Interview for Middle East Technical University

Posted in Text on May 7th, 2018 by admin

I was recently asked some questions by Alparslan Teke of the Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey about my instrument building practice, and I thought I might share the answers here.

1. How did you start making or altering electronic musical devices?

To make a long story incredibly short: I have always been interested in sound. However I lacked the discipline as a teenager to learn how to move my fingers quickly up and down the neck of a guitar or the keyboard of a piano. In my confusion, I considered “making sound” to be the same as “making music”. When I later figured out that most sound around us is in fact un-pitched, un-tempo-ed and therefore non-musical, my world opened up. But I discovered that most devices for making electronic sound still assumed one wanted to make “music” with them, so I started to take them apart to remove the “musical” part of the interface, or simply create my own from scratch, first in the Pure Data programming language and later with analog electronics.

2. In which relevant fields were you educated?

None. I studied literature in my bachelor’s studies, and silversmithing before that. Perhaps that accounts for my obsession with objects with tiny parts? Other than that I am not only entirely self-educated, but also in all my school years I nearly failed every math class which was ever forced on me. The fact that I am internationally recognized as a builder of electronics and a programmer of computers remains a gigantic mystery to me.

3. What were your motivations and/or purposes when you started, and (how) did they transform?

My instrument-building reflects an economic reality one faces as a non-academic, non-institutional artist these days. There is so much digital sound out there right now, and no one pays you for making any of it. But since we are working in the era of the “pro-sumer”, there are plenty of people who are constantly spending money on the tools to make their own sound. So what started as a way of taking control of my own tools and wrestling them away from the traditional music world ends up being an economic relationship with the music world all over again once they start to take interest in my way of working.

4. Do you consider this artistry (of making electronic/electroacoustic musical instruments) as your profession? If not, do you have any else?

I have no plan B at the moment. This is my day, night, weekday, weekend, summer, and winter job.

5. What words or concepts would you use to describe things you’ve created?

Non-linear, chaotic, generative, intuitive, iterative, multi-modal, phenomenological.

6. What related activities do you do that are directly or indirectly related to this occupation? (such as using the devices you made in performances, conducting workshops, etc.)

Currently a third of my time in this field is spent making instruments for sale. Another third is spent preparing for, traveling to and playing gigs. The last third is spent teaching.

7. Where and how do you get your ideas that end up with different devices?

Up to quite recently, almost everything in the analog synthesizer world was some kind of riff on something which was made in the 1960’s and 70’s already. This happens due to an unprecedented access to information about those devices which was much more mystical and unreachable at the time they were made. Despite the efforts of their inventors to share the knowledge at the time in many cases, the widest propagation effect was delayed until internet access became largely ubiquitous. I still think some of the best work in the field was done back then, and I spend a lot of time looking at old designs of audio and video devices from many eras, as well as related readings on the cultural, aesthetic, and philosophical ideas of the time which gave birth to these machines. Some of my favorite eras are the 1930’s (optical synthesis technology), the 1950’s (early analog and digital computer vector graphics), the late 1960’s (patchable, cybernetic analog computers become Buchla synthesizers), and the early 1970’s (after the Sony Portapak, television comes unglued through the work of Dan Sandin, Steve Rutt, Bill Etra, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Nam June Paik and others). However, the latest developments of hybrid digital/analog synthesizers have given me great hope and faith that finally we can also move on from these older models, and stop imitating drum machines from the early 80’s for the next 40 years.

8. Where and how do you get your raw material or components?

Small local shops when I’m in a hurry, larger European suppliers when I’m not. I haven’t moved to ordering from China in bulk yet. Most of my wooden instrument enclosures come from flea markets, antiques shops, strange collectors I have met over the years, and EBay.

9. How much time of a day or week (or a month, a year) do you spend on the workbench? Do you have a working schedule?

Sometimes I sleep. Then I feel guilty. I don’t know how to take vacations since beaches bore me to death, so I always end up finding some way to make a project out of a trip.

10. What time of this is actually building something, and in which other ways you spend time there? Would you confine your occupation of creating new musical devices to only the activities you do on the workbench?

As I said, I am pretty much always working. If I am not building, performing, or teaching, you can usually find me in “my office” (currently a rather relaxed cafe-bar in the Kallio district of Helsinki) doing research.

11. Do you have a separate workshop to maintain your effort, or is it embedded in the place you live in?

I had a working space in my Berlin flat for several years. It was the most unhealthy thing I ever did to myself, and my quality of life improved dramatically when I started renting out a studio. In Helsinki, I share a small space with a couple other artists who are pretty much never there, but I do dream about getting a larger space for myself again once finances allow it.

12. Do you produce in large quantities? Do you use the devices you`ve made, or do you sell them? Does this occupation provide you a livelihood?

I make everything in very small batches. This is because I am too stubborn to get into modern, automated processes and compulsively do things in very difficult ways, by hand. There is such a giant market for Euro-rack synthesizers made in far more efficient ways, I feel like if I get involved in that it will be a race to the bottom in terms of cost and quality. Probably I’m just a huge control freak.

I stand by everything I have built, and I use my own instruments every time I perform. In fact, I can’t really stand using things other people have built unless it’s something that would be really redundant to make myself, like a 16 channel audio mixer.

I have been lucky enough to be able to live from my art for the better part of two decades now, but that has also meant that I must constantly re-evaluate what “my art” means. This is how commercial instrument building and teaching became folded into my work. As I said, there is no plan B. It’s too late in life for me to get a start in the banking industry.

13. With whom do you most frequently interact as part of this
occupation of yours?

Workshop participants. I have offered my workshops in artist-run spaces, in music and media arts festivals, and in bachelors and masters level university programs in a variety of areas, including but not limited to architecture, theater, visual arts, media studies, audiovisual design, and music conservatory studies, in countries across Europe, North and South America, and New Zealand. The participants of these workshops have come from all walks of life, from professional Scandinavian artists to Native American high schoolers who have been tragically mis-labeled as “problem students”. The oldest participant in one of my workshops has been nearly 80, and the youngest just 8. One of the most unique participants was completely visually-impaired, yet insisted he would solder together his own electronic instrument. With a bit of assistance, he did just fine.

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Interview for Makery Magazine

Posted in Text on March 19th, 2015 by admin

My good friend Ewen Chardronnet asked me to answer a few questions about the DELILAH TOO installation, my instrument-building practice and the workshop process. You can read my replies here.

One of my first formal trainings was as a silversmith, so the idea of making real things with my hands has always held far more appeal than the symbolic substitutions and semiotic shell games so beloved by the more conceptual and theoretical wings of the contemporary art world. But I think my instrument-building also reflects an economic reality one faces as a non-academic, non-institutional artist these days. There is so much digital music out there right now, and no one pays you for making any of it. But since we are working in the era of the “pro-sumer”, there are plenty of people who are constantly spending money on the tools to make their own music.

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2013 Through My Eyes

Posted in Documentation on December 19th, 2013 by admin

This interview was featured in Sante Sangre magazine this week…

How would you summarize this past year on artistic and personal level?

This last year held huge changes for me in terms of direction and outlook. I still get a lot out of performing on a personal level, but I have always struggled with the avant-garde elitism I find throughout the entire experimental and new music scenes. My disgust with this elitism–coupled with the very realistic awareness that I will likely never make a living playing noise concerts–led me at first towards teaching people to build their own instruments in a variety of workshops over the years. But in 2013, I began producing and selling my own hand made electronic sound instruments in earnest, and the response has been fantastic!

I see most modern music technology (software or hardware) as being only partly “instruments” in the classical sense, and more like interactive compositions, where the designer has purposefully included or left out elements which shape the sound in very predetermined ways. By sharing some of the tools I use to make my own performances, I invite other artists (professional, amateur or otherwise) to collaborate with me in new ways and break down this tired, Romantic idea of the genius artist inventing themselves in complete isolation…

What album you listened to most often this year (not necessarily released in 2013)?

Swans – We Rose From Your Bed With the Sun In Our Head [2012 Young God]

What was the best cultural experience not related to music?

My cultural life seems inextricably tied to music somehow, so here I will mention living like a reptile on the high plains of Southwest Texas, experiencing a smoke sauna in the Estonian countryside, watching the leaves turn color in the north of Sweden and reading some of the biographies and journals of the great explorers of the 19th and 20th centuries.

And best trip? Most beautiful or magic place you visited this year?

I was lucky enough to get an invitation to play at the Tsonami Festival in Valparaiso, Chile this year. The invitation came early enough that I could book a whole month of workshops, concerts and residencies in Chile, and spent time in Punta Arenas (Patagonia), Santiago, Valparaiso and the experimental architecture community of Ciudad Abierta, in Ritoque just north of Concón. Patagonia and Ritoque in particular struck me. In both places, the nature was both incredibly beautiful and unforgiving.

What was your greatest disappointment of 2013?

Near the end of my trip to Chile, I was informed that my father was in the hospital with cancer. We have always been very close, and I am certain this wandering, mongrel-dog artist lifestyle I lead is due to his example. Realizing that someone I have respected so much my entire life is still a mere mortal came as a deep shock.

Did you learn anything particular this year?

After turning 40 in 2012, I have been thinking a lot about how one can remain an independent artist in the long term, and in a sustainable way. When you are 27, all you care about is enough money to pay the rent, buy a few new toys and keep yourself in beers. But working outside institutional structures becomes more and more challenging after a while, when you aren’t willing to sacrifice your time, your personal relationships, your health or your future to play a few more door-money gigs in some stinking basement in Neukölln.

A sustainable way of working gives you a stable platform in the long term, rather than twenty bucks, a beer and a kebab in the short term. It’s there for those times when you are sick and have no inspiration, or when you have a huge idea that just won’t wait, or when you fall in love and want to build a cabin in the mountains together, or any other damned thing that isn’t the unrelenting grind of produce-produce-produce, book-book-book and tour-tour-tour to keep the bill collectors off your back.

Plans, hopes, expectations for 2014?

I will fly in some planes, see some new cities, play some gigs, build some new instruments and meet scores of new people. Like most years. And for this I remain thankful. Besides that, I hope to expand this instrument-building business into something which can better support me, without turning into one of the caricature trust-fund hipster start-up types who have overrun Berlin in the last 6 years. But more than anything, I hope to be able to wander the desert like a mad fool with my father again when he is well.

Photo by Terje Toomistu

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Marfa Public Radio interview

Posted in Announcement on January 8th, 2013 by admin

This morning I sat in the Marfa Public Radio studio with Rachel Lindley and talked about my Learning to Listen workshop. Rachel was fantastic, she really has The Voice and from the one-paragraph press release, she asked the most intelligent questions that just about any journalist has ever asked me. I really feel like this interview gives a comprehensive overview of how I present the concept of the soundscape in a workshop situation.

You can listen to the whole interview (approx 30 min) at:

The workshop itself at the Marfa Book Company went extremely well, with at least 25 folks both nights. In the usual style, I played several field recordings from various corners of the globe, and together we figured out what kind of of information–both subjective and objective–we can learn from a recorded or composed soundscape. Thanks especially to Tim Johnson for hosting this experience.

I will play a set for modular synthesizer, locally found objects and SoundBox, at the Michael Strogoff gallery, 124 E. El Paso St, Marfa, Texas at 8PM on Wednesday 09 Jan. Y’alls are welcome!

Now Playing

kevin drummrelief[2012 emego]
mika vainio, kevin drumm, axel dorner, lucio capecevenexia[2012 pan]
tim hecker & daniel lopatininstrumental tourist[2012 sstudios]

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Interview for Groove TV + updates

Posted in Documentation on May 24th, 2012 by admin

I was interviewed by filmmaker Maren Sextro a few weeks ago about my DIY electronic instruments, you can see the results here. In the 60 seconds of film trailer that plays before the interview, I recommend you go to the kitchen for a glass of cold milk. The video itself is very well done, on the other hand, and I thank Maren warmly for her work on this.

Still places left for the workshop this weekend, or drop by O’Tannenbaum on Sunday night for the presentation and their fine selection of Belgian ales. They have one that tastes just like vinegar that I’m not so sure about, though…

And finally, Machine Deva premiered to rave reviews at Cine-Marfa last weekend. Steve and I are still picking ourselves back up off the floor after the amount of work that went into finalizing the soundtrack and getting it to the festival. I will have some CDRs to sell of this later on, watch this space.

Students of the Sonic College (Haderslev, Denmark) and the the SoundBoxes they built with me yesterday at NK in Berlin.

Now Playing

birchville cat motelbeautiful speck triumph[2004 last visible dog]
douglas leedyentropical paradise[1968 seraphim]
swanswe rose from your bed with the sun in our head[2012 young god]

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Bent Fest Interview II + update(!!!)

Posted in Text on April 30th, 2010 by admin

1. Can you explain the process of putting together your live performance? How exactly are you making the different forms/colors of light affect the audio output?

The TONEWHEELS performance uses the same technology found in film projectors which use optical motion picture soundtracks. The amount of light which falls on a photodetector modulates an electrical current, which can then be connected to a speaker to make audio. The sounds are created by printing the waveforms I want to play on transparent spinning discs, and placing these discs on motors with a variable speed control. This process was also used for the famous Optigan organ made by Mattel in the 1970’s, as well as by a number of avante-garde composers, filmmakers and instrument inventors such as Daphne Oram, Jacques Dudon, Evgeny Murzin, Norman McLaren and Evgeny Scholpo.

2. What aspect(s) of circuitbending motivate you the most?

I’ve mentioned at other times that I don’t really consider myself a “circuit bender”, since I rarely take commercially available devices or toys and hack them. But the meme of circuit bending is interesting to me–the idea that people can re-purpose things which are normally considered “black boxes” in our electronic culture, that they can break them down into simpler things and reassemble them in new, fantastic ways. I find this idea very challenging to the consumer-industrial status quo of selling us new stupid gadgets every year, forcing us to discard the old ones without every considering how we could transform them into something else–or even build our own new things from scratch. I’d be much more interested in constructing some DIY caveman communications device myself instead of running out to buy the latest iPhone…

Tristan Perich of Loud Objects takes his self-made mobile phone everywhere. No camera, no games, no texting, no BS.

3. Some of the performances at Bent could be described as ‘music,’ while others are better described as noise/sound art. Your work seems to lean toward the latter, but which category do you feel you fall into, if any?

In every kind of music, the art form is in some way determined by the technology. But no where is this more apparent than in electronic music, which is full of gear and software which makes it easier and easier to make music–so long as it fits into a very highly predetermined genre or style. I don’t think of what I do as any less “musical” than europop, trance techno, dubstep or whatever other trend the kids are into these days. The difference is that my work is determined by very different technological choices and processes. As well as by a huge collection of heavy metal and hardcore records!

4. Do you feel like there is a division among circuitbenders who use these different approaches?

I can’t really answer that question except to say that I appreciate it much more when artists try to step outside the box and create something that is unique and personal to them instead of simply playing the kind of sounds they think other people will dance to.

5. What do you hope that someone new to circuitbending will take away from going to an event like Bent Fest?

I would hope that someone coming to Bent for the first time would recognize that there as many ways to do electronics and sound with electronics as there are artists who do those things, and that they might get some inspiration to move beyond being passive consumers of music/technology and become active creators on their own.

Bent Fest Highlights

Bodytronix‘s insane metropolis of self-made gear, :::vtol:::‘s lovely little boxes and warm personality, Peter Edwards/casperelectronics‘ beautifully abstract set (even after some douchebag ripped off one of his $300 creations from the merch table!!!!), KBD‘s weird post-everything space out session, Phillip Stearn‘s incredible neural network of lights as well as his festival photos, Daniel Fishkin of LÖWENZAHN’s magick-bent electronic folk, hearing a few minutes of Todd Bailey‘s Analog Video Synthesis and Bending lecture (although it sucked to have to miss most of it!) and finally figuring out WTF a Brass Monkey is late Saturday night (although I regretted it the next day)… Thanks again to Brendan and Suzanne and all the volunteers for pulling this thing off!


The Sommerville show at the Starlab next Saturday has been relocated due to flooding! The new location is in Cambridge, MA at MIT Building N52, 265 Massachusetts Ave. Get there before 9pm or you will have to phone a number posted on the door to come inside. The door will look like this:

Now Playing

frank popperorigins and development of kinetic art book[1968 new york graphic society]
guy brettkinetic art: the language of movement book[1968 studio vista]
joe colley and jason lescalleetannihilate this week[2006 korm plastics]
kevin drummsecond reissue[1999/2010 perdition plastics]
mudboyimpossible duets lp[2010 hundebiss](thx raphael!!!)

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[video] Nu Fest Padova interview

Posted in Documentation on March 19th, 2010 by admin

Nu Fest 2010 – Derek Holzer interview for

A somewhat silly interview with the Padova student internet radio and television at Nu Fest, 19.02.10.

Now Playing

boris morganamuuan sali cs[2010 self release][kiitos juuso!]
opec/jazzkammermonilinien/we forgive you lp[2005/2009 posh isolation][tak jonas!]
roberta settelsisolation! (meinhof in memorium) lp[1985 music in conflict/2007 BIN records][tak jonas!]
silvester anfang iicommune cassette[2010 blackest rainbow]

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Interview for Bent Fest, NYC

Posted in Text on March 1st, 2010 by admin

The following is an interview I completed this evening for the Bent Festival in New York City, where I’ve been invited to perform TONEWHEELS and give a workshop over the weekend of 23-25 April 2010.

> *Bent:* /Before you got into electronics, what type of music or art were you into?/

I’ve been involved in electronic, media and net art for the past 10 years, and although I make “electronic music”, I don’t listen to any contemporary dance or pop artists at all. A look through my record collection might turn up electro-acoustic composers from the 1960’s, old African funk 45’s from the 1970s, hair metal from the 1980’s or hardcore from the 1990’s, plus folk music from any number of East European, Middle Eastern or Asian cultures. Just no techno.

Right now, some elements of the noise scene like Daniel Menche or Kevin Drumm remain pretty exciting, as well as more conceptual people like John Wiese or Florian Hecker. On the historical side, composers like Eliane Radigue, Maryanne Amacher, Iannis Xenakis, Bernard Parmegiani and David Tudor have been big inspirations to me. I also listen to shit-load of drone, doom, death and black metal.

It’s good to remind yourself that nothing is really ever new or original, you can find the roots of anything if you look deep enough into the past.

> Bent:* /How did you get into electronics?/

Long ago, in a previous lifetime, I was studying writing in the university. Some things in my life changed dramatically as a result of my first stint living abroad, and when I returned to the States my new path was clear: doing sound, and in a place where there is genuine support for the arts (i.e. Europe)!

Instead of completing my thesis, I attempted to build my first synthesizer from an SN76477 chip, probably liberated from a pinball machine somewhere. It was a failure, and I spent the next several years doing digital audio instead. I finally came back to electronics about four years ago, when I was so sick of laptop “performances” I couldn’t stand it anymore, and soon after began the process of building my own modular synthesizer as well as designing the TONEWHEELS optoelectronic synthesizer.

> Bent:* /Where do you find inspiration for your work?/

The TONEWHEELS project was inspired by some of the pioneering 20th Century electronic music inventions, such as the ANS Synthesizer (Murzin USSR 1937-57), the Variophone (Sholpo USSR 1930) and the Oramics system (Oram UK 1957). With the help of Andrei Smirnov of the Theremin Center in Moscow, I did an incredible amount of research into the history of drawn sound and optical synthesis while I was designing the TONEWHEELS synthesizer. The experiments made with “painted soundtracks” in the Soviet Union during the 1930’s in particular are mind-blowing, and without the work of Mr Smirnov they would be unknown to the rest of the world.

I also spent several days at the Daphne Oram archives at Goldsmiths University in London, reading the letters between her and the engineer who helped her build the Oramics machine. It was fascinating! The same concerns she had, and the same learning process, were the hurdles I had to jump in my own work.

You can see the results of my historical research here:

> *Bent:* /What is your take on the circuit bending community at large? Where are you in it?/

I’d have to say that I don’t consider myself a “circuit bender” exactly. It’s very rare that I take an existing consumer gadget and try to hack it. My approach tends to be to start with the most basic parts I can understand and work up from there. In the case of the TONEWHEELS project, that part is called a phototransistor, and my first experiment was simply to run 5 volts through it into a mixer channel and start flickering the lights in the room!

This might be where I part company from Reed Ghazala’s “antitheory” approach, which seems to be very popular among benders. For me, the possibilities come not from blindly sticking my fingers in things, but instead from understanding the materials I am working with and their specific properties. That said, I failed every math class I was ever forced to take and still maintain a rather intuitive relationship with those materials, which is hardly the way a “real” engineer might work!

I’ve always maintained that the only thing that separates artists using technology now from the electronic art pioneers of the 1960s and 1970s–such as Steina & Woody Vasulka, Don Buchla, Serge Tcherepnin, Dan Sandin and David Tudor–is the internet. Whereas they had much more limited channels to find the information they needed, we have an almost limitless supply. Which is of course the other half of the problem–trying to get the signal out of the noise.

> *Bent: *Is there anything you want to accomplish while you are in New York?/

Finding a place to stay during the week I’m there is a good start!!!!!

But seriously…I’m negotiating to do a field recording workshop at Harvestworks as well as a couple talks at the Electronic Music Foundation on the history of optoelectronic synthesis and a project related to sound and architecture I’ve been involved in called Tuned City.

Besides that, I’m trying to look up the current locations of some of the old original audio and video synthesizers produced in the 1960’s and 1970’s, so I can see them up close. Every university I’ve been invited to speak at in the US and the UK all seem to have some analog treasure locked up in a closet somewhere!!!!

> Bent:* /Who are you most excited to see at Bent? Why?/

I’m quite excited to meet Eric Archer, from Austin Texas. He is performing as part of Handmade Music Austin. Eric and I have been writing for a year or two now, and his Light2Sound device is totally awesome, a really nice introduction to optical synthesis for beginners. I have a huge amount of respect for Eric and his creations–maybe because I have a suspicion he aced his math classes and actually had an idea what he would do with it later!

Now Playing

daniel higgsdevotional songs of daniel higgs[2009 open mouth cassette]
david tudorthree works for live electronics[1996 lovely]
godfleshmerciless[1994 earache]
jaques dudonlumieres audibles[1996 mondes harmoniques](Thanks to Jonas Olesen, who pointed Dudon’s work out to me when I had overlooked it all this time…)
julian jaynesthe origin of consciousness in the breakdown of the bicameral mind[1976 book] (Thanks to Professor Anthony Moore of the KHM who reminded me of the longest title on my mother’s bookshelf when I was a child…and to my mother for digging it up for my birthday!)
nik raicevicthe sixth ear[1972]
ruth whiteseven trumps from the tarot cards[1969]
steve birchallreality gates: electronic meditations by steve birchall[2006 creel pone cdr]
various artists(andrzej dobwolski, bob cobbing & annae lockwood, daphne oram, eric nordgren, frederick charles judd, henri chopin, jean-luis brau, john mcclure, various junior & senior high school students, vladimir ussachevsky)creelpolation 1 – 7″ singles[2006 creel pone] (Creel Pone, I fucking love you!)
yellow swansbeing there[2010 type]

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Digicult Interview #2

Posted in Text on September 25th, 2009 by admin

My second interview for the Italian Digicult magazine has appeared today. This one relates to the idea of “media labs” and the sommercampworkstation event I co-organized last July:

…When I lived in Holland I tried to make a medialab. I find the idea of a medialab connected to a fixed place is a bit archaic, a bit dated. Personally, I don’t want to criticise other forms of practice in medialabs, but I’m very interested in transitory situations. I’m interested in creating multi-use areas that are quick and temporarily autonomous. In creating a transitory situation like “let’s do something quick, in on week”, you must not worry about the problem of being continuously eco-friendly or about long-term issues. For example, in the 80’s there were many initiatives, now they have stopped and they keep sucking up locations, money and oxygen. I’ve seen a lot of situations like these and they bore me, as well as being a complete waste. I believe that to create temporarily autonomous situations is more exciting. It’s a way to use the best elements of existing organisations, to take portions of them, configure them and make the next step…

Derek Holzer, from Sommercamp+Workstation. Temporary autonomous culture
by Valeria Merlini


Now Playing

coalesceox[2009 relapse]
jesu-infinity[2009 avalanche]
jim o’rourkethe visitor[2009 drag city]
john wiesecircle snare[2009 no fun]
keith fullerton whitmantaking away cs[2009 digitalis]
merzbowhiyodori(13 japanese birds part 9)[2009 important]
philip jeckspool cs [2009 tapeworm]
rorschach & neanderthalsplit 7”[1991 vermiform]
rorschachneedlepack ep[1991 wardance]
social distortionwhite light, white heat, white trash[1996 sony]
tiny vipers-live at black box, belfast a few weeks ago
tiny viperslife on earth[2009 sub pop]

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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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