An interview with
Bill Sharp/Biota

By Beppe Colli
Dec. 3, 2007

As I have already argued at great length in my review, it doesn't take much to define Half A True Day - the new album by the visual/musical collective from the USA going under the name Biota - as a work of enormous depth and beauty; a musical environment that after a few listening sessions (of the attentive kind) appears to be one of the high points in the course of the group's travelogue.

Yes, they are a group whose work is quite difficult to read, as it's only natural with all those who create something that's highly original. But in the case of the music by Biota, the fact of a multitude of meanings appearing at the same time is without a doubt one of its distinctive features. So, in a way, musicians and listeners negotiate the different layers of the sound landscape.

So, is it difficult music? Without a doubt, it is - but not necessarily more difficult, I'd say, than other music that's already filed under "difficult". What's more, I find it really easy to believe (even if the mere thought makes me feel bad) that, given the proper amount of "pressure", Biota could have become a "trendy" group, the kind one spots listening to a soundtrack (at the movies, in a theatre, or - why not? - while watching a "modern" TV serial, maybe on cable?), even - maybe - in one of those ads that give instant fame - and money.

I immediately became curious to know more, so I asked Bill Sharp - a model of kindness - whether he would accept my idea to talk about this new chapter in the life of the group. He did, and the interview was conducted via e-mail, in the course of the last two weeks in November.

Though I have more than a few questions about the new Biota CD, I'd really like to start this conversation by going back in time. This is something I have been curious to know for quite a long time: Though acknowledged in the booklet's liner notes, with Gordon Whitlow getting a compositional credit for it, the final track on Object Holder has no title. Why?

Several of us viewed the piece as an environment of transition, as if a member of the Object Holder population was moving out of that world and toward the next, whatever that next might be. So, given that the state of our follow-up work was undetermined, this transition was a question mark. It could also be viewed as an extended fadeout of the overall composition. In any case, we enjoyed the thought that it might simply appear, unanticipated, to the listener. This reflects our embrace of the surprise element in our working process.

What does the CD title - Half A True Day - mean? It's "True" that I find confusing (but also "Half", I'm afraid...).

The project is largely about uncertainty - in everything from our daily lives to our embrace of the unknown in our music making, as just mentioned. I think the title carries forward similar references from our past work. However, like past titling, we didn't make a conscious effort to connect with previous projects. It's simply the natural way we gravitate in trying to represent the sounds, the concepts, our working methods in just a few words. This element of uncertainty is crucial to the current work, because the compositions grew out of the interaction between the determined and the unforeseen. And, it's also one way for the listener to approach the organisation of the sound over time. The overlapping of numerous compositional details - always in motion, not always fully resolvable - sets up a changeable truth about the whole - something we hope is malleable by and for the listener. Ideally, this yields a fresh experience each time.

"Proven Within Half, Half a True Day" might imply we almost got there as producers, as conceptualists, whatever. We almost answered our questions. (Almost never measured not found.) Now it's up to the listeners, as composers. In my own case, had I not needed to at some point call my contribution "complete," I'd still be messing with it. And, in a way, I still do now as a listener. I still hear new interactions. I'm at the production and mixdown end of this process, and I can't convey how remarkably harmonious "unrelated" sound components can be. Our studio process invites these interactions, as we build upon and organise them further.

The album presents a "Cast Of Characters" which includes both familiar faces, and people I'm not at all familiar with: Steve Emmons, Kristianne Gale, Rolf Goranson, Randy Miotke, and David Zekman (also Charles O'Meara, whom I assume to be TAFKAV?). Would you mind talking a bit about them?

Steve and the late Rolf Goranson worked on early Biota projects involving repetitive, cyclical electronic parts that interacted in a volatile environment. Specifically, they built portable battery-powered circuits that, when employed in chorus, tended to hatch a restless, hungry beast. The devices were a bit unstable (intentionally so) and their interaction produced a great many pleasant surprises. The Emmons/Goranson work is found on the first Biota LP (1982) and on the rough study for that work known as "Roto-limbs." We transplanted a few appendages from this period for Half a True Day.

Kristianne is a traditional folk singer whose voice is also well suited to instrumental interplay in an environmental setting. We are always interested in the ambiguity of voicing amongst sound sources - the blur in distinction between the pure vocal and the played acoustic instrument in sonic interplay. Kristianne has given us a very powerful resource in this regard, and one distinct in its utility from the pure song form of Susanne's and Gen's work on OH and Invisible Map, respectively. As a producer, it has been extremely rewarding to work with this broad range of vocal nuances and compositional approaches over three projects.

Randy Miotke has worked on past projects in an editing and mastering capacity, and his role has grown as the work has become increasingly defined by its assembly characteristics, while demanding more exacting tools for that endeavour. It is here - in the final stereo editing phase - that we turn to modern software in the Miotke studio. With this new album, we've also enjoyed working with Randy for the first time as an instrumentalist. The same holds true for David Zekman, a long standing friend of the group, who joins us at last on electric violin and mandolin. His compositional clarity was invaluable, bringing to the extended format a thread of essential emotion and determination, interwoven throughout.

I envisioned a similar role for contributions from the late Andy Kredt, scouring the archives in mid '06 for lines that might augment the developing tonality of the project. Andy's energy was palpable on those recordings. Snippets of his past work fell into place as if tailored for the new.

Charles O'Meara (aka Vrtacek) returns with the piano that has energised so much of our work since Awry and Tumble. His pieces ground the maelstrom in a simple beauty. There is always a fundamental humanity in his playing - a personality that survives whatever we may do to mangle, invert, or mechanise his parts.

What's a "Crown bass"? Isn't/wasn't Crown a brand of amplifiers?

Crown is the manufacturer of Tom's hollow body 4-string - vintage 1960's, perhaps early '70's. I'm not sure if there is any relation to the classic amp makers, whose IC-150A pre-amp we employ in the studio monitoring system. We note Crown in the instrumentation because of the guitar's distinctive sound, apart from that of other bass sources in the projects.

What's a "Biomellodrone"? (And where did you find a Micromoog that actually worked?)

The Biomellodrone is an instrument born of our tendency to kluge together outboard processing gear just to hear what it might emit. Mnemonist founding engineer Mark Derbyshire and I devised this one from three boxes while musing about the endearing defects in a Mellotron's workings. An early digital sampler feeds a looping chord to a pitch shifter, which in turn applies tape transport-like wavering, gating, and musically useful interval shifts to the chord via commands from an external keyboard. A bit shaky, but I'll take the Rube Goldberg approach over a refined software plug-in any day of the week.

Randy Yeates is our analog hunter out there. If anyone can dig up an operational Moog, it is he. Better yet, we simply employ any malfunctions we encounter. His Micromoog was well suited to the textural backdrop he envisioned for these compositions. Sometimes, as in the case of our Clavioline, we have no direct reference for the correct operational state of a device. We are fortunate to have the Clavioline manual but, beyond that, must relish its idiosyncrasies and bring them to the music as if we had encouraged them all along. There is no definitively correct operational state for sound sources in this studio setting. Case in point: Tom's prepared music boxes, which make several appearances in the new work. Each box was altered individually, in isolation from the others. Their harmonies with each other - and with existing elements of the compositions - are part accidental, yet always guided. The work grows from these interactions, however harmonic or dissonant. Editors and mixers add and subtract. Instrumentalists bind the population into a functioning whole.

"Recorded and mixed between Fall 2002 & Summer 2007" is a very long time. Did the group ever happen to lose faith in the project during the process?

I don't think we lost faith during the first half of that period, but each of us negotiated difficult stretches of loss and uncertainty during that time. The focus varied. By the point at which the work solidified into a proper project - with an identity unique to our history, and with an endpoint visible - I think we quickly gained momentum and completed the work in less time than we might have in the past (in this case, roughly two years). But the energy ebb and flow has changed. The dynamics are different for musicians everywhere, I think.

I seem to detect a parallel between the last track on Object Holder and the last piece - Index Point #4 of the closing track, Passerine - on Half A True Day. Does my impression hold water?

It does, in the sense that I think the lone player in each case symbolises a resident of the larger sound population who in the end finds him/herself reflecting on that place in the world. (Or, at the very least, reiterating or solidifying that role.) In the Passerine close, the accordion evolves out of the processed state it occupied in the broad context of the 70 minute composition and into a more natural state, in a perhaps more familiar environment. Yet even this final regression is deceptive and open to interpretation. Was the pure state present all along, but merely masked by other activity? It is, in common with the OH ending, suggestive I think of some finality in this space... and of perhaps eventual movement into a new place and time.

I would really hate to spoil readers' many moments of surprise when listening to Half A True Day. However, I wonder whether it would be possible for you to talk about the new work, in general terms.

I'm pleased you mention the surprise element. We always hope this key component of our working process is carried forward into the listening experience. In Half a True Day, we similarly wish to convey a sense of perpetual transition for the listener. This quality might arise from a number of forces at play: perhaps the continuously shifting overlay and juxtaposition of elements. Or the unanticipated arrival and departure of new ones. In each case, new harmonies and dissonances arise. New relationships within the musical population are established, though they remain transitory. Much of this activity is intended to operate at the edge of resolution on initial audition, hopefully to bloom as the listener becomes locked into the peculiarities of this environment. It may be analogous to watching a film of indeterminate plot line, where the content resides in the value the viewer sees in each character and the nuances of their interaction. And the conviction that the cast is intertwined at multiple levels and moving toward a common resolution, however mysterious.

Equal attention was given to spatial details and the building of environments in which this interchange takes place. Half a True Day embodies significant departures here from earlier works, while maintaining our emphasis on alternative approaches to spatial processing. We are struggling toward a result that manages to embrace both the familiar and the alien simultaneously. It's the sense that one's native language - the way in which we comfortably describe our world - is indeed being spoken, yet the routine translation is garbled. This confounding might then encourage in the composers and listeners a new compromise amongst the figures in the play; a new organisation of their activities.

Biota's work really needs a great amount of involvement on the part of the listener. Talking in general, do you see people as more or less willing to dedicate a certain amount of their time to the exploration of an "unknown quantity" (meaning, an object that appears to be "aesthetically mysterious") when compared to ten or twenty years ago?

It's a bit frustrating because I can easily spend 5 years in the near-suspended animation that is a Biota project, and not have much sense of how the modes of perception are changing in the world of listeners outside. Emerging, I may be in for a rude surprise. The expanding volume, speed, and ease of information delivery, including that of aesthetic pursuits, may mean that listeners will expect facile solutions delivered right alongside any challenges. This vast amount of data must be efficiently organised. An aesthetic work might just fit into the "weird" category, be gobbled up as such, and promptly deleted. Or - more encouraging - the powerful delivery might incite the investigative spirit and actually liberate curiosity. I don't know which will win out. I think it will come down to the prevailing habits of consumption. If there is a continuing trend toward the visual and toward increased speed, quantity, and disposability of same, then it will take a backlash of basic human inquisitiveness to bring us back to a thoughtful approach to the arts. A hasty mass mindset will overload, crash, turn introspective, and begin to look for substance in the aesthetic experience.

These days there's a huge debate going on about things like "legal and illegal downloading", "the death of the CD", "the death of shops", "what future for artists?", etc. Though by no means surprising, the topic of "sound" - as in "the quality of the sound of music when sent/listened to on those devices most common today" - gets little or no attention. What's your opinion of this, both as a producer of music, and as a listener (and fan)?

At the same time that widespread, rapid delivery of art - be it video, music, or whatever - enables a larger audience, the delivery medium can degrade the work itself while lowering its apparent value to that audience. It is early to say whether there is a net benefit for non-mainstream musicians with a limited audience. We have, potentially, a greatly expanded and almost instant audience via Internet access, including the journalistic opportunities that accompany this. Yet the most widespread means of delivery (compressed files suitable for mobile applications) offer a degraded representation of the work - not to mention the limitations of the playback technology under these conditions. Aesthetic value will ultimately reside in the mindset of the listener, that is: how the mode of consumption effects the lasting value of the art object in the life of that listener. So there is ample cause for concern. We are certainly in the midst of the most profound shift in many decades, and I may just be "old school" now. I wonder what earlier observers were saying about the trend in consumption away from live performance and toward the mass distribution of recorded media. There was no doubt legitimate concern for sound degradation in one sense (the loss of acoustic purity), but a liberation of sonic opportunities in exchange. There may be an analogue here, but I suspect the current metamorphosis is far more radical, defying safe bets on the future of music or any aesthetic medium, for that matter.

Visuals by Tom Katsimpalis    

Beppe Colli 2007 | Dec. 3, 2007