Nils Quak

Of all the mind-wrenching philosophical problems, there is one without peer, the deceptively simple How is there something instead of nothing? Even those who take comfort in, for example, Genesis 1:3 have only temporarily reworded the question: How does God exist? It does not allay our discomfort that most of existence is a low-density, low-temperature expanse, to which we commonly refer as ether. As Nils Quak puts it, “the vast lucid void, the dark glow that emanates permanently.” Quak released Aether digitally in May (Adam Williams, writing for Fluid Radio, concluded “another fine work from Quak and definitely one which will both compel, and benefit from, repeated plays”). On July Nomadic Kids Republic released Aether in CD format. We briefly discussed the album with the composer.

Your one-sheet makes prominent mention of the modular synthesizer. Please describe the features of the instrument for some of our less tech-savvy readers, and how those features agreed with your vision of the album.

All my other albums so far were produced only with a laptop, which definitively was a lot of fun, because the possibilities were nearly limitless. Even if there wasn’t a plug-in that was able to do what I needed, I just could program it myself in Max/MSP, Reaktor or such. But at the same time this also meant that the possibilities can get a little overwhelming and you end up stacking up sounds on sounds through a gazillion effects. This can definitively lead to great results, but it can also mean that a track is never really finished, since you could easily just drop another effect onto it or draw another automation lane. The modular synthesizer is more limited in this regard; although I have the feeling, I only explored 10 percent of the possibilities at max. These new constraints felt good when I produced this album. I sat down with just the machine and dove really deeply into the sound. To be honest, there are still software effects used on the tracks, but the main part of each track is the result of an improvised session, which was a lot more focussed way to make music, especially without the distractions that loom over you when are working with a computer (YouTube, emails, etc.). I’m not saying that the computer is a bad tool per se. I really don’t share the sentiment of some people that using computers is a lifeless or boring or artificial way of making music – for me it was just not the right tool, when I started working on the material for that album. And I think that the perfect approach would incorporate both – a computer and an analog synthesizer, bringing together the best of both worlds.

The one-sheet also reminds us that the ether — while customarily regarded as cold — actually emanates a uniform warmth above absolute zero. How did this slight paradox come to inspire your work?

The fascinating thing about aether is its multitude of meanings. Starting with the Greek mythology of aether as the place, where the souls departs to. A state of being afloat in the sky but in a place that does not belong to earth and life anymore. A disconnection and alienation from your body that has nevertheless a positive connotation.

And then there is the metaphorical use of ether that refers to the the material that transmits sound and light similar to the discussion about aether in the world of physics, where aether is the invisible material between objects and the carrier of light (of course the theory is a lot more elaborate). As this theory has no real relevance anymore, I think the idea a perfect nostalgic picture. The play between presence and absence, the simultaneity of both states is something that resonates with me in terms of sound and music and also on a philosophical level.

Not to mention the role of aether in chemistry – especially in regards to the narcotic. I like the uncertainty of this title, its haziness – and every way you can read it, seems to fit quite well.

It’s unanimous among comments and reviews that this is your darkest album yet, which leads to the inevitable questions of whether that was a deliberate aesthetic impulse, or something a bit more organic.

I think my work was always rather dark. Although most of the time it was leaning more towards a melancholic side of things than just pure darkness. So the darkness of this album is not a deliberate aesthetic decision – it just happened. It’s not even that my life was darker or more desolate than it usually is. I kind of grew more and more fascinated by this opaque monolithic blocks of noise that seemed like they weren’t evolving that much but revealed quite a lot of movement and detail when I was listening to them really closely. Sure it may sound dark, but I don’t think it sounds dark in a scary and cold way, more in a way I’d like to think of outer space, where dark also means endless possibilities you just haven’t discovered yet. A state, where you are thrown back onto yourself. In that sense, Aether also is quite a light and etherial (pun intended) album. Light and darkness are essentially becoming the same thing, only differentiated by perspective and context. To me it’s basically just introspective, meditative music.

Any future plans on recording with tape? Or any other plans you can divulge?

I hope to dive even more deeply into the idea of feedback networks or feedback based systems. I strongly believe that a lot of processes in life and nature are based on systems feeding back into themselves. Making music that does not necessarily need me to develop its direction, but rather reacts to its recent states is something I want to explore even further and that has always been something that fascinated me. Creating little micro-environments, where the machine can evolve with a minimum of interference from me (besides flipping a switch here and there or adjusting a knob), is something that fascinates me completely. Like analog computers or a self-referential turing machine, it is artificial intelligence based on voltages. Sometimes it is a little like playing those god simulation computer games such as Populous or Sim City when I was a kid. Most of the time I spend with watching something emerge and grow. Witnessing its sudden changes – often unexpected changes – always manages to surprise me, the moment, when I realize, that a specific combination of simultaneity will lead to completely new states of the system and in the last consequence in its sonic output – this is a deeply rewarding process for me.

Besides that, maybe playing live with this modular synthesizer setup would be an interesting thing. I only did this once and in terms of sonic variety, surprises and awareness of the moment, this was an intense experience. We’ll see how this pans out.

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