Cyber Zen Sound Engine is a refreshing new voice in contemporary instrumental electronics; one that is destined for greatness beyond cult status. The band (a pair of Texan individuals who go by the names GraceNoteX and Smith6079) explores a unique fusion of soft ambience peppered with energetic (but never overt) dynamic qualities, producing work that appeals to both camps in modern electronic music
INTERVIEW with CZSE
Q: How and why did CZSE form?
GraceNoteX: The "why" of CZSE is an intense lifelong love affair with sound. I have loved music and all interesting sounds since before I could talk. The way sound can create a sense of place, or evoke emotion, or transport me out of time, has always fascinated me. I love the way ambient music enriches an environment without overwhelming it. This all leaves me with a need to make music myself.
The "how" is a little more involved.
Clay [Smith6079] and I have been friends since high school. When I first returned from college, we were in a series of guitar-based rock bands together. I was living a musical double life in those days. I was playing various guitar-oriented genres, everything from radio rock to punkabilly, even a terribly embarrassing stint in a southern rock band. All the while listening to people like Eno, Fripp, Gary Numan, Kraftwerk, Cluster, all this wonderful proto-electronica, these great experiments in musical possibilities.
I dropped out of performing for a few years, I'd become as bored playing guitar music as I'd been listening to it, and it was beginning to show in my playing. I felt somewhat trapped, the Houston and surrounding music scenes are so guitar oriented. After the hiatus, I was on the verge of buying a new guitar and probably going through another run through the same musical rut, when I was involved in a very serious accident that cost me my ability to play guitar.
My first reaction was, "Well, that's the end of me as a musician." But my rehab therapist angered me into the realization that I had been trained as a keyboardist (classical piano in college), and had made most of my income with my computer skills, and that combining the two offered me more than a chance to continue as a musician, they offered me the opportunity to actually explore the music I most love.
I spent several days at Evens Music driving Steve Locke out of his mind with questions about MIDI and digital audio and synth programming. I eventually walked out with the basis for what would become the Buddha Box (CZSE's project studio).
After a year of hiding in the studio developing my programming and recording skills, I seduced Clay into working with me again. I knew that he shared my musical vision.
We set out to produce music for ourselves. The music that was implied in the territories between the various branches of ambient, electronica, IDM, illbient, sound collage and old-school EM was what we wanted to explore. We wanted to have this music to listen to for ourselves, so we started producing it. In fact, there are several CDs of unreleased music that we play for our own amusement. Some of this is simply too raw to release, some of it hasn't matured to the point of sharing with others. But the first test that everything must pass before we release it is that we must enjoy it ourselves.
Smith6079: When my girlfriend called me to inform me about the accident, I flew to the hospital and caught Dan coming out of the ER. I'll never forget looking down at him on the gurney and saying "Well, I can't see anything good coming out of this." And he looked up at me and said "We'll see." We spent the rest of the summer in various hospitals. His attitude never changed.
Years ago, we began discussing the possibilities of making electronic music. We saw the technology developing. We knew it would take time to develop and then some time to filter down into the masses. Meaning that it would get cheap enough to put it within our reach financially. Then we forgot about it. Then the accident.
This is the music that we were born to create. This is the music that comes naturally to us. I never could write other kinds of music. I never could create that kind of relationship to it. Neither of us ever wanted to be in another band. We were both disgusted when the competing ego insanity. We check our ego's at the door. We don't need them to work together. We have a true partnership.
Q: One assumes from the band's name that you envision a bond between cybernetics and zen. Could you elaborate?
GraceNoteX: Personally, I find a bond between Zen and absolutely everything. But a big part in our choosing the name Cyber Zen Sound Engine was the wonderful irony of combining a mental discipline designed to free us from the human condition of mistaking our symbols for the reality they represent, and a world that is comprised entirely of symbol and representation.
After all, virtual reality is total unreality. Reality is like pregnancy, it either is or it is not, and there are no degrees between. And yet, we live in an age where a form of "almost pregnant" can exist; a zygote in a test tube on the verge of implantation is a "near pregnant" state. And our very real communities are reshaped by virtual communities. As we negotiate this new landscape, I can hardly think of a place where Zen's insistence on remaining free to respond to "what is" with freedom from mindless consistency is more valuable than in cyber-space.
We originally worked under the name The Next Voice You Hear. When we decided to release our first CD, we tried to come up with a new name, and somehow the term "Cyber Zen" came up. We started amusing ourselves creating "ad slogans" to go with the name, such as "The sound of one hand clappingÉ (well, virtually)" and "Real art for virtual enlightenment" and "Cyber Zen Sound Engine, the next best thing to being here now."
In the process, the name stuck. And the more serious side of the relationship between Zen and the growing "virtualization" of our world made the name more attractive.
Smith6079: Many years ago I read "Psycho-cybernetics" by Maxwell Maltz. I found it interesting although I couldn't tell you a single thing he said. I may have incorporated some of his ideas (or not) but what was most valuable was that I recognized it as a model. Meaning that it was simply another system of pattern recognition-- a way of quantifying reality but not reality itself. This realization continues to serve me.
I studied Taoist thought and early Chinese history for about ten years, which lead me to include Zen and early Japanese history-among other things. In the process, my life transformed. The context in which I lived shifted from a context of Mind to the context of Self (my cosmological model). Hopefully, this communicates in our music.
Q: The average person erroneously perceives computerized music as dispassionate. What do you think will happen when Artificial Intelligence is achieved? Will A.I.s embrace the notion of creating music? If so, what inspirations will they draw upon?
GraceNoteX: Interesting question.
I agree with both aspects of your statement. If computerized music were without passion, I personally would have no interest in it. And I very much hope our music communicates our passions. But every genre has its dispassionate works, and our genre is no exception. I think the average person is quick to attribute the lack of inspiration to the technology simply because it fits their preconceptions about computers. But uninspired music is the fault of the artist, not the tools.
Will A.I.s embrace music making? Hmmm...will A.I.s embrace anything?
First, I think there is a critical distinction between Artificial Intelligence and Artificial Consciousness.
There have been some very interesting advances in A.I., and we may not be far from an A.I. application that can pass the Turing test. But A.I. remains merely a tool to assist naturally occurring consciousness. It has yet to develop volition. I personally feel that passion and inspiration arise from consciousness, not intelligence.
I've heard the results of some of the musical applications of A.I. One was music created with experimental compositional software that could be directed to compose in the style of various classical masters. It did an outstanding job of imitating Bach's style - Bach's algorithmic approach to composition makes a good target for A.I. It also did a great job of capturing the style of Mozart; but not the passion of Mozart.
It was the musical equivalent of software that can create coherent sentences in the style of Shakespeare. It may sound very Shakespearean, but lacks the depth that makes Shakespeare great writing.
On the other hand, I've seen some very modest A.I. based musical accompaniment software, a package called Band In a Box, used to great effect as a tool by some artists. The idea of BIAB is to allow the artist to set some parameters, and the software will create backing tracks or lead lines within those parameters. One of the things you can do is have it comp in the style of certain well-known artists, for example Monk or Charlie Parker. Just using it in that fashion is entertaining only to the artist, and mostly as an improvisational exercise.
But by lifting fragments from the tracks BIAB creates and re-using them to create compositions, I've seen artists use the A.I. to generate ideas, which they respond to in a way that is expressive. Again the A.I. is a tool for consciousness, but it is consciousness that provides the element of meaning.
I've read quite a lot of the philosophizing on the nature of consciousness, Hofstadter's "Godel, Escher, Bach", Penrose's "The Emperor's New Mind", and Dennett's "Consciousness Explained" which would be more accurately titled "Consciousness Explained Away." And much of that writing essentially argues that either consciousness is an illusion that naturally arises out of complex biological machines, or it is the unexplainable result of random chance at work in our brains at a quantum level that gives the illusion of will and awareness.
And though there are some very interesting ideas and arguments presented in all of these writings, my reaction to the idea that consciousness is an illusion is at best "case not proved." All of the modern philosophers start from the standpoint of fully discarding Descartes' "ghost in the machine" as a quaint notion with no real merit, and maybe some of Descartes' concepts about consciousness do owe more to superstition than science. Yet, studies of even very young children show that they have the ability to differentiate between living things and the most cleverly animated objects. We have some innate ability to discern the presence of a living force, to recognize consciousness.
I think the real question becomes, how correct are all of these various ideas? What if there is some truth to all of the competing ideas, that consciousness is something real and beyond the "machine" itself, BUT merely needs a complex enough machine to reside in? Can we construct a machine sufficiently complex to house consciousness as well as intelligence? Artificial Consciousness might well embrace music, and would probably draw inspiration from the same source we do: "What does it mean to be?"
Smith6079: Computerized music is almost a complete misnomer. The studio is an instrument unto itself now. Almost every piece of gear we have has a chip in it. A lot of problems have been solved with digital equipment. Creating music that is inspiring was not one of them. It has also created a whole new set of problems. Now you have to be a technician/musician. We are making music in a new and very different way than it has been done in the past. The end product is not a documentation of an event.
Regarding artificial intelligence: I know very little about what is going on in that field. I can say that it will undoubtedly become another tool to be used in an artful manner.
Q: What other contemporary electronic artists interest you?
GraceNoteX: First and foremost, Brian Eno. The man is a master and a true genius, and I don't think it is possible to overrate his contribution to electronic music. His more recent work may not be the milestones albums like "My Life in the Bush of Ghosts" or "Music for Airports" were, but I still find brilliance in everything he touches.
Future Sound of London really excited me about new possibilities for both ambient and electronica when they released "ISDN" and "Lifeforms," and I think the "My Kingdom" EP is a real masterwork.
I like Paul Miller, who is better known as DJ Spooky. His concept of illbient has really interested me, and I think his most recent jazz CD is truly inspired. I like the work he did with Robin Rimbaud. I enjoy Robin's work as Scanner and Scannerfunk as well. "Wave of Light by Wave of Light" spent a lot of time in my CD player. Both of these artists are worth serious attention.
Working with Matt Borghi did nothing to diminish my respect for him as an artist. I think "Huronic Minor" is an amazing and daring minimalist work. I'm still in awe of that CD.
I like Talvin Singh, and Boards of Canada, eM, Biosphere, Vir Unis is interesting. I enjoy David Holmes, though his most recent work was disappointing to me.
Matthew J. Harris is an upcoming artist that I'm very impressed by. "Swans Mate for Life" proves that ambient can be both utilitarian and brilliantly emotional at the same time. His CD "The Cure May Never Come" was an incredibly ambitious concept that very few artists could have pulled off, and he pulled it off brilliantly.
It isn't very "cool" to say this, but I find Trent Reznor's work very interesting. I don't enjoy his adolescent angst histrionics very much, but he has an amazing talent for creating dark minimalist soundscapes, with brilliant subtle touches. In particular some the work on the "Things Falling Apart" EP, and the bonus disc of the limited edition of "And All That Could Have Been," some of the instrumental work on "The Fragile," strip "The Great Below" of its vocals and the instrumental track is quite wonderful. They all make me wish he would have the courage to set aside the Trent Reznor personae he's created for at least one project and release an entire CD of purely ambient instrumental music. I think he could produce something tremendous if he wasn't concerned with how well it sold.
I've been listening to a lot of older music lately, Terry Riley, Kraftwerk's "Radio Activity," the Bowie/Eno collaborations.
Smith6079: I listen mostly to college radio--KTRU at 91.7fm--to be specific. The format is indy eclectic--you never know what they are going to play next and they probably only know what they will play next. I did recently hear something by a Japanese ultra-minimalist that I can't wait to track down. I think the name is Minekaka. Sorry, but I haven't had time to do that yet.
Q: What was the last scientific discovery that made you go "Wow!"?
GraceNoteX: This is going to sound a bit clich, but it is the honest answer. The data coming from the Hubble telescope is exactly what the word "Wow!" was invented to describe. The combination of the raw beauty of the images, which need no scientific context or explanation to be awe inspiring, and the realization that we are not merely peering across vast distances of space, but incomprehensible distances in time can only be met with "Wow!"
It is amazing that they can point Hubble into an apparently empty, black portion of space and capture an image that not only pre-dates man, an image so much older than any life on Earth or even the Earth itself, that it is very close to the beginning of this universe. It is like magic, looking back into time this way. I can't really grasp the amount of time we're talking about, but just sensing its enormity gives me a truer sense of what it means to be this fleeting, tiny human.
Smith6079: The fact that glaciers in Alaska have receded more in the past ten years than in the previous 100 years. We are in trouble. Wearing a hat and sunglasses will not fix it. What would Jesus drive?
CYBER ZEN SOUND ENGINE: Auslander (CD on N-Light-N Records)
This 56 minute CD from 2002 offers a delightful selection of new energized ambience.
While the basic instruments used are synthesizer, keyboards and guitar, there is a wide variety of sound sampling going on, fleshing out the tuneage with ethnic pep and tasty moodiness. The temperament of the music is calming despite its frequently uptempo percussives. CZSE makes excellent use of this dichotomy, inducing sedation through the application of normally unsoothing sounds and rhythms.
Delicate keyboards enunciate innocent melodies that are urged to higher planes of sonic consciousness by the accompaniment of diverse electronic embellishment. Scraping drones spiral through luxurious clouds of growling textures. Fragile echoes reverberate in the listener's head, guiding attention through passages of softly dramatic rhythms and chittering cybernetics. Often, the percussives possess an attractive quality that can only be described as mechanical approximations of wooden impacts. The result is captivating and highly entertaining.
Although few vocals are utilized (and those that appear are generally sampled snippets, not lyrical in nature), these songs richly convey the perspective of an outsider observing the human existence and mulling with bewilderment over the contradictions inherent in mankind's collective psyche. Science stands beside holistic meditation in the focus of this examining scrutiny, no favorites are given precedence. Through this softly undulating music, conditions are analyzed and codified without the clutter of presumptuous opinions.
Numerous stylistic influences collide to form this music, from Eno to Steve Roach to techno rave. Yet all these comparatives are remolded into a remarkable cohesion that boldly forges ahead into freshly peerless territory.
CZSE's music generates passive liveliness that sparkles in the mind, stimulating regions of the human brain dormant for far too long.
A review of CZSE's collaborative release with Matt Borghi can be found here.
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