How musicians use computers in their art varies tremendously from artist to artist. Some, like the Mills College crowd, get to know their machines' innermost workings, programming and tweaking them right down to the source code level. Others, like San Francisco-based composer Carl Stone, see the computer more as a powerful tool than an end-all and be-all instrument.
"I know other people have been really getting down and hacking machines since the sixties and seventies, but I'm not that kind of person," says Stone, 42, who has used MacIntosh computers primarily to deconstruct and manipulate samples and sounds since 1986. "I use a computer, and I don't think about it that much. Frankly, it's just a means to an end for me."
Relaxing in the living room of his Bernal Heights home -- tastefully appointed with posters and exotica from around the globe, in particular Japan, where he once lived and often performs -- Stone explains how a potentially devastating incident prodded him into the world of computers. Just before Christmas of 1985, the Los Angeles native returned to his Hollywood Hills home to find it had been visited by anti-Santas, namely burglars. "It was just as massive takedown of my house," Stone recalls. "The place was empty." A crushing blow, to be sure, but the subsequent insurance check also opened a window of opportunity. "I was using this digital delay which was pretty expensive; it was like a $6,000 delay at the time. I said to myself, 'maybe it's time to move on.' And for $6,000 you could get a Mac, a sampler and a synthesizer, and just go." And go he did: From then on, Stone has been continously developing a body of work that he performs using his computer, both solo and interactively with other musicians.
As Stone describes it, his music is a sort of "sonology," a study of the inner workings of sounds. Freely sampling everything from classical and Motown to the traditional music of various world cultures, movie soundtracks, ambient noise and beyond, he stretches, compresses, scrambles and layers his sources, presenting them in a new and provocative way. The resultant pieces run the gamut from dense, dadaist sound collage to lulling, euphonious tapestries -- sometimes within the span of a single piece. Far from sterile, digital blippage, Stone's works can be organic, melodic, whimsical, even funky. They can also be jarringly disorienting.
"Basically, I work in the time domain," says Stone, who has been composing electro-acoustic music since 1972. "I kind of shatter sound like glass. Then I pick up the pieces and reassemble them in different ways, in sort of a mosaic. I usually don't distort the sound, or change its basic sonic characteristic except in time." He adds that this fascination with time in large part drew him to computers. "I was interested in a more exact control of time, which I didn't have when I was just twiddling knobs on my digital delay. The kinds of things that you can do with computers are the things that I was dreaming about 20 years ago."
Stone further itemizes the advantages computers provide the musical artist. You can store parameters exactly the way you want them. You can create environments for yourself, tailor them exactly to your needs, save them and recall them. Heck, you can even balance your checkbook on a computer. At which point I had to ask: Uh, you do back up your stuff, right?
"Well, I learned the importance of that through bitter experience," says a chagrinned Stone. "It was a big concert in New York. I had done my set-up and we were soundchecking, when someone in the light booth cut the power to the stage by mistake, and of course it crashed the system and corrupted the file. I didn't have a back-up, and basically was fucked. That's the dark side of performing with any kind of technology, especially computers."
Stone notes that even when everything is running smoothly, there's always a chance the complicated programs he constructs for his pieces will do something wholly unexpected, that one wrong keystroke can trigger a cascade of unintended events. Not that he has a big problem with that. "I might lose control for a moment, but that's one of the interesting aspects for me," says Stone. "There's a kind of creative tension about the whole thing, plus there are times when the computer seizes control that actually might be more interesting than what I would do."
Carl Stone will premiere a collaborative work with pipa player Min Xiao-Fen at 8 p.m. Fri., Nov. 10, at Old First Church, 1751 Sacramento Street, S.F. $9; call 474-1608 for more information.