The Process: Mark Fell on tools, methods, unpredictability & more

Mark Fell photograph by a lake.

As seems to be becoming a pattern here at Balance, we return a long time after the last feature. While we can legitimately claim being run-off-our-feet busy as an excuse, it's still not a great one and we hope that you'll be keen read a few music making, process related questions with none other than Mark Fell.

We recently mastered new music by Mark who is a tireless worker. He's shown that he can still flex a soundsystem in his trademark way with his live shows, the Sensate Focus project and his recent remixes. His solo Editions Mego albums make the perfect continuation listen to his last long-form outing with Mat Steel as SND. And that's not even touching on his curations and exhibits. Mark needs no introduction, yet, against better judgement, we've tried writing one.

So, our engineer John caught up with Mark and asked a few questions (loosely!) based on music making techniques and ideas. Listen and read on...

Your 'Collateral Damage' piece in The Wire was very interesting. I feel it would make great required reading to anybody who's just learned the rudiments of making tracks but gets held up on the question, 'What sort of music will I make?' At the end of the article you mention the tendency toward self-limitation in Max/MSP type software, but perhaps not everyone out there uses these patching environments, especially beginners. Where do you feel traditional timeline sequencers (like Logic/Ableton/etc.) fit in with the idea of 'open/closed' systems?

I think all softwares, like all tools, encourage ways of doing things. I don’t really distinguish between open and closed because I don’t think there is any such thing as open. For example if we think of a programming language we might think that it is some how a blank slate, but of course it is not. It has things it can do and things it can’t, it has some advantages over other languages and also some disadvantages - that's why there is more than one programming language.

In the languages that we humans speak, the idea that “language” is a transparent or passive vehicle used to convey meaning from one mind to another has been questioned in different ways and in different intellectual traditions. in the 20th century for example the structuralists and post structuralists concluded that language is a sort of autonomous system that speaks us (i.e. it speaks us we don’t speak it).

But I think this either/or situation is a little extreme. And I think that meaning is constructed in a kind of negotiated manner. I think the same is true of music and music technology.

Getting back to your question about timeline based processes, I think these encourage certain types of music making process and also certain types of musical structures. Again this for me is not a problem, any more than it would be a problem that the guitar encourages one to strum, pick, tap, etc etc. I don’t really have this paranoia about machines being in opposition to the human.

Indeed, I suppose if people are believing in or being sold the idea of a tool that has unlimited creative potential, that's perhaps where the misstep lies. I hear less musicians say, "this synth is amazing it only does this and this" than I do saying "this is amazing it does everything". Funnily, the people in the former group usually end up finishing way more tracks!

You mention different tools and softwares encouraging different music making processes. Do you tend to use a variety of combinations/setups for your own music, to I suppose explore and enjoy their different strengths and weaknesses? Or would you stick with one set of tools for a while to push its potential?

Yes thats quite an interesting point – equipment is often sold on its potential or flexibility. In my own work I tend to stick to very small setups. Typically if I’m using hardware, then it will be one or two pieces. most of the snd stuff was done entirely on one sampler – the EMU E6400. The idea of mixing up hardware makes me feel a little uneasy. I don’t know why, I guess its some form of prejudice. I think one of the reasons I work like this is because when I was starting to make music I could only afford one piece of equipment at a time. So I had one synth, then saved a bit of money, sold that synth and bought something else. This meant however that I would learn that synth in very minute detail – learn its quirks, its personality etc. etc.

These days I tend to use software most of the time because its more convenient. But even so I tend to stick mainly to one or two environments: Max/MSP of course; Digital Performer for time line based work and editing; and plugins I tend to use FM8, Battery and Erik's (Errorsmith) Razor synth.

I've read before that you like to work quite fast, going from the idea stage to mixdown/final piece very quickly. Obviously every work is different but in the general sense, do you find any correlation between working fast and the quality of the output? Or perhaps to put it better, your satisfaction with the output and the whole process?

I work fast because I find making music very tiring. I take frequent breaks and usually don’t work for more than 1 hour without a break. I find this helps me keep a bit distant from the work which for me is a bit useful. These days I actually take longer to make work. I think I realised that basically making music is not fun and that if one wants to develop then its just a matter of hard work. Some records can be made very quickly and others take time. But when I say take a long time, I mean like 6 weeks or so. Not 6 months! For me I always stress a lack of resources (time, money, technology, studio space, etc) is better than an abundance of those things. And perhaps in a way I would say there is a correlation between the music made with scant resources as good. But really I guess it depends on the kind of music. I’m not as prejudiced as I used to be about “serious” music. For example these days I can more or less listen to classical music without wanting to self harm, or electro acoustic music without wanting to vomit! So to sum up, when I first started making music I found it very hard and so worked quickly, but now I just face it and have to work hard.

"Serious" music – a great phrase, perhaps the quotation marks should be made mandatory! I recently read Nassim Taleb's 'Fooled by Randomness'. The book has some interesting ideas about the role of chance in our society and how we as humans are little equipped to deal with probability-based thinking (although it's padded with some of the author's tangential musings!).

But it got me thinking about the use of random methods in music again. Do you use some random/stochastic principles in some of your work? (Non-Sensate Focus of course). Have you any thoughts on randomness/uncertainty in general?

Most of the things I do are not random. Or if there is a random element it’s restricted to a specific parameter – for example note length. I think there’s an interesting distinction to be made between unpredictable and random. For example some types of systems that are entirely rule based can generate unpredictable outcomes, and these might seem random but in fact they are not. Actually for my work, most of the time, the systems I use are more or less predictable once I have built the system. Although there is an element of unpredictability while I’m building the system. Again this is quite different from random. For me there isn’t much difference between changing the values going into an algorithm in real time, or playing any other instrument. Of course there are different behaviours and characteristics, but for me I don’t like the categorial distinction between normal instruments and computer systems.

And to wrap up, can you tell us what you're currently up to in terms of performances/releases/other works??

I’ve just finished a number of projects, a dance piece with light and sound, a commission for a percussion ensemble, an exhibition with Luke Fowler, and a few other things. Coming up are a few curatorial projects, one at ZKM and one at Cafe Oto. A performance of a new piece at the Whitechapel, and a new piece with Carl Michael Von Hauswolff in KW Berlin.

Mark Fell, thank you very much.

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