Sure, Michael Carter is an ultra-skilled programmer who has made really bad ass Max/MSP patches for amazing artists like Tyondai Braxton, Dan Deacon, and Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto, but even that’s hard to focus on when the guy also has something called the Box, an enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in wood paneling.
Carter uses the Box to perform music, which he creates under the moniker Preshish Moments. I stumbled upon him when a friend of mine recommended that I go see the harpist Zeena Parkins play at The Stone, an experimental music venue in the East Village (Carter is one-third of Zeena Parkins and The Adorables). Upon seeing the Box, intrigue set in. Unbranded and unusual in appearance, the Box is clearly something homemade, and I could see by looking at his laptop screen that he was also using a custom piece of software in conjunction with the Box.
I had to find out more, so I tracked him down in hopes of unleashing the secrets of the Box… the Box!
Carter spoke with us about building MIDI controllers, creating custom programs for heroes of experimental music, and generally being a really visual dude.
Patch for Dan Deacon.
The Creators Project: First off, how did you come up with your name?
Preshish Moments: My name was given to me by a pack of drunken ladies. I have a very youthful appearance, so if you can imagine, when I was 18, I looked like an embryo. Basically, I knew this dude who inherited his parent's house at 18, and his house turned into a crazy, debauched party. I was there a lot, and there was a pack of drunken girls there who [gave me that nickname].
Trigger finger patch for Tyondai Braxton
Can you tell us a little about that the Max/MSP patches you create?
Max/MSP is a programming language geared towards music-making. The really rad thing about it, at least for me, is that it's not text. It looks like a flowchart, which is great for me because I'm a really visual guy. I've done a little bit of programming in languages that are text, and they just seemed too abstract. Because every program is essentially a non-physical machine. So with text, I had a hard time trying to wrap my head around what the machine is and what it's doing whereas with Max, since it's visual, I had a much easier time working out how the machine works.
A friend told me to go see Zeena Parkins (who collaborated with Björk on her Vespertine album, and who you play with in The Adorables), and at that show I saw you playing your Box, your hand-built MIDI controller. How did you build it?
I actually have this whole thing about the Box where I might not build it now. When I built it, the options for MIDI controllers were terrible. Most everything was essentially a keyboard with some stuff on top, and I don't play piano. So, basically, [about half of] my MIDI controller was just dead space to me. So before I built this one, I built two previous MIDI controllers that I hated, which was the real secret. For any kind of complicated endeavor, it's always good to have a rough draft since this is not the type of thing that's easy to edit.
Photo by Sarah Jun.
As far as the layout of the Box goes, I actually have to say that when this AKAI APC 40, came out some years ago—which I have because I'm making a patch for Yuka Honda from Cibo Matto right now, so this is hers—I thought, "Wow! They actually designed an interface in a not completely ass-backwards and bizarre way," and in fact, you'll notice there's some crossover here [between the APC 40 and my Box]. And I think a lot of people were on the same idea, like you want a mixing section, so you can have multiple sources and control multiple channels. You want a crossfader. That was a big thing because at the time, MIDI controllers didn't have crossfaders, and there were all these people who knew how to DJ, so they were like, "Give me a crossfader."
So building the Box came about because you really felt like you couldn't find a piece of equipment that made sense?
Yep, and I looked a lot. At the time there was this whole Doepfer modular MIDI thing where you could buy these little parts and then combine them to make a more custom thing. But it would've cost thousands of dollars because you buy one piece at a time, and each one is, like, a few hundred bucks. So by the time you're done, the thing is super expensive. Whereas this—and I actually got a grant for this from Mills College [where I got my masters]—the total cost ended up being like $450, which any MIDI controller with this much shit, that would be hard to do. Particularly because I use some nice parts. That's actually one of the things about this [AKAI APC 40], that the parts aren't particularly nice, which is how they keep the cost down. I more like the design of it than the actual product itself, but if they made the same controller with nice stuff, it would be like $2000.
And where did you get your parts at the time?
Well, it's a mix. Some I just ordered from electronics stores, and then some of the parts are vintage parts like these buttons. God, this is so nerdy, but these buttons are really key to me because they're spring-loaded, so they feel really nice when I hit them. You can totally feel the difference, and it's something they stopped doing because it's expensive. But I had the good luck of doing all this in the Bay area, which is an amazing place for electronics for kind of a grim reason, which is the Vietnam War. Because basically everything [the US] was shipping to Vietnam was coming through the Bay area. And so there are all these helicopter and submarine [parts that can be found in the Bay area], so, basically, it's awash in electronic surplus, which I think is maybe now starting to exhaust itself a little bit.
Did anyone help you with the logistics of building or wiring your box?
I learned most of the wiring stuff at the Art Institute of Chicago [where I got my undergrad], and as far as the cards and stuff, you have to build the cards yourself, like, solder the components into the boards, but there's a great community for it on he internet that provided a lot of support.
And how did you decide what it would look like?
Well, first of all, there's color-coding, which is really important. So it's yellow, blue, red, green. [Which matches the patch interface on my computer screen.] I do a lot of color-coding stuff because I'm a really visual dude. Another thing, too, is that when I built the thing, there weren't a lot of MIDI controllers with lights on them. Also, it runs on rechargeable batteries, and the wood, I just wanted something that wasn't super expensive. It's definitely rough-looking. Metal and acrylic are probably the most common materials used to house MIDI controllers, [not so much wood].
Photo by Sarah Jun.
You currently play with Tyondai Braxton (formerly of Battles and now performing under his own name). How did you meet him?
I met him through Caleb Burhans, who does a lot of the staffing for Wordless Music, [who put together the orchestra that played on Braxton's album Central Market]. Caleb went to Eastman School of Music, where a good friend of mine was going so I met him through my friend. We played music together years ago, mostly just playing around.
What's it like playing with him?
The stuff I do for Ty is pretty challenging. I mean, fortunately, he is also someone who'll do these solo sets where he plays with a ton of pedals. And he uses Ableton Live and uses this Echoplex, which is a fancy looping station. So the nice thing is he knows what he's doing, but because of all of that, when I play live shows with him, I do so many different things, like, at one point I'm doing feedback through pedals; I have an amp and a microphone, and I'm doing feedback that goes through a pedal. Or sometimes I'm doing that same feedback but through my Max patch. Sometimes I'm running his guitar through my Max patch. Sometimes I'm triggering sound samples one at a time, or I'm triggering a whole big backing track and then effecting that track. Sometimes I'm singing into a microphone through effects. He just has me do everything, and it definitely took me a long time to figure it out because I've got to get through it really quickly, too. I had to make this really crazy Max patch that does all this routing stuff where it's, like, okay, let the microphone through, send it through these effects, okay, I'm ready to go, and then I'd just press a button, and now I'm on sample mode, and then it switches another thing, and now Ty's coming in…
What kind of equipment do you use when performing with him?
With him, I play this thing called a Trigger Finger, which is pads, so it's basically better for tapping out rhythms because his music requires me to do a lot of that. A big part of the reason why I don't use the Box and instead use the Trigger Finger for that [project] is because in his group, I'm playing a part. I'm one part of a big thing. I don't do a ton of controlling multiple streams of audio and controlling the whole composition, so the pads are really great for more expressive control.
And you also programmed for Dan Deacon. How did that happen?
I was playing at a festival that he was also playing at in London. And he had this case of guitar pedals that you could, like, put a body in if you wanted to, and I was like what the fuck are you doing? Especially because I knew what the pieces were, and it's really not necessary to carry around a hundred guitar pedals in a coffin. You could not do that, and you could gain a bunch of functionality if you just have a computer/MIDI controller. So he got this little MIDI controller, and I basically began by copying the functionality of his pedals. [Before I created his patch,] I basically said to him, "I think I know what your thing does. Can you confirm that it does that?" And then he was like, 'Yeah, that's the thing it does.' So I sent him that, and I was like, "Okay, so this does exactly what your current thing does." Except now with a box this small and a computer. After that, we actually did end up adding a few other [functions]. This was for a piece [called "Ghostbuster Cook: The Origin of the Riddler"] he'd written for So Percussion, where basically they hit a drum, and they're mic'd, and then it triggers an oscillator. But then Dan is controlling what the pitches of the oscillator are.
What projects do you have coming up?
I'm collaborating with two artists on video installations. One of them is a Lebanese artist named Lara Baladi, who lives in Cairo, and that show is in Berlin at the end of September. The other piece is showing in January in Istanbul by Cynthia Madansky. Also, I'm going back to London with Tyondai in October, so that'll be fun. I'm also doing a solo show in November, which is my first one in New York [since I moved here in 2010] for this festival run by this guitar quartet called Dither.