Derek Holzer

by Derek Holzer, Dec 2006 (Berlin, Germany)

I never knew where and if this interview was actually published…



You began working on the “Space program” in 2002, but for many of your listeners outside Portugal the new CD on Staubgold is their first exposure to this new style. You’ve been known as a guitarist making very long-form drone music, and the switch to electronics and computers, as well as to shorter and more discreet sound events, has been described as a big “departure”. What prompted this “departure”?


Simply put, it became clear for me that my previous work was concluded, finished. There was nothing left for me to discover or develop, only to become a formula and repeat myself. So it was time to do something different. I decided to establish a new approach to music as radically different from the previous one as possible.


You write that your 1995 residency at STEIM in Amsterdam was very inspiring. STEIM has pioneered the research, development and use of gestural music controllers for years now. Did your experiences at STEIM evolve into the glove controllers or other devices you use now?


No, the development of my gloves is entirely derived from understanding modular systems and control voltages. They’re actually CV gloves, i can control an analog synth with them (but use them with computer, with CV later converted to Midi). But STEIM was hugely inspiring, and i was more stimulated into hacking and modifying equipment. Anyway, Steim always had a level of expertise and engineering that is beyond my modest knowledge of electronics.


There has been a growing interest in the computer music world for strategies which increase the performative part of the works. One can see this as a backlash against the cliches of the laptop artist hiding behind the screen. And it’s interesting to note that when you use the gloves, the computer itself is invisible. Was that a conscious decision?


Yes, the computer is laid on the floor and i play standing. I made the screen black with colored windows that change their state, in a way that there is nothing to read. The black background also eliminates that cold light from the screen, as if “erasing” the computer’s halo, its visual “sphere of influence”. And i prefer to keep the computer as discreet as possible – away from the visual center of the stage scene. I never touch it and look at it as little as possible.


The sound of the gloves is strikingly like a Rhodes piano at times, and the light-controlled amplifier feedback has fooled many (myself included!) into thinking it’s a trumpet. How do you develop new instruments? Or rather, what comes first–the gesture, the gadgets or the sound?


Those instruments appear in different circumstances, some are designed, some are adapted or transformed, some are discovered or found. Some instruments just do what they do and there’s no way to change that, some others have interfaces that allow for the same gestures producing different sounds, and others can be developed thinking what kind of gesture is to be used… I can’t see how the amp feedback can be confused with a trumpet – at least knowing that there’s a rule in the Space Program, that there is no processing or transformation of sounds. Everything you hear on “Space” was played as heard.


In moving from long-form works based on very minimalist concepts, such as Aeriola Frequency and the Cyclorama Lift records, to a more playful, improv-style sound, you have moved into the terrain of Jazz music. Did that happen by accident based on the sounds that you were making, or as a deliberate alignment with specific musical processes?


The long-form works were not based on minimalist concepts, they’re too complex to reduce them to that. There are meny elements and references into them. Anyway, since i decided that i would move into a different territory, i tried to make a change as radical as possible. For instance, instead of drones now i would have silence. I wanted to play electronic sounds manually and on custom made instruments, performing music based on real-time decisions but with a kind of discipline that would allow me to structure musical discourse. And i quickly found out that, in order to learn how to do this, i would have to refer to a source of knowledge, and it was obvious that the culture that has developed what i wanted to learn was outside electronic music, it was jazz.


Some of the reviews, particularly the one by Brian Olewnick, consider “Space” from a more strictly Jazz point of view. Are you comfortable with the Bill Dixon and Miles Davis comparisons, or is reading “Space” into Jazz history too literal an approach?


Yes, it might be too literal, yes… Since i work with instruments that can’t handle (on purpose) any of jazz’s typical harmonic and rhythmic structures, my connection to jazz in not formal. I can see little connection to the names above, but looking closer, silence and its role in phrasing is a central issue to me. And a master of the ability to “play” silence is indeed Miles Davis. So if i know anything about that, it probably came from him.


What kind of instruments will you play with the Sei Miguel group at the Club Transmediale event in Berlin? How is the dynamics of your performance different working with this particular ensemble?


I will play sinewaves with glove controllers and modular synthesizer. I learn a lot with Sei Miguel and my performing ability was mostly developed in his groups. So playing with his quartet is really the best environment i can play in. It’s like home for the Space Program. It’s usually where i can play best.


What are the future plans for the “Space program”? Will it focus on instrument development or on building up a body or recorded work?


It will focus primarily on performance, in searching for and establishing a universal discipline for structuring musical discourse. In the course of its development it will naturally build up a recorded work, which is systematically laid out. It focuses on making me able to collaborate with other performing musicians and it will generate all sorts of encounters, it’s a very open field. Custom instruments are key here, but instrument development is not a focus, i don’t consider myself much of an instrument builder, i’m quite modest in that respect.


You say that you will return to the guitar someday. Has the “Space program” changed your outlook on this particular instrument? Will it change your future guitar works in some way?


I am working with simple instruments that do each their own thing, they have a clear identity, while a guitar can be too many things. I needed simplicity to start this, and suddenly the guitar became far too complex. In my project, the multiple functions and approaches to each instrument would eventually be condensed in the guitar. The guitar would become a sort of super-instrument for me. Maybe it wouldn’t sound much different from everything else i’ve been doing, but future guitar works would indeed be quite different from the early ones. This is a complex problem, though, i didn’t even start to handle it, it won’t be easy and i have no guarantee that i will succeed…