The Microsound Scene: An Interview with Kim Cascone


The Microsound Scene

An Interview with Kim Cascone

Kim Cascone received his formal training in electronic music at the Berklee College of Music in the early 1970’s, and in 1976 continued his studies with Dana McCurdy at the New School in New York City. In the 1980’s, after moving to San Francisco and gaining experience as an audio technician, Cascone worked with David Lynch as Assistant Music Editor on both Twin Peaks and Wild at Heart. He has worked for Thomas Dolby’s company Headspace and as Director of Content for Staccato Systems. Since 1980, Kim has released more than 15 albums of electronic music and has worked/performed with Keith Rehberg, Oval, Scanner, Carsten Nicolai, Doug Aitken, and David Toop among others. Cascone was one of the co-founders of the microsound list ( and writes for Computer Music Journal and Artbyte Magazine.

For a look at Cascone’s talk and performance at the Tate Modern go to:

CTHEORY: You have mentioned before that the problem with some realtime performances of laptops is that the result(s) can be easily dismissed by the listening public as “spacebar music”. Do you feel that performing your own compositions from your laptop is a sufficient way to engage a concert audience?

KIM CASCONE: I am currently writing an article for Mille Plateaux about how the laptop computer has become a focal point for some of the issues surrounding “performance” in electronic music today. There are several historical forces at work here that need to be considered while addressing the problem of “laptop music”:

1) The role of the individual in the performance of electronic music. 2) The migration of electronic music to pop culture. 3) Acousmatic music presentation in academic music culture and… 4) The expectations of an audience in various cultural settings.

All of these forces are currently intersecting at one point and most people are unable to view these various forces with equal clarity. The resulting difficulty most people have with laptop performance is exacerbated by the fact that most people today arrive at electronic music through the cultural framework (and hence expectations) of pop culture…and even within the cultural framework of 20th century music there are people who still cling to the notion that music performance needs to carry a visual counterpart (I call this “gestural theater”) to the actual music being produced…as if the music is made more rich or meaningful through the gestures of a performer…people can’t let go of needing to verify causality in a musical setting.

I find it odd that people don’t demand the same proof of causality from a piece of visual art but some of this has to do with the difference between temporal and spatial arts. We demand to see proof of causality when a piece is being performed realtime. We need proof that the work is not just a temporal displacement; i.e. playback of a stored “performance”. I find this distrust and suspicion tied directly to the distrust of technology in general.

My view is that the laptop acts as a direct connection to the mind of a composer and bypasses most of the apparatus that has been put into place by pop culture over the past 100 years. Hence, many ideas can now be expressed which previously couldn’t be because of the highly developed motor skills required to play a musical instrument…

Besides, the fact is that there is very little difference between the construction of a synthesizer/sampler and a laptop computer…they both share I/O, CPU, some sort of storage, and a display for UI. It just happens that one is packaged like a computer and the other like a keyboard (usually)…

CTHEORY: In past interviews, I discussed the possible aesthetic homogenization of software driven music composition due to the proliferation, saturation and possible dependence of plug-in templates. Upon hearing your recent work (on your square CDs), I was able to detect exactly which kinds of plug-ins you were using and that started to take precedence over your compositional processes. Admittedly, I am also a composer who has trained himself to pay close attention to the diverse array of available compositional processes and techniques and so my ear would be tuned to these sorts of textures and forms but even those who are not actively composing music or listening to sounds deeply have still been able to notice the similarities in the bulk of electronic music being produced today. What do you think is the best way to compose new works where the processes are more concealed? Or, do you feel that it is best when these processes are transparent? Would you agree that your forms are meant to mirror Clement Greenberg’s idea that all media should be discrete and transparent? Is your recent work aspiring to be true to its sonic materials?

KIM CASCONE: I came up with the following quote for an article I wrote for Computer Music Journal:

“The medium is no longer the message, the tool has become the message”.

I think that this is an unavoidable situation given the reliance on digital audio tools for creating electronic music but it is no different than musicians being able to hear a Yamaha DX-7, Korg M-1 or an Arp 2600 on a recording except now they can hear plug-ins. Being aware of the tools used in a work of art is nothing new. I used to hang out with fine arts and film students who could trainspot a particular type of brush, medium or camera lens used in a work. The pressure to create sounds that have never been heard before and/or whose origins are undetectable reeks of a modernist notion of “originality”. Originality is no longer a relevant aesthetic problem…we abandoned that idea a long time ago. I like the fact that tools have become part of the message…it can create very complex surfaces upon which to work.

CTHEORY: Your work although densely textured, still seems to present multiples of the same family of timbres as if we are listening to many mutations on the same theme simultaneously or hearing different angles of the same shard. In a rather baroque way, your work seems to evoke the fugue-machines of Iannis Xenakis. I am also reminded of Hugh Le Caine’s “Dripsody” where he does endless variations on one drip or John Oswald’s manipulations of bell tones. You recently mentioned that you were hoping that future directions would eventually abandon minimalism. Do you see your recent approach as abandoning minimalism with regards to source timbre as well as structural variation? I am not suggesting the serialization of timbres but such ideas would lead to an increasingly maximal approach towards composition.

KIM CASCONE: I have always felt that the term minimalism when applied to music has been misused. It is difficult to create a work which is emptied of content and refers to itself. All artwork references external reality in some way but that might be a different discussion altogether but yes, I find minimalism to be an aesthetic dead end. It carries less and less information with repetition and I am much more interested in density of information i.e. multiple channels of information all turned on at once while listeners position themselves within this field.

The patch I constructed in Max enables me to control the amount of density via external MIDI controllers so I can create multiple spaces and port info back and forth between them by introducing new sounds and changing the overall context/mix. The minimalist sinewave/clicks and cuts/glitch movements are folding in on themselves because the work is too self-referential (in terms of genre) and it can’t evolve in an entropic cultural environment…

CTHEORY: What is your view on localizing and isolating sound objects? Or more importantly, what is your definition of a ‘sound object’? Does it differ much from Pierre Schaeffer’s “Objet Sonore”?

KIM CASCONE: I am currently reading Information Theory and Esthetic Perception by Abraham Moles in which he discusses the concept of “sonic objects”. I tend to think in terms of “sound grids” and “sound ornaments” and this informs much of the way I tend to work but all sound objects have a defined lifespan and I tend to submerge the idea of sound objects below the abstraction of layers, surfaces, and spaces. The objects I create are born and die within these spaces but all my objects are pre-defined.

My compositional process has more to do with creating the space in which sound objects can co-exist and form relationships. Again, these spaces are very dense and this enables the listeners to position themselves within this space so they can participate in the production of meaning…

CTHEORY: You have made a close connection between the aesthetic choices in your work and the philosophies of Deleuze. Are there any contemporary scientists, engineers or architects that are directly influencing the choices you make in your work?

KIM CASCONE: Contemporary? I am not sure all my influences are living but here are some of them: Georg Cantor, NOX, Marcus Novack, Henri Bergson, Iannis Xenakis, Manfred Schroeder, Greg Egan, Marcel Duchamp…

CTHEORY: Are you content with the technology you are currently using or do you have compositional ideas that would require some hardware or software that has not been invented yet? What kind of device or program do you envision?

KIM CASCONE: I am very content with Max/MSP ( but would like to spend time learning SuperCollider in the future.

CTHEORY: I have been reading the essay “Loving The Ghost In the Machine” by the Finnish scholar, Janne Vanhanen published in CTHEORY (Article 99, As mentioned in this essay, he continues to ask the question first put forth by the German philosopher Wolfgang Welsch, about the dependence on the visual in our culture to communicate the other arts such as sound production. Like Welsch before him, Vanhanen wonders:

“How to think of sound itself when the epistemological focus of our thinking and our concepts is located in a seeing subject?”

In your particular context, you prefer to project visuals as a backdrop to your compositions when performing live. How integral are these projected images to your compositional output? When I saw Markus Popp from Oval perform at the Western Front Society in Vancouver last year, he gave a local artist permission to provide visuals for his concert without ever seeing the content of the imagery in advance… It was as if he was not too concerned about the visual side to his audio presentation. Do you make your own visuals?

KIM CASCONE: This is a very deep subject that touches on many contingent concepts: Acousmatic music and pop audiences, the lack of “gestural theater” in microsound, manipulating the expectations of an audience, etc.. But in my own work, I try to manage the stress of providing music created and performed on a laptop where the gestures are micro and read as “clerical” by most viewers.

The expectation of gestural theater by pop audiences is great so I provide a visual world that complements the sound in the way it was produced (software failure, corruption, broken media, etc)… This gives people a place to focus since my job isn’t to wean them off of pop gestures…the video doesn’t supply gestural theater but does provide a portal where people can access other parts of the sound…the video was created by my wife who is a multimedia designer.

Jeremy Turner is instructing a new course on the “History of Digital Audio” at the Vancouver Community College in Vancouver, Canada. Turner is also a composer and inter-disciplinary artist. He is the co-founder of an international artist collective, 536 ( He is currently composing site-specific lieder to be performed by Avatars in 3D OnLive environments.