I met Raster-Noton’s Grischa Lichtenberger during one of the last summer days here in Berlin. Thanks to the great cooking expertise of our editor-in-chief Max Dax we all had lunch together and, later, shared thoughts while sitting on our enormous roof terrace (yes, you’re also invited—just drop me a line). Born and raised close to Bielefeld (SchneiderTM anyone?) he never formally studied music or art, but thanks to his art loving parents he felt the need to have an artistic output early on. Last week the time finally arrived for his first proper release entitled And.IV (inertia) on one of our favorite labels. Carsten Nicolai‘s Chemnitz-based Raster-Noton. Home of the likes of Vladislav Delay, Alva Noto, Emptyset, Frank Bretschneider, to name but a few.
Images are a major element of your overall work as an artist. I originally became aware of your work through a music video of yours before your first EP was released. Would you describe the relationship between your music and videos as a kind of symbiosis?
I don’t know, it feels like the symbiosis always fails. I seem to move between things I’m working on and sometimes they come together. I would start working on something, like a painting, but then I wouldn’t have the discipline to follow it through to the end. I’d just leave it for a few days and think about it before I would come back and try and put the pieces together. The music is more like a shadow, an excursion from my other art.
So is the foundation of your art sound or images? What is your idea of progress?
That’s a difficult question to answer. I would say that the foundation is my thoughts because they are what enable me to have a plan of what I am going to do. It’s not like I first think, “Ok, I’m going to make music, so I need to do that and that”. If anything builds the foundation, then it is thinking about the language I want to use. On the other hand, I don’t think you should find ways to legitimize or explain things that were already there after the fact. When I think about it historically, particularly as a child, music was never a “foundation”—it was more about just making sounds.
But did you go through a learning process where you discovered music and composition?
My parents listened to a lot of music and my brother had his own label which put out my first release. It was clearer to my brother much earlier that I should concentrate on music. I was always somewhat indifferent to it—I wanted to do all sorts of other things.
You’re originally from Bielefeld, is that right?
I was born in Bielefeld but spent most of my early childhood in a little village nearby. The closest neighbors were actually five kilometres away, so it was pretty rural. Then I went to Düsseldorf for two years. I originally wanted to go to the Academie, but I wasn’t accepted. That was actually a blessing because it forced me to make art for its own sake rather than look for a reason or an excuse from the outside. What happened in Düsseldorf was probably the “foundation” for me, or at least the formation of the idea about how to reflect on being in a new city and how the city, and particularly the river Rhine, made me feel.
As a young man with so much going on all around you, how did you find the peace and frame of mind to focus on these ideas and influences like the Rhine?
With the landscape references, it’s not as though I sit down next to the Rhine and try to take in what I hear. Because there are so many uninterpretable influences there I asked myself what was behind it all, what the non-exchangeable information was that made sense of me being in that city at that time. It was more like a search for biographical roots, asking myself where things came from and why I thought about things the way that I did. It was about finding metaphors and tools so that I could weave it all into a context or a discourse. I suppose it came from a need for self-defence or definition.
From the need to have an artistic output?
Yes, to be able to say that I was going to do something that isn’t purely about economics, to try instead to provide some sense of meaning and values. In order to do that I needed to know for myself what is valuable and what has meaning for me. I wasn’t in a DJ context or an academy where in principle everything flows more naturally, where you have a discourse that you can grow into and find your own space within. I was on my own and I had to find out for myself where I wanted to go.
How did you come to the tools that you use to reach these self-defined goals?
It came out of coincidence in terms of discipline tools or production tools. It was a coincidence that during the time I was in Düsseldorf t Web 2.0 and tools such as Myspace were starting to really take off. They enabled you to put HTML text together and send things around easily to communicate with people that otherwise you would never have reached. For me that was a really important because I was living in a kind of isolation in a city where I didn’t know anybody. That form of communication was on the one hand very direct and focussed, in my case, on people and music. On the other hand it’s very broad and open, which I found great. It’s not really possible to do that anymore, because things are more temporally organised, like with Twitter, where the information just rolls in. The Web 2.0 thing was more about the platform.
Do you have blogs or use platforms like Facebook then?
I still use Facebook, but it doesn’t really lead to much. It’s good as an email communication platform and for making networks, but it doesn’t have the feel that Myspace did back then, and it doesn’t function very well as an organ for distribution. I still use it as an archive, but it doesn’t work to facilitate that kind of exchange.
Speaking of distribution, when did you realise that you had reached the stage where you had “done your research” so to speak, and now had an artistic product to offer?
It never really happened like that, at least up until now. I never thought, “Ok, I have reached a certain quality of recordings, now I’ll send them around”. It really happened through Myspace when Carsten wrote to me and said that he liked my music and that I should send him a demo. I was kind of speechless when I got that news, because I knew about Carsten Nicolai and Ryuichi Sakamoto, and I thought that these guys were on a whole other level. Then I kind of fell into this world and I’m still finding my way around. I’m not that confident in this whole world. I mean, I love doing it and have heaps of fun, but it’s a challenge to see a record get put out through a distribution organ that has such a regular output. I had ideas about how to distribute art, that I would send certain works to certain people, rather than put out a general release. That is something that I still find difficult to come to terms with.
Being pinned down to the 22 tracks on your record?
No, being pinned down isn’t really the problem. It was more the idea of playing a concert with people in front of me who would get excited about my music, and me standing there as a symbolic figure for the sound, to receive applause for work that I would only in some limited sense be “doing”. I find that overwhelming, and perhaps not truly in fitting with my character.
There are usually major differences between the sound of official releases that electronic artists put out and their live performances. How do you approach your live performances?
So far as this kind of music is concerned, I prefer the label “recording artist” because what I do is mainly focussed around recording sounds and manipulating them. That is difficult to translate over to a “live” context. Firstly, because much of my music is created by sequencing single tones, and I don’t really work with modules or patches or anything advanced like that. This means that live performance is difficult, not just because of my character but also because of my equipment. With the new release I am more able to improvise live because the tracks partly evolved from my experiences playing live, which makes things a bit more modular and free. This of course makes it more fun for me. Compared to groups like Mount Kimbie or James Blake, and this new range of electronic musicians who perform with drum patterns or drum pads or whatever, it’s still a pretty boring, guy-standing-in-front-of-a-laptop setup. For me, it’s more ideologically important that electronic music shows that even dilettantes like me can make music. I mean, it’s not about being the next Franz Liszt standing up there and being feted by the public, but rather about the music itself. My live performances are certainly different to what is on the record. I use parts of those sounds, including longer passages, but at the same time there are elements that are only used live. In that sense it gives a kind of current view into my working process, because I will play my latest tracks that I find the best.
Given that you’re also a visual artist, do you have an optimal space for your performances, such as a concert hall?
At the beginning of November I’m playing in Berghain, and the sound system there is amazing. I played there last year in November and that was a lot of fun, it’s such a great space. As long as the music can be played really loud but still sound crisp, that’s my ideal location. Sitting-down concerts are difficult but it’s good that my music isn’t just for the dancefloor and that people can sit down and analytically listen. I have played some great shows in spaces where people are sitting down and the visual aspects of my performance can have a bigger role.
Given your connection to Raster-Noton, have you been to Chemnitz?
I played in Chemnitz once. I didn’t go to the so-called “headquarters”, but I did play in a great location in an old jail. Acoustically it wasn’t too good, but the atmosphere and mood there was excellent. There was an exhibition with local artists, and every artist had their own prison cell. The exhibition there was actually better than most of the things I’ve seen in Berlin. Life in the provinces actually has a positive effect on art, you’re often more able to expand on ideas and actually have an opinion.