Gregory Taylor chronicles a good year through experimental sounds
The longtime electronic musician and Madison radio host recently released a new solo album, "Randstad."
Gregory Taylor does so little to draw attention to himself, a habit that's seemingly become more and more ingrained as Taylor has worked his way deeper and deeper into the world of experimental music. He's been recording his own electronic works since the late 1970s, and released an early body of work in an underground of independently recorded cassettes during the 1980s. He has hosted his radio show, RTQE, on Madison's WORT-FM since 1986.
In recent years, he's become a serial collaborator and live improviser, working with artists including Madison-based percussionist Tom Hamer and formerly Madison-based duo Bell Monks. He's a member of ensembles including the electronics-and-mandolin trio PGT and the eerie duo The Desert Fathers, among other projects, many of them focused on live improvisation. In his day job, Taylor works for Cycling '74, developer of the widely used music software program Max. Later this year, the company will publish a book Taylor wrote about programming step sequencers.
Taylor is at once reserved and expansive; when you really get him going, you get the sense that he's more extensively connected than he's willing to let on. Although he grew up in Ohio, New York and the Chicago suburbs, he says, "I am apparently Sconnie through and through when it comes to internalizing the 'Don't think you're anybody special, sonny!' thing." I first saw him perform with The Desert Fathers in 2009, in an (actually quite nice) concert hall in downtown Madison's Capitol Lakes retirement community. As at most shows, that one found him hunched quietly over a laptop and a couple of small MIDI controllers. His website is a sparse relic, and he almost always avoids plugging his own music on his radio show.
"There's nothing wrong with doing it, and I probably would've gotten a lot farther if I did," Taylor says. "But it just seemed like I had a responsibility to a listening audience to give them a whole broad range of stuff. If I kept insisting on inserting myself into that conversation, it just didn't feel right.”
Over the past decade, which has been a highly collaborative one for Taylor, he's become less comfortable producing solo music. But his latest album, Randstad, released in June, embraces working alone as a constraint. He made it using only what he could bring along when he accompanied his wife, UW-Madison professor of Dutch literature Jolanda Vanderwal Taylor, on a year-long sabbatical in the Netherlands. (Taylor briefly toyed with the idea of creating musical algorithms that would would emulate specific people he's collaborated with, but concluded that "first, reducing somebody to that is a terrible thing to do. But secondly, it kind of didn't work.")
"Randstad" is the collective Dutch term for the close urban cluster encompassing the country's four largest cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht. The album's six tracks capture a solitary, interior view of this very dense and busy place. Taylor grabbed field recordings of his travels ("It's got the sound of my dishwasher, it's got the sound of my car keys, the law office next door to the apartment building we lived in threw parties for their clients and they would gather and make lots of noise and you could hear it up on the rooftop terrace, so there's recordings of that—stuff like that.") with a small handheld recorder, and mostly processed them beyond recognition, along with sounds from his laptop and some compact synthesizers.
"The rule was, it had to be material that was produced there, where I lived, and made with what I had with me. It doesn't explain what I wound up with, but basically that's the idea," Taylor says. "I don't find I do my best work when I have a big idea."
He has described the album, in promotional copy, as a "hermetic diary." When asked to explain what that means, Taylor brings up a book called the Codex Seraphinianus.
"It's a great big book that was written by an Italian guy," Taylor says. "It's a giant illustrated compendium of...something. It's written in a language nobody can understand. The calligraphy is amazing. It's full of illustrations of stuff, and you have no idea what's in it. And so, as a work, it's kind of self-contained and pretty interesting, but you have no idea what it is. And since it's presented in the form that it's presented, you are invited to try and make sense of it. Because the person that created the Codex Seraphinianus obviously spent a lot of time working on it, so he must have had something in mind. It's just kind of interesting to wonder what that might be. Now, that work is several orders of magnitude more interesting than what I did. But I guess I like those ideas."
Taylor's own dense sonic thatch of ...something is not meant to be a straightforward travelogue. He even admits to some playful embellishing in the title of the opening track "naar Kijkduin per Monorail (to Kijkduin by Monorail)." The inspiration and some of the sounds come from a bus trip to see "Celestial Vault," a large earthwork piece American artist James Turrell created just outside The Hague. Taylor decided his field recordings of the bus reminded him of Seattle's monorail. It makes for a pleasant fantasy as Taylor slowly builds little shimmering harmonic snippets into an abstract back-and-forth.
Even where the album is a little more mysterious and textural—especially on "Schouder Uitlijning (Shoulder Alignment)" and "Alchemistische Koeling (Alchemical Refrigeration)"—it never dives into gloom. There's even the bubbly, relatively straightforward melody of "Verlicht door Optimisme (Teyler) (Illuminated by Optimism (Teyler))." Randstad's cover is a blurred image of the large greenhouses Taylor spotted on a train ride between Utrecht and The Hague, lit up from inside as the sun sets. The image might not be telling you a whole lot, but it offers a gentle uplift.
"Well, I guess what I would say is, it was a good year," Taylor says. "It really was. I was not deliriously happy or heavily medicated or anything silly like that, but it was kind of like, I got done with it, and I don't think I was surprised that it sounded positive, but I thought, 'Wow. I don't usually do that.'"
Working professionally on Max, which he used before taking his current job, complicates his relationship with it as a creative tool. "I'm either lucky or unlucky in that my job and my artistic practice overlap. It's a little rare to find myself in a situation where I have no idea how to do something...If you start working on something, it will often not do what you expect it to do. But sometimes what it does instead is more interesting. So the really hard thing is—since I supposedly know what I'm doing, the idea that I've made a mistake and I'm going to follow the mistake is maybe harder for some people than others, because I'm supposed to know how stuff works. If something fails, and it fails interestingly, then that's actually either a really bad bug or more likely it's kind of a gift."
As he's watched (and to some extent actively participated in) the development of the technology used in experimental music, he's also witnessed the ebb and flow of experimental music communities in Madison. He recalls avant-garde guitarist Scott Fields' tenure in Madison in the 1990s as a particularly exciting time. (Fields is also playing in Madison on July 27.) But he thinks Madison is actually a good place to be an experimental music fan right now, pointing to younger artists including Julian Lynch and venues from Mickey's Tavern to Arts + Literature Laboratory to The Wisco. He often pops up in the crowd at shows where most of the performers and audience members are decades his junior. He likes the intimacy of a small scene, where he can marvel at the ever-evolving gear and methods musicians use, but also strip things of their mystery.
"When you come to shows at Mickey's, you're trying to not slosh beer on the person playing at the table," he says. "So there's a certain lack of pretense about what you're doing. You're too close to do anything that would trick anybody."