Courtesy of Beau Mahadev

April 8, 2016

Talking with Electronic Musician Beau Mahadev ’18

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On the surface, it might appear that Beau Mahadev ’18 spends their time wearing two pretty different hats: that of an engineering student on the one hand, and that of an active member of Ithaca’s sprawling DIY scene on the other. On the former front, Beau studies computer science here at Cornell; on the latter, they’ve immersed themself in the music of Ithaca on multiple levels. As an active volunteer for Ithaca Underground, as the Vice President of Fanclub Collective and as a burgeoning local musician and performer in their own right, Beau has carved out what might seem like a respectable side project apart from their engineering studies. But Beau doesn’t use guitars, drums, keyboards or anything else most people would associate with traditional instrumentation; Beau uses the tools of their trade. Crafting experimental noise music with synths, circuits and gadgets galore, Beau is part of a larger Ithaca community — itself a subset of an international experimental movement stretching back to at least Varese’s work of the 1920s — of noise-makers and barrier-breakers. This community — Beau included — will be coming together this Saturday, April 9, for Ithaca Underground’s Naked Noise #7, an annual, can’t-miss noise music event right here in Ithaca. Prior to Beau’s involvement, The Sun had a chance to sit down with them to talk about their history with music, their take on noise and their preparations for Saturday’s event.

The Sun: First off, what is your history with music. What have you played before, what are you playing now?

Beau Mahadev: I started playing music with the piano, mostly just doing classical stuff. I took lessons, and I could read music. Going from that, I was in some rock bands in high school, but I think what really brought music alive for me was beginning to get into oscillators and simple synthesizers; sound as sound itself, not just as music.

Sun: What instruments and/or gadgets do you play and work with nowadays?

B.M.: I work mainly with a Korg Kaossilator. I really like it because I think that one of the greatest things about the movement toward digital music has been having controllers that are non-standard. So instead of having a keyboard where you’re forced to follow certain chord structures, a digital controller can be anything. With the Kaossilator it’s just a pad, so that kind of opens up whole new ways of working with sound. I also have some smaller digital synths that I make, but those are more just straight noise oscillators. They don’t have as much melodic power as a Korg.

Sun: So in brief layman’s terms, how does the Kaossilator work and what does it sound like?

B.M.: It sounds really spacey; that’s what people normally say when they hear it for the first time. It’s digital. In oscillators, as opposed to analog synths where the sound is being generated through actual voltage, it’s just an electronic device that’s mimicking a lot of the sounds. Having a legitimate modular synth is really expensive, so cheaper versions like the Kaossilator are what people like me normally end up using.

Sun: You said that you played in rock bands in high school. In your transition from the rock band structure to the noise music that you try to make now, were there any people you were listening to or people you still listen to now who have shaped and are shaping what you try to do with your music?

B.M.: Obviously I’m really inspired by early electronic musicians, like Pauline Oliveros and members of the tape music movement. Recently I’ve been really inspired by Nicholas Collins, who’s a composer who does with CDs what early tape musicians were doing with tape — as in he actually manipulates it and messes with it and tries to prepare it in ways that are counter to the original intent.

Sun: Most people would look at your instruments as more “gadgets” than anything. Do you think your status as an engineer here at Cornell relates to your music at all?

B.M.: I think they’re super related. Obviously it’s helped me get a better foundation in my knowledge of just simple circuits;  it’s really helpful to be learning about oscillators in a physics class or about voltage and analogue versus digital in an electrical engineering class. I think there’s also a more abstract connection between both. The way computers are recontextualizing everything and the way that digital music kind of mirrors recontextualization, sonically.

Sun: Do you think the music informs your studies at all?

B.M.: I think that the music keeps me interested and focused on what it is in computer science that really interests me, and why I’m doing it.

Sun: And why are you doing it?

B.M.: Just the sheer working with all of this information, this ability to do anything, really. I see that in music as well as in what I study — moving away from the limitations of having to have a physical instrument or having to have something with strings that follows specific laws. You can move from that into areas of careful control over theoretical sounds or sine waves or something like that. It’s similar in computer science, where you have such control over information itself and over the structures that you’re using to understand and work with that information.

Sun: So even though what you do is called “noise,” it’s not just random?

B.M.: When we’re talking about it in an information science setting or in a circuitry setting, we’re talking about unnecessary information or information that is not really what you want; margin of error, glitch. Glitch music and noise art is definitely exploring that idea of what we can do with mass amounts of information. All noise is is just information from sounds on every spectrum. It’s an overload of information. I like working with that idea from both information and computer science as well as in noise music.

Sun: Would you say you “compose” or “structure” the music you make? How would you say you go about making it?

B.M.: I think that composition is something that’s a lot looser than a lot of people think. Everything is composed in some way. So I would say that I compose, but I also try to let the sound guide me. I’m not always necessarily thinking about what I specifically want, but I’m hearing something, letting that thing influence what I play. That’s what I like about working with synths: you play a sound, and a lot of the time you don’t really know what it’s going to sound like. But you’re able to make very small tweaks to certain aspects of that sound; it’s in exploring those small tweaks where I find a lot of pleasure.

Sun: What about Ithaca Underground specifically? How did you start getting involved and what do you do there?

B.M.: I started getting involved with IU when I went to one of my first shows of theirs. They make it really easy for anyone to go up and talk to people and ask what they can do. I do a lot of their website stuff because that’s a skill set that I have that’s useful to them, and I’ve also started doing sound at some of the shows, which is something that really helps me get a better ear for certain frequencies. Mixing a live show is all about identifying which frequency range you want to bring down or bring up.

Sun: What about Naked Noise specifically? How did you go about preparing for what you’re going to be doing, and what are you expecting out of it?

B.M.: I think that for me the style of playing that’s going to be happening at naked noise is similar to what I already do. I’m part of another project called Winston Bongo which is all very improvisational. I play with a couple other people who also have synths, and we never have a set song or know what we’re going to be doing before we get into it and start bouncing stuff off of each other. I’m expecting Naked Noise to go a lot like that. Honestly I’ve just been playing with my synths in the basement to prepare.

Troy Sherman is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]