Signal and sample processing have progressed by leaps and bounds since the dawn of computer-based music, and Carl Stone is one of the privileged few who have been there for many of the highlights of the last three decades. As a student of the legendary Mort Subotnick at Cal Arts in the early '70s, Stone learned at a young age about the different ways electronic music could be integrated into live performance. Since then, he has cleared his own path as an innovator in electroacoustic composition, working with everyone from dance choreographer Bill T. Jones to experimental turntablist and guitarist Otomo Yoshihide.
Al-Noor (InTone Music, 2007), which gets its title from the Arabic words for “the light,” is Stone's latest album and was created entirely using Cycling '74's Max/MSP graphical-programming-environment software. As a nearly 20-year veteran of the program, Stone knows a thing or two about visualizing and constructing signal processing chains, often using organic sources as a point of departure. “I've been working with samples of voices for a very long time,” he says on the phone from Tokyo. “There's something about the human voice especially that speaks to our soul. It communicates in mysterious and powerful ways, and I think that's part of my attraction to the voices I use.”
A woman singing a Vietnamese lullaby is the main character of the album's title track — an 11-minute opus of at least four different movements. The song opens with the dry solo vocal but then changes gradually — and dramatically — as Stone applies layer upon layer of MSP-based “objects” to the voice, bringing out an alien chorus that seems to spin in space, creating key changes and moods that move from elegiac to uplifting.
“I've just developed the process over the last year or so,” Stone reveals. “The technique is called FFT processing — fast Fourier transformation, which basically applies high-level mathematics to sound samples for the purpose of resynthesis, so you can take any sample and manipulate the spectra of the sound. You could also call it cross-synthesis because I'm using one set of samples to cross-modulate another set. It can give you some pretty interesting results.”
“Interesting” is putting it mildly. “L'Os à Moelle” opens with the sound of a garage band straight out of L.A.'s late-'60s psychedelic scene — all very familiar to fans of the Byrds or Arthur Lee's Love, until it morphs into something even more way-out, like acid rock on real acid. “I like to establish some expectation about what the music is about, and then destroy it,” Stone explains. “It's almost like a parasite invading the body of a piece of music and gradually eating it up from the inside — this riff just gets eaten and destroyed.”
“Flint's” is another epic piece, based on a live performance recorded in 2000, with a vocal track that cycles through two different layers of filter processing — one of them a phased vocoder that would make even Herbie Hancock (who used the vocoder heavily in the '70s and '80s) blush with envy. “The vocoder imbues the life of one sound with another,” Stone says, “and that kind of alchemy fascinates me. Even though I wasn't that into Herbie's particular approach, I've always been drawn to the concept of infusing one sound with the quality of another. And on another level, that's what this whole album is about.”
Home bases: Los Angeles and Tokyo
Primary computer: Apple MacBook Pro
Key software: Cycling '74 Max/MSP