Every time I speak with Bernd Friedmann, I get a little less dumb. At the risk of sounding pretentious, I’ll admit that chatting with the German experimental producer also known as Burnt Friedman makes me realize how much time I waste thinking about unimportant things, because he illuminates the bullshit that cloaks most peoples’ understanding of music.
Bernd’s own work taps into laws that exist outside of Western conventions. His latest album, Cease To Matter, a collaboration with vocalist Daniel Dodd-Ellis, illuminates music’s elemental properties by drawing out powerful codes which aren’t man-made and transcend us all. We had a long discussion over cups of tea that covered the limitations of musical formulas, how Western individualism shapes music, and the role physics plays in building primordial rhythms.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable with your relationship to the non-Western musical tropes that you explore?
I feel very much at home with this. Maybe it’s because I’ve always looked for things I don’t understand in the first place. I’m attracted to music that I don’t understand and that sounds interesting, first of all. It could have been any kind of music. I’m not focused necessarily on Indonesian music, I just want to get over the problem of the territorial grasp on music. We talk about Afro-beat, Brit-pop, Celtic folk—no matter which letter of the alphabet you chose, you’ll be able to find a territory attached to a musical genre. This is the way we handle music, but it’s totally against the nature of music. I think that music’s greatest feature lies in the unities that exist beyond cultural borders, in it’s constant development and mutative nature. All the influences that are now available through the Internet allow us to develop more interesting music than was ever possible, so I don’t get why people assimilate and cling to formulas.
It’s like someone’s social perception of himself has more influence on his music than music itself. There’s often no attempt to think of the singularities or unities in music and sound.
In the West, most music is dominated by [the idea of] people expressing themselves. In pop music, everything is concerned with the singer and the rest of the band members are, more or less, replaceable employees—the emphasis is on the bandleader. The concept of the leader is very strong in Western music, but how can you have a band with a leader? It defeats the concept of a band.
It’s as if, without the voice, people can’t deal with the music. For the average listener, it’s not “real music” unless someone sings. In jazz, it’s about an individual achievement, someone’s individual skills. And look at the way we rate music, for instance. In music magazines, you have the top 100 DJs, ranked first, second, third and so forth. It has nothing to do with music. It reflects the society we live in, which is concerned with marketing and making money.
It seems like people are aware of that, yet there isn’t a huge desire to try and circumvent these narrow aspects of our cultural perspective. It seems like the instinct to resist these forces you talk about is rare.
It’s quite rare, yes—we don’t question these things. To me, one of the fundamental differences between Western and non-Western music is that Westerners must think in terms of differentiation. Each artist has to have his own signature and to develop a set of characteristics rather than sounds. Non-Western music is about concordances. That’s why so much of the global music vocabulary fits together so well. On one hand, there are local variations, but the way different cultures make music is universal. The same rules apply to folk music traditions in Indonesia or West Africa. They may have different harmonic scales, but there are concordances in a lot of the music.
What are some of those concordances that you see between those disparate cultures, which are thousands of kilometers apart from each other?
Simply everything that’s not man-made. It’s also laws in music, cosmic law. All those laws in existence are not man-made, because people cannot invent laws; they can only discover them.
So you’re saying this is more a matter of biology.
I wouldn’t say biology, but physics. “Physics,” from the Greek origin of the word, means “nature.” It’s how you move. (Bernd begins to drum simple patterns on his legs) I claim that, if you don’t have Western influence and you have your hands and a drum, you’ll eventually discover certain natural motion sequences. You’ll find all sorts of rhythm cycles that are not 4/4, but feel as natural as 4/4. 4/4 would just be one of a different set of rhythm cycles that can always be more complicated and longer, so there’s an unlimited variety.
It’s like how it appears in architecture, in the pyramids. Same with the 90 degree angle, it’s a kind of geometry, it’s completely natural, like the octave. The octave is simply doubling and halving: one makes two, and two makes four, and four makes eight. Overtones are also natural. There’s nothing man-made about it. People who play strings will discover the harmony in there and simply apply it.
You can only walk a certain way, dance a certain way. This is where the rhythms come from. I think they have a lot to do with people’s daily lives. In history, when people danced, they’d often have percussion instruments strapped to their feet. When they danced, it would only be possible to move in a certain way. I’m pretty sure that rhythms, beats, and grooves are derived from dance movements.
Sometimes, I ask people how they feel about the idea of locating musical phenomena that are irrevocably true. For instance, a beat at a certain speed is going to turn into a certain pitch, and you can prove that in an experiment, so it’s not man-made. But almost every person I speak to is deeply opposed to it. There are objective things in music that are really important and unify all sorts of music and all sorts of sounds, yet people don’t want to think about that.
I’ve had the same experience. It is simply because their thinking is based on misconceptions. Knowledge is not connected to ancient knowledge anymore. I would probably say that it’s connected to the Western focus on the role of the individual that I mentioned earlier. Maybe that’s why the whole “natural law” idea intimidates your friends. It appears to be a threat for them because this concept of individual value is at stake.
You know the Big Bang theory. Lots and lots of money has been spent on experiments. It’s totally legitimate to confront the notion of this concept, but those interesting, inquisitive people can’t get very far in these institutions because they’re considered a threat to those systems. Lets say there are thousands of physicists involved in the particle accelerator. When they have meetings, who would have the balls to question what they’re doing? They all want to keep the thing going and keep spending money. Every now and again, they deliver some discovery to the public under doubtful circumstances. So to me, the problem is not confined to music, but in music it’s more obvious. And since I know a little bit more about music, I have the suspicion that we’re pretty brainwashed.
Burnt Friedman’s latest album, Cease To Matter, landed earlier this month via Nonplace Records. Find it here.