Sonic Close-Ups – Kurt Liedwart

Could you start by introducing yourself?

My name is Kurt Liedwart. I run three labels, Mikroton Digital, Laminal and Mikroton Recordings. Laminal has already been closed. I also had a digital sublabel called Mikroton Digital, which I closed because I wanted to use the word digital for some future releases, and because I don’t like releasing digital only stuff. Laminal, on the other hand, had only two releases, one by Ukrainian artists Evgeniy Vaschenko and Anton Holota, who used a very peculiar nickname .at/on, and Triac, a trio from Italy, featuring Rossano Polidoro from Tu M’.

I actually founded the label to release my own music, that was the main reason and the main purpose. I don’t know why I spent several years releasing stuff by other musicians, I don’t know why I did it. I think it was because I just liked it and there wasn’t a lot of good music available back in 2008-2009. And also, I was searching for my own style in music. I wasn’t really satisfied with what I was doing.

How did you come to making music?

It all started in the mid 90s when techno and electronic music came to Russia. It was a really fantastic time and absolutely incomparable to what is going on right now. People were much more curious about different styles of music, about different musicians, about their attitudes. I immersed myself into electronic music. I played mostly Detroit Techno, minimal and dub techno. Moritz von Oswald, Mark Ernestus, all the stuff around Basic Channel, Jeff Mills, Richie Hawtin, Carl Craig, and so on and so forth, a lot of people and labels like Synewave, Steve Stoll, Proper NYC and many other guys. I was also running parties between ’95 and ’98, but then everything started to become really routine.

I found that being a deejay wasn’t what I really wanted to do in life, and I started to experiment with making music. I wasn’t satisfied with anything I made until 2004, I guess. And there’s also been a period when I stopped making music altogether, I guess this happened between 1999 and 2001. I think that I am now at that time when I am more or less happy with what I am doing.

Did you start out with a mostly digital setup?

Yes, laptops, Logic, Ableton Live… I was also recording things and processing different objects, snare drums and cymbals and I also used a lot of other things, like field recordings, long before field recordings became a fashion. I made a lot of recordings between 2004 and 2010. I was looking at different ways of processing, building my really long chain of different plug-ins attached to each other. So my setup looked like a modern synthesizer, like these Eurorack synthesizers. And I still use it. I still process and reprocess my material finding new ways of making new sounds from this old material, so they kind of became new generations of sounds, like great-great-grandchildren.

Photo of Kurt Leidwart performing on electronics.

How would you say your music has developed?

As I started in the 90s, I had a huge number of options for where to go. At the time, I was also into Reductionism, I don’t know whether it was really well known back then, something like what Günter Müller was doing or Rolf Julius, and also the Wandelweiser composers. I am not really sure that it was quite fashionable. Especially solo projects by Mika Vainio or early Richard Chartier and Carsten Nicolai. But then, during the naughties, it all became much more visible.

My music was kind of divided between two ways, Reductionism, which was also connected with microsound on one hand and much more experimental and electronic music, more noisy and active, on the other.

Over a period of six years I had a project with Ilia Belorukov, where we focused mostly on Reductionism. For me that was crucial. But there came a point when I wanted to stop this project as I became really dissatisfied with this movement. I wanted to move forward and I actually found a way. When I play and when I compose my music now, my dynamics have become much more multifaceted. I can use many different ways of altering the dynamics during a gig over the space of 30 minutes. It can be really loud, it can be really silent. I’ve also become really interested in combining music and performance, by placing different objects around the room and working with them. This also makes music much richer and dynamic in a textural way. For example, you can work distancing yourself from microphones, and the whole musical picture changes.

I am also a graphic designer, and I know I can play with multiple layers of one image, and build it up. So, sometimes I can be really labyrinthine working with methods where I can start with one object, for example a rectangle, and I can move and build a composition in this way. And then I can actually decide that I want to come back and make something else from what I started from. It actually looks like jumping between different points on the picture. I wanted to realize this in my own music, so sometimes I come back to the sounds I used in the beginning, or I can introduce some unpredictable material at some point, so that what I am looking at now is some kind of multi-level, multi-layered unpredictability and instability. And I think instability was actually the thing which I really liked about performance art, about Fluxus, for example, or the Zero art group from the Netherlands.

Which means narrative never really comes into the equation in your work?

It might have a narrative, but I will try to break it like an earthquake in different ways. For example, I can use field recordings, or I can add recordings I made just before a gig. Or I can actually turn everything off to make the audience part of my music. So the audience becomes a kind of “instrument” and if it is quite active in making sounds, I really enjoy that. Noise from the street with cars and passersby can also be incorporated. The same with a radio and different resonances and so on and so forth. But I don’t really like narrative even in my taste in literature, I prefer the writers who try to break it at some point, such as Alain Robbe-Grillet or Boris Vian. I read a lot and I borrow ideas from different genres. For example, Raymond Queneau had a system to create literature independent from imagination called x+3, where x is a word, to which he had to add, for example, the third word from x in the dictionary and construct his sentences accordingly. I also use this system in my music. It is much easier when you are making music on a computer because you’ve got files. And if you work for example with modular synthesizers or electronics, you have to devise your own system for your own patches and so on.  So I made drawings of several patches and also knobs and faders placements, and I also use the system x+3 to rearrange the patches immediately on the go.

So what would you say makes a successful live performance?

I believe that the most important part in a musician’s life is to get rid of those things that have become a custom for oneself, to get rid of muscle memories. If one works live, one works mostly automatically and the most important thing is to get rid of these automatisms. It’s not really easy to do actually and only such masters as Keith Rowe, for instance, can achieve it. It is much easier for him than for me. Still, I am trying my best to get rid of automatisms. This is also connected to my idea that music must surprise me.

You also like collaborating with other people…

Because I like surprises and that is the easiest way of achieving that.

Photo of Kurt Leidwart performing with Keith Rowe.

So, how does it work?

The easiest way is by exchanging files, but I find that this is not really my way. I started several projects which didn’t came to fruition because I wasn’t achieving what I wanted and sometimes it was the people I was working with that weren’t satisfied with the results. The collaborations that I have released so far, and which I’m working on right now, they’ve come from a lot of hours of recording. They can be live gigs or they can be studio recordings. For me, I found that I really like it when I have four hours of recordings because I can make an album out of it. This will require a lot of compositional work because the material will be recomposed.

Do you always actually physically work together?

Yes. I have recorded in my studio several projects with Martin Taxt, Sergey Kostyrko. There are new projects for example with Petr Vrba, Gerard Lebik, Keith Rowe, Julien Ottavi, Ken Ganfield, I think these will come to some result.

And some other works, for example, with Keith Rowe, we made recordings during live concerts and in the studio.

When you say you recompose the music, how do you go about doing that?

I just delete parts I don’t like. Or I just leave parts, which I feel a bit sceptical about. I might not like them at all, but I find they might have something promising in them. It’s impossible to explain it. As Frank Zappa said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture”. I think it’s a purely intuitive process until you find something that works, but works for whom? For me of course, and all the musicians involved. However, sometimes it is the other musicians I am collaborating with that become dissatisfied at which point I have to turn on the producer in me and insist that it should be like it is.

You become dictatorial?

Yes, from anarchy to dictatorship!

Is it a question of processing the sounds?

No, I don’t really process them, it can be filtering, equalization… but it is also about throwing away the bits that don’t work or move stuff around so that what was in the end can be in the middle, what was in the middle can be at both ends. It depends.

So there’s a lot of editing?


Photo of Kurt Leidwart performing with two others on modular synthesizers and electronics

Let’s talk about Russian electronic music now. It might be helpful, actually if you could give a brief historical perspective.

During the Stalin years one composer was appointed as the director of the Soviet Union of Composers, his name was Tikhon Khrennikov. His attitude was really dull: a composer must compose music which can be easily understood by the people from the working class. Mostly, one had to compose easy listening music and throw in messages in poetry about the happy life of Soviet workers. Of course, this was an absolute lie and unrealistic, but that is what Soviet composers did. In 1948 Khrennikov effectively banned all kinds of experiments in music and all kinds of avant-garde modernist music. Now, let’s recall what happened in 1948 in Paris. Pierre Schaffer founded musique concrète. 1948 was the year of the first ever musique concrète recording, and some people think this was the year that electronic music was founded. Of course, others argue about it, and consider that the first electronic music recording was made by Halim El-Dabh in 1941 but let’s stick to this theory that 1948 was the beginning of electronic music and that in the Soviet Union it was the end of any kind of experiments in music. This meant that if a composer decided to compose experimental music they would be expelled from the Union of Composers. It meant that they wouldn’t get any grants for their work and that they wouldn’t be allowed to become music teachers. They wouldn’t even get discounts in music shops anymore! So it was the end.

There were some artists and several engineers who actually didn’t pay any attention to this requirement, for example Evgeny Murzin, the creator of the ANS synthesizer, which became famous because it was used by composers such as Alfred Schnittke who wrote the only electronic music piece on this synthesizer. Or the Moscow experimental studio for electronic music founded in 1967 which later became a part of Melodiya label and lost its creative freedom.

By the mid 60s and 70s things became more open, but not so much as in Poland, for example. If we compare experimental, electronic music from two countries, Poland has immense quantities of material recorded on tape, whereas Russian experimental and electronic music can fill only one CD with the music from the 50s and 60s. One CD, that’s it.

In the 70s we had Edward Artemiev who was composing soundtracks and bought the EMS Synthy 100, which was really expensive. It was only through the help of Kassygin, the Soviet official, that he was allowed to buy it, otherwise it was quite impossible. So basically we didn’t have any electronic music until the second half of the 70s when different musicians, mostly rock musicians, decided to experiment with pedals and some of them even bought keyboard synthesizers. After Brezhnev died everything in the underground became much more open and people started to organize concerts, record albums and do many other things. The 80s became years of volcanic activity within the Russian electronic scene with projects such as Notchnoi Prospekt, founded by Alexei Borisov and Ivan Sokolovsky, who were two students from the Moscow State University and they played a mix of different genres, like rock with electronics and industrial. Borisov is still active as a musician. He had a lot of projects in the 90s, like F.R.U.I.T.S., a techno project, and Volga, which was kind of ethno ambient, so he tried different styles and genres. But from 1948 until, I guess the Olympic Games in Moscow, it was a time only for the chosen ones, for those who had access to information and could procure these instruments.

In the second half of the 90s there were several groups that were quite successful such as Виды рыб or Species of Fishes. They were released by Korm Plastics so it could be said that Frans de Waard opened the gates. But there were other musicians, for example, Новые композиторы (New Composers), who worked with Brian Eno and Pete Namlook.

Everything became open, especially within the techno community, or within IDM, Drum’n’Bass, Trance and so on. The music that I call “functional”. The scene has changed a lot. I remember in ‘94 I really believed in what Juan Atkins was saying, that techno was the music of the future, but now it has become music for bars, clubs, and fashion shows. Things in Russia, on an entertainment level, are almost the same as anywhere else in the world. You can find the same in London, Berlin, Riga, Tokyo, New York, it has all become the same, it’s the product of globalization. However, regarding experimental music, Russia is years behind what is going on in Berlin or even in Poland. We don’t have any musicians that can be called experimental. I don’t think that playing IDM or Techno in 2017 or playing Dark Ambient or Industrial Music can be called experimental.

The problem with new music is that there isn’t a lot of new music around.

So how do you go about making something new yourself?

I record a lot, I delete a lot. I record again and again and again and I delete, delete and delete. It’s a constant project, a studio routine.

What are the most interesting labels in Russia at present?

It’s a hard question. It depends on the type of music. Say, in electronic easy listening there’s Gost Zvuk. With experimental music it’s really hard. Really hard. I used to like Intonema, which is my friend Ilia Belorukov’s label, but our tastes have diverged. Actually, I want to see where Dmitry Vasiliev with his Monochrome Vision will go. That might be interesting. There are also labels into rock and free jazz but it’s not really my thing. I like old free jazz, I can listen to recordings from the 50s, 60s and 70s, but I don’t want to work with this kind of music any more. I wanted to make a project six years ago, a kind of mix of free jazz and electronics and noise. But now I don’t think it’s worth doing anymore. It’s been already done. I have to move into new territories.

Kurt Liedwart’s latest solo tape “Mare” and CD “Tone” are out now on Mikroton Recordings. His collaboration with Alexei Borisov, “Massive Ground Control”, is out now on Zeromoon.

Mikroton Recordings

Photos by Serge Kolosov

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