by Ralf Bei der Kellen, Mar 2007 (Berlin, Germany)
1. Would you say that music is your „vocation“? (When did you realize that?)
I believe it's what i do best, yes… i realized i wanted to be a musician when i was 16.
3. How did you arrive at the plan of the Space Program?
Very slowly, it was a gradual thing. I decided i wanted to make music consisting of sound events over silence, as opposed to the drone music i used to do. I wanted it to be based on realtime decisions and not programmed or composed. And i also didn't want it to be explorative or experimental, but disciplined and with inner structure. So it became clear that i would have to learn a lot to find out how this new territory would work, and it was obvious very soon that the field of musical knowledge where all this was already developed was jazz. Then i thought i would want to explore different instruments, and each of them would have its own approach, technique, vocabulary and function. Since this is all based on live performance, i structured my live sets as discourse developments for a single instrument, so i called them "Space Studies". They are the first stage for a mature instrumental work to be later applied to records. I saw the need to explore the instruments in a focused way on different releases, and i would want to make solo records as well as collaborations. So i integrated this in two record series, the "Solo series" and the "Space Elements" series. And it was clear that the best way to launch the recording program would be with an album that contained a lot of information about what is to come, so "Space" is a special release, the only orchestral piece in the program and a point of departure to everything else.
4. „My former work was often an immersive experience, and therefore escapist.“ That sounds a bit like an awakening – maybe also in a political sense?
Yes, in every possible sense… more than ever we really need to think with our own heads and be active. To play such music one needs to be attentive to the environment, to make sharp decisions, to be responsible and sensitive. These days, thoughts and opinions are also mass products, everyday we're told what to think. The Space Program seems to be an appropriate way to position myself in our times. I can't be involved in an approach to music that is about contemplating a landscape or a soundscape and just sitting somewhere quiet as if everything was ok. I concluded that quote by saying that this is "music of action, music of awareness". It's the sound of saying and making things, of feeling, thought and action…
5. “Space” has been your first major release since 2001's “Violence Of Discovery And Calm Of Acceptance”. What happened in between? When did you know that a change was due?
I decided a change was needed before completing VDCA, by 2000. It took a long time to figure things out, what was that music supposed to be like, which forms and materials would be used, what would its conceptual frame be… Long time wandering in the dark, but always certain that i would carry on with changing.
I had a few projects to develop and also transitional works. My connection with jazz would also become more active through working closely with Sei Miguel, which only happened in 2003. I started performing "Space Studies" live in 2004 and basically the recording work for "Space" begins at that time.
6. Was that album (Violence) intended to be a resumée?
It was just supposed to be a collection of guitar pieces that i started in 1993. But when i was finishing it i felt i was completing something, a full lineage of work. Especially when i found a direct link to my early recordings from 1987, it came full circle. It seemed to me that if i continued that line i would start repeating myself and rely on a comfortable formula. It became my best recording of that period.
7. How did you feel in between these two phases? Did you make a total retreat from live performances to have your head free in order to come up with the philosophy to this new approach?
It took years to shape concepts and structures. In the beginning i felt pretty lost and unsure whether i would get anywhere. This was very complex and had no precedents that i knew, it was hard to even understand what i was trying to put together. And it was quite clear that i was risking my entire artistic life, there was no turning back…
Since the Program is based on performance, the only way to prepare anything is to play as much as possible. But at some point i felt that it was hard to communicate what i was trying to do, because "Space" wasn't released yet and nobody had a clue what it was about. And since i play one instrument at a time, it was impossible to demonstrate that each one is like the tip of one among many networked icebergs… so i refrained from playing for a while before the "Space" release.
8. You’ve been making music for quite some time. How would you say the factor of improvisation has changed during those years? How does it figure in the Space Program?
"Improvisation" is a very tricky word. Jazz musicians use it to refer to realtime decisions, while operating in a system with clear rules and techniques. Other musicians practice the same kind of decisions but leaving the system aside, and call it "free improvisation". Some of the music i played in the past could be called that too. But it's just a word. The Space Program is a clear jump into disciplined and coherent discourse and away from that. However, there is a strong element of unpredictability and instant response, because my instruments never behave in a fully predictable way. They're made in a way that it's impossible to control them in full detail. How i handle that could be called "improvisation" as well, because that's what it is: How you instantly deal with a problem.
9. “Space” seemed very composed while “Space Solos 1” seems very much improvised. In how far is that correct?
Hmm… they are made of the same materials but "Space" is an orchestra of them, while the Solo record is manifestations of single elements. Both are performed exactly the same way. But you're right in saying that "Space" is composed. My playing can be described as "not composed, not improvised and not a compromise between the two" (Sei Miguel). But once i record anything, it becomes composition matter. Composition of performance-based music. I compose with segments of performed music, not sound and not notes. So "Space" is meticulously composed, but there is not a single sound in it that is performing a composition. Composing comes after playing.
10. In the Space Program, you focus on „single sound events“. People who are hearing this music for the first time might say that there is not much happening. What would you reply?
I would say there is a lot happening, actually there is everything happening, but i wouldn't insist much because we would probably be not speaking the same language. Our perception of "happening density" depends on scale of observation. So it may arrive to you as totally static to totally dynamic, just depends on how you look at it. It could also happen that "people" expect new sounds, and this is not at all about new sounds, but new ways of thinking about sound.
On the other hand it might also happen that such person could be confusing music with entertainment.
11. Did you feel that the performance practice of electronic music (especially in a live setting) had manoeuvred itself into a dead end during the last decade with all these laptop performances?
I think people are becoming more aware of that now, but there is still plenty of live activity that totally forgets the reason why a musician is on a stage. I think that if you're going to be staring at a screen, you'd be better off in the back of the room. But there is growing interest in gestural controllers and performing devices that help you using your body.
12. The cover of “Space” shows a lot of stars, but this music isn’t that far out, is it? As you said that you did not want to be escapist any longer, I gather that this music is about the space between these sound events and the space in which you created them. Am I got it right?
No, the cover of "Space" is a photography of dust. Not stars. It's a common misconception to think that "Space" is all about sci-fi and space exploration. That is really not the point. I don't know what you mean by "far out", maybe it doesn't sound very "weird", but the way it's articulated and put together took me a long time to even understand it. I had never heard anything like that before, so it's "far out" enough for me.
But this music is indeed about space: mental space, physical space, acoustic, visual, even musical space. Space is becoming a luxury, we can't afford much space now. All these kinds of space are getting increasingly saturated, and to achieve any space we need time, effort and money. In music, my idea of space is intimately connected with the idea of silence. If i'm silent, i create space. If i don't shut up, space is saturated. Space between sounds is just inherent to discourse. But on the other hand, there's a focus on body movement in space. For instance, feedback sounds depend entirely on positioning devices in space. Lastly, there's always an awareness of acoustic space, but that's a condition to all music and not a major issue here.
13. In this new project, as the Wire put it, silence is as important as sound. (But then isn’t silence /always/ as important as sound?)
If silence were as important as sound, maybe it wouldn't make a difference whether you make music or not. Silence gives space and meaning to sounds. It is essential to realize the importance of silence. It can bring great tension and power to music if used well. Usually, when music is boring, the reason is that silence is not properly dealt with. I have the feeling that, in general, people are afraid of silence, that explains why space is saturated. But silence is not something to be afraid of, but embraced instead. You can't be afraid of the ground you walk on, or the air you breathe. Silence is the air of sounds, it's our space, it's all around us.
13b. Is silence something that becomes more important as you grow older?
Maybe you don't need to affirm yourself so much, you learn to sit back and see the "whole picture". But i guess i'm still too young anyway.
13c. Did the drones become too constant as a sound?
No, drones are just an entirely different way to think about music.
14. You often emphasize that the performance practice of Space is derived from Jazz. In how far?
This is electronic music based on custom instruments using the free sound spectrum, without scales or the like. Most electronic music is based on processes or mechanisms that run on their own. Not quite physically performed (in general). And electronics in jazz are historically based on keyboard instruments, with a pianist approach and formatted to harmonic conventions. Otherwise they're also used as a sort of timbral arrangement (i'm grossly generalizing here). So, as i mentioned above, what i'm doing is performing a kind of music with no harmonic rules, totally alien to technical conventions, but at the same time is disciplined, based on its peculiar lexicon. Not exploratory, not "improvised", but still wide open to infinite possibilities, entirely based on instant decisions and in constant evolution. I'm less interested in sound exploration than in phrasing and swing. All of this is common in jazz — except the way i'm approaching it through electronics.
15. Could you recommend a few introductions to your recorded oeuvre of the last 15 years?
I consider the most important works are "Violence of Discovery and Calm of Acceptance", "Wave Field" and "Aeriola Frequency".
16. You called the space program „An electronic music performance research programme, a search for a universal discipline for structuring musical discourse." If such a thing could be found, that would mean that all music came from the same source, which then would probably be the same source that language came from. Do you agree? What do you think about transformative / generative grammar? And Onomatopoeia?
No, please note that the "universal discipline" i'm looking for is for myself (although i hope i can share it). What i mean is a matrix of operating principles on which i can base performing decisions applied to *any* instrument, a bit like a philosopher's stone… But, look around, you have "universal disciplines" all around you, isn't classical music a universal discipline? Same can be said of serialism, or standard jazz… And what these disciplines have in common is that they are all based on the Western note-based music system. Vivaldi, Miles, Stockhausen, they all use the same writing system. I want instruments to be usable as performance "vehicles", interfaces for human expression through electronics, and taking into account the whole human musical experience (mental/ spiritual/ visceral). I'm interested in a kind of detachment from history and culture, perhaps relating to a pre-historic era when sound was raw communication, carried an inextricable mix of information and emotion and had yet to be developed into the origins of both language and music.
17. The new instruments / devices you’ve come up with – do you practice a lot on them?
Quite a bit, yes. One good thing about this practice is that every effort put into it gets used. So if i want to record a take in good shape, the best thing to do is rehearse for a concert and play live. Then i may also just use the live recording…
18. In 1996, you performed with John Zorn and Yamatsuka Eye. How did that come about and how was it?
It was really amazing, dazzingly fast and intense.
19. Could you describe the role of Sei Miguel in the process of coming up with Space?
There would be no Space Program without Sei Miguel. I'm fortunate to participate in groups directed by him. He built his own music system, which is very open because it's not note-based, it welcomes the free field of sound. I learn a lot from him, his vision and practice in jazz is highly inspiring and mark of genius. My most important developments in instrumental performance were developed first in his groups, as you can hear on "The Tone Gardens". We can say that i have a personal approach to his system and apply that to electronic music in a methodic way.
20. Who do you think will turn out to be more influential for the 21st century – Cage or Stockhausen? Who do you feel closer to?
None, really. Their influence has already been well absorbed and digested in the 20th century. But it's clear that Cage paved the way for the future far more than Stockhausen. In other words, we owe Cage a lot of our ability to hear music and sounds today, and very little to Stockhausen. The 21st century is a time of crisis. We're running out of oil and maybe water too. We must be responsible for the planet and we should be responsible for music too. A music of this time demands that people make it with their own minds and hands, and stop relying on machines to make it. Cage was advanced, but he had a limitation: He would always remain a composer, his output was always a score to be performed. Music made by people's decisions was beyond his field. Had he crossed the border, and he would have entered jazz. And the musician that i know with the sharpest, most consequential understanding on this is Sei Miguel. I believe that's where the future is.