Oct 4, 2005

RF Interview

Ryan Francesconi
RF’s Ryan Francesconi

I first heard RF’s music back in 2002, when Ryan Francesconi (who records under the the moniker with various collaborators) sent me his debut album, Interno, to review. Although combining real, live instrumentation with digital soundscapes and programming was nothing I hadn’t heard before, the manner in which Francesconi did so felt unique. There was a very organic and solemn feel to it, which lent the music a surprising amount of warmth and depth. Francesconi just released his second disc, Falls, which picks up right where Interno left off and further develops his captivating sound.

Let’s get the basics out of the way first. Who are you, what do you do, and how did you first get involved in writing and composing music? When did the RF project first begin to take shape?

The music that has become the RF sound has been around really since I started composing in 7th and 8th grade (1987 or ‘88). I had one of the Adlib synth cards in my 8Mhz PC XT back then. The software had a DOS sequencer, that allowed you to create tunes with a graphical interface. Most of the music I made with that was transcribing heavy metal guitar solos and painfully inputting them note by note to play with the electric guitar patch. However, there were a few pieces that survived from that time that were quite interesting.

After that I spent most of high school practicing guitar and painting. At this point my music split into two main interests. One side of the music was very emotive, and the other side of it was very technical and brain-oriented. The emotive side in high school was mostly expressed with visual arts, while the technical music led me to Jazz and various brain music directions. These two paths are still active today - I’ll describe this in a second.

I started playing guitar about the time I got my first computer (IBM PC Jr circa 1985 or ‘86). This guitar/computer music/programming interest was the centerpiece of my childhood (nothing has really changed since then) and led me to move to Los Angeles in 1992 to attend the California Institute of the Arts as a guitar/composition major. My earlier compositions at Calarts have pre-echoes of what has now become the RF material.

My main influences during my BFA were Stravinsky, Bartok, John Zorn, Miroslav Tadic, and Bill Frisell. I also discovered the folk music of Eastern Europe during this time via Miroslav and Bartok. Many of my pieces involved many musicians, samplers, primitive electronics, and theatrics. To say that I was unprepared to be released in the working world after graduation is an understatement. My only employable skills that I had was guitar, notation, orchestration, and arranging. It didn’t take long to run out of money as finding work in LA is difficult for a 22-year-old musical nobody. I split my time between teaching and stressing about not having work.

During my last year of my BFA, computers started to have more visibility in our studios. When I started in 92, most of the machines there were Mac Plus’s or similar 68K machines. After fiddling with some sound modules and MIDI, I quickly wrote it off as a waste of time and focused on acoustic music. At that time electronic music didn’t approach mainstream. However, once digital audio became a reality, my attention turned very quickly towards working with computers again. Tom Erbe (Soundhack author) teaches at CalArts and through his influence, many of us became very interested in writing our own sound manipulation software. Notable programming classmates at this time included Kent Clelland (now at Native Instruments), Akira Rabelais, and Douglas Repetto.

Kent and I were roommates in Sliverlake after college (1996), and I had access to his PowerPC machines. I started recording with Deck, Sound Designer and Soundhack at that time. Most of my electronic music then was geared towards making freaky sounds to incorporate with live improvisation. Since in 1996, there was basically nothing available to improvise with live, I got in my head that I wanted to return to coding and create some new tools for myself. I spent the last of my money on a 200 MHz PowerPC and moved back in with MOM. After 1 year, I again returned to CalArts but now as a New Media/Electronic Music MFA with a plan to study audio DSP with Tom Erbe and composition with David Rosenboom.

You’ve written your own music software, entitled Spongefork. Could you give a brief overview of it? How and why did it come to be, and just how does it fit into your own music?

During my first semester back at CalArts I was struggling to learn C and creating some early prototypes of software that later became Spongefork. Tom Erbe wrote a simple oscillator application back then called Pitchfork that was originally intended as an aid for tuning. We discovered that if we entered numbers fast enough into the frequencies we could get some pretty crazy sounds out of it. In addition, Pitchfork supported basic FM synthesis. Since Tom gave out the source, it was a perfect basis for ruining his app.

My first modification, Windowfork, added a second window to his that allowed an XY controller to alter the frequencies of the two oscillators. At this time (‘97), I’d never heard the term “XY controller” so I thought I had come up with a pretty easy way to make a tremendous amount of noise.

My next project was to create a software sampler that could map different samples to the computer keyboard. This app (Sponge) was finished at the same time as the Back To Basics software sampler. During my final year of my MFA I combined Windowfork and Sponge into a new application: Spongefork. Spongefork was first publicly released in April of 1999 in time for the Bourges competition in France. Spongefork was awarded first prize in the “Synthesis Software/Real-Time Processing with Gestural Control and Interactivity” category that year. While writing Spongefork I occasionally would spend days on end coding and listening to mostly Stereolab CDs. Dots And Loops in particular was a big help and often was kept on repeat as I worked through the nights and into the morning.

After finishing my MFA, I started working as a professional programmer for a variety of companies. Music took a backseat for a few years as I developed this side of my career. During this time I became more and more interested in ambient music as I needed music that didn’t distract me while coding. I owe a huge thanks to Dan Foley for creating Sleepbot. Sleepbot has been my main programming soundtrack now for years.

From 1999 to 2000 I listened to everything that was happening in electronic music and finally got caught up with the current trends. I was very happy that sounds that I had long been interested in were becoming visible in an accessible way. An idea started to take shape for how I wanted to contribute to this new genre. I started recording some ideas in 2000, and finally finished this first CD in the fall of 2002. This was Interno, and RF was released.

From 1999-2003 I was so busy working for companies that the thought of working on Spongefork in my spare time was impossible. Finally in the winter of 2003, during a break from working, I sat down and rewrote Spongefork from scratch for OS X rather than carbonize the old version. Spongefork 2 was released in March of 2003 and I created a small company structure around it. While SF 1 was freeware, SF 2 earned itself a modest price tag. I quickly realized that by keeping my software free, I was preventing myself from ever working on it. While sales haven’t allowed me to stop working for other companies, the small income from it has allowed me to keep the software alive and developing.

Writing your own music software is much like designing your own instrument. I use SF for live performances and for creating raw samples for my RF compositions. It is a simple way to get some unique-sounding material and is a rewarding way to contribute something to the electronic music community.

When first listening to your latest album, it immediately struck me as warmer and mellower than its predecessor. Were there any conscious decisions that you made going into this album about the sort of sound you wanted to achieve? Anything from the previous album that you wanted to improve on, or things you wanted to avoid?

Not really. Much of the music on Falls was [a] continuation from Interno. The composition process for the 2 CDs didn’t really stop until I finished Falls. There was no break between the two of them. One of the largest differences on Falls is that much more of the CD is just me - this created a simpler sound as I didn’t have as many other musicians adding more colors.

I was, however, excited by the singing of Pilar’s that happened on Interno, so I wanted the voice to have a more prominent role for Falls. There is something so human and appealing about the sound of the voice. It is warm. Electronics warm up when placed side by side with the natural. This is the core idea of all the RF material so far. Most of the reviews picked up on that immediately. Your review of Interno was great. The word organic is often used to describe the approach to combining electronics and acoustics. I’ve decided to call this sound Electronic Acoustica or Acoustic Electronica for lack of a better term.

I wanted the CD to be unimposing on the listener but have depth if you wanted to dig into it. Formal composition studies definitely influence my ideas on structure. While the music itself is often simple, the structure of the CD as a whole is very consciously shaped. Both Interno and Falls were designed as a single piece to be heard in one continuous listen.

Falls sounds mellower and warmer in many ways simply because my life itself was much gentler to me during the time of its creation. Interno represents a transitional phase that happened for me during which I had to make many internal shifts. Falls is the gentle decrescendo from that. Falls is the end of the year. The feel of change that is coming - the seasonal shift. I thought of it as a collection of those moments. For me, it is made during the end of one cycle and the beginning of the new one. I turned 30 this year, and life is now gentle to me in a way that I can consciously shape as I move forward. The lyrics to “Falls” sum it up:

Ending year, change/After Falls, spring/Season’s Song, blank/Ending year, change”

There’s a very palpable sense of nostalgia that runs throughout your music. Have you noticed this? Is it a conscious move, or something that you only noticed in hindsight, once the songs are finished?

Most of the compositions are about something or are about a feeling or emotion. They reference something that is internal to me. The series of pieces “Internal Notes” were originally written for my own personal meditation on feeling and being with myself in a simple and honest way. They reflect certain time periods, but more importantly they reflect the emotion of that moment. Because of that intention, the music has the sound of nostalgia. It is steeped in the nostalgia of being nostalgic for the present moment.

My friend Joe Finn, after hearing Interno, described it to me in my most favorite description of the music that I’ve heard. He said it reminded him of being a child. Of leaving the house in the morning and spending the day outside, intently watching a bug, a cloud, the trees. Simply being without care for the next moment. That is the intention that I wanted in the music. I’m in no rush to get to the next song. I’m not concerned with keeping the listener entertained. That isn’t the intent. It is a soundtrack to my head. When I go for a walk with headphones, I want the RF sound to represent what it feels like inside, so that when I look to the outside I have the right feeling.

If I was a movie, RF is the soundtrack. That’s all it is.

Your music strikes a very good symbiosis between obviously electronic, software-based sounds and more organic, instrumental ones. How do you maintain that balance? Do you ever fear going to far to one extreme or the other?

I’ve never thought about that. It really doesn’t matter to me if it is electronic or acoustic. I’ve lumped myself into the electronic bin as it seems a healthy place to be right now. I want to create music that anyone can enjoy, but I don’t want to let go of my production rights. Electronica seems the best location for this. But, regardless of instrumentation or computers, the intent is the same.

There are solo nylon string guitar/violin pieces against completely electronic soundscapes. The feeling is consistent regardless. I love the microscopic control of the computer, but I’m not satisfied with the emotional control. I find performing on a laptop really limiting despite the years I’ve put into developing software for that purpose. Instruments have a long long history - and there is a reason why it takes a lifetime of practice and endless attempts at mastery. The process is neverending. It’s so easy to create music these days. While I love that anyone can now create something, I often miss the depth that occurs when someone has spent their life in the trenches of their mind and heart. The compositional process has changed. My generation of composers have ridden that wave.

I remember the first time I was able to cut and paste notation. I’ve also spent 8 hours a day for a week writing out parts for a chamber ensemble. Tools are tools, pencils, ‘puters, Logic Audio, Spongefork, pianos, whatever - its the intent that carries lasting influence.

Given the closeness in your music between electronic and acoustic elements, how do you go about composing the “typical” RF song? Does it start with the electronics and software first, to create a foundation over which the “real” instruments are laid? Or do you start with, say the guitar or piano first, and then use electronics and software to flesh out the details later?

All that. You’ve answered the question already!

How often does RF perform live? What are the kinds of challenges associated with bringing your music, which sounds quite meticulous, into a live setting? Do you ever feel like they detract from the music, or add something new to it?

Not very often. I struggled for a long time with how to present this music. The biggest challenge is creating an environment that is personal and intimate while basically having zero budget. I’m excited for the day when that changes. I’ve done solo shows, but I recently chanced on a great configuration. I did a concert a month ago with a drummer/sampler/vibes player (Ben Tuttle) and a bassist (Tim Frick). I played guitar/synth/laptop. The live energy was more akin to Tortoise than what is on the CDs, but by contrasting more uptempo beat-oriented grooves with the mellowness of the soundscapes, I think I found a combination that I’m happy with to explore more live performances.

I was briefly perusing the site for your label, Odd Shaped Case, and I hadn’t realize the number of artists you work with. How long has Odd Shaped Case been around, and what led to its creation?

Odd Shaped Case was formed in 2001 when my group, The Toids, released our first CD. Since that time it has morphed into a collective of bands and projects here in the San Francisco area. Our original intent was to create an umbrella structure for all of our projects, and that has grown in a nice way. The first focus was on presenting new Balkan and Middle-Eastern musics, but has since crossed into other territories like Avant Jazz, RF, and Cabaret.

Throughout your various websites (RF, Odd Shaped Case, etc.), you constantly refer to Balkan music. And you also play in another band, The Toids, that performs Balkan music. What is it about Balkan music that drew you to it? Does it influence RF’s music at all?

Balkan music for me is an entirely other interview that would fill up pages. My interest and projects in Eastern Europe, especially Bulgaria, run extremely deep and represent at least 80% of all the music that I make - and almost all of my public performances are out of the Balkan genre. While I perform music from Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Serbia, Albania, and Greece - I have a special love for the Bulgarian folk repetoir. Besides the guitar, I also play a number of folk instruments including the tambura, kaval, gadulka, and bouzouki.

As I mentioned in the beginning of the interview the two threads of music that I do [are] emotion and brain. For me, Balkan music is a successful joining of these two. The technical skill and instrumental mastery is of the highest caliber in the world, while the heart is present within the music and dance forms. I’m currently working on 2 new CDs, one with The Toids, and another with my trio that both explore my ideas and compositions within those forms.

This music doesn’t influence the RF CDs very much at all. On Falls, the track “Bis” is in 9/8 - but that’s about the limit of audible influence. Visually, the images on the Falls CD were all taken from the train window riding from Plovdiv to Sofia in Bulgaria last fall.

People often mention my Balkan interests in the context of description of the RF CDs, but really the influence is not really audible. I don’t have a strong desire to combine them. They are both fine where they are. My brain track is running with Bulgarian music and software and my heart is present where its needed. I divide my time between all these interests. That’s my burden to bear! I love it all. The key is to be present in what I’m doing when I’m doing it. Regardless of if I’m playing a krivo horo or an Internal Notes, my goal is to be present in it.

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