TOM HAMILTON has been composing and performing for over 40 years, and his work with electronic music originated in the late-60s era of analog synthesis. Hamilton often explores the interaction of many simultaneous layers of activity, prompting the use of “present-time listening” on the part of both performer and listener.
Hamilton was a 2005 Fellow of the Civitella Ranieri Foundation, and he participated in a residency at the foundation’s center in Umbria. His CD London Fix received an honorary mention in the 2004 Prix Ars Electronica. His performing and recording colleagues have included Peter Zummo, Bruce Gremo, Karlheinz Essl, Bruce Arnold, Rich O’Donnell, Jonathan Haas, Jacqueline Martelle, Al Margolis, Steve Nelson-Raney, Hal Rammel, Thomas Gaudynski, Christopher Burns, Rick Aaron, Thomas Buckner, David Soldier, Bruce Eisenbeil, and Richard Lerman. He has been a collaborator with visual artists, including Fred Worden (filmmaker), Van McElwee, Katherine Liberovskaya, and Morey Gers (video artists), and the late Ernst Haas (photographer).
An active participant in New York’s new music scene, Hamilton was the co-director of the 2004 Sounds Like Now festival, and he has co-produced the Cooler in the Shade/Warmer by the Stove new music series since 1993. He is a longtime member of composer Robert Ashley’s touring opera ensemble. His audio production can be found in over 80 CD releases of new and experimental music, including recordings by Muhal Richard Abrams, David Behrman, Thomas Buckner, Annea Lockwood, Alvin Lucier, Roscoe Mitchell, Phill Niblock, and “Blue” Gene Tyranny.
Tom Hamilton’s sound installations have been presented in New York at Diapason, Studio Five Beekman, the 479 Gallery and Experimental Intermedia, and elsewhere at CCNOA (Brussels) The St. Louis Art Museum, CalArts (Valencia, CA), the Sound Symposium festival (St. John’s NF), Woodland Pattern Book Center (Milwaukee) and the Dorsch Gallery (Miami).
Do you consider your audio work to be "music"? Always? Sometimes? Do you think about such things?
Yes. I think the fundamental question that has been passed down to us is: "What else is music?" Of course there are many artists who will use the term "sound art" or "audio art" intentionally to sidestep the issue, but I think that's a shame. I know they do it to avoid confrontation with people who have a more traditional musical orientation; they don't consider traditional music to be part of their training or experience, they don't want to participate in M.U.S.I.C. and they don't want to be judged by the same criteria as is often applied to other music. But it is paradoxical: By avoiding those questions they miss the opportunity to add to our knowledge of what music can be, which would include theirs as well. None of my business, I guess.
Has anyone ever challenged you on whether or not your work was music? What happened?
Not that I can remember. See - I guess I'm more conventional than I thought I was. Hmm: Does "turn that shit OFF" count?
Of course, since I work with electronics, it comes through in descriptors. I've had my fill of being described as a "mad scientist," "tinkerer," "knob-twister," or "berserker organist." Some folks just want to string together clichés to make their point but it's just a symptom of being uncomfortable. They don't like it, somehow this is my fault, and so they have to denigrate the process.
I work in areas that at times overlap either jazz or concert music. And there are some people from those worlds who come into contact with what I'm doing who seem to be self-appointed gatekeepers for one or another of those traditions. And for them, it is an affront to introduce electronic instruments into their gene pool. They can't tie it back to what they imagine is a pure tradition, and they can't allow it to take its place in the present environment. So, since I can only do what I do, I can get the cold shoulder if I slip out of my natural habitat. But it is its own reality check. I have to say that open-mindedness is probably a prime requisite to enjoying anything I'm doing. I'm not out to make converts; I'm just there to make pieces.
How would you defend your work as being "music" if you had to? Or would you?
I might remind a hypothetical objector that since there is enough music to go around, it doesn't have to be my stuff. I also think that I would pass along my own criterion: If the artist says it's music, then it is.
If you don't defend your audio work as "music," is there a term you use for it?
We have too many genres already.
What are your favorite sorts of music? And nonmusic?
If something is original, I can listen to it repeatably. And I find that quality in many genres, in many eras. So I like jazz from 1960, but not contemporary players that sound like 1960. I avoid nostalgic efforts whenever possible. I keep listening for what else improvised music can be, and sometimes I hope that I add a little to that myself.
A sculptor I know once said to me, about looking at new work: "If I've seen it before, I don't like it." I thought that summed it up pretty well.