You’ve been interested in musical systems ever since you modified your grandfather’s player-pianos while at junior school. What with the double tape-recorder loops of Discreet Music and music-and-visuals software like Bloom, has your music making always related to a sense of play?
I think it does, to some extent, relate to my fascination to what I call economical systems. I’ve always been impressed by art that didn’t use much to produce quite a lot. Mondrian, for instance, was the first painter that I really loved. I was very young when I first saw Mondrian’s pictures – I wasn’t even a teenager then – and I remember thinking, “How can something so simple be so powerful to me?” That was the great magic of art: something that was in every physical sense obvious – you could see exactly what it was, there were no tricks – but somehow it worked: it made me feel something. So I was always inclined in that direction rather than the opposite direction, which might be to throw in everything and the kitchen sink. Then it’s not surprising that you are impressed by the result. I like it when there isn’t much there. I guess that’s why a lot of the music I like is like that: gospel music where you have the same three chords and maybe one minor chord; where there’s nothing in the music in a musicological sense.
It’s interesting how music that was made with little emotional input, like your Music For Airports, can generate an effect that is moving emotionally. I read that you were misting up when you saw bang On A Can All-Stars play it live in 1998.
Yeah, that was the most interesting thing about that Bang On A Can experiment for me. You had a piece that was essentially made by machines – tape loops, that sort of thing. And s soon as humans try and reproduce it, they can’t help but be human. When they are not trying to be passionately human but they are trying to restrain themselves, whatever comes through, it’s the irrepressible part of being a human.
So they’re all trying to act like machines, but they don’t sound like machines at all, they sound like people and it’s quite touching when that appears.
Do you still use your Oblique Strategies cards in the studio?
I do occasionally. In fact we use them for games sometimes. Like with Coldplay [on Viva La Vida], I started a sort of rule that we would improvise every day for a little while, just to sort of push the envelope so that we could explore different kinds of sonic worlds and different ways of playing. We could each take one card without telling anyone else what it was and that would be your rule for that improvisation. It produces really nice results sometimes, because it’s very trying to guess what rule other people are working under.
Are there any times when it produced something utterly bizarre?
Very often (laughs). Which is what you want, of course, because partly what they exist for is to break you out of the habit patterns and push you into a different groove, making you do something you wouldn’t have done otherwise.
You can design a piece of music and say, “OK, now we’re going to do a song. It’s going to have three sections, and in the middle section there’s only going to be drums and voice, but the voice can only do one note. In the third section, everyone can play, but nobody must play on a beat that anyone else is playing.”
Of course, the chances of you getting a great piece of music are quite remote. But the chances of you getting a seed for something are quite strong. You hear a voice singing a single note over a drumbeat and you think… “Ooh, it’s not quite the right drumbeat or quite the right note, but there’s something good about it.”
Those ideas can get reincorporated later on. They become part of your vocabulary.
See the full interview here.