Oro Molido - Interview by Chema Chacon, ES 2020
1. In your last works in CD, or in your live performances you frequent less the use of percussions and if of a rich arsenal of electro-acoustic processes. This way of conceiving your way of understanding improvisation through electro-acoustic processes, we could say that it started from the recording of your CD "Disco Prova". Is that the way you want to continue exploring in the future?
For a certain time it was important to me to focus entirely on the acoustic potential of percussion instruments and object sounds, although I often worked within electro-acoustic contexts. I'm talking about the years from 1995 when I arrived in Berlin all the way into the mid 2000s, a period when certain aesthetics and strategies became a focus for a small group of musicians here in Berlin, and which at some point gained a certain recognition under the term 'reductionism'. But it might be good to mention in this context that we also the trio Perlonex started around the same time, which was more about density and sometimes pretty loud and harsh. But still, also in that group I left the electronics to the other members, Ignaz Schick and Jörg Maria Zeger, and just miked and amplified my acoustic instruments when necessary.
You are right, Disco Prova was then probably the first full release of mine featuring a wider range of sound sources, including electro-acoustic elements and analog synth, but also field recordings and plundered vinyl records. But for me it was actually more like coming back to something I had worked with already in the 1980s, to my early experiments with tape manipulation, contact mics and simple ways of multi-tracking. Something I had left behind in the course of the 1990s.
Meanwhile I'm happy to use all means I find appropriate for a specific context or project. So it's not that I'm now moving from just doing one thing to just one other thing, but more like an expansion of my variety altogether. To go from, let's say, a tour with an all acoustic trio like Sawt Out into playing a live-electronics solo set where I use analog synths and processed field recordings, followed maybe by an intense work period on detailed conceptual pieces with Polwechsel, and then possibly another solo concert, but this time with acoustic percussion in an interesting live space, that's something I’m not only enjoying because of the constant challenge, to put a different hat on again and again, but those different activities are also crossfeeding and enriching each other, since they are still all artistically interrelated, despite all differences regarding means and context.
2. Dispense more and more of the instruments and use the percussion kit in an exploratory way, rubbing of the hands and objects on the surfaces of the patches of the drums and cymbals, or the spatialization of the sounds by means of a system of quadrophony as you did on your set at the "No Noise" festival in Porto. In this case, you worked on field recordings, interacting with their range of frequencies and dynamics in real time. This is a communication channel in which electro-acoustic processes intervene in relation to the specific acoustics of the place. What importance do you give to space as an element of resonance?
I'm trying to approach each concert as a new site-specific performance. Sometimes there is a given PA situation or stage set up which doesn't allow much experimentation, but in my percussion solo performances of the last few years for example I don’t set up my instruments all in one spot as a drum kit, but as different stations to be visited and explored separately. Floor tom in one place, a specific cymbal in another, snare drum somewhere else and then another cymbal, trying to find the right spot for each one of them, for both, visual and room resonance reasons. Also moving from one of them to another became part of my performance, sometimes walking around in the space with a bowed chime or something and by this musically connecting the one to the other.
With live electronics it's a different case though, but also there the placement of the speakers and my electronics table is always a key element. At No Noise for example I played in a very beautiful space, the inside yard of a former monastery, open air but with four reflecting walls surrounding me. It was not defined in a specific way as a concert space, so I was free to decide how to set up there. The final decision to put my table in the very center and one speaker in each corner worked out perfectly fine, since the audience then had the chance to move around in this very resonant space with sounds coming from all directions. This is - if we have the chance - also always our preferred set up with the relatively new live-electronics duo Vertigo Transport (with Marta Zapparoli). Our two tables set up in the center of the room, facing each other, and with the speakers in the four corners of the room - around us and the surrounding audience. But we also have sounds coming form local amplification on our tables, so we can play with can play with center and periphery.
Resonating objects, but also sounds coming from speakers, can project and behave quite differently in different spaces depending on the characteristics of the specific room and also on the exact positioning of the objects (or speakers) within it. In fact, the room is a resonating object itself and thus an extension of the object you are playing (or the speaker membranes). A specific room, and your instrument within it, can almost become like another group member, a musical agent you’re communicating with. So even when I pre-compose a solo piece I like to leave the exact durations and the direction a specific beforehand decided musical material might take open for my decision in the moment of playing. Thus I can involve what is coming back from the room and how my instruments respond to it.
3. It is precisely on this first CD of yours alone in the disappeared Absinth label run for Michael Renkel where a piece called "Sekante" appears, for the first time in 2007. What changes are there with this new version that you comment on in the interview with Tobias Fisher in which you use up to seven propellers?
The chronological order was actually a different one. The track Sekante was a by-product from the sound installation of the same name, which I developed and presented for the first time the same year Disco Prova was released. It involves seven propellers which are playing long strings going across the room and make large polystyrene boxes attached on ceiling and walls resonate. Each propeller (small electric motor with 2 short pieces of string attached) produces a different drone-like sound coming from a resonating box (transmitted by the vibration of the string) and runs through its individual course of programmed on/off sequences. The sounds of the boxes overlap or come together always in new ways with occasional silences inbetween, never repeating the same constellation again. It's a kind of spatialised string instrument, or if you want, a mechanical way of sound diffusion, not using any additional amplification. For the recording the Sekante track is based on I placed a microphone inside of one of those resonating boxes. So what you hear is not the spatial situation you get with the installation, but the resonances from within as if you would hold your ear into one of the boxes.
But also the sound installation Sekante was already a kind of spin-off by itself, being the follow-up installational version of the manually played installation piece POR which I already had performed several times since the year 2000, and I still sometimes do up until now. But nowadays I'm also occasionally making further use of the POR/Sekante principle within wider installational-performantive contexts.
4. Similarly, "Adapt / Oppose" is one of your 2007 pieces that has been executed by different groups and instrumentation in several projects: Polwechsel in "Traces of Wood" (2010) and in the album "Glück" (Mikroton, 2016), with the execution of five drummers. This is a piece that you have directed for workshops (Singapore, Bangkok, Hanoi), performed live (PiO, recently nextly), exhibited at conferences, etc. on many occasions. There are two basic indications for its execution that you indicate yourself: on the one hand the full concentration in the musical moment and, on the other, the participation of the musician in determining the beginning, duration and end of the individual sections. Is it a graphic piece, really? What answers or results have you received from the participating musicians and what degree of satisfaction on your part over the almost 20 performances already presented over time?
Adapt/Oppose is entirely graphic. It consists of only a few basic elements, circles which are connected by two different kinds of lines. It only indicates two things, at which points specific players are meant to start or to stop playing, and when they do start, how they should relate in general to what's been played already, either by adapting or by opposing it. Sometimes those who come in join other players, at other times they play contrasting material in parallel to others, but often they also stop one or more players by coming in. In this way the score is successively organising the relation between players, while all musical material within Adapt/Oppose always comes from the players, also all decisions about dynamics, duration and what adapting or opposing could actually mean in a specific musical situation. Of course, one player always has to set the process of playing in motion by prompting a new starting material. But after this first inauguration everything that follows throughout one graphic system is then derived from the initial material, step by step individually decided over the course of playing.
Since the graphic elements are so basic and all of them mean something very specific, but nothing else, it’s possible for me to build multiple kinds of structures from it. Meanwhile I have a whole selection of pages with those graphic systems, conceived for different numbers of players, from trio to mid-size groups of 12 or even more players. Like the POR/Sekante principle (of projecting sound onto resonating boxes by strings going across the room) is an ongoing work-in-progress, ever tranforming into new manifestations, the Adapt/Oppose principle (of organizing interactive relations within groups by the use of those basic graphic signs) also became a kind of modular work tool for me. When I'm working with ensembles, either professional or in workshops, I'm usually not playing with them myself. I rather want to keep the observer position and by this the ability to steer the group process into interesting directions. It usually takes a while for a group to become familiar enough with it, so my restrictions don't feel like an obstacle anymore, but the reduction of complexity that comes with it can be experienced as a freedom to focus better on all the remaining parameters which are still there at their disposal for individual decision. It happens that there are moments when participants feel some resentments or even start to rebell against it. But I actually appreciate all those questions when they come up, as an opportunity to discuss crucial aspects and potential contradictions within creative work processes. And when I recognize that a group starts to get 'on top of the score', I’m also ready to step back a little and to leave it all more to them. This means that the outcome of such a group process doesn't necessarily has to fulfil an aesthetic goal I have envisioned, but it should meet the creative potential of a group and possibly lead it into new territories.
In workshop situations working with these scores also has the benefit that I can revisit and analyse specific moments within the music of a group, something that in free improvisation often turns out to be difficult. And when I'm working with a larger ensemble towards the performance of their version of it, the modular principle of Adapt/Oppose allows the creation of complex structures, to have two or more smaller subgroups playing simultaneaously for example, and also to shape the whole piece by the arrangement of different pages/systems to an overall form. In this way Adapt/Oppose provides compositional options for a group process, thus going a step beyond what's possible or at least what’s likely to happen within free improvisation, without eliminating improvisational freedom altogether.
5. Over time you collaborate regularly in a variety of projects where concentration is very important. I am referring to formations such as Perlonex, Splitter Orchestra, Zeitkratzer, Trio Sowari, Sawt Out or Being Together, with the Hanoi New Music Festival Ensemble. With this training you came to tour several places in Europe and beyond. How did you live this experience in which you had the opportunity to share ideas with musicians from different countries, languages and cultures?
Traveling to very different places in the world and to meet and collaborate with musicians of different origin and cultural background is very inspiring. You learn a lot, not only about them, but also about yourself, what’s specific about your own culture, your upbringing and the approaches to things you have developed. A few years ago I went first to Sydney, then to Singapore, Bangkok and finally Hanoi. In all four cities I also worked with Adapt/Oppose, in Sydney with the Splinter Orchestra, in Asia with workshop ensembles. The ways how people responded to my graphic scores, how much they were ready to give their own spontaneous musical input, or how they were struggling with my restrictions, was impressively diverse. Not only the comparison between Australia and Southeast Asia, but also between the buddhist based culture of Thailand and the mostly secular Vietnam, although they are (almost) neighbors, while the music students at Lasalle College in Singapore come from all over Asia.
This said, at the same time the more I travel the more I become aware of the fact that I'm almost exclusively moving within the meanwhile globally connected urban regions of the world. And the rare occasions where I'm leaving those regions make me even more aware of this fact. At the same time that I'm appreciating all the differences I realise that I often feel closer to my fellow musicians and collaborators in let's say Beirut or Mexico City, than to a lot of people not so far away, in rural Germany for instance. It has to do with a certain view on the world and some kind of general cultural horizon we share, or not.
6. In your duo collaborations with Chris Abrahams (Instead of the Sun, 2016), Klirrfaktor (performance with a fundamental audio-visual contribution through light effects, with Michael Vorfeld), in quartet with Lucio Capece / Martin Küchen / Paul Vogel (Fracture Mechanics, 2017) you extend the field of improvisation through electro-acoustics devices. Using the instruments as objects you transform a rich palette of abstract sounds. What would you highlight about the way these musicians work and how have you felt this collaboration with them?
Those three projects have in common that they all work beyond acoustic improvisation, but apart from that they are also all pretty different. My duo with Chris is all about synthesizers and live-electronics - no percussion or piano involved -, and was recorded over the course of a week in his flat in Sydney. The sun was pretty extreme outside, so we had all the blinds down and enjoyed spending whole afternoons on lengthy electronic improvisations. All the material was later edited and mixed down to several shorter pieces and became the CD, - which pretty accurately reflects the recording situation in its title.
Klirrfaktor, on the other hand, is a composed and choreographed audio-visual performance piece of 50 minutes duration. Michael Vorfeld and me are percussionists, but in our individual ways we are both also extending our instruments into the performance space by different means: metal tubes and plates, resonating objects, strings going across the room, electric motors, contact mics, et cetera, but also by the use of light sources. Michael for example has this amazing solo piece called light bulb music, where he amplifies the sound of a whole variety of light bulbs switching on and off. By this he creates striking polyrhythmic fields of interrelated sound and visual flicker. I'm occasionally using specific light settings for my performances, like the use of light inside of an object or a drum, or for example moving in and out of a strong light beam while performing. At some point we had the idea to create a piece together where we apply all those diverse elements we are working with. Klirrfaktor is performed in a completely dark space and unfolds a dramaturgy of different solo and duo parts. All sound events, but also all light changes, are executed by ourselves live on stage throughout the course of the piece. There are a lot of things Michael and I have in common, but at the same time we are different enough - both, in our specific interests and in character -, that it's always very enjoyable and fruitful to work with him. I think this also explains why the unusual line-up of two percussionists plus one trumpet works so well in our trio Sawt Out (with Mazen Kerbaj).
The Fracture Mechanics quartet was something different again. All four members extended their instruments by very specific means. Lucio additonally played some pre-recorded reeds sounds through small hanging speakers suspended in the room, while Martin put little radios inside of his saxophone and Paul used glass objects to manually filter the sounds coming from his local speakers. I was playing a minimal kit of just one drum, one cymbal, and possibly a small zither. In addition I used a custom-made handheld synth with tiny built-in speakers playing with the room reflection by moving it around. In our live performances we were always looking for site-specific ways to set up. Often we spread out in the concert space, placing the audience inbetween us and Lucio’s suspended speakers, thus creating a very individual acoustic experience for each listener. Although it inevitably is lacking this spatial aspect of the group, I think that our CD pretty well captured those extensive sonic journeys we undertook together, almost like travelogues, full of contingencies.
7. The Activity Center duo (with Michael Renkel) has already turned 30 years while the Perlonex group and The Sealed Knot (with Mark Wastell and Rhodri Davies) have already turned 20. Perlonex has celebrated it with guest musicians throughout this year's anniversary: Dean Roberts, Margareth Kammerer, Valerio Tricoli, Mike Cooper, Hatam, and soon Toshimaru Nakamura and Ulrike Flaig.
I'm really enjoying to work with all these improvising groups over such a long time. They feel like some kind of anchors to me in the constant flux. Trio Sowari (with Phil Durrant and Bertrand Denzler), Tree (my electro-acoustic trio with Chris Abrahams and Andrea Ermke) and Lidingö (my duo with Andrea Neumann) also belong to this list, as rare as our occasional assignations might be. Each one of these groups has established its ideosyncratic aesthetic territory, but most of them don't play very often these days (Perlonex being an exception, at least in certain periods). But when we come together again for a concert, sometimes after a quite long gap, we hardly talk or agree beforehand at all about what we will do or how it should be. Thus each group is constantly refreshing itself even over a long stretches of time, since all members are working in many different projects in between, and thus always return with some new impact. Based on this and our strong shared grounds it's not unlikely that always again surprising new results can suddenly emerge.
8. In another order of things, I would like you to briefly remember your relationship with two musicians who, I believe, were fundamental in the early years of reductionism: one is John Bisset, the British guitarist, responsible for the 2:13 Music label in London, where some of your first projects were recorded, and creator of the first Relay, transferred as a platform and multidisciplinary artistic concept with improvising artists, later, to cities like Berlin, Athens, Madrid, New York, etc., by musicians from these different cities. Bisset left the makeshift music scene to focus on the theater, soundtracks and the 2:13 TV channel.
The other is Peter Niklas Wilson, who unfortunately is no longer among us, equally fundamental in his role as a music journalist, writer, musicologist and bassist at that time in the late 1990s - until his death in 2003. Your Yarbles album (1997) in a trio with Martin Pfleiderer would mark one of the fundamental sound axes of those first years of the new aesthetic concept of free improvisation in Berlin.
I think you're right, John and Peter were both very fundamental in those days, although or probably even more because they were both at the same time not really part of that specific "core scene". Peter as an empathic observer and important early promoter, John as a not less empathic troublemaker.
But it's funny that you hear Yarbles in this way. For me it was probably the closest I ever got to something like "Free Jazz", at least on a disc. But of course, this really depends on from which side you look at it. - In any case, we managed to capture some kind of transitional phase on Yarbles for sure.
9. Do you think reductionism had - as a new artistic expression / aesthetic of improvised music - aspects that would determine it towards a political position as European free jazz, for example, had in earlier days in labels such as FMP?
In a certain way we have arrived at almost the opposite now in comparison to the 1960s-1970s. The neoliberal movement took up speed in the 1980s and, coinciding with the end of the cold war plus the upcoming digitalisation and the triumph of the internet, riffled all cards anew. In the days of FMP or the classic phase of improvised music, if you want, it was the role of the artist to subverse and irritate a too conservative mainstream which felt kind of stuck to a lot of people within western societies. I'm just old enough to remember this impetus very well myself to be one of my main creative trigger points. But now, where everyone is provided with unlimited real time access to information, and thus feels surrounded by inscrutable conflicts, increasing social instabilities and frial democracies, the artist's role seems to have turned into something different, arguably towards proposing possible structures and meaning within an overwhelming and disorientating world of endless possibilities.
I think our way of "reacting against musical bluster and expressiveness", as Clive Bell put it back then in a Wire review on a release of our larger Berlin group Phosphor, had already a lot to do with this. Maybe a kind of intuitively felt mistrust in the back then predominant hedonism of Techno culture and the illusions of the unrestricted freedom and unlimited economical potential provided by the internet. Also, as the German historian Heinrich August Winkler wrote, it was a common belief throughout the 1990s that we had finally achieved a stable zone of democracy and peace spanning all the way from the west coast USA to the Ural. As we have seen, those illusions all collapsed shortly after. I don’t know if you could call our reaction back then political, but it clearly inherited a severe amount of cultural criticism.
10. Nowadays Berlin has surely become the capital of improvised European music where artists from all over the world also live together (a study points out in 2012 a number that exceeds 2100 musicians who have passed through the city playing in its almost 90 rooms where improvised music program, experimental, free jazz, contemporary composition, performances, etc.). In Berlin, non-German improvising musicians such as Mazen Kerbaj, Lucio Capece, Liz Allbee, Julia Reidy, Samuel Hall, Lorena Izquierdo, Guillerme Rodrigues ... have been established as residents ... attracted by the artistic activity of the city. What is your opinion about the current scene in Berlin, support from public or private institutions to these events?
It's not even 10 years ago when we were working on our book on Echtzeitmusik Berlin (Wolke Verlag, 2001). Already back then we had the strong feeling that if we want to try giving an overview of our scene, its protagonists, venues and its so far 20 year-long history, we will have to do it right now. And it turned out that we were totally right. Meanwhile I really wouldn't dare to start such a project anymore. There are so many musicians around from all over the world. Are they all based here, just traveling through or spending a couple of month in this city once a year? Also some of the new venues I only know from recognising their announcements on the Echtzeitmusik online calendar. Björn Gottstein mentioned in his contribution to the book that for him Echtzeitmusik had turned from its 'classic' phase into its 'manneristic' phase after 2002. It seems to me that it has now reached its 'post-modern' phase. All states it went through are still somehow present, but you can also see a resurrection of earlier styles or aesthetics like Free Jazz or (Post-)Rock for example. This is only partly due to the overall retro phenomenon, I think, but pobably also a new freedom, especially of younger players who might have just arrived here, not to feel dominated by the 'reductionism legacy' anymore (as some musicians in the 2000s had described it). And it seems that not only to a few of them it feels quite natural to play in a different aesthetic or style depending on the occasion.
In any case, Berlin is more than ever full of musicians and artists. Needless to say that there are good and bad sides of it. And of course, this is what we were always hoping for. That it's spreading out and also diversifies. And it's great to see that there are so many new young people on the scene, luckily not only interesting new players, but also recognisably in the audience. On the other hand most of them must have left somewhere else, often from already less vibrant or smaller places where they probably had been - or could have become - key protagonists crucial for their local scene. I can recognise that it becomes increasingly more difficult to book a halfway reasonable tour of smaller places now, for example. At the same time there are way more applicants in Berlin competing about the available city or state funding (which luckily also got significantly raised in Berlin recently. But the volunteer committees deciding about the applications have to work through hundreds of them nowadays). Another effect is that you have to invest an even larger amount of your time and energy now as a musician to work on applications, because it's inevitably less likely for each one to succeed. Time and energy that should be better invested in the art itself, but still there is not enough in it to hire a manager.
11. Among the large number of projects that could coincide on a given day to choose a concert in Berlin would be, for example, the Splitter Orchester, the Ber.I.O. (Berlin Improvisers Orchestra), and even the T.I.T.O. (The International Turntable Orchestra) that this year celebrated its 10th anniversary with a marathon of more than 10 hours. The Splitter Orchester is a group of electro-acoustic musicians where there are rules and concepts to perform improvised pieces, instead of signals in the BerIO, provided by the driver. In your case, what makes you decide to participate as a member of the Splitter Orchester?
For me the Splitter Orchester is a quite complex and at times also ambiguous experiment, not only musically, but also socially. With Splitter we keep on trying the impossible. Not only to improvise with such a large group in a "meaningful" way without using precomposed structures or a conductor, but also to even try to develop an aesthetic group identity as you do with small groups working together over a long period of time. That's why we always insist on keeping the same 24 musicians, rather than being just a pool of musicians. Once in a while a group member decides to leave and then becomes replaced. So there are transformations in the line-up, but they are rather slow ones. Of course it's not easy with so many people to get this specific constellation together again for each time you play. But it's also difficult to do this often enough to maintain a certain continuity in your collective work.
The rules and concepts you mention are mostly used by us in rehearsals. They are strategies we come up with to work against aspects we are unhappy with in our collective improvisations, stereotypes of interaction for example or too expectable kinds of collective behavior. But in concerts it's mostly about open improvisations. All we do is to hope that a certain awareness created within our rehearsals will extend the range of options we have when we play concerts. And I do recognise some positive effects there. It's just often the case that they get lost again when we have too long periods where we are not able to work together enough.
We still try to lay our main focus on our collective improvisations. But the Splitter Orchester also works with selected composers again and again (at times this can be also someone from within Splitter). The experiences we make when we work - and not rarely struggle - with the input coming from composers also has some additional interesting impact on our collective work.
12. At what stage are you musically?
It would be actually more interesting for me to hear your answer to this question. Nevertheless, there might be some useful indications to be found within the above.