What is music? In his work as an experimental musician, Scott Leigh Nielsen explores the differences in frequency and resonance. “We’re humans, we’re not computers. A human drummer misses beats; his meter wavers over time, and these are the kinds of things that I strive to bring back to electronic music,” he says in the short film about this artist and his work that first aired on Art Pulse TV. See the film, which is as visually experimental as Nielsen’s music, and then read all about what this artist has been up to lately in his Q&A with Barbarella Fokos.
Executive Producer, Barbarella Fokos; Director, David Fokos; Segment Producer, Giovanni Digiacomo; Directory of Photography, David Mollering; Editor, PJ Bagley
BF: Your segment is among my favorite from the show, primarily because it really made me think about the meaning of music. As you’ve continued your quest to understand music, what revelations have you had?
SN: I don’t think I have had any real revelations about music since then. I still have no idea what it is. I know sounds are usually involved and sometimes these sounds repeat in various patterns. It’s kind of like the old Justice Potter Stewart characterization for pornography in that I have no idea how to define what music is, but I can tell if something is or isn’t music when I hear it or experience it. I’ve been on a more internal or introspective kick lately where I have been more interested in my personal relationship with music. It’s quite a coincidence that I am writing out my responses to these questions at a point in time where I am in a sort of transition away from music and sound and into new pursuits. So I am dealing with some negative feelings about music, especially my own connection to music in general and to my own work as a musician and sound artist. I will say that I recently saw a performance of a piece by Anthony Vine that was incredibly inspiring for me. At a time when I thought I hated music, this performance engaged on many levels. It was really captivating and beautiful.
BF: It was from you that I learned about binaural beats. In the segment, you mention how these can affect brain waves. In what ways are you trying to affect those who are listening to your music?
SN: I think I am always trying to engage my audience on the deepest level possible. So focusing on modulating tones to try to bring about shifts in their perspective is always of interest. Whenever I do a solo drone performance I use undulating low frequency sounds to kind of simulate or mimic the binaural beat effect on people. I did something similar for the installations in my solo show in November of 2016 at the San Diego Art Institute’s Project Space at Horton Plaza. For this show I had a room with a chair and a mirror and audio content over headphones. Guests were asked to sit in the chair and listen to the audio content while focusing their vision on the mirror hanging on the wall in front of them. Now, the mirror was positioned high enough so that the only reflection the guest would see was that of the black wall behind them, so something similar to a window looking out on a dark void. The audio content was designed to be meditative and soothing with underlying binaural beats that were design to induce deep meditative states. I had hoped to help people have visions or other spiritual experiences. I’m not sure if it worked, but I will get another shot at it. This piece will be recreated soon for another event. So, yes, my work is usually bent on spiritual and metaphysical affections of some sort.
BF: In which ways has your music changed since we filmed you (in the past 3 years)?
SN: Has it only been 3 years? It seems longer for some reason. Or maybe because these last 3 years have been filled with all kinds of different musical experiences.
First there’s my music as it relates to the Harmonics Guitar—my handmade, seven-foot, Glenn Branca inspired, center-bridge, guitar-like instrument. Over the past few years I have been able to learn more about my Harmonics Guitar (HG) by being put into collaborative performance situations with it. I originally built the HG for the 2013 San Diego Experimental Guitar Show and used it in a solo piece for four guitars. Since then I performed quite often in a duo with Michael Zimmerman and have live album of the music we made that will hopefully be released someday if I can find a label to put it out. This duo was very important because it challenged me to develop a level of musicianship with the HG that would be compatible with accompanying traditional instruments. In this case, Michael Zimmerman played electric piano and soon after I was able to perform at Bread & Salt for UCSD Music’s Springfest in a duo with cellist Judith Hamann. I also have an album of solo Harmonics Guitar pieces that will hopefully be released sometime soon.
Scott performing with Michael Zimmerman:
Then there’s Serious Runners, a free from improv trio consisting of Lou Damian (alto sax), Nathan Hubbard (drums), and Scott Nielsen (tenor sax). Our first cassette release came out in November 2016. We originally formed for a one-time performance at Stay Strange’s “Slow Death” noise festival as a sort of Free Jazz/Grind-core amalgam. With our focus on short bursts of improvisational energy and structurally improvised beginnings and endings, we developed a sort of free-form instant songwriting approach to our music. Where none of us have any idea where we’ll go when we start, but we are all intuitive, almost psychically linked improvisers that can feed off each other in spontaneous creation. It’s really fun stuff. I love playing with these guys.
Then there is Die Mißbildungen Des Menschen (DMDM). In early 2014, when new analog synthesizers were coming out, I was talking to Michael Zimmerman and Josh Quon about the new possibilities with cheap new analog synths. We all kind of came to the excited realization together that it would now be possible to make music like Cluster, Harmonia, Kraftwerk, and other 1970s era german krautrock bands. So we decided we would each get a new synth and start a San Diego krautrock inspired band of our own, and DMDM was born. We soon realized that we weren’t very attractive to look at so we had the idea that incorporating a live visual artist would be neat, so I asked Xavier Vasquez if he’d like to give it a shot. At that point he had never actually performed live visuals like this but he had a huge interest in doing so. We all got together and it just worked, so we became the audio/visual experience we are today. Since then Nick Lesley joined the ranks and we’ve continue to develop as visual artists and sound synthesists. We recently recorded with Rafter Roberts at Singing Serpent and our first cassette [was recently released] on Dream Recordings.
BF: What are some of the more unusual methods you’ve discovered for creating sound?
SN: Hmmm…unusual. That’s a tough one, since most of the things I do derive from the works of others. There is nothing really unusual in that sense. I mostly just use synthesizers, guitars, contact mics on objects, or pieces of metal as sound sources and then process the sounds they make through various things. I tend to stay away from computers and delay and loop based fx in my work.
BF: What is your favorite instrument and why?
SN: The crystal Baschet sound sculpture in the attic of the design annex at the Yale School of Drama. There is nothing like it in the world. It sounds like a strange synthesizer, but it’s an acoustic instrument. It consists of an array of crystal rods attached to a metal skeleton. Also attached to the metal skeleton are giant stainless steel sheet metal ears that resonate and amplify the vibrations made by the crystal rods. There are small troughs of water to dip your hands and then you play the crystal rods by stroking the rods with wet hands. Did I just type that? It sounds so dirty. 😉 Anyway, it’s a really amazing experience playing and hearing one of these things live.
BF: What are the most essential instruments to your compositions these days, and why?
SN: My 1967 Mustang electric guitar, Harmonics Guitar, the Weird Sound Generator by Music From Outer Space (RIP Ray Wilson), my homemade 4 oscillatory NAND Noise synth, my electronic Kraakdoos variation, the GetLoFi Animal Doomsday Head, the kARP Odyssey, the Korg MS-20 desktop, and the Korg Volca Bass. That’s all I need. Oh, and this remote control, and this paddle ball game. That’s it. Oh, and this thermos, and that’s all! I swear.
BF: You’ve had some performances at various galleries this past year. Which one stands out and why?
SN: Low Gallery was really great. Our scene took a hit when we lost Low. It was a great venue that allowed experimental shows to happen quite frequently. Some of my favorite performances of recent years were there. Now there’s an immense lack of venues for experimental music in San Diego. Other than that, the San Diego Art Institute (SDAI) has been a really supportive and welcoming venue. The SDAI Project Space at Horton Plaza is a really great venue, too. The GearHeads series they hold there showcases lots of great artists in a sort of show-and-tell event about their processes and the gear they use. I even got to do one about the Harmonics Guitar. I also got to be the resident artist for the month of November 2016 at the Project Space. I created a couple of sound installations and even did an evening of performances in them. The one bummer about the project space is it seems to be very difficult to get people to go there. Horton Plaza is a weird place for an art space, but I spent a lot of time there and came to realize that it has all kinds of merits. So please, people! Go to the project space! They always have $6 parking passes that allow you to park all night if you want. So there’s really no reason not to go. There. That’s my plug.
See Scott’s performance at Low Gallery:
BF: What are some of the most memorable reactions you’ve had to your music?
SN: My all time favorite reaction was from a guy named Buddy Blue back in about 1992. My recently reformed power trio VISHNU was playing a set at the old hole in the wall, Joe n’ Andy’s, and Buddy was in the audience. I remember looking out at the crowd during our set and seeing Buddy with this sour look on his face. After we finished playing he walked up to me, still with sour look and mouth all agape. I looked at him and smiled and said, “Hi Buddy.” He just stared at me like that for a second and then said, “YOU FUCKING SUCK!” Then he turned and walked away. I don’t think he liked us very much. 😉
BF: I notice you have visual elements (lighting, video) to your performances. When did you begin incorporating video? How integral has video become to your compositions?
SN: Visuals always help experimental music performances to be more engaging or accessible to the audience. Nobody wants to sit and look at some old unattractive person turning knobs on some weird instruments. Visual elements help give the audience something to focus on that will allow them to let go and experience the music on another level. It’s really added to the accessibility and popularity of experimental music shows and Xavier Vasquez has really grown as an artist in terms of his live visual work. He started with DMDM and has gone on to do visuals with countless bands. He’s really a talented and valuable asset to our scene.
BF: What are you working on now?
SN: I’m currently working on solo piece for a show later this month at SDAI as well as prepping for the DMDM cassette release show. Other than that I am applying to graduate schools again. I’m planning on entering a credential and masters program in special education in the fall. So I am mostly busy with that these days.
BF: What is it about music today that most excites you?
SN: Hmmmm. It’s hard for me to get excited about music these days. I think the prevalence of new budget analog synthesizers is pretty exciting and has led to my not having to build all of my gear from scratch, but I do miss electronic instrument building now that I don’t do it as much. But I think the resurgence of new analog instruments has led to a lot of new creative works by lots of great people. Korg and Arturia have been ruling in recent years.
BF: At this moment, how would you define music?
SN: At this moment, music is the chattering of conversations and the sound of HVAC being filtered through my foam earplugs and mixed with my own internal sounds of respiration and tinnitus. Also, I was in the bathroom at SDSU the other day. As I was peeing I noticed the most beautiful and lush drone sounds coming from the HVAC ducts above me. I was captivated by it. I think I’ll go back and record sometime soon. So I guess music is sometimes an accidental byproduct of nature and civilized society.