Fifteen Questions Interview with Chris Korda - Routines Won't Suffice
Name: Chris Korda
Occupation: Transgendered suicide cult leader, electronic music composer, digital artist, free software developer
Current Release: Apologize To The Future on Perlon
My main inspiration for polymeter and phase art is Thomas Wilfred. Look
him up in Wikipedia. I saw his work at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC
when I was a child. Some of his “Lumia” machines permute for years
without repeating. For harmony, I recommend “Drifting Petals” by Ralph
Towner and Gary Burton, as well as Ralph Towner’s 1979 “Solo Concert.”
If you enjoyed this interview with Chris Korda, find out more about Chris's work and music on the following pages: Personal website, Twitter, Instagram.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who
were your early passions and influences? What is it about music and/or
sound that drew you to it – especially compared to the other activities
you've been engaged with?
I started making music as a
child by tapping on household objects. I was displaying an unusual
aptitude for rhythm, but unfortunately it was misdiagnosed as
twitchiness. I also improvised on the piano every chance I got, but this
was similarly discouraged. I dazzled my schoolmates by using my mouth
to accurately imitate rock drumming, beat-boxing long before I knew the
term. I also started building my own instruments, for example I taped a
microphone to the end of a wooden recorder, plugged it into a radio, and
played wild Hendrix-inspired solos.
Odd time was the height of
musical fashion in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and I developed a
lifelong fascination with odd time as a result. My strongest influence
was the band Yes, and I still listen to their album “Relayer” regularly
and use it as an example of peak complexity in popular music. The rock
opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” was another major influence. Many years
later, odd time influences such as these predisposed me to discover
complex polymeter and use it in my composing.
By the age of
twelve I acquired a toy organ, and a cheap acoustic guitar shortly
thereafter. I started studying jazz guitar in 1979, practicing countless
hours every day, and had a series of excellent teachers, including
tenor saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi. I studied composition at Sarah
Lawrence, and attended a summer session at Berklee College of Music. The
latter was a decisive influence, for two reasons: I learned to
sight-read jazz charts, and my roommate introduced me to a group of
artists that vastly expanded my musical taste: Pat Metheny, John
Abercrombie and Ralph Towner.
For most artists,
originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often,
emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe
your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own
voice? What is the relationship between copying, learning and your own
My dream since early adolescence was to
play guitar in a band, and after some false starts I eventually
fulfilled my ambition by playing in a few Boston-area jazz and rock
bands. I even spent a summer busking, playing jazz standards on street
corners, but ultimately I found the technical aspects of guitar
intensely frustrating and limiting.
I was a huge fan of John
Abercrombie, attended many of his shows, and consciously imitated his
style, for example by transcribing his solos, but it made me
increasingly unhappy. Eventually a friend persuaded me that my strategy
was mistaken, and that I needed to escape from Abercrombie’s shadow in
order to find my own creative path. So in 1991, I quit the guitar, moved
to Provincetown, and started a new life as a female impersonator. This
drastic transition gave me the inspiration and courage to reinvent
myself, first as founder of the Church of Euthanasia, and then as an
What were your main compositional-
and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed
over time, especially after a long break from producing music?
started producing in 1993 using the MS-DOS version of Cakewalk, which
by chance happened to allow each track to have its own independent loop
length. Due to this happy accident, I immediately discovered and fell in
love with polymeter and phasing. Oscillators having different
frequencies will drift in and out of sync, and this is called phasing.
Polymeter is quantized phasing, wherein the drift occurs in discrete
steps. I soon began composing in complex polymeter, which I define as
the simultaneous use of three or more prime meters. For example
“Buy”—the opening track of “Six Billion Humans Can’t Be Wrong”—is in 3,
4, 5, 7, 11, 13, 23, and 31, all at once. I didn’t discover Steve
Reich’s work until decades later.
My immediate problem was that
in Cakewalk you were either editing or listening but not both. I wanted
to escape from this dichotomy, and improvise my arrangement in real
time. I frequently performed live sound-collage, and was influenced by
that style’s free-flowing aesthetic.
My goal was to live-arrange
my polymeter loops, and have the arrangement recorded, not as audio, nor
as MIDI, but as mute automation. In other words, I wanted to record
when each track was muted or unmuted. The advantage of this is that the
mute events can be edited afterwards—for example to fine-tune the
transitions—without disturbing the underlying polymeter loops. The
concept is analogous to a stencil. Unmuting tracks cuts holes in the
stencil, and the underlying tracks show through the holes, with their
phase relationships always preserved.
I started by hacking
Cakewalk, but this proved too limiting, so I developed a live-arranging
program of my own—partially modeled on a lighting controller—which
eventually grew into a full-fledged polymeter MIDI workstation. It
consisted of three separate programs: one for polymeter composing, one
for live-arranging and recording the arrangement as mute events, and
still another for fine-tuning the resulting arrangement.
all written from scratch in C and assembler language—in those days you
had to write your own device drivers—and it was clumsy and hard to use
by today’s standards. Originally I drove music hardware, but after
Reason came out I simplified my rig to two laptops, one running my
sequencer and the other running Reason, connected by a hardware MIDI
Decades later my sequencer has evolved from these
humble roots into a powerful integrated composing software with many
features that aren’t found in commercial DAWs.
your first studio like? How and for what reasons has your set-up evolved
over the years and what are currently some of the most important pieces
of gear for you?
When I started producing electronic
music, racks full of hardware—synths, drum machines, effects, mixers and
so forth—were still a necessity, but I ditched all that stuff as soon
it became practical to do so. It’s fashionable to be obsessed with
hardware, but it reminds me of collecting antique cars. I like unlimited
My studio currently consists of a Windows laptop running
my custom composing software (called Polymeter), along with
Propellerhead Reason connected to Polymeter via a virtual MIDI loopback
cable. I use Reason only to translate Polymeter’s MIDI output into
audio. I also have a flat-screen monitor, a digital-to-analog converter,
a pair of powered speakers, and headphones for working at night.
How do you make use of technology? Would you say your
background as a software developer plays into this? In terms of the
feedback mechanism between technology and creativity, what do humans
excel at, what do machines excel at?
confirm that the complexity of music has declined steadily since my
childhood. Music is increasingly made by non-musicians, as in persons
who lack musical training and are unfamiliar with the theory and
practice of instrumental music. Music technology corporations are partly
to blame, because they market their products by spreading the
convenient fiction that music is sound design.
More generally the
widespread adoption of music technology is a double-edged sword. On the
one hand it’s had a democratizing effect: now nearly everyone can be a
music producer. But on the other hand it’s led to de-skilling, often
reducing musical expression to the level of a video game. For example
when Rebirth was released, people imagined they could use it to become
the next Richie Hawtin, but what they were really doing is playing
Richie Hawtin in a simulation.
Like all corporations, music
technology corporations seek to maximize their profits, so it shouldn’t
surprise us that their products are conceptually conservative and have
the effect of reinforcing the musical status quo. If you use the same
tools as others, you will have similar degrees of freedom and therefore
unavoidably achieve comparable results.
To achieve unique
results, you need unique tools and methods, and that’s why I decided
long ago to create my own composition tools. My career as a professional
software designer made this decision possible, but there were many
daunting hurdles. For example, by 2003 my original polymeter MIDI
sequencer had become hopelessly obsolete and was limiting my creativity,
but at that time I lacked the skill to adapt it to a modern platform.
During the fifteen years before I returned to the electronic music scene
in 2018, I worked as a software consultant in the 3D printing industry,
and it was during those years that I gradually acquired sufficient
programming skill to modernize my sequencer.
Since the 1990s I’ve
been acutely aware that collaborating with technology could not only
allow me to overcome my limitations as an instrumentalist, but more
importantly allow me to explore unknown musical territory that would
otherwise be inaccessible or even inconceivable. Computers can perform
complex calculations accurately in real time, and easily manipulate huge
datasets, and these capabilities are indispensable to my artistic
process. By offloading music theory computations onto machines, I free
myself to approach musical expressiveness in a more abstract and
Above all, I value orthogonality, meaning I
strive to isolate fundamental aspects of music—timbre, rhythm, pitch,
melody, harmony—into independently controllable parameters, so that for
example the rhythm can be changed without changing the harmony, or vice
You used algorithmic music techniques and a robot
choir on the album, tell me a bit about these, please. Do you see a
potential for AI in exploring novel musical concepts?
was writing two albums at once during this period. The other was my
“Polymeter” album which consists of generative solo piano and solo
guitar, in a fusion of neoclassical and jazz, reminiscent of “stride”
piano. I was also teaching myself atonal music theory, and that’s
audible on both albums, for example on “Overshoot.”
modulation is an outstanding tool for rule-based harmony generation. My
software defines a “scale” very abstractly as any collection of pitches,
and a “chord” as any subset of a scale. I’m headed away from the common
scales, and towards generative atonal harmony, because it has
tremendous potential for ambiguity and surprise. Atonal music often
suffers from the “cat walking around on the piano” problem—too many
adjacent semitones—but I have methods for avoiding that.
In 2014 I
developed a software called ChordEase that makes it easier to improvise
to jazz changes. You can play jazz using only the white keys, because
the software automatically translates them to the needed scales in real
time. It codifies a lot of knowledge about jazz, and that makes it an
expert system, which is a type of AI. It’s also an example of
offloading, which is a hot topic in AI. I wrote a paper about it and
presented it at NIME. Guess who really hated it? Jazz musicians. I
almost got beaten up in a jazz club once just for talking about
The robot choir draws inspiration from the chorus in
classical Greek tragedy. It seems plausible that our machines will
outlive us, so it makes sense for them to tell the story of our hubris
Production tools, from instruments to complex
software environments, contribute to the compositional process. For
Apologize To The Future, you eventually spent many years developing your
own sequencer. How does this manifest itself in your work? Can you
describe the co-authorship between yourself and your tools?
covered such questions above, I’m going to pivot and talk about the
elephant in the room. "Apologize to the Future" relentlessly expounds
the pivotal issues of the 21st century: climate change, economic
inequality, intergenerational injustice, artificial intelligence,
overpopulation and overconsumption, antinatalism, and human extinction.
This is unprecedented in electronic music. And yet here we are blithely
discussing compositional processes as if nothing were amiss. It's as if I
told you an asteroid is headed straight for Earth and you responded by
asking me about my childhood influences. It feels like an example of
denial, which is another major theme of the record.
work is often ironic, but on this album I felt an obligation to speak
from the heart, in plain language that anyone could understand.
“Apologize to the Future” preaches that procreating isn’t just selfish,
it’s cruel. There’s no ethical justification for creating new humans
only to abandon them on a wrecked planet. Future generations will suffer
for crimes they didn’t commit, while the perpetrators abscond, smugly
I have spent nearly thirty years attempting to increase
public awareness of the climate crisis and its causes, through art,
music, writing, street theatre, culture jamming and more. These efforts
were not in vain: public awareness has increased greatly and we may be
approaching a cultural tipping point. But the disaster is already upon
us, and our usual routines won't suffice. We either wise up fast, or the
future won’t include us.
Collaborations can take on many
forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your
preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example,
file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
very solitary artist. My musical methods are incomprehensible to most
people. I have a friend who is a gifted mathematician and he talks me
through some of the thornier problems. I sometimes share unfinished
pieces with close friends whose judgement I trust, but only if they’re
gentle. Harsh criticism can be very destructive. I try to make
everything open source. I should write a book.
Could you take us through a day in your life, from a
possible morning routine through to your work? Do you have a fixed
schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into
each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend
My creativity is erratic and arrives in
episodic spasms. I try to create hospitable conditions within myself, so
that my muse will be more inclined to visit and stay longer when it
does. I drink a lot of coffee and take copious notes. David Lynch is one
of my main inspirations in this regard. I have lists and spreadsheets
for just about everything. I used to stay up all night for days but my
health won’t stand it anymore. I crave solitude and quiet. I’m an
incurable workaholic, and oddly I do some of my best work while I’m
asleep. I wake up with a solution, and then realize I’m exhausted
because I worked all night in my dreams.
describe your creative process on the basis of your new album Apologize
To The Future? Where did the ideas come from, how were they transformed
in your mind, what did you start with and how did you refine these
beginnings into the finished work of art?
contains around 1,200 words, all in rhyme. I studied rap in order to
better develop my rhyming schemes. The words predate the music,
sometimes by months or even years. I read an entire bookcase full of
books about the climate crisis. The album springs from those books, and
from decades of assimilating and disseminating unpleasant environmental
The idea of apologizing to your children came from Dan
Miller’s presentation “A REALLY Inconvenient Truth” which is available
on YouTube. He lists things individuals can do, and his first item is
“Ask your children for forgiveness.” This led me to a thought
experiment, in which I asked myself “How will future generations regard
us?” Assuming future generations are lucky—or unlucky?—enough to exist,
they’ll resent us for sending them to hell.
Another source was my
“Metadelusion” blog, which started with my poem “Less.” The poem’s
theme is that it’s too late to avoid catastrophe, but not too late to
slow down. As the poem says, “Less can no longer be avoided / Less could
be gradual, or sudden / Less will hurt, either way / Sudden will break
The Kubler-Ross “five stages of grief” model is
another influence. We’re stuck at denial, and we need to get past that
to arrive at the crucial final stage of acceptance. Now that disaster is
upon us, hating humanity is pointlessly cruel. Instead we should feel
sorry for ourselves, since we’re our own worst enemy. This observation
is the essence of the post-antihuman Church of Euthanasia.
another source is David Quammen’s article “Planet of Weeds” about the
paleontology of mass extinctions. “A Thin Layer of Oily Rock” is a
reference to the Permian-Triassic extinction, the so-called “Great
Dying” which eliminated 96% of all marine species and 70% of terrestrial
vertebrate species. A similar mass extinction is already underway.
R. Catton’s 1980 classic “Overshoot” is yet another influence. Catton
viewed humanity through the lens of population biology, and was the
probably the first to popularize the term “overshoot” in reference to
human overpopulation and overconsumption.
There are many
descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it
like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are
distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
In March 2019, I spent a week alone in a rented
apartment in Lisbon writing “Singularity,” which features some of my
most brutal depictions of the future. Lines like “Picking through the
rubble of society / Mountains of toxic trash our legacy” were traumatic
to write. It’s horrifying to contemplate a future without civilization
or decency, a lawless world in which only criminals are free.
needed to be alone for long periods in order to transmute my rage into
something constructive. “Apologize to the Future” was painful to create,
and I still find it painful to listen to. It’s supposed to hurt.
Earth’s in disarray, and we need to feel the ugliness of what we’ve
done. We need to grieve for what we’ve destroyed, including our own
future. Without remorse there can’t be restitution.
do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the
'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet
certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already
take on compositional qualities?
While composing, I
usually find it sufficient to work with generic timbres such as piano,
bass and strings. Sound design distracts me from composing, so I prefer
to have less options. When synthesizers were relatively new I used to
enjoy programming them, but now I find it tedious. As my work becomes
more harmonically nuanced, I increasingly use classical acoustic sounds,
because they do a much better job of rendering ambiguous or dissonant
tonality. A gritty synth patch that may be fine for the pentatonic scale
will obliterate a very tense chord.
Our sense of hearing
shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience,
what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses -
and what do they tell us about the way our senses work? What happens to
sound at its outermost borders?
I don’t experience
synesthesia and I haven’t found that musical concepts translate easily
into the visual domain, or vice versa. I often try to visualize musical
relationships, sometimes successfully, but music itself is uniquely
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it
can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and
political role and lead to more engagement. This seems particularly true
with regards to Apologize To The Future. Do you think [techno] music
can truly be political? Can you describe your approach to art and being
Of course techno music can be political! I’ve
been making political techno since 1994, starting with “Save the
Planet, Kill Yourself.”
My approach to art is to cultivate
inspiration and avoid considering the opinions of others. Artists should
strive to express their vision faithfully. Art is personal. I’m a
peculiar and polarizing person, and my art often reflects these same
It is remarkable, in a way, that we have
arrived in the 21st century with the basic concept of music still
intact. Do you have a vision of music, an idea of what music could be
beyond its current form?
I don’t find it so remarkable.
As long as we exist and have ears we’ll have music. The question
reminds me of the period when all-black paintings were in vogue. Ad
Reinhardt’s “Last Paintings” weren’t and couldn’t have been the end of
art, because we see in color, and would inevitably tire of monochromatic
art. Assuming civilization doesn’t collapse—admittedly a big leap of
faith—harmonically complex music is bound to return, because people are
biologically equipped to hear subtle changes in tonality.
polymeter fulfills its potential in the 21st century. I submit my work
as evidence that a vast musical territory remains largely unexplored. I
make my software free and open source because I want people to follow in
my footsteps and continue exploring this fascinating frontier long
after I’m gone. This statement is admittedly hard to reconcile with the
climate crisis, but I’m used to living with cognitive dissonance.