Doc Mabuse, a.k.a. Mike Murphy, is a St. Louis native and founding member of that city’s HEARding Cats artists’ collective. He makes a living designing software and hardware (“wares, soft to firm to hard,” as he puts it) but spends most of his time building synthesizers, which he uses to make wild and entirely left-field improvised music. The instruments, which he labels either “modules” or “electroniums” (meaning “a synthesizer that acts suspiciously like it’s broken”), have names like The Jackelope, The Feminine Prerogative-Based Control-Voltage Generator and il Viaggio di Marconi, the last of which is a gorgeous object built from a box of chocolates he once received for Christmas. Murphy will be in Little Rock Sunday, June 22, presenting a night of free improvisation at the Oxford American Annex alongside his fellow HEARding Cats co-founder Rich O’Donnell (a former percussionist with the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra and music director of the St. Louis New Music Circle), Davey Williams (an avant-garde guitarist and co-founder of The Improviser, a journal of experimental music) and the jazz pianist and North Little Rock native Chris Parker.
How did you get the name Doc Mabuse?
The nutshell version of it is that I got involved in a band in St. Louis called The Tory Starbuck Project, where Tory used stage names for everyone. Are you familiar with the character Dr. Mabuse, from German Expressionist cinema? Well I wasn’t, I had no idea. What I knew was that there was a band in Los Angeles called the Roto Rooter Good Time Christmas Band, who did things like marching band arrangements of Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring.” And on one of their records, they introduced this face-shredding tenor sax solo, which sounded sort of like a guy feeding a tenor slowly into a wood-chipper, and then they introduced him after the solo as “More golden tones from Dr. Mabuse.” I wasn’t used to using stage names but I thought of that and in the spur of the moment I said I’d be Dr. Mabuse.
Very soon, more people knew me as Dr. Mabuse or “Doc” than knew my driver’s license name.
How did you get into building synths?
I was a NASA fetishist as a kid. This was Kennedy era, I’m old. And the coolest stuff in the world to me was spaceships. The closest thing you could get at the time was electronic equipment, that was what you saw those guys at NASA doing. So I had an erector set, and I was a science nerd. Then I learned about HAM radio: God bless Radio Shack. I have nothing but gall and vinegar for Radio Shack now, because they’ve changed from being the gateway for kids into electronics to being just another place trying to sell you a cell phone plan. But between Radio Shack and Popular Electronics magazine, I got closer and closer to realizing that I could actually build radios and use them, and eventually be the kid who was trying to talk his mom into letting him put a 50-foot antenna mast on his house.
I insisted on building my own gear. And when you build your own gear, you don’t really have the commercial restrictions on how powerful you can make it. And I was a 13-year-old boy, the testosterone was just coursing, so I just made it as big as I could afford to make it. I didn’t understand that in between the legal bands for HAM radio, there are other users, and that Belleville, Ill., my hometown, was home to Scott Air Force Base. According to them, I blanked their radar three times tuning up a homebrew transmitter for the first time. They found me within 20 minutes. They had triangulated my position and showed up on a Saturday morning, three guys in Air Force gray asking for the “radio operator at this address.” My mom hauled me out there by the scruff of the neck and they claimed my license right there. Thirteen years old. They weren’t dicks about it.
After they took my HAM license, I built guitar amplifiers. In the Boy Scout book, for the electronics merit badge, they had plans and schematics for intercoms, so I took those and tried to figure out how I could make them louder and louder and louder. I couldn’t credit the Boy Scouts as a big influence, but they definitely helped out with a couple of fundamental skills. One was to provide me with schematics and the other was to sort of get my parents off my back, because I could say I was doing it for a merit badge. I built a fretless bass guitar when I was 18, mainly because they were ruinously expensive then and I didn’t have the money. The first electronic instrument I built would have been from a kit, from an outfit in Oklahoma City called Paia Electronics. That’s where I started with synthesizers.
It seems like there’s a science-fiction influence to what you do.
It’s kind of difficult to explain the romance of science fiction, but it was the exoticness of it, especially in the ’60s, when LIFE magazine had pictures of colonies on the moon. Kids my age, a lot of us, had this vision of the future, where we thought we might decide to live on Mars or the moon. That kind of romantic optimism was promoted in the culture back then. Like, I’m really pissed off that I’m going to be driving to Little Rock on roads; according to my 8-year-old self, I should be able to get in the jet car and 20 minutes later be in Little Rock. Or, at the very least, take the monorail.
I remember watching “Forbidden Planet” as a kid very clearly. That and “War of the Worlds” were two of the scariest things I could imagine back then. It’s like that [J.B.S. Haldane] quote: “My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” It gave me my first taste of the idea that there might already be something up there.
Also many people associate avant-garde music with sci-fi or horror movies. That’s understandable, because that’s the No. 1 place where you’re going to hear abstract intervals and rhythms in popular culture. I don’t find anything particularly upsetting about abstract music, but my first taste of it was in its cinematic use, where the director was really trying to disorient the audience, or give them a sense of something alien. That appealed to me. Once again, that put me even further from suburbia.
You seem more interested in live performance than recording. There’s that John Cage quote, “a record is not faithful to the nature of music.” Do you agree?
I don’t know that live music is superior, but I would definitely agree with Cage that it’s distinct. A recording is an artifact, and it’s a thing, and a performance is an artifact and a separate thing. A recording of a performance, in my opinion, is a separate thing altogether. It’s not the same as being there. I’m seminary-educated, by Jesuits, so I got philosophy beaten into me at an early age. The notion of the nature of a thing is something I still think about. And among technicians, they hold the idea that technology will get closer and closer to the experience of being there in the room, and I disagree. I think there’s an actual phenomenological line between those things.
I don’t go out of my way to get recordings of live performances even though that’s my primary expressive mode. If the audience knows that the only way they’ll have the experience is if they’ll go there, and that the experience belongs to them exclusively, I think that’s of value. It makes you think very differently, as a performer, if you know that you’re not going to be able to fix it in post. If you screw up in a performance you can’t take it back, you can’t wind the tape back and fix it. It’s sort of like if you’re going to recite all of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” to a live audience, and if you screw up on page 672, you’re going to have to start over.
You’ve said that “the practice of free improvisation in music or poetry can be applied to making a circuit without a ‘plan.’ ” How do you improvise when building a synthesizer?
Electronics is a science. You have to know the basics, you can’t just be doing stupid stuff. Or basically all you’re doing is setting stuff on fire.
The problem with most commercial synthesizers is, No. 1, they’re designed by committee, and No. 2, a lot of them are designed by engineers. And engineers, just like priests, have orthodoxies: There’s a right way to do this. The only way to get away from that is to go down one rabbit hole and then another rabbit hole and another, and not exactly remember where you are, and then take a shortcut straight up and see where you pop out of the ground. I’ve done that. I do that electronically. Ninety-nine percent of it doesn’t work; you go to ground and you’ve got silence. But with that other 1 percent, you make discoveries. The discoveries are modest, but they sound really good.
Is abstraction the goal?
I do aim for abstraction, but we’re designed, between our ears, to find patterns. And I see abstract music as music that challenges the mind to find patterns in more subtle ways.
You’ve done concerts underwater and in total darkness. Can we expect something like that this time?
Little Rock will be somewhat less ambitious because we only have a day to set up, so I’m afraid we won’t be doing anything too terribly environmental. So no, we won’t be underwater. No molten lava or chlorine gas this time.