The monkey with the digital touch

Christopher Coe in conversation with James Compton

Calling his musical project Digital Primate was a bit of a pisstake, says Christopher Coe, a little bit pompous – but he wanted to get across the idea of evolution. He started out like any other lounge-room musician by demo-ing a set of songs on guitar before throwing them away. Hadn’t he done this stuff before? This time the species had to have room to mutate. Rules had to be broken.

Digital Primate began as a conceptual musical experiment—setting up a conversation between the organic and the technological to explore what he thought was a dichotomy. “It became just as important to turn on the computer switch as to think of a melody in my mind,” Coe says. “Watching the lights blink on the reverb unit was just as inspiring as reading Tolstoy. Every machine was used as an instrument in its own right.”

Coe has spent the last couple of years working on a Virtual Reality installation in cahoots with performance artist Stelarc—well known for his ongoing probes into the parameters of the human-machine interface. Their major collaboration was “developing a virtual environment that created music when you walked through it and manipulated objects.”

Watching Stelarc merge his body with various elements of technology—both physically and virtually—gave Coe food for thought. His preconception that there was a dichotomy between body and machine began to alter, morphing into what he now describes as “an articulation.” A connection became apparent between physical human movement and “the way we move through technology.” On Coe’s Digital Primate CD, Stelarc ended up as a new “body of work” archetype. By committing his blood flow, brainwaves and muscle strain to tape, Stelarc donated an electronic signature, a digital omnipresence. Using Doppler bloodflow and biofeedback units, Stelarc’s sonic corpus became the backdrop to the entire work.

Fiber, the first track on the CD, is a good example of the techno-collective’s ideal – a kind of loose format into which things just evolved. At least that was the way it seemed to work out.

“Fiber started as purely a techno track, then Arthur Arkin jammed on it for an hour. Then I analysed it and edited it, then came back with Helen Mountfort’s cello and live percussion. It became the organic and the technological working together to create a very fluid, balanced piece of music – from the high-pitched squealing of Stelarc’s brainwaves up in the top register right down to the cello.”

Coe’s friend Maria Tumarkin added some Russian vocals over the top of the hybrid, turning the piece into an icily sensuous mantra. “I gave her a list of fibres to work on, then she came back to the studio and we talked about what we were really saying by listing all these fibres back to back,” Coe says. “We came up with this hypothesis on the direction that society’s going. The fact that fibres are going in certain directions.”

He suggests optical fibres being laid under the ground as an obvious physical thing, but contends the existential or spiritual side is just as important. Tumarkin’s Russian sequence echoes that idea, including everything from cotton to muscle, tendons to electrical cables—through to the moral fibre of society. She put the vocal track down in one take, and as Coe says, it sounds like poetry from another world.

Ideas and musical genres–from rock and funky rap through ambient atmospheres and even some searing white noise–meshed in what became a fluid synthesis. By chance and synchronicity, various collaborators played a vital role in the final recording of Digital Primate. Ollie Olsen, a musical techno-primitive from way back – beginning with Whirlyworld in the late 70s, then in Orchestra of Skin and Bone, No, and more recently Third Eye–was one who sat in. “Ollie liked the idea from the beginning,” Coe explains. “He came down to the studio where we did a full-on acid track, Invoke Your God, probing the harder side of technology.”

On Obsolete Body, Stelarc contributes a trademark rave about the inadequacy of the human body’s soft tissue structure in the face of the inexorable evolution of technology. And in a chance meeting, Killing Joke vocalist and fellow musical explorer, Jaz Coleman, provided a crucial link to the album’s finale–Evolution Ends. By invitation from a mutual friend, Coe dined with Coleman and invited him back to the studio. It was a chance meeting which helped Coe nut out a troublesome keyboard part. “He came in with this very fresh attitude and said: ‘Nah, don’t worry about that, do it like this.’ It was a nice, inspiring random collision.”

The common philosophical thread manifested in the overall work, Coe says, is how humanity is dealing with what’s happening between ourselves and technology. Concurrent with this was his own incorporation of different musical genres, “and the connection of digital music to the re-wiring of the world as we know it.”

To define exactly what the album attempts to communicate, Coe defers to the liner notes written by his ‘reality advisor’ Johannah Fahey: “The binary oppositions of previous philosophical and critical systems are displaced by more fluid motions. What was live is reproduced as technology, and technology is subsequently played live. The epoch of simultaneity, of juxtaposition, and of the dispersed infringes on us. Sharp divisions are blurred. Sound is mobilised and transitory. At some moments it is distorted, at others it is pulled back into focus. There are no lines, only links, articulation replaces demarcation. Music is a nomad that violates all boundaries. The aural revolution continues…”

RealTime issue #9 Oct-Nov 1995 pg. 17

© James Compton; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 October 1995
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