For best results, BYO microwave

There is a quote, attributed to either a German politician or an American poet, that anyone wishing to keep their respect for laws and sausages should not see how either is made. After spending five years as a legislative editor, I can see how this opinion might have been formed. But laws and sausages aside, I’ve always thought that seeing the process of creation usually enhances the appreciation of just about everything else.

Reuben Ingall, prolific Canberra musician and offbeat-sound enthusiast, feels the same way. “Process in art is totally fascinating for me in general, but particularly in music. There’s been many times where I came up with the concept of how I wanted to rearrange sound in a particular way, or software I wanted to create, long before I wrote lyrics or came up with a chord progression. Lyrics are like blood from a stone with me – my brain seems to fly first towards the ideas of the arrangement. So when there’s a way that can be made available to the listener, I think that’s really nice.”

We talk about how watching a piece be created from start to finish can make an audience feel more involved, since they’re present for the whole process.

“I think that ties into my thoughts about live electronic music,” he says. “I could sit behind a laptop, but the process isn’t evident and it looks like I could be just checking email. There’s an immediacy the viewer gets from, say, watching someone play a guitar – they understand what’s happening and can discern a level of skill, even if they don’t play. I like when people can see what’s going on, so I endeavour to make things more interactive.”

There’s an immediacy the viewer gets from, say, watching someone play a guitar – they understand what’s happening and can discern a level of skill, even if they don’t play. I like when people can see what’s going on, so I endeavour to make things more interactive.

Primarily an electronic music artist, one of Reuben’s newer pieces fully incorporates process into a 10-minute live music/performance art hybrid called Microwave Drone Ritual. The central “instrument” in the piece is a microwave – going about its usual business – warming up a pie. Reuben distorts and modulates the drone of the microwave through software, adding his own vocal harmonies (also manipulated) to create an improvised, evolving, multi-layered composition.

Upon learning about the piece, I had many questions. Does a cooked pie get produced at every performance? Who eats the pie? Isn’t 10 minutes way too long for microwaving a pie? In my experience, it takes 4 minutes, tops.

Reuben confirms a cooked pie has been produced at all three performances (two in Canberra, and one in Hobart). After the first performance, he ate the pie, but in subsequent shows, the pie was given to a member of the audience. As for length, the key is cooking the pie from frozen, on low heat. I mention I’ve heard low heat is best for even cooking, but I’m too greedy to have the patience for it. Reuben tells me it usually works well, but when he travelled to Hobart to perform Microwave Drone Ritual at an arts festival, he had to use a microwave supplied by the organisers – travelling with your own microwave is a privilege extended only to the super-rich.

“After the performance,” he says, “I heard through an indirect channel that the member of the audience who’d received the pie said it was a bit cold in the centre”.  We commiserate on the pitfalls of borrowed equipment but as Adam, our Red Magpie photographer, rightly points out, if the worst thing that happens in your great night of innovative music and free food is a slightly cold pie centre, you’re still getting an excellent deal overall.

…if the worst thing that happens in your great night of innovative music and free food is a slightly cold pie centre, you’re still getting an excellent deal overall.

The conversation turns to Reuben’s beginnings in music, since I’m wondering about the starting point for someone who harmonises with kitchen equipment. Reuben tells me he “learnt piano for a couple of years when I was 10 or 11, but started making music on the computer when I was in Year 10 or so – I started learning guitar a year or two after that.”

But he mentions having always had an appreciation for everyday sounds – like discovering while doing childhood chores that the lawnmower produced a particularly interesting series of tones. “But there was an incident with the mower and a string of outdoor fairy lights,” he says, highlighting the benefits of working nowadays with more stationary instruments.

Reuben’s online catalogue goes all the way back to his high school days of music creation. One recording was described as produced during a time when he owned less than a dozen albums. I ask him if there’s a story there, or was he just more interested in making his own music rather than listening to mainstream recordings.

“As a music-listener, I didn’t really start pursuing music or trying to find out about bands maybe until I was in Year 11 or 12,” he says. “Yet I managed to make 2 CDs before then”. He laughs. “My best mate would bring around Dre’s 2001 and Nirvana’s Nevermind and try to play them to me and I wasn’t really into it. I think music wasn’t on my agenda because I liked to mess around with my computer and play games – then I tried out some demo music-making software and got a bit interested. For my birthday one year my folks got me some software called Music 2000 and I just started making things. I’m not even sure what I was setting out to make. In college I did a course called ‘Electronic Music’ by a guy who was really into early 20th-century futurists, so I was exposed to all this electronic music from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I think that led me off on the path of more experimental kinds of things. While simultaneously hearing punk bands play in the quad at lunchtime and wanting to start a punk band!”

In college I did a course called ‘Electronic Music’ by a guy who was really into early 20th-century futurists, so I was exposed to all this electronic music from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I think that led me off on the path of more experimental kinds of things.

Since the early days, Reuben has covered an impressive array of genres as both part of bands and on solo projects – everything from mashups, post-punk and soundscapes to glitchy guitar/vocal combinations he calls “sad pop”. I ask about a new direction he’s gone in recently, giving a music-themed talk called Slowtunes as part of the You Are Here festival, about super slowed-down music in popular culture.

“There was a period a while back where a lot of my friends were making zines and I thought I’d get involved,” he says. “So I started keeping a Google doc of music-related thoughts as potential material. When You Are Here asked for event pitches, I realised I had enough material in there to form the basis for a talk, so I put my hand up. Then immediately freaked out because I’d never done anything like that before.” But he ended up hugely enjoying the experience. “I got great feedback,” he says.”I’d love the opportunity to do something like that again.”

Since Reuben’s into such a wide variety of music-related projects, I feel I can confess to him my obsession for finding the perfect life soundtrack. I mention listening to his 2012 EP Dealt while walking to work and figuring out what activities it would suit. I ask whether he thinks about the way people listen to his music, or if he’d ever think about writing a score for a totally mundane life activity.

He jokes, “I used to say to my friends that there should be proper DJs on call-waiting, live people going, ‘This next jam is…’ so it’s less boring on hold. But I guess with a lot of my music, perhaps in a bit of a self-indulgent way, I imagine people listening to it like you were – on headphones, alone. I think about this –  I don’t know whether I’m strictly ok with it – people sitting in a dark room, paying attention to the music, which is, super ‘self-important artist-ish’ of me, but I suppose that’s how most artists imagine it. That their music is going to be given a lot of attention. I think I wrote something like that down in a notebook once – that I would never make purely decorative music. Something that’s not for the background.

I mention that I feel guilty for thinking it might be ok for doing a particularly thoughtful load of laundry. Reuben laughs. “Well, doing household chores – yeah, sure. But not in the background of a bar.” He laughs again. “It can be in the background if you’re alone.”

Reuben’s music can be purchased on Bandcamp and he has a new release on the way – the best way to stay in the loop is to join the mailing list on his website. His Google doc’s not totally empty yet either – some of the remaining material will form the basis for a July 15th appearance at the Phoenix entitled “Your Guitar Tone Sucks”.

All images courtesy of, and copyrighted to, our resident photo conjurer – Adam Thomas.