From Home – A Journey Into Human Suffering
Where art thou? I have been long alone. I wander up and down and make my music. O'er pathways that are paved with tender grasses. I seek but rest, rest for my lonely heart. I journey to my homeland, to my haven. I shall no longer seek the far horizon. My heart is still and waits for its deliverance. - The Farewell from Gustav Malher's Song of the Earth
Awakening in the predawn darkness, I grope among the anguished remnants of dreams that linger in my consciousness, in search of some ardent sense of expectation. Seeking in the tremulous hope of finding eager expectancy reviving in the innermost recesses of my being - unequivocally, with the impact of whisky setting one's guts afire as it goes down - still I find an endless nothing. - Kanzaburo Oe, The Silent Cry, Serpent's Tail 1988, p 1
Human suffering has often been written about and expressed in a variety of musical forms throughout the ages. Requiems have dealt with mourning since the Renaissance, from the times of Johannes Ockeghem up to the present. Ex-Soviet composers in particular have proved well versed on the subject of pain with Alfred Schnittke’s Collected Songs where Every Verse is Full of Grief from his Concerto for Choir sounding like a programmatic statement. Alongside very private and intimate works such as Valentin Silvestrov’s Requiem for Larissa, written in memory of his wife, and Faradzh Karaev’s Tristessa I (Farewell Symphony), dedicated to his late father, stand examples of musical offerings which manage to combine the personal with the political such as Peteris Vasks’ Musica Dolorosa, a tribute to the composer’s sister who died shortly before the piece was written, which also alludes to the bleak political situation Latvia was undergoing at the time. “This is my most tragic opus, – wrote Vasks in 1981 – the only one where there is no optimism, no hope, only pain”.
A direct experience of war lead Yannis Xenakis and Luigi Nono to place human suffering into a social context, giving it a political reading. Xenaxis, once part of the communist National Liberation Front and sentenced to death in absentia by the regime of the colonels, translated the sounds of demonstrating crowds into stochastic laws refuting John Cage’s notion of chance music and turning bombings into mathematical equations. Luigi Nono even went one step further. A member of the Italian resistance in the Second World War, Nono not only condemned Nazi war crimes (Ricorda cosa ti hanno fatto in Auschwitz, 1965), the atrocity in Hiroshima (Canti di vita e d’amore: sul ponte di Hiroshima of 1962) and the Vietnam War (A floresta é jovem e cheia de vida, 1966), but also denounced capitalism (La Fabbrica Illuminata, 1964) and the exploitation of the workforce.
Nono himself was to become the subject of a mournful memorial by Georgian composer Giya Kancheli, whose moving tribute Lament is in turn coloured by a sense of homelessness dictated by exile, with grief weaving sudden bursts of loud tones onto solitary violin lines, and fracturing the poetic spell of Hans Sahl poem Stanzas intoned by soprano Maacha Deubner.
Quite slowly I am walking from the world. Into a landscape further off than far, and what I was and am and shall remain, as patient, as unhurried walks with me into a country never trodden yet.
The presence of music has always been constant during wars and even in concentration camps with Olivier Maessian composing and premiering his Quartet for the End of Time in the prisoner of war camp of Görlitz.
Throughout the siege of Sarajevo between 1992 and 1996, the city’s Symphony Orchestra continued to play. In 1395 Days without Red, a collaborative film project by artists Sejla Kameric and Anri Sala, the orchestra rehearses Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, while an elegant young woman makes her way through the empty city. At every crossing she stops, looks and listens wondering whether she should wait or run, and whether she should take the risk on her own or wait for others. Her journey is punctuated by the Pathetique. The route the woman takes became known as Sniper Alley.
Sound is never suspended. “I always used to think hat the war was black and white. But it’s in colour. – writes Arkady Babchenko in One Soldier’s War in Chechnya – It’s not true what the song says, that birds don’t sing and trees don’t grow in war. In fact, people get killed in the midst of such vivid colour, among the green foliage of the trees, under the clear blue sky. And life hums on all around.”
The resilience of sound in the face of the devastating force of destruction is well exemplified in The Eternal Morning 1945.8.6, an orchestral piece for strings and tape where composer Toshiya Sukegawa gives voice to a small upright piano that was damaged during the bombing of Hiroshima and later partially restored. The piano has a peculiar sound with hammer and key noise carrying the memory of the atrocity. Its slightly distorted timbre, echoing the fragility of the human condition, eventually gives way, in the last two minutes of the piece, to the full clear sound of a new Steinway, which signals a rebirth amongst the pain.
As Jean Hatzfield writes, “That which cannot be said about genocide is not the horror, the abomination. Why should it be? The unspeakable is the destruction of a part of the memory at the same time as the destruction of men. It is the destruction of millions of Jews in Europe or Tutsis in Rwanda, because their memory has been destroyed and it is only them who could talk about this destruction, those who have been destroyed.”
When making the film Crazy (1999) about the traumatic effects of war on Dutch soldiers, film-maker Heddy Honigmann picked music as a powerful trigger to unlock their memories on a deeply emotional level. The documentary shows soldiers who served in UN peacekeeping missions reacting to music that holds particular significance for them vis-à-vis the horror they experienced while on duty in former Yugoslavia, Kosovo, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Rwanda. Honigmann asked her subjects not to listen to their chosen track until she actually filmed them while listening to it. One of these soldiers is marines’ commander Patrick Cammaert, who selects Crazy by Seal, which he associates to the attack on the market in Sarajevo with its ensuing bloodbath. Music awakens the emotional memory of these soldiers some of whom are filmed fighting the tears.
And yet, aside from sporadic attempts at tackling the subject, such as Amirani Records’ collective album On War, specifically designed to “provoke artists to compose around social issues”, there are few works within the experimental and electro-acoustic music bracket that deal directly with human suffering on a collective level.
In February 2010, when Simon Whetham was invited to perform at Audio Art in Krakow by Marek Choloniewsky, he proposed visiting the city for three or four days prior to the performance in order to record the sounds of the place, to compose a site specific piece for the event. Whetham stayed in the Kazimierz area of Krakow, the old Jewish area that during the Second World War became a ghetto through Nazi persecution. Walking the streets, he felt a certain sadness and longing that was almost tangible. Turning a personal experience into a poignant meditation on the fragility and the dormant power of memory Simon Whetham’s resulting work Payers Unheard evokes the pain and suffering of the Jewish people through the perceived echo of despair filtering from the field recordings.
Uncovering hidden sounds not audible by the human ear could be seen as a way to convey a ghostly presence or simply as a means to deconstruct the mechanics of the physical worlds. Dealing with a sonic experience of time, absence, and change – in an area haunted by an invisible and inaudible danger, amidst the slowly decaying remains of human civilization, Jacob Kirkegaard’s 4 Rooms, is a revelation of four abandoned spaces inside the Zone of Exclusion in Chernobyl. One of the inspirations behind this particular project was Alvin Lucier’s I Am Sitting in a Room. In Lucier’s case, though, words become unintelligible, whereas the resonance of the rooms recorded by Kirkegaard uncovers lives obliterated. Opting for a “no intervention” approach, and “simply placing a microphone in a room and leaving it alone”, Kirkegaard initiates an internal discourse between time and memory within each room. The locations, a gym, an auditorium and a swimming pool in Pripyat were selected by his guide, with a Church in Krasno completing the line-up. In each room, Kirkegaard recorded 10 minutes of sound and then played the recording back into the room, while at the same time recording it again. This process was repeated up to ten times.
Visiting the zone was undoubtedly the most interesting journey, I have ever been on. I spent three days travelling around in this wasteland, Surrounded by an outermost astonishing nature. The air seems so incredibly fresh. Of course you don't smell or see radiation, you just know that it is there, and this makes everything seem very artificial. Nature all of a sudden looks and sounds so artificial, or 'unnatural'. Very much like Tarkowski's landscape in Stalker. It was very filmic in fact. The effect that 'something is wrong here', but it hasn't revealed itself yet. Even the silence sounded strange. Radiation has added another dimension to what we know, something transcendent and mystical.
Travelling for hours in an extremely lonely, but colourful and overwhelming landscape in an October autumn, knowing that there is something in the soil, something around me that I cannot see, evoked a feeling, that is very difficult to describe. I have never found myself feeling outside reality (literally alienated from the world that I understand). There is a different spirit inhabiting the place, it is divine, but devilish. Something that eats you slowly, but there is no monster to see, only wild nature. It is like a spell.?So it is an extremely interesting place, and it reached beyond myself. Experiencing Chernobyl is like entering another zone in myself. - Kirkegaard describes his experience in an interview with Roger Batty
Many musicians however choose to eradicate all signposts severing any possible links between the darkness in their work and specific tragic events or personal traumas for fear of limiting any interpretation of their music. Different artists have their own language to communicate ideas. If their language is a very formal one, or just does not lend itself to communicating this kind of content, then dealing with deeply emotional or political topics might not make sense or be possible within their chosen idiom.
For a musician like Yann Novak, making work is an autobiographical practice, it is about documenting his own existence and translating that information into a form he can share with an audience. In 2006, when his mother passed away very suddenly his work became all about that loss culminating in the release Meadowsweet, that came out just a few months after her passing away. Two years later Novak released The Breeze Blowing Over Us. The music was based on a recording of a fan over his bed, which he took the first weekend he spent with his partner. The fact that his partner was a man and that being gay in parts of the US is still an issue placed the work into a political framework. The album acquired further poignancy once Novak moved to Los Angeles. His gallery show about the move entitled Relocation reintroduced feelings connected with loss and separation into his work colouring it with a deeply sad tinge.
Sending set questions relating to human suffering within the experimental music scene elicited few answers. As one label head put it, “If there is a lack of darker topics explored in this community, I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing. I think in the greater art world, there is a huge amount of work being made about really dark issues and this small niche could be providing a needed counterpoint”.
NOVI_SAD ON INHUMANE HUMANS
Why is it in your opinion that in classical and contemporary music it is easier to find composers tackling big themes, whereas the same does seldom apply to the world of experimental and electro-acoustic music?
I am not really sure about the definition of “big themes”. For me, an individual experience associated to an acoustic, visceral, neurotic, physical or mental state could be equally important to the construction and de-construction of the world, as we know it and it exists.
Is it sufficient to create an unsettling mood and atmosphere to suggest feelings of pain and suffering, or is it necessary to give coordinates for a narrative to unfold? Is narrative central and unavoidable?
No, narrative is not necessary. In fact, I strongly believe that art practices and expressions which are being accompanied and enhanced by the strength, status and topsoil of narrative forms, are weakened in comparison to others which allow a more spectral/horizontal analysis and contextualization of dense or worrying feelings.
Of course, I do explore a wide area of fertile ground within the fields of human pain and suffering. They could be both absolute and generative feelings. And this is not related to music creation, or anything nearby. This is connected with the way we live and perceive the world and our societies.
I think though, that -in general-, a multi dimensional, profound and immersive feeling triggered by sound, is much more cathartic, fundamental and effective than a single narrative. A narrative demands from the listener to be there and participate in the way that the narrative suggests. Your space is limited…
In ‘Srebrenica’, I used this plaintive female voice because of its elegiac and epic nuances; the depth and qualities of pain and suffer. It is shocking real in my ears. I didn’t want to put a narrative along this woman’s particular story. These are fragile things to ’’touch’’ and far beyond a musician’s authorization. I just wanted to aurally translate and reflect her panic and acoustically incarnate the hectic emotional situation she is being engaged with.
Or, it could be just be an amplified mirage of her insides…
There is no message behind or in front of it. I hate messages – I do prefer feelings.
Does contextualising mean inevitably to impose a reading on a particular work, which ultimately reduces its impact?
I don’t think that contextualizing reduces the impact. On the contrary, a specific and tight context is crucial in order to develop something solid and not ambiguous.
Silence is an integral element in many of your works. In a way it reminds me of the work of composers such as Gorecki and Kancheli in the sense that by increasing the intensity of sound and going from very low to very high frequencies you ask listeners to find their own place within your work, which then becomes a physical experience one needs to engage with. Would you say, though, that the combination of field recordings and abrasive electronic noises neutralizes the spiritual dimension in your work (which is very much present in the work of Gorecki and Kancheli) in favour of a more mechanistic reading of the world?
I cannot say that I like the term ‘mechanistic reading of the world’. But, I do accept the idea of all of us being well controlled and functioning human machines which at times operate properly and at others not.
Silence is not equivalent to neutrality. Silence is a very complex phenomenon and not only because of its physical acoustic nature.
The source material in my work is almost always a recording. Therefore, I cannot see a combination of the two, but only a transformation and mutation of recorded sounds with the use of digital means.
In other words: the sound of a bird flapping its wings is equally musical to the sound of a gigantic monstrous machine in a factory unit.
Does your moniker, Novi_sad, refer directly to the Serbian city of Novi Sad, which was heavily bombed by Nato forces and if so, is your work “Srebrenica” an attempt to revisit the same territory in a more direct way?
I wouldn’t like to answer this.
Have you paired “Srebrenica” with “Aircraft Noises” in “Inhumane Humans” because you have used recordings of war aircrafts landings and taking offs from war airports in Greece?
Somehow, yes. I think that the sounds are drawing a particular and incessant dense activity in both cases.
Regarding Amazon Vs Electricity you wrote that, “Deforestation and illegal logging are two of the main reasons that make this area suffering.” You also state that, “Another thing that should be mentioned here, is the fact that 1340 murders have happened in Amazon the last 20 years from private armies who ‘work’ for the illegal logging.” Do you consider suffering to be a political theme, and if so, do you consider your work to be political?
Anything could be a political theme. Pain and suffering definitely begin and end within a political framework, which is continuously being maintained and extended by visible, “tangible” and/or “hidden” forces. But, certainly, there are individual notions of pain which are not connected to politics at all.
I do not consider my work political. I am against the idea of using music as a trojan horse to manifest your political beliefs. I would like to detach my work from this, although I am very much interested in politics and the way they affect our lives.
If there is something beautiful in music, then this is its instinct to insinuate and imitate the gates of freedom.
Finally, I was wondering which are in your opinion, the works that represent best the idea of human suffering and which convey more effectively the idea of private and personal pain.
A Bulgarian mourning funeral choir could be an indicative occasion of collective pain and the horse’s eyes in Bela Tarr’s ‘Turin Horse’ could be the literal and explicit translation of individual pain.
TIM HECKER ON HARMONY IN ULTRAVIOLET
About the cover art you have stated that, “The image was taken by me in Italy of an anti-fascist memorial in Bologna. I used the image mostly on the basis of its visceral qualities, but also how it fits with the music on a bunch of levels. It also made me think of some of the portrait work or the “October” series by (painter) Gerhard Richter.”
Deflecting an overly deterministic political reading of the October cycle, Richter, as Achim Borchardt-Hume points out in his essay “‘Dreh Dich Nicht Um’: Don’t Turn Around. Richter’s Paitings of the Late 1980s” described his initial motivation as “purely human (dismay, pity, grief) and as an attempt to overcome the cause of this grief by creating something beautiful”.
In her book Regarding the Pain of Others, Susan Sontag writes that “It is felt that there is something morally wrong with the abstract of reality offered by photography; that one has no right to experience the suffering of others at a distance, denuded of its raw power.”
Is Harmony in Ultraviolet constructed around that distance?
No, it is an act of sonic experience guided by vaguely impressionistic thematics, which would be overly deterministic if they were expressed as being foundational in the compositional act. They’re both accoutrement and background framing. I’m interested in guiding ideas, but I think some composers overblow the relationship when suggesting that certain conceptual conceits fundamentally guide the experience of writing music. At least for me…
Writing about Richter’s October series, Achim Borchardt-Hume also suggests that “The closer we come, the more the subject matter eschews our grasp, visually, intellectually and emotionally.” He then quotes Stefan Germer who called the effect of Richter’s photo paintings a “stop making sense” directed at the viewer, whose efforts to bring the blurred zones into focus in the quest for an unequivocal interpretation are constantly thwarted. “To construct sense and meaning,” Borchardt-Hume writes, “we have to recognise that ambiguity and contradictions are at the heart of the human condition.”
Would you say the same is applicable to Harmony in Ultraviolet where any attempt at interpretative narrative is thwarted?
Yes, I’m way more convinced the harder one attempts to guide meaning and interpretation, the more futile and evasive the result it. Talking about Richter is dubious, both because of the bloating of his market value in recent years, and the way he’s ascended to the pantheon of Greatest Living Artist. His work rewards close attention though, and has been almost more inspirational for my work than a lot of contemporary music.
You have indicated in an interview with Simon Hampson that Harmony in Ultraviolet “was kind of a reference to Matisse’s painting ‘Harmony In Red’”. Was it the lack of a central focal point what interested you about this particular painting and did you take this approach towards your album?
Definitely, the nature of an almost Godard-like schizophrenic zooming between foreground and background is central to a lot of my work. You could argue a painting has a similar effect.
Talking about the Holocaust with Nicholas Serota, Richter also states that, “I don’t believe there are subjects that can’t be painted”. Claude Lanzemann, however, with his film Shoah (1985) indicated that to have visual representations of the Holocaust would be obscene and immoral. Four years previously, in 1981 Maurizio Bianchi released his album Symphony For A Genocide. Is it fair to say in your opinion that experimental, electronic and electroacoustic musicians, generally speaking shy away from addressing big issues such as war, nuclear disasters and human suffering, and are these subjects legitimate topics for a sonic investigation and / or representation?
Yeah, I wouldn’t say a work of someone like Richter functions exclusively on the terrain of a singular concept like ‘suffering’. He would take a miserable subject like the Red Army Faction suicides and render an object that confuses and onslaughts the viewer with a multiplicity of enigmas and ambivalences. For me I’d be suspicious of a composition that solely attempts to encapsulate a singular mood like ‘suffering’ as the central thematic. Its difficult, because most often discourses around sonic works are under-thought and under-theorized, that when someone introduces a heady conceit, journalists starved for theorizing works tend to pounce on them and inflate the narratives presented by the composed into something larger than in reality. I’m much more personally into what Adorno referred to as the enigmatic function of art.
TALVIHORROS ON MUSIC IN FOUR MOVEMENTS
On Music in Four Movements, you have written that the work in informed by ideas of life and death and that you became “particularly interested in reading stories about people who drowned themselves in rivers of the sea – a bleak yet strangely beautiful image of someone walking their final walk into the sea became a strong visual influence for the record”. The first thing that came to my mind in this respect is the story of Dutch / Californian artist Bas Jan Ader. In 1975 Ader embarked on what he called a very long sailing trip. The voyage was to be the middle part of a triptych titled In Search of the Miraculous, a daring attempt to cross the Atlantic in a 12 1/2 foot sailboat. He claimed it would take him 60 days to make the trip, or 90 if he chose not to use the sail. Six months after his departure, his boat was found, half-submerged off the coast of Ireland, but Bas Jan had vanished. It might be just a question of semantics, but to me the album is more concerned with the idea of disappearance and vanishing rather than death. Was your approach intentionally narrative rather than abstract, right from the start, or was this something that unfolded naturally?
The album started immediately after the release of my first release ‘Some Ambulance’, the process of releasing an album was a new one for me and it felt great to actually get something finished and ‘out there’ so to speak. I felt a sense of relief and freedom – after spending so many months on one project I know found myself free to do as I pleased. I started initially just playing around with synthesiser motifs and acoustic guitar fragments in a very improvised manner – not recording anything just playing and letting things go gradually. One night after hearing a friends story about hearing a motorcycle accident outside her home and knowing straight away from the sound it was bad and would involve a fatality along with this sense of dread in the air that was left in the wake of the sound, this inspired me to spend some time recording some improvisations that formed the first two pieces. The idea that a particular sound as in this circumstance could carry this much weight and impact I found an interesting (yet macabre) idea and I tried to explore this in a musical context. As time progressed and more music was made thoughts on life, death and fundamental ideas on human existence become a focal point for the way the music was going. It wasn’t until I was perhaps halfway through the album that I realised everything was coming together with some sort of narrative and the last piece ‘And then they walked into the sea’ was composed for that very purpose. It gave a finality to the music and also to the journey that the album took.
You have cited Cormac McCarthy as having inspired the atmosphere of the album. “Nights dark beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before. Like the onset of some cold glaucoma dimming away the world” is how the book begins. Indeed there’s a post-apocalyptic atmosphere about the album, and yet it retains a profound humanity at its core with its acoustic sound interwoven into an electric filed. How did you go about recreating a world without light?
As mentioned above it happened very organically – the process of an album for me is an important one and I live with an album for many months in my day to day live consumed with thoughts and ideas as to what I’m trying to achieve with any particular album – in that sense I am somewhat of a conceptual artist. I think the record accurately represents where I was at as a person for that period of my life – its quite documental and there are numerous field recordings taken over those months that feature on the album, which adds to this.
The album feels like a requiem, even though it is more similar to a symphony or indeed a string quartet. We have talked about your literary influences, musically speaking does the album owe more to Shostakovich’s last string quartet and Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time or to Tim Hecker’s Harmony in Ultraviolet?
That’s a tough question to answer – I’m a fan of all the works you mention above so I guess perhaps they are all in there somewhere. I think I would feel uncomfortable comparing my work to anyone let alone such great composers as Shostakovich or Messiaen. I think the use of long time frames that slowly evolve may put the album more in line with a classical composer over someone like Tim Hecker who primarily uses short time frames but my methods are perhaps closer to Hecker’s in that they are modern. Incorporating sequencing, synthesised sounds and distortion to create my sound worlds.
The guitar loop at the beginning of the first track A Continual Echo of the Sound of Loss (part I) introduces an obsessive and circular phrasing which charts the development of the whole album giving the impression of someone feeling trapped. Generally speaking, I tend to find that loops and delays can turn out to be too easy a shortcut to suggest a dreamy and trance like mood within ambient music. In the case of Music in Four Movements, though, they sound ominous and carry with them feelings of disquiet and impeding menace. How did you go about creating the overall texture of the album?
Although I do work with loops I generally find loops with no movement to quickly outstay their welcome and become pointless. As such I tend to play everything by hand often improvised so what you hear is just a section of a much longer improvisation that started somewhere different and ends somewhere else also. Its more a snapshot of something that I felt I could use as a foundation to build on. I also tend to layer many different sounds that are doing similar things to give variation and movement. There are quite a lot of layered synthesiser arpeggios at the beginning of the album – all in different times working against each other, its techniques like this that help to create a sense of purpose but also unease.
Harsh sounds can be heard towards the end of A Continual Echo of the Sound of Loss (part II) undermining its more ethereal movements. Do they signal a “return to reality”, so to speak, like the resolution of a near death experience?
Those sounds are from a recording I took of a massive hail storm when I was in my studio working on the album. It was some of the biggest hail I had ever seen and it interrupted my working for an hour or so. The timing was perfect as I was looking for a way to close the opening two pieces and enter the darker third piece which I already knew I wanted to be long, ominous and bleak – the sounds I recorded fit so well and really helped set the tone for the next piece.
Field recordings, which are used sparingly, are also a key element of the album. How did you go about integrating them into the different tracks and most notably within Thoughts of Violence?
I’ve never been a big fan of using field recordings in my music but for this album more than any other I used many. I think when used musically and integrated with the sonic content they can be very efficient. Especially for setting a tone or atmosphere for a piece. Adding the field recordings I had taken in the previous months to Thoughts of Violence was definitely one of the highlights of making the album – it really elevated the piece. I really like the sound of a small waterfall I recorded in Scotland that comes into the climax of the piece it sounds like harsh white noise but mixed with all the synthetic noise that is also entering makes it sound big and powerful, much like the waterfall itself. Also after the climax is a recording I made of the organ player practising in an empty St Paul’s Cathedral where I found myself after hours through work one evening. It’s pretty low in the mix but it’s a lovely recording. I have recently been mixing the album again for re-release on vinyl and it was great to hear all these field recordings once more – I’ve brought them out much more and made the track as a whole a much fiercer beast than it was the first time round.
I am struck by the choice of a plural pronoun for the closing track …And They Walked into the Sea, which refutes any notion of a possible fictional character carrying the weight of the album narrative. Did you intentionally leave questions open, rather than opting for catharsis and resolution or did you find a sense of closure?
I never wanted the album to be about a particular person or a specific story. It was more feelings and imagery that invoked the compositional side of the record. At the time I was reluctant to mention any of this at all as I knew it would have an impact on the way the album was heard. With regards to that specific title I remembered an old story I saw on the news many years ago about a married couple with no debts or history of depression who, together, walked into the sea never to return. This has stayed with me for many years as its profoundly sad but also in parts brave and beautiful too. I composed the last piece with this image in mind and almost tried to recreate the scene sonically. The guitar melody being the people walking, the organ the sea and so on… It was more about the act than the end result. I guess death is a big unknown at least for me anyway.
Finally which would you consider the works musical or otherwise that address human suffering both on a personal and collective level more effectively?
There are many works of art that have had a profound effect on me over the years that seem to capture the human plight on some level. To mention a few that spring to mind. In fiction Hubert Selby Junior’s Last Exit to Brooklyn and Aldous Huxley’s The Island had a big impact on me.
Music wise – Deathprod’s Morals and Dogma is an astounding record that seems to be something bigger and more important than just a record. Tabula Rasa by Arvo Part is also one of the most beautiful pieces of music I have ever heard – there seems to be such a depth in its simplicity – its one of those pieces that as soon as I heard it felt like it had always been in my life.
Everything about Koyaanisqatsi I love too, it is an important work I think. An almost simple documentation of what humans do around this beautiful world we live in. I love its openness I can sit and watch it over and over. Philip Glass did a wonderful job soundtracking it too.
THREE QUESTIONS TO GUY MARC | SUB ROSA
Do you believe that musicians have in recent years adopted a position of intellectual distance and ideological non commitment?
I do not think so. It could be that ideology is not efficient for social change. Artists must strike where they can – with their own materiality – and not where they think they should. Change is and will always be linked to the particular, or to be more specific to oneself. Goodwill has nothing to do with Art. What should be forbidden is to push the doors open and to howl with the wolves. In other words, resistance for an artist means to reject the commonplace.
In your opinion, why do electroacoustic musicians, generally speaking shy away from addressing big issues such as war, nuclear disasters and human suffering, and are these subjects legitimate topics for a sonic investigation and / or representation?
Mankind is helpless in such matters. Artists can be politically engaged as citizens, and operate towards social change, but this does not mean that they should make this evident in their work, not directly in any case (exceptions can be beautiful but are very rare indeed). When this happens in an indirect way, it can be much deeper – as in the case of Donald Judd. What Judd created was far more revolutionary than any slogan and, as a citizen, he was politically engaged. The only thing to do is to access expression, a kind of expression that changes the nature of mankind. All artworks are a filter for change. But change only pertains to the individual.
Who would you consider the artists that best represent the idea of human suffering and who would you say conveys more effectively the idea of private and personal pain within electroacoustic music?
Any artist who integrates noise in the process.
NANCY VAN DE VATE ON CHERNOBYL
Nancy Van de Vate: There is quite a lot of contemporary repertoire devoted to suffering, although in general it is not something all composers are comfortable with. My own view (and one that sometimes offends Western musicians) is that, with very few exceptions (for ex. Benjamin Britten’s operas), all the best composers of the 20th century came from the Slavic or eastern European countries. Stravinsky, Shostakovitch, Bartok, the entire Polish school, Kancheli, just for starters. I think one of the reasons is that they have not been afraid to express emotion in music, or to deal with suffering. So much American and European music has been influenced by serialism, which I think is rather cold by nature. And serial music has not often lent itself to an uninhibited use of musical color—as for example in the music of Penderecki. In the past few years serialism in the US has been mostly replaced by minimalism, which I also find quite impersonal. I won’t try to explore this further here or we’ll never get to your questions. But I think it is important to mention these ideas, if to do nothing more than generate discussion.
In April 1986, when the nuclear incident at Chernobyl occurred, you were living in Vienna. You have stated that, “the event seemed very near at hand as people everywhere became concerned about radioactive fallout and possible immediate effects on food and water. Reports were heard of the fear and displacement of residents of Chernobyl and of the heroism of workers who, facing certain death, went into the reactor area to contain the fire and avert further explosions.” How did you extract the universal from the particular in order to open up your work Chernobyl to all people?
As with other major world events which caused much suffering, I guess I never thought of it as anything other than universal. My best-known opera is “All Quiet on the Western Front.” In the Remarque text, the story is largely told by one person, Paul Bäumer. However, the First World War was of universal significance. So for me, in conceiving such works, to distinguish between the particular and the universal is not possible. By the way, when we recorded Chernobyl in Krakow in 1988, the subject was still so sensitive that the orchestra asked me to remove the title from all the scores and parts. It was replaced with “April, 1986.” My later work Katyn deals with the murder of 5,000 Polish officers by the KGB in the Katyn Forest. When we recorded Katyn in 1989, the Soviets had not yet admitted to the Katyn Forest massacre.
In a first major instance of glasnost, information about the catastrophe became available. While you were composing Chernobyl, you were allowed to see two remarkably candid videotapes made in the Soviet Union for the International Atomic Energy Authority in Vienna, showing the aftermath of the explosion and providing a detailed analysis of events leading to it. How did you translate this information into music while avoiding a strictly narrative approach?
I can best answer that, as well as the first question, by describing how I perceive the compositional process. First of all, a composer has technique—the tools which enable him or her to express ideas. Composition is very technique-based—as much as singing or performing on an instrument. Second we all have a vocabulary, a general one and a particular one, which reflects our own tastes. By vocabulary I mean the actual choice of musical materials we use, which is not really a conscious choice. Then there is the impulse to create a composition and the emotions it will express. Here the composer’s vocabulary, shaped by his or her technique, expresses the ideas. Just as in writing a story or an essay, the author chooses words and literary techniques to express ideas. The process is the same—it’s just that the composer deals with non-verbal materials. The techniques and vocabulary are very much internalized and can be used without conscious effort.
Your piece Chenobyl has been released on Conifer with Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, which was composed some twenty years earlier. As the liner notes to the Conifer edition of the piece explain, “The basic sound material of Threnody consists of tone clusters, solid bands of sound containing all pitches within a certain range. These clusters or bands become wider, narrower, higher, lower, and use no vibrato or sometimes a very wide vibrato in the course of the piece. At the end, a cluster of frequency band played by all 52 instruments sounding individual pitches a quarter tone apart creates great emotional intensity.”
You have gone for a different approach. As you wrote yourself “While the first half of Chernobyl is atonal, dissonant and rhythmically rather static, the second half is more tonal and diatonic and has more conventional textures, rhythms, melodies and harmonies.” Are there any connections between these two works aside from thematic links, on a musical level even considering the fact that in Penderecki’s case there is a virtual absence of rhythmic pattern or meter?
When we recorded Chernobyl and Threnody, I commented to the Polish sound engineer that I thought the works were too similar to be included on the same CD. He commented (quite rightly) that the works were completely different—that Threnody is a very aggressive work and Chernobyl is not. I felt they were similar because I had been very much influenced by the music of the Polish school, and the thick textures in Chernobyl are built up through the use of clusters. As for the absence of rhythmic pattern or meter in Threnody, I remember what the principal double bass groaned when he first saw his part for Chernobyl. “ My God, it stays on the same note for 63 measures!” Yes, Chernobyl has meter and even pulse, but I was composing as an American, not as a Polish composer who had access to orchestras, which could (and would) play absolutely anything, no matter how demanding. I still try to notate my music as simply as possible, because I know that US– and in general Western orchestras– will not rehearse extensively, and also I have no wish to try to seem esoteric.
In her book about Chernobyl, the Bielorussian author Svetlana Alexievitch has quoted a survivor saying, “When a person’s dying, you can’t cry. You’ll interrupt his dying, he’ll have to keep struggling.” The second half of your piece begins with what you call a “weeping motif”, the interval of a minor second descending a half step. This motif reappears several times during the reminder of the piece. How do you tackle the subject of mourning within your work?
Again, that is instinct and my own musical taste. I had long before used the descending minor second in my work “Tears,” the final movement of my work for women’s chorus and orchestra, Voices of Women. I also use it in “The Sobbing of the Bells” a choral work about the assassination of President Garfield. It occurs (not by intention) in every work I have written where grief is expressed. Why? That is instinct. It is very popular now to verbalize all sorts of things about the compositional process—perhaps composers feel that it makes their music seem more intellectual-- or whatever. However, in the end, choices are made based on instinct—it is the composer’s technique and craft that enables him or her to put them into a musically coherent form. To ask more is like asking pianists how they decide the rate and amount of rubato to use in Chopin. Some things cannot be articulated—not in words, in any case.
Human suffering is often dealt with within classical and contemporary music, with works dealing with war, and large scale disasters as well as requiems and eulogies of a more intimate nature. Are there any subject you feel shouldn’t be tackled through music? Also, do you believe rooting a particular piece in a specific thematic framework might restrict the way that same piece is perceived?
No, I don’t think there are any subjects that shouldn’t be tackled through music. However, their appropriateness can be a simple matter of good taste. I don’t myself see any reason to devote hard work to something really trashy. As for limiting the perception of a piece with a specific thematic framework, does it matter? The last movement of Beethoven’s 9th is certainly limited by the subject matter, but it is still a great work. Why should a piece have to be all things to all people?
Finally, which are the works, musical of otherwise, that in your opinion best depict human suffering?
I can’t single out any particular works which best express human suffering. Shakespeare has some great passages, Remarque in “All Quiet,” Penderecki in Dies Irae, many places in Shostakovitch. Opera also has some great passages—the opening of the third act of Otello, an occasional mad scene, etc. Not every composer can really express suffering—for example, having just completed and recorded my opera Hamlet, I was delighted to be able to see an excellent production of the Ambroise Thomas Hamlet here in Vienna several weeks ago. It is generally considered second-rate, and it really is. For one thing the libretto is not that compelling. But in analyzing why it so widely misses the mark, I came to the conclusion that Thomas is a major key composer (yes, we do seem to fall into major and minor composers) and it just didn’t evoke the intensity that was needed. He did finally get into the minor mode more in Acts 3-5, but then always had to go to a major cadence. When he tried to evoke pathos, he often just got louder and used more crash cymbal. My own problem has always been trying to write happy music. I have to make a conscious effort (major key, fast tempo, lots of rhythm, etc.) I am not a sad person, but somehow the music that comes out is almost always serious and often melancholy. Small wonder that my favorite composer is Brahms!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
You mentioned the Conifer recording of Chernobyl (Conifer 146), which my late husband and I produced in Poland. We were delighted that Conifer chose to produce the CD. The next one they took included our recordings of Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw, my Katyn and Krakow Concerto, and Penderecki’s Dies Irae for the Victims of Auschwitz. How is that for suffering? We thought it was a blockbuster CD, and a concert devoted to those works at the time of the recording in Krakow was telecast throughout Poland.
A few years after, we decided to start our own label, and Vienna Modern Masters came into being. VMM 3027 is devoted entirely to works based on sayings by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Tsippi Fleisher’s “Oratorio 1492” (VMM 3013) is devoted to the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, “Lament for Kosovo” by Australian composer Betty Beath is also often performed live—anyway, the list is quite extensive of such orchestral and orchestral/choral recordings which appear on the VMM label. We also took over the Conifer recordings. Oh yes, Karel Husa’s landmark “Music for Prague” appears on VMM 3023. We produced that in the Czech Republic using the orchestra which did the first performance of the work after the opening of the Czech Republic, the Bohuslav Martinu Philharmonic of Zlin. For the complete list, please see the website
WILLIAM BASINSKI ON THE DISINTEGRATION LOOPS
You have described rather effectively to WQXR the genesis of The Disintegration Loops, which came about when you were hoping to digitize your archival material from the 80s. By playing them, the tapes started deteriorating to the point of self-destruction.
The music was dying. I was recording the death of this sweeping melody. It was very emotional for me, and mystical as well. Tied up in these melodies were my youth, my paradise lost, the American pastoral landscape, all dying gently, gracefully, beautifully. Life and death were being recorded here as a whole: death as simply a part of life: a cosmic change, a transformation.
You have attached a very strong content to this work, which seems to pertain to a loss of innocence or even the Fall of Man. Considering the date of the original recordings, however, the Disintegration Loops could also be viewed as a work about the loss of a generation through AIDS, which also introduced a changing landscape. What is your view on the collusion of content and form in terms of human suffering within the arts in general and more specifically within music?
As an empathetic person, I am moved deeply by the suffering of the world. Living in NYC in the 80’s and 90’s and seeing a whole generation of young people including many friends waste away and disappear was truly devastating. I am drawn to address the gravity of human existence through my work. When I first put what later became disintegration loop 1.1 on the tape deck to begin transferring it to digital so as to preserve it, I was going through a deep personal existential crisis. The gravity and stateliness of this loop stunned me.
I hadn’t remembered it at all but knew immediately it was just what i needed to hear at that moment and so I began the process of creating a new piece. The eventual disintegration of this melody and the others that followed was something altogether unexpected, but what transpired in the studio over that period of two days elevated my thinking, lifted my spirits, exploded my grounded imagination…redeemed me, as each of these melodies was redeemed through the life and death transferral process.
It wasn’t until the weeks and months after we witnessed the atrocities of 9/11 and it’s aftermath that I decided to dedicate this cycle to the victims of the horror as an elegy. We who survived and witnessed the horrors were all cascading into our own disintegration loops of fear, panic and terror. I saw this with my own eyes and experienced it as well. I stand in solidarity with all of those whose lives were catastrophically destroyed that day and it was for that reason that I was compelled to protest in the only way I knew how…through my work.
In Distant Suffering, first published in 1999, Luc Boltanski examines the moral and political implications for a spectator of the distant suffering of others as presented through the media. The question raised by French philosopher, is “What are the morally acceptable responses to the sight of suffering on television, for example, when the viewer cannot act directly to affect the circumstances in which the suffering takes place”?
With regards to music, and specifically with experimental, electronic and electroacoustic music, suffering is frequently either worn on its sleeve or it becomes a footnote.
Very seldom the suffering is rendered tangible as with Novi_sad’s Inhumane Humans, which includes the recording of a woman who is speaking in front of some psychologists describing her experience of being raped repeatedly while pregnant during the civil war in Bosnia. And yet the voice is hardly discernible buried in a fild of heavily textured white noise rendering her testimony all the more poignant.
As the Canadian Journal of Communication succintly puts it, Boltanski distills this humanitarian and spectatorial dilemma into two predominant positions – abstract universalism and local particularism. “Those compelled by the former embrace global solidarity with others, identifying, too readily, with all those who suffer. The second position ignores the plight of those outside of their immediate sphere, only offering assistance to those with some sort of geographical, cultural, or familial proximity. Abstract universalism can lead one to mistake the grief of others for one’s own and to a dismissal of local problems as trivial. Local particularism may lead one to ignore what is happening in the world and to become politically apathetic until someone close is touched by war, pestilence, or tragedy.”
Where would you say your work stands in relation to Boltanski’s two dialectical extremes?
By nature I would have to identify myself with the former, although I disagree with the conclusion that when one identifies with another’s tragedy one is mistaking the suffering of others for one’s own. There is such a thing as empathy. Healthy human beings share in each other’s griefs and joys for God’s sake. Frankly, some of these arguments and questions are so highly detached it seems to me they border on sociopathic.
In the recent “Remembering September 11” concert, held by the Wordless Music Orchestra at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Temple of Dendur on the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, the Disintegration Loops was paired, amongst others, with Alfred Schnittke’s Collected Songs Where Every Verse Is Filled With Grief, the second movement from the composer’s Choir Concerto of 1984-85.
What are the works in your opinion that deepen our understanding of Human Suffering?
I am not a musicologist and I don’t do playlists, but certainly this has been a deep intrinsic thread throughout music the world over since the beginning of time…the lamentations and passio’s of the early Christian music, the ancient Jewish tradition of the Kaddish, the ancient folk songs of tragedy and praise from the Balkans, American Slave music becoming gospel and blues in the 20th century to almost every genre we have today. Why do we sing a lullaby to put a crying baby to sleep? Music is the balm for our souls.
DANIEL THOMAS FREEMAN ON THE BEAUTY OF DOUBTING YOURSELF
You have stated that with Staring Into Black Water and Staring Into the Light you attempted to do a noise piece in the vein of Kevin Drumm’s Sheer Hellish Miasma. On the subject of noise, I would like to quote a passage by John Luther Adams “Beyond the usual expressive associations of ‘musical’ sounds, noise touches and moves us in profound ways. Through its sheer physicality, noise commands our attention and breaks down the barriers we construct between ourselves and awareness. Immersed in the enveloping presence of elemental noise, in the fullness of the present moment, we just may begin to hear, with the whole of the self, something of the inaudible totality of sound.” John Luther Adams also talks about how the power of noise can open doorways to the ecstatic. Was this the effect you were trying to achieve?
I think there is something to be said about the power of the non-melodic to access the soul since much of the natural world does not conform to a neat audio harmonic series. I had started with the idea of an album that was going to be considerably noisier and chaotic but I learnt a long time ago that it is better for me not to be too bound by an initial idea but rather follow where the music itself flows. ‘Staring Into Black Water’ was to be my take on Drumm’s aesthetic on ‘Sheer Hellish Miasma’ but the noise elements came from layer upon layer upon layer of different forms of water and purposeful recording inaccuracies instead of howling distortion (for that you’ll have to wait until a track on the next album).
I mentioned John Luther Adams, as well, since you cite his album In the White Silence as another big influence for The Beauty of Doubting Yourself. I can hear a connection with a track like Roar for instance where Adams embraces the “violence of nature” as opposed to the more pastoral sound of birdsong.
John Luther Adams is undoubtedly a big influence on me at the moment, not just his music but also his books ‘Winter Music’ and ‘The Place Where You Go To Listen’. On ‘Beauty …’ his gentler influence can be heard in the more melodic tracks and some of my newer tracks have built on ideas expressed in his percussion- and electronics-based music.
There are countless examples of elegies and requiems in the world of contemporary music, from Peteris Vasks, to Valentin Silvestrov. Similarly there have been a number of works, within electro-acoustic music which could be dubbed as elegies or requiems in the past few years, I am thinking of Dakota Suite and Emanuele Errante’s album The North Green Downs and Celer’s work, for instance. Did learning to play the violin provide you with a musical language, which facilitated the rendering of emotions linked to grief?
Learning the violin actually started as a practical response to playing the very slow and simple music of Rameses III gigs. I wanted an instrument where I could control the volume and tone on a single note in a rather more interesting and physical way than just holding a note down on a keyboard. I was also marking my 40th birthday by setting myself a new challenge. Had I really appreciated how difficult the violin was and is to learn I may never have started but it has been so beneficial to how I think about music in so many (and so many unexpected) ways.
Your album is divided in three different parts and charts a journey from darkness to light or from hell to heaven. But there is also a circular element about it, which is highlighted by the field recordings from Westminster Cathedral appearing in tracks 1 and 7. Did you conceive the Beauty of Doubting Yourself as a three-movement symphony, in a way, rather than a collection of different tracks with a common theme?
It only started to become clear to me that ‘Beauty …’ was a piece of three movements partway through the making of the album. Very near the start of the album I had the idea of the two sister tracks ‘Staring Into Black Water’ and ‘Staring Into The Light’ being almost mirror images of each other. Both were begun with a drone note sent through the same processing chain (albeit performed very differently). When the ‘Staring …’ tracks were well underway I realised that the album was about my recovery from depression into grace and that therefore the album needed to be shaped around that arc accordingly. The use of the Westminster Cathedral bells recording in the first and last tracks was a device used very purposefully to highlight that arc with the recognisable version deliberately only used in the last and brightest track. Following the experience of making ‘Beauty …’ I have been developing the next album, provisionally titled ‘A Promise Written In Skin’, as a whole from the very start of the writing process.
You also reference Thomas Koner who stated that his job as a human being as well as an artist is to try to overcome confusion, confusion of mind, of sound, and of image. “Of course this is a very personal approach, – he writes – and very likely it is a futile task. One would need to be a magician to succeed in such a task. When working, – he continues – I try to be clear and honest about myself. I do not mean the artworks to be a medicine, as I do not think one can heal confusion: it has a billion faces.” You have been very open about your period of depression, which lead you to the making of this album. Would you consider depression another form of confusion and did you consider the album cathartic in this sense?
Depression has been described as a form of internalised anger or frustration and a lot of my own frustration has in the past been derived from confusion over how to achieve peace in my own life so maybe there is some truth in your statement. Making and listening to music has never been a way for me to permanently expel demons but it has been essential for helping me to achieve moments of peace and satisfaction which are not judged by the normal wordly definitions of success or progress.
Alain Ehrenberg in his book The Fatigue of being oneself – Depression and society, indicates how depression has come to occupy a central place in our society and writes about it as an illness of responsibility in which the dominant feeling is one of insufficiency or inadequacy. “The depressed subject doesn’t measure up, – he states – he/she is exhausted by having to become him/herself. The right of choosing one’s life and the injunction of becoming one’s self, places the individual in a permanent state of fluxus.” Depression, therefore, seems to be linked to an erosion of the concept of identity. As Benedetto Vecchio writes in his conversation book with Zygmunt Bauman, the question of identity is associated too with the breakdown of the welfare state and the subsequent growth in a sense of insecurity, with the ‘corrosion of character’ that insecurity and flexibility in the workplace have produced in society. “The conditions are created – Vecchi indicates – for a hollowing out of democratic institutions and a privatization of the public sphere…” As Bauman himself says, “‘identity’ is revealed to us only as something to be invented rather than discovered; as a target of an effort, ‘an objective’; as something one still needs to build from scratch or to choose from alternative offers and then to struggle for and then to protect through yet more struggle – though for the struggle to be victorious, the truth of the precarious and forever incomplete status of identity need to be, and tends to be, suppressed and laboriously covered up”.
After several albums with Rameses III, this is your first solo venture. Not that you reject the idea of collaborations as the advice of Val Freeman, Spencer Grady and Stephen Lewis was instrumental in the making of this album, but was it important for you to construct your own personal musical identity in order to overcome depression?
There are many advantages to working within a group. Working within Rameses III and with my wife have been defining positive experiences of my life which have helped me understand so many aspects of creativity. Certainly this album would have been very different without those experiences but it also could never have been made under a collective banner since it deals with such a personal subject and required a rather different approach.
The album is a document of how I emerged from depression rather than being the method itself. My own way out of the void was my conversion to Christianity so ‘Beauty …’ became my attempt to articulate this very personal change as honestly, clearly and as beautifully as possible and this articulation generated its own musical identity. I hope that the music does help one or two others in their own struggles but it has been carefully designed to work as a piece of music in its own right without needing to understand or to be sympathetic towards the Christian faith.
CHRIS HOOSON ON THE NORTH GREEN DOWNS
In an interview with Xan Brooks on his latest film Amour, director Michael Haneke has stated that “It is rare that a life hasn’t been touched by suffering or the suffering of a loved one” and that “For me the film is simply about how you deal with the suffering of someone you love”. In a similar way, The North Green Downs deals with the loss of your terminally ill sister in law. Did the album have a cathartic effect?
Very much so. We had spent the summer taking what we knew would be our last holiday together with Hannah, she was becoming increasingly ill and her mobility and ability to do things was very much compromised. What I remember was how much grace and dignity Hannah had throughout that, always wanting everyone else to feel OK, never wanting us to consider her in any way as less than we knew her to be. Completely selfless. We took a walk and I started thinking about life after she had left us, and as usual with me, I started hearing the sounds.
My whole career in music I have said the same thing when asked about the songwriting ‘process’, for me it is 100% catharsis. I have a couple of lovely guitars and I NEVER play them at all for ‘pleasure’, that is I would never dream of picking it up to practice or to play a song by say the Beatles just for fun. For me the guitars and piano I have access to serve only as a means to convey pain and get something out from inside, which I know will overwhelm me if I don’t find a means of channelling it into life. On such occasions it becomes a serious issue for me, if I can’t get to an instrument I start to become quite agitated. With Hannah because we knew she would be leaving us I regularly had periods when I would quietly compose for her as she was often on my mind. In terms of the music I make generally though yes I would say that each song I write is a reflection on a feeling I am having or around a sense of grief I have about my own behaviour or how my sense of loss and isolation affects my wife. Don Van Vliet said once that ‘the way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly, because the world touches me too hard’, as soon as I read that I took that on as a perfect expression of how I feel, I totally understand what he meant by that and all my music is a reflection of that feeling. Each song is almost like a mini movie inside my head and I just try to write a score to it. That is why playing the songs live is a really painful experience for me as each time I play them I relive the emotions that made me need to create the piece, it’s almost like post traumatic stress.
In her book Regarding the Suffering of Others, Susan Sontag notes that “it is intolerable to have one’s own sufferings twinned with anybody else’s.” With The North Green Downs you seem to have taken an opposite approach by asking Emanuele Errante to collaborate on the album, and therefore laying your feelings open to scrutiny and allowing for them to be intervened on. How did this collaboration come about and how did you structure it?
I am sure that Emanuele was very cautious about getting involved (although he never showed that…) I approached him after thinking very carefully about it. It was odd to think that here was very deep music, but in some senses all my music is very personal so I didn’t see too much difference there, but sure, this was essentially a suite of hymns for Hannah, there’s no getting away from that. I was very careful to explain to Emanuele what I needed on each piece, like I remember us talking about the song ‘a worn out life’ and I said to Emanuele, you have to imagine that someone is wasting away in a bed, and you are observing them very cautiously from behind a curtain, for you don’t want to make them upset with your weeping, and also with your knowledge that the world didn’t care about what it cost for them to live, it has to be very fragile and almost like you can’t bear to look’… it was that type of thing, that’s how we set about creating the colours and tides of the record.
Basically I had written the pieces and was really struggling to know if they weren’t too personal, too bleak and full of personal grief. I became surrounded by ravens and clouds full of something I couldn’t make out. I was very lost inside this bubble of pain and grieving that I felt I wanted someone else to assist me find a way out. I had made a record with David Darling (the end of trying), which was basically around the feeling that my relationships with people (and I mean everyone I loved) was over and that I couldn’t live. A number of people contributed to a remix project of that record (the night just keeps coming in) and Emanuele was one of the people I specifically asked to do a remix because I had loved his work on Migrations and Humus. It’s odd with music sometimes, particularly at my level as there are some lovely people around who just want to be part of things and are very open about doing things because they too just want to be creative.
You come across people that seem to be carved from the same tragedy and brokenness as yourself and this comes through in the music I guess. Also as with 'the end of trying' I had spent a long time with the pieces and to be honest it got to the point where I was becoming too obsessed which each moment and nuance, and sometimes you just need someone else to wade into the sea and bring you back to land. Emanuele is a lovely fella and as with my later collaboration with Quentin, it just sometimes feels like you meet a person who you instantly sense is like a brother and the music reflects that. I have been very fortunate to work with a number of people like Emanuele and Quentin who add magic to my music and I am very grateful for those moments of collaboration.
Talvihorros’ Music in Four Movements is an album, which deals with notions of people taking their own lives and disappearing at sea. At the time, he has said, he was reluctant to render explicit any mention of this, knowing that it would have an impact on the way the album was heard. Did you experience a similar feeling about The North Green Downs?
Not at all. I knew that I needed to write these songs, to honour Hannah, and I also wanted the world to know how very beautiful and brave she was. At that time I needed to express my sorrow and in my career I hope the 30 or 40 people across the world who have been following what we do, expect that I will be honest. I don’t ever ‘write’ a song, I just allow the water to seep through me. I am in that sense only a voyeur for my dark passenger. I did however feel some discomfort with putting this out only because of how it might have reflected on Hannah.
Some people who reviewed the record (I think without doing any homework) reviewed it as too melancholy or whatever, but that is just lazy journalism, which much of it is. For me any great work usually comes from a place of tragedy and loss. That’s just the way it is. I am not in any way suggesting that The North Green Down is a great work, please don’t misunderstand me.
Reviewing the album, Pascal Savy wrote that “Even if The North Green Downs is heavily themed around the feeling of loss and separation, each of these 18 pieces develop a narrative of their own, avoiding unnecessary melancholy or nostalgia, but exploring a complex mesh of emotions.” How important is narrative in your own work?
As I hope I have already intimated, narrative and a sense of the ‘film’ in my head is central to all the songs I write. Because all the songs, and I mean ALL of them (bar the record for Hannah that is…) are for Johanna. Because I find it very hard to speak to her about love and how much I cherish her (because my mother in particular was very emotionally and cognitively inconsistent and abusive) I need to write the songs as a way to get things across to her. In this way any record I make is just like me having an open diary, I never lie and always tell the truth in there and this is what Johanna struggles with, because it allows people to know what is going on in our lives, because I speak unflinchingly about it.
F.W.J. Schelling wrote that ‘life is only in personality and every personality is based on dark ground. But this ground must be knowledge’. I read this and felt very powerfully that I am who I am and my dark passenger must be acknowledged and understood, what I try to convey to others is that an inherent sense of disappointment and anxiety about other people is not the end of everything but only a different reality. People are so obsessed with appearance and saying things that they think others want to hear, I try to be unfailingly honest about who I am and reflect on my failings openly. I feel that I am almost wholly flawed, like a bag of broken glass, but the struggle to make sense of this disappointment in others and my own failings is what motivates me to grow. It is this internal narrative that I am getting out of my system by making music. Basically I feel that unless I get the music out of myself that I would go quite mad and possibly die.
In Exquiste Pain, the French artist Sophie Calle staged a life changing experience from her own past. The installation and the accompanying book are a visual record of the time in 1985 when a lover failed to meet Calle as promised in a hotel in New Delhi. The artist described that as the most painful moment in her life. On her return to Paris she asked a group of people to answer the question, “When did you most suffer?” Their stories of pain, each of them accompanied by a photograph, interplay with Calle’s own story and daily reflections. How do you go about translating and distilling feelings of pain into music?
All the songs whether they have words or not are in my mind always like a very long drifting Theo Angelopoulos scene last ten minutes or so, i just see small pieces of detail, so for example in a new song from my next record, the title track is called ‘an almost silent life’ I remember very clearly waking up one morning, glancing sideways at Johanna and seeing her lovely sleeping face, but it looked pained as if she was wrestling with pain in her dreams. I have hurt Johanna in the past through being very inflexible with how I interact with the world, I find it all so painful and she must bear that journey with me even though she is a lovely quiet powerful woman who deserves better. I just saw it in slow motion ‘each step I take away from you it’s like I’m drowning, but I know that you’ll find me’…I saw myself slipping under the waves and even though there was no sign of her, I knew a powerful feeling that Johanna would find me just in time, as she always does.
So that’s what I see in my mind and almost like being in a trance I just reach for an instrument and start feeling the song come through.
In an interview with Martin Williams, you have stated your obsession with ECM. There are a number of composers on that label and mostly from the ex Soviet Union, who deal with feelings of pain, loss and longing. I am thinking of the Ukrainan composer Valentin Silvestrov, for instance, whose Requiem for Larissa is a poignant eulogy to his late wife. The music of Georgian composer Giya Kancheli also springs, with works such as Amao Omi, which is Georgian for “Senseless War”. With that piece for mixed choir and saxophone quartet, in particular, Kancheli has drawn his textual material from stray words related to the nature, landscape, culture and tradition of his native Goergia, but he expressly avoided an emphasis on intelligibility, nor is the text printed in the booklet. Aside from writing instrumental music, you are also a singer. Do you ever feel that words can sometimes become implicit in the semantic of the music when dealing with specific feelings such as loss?
Yes I do love ECM and my biggest wish is that I could have a record on that label! (not going to happen, obviously) Requiem for Larissa is incredible and if you look at works by Arvo Part's Cantus for Benjamin Britten I doubt you would be able to convey a grieving moment with any more accuracy than those descending strings, incredible.
Your question however is a good one. Sometimes there are things I really want to express verbally to Johanna, things I really want her to hear me say. But there are also times when I have lain on a floor and sobbed with sorrow and self loathing for hours until the bile is seeping out of every orifice and those are times when in my experience words become insignificant and the feelings I have cannot be conveyed easily. The older I have become, the less inclined I am to sing, since a very young age (I bought my first Pat Metheny ECM record when I was 11, became a disciple of Bill Evans / Lee Morgan only a few years later….) I have loved open modal Jazz and space and for me there is something about just allowing a chord to fracture out into silence that really moves me. The challenge I always find is just to play what’ absolutely necessary. It’s super easy to bombard a tune with all sorts of things, but mostly when you critically evaluate a song like that it’s often because there’s little truth there and this is ‘cake decorating’ is masking that reality. So for me increasingly I feel like I don’t want to re-visit any emotions or experiences I have already explored, because as I said each one is a private moment, not ‘created’ for the purpose of song writing. I also feel that when you try and put simple words in a song structure you immediately limit the emotio-cognitive impact of the song. I am more inclined to have a piece and just tell folk what I was feeling when I found the tune, and then they can make their own movie in their minds featuring their own actors:-)
Words cannot convey always the huge mountain like senses of grief or longing… or the manner in which such things can be articulated in a way that allows others to compile their own topography thereof. That’s why for me Jazz is the perfect music, if you listen to Searching for a new land by Lee Morgan or say Crescent by John Coltrane or Bill Evans’s reading of Waltz for Debby from the live Vaguard sessions, it’s just so other worldly. I cannot understand why people don’t get it, these people have, as far as I am concerned, convened with some type of truth giver, and I am constantly in awe of what they are telling me in those pieces. I make people sit through stuff for long periods of time in my house and am totally dismayed when people don’t stop what they are doing and change everything about themselves to follow that truth. I am always saying that I remember the exact moment when I first heard the opening strains of ‘Fratres’ on Tabula Rasa by Arvo Pärt and I honestly believe that I was altered on a molecular level. It took me weeks to get over how life altering it was and I often refer to this as my life pre or post Pärt. I know it sounds silly but I truly believe that if you had examined my DNA structure in the moments just before and after that moment they will have been fundamentally different. Music has saved my life, literally.
On the late Cy Twombly, John Berger writes “I know of no other visual artist who has created an oeuvre that visualizes with living colours the silent space that exists between and around words.” Would you say you have attempted to explore that same silent space through music?
Following on from my last rambling answer, yes totally. I mean how do any of us dare to make music after Pärt/Coltrane/Evans/Darling?
They are the ones who have been right to the edge and tasted the truth and have spent their all on bringing it back to us. Those of us who live in their shadow only create pale imitations of what they are capable of, and I find myself feeling slightly ashamed of what I do whilst even typing their names.
However bringing you back to the question, yes totally. I am obsessed with stripping things back to their emotional core and leaving nothing else in the way. I increasingly want to strip things right down to its quietest point and just allow that ‘voice’ to come through. We are just in the middle of finishing up our new record (an almost silent life) and at ties my drummer has stopped playing and remarked that the pieces are so fragile and delicate that he really can;t play on them, I have pushed and challenged Shep’ (John Shepard….legendary drummer) to find a new way of working and creating, which he has done, but we have endured moments of real tension. I have learnt that it becomes very difficult to conceive of rhythm in its conventional sense when what you are doing is in the 38 -45 BPM range. Things get really ragged and timing becomes hugely difficult.
Which are the works that in your opinion best deal with themes of human suffering and pain?
Well I mainly listen to Jazz, which doesn’t often deal with grief and suffering, which I have always found odd. Although one could argue that ‘lady in satin’ by Billie Holliday is a mournful record by a woman close to wearing herself out, that voice! There are records that deal with pivotal moments in life, I think of records like Coltrane’s ‘a love supreme’ which clearly came at a time when Coltrane had broken through to something and was in the process of cleansing himself. There’s ‘here my dear’ by Marvin Gaye, that is often overlooked but a tremendously moving record, being as it was a farewell gift (financially) to his then wife, but being Marvin it was incredible. Then there’s the almost unbearably sad ‘last four songs’ by Strauss, a meditation on his impending death…I listen to that a lot. Classical music deals a lot with grief, you have Britten’s War Requiem, which is fantastic too.
However there are individual songs I turn to when I am becoming overwhelmed which I know have been inspired by grief and suffering, ‘Dronning Maud Land’ by fat lady sings (Incredible, ‘I seem to have grown myself a pair of old mans hands….’ very moving lyric). And then there’s ‘Mother’ off ‘Plastic Ono band’ by John Lennon, that whole album is one of reflections of his mothers death and his isolation.
In literature there is also a lot of stuff I fall into, the poem For Jane, with all the love I had, which was not enough’ by Bukowski is a searing rage against the death of his lover…
I pick up the skirt, I pick up the sparkling beads in black, this thing that moved once around flesh, and I call God a liar, I say anything that moved like that or knew my name could never die in the common verity of dying...
That’s fantastic, as is the book ‘The Book of Disquiet’ by Fernando Pessoa, that is a book about a man who sees himself as an echo of an abyss, like modern day parables of sorrow. That is super moving, as is ‘No Longer Human’ by Osamu Dazai, a man who rejects life because he doesn’t get it, very slow decent into self denial and a rejection of the world. And finally for me, perhaps one of the greatest works of fiction, in all genres, is the graphic novel ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’… the epic Japanese manga series which tells of a samurai’s quest for vengeance against the man who wronged him and killed his wife leaving him with his son, that book is just so unbelievably moving and the most essential book in the world for me, very very sad as a man goes to protect what is his knowing it will cost him his life and leave his son without a father and a mother. Searingly painful and beautiful in every way.
MAURIZIO BIANCHI ON SYMPHONY FOR A GENOCIDE 1981
Hello, Maurizio, I’ll begin with a quote from Primo Levi, if I may.
One cannot hear the music well from Ka-Be. The beating of the big drums and the cymbals reach us continuously and monotonously, but on this weft the musical phrases weave a pattern only intermittently, according to the caprices of the wind. We all look at each other from our beds, because we all feel that this music is infernal.
The tunes are few, a dozen, the same ones every day, morning and evening; marches and popular songs dear to every German. They lie engraved on our minds and will be the last thing in Lager that we shall forget: they are the voice of the Lager, the perceptible expression of its geometrical madness, of the resolution of others to annihilate us first as men in order to kill us more slowly afterwards.
When this music plays we know that our comrades, out in the fog, are marching like automatons; their souls are dead and the music drives them, like the wind drives dead leaves, and takes the place of their wills. There is no longer any will: every beat of the drum becomes a step, a reflected contraction of exhausted muscles. – Primo Levi from Survival in Auschwitz, 1958, New York, Collier, 1961
Claude Lanzemann with his film on the Shoah has indicated that to give visual and graphic representations of the Holocaust would be immoral, whereas, according to the German painter Gerhardt Richter there are no subjects that cannot be tackled. He himself, has tried for years to depict the Holocaust through painting without finding to date, the right way of doing so.
If Auschwitz is unthinkable, then we must rethink the bases of our anthropology (Hannah Arendt). If Auschwitz is unsayable, then we must rethink the bases of testimony (Primo Levi). If Auschwitz is unimaginable, we must give the same attention to an image as we do to what witnesses say. The aesthetic space of the unimaginable ignores history in its concrete singularities. To remember, one must imagine.
How did you approach the subject from a rational point of view with Symphony for a Genocide?
At the time, my rationality was less developed than what it is was to become years later, after I resumed my musical career which I had abandoned in 1984; this means that, back in 1981, I approached such a controversial subject with the intent of shaking the minds numbed by the insensitivity of the mass media, which function as a real “factory of death” within a modernist key. The real genocide is, therefore, the one carried out by our technological industry and society; Symphony for a Genocide is only the sonic transcription of what has already been perpetrated in the past.
All tracks on the album bear the title of different concentration camps, from Treblinka to Auschwitz, and from Chelmno to Sobibor. How did you approach the subject from an empirical point of view, or, in other words, have you attempted to translate any research work you might’ve carried out into musical form?
The titles refer to our modern extermination camps, which could be seen as New York and Tokyo or Berlin and Milan, Moscow or Shanghai, Cairo and Sao Paolo, or Addis Ababa, and Riyadh etc. places where the extermination of the human mind is carried out on a daily basis in order to achieve the standardization of thought and behaviour, moulded on insolent consumerism and sullen futility.
Your reference points at the time could be found in concrete music. Nonetheless, did you take into account a piece such as Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, which he wrote and played in the concentration camp of Görlitz, either from a religious point of view, as it is a profoundly religious work based on the Apocalypse, as well as from a philosophical and musical point of view especially for what concerns rhythm?
I didn’t take into account any previous works by any other artist, I simply took a decompositional approach, which was connected to the specific emotional state I was going through at the time.
In the linear notes to Symphony for a Genocide you wrote: “The moral of this work: The past punishment is the inevitable blindness of the present.”
A discussion of Auschwitz would benefit from a more in-depth analysis and longer conversation, but I would like to quote form the introduction to a fundamental book on the subject: Remnants of Auschwitz by Giorgio Agamben. Thanks to an increasingly wide ranging and rigorous studies – amongst which Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews occupies a special place – the problem of the historical, material, technical, bureaucratic, and legal circumstances in which the extermination of the Jews took place has been sufficiently clarified. (…) The same cannot be said for the ethical and political significance of the extermination, or even for a human understanding of what happened there – that is, for its contemporary relevance. Not only do we lack anything close to a complete understanding; even the sense and the reasons for the behaviour of the executioners and the victims, indeed very often their very words, still seem profoundly enigmatic. This can only encourage the opinion of those who would like Auschwitz to remain forever incomprehensible. (…) The aporia of Auschwitz is, indeed, the very aporia of historical knowledge: a non-coincidence between facts and truth, between verification and comprehension.”
Do you believe that music can generate a level of comprehension of the issues that revolve around this aporia?
Only if applied to the current situation where ghosts from the past occasionally raise their heads, but only to stir a few dead leaves (or desensitized consciences). Still, after the “wind” of memory has subsided, everything resumes its original state as an amorphous substance completely detached from reality and everyday life.
On Symphony for a Genocide William Bennett from Whitehouse wrote “There are two different MB styles – the technological power works and secondly the low key depression pieces which this record belongs to. All types of death do well with this ultimate funeral – Maurizio is ready to unload his death cargo”. In 1981, Whitehouse released the album Buchenwald. What is the degree of contiguity between the two albums and how would you define your position within Industrial music, taking into account the fact that when you first started releasing music, then term still hadn’t become current currency?
There is no contiguity between the two albums, but only a sort of celebration of technological extermination. My position within experimental music, was and still is a detached and autonomous one inasmuch as I consider the “industrial” label as highly restricting. Moreover, in my case, one could talk about a universal technological language based on the freedom of expressing one’s own innermost and hidden feelings and sensations in a radical and constructive way.
You have reprised the subject of Symphony for a Genocide with Carcinosi, subtitled Decomposizione Per Organismi Bionici e Mutazioni Concrete (Decomposition for Bionic Organisms and Concrete Mutations). “A nodulose decrease of few sparkling casings, with manual scents or prolonged sick terms of tumoral cells. To replenish the majority of the rusty pathology we inject a fit existence in the deadly symptom of a weak bandage. The microscopic precipice undertakes a nasty hesitation into the bored carcinosi. Which is the calamitous result of the adamic transgression.” The original vinyl release had two tracks: Third Cycle (Cyanosis) : Carcinosis Oswiecim (1979) on side A and Fourth Cycle (Bionic) : Carcinosis Brzezinka (1982) on side B. Oswiecim and Brzezinka, ie Auschwitz and Birkenau. What current cycle has our society reached?
The final cycle, which has not been highlighted by the album you were referring to, as this final cycle is only the prelude to a totally new and completely revolutionary forthcoming one that will mould the “demythizied” minds and will warm the beating hearts of those who will survive the destruction of this satanic state of things.
There were quite a few concentration camps in Italy as well, and there have been many massacres. Have you ever thought of composing on album on this subject?
I have never thought of interacting this way, making explicit references to the Italian context, especially since my discourse transcends any national and international barriers and is geared towards a much broader picture, even from an existential point of view, that has no pertinence with any possible apology of historical investigations.
Talking about your early works in an interview with Andrea Ferraris, you have stated that you strongly wanted to desecrate sonic traditionalism, striving more on the re-transposition of the “old”, within a psycho-neurotic framework, rather than on a relentless search for the new. The often shocking and clinically necrotic images were associated to the musical discourse at the basis of your alienating re-elaboration devoid of any possible compromise. I would like you to elaborate on two points, in particular. Firstly, was re-transposing the old a way for you to widen the discourse on memory? As for the visual images, do you believe there is a safety margin beyond which any ethical concept is lost?
To re-transpose the old, one needs to have roots and my roots can be found in sonic syncretism. For what concerns the visual side of things, often, specific images have a greater impact than a thousand words and academic formulations and, since my metallurgical objective was to awaken the anesthetized conscience of people, the only way of doing so, was through the use of shocking images that circled the border between what is ethical and what is not.
A narrative drive permeates the underlining conceptual discourse at the basis of some of your works, as with Vir-Uz the album you have made with Andrea Ics Ferraris. Vir-Uz is based on the Book of Job and the field recordings where taken by Andrea in Alessandria’s Jewish cemetery. The Book is centred round the issue of theodicy – whether or not one can have faith in the goodness and worthiness of an omnipotent creator who is apparently responsible for creating evil, and tolerating the suffering of the innocent. How important is it to you to indicate the precise co-ordinates of a particular work in order to guide the ensuing critical discourse on specific themes?
It is fundamental aspect, even if in my musical approach, I begin by creating the soundtrack and then I tackle the subject and the different themes attached to it. I know this is not an easy practice to follow, but in my case it is the most coherent and functional.
Dioxi was released by Mentrual Recordings in a limited edition of 151 copies. It was composed together with Siegmar Fricke and inspired by chapter fifth of the Gospel According to Matthew, which you quote in the linear notes: “Happy are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake, since the kingdom of the heavens belongs to them. Happy are you when people reproach you and persecute you… Rejoyce and leap for joy, since your reward is great in the heavens; for in that way they persecuted the prophets prior to you.” (Taken from the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 5, verses 10, 11 and 12).
I would now like to quote from Pasolini where he talks about his film adaptations of the same Gospel: “I could have demystified the real historical situation, the relationship between Pilate and Herod, I could have demystified the figure of Christ mythicized by Romanticism, by Catholicism and the Counter Reformation. I could have demystified everything, but then, how could I have demystified the problem of death? The issue that I cannot demystify is that which is irrational and therefore, in a certain way, religious, and is inherent in the mystery of the world. That cannot be demystified”.
Pasolini also added on his intention behind the film: “I want to make a work of poetry. Not a religious work in the current sense of the term nor a work of ideology. In words both simple and poor: I do not believe that Christ was the Son of God, because I am not a believer – at least not consciously. But I believe Christ to be divine and I believe there was in him a humanity so great, rigorous and ideal as to go beyond the common terms of humanity. This is why I talk about ‘poetry’: an irrational instrument to express this irrational feeling of mine for Christ”.
Is Dioxi a poetic, religious or ideological work?
It has an ethical and religious character, in which strong supernatural forces interact. These forces reconnect to the completion of our spiritual integrity and aim to be, at the same time, a prophetic anticipation of future patterns relating to the “end of time” in which real Christians will be fiercely persecuted – and I hope to be included amongst them (this is not a presumptuous act, rather a concrete reality).
The Testamentary Corridor is dedicated to the lamented martyrs. You also write in the linear notes that it is made of “Insubordinate discord in five tempos for monolithic keyboards and multicellular dissonances, perpetrated during the autumn of 2005.” Furthermore, striking a note of pessimism, you add that, “To commemorate a testamentary event the human beings expend time and care, all their energies, but sometimes the results are disappointing… Due to the unconventional heritage of our rhetorical history lost in the corridor of time.”
On the subject of aural commemoration, do you feel that there are works, which have achieved satisfactory results within the real of music?
I don’t know how to answer this question, but what I can say is that commemorations can have an undesired effect. As it is been said, “It is not in man who walks to direct his steps.” Therefore there can be no comments, no questions, but only satisfactory answers.
Genocidio 20 contains samples from Nazi propaganda by the likes of Rudolf Hess, Adolf Wagner, Josef Goebbels, Adolf Hitler, Horst-Wessels-Song etc. Still, I have read in an interview with Marcelo Aguire, that you had no say whatsoever on this inclusion, which was carried out by other people at a later stage. Could you clarify this for me? Also what is your position on negationism when it comes to freedom of expression?
As I have already stated in the past, circumstances beyond my control and independent of my own will, brought about the contamination of my original sound. I can only deplore that this has happened and regret the fact that I have not been quick or alert enough to prevent this from happening. However I can conscientiously say that freedom of expression has its negative side, as it sometimes falls into the trivial and the futile. Therefore my position on the subject is one of absolute neutrality.
The House of Mourning is the title of your collaboration with the German duo Telepherique. In the linear notes you quote from the Book of the Ecclesiastes: “Better is to go to the house of mourning than to go to the banquet house, because that is the end of all mankind; and the one alive should take it to his heart… the heart of the wise ones is in the house of mourning…”
Matteo Uggeri, another young musician you have collaborated with on several albums, refers to this as a concept album on mourning which explores feelings of loss and longing for those who are no longer amongst us.
How did this collaboration come about? Also, I know that the material you sent Telepherique was built around acoustic instruments and analogue processing and it included cello, violin, flute, keyboards, waves, and noises (concrete noises). In turn, Telepherique processed this material adding synthesizers, field recordings, and vocal samples. Did you have a clear idea from the start of what the structure of the album was going to be with its 12 tracks that chronicle the different stages of mourning: Sad News; Shock; Sorrow; Refuse To Believe It; Deep Pain; Cry For Help; Anxiety; Emptiness; Guilty Conscience; Mood Fluctuation; Rage; and Come to Terms?
This is my second collaboration with Klaus and Danijela Jochim and it came about at a particular time in my life, when, in the space of thirty months, I lost both my parents. Therefore, this album holds a deeper personal meaning than it might first be evident. From a technical point of view, the album was built by Telepherique on my backing track, that were used as an anachronistic background, for something which aims to be a celebration of mourning and, at the same time, an acknowledgment of humankind's futility and ineptitude when facing the unavoidability of adverse death.
As Andrea Ferraris pointed out, your collaboration with Sandro Kaiser gave you the “incentive to follow the ancient paths of noise but with a renewed passion for the obscure atmospheres of ‘abandoned ambient’ (which is a very apt definition by Kaiser himself).” In terms of revisiting old themes, what are the new elements you have introduced in albums such as The Testamentary Corridor and Vir-Uz in relation to Symphony for a Genocide?
The aim was not to create something new but to rework old sounds that were central to my early production as the seed of commemoration was already present in me 25/30 years earlier and all I needed to do was to make it germinate through a more elaborate and modernist approach. This has made it technically more evolved and direct towards a more elaborate and sophisticated sound.
On sound, Giacinto Scelsi wrote: “He who does not penetrate to the interior, to the heart of sound, even though a perfect craftsman, a great technician, will never be a true artist, a true musician”. He also regarded sound as “immobility’s first motion” adding, “There is the beginning of Creation!” On the same subject Rudolf Steiner wrote, “Future development of music will move towards spiritualization and implies recognizing the special character of individual sound. If we immerse ourselves in sound, it reveals three, five sounds or more; a single sound unfurls into melody and harmony leading directly to the spiritual world. One aspires to the understanding of sound in its spiritual depth and one wishes to go from the natural to the spiritual element”. Taking into account how different your work is to that of Giacinto Scelsi, would you say, nonetheless that there are certain affinities between the two of you?
More in terms of themes than content, even if my representation of what is spiritual is rooted in a firm stance, and comes from an awareness of the fact that only the Holy Scriptures are at the basis of true spirituality, which is not to be confused with the cold and obscure mysticism and alchemism which nowadays prevails even in the experimental scene through dark-ambient, ritual, post-industrial, martial, noise, etc, artists and groups.
To conclude, the search for spirituality is inherent in every human being who is conscious of the fact that they want to satisfy such a need, even if sometimes they do it in a wrong and most superficial way, without realizing that truth is closer than one could imagine…
SOHRAB ON A HIDDEN PLACE
Many reviews have talked about the sense of isolation that filters through your album A Hidden Place. Could you explain to me the genesis of the album and the way you constructed and linked the different tracks?
To be honest the material I was recording that time was never meant to be an album by the time I was working on it. My aim was not to create an album or piece of music, but to express myself as a human being. They all recorded during a certain phase of time so for sure for me they have strong connections to each other. Maybe as an album, one find more intense, stressed or feared sounds, but there are also moments of calmness and hope.
There is a very clear sense of place in your work thanks to the use of field recordings and I am thinking as well of your piece Aamookhtan Baraye Zistan. How important is it to you to map out the geographical location of your music?
Hmm… no, this has never been something intentional. I’ve been always interested in ‘sounds’ around us, being it sounds of nature itself or from industrial manmade machines. I never had intentions to point out my geographical position. I just liked the idea of using sounds around me.
For me discovering electronic music, and the fact that you can literally make any ‘sound’ with a machine, was really fascinating of course. But I never tried to reproduce sounds around me with a synthesizer. Instead, I like to combine pure sounds of my environment with artificial sounds made through a synthesizer.
You also include “foreign” elements in your work, which open up the possibility for multiple readings. I am thinking for instance of the French voice that seem to refer to a different world in Aamookhtan Baraye Zistan when it talks about the 13th arrondissement. Do you deliberately set out to confound expectations and blur the lines?
Exactly! You mentioned it perfectly when you say about ‘reference to a different world’. Music was a window to this other world for me.
This other world that I could hear it in the music, read in books, see it in films, but not live in it. I mean it from the position of a person living in a closed society, and unfortunately until this day, many such societies exist… When I say “closed society”, I mean it in terms of limitations of the freedom of human beings. For me the use of foreign elements comes from my interest in this other world. There is always something mysterious about the lands far away from your own reality. I am sure perhaps you also feel such mysteriousness in elements from lands far away from you.
There are many works that deal with human suffering within classical music, but similar examples within experimental music seem to be fewer with some notable exceptions. Considering your own personal history and the fact that you have left your country to seek political asylum in Germany, how do you feel about integrating themes relating to suffering and personal struggle into your own work?
For me music and specially -electronic/experimental music- has always been a way to express feelings, emotions, desires, ignored needs etc… in my eyes, music like any other form of art, is to share and reflect feelings and emotions.
Since I’ve been in Europe and having had the chance to communicate with people who heard my music, it is only now that I realize how I was expressing my own feelings with sounds in a certain time of my life. For example, here in Berlin, one night after a gig a very good friend who was there told me how this or that song reflects the tensions and fears that I perhaps had and how he could imagine this fears through this sounds. After I went home I listened to it again and I could clearly remember and feel that time of my life again, which was not a very nice time, but it still is part of my life.
You have also composed music in a detention camp. How did you manage this?
Yes actually my upcoming 7 inch for Touch, has partly recorded in the refugee camp in Eissenhutenstadt, Germany. It also contains Arabic chants from a refugee friend from Algeria.
I recorded his voice in a room in the camp and you can even hear on the background some shouts in the dark hallway of the camp (which was the typical sound of the refugee camp). It was in the camp in Germany that I again felt the isolation and limitations of my freedom.
And again there was no other way for me to express or face it. So yes, I did some recordings there but unfortunately from this position came a big feeling of injustice and unfairness, being only around 100 km away from Berlin with all its free artists and people, and me in the room of the so called refugee camp… Sadly, it made me feel different.
In Formalized Music: Thought and Mathematics in Composition, Iannis Xenakis reflected on the experience of war translating sound into stochastic laws. “Everyone has observed the sonic phenomena of a political crowd of dozens or hundreds of thousands of people” – he wrote. “The human river shouts a slogan in a uniform rhythm. Then another slogan springs from the head of the demonstration; it spreads towards the tail replacing the first. A wave of transition thus passes from the head to the tail. The clamour fills the city, and the inhibiting force of voice and rhythm reaches a climax. It is an event of great power and beauty in its ferocity. Then the impact between the demonstrators and the enemy occurs. The perfect rhythm of the last slogan breaks up in a huge cluster of chaotic shouts, which also spreads to the tail. Imagine, in addition the reports of dozens of machine guns and the whistle of bullets adding their punctuations to this total disorder. The crowd is then rapidly dispersed, and after sonic and visual hell follows a detonating calm, full of despair, dust and death. The statistical laws of these events, separated from their political or moral context… are the laws of the passage from complete order to total disorder in a continuous or explosive manner. They are stochastic laws.” In your piece Shouting At Dictators you seem to refrain from building a musical tension pointing towards a climax. The sonic phenomena of what appear to be demonstration rallies has a distant and echoing quality and is gradually enveloped by a textured drone that mutates from a menacing rhythmic loop to a haunting traditional flute line. Have you deliberately opted for a more “poetic” and personalised take?
I finished Shouting at Dictators here in Germany, using the audio recordings from Tehran, Iran. In fact, even in the camp I worked on this. During this time in the camp, I met quiet a few people from Iran and also from Algeria, Tunisia, Lybia, and Syria, all people who got affected by the movements and uprising in that area. so there existed a strong mutual feeling between us. Of course there was a similar feeling between all people within the camp, but in that special period of time, Middle East and North Africa faced a big change. So for me this piece has a more than personal feeling. It is a voice coming not just from me, but many, many other humans.
You also reference Russian authors in your work, such as Anton Makarenko and Gorki who promoted democratic ideas and principles in educational theory. How important is their work to you?
I am very happy you ask this question. Literature – like music – helped me a lot to grow my own personal boundaries within my own limit. And again growing up in a literally closed society, for me reading such books had same effect as hearing those very new and mysterious music. Especially Gorky’s autobiographical books form his childhood, taught me that life is not about being perfect and it’s not about happiness. Life is also about hard times, struggles, sadness etc… There is no destination in life, it is just a long way.
SUZANNE LANGILLE AND LOREN CONNORS
In the liner notes to you collaborative album, 1987-1989, you, Suzanne Langille explain the way you approached the recording of the album. “We had to negotiate content and vibe. He’d been working with people [Loren] who did a lot of songs about failed or troubled relationships, but I couldn’t sing truthfully about some places of mind. (When I hear a recording of that material, I want to take out a rifle and shoot it). I come from a place where pain is deep and devastating, but it’s not just your own tragedy — it’s the tragedy of those around you, like my grandmother who travelled, destitute, on a train from Settle to Portland, her dying son in her arms. For me, to conjure up the true feeling of a motherless child, I also have to hold the feeling of a mother whose child has died. Both are lost, and a long way from home”.
It seems to me that memory has deep significance in your work. Susan Sontag in her book Regarding the Pain of Others asks whether too much value is assigned to memory and not enough to thinking.
“Remembering is an ethical act, has ethical value in and of itself. – she writes – Memory is, achingly, the only relation we can have with the dead. So the belief that remembering is an ethical act is deep in our natures as humans, who know we are going to die, and who mourn those who in the normal course of things die before us – grandparents, parents, teachers and older friends. Heartlessness and amnesia seem to go together. But history gives contradictory signals about the value of remembering in the much longer span of collective history. There is simply too much injustice in the world. And too much remembering (of ancient grievances: Serbs, Irish) embitters. To make peace is to forget. To reconcile, it is necessary that memory be faulty and limited. If the goal is having more
space in which to live one’s own life, then it is desirable that the account of specific injustices dissolve into more general understanding that human beings everywhere do terrible things to one another. [Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin, 2004, p103]
How important is it for you both to extract the universal from the particular within your work?
Loren: It’s everything.
Suzanne: Truth always has a universal dimension.
In the same book Susan Sontag, also writes that: “People want to weep. Pathos in the form of a narrative, does not wear out.” With the exception of Enchanted Forest, your collaborative work is at times very sparse with vocals seldom taking centre stage and yet lyrics are always very powerful. It sometimes feels like words are very carefully weighed so as not to unbalance the musical structure of a whole album. How important is narrative to you both even in the more abstract instrumental pieces?
Suzanne: “Vocals should never be used as filler. There should never be any clutter. Good music narrates as well as words. So there’s no need to “fill up the spaces.” It’s important to trust the listener, and just speak the bare bones truth. No one needs to be hit over the head with a sledge hammer.”
A nocturnal mood pervades some of your albums, and I am thinking in particular of Crucible and Let the Darkness Fall. How do you go about creating the right atmosphere for any given work?
Loren: “You just put yourself in it, in that world you’re creating. You’ve got to be there yourself, first hand. You can’t do it third hand. And then everything flows from that, if you’re lucky.”
Sorrow in the House from Hell’s Kitchen is about the plight of children in the poor Irish neighborhood at the turn of the century, with the reckless freight train running through it that caused several deaths. What was the original inspiration behind this album and how did this particular track come about?
Loren: “I was walking around in a lot of old neighborhoods of New York City at the time, and researching them, and Hell’s Kitchen really grabbed me. In Sorrow in the House, I was thinking of a home, a family grieving over the loss of a kid, killed by that freight train on Death Avenue.”
I find Midnight Mary a great but difficult work to listen to. It is a very raw and powerful album, which lends itself to several interpretations. Personally it reminds me of Robert Frank’s later filmworks where he rages about his own creative block after dealing with several tragic events in his life. Could you tell something about the genesis of this album and what place it holds in your oeuvre?
Loren: “I don’t know. I warned everybody not to buy it.”
Claude Lanzemann with Shoah, his film about the Holocaust, which consists of interviews and visits to key Holocaust sites insists on a Bilderverbot, a prohibition on images. However, talking about Primo Levi, and his book If This is a Man, Lazemann also argued that attempting to understand the Holocaust is a form of madness, an absolute obscenity, and thus he also seems to be insisting on a Warumverbot, a prohibition on explanation itself. Should music, in your opinion comply to any similar prohibitions?
Loren: “No. You can do whatever you want to do, if you live in a country that has freedom of speech, that is.”
Suzanne: “People need to talk about things, so there’s no point in trying to curb it. It’s just important to watch out for traps. Don’t let yourself get tied down or confined by anything. Everything you learn, every discussion you have, everything you seek should help you grow in freedom, honesty and love. If something isn’t doing that for you, you’re heading down a path that’s going to trap you.”