Kerby Ferris is a sound artist & software developer who has played music with Lovers, Paw Prince, and Lavender Mirror. Kerby answered questions about the intersections between creativity and technology, designing sound installations, and composing music in Los Angeles.
After The Show: You’ve said that the music you make can reflect the city/environment you’re in – music you made in Sao Paulo was frenetic and busy; music in Portland was feminine. What about LA?
Kerby: Cool question! Los Angeles is new to me and the effect it is having on my creative process is still very much coming into focus, but I’m absolutely inspired by the angular openness here. I have lived in large and international cities before, but never one with this kind of simultaneous access to personal space, and the combination is fascinating. This weekend for example: I danced all night to Kerri Chandler and then came home in a t-shirt in February to a tree with oranges AND lemons dropping off of it… come on!
Also, there’s the nice piece about making a move to Southern California from the Pacific Northwest since, in so many ways, the loveliness of the Pacific Northwest has to do with the beauty of the undiscovered, while Southern California contrasts as that of the thoroughly discovered. That’s a spectrum that feels great to walk right now. I’m very happy to be here.
Some of the sonic textures in Paw Prince and Lavender Mirror tracks remind me of songs on A Friend In The World. When you’re composing and creating a mood for a song, how do you know when to keep going and when to stop?
To be honest, doneness is such a lasting struggle, and as I get older I’ve begun to recognize that I am totally reliant on circumstance to tell me when it’s over. If I had my way, none of these songs would ever be finished, so I’m so happy I never get my way.
Now that you work as a programmer/Software Developer, what’s your schedule like? Do you still have time to devote to music or is it more on the backburner?
Right now I’m working full time and on-site as a software engineer. That approach to work is absolutely new and different, but it’s been super interesting and exciting so far. I enjoy my job and the environment/people there, and it is a fairly freeing experience to have work begin and end at some set time each day. Also I’m finding that, with the work/not work demarcation in place, I can connect the dots more creatively in my free time, not to mention relax about how a musical idea might end up in money, which has really taken some pressure off my process.
There’s a deeper piece as well, which is that working with logic and systems leaves me bursting with a sense of connections, observations and feelings that I want to express creatively. Logical problems have always been a sort of muse, and when I get a chance to really hash one out, I find it very inspiring. I’m looking for a studio right now. We’ll see how it all goes.
Can you describe the process you went through to design and build the sound installations for the Ace Hotel?
Oooooh I love an opportunity to talk about this project!
What I wanted was a way to lower the barrier to musical entry so low that all it really required was the condition of form itself. To make that happen technically, I used an Arduino micro controller with a midi shield and some C++ code to translate signals coming from a series of photo-resistors wired into cedar boxes to a sampler and a synth. Photo-resistors are super cheap electrical components that change their resistance in relation to the presence (or absence) of light, so, in short, if a person put his or her hand in between the sensor and a lightbulb it would trigger a loop and a synth tone for as long as they kept it there. That was the mechanical concept.
Musically, I created a sort of modular composition: a piece broken up into 12 or so components that would work well together and in various combinations, so the result would feel like it made sense, but was still dynamic and at least slightly (or satisfyingly) unpredictable. Further, the code instructed the micro-controller to check back for a signal twice a second, which effectively quantized the performance to 120bpm, so triggering a loop was not only easy, it also ‘sounded right’.
The installation worked, and the whole room became an instrument…Watching people of all these different ages and vibes engage and crack up and be surprised, confused and delighted together was incredibly sweet and rewarding…the overall experience was absolutely lovely and probably added 5 years to the end of my life.
I love your song title “It’s Always More Beautiful To Say Hello” and how the lyrics are so expansive/open to interpretation (like “the keys” in the opening line could have so many different meanings). Anything you’d like to share about what inspired you to write that song?
Thanks for listening! That song is mostly about a lonely moment of misunderstanding, about feeling totally mixed up or betrayed by language and strangers, and about trying to connect to a distant ally through objects, nature and signs. I suppose it’s the promise of a sort of wordless togetherness that moved me to write that song: About longing for love and the one you love, or a lonely-time lullaby about essence, connection and understanding.
You describe yourself on LinkedIn as a Creative Technologist, which melds programming with music and performance. What do you like about the ways that music/creativity and technology intersect?
The stark androgyny of electronic music and creative technology is invigorating to me–the way art that’s made with (and sounds like) machines holds the tension between opposites: the ethereal and the material, the logical and the transcendent, the quantized and the free. This is how my brain works when it’s working, how my fashion works when it makes sense, how the world looks when I’m in the total pattern recognition zone. The idea of leveraging a machine(s) for the sole purpose of free and joyful human movement gives me chills. Technical art is a borderland, and borderlands are where all the interesting things happen. It’s so good to be alive now.
Thanks Kerby! Check out KerbyFerris.com for more info on all her projects.