In a truly minimal approach to music and art, Berlin-based sound researcher and artist Carl Schilde has released “WOW”, a record which contains just a single ultra-low frequency. The result being a record which plays you and your environment more than you play it. In advance of the release event at Berlin’s St.-Johannes-Evangelist-church, we met up with Schilde and his fellow Heavy Listening partner Anselm Nehls to talk about the record, art, and how to provoke a music enthusiast.
Your new record “WOW” consists of just one sub-sonic tone. There’s no pre-listening of the recording; it seems just like a blind leap for customers willing to buy the vinyl. What are the instructions for those interested, or (as with a new computer game) what are the minimum required hardware specs one needs to play “WOW”?
Carl Schilde: That’s hard to determine. It depends on the watts of your stereo system. There are many factors involved. The initial impulse isn’t necessarily to reproduce the set-up at home—though that’s nice to have. First of all, “WOW” is a conceptual piece of work, there have been some people who’ve bought a couple of records in order to actually reproduce my original setup. So it’s either a decision which involves agreeing on the artistic concept as well as the beautiful look of it, or on knowing what you do and what your stereo system is capable of doing soundwise. More generally speaking, it’s all about embarking on an experiment. The record will sound different on every stereo system anyway, since the signal might be reproduced weaker or stronger on your turntable, or the room you’re listening to it in will interact with the sound in a different way.
Anselm Nehls: It’s also about dealing with this sound range below 50 Hertz. You won’t usually hear that it’s there—or missing—when you play other records. It might be nice to find out that your stereo system can handle a frequency of 45 Hz, but won’t play 33 Hz. It’s a kind of benchmark test. And you can play around with frequencies and make music out of them.
Is “WOW” a kind of test pattern for sound?
CS: Of course there are test records that come with certain frequencies, but these work more as a tool. For me it’s more about the conceptual and artistic aspect.
The master record of “WOW”—titled “MOM”—sells for 33.333,33 Euros. That’s a price which fits more into the art market than a music one. Then again you’re selling copies of the master. Was the initial impulse to sell the copies or the master?
CS: The basic idea came from our first collaborative project, “Tiefdruckgebiet”. We wanted to have something that would work for people at their own place, rather than setting up twelve tuned cars at a one-off installation at a specific place. We wanted to make this available to everyone who has one or more turntables at home; and of course we wanted to sell these!
What about selling digital copies, such as WAV files?
CS: This would be of course possible, but pointless. You could reproduce the same effect on a synthesizer by playing two sinusoidal tones, but that’s not the original idea. “WOW” is about pitch shifting, or “playing your turntable”—rather than playing the record yourself. That’s where the name origins from: “wow” and “flutter” determine irregularities in the playback speed of analog recordings. Every analog device has a unique variation, and the individual characteristics of the record player become a part of the composition. Just playing a .WAV isn’t really thrilling in the context of vinyl, music and art culture.
Which reactions did you get on “WOW”?
CS: Well, the usual suspects: “Fuck off, artist” or “I could do the same on my Casio keyboard”, for example …
It’s the classic reaction towards the arts: “I could do the same.” …
CS: “… but you didn’t!” But I actually like that the reactions are very mixed. With Heavy Listening, we’ve never been attacked in this way before “WOW”. It’s kind of refreshing.
Was it supposed to be provocative?
CS: The impulse was: “Let’s do it and see how people like it.” But it’s interesting that you actually still can provoke people nowadays. I thought the Sex Pistols were the last ones in pop culture to be truly shocking.
But the provocation doesn’t result from the tone itself, but more from the pricing of the vinyl copies …
CS: Sure, it definitely has to do with artistic arrogance. It’s like selling a piece of art in an Apple computer kind of way. Some people just can’t cope with this.
AN: This is something that Heavy Listening is all about: we want to make pieces of art which aren’t that easy to understand. But we try to get them across, and we’d like to live from it; we want to live from a mass market. This is a step towards this direction, and this sometimes does not compute. This is a piece of art which is entitled to be a product, too.
While people buy an art print by René Magritte for 15 Euros at the museum’s gift shop and hang it up on the kitchen wall …
AN: And this print will cost 1 Euro in production… With “WOW” we’re talking about a limited series of 333 records, not just an unlimited print.
Is “WOW” a reaction to your latest Heavy Listening experience, the real-time visualization and sonification software “#tweetscapes”? And is it also a counterreaction to such a hypertechnological project?
AN: Both projects were created at the same time, Carl’s “WOW” project was just published a little bit later. So it’s not a reaction on another piece of work, it happended more by chance in chronological order. But it’s interesting to have a completely different approach towards sound now. It kind of showcases the broad range of what we’re up to. A Heavy Listening project doesn’t necessarily need to be like this or that.
CS: The connecting aspect is that “#tweetscapes” only worked digitally on the internet, and “WOW” only works in the analog world. I think this is quite important to us to get ourselves into a specific medium.
How exactly will your performance on Thursday night work?
CS: The release event will take place at St. Johannes-Evangelist chruch in Berlin-Mitte. There will be nothing except a black table with four turntables and four bass amplifiers. The audience will be able to play the records. I’m quite excited!
Was it important to have this event take place at a church?
Not at all. The first showcase was at Stattbad Wedding, the second one was in Linz during Ars Electronica. So this time it’s at a church.
What kind of construction material works best for the “WOW” project show?
CS: The interesting thing is always the venue itself. Stattbad is a very narrow place, while the concert space in Linz was much bigger. And of course, the setting of a church is part of the staging. Also the reverb inside a church is very interesting acoustically. Then there’s the focus aspect: when entering a church you automatically switch over into a different mood, you are calmer, more focused and attentive. But I guess I like the sacred aspect about it most—especially because of our master record “MOM”, the holy mother of “WOW”.
“WOW” and “MOM” by Carl Schilde are out now on Heavy Listening Productions (HVL003). The release event will take place at St.-Johannes-Evangelist-Church, Auguststr. 90, 10117 Berlin on Thursday, November 29th 2012, 6pm. Further events will be following in 2013.