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GadgeTell Interview: Musician Pat Noecker is the World’s First ‘Cell Phonist’

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Photo credit: Rebecca Smeyne / www.rebeccasmeyne.com

RAFT is Pat Noecker. Brooklyn-based composer, performer and overall artistic enterpriser, Pat Noecker, is RAFT. And RAFT is the first “Cell Phonist.”

In other settings Noecker has actualized traditional instruments, prepared and processed instruments, electronics, synthesizers, electro-acoustic instruments and more. Probably best known for his work as a founding member of art-rockers Liars or his bit more accessible brain-children These are Powers and n0 Things, aesthetically Noecker has always been a boundary-pusher and a forward thinker in music. The foundation of his creative process is reactionary: to society, art, mainstream culture, technology, etc. In terms of expression, Noecker seems to enjoy twiddling expectations and flipping convention on itself.

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Photo credit: Rebecca Smeyne / www.rebeccasmeyne.com

After catching him perform a sublimely turbulent RAFT set in a South Philly D.I.Y. art space last month, I felt like I needed to know more. This totally even-keeled, deceivingly 40-something sat calmly above a row of guitar effects pedals that were patched by cables leading up to his sole sound unit. It was not a guitar or microphone, it was Noecker’s iPhone 4S. And even before that seedy cellar ambiance began to blossom into pulsating, drippy sound-scapes, lush with deep textures and atonal rhythm — I thought to myself, conceptually, he is onto something.

It was a pleasure to sit down with Noecker at a swanky Italian restaurant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, a neighborhood where he’s resided for just under a decade. Thankfully he practices a very ‘open’ policy in discussing his art, which quite closely parallels his craft as a Cell Phonist.

Prior to his performance, while mingling with guests who were hanging around the venue between bands, Noecker gave out his phone number and encouraged them to send him textmessages during his set. During which, he appointed “bandmate” ‘Rachel’ from his NaturalReader app to ‘read’ select messages aloud, while manipulating her voice through his processing components. This acted as his ‘choir,’ trudging on top of his ‘band,’ made from instrument and sound-creation apps played live, and blips of audio samples pulled up through voice notes on his iPhone.

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Photo credit: Rebecca Smeyne / www.rebeccasmeyne.com

Noecker’s creative process is truly insightful for both himself and for those participating. The magic is everywhere. Judging by face-value, it’s obvious — both parties are on their toes, both he and his audience are in discussion — that’s the idea behind his audience-generated content.

But even more significant is his broader picture, the deeper meaning of Cellphonism: utilizing temporary, wireless matrices to create art; how through emerging art forms, real-life experiences of intimacy with our peers can be assisted by technology; the ‘altered’ ego of a modern performer; and how biology can adapt to technology in a healthy way. RAFT is a “processing center” and he is approaching collective musical improvisation in an unprecedented way. He’s like the Facebook of contemporary experimental music. And after our valuable discussion, quite frankly, I would have never imagined just how influenced he is by Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Pairing exceptionally with our interview below, here’s a little taste of RAFT, provided by the artist exclusively for GadgeTell:

Pat Noecker (RAFT) Solo excerpt

MM- Aside from a big portion of your recent Philly gig being comprised of textmessages sent live from the audience and then processed through an iOS text-to-speech app, I heard crescendoing synth tones, organic rhythms and at one point horn samples. They all contributed to your full backdrop of sound. Are these field recordings done through your iPhone and what inspires the process of hearing something and wanting to include it in your set?

PN- When I’m at other performers’ shows and if I’m ‘feeling it’ sonically and vibe-wise, I’ll pull out my iPhone and through the voice recorder I’ll grab 30-seconds to a minute of their performance with the intention of working it into my own RAFT sets. I like to think of it as performance-hacking. I clear the use with the artist and then during RAFT pieces, I’ll pull up the recordings from my voice note library and boom — there they are, like a genie coming out of a lamp. ‘Your wish is my command…we become a band.’

Tools of a cellphonist.

Tools of a Cell Phonist.

I played a set a few weeks ago for the Brooklyn gallery Cinders and I put together this imaginary band on my cellphone: avant-garde composer John Cage, jazz singer Alaina Stamatis, saxophonist Sam Hilmer [of NYC band Zs] and myself. In writing the piece, I was like ‘Okay, this is where Sam will come in’ and ‘this is where Alaina comes in’ and then John Cage comes in here. It’s the same thing people do with samplers and sequencing, but it’s through the smartphone, which makes it more fun for me since it’s such a common device. It reminds me that the power of imagination facilitated by the phone is f*cking unlimited, especially when it’s augmented by apps. It makes me think about the days when you’d have to carry all this sh*t, now I show up to shows with a brief case and my iPhone. No big amps, no van, no gas — it’s very little overhead.  It feels like a victory every time.  

A few weeks ago at the Spectrum in Manhattan, I performed a piece by looping tones from the John Cage Prepared Piano app and responded to those loops as I played the grand piano. At one point, I laid my phone on the keys and I played the app with the right hand and the real piano with my left hand. It was as if Mr. Cage was sitting right there himself, jamming along on the piano. 

[The John Cage foundation has built the John Cage Prepared Piano app, featuring samples of Cage's prepared piano. Pat opens the app and demos it in front of me.] It’s incredible, he would be so happy about this. When I am on the real piano, I can use the Notations function on different ‘preparations’ to determine what key, if any, I want to work in.  It’s really functional.  

MM- Until you, I’ve never heard the term ‘Cell Phonist.’ It’s a pretty evocative distinction. RAFT is the first Cell Phonist; what’s that mean to Pat Noecker?

PN- I am inspired by turntablism and how it took the turntable to new heights. It also makes me think of how Hip-hop bridged genres and made new forms based on it’s new use of the turn table.

'HERE WE GO' by Pat Noecker, 2011. (Water color and pen on acid-free paper.)

‘HERE WE GO’ by Pat Noecker, 2011. (Water color and pen on acid-free paper.)

As in Cell Phonism, you ‘play’ the device and turn it into a canvas of sorts. The smartphone, with it’s multimedia possibilities, opens a door to this approach, directly inspired by turntablism, but a little further. It’s common, portable and very expressive.

Cellphonism is helping me understand reality — people texting and walking or trying to text while they hold another conversation, or just texting in general. It represents communication to me, but also a common form of psychosis that I feel we should explore on another level. Sometimes I feel that cellphones turn people into zombies. They walk down the sidewalk like they’re drunk, talking to themselves and seemingly unaware of their outer reality. Cellphonism is the means by which I understand this modernity.

As textmessaging becomes a bigger part of my performances as RAFT, I get to experience reality on a new level that connotes technology, evolving language, immediacy and group dynamics. When I play as a Cell Phonist, the revelation to me is significant and it helps me realize that the textmessage is the communication choice of our time, but at the same time: How do I not let it control me?

I’m trying to find a positive way to exist with these all-consumptive devices. Cellphonism helps me dissect our condition.  

GadgeTell Exclusive Video – RAFT rehearses at home (Part 1) 

MM- That’s wild and very intriguing, the whole ‘ethos’ behind Cellphonism. Watching you perform, I enjoyed how compact your instrument setup was — literally, it’s a man sitting with an iPhone and maybe a half-dozen pedals at his feet. That’s all. One major perk to playing out must be portability. Would you consider including other pocket-sized electronic instruments — say a Korg Monotron, Kaoss Pad or even a Stylophone in your performances, or does a Cell Phonist create straight smartphone-generated music?

PN- I’m very much like [picks back up iPhone] ‘it’s all in here, it’s all possible in here.’ To keep it reduced to this one facilitatory object that everyone has is a way for me to keep it communal; And by not incorporating other stuff, it keeps the aesthetic simple and centered around this utilitarian device. So to just play this, it’s dense and direct. It keeps things simple. Less is more. And it keeps my expenses way down, which is profound, considering the expense of my past work in bands, which required a ton of expensive hardware, a gas guzzling van, gas and numerous other bits of overhead.  

Here, RAFT leads a 16-piece ensemble, using iPhone (textmessage) to orchestrate key changes and pausing.

MM- Ouch, I’ve sure seen that with many-a-friends’-bands and my own included. A Cell Phonist could probably tour on a motorcycle — no need for trunkspace. But getting back to the musical content of RAFT and your mobile phone-centric performances, what was most impressive to me was that aside from playing back and manipulating textmessages from the crowd, you were responding back to us.

A final group-text at your closing, “thanks for coming,” really sealed the deal for me — at that point, I felt that I had been performing with you the whole time, as if our collected efforts created the experience together. I usually hate being put on-the-spot to contribute, or to even get involved with or be acknowledged by a performer, but to ‘silently’ contribute felt breezy and fun. It was pretty bizarre.

A sample of text message content from RAFT in Philly.

A sample of text message content from RAFT in Philly.

PN- What I did [in Philly], there were texts coming in, coming in, coming in and I was analyzing them like an operator or processor. With the ones that I felt were poetic, I’d pop them into the text reader app and then shoot them back at the audience so that the words could be heard. I realized that night that the audience was my lyricist. And I was a medium of post-production. I’m choosing texts, making the decisions spontaneously and functioning like a performance-editor of sorts. It’s a very temporary matrix of group-oriented creativity without too much brainstorming, without too much burden. It’s lingual, it’s intense and it’s a collage of everyone’s thought, emerging when I randomly loop their words through my text reader app and Siri speaks them.

By bringing the audience on stage through textmessaging, the expression becomes communal and that’s the beauty of the phone in this context. It allows us to create in unison, synthesizing us with our technology, but also with each other — and we’re directing the technology, it’s not directing us.  I become the audience as the audience becomes me. Performative shape-shifting comes to mind. Or another way I think of it is like Next Generation [Star Trek] — ‘Beam me up’ as a concept — when I’m exchanging texts with my audience and bringing a person or a group of people on stage with me through single texts or group texts, I’m beaming them up there so to speak. It feels so futuristic. There’s no wires. It’s this invisible conduit.  

MM and PN. Photo credit: Dan Eldridge

MM and PN. Photo credit: Dan Eldridge

MM- Your process in a way strips you as a performer of your ‘star-power.’ Overall, it seems like the viewer’s attention is turned down on you (in comparison to where it may be concerning more ‘conventional’ musicians, bands and such.) After watching your set, aside from being blown away by the music alone, I couldn’t help but think about the role of smartphones (granted I think of this often,) generally speaking, in the lives of people and in my life — what role do you think, if any, does the smartphone help in identifying one’s ego in our society?

PN- For me, it helps become less about the show on stage and it’s more about ‘how this technology can be used to create a group expression’ without having to sit in a room for several years trying to write a song together like a band. This facade of the ‘star,’ the performer and the ego becomes obsolete. Cellphonism reflects the evolution of human consciousness and the antiquity of the ego.

MM- So are you consciously trying, in a sense to make yourself an ‘invisible’ performer?

'Self portrait' by Pat Noecker, 2011. (Pen and ink on unbleached paper.)

‘Self portrait’ by Pat Noecker, 2011. (Pen and ink on unbleached paper.)

PN- Yes. When I was in These Are Powers, a very visual band, I went through a period of trying to experience sound on a visual level, especially after reading Kandinsky’s “Concerning The Spiritual In Art,” and exploring the early-1900s Munich-based Der Blaue Reiter movement, which explored the relationship between visual art and music. These days, however, I want to experience sound as sound and I don’t feel a need to be visible when I play. I understand that words are an important visual part of Cellphonism, but for me as a “performer,” I’m just sitting there playing my cell phone. It’s a very internal experience.  

I don’t need to be watched in order to affirm my notion of virtuosity and in a sense I’m out to destroy virtuosity. It feels very last-century to me. Anyone can do this, which is important. Conversely, I understand that having a musical background allows me to compose on the spot, which allows me to direct the audience-generated activity into an artful place. I think the audience depends on me for that — until the performance takes over itself.

MM- Being a touring band musician for twenty-plus years, medium-wise, RAFT is a rather considerable departure for you. What are you learning from playing this type of music to your audiences of late? Is there a “digital divide” between younger and older crowds?

PN- My setup is modeled on divisions and their mediation. First of all, blending the cell and apps with last-century pedals illuminates the state of my digital-analog mind. Additionally, the input signal gets split so there’s a left and right output. And I imagine myself as a corpus callosum mediating the left / right brain, the digital and the analog.

Photo credit: Rebecca Smeyne / www.rebeccasmeyne.com

Photo credit: Rebecca Smeyne / www.rebeccasmeyne.com

During a show at Union Pool that I played with the band Neptune last spring, someone in the audience yelled “This is art!”  I knew immediately that it must be the 21 year-olds in the corner who took my number before the show.  Generally, the 30- and 40-somethings in the audience seem less interested or perhaps think of it as a novelty. I think it’s because the mind itself is either more digital or analog depending on when you were born. The 21 year-olds ‘get it’ I feel, because of my medium and that this tech existed when they were born. Because I am connecting with young people as a 41-year-old artist who’s first experience with hi-tech was TV and say, Atari Skiing, I feel that I have crossed a divide that is personal, but it’s also underscored by the digital era and how it can be challenging for someone who was born into an analog world. I’ve been searching for a way to cross ‘the divide.’ Apps, more than any software have led me there and the smartphone is a magnificent processor. The learning curve is manageable. And it doesn’t break my back or my bank. I’m happy about it.  

MM- Right on, that is awesome. It sounds like what you’re going for could stand as an app on it’s own. Any chance of a dedicated RAFT app in the future?

PN- Actually, yeah. I met some app developers here in Brooklyn and when I told them about my shows they were very excited. They’re developing an app which will allow you to text others who are checked into the same location that you are. This would allow me to text a very large audience. (Right now I create group texts of 10 people and that feels primitive.) I’m unsure what the official RAFT APP would be just yet, but the more shows I do, I think it will come to me. I’m thinking something like an app that turns words into notes and tones, which will then allow me to sculpt sound on a deeper texting level.  

MM- I can’t help but feel that what you’re hinting towards has a real ‘singularity’ vibe. It’s almost a bit frightening — like nowadays, a hologram Tupac or O.D.B. or something. Where are we headed as spectators and performers?

Borg from Star Trek: TNG

Borg from Star Trek: TNG

PN- Forget singularity, it’s about synthesis. Like ‘how to get our technology to synthesize with us without becoming the Borg [Star Trek: Next Generation] but to still read us and communicate with us.’ Ray Kurzwiel’s theory, I’m not really vibing with it — he makes it seem like a war between humans and technology is inevitable. 

If you watch The Next Generation, end of season 3, beginning of season 4, the Borg are the worst manifestation of the singularity. The Borg represent a potential future where humans merge with tech only to be followers in a matrix where resistance is futile, where each being is a worker zombie who has no sentience and is devoid of empathy. I say why not create a matrix that listens to us and that needs to be lead by us? [Note: humans of the Next Generation beat the Borg--through an Android!] 

The Borg has recently reminded me to think about how we might look down the road if we don’t address this issue of ‘how we’re merging biologically with our technology.’ And yes, the singularity. I propose ‘Synthesis’ as a better way to envision the future of us and our technology.  

Photo credit: Rebecca Smeyne / www.rebeccasmeyne.com

Photo credit: Rebecca Smeyne / www.rebeccasmeyne.com

With Google Glass and Bluetooth coming on stronger, I wonder if we will grow in a direction where these objects will merge on a deeper level with the human body. I want to work with Google Glass as part of my shows and see what happens.  

Another thing I’ve been thinking of is how software and satellites track our patterns, our digital behavior and such. I’ve wondered to myself if technology will be able to understand RAFT and say to itself, ‘he’s doing this, here’s how we can help him.’ Can it get to the point of understanding that as a human I’m trying to create little cells of thought and expression? Will it be able to understand this and intuitively facilitate the process without also invading my privacy? Or will a day come where I won’t have to fear such a thing?

MM- But the entire industry is based on money and greed is inherent in human nature, is it not?

PN- Yes, but we are evolving. Technology is evolving. What underscores technology more than anything? Sharing. Greed has defined business until now. Sharing is the new f*cking greed. What does a future look like if a company like Apple were to motivate their inventions based on the Synthesis as experienced at a RAFT show? Rather than a profit-driven bottom line or singularity, why not eliminate that whole reality and create a fearless place of sharing that doesn’t hinge on profits and money. I think back to the the Next Generation again, there is no such thing as money. They made it work and the Prime Directive of the Federation of Planets is all about non-invasive action. Perhaps our information –motivated corporations could learn something from this.  

GadgeTell Exclusive Video – RAFT rehearses at home (Part 2)

If tech goes in the right direction, we’ll be able to eliminate power structures that are negative and dependent on an aged Capitalist structure. We’ll create situations with technology in smartphones and in apps for instance that will cull the very nature of our being. The idea of user-generated networks or in the RAFT case, audience-generated content, represents a future where the exponents of our creativity transcend greed and allow us to experience one another in artful ways that are personal and reflective of our empathetic selves.  

It’s like the Holodeck on TNG — if you can imagine it, you develop it in your mind and ask that room, in this case, the smartphone and apps, to make it a reality. Never has that simple affinity been underscored more than now, because of this thing, the cellphone.


Pat Noecker’s musical home on the web is www.raftmusic.tumblr.com. To check out some more of his graphic works, visit http://instantpat.wordpress.com. His previous outfit, These are Powers can be found on Spotify, iTunes and Pandora, and you can check out the seminal first Liars album here.

Buddy of Noecker’s and exceptional behind the lens, Rebecca Smeyne, who so graciously provided the photo set of Pat for use with this interview is a regular among heavy hitters: Paper, Spin, MTV Hive, Vice’s Noisey.com and more. Delve further into her work on her website, http://rebeccasmeyne.com/. It’s lovely.

 

<Thanks to Pat Noecker, Rebecca Smeyne, Dan Eldridge, Zane Kanevsky, Joann Pepe>

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