Perfect Sound Forever

David Slusser

Interview by Jason Gross (May 1998)

You may not THINK that you know about David Slusser's work but you probably do. His soundtrack work for films by Francis Ford Coppola, David Lynch and George Lucas as well as his background music for commercials are probably where you picked up on it or maybe even some of the museum installations that he's designed. Emerging as an artist in his own right, he recently released Delight At the End of the Tunnel on Tzadik, a fascinating, ambitious combination of tapes experiments, unusual instruments and found sounds.

PSF: Delight is the first release you've made as a solo artist. How do you see it as different from the other work that you've done other than the fact that you're working for yourself now?

I was on a completely different track pursuing my saxophone music. I come from a live performance background, where improvisation figured heavily in anything I'd write. Delight at the End of the Tunnel is a sculpture that I contemplated and built over time. I wouldn't have attempted it, had not digital audio workstations become more accessible. I saw I could realize some of my aural schemes on a larger scale. I've made sound effects for my day job forever, and tinkered with electronics playing keyboards in experimental rock bands. Composition for me was writing something in notation that would be playable by my band. I like to take themes and cast them in different musical colors, and have the band take them through improvisations. This still is the most satisfying. The music stays very much alive when exploration is built in. I applied my musical experience to the field of sound design for film and television, trying to make my work distinctive. At its best, this work is closest to what I've done in Delight. Though I really enjoyed sound composition, I didn't imagine having the resources to record and release a major work. I did, however, find ways to incorporate more electronics and sound effects into live playing situations.

When I work for other people like John Zorn or Malcolm Mooney I'm like a color for them. My part is usually improvisatory and I love the challenge of responding the right way for their composition. Delight is a whole construction of just my colors; painstakingly de- signed with its own architecture. That's very different for me as an improviser. Any music I've done for film was as a facilitator, trying to delever a specific mood or style that supports the visual. I do enjoy being an instrumentalist, having just played the daunting Theremin part of "Good Vibrations" for the Secret Chiefs Three on a new Beach Boys tribute, Smiling Pets, or sax, flute and Oud (my latest study) for Ron Anderson's (Molecules) latest project.

PSF: Did you find yourself 'visualizing' this work as you composed and performed it?

Yes, both visual models and a 3 dimensional sound field. My techniques for editing and mixing, and my sound library were all refined while working in the visual medium. Paul Schutze drew attention to my piece "Kubrick" in The Wire (Jan '98) as being built on filmic devices, such as the appearance in space of a movie logo, and he was right on the money. "Kubrick" included 3 of them (alternate demos for a THX logo project) strung together. I think Schutze was giving a positive endorsement of using the visual model to get some clarity or coherence out of "electro- acoustic" music. Getting sound effects to work in high end film audio makes you senstive to spatial perception from the start. It can be more like sculpture than music. "Dragon" included very literal sound effects to illustrate the story. A section of the score for "Sala", the only piece on the CD for live, interacting musicians, was actually a description of a scene of carnage in the desert, with definite events to visualize.

PSF: You've called your work 'sound composition.' What do you mean by this?

I use the term "sound composition" as a distinction from composing in musical notation, referring to the sculptural aspect mentioned above. I've been writing conventional western music in notation since jr.high, trying to internalize the play of intervals so I don't have to hear it played to get it down on paper. By organizing notes on a page, it's possible to create all sorts of musical structures, with themes and counter motifs and all sorts of cultural and emotional references with just paper and pencil. You can have a pretty clear idea of the end result just by reading the score. At least that's what our great Composers (with a captial C) did, and it's a fantastic mental feat. Musique Concrete or 'sound composition' in my opinion, requires that you actually need to hear and rehear a chunk of audio to understand how to use it, and to place it in context with other sounds to see what direction it takes. You react and respond to it. The raw audio determines the structure, character and movement to a greater extent than thinking about it abstractly. These are two distinct processes and both can build magnificent sonic edifices

PSF: How did working with John Zorn change your thinking about your work?

He took me seriously, and out of respect for him, I had to take myself more seriously. Watching him work as an artist has been very instructive. Part of his working method is to write a great quantity; one idea may be enough for a complete piece. When he was premiering Masada, I expressed my amazement when he called for "number 98" in the band's book. I hadn't written that many in 30 years of writing. He said it was a practice he got into when studying composition. Just crank 'em out one idea at a time without belaboring, and one of them is bound to be good. I have compositions that I've spent years completing, trying to exhaust all the implications of the material, polishing them over time. Hopefully I'm learning not to try to say it all in one piece. He's also opened up the threshold for chaos and dissonance.

Other aspects of his artistry I admire are his people skills, and his control of his image/product. Like some good film directors, he has the ability to make each person working for him feel like an important part of the process; this gets results. He has amazing focus, and can always explain to each member of an ensemble what he wants. I've been fascinated at how his sometimes abrasive public persona is at odds with the nice guy I know. He didn't set out to have one, but he has maintained a cult. I think it's in the interest of his continued artistic career to tightly control or protect who and what John Zorn and his music are - he sells John Zorn. If you want the "edge", he's the guy you go to. The rest of us are wannabes, sellouts or flavor of the month.

He actually had his most profound affect on me early in his career. I'm slightly older than he is, and had been playing my own saxophone based music for some time. Having just moved to the San Francisco area in 1977, I got some gigs at a run down club in Emeryville that featured experimental music. On an off night I went to the club to check out Eugene Chadbourne, whose recordings I'd liked, and he had the as yet unknown (to me) Zorn along on sax. Zorn really bugged me because he didn't play one conventional note the entire evening. My thing at the time was trying to say it all with notes; developing my melodic and harmonic concepts. I was upset and couldn't figure out if he was being pretentious or I was lowbrow and conservative. I did like their overall concept, though, and it encouraged me to delve more into sonic, non-idiomatic improvisation. I turned more toward my interest in electronics and tape manipulation to do this, however, because I hadn't developed a great vocabulary for it on sax like Zorn's. Then I injured my hand and had it in a cast for months and couldn't play sax anyway.

PSF: How is your work with Rubber City different from Delight or your film work?

Rubber City is a specific project much like (but pre-dating, I must say) Masada. Two horns, acoustic bass and traps playing originals composed for blowing in the "post-Ornette" vein. I hate to use labels, but I'm sure you know what I mean. Pundits have reduced Masada to "Ornette meets Klezmer". My writing for Rubber City springs from that era, when I learned to improvise freely. It's the language that was spoken when I startd to build my vocabulary (maybe the same case for Zorn). It's also about my relationship with the other horn player in the group, Ralph Carney. We first played together in Akron, Ohio (think rubber factories) in 1975 doing free jazz. I'm trying to present the same unfettered, emotionally direct music as then. The added delight is the remarkable rapport Ralph and I share. Our instant improvised section work is usually as compelling as anything I can write. So, I have a hot, live, improvisatory side, and a cool, calculated studio side to my twisted musical imagination.

PSF: Could you describe some of the sound design work you've done (now in museums)?

The Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art commissioned audio art for a radio series in 1986. Randy Thom, a mentor in film sound, was awarded a program and enlisted my aid. He had boxes of tape reels of industrial sounds recorded for the film KOYAANISQATSI that were never used. That film had Phillip Glass's music as the sole audio accompaniment instead. It was my job to make "music" from the assorted factory tapes. Randy then became involved in a major film and at the same time had a wedding and honeymoon, so I was left to my own devices. The result was "Suite Machines" which continues to play on public radio worldwide. Even though it was done with ancient technology, it's held up well enough to include 4 tracks on my Tzadik CD. It was also my first legitimate foray into "musique concrete". I had been making tape pieces for years for my own amusement and edification, but hadn't pursued it as an objective of my artistic career because of the cost of doing it right.

Now I briefly had the resources of Lucasfilm's sound department to go nuts with. As you may imagine many of the pieces were rhythmic in nature. Punch presses and metal shears can really lay down some deep grooves. I used (magnetic) 35mm film loops playing back on a whole row of dubbers. The loops were incredibly strong, Dolby A encoded, and capable of being made in exact- ing lengths for precise and sophisticated rhythms. Each could be offset or played backwards for other effects. That's quite an improvement over using 1/4" tape slung around the room on mic stands, being pulled over several tape machines by the capstan as I had previously done. For melodic material I included squeaks and creaks (alternately like brass or strings) or motors and articulated sounds. On one piece I eq'd and prepared loops of turbines that I played like a giant organ on the mixing console. Another was based on the harmonics (and subharmonics) of 60 Hz built slowly in waves as a Scottish engineer describes 60 cycle power and how he was once electrocuted. I added thunder, buzzes, zaps and fries to illustrate the story.

The other museum piece is a Levi's for Women commercial in the permanent collection of the New York Museum of Modern Art, though I doubt it's there for the sound. It's a computer animation from Pixar, directed by Jan Pinkava, who did GERI'S GAME which just got an Oscar for best animated short. There is no voice or music, however, so the sound does figure a great deal. It has a creaky wooden artist's mannequin rummaging through a box of balls. I had to develop a whole vocabulary in sound, not just to make the computer image seem real, but to express the character's emotions, and get the ad agency's copy points across. If you can be proud of a something like a commercial, this would be it.

The bulk of my sound design work has been in television commercials. A few notable film moments include TERMINATOR 2, where the new, morphing Terminator grows crowbars for arms and chases after the heroes fleeing car; piking his way up the back, smashing the rear window, getting blasted and rolling xylophonically down the street. I did some strange ambiences and tuned airplane engines in CON AIR, subterranean drippings for THE ROCK, ejection seats and stealth bomber crashes for BROKEN ARROW, and though not working as a sound designer, contributed much strangeness in the music tracks in some films, like a symphonic work and a train engine played backwards at half speed, or a high speed wire drill mixed into the orchestra.

Earlier in my career, I spent 2 years as the Foley recordist at Skywalker ranch. This could be very challenging, like coming up with the sound of brushing away cobwebs as Indiana Jones explores a creepy cave. I remember DRIVING MISS DAISY as an opportunity to do more atmospheric things like branches tapping a window in the winter wind.

PSF: You've worked on film music for Lynch, Coppola and Lucas. How would you describe each of their approaches to music for their films? How did you come up with scores you did for them?

The small amount of my music that has been used in their work came about from my job as their music editor. Though very different in their approaches, each loves to move the music around; try it in different situations, the same as their pictorial editing. I think I won their confidence at being able to do this to a score, cutting or combining where neccessary. This drives the composer crazy (except Badalamenti). Composers usually insist that their notes are intended for an exact timing within a given scene. The music editor's job is usually to keep the composer's intent sacrosanct. The reality, especially with Lynch, Coppola and Lucas, is that the pictorial order of things remains in flux up through the final mix of a film. I've been brought in late in the game as a hatchet man on many films, and you can well imagine that I'm working for the director rather than the composer. It's usually been in the final stages where they find themselves short, or have overlooked some source cue like a radio or muzak, or have drastically recut something that I've been called upon to provide music. It's a mutually exploitive situation, usually something practical and quite literal.

My experiences with David Lynch did get much more involved, though. For TWIN PEAKS, I knew I would have to be flexible as an editor, so I mixed down the modest number of cues Angelo wrote in every combination I could, even separate instruments, and built them differently for each scene, allowing David to transform them during the course of a scene. Certain combinations became themeatic and lasted throughout the series. In WILD AT HEART, Lynch really relied on me again for that flexability. Since the picture never locked, even during the mix, he painted himself into a few corners with the existing music. He went out driving late one night during the course of the mix, and heard an old song on the radio that inspired him with some unifying musical ideas. The next day he asked me to put a band together and do some knockoffs. I had the guys in the scoring stage by late afternoon. He was really happy with what I came up with, and asked me to do one of Angelo's themes as well. Now we were cooking. We ended up with David conducting us doing atmospherics for underscore. He used a great deal of it in the film, as well as conducting me playing low string pads on a synclavier in the final mix. I was flattered when he actually hired me as a composer to do the same sort of thing when he did FIRE WALK WITH ME. I've no illusions about being a film composer, because almost all (Hollywood) films are put together as a marketing package deal, and frequently the director has little input as to who he has as a composer; it's always the same handful.

To compare those three directors, I would say Lynch approaches the music as being more integral with the total design of all the sound. He actively crosses the line between music and effects, and it pays off in the incredible atmospheres of his films. Lucas is utimately formulaic, but it's a formula he's really put his own stamp on. As a great storyteller, music has its place for him to help tell his consistantly epic stories. I wish he would rely on music a little less, but this type of entertainment is not there for subtlety. I've hidden a lot of difficult music edits behind the (thankfully frequent) explosions and big sound effects to get the hero's fanfare and the villan's tense sneaking to fall where George wanted them. Coppola has a rich musical backround, and effectively uses music in a classic film sense, but loves the composer to experiment. You can get caught up in his creative enthusiasm; he's easily as out there as Lynch.

PSF: Could you talk about the Thornhill School Band upcoming CD?

Don't know if you're familiar with the first release by these grade school improvisers under the direction of Randy Porter, entitled Big Music, Little Musicians (Retro-P004). Porter is the education director of the Berkeley Symphony, an active musician and composer, and teaches band in the Oakland Public Schools. The new CD features guest artists Marshall Allen and Tyrone Hill from the Sun Ra Arkestra, and compositions conducted by composers Fred Frith, Terry Riley and myself, as well as some student's pieces. As yet untittled, its pre-mastering was postponed through the recent birth of Randy's first child. Now he's ready to finish it off. Look for it this summer.

PSF: You've done work for a number of commercials. At one time, this was seen as degrading but it seems that the companies are now looking for more adventurous work. Thoughts on this?

No contest as far as any sound work that really pays. Films want it very literal and very big these days. Film producers are too scared to do anything ambiguous. On the other hand, people who make creative deisions for commercials are driven differently, and frequently are a team of frustrated "creative types" who try and outdo each other with their conceptual genius.

Producers refer to the commercials they're doing as "the film", trashing the TV programming that surrounds it. So much more is spent per minute on commercials, resulting in production values way higher than TV or most film. The scutiny of each detail for nuances of meaning, impact, style and demo- graphic appeal can be excrutiating, however. Kind of keeps you on your toes. Without a doubt, the ad agency people are seeking out the very best talent for all aspects of the production. Though not proud of promoting Nike, I did sound design for a David Kronenberg directed spot that included some creepy music by John Zorn, and no narration; a very nice "film". Zorn and I were also teamed for an ILM produced Nike spot. Still, the majority of commercials you see are just voice and music. Because no natural sound or sound from the set exists for computer generated images, these are what seem to require the specialty type of sound design I do to bring them to life. I'm also lucky to have developed a long and close working relationship with Pixar and I.L.M.'s computer animation department. I've done several types of dancing candy, morphing cars, flying computer chips, beer stealing cactus' and all the dirty dishes, pots and pans in New York pounding out S...O...S in a catchy rhythm.

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