One may be just a little more creative than the other, but as Joseph Labrecque sees it, there are a lot of similarities between programming computers and composing music.
“To do any sort of programming, it’s very similar to composition, in my mind anyway,” he says. “Things happen in a sequence, things happen a certain way, things react to other things — it’s all kind of the same stuff, just using different tools for a different end.”
He should know. As a senior multimedia application developer at DU, Labrecque helped develop the CourseMedia system that archives multimedia materials for instructors to use in their classes. As a musician he’s gained underground acclaim as leader of the one-man ambient band An Early Morning Letter, Displaced, whose harsh, dense soundscapes and whispered vocals make for an often-unsettling listening experience.
Untrained as a musician, Labrecque originally started the project in 1999 as a vehicle for the poetry he was writing as an undergraduate.
“I had this idea that I could do some sort of performance poetry instead of just writing it and publishing it,” he says. “I got the idea that it might be interesting if I could texture the poetry with some sort of background ambiance. I started experimenting with that and I got really into it, and I decided why bother keeping [the music and the poetry] separate? I was going to have these recorded tracks that I would get up and speak my poetry over, but I started merging the two.”
On his fourth and latest album, Shudderflowers, which came out in September 2009, Labrecque employs a mix of real and virtual instruments along with samples from films, answering machines and other “found” media. Some songs have up to 24 separate tracks of audio, meticulously mixed and processed. It’s a far cry from 11 years ago, when musical recording software was decidedly less sophisticated.
“The first stuff I was working on was very basic, very destructive,” he says. “I didn’t have any sort of composition software or anything; I would perform these layers and record them live as I did them and find ways in which they would fit together and destructively smash them together.
“It’s a lot different now. I use full multi-track recording software, so when I finally create a mix, I can go back. When I first started doing it, if I screwed something up it was screwed up. If it was bad quality it was bad quality. I didn’t really care that much at the time, but it’s too bad I don’t have that stuff now.”