15 Bytes | Music

Katie Porter and Devin Maxwell’s Listen/Space Brings New Music to the Mountains

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The year was 2003. Hundreds of sound designers, composers, and musicians were gathering at the Game Developers Conference in San Jose to network and share ideas on the gaming industry and, specifically, game audio and interactive music. The Game Audio Network Guild was hosting its first annual awards and Katie Porter and Devin Maxwell, MFA graduates from the California Institute of Arts who were recently married, had been invited two weeks earlier to open the ceremony with a performance. Devin had arranged some old video game songs for bass, clarinet and xylophone and once they started playing Ms. Pac-Man and Super Mario Bros., the crowd went nuts. While playing this music live on their instruments seemed perfectly normal to Katie and Devin, the audience was hearing the music of their childhood in an unexpected way.  The couple became famous overnight and the gig gave them work and a career path they couldn’t have anticipated — from big money in the ringtone business to an experimental music project in the mountains around Park City.

Devin grew up in New Jersey playing percussion. He played in community orchestra and bands. He was talented, but more importantly, he was quick. He learned his songs in the morning and recorded them in the evening. After high school he found himself going to the University of Cincinnati College – Conservatory of Music not really knowing what a conservatory was. Because percussionists don’t have a lot of music written for them, he started composing. He arranged the first movement of Mahler’s 5th Symphony for xylophone, French horn, piano, and percussion; he also arranged “Welcome to the Jungle” from the Guns N’ Roses album “Appetite for Destruction.

Katie grew up in Utah, playing the guitar and writing songs. She learned the clarinet in school and participated in several local youth orchestras and ensembles including Utah Youth Orchestra and the Granite District Youth Orchestra.

The pair met at CalArts, where new and experimental music was their passion—writing music, playing music, and commissioning music. They knew if they wanted to follow their dream, they had to subsidize it, so when a friend of Devin’s who had just started a game company invited him to write the music, they moved to Philadelphia to work for Ternary Studios. Devin says he learned a lot about game architecture working for Ternary and how to put sound design and music in a game design document. Unfortunately, the company went south, so the couple decided to pursue the game audio business on their own and founded the LoudLouderLoudest Music Production Company.

“It was a very strange time for video games,” Devin explains. “The industry wanted to elevate game audio. They saw film composers and orchestras coming to write music, but what they really wanted was more specialized, interactive music with very high production quality.” At a video game party, Devin was introduced to Konstantin (Konny) Zsigo, president and CEO of the Wireless Developer Agency, who was looking for arrangements of music specifically for the mobile industry. He had heard Devin’s CD with Guns N’ Roses songs. “He was deep in the wireless industry,” Devin says. “Konny helped build the platforms content could be distributed on. No one had any content to distribute and all the phones at the time had different hardware and operating systems.” Basically, if you knew how to code, create images for wallpaper and write music, Konstantin Zsigo needed you. Devin had the perfect intersection of skills: he was conservatory trained, he knew electronic music, and he had already done video game work. He had written original music, he understood the technology and how to apply it. The couple worked on interactive music for games like Hangman and Gumby and scored some of the first mobile films and animations. But making music for mobile phones was only the beginning.

The couple ended up in Brooklyn and it wasn’t long before their mobile game music career morphed into creating ringtones. “We met all the record labels within a week,” Katie says. “Konstantin was feeding us really hard work and we did it really well.” This trained them for the real work which was to come. “We started going to meetings but we didn’t know ringtones,” Devin says. “I happened to be the de facto expert on all of the audio capabilities of the phones out there. And then Katie got a phone call from Warner Music Group.” The company challenged them to write Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” in two days and, with the help of their music friends in New York, they made it happen. While everyone else was bringing music on software emulators, Devin brought an actual phone to present the product. That meeting put them in business overnight. They didn’t know the technology, but they bought all the different cell phones they could find off the gray market and taught themselves everything they could about the cell phone industry. They called themselves LoudLouderLoudest and added about thirteen 13 employees.

LoudLouderLoudest distributed music to all the carriers on behalf of Warner Music Group. Each ringtone sold for up to $4.00. The company worked with labels contracted with big name bands and artists, and those artists had a heavy hand in how the clip sounded, how it looped, which 15 seconds of their song was chosen, etc. The ring tones were being made before the albums were released. There was a lot of money on the table, and their company did well.

The ringtone work was tedious, but Katie and Devin balanced it with making their own music. This whole time they were still performing, Katie playing in a couple orchestras for fun, playing live for a theater company, and in a band she formed called Lady Lucille (named after her grandmother) — one of the songs she wrote, “You’re a Fool,” ended up on a BBC show called “Essex Bangers”; and Devin playing at Carnegie Hall and a church at Columbia University. They were collecting a lot of musician friends who composed, and also collecting a lot of revenue from the ringtone business — so much so they bought a former funeral home in Williamsburg and built a venue where they could champion new music. They called it Listen/Space. “I didn’t even have to program it,” Katie says. “I just opened the doors and people wanted to play.”

Eventually the ringtone world imploded. Since they weren’t selling the music, only making it, LoudLouderLoudest wasn’t hit too hard, but in October 2010, Katie and Devin sold their company and exited the wireless industry. They now had two little kids they didn’t want to raise in the city, so they decided to move to Park City, where a year earlier they had bought a cabin. They would be near Katie’s family; Devin could delve back into academia and earn a Ph.D. at the University of Utah.  That move marked the end of what Katie affectionately calls “a silly time.”

New York remains an important part of their life. They go back about 30 times a year and it took them a year and a half to pack up their stuff at Listen/Space and bring it to Utah. Listen/Space became a nonprofit and Katie moved the venue to their cabin on the mountain. Last year they played six commissions. Katie simply asked her musician friends in New York to come out to Utah for a week. “I didn’t care what the ensemble would end up being,” she says. “It was a very strange band. It was more about people; who do I want to work with.” They ended up with a saxophone, trumpet, violin, flute, drums, and clarinet. And they asked composers to write for those instruments. “The idea was to just work and record these pieces as a legacy project, but it turned out to be a performance.” Their audience was made up of their children’s friends’ parents and their neighbors in the mountains. “They came out with their chairs and coolers and beer and they just loved it. They were so excited something was happening that they didn’t even realize the music was weird.”

Katie maintains that it’s not about putting on shows; it’s about creating new works. The mission is to incubate hand-selected composers to create works called the Listen/Space Commissions. Katie and Devin don’t believe in the current commission model for composers, and they don’t necessarily believe in competition. “What happens is composers keep writing the same piece over and over again; they end up with different iterations of the same thing,” Devin explains. “There’s no growth. What we want to do is say, ‘Listen, we have some stability, we’ll be here for a while, and we’ll do it wherever we are.’ It just doesn’t seem healthy the way music is working. I hear very safe music that fits into this box of what made this person in the first place. So their music doesn’t change much from when they were in their 20s. We want to encourage risk by giving them a little bit of stability. We’ll see if it works.”

They expect to see an evolution year after year from these composers they commission. This year the program will sponsor 13 new pieces. Their goal is eventually to publish the pieces so anyone can perform them.
Katie believes the project has potential. Last August she attended Ostrava Days outside of Prague in the Czech Republic. “It’s new music and orchestra music you never get to hear,” says Katie. “There was a piece for three orchestras by Karlheinz Stockhausen that you never get to hear live. The audiences were huge.” She couldn’t help but think, “Where are all these people coming from?” She knew that all you have to do is facilitate a venue for this music, and people will come.

Another Listen/Space project of theirs is a symposium that will take place a week after the commissions in early July. VU Symposium provides a forum for people to read their papers and perform their experimental, electronic, and improvised music. “There are a lot of people thinking about this stuff, but there aren’t a lot of festivals or symposiums championing experimental and improvised music,” says Devin. The symposium will take place in Park City. They currently have 40 people coming in from all over, and 15 concerts planned. The attendees will read papers in the morning and there will be concerts in the afternoon and early evening. Devin says they designed it that way so the evenings would be free to break out into small discussion groups, and also, they would break free from the hierarchy of who got the coveted 8 p.m. performance spot, or which ensemble got the headliner. Many of the composers are from New York and L.A., but there are some with strong Utah ties such as Jake Rosenzweig and Jesse Quebbeman-Turley.

Devin also has been working with Utah Youth Orchestras to get their young
players to write music. Barbara Scowcroft is the music director for UYO and she was looking to do a composition contest for the young kids in the orchestras who write music. She met with Katie who encouraged her to consider doing a workshop instead of a contest and to have the orchestra read the young composers pieces. Katie introduced Barbara to Devin and together that’s exactly what they did. They had six workshops on Saturdays after their rehearsals. The Utah Youth Orchestras Young Composers Project has been Barbara’s dream for over a decade. “Devin’s teaching and guidance of the students was spot on and he helped facilitate the emergence of 10 really fine new compositions,” says Barbara. “Devin has great patience, deep love and commitment for what he does — and that really came across.” Devin said people were worried composition was too hard for kids and it would never work, but he knew better. “They didn’t have to worry if it was good or bad,” Devin says. “They just did it.” There was no competition involved. Any kid that came and wrote their music and made their parts got to have the orchestra read their piece. The kids just had to stick it out through all the workshops. The Young Composers Project is the first workshop of its kind for Utah’s youth. Katie and Devin believe that’s the way to facilitate growth.

As for the future, the couple plans to stay atop their mountain outside of Park City for awhile. Devin just finished his doctorate and has a job teaching electronic composition at the University of Utah next year, but first, he and his family are headed to New York for the release of his CD. It’s called “Works: 2011-2014” and includes pieces Devin wrote for orchestra, electronics, and other mixed chamber ensemble. One of these pieces features Katie and Devin’s duo, Red Desert: Katie on clarinet and Devin on drums. Katie is putting her professional energy into Listen/Space and performing. In May, she performed a new piece by Morris Rosenzweig on the NOVA Chamber Music Series. It was just what she needed to get back in musical shape after giving birth to their third child in April. What lies ahead is still unknown. If their past proves anything, it’s that they have the skills, talent and gumption to do anything that’s thrown at them. But the important thing is they’re doing exactly what they set out to do.

This profile appeared in the June 2016 edition of 15 Bytes.

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