Dan Deacon On Computers, College And 'Electronic Music' He is one of the few pop electronic dance musicians also consistently described as a composer.

Dan Deacon On Computers, College And 'Electronic Music'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Dan Deacon is one of the few electronic music makers who is also consistently described as a composer. His work has even been performed at Carnegie Hall. But if you've never heard his music, do not be deterred by what you hear next.


CORNISH: This is from Deacon's new album titled "America." And it gives you a sense of the sharp turns his music can take: from gentle orchestration, to hardcore electronic and back. "America" is Deacon's first album working with an orchestra, which is a big change for a guy who at first became enamored with the music he could make alone on a computer.

DAN DEACON: I'd never seen a blank staff of music before on a computer. And it was like you can click in notes or rests and clefs, and it sort of just kind of blew my mind. And then in college, I was still writing computer music, but I was like only writing these pieces for two flutes that would never get played by anyone ever and never will because they were just like, you know, student experiments, whereas it's like, I want them to jump in range, and I want it to be triple forte and five octaves lower than they can play. You know what I mean? Just sort of like really getting into that idea of complexity.

CORNISH: And your music does have this wonderful kind of layering that happens. When I think of a song like "True Thrush"...

DEACON: Mm-hmm.


DEACON: I've been listening to this for a long time. It's kind of interesting to hear the kick drum. I can't believe how loud we mixed it.


DEACON: The most amount of debate that we had on the record was in regards to the drums.

CORNISH: Now, what's the debate, because for people who don't listen to electronic music regularly, maybe they think they're only hearing drums or kind of only hearing percussive sounds? So, for you, what goes into crafting a song like this?

DEACON: Well, those are all live drums. And I wanted to mix them so that they would sound like synthetic drums but they have that human feel. And I think that's like the cornerstone of the idea of this record is that it's not electronic music, and it's not acoustic music, and it's, you know, it's an electroacoustic music. It takes the elements that electronic music have, which are, you know, precision and merges it with the fragility of what a human can do and what human instruments and acoustic instruments can do.


DEACON: I started working with electronic music because that was what was available to me. I had a computer, and I could write that music. And I couldn't write a piece for orchestra because it would never get played. I wanted to focus on work that would exist and people could hear, and it could develop and grow and not just like sit in a box in a closet. So anyway, skipping years ahead...


DEACON: ...I didn't get tired of writing electronic music, but I started to feel its limitations, because obviously, there's differences between music that's made by a human being and music that's made by a computer. There's perfection...


DEACON: ...endless, limitless perfection that a computer has. And because of that, that's its limit. Do you know what I mean?

CORNISH: Yes. There's something about the computer that makes it feel like you can make it perfect.

DEACON: Definitely. But it's that ability that takes it - like, even in regards to a drummer, you can have a 45-armed drummer that can play forever if it's a computer, but it's not going to have that groove that a human drummer has. It's not going to have that, like, slight hesitation or the stronger impact.


DEACON: You can do everything you want to make a computer try to sound like a cello, but it's not going to sound like a cello.

CORNISH: You premiered your first orchestral works with - I guess, it was the Canadian orchestra, the Kitchener-Waterloo.

DEACON: The Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony. I wrote for orchestra in college, but it'd been a long, long time since I'd communicated with players. So, like, I don't know. Those experience sort of like, shook me. And it was like, you need to remember this, get back to work. Computers aren't all there are, Dan.


DEACON: And it just showed me how much I had forgotten and how the nuance of an instrument - like, if you're going to write for a cello, like, don't just make it sound like the MIDI demo you have of the cello. You know what I mean? Like, dive into it.


CORNISH: So what were some of the challenges for you in this collaboration? I don't know if there's a song you can point to where you had an idea on the computer...


CORNISH: ...how it would be executed, and then a real person looked at you and said, what are you thinking?

DEACON: I think the extro to "Pretty Boy" is a good example.


DEACON: It was originally written for three bass clarinets, and the part's just very fast and dexterous. And the player was like, I don't think this is really going to work on bass clarinet. I mean, it could. You could definitely do this. But to me, it sounds more indicative to a bassoon. And we were like, bring in the bassoon. And, you know, and they were right. It worked out great.


CORNISH: What do you say to people who are dismissive of electronic music? Do you ever feel that kind of criticism?

DEACON: Well, I don't really feel the criticism, but I think I just feel like it's insane that people still call electronic music, electronic music. It's just - it's like calling music guitar music, or vocal music or something. And I don't know. It just doesn't make any sense. Like, you know, and people talk about how it's permeating the mainstream, but it's been in the mainstream forever, forever. But I feel like it'd be kind of like, people saying: I can't believe they're allowing trombones in the church.

Can you believe it? These brass bands, nuts, never going to last. No one's going to - this piano, who wants to hear notes louder and quieter? I don't want to hear it. I just want to hear all of my notes played the same. We've got harpsichords. We don't need these pianos. That's sort of like the mentality that I feel when people are like: Electronic music. Do you think it's going to last? Do you think - so...

CORNISH: Well, I wonder as you're getting further and further into...

DEACON: I don't mean to attack you.

CORNISH: No, no.


CORNISH: I welcome the attack.

DEACON: It wasn't an attack.

CORNISH: I wonder this as you get more and more into this orchestration, because you're encountering these audiences now, and - I guess, I just wonder sort of how it's going.


DEACON: I think it's going well. I think most people who are interested in new music are open to any sound source. I feel like we live in an era where it's impossible to think of how 10 years from now, we'll still be calling electronic music, electronic music. Or maybe we still - I don't know, when we're constantly swimming in this sea of sounds, of sirens and cellphone beeps and prerecorded music outside gas stations, like it just permeates our system. There's always sound coming in, and nine times out of 10, it's synthetic.

And we live in this, like, weaving of music that we don't even realize. So, of course, our music is going to reflect that. And we're going to have more noise, and we're going to have more synthetic (makes noise) like sneaking into our sounds. And for most people, I think all these things are very subtle, but they still impact them. And they affect the way that they hear something. So we're just being conditioned to exist in this synthetic, chaotic-based environment, and I think our music is starting to really accurately reflect that.

CORNISH: Well, Dan Deacon, thank you so much for talking with me.

DEACON: Oh, no problem. Thank you.


CORNISH: Musician Dan Deacon speaking to us about his album called "America." It's out today.


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