Mail Interview for "Deep Listenings" with Chuck van Zyl

by Gianluigi Gasparetti, June 27th, 1994.

1. Let's start with your beginnings, your favorite groups, your musical ideas, etc.

CVZ: I was born in 1958 and my parents were old. My Mother was 42 and my Father 49. There was always music in our house, old time music from their generation. It was on the radio, the television and the phonograph all the time. Mom loved to sing and Dad did too a bit, but he was better at playing his mandolin. He liked Jazz and Big Bands, she liked music with vocals. Eventually I grew out of this influence, but I was left with an appreciation of melody, harmony, rhythm and timbre.

My record collection started with some classical music, War, Pink Floyd and on and on. I was into what is now referred to in the states as "classic rock". I collected albums by all the big groups and listened very closely to them. In 1977, 1 started working at a student run college radio station called WDCR. My shows started out featuring Lynyrd Skynyrd, Outlaws, Eagles, etc. Later, I moved on to Yes, Genesis, Kansas, Styx, Jethro Tull, Moody Blues, ELP, etc. While I was at WDCR I met people that told me about some groups I'd never heard of before: Gentle Giant, King Crimson, Jane, Be Bop Deluxe, Gong, Van Der Graff. Also Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze, Kraftwerk, Cluster, etc. These groups were rarely heard anywhere on the radio here. I wanted to learn more about them. I began going to obscure record shops and looking through their import bins. I found many wonderful albums by groups that only a few of my friends had ever heard of. One of my friends from WDCR told me to listen to another college radio station. The station was WXPN. I was told that their programs were full of the kind of music that I was looking for. It was difficult listening at first because the music that WXPN was playing was very strange to my ears. I'd never heard anything like it before. They were playing everything from John Cage to Heldon, Miles Davis to Philip Glass, Ash Ra Tempel to Faust, Vangelis to Art Zoyd and more. The more I listened, the more I learned. I'll never forget the day I was driving home from WDCR listening to WXPN on the radio in my car when "Stardancer" by Klaus Schulze began to come out of the speakers. It was the most exciting piece of music that I'd ever heard. Something cliked inside me. That moment changed my life. I've been totally fascinated with music and sound created by the synthesizer ever since.

Once I was hooked on Klaus Schulze, my course followed that of many other enthusiasts: Tangerine Dream, Popol Vuh, Ash Ra Tempel, Kraftwerk, Jean Michel Jarre, Heldon, Earthstar, Eno, Mark Shreeve, Neuronium, Terry Riley, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Michael Stearns to name but a few. In early 1980 I became a radio host on WXPN and began learning even more while producing radio programs and working with the knowledgeable staff (among them John Diliberto and Kimberly Haas more recently of "Echoes"). I continue to work at WXPN and am still influenced by all the music that I am exposed to.

2. What do you think about today's EM scene? I mean, do you still like TD and stuff like that or do you consider them a new age band?

CVZ: Over the last few years there has been an explosion of new EM being released on CD. It is an exciting time to be involved in EM. There are many new people on the scene with new ideas and new attitudes. New genres are being created. People from all walks of life, from all over the world are becoming involved. Many young people (teenagers) are producing their own kind of EM. The younger generation is being heard and influencing the established artists (and vice versa). It is a great time.

As for Tangerine Dream in their present state, I have an interest in what they are doing now. I always like to see them when they come to town to perform live. I collect their CD releases, but I keep hoping that TD will again one day return to their roots and create spacemusic. Some of their soundtrack work comes close but I (and many others) think that they should release a CD of new floating music. It is an area of expression that is limitless. I do enjoy the work of the ex-TD artists: Johannes Schmoelling, Paul Haslinger (with Lightwave), Christoph Franke, Michael Hoenig, Steve Schroyder and Steve Joliffe.

3. What do you think about Klaus Schulze? Do you know his "Silver Edition" album?

CVZ: The music that Klaus Schulze realizes has a major influence on many people, myself included. I have all of his albums, but as in the case with TD, the floating spacemusic that he created early on has had the biggest impact on me. I would like to hear Klaus Schulze return to this method of composition. Whatever he does, I'll be there waiting, along with everyone else, to listen to it.

I think that the Silver Edition is a landmark release and am proud to have it in my collection. I enjoy the live concerts from the '70s. Of the more recent compositions, I enjoy "Arthur Stanley Jefferson" the best. I think that Bernd Kistenmacher of Musique Intemporrelle deserves alot of credit for undertaking the monumental task of releasing the 10 CD set. Perhaps now Bernd will have time to get some more of his own music out.

4. What about your friendship and collaboration with the Gulch brothers?

CVZ: When I first started at WXPN, the station promoted live concerts by local electronic musicians. We had a great scene. Groups like: The Ghostwriters, The Atomic Thinkers, Aural Prism, Tangent, Paul Woznicki, Darren Kearns, and The Nightcrawlers performed live concerts on a regular basis. We played their tapes on the radio and conducted interviews with the groups to get people interested in the EM scene. I saw Tom and Peter Gulch, of The Nightcrawlers, at their concerts, but it wasn't until they came to WXPN for an interview that we actually met. Dave Lunt (the third Nightcrawler) almost never came to the radio interviews because he was too shy. As the years passed, Peter, Tom, Dave and I became good friends. When there was a concert, I would stay afterwards to help load the truck. I always had many questions about music and especially about synthesizers. They encouraged me to buy a synthesizer and try my hand at programming it. If I did not have this influence, I may have never become involved with creating my own music. Tom, Peter and Dave were my mentors, advisors, tutors and inspiration. I bought a Korg MP-4 from a friend and needless to say, ever after that, synthesizers and the mode of expression they offer me became my focus.

I first started playing live with Tom in 1985. We called our group "XISLE" (pronounced "exile") and did several concerts of spacemusic anywhere we could. About a year later Tom and I decided that we were still friends, but couldn't work together anymore. I asked Peter if he was interested in joining D.A. Rath and me in XISLE. He said yes and the three of us have been doing live concerts together ever since. I've always liked Peter very much as a person and as a synthesist, but since we began working together in XISLE, I've come to learn a great deal more about him. Peter is a remarkable person. He is one of the few people that I can count on completely. Peter is strong willed and has a good heart. He is very enthusiastic about our music. It is amazing when XISLE plays together. It is more than mere improvisation. There are few words between us; somehow we communicate through our synths using sound.

It is unfortunate that due to a physical ailment, Tom Gulch is no longer able to play with The Nightcrawlers. This is why they have not been releasing much music recently.

5. How did you reach Dave Shoesmith of C&D Services? Are you planning new releases with them in the future?

CVZ: As any underground musician will tell you, it is important that you get your music out to as many key people possible. When my tape "Callisto" was released, I sent out many promotional copies. One of the people that received a copy was Andy Garabaldi of Mike Lloyd Music in the U.K.. Andy liked the tape so much that he sold some for me through MLM and played it for his friend Dave Shoesmith of C&D Services. Dave liked it very much too, but thought that more people would be interested in my music if it were out on CD. Dave wrote to me and explained the situation. Eventually, Dave offered to release "Callisto" and "The Moment Of Totality" on one CD. For a time, it was to have been released on the Surreal to Real label, but finally it worked out that Dave started his own "Centaur" label. The resulting release is titled "Celestial Mechanics". There are many spacemusic enthusiasts that still enjoy the style of music that I'm producing, but there are few EMusicians doing it anymore. Dave is aware of this and filled the niche by releasing my CD. The fact that I'm from the States is of little importance.

Dave is interested in a second VAN ZYL release on Centaur. I'll be beginning work on this project soon.

6. What is the perception of your music in the US and outside (Europe and other countries)?

CVZ: I'm not sure. I think now that Celestial Mechanics is available worldwide I will begin to get more name recognition. Spacemusic in the States has always been an underground thing. The music is outside the mainstream and often goes unnoticed. Thanks to magazines like "Deep Listenings" my musical efforts will get more attention.

7. What is the direction you're going in now? Are you planning new sound explorations?

CVZ: I am influenced by many, many things: travel, astronomy, art, science fiction, cinema and obviously all manner of music and sound. The spacemusic I realize in my studio allows me to express how I am feeling in a way that I have not been able to do by using words. I want my music to take the listener from the real world to the world of their imagination, to a place gotten to only by listening to one of my recordings. As long as I am alive and able to live my life, I'll be incorporating everything I experience into my music.

My next CD is a collaborative work with Peter Gulch entitled: "Regeneration Mode" (Synkronos). On this CD we have crossed and incorporated many genres: low intensity industrial, new age, sequencer/pattern, spacemusic, ambient and one or two of our own design. This is the direction I am going in.

8. Please list your musical equipment.

CVZ: It doesn't matter how much equipment one has. The only things that matter are ideas...

Korg: Wavestation A/D, EX-8000, MP-4, SQD-1

Oberheim: Xpander, Matrix 6, Matrix 6R

Roland: MKS-80, CSQ- 100, SVC- 350

Alesis: HR16, MT8, Midiverb III, Microverb

Ensoniq: EPS 16 Plus Turbo, DP4

DigiTech 7.6 Time Machine

Tascam: 122, DA30, M34

Lexicon: LXP-5, ALEX

Mackie: 1604, 1202

Yamaha TX81Z

Kawai K4R

JBL 4408

MXR 1500

Hafler XL280

9. What kind of music do you like to listen to?

CVZ In the course of hosting a radio show, I've developed a wide variety of tastes in music. Usually, when I am listening to music, I am trying to decide where someone's CD or tape will fit into the show. I try to include as many styles of atmospheric music as possible. I've enclosed some playlists from my show. The artists on "Star's End" are a good indication of where my tastes are at. In addition to cosmic music (and any group I mentioned earlier), I also like U2, Jam Nation, Pearl Jam, Steve Tibbetts, The Cranberries, Marynalva, Peter Gabriel, Chris Isaac, INXS, Sting, Bill Frisell and maybe even Madonna...

10. What about your live activity?

CVZ: Here is a list of all the live concerts I've performed with XISLE:

March 8, 1986 The Creative Underground, New Brunswick, NJ (visuals by Wave)

March 21, 1986 The Nexus Gallery, Philadelphia, PA

July 3rd, 1986 WXPN Studio, Philadelphia, PA (live on the air)

July 12, 1986 The Painted Bride, Philadelphia, PA (with full blown light show by Wave)

December 6, 1986 The Asbury Methodist Church, Philadelphia, PA (XISLE Opened for Nightcrawlers 250 att)

March 20, 1987 The Painted Bride, Philadelphia, PA (the 6 member XISLE)

July 3, 1987 WXPN Studio, Philadelphia, PA (solo live on the air)

December 5, 1987 Stockton State College, Pomona, NJ (XISLE opened for Jesse Clark)

January 22, 1988 Delaware County Community College, Marple, PA (w/big TV computer graphics)

July 23, 1987 The Novins Planetarium, Tom's River, NJ (under the dome with full visual effects)

October 15, 1987 New Directions, Doylestown, PA (with full blown light show by Wave)

October 20, 1987 The Tabernacle, Philadelphia, PA (XISLE opened for The Nightcrawlers)

March 31, 1987 Middlesex County College, Edison, NJ (with full blown light show by Wave)

May 6, 1989 The Tabernacle, Philadelphia, PA

April 7, 1990 The Open Space Gallery, Allentown, PA (Arteck opened)

October 14, 1990 The Tabernacle, Philadelphia, PA (Art Cohen opened)

November 18, 1989 The Novins Planetarium, Tom's River, NJ (under the dome with full visual effects)

October 13, 1990 Community Education Center, Philadelphia, PA (full blown slide show, w/Art&Jack Hurwitz)

November 9, 1990 Small Computer And The Arts Network Symposium, Philadelphia, PA (w/computer graphics)

May 5, 1991 Middlesex County College, Edison, NJ (we drove 95 miles each way, 2 people showed up)

November 15, 1991 SCAN Symposium, Philadelphia, PA

May 9, 1992 The Star's End Gathering, Philadelphia, PA (audience of radio show listeners)

October 3, 1992 The Novins Planetarium, Tom's River, NJ (under the dome with full visual effects)

November 7, 1992 SCAN Symposium, Philadelphia, PA (TV wall with computer generated graphics)

We really like playing live. It is great to see the audience reactions. Often, a performance unattainable in a studio can be drawn from us. It is always a challange.

11. 1 know that you work as a DJ in a radio station; tell me something about your program.

CVZ: I am host of a radio program called "Star's End". The show can be heard on 88.5FM WXPN Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and on 90.5FM WKHS Worton, Maryland (WKHS reaches into the Baltimore, MD area) every Saturday night into Sunday morning from 1:00AM until 6:00AM. "Star's End" has been on WXPN for around 18 years. I have been host since 1980. The purpose of the show is more than to just entertain the listener. The audience is invited to leave their radios on in their bedrooms at a low volume throughout the night. The music that I present is very spacey, floating, soothing and relaxing. I try to include as many different types of music and genres as possible, yet keep within the quiet music format. A listener will hear: jazz, avant-garde, classical, ambient house, low intensity noise/industrial, new age, traditional international, world fusion and, of course, a wide variety of electronic artists. Announcements are kept to a minimum, just often enough to let everyone know what stations they're listening to and what selections were broadcast during the preceding hour.

The music of "Star's End" has an effect on the listeners as they sleep. They can incorporate the music into their dreams. I often get calls from people who just awoke from a strange dream and want to tell me of the experience. Last year I attended a seminar about "Music In Healing". I was told by a graduate student that there is no research about what happens to people when they listen to spacemusic while they sleep and that when someone listens to "Star's End" while in a sleep state, they are taking part in an uncontrolled experiment.

"Star's End" is also appreciated by students up late studying, artists working on their craft and people that must work overnight. But, the purpose of "Star's End" is even more that just to relax stressed out people and perhaps give some listeners weird dreams. Another purpose is to permit people to experience music that is typically very difficult to gain access to on the normal mainstream radio stations. Listeners are exposed to music that is conceptually very different from what they are familiar with. Often, first time listeners will call in and remark that they are astonished that this music even exists, let alone that it is being broadcast on a radio station. This is a very important facet of "Star's End". I am proof of this. If I'd not heard Klaus Schulze on WXPN so many years ago, I would have never learned that there was an entire world of music alternative to the mainstream available and waiting for me to experience.

WXPN is what is known in the States as a non-profit radio station. This means that the station does not get funding from paid advertisements (as almost all of the other radio stations in the country do). The station gets a percentage of the operating budget from the listening audience by doing fundraisers a few times a year. As you can imagine, it is difficult to get listeners to pledge money when they know that they do not have to. No one can make them, there is no law. Many people feel that someone else (another, more generous listener) will take the responsibility. Over the years, "Star's End" has always done very well during these station fundraisers. The listeners realize that the show and the station will no doubt cease to exist without their support. This is their incentive. Recently, I've changed my approach to fundraising on "Star's End". Rather than playing some much loved or rare music between pitches, I've been asking artists featured on the show to call in to be interviewed live on the air. This has been working out great. The "Star's End" audience appreciates the insightful look at the artists that they've become familiar with through the show. As for me, I feel that I get the same if not better results and can enjoy a break from the traditional method of fundraising; constant pitching...

When I first started at WXPN, back in 1980, there was a great electronic/new music scene in Philadelphia, fostered by the radio station. Now, all these years later, there is none to speak of. Recently, I've been attempting to revive the scene with some live concerts sponsored by "Star's End". The name "Star's End Gathering" seemed to fit. It is not only a way to hear live spacemusic, but also a way for all the "Star's End" listeners, from all walks of life, to gather together and meet one another face to face. I've presented two gatherings so far and have been very pleased with the way that things have been progressing. At the first gathering, my group XISLE performed live. At the second, we had the good fortune of seeing Jeff Greinke (all the way from Seattle, Washington) in concert. I will be producing more "Gatherings" in the future.

As I said before, WXPN is a non-profit community radio station. I volunteer my time to the station to produce Star's End. I do not get any pay (in fact, it usually costs me money). Producing "Star's End" is a very rewarding experience. It is a great opportunity for me to meet like minded individuals and I enjoy bringing music to the audience, music that they usually cannot hear anywhere else. I do the show every week with the hope that it is making a difference to someone, whether it be a listener exposed to something that they've never heard of before or an artist that is not sure if his or her music will ever be noticed by anyone.

If you or anyone else out there knows of any radio show that is anything like "Star's End", as I've described it, please let me know. I'd be very interested in getting in touch with the host and exchanging ideas.

12. What are the main differences between electronic music in the 70's and in the 90's?

CVZ: There are many differences, but the most obvious difference to me is the number of people putting out electronic music. When the genre was first being born, only a select few had access to the equipment necessary to make EM and the resources to release it for public consumption. These pioneers made a huge impact on the world of music. They were exploring uncharted territories. Few prior to this had the means that a synthesizer offers to create the sounds and timbres that were then being experimented with. The world had not ever known anything like it before. In the 90's we see many more artists making EM partly because EM is now taken for granted (it's everywhere and almost everyone knows what it is on some level) but also because over the years the technology has become cheaper and at the same time more powerful. Technology is an important factor in EM. The more complex and versatile the equipment becomes, the wider the range of artistic expression. In one sense, the genre is driven by technology, but not totally. The people using the synthesizers are the most vital part. We are using the technology as a means of expression. I am glad to see that so many people are now able

to create music. Without this technology, we would be silent, unable to communicate.

13. Please list your all time favorite albums, a sort of "desert island disks"

CVZ: I don't think that I can answer this question. It would be very hard for me to decide which 5 or 10 discs to bring to a desert island because there are so many that I enjoy listening to. There are hundreds of different artists and recordings for me to choose from, I don't know how to decide. How about if I bring along a radio to the island that would only play old Star's End broadcasts. I can't do that? OK, here are two lists of 10 discs, one group of EM the other from different categories, listed in no particular order. I'd grab these on my way out the door:

Thom Brennan-Mountains

Steve Roach-Dreamtime Return

Robert Rich-Numena

Michael Stearns-Chronos

Kit Watkins-Circle

Klaus Schulze-Mirage

Tangerine Dream-Rubycon

Alvin Curran-Songs And Views From The Magnetic Garden

Mark Isham-Romeo Is Bleeding

Robert Fox-The Fire And The Rose

Richard Pinhaus-Iceland

David Sylvian-Brilliant Trees

Chris Isaac-Heart Shaped World

Bill Frisell-Have A Little Faith

Peter Gabriel-Us

Pearl Jam-Ten

The Orb-UFOrb

U2-Achtung Baby

777-System 7

Steve Tibbets-Yr

This was a difficult question for me to answer. I'm sure that my list is far too long. I have so many great recordings, I found it hard to omit any of them. Hopefully, a new batch of CDs would wash up on the beach of this "desert island" occasionally.

14. Tell me something about the artistic evolution of XISLE and XYL.

CVZ: The music that I now produce grew out of an increasing desire to find some way to better express myself. I've always had various hobbies and interests and they are rewarding in their own way, but I cannot remember ever feeling the same kind of emotion that can come from music, whether as a listener or as a maker. For me, making music and making money are two mutually exclusive ideas. Financial gain does not motivate me. Nor do I consider myself a musician, I am a synthesist. The primary reason I make music is because I have to, I cannot not do it. It is my voice. It is the way I express feelings about my perception of reality. Those strange spacey sounds from my music, that unsettling tonal quality of my compositions, you're hearing them, but I'm feeling them.

Performing live is a challenging experience, anything can go physically wrong: crashing synths, bad cables, burned out amps, blown speakers, 60 cycle hum, power outages, blown fuses, rowdy neighbors, heat prostration, getting locked out of a gig, breaking the window to get in, thievery, personnel problems, going "in the red" (loosing money) and on and on. Besides all that, the challange for me is this; when I play live I lay it all on the line. It is a very vulnerable position. My music is very personal. I want the audience to be absorbed (or at least interested) in what I'm doing. I want to provide each audience member with their own unique experience. Few people have the opportunity to attend the kind of spacemusic concerts that I give with XISLE. Reactions vary. Some people are amazed, others asleep and others bored, but they all leave with something to ponder.

15. It seems that in this age dominated by electronics anyone can sit and play good music; I know a lot of good musicians with no classical training. What do you think about this situation?

CVZ: I think that any person has the right to try and make music whether using a truckload of electronic gear or a penny whistle. Yes, it is true that anyone with some money can buy a few synths, learn the basics and release their own CD. I've heard my share of uninspired work from these kind of people. But hopefully, serious artists will use the medium as a genuine means of expression. Since the technology is so readily available to all kinds of different people, we are now witnessing talented new artists emerging from their long silence.

When a person first gets involved with making their own EM, often they do not take the time to really learn what their instrument is fully capable of. It is a fact that most synth owners do not ever bother to learn how to program their own sounds. For me, this is what synthesis is all about: revealing new timbres, not just producing melody, harmony and rythm. The synths of today are sonically capable of so much, yet many musicians seem satisfied to use the presets that have been provided to them by the factory. I sometimes use factory presets in my compositions (usually modified in some way), but I prefer creating my own patches and samples. I think that this is the whole reason to own a synthesizer or a sampler.

In the future, I'm sure that more and more people will continue to try their hand at EM. With new people will come new (and hopefully interesting) ideas. I look forward to all the new contributions to the field.

16. Do you believe in life after death? (a very strange question, if you don't want to answer it's ok).

CVZ: Yes, I believe that the spirit "lives" on after the body dies. But I've always been more concerned with what I'm doing now while I'm still on the planet Earth. One human life span is a very short time when you compare it to eternity. The time we do have here is so precious.

I've got a code that I live by, I know what is right and what is wrong and what I do here in this world will affect me in the next.

17. Your future projects.

CVZ: With regard to the radio show, "Star's End", I'm making it available (on tape) to other radio stations. Interested parties should please contact me. There are many more EMusicians that I want to interview for the show and I'll continue to produce the "Star's End Gatherings" too. I'm also beginning to bring the music of " Star's End" to area clubs.

With regard to my music, "Regeneration Mode" should be released soon on Synkronos. After that Peter and I will work on our second CD "Stardust", also on Synkronos.

As far as performing live with XISLE goes, I'm planning to play at the next "Star's End Gathering" sometime this Fall. I hope that in 1995 we'll be able to play at one of the festivals overseas (EMMA, KLEM Dag, etc ) .

And of course, I intend to continue to experience my life here on Earth and relay my impressions to the rest of you through my music. Thanks for listening...