An Interview with Bird Cohen ’21
Conservatory student Anna Hallett Gutierrez ’21 interviews Electronic Music major Bird Cohen ’21 on ethical music production, evoking emotion through sound, and the connection between music and EH.
How did you first find out about EH?
It was towards the middle of my sophomore year. I was working with a visiting professor named Matthew Gantt who was coming up from working at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn. He was a great surround audio, experimental audio, and game design artist. And he taught a course using the program Unity, which is a game design software, and it was around that time I was moderating (into music). Based on all of what I had been practicing and learning musically and in the various classes that I was taking, I wanted to do a performance that was installation-based. So he recommended that I use the Experimental Humanities building. And I think through that I ended up talking to Krista (EH Associate Director) and I think it was either Krista or Corinna (EH Coordinator) that actually attended my moderation concert, and they must have liked it or something (laughs) because a couple weeks later I got an email asking if I wanted to be a part of the 2018-2019 winter working group, which was the vulture group.
How did you choose your major?
I actually came into Bard as an electronic music major. I regret that choice every once in a while because I think it’s geared towards studio production and music technology, which is what I thought I was really interested in. You know, I had been making my own singer-songwritery music and experimenting with research-based production, but I came in assuming that I would just take a bunch of studio classes and you know, learn how to make hit records that would get money. I think it became immediately apparent that A, that was super boring conceptually, and B, there was a lot more that could be done with that framework. With electronic music, especially with the department Matt Sargent runs, it’s really meant to expand beyond the music in the studio or on the computer. I took an Intro to Electronic Music course freshman year that was pretty much everything I already knew, but it was a good way to see what other people were doing and kind of bounce ideas off, but at the same time I was also taking Intro to Media with Thomas Keenan. It was very much my first introduction to media theory and theory in general, and web art, and you know, interdisciplinary contemporary art too. We worked with HTML. Immediately I thought, okay, this is really cool, I’m really into this.
So, just to be clear, you’re still an electronic music major?
Yea, with what I would call a strong concentration (in EH).
Are there any favorite professors or classes you’ve been a part of, whether EH cross-listed or not, that have influenced you?
The big turning point for me was taking Topics in Music Software on audio spatialization within game design programs. The professor for that was Matthew Gantt. I ended up really liking him and the work that he did. And he ended up agreeing to do a tutorial with me, so we would meet every week and work on what I was figuring out for my moderation concert installation. We’d just talk and I would bounce off all of the questions I was having about electronic music culture and the way that music was being made at Bard without– it seemed like there was a lack of cultural context. That is probably fine and healthy but I was having a really hard time not questioning everything that I was doing. I think sometimes I can channel that into feeling frozen and numb and not doing anything, but sometimes I can channel it into interesting questions and responses. And actually right now I’m in Whitney Slaten’s The Social Life of Loudspeakers course, which is the first ethnomusicology course that I’ve taken, but I really, really love it and I love him. The course is all about the agency and cultural context that the speaker, like the object of the speaker, actually has. I think another big thing that maybe made me a little more disillusioned with the culture of music at Bard is that I think a lot of equipment and sound and audio samples are used and appropriated and reappropriated without any knowledge of their history or awareness of their significance. Whitney’s class is a way of questioning that— what does it mean when you are a well-off college student and you decide to use really cheap equipment for the aesthetic value when it’s not a necessity?
What kind of music are you most interested in or excited about right now?
I think there exists a sweet spot in between very intentionally low-fi, you know, DIY audio, and very highly produced studio audio. There’s a rapper named Yung Lean who’s pretty popular, and Yung Lean has a side project called jonatan leandoer96. I’m really interested in his work because he’s primarily a cloud rapper whose entire work is based off the hip-hop cannon, but the side project that he has is entirely based in the practice of outsider music. Which is super interesting because he’s not an outsider to music, he’s got the resources and the talent necessary. It comes across as slightly off in a really interesting way. I think I’m mostly interested in music that isn’t intentionally dissonant, isn’t intentionally bad, but has motivation to it and has emotion behind it, but isn’t so highly produced that it feels clouded in technique. So with the music that I make, I try really hard to not fall into the trap of using intentionally degraded audio. What I have been doing a lot is using various midi instruments and using audio that is very clearly dated but not necessarily in an aesthetically pleasing way.
What it sounds like is that you’re wanting to create something that has emotion and meaning using tools that aren’t perfect, or aren’t heavily produced.
That’s exactly it, yeah. I’m not using imperfection to create something frustrated, or I’m not using perfect techniques to create something saccharine. There’s that middle ground, there’s that sweet spot, where you can create something sincere and emotionally evocative while still making it interesting and not overproduced. And I think I came across that probably out of fear of making stuff that sounded too good, and fear of working hard, and I took that and I started talking about it as if it was intentional, and I think it became intentional.
It also sounds like you’re looking to create the experience, more of a live performance in your created sound. Because in a live performance, you can strive for whatever perfection it is. But I would argue that if you hear a live performance that is perfect, sometimes it’s kind of boring, because everything is great, you’re perfect, and then that’s it. And there’s not anything that seems to be underneath it.
Yeah, it’s really funny that you say that because I actually think about that a lot, and I listen to a lot of live recordings. I’m really not a live performer and a lot of the music that I make, it would take so much work to figure out how to perform it live. But the way that I have ended up producing music feels more like live performance than more of the conventional production I think I do a lot of– I do a lot of things that are intentionally irreversible. I select and join audio together in ways that you can’t undo, so that it makes it feel more like a linear process than a clinical one. So when I sit down to make music, it’s really something that doesn’t feel super conscious, it doesn’t feel like I have a process, yet it feels like I sit down and I let it happen and I leave it when I’m done. Sometimes I’ll go back to things, but a lot of the times I prefer to keep it as a singular process.
What kind of work do you aspire to make? What conversations do you hope your work is part of now or in the future?
I think right now I’m at a point of confusion with that because I realized that so much of the music I’ve been making is about shifting ecologies and climate change and everything in that wheelhouse, and I’ve been struggling with how I can do that when so much art is about climate change and so much of it is really frustrating and kind of meaningless. Probably including what I’m making, but I think at the end of the day, beyond the saturation of climate change art in the art world, that’s kind of how the world is. Right now, with Coronavirus, people are having a really hard time talking about anything besides that. And I think with climate change and shifting ecologies, it’s just a more drawn out version of that, where it’s coloring pretty much everything that we’re thinking about in subtle ways and overt ways. So it’s really hard for anything that’s created to not be at least somewhat about that experience. The music that I’ve been making recently is kind of this vague overlying project that I jumped onto because I’ve been fixated on the aesthetics and design elements of cruise ships and resorts. I remember watching a video of a cruise ship, it was a video I think on the largest cruise ship ever made, and they were giving a tour and there’s a central park on the cruise ship that’s modeled after New York’s Central Park. And one thing that really struck me was there was a piano that was clearly very new, but it was painted to look like it was old and degraded. And there were all of these fake travel stickers on it. Now that so much knowledge of the past and of past aesthetics are acceptable, there’s no defining aesthetic of art of our era or our generation. I think it’s the most purist sampling of the past that has ever happened, so anyway, a big tangent, but the project is based on the aesthetics of resort and cruise ships, and it’s called Resort. It’s a loose album slash project that’s very, very dreamy and ambience-fueled. I have a hard time making art that doesn’t feel like it’s about memory. So I’m really trying to practice ethical sampling and using various general midi programs and old midi programs alongside very straightforwardly evocative chord progressions and melody lines to create a—not an insincere sounding project, but more like a desperate one. I really like the idea of trying to convey emotion using the tools at hand, and not really being able to because there’s not enough variation. So I think there’s a lot of struggle in the music that I’ve been making.
Do you want to talk a little bit about projects you’ve been involved in and/or a favorite project that you’ve worked on?
Right now, Jacob (EH developer) and a couple other Media Corps members, Chelsea and Genesis, we’ve been working on an augmented reality project that overlays the landscape of Montgomery Place. That was what this year’s winter working group was based on, although it was a lot more heavily based on 3-D modeling, which is something that’s not my strong suit. But we’re able to think theoretically about what augmented reality can do, especially through a landscape of so much flawed and upsetting history as Montgomery Place, how augmented reality can be used to restore land and change it whether that be for the better or for the informative or for the worse, so that’s the project that I’m really interested right now.
You’ve sort of touched on this already, but how do you envision your work through EH influencing your future projects and ventures?
I think the first thing that comes to mind is the work that Krista Caballero does outside of EH. Her collaborative project, Birding the Future, is something that could super easily be justified as an Experimental Humanities-based project. And I think it colors the way that she leads the Media Corps too. I’d like to be able to do work that toes the line between art and research, and I’ve only skimmed the surface, dipped my toes in, whatever the idiom is (laughs). I think the Media Corps is giving me the tools and the support to do that.
Do you have any plans currently for what you’d like to do after you graduate?
I think if something doesn’t come up that seems right, I’ll just look at whatever the next step up or sideways from Media Corps is. The work that I’ve been doing for Media Corps has been really cool, and such a privilege to be able to be paid to work on creative and research-based projects. I’m always surprised that I have that opportunity.