Saturday, 17 December 2016

Insights From Artist Interviews

In recent days I've been spending a lot of time reading various artist interviews. As I have a preference for the written word (which is why I write blogs and don't make videos) this has meant a lot of reading. There came a point in this process when I realized that I could probably snip a few of the questions and answers from their immediate locations and make a blog from some of these. These cuttings could address points that I've seen raised recently both in my own former blogs and in some of the discussions they have aroused. All the people I will bring into this blog will be "famous" to a greater or lesser degree. But I don't mean to use these people as arguments from authority (as philosophers call it). Setting aside the trappings of fame, they are just other electronic musicians although, granted, some if not all have great experience. Its just my naive view that people can learn something from the experiences of others. So in what follows I will introduce a few artists, set up the context for them and then present the question they were asked, the answer they gave and what it teaches me. Hopefully, this will have some worth for others too. I'll also slip in a link to their music just because I can and to give a hint to those who may not have heard of some of the artists included.

1. Venetian Snares (Aaron Funk)

Some while ago Canadian Aaron Funk, better known as Venetian Snares, had a magnificent stumble of an interview when he said some things that, apparently, you shouldn't say. Funk, like many electronic musicians, including others I will bring into this blog, doesn't like doing interviews or fulfilling media duties because he is quite secretive and private. Fair enough. I wouldn't either. This is all part of a fame equation it seems. It got to the stage some years back where he started to not want to release music. At which point I snip from an interview with him...

VS: I think 2007 was the point when I became really at odds with releasing music.

Interviewer (I): What made you feel like that? You seem to have always been at odds with it.

VS: Um... I don't know. I love making music but its kinda hard for me to put it out to be honest. The idea of it being heard by people who want to hear it fucks with my head so, you know... its easier to choose to keep it to myself.

I: Its an interesting position to have as an artist.

VS: Of course. As soon as you release records some person hearing it will think that this record is a product for them to enjoy whereas that's not my intent making it whatsoever. Its for me while I'm creating it. I don't know. People coming at you from that angle is kinda sickening, you know?

I: As soon as you create something and put it out there its no longer under your control.

VS: No. Its out in the world of fucking IMDB one-to-tens, its out there in the database of millions of people shooting off opinions at each other that they believe they're formulating on their own.

In print this interview was presented as "Venetian Snares hates everyone including his fans". But the truth, as often is the case, was a bit more subtle than this. Essentially, Snares was presenting a modern dichotomy for the electronic artist who works alone creating and getting the buzz of creation entirely to his or her own requirements. But then, if they choose to share it, it becomes prey to a lot of random views which were nothing to do with the context of creation. The artist becomes prey to a lot of opinions that were nothing to do with what he was doing. Snares almost has a "what has my music got to do with you?" attitude here. And I somewhat understand that as someone who finds his own music very personal. Venetian Snares gives voice to a very modern problem here for electronic musicians who are working away in their homes on essentially very private projects. To then be subject to public expectations is often a burden.

2. David Bowie

David Bowie needs no introduction. The picture here is from when he had a stint as the keyboard player on Iggy Pop's "The Idiot" tour in 1977. Around the same time he was producing his so called "Berlin Trilogy" of albums which were influenced by krautrock and the Germanic sounds of the seventies. Bowie was, perhaps, the consummate artist. Musician was a word too narrowly confined to contain him. His electronic meanderings of the time, such as the track Subterraneans which finished his 1977 album "Low," were highly regarded but Bowie had long since become a star by then. In 1978 Bowie was asked by a British journalist to "assess his greatest contribution to rock". "I'm responsible for starting a whole new school of pretension," was his witty and pithy reply.

But concealed beneath the deflecting wit I see a reservoir of truth. Bowie's career was carried out only through the medium of a succession of characters right from Major Tom, Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane through to the Thin White Duke, the Stadium Superstar of the mid 80s and on. And its not as if these were peripheral to the act. They were the act. A little digging reveals that Bowie had biographies and life stories worked out for these characters. An album like 1995's "Outside", for example, is a whole detailed scenario worked out with characters, storyline and plot. So for Bowie's "pretension" in the quote we can substitute the word "creation". For Bowie the music needed a whole creative context worked out in detail over which the sounds could be laid like a blanket and I wonder how many others go that far? Music and ideas were inseparable siamese twins for David Bowie.

3. Brian Eno

A famous collaborator of Bowie's at the time was Brian Eno, the Roxy Music synthesizer dabbler who had gone off to Germany in the mid 70s to jam with Harmonia, released some ambient music and become something of a sound guru. In the 70s he once made a throwaway comment that he was a "non-musician," a comment which some saw as a reverse conceit of some kind. In a later interview Eno explained what he had meant by it.

"It was a case of taking a position deliberately in opposition to another one. I don't say it much anymore but I said it when I said it there because there was such an implicit and tacit belief that virtuosity was the sine qua non of music and there was no other way of approaching it. And that seemed to be so transparently false in terms of rock music in particular. I thought it was well worth saying that whatever I was doing it wasn't that. And I thought the best way to do it was to say that I was a non-musician.... When I say "musician" I wouldn't apply it to myself as a synthesizer player or a player of tape recorders because I usually mean someone with a digital skill that they then apply to an instrument. I don't really have that so strictly speaking I'm a non-musician. None of my skills are manual, they're not to do with manipulation in that sense, they're more to do with ingenuity I suppose."

Eno is then asked if he ever had any formal music training or felt any pressure to get some.

"No, no I haven't really. I can't think of a time that I ever thought that."

What strikes me about this exchange is how relevant it is to the current situation in which the vast majority of electronic musicians are essentially ordinary citizens at home. With their electronic things. For them, electronic music is not about learning scales or musical theory. Its not about a formal training process or, indeed, anything formal at all. It is about the instant satisfaction of making a noise. It is, to paraphrase Eno, about ingenuity over technical skill. In response to some of my blogs I have found some, presumably of an old school variety, who have mumbled and grumbled about this. But electronic music is overwhelmingly the paradigm of "ingenuity" and Eno stands as one of the greatest examples of this.

4. Coil (John Balance and Peter Christopherson)

I mentioned Coil as an example in a recent blog of mine and in reading several interviews with them to get a feel for what they were about musically I came across the following exchange.

I: You've said before that you work very instinctually. How do you mean, exactly?

JB: I have notebooks and ideas and its just grabbing, really: trying to be informed by the earth and the etheric. And trying, by any means whatsoever, to make that into a solid object, or a sound object, or a record. And that's what we've always tried to do. It seems - we don't create it, really. It's already there. We just assemble a kit. 

PC: We have discussions sometimes about the feeling behind a track that's about to be started. It might be a discussion about a picture or a feeling or a moment in a film.

JB: Sometimes we set down a whole page of parameters: it should do this, it should do that, it should reflect the moon, it should be lunar. Or we'll burn some incense or let the dogs run wild around the room while we're doing it - or we'll shut them in the garden. Anything like that. Or eat carrots for a week and then do something. Just so some chemistry within us is deliberately changed. 

PC: As for the music itself, its not like "Let's set up a rhythm and set up a bass." We'll try combinations of equipment or filters or computer programs almost at random and then...

JB: Something hits.

PC: There will be something about one of them you like and you want to develop. Its almost like the process of selection is the most important thing.

I find this little explicative exchange fascinating. First, there is the notion that to do music you need to change the dynamic, to get your head on. This alone is interesting in a world where many electronic music makers are citizen musicians with a 9 to 5 who do music in their spare time. I wonder, what state are they in when they come to create? Is it a creatively fruitful one? Or is it a lowest common denominator one only good enough to produce a casual You Tube jam not meant to be taken seriously? Further, John Balance held to a view of the musician as conduit. He did not think he created the music. He thought he was an agent through which it manifested itself. This perhaps explains his belief in the necessity for some kind of preparation. Christopherson completes this thinking with his own contribution to the discussion and the suggestion that this random process of selection "is the most important thing". Food for thought indeed.

5. Sean Booth (Autechre)

Sean Booth and Rob Brown of Autechre are different to many of the current electronic musicians of our day, not least the hipster or gear collecting varieties, in that they deliberately and purposefully use software to make their music. The reason for this is they value control most of all as electronic musicians. Maximum manipulation is their overwhelming artistic desire and it is only in designing custom software that they feel this aim is satisfied to its maximum ability. If you have heard much of their music this will begin to make more sense. But this controlling, software-based music might, from the outside, come across as a little cold. In a Q+A session Autechre subjected themselves to back in 2013 Sean Booth of the band was asked if they ever take an interest in how their music "stimulates the nervous system and our physiology (not just in terms of emotions)?" In a related question he was also asked if the main goal of the band was "to produce music that is emotionally appealing to yourselves, or do you lean more towards the sound designs/textures that music can be manipulated into without having the emotive element in the forefront of the music making process?" His answer is interesting:

"To be honest I think that everything has some emotional element but we're not really thinking about that when we do stuff. Its not that we don't feel that emotions are important, more that its hard for me to imagine a sound that does not convey some sense of something. And quite often when people discuss emotions in music they only think of happy and sad as being emotions when, in my opinion, emotions are a lot more than that. E.g. if we put out a really angry track then people rarely describe it that way. They would more likely say it was unlistenable or difficult. The emphasis moves from expression to design. Maybe they just fail to recognise it as expressive if they think its very technical."

The thoughts that come from this quite profound answer are worth pondering, in my view, not least electronic music's image (sometimes) as something cold and technical. As people who use software to create dense and complex electronic noise collages, Autechre might be especially open to such a charge. However, the sonic realities turn out to be somewhat different and this should lead us to ask questions about what is going on and how electronic sound, something on the one hand uncaring and impassive, can come to be intimate and familiar.

6. Jean-Michel Jarre

Jean-Michel Jarre is currently celebrating 40 years since the release of the record, made in his kitchen in 6 weeks, which made his name and gave him a life of fame and fortune. That record, of course, was Oxygène. Jarre has been very active lately. In the last year or so he has put out 3 albums, two volumes of a collaborative project he called "Electronica" and the third part of the Oxygene trilogy. He has also toured his Electronica project. In the corresponding period he has also given numerous interviews and this gives a little insight into the processes that such well known electronic musicians go through. For example, he was asked regarding the track Close Your Eyes which he collaborated on with his fellow Frenchmen, Air.

I: So presumably you travelled to everybody's studios, taking your own software?

JMJ: For every artist it was slightly different. With somebody like Air in Paris we worked first in separate studios and then we joined forces in my studio. Nicolas from Air had this idea where he said it would be great if we used all the different generations of musical instruments. We started with the first oscillators from when I was a student with Pierre Schaeffer (at the Groupe de Recherche Musicales centre in Paris), synthesizers from my time with Stockhausen, and then also doing the first loop of the song with scissors and sellotape and magnetic tape. Then we used the first drum machine, the first modular synth, the monophonic Moog synthesizer moving to the polyphonic analogue synthesizer, the Fairlight, to samplers, to the first digital keyboards, to plugins and the last sound of the track has been made with an iPad. We said it shouldn't be visible, it was more of an exercise for us.

What strikes me here (aside from the fact that if you are Jean-Michel Jarre or Air then you have access to all this stuff!) is that even millionaire superstars need creative ways in which to create, puzzles to solve as part of the creative process. Often creation is approached very unimaginatively, very straight, and it is a chore as a result. This may not be the best thing for encouraging creativity to take place. And so tasks within the task need inventing so that the creativity you require may almost be a by-product of doing something else which may not, in itself, have been creative but encouraged the creativity that you hoped to achieve.

7. Richard D. James (Aphex Twin)

Richard James, better known as Aphex Twin, has been the darling of many fans of a certain kind of electronic music for many years. Known to be excessively secretive and with an autistic need to know everything that there is to know both about every possible electronic device that can make sound and about musical theory, he is rumoured to have a huge backlog of material most of which has never reached the public's ears. All this is true whilst he is largely unknown to the mass of the population and I'm sure he could walk down nearly any street without being recognised. His most popular track is probably Window Licker which was accompanied by a video from Chris Cunningham that received heavy MTV rotation back in 1999 when the track came out. In one of his rare interviews he was asked about what he sees himself as.

I: Would it be fair to say that you're a sound artist as much as a musician?

RDJ: Yeah. Its all about sound but people forget that. They think "Oh, I want to hear a nice tune." But what you're actually saying is you want to hear the combination of frequencies that make you feel a certain way. And more excitingly, its about finding out the new ones. A lot of composers before me have been on this mission to change the world by getting off equal temperament (an equal temperament is a system of tuning in which every pair of adjacent notes is separated by the same interval) and I'm definitely one of those.

You're brainwashed in the West with equal temperament, so its quite hard for people who like following rules to get outside of that and see what you can do. But for me its easy because I don't work like that. I work intuitively. I actually prefer it if I don't know what I'm supposed to do. If you've got an equal temperament piano keyboard then you know what you're going to get if you play certain chords. But I actually like it if you don't know where the notes are because then you do it intuitively. You're working out a new language, basically. New rules. And when you get new rules that work you're changing the physiology of your brain. And then your brain has to reconfigure itself in order to deal with it.

So if you hear a C-major chord with equal temperament you've heard it a million times before and your brain accepts it. But if you hear a chord that you've never heard before you're like "huh?" And your brain has to change shape to accept it. And once its changed shape then you've changed as a person in a tiny way. And if you have a whole combination of all these different frequencies you're basically reconfiguring your brain. And then you've changed as a person and you can go and do something else. Its a constant change. It could sound pretty cosmic and hippie but thats exactly whats going on.

I think this answer pretty much speaks for itself and is a testimony to how doing things differently both requires change and initiates it.

8. Hans-Joachim Roedelius (Kluster, Cluster and Qluster)

Hans-Joachim Roedelius has a very important place in the history of German electronic music. Not only was he one of the men who started the Zodiak Free Arts Lab in late 1960s Berlin, a place which gave birth to acts such as Kluster (later Cluster and two thirds of Harmonia), Tangerine Dream, Klaus Schulze and Conrad Schnitzler, but he played a key role in defining the German electronic music of the 1970s. His partner in Cluster (once called the best band in the world by Brian Eno) pictured above on the right, Dieter Moebius, described him as someone who could write the most beautiful melodies. For such a pioneer we might expect some impressive musical background or personal history. The truth is a little different as this snippet of an interview I found shows.

I: When did you start writing and producing music and what or who were your early passions and influences?

HJR: I'm an autodidact. There was no music school I went to. I can neither write nor read scores. But even so, the body of work that I created since I moved from healing (Roedelius was once a masseur) to tone-art in 1967 includes thousands of musical works, about 1000 texts/poems, an uncountable amount of photos, photo collages and films. There's a lot yet to come out from my archive of unreleased works.

I: Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music you make? If so, how do you make them transparent?

HJR: There are for sure not many people who are able to analyze music in this way and why should they anyway? I am most transparent as a person/artist, after everything that has happened to me and everything that I've done within the 80 years of my life! Its obvious in my work. I don't have to make anything transparent because I am what I am doing. Person and work are one.

What these answers reveal to me is something I think is probably common to all of the artists I'm referring to in this blog today. Its summed up in Roedelius's phrase "Person and work are one". So whether its Roedelius or Aphex Twin or Coil or Venetian Snares or any of the others something of the creator is revealed in the created. There is an identity factor at work which is revealing. Or is there? And what is your electronic music saying about you? What is it revealing that you didn't realize? Or maybe you are intending it to reveal?

9. John Cage

John Cage is a kind of dividing line when it comes to music. He is a person who makes you choose sides. And we should be forever grateful to him for that. For what John Cage reveals in his music as well as his talking about music is that something is at stake. Music is not, as our shallow, commercialized world would love us to think, just entertainment. It is much, much more but also much, much less than that. Music is our environment. Music is about hearing the sounds that are there. Cage is primarily known, in a compositional sense, for two things: chance and indeterminacy. Needless to say, he has been asked about these things many times and in this section of an interview I read he explains how they work and what they are for.

I: Is there a difference between chance and indeterminacy?

JC: Yes. I use the words "chance operation" when I'm writing music and making use of numbers that are derivative from the I Ching that I've used for so many years. That can produce a piece of music, such as the Music of Changes that I wrote in the early fifties, which is determinate. Its fixed and can be read in the same way that you read a piece by another composer. An indeterminate piece is written in such a way as a camera is made. In other words, the camera enables you to take a picture but it doesn't make precise in any way what picture you are going to take. So indeterminacy is like a camera, giving people the ability to take a variety of different pictures, but chance operations can produce a fixed picture or a fixed piece of music. Chance operations could also be used in making something indeterminate but they are two different things. In both cases, the common denominator is non-intention on the part of the person who is working. Most people, when they work, work with something in mind. I always work with nothing in mind.

I: You say you start out a piece with nothing in mind. How do you know when you are on the right track?

JC: There are many tracks, and they are all right. Take the I Ching itself. I recommend it; its the oldest book on earth. It comes from something like 4000 BC and consists of 64 hexagrams. It is a book of wisdom. You can ask a question and get an answer through the use of chance operations, which classically were the tossing of three coins six times to get a hexagram, or tossing yarrow sticks. I didn't do it that way; it took too long. It takes about half an hour to toss the yarrow sticks. Now you can do it with the computer very rapidly and you can get an answer to your question. It would be foolish to ask a question and get answers by means of chance operations if the question asked needed a particular answer. It would be absurd. So, implicit in the use of chance operations is that all of the answers answer all of the questions. That's very interesting. Curiously enough, I learned that when I was studying with Schoenberg years ago but I didn't know that I learned it. 

He sent us all to the blackboard with a problem in counterpoint, even though it was a class in harmony. He said "When you have the solution of the problem turn around and let me see it." I turned around and he said "That's correct. Now give me another solution of the same problem," and I did. I then turned around and he said, "Thats also correct, now another." It went that way until about 8 or 9 solutions. Then when he asked for another I said with some trepidation, "There are no more solutions," and he said, "Thats also correct." Then he said, "What is the principle underlying all of the questions?" I was flabbergasted. I'd always worshipped the man but at that point he ascended. It took me almost 30 years to learn the answer to that question and I think he would accept it. That is, the principle underlying all of the solutions is the question you ask. So there you are, and that goes along with all of the answers answer all of the questions. 

Now it doesn't take a genius to see that this outlook on things is very different to the closed, authorly concept of music making that is the default method beloved of what we might call the received western tradition. This thinks of music as the deliberate choices of writers satisfying their tastes or their "feelz" as modern language might have it. Cage, instead, thinks of writing as about questions and and of the answers as merely different directions of equal validity, all correct. It all puts egotistical tastes vey much in the shade. So what does it matter what you think? Each direction is a right answer.

10. Edgar Froese (Tangerine Dream)

Edgar Froese was the leader of Tangerine Dream from their formation in 1969 (coming out of Hans-Joachim Roedelius's Zodiak Free Arts Lab scene) until his untimely death in January 2015. During this time span he was one of those who invented styles of electronic music and simultaneously provided a voluminous back catalogue of albums both studio based and live. I have often pondered how one might create something "new" since things are always inevitably related to their predecessors. Froese was fortunate to be alive at a time when new music making tools and practices were becoming available but, that said, the genius of what he created must remain his alone. In the end, I think a simple quote of his explains much if you think about it and unpack its connotations:

"In the absurd often lies what is artistically possible." - Edgar Froese

What fool ever thought music had to make sense, right?

If you enjoy discussing electronic music, how its made, why its made or any such questions then my group Electronic Music Philosophy might be for you.