Being one of the staff members here at Human Diaries allows me to connect with some amazing and wonderful people. I honestly like being part of such an inspiring community that recognizes those who really make a difference in our lives in one way or another. A friend of ours, Bonnie MacAllister, told me about her friend, Paul Rubenstein. She told me a little about him and his music, and I thought he’d be a good candidate for a Human Diaries interview, which I mentioned to her. I was so excited when she replied that he agreed to do an interview. I immediately reached out to Paul and he was so open and welcoming to the idea of participating in the interview. After watching some of his performances, I know for a fact that Paul is an amazing composer and a gifted musician! I would like for you to join me in applauding his efforts as he continues to make his way in making a difference in his community through his creations.
Hi Paul! Could you please tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get into music?
A – I was into music from as far back as I can remember. My mom introduced me to classical while my brothers turned me on to rock. I used a tape recorder and a stereo to make multi-track recordings, using sounds I’d make from stuff around the house; plucked rubber bands, a metal lamp as a percussion instrument, that kind of thing. My goal, at first, was to trick my brother into thinking I had recorded it off the radio, that it was something professional. For a while, the two of us made recordings back and forth. He stopped, but I kept going.
Q – Tell us a little bit about your early music experiences. You mentioned something about playing in a Lebanese Restaurant.
A – I started playing oud sometime around 1993…within a week, I got a weekly gig at a Lebanese restaurant in Seattle’s U district, playing for food and tips. That was good because it forced me to practice and to compose enough material to play for an hour or more. After a while, I started playing rebab at those gigs too, and also the viotar which was the first bowed instrument I made. I had a rock band (Neem) at the same time, but it was what I was doing at the restaurant that led more directly to Bakshish, my next group, in the late 90s.
Q – What inspired you to create your own instruments? How and where did you learn to do that?
A – I was in college, in SUNY Binghamton. I was a guitar player, and engineered a radio show at the college station, WHRW. I would spend a lot of my free time either in the station’s record library, exploring the vast jazz section (there was a row of original Sun Ra records about two feet wide) and the world music section (small, but had some good stuff) or the (book) music library, reading about the music theory and instruments behind various kinds of world music. This was before the internet. It’s easy to find all this information now, or to hear this music, but at the time this was a great and rare opportunity.
I was very interested in how different musical intervals (relationships between notes) could be used to create moods, and wanted a broader palette to paint from, so to speak. So in my senior year I built my first microtonal guitar, and also bought a sitar, which I took lessons on once moving to Seattle after graduation. I had planned on studying ethnomusicology at UW. When I interviewed there, the department head looked at my microtonal guitar (which I was so excited to share) with no expression, then at me, and said, “We kind of frown on composers here”, and suggested I apply to a different department, “applied musicology”, I think it was called. In hindsight, I probably should have taken her advice. Instead, I persisted, and wasn’t accepted. But I stayed in Seattle, formed a rock band, studied sitar, oud and Javanese gamelan, played in a world/rock duo, did sessions for a recording studio, played in an experimental music duo with another instrument maker (Eveline Mueller-Graf), worked with poets and dancers, then went back to school for music at Cornish College of the Arts, was accepted into grad school (MFA) at Bard, and moved back to NY State, where I grew up. I’m still in NY now, in Queens, NYC.
I learned to make instruments by looking at existing ones, like the guitar, and trying to figure things out. Also just learning by making mistakes. My first attempt to make a bowed guitar was a disaster… I didn’t realize that once the bridge was curved to be able to bow it, the intonation would be completely off and playing on the frets would be horribly out of tune. The frets or fingerboard (if was to go fretless) would have to be curved, too. This led to using a tube for the neck and body of an instrument. The curve was built in to the whole thing.
Q – How many different instruments can you play?
A – That’s hard to say…there are a lot of things I play a little bit, that I might use in a recording, where I can keep trying as many times as necessary, or put together a part with piecemeal, but that I wouldn’t dare to perform live—piano, or trombone, for example. I mainly play strings—plucked, bowed, or sometimes hammered, and percussion of various kinds. I’ve been learning soprano trombone (also called slide trumpet) and a modified slide flute that pauses at the notes of your scale, so you can play microtonal or other scales with good intonation, which is otherwise really hard to do. Since I record solo, I feel like I need to play a lot of different things so there can be a variety of timbres—woodwinds, horns, strings, percussion. But I’m mainly a string player, so that’s where the focus ends up.
Q – How many instruments have you created?
A – That’s another hard one—it all depends on how you count. Besides making things from scratch, I sometimes modify existing instruments to get them to do what I want…the changes can be transforming enough that maybe you’d call it a new instrument. Some of the instruments I’ve made from scratch have gone through several iterations…I’ve made at least three versions of the electric saron (tuned steel rods suspended over a long electromagnetic pickup and struck with mallets); the mechanical monk started its life as the “foot bass”, a two stringed drone I played with my foot while playing a bowed stringed instrument with my hands…it became the “autodrone” when I added a motor (playing with a foot was awkward) before finally morphing into the mechanical monk when I added a second pickup for stereo output and started playing it with two metal rods as slides. Physically it hadn’t changed that much, but functionally it was a completely different beast. The stringed instruments have gone through their own kind of evolution, starting with the first instrument I made, back in 1992, which was an electric guitar with movable frets I called “the microtonal guitar”. The next one was the viotar, an electric, fretless bowed instrument. It had four strings and was made of wood. Next came the invisitar, also bowed, made of clear acrylic, which had six strings, if I recall correctly…then the cellotar, made of walnut wood, also with six strings; the ubertar was made from a steel tube and had eight melody strings and two drone strings inside the tube, played with a small motor that whipped a piece of twine against the strings to vibrate them, which brought out interesting overtones which would rise and fall to create a complex texture. Another instrument with an automatic drone element was the m’birangi…the drone was created by a moving magnetic field under a set of strings, which constantly changed speed to bring out different overtones. The other part of the m’birangi was a set of metal tines plucked with the fingertips spanning about two feet, over an electromagnetic pickup the same length. Does that count as one instrument, or two? The alumitar (bowed, electric, fretless) was made from an aluminum tube, had eleven strings and the range of a piano. My current main instrument has movable frets, can be bowed or plucked (and I have a way to make it—or any other plucked stringed instrument—sound like a hammered dulcimer or santoor, but I won’t describe how that works because I’m in the process of getting a patent). It also has a percussive element to it, a kind of electric doumbek that I can play at the same time as plucking the strings, so it sounds like I have drum accompaniment. It has a single low string, and two double courses, for a total of five strings. So after years of steadily increasing the number of strings, and playing fretless, now I’m back to five strings (which function more like three), frets, and focus more on plucking and less on bowing. I’ve been playing this one over four years now, and don’t have a name for it yet. I can’t say I feel like it needs one. I think if I had come up with this one back in ’92 I wouldn’t have had to make most of those others!
Q – Do you sell any of the instruments you have created? Have you considered putting any of your designs into production?
A – I’ve sold a few things, from time to time, because someone has contacted me and commissioned something. A man saw the electric setar (Persian instrument) I made and hired me to make him one. It’s a lot better than mine! When I make something for myself I’m mainly just concerned about function—I don’t care that much how it looks. But if I’m making something for someone else I put a lot more work into making it nice. I made an electric guitar with movable frets about a year ago for a guy in Australia. Someone just bought an older version of my electric saron I don’t use anymore. I don’t solicit this kind of thing. I make pickups for a living (http://www.ubertar.com/hexaphonic) but I’m not that interested in making instruments to sell. That said, I started making a series of bowed electric guitars similar to the alumitar but with only six strings to sell. That is, whenever I get around to finishing them…they’ve been progressing slowly; there are too many other projects going on.
I’m a reluctant capitalist; I only sell things because I have to, to pay rent and bills. I’d much rather spend my time composing and recording, and maybe performing now and then.
I taught after-school programs in NYC schools for nine years, teaching kids how to make electric guitars and other instruments, and to create their own microtonal music, sometimes even inventing their own scales. That was a lot of fun and the kids did some amazing things. I worked with elementary, middle-school and high school kids, and each group had its own pros and cons unique to their age, but I always learned a lot and had a great experience (in spite of bureaucratic and other difficulties) and I hope the kids would say the same!
Q – How are you distributing your music?
A – Mostly I put things out through a small label in Bellingham, WA called Spectropol. http://www.spectropol.com My latest “release”, if you can call it that, is a cassette I’ve sent out to maybe a dozen people so far, with a story accompanying it. It’s gotten a little attention online, as people start posting digitized clips and writing about it, or reposting the story—probably more attention than my standard releases. I’m happy that more people are hearing my work, even if they have no idea it’s mine. The story is a sci-fi thing. One of my dreams would be to do the music for science fiction films, creating the music of various groups of aliens. Filmmakers often spend a lot of time and money on creating languages for their space aliens, even hiring linguists to make them as realistic as possible, but they never put that kind of effort into the music, which is a shame. We’ve been conditioned to think of space alien music as mostly electronic sounds, synthesizers, theremins…that’s the stereotype, but I think music on other planets would evolve in similar ways as human music has, a convergent evolution much like how marsupials are very similar in form to mammals they aren’t actually related to. We share the same physics with the rest of the universe, and alien species are likely to come up with similar ways of making sounds…percussion, flutes, horns, metallophones, strings…and maybe similar ways of thinking about time and pitch, but different in the same kind of way that different human musical systems differ from each other. There are so many different possibilities. Anyone who tells you everything has been done, that there’s nothing new under the sun and that all creativity consists of is shuffling around the same ideas in a different way is making excuses for their own lack of originality. When Solomon first said that, he hadn’t heard Coltrane. One thing I’d like to explore is curvilinear time. It would take too much space to go into what that means here, but if you try to imagine what that would entail in terms of musical form, you’ll either come up with the same idea, or maybe something equally interesting that’s worth following up on. So please do. I need more good things to listen to!
Q – Please tell us a little more about Sonicabal.
A – Sonicabal was a group of experimental composers and musicians in Seattle in the mid to late 90s. It was extremely diverse stylistically, and in terms of philosophical approach to composition, but there was a strong sense of solidarity and mutual respect and support within the group. We all went to each other’s performances and were genuinely interested in each other’s work and ideas. Some members who come to mind are Ffej, an analog synthesist who sang rock songs, Chris DeLaurenti, who did musique concrete, the Bran Flakes, who were an ironic, dance-oriented electronic and turntable-sampling group, Meri Von Kleinsmid, whose work I don’t know how to categorize, John Bain and the Mutant Data Orchestra, who circuit-bent telephone answering machines and created massive waves of beautiful noise…none of these descriptions really do any of them justice. It was a great group of really wonderful people. I left Seattle in 01. I don’t know how long the group lasted; maybe it still exists, but I haven’t heard anything.
There were a couple compilation CDs…worth checking out if you can find them.
Q – Have you ever run into criticism regarding your music, your musical influences and how they manifest in your playing?
A – Yes. When I was in grad school, there were people who accused me of “cultural appropriation” because of the non-Western elements of my playing, particularly the strong Indian, Arab and Persian influences (although a lot of these people heard all of that as “Indian”…one of the teachers called a piece of mine “fake Indian music” even though it was played on an Egyptian oud, in a traditional Arab scale.) Oddly (or not) the people who accused me of appropriation or even colonialism were, without exception, white. Musicians are influenced by everything they listen to and enjoy. What you listen to shapes your aesthetic judgment, your sense of what music is; you can’t un-hear something, or un-learn an idea you are exposed to. It becomes part of you, and comes back out transformed into something else. In the internet age, especially, the world has become so interconnected and small…with the click of a mouse we can hear music from anywhere on the globe. It would be irresponsible and insulting to ignore entire cultures and not find them worthy of drawing inspiration from just because they were developed by people who live on another continent or have a different ethnic or racial background. And as anyone who has studied history at all knows, there is no such thing as a pure culture. Different groups have always affected each other culturally as they encountered each other, either peacefully through trade or through invasion and war.
Many traditions are in danger of dying out, as often young people around the world are drawn to Western culture and neglect their local traditions. A global society is where we’re headed—if it’s ok for non-Westerners to be influenced by Western culture, but not the other way around—because that would be “appropriation”, then eventually there will be nothing left but Western culture…the McDonald’s-ization of the world. THAT would be a shame.
Q – Are you performing currently?
A – After a long break I’m now starting to play some shows. My next show is at a bar in Brooklyn (Barbes) but will have passed by the time this is published. After that, I’ll be playing at the Mulberry St. Library in Manhattan on Sat., April 9, at 2:30 pm. I’d like to book more shows, so anyone who books for a venue, please contact me. This is a video I made recently, on my main instrument: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nWuLr9RpGlY
Q – Besides music, what are some of your other hobbies?
A – Music is not a hobby! I eat, breathe and dream music. I invent, design and build musical instruments, not for its own sake (though I do enjoy that) but for the music. I’m interested in lots of other things, but I’m always looking for how those things connect with music, and I believe that any increase in knowledge and understanding furthers the music in some way, consciously or not. Lately I’ve been very interested in world history… In the past two to three years, I’ve read two books on African history, one on Pan-Asian history, one on the history of China, European history, Korean history, Jewish history, History of the Middle East, and am currently reading a book on the steppes of Central Asia. After that, maybe the Celts, or Persians, or South America, or general ancient history. When reading about these different groups and who invaded whom, and migrations and so on, I think about how it relates to the evolution of the musical traditions of those cultures and how these groups affected each other on a cultural level…what elements were changed through contact and which stayed intact.
Q – Do you have any funny stories you’d like to share?
A – When Bakshish were recording our second album, a rock star friend of ours had agreed to play on one of the tracks. We gave him a demo of it to listen to, and after not showing up to a couple rehearsals, he stepped down, saying he couldn’t come up with anything for it. We were pretty disappointed, and to give him what we thought was a friendly hard time about it, when we listed the instrument credits after each song on the liner notes, on that song we credited him with: nothing. We were known only locally, and didn’t expect more than a handful of people to read the liner notes that closely, so it was just meant as an inside joke from us to him, or just between us…we didn’t really expect him to ever notice it. A couple years passed when I hadn’t seen him, and we ran into each other at a party. I put out my hand…”hey, what have you been up to”? He shook my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “Nothing”. He got me good with that one. I felt bad, though, because I think it really bothered him, as obscure as our record was, even though he was an accomplished musician and honest-to-god actual internationally-known rock star.
Q – What do you think of Human Diaries?
A – I think it’s a good way to hear about things people are doing that you might not encounter otherwise. I especially like the kids’ contributions. Kids aren’t as prone to getting trapped by language…they have an easier time seeing things as they are instead of what we’re told they are.