Interview with Will Magid

Will Magid is a trumpeter, producer and DJ based in San Francisco, California. His musical performance blends and blurs the lines between technology and art, and he has toured and collaborated with many talented artists from diverse genres of music, such as Afrolicious, Bonobo, Solomon Burke, Erykah Badu, Pretty Lights, Kenny Burrell, Zigaboo Modeliste, Babá Ken Okulolo, Ocote Soul Sounds, CocoRosie, Jeremy Sole, J-Boogie, and the Mutaytor. He studied ethnomusicology at UCLA and has played music all over the world. He is also the founder of the Bay Area concert series World Wide Dance Party, promoting social justice and celebrating music traditions from around the world. At IntegratED PDX 2015, Will Magid will give a live performance joined by Portland drummer Mark Banner, followed by an informal presentation on his technology-forward approach to music.

“Education relies so much on technology—and I don’t just mean computers.”

What is your mixing and editing process like? What are the most important technology components involved?

I do a lot of sampling where I take really old pieces of music and make them new—put new instruments on them, electronic sounds that bring them to the 21st century—and one of the programs I use is called Ableton Live, a powerful piece of software that I use for both recording and performing. It allows me to route and manipulate samples; for example, if I put my trumpet through the computer then I can do things like looping it or pitch-shifting it. People that come out to the show at IntegratED will get to see some of what I can do with that and how it all works.

Right—you’ll be giving an informal presentation after the performance. We’re really looking forward to learning more about your process.

I’m looking forward to it too. It’s a great opportunity for me to be able to perform at a conference that’s about education. I think that’s a really cool thing. Education relies so much on technology—and I don’t just mean computers. I mean, my trumpet, that’s an old piece of technology; its ancestors you would just call a horn, and that’s from a bull’s horn or ram’s horn. My heritage is Jewish, and in Jewish culture you would call it a shofar. It’s a really old piece of technology; you take something from an animal and figure out how to make sound with it. I know that might seem kind of silly, but if you wanted to communicate something long-distance in 300 or 400 A.D., using some sort of horn or drum was a pretty brilliant way to do it. And I rely on that before anything else, that very old technology.

Absolutely. It’s like the pencil and paper of music.

I do a lot of routing stuff, too. For example: I play with a live drummer a lot of the time, and I’ll send the drummer secret messages while we’re performing through headphones, like sending him a click track that the audience doesn’t hear so he has the tempo of whatever I’m going to bring in. Sometimes I’ll send him sounds and ideas to get him in a certain mood or get him to think or feel a certain way. Theoretically, I could whisper to him through the microphone, but I think this is more organic.

When you performed at IntegratED in San Francisco there was clearly a lot going on onstage, so to hear that there’s an added layer of complexity that we don’t see is really impressive.

The computer doesn’t replace humans, but the things I can do with one hand now are things I wouldn’t have been able to do just a few years ago. A lot of the time I’ll push one button and five things will happen. It’s a lot of automation which technology makes possible.

Right, and in your case technology is big part of the character of your performance.

I think a lot of the time people don’t know what to make of my performance. I’ll do a show and booking agents won’t know if they should book me as a DJ or a live band. Should I put this person on a bill for the afterparty, or should I have him as the meat and potatoes of the show? They see a guy with a trumpet and a lot of different sounds coming out; a lot of what I do is kind of hard to see.

“I think a lot of musicians are scared
that technology might replace them.”

It’s interesting how technology changes the way we listen to music. So many artists are using technology as part of their musical performance, and the artists themselves are the ones using all this crazy machinery onstage.

It’s definitely exciting. In electronic music, it’s very easy to prerecord. A lot of famous DJs will have a prerecorded mix tape. At that point, it’s like a show and tell—it’s something that’s already happened. I come from a jazz background, so for me, it’s all about spontaneity and improvisation, and the challenging part is to mix both.

Your dad, Larry Magid, is a technology journalist, and you grew up surrounded by innovation in technology. Do you feel like that gave you a leg up when figuring out your own music technology process?

Probably, for a lot of reasons. I remember when I was a little kid using Prodigy before the world wide web. Honestly, though, I think most people integrate modern technology into their daily lives pretty comfortably. I think a lot of musicians are scared that technology might replace them, because it has replaced them in a lot of venues. I’ll be totally honest: I’ll be booked as a DJ and slip my trumpet playing in. I’m getting paid a DJ fee but I’m bringing live elements. A lot of clubs just don’t have the budget or facilities to accommodate a live band.

“I don’t look at it as a battle; I look at it as empowerment.”

Do you feel like it’s devaluing live musicians?

I think if musicians let it, it will. Music isn’t dying; it’s just being created on computers. In a lot of areas kids don’t have instruments—they have iPads. Music is moving more in that direction. I don’t look at it as a battle; I look at it as empowerment. Playing my trumpet still lights up a room in a completely different way from the most awesome thing you can do on a computer. It’s a totally different experience. I haven’t yet seen someone perform on an iPad with the same conviction as John Coltrane on a saxophone. I’m not saying technology isn’t getting there, but I haven’t seen it happen yet.

Do you think we’re in transition to that, that we’ll see more technology that serves as an instrument onstage?

Maybe! There have been a lot of pushes toward that in the Bay Area especially—like controllerism, which was basically about making a computer an instrument. I’m not convinced we are moving toward that though, because truthfully I don’t think people are looking at computers as a way to replace a saxophone or guitar; they’re looking at a computer to be bigger and more powerful than a saxophone or a guitar. It’s not a linear progression, I think it’s more like, “I want to be a guitar, but I also want to be a saxophone and a keyboard.” It’s an additive progression—and it’s all music. In my last album, I tried to blur the line so you couldn’t tell what was digital and what was a real instrument. My new attitude is more like, “Well, that was cool, but now I’m going to let the computers do what they do best and have instruments do what they do best.” I want to get better at playing trumpet, and I want to get better at programming a computer. They overlap, but neither can replace the other.

You are the founder of World Wide Dance Party, a series of collaborative concerts featuring various kinds of music from around the world. On your website you say it’s about music and social justice. What role does social justice play for you as a musician, and what role do you think music plays in social justice?

Music at its best inspires you and makes you feel good, emotional, connected to the people around you. As a musician, you can’t expect to always be able to make that happen for everyone in the room. With World Wide Dance Party, even the people that aren’t having a great emotional connection are still learning about something that’s happening in the world, and they’re able to donate or contribute to a campaign. The last performance we did was in Redwood City; a lot of people from Silicon Valley came, and in Silicon Valley there’s a huge divide. On one side of the freeway, you have a lot of wealth, and on the other side you have people that are struggling, and that’s a common story that’s everywhere in the world. We had a great non-profit from east Palo Alto that works largely with youth and music, giving lessons and having performances. It’s been a pathway for a lot of people to go to college, and that resonates with me. I came from a privileged background, but without music I could easily see myself being totally lost—I have ADD, I didn’t have great grades in college, a lot of my friends were experimenting with drugs—and for kids who don’t have that kind of privilege, I think it can be very hard. It’s so important to have something that you’re proud of and to have a community supporting you in it.

You started playing the trumpet at school when you were in the fifth grade: how do you feel that your school music program affected your development as a musician?

I think it was essential. It didn’t have to come from school necessarily, but it was essential that I had peers and mentors to work with and school is what provided me with that environment. It’s real when you see someone your age doing something. In that way I think YouTube is amazing. If I were a kid now I could totally see myself going on YouTube and seeing a great trumpet player and having that motivate me to practice. You see all these kids playing their instruments and it’s a huge online community.

“It’s such a bizarre thing that we enjoy, this music thing, and it’s so abstract. Often there’s no purpose other than feeling an emotion or feeling connected, and I think that’s really beautiful.”

You have played music all over the world. What do you think is the most important thing you’ve learned from your varied musical experiences?

Humans are such emotional beings, and if we can just channel those emotions into positivity and compassion I think a lot of problems can be solved. I think music is one of many tools that we have as a society to do that: to raise awareness, to make you feel inspired. What’s cool about it is that it can be so personal and so interpersonal at the same time. At its best, music connects to a person’s soul, and people are connecting with each other in the audience. We, as a society, try to put things in boxes and have such purpose to our meetings and interactions. If a person is putting a music event on their calendar, that’s actually a pretty far out idea. You’re blocking out time to be in a room where someone is manipulating vibrations through airwaves and making your ears and body vibrate in a certain way. It’s such a bizarre thing that we enjoy, this music thing, and it’s so abstract. Often there’s no purpose other than feeling an emotion or feeling connected, and I think that’s really beautiful.

On your website there is a brief mention of Tune Atlas, the app that you were creating in partnership with Adam Bernstein. Can you tell us about it? Is it still in the works?

We have a private beta version, but it’s been a very slow process. The idea is to make it mindlessly simple to discover and learn about music from totally different parts of the world—songs that are more rooted in folk tradition, like from America it would be Appalachian music, blues, jazz, gospel, Native American music, etc. It’s organized through a faulty but familiar organization of the world that we know as a globe. Borders are such a funny thing. It’s kind of an absurd idea to click on Ghana, for example, and expect to have one sound from within this relatively arbitrary border created 57 years ago that encompasses over 250 different languages and communities. “Cuban music” doesn’t mean anything more specific than “American music.” There’s hip hop, rock and roll, bluegrass—there are so many radically different things, and that’s true for every country. There are all these songs and music traditions that go beyond borders, and the idea is to send people into that journey of discovery, to help people understand through music that “different” doesn’t mean “weird.” We’ve had a lot of licensing and technology issues, but we still have hope that the app will come out.

We can’t wait to check it out when it does! Will, thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with us. We look forward to seeing you at IntegratED!

Thank you, I’m looking forward to it too. See you there!

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