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5 Minutes on The Verge: Peter Kirn of Create Digital Music

5 Minutes on The Verge: Peter Kirn of Create Digital Music


Five minutes with Peter Kirn: composer / musician, media artist, educator, technology writer, and the creator and editor of Create Digital Music.

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Peter Kirn is a composer / musician, media artist, educator, technology writer, and the creator and editor of one of our favorite websites, Create Digital Music. When not busy making music (and writing about it for various publications), he's somehow found time to author Real World Digital Audio from Peachpit Press and edit our current favorite airport read, Keyboard Presents: the Evolution of Electronic Dance Music (Backbeat). We'd like to thank him from taking time from his current move to Berlin to answer a few questions.

What’s most exciting to you about music technology at the moment?

What's driving music technology now goes beyond any one technological innovation. It's the sheer force of everyone amplifying everybody else's knowledge and skills. The basic building blocks of electronic music production you could easily find some thirty or forty years ago. What's different now is, we have this global conversation that runs 24/7 about how to put those pieces together, sometimes even with shared source code and schematics and documentation.

Where I think we'll see that applied next is in this generation of music hardware, in embedded computing. From the cheap chip inside an Arduino to what powers a smartphone, these platforms are now accessible to music inventors. The embedded capabilities mean that you can now have a box that you can take onstage, kick around, that you can actually stomp on. (You probably wouldn't want to do that with an iPad.) But it can now have the sonic powers of a computer, and you can update it and change it; you aren't stuck with hardware that will only ever do one thing. It can actually get better with time.

Favorite album of all time? Favorite album of the last year?

Yikes, really? That's tough.

When was a kid I used to make my parents constantly spin a Beethoven Symphony box set on vinyl. That amounts to at least one all-time favorite. Classical music gives you some indication of what you can do with time and length: it has works that amount to singles, to EPs, to LPs, before we had the physical formats determining time. It ought to suggest another reason the album isn't dead.

It's just damned hard choosing favorites. So let's stick to the last 12 months. For me, I've been most excited by Jacaszek, a Polish electroacoustic musician who just signed to Ghostly International and put out a stunning record called Glimmer. For me, it really represents this inflection point between old and new, between classical tradition and electronic technique, and so it hits my own biased sweet spot. And it's immensely warm and evocative, a reverie.

Have you ever edited a Wikipedia entry? Have you ever edited your own Wikipedia entry?

You know, I'm a Wikipedia addict like everyone else, but I've never touched an entry. I'm probably too busy worrying about my own bylines. And I don't think I have a Wikpedia entry.

What was your first memory of the internet?

I was a BBSer as a kid, so I encountered the internet by hearing about it on services like CompuServe and dial-up BBSes. I knew it as some archaic place. I remember, a friend sent me an FAQ on this thing called the "World Wide Web" that was in development, just a document at that point, and it was unbelievable abstract and academic and had a really dorky name. It said something about hypertext and making everything into one document, which didn't make sense to me — and even in retrospect, was a tiny clue to what was to come. Later, I went to Yahoo when they had indexed something like 100 sites. I probably spent a few minutes before I got bored and conclude there wasn't anything there yet. We know how this story ends, of course. But I was already convinced by instant communication and online media as a publishing medium, even if I didn't make the connection to the Web initially.

Then again, that wasn't what made me a blogger. I used to play with my grandfather's typewriter for fun, and I cut up copies of Smithsonian Magazine to re-edit it. If only someone had seen the warning signs. It's like spotting a serial killer early. You could try to keep them away from this destructive lifestyle.

What’s your primary music listening setup (vinyl / streaming / mp3 and headphones / speakers)?

Well, we'll see if I can make room for vinyl in the new flat in Berlin. In the meantime, it's just big catalogs of digital files - lossless when I can spare it, 320kbps when I can't. I like manually managing stuff, so lately I've fiddled with alternative music player software, like Clementine. I still like downloading whole albums. I even like paying for them, especially if I can pay an artist directly. So I do some discovery from my favorite sites with the Chrome extension, and good old-fashioned radio streams, and then hunt for downloads. I'll listen on anything, but studio headphones always wind up being a great buy. I've got Audio-Technicas now, ATH-M50s, but there are great offerings from Sony, Sennheiser, AKG, and company. On speakers, a lot of the time you wind up listening to studio monitors.

What's your current live performance setup?

That changes, but I've been rotating in an Android tablet or iPad, various drum machine controllers, Korg nano controllers and other fader boxes, and a Rock Band keyboard (really, the one from the game - it fits in a suitcase and has MIDI). I work with Ableton Live, or sometimes simple live software rigs I build in Pure Data (Pd, open source graphical programming software). If I'm doing visuals, it'll be Modul8 or Resolume or custom Processing code. And I love playing with our open source synth hardware, the MeeBlip. Sometimes I add a mic into all of this. Now I just want to build some new controllers and step sequencers. But whatever I do, I try to go out with something simple that's fun and challenging to play, so I feel like I can actually have things go disastrously wrong, or have a really good time. I'll let you know if I solve it; it's the biggest challenge facing computer musicians.

What do you really think of Front 242?

I love Front 242! Editing this book on Electronic Dance Music, I wound up wanting to turn everything they said into a drop quote. "Primitive white rhythms," European rhythms? Electronic Body Music? I don't know what they're saying half the time, and it's brilliant.They're the interview equivalent of Belgian beer. And most importantly, musically, I think they're starting to sound fresh and out there all over again.

I'd like to see more of that attitude come back to electronic dance music. Now, people get upset if someone hints at the idea that vinyl might not be the only way to DJ. Scare people a little. When people first brought electronic instruments to the Electric Kool-Aid Acid Tests, some folks on LSD apparently just lost it and assumed the aliens had landed. (I wasn't, uh, born yet, but you can read about the scene in Analog Days, a history of Moog by Trevor Pinch and Frank Trocco.) Yes, we live in a society with more tech. But I'll bet you can still freak people out. At least, you can risk failing in everything you do. You can make something that can break.

Photo by Michael Beon (Kraus Phade Photography)

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