Friday, July 31, 2015

WALTER STEDING: Sound Style Change [1983 interview/article]

Text by Julia Masi / FFanzeen, 1983
Intro by Robert Barry Francos / FFanzeen, 2015
Images from the Internet

This article was originally published in FFanzeen, issue #10, dated 1983. It was written by Julia Masi.

Currently, Walter Steding is a painter and actor who writes film scores and is in the group Crazy Mary, based in New York City where he resides. – RBF, 2015

On the cover of his new album, Dancing in Heaven, on Animal Records, Walter Steding, in an oversized pair of rolled-up bluejeans with his violin in hand, is suspended in an extracted hop, like the Pied Piper ready to dance off a cliff, or Peter Pan flying back to Never Never Land. A confusing change of image for those of us who think of him as the black-clad figure of the concert stage.

Dancing in Heaven is light-years away from the Walter we once knew “wheezing and wailing” to home-made bio feedback machines. He’s still inviting us to experience his different reveries, but now with 11 simple, lighthearted, commercial songs, his daydreams have become danceable.

“To me, the cover would have been this hat,” he points to his large, black felt fedora that looks like it was designed for a Pilgrim, “the darkest glasses you could find, and just skulls and daggers all over the place. He holds up the cover for careful inspection. “At first I didn’t like it; but now I do, now that everybody is telling me that they like it. The back is the history,” he flips over the cover. ”I never have to talk about my past again. It’s done. It’s documented,” he says of the black and white montage that traces his career. Although he’s only been performing since he came to new York in 1976, the photos on the back of the album read like a Who’s Who of rock‘n’roll. He points to the center picture of himself and his manager, artist Andy Warhol. “Andy was posing, and I said to him, ‘Well, we have to do something. Why don’t you put your hands by your ears?’ Did he go for that in a hurry! It looks derogatory, like, ‘Why is he doing that to Walter?’, but it was my idea. He rests to skip over the pictures of himself in his early days as a one-man-band, wearing electronic gadgets around his waist that looked like Batman’s utility belt, but his past is too interesting to ignore. Even as a kid growing up in Harmony, Pennsylvania, his background was always art. “Remember the kid in high school who always went around and painted the twelve days of Christmas on his windows? Well, that was me.” He temporarily put down his paint brushes in the late ‘70s to try his hand at performance art. “Just ‘cause I saw something happening.

“It was an era when new technologies were being introduced to the masses, and it was a time when bio-feedback and Rolfing, and any kind of New Age idea was really out there. But I just didn’t see any aesthetic in it. I saw that the more that we define existence by finite terms, the less we really see it. You can use any kind of formula you want to start defining existence, but all you’re doing is making it real; making it physical. Unless you put those physical symbols in some sort of aesthetic means, you’re not really describing what’s there.”

At this time, Walter had been working with the Mankind Research Center in Washington, D.C., and was in close contact with the Menninger Foundation, so he knew a lot about bio-feedback. “As people were going on and really thinking they were discovering something new, it just was the phoniness, the unreality of it. It was new at the time as far as the masses were concerned. I was using it as a means of expression. So instead of working with bio-feedback as though it were something real and tangible, I needed something to play against, so I took the bio-feedback and made it into sound, and then used the violin on top of that.

“Working with color and working with animal sounds, I learned a lot about how the sound would affect your brainwave output. Not only brainwaves, but EKG, too. And Galvanic skin response. Any kind of monitored bodily functions. I took a generator to a lake in Pennsylvania where these spring peepers were coming up, and played a concert along with them. That’s another reason why the violin was a good instrument, because it didn’t have frets or finite points. So I could really deal with sounds and sound like the noises that animals make; wolves and whales. You’ve head those whale records and things? So I was playing along with those, but I knew what kind of range those kinds of sound existed in. They’re all over the place. They’re not necessarily concerned with stops and finite points. But it does develop into patterns from that.

“And then, from that, I kind of go into – holistic is the word – where you don’t have the stops. I could transfer that into music because I knew a certain pattern that I’d be playing that would follow along with the noises that the whales would make. And then I knew instead of sliding my finger and going from one step to the other step, I could break that into steps, so I could play a song very similar to the noises a whale would make without actually trying to make it sound like a whale.

“You have different reveries in your different states of consciousness. Like, if you go into the deep Delta region, in this Delta it reverts to neuronal bursts per second. It’s actually (that) you send out these signals, and they can really be monitored. You’re sort of in-between Alpha and Beta, and you’re conscience and think about things, like your motor actions, like moving your hands. That is more in the Alpha region, and those (signals) are amplified. It’s a real minute signal. I built little amplifiers so that I could convert the signals into sound. I did that by taking the electrical impulse and putting it through an LED. The LED would charge a photo-transistor, and that photo-transistor would change the rate and the pitch of the synthesizer.

“I used a homemade synthesizer just built for that.” He learned to make his musical equipment from scratch, “just by reading schematics and things.” And by “working with chips,” he says nonchalantly.

“The tools and things are out there. You can go to an electronics store and just buy all these parts. You could buy a clock – it’s called a clock (but) it’s not really a clock; it’s a little chip, a timer. And they use it for everything. Not necessarily for music. Once you understand the basic principles of how a chip works, you can apply it to anything.” Walter chose to apply it to the violin because he felt that the “violin epitomizes music.”

His first concerts were very short and very avant-garde. “I thought it was art! I mean, I was doing it at art galleries.” And even though he describes those performances as “wheezing and wailing,” he did gain a certain respect for music, and command of his instrument. “That’s how I started getting more and more musical, learning about notation; different stops and points, with Western scales broken down into all those finite points. The more I learned about that, the more I learned how I could use it.

“I’m definitely trying to create a mood with the notation. Certain things do create a mood. The sounds that whales make do have an effect on the human body, even though it might not be aware of how that sound is. Even without hearing whales, a person is still affected by their sound. There is communication between all living things.

“I use the 4/4 beat. With the 4/4 beat, I try to find a more universal kind of sound, even though it’s relative to the 4/4 timing. It’s kind of scaleless.

“I like to think of the violin without any frets, and how it can transform that mood into a sound. And then I like to transfer that into a progression. A real progression in the 4/4 format, starting with the root note, and then going to the 4th and 5th – you know, real traditional progressions. So it comes from a thought and I just keep working it out until it becomes a tune.

“Right now, today, I got this line that goes,” he sings, “Do, do, do, cha, cha. I’ll take that line and I know how I want it to go, but I know that I have to put it in a format where the bass can play along with it and the keyboard player can play along with it. So, I’ll take the rhythm machine and set it to a counter, where it counts off 4s. Then I’ll rearrange the idea that I had in my head to fit that format. Then I’ll arrange it so that the bass can play his full measures, do a turnaround, and come back in again. So it starts with just an abstract idea, but then you keep going over it and over it, until it becomes a song.

“The songs I write anyone can play. I keep them simple. And I can make tapes where everything is separated. I don’t even have to rehearse. I can give someone a tape of what it’s supposed to sound like, and give them a tape of what their part is so they can listen to these tapes and learn the part exactly. And never come to a rehearsal and (still) play with the rest of the group. And then show up for a concert and know all their lines. Like the bass player. I’ll give him a tape of the song, how it should sound with everyone together, and then a separate tape of just his part. And the same with the keyboard player and guitar. So there is no question then of what they should do.”

Lenny Ferraro, drums; Paul Dugan, bass; Karen Geniece, vocals and guitar; Mark Garvin, lead guitar; and Robert Arron, sax, keyboard, vibratone and guitar, accompanied Walter on the album, which he produced himself. “I wanted help. Really. I would have liked to have a producer,” he says modestly as his big dark eyes widen. “At the time, Chris (Stein, of Blondie) wasn’t feeling very well. I learned; I’m glad for the experience. I learned ‘cause I had to. I really would have liked to have someone professional come in and say, ‘This and that has to be done.’ It’s just like, there are rules that you have to follow. The bass beat is on the one, and the snare is on the two. Until I learned that, I didn’t write songs that way. I put the snare wherever I felt like it. Someone could always tell something was wrong with it. I could tell something was wrong, but I didn’t know what. So it would be good to have a producer who could say, ‘Why don’t we write a harmonic part that goes with the 4?’

“I don’t want to do something deliberately wrong when I know it shouldn’t be that way, just because it’s been done by so many other pioneers of electronic music and avant-garde musicians, like Cage and Stockhausen; people who have designed instruments, like Bookla and Moog, and all. That’s been done before.”

Right now, he can’t see himself returning to the avant-garde, using music as an art form. “It doesn’t make much sense for me to stay at one level and just deal with the emotion.

“The last concert I did, people liked it. I’ll keep going in that direction.”



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