‘Sound Design Is Sort of Everything’: Ryan Trecartin on Making Music, Live and Otherwise


Ryan Trecartin, Lizzie Fitch, Ashland Mines, Aaron David Ross, and ensemble present a new sonic composition at the Park Avenue Armory.


Low on the list of likely items to find in the manic-panic artwork of Ryan Trecartin: flute, clarinet, vibraphone, saxophone, triangle (the kind a chamber musician daintily dings), upright piano, and a dowdy, blowsy French horn. Yet there they were at the Park Avenue Armory on Manhattan’s Upper East Side on the surprisingly stately occasion of Trecartin’s first live musical performance in years.

The setting for the affair last week was the recently restored Veterans Room, a pan-worldly fantasia designed in 1881 by Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, and others in a storied New York coterie. Opulence takes up residence there in the grandest glass and woods, and glinting mosaic tiles adorn a fireplace large enough for a Gilded Age tycoon’s most intensive brooding. The look was different, to be sure, than the kind of prefab consumer-society hellscape aesthetic typically on display in Trecartin’s video works.

Musically, however, a similar kind of anachronism reigned, or at least a deference to the past in a manner that few of the artist’s followers would have foreseen.

Ryan Trecartin, Comma Boat (still), 2013. ©RYAN TRECARTIN/COURTESY ANDREA ROSEN GALLERY

Ryan Trecartin, Comma Boat (still), 2013, three-channel HD video.


Trecartin’s videos—his main mode of presentation since he burst onto the scene around 10 years ago—are scattered, fractured, and futuristic in the way they twist and tweak the contemporary to vein-straining extremes. Spews of language, breaches of edits and effects, sinister voids of meaning where reason and narrative might otherwise thrive—such are the strategies employed in works like I-Be Area (2007), Any Ever (2010), and Center Jenny (2013). The videos are at least as distinguished aurally as they are visually, with snippets of songs of Trecartin’s making mixed and mashed into antic soundtracks that are crucial to the disorienting whole.

Consider it a curiosity, then, that this high-profile presentation of Trecartin’s music had little to distinguish it from a conservatory recital, with scant investment in spectacle and no senses-scrambling overabundance to be found. The premise for the night was simple: live performance of Trecartin’s songs, which had been transformed for a chamber ensemble with electronics and other elements interspersed. DJ and producer Ashland Mines (who works under the name Total Freedom) handled the most outré and otherwise abstract sounds, while a group of instrumentalists—on woodwinds, brass, and percussion—played dutifully charted passages of music definitely not conceived for such traditional treatment. Trecartin, boyish at the age of 35, played synthesizer and piano, looking like an eager and beaming new initiate at music school.

In conversation the next day, apologetic for a hangover that did little to darken his magnanimous mood, Trecartin talked about music as more than a sideline pursuit, however much that has been the case in his career thus far. “I love writing music but always write it with the intention of it being used as supplies for sound design,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to translate it to live instruments but have never found an opportunity to invest the time.”

Ashland Mines, a.k.a. Total Freedom, in performance.DA PING LUO

Ashland Mines, a.k.a. Total Freedom, in performance.


That changed when he and his close collaborator Lizzie Fitch were approached to take part in the Park Avenue Armory Artist Studio series. Curated by jazz pianist Jason Moran, the program in its inaugural year has featured small and intimate performances by Pauline Oliveros, Milford Graves, Lucy Raven, and Camille Norment with Craig Taborn, among others. Styles have varied, as have means of presentation, in line with the desires of an enterprising arts space more known for bigger-scale productions in its enormous Drill Hall.

In any case, the context was altogether new for Trecartin in a performance mode. As a musician, his roots go back to childhood and especially a pair of high-school bands he talked about with more than a little sheepishness. Fields of Darkness, his first band, was grungy and industrial, like Nine Inch Nails or Jane’s Addiction. “I went to the same high school as Marilyn Manson and he had a big following there,” Trecartin said, recalling his freshman year at a school in Ohio. “My babysitter knew him.”

The second band was BluFroWingBaby, for which Trecartin played piano alongside a bass player, a guitarist, and a drummer. “Like a hippie jam band,” he said. “It was fun to play but not necessarily music I liked listening to.” (The name was a jumble of different words with no clear meaning.)

Then came Experimental People, or XPPL, a spastic and theatrical noise act more in line with the kind of all-over, all-encompassing, all-everything aesthetic that Trecartin’s videos favor. Performance footage of the group from 2008 features feedback and screaming and somebody bashing a makeshift stage with a pink plastic bat. “Everyone would record and then I would construct on the computer some sort of composition with all the different elements,” Trecartin said. “There would be sections that felt like they were breaking into song and other sections that were like noise and soundscapes. We would have that composition, and everyone would play an instrument or do some sort of action on top of it live. It was very improv on top of something that was very constructed.”

Aaron David Ross, conducting.DA PING LUO

Aaron David Ross, conducting.


A similar approach applied to the Park Armory Armory show, though seemingly with less improv and more constructedness. The music for the ensemble players was translated to notation by the multitasking musician Aaron David Ross, with whom Trecartin had worked on a soundtrack for the fashion line Telfar and who also, as part of a would-be boy band called HD Boyz, performed at the opening of Trecartin’s 2011 survey show at MoMA PS1 in New York. (“You should get with me because I’m so HD / yeah we’ll be streaming exclusively in 1080p,” goes a line in the group’s sassy come-on anthem “Photoshopped.”)

Ross, who makes music of his own as ADR (he just released an excellent and significantly less arch album on the electronic-musical label PAN titled Throat), assembled musicians to play the pieces at the Armory, some of them studious sight readers with less than thorough backgrounds in the kind of musical milieu that served as the source. “A joyful ride through MIDI mayhem—that was a tag line we used to recruit musicians,” Ross said. “But I don’t think anybody knew what they were getting into.”

The program for the performance featured nine songs translated into ensemble form with interstitial improvisatory passages led by Mines, on a bank of electronic gear, or Trecartin on piano. Trecartin’s playing was dexterous and idiosyncratic—warped and lyrical, sweet and strange. Attention seemed most focused on him during his occasional (more or less) solo passages, understandably. Around him the ensemble played runs through what at times sounded like jazz-fusion, prog-rock, or any number of other sounds distant from what Trecartin enlists in his work. A pair of singers stood up high on a balcony, squeaking and bellowing lines like “I was just having this conversation with myself…,” “Life is not all fun—it can be riddled with responsibility,” and “We are in this thing together.”

“Some of the notes we would give musicians would be extremely different from one another,” Ross said about the orchestration. “We’ll tell one drummer to play all these crazy polyrhythms and rolls and then tell the other to play a Garage Band loop. There’s a disparity between what specific directives are, and that plays into the contrast the music has.”


Ryan Trecartin, Temple Time (still), 2016, HD video.


Even if Trecartin sees his musical creations mostly as “supplies” for use in his videos, they are an integral kind of supply, to be sure. “To me sound is the most important part of movie-making,” he said. “Sound design is sort of everything. People can tolerate such crappy images if the sound design is amazing, but trying to watch something when the sound isn’t present and there is one of the most annoying experiences.”

The process behind his immensely impressive editing for both sound and image happens synchronously, he said. “I edit in After Effects, even though it’s post-[production] software not really made for editing. It’s not real-time. There are visual layers: in your edit window you have these boxes that you’re moving around—one might be sound and the other visual. The sound and effects in editing all grow and inform each other at the same time. I think of video-making and shooting very rhythmically. I’m always thinking musically.”

As a listener, he is manifestly open. “I love almost everything when it comes to sound,” he said. “I have a high tolerance for different types of music. I have friends who spend much more time than I do researching and I end up with their folders and just listen. I don’t necessarily follow where what came from. I listen to it as all one thing in a way, but that’s also how I absorb culture in general. I like experiencing things as they come into my life rather than seeking them out.”

One recent source of listening is a vast library of sounds accessible via the app MyNoise. “It’s a noise engine I listen to all the time,” Trecartin said. “It has binary waves and different field recordings…There’s a knob for each frequency. The ‘Impulse’ sound”—a bubbling, burbling sort of static that can be downloaded and zoned-out to for $0.99—“I love so much I always have it on.”

For the Armory performance, quizzically titled Jazz Fest 2016, Trecartin said he meant to make a point of its plainness in terms of presentation, with no real visual aspect to look at while the ensemble played. “Sometimes it’s frustrating how often the expectations of art are brought to what you do. Sometimes it’s important to experiment in another context and allow something to not necessarily meet the same expectations that people are used to bringing to what you do. I wasn’t thinking of it as art—I was thinking of it as music.”


In the Veterans Room.


The truth is, at the Armory, the project didn’t quite coalesce. The acoustics in a room with towering ceilings and surfaces made of hard wood and glass did no favors to a murky mix that made it hard to hear what everyone was doing, in isolation or en masse. And the translation of the music from its nimble electronic origins to traditional instrumentation raised the question of what, exactly, the benefit of such translation might be. It all came across as more prim and polite than would seem appropriate for music that is otherwise so restless and lively.

The experiment was intriguing, though, and Trecartin said he would like to continue developing it. “I want to do more stuff that ends in a state of music instead of being supplies for something else,” he said.

Ross, for his part as the conductor of the enterprise, said he can see many more iterations of work in the same vein. “When we started this project,” he said, “Ryan sent me a Google Drive link with 400 songs, like 12 hours of music, and asked, ‘Which ones do you like?’ There’s so much material we could unpack.”

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