Rutgers Opera at LPR: "The Threepenny Opera"
"Aida" at the Metropolitan Opera

Cocktail Conversation: Ian Williams

Ian williams battles
Way back in 2007, at the 2nd Fun Fun Fun Fest, I had this to say about my first experience seeing Battles:

"The NYC outfit, founded by former Don Caballero guitarist Ian Williams in 2005, is as close to experimental/new music as anything I've heard within a rock idiom. Elements of minimalism were prominent throughout the intense noise, especially in the incredibly complex, multi-layered rhythms. (At one point, I swear I heard a Balinese gamelan.) These guys are so good, I wouldn't be surprised seeing them on one of the Carnegie stages someday."

Close enough: Ian Williams makes his Carnegie debut this Friday with the world premiere of his first-ever work for orchestra, Clear Image, with the American Composers Orchestra. (Tickets and info here.) About the piece - which is being described as "raucous" - Williams, who will perform live electronics alongside the ACO, has this to say:

“If you consider a multi-track recording where the music actually isn't played, but just assembled, to be a lie, or an illusion, but you don't think that's actually a bad thing, then you might want that artificial quality and consider it an ‘enhanced’ reality. How then would you preserve that improvement in music that is to be played by real musicians in real time and space?”

I had the chance to sit down over a beer with Williams last week to discuss his compositional process, his influences, and what's happening with Battles these days. Highlights from our chat below.

On Transitioning To Orchestral Writing: I've known (ACO Artistic Director) Derek Bermel since the very early days of Don Cab. He asked if I wanted to do this, and I said: That sounds like a cool opportunity. Why wouldn't I want to try this? I mean, I have years of experience writing long-format songs. I have a multi-track background, so I'm not afraid to write 13 lines for different sounds that come together to form a cohesive whole. My music's always been about dividing lines so it becomes a plurality of voices. I just see this as a continuation of what I've always done. 

For me, I'm just trying it out, getting to know what an orchestra sounds like as an instrument. I think of it like the ADSR (Attack, Delay, Sustain, Release) on a synthesizer, with multiple instruments morphing in and out of each other, creating shifts of color. For some reason, it's always been fun for me to make something sound different than what it is, like when you make a guitar sound like a piano. Sort of like the Simpsons episode where they had to film a cow for this movie scene, and they got a bunch of cats and taped them together to make a "movie cow." It's also interesting when you pair instruments together, say a high chirping sound with a bass "thud," where the chirp becomes the attack and the thud becomes the decay.

To me, it all kind of connects in the way I think about these things, just like when I'm in the studio. But, the funny thing is, there are times when I want to say: "Just turn that up," but you can't, because you need to 12 strings to equal that. Those are things I'm still trying to learn.

On Preparing Clear Image: I got into playing piano when Battles recorded Gloss Drop, so I was able to work out some things there. I made a mockup in LOGIC of different music samples, then I made a series of unnatural jump cuts going from one sound to another. Then I wanted to see how well we could get humans to play the jump cuts. The rehearsals begin next week, so I don't even know how it's going to sound! That's the thing about working in such a large format: you don't really get a chance to work it out until its happening. 

There's a mysterious zone between what you intend to do as a musician, and what ends up coming out the other end. I'm sure it will come across differently to people than I had in mind. Do I care? I just know that's the reality. 

On Performing with Orchestra: I was actually looking forward to sitting in the audience of Carnegie Hall, getting to hear other people play my stuff. But, then they told me I was performing in it, so I had to write myself into it (laughs). That said, there's not going to be any lead solos, just some ambiguous electronics I'll be playing on an arpeggiator and another device I'm using to capture some audio. There's a fight, a sonic clash between me and the orchestra, but not like Schoenberg or anything. 

On Classical Music: I don't go to many orchestra concerts, but ever since Don Cab days, I've been aware of and sort of dancing around the whole post Steve Reich-Philip Glass-Terry Riley reality. Not necessarily being influenced by them, but at the same time, it's all just in the ether: in electronic music, in the kick drum, whatever.

On Battles' New Album: We were in the studio a lot of October, and we're heading back the day after Thanksgiving, with a new album scheduled for release in the spring. We haven't played a show in awhile, but we did play our new material at the Warp Records 25th anniversary show in September, in Krakow, Poland. 

On Future Composing Projects: I love stepping outside my normal pattern of doing things. Now that I've made this one, I've already said to myself: Ah, now I know what I want to do. I consider this sort of a 1.0. It's definitely something I'd like to keep doing. (Williams' next non-Battles project, a collaboration with Mantra Percussion, opens this year's Ecstatic Music Festival at the World Financial Center on January 15.)