An Interview With Multi-Dimensional Musician Rob Levit and Ableton Software
DA: You are primarily known as an award-winning jazz guitarist and composer. What made you decide to foray into electronic music?
RL: All of the music I grew up listening to is adventurous and used electronics – Mahavishnu, Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Mark Isham, etc. As a jazzer with an experimental streak, the ability to create new and original sounds in the moment is very attractive. With electronic music you have the ability to play an acoustic or electric guitar or another instrument directly into Ableton and transform it into a brand new sound, a unique sound. You can be completely uninhibited with your imagination. Ableton is a great creative tool because it gives you choices but it doesn’t make the decisions for you. I can take an acoustic guitar sound and transform it by adding effects like grain delay or filter and control the parameters in real time via MIDI. It allows me to create a much wider array of sounds than are available on the instrument itself. The end result is that it doesn’t have to sound like an acoustic guitar. I am definitely of the school that if I wanted it to sound like an acoustic guitar I’d just record one and leave it. Electronics should be used for sound transformation. Who is interested in the ordinary when you have such an extraordinary transformational tool like Ableton at your disposal? Ableton is highly addictive—in good way—because you get instant feedback and gratification. You’re able to play a sound and morph it continuously. You don’t have to wait for the results – you are hearing them! Once you create that new sound, you can take it and make another new sound and so on. You can create an entire “sonic buffet‿ from just one sound. You can create infinite varieties of textures and sounds from one seed. As a creative artist that’s like the “holy grail. It truly is like playing an instrument. Recently, I enjoyed creating an entire composition using one piano sample. Monolake set off that spark in me. I also like the ease of use. It is intimidating reading the trade magazines and keeping up with all the new stuff. I limit myself to Ableton, Absynth, my guitar synth using a Roland JV-1010, M-Audio Ozone, and that’s about it.
DA: How is the electronic music you create connected and related to jazz music?
RL: As an instrumentalist I didn’t always appreciate the level of hard work and sophistication that went into creating electronic music. I was one of those idiots knocking it without ever trying it. It’s been eye-opening to learn how to manipulate the myriad of possibilities into some intelligent or at least listenable form. It’s also helped generate new ideas for my jazz improvisations. Ableton Live allows me to test my hypotheses about sound and texture and then apply them to my working groups. The grooves I’ve created virtually are now ones I’d like my drummer to take a crack at. He’ll hate me forever! Electronic music makes you more aware of the concept of space and dimensionality in music. It takes a special musical group to establish that live. I think electronic composition helps create a dialogue between what you can do with a band and what you imagine you can do, almost a virtual rehearsal. Being able to compose with Ableton has provided a huge advantage for me. Hardly a day goes by where I am not sitting down and pumping something into Ableton to see and hear what emerges.
DA: You are an accomplished visual artist in addition to your musical accomplishments. How has Ableton Live enabled you to combine these two worlds?
RL: I view visual art and music as very similar. Ableton bridges the gap by creating a visual canvas on screen. I find the draw tool on Ableton similar to using a paint brush—it’s like sculpting the sound. I can create sounds much like an artist mixes colors and I can see the results on the screen. With music you just hear it – but on a computer screen you can see it too! I’m creating the sounds and seeing them visually, like a mood. To me using effects is basically like color mixing hues. It’s audible architecture.
DA: Do you have any Live collaborations planned?
RL: I’ll be using Live in my upcoming work with a sitar player from India named Jay Kishor. I plan on creating “beds of sounds and texture based on ragas (Indian scales) and will trigger them during live performances when Jay can improvise. I’ll also be using my guitar synthesizer to create improvisations on the fly, record them into Live and trigger them back during performances. I also plan to have Jay record his sitar directly into Live and trigger that during performances. I can use Live to tweak and morph all these sounds. It’s scary yet exciting. The possibilities actually make me nervous! There’s always been an adventurous spirit in world and Indian music. While Indian music is highly structured, it also allows an incredible amount of flexibility, just like jazz. You have structure but it still allows you to go off in many different directions. There’s lots of freedom. I like messing around with Jay. His soloing is so tight that it’s fun to trip him a little or even make him laugh by a sample I trigger.
DA: What is unique about your use of Ableton Live?
RL: I think what I’m doing is unique because a lot electronic music, is structured—it becomes a form. All of my electronic music is improvisational-based. There are no forms or repeated sections in my music per se. I like the uncertainty and openness of not returning or even supplying a recognizable melody or chorus. A lot electronic music is incredibly tight, structured and formatted – man, that scares me! I’m just not capable of editing beats to the micro units that some of these masters do. As a jazz performer, my strength is in the looseness and risk element of the music. For example, I like to hear the overall aping of rhythms and the asymmetrical grouping of rhythms so that it doesn’t always line up perfectly. Who cares? Life is definitely not linear, symmetrical, or predictable so why should I try to fight that? I’d rather flow with it.
Today’s musicians often times use electronic music to create smooth and utterly pristine sounds. But I don’t like things to be perfect and pristine all the time… I think it’s OK not to have them perfect. Something that attracted me to Ableton was the ability to create things on the fly and live with them and be happy with them and create from that starting point, leaving some of the rawness in there. I guess I got used to that with having to learn to live with one take on a guitar solo. Ugh! When I created my CD “Anatomy of Ecstasy”, I used the following equipment in the production: Ableton Live 3.0; Roland VS-1680; M-Audio MobilePreUSB; M-Audio Ozone; Toshiba Satellite; Heritage Electric Guitar; Digitech Whammy Wah; Roland JV-1010 Synth Module; Roland MIDI pickup; Roland Groove Box; Yamaha G50 Guitar MIDI Converter; Boss RC-20 Loop Station; Ibanez Tube Distortion and various Acid Pro Samples.