Above: Emil Schult, Olaf Bender and Carsten Nicolai in Berlin. All photos: Hans Martin Sewcz.
As a student of Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, and Dieter Roth in Dusseldorf in the late sixties, Emil Schult found himself early on in the epicenter of Germany’s post-war cultural resurgence, absorbing the transformative artistic ideals of the day and transferring them to his work with then-obscure band Kraftwerk. While Schult never considered himself a musical equal, he soon found his place designing the band’s album covers and writing some of the group’s most poetic lyrics. Schult’s futuristic visual representations of science, technology and transport would not only become inseparable from Kraftwerk’s sound, they would also help cement electronic music’s utopian trajectory—one followed proudly by Carsten Nicolai and Olaf Bender. The Chemnitz-born musicians and owners of post-techno imprint Raster-Noton have long taken their cue in part from Kraftwerk’s sonic and visual formalism. With their recent spate of EPs as Diamond Version, the duo has chosen to invert the utopian paradigm, meditating instead on the neoliberal mottos of multinational tech corporations. Dystopia hasn’t sounded this good in years. This conversation, published in the Fall 2013 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine, find the three in a meeting of minds.
Carsten Nicolai: Preparing for this discussion, Emil, I noticed that you were born in Dessau. Olaf and I come from nearby Chemnitz which was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt back in the day. We grew up in the GDR, you in West Germany. Still, Dessau stands in my mind for the Bauhaus, and I wonder how the Bauhaus tradition was discussed or taught at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf, where you studied under Joseph Beuys.
Emil Schult: The Bauhaus was omnipresent in Beuys’s class, the reason being that one of the main protagonists in that class came from Dessau. Imi Knoebel was then collaborating with Imi Giese on various minimalist concepts. And since Beuys’s class was central to the social fabric of the Kunstakademie, it had an impact far beyond the class that continues up through today. My assistant is currently working on her bachelor’s degree in 3D textile design at the Dusseldorf University of Applied Sciences. She’s actually designing an audio headdress. I told her that she should see the headdress within a historical context, from ancient status symbol, to the crown to Oskar Schlemmer’s experiments in three-dimensional staging at the Bauhaus in Dessau.
Olaf Bender: I think it’s interesting that the Bauhaus in Dessau is surrounded by the massive English Grounds of Wörlitz, which is this classically ornate garden created in the late eighteenth century by Leopold III. It’s essentially the natural representation of romantic ideals—the opposite of the abstract functionalism they taught at the Bauhaus. Not that we were originally schooled—Carsten and I started out as autodidacts, both as musicians and as artists. But everything we learned in terms of craftsmanship somehow pointed to the Bauhaus and craftsmanship as art.
ES: How do you see the relationship between Bauhaus and music?
CN: Well, you mentioned Oskar Schlemmer, whose Triadic Ballet became the most widely performed avant-garde dance piece of its time. During Schlemmer’s stint at the Bauhaus in the twenties, his touring ballet helped spread the ethos of the Bauhaus. Also, many professors at the Bauhaus—Kandinsky and others—were interested in music.
ES: I have the impression that, more often than not, it’s artists who seek out musicians to collaborate, as opposed to the other way around. Nam June Paik’s love of John Lennon comes to mind.
CN: For us, the connection came when we were confronted with the question of how to design our record covers. Only later did we start more actively visualizing our music—that is, ignoring narrative or illustrative approaches and focusing instead on visually analyzing the sound instead, using tools such as waveform oscilloscopes to analyze and translate sound into graphic design.
ES: How important is it for you to hear what you see and see what you hear?
CN: In all honesty, we never sought contact with visual artists as much as we communicated with machines.
Above: Carsten Nicolai, aka Alva Noto, and Ryuichi Sakamoto’s first collaborative LP, Vrioon (2002). According to Nicolai: “I remember that a lot of people hated me for collaborating with Sakamoto because it meant accepting the human element. They saw the collaboration as a betrayal.” The duo would go on to make three more full-length albums together up through 2011, characterized by spaced-out rhythm, sub-bass, high pitched bleeps and Sakamoto’s delicate piano playing.
ES: Carsten, you’ve called one of your recent Alva Noto albums Univrs. When I think of the universe, I feel reminded of man’s inability to understand what’s beyond our reach. I don’t understand terms like “eternity” or “light year”. We could extend this to history as well: What are one hundred million years of evolution compared to the last two hundred years?
CN: I am not a teacher—I don’t evangelize about things, and I’ve never tried to convert or convince people of anything. My approach is rather private as opposed to, say, someone like Beuys.
ES: I actually don’t know if he tried to “convert” people to his way of thinking. I’d rather say he was a man without fear. But let me tell you a little anecdote. The electronic music that you and other musicians compose goes back to the invention of transistors. If you ask me, the transistor is one of the crucial inventions of the modern age, created by John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain at Bell Labs in the late forties. All three are now long dead. After them, a new generation helped further the field. Nick Holonyak, Jr. invented LED in 1962. He’s eighty years old now. I traveled to the States to meet him at a lecture. I remember he said: “If we turn off the transistor, the modern world will come to a standstill.” That’s a true statement. I had the honor to give a speech that evening in which I mentioned Beuys: “Being asked about the definition of beauty, Beuys answered: “Beauty is the brightness emanating from truth.” I as a painter try to incorporate beauty in my work. I also paint transistors because they are beautiful. And it is remarkable: the style and form of transistors changed over the decades, always following the tastes of their respective eras. Transistors from the sixties have a completely different aesthetic compared to the Pentium processors of our age. I told Holonyak that the beauty of the transistors to me represents the spirit of truth. The same could be said about the LED, which is a beautiful invention in itself as it will decrease the energy consumption drastically. Knowing that this invention will revolutionize the world is beautiful.
CN: You wouldn’t say Beuys preached to his audiences?
ES: He certainly was political. As our teacher, he was adamant in his approach, and I remember him always laughing. If someone would talk nonsense, he’d confront that person and discuss the nonsense until it was transfigured into something that made sense.
OB: “Beauty is the brightness emanating from truth,” I like that. But I like Mies van der Rohe’s famous statement “God is in the details,” even more. Perhaps unconsciously, over the years we’ve attempted to incorporate two definitions of beauty in our music. When we started making music, the first affordable personal computers had just come on the market. That was important because using the computer allowed us to veer away from traditional compositional constraints. And the same thing went for visuals. The computer allowed me to compose music and to design visuals at the same time with the same machine. And the most important thing for us was that we could actually see the music. Composing became a visual thing on the screen thanks to the translation of sound into waveforms. And in a way we treated music in the same way we’d design something. Repetition and harmonics became visible. For us, this was like a revolution.
Above: Joseph Beuys, filmed by Emil Schult. Schult was one of a number of well-known Beuys students, including Blinky Palermo, Jörg Immendorff and Anselm Kiefer. According to Schult: “The Bauhaus was omnipresent in Beuys’s class, the reason being that one of the main protagonists in that class came from Dessau. Imi Knoebel was then collaborating with Imi Giese on various minimalist concepts. And since Beuys’s class was central to the social fabric of the Kunstakademie, it had an impact far beyond the class that continues up through today.”
ES: Do you have a vision of how your music will sound in the future? Will it represent its time and surroundings?
OB: That’s a very heavy question. You only need two tones to create an association, but we had, have or will have a different association hearing the same two tones twenty years ago, today, or in two decades.
ES: That’s true.
OB: The big problem is that as soon as I publish a piece of music it becomes a kind of formula. I cannot repeat it. I have to move on because musically there is no point preaching to the converted. By the way, I don’t think that the frontline is defined by the dialectic of analogue versus digital. What’s far more important is whether the music manages to touch or even caress the unconscious.
ES: In other words, music has to be exploratory?
CN: How often do people want to hear from me a sentence like “The future of music is electronic.” But I won’t say it. Just because I happen to explore the field of electronic music doesn’t mean that this is the future. I think that an important part of the future will be the issues of copyright and notation. For centuries you didn’t need more than a pen and a sheet of paper to secure the copyright for a scored melody, composition or arrangement. But I belong to a generation where notes have become insufficient when it comes to defining the syncrisis of a sound. Any given sound that Olaf and I are working with cannot be limited to the fact that it was played in the key of C. Almost all of the sounds we generate have a prototypical quality. Space, time, temperature, the instrument the sound was played on, the amount of noise inherent—a sound is like a cosmic event. What I mean is, how would you notate white noise? But white noise is a key element in almost all of our compositions. I’d say that the vocabulary of sounds has increased enormously during the last one hundred years, whereas the vocabulary of defining and notating these sounds has not.
OB: Not that long ago, we didn’t have the gear to record a concert or an opera and to conserve it. But by being able to do so today we can carry around memories of specific musical performances, conducted and played by a specific cast of musicians in a specific space. As Carsten said, if I’d go to the opera house to see, say, La Traviata, I’d hear an interpretation from exact notation.
CN: I remember that moment in time when certain musicians were searching for universal harmonies, certain all-encompassing vibrations or oscillations. I’d like to mention Paul Hindemith in this context. He wrote music that seemed to embrace the idea of a musical world formula—a sonic theory of everything. Olaf and I often throw around the phrase “the ghost in the machine” regardless of whether we’re trying to squeeze out a sound from an analogue device or if we’re sitting in front of the screen handling a complex digital sound patch. The funny thing is: you only think that things have become more precise and definable thanks to the digital revolution. The truth is that everything is as obscure as it ever was.
ES: I’ve always attempted to contribute to electronic music in whatever way I was capable—be it by providing images, lyrics, or crafting objects. But the bottom line was always: How can I contribute to civilization? I often ask myself if other artists and musicians still see it as their main goal to heal people, to contribute. I ask this specifically in the context of music having become so malleable in its application, so undefined. It’s used nowadays for everything, from advertisements and background noise to torture. When huge corporations invest billions of euros into the development of new technologies ranging from useful hardware to machines of mass destruction, it only makes sense to ask whether musicians still seek universal harmony.
CN: I’d like to know what you tell your students about the conceivability of time. How long are one hundred million years? I mean, also in graphic design this is an issue. How do you design a sign that warns people unmistakably of radio activity—in Chernobyl or in Fukushima for instance—that will still be understood in ten thousand years?
ES: I always say to my students: there is something that is larger than death, and that is life. We cannot understand the universe because we are a part of it. And we should be happy about it! We will not be able to make certain assertions because we are a part of the universe. Could a slowly turning galaxy best be described with music? Could billions of stars be read like notes?
OB: I think we could come to a mutual agreement and accept wave motion as a model of describing the universe. Sound and vision are both part of the same frequency spectrum. OK, the human ear’s capability to hear frequencies is very limited. But still, the rotation of a planet is still measurable by means of a frequency.
Above, top to bottom: First Integrated Circuit 4 Transistors 1962 (2001), Logic Gate Waver (2001), Ancient Structure, (2002), Pentium (2002), Human Rights Carta (2001). Emil Schult has long been fascinated by the history of electronics. Pictured here are paintings of microchips resembling different levels of macro organization, from gridded urban sprawls to more esoteric global systems.
CN: We’ve never tried to see the world from a macroscopic perspective. On the contrary, we were always more interested in its atomic particles. I actually think we’ll observe similar phenomena and come to similar conclusions, like Mies van der Rohe said. Just take advances in granular synthesis. Or even better, the inventor of holography, Dénes Gábor, once wrote an article in response to Einstein’s discovery that light consists of small photons. Gábor wanted to find out if the same thing applied to sound, i.e. if you could find microscopic sound particles. He tried to define—according to the human ear—the moment when a sound comes into existence. Interestingly, the human ear seems to have undergone some kind of evolution because today it takes far less time to sense a sound than back then. Gábor actually called that impulse a quantum.
ES: Did you ever recheck that theory?
CN: Actually, yeah. And I was surprised how slow the human ear must have been back in the day to differentiate between the sound of a piano or that of a trumpet. Back then they claimed that the human ear needed a tenth of a second to identify a sound. I probably would say today that you’d need one tenth of that time.
OB: This to me shows how much growing up with abstract music—if not electronic music—has altered the way we perceive sound.
CN: What used to be perceived as noise we hear today as a tone or sound. Our listening habits seem to have changed completely.
OB: Our relationship with sound is culturally conditioned. In the Renaissance, our music wouldn’t have sounded like music at all.
ES: We should not forget that electronic music has become a world standard of sorts. This is connected to the frequency spectrum of the music and the new networks and the current digital music players that support that spectrum. For sure this has an effect on the “old” music with both a different spectrum and different dynamics.
OB: I know you paint on glass, Emil. Glass painting is an ancient Chinese craft, but today it also relates to all sorts of communication interfaces, especially touch screens.
ES: Norbert Tadeusz, another student from the Beuys class, told me a couple of years ago: “The aim of the artist is to improve our perception.” He said it as if he was saying: “The aim of the baker is to bake bread.” This had a crucial impact on my work. I started to paint behind glass because the computer screen—and later the touch screen—are the things we look at the majority of the time these days. And if you add the windshield of the car, normal windows or the glasses we wear, it seems we see the world through glass. I felt the obligation to reflect that in my paintings. When I started doing TV test patterns behind glass, people immediately felt drawn to them. People kept saying everything looked familiar! I still remember the time when the iPhone and similar devices, or even electronic music, were regarded as science fiction.
CN: That reminds me of cosmonauts versus astronauts, or Andrey Tarkovsky’s Solaris versus Stanley Kubrick’s A Space Odyssey. But the Cold War sci-fi competition, it went far deeper. I remember that our schoolbooks in the GDR were full of comparisons. And I imagine that it was the same in the West.
OB: When we were growing up in the East, science fiction still mostly had positive connotations. The year 2000 was synonymous with a brighter future. And all the soundtracks for these films were made of electronic music. Electronic music was closer to the unheard, I guess. I mean, take Eduard Aternev’s brilliant scores for Solaris or Stalker . . .
CN: I once recorded my own electronic score for Solaris, just for myself.
ES: Do either of you deal with acoustic instruments?
CN: I think the use of acoustic instruments in electronic music will become more important in the future because I believe in metamorphoses and permeability. As soon as genres isolate themselves from others they run the danger of becoming irrelevant.
ES: Is this why you continue collaborating with Sakamoto?
CN: I remember that a lot of people hated me for collaborating with Sakamoto because it meant accepting the human element. They saw the collaboration as a betrayal.
ES: At the Dusseldorf Music Academy they used to have a break time bell sound composed by Karlheinz Stockhausen. They recently got rid of it though. This goes hand in hand with a tendency toward supporting conventional classical music. Whenever I enter the school, I hear people rehearsing the trumpet, the viola or the cello . . . The young and serious students who’ve opted for electronic music are somewhere else, or maybe just at home. Or maybe they’re all just using headphones.
CN: That doesn’t surprise me. Unlike ten or twenty years ago, the tools of production have become affordable. You don’t need the academy anymore to emulate a recording studio. That’s the big difference compared to Stockhausen’s era or even to when Kraftwerk were getting started.
OB: Today it’s more difficult to find a well-tuned piano than a fully equipped recording studio for electronic music. I still remember when the sampler became available for the first time. Back then, almost everybody tried to sample or to emulate the sound of a piano or the sound of a horn section. It took some time until someone finally used the sampler as something other than a tool of imitation.
CN: I am currently reading a book about Joy Division. You probably have heard about that legendary concert the Sex Pistols played in Manchester in 1976 at the Lesser Free Trade Hall. Bernard Sumner and Peter Hook, separately from each other, came to the conclusion that they could also form a group like that—which wouldn’t have been possible if they had been playing super expensive Steinway grand pianos—the instrument itself simply isn’t affordable! I think everybody has those I-can-do-that moments.
ES: In my case it was when I was nineteen or twenty years old. I just didn’t want to listen to the music I was forced to hear on the radio. So I started to buy vinyl electronic music from Philips. There were only a couple of albums available at all in the sixties, and I played them to death. It seemed as if it took ages until more than just a few bands started experimenting with synthesizers. In 1964 I attended the World Expo in New York, and of course I visited the Futurama II exhibition. For the first time I was confronted with sounds that sounded as if they came directly from the future. The illusion was perfect. Suffice it to say that many of the things that were presented as utopian in the exhibit became reality, like the moon landing or the colonization of the Antarctic. For me, electronic music was the soundtrack to the future as we Westerners imagined it.
CN: The funny thing is that in the meantime electronic music has become a fixed aspect of everyday culture. At least I don’t connect it anymore to utopian ideals . . .
OB: Come on! I remember when we were children and we couldn’t believe Kraftwerk’s sounds . . .
CN: But that happens less and less these days.
ES: Before I forget, I want to pay you my respect for what you’ve achieved with Raster-Noton and Diamond Version. What you guys do on a musical level is defined by beauty and simplicity.
OB: Thanks. Kraftwerk were also inventors of sounds. And since we talked about sampling before, I want to stress that I always would support the idea that you can sample whatever you want, including an original sound by Kraftwerk. But you’re also somehow obliged to alter the sound to the point of unrecognizability. Otherwise it would be a rip-off.
ES: But few musicians question the use of pre-set sounds these days . . .
OB: Well, today’s software encourages you to think in pre-set patterns. The whole idea of the loop resembles a dogma that you actively have to question as an artist.
ES: Are you talking about ethics or aesthetics in terms of producing electronic music?
CN: A kind of ethics, I suppose.
OB: It feels so normal to appropriate from others because the technical possibilities make it so damn easy. And don’t forget that these same technical possibilities fuel and accelerate the creative processes. It’s clear that this leads to clashes with copyright infringement.
ES: Van Gogh didn’t invent sunflowers either . . .
Above: AG Geige’s Trickbeat from 1989. Before Raster-Noton, Olaf Bender was a member of one of the only great East German bands to ever release an album on the state run Amiga label. With fellow Raster-Noton founder Frank Brettschneider as the group’s unofficial leader, AG Geige’s disarming, Dadaist lyrics and minimal postpunk/electronic sound made them a kind of East German version of Die Tödliche Doris—albeit with thick Saxonian accents and a penchant for self-made costumes. In 2012, director Carsten Gebhardt released the documentary AG Geige – Ein Amateurfilm, soon to be out on DVD.
OB: Every artist has a different point of view, and this way of looking at things certainly is connected to the context you grew up in. I mean, how often were we asked whether sounds or snippets of our music could be used in a different context, for instance in an advertisement? And if we ask for the conditions and how much money we’d get for giving permission, we sometimes hear that if we don’t give permission, they’d just emulate our original sound. And there again we have the question of ethics . . .
CN: Then again certain styles of music, such as hip hop, would have never seen the light of day without aggressive sampling. Being socialized in Germany and knowing about the legacy of CAN, Neu! and Kraftwerk, we sort of grew up with the certainty that you can create something truly original without having to rip-off others.
ES: I think that we have to convey that to new generations. Everything seems to have already been invented, compared to the sixties. But you can’t be pessimistic. Just because poverty sometimes begets creativity doesn’t mean that when you’re rich you don’t have to be inventive anymore. As a musician working in the field of electronic music, you have to force yourself harder to experiment.
CN: You simply can’t allow yourself to think formulaically. If you only use common sense you can’t be surprised when nobody takes any notice. Although when we started to make music, we failed big time.
ES: I like that! What went wrong?
CN: We recorded everything very carefully but when we tried to play it on our computer speakers, we couldn’t hear anything. Our compositions consisted only of very high tones and very low sub-basses. Nowadays, the speakers of laptops are much better, but back then… Anyhow, due to that experience we learned and put more effort into customizing our frequencies. And maybe that’s one of the reasons why our tracks stand out from the mainstream.
ES: It’s what you’d call learning by doing. I recently walked into a store in Cologne that sells LED equipment, and they’ve become insanely rich over the past few years. I asked them a simple question: Do you know who you owe your wealth to? Do you know who invented the LED? Of course, they didn’t. But I think the world would be a better place if they would have. It’s the same in the field of electronic music: show me a musician who knows how a sample is saved at 48,000 Hz on a chip or transistor. There’s a lack of interest! But it is actually utterly interesting to track the stories behind the surfaces. Who did it? Where was it programmed? For instance, to emulate the sound of a violin, during the early eighties, legions of programmers at the Center for Artificial Intelligence in Berkeley, California, had to write endless columns of code. They invested months and years in writing code for the simplest things. But it was necessary, as a foundation. And finally, they’d programmed one second of violin. And everybody applauded. But they didn’t stop. They continued to program and to write code, thousands of people. And we consumers swipe with our fingers over the stunningly beautiful surface of our touch screens and take everything for granted—even though it’s all real-life science fiction. I have always tried to understand and look deeper than the surface, even though I admit that I am totally fascinated by the brilliant surfaces that we touch and caress with our fingertips.
CN: Where we grew up in Chemnitz was once the world’s epicenter for textiles. The Jacquard machine—an automated version of the weaving frame—to me is one of the first mechanical computers. We know the machines, and we know the punch cards that are perforated in a specific pattern representing certain data to be read by the Jacquard weaving frame. Each punch card will be translated by the machine to one specific weaving pattern. So, when I witnessed the various stages of the digital evolution, I could always relate to processes I had seen with that machine. In that sense I already had a general understanding when I was digitalizing sounds.
OB: We live in an era where it is easy to get all the information that you need to understand a certain process. I don’t necessarily need to attend a lecture at university to thoroughly study and comprehend a specific problem. Let’s just say that understanding a process doesn’t mean mastering its crafts.
CN: Olaf and I work on computers all the time. Or to be more precise: we work on the user interfaces the computers provide. It becomes more and more difficult to understand what’s happening and thus to avoid the possibility of being manipulated by the machine.
ES: Do you write code yourself?
CN: Of course! We program our own software and we design our own user interfaces. We’ve even designed our own control panels for our live concerts. Writing code and designing interfaces is part of our daily life. This is actually essential to defend and to underline our own musical DNA.
OB: But if I could choose, I’d rather focus on the music instead of writing code. For me, these peripheral aspects have become increasingly annoying.
ES: Isn’t it interesting that in order to achieve a truly unique signature sound you have to become an instrument designer of sorts?
CN: Interesting yes—but also annoying. And it doesn’t stop there. When we play shows, we also have visuals that are triggered algorithmically by the music.
ES: What about your other artistic activities? Do you experience similar obstacles?
CN: I’d say there are fewer obstacles when it comes to designing record sleeves. It’s funny, but if Olaf or I see a well designed book with good typography from the sixties we immediately feel happy. Buying it we feel like children getting a new toy.
OB: When I jot down notes, I always try to write with my left hand even though I am right-handed. Well, actually, I am left-handed, but back in the day children were forced to learn to write with their right hands, no ifs or buts. By forcing myself to write with my left hand and undo that injustice, I end up with a very specific handwriting.
ES: You could start in my studio: painting behind glass means to paint inverted and backwards.
CN: Do you have to use specific colors for glass painting?
ES: No, it’s customized acrylic paint that I use mostly. But I also use metals—gold, silver, copper. This especially makes sense because I paint chips and transistors that are built with these materials. I still fancy the idea that one day I’ll be able to paint a picture with these metals and then be able to switch it on.
CN: This would make it a screen then, no?
ES: I’d actually prefer to hear a tone when it goes on. Because I still think that music should have the goal to touch us on a very profound level, the same way famous paintings escort some of us throughout our lives. Once you’ve seen certain works by Goya or Caravaggio or Da Vinci as a child, you’ll never forget it. They engrave themselves into your memory. Certain tones or intervals can do the same. Music can be uplifting. It can cure people. ~
Diamond Version play the Raster-Noton showcase at Berghain on Friday, November 8th with Emptyset, Frank Bretschneider, Atom TM, and more. This text first appeared first in Electronic Beats Magazine N° 35 (3, 2013). Read the full issue on issuu.com or in the embed below.