Interview with Christopher Tignor of Slow Six

The synthesis of aural and visual art

Adam Costa: How did you first become exposed to and interested in classical music as a child?  It seems like classical music has had a significant effect on your work as a member of Slow Six.

Christopher Tignor: The short answer is my mother.  She got me playing violin when I was three years old, and the rest of my brothers were all signed up for some classical instrument as well.  My parents weren’t artists or even musical themselves.  My mother basically invented a string trio in her house.  She got my younger brother to play cello, my older brother to play piano, and I was on violin.  We all started very, very young.  Where I came from, playing outside of school was the only thing that really mattered.  I went to public school in Jersey, and it was all about All-State Orchestra.  I also played trumpet in the school band for six years while in middle and high school, but violin was always my main ax.  With rock and roll, I was always playing drums as a kid.  I was like, the rock drummer.  I grew up playing in a lot of string quartets, but also playing rock and roll on drums.  It took me until to college to figure out how to integrate what I played on violin with my native folk music, which is rock and roll. 

AC: Since you pull pretty liberally from both the rock and classical genres nowadays as a performer, are there any musicians from either idiom that were particularly influential to you as a kid?

CT: There wasn’t really a lot of that going on when I was a kid.  We were playing Metallica, I was playing drums, and then I’d also be playing Haydn string quartets.  I never really knew of any composers growing up.  The only ones I did know of were the dead ones on paper.  But there are certainly a few really key moments for music I encountered that were very influential, especially in college.  Early in college, one of my violin teachers gave me Arvo Pärt’s Fratres, the 1980 violin/piano rendition of that piece.  That was one of the first pieces that really convinced me that I could find something completely for myself in what was called classical music.  I had always enjoyed playing it and being expressive with it, but I never really thought of it as my music.  The rock and roll I discovered was all punk rock; everything came out of punk rock.  For me that meant things coming out of Louisville and Australia, like Slint or Dirty Three, where the music was more instrumentally focused, but not completely instrumental.  In some ways, it helped me realize that as an instrumentalist, I could have first order place within the music that I felt was really my music: experimental rock and roll as it existed in the 90’s. 

AC: How did Slow Six form?

CT: The group was basically born after I finished my undergrad work at Bard College, where I was very musically active.  I came down to the city, where my idea at that point was to work on an ambulance as an EMT, write the great American novel, and keep making music.  It was all just one big thing.  You know how it is when you’re young; you just want to do everything.  I’d had a lot of experience building and running interactive music software for a professor named Richard Teitelbaum at Bard College who’s a pretty well known electronic music pioneer.  I traveled around with him a little bit, and he sort of turned me onto the possibility of live performance and combining everything I knew about playing live: growing up as a violinist and trying to tie that in with technology.  So when I came down to the city, my spin on that was to go out and form a band.  I was 20 or 21 years, and started to work on a piece, this one called “Evening without Atonement” which is on the first record.  It took many months and I had very little compositional training.  I was going to be running the software, so I needed someone else to play violin.  The New York City community is pretty aggressive in regard to meeting artists, so one person led to another and eventually I found Maxim Moston, who’s a violinist and is now the musical director for Antony and the Johnsons.  He was an amazing violinist, even back then, and also an amazing person.  Then I connected with another person who played keyboard, and all of a sudden I had this trio.  It was me on this interactive software that I had made, a person playing Fender Rhodes, and Maxim playing amplified violin.  We all just squeezed in a loft that me and some other people built ourselves; one of these illegal lofts where you put up all the sheetrock.  It was just a place to play live music and not get thrown out of…that sort of story.  Our repertoire eventually increased, but these were long pieces, and they took a long time to write.  “Atonement” was like twenty minutes long, and the next one was twenty minutes, and the one after that was a half hour.  It took awhile to develop and several years before we felt like we could make a record.  I just sort of kept adding people to the band as I needed things.  By the end of the first record, it was like a septet.  Then we added a video artist – Lee Whittier – who was doing live video for every piece.  It just sort of became this expanding collective, and went along with our reputation in the city: the group started expanding, and so we started playing out more and doing bigger and bigger productions.  This was around 2002, and it was very unusual to go into a rock club in downtown New York with a violinist, a violist, a cellist, and two electric guitars.  I had a desktop computer that I’d be lugging around as well as a video projector.  There were seven music stands, stand lights, and a Fender Rhodes.  It took forever to do.  But the preposterousness of it was also part of the charm.  Despite everything, we were going to make this happen.  It all sort of ties in with this vivacity of youth, and I think that same idea of just trying to do our own thing has carried us through.

Slow Six

AC: What was it like piecing together such an eclectic ensemble in post-millenium New York City, when artists like the Strokes and Moby were topping the charts?

CT: It was crazy.  The Internet bubble.  Like, everyone had too much money and they didn’t know what to do with it, so they’d listen to terrible dance music.  Everyone was really happy because they could get a job they’d never done before.  I remember those times well.

AC: What is it difficult in those early days to find gigs?

CT: Not really.  They didn’t know what they were getting.  It’s still the same as it always was in the sense that you just have to talk numbers with these people.  At first, we were just playing our friends’ block parties, some of which were the best shows ever.  And then after we had a sort of scene, it wasn’t that big a deal for us to go into a place like the Knitting Factory on Leonard St. all the time and do really well.  People would show up and we’d just take over the space for the evening.  We got sort of indoctrinated into it over time.

AC: It actually seems like Slow Six’s approach to music making veers more toward classical songwriting, where each musician has a notated part that’s been composed.  This is a striking difference from most bands, where you’re learning by rote and trying to memorize power chords.

CT For better or for worse, that’s the bizarre dynamic of this band.  The whole idea is that we’re going to exist in this world that listens to music in a very specific way.  You really do listen to music in a different way; you put on a different set of ears when you go to a rock club to hear the local band than you do when you go to Fisher Hall to hear Bartók.  You expect different things out of the experience, and it changes how you hear.  The fact that we sort of exist in that former environment but yet make every effort to create an experience that approaches that other aspect of listening is one of those things that has always excited us.  It’s a paradox and it’s not without tension, for sure.  It’s very difficult to try to make something like that work in an environment that’s presumably out of place.  It’s just an immense amount of work to ask of the players and everyone involved.  In some ways, it’d be easier to just go in and knock your parts up together.  It’s not like I just hand out the music and it’s done; it’s never been like that.  The music changes over a long period of time, and there’s many, many revisions based on what people contribute when we’re in rehearsal.  Everybody’s completely a proactive member of the process.

AC: The band seems to have evolved – both physically and musically – since Private Times in Public Places.  How would you contrast Tomorrow Becomes You with your two previous albums?

CT: It was really a sea change.  After Nor’Easter, me and Stephen Griesgraber got together and basically said, “OK, what do we want to do next with this band?”  It was pretty clear to us that we just wanted to do something new.  We found that we really wanted to dig back into our rock and roll roots and approach that emotion or sensibility within us: just to rock out and try to make music on our own terms.  There’s so much ridiculous, nonsensical crossover language that sort of panders to either one genre or the other.  For us, there were never any genres; this was the music we grew up playing and it was very natural and intuitive for us to make.  We wanted to try to do more justice to the rock side but still make it completely natural and never make it feel like listening to it would be a game of finger pointing to other references.  The danger is that people are actually trained to listen like that, in a way that’s all referential.  Of course music is always referential, but the more you put something a box, I think it just encourages a type of passivity in listening.

AC: One of the great things about listening to Tomorrow Becomes You is that it feels like genuine crossover music, never really becoming a “spot the influence” type of situation.

Christopher Tignor

CT: Musicians are themselves listeners too, and we love all that music.  If it wasn’t for Music For 18 Musicians, where would I be and what would my psyche even be like?  But to go back to the previous question, we knew the thing that needed to not happen with this record was me handing out anymore scores.  I still essentially wrote out a lot the patterns, parts, and all the contrapuntal stuff cause it plays to our strengths.  One of the things you can do with compositions that you can’t do if you just jam out all your parts out is focus on counterpoint.  So all that stuff was written out and all the major themes were written out, but they were written out in such a way that you could say, “OK…here is the phrase, here is the rhythm, here is the melody, and here’s the rough order.”  They’re probably better described as charts.  Somewhere between charts and scores, I guess.  In some ways they were intentionally ugly, with the goal being that people would learn them as quickly as possible.  I didn’t want any more music stands on stage.  I really think it can become like a malicious stage prop between you and the audience.  There’s a lot of instances of people trying to write rock music, but they’re composers and they’re trying to specifically notate every moment and then hand it out to a band.  Some of it can be amazing and inspiring in terms of what they’re able to achieve, but it sort lacks the ensemble energy which is very much the hallmark of our folk music and folk music in general.  So anyway, I knew I had a battery of crack musicians to work with.  All these guys were just amazing players, and I could hand them these modernist ideas which they could dissimilate very quickly.  We could play around with them and still execute these complicated time signatures and these subtle harmonic moves or key changes, very subterfuge style……trying to shift the focus ever more toward playing as a band and developing a band sound.  I was super happy with how it all came out.

AC: The new album sounds very lush, densely layered.  Did you see most of the songs coming together piecemeal, or were they born out of group jams with occasional overdubs?

Slow Six - Tomorrow Becomes You

CT: Almost all of it is us playing together.  Certainly though we did some overdubs to replace where I wasn’t happy with a bowing or something.  We have pretty high standards of execution on all of our records.  So if I felt like there was an intonation issue, or the bow slipped to close to the bridge, or if it was a little pitch-y, then I’d essentially retrack it.  The one exception to that was the fulcrum piece in the middle of the record, “Together We Resonate,” which is actually without drums.  That piece I did all by myself and I played all the parts on it.

AC: “Sympathetic Response System” had the greatest impact on me as a listener.  Is there any song on the album that you’re particularly proud of the results?

CT: That’s a good question.  What excites me is something like the addition string parts and arrangements on “The Night You Left New York.”  At the end of that song, there were some more string parts that I added in.  It was just where the piece needed to go.  Also, I remember when we were playing it in rehearsal, and Stephen said, “This is one of the first times we’re using the electric guitar for what it was actually built to do.”  Not being idiomatic to the instrument is certainly something we do plenty, but digging into what the instrument can do on its own terms is really an exciting color to have.  Hearing those moments on record are definitely nostalgic for us.  It’s the same with “These Rivers Between Us.”  Those moments at the end really remind us of our times in rehearsal.  It’s like, “Hey man, I’ve got goosebumps…I think we’re onto something!”  And as for “Sympathetic Response System,” that one was a real challenge to pull off.  You know, when you show up to rehearsal and the piece begins with you unplugging your violin and touching the tip of the plug with a delay pedal running through it, and the band’s like, “What on earth are you doing?!”  All those other weird sounds on “Sympathetic Response” are really just our other violinist, Ben Lively, running his violin through an ungodly array of effects.  There are no samples in there, and we’ve never used samples.

AC: You created the software program that is used on a number of Slow Six tunes.  Was the software designed for specific applications within the band, or do you also see it being used effectively in other musical settings?

CT: The software aspect is far less forward with this record than our other records.  In some ways that was intentional, because I wanted to focus more on being a player in the band so that I could do musical directing but still be more hands on with my violin.  On the first record though [2004’s Private Times in Public Spaces], I was playing these software instruments all the time.  These instruments are designed to see what you can do in live situations.  For example, I’d sample other musicians into the software and then transform the sound in various ways before playing it back using MIDI controllers.  With the second record [2007’s Nor’Easter], I began to split my time more between playing violin and these software instruments.  These software instruments are all very hands on; it’s not like you have to press the space bar and then go.  But for this record, I decided that I needed to be standing up, playing my violin.  So, there are really only two instances where this live software contextualization stuff happens.  I’ve done a lot of work with live AM radio, hearing what people are talking about in a way that only AM radio can provide.  And you can hear some of that at the end of the second part of “Cloud Cover.”  It’s very minimal in the background, almost subdued.  The radio sound got processed through a series of comb filters.  It entered the comb filters, which had all been tuned to a specific pitch, and it made the speech resonate as the original sound excites different frequencies.  It sounds a lot like a drone, which basically sets the stage for “Together We Resonate.”  The other instance is with this software called “Orbits,” which I had made for whole other piece several years ago.  The idea is that you can draw on the screen using samples with this X/Y plane.  Basically, the gestures of how you draw on the screen change how the samples are taken and how they’re processed.  So all of the sounds that across as kind of weird…well actually, that’s not true; I guess there are also a lot of effects on the violin too.  I also think these instances of computer effects are very obvious, but all of the reviews of all our records seem to say, “This sounds like music made without a computer.”  I guess I can only take that as a compliment.

AC: You also recorded and released a solo album this past year, Core Memory Unwound.  Do you approach writing any differently when you’re operating as a solo artist?

CT: It’s definitely different.  Slow Six is a band and I’m the music director or composer or songwriter and I certainly direct traffic, but the other people are a big influence too.  Just dealing with other people is its own thing, you know?  The solo record I put out is, in my mind, much more in the classical camp proper.  It’s completely made of through-composed pieces that are played for the most part by two exceptionally amazing classical musicians.  It was just a very different experience.  That record basically consisted of piano/violin duets, side by side with live remixes played by me on these software instruments that I had made.  Making a record like that, you’re really by yourself.  You’re the one composing and working things out.  You’re by yourself composing for Slow Six too, but now you don’t have that month where you have to bring it to the other guys and asking, “How does this part resonate with another human being?”  When you’re writing parts, you’re not writing for an instrument…I think that’s a mistake a lot of young composers make.  You’re writing for a human being with an instrument.  You need to attend to the personalities and the human factor when you’re in a band, and it’s an entirely different process when you’re by yourself.  You’re creating music as a soloist; you know how far you can go and what the limits are of the instrument.

AC: You’ve now recorded two Slow Six albums for indie label Western Vinyl and one for classical label New Albion.  Did you feel like you had to cater to a particular demographic for either label?

CT: We don’t have the luxury to be able to cater either way.  We make the record and it’s completely done before we get signed.  I don’t send records out before they’re mastered.  I want to put my best foot forward and feel great about it myself.  When I finished the first record, I said to myself, “OK, nobody knows who we are, so who’s gonna care?  I’m gonna put this out myself.”  And we got lucky…we had a lot of support for it.  So when the second record came around I said, “Let’s see what people think.”  I developed a shortlist of people I respected, and both Western Vinyl and New Albion were interested in Nor’Easter.  I had a very tough call to make.  I think I decided that Nor’Easter was a better musical fit for New Albion at that time.  The world that New Albion lives in is much smaller than the world that Western Vinyl lives in.  Western Vinyl is a small indie label, but their world is still much bigger than that of New Albion.

AC: One other group on Western Vinyl who I’m familiar with and was impressed by was Sleep Whale. I reviewed one of their records last year.

CT: Oh yeah!  I love those guys.  Joel and Bruce.

AC: Having listened to both them and you, I could pick out enough musical similarities that it began to seem obvious why you were both on a label like Western.

CT: You know, the world and the musical landscape as we know it has changed a lot.  Can you imagine a group like Battles, being as popular as they are in like, six year ago?  No, not even close!  That level of strangeness or instrumentalism or whatever you want to call it…things have changed so much.  People can sort of feel good about digging into other parts of themselves that before didn’t seem like they had a place in the world at large.

AC: Especially with things like Facebook and Myspace and the Internet in general at your fingertips.  Music’s being distributed and consumed in a very different way.

CT: It’s true, but I’m not really sure that’s helped us find quality.  I can barely listen to any music on Myspace.  Listening to music on Myspace itself is pretty freaking ungratifying, I think.  There’s just a sea of stuff, and the question becomes how do you filter or decide what to get as excited about as you did when you were 13 and went out to buy some 7” singles.  You can’t actually get to that spot anymore because you’re too flooded with stuff, and that’s a really depressing reality.  I grew in Jersey and in Hoboken, there was this place called Pier Platters, a record store.  It probably doesn’t exist anymore.  Actually, I’m pretty sure it doesn’t.  Going there and stopping to buy some 7”s before we’d head into downtown New York was this huge thing; it was so exciting.  So how does this affect what people do musically now?  You’re definitely exposed to more nowadays, more instruments and other forces.  But how do you make it meaningful?  This record for us is all about trying to do justice to those things that supported us when we were young.  It takes a remembering of that level of excitement.  That must come from somewhere now and I think those guys in Sleep Whale definitely have it.  But all of the increased accessibility hasn’t made it any easier for me to find those instances.  It’s easy to find the new buzz word but it’s not as easy to find, for me at least, those instances where people are digging into something that they really understand as their own folk music.

AC: What do you find yourself listening to in your own spare time these days?  You’re obviously being kept busy with the band, but do you find time to sit back and listen to anything?

CT: I’m so busy listening to the stuff that I’m working on myself or playing with other bands, the only time I really get to listen other peoples’ music is when I’m away or on tour, like in the van putting on a CD.  Being on tour is about doing nothing, basically.  It’s the most ridiculous, boring experience ever.  You’re just waiting around the entire day.  But, I was in Austin recently where Western Vinyl is located, and I hooked up with [Western Vinyl owner] Brian Sampson, who gave me a bunch of new releases.  I got to listen to the new Glass Ghost recently.  Totally incredible.  I’m a big fan of them.  I’ve also been listening to a lot of J. Tillman.  He’s been doing a lot of great stuff.

AC: With the decade and year having just come to a close and many publications putting out various “Best Of” lists, are there any albums or artists that you would’ve placed on such a list?

CT: The drummer from Slow Six [Theo Metz] came to rehearsal and gave me the last record by Pattern Is Movement, which was just incredible.  It came out a little over a year ago.  Definitely check them out.  It’s totally a kitchen sink sort of situation, but done in the most tasteful way.  It’s highly angular, but in a way that’s still extremely melodic.  Also, there’s an artist I’ve known for a little while named Alexander Turnquist.  He plays finger-style guitar.  You might use the word ambient to describe his compositions.  His last record was “As the Twilight Crane Dreams in Color,” and it’s one that should definitely be getting more attention.

AC: Do you consider the music of Slow Six to be ambient?  Does that word even come to mind with your own writing?

CT: That word had never come to mind before, but that was the word everybody used, especially with the first record.  I have no problem with the word, and I think that in the truest sense of the word, the first record really is ambient.  There was that book about ambient music that came out a few years ago…I don’t remember the author.  But his definition had to do with music that was about the sound itself.  Sound as an acoustic phenomenon.

AC: Are you talking about [Mark Prendergast’s] Ambient Century?

CT: Yeah, that’s it.  He started with Mahler or Barber’s Adagio for Strings, I think.  Looking at it on those terms, I had never listened to ambient music.  Before Steve Smith from Time Out New York wrote our review and said, “Recommended for admirers of Harold Budd,” I had no idea who Harold Budd was.  I figured I should go look up this guy.  I think I knew who Brian Eno was.  Since then I’ve been lucky enough to encounter a lot of this music that I really do love.  To me, “ambient” used to be connected with a lack of through-line.  The currency of Slow Six in terms of how we change the equation has always been about the expansion of time; there’s no secret there.  We’ll take an idea which I may find to be very conservative or normal, and then see how we can re-factor it.  One of the ways we do that is through expansion of time, but hopefully there’s a melodic arch to it too.  With ambient music, it always seemed like every state or moment was more or less as good as any other.  It seemed like more of a state-based way of listening, as opposed to what I would call a narrative way of listening.  I was never keen on that term.  I think that it is worth appreciating as a revolutionary thing, though.

AC: Just one more question.  What are your touring plans looking like over the next few months to support the new album?

CT: We’re down to play whenever; playing live is what we love to do.  It’s no secret that new record is much more accessible than the older ones.  This makes it easier to play with other bands and that’s just a happy coincidence of trying to write more like a rock group.  We’re doing some shows with Lymbc Systym this spring.  We’re hoping to do a northeast run with This Will Destroy You at the end of May, and there’s definitely more shows down the line.

AC: Between that and all of the various side projects you’ve got going on, you’re going to be quite busy.

CT: It’s true.  It’s difficult, for sure.  But when you grow up as a player, that’s where your true love is and what we love to do is play music with each other and play music for people.  We love to go into a place, take it over, and change it for the night.  So, we’ll see!

AC: An exciting upcoming year for you, definitely.

CT: Keep your nose to the grindstone, you know what I mean?  It’s all you can do.