An Interview with Musician and Composer Izzi Ramkissoon
When you speak with the award-winning electroacoustic multimedia composer, performer, and audiovisual artist Izzi Ramkissoon about music, you are immediately swept up by two things. The first is his zen-like manner, which invites you to engage and share his passion for music and the creative audiovisual process. The second is realizing you are dealing with a man who takes the difficult path in composition and musical performance and does so with both a commitment to excellence and appreciation for his collaborators. Ramkissoon pushes the boundaries of the electronic instruments he plays and actually physically creates, and invites his collaborators to immerse themselves in his fabulously original work.
Ramkissoon notes in his biography that, “He has written works for a variety of media including theater, dance, installations, alternative controllers, and interactive multimedia” and that “his compositions deal extensively with the use of technology in composition.” His work has been featured extensively at venues and shows such as New York City Electroacoustic Music Festival, World Maker, New York City Creative Tech Week, and in numerous international festivals. He fuses media, technology, intelligent dance music, hardcore, classical, musique concrete, and other resources to perform interactive, improvisatory, and experimental creations.
When I was first introduced to Ramkissoon’s work I was dazzled by the perfection of his videos. Utilizing the structure of the atonal, abstract forms of his compositions, his films create a synergy between sound, color, and image. One is swept away into the experience, with emotions running the gamut from joy to fear, with tints of beauty, all with the smoothness and ease promoted by the notion that you are in the hands of a wise and sensitive conductor.
Ramkissoon has worked in many venues, such as The Public Theater, Public Assembly, The Robert Miller Gallery, National Art Gallery, and Experimental Media, The New York Hall of Science, and Webster Hall, as well as at Princeton, the Ionian University in Greece, and the American University of Rome. He serves on the New York Electroacoustic Music Festival steering committee, teaches undergraduate music technology courses in the City University of New York system as an adjunct professor, and gives guest lectures and performances at various universities. He also performs with electronic music groups as a solo artist and musician.
Ramkissoon works with The Rockefeller University’s Information Technology Department engineering and developing their audiovisual systems and events. He was kind enough to answer questions via email for Natural Selections.
Bernie Langs (BL): You studied electronic multimedia composition and sound design with many great teachers and now you teach as well. What are the ideas you took from your educators and what do you hope to impart to your students?
Izzi Ramkissoon (IR): I had the opportunity to study with electronic music pioneers such as Morton Subotnick, Joel Chadabe, [and] Robert Rowe, and they were all very encouraging. All of them were a great fit for my musical direction, as I was interested in blending composition, improvisation, interactivity, experimentation, and technology. One thing I really enjoyed when studying with Mort was his approach to developing a musical language. In our lessons, he was breaking down language in a way that was very primal and connected with my approach to rhythmic development. I was interested in building an approach from the ground up starting with my most basic impulses. During the time I was studying privately with Mort I was working on a new audiovisual piece for clarinet and interactive electronics called “Domesticated Animalia.” This was for Esther Lamneck. I use this piece when discussing language, improvisation, and interactivity as part of an approach to musical composition with my students. It is an example of building a dialog from the ground up using musical gestures. During my studies, Joel Chadabe [posed] questions like “what is a composition?” and I felt that was important in breaking down any remaining definitions and prejudices I had toward what a composition should sound like. Robert Rowe was my thesis advisor and led me to review different technologies and approaches to integrating technology within a musical composition. This made me question the relationships of technology to the musical work. Does it support the work in a meaningful way and contribute to the creation of the piece or is it passive, separate, and noncommunicative.
BL: Your music, with its atonal underpinnings, has a dynamic of what I would label “relaxed audio tension.” Is that an assessment you would agree with, that the music, though harsh at times, maintains a meditative appeal?
IR: With the recorded sound you can capture a moment and transport that sound to a different location. Familiar sounds in an unfamiliar environment or visa versa. I think there is something comforting about the sounds I use. I grew up in a household filled with television noise, pots and pans, close to the street with NYC transportation, and construction. I felt every day it was either a circular saw humming a new tune to a preacher and choir on the television or pots and pan creating rhythms against the tape noise of my low budget home recording studio feedback. When growing up in a dynamic urban environment you learn to meditate in dissonance and find harmony in a variety of sounds. Every sound has something to offer. There is a relationship linked to the sound itself. The sound is the center of the piece with its own musical tone producing tension and release.
BL: “Sub-ter-ain Frequencies” and “Asperity of Lace” are seamless videos where the images and their motion and coloration align to perfection with the music.
IR: When building these pieces I work closely with a longtime collaborator and friend of mine Alain Alfaro. Over time we have developed in parallel similar processes and ideas when working on audio-visual works. Sometimes I make music for his films and other times he makes visuals for my music. He is a fantastic cinematographer and has many video techniques that mirror my audio processing style. When we work on a new piece I tell him the narrative and we both collect audio and video from a selected environment. I have a definitive form associate with the audio and he enhances that form and structure with parallel visual themes. I have worked with him long enough that I trust his decisions and we tend to operate in separate spaces many times. The most important part of this relationship is our friendship and his ability to know me well enough to make independent complementary choices. I have worked with other visual artist[s] and there has been a lot of explaining associated with this type of process.
BL: Your music with the Izzi Ramkissoon Multimedia Trio INTAR Rehearsals leaves space for improvisation associated with jazz. How has that developed in your music?
IR: I have always been interested in improvisation and the techniques used to create an improvised piece of music. To be an improviser, a musician must have a familiarity with their instrument that goes beyond playing what’s on the page. There is a creativity and unplanned freedom of speech that I enjoy when performing with improvisation techniques. In order to communicate and have a real time conversation on a topic you must know the subject matter well. Working with various groups of improvisers has led me to develop a language of my own to support spontaneous expression in the context of different forms and structures within my musical pieces. Improvisation and interactivity have been two themes that I investigate often in my music. I have been working on a dialog between computer and human performer. I am interested in the computer as a performer and how that can sound. I have worked with programs that generate algorithms and respond to a performers input using music information retrieval (MIR) techniques and analysis. I have made controllers… to augment my electric bass performance and improvisations with musicians, [such as “The Bass Sleeve: A Real-time Multimedia Gestural Controller for Augmented Electric Bass Performance”].
BL: You had a longterm video project that you abandoned after years. How does failing in your art lead to new avenues of exploration?
IR: It was more of a video experiment that wasn’t complete and developed enough. Those happen a few times before the final version of any of my pieces. I give myself a set amount of revisions to get it right. Throughout the development of each new composition I am learning something. At the end of my set amount of revisions I am ready to take what I learnt and create a new piece and the process begins again. I tend not to dwell too long on the past, and I leave enough reflective time to learn.
BL: What do your musician collaborators bring to you and what do you want to give them in return?
IR: The best part of creating a new piece of music is the conversations and learning during the process. I enjoy working with creative musicians to develop my pieces. I appreciate the space to experiment and test out ideas with a musician; this can offer me insight to the way their instrument works and new techniques that may be available outside of traditional techniques. I build compositions with the performers in mind and work with them closely to create the music. When creating interactive or improvisatory computer music pieces, I like to work with the performer while developing the programming of the piece. This is an iterative process for me as sometimes changing the composition involves changing the hardware and/or software created for the composition. Being able to hear how the computer responds to a performer is important when fleshing out a work.
BL: Your performances are geared to a live audience that understands the parameters of what they are about to hear. How can you increase your listening public, given the difficulty and complexity of your music?
IR: The audience for experimental electro-acoustic music is very specific. I am on the Steering Committee for the NYCEMF (New York City Electro-acoustic Music Festival, https://nycemf.org), which has done collaborations with ICMC (International Computer Music Conference), and other major art institutions in New York City such as National Sawdust, NYU, Sheen Center, Roulette, and Issue Project Room. The music you hear at these types of festivals and conferences brings a variety of people from all over the world, many composers and instrumentalists. These non-commercial entities support the creation and the audience for this type of work. You can say the audience for this music has been artists, composers, new music enthusiasts, and academia. Anyone really with an open mind and ears.
Love Machine at 3LD (Izzi Ramkissoon Interactive Designer and Composer, 2014)