The local experimental composer on the craft of computer music and his love of the abstract
Through his recordings and sound installations, local musician Michael Flora creates soundscapes of a digitalized world. With sounds reminiscent of frogs and bees and birds, his creatures virtually live in the hardware of a laptop computer. The Wake met up with Flora for a chat about the Nada music label he curates, the effectiveness of “play” when composing, and acknowledging what’s missing in Twin Cities music.
The Wake: Tell me about your history, in regard to music, and how you got inspired to create digital sound art.
Michael Flora: When I was a kid I wanted a guitar, so I asked my mom for one and she was kind of just like “No.” But everyone grows up having a computer, so I just found some free software off the Internet. I was also really into electronic music. In the ‘90s there was this whole rave scene in Los Angeles, which is where I’m from, and they would have desert parties and warehouse parties and things. For me it was really surreal because the music was so synthetic sounding. I think once I found some more experimental composers and people doing abstract stuff, it really resonated with me.
The Wake: For much of the music you create, it seems like you are essentially taking ordinary sounds and processing them through computer software to digitize and manipulate the sounds. Could you describe this process?
MF: I guess I have two modes of working. One is really more conceptual. Like recently I was really interested in the flocking behavior of birds, so I utilized this computer algorithm that simulates the behavior of birds and the way that they flock. And then I sonified it so that each individual bird has a unique sound character. When it was set up in a room, there would be multiple speakers throughout the room and you could hear the “birds” moving throughout the space. So I would say in that sense it’s really conceptual, where you make this system and it’s able to interact with itself and essentially play itself. And then another way is… there was this composer from the French music concrète tradition, and he was really into this idea of “jeu” which is French for “play.” The idea is to play with sound and the composition will then reveal itself. So that’s the other thing. I’ll just take sounds or make synthetic sounds and I’ll add different effects, or chop things up, or rearrange the tail to the front, and I think just through play you come up with interesting things.
The Wake: I’ve noticed your music can be very peaceful but it can also be kind of unsettling. From your experiences, what kind of reactions does your music often evoke from listeners?
MF: I find that a lot of times, even when a sound is synthetic sounding, people will say “Oh it sounds like a tornado siren,” or “It sounds like cicadas,” and I think it’s like that idea of our brains always looking for patterns. And that’s one of the cool things about abstract music, it allows people to create their own narrative.
The Wake: You’ve done shows in the past at places like The White Page gallery, the Seward Cafe, and the Eagles Club. How do you create a “live” experience out of your digital music?
MF: Certain things are pre-composed and are created with patches. I use software environments and they utilize programming languages so you can create your own patch and your patch is your instrument, it’s gonna do a specific thing. One patch might play a sample of a bird, for example. Maybe that patch can adjust the pitch of that sample, or maybe it can chop up that sample. So by utilizing these patches you have a loose structure in that they can only do certain things. So when I play live, it’s a mixture of improvisation and pre-composed things. And it’s all within the computer, nothing I do is outside the computer.
The Wake: So a few years back you started a local label of experimental sound artists called Nada. Could you tell me about that and what inspired it?
MF: In the 2000s I was really into small edition record labels and tape labels and CD-R labels, it’s kind of something I just discovered through the Internet. I think because I was a DJ and was always into collecting things, I got interested in this kind of culture. So in 2010 I started Nada as a label just to disseminate and distribute my own work. I had just gotten back from this trip to Asia and I had all these field recordings I made and I compiled them in two releases. So it started from there, and then friends and I would record something and put that out there too. So Nada is kind of just something that came from a DIY tradition.
The Wake: You mentioned working and recording with other people. How does collaboration work with this kind of music?
MF: In the past, when I worked with my friend Austin, a lot of it was just conceptual or process driven. We’d use this modular synthesizer and my computer and we’d just improvise together and react to each other and then record the output. The other thing we would do is, we were really into “oblique strategies” which are a stack of cards created by Brian Eno, and you consult it whenever you are in a creative rut. So you pick a card at random and consult it, and it’ll have a phrase on it that’s really kind of esoteric but it causes you to think in a different way. Oftentimes they’ll be statements that attempt to minimize things like, “Get rid of everything you don’t need.” They’re really cool. I like things that are really vague like that and then you can take it to mean whatever you want.
The Wake: Do you think there is an experimental electronic music community in the Twin Cities?
MF: There’s definitely people doing stuff here; there’s a small group. But I think people have different schools of thought and backgrounds and they gravitate towards different venues or different mediums for distributing their tapes. There’s a couple different clans in the Twin Cities. Like the venue Secret Service has a lot of experimental musicians come through sometimes. I know Cole, who books a lot of the shows there, he tends to do more techno-y stuff, but some of the stuff can be quite abstract.
The Wake: Is there anything you think is lacking in the Twin Cities music scene or in your musical community specifically?
MF: I think there’s a real lack of venues. I would like to see more events in unique places. It doesn’t even have to be experimental music, I would just like to see promoters getting creative and utilizing public space more. I think that would be really cool. I think for me, I don’t wanna play in a bar or a club. I don’t want people to come just cause they want to party, drink beer, and socialize, you know? I want people to come because they want an experience. So I prefer environments where people come to listen. I think there should be more spaces that cultivate that environment.
The Wake: Why do you think that is?
MF: I think it’s the lack of infrastructure. There has to be people and places that want to be innovative and try new things. And a lot of times these sort of events don’t make money, the people have to be grant-funded just to make the event happen. I think that’s part of the problem.