Listgeeks Feature #8 – Ezekiel Honig

Ezekiel Honig, an NYC-based musician and label manager (for Microcosm and Anticipate Recordings) has developed a unique and compelling brand of electronic/acoustic music over the past few years. Oscillating between muted, downtempo techno and warm, organic-sounding experimental ambient, Ezekiel’s music has evolved over the course of the six albums (in addition to numerous EPs and singles) he’s released to date.  His most recent release – and also his most accomplished – “Folding In On Itself,” just came out on the prestigious Type Records label.

Honig draws from a rich palette of field recording samples, acoustic instruments (including piano, horns and guitars), Rhodes pianos, and subtle percussion to keep his deeply textured sound moving forward. Sparse, heartbeat-like rhythms, mixed with washed out and decayed micro-melodies and drones, evoke a sense of intimacy crafted for late nights or early mornings.

Ezekiel Honig – “Between Bridges”We’re happy Ezekiel took the time to answer a few questions about his work for Listgeeks.  After you’ve read the interview, be sure to check out his lists.

Listgeeks: Listening to your albums makes me wonder about your recording process. Not so much from a technical perspective, but more in terms of the question: Where do you start? It seems that the field recording elements have increasingly become a major part of your music and of your signature sound. Would you say they are also a key component when getting started on crafting a track, or is it rather that you start off with more of a “musical” idea and then add those elements later?

Ezekiel Honig: I don’t have a standard way of beginning necessarily, but one thing which is standard for me is that all the elements need to be working together for most of the process. The rhythm that feels a little off suddenly makes sense once there is a melodic tone added to it. The melody line which sounds close, but not quite there, can suddenly make perfect sense once some texture is added, etc. It all begins with a sound, or a handful of sounds, and wanting to turn that into something that feels like a complete thought, but that beginning point can be anything.

LG: As for your field-recordings, do you actively go out hunting for specific sounds, or do you just draw inspiration from whatever surrounds you at a given time?

EH: I never go out looking for something specific. For me it’s about finding the gem in the middle of a recording, searching for that series of moments that I didn’t know I was wanting until I found them. I choose where I go to record, but that is almost incidental. Finding what happens in the middle of the recording is the thing which excites me and drives the process. The accidental nature of it is where I focus.

LG: Not unlike photographs, field recordings generally capture a fleeting moment in time, inevitably hinting at past events and evoking a feeling of nostalgia. Is that something you would say you consciously play with, that feeling of nostalgia?

EH: What I like about recordings in relation to photographs is that the frame is much bigger. Anything within the range of the microphone is there, as opposed to a photo, where you know that so much was happening just a foot away from what is seen.  I’ve been thinking a lot, especially with this album, about how much is not intended in an overt way, yet comes out and is threaded together after the fact. What I’m conscious of is the sound itself and how it makes me feel while working on it. Instinct plays a large role in these decisions and other things come out of that naturally. For example, I wasn’t aiming to play with a sense of nostalgia, but inevitably with recordings of places, that feeling is on the verge of being evoked. After finishing the record I was a bit more aware that I was exploring past experiences, including some that involved the recordings themselves, as well as using certain sounds to touch on those ideas, those memories, reframing them and re-editing them. My hope is that it’s more about how a sense of the past relates to the present and the future. How we remember is important for right now because it steers our behavior in the day-to-day.

LG: A lot of the street scene noises and other atmospheric sounds you are using seem to capture an auditory experience that we rarely take notice of on a daily basis. Our brains ignore the background hiss. Interestingly enough, once these sounds are played back to you on a recording, they instantly evoke an emotional response, transferring the listener to a different place and time, yet there aren’t many artists using these types of sounds in a compelling, creative context. Do you feel like the art of field recording is neglected, if there is such a thing?

EH: My hope is that there’s an emotional response. I think it’s important to listen to the world around you in general –  to take note of your surroundings – if for no other reason than to train yourself to pay attention. It can translate in a lot of ways that are helpful, if not meaningful. I’m actually less interested in field recording itself than in manipulating those recordings. The recordings are fodder to be edited. So, for me, field recording is just a step, and not the end in itself. I’m making something with it to inject some of that real-world incidentalness into structured musical pieces, to have that element which I want to hear, to tell a story of sorts, without actually telling it.

There is a sharp, perceived division between music, sound art, meditation, environmental sounds…but these are all the same thing. We have fallen into a trap of thinking they need to be different categories but they’re on a fluid continuum.

LG: On your earlier recordings, your approach seemed to be more deeply rooted in minimal techno/dance music. Is club culture still something that you draw inspiration from?

Ezekiel Honig – “Past Tense Kitchen Movement”

EH: Absolutely, but increasingly the inspiration comes more from past experiences getting funneled and filtered forward to the present. Once something becomes part of your language it is just part of your language and you begin to make it your own. It is meaningful to know where it originated but it can move out of that context and begins to be used differently, to become part of a new system. Sometimes I hear a new techno/house track that gets me excited to play with that structure again, but it inevitably turns into something else, getting buried and muted in the mix because that’s just what I want to hear. I have always been more interested in things that hint at something which they aren’t, that nod towards an interest without wanting to completely be that thing. Yes, dance music of various kinds is a big influence, translated through my distance from it.

LG: Is the album format something you consider important in regard to your musical output?

EH: I have thought about this so much, and in fact, with almost every album I’ve made there has been a moment in the process when I thought I would just do an EP or a mini-album, and then reconsidered and pushed forward. It’s funny because I do it every time and I never remember that it’s part of my process.

I wrote a post about this question a year ago or so on my site, thinking about the importance of and need for the album, especially in light of the changes of the music industry landscape, the way things are contained and sold. At the end, I think the album format is essential for me because it allows a more developed statement to be communicated, a more nuanced story to be told. If I made tracks that were club hits or ‘singles’ in some sense then the album would be unnecessary, but that isn’t the case. An album (or something longer) gives me the room to write pieces that are meant to specifically not stand alone, but to add a touch to the whole. As examples, the final track on this album and on my previous one – both make more sense in context and in the sequence in which I laid them out. They are scenes within a broader work, and that is one of my favorite aspects of producing an album, that means of communicating differently.

LG: Finally, are there any future projects or releases (whether your own or music you release through your labels) you want to point out?

EH: I’m working on a handful of projects which I’m not quite ready to talk about because they’re in such an early stage. On the label side, Anticipate is going to release a 12” with a track by a duo from Philadelphia, Bunnies + Bats, with remixes by myself, David Last, and Nicholas Sauser, followed by a massive CD/DVD by Offthesky, entitled Geometry of Echoes. Those will both be out later in 2011, probably late summer and fall.

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Listgeeks Feature #7 – Erik Spiekermann

Erik Spiekermann is a highly accomplished, Berlin-based designer, typographer, educator and information architect.  As the founder of both MetaDesign (1979) and Edenspiekermann (2007) Erik has worked on large-scale branding projects for a host of high profile international clients over the years, including Audi, Deutsche Bahn, Nokia and The Economist (he completely redesigned the magazine in 2001).  In 1988 he founded FontShop (with Joan Spiekermann and Neville Brody) in order to facilitate the production and distribution of digital typefaces.   Though he’s won numerous prestigious awards for his work, including – most recently – a Life­time Achieve­ment Award from the Ger­man Design Coun­cil, and could easily rest on his laurels, Erik remains fully engaged with both emerging technologies and, more importantly, the many younger designers and typographers who continue to be inspired by his dedication, focus and artistry.  The Bauhaus Archive/Museum of Design in Berlin is currently running, “erik spiekermann. the face of type,” (through June 6th, 2011) and Erik will be MCing at the upcoming Typo London (October 20th-22nd, 2011), among other engagements.  After you’ve read the below interview, be sure to check out Erik’s Listgeeks lists.

Listgeeks: As a result of your success, you’re involved with numerous conferences, the subject of countless student projects (and, as a result, queries), and of course called upon to deal with a wide variety of very different types of clients through your company, Edenspiekermann.  In the midst of all the action, how do you manage to stay inspired and excited about design and typography?

Erik Spiekermann: If it were down to me, I’d simply collapse and read all day, and especially at weekends.  But I have never learned to say “no,” so I have to find the time to answer questions from students, prepare for lectures, travel there, write columns for magazines, write forewords for all my friend’s books, etc.  All this next to my “normal” work, which is running a design firm with some 40 people.  The only way I can do this is by avoiding it until the pressure is too much to bear, until I run out of excuses or until my friends become desperate because they, in turn, might have promised my involvement to a third party.  Like these few questions: I put off answering them for 3 months now, where it would have only taken half an hour to do so in February.  But there were always other people who gave me more grief. . .

"My Car Amongst the Windows" - Erik Spiekermann (via Twitpic, May 7, 2011)

LG: Whether type-design-related or brand/identity-oriented projects (Audi, Nokia, Deutsche Bahn, BVG) for clients, it seems that if there’s a consistent emphasis, in your work over the years, on openness and accessibility.  Would you say that the drive to communicate as transparently as possible is the single greatest motivator behind what you do?

ES: Yes. Simply because, like other designers, I am also a consumer and user of things and services.  I presume that, if things annoy me because they don’t work or are ugly or (usually) both, then they’ll annoy other people as well.

Erik Spiekermann's FF Meta in use (Photo by Stephen Coles)

LG:  Do you feel that design, as an increasingly web-oriented activity, is in danger of becoming too uniform, internationally?  In other words, is our visual sensibility merging at the expense of more local (or regional) innovation/variation that may have been prized in the past?

ES: Yes and no.  For every service or website that thinks it has to communicate in international bad English, there are lots of activities that celebrate the local and regional.  It’s just that, by definition, you would only be aware of them if you were part of that group.  If you only travel the etherspace looking for stuff in your own language, that is what you’ll get. Learning languages is the key to other cultures, and they certainly exist. The more things get globalized, the more there will be local activities, expressed in a specific style.  And if all of us knew about them, they wouldn’t be local anymore.

LG: Finally, what parallels would you draw, if any, between the emergence/application of web fonts in the last year or two and the early days of FontShop International, when you first started digitizing and licensing typefaces?

1992 Olympics Stamps for The Netherlands by Erik Spiekermann

ES: Then, as now, we were ahead of the curve.  The WOFF standard was co-developed by Erik van Blokland who interned with me before FontShop was even started and who has been on our TypeBoard ever since.  And FSI was the first major foundry to work with Typekit because we believe that easy access is the key to working with new typefaces.  I have always been active as a graphic designer in a studio full of designers, so – perhaps unlike some colleagues who only ever design typefaces or produce fonts – I have always known how they use fonts.  Hardly anybody will spend much time looking; if it isn’t on their hard drive or on the server, they won’t use it.  The foundries have to make it as painless as possible for users to find, download and pay for fonts.  We’re beginning to get there with webfont services and standards like WOFF (except Safari), and the web is beginning to look better for it.  There must be human need for variety, whether it is in art, music, literature or design.  Technical constraints are never there to stay.  Except perhaps gravity.

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Listgeeks Feature #6 – Khoi Vinh

Khoi Vinh is a highly influential Brooklyn-based designer and writer who recently spent four and a half years as the Design Director for NYTimes.com (after five years at Behavior, the design studio he co-founded in 2001).  Via Subtraction, the blog he’s maintained for over ten years, Khoi publishes his uniquely informed observations on topics including – but by no means limited to – user experience, emerging technology, design for the web, and popular culture.  His recent book, “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” (New Riders, 2010), both guides readers through the fundamentals of grid-based design and provides invaluable, practical instruction for designers contemplating grid-oriented projects.  Be sure to check out Khoi’s Listgeeks lists after you read the below interview, in which he discusses his forthcoming project, life post-NYTimes, and the future of reading:

Listgeeks: One of the things I find amazing about Subtraction is the wide range of topics you’re able to cover with genuine insight (architecture, pop culture, the future of print media, the role of technology in our lives, and graphic design, of course, among them). It’s hard not to wonder both a) how you find the time and b) why it is that certain things grab your attention and not others.  Can you elaborate?

Khoi Vinh: The answer to both is that curiosity is probably the strongest motivator for me. I just want to look at the things that pique my curiosity more closely and understand them better. The posts that I write are often as much about figuring things out for myself while writing them as they are about expounding some point of view I might have. I’m trying to dig a little deeper, turn it over and look at it from different perspectives, see what my readers have to say about it — all for my own benefit, really. I really believe that everything’s connected to my work in some way, too, so I enjoy bringing all kinds of random stuff back to the blog to see how it all mixes together and to find out what I think of it all.

When you’re curious, it’s not too hard to find the time to do this stuff. I won’t pretend it doesn’t take some self-discipline (there are plenty of times I’d rather just watch a movie than blog), but it’s not work, because that curiosity is such a powerful and compelling motivation to keep going. It’s actually pretty easy.

LG: You spent four and a half years as Design Director at the New York Times, and have since been working on a few different projects and consulting.  How has the transition been from the structure of that environment to your current routine?  Do you find that you think about the kinds of design/tech-related issues with which you’re concerned differently than you did when you were in that environment?

KV: The transition hasn’t been hard at all. I really enjoyed my tenure at The Times and I learned so much and met and befriended so many amazing people. I also owe a tremendous amount of whatever notoriety I can call my own to The Times, so I don’t regret a minute of it. At the same time, it was sometimes very difficult to get things done there, at least in the way that I wanted to do them — small, scrappy, very startup like.

When I left I knew I wanted to join a startup in some capacity but ultimately I decided to found my own with a partner. We’re building a social software product that’s really different and really exciting. I think it’s going to be tremendous. There’s not an obvious connection with this app and the work that I did at The Times, but believe me, so much of what I learned there — about what users want, about how technology conforms to that, about how business brings technology and design and users together — is at the foundation of this new venture.

LG: In our interview with Kevin Kelly a few weeks ago, he replied to a question about the future of real time collaboration by focusing on the experience of reading.  I thought it would be interesting to get your take on what he had to say, considering the substantial thought you’ve put into a variety of closely related topics in the last few weeks on your blog: “I’ve been thinking about reading lately. Reading is mostly done alone by individuals. But what if we shared the texts as we read? We might share the passages we spent the most attention on. Or share our comments and marginalia. What if we coordinated our reading in synchrony, like a real-time book club? What if we could share our underlined (highlighted on the Kindle) passages to particular friends? At particular times, say, when they get around to reading it? What if the text of what I am reading is “polished” by others reading it before me, in the way Wikipedia is? What if every book accumulates annotations from every reader, hidden until you ask for them? The possibilities go on and on. We are just at the start of socializing everything.”

KV: I completely agree with that. I think that the reason to pick up a Kindle or an iPad and read a book is it’s easier than lugging around a really thick book, but the reason to keep using it is that it adds something to the reading experience that can’t be found in print. I actually think we’ll see a whole new kind of writing — expository as well as narrative — that will acknowledge the social aspects of these new reading platforms. I think books and magazines and reading materials of all kinds are going to be very different within a decade or two. Remember, the 20th Century started out looking a lot like the 19th Century before it came into its own. Right now the 21st Century still looks a lot like what came before, but that won’t last. It’s going to be really exciting.

I also second Kevin’s sentiment that we’re just at the start of social software. The way I like to put it is: “Everything that can be social will be.”

LG: What do you feel has been the most exciting development related to designing for the web in the last year or two?

KV: There’s been a lot of exciting stuff: web fonts, responsive web design, the rise of HTML5, and tablets, to name a few. But nothing seems nearly as exciting as the way the ecosystem has matured and allowed all of us designers to command our own destinies like never before.

When I went to design school, the only business skill they taught me, the only business skill they thought I would need, was how to win and work with clients. It used to be that clients were the gateway to doing design work. In fact, in one of my first jobs as a young designer, I joked to my boss that, “The biggest problem facing designers is clients.” He thoroughly reprimanded me for that attitude (he was a bit of a jerk). But we’re in an age now — and it’s just beginning — where so much great design work doesn’t have to happen at the behest of clients anymore, where working for clients is no longer the only way to do the most interesting work out there. Designers are initiating their own projects or joining new ventures or starting their own; they’re finding ways to take these amazing skills they have to communicate and build experiences and using them to write their own ticket. That’s what I see here at Listgeeks, and I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s only going to get a ton more interesting in this realm, whereas working for clients is not necessarily going to get any more interesting going forward.

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