Donald Swearingen Tunes Into Music and Math

He uses them to write avante-garde music and software.


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Photo courtesy Donald Swearingen

The slender, bespectacled musician waves and gestures. The devices on both his hands, which resemble fingerless gloves, glow, and otherworldly sounds emerge from the computers below them, creating a hypnotic sonic landscape.

Oakland’s Donald Swearingen composes and performs electronic music, using a system called “STM” (Sensors to Musical Instrument Digital Interface). As his website explains, the system employs sensors and microcontrollers to “digitally sample various aspects of a performer’s position, orientation and movement,” and then uses the information to create live sound and, in some cases, images.

But Swearingen not only makes music with these systems — he invents them. His fascination with their possibilities began when he returned to college after spending years as a studio musician in Memphis, Tennessee, and touring with several bands. “I’d always done well in math and science, so when I went back to school at Memphis State, I enrolled in an innovative program in interdisciplinary studies,” he said. Although this was years before desktop and laptop computers became ubiquitous, he quickly recognized the possibilities of “microcomputers.” His enthusiasm convinced Nick Pesce, president of Hi Records, which was recording Al Green and other stars, to hire him to computerize the company’s publishing operations.

This first effort, he admitted, “was eventually a failure,” because the hardware of the time was too unreliable. But Pesce continued to support him, acknowledging the inevitability of these advances in technology.

He discovered Iannis Xenakis’s 1971 book, Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, along with the music of groundbreaking composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. Then came the 1985 move to San Francisco, where he soon met kindred soul Pamela Z. Herself a recent Bay Area transplant, like Swearingen, she was drawn to the “really lively interdisciplinary performance scene” already flourishing. The two musicians began collaborating, a creative partnership that continues today. “Donald was inventing new ways of working with sound,” said Z, noting that he was designing “gesture controllers” by the early 1990s. “The wearable pieces gave me the freedom to walk away from my set [while performing],” she said.

Z would record vocal fragments that Swearingen would “play with in the computer.” Together, they developed multiple ways of electronically manipulating sound, and she employed him to write software for her. In 2016, they collaborated on the major performance piece Pascal’s Trinagle, which was presented at the Royce Gallery in San Francisco in 2017.

“Donald has a deep love of mathematics, so I suggested we make a piece about math,” Z said. What emerged was a multimedia work inspired by the pattern of numbers known as Pascal’s triangle. Z and Swearingen continue to collaborate, most recently at during a performance at Richmond’s Bridge Gallery and ArtSpace.

During the same years Swearingen was establishing himself in the Bay Area’s avant-garde music scene, he was also continuing to write software as a contractor. “This was a way I could sustain myself,” he said. “Software design starts with an idea, which can be specific or nonspecific. Then you keep refining and refining, finding the pieces to make it happen. It’s very much like composing,” he explained. He still does this work, and through it, encountered software developer Matson Wade, now a lifelong friend.

“I met Don 30 years ago when he was working for a company in Petaluma,” Wade recalled. Wade, who is also a musician, began bringing Swearingen in on projects as a consultant, including working on the pioneering file-sharing system YouSendIt (now Hightail). “Don is an unusual intersection of music and technology,” Wade said. “His work is thorough and well thought out, but he’s also a lot of fun to be with.”

Wade deeply respects that Swearingen “just decided” he was going to find a way to support himself and his music that also utilized his multiple talents. “He is the only person I know who has chosen that path,” Wade said.

 In 2008, Swearingen moved to his large loft space in Oakland. The move was bittersweet at first, because he had been gentrified out of an apartment and neighborhood in San Francisco that he loved. But he’s come to see the move as a blessing. “Oakland is very exciting. I wouldn’t go back if I could,” he said.

The Oakland loft also provides more room for yet another passion: photography. For 25 years, he’d been a long-distance swimmer, but in 2000, he injured his neck, and took up walking instead. Coincidentally, he had just purchased a digital camera, and “began taking pictures of everything” he saw on his walks. Influenced by the tradition of street photography, he created a series of photos of “abandoned shoes.”

“I took literally hundreds of pictures of shoes,” he said. Currently, he’s editing them and they will eventually appear in galleries on his self-designed website.

Music remains the love of his creative life. “Music is where it all started for me. I really feel like this is the time of my life,” he said.

And for those who might be hesitant to explore the unfamiliar and sometimes challenging world of experimental electronic music?

“Open yourself up to sound,” he advised. “If you go to see a movie, you’re exposed to electronic music whether you know it or not.”

Authors from Pythagoras to Shakespeare have referred to “the music of the spheres.” Donald Swearingen’s music seems to tap into dimensions beyond our daily experience. Music of the spheres indeed. Learn more at DonaldSwearingen.com.

 

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