In Conversation, Pharrell Williams & Daniel Arsham On Memory, Creativity & The Casio MT-500 Keyboard
Besides being a preternaturally gifted songwriter, musician and producer, Pharrell Williams is one of the great collaborators of our time. Perhaps most famously, there’s his partnership with Chad Hugo as the Neptunes, the production duo that defined the sound of hip-hop and R&B in the late ’90s and early ’00s. He has also designed accessories for Louis Vuitton, created sculpture with Takashi Murakami and teamed with Nigo, the founder of A Bathing Ape, on several clothing lines. And of course Williams teamed up with other musicians on two of the biggest songs of the summer — “Get Lucky” with Daft Punk and “Blurred Lines” with Robin Thicke.
But perhaps his most personal collaboration of late is with the artist-architect Daniel Arsham, a fellow multihyphenate. Arsham is a master collaborator in his own right, who worked for many years with Merce Cunningham on stage designs and is partners with Alex Mustonen in the conceptual architecture practice Snarkitecture. Lately, he has been casting a variety of objects in volcanic ash and shattered glass, creating sculptures that look like archaeological relics from a distant future. His latest pieces are molds of the Casio keyboard on which Williams first began playing music. Last week, the duo sat down in Lower Manhattan to discuss the project.
Do you remember your first conversation A.?
ARSHAM: Emmanuelle Perrotin, who represents me in Paris, invited me to dinner at Pharrell’s house five or six years ago. I remember [turning to Williams] you had someone from your team bring up my Web site. We were in your kitchen. You were asking all kinds of questions about the work — what it was made out of, how it was physically made.
WILLIAMS: I don’t remember that moment that he’s referring to because that time in my life was a blur. My son was …
ARSHAM: Probably just born, right?
WILLIAMS: Yeah. It was a different time. But as long as I can remember, I’ve been impressed with him as a person, the way that he carries himself. And looking at his work I’ve always noticed a consistency, like a rhythm, a through line. And when I got to know him a little more, then you start to notice that there’s a connection between his work and him, what it is that he thinks and feels, and that’s when it just becomes magical. This guy sees a certain way in his head, and then he goes and he actually augments reality.
Daniel, do you see Pharrell as a reality augmenter as well?
ARSHAM: I see someone who is engaged in so many disciplines, and it’s something that I have pursued in my own practice. I would see him at Art Basel and Design Miami, not just to be there, but to actually engage, talk to the artists, the designers, and understand what they were doing.
Is that cross-disciplinary approach something that you both have in common?
ARSHAM: I mean, for me, it’s not that I get bored, but I look at something and I say, “I know that I can do that.” The first time I did a stage design with Merce Cunningham, I had never even been on a stage before. They had to teach me all about stage left and stage right, up and down. But I knew that if I was able to get into that world that I would be able to contribute something to it. I don’t know [to Williams] if for you, jumping into clothing or any of the other endeavors that you’ve pursued, what it is that makes you interested in jumping around into those disciplines.
WILLIAMS: I’d say it’s the same thing in music for me. It’s just, like, that which I feel like is missing. That’s what I become curiously challenged by, and sometimes moderately obsessed with. Like, “What do you mean? I’ve never seen it before in purple! We have to try it! You don’t understand!” These crazy, weird, fantastical ideas. So when I bump into guys like this, who that’s just his life. … My life is to do it in an auditory way. You can’t see what I do. You can only feel it if you choose to listen to it, and if you allow it in. His work, you could bump into it if you don’t pay attention to which way you’re going.
Do you both see yourself as artist-entrepreneurs?
WILLIAMS: Entrepreneur just denotes that you recognize that you’re doing things across disciplines and that you’re blazing your own path. But I’d rather concentrate on the other side of it, which is, “Man, I’m so lucky that I’m able to act on my curiosities and interact with these kinds of guys, genius dudes who just do this every day. For me, nothing is given. So when given the opportunity to work with people like this, it’s great for me. All of this is school for me. I didn’t go to college. This is my college.
Arsham’s replica of the Casio MT-500 keyboard that was integral to Williams’s musical development.Natan DvirArsham’s replica of the Casio MT-500 keyboard that was integral to Williams’s musical development.
What was the spark that lit this project?
WILLIAMS: He likes to experiment with broken glass. He’d done a couple of human, life-sized forms. So I’m like, “I gotta do that!” He’s like, “It’s going to be two or three hours. Then he sort of got poetic about remixing the idea. He’s like, “What meant a lot to you?” … [to Arsham] What was the exact question?
ARSHAM: “Think of an object that was important to you at the beginning of your career, musically, that was something you almost couldn’t live without, but you don’t use it anymore.” So he didn’t actually have this thing, but he described it and we did some research and we were able to figure out what it was and locate it. All the pieces are casts of that. It was a Casio MT-500. That model was only available at Radio Shack for two years, ’87 and ’88. There’s one in volcanic ash, shattered glass, crystal and steel. For me, these are objects that relate to time, geology, things that we think about as having an age and a patina to them. I’ve described it as taking it something from the recent past and projecting it over the current moment into the future. In some ways you’re erasing the present.
[To Williams] Do they take you back?
WILLIAMS: No. When I look at them, I just think, “I am legend.” I don’t even feel connected to that person. I’m like most people. We just concentrate on the present. I live right where the film is going through the film projector and it hits the light. I’ve heard there’s a reel going this way and another one winding it up on the bottom, but I’ve never seen it. I think that’s actually why he did it, so we could pay attention to the idea that time is fleeting and you shouldn’t be so hard-pressed and so stringent in your opinions and your judgments, because what you feel today could be completely different tomorrow. It’s only until you look over your shoulder and you’re like, “Oh my God, back in ’87 I was all about X, Y and Z and now it’s A, B and C.” This project, this ongoing collection of all these items, does that really well. I mean, when you’re in his warehouse you think they’re these old relics from earth, and he’s on Mars.
ARSHAM: I am.
WILLIAMS: And there you have it.
Is there a tomorrow for the two of you to work together again?
ARSHAM: I’m definitely going to throw you in that plaster mold one day.
ARSHAM: I’m just going to wait for the right moment.
WILLIAMS: O.K. That and anything else. I like what this guy does. This guy for me – forget about it. His work leaves permanent indentations, not only on your perception of reality, but quite honestly, it’s crazy how his work makes you pay attention to humanity. What you think is, “Whoa, a human made that!”