James Guthrie, Gilad Cohen, and David Molk: revisiting the Pink Floyd Conference
Updated: Oct 10, 2020
Nearly six months ago Princeton University doctoral students Gilad Cohen and David Molk hosted "Sight, Sound, and Structure", an academic Pink Floyd conference. The four-day event was sponsored by Princeton University's Dean of Graduate School, the Music and English departments, The Lewis Center for the Arts, and the Council of Humanities. Pink Floyd producer and engineer James Guthrie [right] was the keynote speaker, Roger Waters' 5.1 Surround Sound mix of Amused to Death was premiered, and experts from a variety of academic disciplines spoke about the band. Pink Floyd and Roger Waters keyboardist Jon Carin, Floydian Slip host Craig Bailey, and high fidelity enthusiasts and Pink Floyd fans were among those in attendance.
In recent weeks the conference website has been updated: photographs and video clips from the event are being added periodically, giving people who were unable to attend a sense of what the conference was about. We followed up with Molk, Cohen, and Guthrie for further reflection on the conference in our exclusive interview with each, starting with James Guthrie's fascinating thoughts and insights...
Brain Damage: It has been a few months since the "Pink Floyd: Sight, Sound, and Structure" conference at Princeton University. The conference was a great success and one of the most important parts was the premiere of Roger Waters' Amused To Death in 5.1 Surround Sound (followed by playbacks of The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here in the same format). What do you feel the conference's academic approach and the depth with which all subjects were tackled says about Pink Floyd and its fans? What did you think about the conference itself and was it difficult to be a part of such an intense endeavour given your busy schedule?
Probably, that the fans and their perceptions are as varied and interesting as the music itself.
I really enjoyed the whole weekend and I'm grateful to Gilad and Dave for essentially not taking 'no' for an answer. When they called to invite me to participate in the conference they caught me at a very difficult time. In addition to all the pressures of project delivery deadlines, I had just undergone spinal surgery and was flat on my back. I explained that while being thrilled at the invitation, it was very unlikely that I would be able to attend. They were not pushy at all, but they also did not give up. Eventually I agreed to be there and immediately started kicking myself. Phrases such as 'what are you thinking?' jolted me awake in the middle of the night. What did I know about delivering a keynote speech? I put myself through a good deal of emotional distress that nearly rivaled my back pain (well, perhaps not quite that bad!).
I was very intrigued by the way academics approach the music of Pink Floyd. A deep analysis of every facet of the experience and a 'no stone unturned' M.O. is very healthy. At times I was thinking, yes this is all very well, but it's not how these records are made. We take a more spontaneous approach of experimentation and letting the music and ideas flow through us, while constantly referencing back to the song, it's a feel thing. However, analysis is certainly one avenue towards understanding and of course the common ground is a shared deep love and passion for the music. They may have been analyzing at the conference, but I know they've all spent the time laying back and letting the music take them.
BD: The conference kicked off with a couple of events, including a screening of "The Wall" film. Having played such an prominent role in the music's production, "The Wall Tour" in the early 1980s, and Roger Waters' "The Wall Live" production in recent years, how do you feel the film and its themes hold up in comparison to Waters' contemporary, live version?
Well, Roger's latest version obviously emphasizes politics far more than the original story of fear and personal isolation, but it's the perfect vehicle for where he is right now in terms of his life, his philosophy and his fight for human rights. It is an inevitable progression.
For me, the problem with "The Wall" movie is that, even though the wall comes down at the end, I don't feel any relief. I don’t feel uplifted, possibly because some of the earlier scenes are so depressing, they're still lingering and I'm still somewhat in shock. There are parts of the movie I really like, that I feel work very well and that are very powerful, but what's missing is humour, which is strange because Roger is incredibly funny. He has a wicked sense of humour and can always make me laugh. Even he has lamented the lack of humour in the film. There was a lot of conflict during the making of the movie, particularly between Roger and [director] Alan Parker and perhaps that was a contributing factor to the lack of humour, but Roger tells me he has remedied this in his script for the play.
The denouement during the live shows, both in 1980 and 2010, has the desired emotional effect that the film didn't deliver for me.
BD: Was a lot of footage for "The Wall Live" DVD shot in cities other than Athens?
In terms of multiple cameras, principally Athens, Buenos Aires, and Quebec City, but Sean Evans was also shooting solo at most of the gigs.
BD: What is your preferred audio format and why?
Well, I still love analogue and I use a combination of analogue and high resolution digital in my studio. I want something that breathes, something that is engaging and involving, something that transports you. Unfortunately there are some digital formats out there that tend to play at you, rather than drawing you in and moving you.
As far as consumer release formats are concerned, I enjoy vinyl and SACD and I hope that hi-res downloads will turn out well in the end. Just as we have to be vigilant in our management of digital audio in the studio, consumers have the same responsibility. Digital can go bad very easily if you're not careful with the timing and the interface. Just because something says 'hi-res' or 'uncompressed' doesn't automatically make it good. I've heard 24/96 [bit/kHz] sound better than 24/192, if the 192 is not done properly.
BD: A number of people at the conference mentioned Neil Young's Pono Music (PonoMusic) format, which is supposed to deliver higher quality audio downloads. On another end, you have Norwegian service WiMP which apparently delivers HiFi streaming quality (but is not available in the UK or the US). Do you feel there is space for an audio format that will nurture the type of relationship people had with albums in the past or do you feel too many elements of what constituted a proper album are disappearing, irreversibly rendering the music-listening experience a completely different beast?
The two feed each other. At the time we all felt 'proper' albums were being made, we were listening differently. We treated the album listening experience more as some may view a movie today. You would sit down and immerse yourself. Certainly there are pieces of technology currently that are at odds with the finely crafted song, but there are also some very positive technologies out there too. We need to be selective and discerning. And people need to dispel this crazy notion that music should be free. Songwriters and musicians – that's their job, they have families and have to put food on the table like everyone else. If people continue to expect music for free, then those who have the talent to be able to finely craft a song will be a dying breed.
I haven't heard Pono yet, but I applaud what Neil has done to raise awareness.
BD: Could you tell us a bit about your role in this year's The Division Bell box set release?
I just helped [engineer] Doug Sax with the vinyl. They also included some of the work that Joel [Plante, assistant engineer] and I did for the Why Pink Floyd…? campaign, but that's it.
BD: Many fans are aware a track titled "Peace Be With You" was (apparently) completed during the recording of A Momentary Lapse of Reason - is there any chance that track will be released in the future?
"Peace Be With You" exists as a demo only. To my knowledge, it was never completed as a song, so would probably need a lot of work if they were going to release it.
BD: Is there anything you can tell us about "Peace Be With You", i.e., what it sounds like or what type of track on A Momentary Lapse of Reason you feel it resembles most?
I suppose in a way, it sounds like a missing link between About Face and A Momentary Lapse of Reason.
BD: According to Nick Mason, the band voted to decide which tracks to include on The Division Bell and after a handful of voting rounds they ended up with 15 tracks, dropping four of those in the final cut. Do you feel it is possible those four tracks might be released sometime in the future?
Apart from mastering, I wasn't involved in The Division Bell, so I can't really answer the question, other than to say, if they had felt those songs were important, then they could have included them in the 20th anniversary box set.
BD: How different is your approach when working with a band like Judas Priest or Queensrÿche given the musical distance between them and a band like Pink Floyd - how is production different in that genre of rock music?
The process is actually similar because you are always serving the song. The musical styles may be different, but my approach of trying to do what's right for the music and trying to make the best album possible, remains. Interestingly, many of the same challenges exist, regardless of how different the artists may be. Obviously, there are specific and unique tests that relate to a particular band or musical style, but that’s all part of the allure.
Dealing with different personalities can be delicate at times.
BD: Finally: is there a particular album outside the Pink Floyd catalog you would really like to hear (and perhaps personally remix) in 5.1 Surround Sound?
Kate Bush's Hounds of Love.
Gilad Cohen and David Molk:
BD: What sparked the idea for the conference, and why Pink Floyd?
Gilad Cohen: Pink Floyd and The Beatles were the soundtrack of my childhood, thanks to my elder brothers, and appropriately, my Ph.D. dissertation is about large-scale structure in the music of Pink Floyd. I decided to initiate the conference as an opportunity to share my research and love for Pink Floyd. My friend and colleague Dave Molk joined me early in the process, and together we decided to create an event to bring together scholarly work, new live music (since both of us are first and foremost composers), and listening sessions, aiming for a mixed audience of scholars, musicians, and fans, instead of the standard format of talk-after-talk targeted at academic audiences.
David Molk: Gilad knew that I love Pink Floyd (I kept bugging him to let me look at drafts of his dissertation) and approached me about joining his efforts and co-organizing / co-producing the conference. Hope that covers the question – I think the Floyd themselves settled the 'why Pink Floyd' part of it with their wonderful box-set campaign.
BD: Interest in the conference was quite strong. Did you anticipate that level of response?
GC: Pink Floyd is one of the most popular bands in the world, so surely we hoped for a large audience. That being said, we were overwhelmed by the positive response from both academic departments at Princeton University and businesses in town, which generously contributed to the event and made it possible and special. We are also grateful to the band's devoted fans, who quickly spread the word and helped it to go viral quite early in the promoting process. The biggest pleasure for me, though, was the wide variety of people who showed up both to the surround playback sessions and to the talks, including press, amateur musicians, audiophiles, and devoted fans. It is a very special experience to give a talk about Wish You Were Here, forgetting which type of synthesizer Richard Wright used in one song, and being able to ask the audience and get an immediate answer.
DM: Yes and no (like "Us and Them"). Everyone we talked to during the early stages of planning the conference, regardless of his/her background, immediately replied with something along the lines of 'that's so cool!' Still, the buzz that started building, even before we released any of the details surrounding the event, was incredible and the stories that people included in their registration emails were really touching, so that the interest vastly exceeded our expectations.
BD: What do you feel the level of response to an academic Pink Floyd conference says about the band and the type of fan it draws?
GC: In my view, Pink Floyd is one of the most interesting and influential rock bands of all times (next to The Beatles, which is my second true love and, if I may say so, arena of expertise). I like musical acts that aim to say something original and seek to reinvent themselves regardless of commercial pressures. I believe that Pink Floyd achieved these goals in much of their music, which explains both its tremendous popularity around the world and the attention it draws for serious analytical examination from academia. The latter can be seen in a series of academic publications about the band, including excellent writings by Russell Reising (University of Toledo) and Shaugn O'Donnell (City College of New York).
DM: Many participants told us that they felt validated and even vindicated in their long-held esteem for the band after attending the conference. For our part, we appreciated the support and enthusiasm; taking Pink Floyd 'seriously' in an academic context seems ripe for barbs revolving around the "Another Brick in the Wall (Part II)" lyrics but this was never an issue for us. I think it speaks quite highly of the rich musical legacy that Pink Floyd has created and the discerning yet open-minded fan-base.
BD: The conference name made reference to 'sight, sound, and structure'. What is it about each of these elements that you wanted to explore at the conference?
GC: One of the interesting things about the band is that its artistic statement does not stay in the lyrics and music; rather it offers a multifaceted experience combining groundbreaking sound work, legendary visuals, and unique musical architecture. Dave and I wanted to explore these elements by offering talks that cover these topics, including composer and filmmaker (also a Princeton Ph.D. student) Troy Herion's fascinating research about what makes music more 'visual', my research about the emotional and musical structure of "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", and, of course, James Guthrie's talk and presentation about the concept of sound in Pink Floyd's music.
DM: We feel that each of these elements represents a major focal point within Pink Floyd's work. Gilad's dissertation looks at the Floyd's large-scale songs from a structural/architectural point of view, and my thoughts on Gilmour's soloing style also uses a structural framework in some sense. Troy Herion spoke about the visuals (a huge part of the band's legacy… just look at those album covers!), and, of course, James Guthrie spoke about the actual sound. None of these is completely severable from the other and we had no intention of suggesting so. Subtitling the conference this way merely gave us some interesting ways into the music.
BD: Do you feel Pink Floyd is in a unique place, historically and artistically and relative to other bands, which lends itself to an in-depth, academic discussion of the band's work, i.e., are there other bands you could devote an interdisciplinary study to successfully or does Pink Floyd fit into a unique place in this regard?
GC: There are definitely other bands that deserve careful analytical study, and many of them have received it already – The Beatles and Genesis are two examples that come to mind. I would love to take part in an academic conference about The Beatles; I actually wouldn't be surprised if one has happened already, I haven't checked.
DM: I think there are other bands that warrant such an interdisciplinary-based study, although I believe each would need to have the 'interdisciplinary mix' specially tailored. The Floyd is definitely unique in its particular blend of sight, sound, and structure and so our approach here can't map directly onto another band. We had lots of fun incorporating Floydian elements throughout the last day's events, some of which people commented on and many of which no one did, either because people found them too mundane to mention or because they went unnoticed. Still, Gilad and I had loads of fun planting all these 'Easter eggs' into the conference.
BD: Did you reach out to any members of Pink Floyd when you decided to organize the conference and if so did you get any response?
GC: We did not. In regard to bringing them in, our modest budget would have definitely not been enough for such an undertaking. This conference started as a small idea I had one afternoon while talking to a friend; months later Dave and I realized it was going to be a much bigger event than we had anticipated, but it was already too late to reach out to band members… That being said, I would be very curious to hear their thoughts on the event, the talks, and the live music. They definitely heard about it through James Guthrie, among others.
DM: Jon Carin made a surprise appearance the last day of the conference!
BD: At the University of Rhode Island I took a course that analyzed President John F. Kennedy's assassination from several academic perspectives: history, physics, chemistry, and political science, among others: how wide a net do you feel could be cast in terms of academic disciplines to analyze Pink Floyd – what other disciplines do you feel show potential for interesting and substantive analysis of the band's work? Could you see academic disciplines such as Economics, Political Science, and Psychology contributing to this discourse in a substantive way?
GC: At the conference we heard a wonderful talk by Princeton English Professor Nigel Smith, and his enthusiasm clearly shows the potential for academic discussions of Pink Floyd's art from this point of view. I was always curious about discussing the band's musical space and structure with architecture scholars – I'd be very interested in finding a common ground with them under the umbrella of both musical form and sound in space. Political and cultural discussions are another obvious choice, especially in regard to albums such as The Final Cut, The Wall, and Amused To Death. I would also like to see further exploration of the connection between visuals and Pink Floyd's art, in a similar fashion to what my friend Troy Herion presented in his talk; I find both his creative and scholarly work in that arena to be unique and original, and I'm sure many people would be interested in hearing more about it.
DM: I think there's plenty of room within academia to expand the Pink Floyd discussion and any of the disciplines you named have plenty to contribute, I'm sure.
BD: Do each of you favor a particular period in Pink Floyd's history – and if so, which?
GC: I enjoy various albums from their different periods; in general, I appreciate a band that tries to explore new ground in every album. My favorites are Wish You Were Here, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, and Animals, although I also love The Dark Side of the Moon, A Saucerful of Secrets, Meddle, and The Wall. I'm also a fan of Waters' early solo album, The Pros and Cons of Hitch Hiking. I think it has a fascinating architecture as a concept album, and some wonderful guitar work by Eric Clapton.
DM: For me, not really – no specific period. I first got into The Dark Side of the Moon, Meddle, and Atom Heart Mother, but Animals is definitely my favorite (at the moment, at least).
BD: Have you all had the opportunity to see the band live?
GC: Unfortunately not… In the single time Waters played in Israel, I happened to be in New York…
DM: Not yet!
BD: Gilad, an article on the 'large-scale structure' structure in Pink Floyd music was published in the summer: where was it published and how would you summarize the topic for average fans?
GC: My article analyzed large-scale structure in the song "Dogs", including detailed transcriptions of the guitar solos and the accompaniment patterns, as well as a comprehensive examination of the arrangement throughout the song and its relationship to the lyrics. More importantly, my Ph.D. dissertation examined how Pink Floyd used such a small amount of thematic musical material in their large-scale songs ("Echoes", "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", and "Dogs") while keeping these songs interesting through such extensive scopes. The article about "Dogs", published in the summer, is part of a collection of essays in Hebrew about the band and edited by Ari Katorza; the book is aimed at a non- professional audience. I certainly hope to be able to publish my dissertation in English in the US or the UK.
BD: Gilad, how did the scale structure in Pink Floyd music change over time and each period in the band's history?
GC: During their early years, large-scale forms were a result of their extensive live jam sessions (e.g., 45-minute versions of "Interstellar Overdrive"), starting in 1970, the band became more interested in the 'organization' of their music and in creating a solid structure that would hold together lengthy compositions. I think one can see a clear line between "Interstellar Overdrive", "A Saucerful of Secrets", "Echoes", "Shine On You Crazy Diamond", and "Dogs", not to mention the entire The Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here, which are, in many ways, long compositions as a whole. By the way, the band members themselves described this evolution, as you can see in each of the Nicholas Schaffner and the Mark Blake biographies.
BD: How has Pink Floyd's music impacted and influenced your composition work?
GC: My piece "Ten Variations" for oboe, piano, and string quartet includes coloristic quotes from both the last guitar solo in "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" and the closing texture of "Echoes". Furthermore, the debut album of my band, Double Space, features some panning of acoustic guitars in a very similar way to what is found in "Dogs". I think that the impact of Pink Floyd on both my concert and my rock music is quite clear.
DM: When I was younger, I wrote a song that totally ripped off "Dogs", but I think the most overt impact is a concern for pacing and motivic unity.
BD: Gilad, in your presentation on "Shine On You Crazy Diamond," you discussed how the music may reflect the five stages of grief: to what extent do you feel the band was cognizant of the feelings they were projecting in this work, i.e., how much of this do you feel was conscious vs. subconscious?
GC: The question of whether musicians are aware of sophisticated harmonic, rhythmic, or formal sections as they create music is a popular one, especially with respect to rock music, which is considered more 'intuitive' than classical music. I doubt that Pink Floyd planned on structuring an 'orderly map' of emotions. I do think, however, that the success of both the lyrics and music in Wish You Were Here is partially due to their sincerity in provoking such a wide range of emotions, which arguably reflect the actual reactions that the band members, and mainly Roger Waters, felt at the time in regard to Syd Barrett. For me, this is one of the magical aspects of music: something can be created completely intuitively, while making an impression of lengthy, detailed planning. It is part of both the magic and the power of a successful piece of music, whether it's a jazz solo by Keith Jarrett, a 19th-century symphony, or a Pink Floyd masterpiece.
BD: Gilad, to what degree did the fact that Syd Barrett was still alive impact that expression of grief?
GC: Most of the research in the field of 'grief' that I encountered analyzes it from an inclusive perspective, not limited to death, rather to diverse applications of loss. My suggested viewpoint of the album is largely based on the way the band members themselves viewed Barrett. For them, he was clearly not there anymore, as Waters once said in regard to writing "Shine On You Crazy Diamond": "I wanted to get as close as possible to what I felt… that sort of indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd; because he's left, withdrawn so far away that, as far we're concerned, he's no longer there".
BD: Dave, you talked about the evolution of David Gilmour's guitar-playing and you specifically mentioned his work can be "less intimidating" for aspiring guitarists to learn: do you feel his guitar work (composition, etc.) became more complex over time and did something change substantially when the band moved into the 'Gilmour era' (did anything become more pronounced, complex, subtle, etc.)?
DM: I think his playing became more refined. Here's something to try: do a blind listening test of Gilmour solos and try to guess which album they are from. There's a world of difference from his starting years to the middle/end ones. The further the band moves beyond the Syd years, the more Gilmour develops what most people think of when they refer to his 'sound.' To be sure, he has identifiable phrases that he's playing from the first album on, but overall there seems to be a major break in terms of tone, scope, structure, overall sense of phrasing/shape from The Dark Side of the Moon onwards compared to what comes before. With that identifiability comes in some sense of uniformity, at least in approach. There is a sense of spacing within the solos that isn't seen in some of the earlier, more frantic ones, and less of an emphasis on exploring noise/extended techniques. There's a major crystallization in terms of his pentatonic playing, which makes up the bulk of his solos, especially from The Wall onwards. The solos on Animals in some ways are a step to the side from what starts with The Dark Side of the Moon and continues through The Division Bell. Animals is a fantastic album, very guitar-heavy, both in terms of solos and in terms of background/harmonic support.
BD: Do you both feel there was a palpable difference between the "Comfortably Numb" track on Delicate Sound of Thunder and the one on PULSE? Is there a difference in the cadence or vocal harmonies? The Delicate Sound of Thunder version is much 'grungier', right?
GC: First of all, the singers in the verses are different. Different singers were tackling the lead in each the Delicate Sound of Thunder and PULSE performances. This explains the difference in the vocal harmonies. Regarding the overall sound and the sound of the guitar in particular – the sound in a live recording is the result of a diverse series of factors: the sound equipment, the venue, the location of the speakers, the source of recording (the mixing, separate from the mixing used for live amplification), and (obviously) the sound engineers, for each the live concert and the released recording. The sound of Delicate Sound of Thunder is much clearer, with louder high frequencies, which makes everything sound brighter. YouTube clips for each concert video also present completely different volumes, which is a common source of confusion when comparing two recordings. Regarding differences in the Gilmour solos, his second solo (the one that is based on the verse's chords) is completely different in each the Delicate Sound of Thunder and PULSE versions. In PULSE, the second solo is arguably less edgy than that on Delicate Sound of Thunder: it fits both the meter and the chords in a much 'cleaner' way, while that in Delicate Sound of Thunder is freer and more aggressive.
DM: Regarding the two "Comfortably Numb" tracks, I think Gilad does an excellent job of summing up the differences. The effects rack looks quite different too as you can see in the gilmourish.com website. There, you can see each of the Delicate Sound of Thunder and the PULSE racks.
BD: Do you hope to hold a similar conference again and if so, how often and what other subjects do you hope to tackle at a future conference?
GC: There are definitely topics that I would love to explore if future opportunities arise. As Dave said in an interview a few months ago, we've just begun to scratch the surface. I also think that the combination of analytical talks, live music, visual art exhibitions, film screenings, and listening sessions is a unique format that is very appropriate for this music. I would love to develop this format further, and now it is clear that there is an audience for such an event. However, keep in mind that Dave and I produced this four-day event out of sheer joy and love for music, with a lot of help from an enthusiastic group of volunteers; I think that the next time such event is happening anywhere in the world, it would need a much stronger body of funding and organization. I'm very proud of what we achieved this year, but this is not something we could allow ourselves to do again without a considerable back-up. Were someone interested in taking up the glove, I would certainly love being a part of it.
DM: After the conference we spent some time cleaning up (returning equipment, dealing with thank-you cards/gifts, and all that) and it took a while to even touch the conference recordings for editing/archival purposes, so I needed some time to digest this before thinking about future endeavors.
BD: How much does the likelihood of an ongoing yearly Pink Floyd conference at Princeton University depend on the continued presence (at the University) of those who organized it this year?
GC: After five wonderful years at Princeton, I'm wrapping up my Ph.D. effort. Dave has a few more years at Princeton as a Ph.D. Candidate, so I wonder what he might say. While we received a lot of support from Princeton, I don't think any of its departments would produce a similar event without the initiative of a devoted person or people who would choose to take it upon themselves to do this again.
DM: It's hard to say. Princeton is a very special place in that the faculty and institution encourage independent research and creative endeavors such as this (while having the infrastructure to make it possible). At the same time, Gilad and I have by far been the biggest Floyd fans in the Music Department and I'm unsure of our plans/availability later this academic year, so it's too early to comment.
For more information on "Pink Floyd: Sight, Sound, and Structure" visit pinkfloydconference.princeton.edu. Gilad Cohen can be found at giladcohen.com and David Molk can be found on Facebook at facebook.com/molkmusic.
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