AMN Interviews: Al Margolis (If, Bwana)

If Bwana
If Bwana (Photo credit: kubia)

Sound artist Al Margolis, best known as the creative force behind If, Bwana, has been active in alternative music and distribution since his days in the 1980s American cassette underground. He is the co-founder of experimental music label Pogus Productions, which he continues to run. Under the name If, Bwana he makes music that encompasses improvised studio constructions as well as more process-oriented methods of composition. He has recorded and/or performed with Pauline Oliveros, Ione, Joan Osborne, Monique Buzzarté, Katherine Liberovskaya, Adam Bohman, Ellen Christi, Fred Lonberg-Holm, Jane Scarpantoni, Ulrich Krieger, David First, and Dave Prescott, among others.

In a nutshell–size of your choice–can you describe If, Bwana for us?

If, Bwana has been my artistic “cover” for the past 30 years. Under this name I have been making electronic, electroacoustic, experimental and improvisational music/sounds. It confuses people (the name that is). It now confuses me as well. It is a remnant of my days in the early cassette network. It is my joy…

What influences and/or musical background (or even non-musical background) do you bring to If, Bwana?

I began playing guitar at around age 12. In junior high school I played violin and later I picked up clarinet. Both of which I make sounds/noise and sometimes music on. I play bass guitar. Basically coming from a rock playing/listening background with interest in film. I did drift into the Mothers/Henry Cow/Soft machine etc area of listening which brought me to Varese and Partch etc…and finally brought me to Schoenberg – Straub/Huillet’s Moses und Aron. Now also not living in the city has extended some of my listening and thinking processes. And I think a desire to explore sounds and the outer edges of music.

What attracted you to the kind of electroacoustic music you create?

I am not even sure I could say. Just going from the independent cassette network and all these non-pop and odd pop works of others and then being introduced to the sounds of Stockhausen and the French INAGRM guys and I found it all of interest. I have been moving much more into using acoustic instruments lately with much multi-tracking of similar material and slight processing- so it is almost not even electroacoustic (and not sure how much I would necessarily say I even have done that could be called electroacoustic).

You’ve done a lot of collaborations with individual instrumentalists—such as the work released on the recent Red One. How do you approach the interface of conventional instrument and electronics? 

Well, as mentioned in the previous answer, I am probably using less and less electronics these days. I really have been focusing on working with acoustic sounds – that are slightly processed – some pitch shifting or stretching or compressing – and then multitracking them and letting them interact with themselves. So it’s the acoustic sounds that are in fact almost becoming “electronic”.

What is the typical compositional process for you—assuming of course that there is one?

There really is not one – maybe closer to 3. There is the (occasional) process piece – where I set the goal and then move towards that – so that in a certain way once the parameters have been determined, the piece does sort of compose itself. There are the pieces that I have a fairly clear idea about when I set out to do them – particularly those with source materials that are from instrumentalists I want to work with. There I also have a fairly clear idea of what I want. And that usually includes the multi-tracking of their material – often just very small bits of sound that become fairly large pieces. And then there are the works that are more improvised in the studio. I was going to say “intuitive” – but in a certain way all my works are like that. Especially not being a trained composer, I have to “feel” my way (or maybe “hear” my way though is more accurate). The last 2 ways of working often cross over each other.

And last, what’s the next If, Bwana release we can look forward to seeing?

As I write this there are multiple things upcoming or just having come out. A CD reissue of an old cassette – They Call Me Bwana –on Forced Nostalgia (a Belgian label). A split LP with Gerald Fiebig (100 copies only) on the Attenuation Circuit label out of Augsburg, Germany. And coming out on Toronto based Inyrdisk label to celebrate 30 years of If, Bwana, a 3 CDR set scheduled for release January 1st 2014 – 30 years to the day of the first work I ever made as If, Bwana.