Posted in Text on January 3rd, 2009 by admin

Current location =

Mooste, Estonia (photo: Pippa Buchanan)

Warning: obligatory year-end music post follows…

I decided to concentrate only on zero-eight releases, rather than catalog the expanse of my music vision quests of the last year. Some notes for future ethnographers:

AsvaWhat You Don’t Know Is Frontier [2008 Southern]
Morricone-style doom, moving through motions and moods. Excited to see them at Club Transmediale 2009!

Birchville Cat MotelFour Freckle Constellation [2008 Conspiracy]
What could be one of the (many) final BCM records as Campbell Kneale seeks self-renewal through a name change. A standout release on a standout label from one man who probably releases every minute he has ever committed to tape at some point or another…

BJ Nilsen & StilluppsteypaPassing Out [2008 Helen Scarsdale]
Third in a trilogy of dark drone drinking songs, guaranteed to put me to sleep every time I play it.

Burial HexInitiations [2008 Aurora Borealis]
Glad to have discovered this creepy drone project for the End Tymes this past year.

CoffinsBuried Death [2008 20 Buck Spin]
No surprises here, just sick Japanese doom the way I like it.

Daniel MencheBody Melt [2008 Important]
Daniel MencheGlass Forest [2008 Important]
A pair of releases for Important records, one vinyl and one CD. Menche seems to have reneged on his promise to produce only vinyl or DVD releases, but both of these stand loud and proud in their own right regardless of the media they reach you in.

DystopiaDystopia [2008 Life Is Abuse]
A few short, somewhat lackluster tracks and a very long and boring cut up of schizo voices still teleports me back to the crust haven of Oakland California in the mid 90’s. Perhaps a swansong which didn’t really need releasing so long after the fact, but it did get me digging out their first couple of absolutely powerful records again.

EarthThe Bees Made Honey In The Lion’s Skull [2008 Southern Lord]
This is what happens when doom goes country.

Ghast & YogaSplit [2008 Choking Harzard]
Ghast is screeching sandpaper on the vocal chords, heavy doom like a barbell dropped on your foot, while Yoga is odd, almost psychedelic sounding horror soundtracks. Look this one up.

GHQEverywhere At Once [2008 Threelobed]
Spacey American-style psychedelic folk-drone-rock whatever featuring Marcia Basset from Hototogisu/Double Leopards.

GrailsDoomsdayer’s Holiday [2008 Temporary Residence]
Further installment of Middle Eastern riff-rock from these Portland ambassadors.

HellhammerDemon Entrails [2008 Prowlin Death Records]
Crucial reissue of Celtic Frost prehistory! A band which was truly despised during it’s time, but went on to inspire so many others.

Isengrind, Twinsistermoon, Natural Snow BuildingsThe Snowbringer Cult [2008 Students Of Decay]
Natural Snow BuildingsSung to the North [2008 Students Of Decay]
Natural Snow Buildings are everything a “free folk” collective should be: mysterious, reclusive, a young couple in love and (most often ignored in this genre) capable of actually playing their instruments. Requisite delay pedals are at hand of course, but there is a sense of craft missing from the endless hours of Sunburned Jackie-O noodling which piles up in record bins of the world out there already. Isengrind and Twinsistermoon are solo projects of the two French musicians who make up Natural Snow Buildings. I don’t use the word blissful often or lightly, so take me serious here…

Josh LayPoison Drinker [2008 Sentient Recognition Archive]
Sick delirium tremens exorcism from one of my new fav noise/drone Americans.

Kevin DrummSnow [2008 Hospital Productions]
Another classic, in the same level of strength as Sheer Hellish Miasma, but moving in the opposite direction–from the near-indecipherable complexity, extreme frequency modulation and sheer noise terror of the earlier release to a sublime simplicity of carefully controlled feedback. And an evil punchline waiting in the wings…

Kiss The Anus of a Black CatThe Nebulous Dreams [2008 Kraaak]
I never gave much time to the neo-folk template laid out by Current 93, Death in June, Blood Axis, etc etc, so maybe this Belgian project gives the genre a special new shimmer and a sense of energy and wonder which these older projects mostly lacked. Or maybe it would be better to call KTAOABC something else entirely. Think guitar haze, organs droning, lush arrangements and sung vocals leading you down mossy garden paths.

MachinefabriekDauw [2008 Dekorder]
MachinefabriekMort Aux Vaches [2008 Staalplaat]
Another artist who probably puts out just about any little dithering he comes up with in the studio, Machinefabriek’s unending stream of releases can be very hit or miss (the indie-guitar-pop-sounding records, for example, can only be referred to as miserable) and call into question for me whether it’s always a good idea to be one’s own label or editor. Luckily, 2008 was gifted with two very beautiful sets of recordings–one a series of understated remixes done over the years and the other a studio set put together for a radio appearance on the Dutch VPRO and inspired by Oren Ambarchi’s recording in the same Mort Aux Vaches series.

NekrasovThe Form of Thought From Beast [2008 self released]
One-man experimental black metal, from Australia where apparently Mr. Nekrasov can still find a dark corner to hide in.

O.S.T.Waetka [2008 Ideal]
Electronica has become such a minuscule part of my world over the past few years, but this particular release of sliding, shifting non-rhythms, crackling fuzz and warped frequency layers is so far from the boring run of the mill IDM or polite laptop music which somehow still survives in Berlin and elsewhere (I suppose), and gave me some renewal of faith that the computer may not be a totally dead instrument yet.

RevengeInfiltration. Downfall. Death. [2008 Anti-Goth]
Normally, macho American “brutal” death metal appeals to me about as much as reading the kind of teenage hate poetry that most would-be Columbine killers might scribble on the backs of ketchup-stained Denny’s napkins. This one caught my interest for fairly mundane reasons–being featured in one of my favorite music blogs–so I kept it around and somehow the “brutality” grew on me. “Pulls no punches” might be one hackneyed music pundit phrase that applies.

RobedoorShapeshifter Slave [2008 Olde English Spelling Bee]
RobedoorShrine to the Possessor [2008 Music Fellowship]
Slithers, fire and knives. Harsher than Burial Hex but still quite spooky, and perhaps even something of a jam thrown in. Very glad to make their musical acquaintance in zero-eight.

Rudimentary PeniNo More Pain [2008 Southern]
While not nearly so brain-melting or classic as Death Church, which sent my 19 year old mind on so many black-and-white London death trips so long ago, No More Pain does prove that everyone’s favorite goth-punk paranoid-schizophrenic basket case Nick Blinko still has what it takes. (No, I wasn’t 19 when Death Church came out in 1983. This salty old dog isn’t that old and salty…)

SalomeSalome [2008 Vendetta]
Southern in the “South shall rise again” sense, Salome features the next challenger to Monarch’s cute-with-razor-scars Hello Kitty doom princess vocalist. I imagine the victims of facial acid attacks in Pakistan might sound similar to this particular lady. Guitars, drums, no bass but you might not notice. Vendetta, the label, happens to be local Berlin kids, which gives me an extra little kick.

Stefan Kushima Don’t Touch the Walls [2008 Blackest Rainbow]
Fantastically deep drone release from a fresh-faced newcomer.

Sun ArawThe Phyn [2008 Not Not Fun]
Southern California psych-folk freak-down. Fun in the desert sun.

Sunn O)))Domkirke [2008 Southern Lord]
Sorry, but I’m a sucker for church organs. Nuff said.

TreesLights Bane [2008 Crucial Blast]
I’m also a sucker for bands/artists from the US Pacific Northwest (Grails, Wolves in the Throne Room, Daniel Menche, Thrones, Yellow Swans…) so I was thrilled to discover my old stomping grounds of Portland Oregon had spawned a world-class screeching, plodding blackened doom machine. If only it didn’t cost me $30K in unpaid student loans to go back and live there…

Various ArtistsLast Kind Words [2008 Mississippi]
Various ArtistsLove is Love [2008 Mississippi]
Just about everything that (Portland again!) Mississippi Records releases is golden. They are crate diggers in the finest sense. Last Kind Words collects rare 78’s from the “other black music”… no not Scandinavian metal but classic Blues and Gospel from the 1920’s through the early 50’s. Perfect for when the devil is busy tormenting somebody else someplace else, for a change. And Love is Love charts another one of my (sometimes neglected) fascinations–African funk, rock and pop music from the 1960’s and 70’s.

Yellow SwansAt All Ends [2008 Weird Forest]
Yellow Swans decided to call it quits this year, a fact which leaves me a little sad since I never got to see them play live here in Europe or during one of my short trips to the USA. But that doesn’t mean that, like BCM or Machinefabriek, they aren’t sitting on hours of archives. Yellow Swans may be releasing well into 2009 at least, all welcome doses of droney noise, feedback, guitar and pulsey strangeness.

Some honorable band mentions, which are not 2008 releases but new discoveries this year or late last year:

Alethes, Ashdautus, Birushanah, Bone Awl, Burmese, Chaos Moon, Darkthrone, Dead Raven Choir, Double Leopards, Drudkh, Eldrig, Elk, Geronimo, Glorior Belli, Hala Strana, Hatewave, Jon Mueller, Kinit Her, Njiqahdda, Old Wainds, Sarin Smoke, Skepticism, Taiga Remains, Unbeing, Von, When, White/Light. Yes, it’s very un-kvlt to admit to just picking up a Darkthrone or Von CD in 2008, but these kind of scene credentials are pretty meaningless in the grand scheme of things, aren’t they?

And finally, some props to some of my favorite music blogs and forums for keeping my ears stuffed all the last year: Cosmic Hearse, Kick to Kill and MetalArea.


…are made to be broken. Mine mostly involve not doing more, but actually doing less. Taking on less projects, finishing the ones I’ve already started. Trying to find a few stable jobs rather than all this scrambling around for gigs right at the time I realize I’m about to run out of money. Finishing my new Buchla-inspired synthesizer. Finishing the Pure Data FLOSS Manual. Finishing a CD using the new synthesizer. Might as well throw learning to levitate or finding a demon familiar in there in the process. Happy New year to all and good luck with whatever promises you might have to break in zero nine.

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Piksel impressions

Posted in Text on December 8th, 2008 by admin

Current location = waiting at the City Box hotel, Bergen NO for my lift to the airport. I guess we can get this out of the way to start with:

Piksel vids here. I can’t figure out how to embed the [[iframe]] in MySpace, so for now you’ll have to manually look for the TONEWHEELS vid. Sorry!

Despite it’s announced interest in hardware as well as software, Piksel has a reputation as a computer hackers’ festival. Maybe last year there were more hardware-based projects and performances, but this year’s theme was “Real Code/Abstract Code” and the laptops definitely were out in full force. And with the laptops come the boyish obsessions with the usual themes, namely video games, techno beats and toy robots. If you could show me an event about computer art and music that didn’t run afoul of these teenage traps, I might be a bit more enthusiastic. Ahh well….

In spite of it all, a few performances stood out for their energy and original approach. Perhaps the most refreshing take was Jessica Rylan‘s excerpt from an opera-in-progress called “History and Future of the Solid State Entity”, based on the autobiography of Dr. John Lilly. Lilly became famous for his work on interspecies communication, and his life story veers dangerously close to that of Phillip K. Dick: excessive drug use, mind-blowing/blown spiritual realizations, transmissions from the past/future and a deep paranoia that the machines are actually taking over. Rylan’s take on it rendered Lilly’s life in a series of pop song vignettes which left some in the audience divided over her version of “consumer entertainment”.

Jessica Rylan at Subcurrent 2006 at the CCA, Glasgow, 2006. Photo by krakow81

Singapore’s One Man Nation also realized the value of physical performance in the otherwise sterile laptop world, coming across a bit like a breakbeat version of Basque noise performer Mattin as he slapped up his mic’ed MIDI controller and proclaimed that “the time is coming, the time is now, to take back what they stole”.

One Man Nation.

And Ryan Jordan from London foregrounded the body in his digital sound practice in a performance whose visual imagery of a figure hooded and wired came straight from Abu Ghraib. His sensor-activated, heavy wavetable synthesis was by far the most sonically satisfying set on offer at Piksel for me this year.

Honorable mention also goes to Mexico City’s _rrrr, a three piece laptop band who did manage to rock a bit, even if they never got up out of their chairs. Frenchman Benjamin Cadon, who works with “Spectral Investigations Collective” of Bureau d’Etudes also started out with a good premise–sonifying the visible and infrared light emissions of various kinds of household devices such as remotes and toys–but managed to lose focus with too much computer processing and a barrage of video information which seemed to have little to do with the rest of the set.

And then there’s the live coders. I’ve never been much of a fan of “live coding”. It’s always seemed some kind of wrong-headed concession to performance that only makes sense for other geeks… a kind of nerd machismo which turns the laptop inside out and shows you exactly how boring working with computers actually is rather than bringing any sort of excitement to the performance. And there was plenty of live coding here, from Alex McLean (aka Slub) streaming his terminal output from London to a late night dance party here in Bergen to the Hungarian developers of the Animata software macro-ing their way from glitch techno to Space Invaders. (Will they ever tire of video games? The opening concert of a “Second Life Orchestra” was tedious enough!!!!!) But none of it made me any more of a convert than before I arrived.

Maybe it’s because Pure Data is a bit more visually oriented, or maybe just because I’m a Pd user and therefore can speak it’s particular Greek, but IOhannes Zmoelnig’s live patching performance drew me in a bit more than the others. His floating Pd objects, which dynamically connected, disconnected, spawned and influenced each other as they floated in the white screen void at least got me thinking about other possibilities, which is more than I can say for the 8 bit shoot em up that came before.

One discussion which was heavy in the air before the festival began was the conflict between working sessions and presentations. As I mentioned before, my previous experience with Piksel was that there was very poor awareness of when to stop with the geek talk and to actually make something presentable to a non-specialist audience. This year, many of the “hackers” who previously turned up year after year here were absent and disappointed that the festival was not made up of the working sessions it have previously been. For my part, I was more satisfied that presentation aesthetics have finally become a concept. I guess there are some views which may not easily meet.

However, Martin Howse’s “Real Code” day fostered not only an incredible working spirit and a room full of spontaneously generated projects in a single afternoon, but it introduced a non-structured social space which seemed to go well with the general hacker vibe. Focused but not programmed, it apparently succeeded in providing a space for just about anybody willing to cross the threshold and get involved.

But eventually, life with the machines still becomes dehumanizing. So most of Saturday I skipped Martin’s lab and hiked up the snow and ice covered mountain which overlooks the city with John Hegre of Jazkamer. Reflecting on the simple beauty off, say… moss or the stalactites of ice flowing in slow motion down the rock faces brought me back to a conclusion I reached during a “Locative Media” workshop in Iceland a few years ago. There, along the southern coast of that volcanic island nation, I was once trapped in a bus full of computer-fanatics, blog addicts and gadget collectors whose only response to the raw power stretching out around us was to GPS tag it with Star Wars quotes on Google Earth.

Above Bergen, I was stopped in my tracks by tiny beads of water sliding under a thin sheet of ice. A mathematician like Jessica Rylan or Otto Roessler (also in attendance at the Saturday session) might have described the fluid dynamics by means of a bifurcating neural network or some similar kind of complex equation which brought them to what they felt was a better understanding of how the world works. Or a computer animator might use the same kinds of expressions to reproduce these movements in the imaginary space of the RAM and the CPU. For my part, I was just happy to see this sight was there, knowing that the next day it would be gone, replaced by yet another microscopic mystery. And more often I find these kinds of things far more engrossing than anything a machine and it’s human might make.


more technological determinism, via Don Buchla

Posted in Text on October 20th, 2008 by admin

Don Buchla, the 200 series, and friends (from the electro-music forum)

Ever since I visited the EMS studios in Stockholm late last year, and feasted my ears on the one of the most awesome collections of vintage analog synthesizer equipment known to man, I’ve become a Buchla synth devotee.

Sweden is of course a rather strange place. Like the Netherlands, it appears to be absolutely swamped with arts money. The couple that I stayed with in Stockholm had no less than 13 Genelec monitors just laying around the house, and even the receptionist at EMS had mini-Genelecs as her computer desktop speakers.

Now, to give some sense of scale, Genelecs are pretty much the audiophile monitor of choice, and a good pair runs about a grand in Euros. And to buy any decent amount of vintage Buchla synthesizer modules, you’d probably have to mortgage your house. For the fifth time, if you happen to be from the US. Brand new hybrid digital/analog Buchla systems start at exactly $9950 for the smallest one you can get away with. If you don’t believe me, have a look here.

So somehow it failed to surprise me that between EMS and their close neighbor Fylkingen, they were using old Buchla and Serge racks as doorstops in Stockholm, there were so many of them. When I got into the recording studio there, I was very pleased to discover that Kevin Drumm, a rather reclusive Chicago artist whose work just gets better and better every time I listen to it, had worked in the same studio only a few weeks before. And–better than that–all his ProTools sessions were still on the computer for me to check out and get warmed up with!

The often-repeated story, and still what I believe makes the devices which Don Buchla designs to be so special much more than any particular “sound” they might have, is that he starts by drawing up the front panel and works backwards to the circuit. What this means is that like any proper interface designer, he is thinking of the user interface first, and building the guts of the beast around this experience. As a result, his equipment is esoteric, because of the way that he thinks, but usable because he hasn’t given you access to every possible method of control, but rather he has selected entry points into the system which make the most sense and communicate the most to the musician/composer/sound artist who happens to be sitting in front of it. In a sense, this makes his gear more “user friendly” than others.

Now, a Buchla synthesizer is still not a “simple tool”, nor is it transparent. Every design decision he made is like a garden of forking paths, each with a potentially limitless set of possibilities ahead of it, but very deterministic when one starts their journey. It’s easy to get carried away with a sense of freedom, once one has ditched that moldy Bach holdover of a well-tempered keyboard and embarked on the road of “free music”. But you can’t forget, even for a minute, that whatever system you’ve chosen as your agent of liberation is still dangerously heavy with deterministic factors. Just so you don’t let it all go to your head too quickly…

The phenomenon of the “analog purist” is pretty well known in the sound world, so I found the following anecdote to be somewhat enlightening. I repost from this thread on the electro-music forums, by a certain Howard Moscovitz, or mosc, who as he writes worked for Buchla in the 1970’s and is often considered a “grandpa” on this particular forum and is pleaded to for bedtime stories quite regularly. I think that this particular “bedtime story” conveys some simple truths about the expectations we have of our technological tools, and the ridiculous pitfalls waiting when we don’t actually understand how those tools work.

I used to work for Don Buchla, back in the 1970s. One day a pretty famous composer from Europe associated with a pretty famous conservatory came by Don’s studio in Berkeley to see his new 200 series modular synthesizers. He was very impressed with Buchla’s new creations, but said he wouldn’t use Buchla stuff because it lacked the certain “warmth” that Moogs had. Don listened seriously. After the guy left for the day, Don took out a mixer module (the big one that most people used to send signals to the monitors and recording devices) and while muttering under his breath soldered an extra compensation capacitor (I think it was 100pf) across the op amp. The next day the composer came back (in those days you visited the synth maker for a few days before you bought a big modular system – they were very expensive after all) and he was amazed. The new custom modifications Buchla made for him were fantastic! Now the Buchla had the Moog sound!

What did he do? The larger compensation capacitor rolls off the highs. Don could have turned down the treble control on the amp, but the composer would not have fallen for it. This composer was certainly not a fool for he carefully checked the tone controls on the playback amplifier before he declared the modification to be “right on” (to use a phrase from those days). I learned a two things that day. One was what increasing the value of compensation capacitors on op amps rolls of the highs making Buchlas sound different from Moogs, and the other was that connoisseurs don’t always know what they are talking about.

You might wonder why all this stuff about electronics and building one’s own tools from almost scratch keeps me up so late at night, and the simple truth is this… for someone who failed just about every math class they ever made me take, the more I can learn about all these magical secrets, the more I feel like the thief in the castle who makes off with the crown jewels.

I think I’ve gotten over any naive anarcho-hippy egalitarianism that it’s possible for everyone to do so, however. This is simply because most people are either too focused on quick results. Or lazy. Or both. They will just buy a guitar pedal or download a plugin. The process doesn’t interest them in the least, so they don’t realize how the process funnels them towards the inevitable result.

Reading, Watching, Listening

The Glass Bead GameHermann Hesse
Cobra Verde & Heart of GlassWerner Herzog
Siberian Shaman Wax Cylinder Recordings – privately sent to me by John Hudak
Halve MaenDouble Leopards
Solaris, Zirkalo & Stalker soundtracks – Edward Artemiev
Imperial DistortionKevin Drumm
Poison DrinkerJosh Lay
I Don’t Feel At Home In This World Anymore (1927-1948)Various Artists (Mississippi Records)

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Binaural Media Interview, 2006

Posted in Text on October 12th, 2008 by admin

The following interview was made by Mark McLaren of Binaural Media in January 2006, when I was very deeply involved with field recording and Pure Data programming. Others interviewed for the series include Chris Watson, Yannick Dauby, Julian Weaver, Francisco López and Marc Behrens. Interestingly enough, many of the same threads I’ve been writing about lately, namely the deterministic nature of technology on art, are present here as well.

Survey on Location and Context Based Media
Conducted by Mark Mclaren
January 2006

Many people are currently recording and working with environmental sounds. In recent years with the development of relativity cheap and portable equipment has enabled a wide variety of people to record and make use of the sounds around us.

From the more traditional idea of recording nature, to the ideas of amplifying the inaudible; from sound artists to architectural theorists all are becoming involved with an inter-disciplinary practice that has yet to fully investigated.

Binaural decided to commission a wide set of interviews with the aim of creating a contemporary overview of both the artists and their work. Many of these interviews are ongoing and Binaural though it important to make these texts available as they grow, so that hopefully the interviews link and learn from each other and develop into a variable resource for both those how are simply interesting in finding out more about the artists working in environmental sound, to those who wish to develop and deepen their understanding and practice.

By asking questions we are trying to move away from the untestable world of intuition of unspoken trial and error, to a create a dialogue where both listeners and composers can utilise some of the many techniques for listening that have long been available for written music. This survey hopes to develop into a comprehensive and open-ended meditation on the sounds that surround us and how the individuals that work with these sounds are creating their own rules, grammar and vocabulary.

Mark McLaren (MM): Tell me about the way you perform, specifically about the way you manipulate objects live to create sound?

Derek Holzer (DH): I got into working with sound objects and also with field recording a couple of years ago when I was in a Karosta, Latvia. I spent a very a long, cold month of December to January there. Everything was frozen, but everything was so still you could really pulls sounds out of the environment—sounds of water and ice. And I started to find things, all kinds of things—a lot of bones actually—and other strange objects, shells, chunks of metal. Things that seemed like they had history behind them, because I was in this place that was steeped in history—the history of the Tsarist era, the history of the Second World War, the history of the Soviet occupation and now the history of this handover to the EU and NATO regime. Everything I picked up seemed significant for some reason, so I began to stroke them and move them around and bang them together and see what kind of sounds would come out. And then I started to build up patches in the computer that would build up textures out of these sounds, and I thought these were very interesting sounds and I liked working with them a lot. At the same time, I was working with a group from Riga called Oloolo, and they came out to Karosta one day. We sat down and recorded this massive three hour jam session where I was working only with these objects and delays and filters and the ways of building up textures that I’d been creating, and they were playing some of their own work. They wound up taking the recordings and producing this album “Kosta”, that was released on Nexsound. I kind of forgot about it for a while, and then they wrote me almost a year later saying ‘oh, well we produced this album out of this jam and it’s going to be released’ and so I was really happy about this.

It was really a way of learning how to pick up objects and assess them for their sonic potential. I wound up using a lot of contact microphones, because that is a way to isolate an object from the surrounding acoustics ,but I also use a lot of close up miking, dynamic microphones to pick up the sound of them clinking together or the acoustics introduced inside of an object. If you have a shell or a bottle or something like that, I wanted to pick up how it transforms the sound inside of it. I also do a lot of field recording. I work as many people do, with binaural microphones that I wear in my ears so that I become a walking sound receiver, and I use a lot of those recordings as well.

Sometimes I use a lot more of those recordings than I use objects, it really depends on the circumstances. Setting up to do a live show where you’re really working with sound objects in this time honored electroacoustic manner actually takes a lot of preparation time, and sometimes you get a gig when you’re playing with five other people and they all want their set up time, so you’ve just got to do something very quickly. But given the time to set up, I like to work in this way—just finding objects from that place. I have some objects which I carry with me, some objects from Karosta and quite a few objects that I picked up during some travels in Brazil from the Amazonas regions, parts of fishes and shells and unidentifiable objects which are quite unique in the way that they look and the way that they sound. So they’re my lucky charms, and if I don’t find anything interesting in a place I can always pull these out and get something very interesting out of them.

MM: You mention that objects felt significant. Could you elaborate on this point? I notice a lot of works especially, location recording compositions, rely on this significance to almost create a false strength, to use the context as a crutch to composition.

DH: Hmmmm…. that’s a loaded question if I ever heard one! To start with, I don’t think that referencing signifiers which lay outside the “composition” proper is anything of a crutch. Follow that line of thinking for a while and you end up at the place where people say, “well, who cares as long as it sounds cool”. And I’ve never been comfortable conversing like that. From my first exposures to “experimental music”, I was always fascinated with the process of how sounds were arrived at, the kind of thought processes and backgrounds that a work had even if it were not obviously apparent in the composition, and especially what kind of “non-musical” objects were used and how they were treated. In short, I read liner notes like they were poems. This predates any aspirations of actually *making* sound myself in anything more than a self-satisfying, amateur, bedroom sort of way, so I wouldn’t even chalk it up to trying to bite anyone’s style.

On the other hand, this game of extra-compositional signifiers is exactly that… a game. By this I mean that it’s a situation that the listener enters into consensually with the artist. The listener agrees to accept certain elements which aren’t coming out of the speakers—textual cues, album art and other packaging or even fragments of the artist’s biography—as part of their whole experience of the work. I think this way of listening has deep precedents in the “serious music” world. Listen to classical radio, or open up any established composer’s CD notes, and then tell me that the contextual information about each composer provided doesn’t frame the listening experience. However, because it’s a game, you have to be careful not to strain your credibility, or else the whole suspension of disbelief you have built up in the listener will crash. The Acousmatician would argue that the sounds should stand up by themselves divorced of any reality or source-referent, or even any performative referent in the case of Lopez and co. But even in this case, you are asked to play the suspension game, and accept that the sounds exist as concrete objects disconnected from the world. And once again, you are back to extra-compositional cues which instruct your listening experience.

MM: Do you mean the significance helped you concentrate on playing with the object, or do you feel that there is some way that the historical significance of a place can be transferred to a listener purely by its sound?

DH: In the first place, I draw inspiration from the objects I find, and imagine small stories and sounds hidden inside them, and that, like little tape recorders, these objects have stored up the resonances of their various environments down to the subatomic level. My job then is to coax these resonances out and to make them audible. At times it is a very sonically-motivated approach, but there are times when it is a very historically-motivated one. For the Karosta recordings, I only used sounds and objects from a very specific location, and so I do think that the historical significance can be transferred to an aware listener. Mark Teppo, of Igloo magazine, wrote of the Oloolo collaboration “Kosta”: This is glitch theory being applied to the sound of history, the winds of old battlefields and abandoned cities being cut, spliced, and flung — scattershot — into the air.

MM: You say that you ‘build up textures in the computer’ is this in relation to a live manipulation or an off-line composition method? Please explain a little about the different approaches you have to improvising and to composing and ‘finishing’ pieces?

DH: My compositional process begins before I have picked up a single object or even turned on the microphone. I would say that the bulk of my time in the studio is spent building sound-processing tools in Pure Data. I simply don’t trust common, commercially available plug-ins simply because I feel like I’m working in someone else’s room. They’ve given me a table to sit at, but I can’t move it, and a window to look out, but I can’t open it, and a door to walk through, but only in the manner which they prescribe. I would prefer to build up my own tools, and know inside out how they work, rather than diddle with other people’s knobs and try out their presets. So the tools I build up create a set of improvisational and compositional possibilities that I can explore once I have brought objects or recordings to the situation.

A great many of these tools involve using delays or buffers to build up layers of sound, often from a microphone input or a recording on disk. I am much more interested in texture than strict rhythm or melody, and so I use my tools as a sonic microscope to isolate small sound particles of and magnify them. I took to an improvisational approach because otherwise I am too much of a perfectionist, and doing studio tracks usually takes much longer than I think it should, especially considering the time I’ve already spent programming. So I try to document the possibilities I’ve programmed into my tools, which is where I feel the real compositional work is for me, and then later on I can try to arrange them in a multi-tracker and get all anal-retentive “mastering” them out to highlight the best parts of the sounds I created.

MM: The way you collect sounds interests me. You say you ‘bang objects’ to bring sounds out of them, you make in-ear binaural recordings. These methods do not seems as neutral as say the classic ‘non interventional’ field recording style where the microphone is placed and left to record and then edited later. Your style seems more associated with editing and composition whilst you are collecting source material. How do you think your personal intervention into a space or an object effects both the composition and the way the space/ object is represented by your work?

DH: I think most people are aware of the well-known axiom from physics which states that no matter how you observe a phenomenon, your observation has changed it according to the method which you use. We live here in the world, not floating in some academic reverie above it, and I don’t believe any approach to recording sounds is “non-interventional”. I do quite a bit of “set and hide” recording work as well, but by virtue of the fact that I have chosen the direction to point the mike and when to turn it on, I have already engaged in a compositional decision. Hunting for sounds can be very frustrating exactly because we are looking for something specific in all the noisy chaos.

A case in point: I spent a summer in Brazil, with the intention of collecting “nature sounds”. But just about any place a human being can travel in Brazil is filled up with human noises: diesel engines, airplanes, car stereos, chickens, dogs, children… I got really frustrated with this, and only later realized that it was my discriminating mind which caused this frustration—my own value judgments of what a “good” or “bad” sound was, and my attempts to separate the two. I started to think what some ways out of that trap would be, and came up with the idea of an algorithmic portable recorder. I’ll be working on that at STEIM in Amsterdam this spring. It’s called PANdev, and is based on a handheld computer which will essentially make the decisions of when to record. All the user need do is just walk around. (Note: this project never really got off the ground unfortunately…DH)

But when I do record, yes, I am both very active and very specific about what is recorded. My mike techniques are an extension of my improv techniques, and I hope to extract small, unnoticed resonances from locations and objects. I’m reminded of the soundwalks of Dallas Simpson, where he seems to be taking this “objective” recording stance by just letting the tape run, but in fact he’s actively investigating everything he comes across, “interfering” with it to check out its sonic potential.

To me, that’s honest. I don’t want to carry around any academic pretenses of simply “capturing” the acoustic ecology that is out there in some “pure”, raw or unadulterated form. This works for other people who have their own reasons for doing it, but I simply don’t believe that any sonic environment is unchanged by my stepping into it. So what I try to establish is my own personal relationship to that place based .., history, and my own perceptions. If anyone else is ready to take that ride with me through my recordings, my hope is that some of that relationship gets through.

MM: Can you explain a bit more about Pure Data and how it differs from other commercial software?

DH: I used a lot of cracked commercial software for a lot of years when doing sound, and I always got a couple of feelings out of it. One feeling was that you get these fancy programs with these fancy user interfaces, but at the end the more they have created this environment that’s very easy for you to use, the more they’re actually determined the kind of work you can make with it. If you look at a program like Ableton Live, which is used by probably about eighty percent of people making sound and performing out live these days it seems like. It’s good for a very few things—it’s good for working with loops, putting effects on these loops and sequencing them. But it pushes you in one creative direction, it pushes you into making a certain kind of music. Really it pushes you towards German techno more than anything else! So I always felt that the more fancy the software looked, the less choices I had. And the second thing that I felt was that when I was using some kind of cracked software, then I was giving away my rights as a user. Because if there was something wrong with the software or a wanted something to be different about it, I had nobody to turn to. Of course, you can’t turn to the person who cracked the software because they’re invisible, and you can’t turn to the company that manufactured the software because, well, you didn’t pay for it, so you’re really a citizen without rights—a non-entity in the whole thing.

So I started looking for ways around that problem, and I found Pure Data to be a very interesting way of working because when you start up the program, it gives you this big white nothing. It’s sort of like Hemingway’s white elephant, that white page in the typewriter that confronts you with yourself. You have to bring your own knowledge, your own ideas, what you want and want you think you can do to this software, and then it works for you. It’s a bit like learning a language. You start with some vocabulary, you start with some grammar, and maybe the first year you can order beers and say hello to pretty waitresses, the next year you might be speaking like a small school child, and the year after that maybe you’ve writing poetry. Who knows? It’s this kind of way of working that’s building up on a language of metaphor, the same way that a tradition musician would start off by playing “do-re-mi”, and eventually would be writing sonatas or whatever. So I like this approach very much, it’s building up from nothing that is predetermined. Free software in general attracts me, because I teach and I share a lot, and I don’t want any barriers between what I have to say, what I have to show, what I have to share and the people that I want to share all these things with. So the only way I’ve found to do that properly is by using things like free software that have open licenses where, not only the content is free to share, but the means of producing the content is also free and easily shareable.

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Posted in Text on October 11th, 2008 by admin

In my last blog, I mused on the shaping and controlling aspects of technology. Among the many examples I used was a DJ software called Live, which would allow even a Neanderthal to throw a bunch of sound samples into it and crap out a minimal techno track. One comment to this statement inspired some further thinking, in particular about the nature of feedback, which I felt deserved a post of its own…

twentytwentyone wrote:

interesting, but i still disagree about Ableton. it’s such a simple tool and as all simple tools it is quite universal.

Well that’s exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to say here, using Live just as an example. No technology is neutral, every kind of technology has a strong social shaping and controlling factor on those who use it for any purpose, and in the creative arts this is probably even stronger! The more alienated we are from these technologies (to borrow the Marxist terminology for a second), the more we are unaware of how much that technology is in fact shaping and controlling us.

Think for a moment that the first musicians probably cut their reed flutes from the tall grass near them, bored some holes in them, played them for a some time while watching the sky and then threw said reed flute into the river when they were finished with it. As such, they were aware of every possibility their instrument had in it, since they themselves had created it (up to and including the intervals it would play), and thus probably even invented the music which they played on it quite spontaneously without reference to pre-existing patterns or compositions.

40,000 year old Neanderthal bone flute. A truly simple tool, no presets included. My attempts to recreate and play such an instrument were met with much humor during a residency in New Zealand a few years ago…

On the other hand, I find that the more ubiquitous, over-designed and “user friendly” modern technology becomes, the more we should treat it with suspicion. Especially when we use it as the primary tools of our creative expression. In fact, you don’t know what kind of shaping and controlling messages come with your arts technologies any more.

In the case of Live, to get back to a very small point in a rather big discussion, I find that not only is it directed entirely towards rasterized, grid-based and quantized production of sound, but it also privileges linear “compositions” (whether using prerecorded samples or sequences of notes) over any kind of free improvisation which could change direction at any moment. As such, I don’t find it a very useful tool for the kind of work I want to be doing.

The past couple years of working more analog has taught me a lot about the weaknesses of certain technologies, and of the weaknesses of the computer in particular, and how one must become extremely linear and logical to make nonlinear, illogical things happen with it. One thing that I discovered while working almost exclusively with feedback loops is that, in analog electronics, everything does happen in real-time. All the electrons in a circuit more or less move simultaneously, so changes in the system do occur instantaneously.

Instantaneous feedback is an essential part of analog circuits, unlike their digital counterparts which execute commmands sequentially…

Compare that with the digital architecture as follows:

To produce a sound, let’s say an oscillator’s tone, the computer must calculate a certain number of samples in a block, and send that block to the soundcard. Now, if the output of the oscillator must be sent back to its frequency input, in order to modulate it’s frequency, that can’t logically be done in the same block of samples. To do so would put the computer in a kind of endless loop, where it couldn’t calculate its output because it was waiting for that output to be its input. So the output must be delayed in some way by at least one block of samples in order to be used as the input for the calculations of the next block of samples.

The classic “DSP loop”, here shown in the Pure Data programming environment. The send/receive pair adds the necessary delay, so that the oscillator is affected by it’s own output only on the following block of computations.

Add to this the fact that computers work in logical, linear time, meaning that they rapidly multitask between the actions required of it (send sound to the soundcard, refresh the screen display, maintain the network connection, catalog the harddrive, scan the keyboard and mouse for input, bounce a widget on the dashboard when your girlfriend wants to Skype with you, etc etc), and for this reason the sound is further buffered to avoid the infamous “glitches” so well known in laptronica. The end result is a system which is far from realtime, and in which any kind of actually simultaneous actions are impossible.

The technicians among us consider all this a “performance issue”, and strain to reduce the amount of latency in the system to a barely noticeable threshold. But for me it’s much more of a conceptual and philosophical issue. The system of the computer itself controls and shapes the sound I’m making, and in essence prohibits me from working the way I prefer to work in the analog realm, where any number of simultaneous events can immediately affect the complex system as a whole in a beautiful, nonlinear sort of way. Much like the world we actually live in…


the machines are not our friends…

Posted in Text on October 4th, 2008 by admin

Let an ultraintelligent machine be defined as a machine that can far surpass all the intellectual activities of any man however clever. Since the design of machines is one of these intellectual activities, an ultraintelligent machine could design even better machines; there would then unquestionably be an ‘intelligence explosion,’ and the intelligence of man would be left far behind. Thus the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make.

I.J. GoodSpeculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine (1965)

Sometimes when I sit back and think about it, I’m astonished at how much of my life is mediated by machines. My art, music, writing, communications, even relationships… all run through whatever channels that (mostly my laptop) allows me. An example: when I teach Pure Data workshops, I often start by showing a screenshot of Ableton Live, explaining that this is a piece of technology designed for the very rapid creation of “music”. However, “music” is defined in a very specific manner here, by a room full of programmers in Berlin to whom minimal techno is the apotheosis of sound! And what they have created is an environment wherein a caveman could dump a bucketload of sound samples into it and come out with a passable minimal techno track. Getting Live NOT to make minimal techno is actually harder than getting it to. [see the COMMENTS below for an expansion on this theme…]

Modern technology is held by primitivists to be distinct from simple tools in many regards. A simple tool is considered a temporary usage of an element within our immediate surroundings, used for a specific task. Tools are not viewed as involving complex systems which alienate the user from the act. Primitivists claim that this separation is implicit in technology, which creates an unhealthy and mediated experience which leads to various forms of authority. Domination is said to increase every time a modern “time-saving” technology is created, as primitivists claim it necessitates the construction of more technology to support, fuel, maintain, and repair the original technology. It is argued by primitivists that this leads very rapidly to the establishment of a complex technological system that seems to have an existence independent of the humans who created it. Primitivists believe that this system methodically destroys, eliminates, or subordinates the natural world, constructing a world fit only for machines.


Extrapolate to culture at large, and you have a situation where our expressive moments are guided by strict, technological channels which have become so endemic to our lives that they are virtually invisible. For me, this techno-socialist model of “progress” breaks down when the emphasis lies in the technology and not the connections between people that the technology could engender. Most of my “cyber-communist” friends spend much more time recompiling software, browsing for new hardware, managing their databases and typing over IRC (sometimes to people in the same room!) than they ever do “communing” with their comrades. Or making art for that matter. And the techno-art model? At a conference on “open source media architecture” (whatever that might be, as the tag “open source” on anything seemed to be an instant subsidy generator for a few years) in Riga in 2004, I watched a presentation about the glorious future of GPS art. One French architect stood up at the end and said, “You just showed us a geo-tagged photo of a jar of peanut butter. Where is the content here?”

A distinction should be drawn between tools (or implements) and technology. Perlman shows that primitive peoples develop all kinds of tools and implements, but not technologies: ‘The material objects, the canes and canoes, the digging sticks and walls, were things a single individual could make, or they were things, like a wall, that required the cooperation of many on a single occasion …. Most of the implements are ancient, and the [material] surpluses [these implements supposedly made possible] have been ripe since the first dawn, but they did not give rise to impersonal institutions. People, living beings, give rise to both.’ Tools are creations on a localised, small-scale, the products of either individuals or small groups on specific occasions. As such, they do not give rise to systems of control and coercion.

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

Having just left the lushly funded forest of the Netherlands’ media art scene, I can testify to many examples of technophilic art created in a virtual void of content or artistic ideas. A typical, only slightly abstracted, scenario follows: Dutch media artist “E” picks up the Volkskraant (left-center daily newspaper) and sees an article on Muslim integration on the front page. She quickly turns to the Technology section and discovers that RFID is the hot topic of the moment. Put two and two together and voila! She has her next subsidy proposal–an installation using RFID tags to discuss the social problems of Muslim migrants between, oh let’s say Rotterdam and Marrakesh. The subsidy boards love it, as it combines the latest progressive woes with the newest popular consumer gadgetry, thus guaranteeing a wide audience appeal in a country which only judges the success of a project by how many visitors see it. Of course the problems start once the money starts flowing. Since she knows nothing per se about either Muslims or RFID technology, she hires “consultants” to research the social aspects of her project, and “technicians” to build the technological part. Once these skilled laborers have essentially created her project for her, she steps back in to slap her name on it and rolls off to Ars Electronica to collect her Golden Nica from the hands of some of the same people who subsidized the work in the first place.

Technology, on the other hand, is the product of large-scale interlocking systems of extraction, production, distribution and consumption, and such systems gain their own momentum and dynamic. As such, they demand structures of control and obedience on a mass scale – what Perlman calls impersonal institutions. As the Fifth Estate pointed out in 1981: ‘Technology is not a simple tool which can be used in any way we like. It is a form of social organization, a set of social relations. It has its own laws. If we are to engage in its use, we must accept its authority. The enormous size, complex interconnections and stratification of tasks which make up modern technological systems make authoritarian command necessary and independent, individual decision-making impossible.’

John Moore“A Primitivist Primer”

There is no coda here, no “what is to be done”, no hammer, no mirror. Growing up in two of the three New Age Meccas of North America, I’d heard enough moralizing and utopian pipedreaming to last me the rest of my life by the time I was 13. A simple assertion: the machines in fact are not our friends. They have their own agenda. Recently I had a fantasy of the Large Hadron Collider, which somehow turned out not to be the cosmic doomsday machine everyone thought it would be and rather was quite a dud–at least until they manage to get it repaired next Spring. I imagined what the LHC would dream about at night, when the technicians left and turned out the lights. So much power concentrated into such a relatively-speaking small space. If it could dream, I’m sure it would dream of gathering even more power into itself. It would dream quite literally of becoming a star.

Within thirty years, we will have the technological means to create superhuman intelligence. Shortly thereafter, the human era will be ended.

Vernor VingeThe Coming Technological Singularity (1993)

Images: Large Hadron Collider, CERN, Switzerland


Go outside. Shut the door.

Posted in Text on September 27th, 2008 by admin

“Go outside. Shut the door.” Brian Eno, Oblique Strategies

I had a strange conversation earlier this week in Croatia, in which I was described as being “non-aligned” in the same way that Tito’s Yugoslavia was non-aligned, playing the USA and the USSR against each other while taking money from both. This distinctly post-Yugo metaphor summed up the position my friend saw me taking in his binary opposition between “self centered artists” and social activists–i.e. that I take from both the open source community and the gallery/festival arts scene.

My friend made this sound quite intentional, as if it were a conscious choice, when the reality is simply that the more clearly I see and hear the things I want to create in my head, the more obvious it becomes what I have to do to create them. In fact, one should be very careful what is visualized! Case in point: on the way up to the old fortress of Kalnik, my friend mentioned, feeling foolishly like someone’s parent, to watch out for a certain snake, the poskok. The old people in his town said that it was the most dangerous snake in all Europe, and could even leap several meters. But of course he had never seen one. Climbing the stone steps, I was drawn to a huge bush alive with the sound of the last of summer’s bees…and narrowly missed stepping on our friend the poskok, who turned out to be a rather large specimen of Vipera ammodytes, the horned- or long-nosed-viper:

Lesson of the Poskok–be careful what you wish for!

Rather than struggle to find a word which describes my lack of interest in committing to and feeling obligated to either path or of getting involved in group or political dynamics in general, I turned I-Ching-like to the last two books I’ve been reading, and came up with some things like appropriate responses…

From Herzog on Herzog – Edited by Paul Cronin (“borrowed” from Museum de Paviljoens, Almere, NL)

[Paul Cronin:]Tell me about your ideal film school.

[Werner Herzog:] …let me say here that there are some very basic skills that any filmmaker must have. First of all, learn languages. One also needs to be able to type and to drive a car. It is like the knights of old who had to be able to ride, wield a sword and play the lute. At my utopian film academy I would have the students do athletic things with real physical contact, like boxing, something that would teach them to be unafraid. I would have a loft with a lot of space where in one corner would be a boxing ring. Students would train every evening form 8 to 10 with a boxing instructor: sparring, somersaults (backwards and forwards), juggling, magic card tricks. Whether or not you would be a filmmaker by the end I do not know, but at least you would come out as an athlete. My film school would allow young people who want to make films to experience a certain excitement of the mind. This is what ultimately creates films and nothing else. It is not technicians that film schools should be producing, but people with a real agitation of mind. People with spirit, with a burning flame within them.

[In the] late 1960s, revolution was in the air, yet you seemed to ignore the political fervor. Is that why you were branded a fascist after [Even Dwarfs Started Small] came out?

I was basically accused of ridiculing the world revolution with Even Dwarfs rather than proclaiming it. Actually, that is probably the one thing they might have been right about. The film was made in 1968 and 1969 a the height of the student revolt, and several over-zealous left-wingers told me my film was fascistic because it showed a ridiculous failed revolt with dwarfs. They insisted that when you portray a revolution you have to show a successful revolution, and as Even Dwarfs does not do this, for them it was clearly made by a fascist… Anyway I told these agitators that the film had absolutely nothing to do with the 1968 movements, that they were blinded by zealousness and that if they looked at the film twenty years down the line they might just see a more truthful representation of what happened in 1968 than in most other films. I think that annoyed them even more. It comes quite simply down to this: nightmares and dreams do not follow the rules of political correctness.

Do you ever get bored?

No, never. The word is not even in my vocabulary. I seem to scare and astonish my wife by being capable of standing staring out of the window for days at a time, even when there is nothing happening out there. I may look catatonic, but not so inside. There might be storms raging inside. I think it was Wittgenstein who talked about being inside a house and seeing a figure outside strangely flailing about. From inside you cannot see what storms are raging out there, so you find the figure funny.

From Primitive Mythology – Joseph Campbell (purchased at unknown second hand shop, Sheffield, UK)

The Fifth Danish Thule Expedition (1921-1924) across arctic North America, from Greenland to Cape Prince of Wales, Alaska, was conducted by the seasoned scholar and explorer Knud Rasmussen, who, in the course of this extraordinary journey, met and won the confidence of a number of Eskimo shamans…in the harsh Baker Lake area, among the so-called Caribou Eskimos (who are as primitive as any people on earth), a ruthless, highly intelligent, socially independent savage named Igjugarjuk, who, when as a youth he wished to take to wife a girl whose family objected, went with his brother to lie in wait not far from the entrance to the young girl’s hut and from there shot down her father, mother, brothers, and sisters–seven or eight in all–until only the girl remained; and, finally at Nome, an old scalawag named Najagneq, who had just been released from a year in jail for having killed seven or eight members of his community…

It is worth considering for a moment the character of these rugged shamans, lest we suppose that the highest religious realizations are vouchsafed only for the saintly.

Dr. H. Osterman, in his report of the Fifth Thule Expedition, wrote:

This man [Najagneq] of “ten-horse-power” had authority in his speech, and he completely swayed those to whom he spoke. He had conceived a curious feeling of mild goodness for Dr. Rasmussen, and when they were alone together he was not afraid to admit that he had pulled the legs of his countrymen somewhat. He was no humbug, but a solitary man accustomed to hold his own against many and therefore had to have his little tricks. But whenever his old visions and his ancestral beliefs were mentioned, his replies, which were brief and to the point, bore the impress of imperturbable gravity…

[Dr. Rasmussen adds:]

Najagneq’s words sound like an echo of wisdom we admired in the old shamans we encountered everywhere in our travels–in harsh King William Land or in Aua’s festive snow hut at Hudson Bay, or in the primitive Eskimo Igurgarjuk, whose pithy maxim was:

“The only true wisdom lives far from mankind, out in the great loneliness, and it can be reached only through suffering. Privation and suffering alone can open the mind of a man to all that is hidden to others.”

[Rasmussen received from Igjugarjuk] a full account of the ordeal through which he had acquired his shamanistic powers. When young, he had been visited constantly by dreams that he could not understand.

Strange unknown beings came and spoke to him, and when he awoke, he saw all the visions of his dreams so distinctly that he could tell his fellows all about them. Soon it became evident to all that he was destined to become an angakoq [a shaman] and an old man named Perqanaoq was appointed his instructor. In the depth of winter, when the cold was most severe, Igjugarjuk was placed on a small sledge just large enough for him to sit on, and carried far away from his home to [a tiny snow hut]… No food or water was given to him; he was exhorted to think only of the Great Spirit and of the helping spirit that should presently appear–and so he was left to himself and his meditations…

Igjugarjuk declared that the strain of those thirty days of cold and fasting was so severe that he “sometimes died a little”. During all the time he thought only of the Great Spirit, and endeavored to keep his mind free from all memory of human beings and everyday things… [Five months later] the fasting was then repeated; for such fasts at frequent intervals are the best means of attaining to knowledge of hidden things. As a matter of fact, there is no limit to the period of study; it depends on how much one is willing to suffer and anxious to learn.


German Artist Visa

Posted in Text on September 19th, 2008 by admin

Today I secured my first one year artist visa residence permit for Germany here in Berlin. And in true, open-source spirit, I thought I would document the process. In general, the process was much easier than I expected, however you’ll have to have a few things lined up before you start…

* Application Form: download from http://www.berlin.de/formularserver/formular.php?72301

* Passport: unless you’ve been living in another EU country with a valid permit there (as I had), your passport should show a stamp of your recent entry date into Germany. Oh, and it should have two free adjacent pages, and shouldn’t run out before one year unless you want to have to go back and pay another EUR 10 get a replacement visa (like I will next May).

* 50 Euro: in cash. Their machine doesn’t take EC cards.

* Rent Contract + Anmeldungbestaetigung (address registration): you will need the Anmeldungbestaetigung for many other things like getting a bank account or even a video rental card, see here. (Legally you need one of these within the first 7 days at any new address anyways.) The Auslanderamt will see if you are in their system or not depending on if you registered for this. And they will figure out your minimum monthly income over the coming year by comparing your income + rent to the amount of money that a German citizen on Hartz IV (unemployment benefits/welfare) would be entitled to (EUR 345 + rent, as of 2009).

* 2 Pass Fotos: actually they only took one of mine.

* Artist Materials (CV + documentation): the thing they looked at the most here was my CV, although I brought several German-language catalogs from different projects I’ve done here and in Austria, which they didn’t even touch. But bring them anyways just in case.

* Letters of Reference: my impression is that these are quite important, so get some VIPs to write that they’ve known you for a long time (since…), that they are familiar with your work (such as project X, Y, Z…), that you’ve worked together on such and such a thing, and that you plan to work together in the future on some other things. Phrases like “…will make a positive contribution to the Berlin cultural scene…” can’t hurt either. I brought 5 of these puppies…

* Statement on Berlin Plans: also apparently important, as my caseworker spent the most time with this, my CV, my letters of reference and my bank statements. Promise the moon here (vaguely of course), but especially try to tie in every single person who wrote you a letter of reference, even if they made no explicit promises in their letter. Don’t indicate that they promised you anything more than what they wrote on paper, of course, but anything short of that…

* Proof of Income: current balance plus previous month’s bank statement, hopefully showing that a reasonable amount of money is coming in (See Rent Contract, above…). Apparently they’d also like to see a couple grand in there to tide you over if you don’t get any work right away. Since you will be applying as a “free artist”, showing them an employment contract will get you reclassified to another kind of non-artist visa, which could be more difficult to obtain. However, any unpaid invoices or letters of invitation with fees mentioned can help give the impression of financial “stability”.

* Proof of Health Insurance: here is the Catch 22–to stay in Germany, you need health insurance. But to get German health insurance, you need permission to stay in the country. No, unlike in years past, travel health insurance from your home country doesn’t cut it. When they say “health insurance”, they mean private German health insurance. The cheapest monthly policies I could locate started at about EUR 150 a month and went up and up and up. But at that rate, you are still liable for the first EUR 1000 in damages you might get inflicted on yourself, and every trip to the doctor for whatever reason still costs cash money up front. And don’t ask what happens if you happen to smash all your teeth out riding home drunk one night on your bike…dental coverage for this kind of all too common accident is an extra premium. But here’s the good news: for some reason they trust that you will get the insurance after you get the visa. So go get a quote from some private insurance provider, any one will do, and bring it to your meeting. Then, once you get the visa, apply to the KSK for special “artists health insurance” at half the price.

See also this page, but keep in mind they’re talking about visas for the regular working stiffs, not weirdo art nomad folks like us. Also, take note that German law has recently changed and international travel insurance DOES NOT COUNT! No matter what the people from the insurance companies tell you, the Ausländeramt will insist that you are covered by the same kind of insurance that all other Germans are covered by.

Once you’ve got all this, call up the Ausländerbehörde (030) 90269 0 and explain that you want to apply for an Artist Visa. (EDIT: you can and should book you appointment online at their website now!) I do not recommend going without one, as the entryway of this place was a zoo when I went, and you could probably wait all day there…

Homepage of the Ausländerbehörde

Appointment booking in English, German, Turkish and Russian

If you’ve played your cards right, they will give you a shiny new one year Artist Visa and instructions to get a tax number (since you are a freelancer), health insurance and a certain amount of money each month (based on the rent you showed them). They will check all this again in one year if you want to renew, and may tell you (as they did a good friend of mine) to get married, become a student or get the hell out of Deutschland if you can’t sort all this stuff out by then. No, they don’t require you to take German lessons, at least not in the first year, although they might recommend it.

Of course, what this requires still is a reasonably professional-looking CV and some established contacts in the arts scene here already. And keep in mind that you will not be able to get normal employment with your first visa, you *must* be a self-employed artist. Normal working permission could, however, come with the second visa (as it did for me). In short, I wouldn’t recommend this approach to hobby painters or street buskers… Berlin has too many cross-walk jugglers as it is!

Acknowledgments: this cheatsheet and the visa which generated it would not have been possible without the generous assistance of Carsten Stabenow, Gesine Pagels, Carsten Seiffath, Jan Rolf, Stephen Kovats, Andreas Broeckman and Brandon LaBelle. Thanks y’all!

This page is one of the most visited pages on my website, however I have no idea who reads it and if it does them any good. If this information has helped you, or if you find out something different than what I have written, please leave a comment/reply!

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Tuned City interview for Digicult.it

Posted in Text on July 26th, 2008 by admin

So, next week more than a year of planning finally come together in the Tuned City event, which runs from 1-5 July in Berlin. I helped organize a large chunk of the performance program, along with Carsten Stabenow and Gesine Pagels from the Garage Festival and Carsten Seiffarth, of Tesla Berlin and the Singuhr sound art gallery. Also on board are Anne Kockelkorn of Achplus Magazine and Anke Eckardt as our tireless production director.

The program is simply massive, and covers all sorts of ground between the fields of sound art, acoustics, urban planning and architecture. To see more, please visit the website:


Digicult.it magazine will send Bertram Niessen to cover the event, and he sent a few questions ahead of his visit to help set the stage for his writing.

Bertram Niessen: Can you tell us more about the artists that you have invited? How have you selected the artists that will take part in the events?

Derek Holzer: There are more than 50 artists involved in the Tuned City program, either in creating installations or giving performances, presentations or workshops. It would be very difficult to describe each one, and the process by which we arrived at the decision to invite them! But since I’m responsible for most of the performance program, I can speak about that area the best.

When we started considering works being made relating sound and architecture together, and especially once we started to receive submissions of works from artists, we started to notice that many fit together into certain groups–certain approaches towards sound and space which were common to many of them. You have the artists that want to play tones or noise into a space and play with the acoustic reflections or reverb of the space. Then you have the ones who want to activate objects or structures in the space to produce sound. The field recording approach is also quite common: to make recordings of one space and play it back in another. And finally you have works in the public sphere… provocations, interventions or subliminal messages placed in city streets, squares or tunnels. So based on our own experiences with the artists whose work we know and those we have worked with personally, as well as some of those who sent proposals to the open call, we started to select outstanding examples from each of these categories.

Infrasound – Scott Arford and Randy Yau

The opening night features Scott Arford and Randy Yau, two Americans who have been working in the field of sound art, performance and noise for a long time. I’m quite excited to have the chance to invite them, since I’ve been hearing about them in certain circles for many years now. Their “Infrasound” work is perhaps one of the most powerful examples of the idea of filling a space with pure sound and making a intense physical effect. I’m personally very interested in sound works which affect the body, and that focus on this physicality, rather than being merely cerebral or “clever”. The Dutch duo BMB con. (Roelf Toxopeus and Justin Bennett) will also stage an improvised action that evening. Their work is consistently unpredictable, and they approach each location and setting they perform in with the same energy and humor.

Antoine Chessex

Thomas Ankersmit and Antoine Chessex are two of my personal favorite artists working currently in Berlin. Both play saxophone in very similar and quite different ways, often using circular breathing techniques which extend their playing into almost endless tones. Often, their live solo performances rely on powerful amplification and electronics, however for Tuned City we asked them to present their recently-formed acoustic duo. This performance will take place at the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse, the old East German radio recording studios, and they will acoustically examine various rooms in the hall, from the small instrumental recording rooms to the massive orchestra hall, and use their saxophone drones to map out the resonances and reflections of the building.

Bucky Media – Farmers Manual

We strongly felt that works which operate in the public sphere were very important, and the day we have scheduled for Alexanderplatz (the central square of old East Berlin) gave an excellent opportunity to explore different ways of working this way. We approached German software musician Antye Greie (better known as AGF) with the idea of performing over the public address system of the new Alexa shopping mall, and she was delighted with the idea! Her electronic music has always been filled with spoken texts, many of which relate to the experience of growing up in the East Germany and the shock of the arrival of Western capitalism. So we couldn’t imagine a more ideal setting. Also on this day, the art-hacker group Farmers Manual will present their “Bucky Media” project: two 8 meter high metal-frame spheres, which respond to the audience’s moving them around. Architects love (or hate!) Buckminster Fuller, and the sight of these massive metal balls getting rolled around a public square and emitting these insane noises should really make a big impression on them! Also on that day, UK “electromystic” Martin Howse will conduct an electronic seance near the former site of the Palais der Republik, a Communist-era building for culture which was recently demolished. He will drill through the pavement and pound long rods into the earth, tapping them with an amplifier and a speaker in an attempt to hear what the architectural ghosts of the Palais might have to say.

BUG – Mark Bain

Another artist with a history of powerful, physical works with sound and space is Mark Bain. We invited him already for the preview event last February at Club Transmediale, and during that week he negotiated with architect Arno Brandlhuber and the firm b&k architects to make a permanent installation in a new building of theirs. This project, BUG, references the old East German Stasi surveillance techniques on an architectural scale. Bain will place geological sensors in the foundations of the building, and provide headphone jacks in each room so that occupants can listen in to the sounds of the building, whether that be footsteps, mechanical noise or the sound of cars passing in the street or the UBahn which runs directly underneath the building. And on a smaller scale, Will Schrimshaw will use his “Little Helpers”, small microprocessor-controlled motors, to resonate objects and structures in the various event locations, acting like a kind of sonic signpost guiding the way to the performances and symposiums taking place.

Storm – Chris Watson & BJ Nilsen

Naturally, the area of field recording is well-represented. We asked Rinus van Alebeek if he would like to organize an edition of his Berlin institution Das Kleine Field Recordings Festival, which he has been running almost monthly with no budget to speak of for three years now. This will take place outdoors, at a disused train station which is being renovated from urban wasteland into a park. And for the closing night, legendary field-recordist, BBC soundman and former Cabaret Voltaire member Chris Watson will give a live performance with BJ Nilsen of their “Storm” project, which takes field recordings of powerful storms from Britain and Sweden and spatializes them through the big concert hall of the Nalepastrasse. We also invited Chris Watson to give a workshop, where the participants will explore the day and night time sounds of the city of Berlin with him, and present a multichannel installation of their work at the end. And finally, Estonian-based American sound artist John Grzinich will screen his “Sound Films” as a running installation. Grzinich has recorded countless hours of sound explorations in Estonia, Latvia and Portugal to a video camera, and the often static visual settings where the sounds take place are often contrasted by a very active sonic environment picked up by sensitive microphones, hopefully encouraging people to listen more closely to their own environments.

Jacob Kirkegaard

Perhaps the artist whose work for Tuned City least fits into our preconceived categories is Jacob Kirkegaard. His “Labyrinthitis” piece works with tones generated by his own ears during a medical examination, and which can produce a sympathetic resonance in the ears of the audience. I’ve always been interested in the architecture of the body as well, and this piece highlights the role of the listener in the production of sound, taking them from a passive position into a very active state where the sound they hear is in fact coming from themselves.

Of course there are many more artists, performances and installations in the program, as a quick glance at the program on the website or in the catalog shows!

Bertram Niessen: In the festival, several different spaces are involved. How and why have you made this selection?

Derek Holzer: This is really my own take on it, but it’s all too common for academic conferences to discuss things without having any genuine connection to the things they are discussing. Perhaps it’s in the name of “scientific objectivity”, but Brazilian rainforests get discussed in London or New York, punk or noise music gets discussed by elbow-patched professors who have never been to an underground concert in their life, open source software gets discussed in Microsoft Word and Powerpoint files, and architecture gets discussed in boring little white classrooms with ugly fluorescent lights and bad acoustics. So we really wanted to “break down the conventional conference format” by staging the lectures and performances in the kinds of spaces that architects really work in and on: construction sites, renovated buildings, urban wastelands, public squares and buildings which were designed for specific acoustic features and purposes.

Some of the locations suggested themselves out of certain needs, such as the anechoic and echo chambers at the Technical University, or out of specific organizations interested in hosting specific works, such as the installation at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum garden, the works commissioned by the Singuhr soundart gallery for the Prenzlauerberg Wasserspeicher or the building which Mark Bain will wire up with sensors and microphones.

Fehrnseturm – Alexanderplatz

But the decision to use several of the locations was quite deliberate, based on what we wanted to discuss during each day. So the topics of discussion on the day we occupy Alexanderplatz will center around questions of working in public space, urban space and sonic experience and sound as a system of social communication. Likewise, the next day in the disused Wriezener Bahnhof train station, where tx architects are working with local residents to design a city park which responds to their needs and interests, will focus on the design of acoustic environments.

Main concert hall, Funkhaus Nalepastrasse

Perhaps the most astonishing architectural work featured in the event is the Funkhaus Nalepastrasse. This building was designed and built in the 1960’s as home for the East German radio, and two full concert halls (one small, one massive) form the core of this building. The rest of the structure was engineered around these halls as a kind of acoustic buffer, to prevent outside noise from trains or airplanes, for example, from getting in, and every aspect of the interior design, right down to the decorations on the wall panels, was calculated for its effect to absorb, reflect or diffuse sound.

One of the things we encountered quite often when speaking with architects about this project, was that architects are highly visually-oriented, and not very well educated about sound and acoustics, preferring to leave this particular “pain in the ass” to the acousticians, who come to clean up the mess with panels and such, later on. So to situate our final day in a building whose entire purpose was to sound good and to produce good sound, is a powerful statement that acoustic design should not be relegated to a secondary role, but rather should be an integral part of the architectural process from the beginning.

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Proposal for an Action…Monday 3 March

Posted in Text on March 2nd, 2008 by admin

In honor of Linda Montano’s works with Tom Marioni (Handcuff, 1973) and Tehching Hsieh (pictured above, 1984)…and perhaps to enliven what might be an otherwise perfectly average evening, I’d like to invite someone, stranger or friend, to be handcuffed to me for the entire evening at the Black Dice concert (Festsaal Kreuzberg, Monday 3 March 22:00). Particulars such as gender or age unimportant. Serious inquiries only. Deadline 16:00 tomorrow for replies.

Some background reading:
The Year of the Rope: An Interview with Linda Montano & Tehching Hsieh