to find a place for all of them, it’ll make sense as a cohesive thing.
That’s a process I’ve been finessing over the last couple of years. I think it started with the GVSU new music ensemble record return, which was very much like this process. Actually, that was the internet project before COVID. I was writing sketches for the ensemble, and the ensemble would record them and they’d give Dropbox feedback on all of the stems, and that’s how that project came together. It’s a different process than the composer process of opening up Sibelius and putting your notes in and starting with time and structure. I’m starting with timbre. What sounds do I think are interesting to me personally? And if it sounds like the original sounds, if not, it’s some other thing. And is it composed music at that point? Well, that’s up for debate.
VANESSA: That’s a whole other conversation.
ADAM: I don’t know, y’all can choose! It’s the journalist’s responsibility, I think, throughout history, to assign genre names far more than it is the responsibility of the artists themselves. Who wants to name their own genre?
VANESSA: That’s so true. Isn’t the famous one always the coining of no wave by Brian Eno?
ADAM: Oh yeah. Brian Eno did call it that.
VANESSA: And everyone was like, “wait, what is it?” I feel like the conversation about composed music versus not composed music or what is composed music is just so complicated. Because it is really tied in with Western music making, which isn’t necessarily relevant at all in every context.
ADAM: Oh yeah. I often feel like I get tied up between where the line is between composition and production. Where’s the line between production and engineering? And then there’s sound design in there, and also instrument design, and electronic instrument design.
VANESSA: They all work together.
ADAM: Yeah, I’ve always just felt a certain type of way about self identifying. I am a composer, but that doesn’t tell the story completely. So it’s complicated. I think labels are complicated, but also necessary.
VANESSA: The most important part of the label is to help people know what is going on.
ADAM: Yeah. What do you think about this music? Let’s start with Compartments and then the remixes.
VANESSA: I have the luxury of having talked to Adam about Compartments. I feel like he was really billing himself as a sound artist with the album. So to me, when I listen to it, it really does feel more like a sound experimentation than anything else. I’m thinking of it as someone experimenting with the possibilities of these small instruments that he’s chosen, and the sounds that they make. The remix does kind of lend itself, if you have to go there, to the ambient genre. Which I hate going there, because it’s just such a vague term for music that’s so complex. Each remix has so many complexities going on within it, but if you had to describe it to the general public and just say, how does it sound? I’d be like, “well, it sounds ambient.” It’s a disservice when you have to boil it down to just one word, because there’s so much more going on than just one word.
ADAM: I mean that’s 2020. Everything’s boiled down to tweet size elevator pitch. Where’s the space for the 30 minute ambient jams?
VANESSA: They’re done, they’re gone.
ADAM: We’ll come back around. Year 2030, we’re coming for you. It’s the opposite of 100 Gecs.
VANESSA: Yes, it would be. My other question is on a whole other plane. We’ve talked all about the production and the making of the music, but I was actually wondering how knowing Adam plays into that. You’ve touched on it a little bit just saying that you know Adam and you want it to sound like something he would like. Do you feel like there’s anything else that comes into play there, with remixing your friend’s music?
ADAM: I think so. You know Adam, too, so we can say this about him — he’s such a calming presence to be around. Hanging out with Adam is no pressure. It’s anything goes. So, work on the music in that way, too. It’s a fully different headspace than working with an ensemble, where they have $4,000 to give you and they ask you to give them 10 minutes of your best work. Adam and I also share a lot of aesthetic sensibilities, I think, like I said earlier, but he sent this message to me once and I saved the text message. It was like, “there’s only one genre and it’s called fun music. And it sounds like whatever you want it to sound like.”
VANESSA: That’s such an Adam thing to say.
Adam: It’s such an Adam thing to say! And so I think that’s why we started working together. There’s no prestige in the aim, it’s literally just vibes. But that’s really fun for me to work on. I’m a person with a lot of anxiety, so having no pressure that way, when there’s already enough pressure, like New York City speed America in 2020 speed, there’s a lot of things to be freaking out about. So to have a friend who’s just like, make whatever sounds you think are fun. It’s fun sounds. And that’s our genre. It’s fun music. It doesn’t help in terms of what it sounds like, but it helps you understand like the vibes behind it.
VANESSA: Knowing the intention is nice.
Adam: Yeah. Knowing that the pressure’s off to deliver a Grammy winner. [laughs] It’s me and my friends doing an authentic representation of what they’re up to in that moment and the sounds that they gravitate towards. I think that’s enough. When we’re dealing with abstract music like this, this isn’t music setting out to make a cultural statement or a political statement, or a Magnum Opus type of artistic manifesto. It’s snapshots of our friends in our spaces at this time, and this is what it sounds like. It sounds like the things that we like to hear ourselves, and if we like to hear the sounds maybe someone else will, too.
VANESSA: That’s a really beautiful sentiment.
Adam: Adam just facilitates that, too. He knows what kind of human being he is, and I think that makes the work more authentic.
Cassie Wieland is a Brooklyn-based composer whose work focuses on depicting intimate human experiences through timbral and textural sound. She is a Roulette 2020 Commissioned Artist, and has written works for a variety of ensembles and performers including ~Nois, Unheard-of//Ensemble, and clarinetist Ken Thompson, among others.
VANESSA AGUE: How did your university talks come about?
CASSIE: The first one was my Alma mater, where I went to undergrad. I think I was in grad school about an hour away, and they needed to fill their composer seminar. And they’re like, “Oh, Cassie is a graduate and still composing, let’s have her over.” So that’s how that one went. And then the Northwestern one, I wrote a piece for Nois~, the sax quartet. Their professor was at that show and I gave him the sax solo. And then he had everybody learn it. He’s in PRISM Quartet, and he’s a new music person, so he’s really into talking with living composers. So that’s how that came about. It’s always a weird feeling to be invited to an academic institution. I have to like prep myself beforehand and I’m like, “okay, Cassie, don’t swear.”
VANESSA: It’s funny that we’re talking about academia, because I feel like the Compartments remix is the opposite of the academic process, probably because it’s all friends and professionalism is not necessarily the goal.
CASSIE: Yeah. This was one of the projects where I felt like it was completely organic. There was no purpose other than to make music for friends. And that brought a lot of joy into the making of the project. Sometimes, with commissions, I get stressed while I’m doing it because I feel like I have to impress somebody. Or not necessarily I feel like I need to impress somebody, but it’s not for somebody that I know personally every time. There’s that anticipation of what’s going to happen when this piece is done. But I was genuinely excited every day that I got to work on this remix, because not only was it not my usual method of music making, but it was fun. It’s like I was making a gift. I was like, “I can’t wait to give this to them.”
VANESSA: How long did you work on it for?
CASSIE: I want to say maybe a few months, but it’s hard to gauge because the process was not similar to what I usually do. Since this was a remix, it was all music production style, where I was in a Logic session instead of a Sibelius session or instead of on the piano. And I was listening back and recording myself, playing and then tweaking things. I think the longest part of the process was realizing when it was done. Because when you’re writing notes on a page, at one point you can give it to somebody else and then maybe make edits, maybe not. But with this one, it’s all on you. You have to decide when it is completely finished and there’s always something that you could do to tweak it.
VANESSA: Right. And that’s so difficult to move past, I can imagine.
CASSIE: Yeah, I’m not used to that part. But thankfully the commissioner of the remixes I live with and have a collaborative relationship with, so he was my sounding board for a lot of the process.
VANESSA: Was it fun to be able to remix and work with somebody that you know so personally?
CASSIE: It was fun. I would love to do this kind of work more often because, in some ways, it feels closer to my overall goal of mixing this sort of work and also notation writing music. It was a little bit intimidating, making something for somebody I am particularly close with, because I did not want to ruin the work that he had already done. And I had also watched him make the original album, which was nice because it gave me a good perspective to what the purpose was. But also, you have to find that balance between making somebody’s original work into something of your own without taking away that purpose and that intention.
VANESSA: Every time I do these remix interviews, it seems like people kind of fall in two camps. Either they’re reimagining what the original is, or taking a moment from the original and making into an entirely new thing. Where do you feel like you fall?
CASSIE: For this remix, I definitely didn’t want to take it completely apart. I wanted to take it a little bit apart, but my main focus was on finding the aspects of the original work that I liked and building something new out of that. So picking the specific little colors and textures that I like and thinking, “what if this piece was just zoomed in on that one moment?” You can think of it as if you’re taking a microscope to the original and inside the original piece is this moment.
VANESSA: Why did you choose to remix “All-American?”
CASSIE: That is my personal favorite track on the album, and I think it has more to do with what the backstory that I know about the piece. I don’t know if this is in Adam’s program notes, but it was written in relationship to a video that he had made. It was a long exposure. I don’t know if exposure is the word, it was like if you put a camera in a certain spot and just let it go for a long time. I don’t know what the technical term for that is. He did that, where he set up a video camera on July 4th in Prospect Park and just let it go. And then he wrote this piece, “All American,” with a process where he was sort of live scoring it, and then he wrote the notation down afterwards. I’ve seen the video and I really like that idea about how it’s a real life still of capturing something in real time. So that’s why it was my first choice.
VANESSA: That’s a really interesting idea, the still life idea. How did you feel like you wanted to bring that out in the remix?
CASSIE: I wanted to go a little bit deeper into providing a personal take to that still life and how it made me feel to react to both the video and the original piece. And that way, I wasn’t taking away any of that original impact, I was just refocusing a little bit to my personal experience of the art. I also love the sound of the instrument he uses, the mbira, and my favorite part is the bottle caps that are attached that will make this buzzy, acoustic white noise sound whenever you pluck it. And I was thinking, what if that noise was the whole piece? What if it just takes over? So, I tried to bring that out and I recreated it using my little minilogue. Actually, at the very end of the piece, Adam helped me with this. We’re playing all of the polyrhythms that end the piece on the synth, but the noise knob is just getting turned up more and more.
VANESSA: What tools did you use to make the remix and how did you make it?
CASSIE: I made it with Logic and with my miniliogue, and that’s it. Adam gave me the raw input and the Max patch input, so I had those originals to work with and I processed them in multiple ways. And then I just added levels of synth throughout the piece. I was super worried at first that it would be too simple and it would sound like I was only using a laptop, but you can do a lot with few tools.
VANESSA: You don’t need the whole nine yards to make something good.
CASSIE: Yeah. And I will say a little bit of reverb goes a long way. [laughs] But yeah, it was plenty for me to explore with, and lay out all of my options and decide what I wanted to go with.
VANESSA: You mentioned earlier that it was really a different process than what you normally do. In what ways, specifically, was it different?
CASSIE: So what I’m used to right now is purely writing acoustic music for other people to play. With that, it does take a lot of imagination and knowledge of the other instruments that you might not necessarily have on hand. I usually start that part at the piano, and I’ll write everything out and then I’ll put it in a notation software. I hate MIDI playbacks so I won’t use them, but then you give it to somebody else and they bring it to life. But with this, because every part of that music making stage was inside the laptop, on a screen and in my headphones, it felt a little bit more like a game to me. It felt like I had the capacity to immediately explore and change my mind whenever I wanted, and go with how I’m feeling at the moment. And then when you close out of a session, you can still reenter at any time exactly where you were, but that’s not always the case when you’re just with pencil and paper. So that part was really exhilarating to me, where I had this level of curiosity that I didn’t feel like I had access to before. And now I can sort of take that feeling and apply it to my other work, too.
VANESSA: So that curiosity drives you to want to keep doing this and to do more of this and to bring it into other aspects of your work.
CASSIE: Yeah. And performing was also really fun. I got to physically play and record it and then I could listen to it back and be like, “that was me.” I totally get why performers like doing it, and I just want to do that more now.
VANESSA: It’s all your creative input in one. I guess not totally with this, because Adam’s idea was the impetus, but your creative process is all you.
CASSIE: Yeah. And the immediacy of seeing the results of the creative process was awesome. Especially now where live concerts are being put on hold, it was just really healing to have that experience where I make something and then I can immediately listen to it.
VANESSA: That’s really exciting.
CASSIE: Yeah. I’m totally going to do it more now. I’m writing four different pieces with electronics that I’m recording myself, which maybe I took it too far, but we’ll see.
VANESSA: What project is this for?
CASSIE: I have a few commissions I’m working on right now. One of them is a solo for electric guitar and electronics. I don’t know why I didn’t do this sooner because it’s completely my vibe. I even got our old Telecaster out to figure things out and work on it myself. Adam is helping me with the Max patch because he’s way better at that stuff than I am, but I’ll be recording some audio for the Max patch to play back during the piece.
VANESSA: That’s awesome. That sounds really interesting. Well, I am someone who obviously loves anything electric guitar. So I’m here for that.
CASSIE: Yeah. And it’ll totally give you like those indie emo vibes.
VANESSA: What do you think of the remix album as a whole, versus the original?
CASSIE: I like it. I really love how every piece is truly its own perspective. And I do like the remix album specifically in response to an original album, because then you get to hear the physical manifestation of all of these other artists’ takes and the parts that they liked out of the album and they created something of their own. I think we need more artists’ response to art. That kind of thing is really, really interesting to me.
VANESSA: It’s kind of like a conversation through music.
CASSIE: And, you don’t have to read a book to figure out about it. You can just sample it however you like. There’s no rules.