Space Music: The Alien Sounds of Richard Devine

Richard Devine Courtesy Richard Devine

I recently had the chance to interview electronic musician Richard Devine for the Discovery News article "Is Electronic Music 'Real" music?" The man had loads to share about his own creative process and advice for aspiring artists, so I figured a post was the perfect place to share more.

For those of you who aren't familiar with his work, Richard Devine creates the sort of electronic soundscapes that generally attract the label "intelligent dance music" or IDM. But as with most artists of talent, his work defies such labels. His music is at times melodic and ethereal, other times jarring and chaotic.

Let's hit an example of his work before descending straight into the interview.

ROBERT LAMB: What experience are you looking for the listener of your music to have when they listen to your work?

RICHARD DEVINE: I like to put the listener in an unusual space and in an emotional space, as well. A lot of music that's out typically touches on normal subject matter and emotions that people -- common emotions like love and happiness and sadness. A lot of my compositions are a bit more abstract where I like to take the listener on a strange cerebral sonic adventure. It almost be like if you were trapped inside a H.R. Giger visceral world of corridors and spaces.

I've always been drawn more to the kind of music that takes me to places I've never been to before. I don't know how to describe it. It's just a collage of strange sounds and textures that make you feel a certain way. You can't really put your finger on the emotion that you're experiencing. Some of it can be unsettling; some of it can be just bizarre at times. Sometimes the outcome is pleasant or very unpleasant; I guess it goes to far extremes at either end of the spectrum.

How do you view the impact of electronic music production on human creativity?

When I first started making music, there were hardly any music programs available for the personal computer. Now applications like GarageBand and Reason offer full production environments for creating any type of music. Many of these applications come free with some of these operating systems. How that affects us, I think, is positive and negative. I think that, on one side of the coin, you have a lot of new music coming out. And the flip side of that is you get a lot of bad music, too, at the same time. It doesn't necessarily mean the quantity equates to quality, but it does put everything kind of in a perspective where you see that thousands and thousands of people now can get opportunity to make music and it takes something that was very difficult to get into in the past and now make it more accessible for the masses.

But there's almost too much electronic music coming out right now. I feel like it's harder to stand out these days. There are so many people trying to emulate specific styles, so now you have hundreds and hundreds of people trying to sound a particular way. I find that there is less and less innovation in music, but more and more people creating it. So I think it's harder for people to get discovered than it was ten years ago, when I was starting out and we were actually recording onto DAT tapes and releasing vinyl records. Now with digital distribution, anyone can just upload a track to Sound Cloud or any other site and promote it through social media networks. Now it's a whole different animal all in itself. And I think it's much harder to stand out and to get recognized now in the sea of millions.

Do you still run into people who don't get that electronic music is real music?

I would've heard that much more maybe five or 10 years ago, but I think now the digital age has pretty much changed everything. You listen to pop music now as opposed to 20 years ago, and it sounds very synthetic; it's very electronic-influenced. The overall public, even in pop music, has been influenced by electronic music and it's now become much more of an accepted sound now. It's not this alien thing that's looked upon as unreal music anymore.

Album art for Devine's 2003 album "Asect:Dsect"

Do you engage in algorithmic musical composition?

I do. I use several different software environments, like Kyma, PD, Softstep, Cycling 74, Max MSP, and there's another application called Symbolic Composer, which uses more algorithmic-based sequenced approach to writing music. You can use code algorithms from DNA/RNA, Darwin Noise, Nasa Satellite Data, or draw from the 1000 examples, all kinds of life forms that you can generate musical note data from. Other applications like Softstep Artwonk can generate music data from fractals, EEGs, and EKGs. You can generate musical sequences even from images now. I do tinker around quite a bit with them just to kind of get outside of the linear sort of way of writing, which a lot of the digital audio workstation application environments do.

It's sort of a left to right orientation where you're working within a timeline-based editor, where you're editing musical notes, cutting audio and crossfading files. Sometimes I like to experiment outside of that realm and kind of just play around and see what happens. I love kind of experimentation and seeing what can happen. And so that's more or less how I like to use some of this software; just kind of exploring and discovering new ideas. Misusing these software applications is interesting too and can yield surprisingly cool unexpected results.

I know people like Eno and Autechre have used algorithmic composition in the past, but I don't really have a good handle on what that entails. Is it sort of like a third party through which the artist's creativity flows?

Yeah, exactly. Autechre is a good example. They use Max MSP and a lot of the same software and hardware. If you're using an algorithmic-based approach, you're most likely using some sort of software environment like Max, Reaktor or Symbolic composer, where you start off with a blank slate and then create the environment. It's really interesting because you're defining the rules and parameters of that environment, and then you can decide how that environment behaves.

Max MSP, for example opens up with a blank screen and you basically think of what you want to create. So you can right click and open a menu of options that allow you to drop in an object. From this object you can virtually connect other objects that can do specific operations. You have the ability to create synthesizers, samplers, and sound processing chains. You can freely define how you want to control those oscillators, parameters, and functions whether it'll be a live input with your voice or you if you want to control them with a hardware controller, sensor, or touch screen controller of some sort like an iPad or Lemur. With this approach you'll get into these situations that wouldn't normally happen. So you kind of discover these things as you create them and modify them.

A 2010 Synthtopia article predicted that so-called fixed music would become a thing of the past and intelligent software would enable musical creation to adapt to one's settings or preferences or environment or individual likes and dislikes. Do you see that as a valid possibility?

Music software of today makes previously complicated tasks much easier now. Whether it's engineering or mixing or music composition or even using an application to find the right chord progressions, there seems to be app for everything now that many musicians like myself had to stumble around on and spend many months and years trying to figure out. Now anything can be looked up within a couple seconds on Google or wikipedia, nothing is a mystery anymore. Or you can find a video showing you how to create something.

But at the same time, I don't necessarily think that always helps creativity or makes people more creative. I think it sometimes makes people lazy. When I have too many resources at my fingertips, I have a tendency to get really lazy with the creativity. So for me, I try to limit myself with how many tools I use. I try to just keep it to just a couple pieces of equipment and learn those pieces of equipment really, really well.

What advice do you have for kids out there who want to create their own electronic music?

I always tell any new up and coming producer to find a recording software environment that they feel the most comfortable with and stick with it and not try to incorporate hundreds of pieces of gear and software. Just try to learn one environment really, really well and get very comfortable with it to the point where you don't feel intimidated by it. Because that's where the best music is going to come out of: writing in an environment that you feel comfortable and confident with. Then just build your confidence level up within that environment and start to create musical compositions that you are happy with. It should feel very natural and be like painting or drawing or any other sort of artistic activity.

So what have you been working on recently?

Well, I'm working on a new album right now and I'm actually working on an EP -- a four-track EP -- with another artist named Loops Haunt. He's from Ireland and it should be out by the end of the summer.

I currently work full time as sound designer, and have done projects with everyone from Microsoft, Nike and Sony.

Space Music is a continuous exploration of our expanding cosmos of sound, with an emphasis on electronic music. Sample a little of everything from past posts at the Space Music Sampler playlist on Spotify.

About the Author: Robert Lamb spent his childhood reading books and staring into the woods — first in Newfoundland, Canada and then in rural Tennessee. There was also a long stretch in which he was terrified of alien abduction. He earned a degree in creative writing. He taught high school and then attended journalism school. He wrote for the smallest of small-town newspapers before finally becoming a full-time science writer and podcaster. He’s currently a senior writer at HowStuffWorks and has co-hosted the science podcast Stuff to Blow Your Mind since its inception in 2010. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling with his wife Bonnie, discussing dinosaurs with his son Bastian and crafting the occasional work of fiction.