Machine Jazz

The electronic duo HxH on following their sonic impulses.
Lester St. Louis & Chris Williams, Pioneer Works, 2023.Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Trumpeter Chris Williams and cellist Lester St. Louis are two of the busiest mainstays in Brooklyn’s improvised-music scene. They perform with a wildly diverse cast of collaborators for audiences both posh and punk. They play and compose in a broad variety of musical contexts: operas in DIY lofts and dance recitals in galleries naturally mutate into experimental hip-hop shows and free-jazz blowouts. And they curate nights of sound at mighty underground spaces around the city, all of which reinform their sonic directions and art ideals. A night’s itinerary might find them at Roulette or The Kitchen, and later at somebody’s Ridgewood or Crown Heights basement, playing the music of Steve Reich or Pink Siifu.

When Chris and Lester join forces as HxH (pronounced “H by H”), they cast their acoustic practices aside in favor of digital immersion, computers supplanting traditional instruments. Both men are longtime lovers and bedroom practitioners of electronic music, in both its club iterations and its conservatory applications. HxH has embraced the challenge of bringing laptop instrumentalism into a wide personal world by making sounds that are at once art-minded and accessible, and true to the tenets of spontaneous composition and “social music,” which are at the core of what both do.

On a Sunday afternoon in July, shortly after HxH’s Pioneer Works’s music residency concluded, Lester and Chris sat down to chat about the nature of their collaboration, and about electronic music’s place in Brooklyn’s improvised landscape.

Piotr Orlov

Tell me a little bit about what you do as musicians—outside of HxH and then together.

Lester St. Louis

I am primarily a cellist and bassist, both as a composer and electronic musician playing many different formats. I do a lot of music-based improvisation and collaborative work between different disciplines, like dance and theater.

Chris Williams

I'm a trumpet player primarily, and an electronic musician. I do a little bit of installation work as well. I also work in theater, and as a composer. Everything has some degree of improvisation embedded in it, because it's really the most important thing in my practice, but also in my life in general. It's offered so many things to me, through music and otherwise. I never want to discount how high improvisation is on the hierarchy of things that I do.


You're part of a community of improvisers in Brooklyn, where a lot of collaboration happens. But, just as often, this camaraderie doesn't turn into creative work. How did you two find each other, and why did you decide to make music together?


We actually met in December 2018, when I was visiting New York—at the time I lived in Los Angeles—and wanted to check it out and catch a vibe. Luckily, a mutual friend of ours [Weston Olenicki] understood that we needed to be connected and set up a gig for us at a now kind of hibernating spot called Spectrum, which much of the improvising music community has passed through. It was great. After that, we bid each other adieu, and I went back to Los Angeles. A few years later, in the pandemic, we played a gig that was set up by an amazing curator and filmmaker named Imani Denison, who runs a great series called Black Science Fiction. Imani asked me to put together a band. I asked Lester, and we played a gig that I think we're still trying to top.


That was the one in the church on the Lower East Side. That was the first time I saw you were working together.


I would say that was the first gig.

You still get a lot of development and there's a lot of depth, but mostly there’s expanse, there's this wideness that makes you acknowledge how the world is developing around you, even if you are not physically moving.

I'm often asking musicians how they know that they should collaborate with someone. Sometimes it's logistics, or social situations, like, "Hey, we're the only two kids in town who know who this artist is." So Lester, how did you know that Chris was someone you wanted to continue making music with?


We kept in touch a bit after playing that show together. Part of why Weston put us in touch was because I had been like, “Damn, where are the trumpet players in New York who can kind of do all the shit?” There were definitely some, don't get me wrong, but I was just looking for more. So Weston told me about Chris and I was like, “Damn, all right. This cat's moving to New York. Incredible. Gotta meet him.” We hung out in the late summer of 2020, and started to get to know each other, and then saw that we had all these overlapping streams of interests in music, film, art and artists, TV… We're both really into anime.

Finding people whom you have synergy with can be difficult, especially those who are asking similar questions or looking at things in a way that feels comparable to the way that you are. After we played this incredible gig for Black Science Fiction, it felt like an opportunity presented itself. I liked that Chris was deeply rooted in improvisation and electronic music, and also into expanding time and social spaces with sound. So it was like, “Let's make this happen. Let's find a vehicle to merge all these things together and be kind of messy with it, and really find out what it is, and try to swim through the mess of it together.”


I remember, going into the concert, making sure that I didn't lean on my trumpet. I was really interested in making digital sound and still utilizing improvisation at the core of that. I don't think at that point I really had much of a practice of that yet, but I wanted to figure it out in front of people. So we booked this gig, and we didn't really come in with too much ahead of time.

We kind of knew each other's interests. We continue to keep that practice because it obviously seems to be working, but this project allows me to go into a place that I find very easily and very comfortably when I'm playing my instrument in an acoustic setting.

I'm essentially shifting that mindset into the computer, into my pedals. Finding ways to still have that type of malleability—the sense of time and displacement of rhythm that I find easily in my trumpet—in this digital space. And I know that's one of the main things that I'm always looking for in these concerts that we are playing. It's an opportunity to renegotiate my relationship with this technology.


I don't think we really went in with any game plan, aside from one thing we often do right before concerts, where we ask each other, “What do you have? Do you have anything new?”

A great thing when improvising with people, in both new and relatively known spaces, is that you can throw out signals and see how they respond, right? Sometimes you throw out a signal and someone does something comparable or complementary—or they're totally barreling over it. The beauty of that gig was that I would throw out all these signals, and Chris always had an incredible addition to it. I felt like he really understood the intention of the space I was trying to create sonically.

I hope he feels the same in reverse. And throughout the development of this project, that understanding has become so much deeper. There's a sense of care and responsibility that's taken. There are some spaces that Chris has so much more together than I do. We really take care of those spaces for each other. So these elements of trust-building, understanding, complementing were there in that first gig. We realized that we could really build off of each other without a game plan—truly!—and still feel really intentional at the end of the set.


How did the two of you first discover the Pioneer Works residency? How did you start thinking about how you would work together here?


We found out about the residency through friends who have done it in the past, like Luke Stewart, Amirtha Kidambi, jaimie branch, and Booker Stardrum, who was the first music resident. Knowing how great this place is, and knowing that they have a residency program where they have a built-out studio, and that you get unlimited time to come to and do the thing uninterrupted, was a really great opportunity for us to do that as a practice-building method. And toward making a record.


The record had been something that’d been floating around. After our second gig, we recorded some material in jaimie branch's studio in Dumbo, and we were continually asking ourselves, how can we distill what we do into something that can push this sound forward, and also still be honest to this improvisatory effort that we're putting forth? The studio became an instrument. Rather than us sitting and working things out in real time, we got to spend some time tracking, breaking down the things that we wanted to communicate that often get lost in the live setting.


The residency here was too good. Especially getting that unlimited access to a space where we could work, which isn't something that we often get. We can go over to each other's houses, which is great, but you know, you're worried about sound 'cause you have neighbors. I'm a night-oriented person, so getting that space—where we could be as loud as we wanted, as long as we wanted—felt like a kind of a turning point for us.

Two sets of hands float above recording equipment and electronic instruments, mid-performance.
HxH, Pioneer Works, 2023.Photo: Edwina Hay

I want to follow up about the distinction between intentionally recording an album with a particular kind of focus and framework, versus just getting yourselves down on tape and pressing record at that right moment. Where does the difference lie? At this point, I've heard you play a number of times, and know the breadth of the kind of things you do, which depend on the sound system, location, or new sounds that you are bringing to that day. But what's HxH in a recorded format?


In that first show, our set was maybe 22-23 minutes long, but it felt like we were able to take our time while touching a lot of spaces and finding a story-esque trajectory throughout. So in coming to this record and using the studio as an instrument, we were trying to take little droplets of all these different places and spaces to make the listener feel like they’d gone somewhere. How do we create that? Ultimately the thing you want is for people to come and see you live so that they can really get the experience—but which components can we take and get intentional about, then put them out into the world?

We had several phone calls leading up to the residency, to think about how we would spend our time. We made this beautiful Miro digital whiteboard where we listed out the tracks that we made and rated how complete we felt they were. We had some notes about what the idea or concept of each track was, what we felt it was missing, what it needed. We tried to map that out.

So we track what’s actually happening if you're listening to this over the course of X amount of time, and recording how many of these things feel super similar to each other. I really like to think of sounds metonymically, like each sound can kind of represent something. So we can ask, “How have we utilized this sound similarly or differently across the record? How do you track that through your listening experience and then discover other elements of it over multiple listens?” You want to give enough of a layered experience for people to feel like they can access it completely on the first listen, but can also discover new parts of it after multiple listens. It’s a difficult task, but a lot of music does that.


This was one of the only times that we really talked about things ahead of playing any music, any sound, recorded or not. We decided that there would be an intention that wasn't derived from the sound in the moment, which I was really excited about.

You still get a lot of development and there's a lot of depth, but mostly there’s expanse; there's this wideness that makes you acknowledge how the world is developing around you, even if you are not physically moving. That's something we really wanted to communicate. It’s something we do very naturally in our live sets, but we wanted to figure out a way to distill that into this album.


With this kind of durational electronic music, rhythms and drum machines tend to be one of the first things I think of. And you do bring aspects of rhythm, but most often, they're layered, submerged. You actually have to listen for the rhythm. It's tidal rather than pebbles skipping across the water, right? Can you give a sense of your entry points, your history with electronic music like this, the kind that’s not just about making beats? And maybe what your musical personalities bring to this space?


When I was younger I played the trumpet, but I was always hoping for a wider sound. So I got some good old guitar pedals and started to mess around. And shortly after that, I found my way to listening to a lot of early Flying Lotus, a lot of Brainfeeder, and some Daedalus. Being from the West Coast, it made sense; it felt familiar. And around then I was also getting into a lot of fun math-rock stuff.

I found a different sound world than I had experienced growing up as a jazz musician. I love beats. I make beats now, actually, but they're just for me; it's not my artistic output. I got very into Aphex Twin, very into this great LA beat scene that eventually I got to play with—I played a couple times with Ras G, which was amazing—and as I started to find more people who were curious about what electronics offered them, I started to look at myself and ask, “What does it offer me? And what am I looking for that I don't already have in this expansive, acoustic sound that I'm developing?” Ambience was one of the things that I just didn't have access to through the trumpet.

Eventually I moved to New York, and I got into a whole other type of electronic music that comes from Europe, from New York, from Detroit. With all of those different influences, I've found myself enjoying taking them in, and putting myself into them. I'm not necessarily interested in trying to find the community that already exists, but I'm hoping that with HxH, we can build a community, and that different curious electronic musicians are going to come with us.

It's the audience, it's the colleagues, it's the friends, the homies—everybody is interesting, and curious, and somebody that I want to get to know a little bit deeper. It's a social music.

I didn't know you got to play with Ras G! Damn.


Right before he passed, man. He was the drummer with Nicole Mitchell. It was me, Nicole Mitchell, and I think Zekkereya [El-magharbel] played trombone on that gig, and a good friend of mine, Radius. It was down at UC Irvine, and Ras was the drummer, you know, just like holding it fucking down. He was playing SP but he was the drummer. He was drumming on the SP, figuratively and literally. It was amazing, yeah, a high point.


My own journey with electronic music and electronic sound was not too dissimilar. When I was in my early teens, going to some of the record stores in New York really helped me find a lot of things. I was just looking for anything that I didn't know. I would spend a lot of time going to Kim's Video and Music back in the day. Fucking loved Kim's. I'd go to the Tower Records that was on Broadway and West 4th, find a bunch of stuff, lots of experimental music, and listen through a lot of it.

I tasked myself in high school to listen to the entire discography of Einstürzende Neubauten—and I did it. Or the entire Sonic Youth discography. I was really looking for music that stretched the ideas of sound for me. I remember I went to Kim's and got that Autechre record Untitled, and that shit blew my mind so open, hearing this approach to rhythm that I had never encountered before, this approach to texture, to sonic spaces. I always think of Autechre as this group that's the master of sonic containers. Like you have a very small space, or an enormous space of sound, and it's just this one texture, and it sits right there in the mix, and they all speak to each other.

As someone who grew up playing a lot of orchestral music, it's like the orchestra concept but done with all these little sounds. Seeing this music’s relationship to people like Aphex Twin, Robert Hood, it becomes very connected, how those two sets of people approach sound. Discovering all this incredible electronic music, I was like, “Wow, how do I get myself into that?” And I think it came into my cello playing, like, “How vast and wide can I make cello playing, to try and meet this?” I am still trying to uncover it, though I came to an understanding of sorts after a time.

I remember getting [the music production software] Ableton—a cracked version of Ableton Live when I was 17—and making a track. I didn't have a MIDI keyboard or anything. I just found some sounds and played them on my computer keyboard and made a four-minute track. That was my introduction to trying to play electronic music, and it only grew from there, into understanding how synths and hardware work. I would read up on synthesis, and stretch it from there. Only in the last few years, via HxH, have I been able to turn that outward and into something that's no longer just happening in my apartment. It's something that I wanna put out into the world. And people are seeing that arc on stage. Like, I found this sound literally while performing, or figured out how to do this thing on stage, and now it's something that's in my toolbox and it just happened at a show, you know?


One of the things that I love about the HxH gigs I've seen is that they have more of a rhythmic side to them that isn’t obvious. The beat may appear somewhere in the middle, and then disappear. Or come in at the end. Or not at all. How do you know where—or when—it comes in?


I think that's one of the things that I'm also trying to figure out. It's just a feeling that both of us have, knowing before we go on whether or not there's gonna be drums. I remember one gig we did—I think at Trans-Pecos—it was pretty loud, and we were last; the people before us were just kind of blowing out the speakers. I turned to Lester, and said, "No drums." At a place like Public Records [a Brooklyn club with a famously high-fidelity sound system], we need the drums. There are times where we just want to hear that. We've been leaning towards hi-fi, because we just want to hear what it sounds like. I also think that we're always juggling all of these sonic interests. We both just love drums, and we really love the idea of the kit, whether or not it actually sounds like drums. Drum kits have a kind of malleability and expressiveness. That's very exciting for both of us.

I really gotta shout out DeForrest Brown. He’s just a true genius. I would say a hero slash mentor of both of us, and somebody that we were trying to bite from for a straight minute. I think we've successfully moved away from that, but it was a lot of that classic learning from the masters, like, “Hey, I heard you do some crazy shit. I want to do that too. And then when I do it, it sounds different.”


We've really spent some time trying to figure out what DeForrest is doing. It's so alive. And I think part of it is knowing when the drums come in. You kind of feel it, but also kind of tease it.

There are plenty of times where I'll bring in some hi-hats and just see how Chris is responding, and if he’s like, “Just go with it,” I'll say, “Alright, let's throw in a couple more things.” You get some impulses during the set: “I feel like I need some rhythm here.” Or I’ll try to put the people in a different place in their body. If there's a lot of textural space up front and they're really in their heads, let's move it down. “Let's make them move a little bit.” Give 'em a long stretch of that, then you come out, and try to merge the two. Let's play with bass tones in this different way, and have this crazy high thing appear. You’re creating that kind of unknown journey, but you start to realize it during a set in a way that I feel like a DJ also 100% understands. You want to be guiding people during a certain time of the night.

Two men are interviewed at a wooden table, speaking into microphones.
Piotr Orlov talks to HxH, Pioneer Works, 2023.Photo: Kate Glicksberg

Chris mentioned how the improvised music community and the electronic music community haven’t seen much of an overlap in New York. I do think that there are more people in the dance electronics side of the community that are increasingly interested in improvised music. And likewise there are people who are in the improvised music space, who are embracing more digital tools. DeForrest is a perfect example of somebody doing both. So, do you see yourself as part of a community that is in the making?


I do feel like we're part of a community that's in the making, but it doesn't seem to be crystallizing, which I like. It kind of ebbs and flows to the point where I'm less and less surprised about who's going to show up at the gig. I’m more and more sure that the people at the gig are people that I would like to interact with. It's the audience, it's the colleagues, it's the friends, the homies—everybody is interesting, and curious, and somebody that I want to get to know a little bit deeper. It's a social music. I think HxH is absolutely a social music. ♦

This conversation aired on July 9th, 2023, during the Second Sundays Broadcast Live Hour on 8 Ball Radio. It has been edited for length and clarity.

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