Iâ€™ve recently become very obsessed with a double CD called â€śTransparency,â€ť released by a man named Chris Weisman. Â I wanted to learn more about this man who made this CD Iâ€™m obsessed with. Â Why am I obsessed with this CD? Â This record, itâ€™s just a big question-taking question mark that answers questions with questions. Â And the helluvit is that itâ€™s all about something I thought I knew something about: pop music (sort of). Â With a guitar and a voice to build these compositions, Weisman uses unconventional scales and jazzy chord voicings to pivot around melodies and clever words patterns with style and grace, the whole thing deconstructing the pop form and rebuilding it into something better, fancier, smarter, and more absorbing in so may different ways. Â So I wrote down some questions I had of my own about this very interesting musical mind, the intriguing ideas in his book about visual scales, Nonmusical Patterns and their Musical Uses (for Guitar in Standard Tuning),Â and the creative process that spawned these recordings and others. Â I wrote them in an e-mail, sent the e-mail, and he promptly responded to them. Â On with it:
Crawford Philleo: When and where were you born? Â Does music run in your familyâ€™s history? Â How old is your brother [Kurt Weisman] and what kind of a musical history do the two of you have together?
Chris Weisman: I was born in Madison, Wisconsin in late â€™75 and then lived in LA for a couple years while my dad did his postdoctorate work at UCLA in organic chemistry. Â We moved (my mom is a nurse) to Dover, New Hampshire in â€™77 for my fatherâ€™s job teaching at UNH which he still has. Â Kurt was born in early â€™79 and my sister Emma (an artist living in Somerville, Mass) was born in â€™82. Â We moved to Durham (the next town over where the university is) in â€™88 on my 13th birthday. Â Thereâ€™s a lot of music in the family on both sides (my parents are both from southern Ohio). Â They were both part of the ’60s folk revival singing and playing guitars and my mother played classical piano and recorders too. Â Now sheâ€™s mostly singing in choirs and learning blues harmonica. Â My dad just got a new guitar and is starting to play more again. Â Kurtâ€™s friend down the street showed him â€śSgt. Pepperâ€ť in â€™87 and he told me about it right away. Â I was already doing saxophone in school and Kurt was playing trombone but we both got into guitars and singing and songwriting a few years later. Â Thereâ€™s so many different things weâ€™ve done together and different phases weâ€™ve gone through. Â His band, Feathers (â€™03-â€™06), was really important to me. Â I wasnâ€™t in it (I sometimes sat in) but thatâ€™s where I met my girlfriend Ruth Garbus and Kyle Thomas who I was inÂ Happy Birthday with recently. Â I wouldnâ€™t live in Brattleboro now if it wasnâ€™t for Feathers. Â Kurt and I arenâ€™t directly working together right now but we both have studios downtown on Elliot St. and definitely talk about our work a lot and listen deeply to everything the other guy does.
CP: I want to know more about your relationship with technology. Â From our correspondences so far, it doesnâ€™t seem like youâ€™re especially savvy with a computer or anything. Â Is technology something you actively resist in your day-to-day life? Â How does it inform your music?
CW:Â I just never really took to computers though my dad is into them and Kurt really got into them. Â IÂ am pretty much anti-technology but I still have an Internet addiction like just about everyone else. Â I think weâ€™ll look back on this time as really sick in that way. Â Iâ€™m not interested in pretending to be pure or dressing up like a different time or anything but I try to stay out of as much techno-materialism as I can and IÂ do wish it was a different time. Â Some common machines I have some I donâ€™t. Â The Internet is worse for global warming than all travel combined at this point and definitely worse for quality of life. Â Part of why I donâ€™t tour is definitely environmental concern even though itâ€™s way too late. Â In terms of music making, I do it all on cassette 4-track and have all along because 1) Iâ€™m too impatient to learn new machines 2) tapes are cheap enough 3) sounds fine to me. Â I have one microphone, guitars (Iâ€™m a guitar teacher), couple keyboards, some pedals, plastic recorder, sometimes access to drums, more rarely piano (my dream instrument) or saxophone, no drum machine in any of my music. Â I like the limitations of the 4-track, and am generally obsessed with limitations in art-making. Â Iâ€™m concerned with the composition and clear arrangement with the least elements possible. Â Timbre is way down there on the list. Â I feel like the 4-track is printmaking and computer recording is photoshop.
CP: The Transparency CD doesnâ€™t have a ton of info about the albumâ€™s production specs. Â Who did the recording and what other musicians appear on the songs?
CW: All recorded in my teaching studio in Brattleboro. Â All parts played by me. Â I mix as I go. Â Once the song is tracked I write down the volume and EQ settings and stereo placement on the tape case. Â No aftereffects added or anything, the music is just the sounds I recorded right into the machine. Â I went up to Burlington on the train and just mixed the tapes right out of my 4-track into Greg Davisâ€™s computer and then he did some light mastering, got it pressed, and put it out on his labelÂ Autumn Records.
CP: YourÂ â€śofficialâ€ť website completely fascinates me, and that might seem a little bit weird. Â But Iâ€™m not sure the last time Iâ€™ve seen an artist just make a list of songs available the way you have. Â Are you constantly updating the website with new songs, or were they all uploaded at once? Â Do the songs have any kind of historical significance in relation to your career as a musician? Â I just think itâ€™s interesting that the songs appear with very little context to them.
CW: Thatâ€™s all my albums, just as a list of songs. Â “Transparency” is up at the top. Â Greg Davis helps me with that too. Â The oldest stuff at the bottom is from â€™99, the year I got out of college and started writing songs again. Â In high school I was the 4-track guy I am now essentially (with my friend Ben Stamper, â€śClovâ€ť) but in college I was strictly a jazz guitarist. Â Allen Ginsberg said something about all his poems being one long poem. Â The Internet butchers context, cuts it all up and gets it wrong anyway, so I just broke it up and dropped all the details from the start, I donâ€™t mind seeing the songs individually. Â Less is more.
CP: Almost everyone Iâ€™ve seen writing about your new CD wants to line you up with Elliott Smith, though Iâ€™m certain thereâ€™s much more going on here. Â What influences would you say find their way into your songs more than anything else?
CW: I checked out Elliott Smith a little in college when â€śGood Will Huntingâ€ť came out but only in the last couple years really flipped over his first two albums. Â Yes, sometimes his lyrics are weak but overall I just think he was really, really terrific on those first two. Â You can absolutely hear him onÂ Transparency. Â But thatâ€™s pretty recent. Â The Beatles, Syd Barrett, and Robyn Hitchcock are the big three for me. Â Hitchcockâ€™s solo stuff is mostly off the hipster map for some reason but it suits me fine. Â His mostly acoustic album Eye (1990) is just an enormous influence on me. Â A lot of his albums. Â Me and Kurt are bothÂ way into Globe of Frogs. Â And Joni Mitchell (Clouds! Blue!) and Prince and Steely Dan have had a big effect. Â And lyrically I love Arto Lindsay. Â But then most of whatâ€™s getting filtered through my songs is a lot of jazz: Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wayne Shorter, Paul Motian, Keith Jarrett, Monk, Steve Lacy. Â Those influences are less on the surface but they are very strong, they are there in the way the notes relate.
CP: The lyricsâ€”do you often write in first-person about real experiences, or are some of the songs meant to be heard from a characterâ€™s perspective? Â Some of the words seem to be philosophical musings about your approach to song writing â€“ forms, theory. Â Lines like â€śI was a student in a 12-tone indigo,â€ť have me thinking of composers like Schoenberg and serialism. Â Iâ€™m not smart enough to do harmonic analyses of your songs, but does some of this type of theory work its way into your compositions?
CW: I mostly write lyrics by doing running starts and just improvising lines. Â The theme forms that way when there is one. Â â€śYouâ€ť is meÂ or you mostly – occasionally Iâ€™m being more direct but I always know Iâ€™m on stage. Â â€śIâ€ť is a shifting guy. Â There is gender play, preference play. Â A lot of the lines work a few different ways. Â I have a BA in music theory and still play a lot of jazz guitar but I was a theory nerd from middle school on. Â Thereâ€™s a lot of theoretical play that plays against the lyrics. Â Thereâ€™s a lot of jokes and games in there. Â Iâ€™m into music puzzles and tricks. Â Itâ€™s all one piece all reflecting back at itself in a feedback loop. Â â€śProgram Music,â€ť â€śWord Painting.â€ť
CW:Â Standard Tuning mostly but also some Drop-D and a tuning I made up called Inverted Tuning which is an octave displaced scramble of Standard, all the pitches are the same but the strings are largely flipped upsidedown. Â It makes an angular jumpy sound but I use that sound a lot anyway. Â 95% of itâ€™s standard. Â I have a jazz guitaristâ€™s devotion to finding novel stuff without helping myself too much.
CP: What comes first when you write a song: the melody, the words, or the chord progression?
CW: All different orders. Â Often I write from a title. Â My notebooks are filled with titles.
CP: The idea behind your book is really interesting. Â Can you just explain the inspiration for discovering these â€śvisual scales,â€ť and how itâ€™s been beneficial to you as a composer and musician? Â How do you hope others will benefit from practicing some of these ideas for themselves, or what would they learn from using this approach?
CW:Â Came up with the idea in â€™05, finished the book in â€™07, published byÂ Radical Readout in â€™10. Â The basic concept is that Nonmusical Patterns are both visual patterns on the fretboardÂ and happen to contain the pitches found in common scales but scattered in a funny way usually. Â Usually shape playing is for the untrained and the trained are in denial of the visual dimension (I was this way in college), trying to work purely from a musical place. Â I see myself as a bridge between those two approaches and I think the Patterns reflect that in a novel way. Â They are wicked easy to play and sound both familiar and weird. Â In that way they figure into my aesthetic in general: minimal means, maximum shock. Â Shock can only occur when youâ€™re oriented enough to expect something. Â I think thatâ€™s part of my attraction to songs over jazz in terms of the music I choose to share: when you do something crazy in jazz only other jazz musicians can tell!
CP: In another interview I saw about your book, you talk about how you would only use a scale if it was â€śvisually perfect.â€ť Â What makes the scale perfect when you look at it? Â And how does a visually-perfect scale translate to what we hear? Â Do any of these scales find their way into any of your music â€“ especially the Transparency CD, since thatâ€™s what Iâ€™m most familiar with at this point?
CW: â€śVisually perfectâ€ť in this case isnâ€™t aesthetic or even really subjective. Â It means like â€śthis pattern is about symmetry in this way so I canâ€™t change a note to make it all be an Octatonic scale or whatever.â€ť Â Youâ€™ll be able to see the visual patterns once you get the book. Â To fully be impressed by them you have to be looking at them with an analytical eye most guitarists donâ€™t have. Â â€śOh itâ€™s thisÂ and this and I canâ€™t believe I havenâ€™t seen this before.â€ť Â But to play them and like the sounds and get cool feelings from them you need almost no training at all. Â I canâ€™t remember if there are any Patterns on Transparency. Â ThereÂ are pieces based on these other â€śscalesâ€ť I made up, a system of deriving pitches from titles I call My Alphabet. Â My deal with these weird techniques (there are others) and the tuning is to just integrate them into the total work and not really try to advertise where they happen. Â Theyâ€™ve influenced the way I hear when Iâ€™m not using them anyway. Â Music now relies so much on extramusical content, kind of like artists always have to have an artistâ€™s statement and albums have to have a background narrative and thatâ€™s really what youâ€™re â€śbuyingâ€ť when you download the album. Â I try to write songs that will fight for their own survival in the world with no context at all. Â But once youâ€™re drawn in thereâ€™s a lot of stuff to check out and think about in there. Â The artist in me doesnâ€™t want to say anything at all about my work, but the music teacher in me wants to talk about music all day long.
CW: Yeah you can play them anywhere, any scale or chord that doesn’t have any open strings can just be transposed by being slid around.
The numbers are the “number system”, a way of showing a pitch-class’s distance from DO, 1, the tonic. Those strings along the bottom just show the way the pattern manifests the composite scale. You can then take modes of that scale (which would change DO and all the numbers relative to it) or just ignore the numbers and use the pattern anywhere. A lot of times I improvise w a pattern over nothing, just like I’m picking up some weird-tuned little mbira and picking out melodies and chords (just by colliding whatever notes are there) by ear. [Actually "Rosenwinkel Vertigo" was written on a weird scale my friend Ryan Storm's mbira was randomly accidentally tuned to.] You can’t do anything wrong with the patterns, engage them however, you don’t need to approach them from a this-scale-on-these-chords jazz place (but you can!).
Notating the pitches means picking a particular “key” or starting note. That’s the only reason I didn’t include them written that way along the bottom in the book. I’ve notated patterns before for non-guitarists. Once their idiosyncrasies are lifted out of the visual dimension that produced them they seem even weirder (but no less beautiful).
CP: Whoâ€™s your favorite author?
CW: David Foster Wallace, readingÂ The Pale King right now. Â I love Walter Everettâ€™s writing on the Beatles. Â John Cageâ€™s writing is awesome -Â A Year From Monday is probably my favorite book. Â I mostly read about music, just read some trashy NIN book from 1997. Â Iâ€™ve gotten really into Trent Reznor lately via The Social Network, which I saw in the theater twice.
CP: Whoâ€™s your favorite composer?
CW: Well I already told you all those song and jazz favorites so Iâ€™ll tell you my â€śclassicalâ€ť favorites: Satie, Messiaen, Ravel, Bach. Â I love playing through Bach, it is the music of the future.
CP: What do you find boring about music today? Â What excites you about it?
CW: What bores me is the illusion that what is good is known. Â I have this saying, â€śThe Internet Never Knows.â€ť Â Incredible music is getting â€śignored,â€ť most of it will never be â€śdiscovered.â€ť Â It really excites me when I realize that doesnâ€™t matter, that music can be for just your community and for God.