Interviewed by Sybilla Poortman
How am I to review your albums
when you yourself say that you are unable to describe your own music?
I feel the kind of thing you do is most difficult -if not impossible-
to put into words.
Yes, you certainly chose a difficult vocation for yourself!
I don't envy critics, as they try to put into words what is most difficult
to express. Two of my favorite music critics were Lester Bangs and Richard
Meltzer (in the same lineage, I suppose). I liked how they avoided analysis
and description of the music they were writing about; sticking more with
their place in relation to the music. I've read reviews by Lester Bangs
where he didn't once mention the recording he was—supposedly—writing
about; but approached it more anecdotally. I mean, you knew that this
was a critique of a certain recording—because the text was headed
by the title of the record, etc—but the writing wove its way around
the work being reviewed, leaving the reader to think about how this music
had affected this person (Bangs). Henry Miller had, for me, a similair
approach to expository writing, such as in "The Air Conditioned Nightmare"
or "The Colossus of Maroussi," though Miller wasn't writing
about music, he was trying to describe his feelings in relation to people
or places; something not so far off from trying to capture the impression
a recording or music performance leaves on you…
AMM were my first interviewees. I was so shy to meet these men that I admired so very deeply… And then my first
question: "How do you get this unmistakable AMM-sound?" kept
the three of them talking for half an hour incessantly. There is a certain
self-restrain about 'Streaming' that reminds me of the atmosphere AMM
create on their albums. Please tell me more about this collaboration!
There's not so much to say about the recording of "Streaming."
It was recorded live. In a way, it came about quite by accident. At the
time, I was organising a series of concerts—The Sonique Serie—in
Zürich. I had a tour coming up with Dieb13 and we wanted to play
in Zürich. Normally speaking, I don't like to play at events which
I also organise. I find it hard too concentrate on the tasks at hand:
organisation and giving a concert. A very bad combination, if you ask
me. In any case, I'd known Günter Müller for a few years and
we'd always wanted to play together. This seemed like a good opportunity,
as Zürich is not so far from where Günter lives in Switzerland.We
didn't talk about what we were going to do beforehand. I think it was
already clear that all of us had ideas about music which intersected at
certain points. So, we had a good basis to start with. The rest was just
listening. It's flattering that you should compare this recording to AMM,
as, of course, they are a great favorite of mine. I'm not sure where this
similarity lies. Some critics reviewed this recording as "ambient
improv." To me, though, ambient implies something which doesn't necessarily
require your attention—it drifts more or less in the background
and creates an atmoshpere (which is all fine—I have no problem with
"wallpaper music," in the sense that Satie coined this term).
For "Streaming," though, I tend to think of this sound as more
of a "pointillistic ambient;" which for me means, the sound
hovers and wavers there somewhere between background and foreground, but
still demands your attention. You can leave it, but if you do, it might
be difficult to get back into the atmoshpere of it. So, in the classical
sense of the term "ambient" I suppose "Streaming"
doesn't meet the requirements. In terms of AMM, and as I understand their
concept of "meta music," I can see more similarities. Here we
come down to the question "what is music?" I think of "music"
as organised sound, however this organisation may occur. To me, meta music
approaches this concept of organised sound, with the exception being that
the sound is allowed more autonomy to evolve on its own—this meaning,
we start a process and, though we are part of this process we are also
listeners; we guide the sound but it also guides us. I always like this
famous quote of Morton Feldman's, "don't push sound around."
And I imagine this is what meta music is about: not pushing the sound
around; but letting it breathe, being inside the sound and evolving with
it. What I like about "Streming" is this feeling of expanding
and contracting. The pieces move along of their own accord, yet they don't
drift. No one is in a hurry.
The question that keeps haunting me: should improv
be recorded and listened to repeatedly? You say yourself it exists in
the moment and that you can't capture the same feeling twice. For me,
the real experience is in the spirit of a live gig and recordings that
'bring back that feeling' are mere surrogates (though I must agree with
Jim O'Rourke on this: most of the time it's all you have…).
Yes, definitely improv should be recorded. The recording
cannot possibly replace the experience of being part of the peformance,
hearing it as it unfolds; but a recording can impart other impressions
to us. We travel to another country and we send a postcard home. The people
receiving the postcard could never imagine what we have experienced but
it sets their imaginations wandering, if only for a brief moment. A good
recording, of course, can do much more than this. Some of my favorite
recordings were recorded live. Just to imagine having been there can even
be too much, sometimes…
When Arnold Dreyblatt was in Amsterdam for his
Memory Project, I tried to arrange an interview but I guess the magazine
I work for wasn't important enough for him (or at least for the people
around him who denied me the request). So I just did an article about
the Project for the mag. What was it like to work with Arnold Dreyblatt?
He doesn't strike me as the easiest of employers…
I had a really good time working with Arnold. I found
the experience very interesting and stimulating, the way he approached
the concept of "composition." I always had the feeling that
he composed with the musicians of his group in mind. What he brought to
the rehearsals were never "finished" compositions, but also
not sketches. The pieces had a definite direction but Arnold was always
open to input from the members of the group. This made the experience
of creating his music very challenging yet also very inspiring. Once the
compositions were more or less complete, there was still room when playing
them live to expand or contract them, as the members of the group felt
at the time. Arnold was usually at the mixing board, so we didn't have
a conductor or anyone telling us how to play. In addition to playing in
the group, I also had the chance to peform with Arnold in duo and as a
trio with Dirk Lebahn, the bassist of The Orchestra of Excited Strings
(Arnold's group) at that time. Even when playing with Arnold in such small
groupings, there never arose a working character of "I'm the composer
here, you're the musician." We all really came out equal, each putting
in ideas. Arnold has a really great ear and a very unusual approach to
listening, after working so many years with just intonation. I started
to realise very early on that he was listening for something different
than other people I'd played with, that he was sensitive to certain aspects
of harmony which I, up to the point I'd started to work with him, never
experienced before. The music seems quite simple—and on the surface
it is; but it had a quite deep and complex emotional effect on me. At
times, when performing live, it really felt like the stage was going to
take off into the air. This is hard to put into words—Steve Lacy
said, "raising the bandstand"—but the harmonies arising
from Arnold's tuning system had an envigorating effect. Even at moderate
volumes, the music surged with energy.
I think musicians I interviewed earlier like
Oren Ambarchi (have you heard his guitar-drones? awesome!) and Rosy Parlane,
are somehow related to you. Rosy was interested in the flow of things,
you want to let things breathe and run their natural course. Rosy stated
to be 'a musician rather than a sound artist'. He also couldn't be bothered
by what you call 'technical prowess in place of what you want to express'.
So how do you avoid this pitfall?
Funny you should bring up Oren Ambarchi and Rosy Parlane…because
we are all drummers?! I have some recordings from each of them and really
like what they are working at. They achieve a sense of place and an atmoshpere—that
is to say, when I hear their recordings I am in the place of their sound
for the time it is playing: it fills my space. Avoiding technical prowess
in place of what I want to express was never really a problem for me,
especially the longer I continued to make music and the closer I came
to realising what exactly it was I wanted to express, which is to evoke
a feeling. It really only comes down to this for me. Technical ability
is only required to the point at which it is useful for me to achieve
what I want to express. I can feel when the sound is working for me, when
it moves me, when I sense that I have created something which succeeds
emotionally for me, when I arrive at a place and feel inspired by the
sound. I am just not interested in technical ability for its own sake.
Of course, a virtuos musician can be awe inspiring, as in "I can't
believe they are playing that." But for me, a really virtuous musician
exceeds beyong the mere motoric skills. Take Pablo Cassal's famous recording
of the Bach cello suites. What struck me about these recordings was not
Cassal's phenomenal technique, but the depth of emotion he brings forth
in the music. And this emotion has nothing at all to do with instrumental
mastery, more to do with the ability to hear, to listen, to be sensitive
to the instrument, to the room it is being played in, to feel one's own
emotions in relation to the music being played and, lastly, understanding
what the music is about, what the composer (or the improvisers) are trying
to say. Some of these abilities can occur as a result of years practicing
an instrument, becoming sensitive to sound and one's place in the sound.
But this is not mutually exclusive—there are many other ways to
be senstive to sound, to learn about sound, or to know oneself in relation
to sound or a composition.If someone creates music which moves me, but
which also happens to employ a high degree of instrumental virtuosity,
then I have no problem with this. Of main importance is my feeling in
the sound: does it inspire me, does it move me? It's actually appropriate
that I should have the chance to answer this question now, as a while
back I was in the kitchen of my house--I live with a lot of people and
we all share the same kitchen—and there was this woman I live with
cooking. She was listening to some music, very precisely played jazz-rockish
sort of sound. And I asked here what she was listening to. She said, "Gentle
Giant. I like this music because they play their instruments so well."I
was really astounded that she could so concisely make a statement summing
up what for me is antithetical in music, and that this could be a reason
for liking music (nothing against Gentle Giant, for all you prog fans
Taking risks in performing is important for you
and for the audience. Of course this goes for live gigs but where is the
risk in recording, when you can try things over and over again? How do
your CD's relate to your live gigs?
Some of my cd's are recorded live, and in this case
the idea of recording a live-in-concert cd is to capture that feeling
of having the audience there, contributing their presence and energy and
attention to the music being created. This is a special situation which
can yield a special recording, another kind of recording than is possible
in the studio. On the other hand, studio recordings for me are not necessarily
about having the possibility of trying things over and over again. Much
of what I do, be it in the studio playing with other musicians or alone
at home mixing on the computer, has to do with the impulse of the moment.
Of capturing a sense of inspiration and going with this. It is true, of
course, that in the studio, unlike performing before an audience, that
we have the chance to investigate ideas more deeply and to take several
tries at recording them. For me, though, after too many tries, the feeling
is gone and that spark of inspiration is no longer there to carry the
moment. This also happens when I'm mixing, as I like to think of a mix
as also a kind of improvisation. I'm neither very technical nor methodical
in this. I try to get things sounding the way I like them, and a lot of
this has to do with feeling inspired about the results I am getting; if
I get bogged down in running the same track over and over again I tend
to lose a sense of freshness and movement. This is not to say that I can't
spend hours working with sounds, finding new possibilities; but when it
comes down to the mix, to the recording, to the performance, then I like
to be impelled by the moment, by a sense of inspiration.
So, to answer your question, all my solo cd's relate very directly to
the way I approach a live performance, as they all take their impulse
from the moment when I feel excited about the sound as it is happening.
Much of the material which went into my solo recordings arose from improvising
and through this discovering new ideas and sounds. "Plurabelle"
and "Drums and Metals" were both recorded live, with no overdubs.
In the case of "Drums and Metals" the pieces were composed beforehand—more
roadmaps than strictly annotated compositions—but the actual peformance
of them was left up to the feeling of the moment as they were played in
the studio. Speaking of the studio, I'd just like to mention here that
I recorded many of my cd's at Bob Drake/Maggie Nichols/Chris Cutler's
"Studio Midi," near Carcassone, France. This has been a special
place to record for me because, unlike nearly all of the studios I've
recorded in, Studio Midi has huge windows which fill the room one records
in with daylight. The changing light conditions have a great effect on
how the music is played, as the atmosphere in the room is always gradually
changing. Recording here really made me realize what Indian classcial
music is aiming at by having ragas composed for different times of the
day, as each time of the day requires a different mood. Recording in Studio
Midi thus takes on a more "performative" aspect for me, as I
never feel as though I'm just getting tracks down on tape, but playing
with the changing conditions in the room, reacting to the different phases
Why do you feel that live gigs exclude any real
contact with the audience? Were you never influenced by an appreciative
audience or encouraged to push things a bit further? I know I felt real
contact and interaction at a few gigs. Is it perhaps an isolationist thing?
(I remember Jim O'Rourke would prefer playing with his back to the audience,
or behind a screen like Tony Conrad!). Isn't it all about grasping the
listener's attention and making him aware of his expectations concerning
Hmmm, it would seem that somewhere you read or understood
that I said that live gigs exclude any real contact with the audience.
I wouldn't say this, as, quite naturally, I sense the audience, even if
it is a very big audience which one can only sense as a presence and not
as individual people. Some of my greatest live experiences were playing
in small, packed clubs, where you can just feel the energy ready to burst
the walls; or likewise where you can hear a pin drop, despite the presence
of many people—this great tension. For me, the audience is important,
otherwise I wouldn't take the time and trouble to play live. It is important
for me that the people are there, though, as I've said elsewhere, I am
not satisfied with the conventional way of giving concerts: i.e., the
musician is on a stage, the audience is sitting in front of the stage,
the sound coming out speakers facing the audience, and so on. I'd like
to discover a more all-encompassing approach to live peformance, where
perhaps each entity—the audience, the performer—gives up some
of their roles and becomes a little less of each: less audience, less
performer; maybe the two coming more together, somewhere the lines between
the two blurring. Something, perhaps, between an installation and a concert.
When I play live, however, I am not out to grab the listener's attention
nor to make them aware of their expectations about music. I am only there
to offer my sound, which they can make of as they will. It would be too
much for me to worry about their expectations, especially as so many people
have so many different ideas about what music is or should be, about what
a concert is. And if I can't grasp their attention with what I do naturally,
then there is no point in changing what I do in order to achieve this!
All I can do is be myself, play what I can play and see what happens.
This isn't to say I exist in a vacuum, as the audience also contributes
to what I play; their presence, their energy also affects me, whether
I or they know it or not. The energy in a room alone at home is not the
energy in a room with many people. And even if you play behind a curtain,
or with your back to the audience, or blindfold everyone…whatever,
the fact remains: there are people there and their presence, like the
musician's, fill the room, and, for better or worse, will have an effect
on the music.
It is interesting that you see the parallel of
repetition in minimal music, techno and some ethnic music. Is that why
your collaboration with Toshimaru is called 'Repeat'?
Actually, at the time of Repeat's first recording,
for which Toshi and I decided on the name of the project, the music had
less to do with minimalism or repetition. There was, of course some aspects
of this, but the "Repeat sound," if you could call it that,
was really only to arrive with the second cd, "Temporary Contemporary." I came up with the name and, basically, I just liked the sound of the
word. There is a This Heat (whom I love) recording of the same name, but
this had nothing to do with chosing the name for the project with Toshi.
While your solo albums don't sound like percussionists'
albums at all, the ones with Repeat seem to have much more 'real drums
and percussion'. Is this because of dividing tasks in some way between
you and Toshimaru?
I actually did do a, as you term it, "real drums
and percussion" recording entitled "Drums and Metals."
This was my second solo cd. In a sense, though, it doesn't sound like
what many people would expect from a solo percussion recording, though
the cd was recorded with only acoustic drumset and metal objects. It wasn't
my idea to do a Buddy Rich vs. Max Roach kind of recording—I wanted
to concetrate on the sound of the instrument, which is what first got
me interested in playing the drums in the first place. Playing with Toshi
never involved dividing tasks. Actually, we never really spoke very much
at all about the music we played. We basically just played and maybe afterwards
said, "oh yeah!" or "oh no!." This wasn't because
we don't have much to say to eachother—we do—it's just that
in terms of the sound we had a good enough feeling to approach the music
on a primarily intuitive level. In most cases this proved to work out
very well. I'd also have to say that I never really think in terms of
"dividing tasks" musically, in terms of the instruments at hand.
I think that nowadays, more than ever, the instrument one plays is less
important than what kind of sound one makes with the instrument one plays.
Maybe we could replace the word "musical instrument" with "sound
generating device," though this sounds way too wordy and dumb! What
I'm trying to say is, in my musical world, instruments don't have tasks
anymore. They are only making sounds. For example, what I really liked
about playing with Günter Müller was the fact that here were
two drummers both interacting in a way that defies the "task" of a drummer; or at least the preconceived notion of what a drummer is
I recently did a workshop in Lisbon where people came to improvise. Now,
I don't claim here to teach improvisation or even think that improvisation
can be taught. The workshop was more about people coming together and
playing and then, afterwards, if they had anything to say about the music
played, say it and exchange impressions. I was only there to give the
proceedings a shape. Anyays…what I found great was that, beside
the more "conventional" instruments like guitar, drums, saxophone,
etc we also had people showing up to play with a mobile phone and mini
disc—it was really like, "what is a musical instrument, what
are 'tasks', what is valid? In the end, I think all the workshop participants
had to agree that everything is permitted—one can make music with
You studied Arabic percussion. Is there anything
specific you learned during that year that you still (consciously) use
in or apply to your playing? Perhaps this kind of brooding undercurrent
in your solo work?
What I became more aware of, playing Arabic and Iranian
percussion, was making the most of something simple; of coaxing as many
nuances of sound from what would seem like a very limited musical instrument.
I was fascinated at how far one could go with such finite material. The
more time I spent with these instruments the more I could see how deep
a sound could go; or how far one could expand on a basic rhythm. The rhythm
itself became less important than the tension and release arising from
repetition, from the swinging between the two poles of the "dum"
(bass tone) and the "tak" (the high tone) of the drum (be it
a frame drum, a darabuka, a tombak, etc). After playing a rhythm long
enough, the idea, as such, of the rhythm vanished and the presence of
its movement became the focus. The great percussionist Z'ev wrote in his
book on rhythm and numerology "Rhythmajik - Practical Uses of Number,
Rhythm and Sound," that "Repetitive rhythms gain their power
through the fact that they can fuse the discrete event [the stroke] with
the continuum [the subjectively experienced time-dilation of the trance
state]. This is the cause of the effective quality of the proportions
and the conditioning potential their sounding holds."The key here
for me here is when he says "their sounding." Which means that,
the repetition of rhythm de facto leaves rhythm behind for the sound distilled
from the rhythm. Playing middle eastern persussion and, earlier, the snare
drum, made me realise how valuable it was to concentrate on simple structures
and limited material, focusing on micro events, rather than macro vistas.
If the sound of the instrument reveals something
about the musician -as you said in an interview-, then you must be a very
balanced person. This also reflects in the way you do interviews: calm,
precise and very eloquent. So how do you get this rare combination of
intensity and vulnerability, this meditative, at times mantra-like sound
on your solo albums? How do you hold this tension while keeping things
transparent to a transcending degree? (if this sounds like I'm stunned – I am. In fact, I found some of your solo-work quite mind-expanding…)
I can't really answer this question in a categoric
way. I mean, and I've said this before, what I am striving for is a sense
of place in the sound I am working with. I am not trying to expand anyone's
mind—though if this is a positive aspect of my music for them, then
I'm glad!—nor am I thinking in terms of meditative music. Perhaps
what I am doing comes across this way as I concentrate on repetetive,
gradually changing textures. The idea here is to experience the sound
as it changes and feel that we as listeners are in the center of this
change: an immersive experience.
I've studied arts and languages and I feel like
I've come full circle with listening to the music I listen to today -and
writing about it. The account of your encounter with Mark Rothko's paintings
in London gave me the shivers. I think I had a similar experience listening
to 'Piano2' on 'Analogues', the sounds of the organ-like drone just washing
over me in a spiritual way and leaving me very tranquil. Can you remember
how you created all those overtones (and undertones)? It feels so acute,
so much 'in the now' that it drains out every other notion. This is definitely
a favourite of mine (among many others…).
Piano2 is named, in fact, from an old, broken down
upright piano standing in the corner of a rehearsal room I had while living
in Geneva. The "organ-like" drones, as you call them, are in
fact samples I made from several notes played on the piano. I generally
like to tinker around on a piano if there happens to be one handy, and
I especially like when they are a bit out of tune. This piano in my rehearsal
room more than met my requirements and actually had a quite beautiful
sound, aside from its exotic tuning...What I discovered later, as I started
to work with the sounds at home, was that I'd inadvertently recorded,
along with the piano, the sounds of traffic. My rehearsal room was in
a building at the corner of a very busy intersection. Though in the cellar,
we still heard a lot of the traffic. I realised that, like the slight
(and not so slight!) dissonances from the untuned strings of the piano,
that the unwanted sound of cars driving by added a sense of time and place
to the recording—an atmoshpere which made me think of this room,
of this piano, of the time of day I recorded this. I also realised that
in and of themselves, the sound of the cars was not a bad thing and that
they actually worked in quite well with the piano tones (providing, I
believe, the undertones you asked about). I am always glad to be surprised
by something I'm working on. When the unexpected turns up and I learn
something from it or, better yet, it makes me smile! This piece in particular
really made me aware of residual sounds—the sounds which are there,
but perhaps only lingering on the edge of our consciousness or hearing
capabilities. It is something analogous to "reading between the lines"
in literature, whereas here we could mean rather "hearing between
Where does your preference for chime-like structures
come from? Is it the reverb and the resonance? On track 6 of 'Pool' they're
absolutely hypnotising, you should warn people for wearing headphones!
Good question. I mean, I would often ask myself the
same question: why this, why that? But in the end, I don't know?. Why
blue, why vanilla? I would say, though, that I love the dirty sounds,
the sounds that comprise a good deal of noise, though perahps not noise
in the sense as we conventionally might understand it; rather, as sound
which seems to pass in and out of phase with itself. Percussion is naturally
quite a good source for this quality of sound as by its very nature it
has many innate, un-tuneable timbres.
Are your still interested in literature? What
do you read?
Lately I've been reading the books of Philip K. Dick.
He's so great!
Those sound-installations you sent me, can you
tell me more about them? Was this released, will it ever be or did you
make this copy just for me….? They sound quite disturbing and comforting
at the same time (hell, all these paradoxes, I love them!), like giant
machines in an industrial setting.
I sent you these recordings to give you a better picture
of what I am doing. It would be hard to imagine releasing them as they
were designed for certain spaces and for multi-channel sound systems.
The first excerpt I sent you was a piece done in St. Pölten, Austria
for the Klangturm, which is a multi-story glass tower constructed especially
for sound installations. The text "Dropped
From the Sky" gives a detailed description of this piece.
The other excerpts were taken from an installation I did last year in
Berlin entitled "Unheard Berlin." This was a four-channel, 24-speaker
work for the Urban Drift symposium. The premise for this piece was to
turn the listener's attention towards the sounds of an urban space—in
this case Berlin—which one might not consciously hear, though which
play an imporant role in how we perceive a city. I spent a week going
around Berlin—I city I know quite well, having lived nine years
there—recording these peripheral sounds. In the end I had a kind
of phonogram presenting a side of Berlin's sonic character which most
people in their everyday lives might fail to appreciate. For me, these
sounds are very important as they work on a nearly subliminal level, a
place where we are most vulnerable.
You moved from one country to the other many
times and are described as a true nomad. Still, there's no feeling of
loneliness in your music, only perhaps a feeling of 'aloneness' in a self-contained
way. Are fellow musicians your family? Is music your love and live-fulfilment?
Am I being too impertinent?
I guess a unifying factor in all this movement has been
the music. Most of my travel was tied to musical activity, and when I
find myself in new places, no matter where I am, working with sound is
always a place I can come back to, a place I know best and a place where
I can feel "at home," no matter where I might be.
The releases on Cut look absolutely terrific!
A design that is both ascetic and very aesthetic (like the music). The
print is also quite outstanding (I can tell, I studied graphic arts).Please
tell me how you find the time to do all this and why you do it all yourself!
Well, I guess nobody does it better....
Glad you liked the covers. I design them myself because...it's
fun! When living in Los Angeles, I used to work as a typographer and graphic
artist—and always the most fun was to design something for myself.
Maybe having cut is only an excuse to be able to do graphic design again...
Last one: will we be able to see you perform
in the Netherlands some day soon?
That would be great! I played in the Netherland three
times last year (Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Nijmegen...). I hope to have the
chance to play again sometime soon, though nothing is planned right now.