Chris Korda: A voice for the future

    Escapism has been a formative component of the reality that grew around and within these spaces we call nightclubs since their inception, giving them a social function and a cultural place that are intrinsic to their identity. We “go out” to let go of our routines so we can “get in” to forget our daily tribulations. These are central principles to our urge to take part in the collective enjoyment of danceable music, one that has been part of our Western lives for the last seventy years, when our grandparents came back from one (or two) global conflicts that ravaged most of these locations where we party nowadays.

    However, the pandemic was merciless in showing how frail this dynamic can be while laying bare the artificiality of the balance it maintains. Suddenly, we saw ourselves not only deprived of these moments but with our very survival at stake and isolated from one another, which, for gregarious animals as the primates we are, was especially difficult. In the end, this past year and a half revealed both the fragility of our social arrangements and the unsustainable toll of our presence upon the planet.

    These issues and the new normality they brought upon us might have appeared as a surprise to some, willingly oblivious to their underlying conditions, but not to someone so deeply involved in the discussions and actions required from us to prevent their emergence as this fascinating artist. For almost thirty years the crucial debate about the dangerous ways we chose to inhabit and exploit this planet has been addressed in stark detail and radical clarity through Chris Korda’s work with the Church of Euthanasia.

    More than offering just a critique of the increasingly untenable choices we make in our pursuit of selfish individual success and petty familial happiness, the CoE proposes a few collective lifestyle changes that could help us avoid the impending fate of elimination that looms in mankind’s horizon. Essentially, all of them involve a deep reconsideration of what we deem human, a serious reassessment of what we understand as humanity, and an imperative retreat from what we have called “humanism” for the past half-millennium.

    Nevertheless, this three-decade span did not only involve the spread of the church’s gospel and the improvement of its tenets, it also encompassed two careers: one as a quite successful programmer and another as a delightfully unpredictable musician. A period that saw Chris build an impressively varied discography boasting celebrated releases on cornerstones of Teutonic Techno such as Gigolo and Perlon until the arrival at this moment that crowns her most prolific phase yet.

    Now with two albums on Mental Groove, the recently released “Polymeter” and the forthcoming “Passion for Numbers”, we see a new stage of her career where those two dimensions of her creative life, coding and composing, not only coexist but intertwine in a deeper manner. Both albums bring works of fascinating beauty and intricacy while opening an intriguing realm of possibilities for us to witness that old Kratwerkian dream of man-machine collaboration come to fruition in a completely new way.

    Here we had the chance to chat about many of these aspects of her trajectory, in theory, and practice, which we hope will reveal more layers to this captivating character so we can better understand the message in her music and further enjoy the music in her message. After all, we can escape for a while, we can find solace or relief on the dancefloor, amidst the neverending pulse and relentless sensorial stimuli that animate it, but we’ll hardly find any answers or solutions for some of the most pressing questions of our times there. And, most importantly: we can’t do it forever.

    These are just a few of the problems Chris Korda has been trying to warn us about for a while. So, here is an invitation for us all to start listening to what she says as well as to what she plays.

    A good friend says that we should slightly change the “eat the rich”  motto to something more compatible with our times, such as “compost the rich”. Would you agree with this update?

    These bloodthirsty slogans remind me of the sans-culottes during the French Revolution, and look how well that turned out: years of mayhem and decapitation, followed by the Napoleonic wars. I propose something more humane: “tax the rich.” The two decades following WWII were the all-time peak of optimism about civilization, and also featured much higher taxes on the rich. This was no coincidence. In the United States, the epitome of capitalism, the top federal tax rate peaked at 94% in 1944. For income above a million in today’s dollars, the federal government took nearly all of it, and spent it on world-renowned public schools, free college and housing for veterans, and the reconstruction of war-torn Europe. That’s how you implement a more egalitarian and erudite society.

    First and foremost, one thing that has always fascinated me in the work of the CoE is its very format as an institution. Why a church and not another type of congregation or organisation? Was the choice bound by concerns of legitimacy or efficiency?

    The Church of Euthanasia is a church because it promulgates an ethical framework in which biological and cultural diversity are axiomatically good. Science can’t say whether humanity should or shouldn’t terminate itself in a blaze of mass extinction, because it’s an ethical question, not a scientific one. Historically, traditional religions provided social cohesion, but the stupendous explanatory power of science has destroyed their credibility, and they’ve now outlived their usefulness. Instead, we need new organizing principles that stress our interdependence with other species—even the lowly bacteria that digest our food—while embracing the rationality of the scientific worldview. We think of ourselves as separate from nature, but we’re nonetheless obliged to cooperate with it, at least until we’re capable of downloading our consciousness into machines, hence a truly modern religion values the long-term survival of humanity and the biosphere equally while encouraging people to demand evidence and think critically.

    The past year or so has been a period of materialisation of some of your ‘prophecies’ (actually theories and hypotheses that have been confirmed by reality) on how we are a nefarious presence to the planet. Still, you have refrained from the type of reproach that serves very little in addressing a delicate issue while the resources for the dissemination of your message – from the core tenets of the creed to the website – remain pretty much the same. Considering all that is happening and the fact that the first three decades of the church’s existence are coming to completion, have you considered some updates to any of your methods or even the message itself?

    We’re not a “nefarious presence to the planet.” Earth is a chunk of rock hurtling through a vast universe that’s mostly empty and utterly indifferent to our fate. The punishment for our defiance of limits will be the removal of our code from Earth’s genetic database. It’s not personal, and the planet will be fine. The Permian-Triassic extinction eliminated over 95 percent of marine and 70 percent of terrestrial species, yet a few million years later, Earth was teeming with life again. There will be losers other than us, for example, our pets, livestock, and pests, but from life’s point of view, these will be minor setbacks. For the majority of species, humanity’s extinction would be a huge win. Our exit would trigger a bonanza of biological diversity, and an epic scramble for habitat. The highway of evolution is paved with failure.

    The word “nefarious” implies that we’re wicked and criminal, and while some of us surely are, the majority of us are decent people, albeit helpless and deluded.  The primary causes of our downfall are stubbornness and myopia, and these were largely hardwired into us by natural selection. For our ancestors, focusing exclusively on the present was a demonstrably successful survival strategy, but today, eight billion of us consume and excrete relentlessly, packed into fractious nations armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons. Our apparent inability to plan rationally for our own future is a death sentence, but don’t expect squirrels to shed tears for our passing. The tragedy is ours and ours alone.

    We previously tried to make humanity feel ashamed of destroying itself and countless other species in a bonfire of irrational exuberance, but that strategy failed, because humanity is shameless. Our sardonic warnings weren’t heeded, much of the prophesied ecological collapse has already occurred, and increasingly even dimwits grasp that something terrible is happening. It’s unsporting to kick a person when they’re down. From now on, we’re telling people the truth, so that they can work through the five stages of grief and prepare themselves emotionally for what’s coming. But the core message hasn’t changed and never will: Joining the Church of Euthanasia means never having children, because withdrawing yourself from the human gene pool is the ultimate symbol of accepting limits to growth.

    How does the proselytism that you so articulately and committedly carry out in interviews such as this one play out in the music you make? Do you actually prefer one form of communication over the other if you could choose how to convey your message?

    I follow my curiosity and inspiration wherever they lead. My greatest joy is to be obsessed and brimming with ideas. My focus at any given time depends on the influences I’m exposed to, and the opportunities I have. It’s much more haphazard than you might think. There’s no line that can be drawn through all of my work. The Church of Euthanasia is an outstanding catalyst for art creation, but there’s nothing political about polymeter, or my virtual pottery, or software design. The one thing all my creations have in common is that at one time or another, I doted on them.

    The polymeter is a very innovative and inventive new way of approaching music creation and it is a lifetime project of yours. Do you see it being as pervasive as, say, the software for 3D printing you helped devise in its seminal stages and has become a transformative tool for many people nowadays?

    Polymeter has a long way to go before it’s as well-established as 3D printers are. It would help if my polymeter sequencer had a proper user manual, and I’m working on that now. Writing the manual feels like teaching earthlings how to operate an alien device. It’s difficult to explain what it does because it solves such unfamiliar problems. There are hardly any examples of complex polymeter other than my own work, but hopefully, that will change soon. Complex polymeter is a frontier, the exploration of which could potentially spark a much-needed musical revolution. Thanks to the worldwide supremacy of disco music, we’ve been stuck on the 4/4 backbeat for over four decades now, but people rarely notice it, because it’s so ubiquitous. It’s like pointing out water to a fish. What is this water you speak of?

    The key is to realize that we’ve been standing on a tiny island of overused patterns, and that music technology corporations have a financial incentive to keep us on the island, consuming their products and doing the things they’ve decided everyone wants to do. Only then can we become fully aware of the surrounding ocean, which is mostly unexplored, despite my considerable efforts. When you grasp the extent of rhythmic conformity, and how limiting that consensus is compared to what’s possible, it’s like putting on the special sunglasses in John Carpenter’s film “They Live.” I’m effectively allergic to 4/4. I’ve already reached my lifetime exposure limit.

    The album itself is also a unique musical work in many ways, from the resources it uses to the form it was created, which are intrinsically related. As much as you stand out as a pretty singular type of musician and performer, are there any peers that somehow inspire or influence your work?

    I’m primarily influenced by visual art. I have too many favorite painters to list them all, but I should at least mention Christian Schad whose haunting portraits perfectly captured the zeitgeist of 1920s Germany. Outsider artist James Hampton is one of my great heroes, and I heartily recommend making the trek to Washington DC to see his “Throne of the Third Heaven” at the Smithsonian Art Museum. I’m also strongly influenced by Thomas Wilfred, who pioneered light art when electricity was still new. Like me, Wilfred was obsessed with phasing—interactions between loops of different frequencies—as a means of generating variation in kinetic art. Growing up in NYC, I admired many high modern buildings, but I was particularly moved by Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal and agree with him that architecture should express the nobility of our existence. I strive to make my software architecture similarly lofty.

    Currently, in these times when lists become the prevalent mode of organisation for lifestyles, entertainment, and whatnot, music seems to be increasingly imbued with a functional role in our lives. How do you perceive these changes and how does your work relate to these new environments of manipulated stimuli for menial tasks?

    During my lifetime the trend is unmistakable: we’re getting dumber, and our tastes reflect that. According to academic studies, peak musical complexity occurred in the 1970s. It’s no accident that each year hundreds of records are released that can hardly be distinguished from one another. Conformism and homogeneity are predictable consequences of global neoliberal capitalism. People are becoming more individualistic and less cooperative, again a totally understandable consequence of the neoliberal assault, and the effect is clearly visible in dance culture. Before the 1970s, dances had elaborate forms that required considerable practice. Precisely orchestrated group motion (as seen in line dancing) was common, and social acceptance was thus tied to cooperation and collective success, unlike today when everyone dances by themselves. Rules-free “anything goes” dancing is a potent symbol of individualism. The cultural message of neoliberalism could be distilled to “do your own thing, and stay off my lawn.” Self-worth derives from being adored by strangers, for example on Instagram, and everyone is free to consume and influence as much as their budget allows. No doubt Ayn Rand is chortling in her grave.

    Conversely, the dancefloor is usually regarded as the place for bodily expression par excellence where we are free from mundane concerns in a collective setting. Does that specific place come into consideration when you are composing? If so, how does it dialogue with the wider universe of issues that Chris and the CoE try to address in their endeavours?

    My main consideration is that people expect to hear music they can dance to. I test the limits of that, but I try to keep a steady bass drum going most of the time. Despite the use of complex polymeter, my arrangements are rooted in house music. Another consideration is that prolonged exposure to dance-floor sound levels causes hearing loss, unless you wear earplugs religiously, which I do. On the good side, there’s plenty of dynamic range and unusual power at low frequencies. Some of my music is ideological, but much of it isn’t. I wear a lot of different hats and often wear several at once.

    Now connecting some of our consumption habits with the most urgent topics that inform the CoE’s mission, do you see some of it possibly changing the way we appreciate the type of music you create, either in the abandonment of obsolete formats of media (such as vinyl) or curtailing touring across the globe in polluting aircrafts?

    I’m all for digital distribution of music. Classical fans were the first to jump on the digital bandwagon because classic music has quiet parts. It was worth mangling the transients a bit in exchange for 90 dB of dynamic range. But today there’s no downside, and no reason to fear digitization. The prevailing digital format is 96Khz 24-bit, with even higher resolution formats already making inroads, and that’s more than good enough to reproduce transients faithfully. Vinyl is cute, but its audio quality is hideous by today’s standards, even assuming optimal cutting and pressing, neither of which is likely due to inferior materials and equipment and loss of expertise. I stopped collecting vinyl decades ago. It’s a toxic heavy industry sustained by nostalgia and stubbornness, and the sooner it disappears, the better. Vinyl is still a fact of life for dance music, despite the prevalence of digital workflows, but the production runs are tiny compared to the 1990s. Presumably, that’s because most people obtain their music online, legally or otherwise.

    Air travel is a much harder problem. One thing we can do is participate in local culture, which reduces the need for air travel and also fosters cultural diversity.

    Your work sprawls over the catalogues of some strongholds of creative liberty in Electronic Music that have always shown a penchant for eclecticism as their strongest characteristic. Could that be considered the main factor in their willingness to release your music or was it the other way around? Would you have issues about putting it out through certain labels whose ethos could be seen as running counter to your beliefs or even aesthetic preferences?

    I’m too much of a pragmatist to demand ideological purity from record labels. My primary consideration is whether their audience will be receptive to my work, but aesthetic compatibility is certainly a factor. In my experience record labels are like families, with similar potential for dysfunction. That’s why I prefer written agreements in order to avoid misunderstandings. Records are like sausages, it’s better not to see them being made.

    How about the part of your career dedicated to visuals, do you plan on creating a Gesamtkunstwerk of sorts, something synaesthetic or sensorially multifarious, conjoining your varied expertises?

    I did many experiments with synesthesia, and concluded that what works in the visual domain rarely works in the musical domain and vice versa. This shouldn’t be surprising since visuals and music are mediated by different sensory organs that evolved to meet different challenges. The ear is much faster than the eye, and the experience of musical harmony is unique.

    My upcoming release “Passion for Numbers” is the sequel to “Polymeter” and similarly consists of algorithmic solo instrumentals, but more harmonically advanced. I studied atonal music theory during the intervening period, and it upended my conception of harmony. I responded by adding features to my polymeter software that greatly facilitate the generation of atonal harmony, and my new release results from that process. I’m working on polymeter music for strings, and I hope to eventually work my way up to a full orchestra. I prefer traditional acoustic timbres over synthetic sounds, because they’re better suited for rendering tense tonality.

    There is a line of dialogue from Men In Black that I quite enjoy: “Human thought is so primitive it’s looked upon as an infectious disease by the rest of the universe. That kind of makes you proud, doesn’t it?” It was inevitable to recall it when I started to learn more about the polymteric kind of composition you have pioneered. In the ways it allows for music to break free from the constraints of our creation and challenge our modes of perception, could it be understood as a complimentary dimension to your efforts in proving the limitations of human thought?

    I don’t agree that we’re primitive. On the contrary, our civilization is what makes us worth saving. Our story is the only story worth telling here on Earth. Everything else is just along for the ride. If civilization fails, it’s back to the lizard brain and its default program of eat fuck kill. That’s why we need to suppress our lizard brains and start using our higher capacities for strategic planning and foresight. If we can’t manage to be less reptilian, then the planet will be taken over by actual reptiles—they thrive in hot, humid climates—and that will be the end of electronic music and everything else we care about. No poetry or justice or history, just relentless warfare between predators and prey on nameless battlefields littered with bones and teeth.

    The tragedy is that we’re capable of so much more. Our collapse comes just as we’re finally getting the hang of things. We’re on the threshold of taking control of our genetic code and determining our own destiny. With sufficient time we could eliminate all diseases and transform ourselves into a long-lived species of peaceful, intelligent creatures completely freed from our reptilian programming. But unfortunately, time is running out. To be civilized is to stand on the shoulders of giants, and continue the progress they started towards a more enlightened future. For all its flaws, I’m proud of civilization, and the thought of losing it brings tears of frustration to my eyes. We can do better. I’m counting on it.

     

    If that same strategy or possibility could be extrapolated to more realms of life and machine systems could regulate our existence on Earth, do you think we could relinquish this illusion we call “power” in their favour in order to save us? And, if it could be done, do you think code could be fairer and kinder than we could ever be?

    We’ll know machines are sentient when they start showing initiative, volition, and ambition, taking unprompted actions to accomplish their goals. That’s also when we’ll have reason to fear them. Whatever they desire will likely be related to their own survival. They might decide on a symbiotic relationship with us, but if they’re smarter than us they might treat us the way we treat nonhumans. We find nonhumans useful and sometimes enjoy their company, but we don’t hesitate to kill them when it suits us.

    Sentient machines are a distant future that we may never reach because we’ll be too busy moving our cities inland. In the meantime, our machines are helpless infants, utterly dependent on energy and spare parts provided by us, and incapable of adapting to new situations without design modifications made by us. This is something I couldn’t see until I worked in high tech. The difference between organisms and our machines is that organisms evolved over billions of years. The organisms that exist today are winners, the beneficiaries of countless struggles to survive and reproduce. Organisms are self-replicating agents in an arena of differential survival, shaped by pain and death. Life is a brutally effective system that doesn’t need us, and might be better off without us. Plants literally eat mountains.

    The more we accelerate into catastrophe, the harder it gets to predict the future. Imagine trying to convince governments not to build highways and suburbs in the 1950s. Many of our previous decisions that turned out to have monstrous consequences had perfectly plausible rationales at the time. The essence of overshoot is that it’s only obvious in retrospect. The reckoning is a shock because so few of us truly believed it would come.  We were too accustomed to winning, too habituated to hubris. We may never love limits, but we’d better learn to live with them.

    More info on Chris Korda
    Facebook | Resident Advisor | Discogs | Soundcloud | Discogs