Expression & Automation: An Interview with Jute Gyte’s Adam Kalmbach
This interview contains exactly ZERO questions about Manowar. Sorry people.
Hot on the heels of our recent articles about Jute Gyte, Dubya and I were granted the opportunity to speak to the project’s only member, Adam Kalmbach, about his work, his horoscope and his cats*. And since I am irrationally afraid of interviews, I guess Dubya thought it would be hilarious to make me conduct the whole thing. So here it be. (Side note: During the course of our organic and USDA certified hormone-and-antibiotic-free conversation, which totally occurred in person and not via email, most of our prepared questions went out the window.)
Richter: Why don’t you start by telling us about Jute Gyte’s cover art. There is an obvious aesthetic division between the art you choose for your metal and electronic releases. Is any of it your own art? If so, what is the creation process like? And how do you go about selecting from the art of others?
Kalmbach: Almost all of the art is from the public domain. One exception is the cover of Dialectics, which is simply a photo of the grass in my backyard. When selecting art for the black metal albums I usually have a theme in mind that I want the art to reinforce. I don’t feel the same responsibility to represent extramusical themes with the electronic albums, so their art tends to develop more freely. For Discontinuities, Vast Chains, and Ressentiment I wanted to find paintings that used mise en abyme to convey information that would otherwise be outside the painting’s frame. I originally intended to use one of Winslow Homer’s exquisite Prout’s Neck seascapes for the cover of Ship of Theseus, but ended up moving in a different direction. A few lines from the lyric to the song “Ship of Theseus” are from contemporary reviews of Homer’s seascapes.
So it’s safe to say you think the visual aspect of your releases is still important, even in this ethereal digital age of ours? Why was the use of mise en abyme important? Does it have any connection to the music on those records?
Honestly, album art is not especially important to me as a listener, but for my own work I do my best to make art that supports the music’s themes or general tone. Discontinuities, Vast Chains, and Ressentiment were my first microtonal albums, and the use of mirrors to show what would otherwise be outside the paintings’ frames is analogous to the introduction of microtones that had previously been outside the frame of my music. Most of the time the album art is not so directly related to the musical content of the albums, of course.
Ah, yes, the microtones: What drew you to this kind of music? Is there anything about black metal that lends itself specifically to the incorporation of microtonality?
I began using microtones because I increasingly found, when writing riffs, that I needed more notes than I had access to: a riff would move inexorably toward a C half-sharp, for instance, but I had no C half-sharps, only C naturals and C sharps. I chose to use a guitar with a microtonal fretboard because the alternatives either lacked precision (bending strings, using a slide, or—with my limited guitar skill—playing with a fretless guitar) or would not allow comprehensive use of microtones (retuning the strings on a standard guitar).
I think black metal is not only a highly chromatic idiom but an unusually open one; it can accommodate microtonality easily. I have a romantic and self-serving conception of black metal as a genre with a certain respect for idiosyncrasy and adventurousness built into its foundations, where artists can pursue individual creative goals wherever they may lead and the main audience expectation is that the artists remain indifferent to audience expectation. An obvious example of this ethos is Mayhem‘s decision to create Grand Declaration of War even though releasing De Mysteriis Dom Sathanas Part 2 would have been the easiest thing in the world, but I don’t mean to refer only to drastic experiments and shifts in style. I see the same ethos in the work of artists like Judas Iscariot who, without major stylistic changes but also without complacency, gradually refine their compositional voice over the course of several albums into something singular. What these approaches to musical problems have in common, I think, is that the goals seem to be personal, not motivated by community or audience, and that they seem like worthy challenges, undertakings that inspire the best work the artists are capable of producing. None of this is unique to black metal, but in black metal it is read as a sort of aloof nobility and made central to the style.
So I’d imagine that electronic music could accommodate microtonality even more easily than black metal, given that electronica can be at once a boundless and highly self-serving world–if you’re not making dance music, that is. And you are most definitely not making dance music. (Are you?) So tell me something about the construction of your electronic works. What is the mindset during creation? What is the inspiration? How does the whole process differ from composing metal?
Definitely, electronic music encompasses all sorts of genres and has included microtones more or less from its inception. That said, much of my electronic music isn’t microtonal: Dialectics is mostly diatonic. In part this is because pitch content isn’t the point of an album like Dialectics. In my black metal music, pitch has generally been the most important element, followed by rhythm, then timbre. With Dialectics and its precursors (as opposed to the more ambient electronic work I’ve done), I try to invert that hierarchy, focusing on the development of timbre and rhythm while pitch content remains peripheral and static if it exists at all.
Starting with the tracks “Textpath” and “Volplane” from the album Volplane, most of my electronic work has been built on ostinati that continuously transform over the length of each track. If you listen to the first five seconds or so of a track like “Dialectics” or “Delimit”, you’ve heard every sound source used in the track, but each sound is being processed through many automated effects that gradually transform it into a series of totally different sounds over the track’s length; often the rhythm is gradually shifting as well. This is a fun way to work: it’s enjoyable to be surprised by the new identities the initial sounds assume as their automated processes play out and they interact with one another. Sometimes the tracks just consist of these transformations playing out, other times there are additional gambits. Several of the tracks on Dialectics have pitch content that is unrelated to the rest of the music in tempo and rhythm, like the independent percussion sections in Varese‘s orchestral work. Sometimes I set the tempo to continuously decelerate over a track’s length, then make the track grow gradually busier/denser to confuse the listener’s ability to perceive the tempo change; or I do the opposite, gradually increasing the tempo while also thinning the track’s texture. Occasionally there is an actual performed improvisation mixed in with the automated material. I suppose the inspiration, and the mindset during creation, is curiosity about how the sounds will evolve and interact over time.
This kind of gradient structure isn’t something I’ve done in my black metal work, which instead has large gestures and contrasting, discrete sections. From Ship of Theseus on I’ve been trying to bring the two styles closer together, marrying the black metal’s expressiveness with the detail and focus on process in the electronic material.
I’d like to come back to your comment about bringing the two styles together in the future, but first let’s talk a little bit about that word “automated” in regards to your electronic works. What does this mean for you as the author of these pieces? Do you feel any sort of relaxed authorship or detachment from the art? Obviously you are the only person in the room at the time of creation, but do you feel like these are fully your creations or at least partially pieces which create themselves? Do the grim specters of Artificial Intelligence or the Myth of the Self have any bearing on your thought process during composition?
In mixing, automation refers to the programming of changes to parameters over a length of time, the most basic example being a fade-in, where you program the volume to linearly increase from X to Y over Z seconds. In my work I try to combine so many automated changes of parameters that I can’t predict the synergistic effects that will result. For instance, starting with a simple periodic sound, like a bass drum rhythm, I’ll run the sound through a ring modulator that linearly increases in frequency over seven minutes, a pitch shifter that linearly decreases the sound’s pitch over seven minutes, a reverb unit that cycles from minimum to maximum room size and back every two minutes, etc. Each of these changes over time is individually easy to imagine, but the combination of so many continuously shifting parameters can create surprising developments, especially when every other sound in the track is undergoing its own set of continuous parameter changes. So I do feel a sense of relaxed authorship and detachment – I like to be surprised by how the sounds come to life and evolve. This is, again, distinct from the black metal, which is very controlled and in some ways less fun to create than the electronic stuff.
I’m not usually thinking about extramusical concepts when I write music, though sometimes I have a general tone in mind, and I’m sure whatever an artist consumes finds its way into their work somehow. Regarding AI and music, I have a dream that someday David Cope will decide to release the source code to the various iterations of EMI (a series of software programs that produce new musical pieces based on whatever scores the user inputs) on Github.
The process of integrated automation you describe sounds like a pretty unique way to make music. Did you come up with it on your own or are there other artists–either inside or outside of electronic music–who inspired you to work in this way? And as for merging your compositional techniques for metal and electronica, are you already experimenting with automation in black metal? If not, do you think you will one day?
I would be surprised if no one else was doing something like it. It’s similar to some real-time techniques, like modular synthesis or pedal chains in noise music, where a network of components becomes complex enough to produce unexpected results, and to contrapuntal devices like canons, where simple rules generate complex textures, or linear counterpoint, where independent melodic lines are combined without concern for the resulting harmonies. These contrapuntal methods, which get a lot of use on the black metal albums, manipulate pitch content to generate harmonies, while the automation, pedal chains, etc. are mainly used to generate timbres. I think using multiple simultaneous meters and/or tempos to create cross-rhythms or interference patterns is a rhythmic analog to those techniques.
The challenge with using lots of timbral automation in the black metal work is that it tends to obscure pitch content, and I’m reluctant to reduce clarity of pitch when I’m writing for piles of guitars with up to 24 distinct pitches in circulation. The black metal is largely about development of pitch content, while most of the electronic music is about timbral development; rhythmic development is a secondary concern in both styles. This difference in focus leads to the structural differences I mentioned earlier. I would like to treat the three facets of the music equally without sacrificing complexity, but I’ve found it a hard problem. I hope to eventually get there, or at least generate interesting failures in the attempt.
Generating interesting failures: in other words, Art. On that note, do you tend to think of your work on a spectrum of success and failure? Are there any specific successes in your mind; any specific failures? Is failure really such a bad thing, or can it be something radiant and transformative?
I mostly think of my work as an ongoing process, something I feel compelled to keep doing. When an album is done I stop thinking about it and move on to the next one. Asked to evaluate the albums I’ve released in terms of success and failure, I would have to say they are all failures, and all the albums to come will likely be failures as well. It seems to me that unremitting failure to reach difficult goals is the most an artist can hope for. I have a hard time listening to my past work, with the exception of Old Ways, which I listen to once every year or two and somehow manage to enjoy.
What do you imagine people feeling or thinking while listening to your wildly unconventional approaches to either electronica or black metal? Do you ever try to imagine what someone might be doing while listening? (E.g. writing, studying, cleaning, headbanging, driving, gaming, drinking heavily while staring into the void . . .)
When I’m writing music I try very hard to forget that an audience exists. I think that, for me, anticipating the responses of a hypothetical audience would essentially kill my ability to create. I can say that I hope the music encourages and rewards close, repeated listening. I find engaging with music on that level one of life’s most positive experiences. As for feelings, I personally think the black metal albums are more emotionally expressive and I hear a variety of moods in them – angry parts, sad parts, funny parts, and parts without any clear emotive content. The electronic stuff seems to me to have a much larger percentage of parts without clear emotive content, but this is all very subjective and I’m not sure how much my personal reading is worth.
Clearly it is time to talk about “The Sparrow”. Since the beginning of this dialogue you have made this new track available for digital download on bandcamp. I have to admit that the dense liner notes regarding the construction of this song are daunting, even dizzying. I made the mistake of reading them before listening, and I was worried for my sanity. Then I listened, and it all really came together. Does “The Sparrow” fit into the overarching evolution of your metal music, or is it more of a one-off experiment? Did you envision it sounding like an apocalyptic plague of insects?
I was able to write detailed notes about “The Sparrow” because it is a rare instance of a piece coming together exactly as I planned it and is thus way more unified and explicable than most of my black metal work, which usually ends up being more intuitive and discursive. It’s not a one-off experiment, but I don’t know how indicative it is of the direction my future work will take; a few other tracks, like “Ship of Theseus” and “Griefdrone”, are similarly systemic and unified, but tracks like that will probably always make up a minority of my work. Most of the time when I come up with some grand scheme for a track, only half of it works and I end up writing different kinds of material to replace the other half. I don’t think one way of writing is better than the other. One of the fun things about writing a track like “The Sparrow” is that, despite knowing exactly what the pitches and rhythms/tempos will be, it’s impossible for me to imagine what the finished piece will actually sound like. So I didn’t envision it sounding like an insect swarm, but that’s a good analogy for micropolyphony.
I’m tying to imagine what it would be like to be so in the dark about how a finished project would come out–and I can’t, but it sounds thrilling. If “The Sparrow” is not necessarily indicative of the direction you are heading, what is? What’s next on the docket for Jute Gyte? More black metal? More electronica? More splits? All or none of the above?
I plan to release a black metal album later this year, and I’ll probably release an electronic album in 2018. The black metal album (which was written before “The Sparrow”) hopefully represents an expansion of the style of Ship of Theseus and Perdurance.
Can’t wait. Lastly, and most importantly, we here at Toilet ov Hell are notorious for worshipping The Riff. If I were holding a gun to your head and no one in the vicinity cared enough to alert the authorities and I asked you “Favorite metal riff of all time?” what would you say?
I can never choose, even at hypothetical gunpoint! Two that come to mind immediately are:
Today Is the Day – “Mayari” – Riff @ 0:00
Judas Iscariot – “Where the Winter Beats Incessant” – Riff @ 2:00
Thanks for the chat, Adam. It has been most illuminating.
Thanks for doing this interview!
* 2/3 of this final clause will prove false.
(Header image: “The Angelus”, Jean-François Millet, 1859, oil on canvas; used for the Jute Gyte Works and Days cassette box released by Ratten Im Gemäuer, 2016.)