Coppice was founded by Noé Cuéllar and Joseph Kramer in Chicago in 2009, as an inquiry into the capture and generation of music and its relationship to its physical sources. Between 2009 and 2014 the duo focused on bellows and electronics (prepared pump organs, shruti boxes, and tape processors) with physical modelling and modular syntheses becoming an increasing part of their practice after 2014.
We Need No Swords was a relative latecomer to the Coppice universe. I first came across them in 2015, on their excellent ‘Bypass/Ideal’ tape on Hideous Replica. And even though it probably wasn’t the most representative of their works – the cassette separates two parts of a piece that were performed originally in combination – something about the attention to detail and the textures deployed by the duo rocked my world. I’ve been fascinated by their compositional techniques, not to mention the results of those methods, ever since.
So, when I got the chance to meet up with Noé a few months back in London, I couldn’t resist interrogating him about the latest Coppice release, the astounding ‘Surreal Air Fortress‘ (Entr’acte). A few weeks later I connected with Joseph via email to complete the story.
My exchanges with Noé and Joseph are presented here in combined, slightly edited form, for your enjoyment. If you know Coppice’s work, the thoughtfulness of their answers won’t be a surprise – there’s plenty of great stuff to chew on. And if you’re a Coppice newbie, this interview will surely whet your whistle for further immersion.
We Need No Swords (WNNS): I’d love to get your perspective on the vocal works on Surreal Air Fortress. Having listened to Coppice for a few years now this took me by surprise a bit.
Joseph Kramer (JK): I think the new vocal pieces are just one manifestation of the methods that Coppice has been exploring more explicitly in the works that we are thinking about as being part of our second phase. These are the works with physical modelling and modular synthesis at the core. Previous work had been very interdependent, with real-time processing and interaction between sonic voices. This second phase has had more of a focus on the independence of voices and more openness to outside sounds and content.
Noé Cuellar (NC): Originally our focus was very intensely on the instruments and objects. There wasn’t much opportunity to play with songwriting, although we talked about it a lot, the ‘music-making’. In retrospect, I think the priority then was the creation of a sonic world, and it’s been a long process to know it well in order to play with structures. ‘The Wall’ is Joseph’s song – he started it in 2015. He wrote half of the song, which is the core, against which I added my half.
He’s written songs and played in bands before, I hadn’t. ‘The Wall’ got me thinking of what my response would be in terms of starting a songwriting process. That response became ‘Coverage,’ with words pulled from a Marshall McLuhan interview where he talks about modern man’s loss of identity and violence and revivals as quests for it.
JK: My singing in ‘The Wall’ is one result of a desire to see what the sound of human voice can do in the context of this new Coppice work. We had many discussions about the idea of using voice, and even made some attempts in the past to include singing. Notably, Carol Genetti’s vocal performance in ‘A Refracted Index of “Seam” with Girls’ from ‘Epoxy’ (2013) and our own voices in the sound in the opening title of ‘Soft Crown Transparencies’ (2014).
But I had been feeling increasingly interested in trying to figure out if there was a way to have something in Coppice that someone could sing along with. This was important for me because I think singing along allows a person to carry the music with them throughout the day in a different way than some of the more phenomenological, sensual, and conceptual experiences that we had previously been working with while composing. So ‘The Wall’ started there for me, as a sing along.
WNNS: Could you tell me a bit more about the different elements of ‘The Wall’? There’s some lovely abstract textures in there – scrapes and squelches – plus some more recognizable ‘synthy’ stuff…
JK: The Wall is almost entirely three instrument tracks and the singing voice. The song began with a recording of me singing and playing my modular synthesizer. That performance was excerpted and pared with a recording of a different performance of Noé playing a patch on a physical modelling synthesizer through either a real guitar amplifier or some virtual model of a guitar amplifier. The third primary element is a Wurlitzer electric piano…which I believe is also a physically modelled representation of the real thing.
My sound synthesis was performed on a small modular system. It consisted of a granular synthesizer playing back a recording of a very emotive male singing voice that was chopped up. The resulting grains were then employed to serve as impulsive seeds to drive tuned digital resonators.
That male voice was one that came pre-loaded on a USB stick that came with the synth. I can’t remember what he was singing, but you can clearly make out his voice as it jumps out through the resonator at one point in the song. I tried using my own voice to drive the resonators, but I couldn’t get the right kind of edge out of the grains. With this synthesizer patch I was thinking about the energy and gesture of a person playing a bass guitar in industrial or punk music. I tried to create that kind of energy with a sound that was designed to be variably recognizable and mutable.
WNNS: Noé, is your text sourced directly from McLuhan or altered?
NC: I listened to his words, poked holes in them. He’s [McLuhan] often forgotten, pushed to the background. The idea of writing a song to me felt like a kind of revival, in itself, asking myself what is worth turning into a song. The idea was for the voice in ‘Coverage’ to evoke a sense of song, a delineation, a half revival.
WNNS: In ‘Coverage’, the voice acts as a harmonic element to bring together a set of diverse textural and sonic elements that would feel very abstract otherwise. But in ‘The Wall’, the song-like elements fit together in a more familiar way – the voice, synths, a bassline, etc.
NC: The sounds in the song are an emulator of a Rhodes Bass Piano and a physical modeling synthesis model based on my prepared pump organ… more revivals of forgotten instruments in no need for reviving. ‘Coverage’ is a message that starts right away, then lets you loose inside the song. ‘The Wall’ pushes you deep down until words emerge. By then you’re already acquainted with the sound world.
WNNS: How do the rest of the pieces fit into the album’s pattern? The record has a lovely flow with the two vocal pieces separated by more abstract work. Was this deliberate?
NC: Each side of the record tells two main ideas. I see Side A as a kind of wrestling match. Side B is based on a sonic abstraction of image production, starting with red noise, somewhat analogous to red light, an allusion to darkroom safe lights and audio system calibration.
The middle track, ‘Solvent/Emulsion’, has two parts, which display our contrasting sounds from prepared pump organ and tape processes from 2009–2014 versus physical modeling and modular synthesis since 2014. The first part (‘Solvent’) comes from the recording sessions for ‘Whiting Belt’ from around 2013. The second part (‘Emulsion’) was recorded in 2017 in a strobe-lit darkroom.
Together they abbreviate Coppice’s two sound palettes thus far, which carry with them contrasting duo dynamics, signal processing and independent voices respectively. I consider it to be one of the more representative tracks we’ve done, a phenomenological bridge.
The closing track is an elaborate ‘holographic song’ [‘Wet Hologram’] with a little bit of vibraphone from Sarah Hennies. The record sees different sides of opposition, porosity and defense.
JK: The overall structure of ‘Surreal Air Fortress’ was deliberate and took some effort to get to the place where it is. I think we got it right. There are songs, spaces, processes, and gestures that work together in an attempt to create an overall impression of a structure with many technological, sense-able and nonsensical juxtapositions of light, sound, air, and other media.
I think ‘The Wall’ functions primarily to create the more solid and bodily center of that structure, while also referencing and connecting with what is happening on the outside.
What I feel I can recall with clarity is that much of Surreal Air Fortress was being developed while we were having many ongoing conversations about light, the history of photography, chemical reactions as a model for composition, virtual reality and some new (to me, at least) ideas about media theory. Image production was definitely in the foreground of many of those conversations.
WNNS: You mentioned working with Sarah Hennies on ‘Wet Hologram’. I’m a huge fan of Hennies’ work. How did you come to involve her?
JK: That was coordinated by Noé. We have known Sarah for several years and we are both admirers of her work. Noé worked particularly closely with Sarah on the release of her incredible album, ‘Gather and Release’ (2016) for our label, Category of Manifestation. He extended an invitation to her to be involved on our record in some way, and her response was to contribute her vibraphone sounds to us for that song. It is great to hear her in there. It opens that work up for me.
WNNS: Can I ask you about your working methods in general? How does something like Surreal Air Fortress come together?
NC: Our process is very laboratorial and layered with many moving parts. Joseph builds custom instruments and sound processors, I create images. What’s good circles and feeds back.
JK: We don’t experience the Coppice production practice in a very linear way. We are often working on multiple projects at the same time with active feedback paths being developed between different projects’ conceptual interests, sonic experiences, our personal relationships, physical production issues, news, weather, etc.
WNNS: So you can get together if you need to…
NC: We would regularly, in each other’s studios depending on what we were working on. The bellows and electronics period required us to be in the same space for the signal processing. The synthesis music developed more individually, but still holding regular meetings, many conversations – probably more conversations than making music, actually.
WNNS: Do you still play shows now – how does it work with mixture of digital and physical?
NC: Early on we would play a lot in Chicago, almost every month. The synthesis music was performed significantly less. Now we perform about once a year, partly because the ideas for presentations have become more elaborate and composed, and we want to execute them in a certain spatial way and in relation to where the audience is situated.
JK: The introduction of the more digital work hasn’t really changed the way we present our sound work. The focus on listening and the listener’s orientation both in space and to the sonic material has remained in the forefront of our performance design. It is quite a labour-intensive way to plan a concert. The location and type of speakers has nearly the same influence on the track list and the performance approach to the songs as the instruments we are playing.
WNNS: What prompted the move from physical pump organ to digital? Did you have to create the digital tools yourself or could you use existing software to do that?
NC: Well, in composing strictly for bellows and electronics for five years we explored as much as we could. I think shifting to synthesis came, at first, from wanting to engage with ideas of original versus simulated sources.
JK: My technology hasn’t changed that much. The bigger shift as we moved away from bellows for a bit was to decouple my systems of signal processing from Noé’s instrumental performances. There really is a larger issue of the independence of voices. There has always been some combination of the creation of new technologies and the exploration and modification of existing technologies.
WNNS: Maybe exploring the borders of physical and digital and the idea of losing authenticity in the digital world?
NC: …with the loss of the object, for sure, and working with the representation directly. Some of the electronic sounds were induced into sheets of metal, their timbres balanced between physical and digital. But perhaps also a curiosity towards the craft of electronics, which for me was a process no less detailed than working with pump organ preparations.
I became obsessed with the idea of creating a digital image of the bellows and electronics music using physical modelling synthesis for keyboard interface. What was built-in mechanical counterpoint became carefully modelled accidents. Also, the idea of what simulated air would sound like, ‘what would fake air brush against, and why?’ kind of questions.
Later we played some performances with guitar amps and their emulators on different speakers next to them. It was both elaborate and absurd, but posed stimulating questions of sensual listening.