Interviews » Interview with David Lee Myers, 2004

This interview was originally published as the notes to the ReR CD release of Pond.

David Lee Myers: We corresponded off and on for a number of years through letters, but when you got yourself a computer, that escalated our communication a lot. I remember that after a while you decided to try some music programs on the computer, but you felt confounded by it all at the time. I like to think that it was my encouragement that kept you at it until it slowly seemed to become viable for you.

Tod Dockstader: “Slowly” is the word alright. The only thing about it that was familiar to me was: I was looking at waveforms again for the first time in about fifty years, back when I edited optical film sound. And without your belief I could do it, with a mouse, it wouldn’t have happened.

David Lee Myers: Somewhere along the way we discovered that we both shared a fascination with frog sounds, and I had the brainy idea that we might actually make some music together along those lines. Most of my work has been 100% electronic, but I’ve always itched to work with some “real world” sounds, and this seemed to me ideal. The frog and toad noises are quite “abstract” and expressive, and really lend themselves to manipulation, I think…

Tod Dockstader: They are, and they did - more and more as we came to understand their songs. I was used to real-world sounds as a material for music, but, other than a few cats, I don’t remember using any living sources. Living next to a small swamp, as I did, I heard them, and thought about it - but….

David Lee Myers: I recorded a lot of the frogs and toads with a portable recorder, sneaking around in bushes and lakes at night. I believe you had an experience with such activity which actually got you in trouble with the law… ?

Tod Dockstader: Not deep trouble. I’d go out at night with a Nagra I had use of, and hunker down in bushes in people’s yards, trying for tiny bug songs - but someone saw me hiding there and called the cops. I explained what I was doing to them and showed lots of ID and they told me to quit doing it and let me go.

David Lee Myers: Also on Pond are a few insect-type sounds which I think you told me were actually derived from synthesizers?

Tod Dockstader: They weren’t from a synth. I’d re-wired a couple of cheap test-tone generators so that they produced a variety of variable bird-calls, peeper-peeps, and unidentified insect susurrations. This was for a piece I was thinking of doing, involving insects and the end of the world, but somehow never got around to.

David Lee Myers: Our cover art is based on a photograph you took long ago. It has a kind of murky, mysterious darkness about it. You can imagine these strange creatures hiding in this thicket and having the most secret and bizarre conversations…

Tod Dockstader: Well, they’re not secret anymore. And the photograph was of one, gnarled tree, taken at sundown. I made two exposures, flipped one over the other, as slides, and saw a kind of face emerge. And, after we’d gotten a ways into “Pond,” I remembered it - it seemed to go with the music.

David Lee Myers: Part of what was fun for me was taking these real-life sounds that living animals make, and through various manipulations, winding up with tones that might have emerged from an electronic device. Some of what we hear is almost a straight nature recording, but in the next moment it becomes a symphony of oscillators…

Tod Dockstader: Yeah, that was unexpected - life imitating art.

David Lee Myers: On your classic recordings from the 1960s, many of your sounds were derived from natural sounds like water drops, squeaking balloons, cats, trashcans, etc. Did you find that working on a computer with “real” sounds was vastly different? I’m sure it was faster than with tape, if nothing else…

Tod Dockstader: Yes, different, and much, much faster… that is, faster after I re-learned how to do it all. Once I did - and I’m still learning - I realised that many of the old principles - slowing, speeding, pitch-change, reversal, were the same - but with much more control and much better sound. And no tape hiss. And, in a way, because it was faster and I could keep my belief in what I was doing going, more fun. It’s hard to believe - though I know it to be true - that such transcendant clarity of sound was achieved from such slimey and reluctant and monaural sources.

David Lee Myers: Well, we certainly did a lot of maximizing and scrubbing of the source sounds, but also I think that probably we got a lot of clarity in the end because our transposing and transforming stages were pretty hi-fi. I know you like to work in 32 bits, for instance.

Tod Dockstader: I do that because the program I have told me to. But I do find that those extra bits help in clarifying complex, dense, sounds - which these became, with all the transformations. …I noticed that “Crepitata” is the only cut with untreated ambience in it. And there isn’t much of that. I think everything else was, like, transformed. I know I was. Even, as I recall, the “bell” melody in “Springers” was generated in response to amphibian sonorities. And I know the “water drops” in “Glottalk” were dopplered frogs, ‘cause I dopped them. I went back into the files and enjoyed some of the names: “Ghostly HooHoo, Held” - as opposed to “Let Go”? - and “Inept Frog Fiddles”, “Squirrly Ripple Down”, “Celtic Frog Lullaby”, and the ever-popular “God Knows, With Bells.” There were 75 files of just “Chuckles,” for godsake - and I don’t think any of them got into the Pond,

David Lee Myers: You and I think a lot alike, but our working methods are sure different. When I was at your house I was impressed by your methodical notes about mixes and timings, etc. Not to mention the titling of every single trial and soundfile. I’m way messier - I throw stuff in a pile, grab some later while doing a composition and just see what fits. When the mix is done, I have little idea what the sources were. Not very scientific, Im afraid. But hell, whatever works…

Tod Dockstader: I agree on “Whatever works.” As to the rest: I am anal-retentive - with everything, and always have been. And, since I’m always doing things over and over, I have to be able to find the parts. Else, chaos reigns, and I’m not fond of that. …Did you ever mention to (Pond publisher) Chris Cutler that you’d done surround mixes?

David Lee Myers: Yes, I did. I was really enthused about doing Pond as a surround Audio-DVD release, but the more I worked on that, the more apparent what a total pain it was going to be, especially because we don’t have a single common piece of software between us. We’re a queasy marriage of Mac and PC, and it’s lucky we could pull this off at all. Also, I was afraid that the mastering for disc was going to be a major roadblock, and the cost for a small label might not be doable. But I’m quite pleased with our stereo version.

Tod Dockstader: I am, too. In fact, I now suspect - having explored surround, myself - that it would have been too much. All the side-sounds would have detracted from the main left-right ideas, and it all could have easily become a blur. Might have been fun, but the details would likely have been lost and the listener - drowned. And I don’t want to drown any listeners - there are so few of them, as it is. Also, there’s a whole lot of aural movement going on - and that don’t hardly exist in nature: these critters, generally, just sit there, all night. But in our pond, they’re wheeling around and to-and-fro-ing all over the place. It’s what nature would have done if she’d thought of it, careless broad…

David Lee Myers: Um, I guess it’s up to we artistes to improve upon nature, huh?

Tod Dockstader: Well, it could use some improvement, and who else’s going to do it?

David Lee Myers: Really though, movement is one of the tools in the box, and we needed all possible weapons to nudge these guys into something more than a static “ribbitt”. And, once you change somebody’s gender, bend them in half, and age them 500%, flinging them across the room seems a small insult…

Tod Dockstader: It was a gift. Think of how bored they must have been, sitting on that same lillypad, night after night. Now, they’ll be frequent flyers… In general, I can now understand all that detailed work we put in on each voice: cleaning and cleaning and etc., so it would shine. All the hundreds of “noises” we excluded, click by smutch by rustle by thump. The damn thing really… glitters, now - so much so that I don’t think it will matter where in hell we dug up the band members. It won’t matter.

David Lee Myers: No, it doesn’t. Sound is sound, and we could’ve used car door slams instead.

Tod Dockstader: Well, I don’t know about that. Collisions, maybe - but how many door slams can a person stand?

David Lee Myers: But I really enjoy the organic quality of what we came up with - I do think it’s a pond - and the little critters are still a favorite lifeform of mine. So we gave them their chance to speak.

Tod Dockstader: We did and they do. We’ll have to play the CD on the shore of the pond some night for them. I can hear them now - “That’s me! I’ve got to get an agent!”