An evening dedicated to modular synthesis presented by Psyché Tropes and Video Circuits at Apiary Studios, London, on Saturday 4th April 2015, provided the perfect opportunity to catch up with Robin Rimbaud, aka Scanner, to talk about the modular community and the next step in his career.
Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner is an artist and composer working in London, whose works traverse the experimental terrain between sound, space, image and form, connecting a bewilderingly diverse array of genres – a partial list would include sound design, film scores, computer music, avant garde, contemporary composition, large-scale multimedia performances, product design, architecture, fashion design, rock music and jazz.
You are not one to tour live, why is that?
As time has moved on in my career, I have been working professionally now for 21 years, the kind of value for me personally of performing live became questionable, to be honest. I started wondering what validity it had standing there behind a computer, or a series of buttons, and all sorts of kind of things, and I wondered whether there was meaning enough for me, in a sense, without being too melodramatic. I’ve never been a touring artist, one thing I never done is to release a product, a CD for example, a record, and then toured to play those tunes, because most of my records are recorded in a studio and I can’t play them live, it’s as simple as that. So, I’ve always been looking at methods and ways of challenging this, or refocusing in a way. So what I chose to do, was to make single performances here and there, things that interested me, collaborations, improvisations, opportunities that don’t bring the same measurements as other shows might have, so people aren’t coming along to pick out recognisable tunes, they aren’t coming along to have favourite moments form a record performed, because I can’t do that, because that’s a studio practice, and this is a live session, and therefore I am only interested, at the moment, in opportunities that push me in a different way, actually. So, a new way of thinking, so for example, I am here, in a very different scenario using technology I am not so familiar with and see what happens.
How do you approach a live set?
Live context is really important for me, actually. In a studio you can control things much more, you can clean things up, you can re-edit, you can do all kind of things. There’s a risk about playing live, things can go wrong. I mean, I went to concert in London by a good friend of mine recently at Café OTO and everything failed for him, after five minutes the technology broke down. Even though this guy had flown in from the US, and had full intention of playing, nothing would work, and that’s just how it can be. It’s not very pleasing for you as the artist or the audience, but there’s something to me credible, exciting, challenging, thrilling about those moments, those tensions about how something is gonna work. So, for me, I am always looking for new ways, new methods, new possibilities of pushing myself, and not know exactly what’s gonna happen. So I like to use systems, sometimes, that I don’t entirely understand. You know, sometimes the computer… you can make all this work and it remembers it all too well. So I could make something in the studio and take it to a live scenario and just play the track back, even though it might be a very sophisticated composition or arrangement I could play it back almost identical, and that’s just not interesting for me.
For me, one of the great joys of life is learning; one of the great joys is learning things that are new, and refreshing your kind of skill set, in a way, and your interest, and what’s possible. So I am genuinely always looking for ways of… not disorganising my mind, not through chemical means, or alcohol, or anything, but actually through creative means to find new methods of making work, to throw myself in a situation where I don’t know how the parameters will be laid out in front of me.
In a way, that means relinquishing control, does that not make you vulnerable?
It’s kid of like playing a game, in a sense. I don’t know what the net result will be. It’s like when you do something on your own, you are much more in control. When you improvise with someone else, you don’t quite know how they’re going to react to what you are doing. If you are playing with an ensemble of other people, it’s about listening and respecting the space of other people. On your own, it’s much easier to be content with repeating the same steps. I certainly have friends who quite happily – and I can’t criticise them for it – would just tour the same live set for one and a half years around the world. This has absolutely no interest to me whatsoever. There’s a joy in visiting these locations, in meeting the people in these new environments, but to me, the work I make has to reflect the place I am in at that moment, it has to be a kind of echo, a mirror of who I am and where I am working at that exact moment, if possible. So, if I am in a distressed mood or something, then the work comes out in a different way. If I’m in a really jolly mood, hopefully the presentation works out in a different way. So there’s kind of no pattern to it, but to me that’s one of the joys of life. For me, there should be no parameters that could be controlled, in a way.
You started out using analogue equipment. Indeed, in an interview with Headphone Commute, you talk about being given a reel-to-reel Teac tape recorder by your English teacher when you were 14-15. Is modular synthesis a way of going back to your roots for you?
There are many things that interest me about the idea of modular synthesis. In fact, my second Scanner record back in ’93, ’94, over 20 years ago, used a VS3 synthesiser. What I was doing, I was recording through very analogue means people’s voices, their conversations, stealing these sort of indiscriminate signals from around the ether, and then running them through this modular system, and seeing how they treated them so it acted as an incredible sophisticated effects unit, in a way. Again, I couldn’t control exactly what it was going to do, nor could I anticipate the results, but my work has always been about that balance between a digital… the kind of real and the unreal, the imagined and the absolute kind of fact, using real voices and using artificial means to manipulate them. Modular synthesis is very interesting to me because it’s about developing a system that reflects your own voice, but you don’t know how that voice is gonna turn out. So, yesterday, for example, I was preparing for today just experimenting and suddenly record 30 minutes of music that hadn’t existed in the morning, and that was such a joy because it takes you completely out of patterns. For me, a most significant point is that it’s only about music, it’s only about listening. Nowadays, when you make work, particularly when you use screens and computers, they often depend upon the fact that your life is always within a frame. By that I mean, we read emails, we look at browsers, we look at social networks sites, we do all sorts of things through this frame. Modular synthesis doesn’t have this, you know, it’s ever expandable. So it’s only about your ears. When you are face to face with it almost in battle, you try and make something happen in that moment, and not think about, “I’d better just check my email, I wonder if there’s a message come through,” and these kinds of things. It’s only about the ears, and it’s only about that experience, about sharing that listening, and in a live environment that is ever more fragile, and vulnerable. And that’s what exciting, the slightest turn and you’ve lost everything, it’s gone, which is often when you hear people talk about this type of technology is they say that they have to keep recording, all the time because you don’t know whether this thing is just gonna disappear forever. And it’s true, you can’t go back. I was doing things yesterday and thought, “Oh, this could be great for the show.” I can’t possibly do that again, it just kind of disappeared into the network of cables, buttons, switches, all kinds of things, but it’s rewarding because it’s not a screen, and it’s not facing the same limitations that I’ve found staring at a screen for the last 10-15 years at least.
Is this not a problem for you, considering you tend to archive all your output?
I’ve always been an archivist. I have not only recordings but I have papers, I have documents, I have tapes from when I was 11 years old. Everything I have ever made and recorded, I have a copy of in my archive. I have flyers from gigs, I have photographs from shows… I have recorded shows I went to from the ages of 13 and 14. In a sense it’s really curious because I’ve kept a diary since I was 12 years old, every single day. To this day, every day I write 500 words in this diary and that’s it. It’s not for anybody else but me, it’s not to be published or anything, so that’s a lot of yeas, that’s 36 years worth of my history every single day, every single encounter is recorded in there. Recording wise it’s all there and I honestly don’t know what to do with it. I’ve spoken to the British Library about this and they said they’d be happy to take all the recordings just for archival purposes. Part of me thinks, should I do the Aphex Twin thing and put it all online? But who really wants all this stuff? I have, just on DAT, because I digitise everything, about 600 hours of unreleased material. By no means that means it’s any good, but actually there’s some really good work in there, there’s some really interesting stuff. Each month I am recording at least two to three hours of new material. I put big pressure on myself to always be making new work. That’s a lot of stuff over the years, and that’s not including all the cassettes I haven’t digitised yet, so that’s probably 3-400 tapes, from the age 11 right through to today, of all these experiments, these kind of tape collages I made when I was teenager, all kinds of environmental recordings I made… I used to record my holidays on tape, not take photographs. When I went to Berlin in 1982-83, I wanted to hear what it sounded like, so I still have these recording of me walking though the city, going through Check Point Charlie, all these kinds of things. It’s no value probably to most people this stuff, but to me it’s like looking at old photographs, I listen to them and they take me back to that place, that exact moment. What to do with it is the bigger question, something I cannot even answer.
Let’s go back to tonight’s performance here at the Apiary Studios. How is your live set structured?
Tonight what I’m using is a combination of things. I have a small suitcase, called Monorocket in fact, – that’s the company that makes them, – and it’s filled with different Eurorack modules, including things like oscillators, which actually make the sound, filters, clocks, which actually drive the patterns to make the rhythms happen, a tiny little sampler, which you can drop your sounds in and manipulate things. So there’s that system, which is very fluid. You can take things in, you can take things out of the box, and do all kinds of things. Adjacent to that, I have a little Moog filter, and that allows me to put drums through it, and just process them live and do all kind of things. I can tap, I have a little tap tempo button, so the amount of times I drum in it changes the speed and variety of the patterns. I have a small keyboard by Teenage Engineering, a little Op1 electronic keyboard – it looks like a toy but it’s extremely powerful, – and maybe I have something else, I don’t even remember now, but it’s a very modest system. I always argue that I’m kind of a minimalist. I tend to buy lots of this technology, but when I actually make the work, I get down to the kind of grains, down to the roots of it, I use the most bare means. I suppose it’s like when you are a writer, what do you really need but a pen and paper or a keyboard and a screen? I’ve reduced down this for tonight, and this will probably be the last time this thing happens like this. And next time I do something like it, it will probably be something quite radically different, but tonight it’s a picture of who I am at this moment and what I want to express.
What would you say to people who suggest that modular synthesis is just a fad?
I think there are always fads aren’t there? There are fads for all styles of music, but this type of music production has been around for many years now, 40 or so years now, with all kinds of synthesisers and modular systems. The interest has really risen in the last couple of years, actually, enormously so. It will drop again, inevitably, that’s the flow, that’s the wave of interest, but to me, I’ve not know a socially networked, exciting movement like this in a long time. Actually, there are so many individuals out there, with their tiny little companies that don’t employ anyone but themselves sometimes, and maybe their girlfriends, and they make these incredible little modules, they sell small numbers of them to different people around the world, who then go on to make the most extraordinary work at times. There’s a real kind of groundswell, there’s a real excitement and a dynamic I’ve really not experienced for a long time, and there’s something really compelling about being in what feels like part of a movement again, you know. It feels like similar to 20 years ago before the Internet was around, when there was a rise in kind of electronic-ambient-techno experimental music where lots of people like Aphex Twin and Autechre and these characters came from, and for me that was a really dynamic period. That’s really when music just shot in a different direction and reached the ears of people who would’ve never otherwise experienced this kind of music. And now you are hearing these kinds of patterns, these kinds of sounds, these kind of shapes, inside film scores, inside pop records, all kind of things, so I find it a really exciting moment. Is it a fad? In a sense, many things are fads, but let’s see what time brings us and what happens next.
So what’s next for you?
Next step for me personally is moving out of London, a city I’ve lived in for my entire life. I have been happy to have been here and it’s a city that still has such a dynamic about it, but there are so many problematic issues regarding housing, support for people… A friend of mine said to me recently, “London is now a city that will have the most sophisticated transport network to take you into the West End but no one will want to go there because it will just be hotels,” and that’s what’s happening, there are closing down cinemas… I’m not sure you know, but in the East End of London there’s a huge development happening where they are going to build lots of tower blocks, luxury apartments… Nobody can actually afford to live here anymore, which is very sad, or they have to pay extraordinarily high rent. I’ve made the decision, after living here all my life, that I need more space. I want to set up an artists’ residency programme and support them, I want to set up a festival, and it seemed that outside of London was a better option, so I bought a factory… as you do… the kind of place that gives me the physical space and environment to actually press restart on my life. And on a personal level, I’ve gone through some really hard times in the last two years with the loss of my family. I’ve no more family left, they’ve all passed away in the last two years and, in a way, I want to start with a completely new place, with people I don’t know, a location I don’t know, and just see what it brings. It’s another challenge, but it’s a joy not knowing what’s next.
Scanner is performing live at the Storung Festival, Barcelona, Spain on the 16th of April.
Robin Rimbaud will also be joining Test Dept for a Q&A after the film screening on 23rd April at Ritzy Cinema, London, and then performing a very special one-off set at the book launch for Total State Machine afterwards, in which he contributes an essay.