Electronic Musician Forges Ties With Harvard

Keith Fullerton Whitman, electronic musician extraordinaire, has performed in locales ranging from Berlin to Kyoto, made internationally acclaimed albums under two different aliases and earned the respect and awe of music makers and fans around the world. And he’s our next door neighbor.

When he moved to Boston in 1991 on a scholarship to study computer music at Berklee, he knew he wanted to live as close to Harvard as possible; now Whitman visits the Square at least twice a week. In May of 2001 he took part in an electronic music showcase in the Adams House squash courts. The next fall, he performed with a close friend Greg Davis at the Record Hospital Fest arranged by WHRB. And last year, he was elevated from performer to instructor as part of the Office for the Arts’ Learning From Performers workshop series (along with fellow sound artists Matmos).

While Whitman also uses found sounds and environmental noise to compose “sound art” under his given name, his real claim to infamy is as Hrvatski. With that alias, he slices breakbeats in a way that sounds informed by both IDM luminary Aphex Twin and original junglist soldier Remarc, earning credibility from both music circles.

“I love dance music and going to clubs, and I love experimental music as well,” he says.

Unusual circumstances growing up cemented his musical career. He came of age in the suburbs of New York, where “you eventually meet people who have hip older brothers who listen to punk or prog rock. Anything out of the way or weird just struck my imagination…I would get really into somebody and I would see who that band’s influences were, and sort of work backwards from there.”

At twelve, he was given as a gift the first two records by Krautrock pioneers Cluster. From there he started to experiment with his four-track and drum machine, and eventually found others who were doing similar work. “I guess I’ve just gotten better at it [since then],” he says. “I have a better ear for what sounds good.”

Most recently, Whitman has been acting as a de-facto artist in residence. Since getting keycard access last summer, he has been using Harvard’s studio for electro-acoustic composition to make “long form” pieces, using equipment like a Serge Modular system and Buchla Music Boxes that he would have never had access to otherwise.

Whitman feels right at home in Boston, where—unlike in New York City or San Francisco—musicians seem less focused on self-promotion, getting signed or “making it,” he says. According to Whitman, artists in Boston are content to make music for themselves and a handful of friends, without feeling the pressure to send demos to a variety of record labels—a frame of mind that spans all different genres of underground music in Boston. Perhaps this is why Whitman’s presence is still largely unfelt, despite his frequent performances at local venues; he is scheduled to perform at T.T. the Bear’s next Monday.

Ironically, it’s his alias that attracts fans in Cambridge, more than his real name. Last Friday, fans at the WZBC show at the Central Square TWCA expected the breakneck beats of Hrvatski—and were supplied instead with the sprawling, droning oscillations of Keith Fullerton Whitman.

“They never ask me what I want to play as,” he explains. “They ask me if I want to play a show, and I say sure, so then they book me as Hrvatski in hopes that I’ll show up and play [as him].”

The nature of his sound art performances has the potential to confuse audiences. It’s often hard for audience members at noise shows to tell how much of the music is previously prepared and how much is spontaneous, whether the artist nodding his head behind his laptop is creating something new or merely playing an MP3 file.

“It’s the same performance dynamic either way,” he says. “Either you go see someone and they’re staring at the screen pressing the space bar playing a WAV file, and they’re staring intently at the screen watching it go by and you think they’re doing something, or you get people that build these ridiculous systems that they start from scratch and do everything unique for every show.”

Although many of Whitman’s performances are completely improvised, “chances are, to the audience, it’s probably going to sound better if they prepare all of the audio ahead of time—it will be a more interesting show sound-wise…whereas [creating] this huge setup to make some really unique music, chances are something might go wrong. That’s the nature of computers these days.”