"This is all you need to know about me," Stefan Smulovitz says, holding what could best be described as a franken-doll—it's one of many. All are neatly dressed amalgamations of materials his mom finds at thrift stores, one with a dinosaur face and frog hands, while another with the head of a flamingo. His mom sends them to him in boxes and he has about 100. Interestingly enough, these dolls are a lot like the works Stefan produces but in a different medium. Stefan is the inventor of Kenaxis, a music performance software he uses to manipulate and work with sounds he's collected. He utilizes Kenaxis to turn his laptop into an instrument, which he uses, along with the viola, to improvise and create music.
Promotional image of Stefan Smulovitz for his role in “Power of the River”, a documentary film. Photo courtesy of the Internet.
Alexander Draper: You grew up with a lot of visual art, but not much music other than classical music, and Andes flute music. What led you down the music route, as opposed to something else?
Stefan Smulovitz: Well both my grandmothers were quite musical; my grandmother on one side was a concert pianist, and my grandmother on the other side, she played violin, saxophone, and trumpet. She played a lot with the women’s jazz bands in the WWII era. She wasn’t playing classical music so much as popular music. Violin, sax and trumpet were more popular instruments in Europe back in the ‘40s.
So you were inspired by them?
Well, I wanted to play the trombone, but they told me I had to play the violin, so I picked up the violin in first grade, and then switched to viola in high school. In university I tried it a little bit, but I wasn’t really that serious. I didn’t want to be a concert violist, so I stopped playing the violin/viola completely and picked up the electric bass. I wanted something simple that I could just have fun with. I did that for quite some time, and that’s when I started doing soundtracks to films.
There’s this place called the Blinding Light Cinema that was here in Vancouver, and every month for five years I did a new soundtrack for silent films. So that’s a lot of films. I started off just playing the electric bass, but then I wanted more timbres to play with, so then I played a little viola, and then brought the computer to allow for a larger orchestration of sounds to play with. I had a friend who played with me who had a sampler with a bunch of drum pads, and I was finding and making all the samples for him. But it wasn’t quite satisfying enough. He was the one playing them, and I wanted to find a way to start playing with sound, which is why I started making Kenaxis.
...What I am interested in is: you’ve playing the water bottle for a week solid,
you’ve spent 40 hours playing the water bottle, now show me what kind of
sounds you’re going to make out of it...
So Kenaxis started with the drum pad controller?
So he was just playing back samples, and he could change the velocity, it was all based on the hardware sampler. That’s what gave me the bug, but I wanted to do something more creative with sound than what the hardware allowed. Actually at that point in time, I did my first year of my undergrad at Simon Fraser University. That was in 2000, and that’s where I learned Max and started developing Kenaxis. The whole time I was still playing live, so that’s when I finally switched over to doing more laptop stuff.
You have a lot of classical experience, so how did you end up playing more contemporary music?
I lost interest in playing other people’s music, and had never even really conceived of being able to make my own music. And then, something cracked open and I started creating and an enjoyment of it came back. And that’s always been the most important thing for me is the act of creation, that’s really key for me. I’m not really interested in interpreting other people’s music. While I play the viola and the violin, if someone puts down some sheet music in front of me I’m like, “euh…” I can kinda read it, but it’s not really my thing and it’s not what I get obsessed about. That’s not the kind of player I am. On the other hand, I’ll listen to other people’s music, and I’ll go, “Wow, that’s a great sound” and I’ll try to emulate it, but I’ll improvise it.
So when you perform it’s all improvised?
All improvised. Everything I do is improvised, pretty much.
You’ve done also a lot of writing and composing music, so how have you applied improvisation to your compositions?
It depends on what kind of composition, I mean if I’m writing for string quartet and everything is notated, I’ve used a couple of different methods to generate the material, and then I’ll go through and clean it up, and really think about it as a composer. Really for me, the main difference between being an improviser and a composer is that a composer gets a second crack at it. Improvisations are still the core act of creating. So composing for me is the chance to edit and refine improvisations, but at the heart of the creation is the improvisation, and the better the improvisation the less editing you have to do, and the easier the work is. So, I spend a lot of time honing and thinking about improvisation, and how to make improvisations really focused and clear.
So how do you make improvisations focused and clear?
Good question, how do you do that? Well, part of it is practice. The virtuosity of knowing your instrument. You don’t have to be virtuosic in being the best, fastest player of all time, but it’s about having facility to express what you want to express. So, if you have an idea, to actually be able to make it come out. You have to have that level of comfort. So, for instance I’m not as interested in experimental music where someone picks up a water bottle for the first time and they smack on it and make some weird sounds – and it’s like, “Great, you’re playing the water bottle.” What I am interested in is: you’ve playing the water bottle for a week solid, you’ve spent 40 hours playing the water bottle, now show me what kind of sounds you’re going to make out of it. For me improvisation isn’t just the act of exploring, it’s actually the act of communicating something. To get to that level of communicating you have to attain a certain facility and virtuosity with your instrument so that you can actually express ideas.
So it’s a lot about articulating what it is that you’re trying to express, and developing that ability to take what’s in your mind and express it in a particular way with your instrument.
Absolutely, and a lot of that involves practice. That’s the thing that people forget with computers and computer music – they think, “well it’s just a computer,” but it takes just as much practice to play the computer well as it does to play the viola well. Your ability to grab the right sound, and to have a sound bank that you can use and change and play with and know how to do that and what transformations work. There’s a lot of practice involved. Same with practicing talking and speaking.
Yeah, same kind of idea, if you’re just hitting the water bottle for the first time, it’s baby speak as opposed to the well-constructed sentences that you get forty hours later.
I liked what you said earlier, that it’s not about being the best at the instrument, it’s about being able to express the ideas that you want to express, and make the sounds that you want to make, whether they’re really difficult sounds to make or really easy, as long as they’re what you want to make.
Absolutely, I’m not interested in virtuosity for virtuosity’s sake. It’s flashy and it’s nice and it’s cool n’ all, but really the most important thing is that you have enough facility to actually express what you want to say. If you’re at that level, then that’s great.
As your work is generally improvised, do you do any tape music, or do you just focus on performances?
I do lots of work for dance and theatre. I just did an 8 channel 70 minute work for Judith Garay, for 20 dancers, it’s called 20.20.20. I spent a ridiculous number of hours on that particular piece, fixing little things here and there. I would do an improvisation and I would be pretty happy with it, but then I would add little details, you know. For me what’s interesting is a lot of my work is also collaborations, and working with Judith brought out craft for me, and so I really got into the craft of the piece. Other choreographers are more about energy, so maybe the piece is a bit more raw, but it’s about the energy. Some people, it’s about the quirkiness. Each collaborator brings something different out. Same thing as when I did the soundtrack for films, each film is going to bring something different out. Doing Metropolis– it’s kind of dark sci-fi, whereas Charlie Chaplin, you know there’s comedy, so how do you bring out those comedic elements? Those collaborations force you to explore a wider range of expression in yourself. You don’t just go for the same thing every time. So that’s one of the things I really love about collaboration. It pushes and pulls you a bit and you see something from a different angle, you turn the cube a different way, and you go, “Oh, I hadn’t thought of it that way.”
So that’s something that’s important to you–coming up with new ways of doing what you’re doing already, or gaining new perspectives?
Just depth–I mean–it’s what makes life interesting is the depth of it. And it’s just such a rich, beautiful thing to play with sound. I love the richness of having all these different ways you can turn it and look at it. Other people they just focus very solitarily on a certain thing, and they get really deep into it, and that’s great. It’s great that there are so many different ways of pursuing this. I have a certain way of making music, and it’s totally different from what others do, but that doesn’t mean that their way is not valid. There’s so many different ways of expressing fascination with sound. You can get into the computer side of it, you can get into the more physical, metaphysical side of it. What I’m interested in is learning from all those things and enriching and constantly learning more about sound and through sound the world and how you perceive things. I find that in all kinds of strange ways it all filters down to make the rest of your life richer as well. It all sort of bleeds into one.
So exploring sound is a way for you to explore the world and to better understand other people and even yourself.
Absolutely, and a lot of it is about learning about priorities. That’s been a huge lesson to learn when working with collaborators, they tend to have a different set of priorities, and usually sound is not their top priority. It’s my top priority, that’s why they want to collaborate with me.
If it was their top priority they’d just do it themselves.
Exactly, so then you have to fight to make sound a bit more importance in the piece. Not in a “fight” fight, but there’s a little give and take that has to happen. It’s interesting when you work in an artistic way and you realize, “Oh wow, different people have these really different sets of priorities.” And you start realizing, “Oh geez, everyone has different priorities,” and then you start figuring out that sometimes a difference of opinion is actually just a difference of priorities. And it’s an interesting way to look at life, and that’s been really helpful for me, and that came from working with collaborators.
I think, for me anyway, that collaborating with different people is a really great way to learn how to interact because you’re dealing with things where it’s deeply passionate. No matter what it is, even just collaborating with other musicians who basically have the same end goal, you still learn really quickly how to deal with different people who have different ideas of how to get there.
Ya, the rhythm section has different priorities than the lead vocalist.
Fairly recently you did a piece called “The Passion of Joan of Arc.”
Well, 2010, so 6 years ago.
Ok, so I guess not that recently, but it’s still on your website, so it’s still around. Still on the Internet.
Yes, it was a fairly massive piece. I spent almost a year working on it.
That’s a pretty sizeable contribution of your life you put into that.
It’s my biggest piece I’ve done so far.
In a previous interview you did about that work you said you were attracted to the story because “Joan gave her life for what she believed in, and in an age where people are unwilling to undergo even slight discomfort for what they believe in; it’s an important message.” I thought that was a lovely sentiment, and something I agree with, where these days people are often even unaware of what morals or standards are. So, for you, especially in relationship to your work, what are those standards that you feel are worth going through at least “slight” discomfort to stand up for? Or, another way of putting it might be what are your priorities?
I guess, if I worked in any other area, I write my own software, I compose, I do all these kinds of things — the kind of monetary compensation I get for what I do is not really that fantastic. And so, I guess the discomfort I go through all the time is I’m working a ridiculous number of hours because I’m compelled to do it. I just can’t not do the work. If there’s a chance to create some music, I’m compelled to do it. And sometimes I think, “Well, why don’t you just sit back and relax?” I mean I’m not doing it for the money really, so why don’t I just have a bit more chill time, and I just can’t. There’s something about it that just calls to me. That act of creation – I’m not sure what it is, and I’ve tried to examine it, and I’m not sure I can really figure out what it is, but that’s my top priority, and it throws other things out of whack. The laundry, it’s like, “Eh, whatever it’ll get done somehow,” and then it piles up and becomes a major hassle, or keeping up on paperwork it’s like, “No, no, no, I have to work on this piece, I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that.” There’s a certain commitment to it. And particularly in the arts, I mean all the people I know that are in the arts are insanely committed to what they’re doing. I don’t know people who work as hard. Like, doctors don’t work as hard, lawyers don’t work as hard, sure they make more money, but I don’t know any harder workers than people that are actually professional artists. People who are actually making art as their profession, and barely squeaking by a living. Man, they’re some of the hardest working people that I’ve ever met.
And they do some of the most impressive things, and are often some of the most multitalented people. I mean, there aren’t very many people who are writing their own software and doing something else.
So, a big motivator for you is that need, or compulsion to create things.
Yeah, I mean it seduces me and I just go.
Do you find that’s something that’s sort of a general need to create, or is it more related to specific projects? Do you find you just have a need to create, or do you find it’s connected to ideas for specific things you want to create?
Well, I’ve gotten better at filtering my ideas, and now a lot of it is about the collaborations and the people that I’m going to be working with. So, a large part of which projects I choose are either people that I really enjoy working with coming to me, or me talking to people that I really admire and working with them, so it’s really important that the collaborations are with people that I want to be spending time with. You know, there’s certain people where it’s ok, and other people it’s like, “Wow, I’m really happy to be spending time with this person.” So that’s definitely an aspect of the creation. I dunno, the brain just keeps on putting out ideas, and I don’t know who said it, but the trick is really just, beat the bad ideas back with a stick. There’s never a lack of ideas for me. It’s more about trying to control the flow so that you can maybe let some of the bigger ones come out. And that’s something I’m trying to work on now. It was really fantastic to do “The Passion of Joan of Arc” and it was a little bit nuts because I was doing my MFA at the same time. My MFA thesis was six weeks before the final “Passion of Joan of Arc” show.
Wow. Congratulations on still being here.
I was also, working with the PuSh Festival on a major theatre piece too.
Because, why not?
It was kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity because there was all this extra Olympic funding. So, it was a mad time in my life. But I mean, I have no regrets, because it was a very creative and fertile time. I’m trying to actually get “Passion of Joan of Arc” remounted because it was a lot of work for one night. But, I don’t know, at the same time I’m still really excited to get onto the next thing. I mean, the creations are made and they exist, and they are what they are, and I’m happy to go on to the next thing.
I find I have a lot of similar notions with the idea of creation, and always having idea after idea of what I want to do. It’s really about trying to analyze it and decide: what is actually worth putting forth the time and effort to make something that I just imagined exist. Especially when you consider, like with “The Passion of Joan of Arc,” you’re imagining a year of work for a performance that’s only an hour or two long, and then that’s it. It’s just that time period and then it’s gone.