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June 8, 2006

9 Questions for Bob Bralove


photo of Bob BraloveWhen I stopped by the Morris Graves Museum of Art to meet with artist/musician Bob Bralove (left), he had stepped out for a few minutes, gone to a hardware store to get more extension chords. It gave me time to absorb his work, an installation with four sets of three video monitors, one set in each corner of the William Thonson Gallery, each set displaying abstract multi-colored video images and playing soothing ambient music. While each station was at a different place in the long slow-moving tune, there was no cacophony -- quite the opposite.

Sets of prints lined the four walls, apparently capturing moments, single frames from the digital displays. As I ambled from one to another, I lost track of time -- a calmness took hold, broken only slightly by Bralove's return. I tried to articulate what I was feeling to the casually dressed artist, whose air and manner suggested a relaxed computer nerd, and he explained the musical roots of the installation.

"It's a unified piece and it will always be unified, but the relationships shift," he noted. "It's like a four-part fugue or a round where time is taken out of the issue. You have an experience that is infinitely changing because the drift is not controllable. Here [he points to prints made from the video] you have items completely out of time, notes that are extracted from the time/space continuum."

After some discussion about how the digital visuals are produced directly from the music (and derived from a single image of a riffle of water) I pulled the conversation back into the continuum, remarking that the whole experience reminded me of '60s psychedelia. I knew a little about Bralove going into our chat, that he had worked for Stevie Wonder and later for the Grateful Dead. Wondering where he might have been back in the 1960s, I began asking questions.

1. When and where were you born?

In Manhattan in 1955. I guess I was 12 the year of the Summer Of Love.

2. Did you go away for college?

I went to Hampshire College in Massachusetts, kind of a hippie school. I studied psychology and composition, but I got sick of school, so I left before finishing. I drove west and when I hit San Francisco [in 1975] I thought, "This is a pretty cool place." I went back and finished school, wrote some chamber works, then went to SF State and studied composition some more. Then, before I could get my master's, I had to start looking for work. That's how I ended up in the Silicon Valley scene, working with computers. I just had a knack for it.

I had a consulting business doing translations for European software. I started translating Spanish manuals, then became an expert at translating the software itself. Everybody knew like 15 languages but they didn't know how to operate the machines. I just got it; I seemed to be able to operate [computers]. I had made friends with people at one company I worked with, Osborne Computers. The Osborne was the first "transportable' computer." It was a huge suitcase kind of thing, but it fit under the seat of an airplane. This Osborne guy came up to me and said, "You know, there's a guy from Stevie Wonder's organization who say he needs help. Stevie owns one of our machines. You said you were interested in music applications." He suggested I call.

3. Was Stevie trying to make it interface with his keyboards?

Sort of. He was interfacing all of his technology with voice synthesizers, giving him an auditory system for operating things. I started writing him some software to do some very basic things, the kind of stuff that everyone takes for granted now. He invited me down to Los Angeles; I thought, oh well, a chance to meet him, what the hell. I showed him the system and it all worked. And he offered me a job.

4. What was your job?

Initially, he was contracting me to make his synthesizers speak to him, to tell him what was going on on the screens so he could operate them. But what happened was, of course, I had to learn [to play] the synthesizers. I did that while he was out of the studio. He would come in to do a session and he'd hear me. I'd try to get out of the way, but he'd say, `No, man, stay for the session, it looks like you're having fun.' We still pursued the talking interface thing, but a musical relationship developed and he was much more interested is seeing where that would go. We hung out for eight years and I went all over the world with him.

5. What was the transition from Stevie Wonder to the Dead? I heard it had something to do with a detour through The Twilight Zone.

I met this [keyboard player] Merl Saunders at a Grammy Show. I was operating all of these machines. We were doing this thing with Stevie, Howard Jones, Thomas Dolby and Herbie Hancock. I was showing off the latest synthesizers to Merl; he said, "So, you operate these machines, huh?" I said "Yeah, I can do it." He said, "Did you ever think about doing TV music?" Merl had the musical director chair for The Twilight Zone [revival], and he had the Grateful Dead as part of it. He introduced me to The Dead.


6. I knew that Jerry Garcia played on the new version of the theme. What did you do?

We were doing lots of episodes. Merl wanted help with all the machines, but also to write [soundtrack music] when the band was out of town. He was doing a lot of writing, then Mickey Hart had a sound design contract. I was shuttling between Mickey and Merl in terms of compositional activities and sound design. We had just finished [Stevie's album] In Square Circle and Stevie said, "Everybody take a month off, then we're going to Japan." I took off and went right to work full time on The Twilight Zone and met the rest of the Dead band. They were finishing Touch of Gray and called me in to help with Brent [Mydland's] sounds, and that went really well.

Then they started working on this album with Bob Dylan before they toured together. They liked what I'd done, so they took me on the road. Mickey wanted me to take all the sounds we'd been doing for The Twilight Zone and put them on the road. At the end of the tour with the Dead I was so exhausted. They gave me a job description: "Hang out as long as you're having a good time." I made the move and stopped working with Stevie.

7. Stevie and the Dead were in such different places. How did it change for you?

Performance-wise, it was very different. Stevie could hit his mark in a show and have the entire audience in the palm of his hand -- the whole thing was his. You'd have 25,000 people in an arena and it was all focused on him, all there. With the Grateful Dead, things would happen in relation to the audience that would shift the show. It wasn't like the audience was in the palm of their hands; it was completely different. Stevie was the leader, the band followed him, but with the Dead anyone could surprise you and the whole band would go there. Someone would kick something in and everyone would respond, the audience would respond and it would go up to the next notch. Stevie was always feeding from the audience, but it was more one-directional. He had a control over the audience. The Grateful Dead had this other dynamic going with their audience that was not the same, but really phenomenal.

8. How did you fit it? Were you a Wizard of Oz behind some curtain and nobody knew you were there?

I was bringing them all this technology and the place they started to use it, to investigate with it, before they'd bring it into a song, would be in the "Drums and Space" section [an extended two-man drum solo/electronic soundscape].

9. I understand that you would take the sounds of instruments like guitars and process them into something totally different. Does that relate to what you're doing here, turning digital music into digital visual images?

When Jerry played his guitar and it sounded like a trumpet, it was because I'd taken the information from the guitar and sent it out through machines and put trumpet on it. Now it's like I'm taking the guitar and putting a trumpet and a picture on the end of it. If it can sound like anything, now it can look like anything. It can sound and look like anything at the same time. It's composing a data stream, and the instrument I use to compose with is a keyboard, but ultimately the data stream is what I'm playing. I have this incredible language to communicate, which is the music.

• • •

Bob Bralove's digital sound/video/print installation, "Sympathetic Resonances," is on display at the Morris Graves Museum of Art through July 8. Museum hours are Wednesday-Sunday, noon-5 p.m.

Bralove and his friends, Dave Amato and Steve Bacall, perform live with video projections on Friday, June 9, at 8 p.m. in the museum rotunda. Admission is $12.


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