CONSTELLATIONS AND FRAGMENTS
THE SOUND OF STEPHAN MATHIEU
By Pia Bolognesi
Published in Digimag Issue #62
“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 It goes without saying that one is not limited to correcting a work or to integrating diverse fragments of out-of-date works into a new one; one can also alter the meaning of these fragments in any appropriate way, leaving the imbeciles to their slavish preservation of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 *
While reading again Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay Postproduction. Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World, I 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 Franz 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.
Let’s start with your latest projects Remain and A Static Place, two CDs released in February simultaneously on the Line and 12k labels. Are these projects that arise from a common sound research or do you feel the need in your artistic practice to work in parallel on several projects?
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.
Do you see a correlation between Schaefer’s artistic production and the strong architectural dimension of your own set-up?
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.
As far as the differences between these two projects are concerned, for Remain you work with original material by Janek Schaefer, reshaping it by different means (an entropic set-up, spectral analysis and convolution processes) built on a dynamic and introspective vision. Can you tell us how you worked on the structure of Remain and how you reprocessed the sound of Schaefer’s composition?
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.
Another interesting aspect of Remain is your choice to develop the sound in one continuous flow of 60 minutes, a long ambient-drone saturated by small variations and nuances…
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.
For A Static Place you rework a selection of 78RPM records from 1928-1932 with music from the late Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque period. How did you transform the original sound material and what is the process for your specific kind of intervention?
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.
As a sound artist and collector your work on pre-existent material presents a strong challenge between the respect of the originals and the creative determination of creating a new work exploiting the potential areas of intervention that combinations of sounds can afford. In addition, there is a very strong component in A Static Place, a suspension of temporality that updates the composition and makes it timeless. What do you think about these aspects?
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.
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 these are all very different projects, your work always denotes 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?
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.
Your live projects present a strong relationship between sound, visual aspects and performance. What is the dimension that distinguishes your live work from the process found in your studio work? How can the spazialization of sound in a visual experience influence the final result?
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.
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 quiet different audiovisual live projects Radioland and Constellations, and we hope to have the possibility to see your Virginals project again in the next months. Can you tell us about your projects and appointments in the future?
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 Joël 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
From Nicolas Bourriaud: Postproduction
Sternberg Press, New York 2005
You can read Postproduction here.