Karlax – an instrument that can play as many other instruments– interview with Tom Mays

Tom Mays, American musician who has been composing for many years in France, talks about Karlax, the instrument he will present during the weekend at Musica Electronica Nova.

Wojciech Sitarz: You have been living and working in France for many years now. Why did you decide to live in that country?

Tom Mays: Indeed, it has been quite a lot of time. I have been living in France for more than twenty years. Initially, I was planning to stay there for a year. Then, I decided to stay for another year, because I got such an opportunity. Little by little I started to establish my position, my career grew and so it went on … Generally, the world of contemporary and computer music is very diversified in France. Not only when you look back into the past, but also from today’s perspective. That is why I always have something to do.

Do you think it is easier to be a composer of electronic music in France or in the USA, where you started?

Actually, it is quite difficult to say. I do not think it can be “easy” anywhere. If you are good at doing something – you should do it. But I am quite convinced that the French computer music scene is really fantastic and it is getting better and better.

Many people will have the opportunity to see Karlax for the first time during your performance. Can you describe this instrument?

Karlax is simply a wireless MIDI controller. This is a device you “play”, however, it does not emit any sounds. Karlax only sends signals to a computer, which are then processed to be able to play a sound. This way you can process a sound which comes through the microphone. Depending on the software you use and the sounds that are processed, Karlax can act or sound in a completely different way. So, you can say that this is an instrument that can play as many other instruments.

When did you come across Karlax for the first time?

It was more than a year ago. Rémi Dury, the creator of Karlax, invited me to his studio, so I could try it, because he wanted to show it to the artists when played.

What was your first impression?

For me, it was something like love at first sight. There have already been many alternative instruments, but only some of them with their appearance and solidity could give you the impression of playing a traditional acoustic instrument. Karlax features all of it and I am confident that with time much more contemporary music will be composed using it.

When did you start to play Karlax?

In fact, I started to play it the very moment it was presented to me. I started to wonder how I could use it in the projects I had been working on. I started from ‘Nigma-e’, a combination of improvisation and electronic. I could set the computer behind the stage and perform only with wireless controllers – mainly Karlax, but also Wiimote, which I had been using often before Karlax was available. I also used Karlax in „Le vent des anches”, an older project made with accordionist Pascal Contet. Usually, I could take part in projects by sitting in front of the computer, but now with Karlax I can walk away from the computer and concentrate on music and my connection with the stage. That undertaking was prepared with participation of Wu Wei and our working together evolved into a duet, which we will perform at Musica Electronica Nova.

How much time does it take to become a master in playing the Karlax?

You need to learn constantly. Karlax is a very intuitive instrument and it is quite easy to begin playing. However, you may find it difficult to create new programmes and sound libraries, which change it to a new “instrument” every time. It is a continuous process which brings results only after some time.

How many people play Karlax? It is a very expensive instrument, it costs nearly five thousand euro.

I notice more and more interest in Karlax among contemporary musicians. I am a professor in the composing department of the Paris Conservatory and when I presented this instrument to my students they were very excited and eager to compose for it. We bought one for the purposes of our conservatory and I expect that at the beginning of next year we will have some new works for Karlax. As far as the cost is concerned, the more people who buy it the cheaper it will become. I believe that schools and recording studios should invest at the moment and develop the demand for it.

During MEN 2011 Festival you will perform with Wu Wei, who will play shengu. Why have you decided to combine Karlax with a 4-thousand-year-old Chinese instrument?

As I mentioned before, I started to work with Wu Wei after we were both engaged in „Le vent des anches”, so in fact it was Pascal Contet who came up with the idea of combining shengu with state-of-the-art technology. The mixture of gestures and sounds that is formed from that combination is unique. That is why we look forward to performing together in the future.

Interview by: Wojciech Sitarz

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