CC Interviews Part IV – Stretta

CC Interviews Part IV – Stretta

This is part 4 in a series profiling SoundCloud users using Creative Commons licenses. to see the whole series, click here.

It’s easy to talk about how Creative Commons licenses and new technologies can change the way people interact with music, but few people are really pushing the boundaries as much as Stretta. Not only does he engage in a collaborative creative process, sharing incomplete tracks and ideas with his SoundCloud followers, but he also releases much of his finished work under a Creative Commons license. On top of that, he’s now released hundreds of CC samples as part of the Stretta Samples project. We picked Stretta’s brain about music, SoundCloud, Creative Commons, and the creative process.

Thanks for talking with me, Stretta. Can you describe the kind of audio you’re producing with your two accounts?

I working on two albums simultaneously right now, and they’re wildly different from each other. One is an ambient piano project, in the style of the Harold Budd/Brian Eno collaborations, and the other is highly electronic, constructed of elaborately orchestrated modular synth overdubs.

The plan is to release the piano ambient project as a free Creative Commons download and I’m not sure what I’ll do with the modular album yet, so I’m retaining the rights until I decide. I’m using soundcloud to post my progress on these projects, both publicly and privately to my followers. This has been very rewarding, and I’m able to get valuable feedback on tracks before they’re released.

The other account is exclusively a repository of Creative Commons licensed audio files – not complete songs, but useful loops, phrases and noise, free for anyone to use.

You sometimes release early versions of tracks for comment, and then upload updated versions as it develops. That seems to let your fans see and participate in your creative process. What was your inspiration or motivation for that?

I think this is a process that happened before, but behind closed doors. An artist invites friends and people involved in the project into the studio, and the track is played and comments are offered. Given long distance collaboration, and the distributed manner in which people can work together over the internet, there needed to be a similar online mechanism and this didn’t really exist before soundcloud.

The key here is fine granularity of control over access. Soundcloud allows me to privately grant access to groups of people that I want to get feedback from. I can allow fans to hear works in progress, without ‘giving away’ the full resolution track. Or, I can use soundcloud to distribute full resolution downloads. Or something in-between.

Of the tracks and samples you have uploaded, are there any individual tracks or sets you’re really excited about now? Why?

Currently, I’m most excited about the ‘A Funneled Stone’ set, because it is what I’ve been working on most intensely. We’re in the midst of a great modular synth renaissance, with all these amazing small garage operations churning out lovely, sophisticated modules. I was very frustrated by the technical and workflow limitations of integrating a modular with a computer, and this directly led to the development of ‘Volta’, a virtual instrument that turns a DC-coupled audio interface into a system that provides very high resolution, sample-accurate control over a modular synthesizer. Volta unearthed huge swaths of previously unavailable (or very difficult) techniques. Many of the tracks on ‘A Funneled Stone’ use a Risset rhythm, which is a sort of audio barber pole illusion where the tempo is constantly changing, but transitions are masked by subdividing the beat in clever ways. It pretty much guarantees no one will ever be able to dance to your music without posing a danger to themselves or others around them.

So, ‘A Funneled Stone’ is realized entirely on a modular, with the exception of drums on some tracks. Of course, using a modular isn’t the fastest way to work, but I find it the most satisfying. And fun. It breaks synthesis down to base principles and, at the lowest level, you find yourself making music exclusively through the manipulation of voltage. This is a reaction I had to the increased sophistication of software synthesizers. What is available today is simply amazing. In many cases, you can choose a preset, hold down a key and be rewarded with a gratifying evocative soundtrack instantly. But someone else can come up and press a key and get the same thing. It makes it difficult to hear the artist behind the output. For me, it feels less like expressing myself, and more like leveraging the talent of the preset designer. From an artistic standpoint, if the technology is masking the artist, it becomes less interesting to me. I’m all for powerful tools, and if I were a composer doing work for hire on a deadline, I’d be all over these things because they make you sound brilliant in no time. I’m also for empowering technology, but I want my tools to support expression, not obscure it.

In practice, I’m finding a lot of interesting aspects behind the process of making music with a modular. For example, MIDI seems to be very ‘note’ centric and synthesizers that use MIDI are also focused on how to handle individual note events. A modular enables me to easily think in terms of phrases, or groups of notes where the modulation spans a bar or several bars. Many people comment on how the music on ‘A Funneled Stone’ seems to ‘breathe’.

Some of your tracks are downloadable, and some of them have Creative Commons licenses, where others are just streaming. How do you decide which track gets which treatment, and does that have something to do with a collaborative creativity process?

Works in progress are streaming only. Older, pre-Creative Commons tracks retain their original licensing. Most of my newer finished tracks get a Creative Commons license, as the primary issue I’m struggling with isn’t exploitation, it is obscurity. I don’t know why unknown artists are so conditioned against exploitation of their work. That’s like the best thing that can happen to you. How many times have you seen a YouTube video and the comments are all people saying “who did the music? what music is this?” It is impossible to hide who made the music these days. Your music isn’t a limited resource. You’ll make more. That’s the easy part. Finding an audience is the hard part.

How did you start the samples project? What have the reactions to that been?

I routinely produce huge amounts of audio when testing software, or in the course of music production. In the past, this audio would sit unused on my hard drive, but given the popularity of sound loop libraries, it seemed foolish to simply sit on it. I released some sounds to the OLPC library, and that was the start of the Creative Commons sample outpouring. Today, I have a large number of samples available on SoundCloud, which is nice because you don’t have to download a multi-gigabyte library for just a few sounds. You can preview right in your browser window and download what you need.

How did you start releasing material with a Creative Commons license? How have the licenses been beneficial to you?

I’ve been releasing music independently for a while now, dating back to before Napster and such, and for a moment it seemed it may be possible to squeeze out a modest living selling recorded music, provided I live simply and keep expenses to a minimum. Then the complexion of the marketplace changed to a point where that was no longer possible for me.

While making a living was out of the question, reaching an audience is not. Creative Commons was the right tool to remove accessibility barriers and signal to consumers and other artists that it is ok to use, resample and repurpose the work. I see a lot of artists seeking ways to ‘get around’ copyright because they want to use All Rights Reserved samples in their music. I think this is the wrong approach. They want to take, when what they should be saying is “How can I help? How can I contribute?” It is time to be part of the solution.

Same goes for consumers who are indignant about RIAA lawsuits, take down notices and the corporate recording industry. Typing “Fuck the RIAA” on digg is an empty gesture. If you truly want to make a difference, the solution is right in front of you. Support independent music. Support artists who support Creative Commons.

How has Soundcloud helped you? What’s your favorite part of using the site?

The entire social aspect is powerful in ways I think many people have yet to appreciate. Who you follow and who follow affect how you listen to and discover new music and artists. Soundcloud has put me in contact with tons of amazing music and musicians that I would not have known about before.

The social commenting on SoundCloud is definitely my favorite part. Timeline-based commenting is an innovation that was sorely needed in the medium. It is almost like being in the same room with people as they’re listening to the track, and enormously gratifying when someone identifies a special moment or surprise you’ve built-in. Part of the art of a good piece of music is to set up an expectation and break it. If you think about it, that is the precise definition of humor.

One more thing: The kind of support I get from the SoundCloud community makes me want to write and release more music.

Wow! Thanks to Stretta for such an insightful interview. If you’ve made it this far without listening to Stretta’s tunes, it’s definitely worthwhile to spend some time on his profile, and if you’re a musician who uses samples in your work, check out his samples page!

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