An Interview With Howard Stelzer

I became familiar with Howard’s work a few years ago through the Anti-Gravity Bunny website (I believe) and have been a fan ever since. Releases such as “Brayton Point”, “Narrow Escape”, and “The Case Against” really solidify Howard as one of the best modern composers around (IMO). I was pretty blown away to learn that he accomplishes these recordings through use of cassettes and effects. Howard was nice enough to answer a few random questions I had floating around in my head!

1. When did you first get involved in making music/sound? What were your influences?

I started when I was a kid in high school, just messing around with tapes and scrap metal. Dumb teenage stuff, y’know… banging on shopping carts and oil drums, that sort of thing. I played in a band when I was 16/17 years old with a guitarist and another guy who banged on metal with me. Eventually, I started making tape collages that I’d play out of boom boxes while the three of us did our dumb banging-on-oil-drums-and-car-parts thing. After high school, the other two guys (quite sensibly) lost interest. I had another band when I was in college, essentially doing the same thing but with the other guys playing synths instead of metal. I was still trying to make a go with cassette tapes. That group was a trio or quartet, depending on who showed up to a practice or a gig. Once that ended, it was down to just me. I moved up to Massachusetts after college in 1998, and started playing solo concerts, and I’m still here today. 

My influences are many. Mostly, I’m influenced by my own broken brain, which had real trouble sitting still when I was a kid. When I was in high school, I didn’t have the patience to learn an instrument, so I made noise instead. Instant gratification! My brain is less broken today than it used to be, but it still sputters and hiccups every now and then. I think, though, that you’re asking about the music that drove me to do whatever it is I do, and sure there was mind-blowing moments when I encountered certain records. Maybe the same records that other people encountered at around the same time. But I was also influenced by many friends and collaborators over the years: certainly Giuseppe Ielasi, Frans de Waard, Brendan Murray, Ralf Wehowsky & P16.D4, and so on. I suppose I was a sponge for new sounds for awhile. Nowadays, though, I’m more influenced by my friends and by trying to understand my own thinking than by listening to other people’s records. I still enjoy listening to music, but those experiences aren’t what drive the music I make today. 

2. Can you describe your process of using cassettes? What are your deepest, darkest recording secrets?

There are no secrets here. Nothing deep or dark. What I do is entirely very low-tech and obvious manipulation of cassette tapes and players. Honestly, though, I’m not very interested in process. For me, it’s more interesting to talk about what the music is than about how it’s made.  

3. You used to run Intransitive Recordings; why did you start/stop doing it?

I started Intransitive in 1997 and ran it for 15 years. That’s enough time, don’t you think? I was never very good at running a label, but it was fun for awhile until it just became more expensive and stressful than it was worth. 

4. What part of the creative process do you enjoy most? How do you prepare for live performances? 

I enjoy every part of the creative process. For me, making music is play. 

These days, I prepare for live performances by composing a complete piece of music, then separating the bits of the piece out onto 20 or 30 (or more!) cassette tapes. I’ve got a score, or something like it, that I use when I perform. Ideally, I show up at a venue very early, pace back and forth like a fool, plug in my tape decks, panic when one or two of them produce a 60 cycle hum, panic again when I forget how to make my mixing board work, test out my tapes through the PA for awhile, make sure everything sounds okay in the room, pace back and forth for another hour or so until people arrive, then I play my set and have a great time. Afterwards, I sleep very well. 

5. You are also a teacher, right? What’s that like?

I love being a teacher! I love it every minute of every day. Wouldn’t want to do anything else. Teaching 6th grade math in an urban public school brings me joy.  

6. What is your favorite part of living in Massachusetts?

My favorite part of living in Massachusetts is not living in Florida. Also, fried clams in the summertime. 

7. How have your musical tastes changed over the years, if at all?

My musical tastes have always been the best. That has not changed. 

8. What kind of equipment do you use for field recording?

I don’t do any field recording. That’s not what my work is about. I dislike fields. I prefer my couch, where there’s air conditioning and no mosquitos. 

9. Do you see yourself recording and performing the rest of your life? Have you ever taken a long break from it? How do I do that?

Making music and teaching math is what I do. They’re both inextricably tied to my identity, how I understand my place in the world, how I think about pretty much everything. It’s probably impossible for me to not do either one. 

As for a break from music… well, I work at a pace that’s comfortable for me. I might not specifically work with my tapes for a few months, but I’m always composing in my head. The tapes and players live in a big suitcase underneath my desk. The desk drawers are filled with more cassette tapes. When the time is right, I’ll sit down and bang a few things together. I’ll chisel more sound out of the raw material. I’ll take some source tapes and a couple of Walkmans out with me when I walk my dog, and work with them as we stroll through the city… I’ll play a tape out of one walkman and record it onto the other, getting the industrial ambience of Lowell’s old mill buildings and canals along the way. Then maybe I’ll put the tapes away for a bit and keep thinking about how the parts might fit together. As long as I have ideas for music, I’ll keep making the stuff. 

Performing, though, is a different story. I tend to perform only a couple of times a year, and am happy with that. When I was younger, back in the late 90’s and 00’s, I’d play any gig that was offered to me, and I didn’t care whether I played once a week for several months on end. Those were formative days, certainly, but it’s just not what I do anymore. It takes me a month or two to get ready for a performance, and I need a specific environment in order for it to work: the right PA system with enough power and clarity, the right sort of venue, a comfortable situation where I can relax and do it right. Otherwise, it isn’t worth my time and I prefer to stay at home with my wife and dog, sitting in my favorite chair with a book or writing math lessons. Or taking a nap. Naps are something new for me… I never used to nap, but I’ve started giving them a try and think I may continue. The thing about taking up napping as a new hobby is: they aren’t stressful.

Please check out Mr. Stelzer’s work at: https://howardstelzer.bandcamp.com