Interview with Nissa

Melanie: so, nissa! it’s been a long time! how are you? what’s life like in Madison? i understand that you are juggling a variety of different projects, what’s that like? do you still play the tuba sometimes?


Nissa: I’m pretty good! life in Madison pretty much rocks. There’s always interesting stuff going on.  I also like that it has a more “human” scale than bigger cities like Chicago (but I can still hop on a bus and get to Chicago, Milwaukee and the Twin Cities).   I love juggling a variety of projects, I’ll talk more about why later. Yep, I still play the tuba some, though not as much as I used to.


Melanie: i know that you work a hell of a lot. how do you strike a balance between your work-life and your creative life? any advice for us?


Nissa: heh… so this is tricky. at my old (full-time) job, I worked a lot, and even if I wasn’t actually working, I was stressing about work, so I wasn’t really enjoying much of my time not working, and I definitely wasn’t using it to create much. I realized that I have a really hard time drawing boundaries in my life and creating balance when there’s sort of one “big” thing that I “do”… I sort of let that job define me for quite a while.

that’s one of the cool things about all the projects/gigs I’ve been working on now. most of them couldn’t possibly take over my life, or, if they do, it’s only for a really specific period of time, so the work/non-work boundaries are built-in for me. A good example of that is theatre: if I’m working on a show, particularly if I’m (assistant) stage managing, I’ll be working my ass off as it gets close to show time, but after the show closes and we strike the set, I basically never have to do anything with that show again. I’ve found that I work well if I can totally immerse myself in something for a short period of time.

The flip side of this flexible employment is that I get to do the same thing with my creations or other personal projects during the downtime of the paid projects.

so yeah. I guess, advice-wise, I’d say either figure out how to know how much work is enough, or find ways to support yourself that have boundaries built in for you. And when you’ve done enough for the day/week/whatever, make sure to really switch gears. don’t let the work bleed over into your non-working time. get your head truly out of whatever the job is and really immerse yourself in whatever else you decide to do with your time.


Melanie: can you tell me a little bit about how you became interested in making electronic music? video?


Nissa: it all started in big exec on south Meade, senior year of college, I had started hanging out with these really awesome, brilliant, creative kids who spent a lot of time there…

(for those of you who weren’t there, I’m talking about Melanie Farley herself, Bryan Teoh, Justine Reimnitz and Erik Schoster. Melanie and Justine created more visual kinds of works, Melanie more with words, and Bryan and Schoster were more in the audio realm, but all were just generally into interesting creative endeavors (and still are, check them out!))

I was really mind-blown by most of the works and ideas you all exposed me to. It was thrilling. It was the first time that I’d really gotten excited about anything remotely abstract or contemporary art-wise. I’d studied music in various forms my whole life, but I hadn’t been driven much to compose before that year. I think partly what called to me initially with electronic music was the mechanics of creating it. I’d always loved playing around with different instruments to see how they worked, so in some ways, the computer was just an intriguing new instrument to me, particularly since I saw Bryan and Erik using all kinds of different programs to compose. Also, it was the first time I really thought about music as purely sound, and that concept opened my eyes to a lot of possibility. I became really tuned in to all the sound around me, which led me to play with field recordings a lot at first, focused on capturing interesting sounds and bringing people’s attention to them. Then I discovered the “generate tone” function in Audacity (you set a duration, wave shape and frequency and it creates it for you) and began to focus more on *creating* interesting sounds. That eventually led to me composing my first truly complete piece, “bleep,” entirely in Audacity, just layering, cutting and pasting tones of various frequencies and shapes.

I was hooked at that point. Part of the appeal for me is still the mechanics. There will always be different ways to program and process sound on a computer, so there will always be new “instruments” to explore.  But also, I think more abstract, electronically-created music is more interesting to me to create than using more traditional methods/instruments because it forces me to focus on just the sound and its structure. It sort of strips things down for me.

Think about a building. It may be well-designed, well-constructed and beautiful, and when you look at it, you can see all the pieces of it: the windows, bricks, etc and maybe surmise potential challenges of designing it and all those elements are really *present*… as discrete parts of the whole. You can see how all the pieces fit together and are generally aware of the complexities involved, even if you don’t actually *know* all of them. That’s like like listening to more “traditional” kinds of music for me; there are lots of layers: how someone’s playing a particular instrument, the meter, chords, lyrics (if there are any), there are all these components that I’ve learned about over the years that I have a hard time ignoring. And being aware of all that can be really interesting and cool, but I want to compose stuff that’s like getting hit with a wave in the ocean. You feel the speed and force of the wave, you taste the saltwater, maybe your feet scrape against the sand and you feel seaweed brush past your arm, you get swirled around some. You don’t know what’s all under the water, or when the next gust of wind or wave is coming by. I want it to be a really sensory experience, and I feel like I can do that best with abstract electronic compositions.

Video’s a more recent development for me.  I think it sort of just came as an extension of composing for me.  My usual motivation to compose is a drive to create (and explore) interesting sonic experiences, and some point along the way I started thinking it’d be cool to try to create interesting visual experiences, too.


Melanie: can you tell me about the kinds of processes that go into making a video, or a piece of music like any of these? what tools do you use and how do they work?


Nissa: I guess my general process is to record some stuff, pull the recordings into Garageband, arrange, rearrange, cut and paste, record some more and repeat til I feel like I’ve got a finished piece.  Garageband is a program that basically allows you to work with multiple tracks/lines of audio.  It has lots of effects you can use on the audio, and it has many software instruments you can use to compose with and a number of other features. Mostly I use it as a canvas. It makes it really easy for me to loop, cut and paste and move around chunks of audio.

Usually the recordings I start out with for a particular piece are from stuff I’ve created in Max/MSP. Max/MSP is a visual programming environment (read: programming language), so what I do is essentially design/program an instrument using Max/MSP. Then I play that instrument and record it. Once in a while, I like what I’ve recorded from Max well enough to just leave it, but most of the time, I want to use the recordings as fodder for me to chop up and rearrange.  ”full force” is a track that I just recorded straight out of Max. I also sometimes use recordings of me playing non-electronic instruments and also field recordings (d.c.2 is an example of a track that’s only field recordings)

Sometimes I have an idea for the overall structure of the piece when I go into it, but usually I just start with a particular texture I want to explore, and my ideas for the piece evolve as I work on it and see how the different sounds/recordings interact with each other.

For video, again, process-wise there’s usually something I think looks cool that I start with and then explore from there, like in “perspec” I was just playing around with videotaping through different semi-transparent things, and I liked the way it looked through the bottom of a soda bottle.  Tool-wise, I use iMovie to process the video and rearrange stuff or add effects (I didn’t use any effects in “perspec” though).  It’s also cool now, with the new version of Garageband (…ergh… do I sound like a Mac ad yet?), you can import a video so you can see the video in relation to audio you’re working on, which is pretty nice if you’re, say, composing a soundtrack to something.


Melanie: how would you position your work in relation to the political? in other words, are there ways that you see your choice of medium, or your manipulation of that medium as a mode of critique?


Nissa: So, initially, my answer to this was, no, I don’t really see my medium or manipulation of it as a mode of critique. I set out to explore and shape interesting sounds and, sometimes, to react to a particular experience, but I’m not really actively critiquing via my processes or media.

But as I was finishing my response about how I got into electronic music, I noticed myself using some interesting language.

The foundation of new media is discrete units. Anything digital comprises discrete units; ultimately, it’s stored in 0’s and 1’s. A picture on your computer screen may look like it fades gradually from black to white, but in reality, the pixels are just small enough that you don’t see them, and each of those pixels is a different, particular shade of grey. There is no actual smooth, connected gradation.

This is different from a painting, for instance, because there are not discrete units of color.  Even if there appears to be a straight line in the painting, upon close inspection, there will be gradation and variation in the boundary of the line.  This gradation and lack of discrete units is characteristic of analog or “old” media.

If you read some new media theory, you’ll find that these characteristics of old and new media pervade society on many levels other than simple data storage. I could write an essay just on that, but basically, what I found interesting is that in my interest to get away from what feels like discreteness in more traditional, “analog” music, I moved to a digital medium, which is based entirely on discrete units. Clearly this wasn’t an active decision, but I thought I’d point it out anyway, since it’s an interesting turnabout.


Melanie: what were you thinking about when you made “bentpop”? to me, it sounds like some medieval court jesters mated with some of the characters from mario brothers 2 while everyone was on acid; i really liked it. ( ; but, what can you tell me about it in the way of inspiration, intention, etc.?


Nissa: Dude. I *love* that description. I had a lot of fun working on “bentpop.” It’s been with me for a while in various forms. And I definitely did have video games in my head as I worked on it. I wanted to do something lighter and more upbeat than my usual stuff. It started out when I was learning about circuit bending. So the beats are from a couple different semi-bent toys that I was working with. I kept playing with that and developing it on and off, but I was having a really hard time figuring what voice/texture/line(s) I wanted on top of the beats. Eventually, I came across this, a 1962 recording of the first computer-synthesized speech (and singing!) on the IBM 704. I had downloaded it to play along with historical news/event recordings for my grandpa’s 80th birthday a while back. It was the perfect thing to go with the bent beats.

I had trouble figuring out *how* exactly I wanted to combine the speech and the beats, though. I was really torn between making it pretty abstract, and keeping it in a fairly recognizable form. For a while I was trying to do both in one piece, but I could never really get it to flow the way I wanted. I did a lot better when I finally saved off the more abstract ideas into a separate file. Now, I see “bentpop” as the first in a series of three tracks. The second track will work with the singing portion of the demonstration, and the third will be much glitchier and noisier— kind of like you put all the sounds into a blender.


Melanie: finally, do you still wear tie dye? and i know that you are doing some nonprofit work. what do you do? and what inspires you to do it?


Nissa: hell yes, i still wear tie-dye! as for nonprofit work… I’m not sure I’m doing the kind you’re thinking of. I volunteer house manage, usher and bartend at a local theatre, which is home to 6 resident community theatre companies.  These are all volunteer companies, so no one’s getting paid. In general, I love creating, and I love when people choose to come together to create something.  There’s also something really powerful (and addicting) that happens when you’re performing live (in whatever manner) and you connect with your audience. By helping with the “mundanities” of the theatre, I enable other people to have/create those experiences.  Also, I count on people to do those mundanities so I can have and create those experiences, too.

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geared toward hooking up small businesses/organizations with useful tech tools/ways to implement said tools

a semi-geeky site to help you learn about cool new tools/sites/software.

Sort of like twitter, but with pixels instead of words and more creatively inclined.