The Sounds and Patterns of Cory O’Brien’s Aqueous Explorations

I’m stealing a bit of my own question from this interview for the intro, but Cory O’Brien’s music, especially his latest album, SR01-22, has an uncanny ability to make me feel lost. I mean this in a good way as this album, in particular, always pulls me into new directions, new sonic spaces, where I lose all sense of time and what I am doing. SR01-22 is especially effective with its aqueous tendrils throughout, pulling my focus inward. Sounds simultaneously familiar and alien combine in interesting and exciting ways, and my brain wants to follow every thread to its conclusion. I’m not sure I’ve unlocked anything to explain that through this interview, but it’s an interesting look into O’Brien’s practice and approach.

SR01-22 – for hydrophones, snare drum, Serge modular, Nagra, and acoustic resonators – is out now.

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.

Can you tell me about some of your earliest memories of music and sound? Are there any experiences or songs that were formative at a young age and have stuck with you?

When I was very young, I had this little record player and would sit for hours listening to the same songs over and over. I remember being fascinated by the recording technology more than anything and would experiment with radios and dictaphones found at junk stores. Back then, vinyl was considered old news, so you could find sound FX records or movie soundtracks for very cheap, and I used to play around with rerecording bits from the records. I struck gold one day and found a cache of Tangerine Dream, Wendy Carlos, and Herbie Hancock at the Goodwill. I’d say this process of searching through shops and flea markets for weird items is what sticks with me the most.

Did you always want to be a musician and write your own music?

My brother and I had a “band” when we were just kids, playing Casio and tape decks. It was great! Later I spent some time trying out for punk bands but eventually got more involved on the technical side rather than songwriting. As a teenager, I saved up to buy a Portastudio and a Yamaha A3000 sampler so I could experiment with electronic and electroacoustic sounds. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was fantastic.

When did you first learn about more abstract composition and music? What interested you in it?

I don’t remember the exact moment, only that I’d been interested in industrial music and ambient for quite a while. So it kind of went from one thing to another. In the early 00s, I was posting on the list and fell in with some of the Baltimore experimental crowd, going to shows that Jason Urick had put together for people like Keith Rowe, Cluster, AGF, and TV Pow. There were a lot of great people around at the time, like Audrey Chen and Nautical Almanac, and of course, the shows at the Red Room. Looking back now, I realize what a rare moment this was.

Around that time, I started learning some DSP concepts and was playing around with Pure Data patching. I was very interested in processing live inputs through feedback networks to make sounds that aren’t usually possible without offline sample manipulation. All very noisy stuff with a lot of broken glass and contact mics.

One of the main things that interested me wasn’t just the music itself but also the community that had grown at the time. It felt fairly easy to meet interesting people and even to book week-long tours up and down the east coast just by asking around. A network of like-minded people stretched from Richmond to Boston, and some of these contacts have turned into long-term friends.

I really like this part of the description of your sound practice: he explores the nature of “internal sounds” and resonant sustained sound fields – especially the idea of internal sounds, but I’m curious what you think about when you use that phrase? And what is it about these particular sound fields that sustain your interest?

The internal reference has a multilayered meaning. In one sense, it refers quite literally to using microphone techniques to capture sounds from “inside” resonant surfaces, like snare drums or natural structures. But it also refers to a kind of perspective shift that I use when finding recording subjects, and it could be seen as a form of sonic empathy with real or imaginary listeners.

This kind of empathy shift has a lot of parallels with certain meditation techniques, which of course, leads us into drone and trance states. So there’s a kind of meditation aspect to the resonant fields as well. If you’ve ever sat down for a long meditation session and suddenly realized that your brain has been unconsciously suppressing a low rumble from the environment, you’ll understand what a special moment this can be. I try in some ways to express or reinterpret this experience in the music.

And, of course, I will ask about field recordings – one of my favorite topics. I am ever predictable. But what draws you to particular field recordings and makes you want to capture something?

When I’m out with the recorder, I’ll actually spend a lot of time listening rather than recording. I usually look for an active subject instead of recording the ambient environment, and a given sound has to be something unique that isn’t heard every day (or at least recorded in a way that makes it sound unique). I’ve found that if you set out with this exploratory mindset rather than trying to force a specific sound, you end up with much better results.

One thing I look for is a kind of special interaction between subjects in the environment. Is there a mist in the air that’s causing a faraway rumble to vibrate the space between buildings in an interesting way? Is there something special happening with people or animals nearby?

In my Midtown Binaural release, there is a section recorded in Bryant Park after a lockdown had eased up. There happened to be a ping pong tournament or meetup that day, and the players were especially involved and excited by their games. Sonically this was very interesting, but it also affected the people walking past, who changed their conversations or walked at a slower pace to watch the games. This special interaction was entirely unique to that time and place and could easily be missed if you’re not paying attention.

Let’s talk about hydrophones. How long have you been working with them, and how did that start?

I actually started working with hydrophones fairly recently. This grew out of the use of contact microphones but also the much better availability of different models these days vs. just a few years ago. They are, quite literally, contact microphones that are in contact with water. So there are some parallels in the types of sounds you can record, but also entirely new spaces that don’t exist anywhere else. I was looking for a way to expand the sound palette and cut down on the omnipresent field recording issue of traffic noise. Since there’s a natural sound barrier at the water’s surface, you would be very surprised at how quiet it can be underwater, even around Manhattan.

What is it that draws you to aqueous sound worlds?

There are quite a lot of unique sounds and surprises underwater. You might walk up to a raging waterfall expecting a deep rumbling sound but end up with a high-frequency sparkle instead. And, of course, the animal kingdom underwater is something we rarely hear due to our ears being tuned to air pressure changes. Some of my favorite sounds come from tide pools, where you can find hermit crabs chittering away or moving rocks around. Human-made sounds like boat engines also take on entirely different qualities.

At the same time, there’s also something eerily familiar, almost like an evolutionary memory of previous ages. This can get fairly mystical quickly, so I’ll leave it up to the listener to add their own meaning here.

What advice do you have for those who have never worked with them or are considering working with them?

It helps to do a bit of thinking about what kinds of sounds you’re looking to record. Expensive models like the Ambient ASF-1 will capture frequencies and transients that other models usually leave out. On the flip side, a piezo wrapped in waterproofing will be exactly what you need to turn your bathtub into a reverb chamber.

Researching underwater acoustics helps a lot as well. For instance, sound travels faster underwater and tends to group into frequency bands at different depths. Thinking about this when placing the mic will help you get closer to the subjects you’re looking for.

You should also learn to make friends with security guards at boat docks and marinas. Be prepared to calmly explain just what the hell you’re up to when they undoubtedly come asking!

So the hydrophone recordings are a big part of your last two releases, but also Serge modular as well. Why has that become one of your goto instruments?

The Serge is quite different from other modular systems in that it’s closer to, say, an analog computer than a traditional synthesizer. Once you learn this system, it’s possible to recreate almost any kind of analog synthesis algorithm by programming with small function blocks.

The tonal qualities and other design decisions play a huge role as well. I’m constantly amazed when a simple patch suddenly shifts into an entirely convincing acoustic drum sound. There’s a very natural and organic quality to the sound signature, and the way each module behaves very much lends itself to electroacoustic work.

I’ve found it easy to make synthetic sounds like pulse wave drones and equally easy to make strange ASMR crackling that sounds like styrofoam being crunched up. Things can get very strange when you try overdubbing actual styrofoam but end up using the acoustic source as the bass drone and the synth to make the “acoustic” sounds.

SR01-22 just came out a little over a week ago as I write this, and even after listening to it multiple times, not only has my fascination with it increased, but I think my ability to discern the natural sounds from the synthetic sounds gets worse. Ha! But, you mention in the liner notes that, as the project unfolded, you really embraced this obscuring of the sound sources, if you will. What about that idea that you liked so much and made you lean into it? 

I think, for me, it really makes SR01-22 a piece of music that requires my focus in very intentional ways. I’ve had a hard time writing about it so far because I get lost in listening to the movements and the details, trying to understand how different textures intersect, etc. You also mention in the liners that it represents your active listening practice. This feels like a wonderful way to communicate and share that with others. How did that aspect of the project develop, and more generally, how do you think about your active listening practice as part of your overall creative practice?

Thanks a lot for stating this! I’m hoping this means that I’ve made the right composition choices 🙂

For this project in particular, the first track is very much the title track, and the title track is very much anchored to a specific hydrophone recording. The recording in question contains some animal life chittering away and something that sounds like nearby mechanical sounds. But of course, this could be reversed because I have no way of knowing which was which. There was an interaction between the subjects that I found very surprising. Perhaps the animal life was modifying their behavior to work around the mechanical sounds? Or was the entire soundscape integrated?

From a composition standpoint, I decided to run with this and play along as a third actor, almost as if I were performing in an improv trio. There are synthetic layers that are derived directly from the source recordings, as well as new performances, which are structured in a way to make them fit alongside or on top of the natural sounds. This is something that I learned to do years ago when performing with the snare drum alongside electroacoustic performers. Except in this case, I’m filling both roles, so there are actually four discrete actors in the scene. The Serge played a large role here since it’s pretty good at making audio-reactive patches that take on the qualities of the source.

The remaining tracks focus on a different viewpoint of this core concept. Running with the improv trio metaphor, the second track brings the synthesizer player to the foreground, while the third focuses on the percussion player. But they all settle back to the same interplay at some point.

Active listening plays a prominent role in both field recording and improv performance since you need to be aware of what’s happening in the scene almost before it occurs. And since this is an entirely abstract work, it’s, of course, rooted in a certain amount of personal experience or expressionist aesthetic. All of these things together make this a fairly personal release for me.

Shifting gears, can you tell me a little bit about the TiberSynth project and what the future of it is? I was having a lot of fun playing with it recently, I have to admit.

TiberSynth originated from an installation that Jeff Carey and I did in maybe 2011 for the Sonic Circuits Festival in DC. We wanted a gesture-based method of controlling an A/V synthesis engine so that anyone could walk up and alter the sound without any prior experience. After playing with some prototypes, I came up with this idea of a point in space affecting nearby points, with each point being a parameter of the synthesizer. It worked so well that we had a crowd interacting with the installation for the entire night.

Later on, I was looking for a project to test out the (then new) Web Audio API, and this concept seemed like a natural fit. On a web app, you’re extremely limited to using the mouse for control, so having the ability to drive the entire sound-space with a single movement just makes sense. There’s also a significant aspect of wandering or exploring a randomized space, and you have total control over moving through a sound space over which you have no control.

In the future, I would love to extract the controller aspect of the UI into something generic that could fit into an iPad app or Max for Live patch. Just have to find the time…

Lastly, as it’s still pretty early in 2023… what are you most looking forward to in the coming year? And what future projects do you have planned?

This year is looking pretty busy with some programming work, but I’m hoping to get started on a few projects.

One of my ideas is an app for I Ching divination. I created a rough draft years ago and have been doing research and planning to make it into a proper experience. So hopefully, there’s time to get this going.

I also have some new Serge panels on order, which should expand the sound palette quite a bit. It would be great to do a long-form release focusing on imaginary insect choruses and UFO landing drones. We shall see.

Foxy Digitalis depends on our awesome readers to keep things rolling. Pledge your support today via our Patreon or subscribe to The Jewel Garden.