Creative entrepreneur Jordan Hochenbaum is a composer, DJ, professor, and co-founder of Kadenze. All those skills come together in his newly-launched online Ableton course, where students get “hands-on experience in producing, mixing, and sound design with a digital audio workstation.” We sat down with Jordan to talk about what inspires his music, his history with Ableton and interface design, and to get some crucial tips for anyone looking to get into the music business.

For those of us who are new to Ableton, give us the 5-cent tour. What’s it all about? How do you use Ableton in your own music?

Ableton Live is a software application that allows you to play, perform, and improvise music. When I first started using Live, I was only using it in a performance context. It has a view called the Session View which allows you to improvise in your arrangements non-linearly. It opens up a lot of possibilities, and was a huge shift in how I approached performing electronic music live. These days, it’s also the heart of my studio.

It’s super flexible for sequencing and arranging, and I find that I play and experiment more in Live, in ways that I haven’t with other music software. I think every track I’ve made over the last 8 or 9 years or so has either used only Ableton Live, or a combination of Live and some hardware (my Eurorack modular, drum machines, etc).

You’ve released 18 records in the past 4 years—that’s incredibly prolific! Where does all of your inspiration come from?

Ah, there are a lot of different directions we can go with this. I’ll stick to music for now. Aphex Twin was the first electronic music I started listening to and is probably the reason I first started making electronic music. I got really into Autechre much later, sometime during my undergrad. With artists like Aphex and Autechre I can’t help but admire how they’ve consistently pushed themselves, and have explored a lot of different corners while maintaining their singular and unique voices.

Paul McCartney once said that “God Only Knows” (Brian Wilson/Beach Boys) is the best pop song ever written and that he’s broken down and cried because of it, and I’d have to agree. The songwriting completely does my head in. It’s been analyzed to death by musicologists and theorists but I’ll try to avoid all of the nerdy music school tricks that I find interesting, like the fact that the song avoids root-position tonics and authentic cadences.

The song is instantly emotional in a way that is hard to fake. It’s a bonus when you realize all of the incredible interplay going on between the notes being played, the lyrics being sung, and the emotions you feel. Similarly, I think Arvo Pärt’s work is beautiful in general, but “Fratres” is one of the most gorgeous pieces I’ve ever heard.

More directly with the music I release, I’ve always been a huge fan of Basic Channel for their sense of space, depth, and subtlety. Also Convextion / E.R.P for consistently putting out some seriously emotional machine funk that is undoubtedly his. Jan Jelinek is an artist I always come back to, as well as Burnt Friedman, who once again blew my mind at at a festival in Wales over the weekend with the most insane polyrhythms, tuplets, and metric modulations I’ve ever heard in “electronic” music (he actually uses a lot of acoustic instrumentation).

Lastly, I spent a lot of nights during high school listening to “The Pearl” by Harold Budd and Brian Eno. It’s a perfect example of a record that instantly transports you into another headspace, without the use of vocals or direct narratives.

What was the first instrument/interface you ever built? How has your process and design philosophy evolved since then?

The first instrument I ever built was a theremin, a contactless instrument that is played by controlling the distance between one hand and an antenna that affects pitch, and the other hand and an antenna that affects volume. At the time I was interning at a recording studio in Chicago, and the studio technician there offered to mentor me on an electronics project.

I remembered a video of Clara Rockmore, and how beautifully vocal and expressive the instrument was in her hands. After doing some research, I found a circuit online that closely modeled the original instruments built by Leon Theremin, and over that summer I got to work. First learning how to read the schematic, what a resistor and a capacitor were, how you build and shield a power supply, and of course, how to shock yourself with a fairly decent amount of voltage (kids, do not try this at home!).

With the theremin, once you get past the novelty of its in-air control (which is now fairly commonplace with low-cost Natural User Interfaces like the Microsoft Kinect and Leap Motion) you realize how elegant of an instrument it really is. It gives you access to just two degrees of freedom (pitch and volume), and it’s a notoriously difficult instrument to master. But with just those two parameters, you can literally pull notes out of thin air, you can bend microtonally, or just make spooky sound fx, which is probably what the instrument is best known for.

Unfortunately, this type of nuance is often compromised in newer musical interfaces which promote convenience and commerciality over the kind of subtlety that requires practice. That being said, today we have unprecedented access to technology, old and new, low cost microcontrollers like the Arduino and Raspberry Pi, and every sensor imaginable. I think that there has never been a more exciting time in history to think about what music you want to make, and what you need to design to have a meaningful and honest way to perform it. The tools are there, the resources exist for anyone to learn, especially online, but like anything rewarding in life, you need to spend time with it.

My design process and philosophy always stem from a question. From there I think you sort of have to keep peeling away layers, until all that’s left is the kernel of the original thing. This is one thing I think we do really well as the Noise Index, a collective I’m part of with my good friends Owen Vallis and Jasmin Ruiz Blasco. We meet on the weekends over pho and beer, for months at a time, throwing ideas around, researching, having a few laughs. As a result, I think we’ve been successful in questioning technology and utilizing it honestly, without falling into the trap of using tech for tech’s sake. For me it’s been immensely rewarding.

What advice do you have for artists and creatives who are just starting out?

Be open. Openness has been so important in my own development and career that I can’t stress it enough. In the general sense I mean that you need to keep yourself open to all possibilities. Open as many doors as possible, and don’t be afraid to go outside of your comfort zone. When I went to music school for my undergrad, I never once imagined I’d go on to work for Nokia Research or Engineering at Twitter, or to build large-scale interactive musical buildings for Red Bull.

Secondly, in a more tangible sense, I think really amazing things can happen when you open source your work. I was lucky to meet an amazing group of individuals in college. We would just hang out and share production and synthesis techniques with each other, music and books, you name it.

When I started developing software and getting really into creative coding and engineering, that same mentality carried over. I always put everything up online for free. Without a doubt, a lot of the early successes that Owen and I saw with projects like the Arduinome and Bricktable came from putting the code, firmware, build instructions, and parts lists up online for free, and believing in the philosophies of Open Source.

You’ve co-founded a company, have an active music career, teach music technology at CalArts, and still find time to build interfaces and art installations. As a creative entrepreneur, how do you balance everything?

I have to admit that I’m genuinely passionate about the things I get to work on, so that definitely helps. But to try and not avoid the question, here are a few things I thought I’d share.

Firstly, staying active artistically serves as a way to counterbalance to the insanity of juggling it all. I also find that at least for me, creativity comes in bursts, especially with music. Juggling means I can’t work on it every day, but rather I have periods where I don’t create much, followed by really intense periods where I lock myself away in the studio and just write like crazy.

Focus. One thing I’ve worked hard to get better at over the years is honing in on what’s in front of me, and not letting myself get distracted by all of the external things that can pull you away. Sometimes at the office I wear headphones over my ears, but there might not be any music playing. It’s just my way of getting into the right headspace. And when I work on music I definitely shut down my browser, put my phone on Do Not Disturb (I only just recently learned of this!) and make a concerted effort to get into the right state of mind.

Collaborate. When I was younger, I wanted to do everything myself. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how important it is to find people to work with that you can trust, that approach things from another angle than you do, and that will push you to grow intellectually. I’m fortunate to work both professionally and artistically with two of my best friends, Owen Vallis and Ajay Kapur, who constantly do just that.

Let go of your ego. A few things I learned during the course of my PhD:

  1. Be relentless in your work ethic.
  2. Understand that what you know or think you know is just a small insignificant blip in the grand scheme of things (and that’s a good thing!).
  3. You could always benefit from more time, but you have to learn how and when to move on to the next problem.

Working with students at CalArts and seeing the interactions happening on Kadenze has been extremely humbling. Any knowledge I can pass on to them is just a catalyst for their own self discovery, and I learn and grow from them as much as they probably learn from me.

Of course, coffee helps a lot too.

Check out Jordan’s course here.