Bitsteam.de — Stephan Mathieu, a musician
 

Pascal Savy spoke with me about Schwebung, you can read the interview here

 

Stephan Mathieu and Taylor Deupree
in Conversation with Pascal Savy

Published by Fluid Radio, January 2012

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Last November, Stephan Mathieu and Taylor Deupree were invited to play together at the Semibreve Festival in Braga. As I was covering the festival for Fluid, I had originally planned to interview them separately but, upon meeting them a few hours before the concert, we decided to have a joint conversation instead.

Pascal Savy:
What are you going to play tonight?

Stephan Mathieu:
I’m playing my Phonoharp Zither, no computer processing this time, just the E-bows and strings, all mic’d up.

Taylor Deupree:
I’ll have various noises and percussion devices through my pedals and loopers. But we’re not exactly sure what we’re going to do yet because I haven’t done anything yet. We discussed it in the hotel room but without me being able to hook up my equipment, we couldn’t get very far.

SM:
I think we know what we want to do but still have to find the shape of it.

TD:
I think that Stephan will probably do more of the harmonies and I’ll do more noise and textures to make a nice combination. I don’t think I’ll do any melody but we’ll see. I’ve got a little OP-1 synthesiser so that could do lots of different things. And I have to say that to me the OP-1 replaces the computer and because of that I don’t need to bring the laptop on stage. With the OP-1, I can have some synthesised sine waves, some tones that I like to use without having to bring the whole computer.

PS:
Both of you have moved away from using laptops for live performance. Why?

TD:
I’ve wanted to move away for some times now but it’s only this year that I’ve come up with a system that allows me to not bring the laptop on stage. To me it was a bit boring, because when I performed, even though everything was improvised and it was different every time, it was not like I just hit play and it was there, but looking at the screen and moving some midi controllers, it’s just that for me it wasn’t that interesting anymore. And in general I’ve been trying to move away from digital things a lot, not totally so but I prefer the hands-on approach. I can do the same kind of music that I was doing before but with guitar pedals, loopers etc and for me it’s just a lot more interesting and maybe for the audience too. I think I can thank Steve Roden for what I do now. I was touring with him in Brazil maybe 10 years ago and I had my laptop and Steve brought only some microphones, delay pedals and nothing else. And I was like: “Well, what are you gonna play?” and he said: “I don’t know!”. And everywhere we went, he would collect small objects he found locally and he would make his music with those. And it was unbelievable music, music I saw him creating from nothing at all. And it’s been stuck in my mind ever since and in a way no live performance has had so much impact on me. For the past ten years I’ve been trying to do that without just going out and doing just the exact same thing. But I’ve been trying to come up with my own way of making something from nothing. The laptop to me is this box that has my emails on it, 12k’s accounting on it and all this stuff. It feels just bloated and heavy and in a way this box represents just so much of my life and it’s perhaps too much of my life. Because I know that behind the screen of Ableton Live, there is all this other stuff, all these other programs etc and it’s just mental garbage. So when I can play with my pedals, my microphones and instruments, it’s very pure: it’s all I’m using to create. So maybe that makes sense. But also I don’t want to go down as being anti-computer.

SM:
What you’re saying is very interesting, I never thought of it like this but it’s exactly that for me, like having my life standing in front of me while playing a concert.

TD:
You just know that behind that screen of Max/MSP or whatever, you’re a button click-away from the internet and everything else and it’s just about getting away from it. You want to get away from all that stuff and just make music.

SM:
On the other hand I think I’m notorious for having problems with computers. During the last few years I had bought several lemons, machines that had arrived dead. To say the least, It’s hard to build a good relation with them. Luckily I’ve never had any notable issues while playing live but I still feel terrified with computers on stage and that was another reason why I wanted to get away from them. I didn’t feel happy working with computers, even in the studio, to me a computer was more a problem than anything else. I have to say I’ve always been happy with what I do with them, a healthy workflow assumed, but at the same time I became interested in acoustic sources like the gramophone, the zither or the virginals and I saw there were quite some similarities to what I do with digital processes. Performing live with ‘real’ instrument feels different, and it gives the audience something visual to relate to. While playing, I receive a different feedback from the people.

PS:
That’s interesting because when I saw you playing at Cafe Oto in May you were using the laptop for live convolution but in a way it didn’t matter because it could have been just a pedal…

TD:
Did you touch the laptop or was it just processing?

SM:
In this setup, the computer is at the center of an autopoietic system, something that evolves by itself. The acoustic input of the ebowed strings and radio is fed into it, I’m only adjusting some parameters every now and then. In the end it is like fishing in the dark, I can’t really control the process, rather shape it roughly, while I will only hear the adjustments I do through the PA with a delay of 3 to 5 minutes. It’s a slow beast, good to surprise yourself with. The UK shows last May with Robert Curgenven, Jörg Zeger and Simon Scott where the first time in years that I used a computer in a live context again. I made peace with it again so now it’s a tool that I sometimes use, sometimes not. I’m sure that we will see the computer becoming really unwelcome on stage, something rather uncool. I can clearly see that coming. This is most likely because during the last decade the machine became so common and more and more people think it’s all too easy to come up with acceptable results. Actually I don’t think so at all and I like software processes for the things you won’t be able to do with analog means. The spectral and convolution stuff, I can’t do this without computers.

PS:
Taylor, you’re not classically trained and that’s a decision you made very early one in your career. Why was it so important for you?

TD:
When I was fifteen I sold my drum kit and my collection of comic books and that’s when I got my first synthesiser. I knew from that age that I wanted to be a musician, and over the next few years I learnt and read Keyboard Magazine and just soaked up everything I could. I had taken some piano lessons for two or three years, as my parents told me I had to take some piano lessons, but I had no interest in that. And I guess from fifteen to eighteen years old, a friend of mine and I did nothing but write music all year together and record on cassette tapes, and I had progressed to a point where, when the time came to go to University, I thought I didn’t anyone to teach me music, and I didn’t want to go to a music school and learn Jazz music or classical or give recitals, or any of that stuff. At the time, I don’t think there were any electronic music courses and if you went there, it was to learn piano or trumpet. Maybe there were an electronic music courses but none I had known about. I didn’t want to go to University to study music, so I studied photography which was something I was also interested in but needed a technical background that I didn’t have at the time with a dark room and all this stuff. So during the University as I was studying photography what I was really doing was making music in my apartment, and school was really secondary. I loved photography but I knew that I didn’t want anybody to teach me music because I was learning enough on my own. If you’re obsessed with something, no matter what it is, you can do it by yourself, at least in the arts. But right now I wish I knew how to play guitar because I don’t. To me a guitar is a tone box. I can play a few chords, I can play some notes and with a multi-track recorder I can ‘fool’ people. But I wish I knew how to really play. Looking back it would have been nice to learn an instrument or two but at the time I didn’t think it was important.

PS:
And what about you Stephan?

SM:
Actually I can tell you almost the same story. I started playing drums when I was ten and I had three lessons with the organ teacher of my brother, an eldery lady. She said of course she could teach me how to play the drums, so I ended up sitting in front of a big, drum-shaped washing powder bin with a pair of sticks and had some initial lessons in rudiments. After three meetings I was disappointed and bored. By that time, I used to go to concerts quite often since my family lived at the University campus where my father was a house-keeper. There were many concerts organised by the Students’ Committee and he always took me there, a lot of Reggae, ECM related jazz, punk and rock shows. At some point a local band opened for Carla Bley, I was fascinated by the drummer and I asked him whether he would teach me. The week after I was sitting behind his massive kit playing beats, a great thing for a rock socialised kid. I saw him for a year, at home I would play along my records on my own drum kit. I also played in funny little school bands, which were total crap but certainly fun! When I was around fifteen I sold my drum kit, when I was eighteen, I discovered a series of improvised music in my home town with fantastic musicians in a venue called Stadtgalerie. This was one of the best sound art galleries in Europe, right in Saarbrücken, where I lived! So I received a nice extra education there. I met people like Steven Roden and there were some fantastic exhibitions and the series of improvised music. In the late 80s I heard Alexander von Schlippenbach’s legendary trio there with Paul Lovens, who plays a prepared drum kit, small chinese drums and super odd cymbals, a pretty unique set. The first image I got was that he sounded like someone shaking a huge tool box. No beats, just sound. So I saved some money and bought a cheap drum kit again and started playing, trying to digest what I heard there. A year later, I moved to Berlin as a drummer and three weeks after I arrived I found myself playing with various wonderful musicians, all the young guys who stranded in Berlin the way I did. Again a while later I played with some of my heroes, people like Butch Morris, whose records I had collected as a teen. Everything came quite quickly. There were some really great drummers in the scene, proper technicians, something I never considered myself at all but then I knew I had my own qualities and think I was quite good at what I did by doing it my very own way. Sometimes I wondered whether I should take lessons, study with someone, but I chose not to as I feared classes might spoil what I have, let’s say, my own language. I remember asking Paul Lovens for advice who told me: “Always watch the drummer, especially the bad ones.” It was a great time actually. Every now and then, I thought it would be great if I could play etudes for snare drum off the sheet, but then – why? I was able to do other things well. Nowadays it’s actually the piano that I would love to be able to play. I can’t read music, scores. Ironically, in the meantime my daughter and even my youngest son is able to teach me how to read music. I’ll play the piano or whatever you give me anyway, like Taylor said, rather as a tone generator. I enjoy approaching things in an innocent way.

TD:
With the music and the technology that I grew up with, I didn’t have to be a trained musician. Nowadays, I don’t have to be able to play Mozart to be a musician and it was the same when I started in the 80s’ with sequencers etc. Being able to play a little bit is nice, but with multi-tracking and different kinds of sounds, you didn’t need to go to school for it. The technical stuff you did but I learnt that myself anyway. But you didn’t have to learn how to play a fancy score to make the kind of music that we wanted to make. When I started I wanted to be an industrial musician, I made industrial music, alternative new-wave music, I wanted to be New Order!

PS:
You document in details the creative process behind your music in press releases and CD booklets. Why is it important for you?

TD:
I really like talking about that stuff, so to me it just comes naturally to share that process. And I think that a lot of listeners out there are also musicians themselves so they can appreciate it. And then from a more dry point of view, it’s something to talk about on a press release. Because the hardest part of running 12k is writing those press releases because it’s so hard to talk about music so it’s just gives you something to say, and it fills up a paragraph of material. But in the end, it doesn’t really matter how it’s done and it shouldn’t matter how it’s done. But it gives to the listeners something to learn about you as a person, to follow your career and how you’re evolving. It’s just more information that people may be interested in or may be not interested in. It’s just about creating a history of yourself and how you work, how you change.

SM:
While I agree with Taylor when he says the process behind a work shouldn’t matter, I like to share what I do to a certain degree. In the end it’s the music that matters, no matter how fascinating the process may be, if the music is boring the methods won’t help. At the same time, I’m interested in other people’s processes, for instance when Billy Basinski started releasing his music I wanted to know more about it, how his music came to be, what were his motivations. Basically whenever I fall in love with some music, I’ll find myself researching. With my own stuff, I’m mainly concerned to tell that it is a process-based music, opposed to processing-based. I don’t edit, multitrack, arrange, MIDIfy, I don’t use special effects, no artificial reverb ever. If I make an album, I record tons of material and discard most of it then. The rest stays as is and will only be polished with mastering tools then. Otherwise I will end up with a product where I will always hear decisions I made at a certain point. I’m not interested in that, I like to keep the sounds integrity, a quality that evolved by itself.

PS:
Both of your processes share this level of abstraction from the sound sources…

SM:
My work has always been about the essence of a material and processing. Whether it’s the zither, the gramophone, a piece recorded 100 years ago onto record, I always try to squeeze my personal essence from it, to find out what is in there that makes me love the sound.

TD:
It’s the same with me. It’s also just interesting to listen the sound all around us or how I can use a guitar to create the kind of music that I make, besides playing it like a pop song. Take the work I did in York with all the gamelan instruments for example. I had a brief training for one afternoon and I quickly realised that I wasn’t interested in playing it the way it was supposed to be played. Again I looked at all those instruments as tone boxes and how I could use them to make the music that I make. So it was about playing all parts of the instruments, just using the all thing as an instrument. I don’t know where that comes from, it’s like asking why we do what we do or why we make the music we want to make. It’s a big question. But in order to make the kind of music that I want to make, the sounds do have to be abstracted somewhat, but not totally though. And they get smooched into a bed of sound, however that needs to happen or whatever processes need to go on for it to happen.

SM:
I worked on ‘The Sad Mac’ around 2003 while having a grant from the City of Berlin, which put me in the position to buy a good pair of microphones and also to pay some recording fees to musicians. I got in touch with a couple of early music players to record the basic material for this project, asking them to perform little sketches I had made up based on their repertoire, as a starting point for my processing work. Once the album was finished, I thought it was a pity that I went so far away from the initial acoustic material I had recorded, that I chose to process the recordings so heavily. I’d definitely like to go there again, giving certain chamber music concepts another try. The Virginals project deals with that, my approach to the duo with Taylor as well. Actually early next year an acoustic duo recording with David Maranha on violin and me on the virginals will be released.

PS:
And you Taylor, what new directions would you like to explore in the future?

TD:
It would be a guitar and voice record as a solo project, some sort of abstract folk music. My 7” release ‘Journal/Attic’ was a step towards that but I don’t want any processed voice or processed guitar, just a really simple lo-fi guitar, voice, maybe some little sounds. That’s what I’m working towards or hoping one day to be able to do. But I can’t play guitar so I really have to do what I can do and still make it work. And I can’t sing very well. This project is one thing but there are so many other things and they’re not enough hours in a day to make everything that I would like to do.

 

 

A 5-page feature on my work was published in the June issue of Blow Up Magazine.

You can download the piece (in Italian) here –

 

Stephan Mathieu. The Entropy of Sound

(.pdf / 2.8MB)

 

Grazie Leandro!

 

 

Constellations and Fragments
The Sound of Stephan Mathieu

by Pia Bolognesi

Published in Digimag Issue #62, March 2011, translated from Italian by Lara Freschi

 

Any elements, no matter where they are taken from, can serve in making new combinations. […] Anything can be used. It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of these fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish preservation of citations.

Guy Debord [*]

 

Recently reading again Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay Postproduction. Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, I have found this excerpt of Mode d’emploi du détournement by Guy Debord, which to the detriment of his fiftyfive years – the text was published back in ’56 – picks an extremely contemporary aspect of artistic practise. The use of already existing elements, drawn from extremely varied contexts and the related process of intervention and creation of original works. If for visual arts broadly speaking, starting from the more ludic aspect of avanguards reaching the ready-made, the pop art and contemporary experiences, there already have been a high cultural aximilation which metabolized these techniques and gained the right key to the reading, as far as sound art is concerned there is still something to clarify.

Often this practice was associated with simple sampling, combining the author’s role to the one of DJ’s or producer’s, for sure basic figures of contemporary culture, who however act in a rather different way, not to say antithetic, compared to the sound artist, simplyfying a lot the process which from the sampling stage takes to the original composition, opting instead for keeping active a sort of quotations process played on new combinations (often we are inclined to leave recongnisable the fragment itself to give more enphasis to the discards, within the inedited system in which it is focused on or inserted). The distinction drawn by Debord between sampling and alteration of the meaning, makes you think instead about those works which structurally conseal the referent (not for omission, but for installation) and build an autonomous process with already existing elements (fragments or entire), which for quality and stratificatioon of the work became part of it, not simply changing their meaning, but formally acquiring a new content.

The last two works by the german sound artist Stephan Mathieu – A Static Place and Remain – follow instead this latter process. For both of them, Mathieu made use of published compositions of heterogeneous nature: a collection of 78 rpm vinyls of some of the first audio recordings dating back to the 20’s and the score of an installation by Janek Schaefer, Extended Play. Mathieu is not new to reprocessing, tecnique used since a long time to create set ups with instruments and analogical devices connected to hardwares working in real time, but in the last few years his passion for the first discographic recordings, the old instruments, the environmental sounds and the obsolete communication devices, has taken him to experiment new solutions also concerning contemporary compositions.

Compared to artists such as Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman e Ellsworth Kelly, Stephan Mathieu’s essential aesthetics strikes for its dynamism and the unquestioned emotional impact, works such as Virginals and Radioland, the latter published by the italian Die Schachtel label and considered by critics one of the best works of 2008, though relatively recent, are by now rooted in the listener’s contemporary electroacoustic background .

Mathieu, on the music scene since the early 90’s, other than many compositions to listen to and excellent collaborations – Kit Clayton, Akira Rabelais, Douglas Benford, Taylor Deupree, John Hudak and many more – dedicated a large part of his practice to the live and visual experience, in which the more intimate dimension of acoustic-mechanical devices moves from the concentration of the isolated sound fragment towards complex performative structures, with a strong architectural matrix. Just to mention the most recent works, the 25th Music Biennale Zagreb commissioned to Mathieu Process, adaptation of Franza Kafka’s novel The Trial and it’s movie adaption by Orson Welles, transformed into real time binary code; and in 2010 the Sonar Festival in Barcelona produced three new shows for Constellations at the Planetarium of the Science Museum CosmoCaixa, dedicated to the iberian composer of the Renaissance Antonio de Cabezón, in occasion of the 500th anniversary of his birth, celebrated last year. As far as the visual part in concerned, which accompanied Stephan Mathieu, Caro Mikalef and the harpsichordist Carles Budo Costa’s performance, a system of optical lenses assembled with mirrors and colored filters was constructed, enhanced by a spectral bulb system predisposed to create a play on reflections during the projection on the planetarium’s dome.

During 2011 with three records just released - Remain, A Static Place, To Describe George Washington Bridge – Mathieu’s activities have been focusing on a new circle of concerts for the by now classic Radioland, and on some unreleased productions which will flow into the extension of Virginals.

 

Pia Bolognesi:
We can start talking about your latest projects: Remain, on Line, and A Static Place, for 12k, released almost simultaneously from each other. Are these two side projects that arise from a common sound research or in your artistic practice you feel the need to work in parallel on several projects?

Stephan Mathieu:
I’m used to work on several projects at the same time, its very much in my nature, so if I need a break with one specific theme, there is most likely another one I can keep up with. The material for A Static Place and Remain was created during one week in 2008. Back then I was looking into further possibilities for a live system I had been using for a year to process records from my collection of early 78s, playing selected records on two mechanical-acoustic gramophones to send them to my computer to be transformed in realtime. The basic processes involved are the same I had already used for Radioland, with the gramophone setup which I had already created the material for Transcriptions with, a collaboration with Taylor Deupree. My digital tools have hardly changed since a decade, I like to work with things I know and rather refine them with the years, get to know them better. The processes I’m applying to audio are dealing in the first place with the merging of different acoustic spaces in order to create a new, imaginairy space inhabited by the initial audio information which the project starts from. What is changing though are the sources I use as an input. I’m after an essence of sound, of the material or instruments I’m working with.

PB:
Do you think there is a correlation between the artistic production of Schaefer and the strong architectural dimension of your set-up?

SM:
While things started to take shape with my gramophone system, I received Janek Schaefer’s Extended Play. Janek and I are friends and during that period we exchanged thoughts and feedback regading each other’s projects. So while I was already familiar with the concept for the Extended Play installation, actually hearing the recordings for the first time immediately striked me as his strongest, most touching work to date.

PB:
As far as the differences between these two projects are concerned, for Remain you used original material from the installation of Janek Schaefer, reprocessing the sound through different devices (entropic set-up, spectral analysis and convolution processes) built on a dynamic and introspective vision. Can you tell us how did you work to the structure of Remain and how you reprocessed the sound of Schaefer’s composition?

SM:
Apart from loving the music, Extended Play also gave me a welcomed rest from working with my scratchy 78s. Rather coincidentally I turned it into a personalised at-home installation, having up to four copies running in a loop in the house from various sources spread across three floors, creating a constantly changing version of Janek’s piece, reflecting his original concept of random recombination of a score for piano, violin and cello scattered in fragments across nine vinyl records. I made two long room recordings of this mix by setting up microphones in different locations in the house and then started reworking them using digital signal processing as well as a classic arrangement for audio entropy, which means ’space-processing’ the sound by playing it back into your room, re-recording it from there, playing back the new recording, recording it again and so on, until all that is left is a glistening tonal band, filtered by your own space’s dimensions. Convolution does something similar, but here things happen in an abstract digital space using complex algorithms. Although all this might sound very technical in the first place, to me it is quite a poetic way of working with sound. I also like the fact that these are both processes I can initiate but not fully control myself. Instead I feed audio into an autopoietic system.

PB:
Another interesting aspect of Remain is the choice to develop the sound in one 60 minutes non stop flow, in a long ambient-drone saturated of small variations and nuances…

SM:
This is a result of the process described is about space and duration, a flow. I look at Remain as an audio ’state’ rather than ambient music.

PB:
Coming back to A Static Place, for this project you rework a selection of 78RPM records from 1928-1932 of music from the late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque period. How did you work on processing the original supports and what is the preparatory process for this specific kind of intervention?

SM:
The process for A Static Place is very similar to the one for Remain, while convolution is more prominent in the 12k material. The two room recordings I used for Remain are replaced by selected records which are played back simultaneously from two mechanical-acoustic gramophones from the late 1920s, then they are picked up from the gramophone’s horns by microphones to be sent to the computer. Again both input sources are transfigured into a hybrid audio form that carries informaton of the tonal spectrum, dynamics, movements from the initial material.

PB:
As sound artist and collector your work on pre-existent material is a very strong challenge between the respect of the originals and the creative determination to make a new work exploiting the potential areas of intervention that combinations of sounds can afford. In addition there is a very strong component which is found in A Static Place, a suspension of temporality that updates the composition and makes it timeless. What do you think about these aspects?

SM:
After I started making music with computers I soon reworked several pieces by friends, a collection that became the Full Swing Edits series, 10 tracks of highly abstracted versions of the originals. I was looking for something I thought of as a personal essence of the material, something that holds the artists working methods, their specific sound, trying to create an audio portrait of them. It’s the same I’m doing today whenever I’m working with material by others, they are always present while I’m at it. The aspect of suspended time might come from the places where I find this essence, from spaces within the tonal spectrum.

PB:
During the past years you have collaborated with contemporary composers and artists: Taylor Deupree, Akira Rabelais, Janek Schaefer, Piotr Kurek, John Hudak, Claudio Sinatti and Caro Mikalef. Though they are very different projects all your works denote a formal canon, a painstaking search for every individual sound in harmony with the different personalities you work with. I refer to elective affinities with Taylor Deupree and Akira Rabelais, but also to Constellations with Caro Mikalef. As far as Virginals is concerned, how did you develop the project?

SM:
Virginals connects several points of interests for me, there’s my love for old music instruments, the ‘spirit’ within certain instruments and equipment, historical media and their use in the context of composing contemporary music, but also the act of interpretation of a written score. I only really discovered classical music for myself as a listener once I developed a sense for the different ways of playing it. I’m particularly touched by those who are able to play it in a unique and personal way. Then, I wanted to know more about the background of the compositions I like the most: what the context was back then, the composers’ and performers’ circumstances, politically, philosophically, scientifically, what their attitude was, which intruments were available, how they were made, how loud they were, what kind of ensemble was available at a certain royal court during a certain period, was there something like a vibrato in late Renaissance singing and so forth.

I did a lot of reading, a lot of listening to all kinds of recordings and renditions. In the end I found several favourites, discoverd a lot of ‘new’ music, and obviously erased also a proper part of the pop knowledge I had, mainly because it wasn’t just early music I was learning about, but also street gospel, hillbilly, hawaiian guitar duets. So, while some years ago I could tell you the exact duration of Queen’s We are the Champions, I’m not sure anymore right now. Instead I can tell you on which day Blind Willie Johnson has recorded Dark was the Night, Cold was the Ground now. A real data overflow. Apart from that I learned a lot about what interpretation means and how it can affect a composition, in a positive or negative way.

At the same time I got interested in the history of sound recording, started collecting gramophones and specific records from around 1900 to 1930, the times before or during the dawn of electronical equipment like microphones or loudspeakers. While back then most classical music was performed in an ‘updated’, modern fashion, there are also some very few recordings from the first movement of a historically informed performances practice from this period, where instruments like the lute, viols, a clavichord were recorded for the very first time, played by people who cared about historical tunings, authentic instruments and all. Those recordings in many aspects opened a window with a wide view to me. An important figure in the revival of early music is Arnold Dolmetsch, a frenchman who moved to England and started researching early music in the 1880s, a time when everything older than 100 years was considered primitive, early attempts in music making. Dolmetsch started reconstructing long lost instruments, researched scores, performance practices, tunings from the Renaissance and early Baroque, started teaching, first his family members, then people who heard about him. Actually his story would be a fantastic plot for David Lynch, wish he would read his life, a very fascinating character to say the least. Anyway, Dolmetsch himself and his family made a handful of recordings for Columbia between 1929 and ‘32, so his name was on my eBay search list and I managed to hunt down most of them. Then one day one of his instruments, an octave virginal, sort of a small at-home harpsichord built in his workshop in 1952 popped up there and I managed to acquire it at a fair price.

With the instruments’ arrival again several things fell into place for me and I began working on a series of special versions, personal interpretations of some of my favourite pieces by composers I admire, starting with Alvin Lucier and Phill Niblock whose pieces I transcribed for the virginals, adding a version of Francisco López’ Untitled ‘92 played with four gramophones and after a while I was able to present an evening of contemporary music in a classic recital style. Next I extended the instruments by adding a vintage 6-channel loudspeaker system which turned out to be the perfect amplification for them. Also it enabled me to set everything up as an arrangement of ‘characters’ where the audience can walk within instead of being seated. So the whole set became an organism that involves, reacts and actually relies strongly on the performance space and the audience as active players. People are free to move in the space, experience the sound sources from different positions, move closer to the sound they like the most and the acoustic spacial reflections come alive in a very special way. In the meantime I added two electronic organs to the ensemble and since a while I’m in touch with composers who are writing new works for it. So I’m quite exited to collaborate with Tashi Wada on a composition for Virginals right now, the piece will be premiered in a 14th century monastry in the center of Paris early in June.

PB:
In your live projects there is a strong relationship between sound, visual and performance. What is the dimension that characterizes your live work differently from the process of creating for your records? And how can the spazialization of sound in a visual experience influence the final result?

SM:
Basically, the music making live is very similar to what I do at home since the same tools and instruments are involved. Some projects are more rough in a live context, especially the computer pieces which are based on realtime processes, without any preconcieved material. Then I started a while ago to present some more or less open compositions like Constellations, Process or Virginals which are in a way more safe to play. What matters most for me with electronic or electroacoustic music is the quality of reproduction of the audio, a good loudspeaker system. Apart from my own system used for the Virginals project whenever it is possible to travel with all the stuff, I found out that my music often works better with a rock backline, guitar and bass amplifiers, than with a classic PA, especially if the PA has more of a medium quality. I like to work with equipment that has character, it helps to carry the music. In general I try to avoid a frontal stereo situation for performances and go surround/multichannel whenever possible.

Speaking of visual aspects, I started to develop concepts that go along with the mechanical approach which currently has a strong focus in my work. While I don’t believe that music necessarily needs a visual aspect, I had two invitations to create audiovisual pieces during the last 2 years. I wrote Process, a piece loosely based on Franz Kafka/Orson Welles’ The Trial which is performed with four gramophones, the virginals and two 16mm projectors connected by a long black and white loop containing an excerpt of Kafka’s text translated to binairy code, as well as Constellations, a collaboration with Buenos Aires based visual artist Caro Mikalef commissioned by the Sonar Festival in Barcelona, which turned out to become a dedication to Renaissance composer Antonio de Cabézon, performed by the two of us playing the virginals with seven electromagnets while a large custom made mobile with optical lenses and colour filters throws spectral light into the space. I like to see what’s in there, where it leads me, what a performance can be.

PB:
In conclusion, this is a very intense period for you, you have just released two records and you’ll be in Paris, Spain and Buenos Aires with two others different audiovisual live projects Radioland and Constellations, and we hope to have the possibility to see again Virginals in the next months. Can you tell us which are your projects and appointments in the future?

SM:
Apart from the new pieces in progress for Virginals, there are a couple of other collaborations in the making right now. Musique Nouvelle, a contemporary music ensemble from Belgium, has invited me to create two compositions with them, in July I will meet for a week with Ensemble 0, an open group with Stéphane Garin, Sylvain Cauveau and Joel Merah at its core, to create a site specific piece. Also my dream of putting together an ensemble of early music players finally seems to come true, Caro Mikalef and I are about to finish a new version of Process that we want to present later this Fall, and since a while Z’ev and I are discussing a rather chamber music piece with each other. While these are mainly live projects, there are also some home listening productions in progress, a CD with a soundtrack I wrote for a stage adaptation of Gustave Flaubert’s novel Un Coeur Simple is nearly finished, recording parts of Virginals right now, collaborations with Sylvain Chauveau and Christoph Heemann are slowly taking shape.

It’s a lot of exciting things to do, most of them progressing in parallel, and luckily there’s a lot of ‘ensemble’ work ahead instead of being solo. I’m very much looking forward to what the future brings.

 

[*]

Guy Debord, Mode d’emploi du détournement, Paris 1956,
in Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction, Sternberg Press, New York 2005.

You can read Postproduction here.

 

Photo by Caro Mikalef