Stephan Mathieu – The Radiance Interview

Stephan Mathieu - Radiance Interview, bent black record with white circular scratch mark

“Historically, the term radiance stands for intensity and describes how light or heat for instance is emitted and capable to spread out, how it is reflected or how much of it gets absorbed by a surface. It’s about send and receive. When applied to sound, the listeners, their playback equipment and space, but also their openness towards a piece of music, will become this surface. They decide what’s happening, and what not.”

“Radiance” is and has been a long time coming, in at least a couple of ways. It collects a variety of material, some of which composer and performer Stephan Mathieu has been working on for nearly ten years. Other pieces of the puzzle are newly created, though based on ideas that have been bouncing around in Mathieu’s head for a long time. While having different gestation periods, they are all thematically linked, hence their presentation as “one work, or rather a cycle of works which belong together.” Which leads to another sense in which the project is slow: Mathieu is “dedicating one year to focus on finishing them, while considering the whole project as one extended album with one part available every month.” Listeners can subscribe to the project and receive each part as it becomes available.

“The idea of a slowly growing release reflects my thoughts on listening in times of streaming and a daily inbox full of new releases,” the artist relates. “When will you listen to this flood of new music, when will you find the time to digest it? Can you digest the massive input at all? My idea of listening to “Radiance” is that people will play each part one or two times before the next will be available and probably revisit them as the series will progress. To me it’s quite fascinating to think about a release like that. Imagine a ‘regular’ album being released song by song over a period of time.”

Twelve parts to “Radiance”; twelve months in a year; twelve numbers on a clock. Already it feels like we’re being drawn into that peculiarly specific relation to time that long-term followers of Mathieu’s music will recognise. It’s not simply a conceptual notion, but a tangible quality that emerges from so many aspects of his work: the incorporation of old recordings, the use of Renaissance instruments, the slow changes and drone structures, the sometimes epic track lengths… It’s something that Mathieu relates to his “curiosity for the roots of things”, the irresistibility of connections — connections that led him from “Kraftwerk to Can, Can to Stockhausen… from hip hop to Mamie Smith, Albert Ayler to fire-and-brimstone sermons, Bach to Guillaume de Machaut, Blind Willie Johnson to Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, and so on.”

The Renaissance has a special place in the continuum of influences that has inspired the artist. “The Renaissance era is especially fascinating to me since a lot of ancient knowledge has been formulated to a sublime degree during this period and there was a firm connection between the arts and science,” he explains. “The research and discoveries, the way people used to connect the dots back then just clicks with me, so I’ve studied the Renaissance quite extensively during the past 15 years, and what I got back from this involvement plays into my own work. Things were mechanical back then, and at some point I’ve noticed that I have a way with the mechanical, much more than with electronics. I’m driving a car from the 80s because it makes me feel connected with the engine in a tactile way.”

This love of the tactile and of the mechanical has led Mathieu to become an avid collector of two kinds of object: historical 78 rpm phonographs, and musical instruments. “I have a strong background in acoustic improvised music and was fortunate being able to play with some outstanding instrumentalists from all kind of styles or genres, especially during the time when I was active as a drummer in the 90s,” he recounts. “It’s the sound of acoustic instruments that fascinates me the most, and the first things I made after switching from the drums to working with computers were based on recordings of my kit and the piano my family had back then.” From there, his instrument collection began to grow. “At some point a radio receiver became such an instrument, later gramophones and records, then I purchased a virginal, a tabletop zither, electronic organs, acoustic guitars, gongs, brass instruments, flutes, all of them vintage gear.

“Most of those instruments I’ve found because of their story, like my zither, which is the same model the gospel preacher Washington Phillips most likely played during the 1920s, or my Farfisa organs which I started collecting during a time when I listened to Joachim Roedelius’ “Selbstportrait” series for months. The Hohner Electronium and Telefunken Radio I’m using are classic Stockhausen props from the ensembles he had during his intuitive music phase in the 60s. I like the specific sound qualities of those instruments and most of them were quite cheap because nobody seems to be interested in them. I managed get some of what makes them magical to me into my own music.

“Being a collector involves the love for things, love comes with responsibility. As a collector of instruments, I have to deal with them, find a way to make them mine while respecting them and their history. As a collector of historical 78s I find myself right now grappling once again with their run-out grooves.” And all of this feeds right in to Mathieu’s music. “I once said you can give me a comb and a piece of paper and I will make my own music with it, so it’s a natural approach to an instrument for me, especially an instrument I can’t play well. To me they are sound generators in the first place and that’s how I will use them. Instead of mastering an instrument I’m continuously trying to master my processing techniques, make friends with given situations and get the best out of them. Those techniques and the curating of the material I will use are what I actually consider my main instruments.”

All this talk of acoustic instruments may well confuse anyone who has heard Mathieu’s music, very little of which sounds like what one would expect a zither or an organ to sound like. Surely there must be some electronic wizardry going on? “I’m not interested in synths or using classic electronic sounds in my music, just as I have no desire to get involved with electronic gadgets,” he insists. “Stomp boxes might be a nice extension to my organs, but then I’d rather invest in books, a typewriter or my mastering rig if I have some spare budget. Same with software instruments, there’s very little that seems useful or inspiring to what I want to do. While I may find inspiration in music created with such tools, I’m dealing with those impulses with my instruments which mainly come from a whole different context.

“Most of my ‘electronic’ music is process based — entropy, convolution, impulse and trigger, no effects. If I want distortion I’ll crank up the amp, if I want graininess, tape saturation does the trick. I prefer to keep things simple, I don’t like options. To me they are confusing and will often get in the way of my intuition, so I guess that’s what I love about playing the drums. A stick, a drum and hit it.”



Given Mathieu’s ambiguous relationship with electronics and his love of collectible objects, it may come as a surprise that he “fully endorses digital as a fantastic format”. Indeed, most of the releases on his label Schwebung have been high-resolution digital editions. Yet “Radiance” sees a return to a medium that many have been quick to proclaim the death of — the humble CD. “After a run of exclusive digital releases I wanted to offer a physical object with Schwebung again. I first thought about USB storage until I noticed the redundancy to have such a thing to hold data only to transfer it to another device in order to play it back. With “Radiance” I’m looking at a series of long pieces, so vinyl was not a suitable option either, let alone the fact that producing a multiple LP release to a high quality standard would have been hardly affordable.

“So I went back to CD, a format declared dead by many, me included, and I’m happy with this decision, especially since the packaging will be completely custom made. Just as much as I prefer the full-res/digital only idea for my releases, I’m aware that it’s not for everyone. A limited edition of 150 box sets is something I can still handle on my own and the overall feedback has been very positive so far. People still like CDs and since the 24-Bit files are included with the purchase of a box everything works for me as well.”

And it turns out that the physical format of the release is in its own way related to time. “”Radiance” is about an archive. The design choices [by the talented designer Caro Mikalef, who is also Mathieu’s wife] reflect this archival thought: we’re creating an object that is rather mute and functional in it’s appearance, while each instalment will come with complementing material — notes, a dedicated image, and some of them have additional tracks which offer an insight to the compositional process. Towards the end of the series we will publish an essay by my friend Petar Milat, a philosopher based in Zagreb.” The notes from the first “Radiance” track can be read here.

Subscribers to the CD edition of the project will also receive a handcrafted box created by master bookbinder and restorer Marita Kuhn to store their musical ‘archive’ in. “We saw some of Marita’s work and it’s beautifully crafted,” Mathieu enthuses. “She works for various international libraries as a restorer of historical books, so she has a specific style that goes well with our object. Apart from that she has access to some special paper stock. We will visit her workshop next week and look together into final details and start the production then.”

The digital edition also reflects the ideas behind the project, albeit in different ways. Digital subscriptions will include “digital file cards with credits and an image dedicated to the specific release. So also here we wanted to keep everything rather quiet. If you look at Caro’s design for the classic Schwebung pdf booklets, the number of images often relates to the individual tracks of a release. Since we think of each volume in the series as one track of one long album, the single image makes sense because it means also the visuals for the release will grow as we go along. The PDFs are a version of the design for the postcards that accompany each CD.”

Objects and archives accumulating over time — in some ways the project already seems consigned to a remote storage shelf of a museum, covered in layers of dust. Yet to think of “Radiance” in such a way would be to forget that transmission of energy from which the work draws its title, the intense brightness that reaches us from across the centuries and, through listening, becomes our own.

This text was edited from an email interview of Stephen Mathieu by Pascal Savy and Nathan Thomas between March and June 2016.


Image by Caro Mikalef for Cabina

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