Carolyn Fok profiled by Jack Hertz
A very talented visual artist as well, here is a small sampling of her art work. “Cow” from her web site.
Interview with Carolyn Fok by Jack Hertz
How and when did your involvement with the tape scene begin?
For a more accurate background, my awareness of analog began as early as age nine in the 70’s where as a child I watched my father work as a computer system’s analyst, and I’d walk into work rooms full of tape reel storage. Most of my life has been in California, but during that time I lived on the East Coast (New Jersey) where I’d seen snow for the first time. Perhaps due to the cold weather, indoors was one way to become inventive and my father had given me my first tape recorder, and a cheap mic. During nights I’d hear from the upper floors of a 4 story house, bosa nova or waltz rhythms coming from below, which turned out to be a drum machine he was building from a PAIS kit and this is where I found a Teac 4-track reel-to-reel in the living room. Years later moving back to California in high school, I rediscovered these reels and began experiementing, recording my first album 1985, Charred Blossoms on that Teac reel-to-reel, drum machine, as well as a homemade flanger. I was surrounded by mostly rock music and San Francisco punk. The alternative aspect of those attitudes introduced the sense of non-conformist that had no limits with amplified messages. Communal exchange with musicians seemed more cutting edge than visual artists generally in art galleries that I was aware of, and I was intrigued by international correspondence as well.
You used to work under the name “CYRNAI.” When did you start using to your real name?
The name CYRNAI is merely taking letters of my real name and mixing them up and adding’I’ for ‘Y’, a concept like re-arranging music. CYRNAI was initiated in my teens, representing things below the surface, creativity extending in and out of the subconscious, perhaps to the ‘darker’ side of discovery, perhaps identity is removed and pure experience existed. Anyone recording in a studio knows it’s a secret life going on in the creative process.
I released the CD album “Transfiguration” which had many elements dissected, almost a research of the human condition in 80 pages, and for visuals I included my painting. There are 100 dream sequences in those pages, which are real documents of actual dreams, sometimes nightmares. If CYRNAI was a troubled side, it was actually productive. I started using my real name, Carolyn Fok, in a double album that followed, called The Listener. That was after a whole evolution, I tried to go above the surface, to the questions, the attentions of the heart, ie to the emotional side of electronics as a female (with artwork and text).
There was also a fundamental shift from the rougher edges of CYRNAI. I had left the last band I’d been in 1992, an industrial music outfit which I remember it being the last look of that dark side, or anything dark later would sound like a memory. Coming from a traditional Asian background I began travels back to my origins in Hong Kong and rediscovered my deepest history. Everyone around me were highly sophisticated business people, investment bankers, or in the world of finance. Intimidated, I started refining and perfecting to adapt to them socially, because in Hong Kong, it is very high pressure social and being an outcast can be the lonliest experience and not too smart! They would expect an artist to be shown in the best galleries or instantly signed to a major label, expecting First Class success (which upon societal osmosis did succeed to show my paintings in exclusivity and in world-class Conventions with original Van Goghs and Rembrandts, and winning First Prize competitions there). But in the music department, I was too advanced or eccentric. I was into electronic-industrial music and eventually just hid that side! But I returned each time to the U.S. to apply the international sophistication I learned to my art and music, even the printing and packaging had been done in Hong Kong. Later 90’s I’d been listening and adhered to electronic-chamber pioneer Tim Story’s style of minimalizing, making every note count. And because he kindly accepted a collaboration on a track, I high-pressured myself to perfect and refine. I became more subtle yet profoundly complex, to be original. And finally proper credit had to come, my real name. I went above ground. Though I was starting a continuous riddle of intimidating myself(!) I still have an innovative side that strives with a life of it’s own. I’m not opposed to release under Cyrnai again… Who knows what would happen.
Were you recording your own music before you heard about the tape trading scene?
I started recording music on that Teac 4-track reel-to-reel of course as an art, and then found that niche releasing on cassette with handmade packing as another version of free expression without the limits of manufacturing and distribution as vinyl. Most people listened to cassettes in their car, and when people bought vinyl, they recorded on cassette anyway. So it was a kind of a ‘pocket’ distribution.
What excited you about the early days in the underground music scene?
In the most raw form, I was fascinated by the chaotic element. Because it was very organic, perhaps it was honest. I was sort of my own scene for a while from teaching myself multi-tracking by taking 2 tape recorders and recording each other. There was no scene but me in a living room full of 2nd hand instruments left by my father as a hobby.
I would say one ‘underground’ group from England, Cabaret Voltaire was my primary influence as far as the possibilities that excited me, because the noise on their records sounded like what was coming out my experiments. I later discovered during my art college years living in San Francisco an underground scene which was a bit ‘dark’, but this was the only way to be ‘cutting edge’. My first audio sampling experiences came from a warehouse scene that housed a Synclaviar keyboard and large metal sheets. The days of going to junk yards to find sheet metals and rubbing dry ice against it to sample, was just one example of not necessarily a scene, but about creative people in the corners of society. …Funny enough, I was recently in Sheffield, England where I had the rare chance to talk with the legendary Richard Kirk of Cabaret Voltaire and funny enough, he mentioned their first album was recorded on a Teac 4-track reel-to-reel. Now, that was exciting!
You played in bands starting out. How did that change over the years into the electronic music artist you are today?
Prior to bands, I’d always been oriented by electronics and tape since childhood, so it was only a matter time before I cleaned up the living room of instruments and sampled those! I was doing a solo experimental album at a time when there were only rock and punk bands. Sometimes I’d find certain divisions in understanding when between rock band members and the electronic music artist. Sometimes they merge just fine. But electronic music was the best way to mirror my own self-understanding, and I am a diarist. I find electronic music is the most accurate, and has the best flexibility to be solo or band, choice of sounds. With it’s inherent feminine-like quality, it is seductive therefore lends to the mysteriousness in every musician as a song creator. And, it takes bravery to be alone in that process. Because computers represent the human mind, what we reflect to it and store, we store the meaningful equations we write from keyboard to a mirror, ie screen. Because there were hardly other female electronic musicians, there was really no competition, so I was and still am on my own adventure too far along where no one could or could have to stopped me.
What excites you to create music then and now?
What excites me is the documentary approach that embeds the music at any point. If music is an autobiography, any age is the right place. Over the last 8 years, I’d heavily immersed myself in certain spiritual meditation practices that revealed the timelessness of energy. When you have the ability to tap into a power greater than your transient nature, there will never be a lack of creative energy, therefore is exciting to be able to take anything from the past and now at my disposal. There are also some one-off collaboration tracks, local and international, that I’m having a lot of fun doing, always connecting with people from different countries.
Were you ever involved in mail art scene?
Throughout the 80’s I’d mainly mailed handwritten letters and packages with drawings or constructions. I’m not sure if private mail could be called a scene, but that was my participation rather than being a part of a gallery scene or anything social. I was a dedicated recluse.
Talk about some home tapers you have gotten to know.
I’d simply emerged with the times when cassettes were a common exchange and had been appearing on cassette compilations such as Ladd-Frith’s label, or a release on my own label that had a collaborator Dan Joseph I enjoyed sharing one side of a cassette called Hypno-Seizure. I’d say of the memorable general tape exchanges was actually a guy from New York who had sent me all these Joy Division bootlegs and he’d started a magazine called Worthless. It was kind of a bond we had about how depressed we were, like Ian Curtis, and I’d send him my music on cassettes for him to review. Somehow despair was an ‘in’ thing. Eventually the craziness of New York got to him and I encouraged his move to California. I remembered how shy and genuine he was in person, and then happier. Tape exchange was a way to tell someone who they were that came along with letters, similar when homemade cassettes came with artwork. It was certainly a personal reflection.
What are the favorite releases you have done?
Perhaps favorite tracks because my seldom releases had been highly concentrated efforts so each could be a concept! But, the favorite past releases would probably be my first album Charred Blossoms, as it was truly naive and mostly non-derivative works. Some of my favorite latter releases would be The Listener because it had 30 tracks of incredible detailing, and a new music release, Magic Realism. Magic Realism was a huge project where I used all my travels and all the empowerments from my spiritual studies to guide not only the music but the frequency. I went beyond the call of duty on this one, and literally embedded each track with specific spiritual frequency that is too metaphysical to prove but it has the same effect on me after I listen to it, so it works.
You are also active as an artist / painter. Does that have any influence over your music and the other way around?
It should be mentioned that I actually began writing and illustrating many children’s stories as the earliest, since I was age 7, so that intertwining of storybook and then music always culminated as the tape, vinyl and CD packaging. It’s a little interesting now because of the transformation of digital download, how to integrate what I’d always known in the physical to the virtual. But as I’d been doing all along, everything does integrate, seemingly as some investigation of our human senses. Things are falling into what I’d been endeavoring since childhood. I’d always thought I’d written my artist statement then already.
About gear and technology. What do you miss from the old days and how does that compare to what you are using now?
I actually miss my old Studio Vision and Sample Cell from one of the Pro Tools eras where because of the continual upgrades and Apple systems, some advanced innovative technology had gotten lost. I hadn’t composed the same way ever since. Studio Vision was the most intuitive for me as a sequencer and I was able to map out instruments so quick on Sample Cell. Now I’d adapted to everything portable from Pro Tools and the best thing about that is to be able to travel and compose anywhere. I still have a few favorite analog synths I connect occasionally, my Prophet VS rack and Roland JD-800.
What impact has the internet had on you compared with the community in the cassette heyday.
It is an internet heyday. With immediacy and no wait time, you have the simultaneousness of interaction on a global basis, overriding tangibility and physical reality as deemed ‘worthless’. You can involve in communities to no end like a drug that leaves it’s virtual imprints. But on the bright side, you can really find nice connections, friends, and collaborations that would have been impossible any other way.
Do you think there is any lasting legacy of Cassette Culture besides some interesting music?
It’s interesting because of the debate whether to manufacture physical CDs or go digital at the moment, the transformations. Meanwhile the return to vinyl resurges as novelty and analog regains some culture. But you cannot record on vinyl you see, so cassette is still the choice for usage. Though as times have evolved, I think it would be denial to ignore digital. So there requires slowing ourselves down to the tangible of cassette but it’s not hard to adore it’s history. And when you’ve rediscovered it’s real-time nature, it brings people together the same way.
Can you give us your take on what’s wrong or right with today’s current music industry / non-industry?
Fragmentation gone wild with access to 50+ million songs for three lifetimes. I personally am a bit minimalist as far as listening to music, trying to maximize my silence, and to make my moments count. It’s also interesting this need to fill our souls to consume and release as much as possible, which is a sign of our emptiness in all this technology, but also a signal of our deep hunger and search for something, anything! The wrong and right is subjective as we grow globally. We don’t know however, how to stop needing the next upgrade of industry because we built the need for the equilibrium to these wrongs and rights. A double-edged sword if ever was one because human beings are creatures of expansion. Yes, there is a music industry I think is thriving actually, and is challenging artists more than ever to summon both creativity and survival because of the saturation.
What do you have planned for the near future?
There have been several layers of activity in all realms of my work. My album Magic Realism is finished and I’ve decided to put it exclusively on my own customized download web label. I’m building several websites both as a supportive measure to gather electronic music in one place, as a label and as a community. My label site, High Frequency Music, is dedicated to electronic music, but not too much as a traditional label, but a digital download label where I am involved in the selection/listening process to include other artists for most kinds of electronic music. Helps a little bit to reduce the congestion of an ‘everything’ site. I hope from my 30 years of understanding music technology I can lend some creative and enjoyable music. But electronic music and it’s artists to me are of a certain clan, certain birds of a feather. Rather than just filling void by consumption, this music I think is a special arena that as a tool, can widen the range of our limitations, like an artificial intelligence where the listener recognizes that the craft evolves as life does, in real-time.
And, my second community website, to be announced, should be more organic for all levels of electronic related music, where other artists can be at any development and where I am not involved in selection. Underneath that, I have been quietly writing and editing my autobiography/diaries for publication. It would be the epitome of artist development, but also, the beauty of the many creative ‘lives’ I’ve seemed to have lived, and loved.