Music

Carl Stone: Plugging into the sounds of the changing city

by Katherine Whatley

Contributing Writer

Carl Stone has dedicated his life to his craft. An electronic musician who has been using computers to make live music pretty much since it was a possibility, the list of people Stone has played with or composed for in Japan and the United States reads like a who’s who of avant-garde, experimental and contemporary classical music. He’s also a long-term resident of Japan, having moved here about 20 years ago after making his mark on the Japanese musical scene.

For a long time, Stone, 66, was what you might call a “musician’s musician.” His tape and computer music pieces, as well as his compositions for other artists, were strictly for those in the know. He has inspired many musicians with his sample-focused style, but wasn’t initially known within broader musical circles.

Recently, however, that has changed thanks in part to people rediscovering and sharing Stone’s music online. He has also seen multiple releases of new and archival music in recent years.

Stone’s legacy as an early adopter of the computer as a tool to make music, particularly live music, has been cemented. He now travels frequently and performs in concerts and festivals around the world, while his early minimalist-inspired music and his later, more maximalist music has become more widely known in jazz, contemporary classical and experimental musical circles.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Stone was always interested in music and played piano and drums.

“I played drums and switched to keyboard in high school,” he says. “Playing the keyboard got me interested in synthesizers, which were not commercially available at the time.”

That early interest led Stone to study at the California Institute of the Arts, which in the early 1970s was one of the few places in the world where you could experiment with electronics to make music, and therefore one of the few places with synthesizers.

“When I was at Cal Arts, that was the first time I began to think of myself as maybe being a composer,” Stone says. “I became interested in synthesizers because of the idea of making a sound from scratch, being able to mold it, sculpt it, control it. To build sounds that maybe hadn’t been heard before.”

Graduating from college gave Stone a fresh challenge.

“I no longer had access to a synthesizer. The problem at that point was how do I make music without a synthesizer or tape recorder — or anything really — because everything was really expensive at that time,” he says. “The issue was how I could make my music. I was working at a radio station, and there was a record library and reel-to-reel tape recorders and microphones.” Like other electronic music pioneers, Stone began to use recorders and magnetic tape to make music. “I started using those to make music. I did a bunch of tape pieces after that.”

However, getting people to listen to his music remained an issue.

“In those days, people weren’t putting out records because you’d have to have a label,” Stone says. “So, the way to have people listen to your music is to have a concert. There was a set of speakers and a tape player and you’d go up and hit the play button. It was OK, but there was a lack of spontaneity and the feedback that happens between the performer and the audience and the performer and the space.”

Unsatisfied with the forced nature of these concerts, Stone drifted away from tape pieces and began to use an effects box with LP records. These boxes were designed to alter the sound of the record put into them and Stone used this method to create music in a live setting.

“I struggled to find a way to have spontaneity,” he says. “I used an effects box and a stack of LP records. I was doing hip-hop-style stuff before hip-hop had been invented. Actually, it had just been invented — this was 1982 — but I didn’t know anything about it. Maybe it was the zeitgeist of the time. (American hip-hop artist) Grandmaster Flash and I were doing similar things but working from totally different aesthetic backgrounds.”

As the technical capacity of computers increased, Stone moved toward them to make music.

“After my effects box got stolen for the second time, I switched to the Macintosh, which had just come out,” he says. “I started working with computers in a live performance situation.”

It was around this time that Stone first visited Japan. He had been interested in the country from a young age, as his mother had an interest in Japanese textiles and his parents had visited Japan and brought back pottery in the 1960s. Growing up in Los Angeles, his family also had Japanese friends. This lifelong interest led Stone to return to Japan multiple times from the 1980s onward.

“I had come to Japan in 1984 with my effects box, invited by Aki Takahashi, the pianist,” he says. “She had commissioned me to make a piece with the box and a piano. … Then I came back with a grant from the Asian Cultural Council in 1988 and ’89. At that time, I met a lot of composers, like Yuji Takahashi, and introduced my music to a lot of people. I did a lot of field recordings and listened to a lot a music.

“In 2001, I came back to Japan for another artist-in-residence project in Ogaki, Gifu Prefecture. It was at an advanced research center for media art. While I was there, I got headhunted by the university I work at now and basically never went back.”

Stone now teaches at both Tokyo University and Chukyo University in Aichi Prefecture and is an active member of the Tokyo experimental music scene, performing with local and visiting musicians.

A recent performance at Shibuya’s Koen-Dori Classics saw him team up with multi-instrumentalist Koichi Makigami, koto player Michiyo Yagi and visiting saxophone player Ned Rothenberg. Stone used his laptop to sample and process the sounds that the other three musicians were making to add to the depth of the performance.

“I love the soundscape here. First of all, the fact that it’s changing all the time,” Stone says of his desire to remain in Tokyo. “There’s an ecology of sound here. A sound that exists now might be gone in five, 10 years. Just as the sounds I recorded when I was here in the beginning of the Heisei Era (1989-2019) don’t exist anymore. For example, there was a time when there weren’t automatic ticket gates. There was a line of men punching your little ticket. A big station had 20 people lined up in a row. It was a great sound.”

And though Stone is about as digital in his music as it gets, he understands the importance of analog processes and sounds.

“There are people who have made art about the whole process of decay,” he says. “In digital, that doesn’t exist. As technology advances, a lot of these nonautomatic sounds are disappearing. People talk about Tokyo or Ueno Station in the Meiji Era (1868-1912) with everyone wearing geta or zori (traditional Japanese sandals). Think of the reverberations. I kind of regret that I never got a chance to hear that.”

For more information on Carl Stone’s music and upcoming live shows, visit www.rlsto.net.