by Leci Solis
If Christopher Tignor's music was the soundtrack to anything, it would be a film score to neurogenesis. His first stint as a musician began as a violinist for a home-made string trio comprised of his brothers, ensembled by a mother who cultivated and encouraged a passion for music in a young Tignor. His career began at 3 years old. Besides classical violin, the multi-instrumentalist played trumpet in middle school, drummed Metallica covers while still an adolescent, and learned everything about music there is to learn from the immediacy and experimentation of punk rock and experimental 90's rock such as inventors of post-rock, Slint and legendary Australian instrumental rock band, Dirty Three. His connection to classical music began during his early college years by working live sound at popular clubs in New York and at a music festival by Philip Glass. Tignor completed a creative writing Bachelor's at Bard, a Master's in computer science from NYU, and a PhD in music composition at Princeton. Under the guidance of father of minimalism La Monte Young, Tignor, while still in his twenties, absorbed some elements of the genre, such as drifting & sine waves, and became exposed to complementary visual light installations by Young's partner Marian Zazeela. He currently designs music software for pioneering composer of brain-wave music Richard Teitelbaum's fascinating live interactive musical artform. The multidisciplinarian holds a sponsorship from Antares and one from German tuning forks manufacturing company Wittner. As if his curriculum vitae is not impressive enough, Tignor also works as a software engineer for Google.
In his latest album, Tignor commandeers time, treating it as an ever-fluctuating and bendable factor at the musician's will while challenging our temporal perception through the sublime dynamics used in his compositions. No click or backing tracks or loops, Tignor relies on his internal metronome, a solemn decrease/increase in tempo as he sees fit, while luscious violin melodies sprout to life at the pulse of his virtuous rubato. The harmonies freely unravel to the pristine tinkling of metallic tuning forks, and sacred triangles, hi-hat, pastor bells, and tamborine to restore a secular faith. The composer artfully diverts resonance- the sound waves expand & decay causing ripples on the silence that inhabits the room. Silence is essential to Tignor's compositions. The sacred musical pauses evoke the rhythm and flow of aural rituals that instill in the listener a need to gaze inward-- to indulge in meditation. The album necessitates the presence of a live audience to spectate the genesis of Tignor's music- tactile electroacoustic instruments vitalized by music software. Not quite belonging to any genre, Tignor eludes the musical restraints set by any categorization and rightfully so; Along A Vanishing Plane is too complex, emotionally expressive, and proficient to be called ambient, yet too immediate, intimate, and interactive, like is pop, punk rock, or electronic, to be certified classical music. His lyrical violin melodies trigger the reverberating harmonies as tuning forks touch the strings, his foot rests on a bass drum pedal, and through some magical and cerebral software Tignor devised for himself in an attempt to achieve the impossible, his electroacoustic masterpieces come to life. Tignor emanates a luminous aura on stage and sits with an air of calmness as he distills conversation.
I N T E R V I E W:
Indiemuck: We wrote a couple of questions, for you.
Christopher Tignor: The answer is black magic for every question. I’m gonna have questions for you guys so get ready for that. Be on the defensive. Did you all come up around here?
What’s it like to grow up in this part of the world?
It’s really hot.
It’s all you know so it’s hard to reference, I understand.
Actually one of us is from the Mexican city on the border.
Yeah, right across. 10 minutes.
That must be interesting to walk between countries.
Laredo is very geographically isolated, so there’s like this subculture, it’s a mixture of a very diluted version of American culture and a very diluted version of Mexican culture.
You got your own culture. It’s where original things come from.
This is actually a sort of renaissance, because we didn’t have bands coming down as often.
This is kinda rare for us. To have someone of your caliber come down here.
Good to be here. How did it sound out there, be honest with me.
Sounded really good, I was entranced.
Yeah me too.
I didn’t play that well. My violin kept going out of tune. It doesn’t really like all that hot humid weather. It’s hard on the instrument. Anyway, that’s my excuse.
It was still great. So what do you call it?
What do you call what?
The genre, because you worked under Young, the father of minimalism, but you’ve also worked under the father of brain-wave music (pdf) …
Oh, you mean Teitelbaum? I feel like coming up with genre labels is something that’s your job, not mine. I’m the worst one that can answer. I’m biased, I’m in the experiment, like experimenting on yourself. I think that’s the kind of thing that’s more useful for people who want to describe the music to someone else to maybe have a more objective perspective. I’ve never really found any labels that, at least for my music, are useful, that say something about the music itself. They usually are a shortcut to not listening. Like if I were to say, ‘minimalist, post-rock’ most people turn off and now they know what it is in their mind. It’s like a replacement, like CliffsNotes or some shit. I always find those labels are mostly, especially for more experimental disciplines, really a cop out. They don’t really help you as much as they tend to say OK, now that I know what this is, I can take it seriously as opposed to just accepting the idea that maybe this is some new kind of thing that you’re gonna have to do the hard work as a listener and really figure out for yourself what this is. That’s a much harder task. It’s much easier if you have a frame of reference; I understand the motivation, but I think it just shortcuts the really important work, which is mostly done by the listener and not having someone tell you 'Well, this part of the poem means this' or 'this is a reference to this.' Just fucking listen to the music! I’ve never found genre labels musically interesting for what I do. So as a result, I don’t care. I’m only interested in the musical interesting part because I’m a narcissist and all I care about is the music. I have no interest in career or all that stuff I probably should care about but have never found interesting.
It’s funny that you were talking about literary criticism in poetry. You’ve also spoken about how there has to be nouns and really active verbs in order for the music to progress. What are your writing or other artistic influences?
Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian writer, these are things that happened when I was maybe your age, so a while ago, but very informative and influential like Christopher Isherwood. All sorts of different approaches to fiction, even like Ralph Ellison’s ‘Invisible Man.’ Things that are in some ways grounded in our world; they’re not completely abstract. They have a clear referential way to be in the world as yourself but then transcend and tweak your perspective and also keep it very very personal. I’ve felt like I’ve adopted that. My music is very narrative. It’s not really ambient music at all in the sense that it’s not what [Erik] Satie called ‘furniture music,’ which was an intentional goal, or as Brian Eno says, ambient music is something that is ‘as ignorable as not ignorable.’ I’m not really trying to do that anyway. I really am creating through lines of narrative, journeys or whatever. Writers really understand the right way to make art, in my opinion. All my work ethic and practice, the practical way, I learned from being trained as a writer: write every day, really consider your character (which would be like your noise or sound objects), really understand how plots need to feel, be inventive and surprising but at the exact same time be inevitable. All the ways you would build a successful piece of fiction that really feels fresh and creative but at the same time totally cohesive. Totally the same for music and more musicians should fucking pay attention to what writers do and have to say. They have all the answers. It’s also extremely personal, everyone’s process is inherently personal, but writer’s are very down to earth. Musicians are very fucking holier-than-thou, because there’s this whole performing arts pedestal bullshit. They should really take a page out of the book of a person who just spends all their nights at the typewriter, and isn’t really fancy, with a fancy haircut, and all the trappings of musicianship that can distract from the meaningful work of composition. Whether you’re composing a piece of fiction or a piece of music, how can you put these ailments together where it’s compelling and feels fresh, and novel but also familiar. It’s all the same things that you would do in your writing.
Are you ever going to write a novel?
I don’t know, they say everyone has one in them. I constantly think about just going back and writing fiction, but every time I have any free time, I have another piece of music to write, and a deadline for something. I’m just out of time.
So this one’s about how you reconcile technology with something so sensitive, like a string instrument. Arvo Pärt once said 'the most sensitive instrument is the human soul' but sometimes people think about technology or electronic music as soulless or bodiless like you’ve mentioned before. How do you reconcile that? Is there a ratio between how much input a machine has and how much of a human brain’s input goes into the music?
I guess I would have two responses to that. I mean, you’re talking to someone who’s a scientist. I’m trained as a computer scientist and I do data science. I really believe, full on confession, that science is really just an extension of some of the things that make us innately human beings. We’re not good as running as fast as other animals, we can’t fly, we’d just be killed in ten seconds if we didn’t have our ability to solve problems, look at the world, take them apart, figure them out, which essentially became the scientific method. Our ability to reason includes all the creative things we’ve done- our ability to fucking move from cave painting to everything else, to put together fiction, and to understand abstraction. That’s what is really the essence of what makes humans human and rad and amazing. Science is just a natural expression of that thing that we do so uniquely well. In no way is it not a creative act, ask any scientist. They will tell you it’s constantly about looking for inspiration, it’s constantly about throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks, and everything you would do during the painting studio. The methods are different and how you evaluate what works is certainly fundamentally different but the process of being creative and trying things and seeing what works is very much comparable. I often think about that when I’m working on a piece of composition. I think there’s a lot of very clear, more literal than an analogy, projections of how we make science and how we make art. I think it’s just a cultural rift that people who aren’t necessarily doing both can’t really see that well.
The other thing- in terms of electronic music being soulless- that’s not really about the technology, that’s not about the science. That’s about how it’s being used/abused. Most people use technology as a clutch to eliminate risk in their music, especially in live performance. They wanna use technology to make it easier to carry something up two flights of steps to this venue, so they do it on a laptop. That’s not a musical act, that’s a logistical risk. Or on stage, they wanna have something pre-recorded as opposed to it being live, something that makes essentially the logistics easier. There’s nothing musically interesting about that, in any way, shape or form. Yes, by definition that’s sort of soulless to the extent that it’s completely amusical, and that’s most of what people fucking use this shit for. That’s boring and stupid and that’s just the fault of people who… I’m not mad at anyone for doing whatever, I understand. Listen, my back hurts as much as anybody else...I get it, but that’s not my interest in technology, and it doesn’t have to be anyone’s interest in technology. My interest in technology is about taking the things we do as expressive humans, in my case playing the violin or other instruments, and just seeing how you can take a different look at it in a live process the audience can be part of, as opposed to doing it in the studio and bringing it on stage. I really think that the process of live performing is so inherently music, not painting, for example. Doing things live is one of the funnest things about music in general. Bringing the audience into the process by doing things live is very very palpable without having to know anything or be a specialist. People get it and they feel it, even if they don’t exactly know what's happening. So the possibility of that is, you know technology is an extension, it’s a way to take this relatively abstract idea of recontextualizing something and making it a real thing you can hear, making it palpable. It’s what computer scientists do. That seems extraordinarily creative and completely soulful in every way, shape, or form. If your job is to pre-record something and do space bar rock, then that’s not a musical act. That’s a logistical act. It’s worth not confusing the two when we talk about the success or lack of success in electronic music.
As a musician, you place a lot of emphasis on personal interpretation, reflection, and the phenological aspects of music. Have you ever delved in music cognition?
A little bit. I spent some time in a program where I was researching how popular music works and how we perceive the different structural components of contemporary western popular music. To some extent I have, but I say more of a dilettante. I’ve never really done any hardcore science on it. I’ve read other people’s science and used their research. The elements of that research I’ve found most useful to my practice are about embodiment and about how we listen to music memetically, which is a fancy word for saying when you hear something, you’re trying to recreate it in your mind, the act of doing it. If you’re seeing someone playing drums, or even just hearing it without seeing it, there’s something going on in your mind where you’re attempting to imagine making that sound. That helps you connect physically, imaginatively, but somatically as well with music. That act of a metacreation is obviously much more challenging in an electronic music context where so much sound is bodiless and it’s hard to make that connection. So, it really highlights the issue actually, about how do you interpret the sound, how do you internalize it and make a physical connection to it in a way which you can easily do with me playing violin, or kicking a drum. There’s an interesting dialogue that happens in your brain between you and the performer when electronic components are going on, and you’re trying to reconcile how to make them physical and personal and listen to them in a way which I think is a different form of listening practice or at least like a tweaked one than if someone was up there playing the guitar. You could sort of understand and even see them moving their fingers and you can get with how the sound hitting you is made, and it helps connect you with the performer. All that memetic stuff you recreate, all that somatic body stuff...I wanna harness all that. That’s why everything I do begins with a bodily gesture. For me, that’s really important because I feel like that really helps connect people to the process. Now, what happens after that can be pretty abstract and people are still cool with it, but the fact that it’s initiated by that, it’s p-l-a-y-e-d. It’s called play, we want to be playing, you know? That’s sort of the end of phenological research that I’ve found most useful for my own work on stage. It’s interesting shit. There’s a lot of interesting research.
Your music always creates this aural illusion that it’s ever-expanding and continuous, but you also have said you want to free the music of time. That’s kind of contradictory. How do you free it?
I don’t know if I want to free the music of time. What I want to do is take control of time and not be locked into some artificial grid. Our sense of time in this conversation will be, if I’m like this (moves closer) time is slowing down. You’re really paying close attention, but if we’re more ambient and drifting and I’m looking at Peaky Blinders then your sense of time has changed. So, I want to be able to control that during the pace of the music like Chopin did and everyone else who was playing/expressing something to you. That’s fundamentally different than recording something, then walking in, and it’s completely fixed. I don’t have the opportunity to respond in the moment and then if electronic musicians are on a grid, that’s really a stricter definition. What you may be referring to- my effort is to try to use time in the same way that people have been doing this for years. Whether it’s rubato and slowing down at the end of the piano phrase, these are very old ideas in music which I think have been disregarded because things again can be made much simpler and easier if you take away control over time- your life’s a lot easier. The kick drum is always going to happen in three seconds from now in a loop for as long as the song goes. That leaves you to think about other things, but you’ve given away one thing to get another and I’m not comfortable giving that thing away, because I think it’s really expressive to tug and pull on the temporal aspect of music. I think that’s what makes a really fun expressive thing in the same way that a melody goes up and down like time- like an expressive gesture. Yeah, you’ve just given away your control over it, so that maybe you can focus on other things. I want control back. Now I have to do all these weird things to trigger things, jump through all these hoops and learn how to play an instrument, which takes a lot of practice...to learn how to kick the drum at the same time as playing, use the fucking tuning fork. It’s an instrument that takes a long time to get good at, which for me, that’s how I know I’m on to the right thing. If I have to practice a lot I know I’m doing the right thing because I’m a player who likes to practice. That’s sort of my measuring stick, if it was out of the box, good, right away, without any practice, I’d be pretty skeptical. It has to feel like an instrument so that people can connect to it, because people exist in a temporally-flexing life. Our perception of time is a dynamic thing that we’ve focused and relaxed based on our experiences in the moment, and wouldn’t you want to have control of that if you were trying to design a social experience, a.k.a a music performance? It just seems like a natural thing.
How do you use your environment as an instrument itself? You said you wanted to hijack rock venues into making them sound like cathedrals.
I spent most of my life going into popular music halls that are designed basically for rock or electronic popular music, and then playing something that’s very much not that. It’s always been a pretty interesting space, because of course, people walk in with listening expectations. We listen to things always through the lens of our expectations, and those come from growing up listening to mostly western popular music for almost everybody, and through where you go...they come from all sort of places; some of them are short term and some of them are deeply rooted in how we came up. If you go into one of these places and then you step up there with a violin and do something similar to what I did, you do have the advantage of novelty, of flipping it and then you can really reclaim the space. I can walk into most of these venues and in my ear I can already hear (heavy bass noises). Then when the music turns on, just fills in whatever you sort of expect. But before it happens I can already consciously pretty much anticipate music, and then if something like this happens, back to the question of time, it’s almost like this heightened form of attention you get when you’re just confronted with a very unexpected occurrence. You can really wake people up. It’s like super realistic painting, you just see it and you look away. If something feels like you can’t put it in a box and recognize it, might not have a good genre label for it, and if you’re of the ilk that wants to bring yourself to it, then it’s an exciting time to actually pay fucking attention and bring yourself to it. You need to tweak the expectations to do that. At the same time, there’s a risk. You can try to put square pegs in a round hole and not have it fit, so it’s not always a win. Greater risk: greater reward. I’ve always found that much more interesting than trying to just play it and act safe like classical concert halls. I’ve done that too but it’s more interesting to go where people are ready to be engaged. Lots of advantages to popular music, people really feel like it’s theirs. It’s not just ‘I saw a performance’ and they left. They really feel like they want to take ownership of it, they wanna buy it and go home with the momento. It’s a fucking awesome way to be part of real culture.