When I first started these podcasts, one of the people I knew that I wanted to talk to was Meg Schedel. She works at the University of New York at Stony Brook. But she's also one of the people that was part of the New York crew that I had gotten to know over the years. And I had actually worked with her at Cycling '74 for awhile.
She always brought an amazing energy and enthusiasm to everything that she's done. She's also very active in the audio and visual world. So it's kind of interesting to talk to somebody that plays in both sides of that media game. I wanted to spend a little time talking to her, find out how she integrates the two pieces, how she works with different kinds of technology and how she sees herself fitting in the audio media world.
Darwin: All right, Meg, it's good to have you on the podcast today. I'd like to dive right into your musical life. From reading your CV and the information that you have on the web (on Schedel.net), it's a pretty impressive body of work. You do a lot of performance work, you do a lot of composition and one of the things I noticed is that you kind of get a sense of a person who has a background in the classical paradigm. You self-identify as a composer. You play an instrument that has a long history of use in classical music. But your use of these classical devices really kind of belies the actual work that you do. You're heavily involved in electronic music development. Your use of the cello is electrified, and it's software extended, you use the K-Bow and you really redefine the instrument in a lot of ways. How did you manage that transition?
Margaret: I wouldn't even call it a transition. My father's a computer programmer and I took piano lessons from about the age of six because I had small motor control problems. And then when I was in sixth grade, my parents bought an Apple computer and my father read about this magical thing called MIDI and bought me a keyboard and a MIDI interface for Christmas, I think, or my birthday. And I just never looked back. So I actually have an undergraduate degree in computer music, so it's been a part of me for almost as long as I've been doing music.
Darwin: So then what caused you to choose cello as the instrument?
Margaret: My piano teacher ironically thought that I should develop my ear. And when I started cello I was just like, "What? I can change the sound after I've started it and I can do all this stuff?" And to me when I found the computer, it was like "Wait, I can take this sound and do even more stuff to it?" So I think I've always had a fascination with timbre and it was just getting the tools.
Darwin: Sure. Now it's kind of interesting that your father's being a computer programmer had some influence on you, because I find that a lot of times people that work in the media arts - or in sort of experimental music - have a lot of trouble explaining to their parents what it is that they do for a living. I mean, they're always most happy when you're able to say something like "I'm a teacher" - because that they can wrap their heads around, because it makes more sense to them.
Margaret: Well, they're much happier now that I'm a professor. And it's kind of horrifying because my Mom was an elementary school teacher and my father was a computer programmer and I spend most of my days teaching computers now. So it makes a little bit of sense to them and they, they come to my performances and they sort of, they mostly get what I do. Maybe not why, but they understand what's going on.
Darwin: That's great. So you're currently a professor at Stony Brook, right? And what classes are you teaching there?
Margaret: That is correct. So I have a dual appointment. I'm half in the music department and half in this consortium for Digital Art, Culture and Technology. So when I applied for the job, it was pretty much "Wait, you went to conservatories and you got good grades and you got into good schools, but you do this really weird stuff..."" So I actually do teach traditional theory and history and then half of the time I'm doing digital media courses.
So I actually developed a course called Sound Design because we didn't have any courses that people that didn't know how to read music could take. And I felt like that was something important, especially at a state school where we're serving some populations that didn't have those opportunities. So it's been a really popular class and I'm really proud of it.
Darwin: That's really interesting because I teach in a in an Art department and it's very similar. I teach a class called Sonic Arts. They want people to get involved in sound design, but there's not that history of music, the music "process". So you have to explain what octaves are and what a scale might be - hoping people can get it because they have a history with listening to music. But a lot of times it's really sad because, within public education, there's very little access to music at this point.
Margaret: Yeah. My friend from like second grade on Margaret Ann Schaffer is teaching high school band at our old high school, and it's one of the few places that still has a really active music program. Like, she even teaches theory.
Darwin: Well, good luck to her because, well, I have kids, they're in school right now, and band is something that they get to do once every two weeks - which is really depressing.
Margaret: It's not band.
Darwin: Right. It's not band if that's all that you get out of it. Right. So what kinds of things do you, in teaching sound design, the Sonic Wonderland to people who might not have that background with music? What are the things that you find you really have to plug into in some detail that you otherwise might not?
Margaret: I have this certificate in deep listening which just means sort of actually paying deep attention to the sound itself. So a lot of them get sort of seduced by the surface and then I'm just like "No, you need to listen beyond that." And it's really amazing to me cause some people that have like a little bit of musical training will come in and they'll be all good. Then we hit a certain point and the kids that never had musical training but actually listened to me go further. So it's all about getting them to trust their ears and really know how to listen.
Darwin: The deep listening thing is the thing Pauline Oliveros does, right? Can you explain a little bit? Cause I've heard of it, but I can't say I know a lot about it and I should know more.
Margaret: So it's a Sonic meditation practice where... I can describe the retreats that we went on. You wake up in the morning and you're not allowed to speak in words. You can make sounds. So at breakfast you can go "Ooh" if you need some milk. But the idea is to sort of stop thinking in words. There's some Tai-Chi and movement exercises, then we do a listening meditation. So you sit and just listen. And I had tried meditating for a long time cause I'm kind of a spazz (if you know me). I thought it would be good for me and I wasn't able to - I just got super in my own head and it didn't work. Deep listening works for me because it's all about just sitting there and listening and trying not to identify the sound so you're not like "Oh, that was a squirrel, that's a plane." But just accepting the sounds, even if it's your own voice in your head saying "What am I doing? What's going on?"
She calls it the monkey. you just listened to the monkey and before I'd been trying to shut the monkey up. Now if you just sort of pay attention to the monkey, eventually the monkey dies away. So I teach a Deep Listening class to freshmen and I always try to incorporate some of that into the Sonic Art classes that I run just to get them into the habit of accepting the whole sound like environment.
Darwin: That's really interesting because I too am a spazz and I too have tried meditation and it is also not worked particularly well - mainly because I end up with some frustration about not actually accomplishing anything while I meditating (which is the point, I know). But it actually seems like having there be a purpose of saying "I'm listening" that actually would make meditation a lot easier for someone like me to be able to approach. Now, how do you find that that actually affects like the process that you have in your own compositional work?
Margaret: So it was actually Mara Hellmuth, my teacher at University of Cincinnati, where I got my doctorate, who went on one of these retreats and just was like, "Oh my God, this changed my life!" My musical vocabulary has just been expanded by this. And it's fun besides like, it's this beautiful mountain in New Mexico and you just camp and it's just great. so Pauline came to a workshop in art and technology that I was a part of at The Kitchen, and we did some of her Sonic Meditations. Then she improvised on the accordion, an exact sort of microcosm of this sonic meditation. So that experience - plus my teacher saying how it changed her life - made me want to go. I don't know whether I can say anything concrete about what it's done other than in ridiculously broad terms such as "opening me" and "broadening me". But I don't think I would be the composer I am today if not for that experience.
Darwin: Your composing technique, are you sort of a traditionalist? Do you like scratch everything out on paper? Do you tend to more use improvisational techniques? What's sort of the process that you go through in doing compositional work?
Margaret: Every piece for me is really different. I definitely like to write for a specific person. So recently I had a violin student who had taken my computer music class. She's an amazing violinist. She won the concerto competition here.
At Stony Brook, you need to have some 20th century repertoire. And she was just like, "I'm not comfortable with 20th century music. I would want to study it for five years before I even tried to perform this stuff. Love taking your class, love those kinds of sounds. So do you think you could write me a piece that I would feel comfortable playing that would have electronics?" And I just came up with this idea to write this sort of Bach Partita inspired work using a recursive stretching idea. So I love what happens when you sort of push effects to their maximum and you'd get these glitches and warbles and bubbles.
And so I thought it'd be really cool if you could stretch a sound, but keep stretching the stretch sound for as long as you want - instead of just doubling the length of your note. It'll keep going for as long as you will let it.
So it's three movements. Each of the movements sort of has a different pitch point at which below that stretching takes place. And then, so the first movement actually has two lines and at any point you can jump down to the notes that will start the new pedal point if it's getting too glitchy for you. And it was really amazing to me because I like Bach, I didn't put any bowings or notations in cause I really wanted that sort of idea. And it was the first piece I've ever had where like just sight reading it, she got it.
And then we had to work a bit on the electronics and how to control them. But just working in another idiom was very interesting to me. So that was very prescribed. Listen to the Bach, write music!
Other times I'll do improvisation in a composing duo, which people really don't understand, called Kite•String with Sarah O'Halloran. And a lot of times we'll just improvise. She's also done deep listening retreats, and part of the deep listening retreat is also trying to listen in your dreams. So we'll start from a dreamscape, and then try to add sounds to that.
Darwin: That's very interesting. So there's another case though that is influential. Now I'm speaking of electronics in the way that the bleeding edge of electronics can provide some interesting results. You've worked with a lot of different technology over the years, amd you've been involved in a lot of different kinds of tech. How do you make the decision of what to use when?
Margaret: Wow. that's a really hard question. I mean, how do I decide? Like to me it's more about how I decide to learn a technology, right? Because once I learned it, I know what it can do. It's easy to make the decisions, but to decide what to learn...
Darwin: ...when to take on something new...
Margaret: Yeah. Well, it's getting frustrating as I get older because I'm not as fast as I used to be and I have all these students that are just like, "Oh, I'm just going to try this stuff." And I'm like, "I remember when I just was like that." Now I wonder - do I have the time? Will it impact my efficacy on something else?
Darwin: Well I'm really curious about extending that part of the conversation though, because one of the things that I sometimes worry about - and I see it with students and I see it with people trying to learn Max, or whatever that I'm trying to do. The "quick jump in, do something fantastic and then move to the next shiny object" really prevents people from getting real depth into any of the tools. But on the other hand, some of the variety of tools that come along are so impressive - or are such incredibly shiny objects - that it's really hard to ignore them. And trying to figure out a balance there seems pretty difficult as well.
Margaret: I mean, to give a really perfectly concrete example, I consider myself pretty expert in Max/MSP and Jitter-ish. If someone else gives me the visuals, I can manipulate them. I'm not so good with it as sort of an array storage device. But other people are brilliant at doing that. But I can hack in visual land, and I'm, I'm pretty good with Ableton Live and I do not feel at all competent in Max for Live yet.
Darwin: Oh sure, sure. 'Cuz there's just enough different constructs in there...
Margaret: Different constructs. And I want to be able to understand it fully, rather than just knowing if I do this it's fine.
Darwin: Right. That's a real interesting point. And I think that's a difficulty a lot of people deal with, especially when it's easier to take on a technology that's completely unlike everything - just because you don't have these preconceived notions of how they should work.
Margaret: That's why I love working with video! I don't have 10 teachers in my head saying ... yeah.
Darwin: Well, I was gonna ask: how do you balance the two pursuits to the different paradigms that come between working on visuals and working with music? I mean, they do seem to be different disciplines in a very serious way.
Margaret: I guess for me, because I always get raw footage from other people, it just becomes like a sample that I can manipulate. So I don't think of them as very different at all. I have a little bit of synesthesia and... I'm good. Like I can arrange furniture, but I can't make furniture. I'm very good at putting things together, but not actually designing them myself. So I actually feel a big connection between the two.
Darwin: So who are some of the people that you've collaborated with on video work?
Margaret: Yeah. One of the big people is Nick Fox-Gieg. And my collaborations with him have been really interesting because we'll take turns being 'the boss'. So, collaboration when two people are working together, you're incredibly equal and you should just make your decisions and it doesn't work. Somebody needs to be in charge. So we actually rotate who's in charge. Some days I will be like, "I need this kind of visuals and no, Nick, can we make her look even crazier?" And other times he'll be in charge and he'll be like, "Hey, can you make that sound? Just, you know, can you deepen it?" And so we've had a really, really good working relationship for almost 20 years now.
Darwin: wow. That's incredible. You know, that reminds me - I do work with a dance company, and I work really closely with the choreographer - and that's a lot of times how that interaction works. Especially on things that are gonna impact both what I'm doing with visuals and what she's going to do with the choreography. We do that collaboration on the music, and there is sort of this back and forth of who's going to make the decisions. Sometimes it's really useful to be the decision maker. Sometimes it's really useful to be the decision receiver and that's a very interesting way to think of it.
Margaret: Something you might like: when we were living in the same city, we actually had a duo called In Strange Paradox where he was getting into doing live visuals using a Wacom tablet. We did these improvised sets where I was in charge of generating some sound and I had the K-Bow. The K-Bow was effecting his images as he was drawing and his Wacom pen was influencing the sound as I was playing. So you not only had to play or draw, you had to be aware of what you were doing to the other medium, and also react to what the other person was doing to you.
Darwin: I was gonna say that's awesome. But my kids have been filling my head with the word awesome, so I have to find a different word. That's incredible! I'd say that kind of feedback seems to be a part of the kind of live art work or the live performance work that I see so often. They have these built in feedback mechanisms. Do you find yourself gravitating towards those?
Margaret: Yeah, for sure. Come on - I don't know why I'm obsessed with sort of trying to create these linkages, either between people or between people and computers. But I just like it. It might be because I have problems making connections with people in real life. We don't talk about interpersonal problems though, so let's keep that to ourselves.
Darwin: One other thing that I know that you're really active in is being at the forefront about talking about women's inclusion in media art, in music production, in music development - those kinds of things. I think you're involved in several organizations that are, that have that as kind of a specific desire to influence the community.
Margaret: Well I was involved with at least one: The Women's Audio Mission, back in San Francisco. I'm also on the very edges of this code liberation project that my friend Phoenix Perry started. But I'm not really interested so much in organizations that are for women. I want to just make sure there are women in places where they will be seen.
Darwin: You want to get women involved in the organizations. That makes a lot of sense. What are the barriers that you find that kind of prevent that from happening?
Margaret: I grew up in a town - we were right near Bell Labs and there were a lot of female engineers around this place in New Jersey. So I never actually experienced any kind of sexism that 'women can't do math' or anything. I went to Goucher College, which four years before I got there had become coed; and I had a second year math class where I was the only woman and I was just like, "This is weird!"
I have that undergrad degree in computer music. I would sometimes be the only woman in my computer music classes. And I had a composition teacher who would actually make fun of the men in... it was a group composition class and he would make fun of the men in the class because I was doing better than they were.
And he would be like, "This is ridiculous! This woman is doing better than you." And I was like, "What? I'm three years in?" I was going to Peabody at the same time I was going to Goucher (because I finished everything at Goucher) and I got invited to help out with this wheelchair dance piece that we presented at a ICMC in Banff, Canada. And I was involved with the programming, sound design, everything. But there were 10 men from Peabody that also went to this conference and they got grilled about how the piece worked. We had these wireless sensors; it was really ahead of its time. We were working with the Hopkins Physics Lab, and no one asked me a damn thing. Well, they asked me who I was there with and who my husband was and I was 20 at the time, so it was sort of a shock to me - because I never had identified even myself as female, or what I was doing as particularly male. It was jarring to say the least to sort of be confronted with my own gender.
Darwin: Do you think that that attitude has changed much in the intervening years?
Margaret: I don't run into that many people who are like me and aren't thinking of themselves in terms of gender. Like we have such a gendered society. I had crazy, ridiculous over-protective parents who would only let me watch one hour of public television a week. So I wasn't exposed to stuff. And I think, I don't want to raise my kid like that if I have one. But I do think that a lot of media and society sort of pressures kids one way or the other - to the point that if you ask a student his or her gender before a math test, the women's scores drop.
So it's this subtle thing. There are a lot of people studying it, particularly in the sciences and STEM fields cause they want to have more women. And it's very funny to me because I have two cousins who are engineers and another who's a pilot. These are all female. So I think both sides of my family have these strong women who don't care. but all of us are, "Why aren't there more? This is weird." And they've actually done studies, and the main thing that they find is that if you see other people who are like yourself (if you see a woman doing something) you're more likely to think you can do it. So that's pretty much why I'm just like: "Hey, put a woman on it."
Darwin: That's interesting because one of the things that, as you were talking, I was wondering if you thought that... that some of this push, whether it's through STEM or whatever, where we have to get women to do better at math - if that doesn't ghettoize women who already do math. But I do see where where having people visibly in that environment makes a huge difference.
Margaret: I mean, I'm not even advocating for 50, 50 balanced programs; but, I know that I've had some opportunities presented to me just because I'm a woman - but I take them and I run with them. I've gotten to the point of saying, "Now, do you want me just because I have a vagina? Because I also have seven friends who could do this, who also have vaginas." People say, "Oh, there are more people?" I'm like, "Yes, I have a whole binder full of them!" And I literally have a list of a hundred emails for when people are like, "I couldn't think of anybody."" I'm like, here you go. I send the list with like "They're a composer, they're a researcher, they're a performer. This is what they've done." And I will send it out.
Like, you think there's not a woman - here you go. And I really kind of want to get now into doing that for minorities as well. It is a little bit annoying. You're the token woman or you're the token minority, but you being there could change the course of someone in the audience's life.
Darwin: I think that's a great point because I think that so often those kinds of influences are not the ones that cause people to come rushing up after a performance or after a speaking engagement. They don't come up and say, "You changed my life!", you know?
Do you think there's any other things that need to change in order to make electronic music or media art or interactive video become a better environment, or environment that that is more easily seen as not gendered?
Margaret: I'm hoping maybe these MOOCs, these distributed classes where you can take it in the shelter of your own home are gonna be useful. So it's really funny: my Kindle is sitting right here, the Virginia Woolf picture is up and she's... You know, back in the day it was very hard to become a painter or a musician because you needed to intern with somebody and she was like, all you need to become a writer is to have a pen and some paper and a room of your own. And I'm thinking that the computer is starting to become that room of one's own. Just trying to put tools out there so that you can experiment in your home and get some confidence before going out into the world.
Darwin: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, because there's a screen between the class and yourself. It means that you can be whoever you are, and that makes a lot of sense. So when I think about you, I tend to think of you as one of the "New York People", right? But it maybe some of it is because every time I run in into you, and Luke Dubois's there and Todd Reynolds is there and you know, all my New York people.
Margaret: Awesome. Reynold went to Stony Brook.
Darwin: Did he really? Yeah, I didn't know that at all.
Margaret: We're going to have it out for like an alumni concert hopefully in November if the dates work out.
Darwin: Oh, that's cool. So what about that kind of environment seems to you to activate the leading edge of art and music? And, and the combination of the two?
Margaret: I moved from Cincinnati to San Francisco - and I think it was really important for me to be in San Francisco because my doctorate had kind of beaten me down a bit. I had some professors at Cincinnati who did not believe that what I did was music. I did this giant opera that I thought was my thesis, and I got told because it was so collaborative that they couldn't figure out what my part was in it. So it couldn't be my thesis. And I'm just like, "I sold out three nights at the Contemporary Art Center. I got profiled by Apple, I worked for two years bringing a team together. I dictated the form of everything and let people go and do things on their own."
Like I had eight channels of audio that were controlled by a motion sensor. And I didn't want to write those eight tracks myself. I wanted each one to have a really distinct voice. But I told people, these are the kinds of samples that I want to have. This is when it's day. This is when it's night. This is how crazy they should sound.
And so I got eight very, very distinct soundtracks, but the faculty could not wrap their heads around the fact that that was me composing. It was like Xenakis - "I'll put the structure in and then the stochastic cloud particles will fill in the details..."
So San Francisco was really important for me because everyone there was so accepting and positive. But I'm glad that I moved back to New York where they're like, "Oh, I saw that you did that a month ago. What have you done since?""
Darwin: It's an incredible push, isn't it?
Margaret: Snd I'm somewhat grateful, but I did not go to school in New York either. And then I was sort of able to come back and be formed and be new and competent.
Darwin: Do you think that there's a sense that in the New York performing environment that it preferences people that go away for awhile and then come back in - so that you're not the person I see at the corner store and now I see you performing and...
Margaret: Luke and Todd have been there forever. So I think it's hard to be the person that goes there for your doctorate only and then stay. But if you were there sort of from the beginning...
Darwin: Right. For the long run. So speaking of what's new this month, is there anything that you've seen lately that you find particularly exciting?
Margaret: I mean it's not music, but I went to see the James Turrell exhibit at the Guggenheim and it blew my mind and made me hear a sound and I was just like, "I want to put sound in there." And I'm really, really excited about the the MoMA show on Sound Art, and I'm going to get a backstage tour because, oddly, my husband who works with x-rays is doing some thing for MoMA and they're grateful and they're like, "Whenever you want a backstage tour, let us know." And I was like, I want a backstage tour once the Sound Art show comes up. So very excited about that. And yeah, it should be good.
Darwin: Excellent. Meg, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it. Are there any last words you want to toss out there?
Margaret: No, it would always be like something cheesy, like, "Do what you love!"
Darwin: Well, okay, we'll use that as a tagline then. Thank you very much and have a great day.