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Dan Deacon’s Long-Form and Experimental Radio Show Rekindles Human Connection Through Music

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From the gallop of rhythm, the noise of experimentation, and the pleasure of listening, music is a boundless form. Every Friday night on Baltimore’s radio station WTMD (89.7 FM), Dan Deacon shares two hours of music that allows the listener to meditate, placing them into a healing trance. The program, Distorting Time, broadcasts mainly long-form music pieces, many of which have a unique experimental spirit. Since Distorting Time debuted in February, shows have included artists as various as Steve Reich, Herbie Hancock, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Sly and The Family Stone, CAN, and Fela Kuti, among many others.

A music alchemist rooted in Baltimore, Deacon has worked with many local musicians, including Matmos and Future Islands, on his own music for years. His earliest albums, including Goose On The Loose, Meetle Mice, and Silly Hat Vs. Egale Hat, came out when he was still a student in the Conservatory of Music at SUNY Purchase. These early works function as creative trial periods for personal exploration and actuating the idea of how to interact with music. They are experimental, blaring urchin-like vaulting beats and abstract noise.

With 2007’s Spiderman of the Rings, released a few years after Deacon moved to Baltimore, the artist combined his academic composition background with the noise aesthetics of avant-garde electronic music, mounting vivid and playful rhythms and ecstatic pulses. Subsequent albums, such as Bromst (2009), reflect Deacon’s participation in local DIY music and art communities like Wham City, Whartscape music festival, and the Baltimore Round Robin Tour. America (2012) is forged from Deacon’s experience of touring and performing around the country, but it’s also layered with personal indignation towards war and the eschatological anxiety of capitalist supremacy. His next release, Gliss Riffer (2015), minimized some of the ornate sound and noise that characterized his previous albums and returned to arrangements that emit his musical energy more intuitively. In the following years, he composed film scores for the documentaries Rat Film, Time Trial, and Well Groomed

In early 2020, Deacon released the long-awaited album Mystic Familiar and revealed that much of his inspiration for this work came from the use of Oblique Strategies, a set of cards created by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt in 1975 as a tool for stimulating creativity. The cards have become an aid for various creative changes and evolutions in Deacon’s daily routine. The name of his radio program, Distorting Time, was derived from a random selection of Oblique Strategies cards—in fact, it was the first card he drew. Considering the state of meditation brought on by listening to music, the program’s name could not be more felicitous. Deacon says that music transmitted through the radio has an indescribable magic. 

Speaking with Deacon helps me understand his scrutable ways of demystifying composition through listening to music that is abstract, abnormal, and singular. His show is a two-hour listening experience that is about experience, not acquisition. This experimental attitude guides the whole creative process, instead of pursuing some idea of success (or failure). As John Cage said in 1955, “the word ‘experimental’ is apt, providing it is understood . . . simply as of an act the outcome of which is unknown.”

In early May, Deacon announced a US tour in support of Mystic Familiar, released last year on Domino Records. He’ll bring his legendary live show across the country this fall, kicking off the rescheduled tour on October 8 at Asheville’s Grey Eagle. When most musicians around the world are unable to do live performances, sharing music can bring us a bit of solace and human connection while we are still living through an era of isolation in the physical world.

 

My favorite part about listening to long-form music is how it clears a path for wandering within the mind.
Dan Deacon

Jaddie Fang: You used Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards as a method for stimulating creative ideas for your record Mystic Familiar, and also for the title of this radio show. What would you say is the influence of Brian Eno on you personally and musically? 

Dan Deacon: If the first half of the 20th century was radically changed by the music philosophy of John Cage, through my eyes, Eno was the analogous musical philosopher for the second half of the 20th century. Eno’s influence has touched almost all music either directly or indirectly over the past few decades. It’s impossible to deny the impact he’s had, and he’s a major influence to me right now as a mid-career musician. I think one of the most important lessons I’ve gotten from Eno (and Cage) is to always be listening to new music, constantly searching for new sounds, and allowing yourself to change.

Since you mentioned John Cage, it reminds me that Cage’s words are quoted in Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond by Michael Nyman: “attention moves towards the observation and audition of many things at once, including those that are environmental—becomes, that is, inclusive rather than exclusive.” I think that describes “experimental” as an act without conventional determinations and towards the unknown. Do you think the ways you program this radio show or make your own music are based on an experimental mindset, or do you try to precede the steps with anticipating the outcome? 

I love that book by Nyman! It really exposed me to so many composers and styles of music when I read it back in college. I think that mindset is a really nice way to go through life, like improvising everything. Of course, habits and routines and patterns are going to emerge and create systems, but for the most part, I really enjoy floating down the river and interacting with what comes up, especially with music-making, scoring, or seeing how music syncs up for programming. 

The content of the Distorting Time program feels like a kind of chicken soup for the soul that heals the audience through music in a way, unconsciously creating a perceptual atmosphere while listening to the show. This feeling is especially intense in the post-pandemic period. When you planned for this show, did you have any expected direction in developing the program? 

My hope was exactly that, that it would help transport the listeners into their own unique meditative moment. My favorite part about listening to long-form music is how it clears a path for wandering within the mind.

 

Oblique Strategies image via Eno Shop
When making the playlists and curating the episodes, I try to cover as many genres as possible and to include a mixture of classics, new works, and some deep cuts old and new.
Dan Deacon

The immersion in this two-hour radio show does make me feel like time goes by quickly. I think it’s similar to what Eno wrote in his autobiography in which he thinks the real point of making music is to float in, to get lost inside. How do you describe your own experience of immersing yourself in music listening?

Some of my favorite musical memories are the times where I was so entranced that I had almost forgotten the music was playing until something pulled me back into reality. When I am listening to music I often want it to be as relentless as the ocean but equally as changing. I think longer form music and full album listening experiences really do that for me and can give the listener that “float in” feeling that Eno describes.

Since the show started in February, there have been twelve episodes. To some extent, I think it is a bit like an alternative music education as well. Do you have any different perceptions about the results of hosting this series so far?

I think the biggest shocker is how quickly two hours can go by. Many of these pieces seem to really give credence to the show’s title.

The radio show sometimes feels like being in a zone of meditation, even while I’m fully focusing my attention on listening. Many long-form pieces you selected can bring the listeners into a transcendental state. How do you pick the pieces and how do you usually set up the list for the show every time?

When making the playlists and curating the episodes, I try to cover as many genres as possible and to include a mixture of classics, new works, and some deep cuts old and new. I love the digging for new music exercise that the show has brought to my routine. I think about the show in two hour-long halves since I have to take a station ID break for FCC regulations.

I remembered you talked about boredom as being vital to getting into a state of creation in an interview with Sungenre. Have you felt this sense of boredom during the whole of last year of the pandemic? If you have, how did you process it?

Attaining true boredom is a struggle in the iPhone age. For me, it’s so easy to be lulled but so difficult to be bored. As often as possible, I try to get away from the internet and go places that make it difficult to use a computer/phone/electricity. Camping has become a major hobby over the last year and a major activity in my quest for some deep peaceful boredom.

In film scoring for the documentaries Time Trial, Rat Film, and Well Groomed, how do you usually think about creating music for images/stories? Is there any difference in how you make your own albums?

Film scores are each their own unique collaboration with both the filmmaker and the story itself. So they are always so different from any previous project, and I love them for that reason. My albums can be thought of in an analogous way: I’ve never been this version of me before, with this collection of experience at this moment in time, so they will always be different from the last record even if I tried to clone old working methods. But for each collaborator involved and for what the story requires, film scores have so many different tributaries for ideas that they are always their own beasts.

 

Distorting Time illustration by Wilson Ward Kemp; Dan Deacon portrait by Micah E. Wood
I like to create a show setting where people can choose to participate or not, and in doing so change not only their role in the performance but the performance itself.
Dan Deacon

Interaction with the audience seems to have always been a feature that stands out in your performance, such as sharing thoughts with the audience between the break of the songs, directing the audience to dance their way out of the venue, etc. What’s your motivation for this form of musical performance? 

My major performance philosophy is that the audience is the performance. You can’t have a show without an audience. I think the pandemic proved that. Like, even with a Zoom performance, it needed an audience to be a performance. It was different than watching it on YouTube. I’m looking forward to getting back and performing and having that performer-audience relationship again. I try to facilitate environments where the audience can change how they think of themselves, like from “I” to “They” to “We.” I think a lot about how fans of sports teams and religious organizations refer to themselves as “we” much more than music fans do. So I like to create a show setting where people can choose to participate or not, and in doing so change not only their role in the performance but the performance itself.

In your previous work and in the latest album, Mystic Familiar, you have used a player piano, which can be said to be a near-perfect piano performance, to add a very exquisite melody in your music. Regardless of whether you’re using actual instrumental music or electronic instruments, what is musical perfection for you? 

I don’t know if musical perfection exists. Like, Lightning Bolt in a sweaty warehouse in the middle of summer in a sea of writhing people could be musical perfection just as much as a really sparse improv duo at High Zero at the Theatre Project. Or seeing Kotic Couture at The Crown, or hearing Therron Fowler’s choir rehearsing at the Compound, or Sō Percussion totally nailing the phasing on Steve Reich’s “Drumming.” Perhaps this ties into your last question in that specialness of a moment is in the audience and the setting. You can have a magical moment whenever you are relaxed enough to recognize it’s there waiting for you.

Through the radio show and your past performances, it seems that you are a storyteller who is willing to share, but there is not much intuitively literal storytelling in your music. What’s your thought on telling stories with music? Do you think that musical composition can convey literal truth?

I’m still getting used to being a lyricist and how lyrics elude me in the music writing process. I write music every day for hours a day, but I rarely write lyrics. The few songs that are story-based seem to resonate the most with my listeners, like “When I Was Done Dying” or “Become A Mountain.” As for the second question, I think music can be anything the composer (or listener) wants it to be, so it can of course be used to convey literal truths.

In Daniel J. Levitin’s book, This Is Your Brain on Music, he wrote, “repetition, when done skillfully by a master composer, is emotionally satisfying to our brains, and makes the listening experiences as pleasurable as it is.” For the setlist of the radio show, you have chosen pieces by artists such as Pharoah Sanders, Fela Kuti, and Charlemagne Palestine, artists who’ve made pieces that are unusually long with wondrous repetition in composition. What are your thoughts on repetition in music?

I totally agree with Levitin. I love repetition and think it can be an amazing experience to hear patterns unfold, like walking through a forest of tall trees of all the same species. But I think the beauty is in the micro fluctuations that are occurring—those are what help the ears not fatigue. Those subtle sounds are the ferns and bushes under the canopy. Those sounds are the ants and beetles all around, too small to notice without getting real close.

But I also love a constantly changing landscape. Like a blazing solo by Pharoah Sanders or the synth pieces of Éliane Radigue, they can make me feel like I’m looking out of the window of a fast-moving train, seeing the landscape change with each moment. Mostly it’s music that can fill all the buckets of my hyperactive attention. I am drawn to things that others might find overly stimulating, as well as things that might seem very repetitive but really are just endlessly detailed fractals.

 

*****

Distorting Time airs Friday nights at midnight live on WTMD 89.7 FM. If you miss the live broadcast, you can find setlists posted the day after; previously aired episodes are also posted on Mixcloud.

 

Header image: photo by Frank Hamilton

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