Liz McLean Knight

Liz McLean Knight
Quantazelle
(Photo: Liz McLean Knight)

A self-proclaimed "multi-hyphenate," Liz McLean Knight - the sole woman behind Quantazelle - is thoroughly immersed in technology, fashion, music and the often-surprising overlaps between. When attempting to circuit bend battery-powered music toys for an upcoming music performance, she discovered that electronic components can be turned into elegant jewelry and started an entire tech-fashion line called Zelle (www.zellestyle.com). While devising a content-management system for her online experimental electronic music magazine, Modsquare (www.modsquare.com) she learned various web-based programming languages and related technologies, having a head start from her one-time computer-science college major. With that knowledge she then started an online store, Fractalspin (www.fractalspin.com), to sell not only her jewelry but also accessories and gear for the technologically-sophisticated yet fashionably-minded crowd. Desiring to assist similar artists reach a greater audience as well as provide gear for electronic musicians, she started Subvariant (www.subvariant.com) - a record label and accessories company behind the well-received Electronic Musician's Emergency Adapter kit (www.emergencyadapters.com). As laptop-DJ Liz Revision (www.lizrevision.com), she selects both experimental ambient and glitchy techno in response to the aura of each night. As Quantazelle (www.quantazelle.com) she combines complex percussive programming, sonic innovation and engaging sound design together with an approachable melodic sensibility and often booty-shaking result.

Why do you make music?

If I was just happy with the music that's currently out there right now, I'd just buy recordings and live my life through the curation of my collection. However, I think I have a unique perspective that exists between the art world, technical / nerdery and my own gravitation towards melody, structure and emotional content. I feel inspired to be a part of the dialog. I remember sitting on the grass at commencement for California Institute of the Arts where Bill Viola was the keynote speaker. He said--and I'm *so* paraphrasing here--"When you experience an artwork that blows you away... but you think 'It'd only be better if it had *n* instead (where *n* is your improvement)': THAT'S YOUR CUE TO RUN WITH IT. With some experience as perspective, I realize he was speaking about that internal inspiration momentum that will lead to great things. I've experienced that first-hand, where I am excited about an idea or project and see how it fits within the larger narrative and just how powerful that can be as a motivating force that seems to draw other cooperative elements into its orbit. Being a part of a movement like that is a rush and something I love being a part of.

What music do you make?

"IDM" aka Intelligent Dance Music, in the sense that it operates within a lot of traditional music constraints, but it has to excite me. When I hear a sampled snare, I die a little. There are wave forms that you can massage into a "snare". Why sample? Make new sounds. Push the boundary of "acceptable."

How do you make music?

I normally hate to go political, but in this case I think it should be brought up. I have all my physical needs taken care of where I'm at right now. That gives you space to think about higher matters. And I get to pursue some rather erudite pursuits, but very satisfying ones of an intellectual sort. The kind of things you couldn't focus on if you were just in survival mode.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

Well I suppose my mother might say yes, but I don’t think so. I had formal music training and have a good ear, so it's easy for me to make "musical" sounding things. I don't think everyone who wants to make electronic music should take formal music classes, but I do think a basic understanding of musical concepts is better than just mashing keys on a keyboard (and looping the resulting atonal notes as a melody) just because you don't have the basic knowledge behind the musicality of music.

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I’d say all of those on some level. These days, I've toned down the actual "performance" of my shows a bit (haven’t worn a costume in forever, haven't done any costume changes or participated in any laptop cage matches in quite a while) and have just been focusing on the sonic experience that I create as a sound technologist in a live setting. Plus, just creating all the musical intricacies in one track requires a few days of such focused nerdery in front of my laptop that I kind of run out of time and energy to think about how I could make it more "performative" in a live setting.

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

I think gamelan is really interesting. It’s heavily and sometimes complexly layered, with different parts coming in and out with variations or in another time signature. Some of it reminds me of earlier Autechre. Here in Chicago, the only stations that play instrumental music are the classical-music station and two low-signal-power college stations, one that plays dance music and one that plays absolutely anything from field recordings to noise punk. There really isn’t a mainstream cultural channel that my work would fit into, although I can think of about twelve Internet-based podcasts or websites that are a near-perfect fit. And that’s why the Internet is just so wonderful - you can discover all kinds of new music and network and interact with people with the same connoisseur-level taste in this kind of music that you wouldn’t find in mainstream cultural channels. And I do think that people who love IDM/experimental/abstract electronic music are connoisseurs along the same level as classical-music buffs. Both sorts of fans generally have a technical knowledge of how their music is created (although classical has a “canon” of pieces by established composers that can be played by different groups of musicians and compared side by side with each other to highlight technical differences), and both rely on emotions created only through the interaction of all the sounds and not through a sung narrative. That’s likely what’s behind the perception of IDM as being pretentious and over-intellectual instead of fun, but it definitely can be both. What’s interesting to me though is the response I get when I play my music or my favorite tracks by other musicians for people who’ve never heard this kind of music - and discover that they really are into it. I think this sort of music can be appreciated by more people, and I’d like to see it have a higher profile than just background music for car commercials.

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

Technically: keeping up on current technologies, upgrades, plug-ins, processor speeds, available VSTs. Knowing how to optimise the performance of one’s computer for digital audio, keeping an eye on the sort of peripherals and MIDI interfaces and whatnot that become available, and looking at tech news to think about the future of one’s set-up as technology progresses. Professionally: networking and sharing ideas with fellow digital musicians, having a local peer base, having an Internet peer base, being committed to the larger digital musician community and helping out others with talent (either by sharing knowledge or helping to connect musicians with labels or musicians with venues to perform in), not letting one’s ego get in the way, keeping in touch with people in the press who’ve been supportive in the past, as well as labels or promotions crews that have booked me. Mentally: commitment, goal orientation, foresight and planning ahead, just doing things that are musically fun (like DJing privately or in a low key setting and not being constrained by a genre, or entering remix contests for the fun of it), collaborating with other musicians, having another income stream so I don’t have to care if my music is commercially viable, going to music events that aren’t electronic just for a change of pace.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

It’s a very exciting time to work with computers, software and new interfaces. I can’t wait to see what people will invent next. For a new musician, I would recommend learning Max/MSP, PD, or Reaktor, since those modular software interfaces allow for all sorts of innovation, both sonic and in the sort of things that you can begin to program through it (like, the ability to use external sensors, and being able to control free-standing lighting or even robotics in Max). I like the flexibility that comes from Ableton Live, because you can use it both as a DAW (arrangement view) and as a live performance tool (clip view). I’d recommend against learning a program like Reason or Pro Tools since they have been built as a sort of program with “training wheels” to help analogue musicians make the transition to digital. If you’re just learning, you should go as digital as possible in a platform that allows as much flexibility as possible in regards to how you’re going to be composing music. In terms of interfaces, I'm excited thinking about things like the iPad being used as a music controller that you can customize to suit your particular needs and way of working. My friend Moldover has invented a series of controllers, like his Mojo, that featured a button and knob design that fit his hand and was ergonomically designed to fit his live performance style that also involves a guitar. The Glitch Mob members all had their own (now-defunct) Lemur - a touch sensitive iPad-like controller with MIDI that let you design your own interfaces. I'm excited to see the controllers that people will come up with.