The Festivals Fighting To Preserve Latin American Music

Newly established festivals Comunité in Tulum, Mexico and Manana in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba share a similar mission: to provide musical platforms for their local communities. Their models represent a departure from more traditional electronic music events that often import foreign talent and forgo indigenous musical traditions. We sat down with Juan Del Valle of Comunité and Harry Follett of Manana to talk about the importance of preserving Latin America’s musical heritage, the philosophies governing their respective festivals and the collaborations that they’re planning for the coming year.

Juan Del Valle: We decided to start Comunité because of our profound love for music and Mexico and because there aren’t any local festivals in the Riviera Maya—the area where you can find Tulum, Playa Del Carmen and Cancún. By “local festivals,” I mean events that are produced by Mexicans and that work alongside local communities. This festival is one of our ways of decolonizing our country and supporting the communities around us. We integrate the area’s culture into the event as much as we can by giving design and construction jobs to indigenous communities, as well as by permitting the sale of local crafts and goods within the event.

We wanted Comunité take place in Tulum because my partner David House and I are both deeply inspired by the ancient Mayan cultures that used to live here. These civilizations had a great connection with nature, and we try to translate these values into the ethos surrounding the event. Everything used in the festival, like beverage cups and stage designs, are made from compostable materials. This obviously skyrockets the cost of production, but it’s a risk that we’re willing to take in order to make people more conscious of the ecological and cultural richness that the space has to offer. We also try to focus on bringing together different micro scenes and artists from Latin-America that aren’t typically seen in the same place. Over the course of the last two years, we’ve worked with artists from Peru, Argentina, Colombia, Chile and Cuba. These connections that Comunité has to the local community are what makes it such a unique initiative.

Harry Follett: Manana is similar—it’s really because of the musical richness of Santiago and the people there, like our co-founder Alain Garcia Artola, that this festival exists. I initially went out to Cuba a few years ago with the intention of recording with Alain and studying percussion, but the teachers I had were so open and so interested in helping me get involved in the culture and the musical community there that I ended up staying. This was how the festival was born. After only a couple of months of studying and listening to rumba, and other forms of the Haitian and Yoruba styles of music found in Santiago, Alain and I kept asking ourselves, “How does this relate to electronic music? How does this relate to electronic artists? How can we make a musical connection here?” This was the most fun part about creating the festival for me, because it meant thinking about how to make a coherent lineup and a party that multiple cross-sections of musicians could enjoy. It’s a real job to be able to create a platform for people from different cultures to share their knowledge and to collaborate together in a meaningful way.

JDV: Yeah. I also really want to support local artists, but sometimes it’s difficult to grow a scene from scratch and to break with the brand names that are capitalizing off of our country. I used to work in corporate banking for eight years, and I interacted with a lot of oil, construction and mining companies. These imported festivals work in the same way as other big corporate organizations that lack real, non-marketing-focused interactions with local communities and artists. It’s kind of like a blurry smoke screen within the local economy, since in the long run, all of that capital generated leaves a hole in the country’s growth. They’re just soulless entertainment centers. Comunité is a response to this phenomenon. We book Latin American talent and partner with local initiatives to promote the colorful art that we as Latinos have to offer. One of my dreams would be to start making more of an impact on electronic music events by booking Mexican artists at European festivals instead of the inverse.

HF: Totally. It’s really hard to get a scene going organically—especially in Santiago de Cuba, where people haven’t had any exposure to electronic music. I wanted Manana to be a collaborative experience that allowed electronic music and local music to meet. We invited some international electronic music artists to come in the month before the festival so that they could meet local musicians, see ceremonies and reggae street parties and immerse themselves in the music so that when they did work with Cuban musicians for the festival, it was a balanced musical exchange. Soundspecies from the UK did a brilliant collaboration with a local bembe group called Ache Meyi, which drew on Santiago de Cuba’s Haitian influences. We also had Nicolas Jaar in the studio recording with musicians from the rumba group Obbatuke. Some of these groups have stayed in contact and are continuing to make music—I think about seven in total.

JDV: I’m really amazed that a festival like yours is happening, Harry. It says a lot about the cultural shift that’s going on in Latin America these days. I immediately fell in love with Manana the moment I saw electronic music mixed with Latin artists. I’m super, super amazed with all of the work you’ve done.

HF: Well, you helped us a lot in the early stages. You were one of the first people who got in touch, and we hit it off straight away in terms of our taste and our goals to integrate local music with electronic music. It’s because of people like you and the rest of the team at Comunité that we got the contacts we needed in the local music industry. I think you’d agree that the connection between Mexico and Cuba is an important one musically, and it’s good to be able to do something practically to support it.

JDV: Yeah, there are a lot of genres that people listen to in both countries. The majority of people in Mexico and Cuba listen to salsa, cumbia and rumba. A lot of this music started in Cuba, and from Cuba it branched out into almost a thousand other sub-genres throughout Central and South America. I think what you and I have tried to do is to bridge a cultural divide that’s absent in a lot of European festivals. We’re both really interested in connecting what’s going on at a global level with Latin America’s musical roots.

HF: And more than its musical roots, its spiritual roots. A lot of the Cuban music at Manana has origins in African religions, all of which have developed in unique ways on the island. We made sure to spend time with influential priests and figureheads within these communities to ensure that we were developing Manana in a way that was respectful, and to understand what was allowed in performances. You can’t use certain drums in certain spiritual performances, for instance. You can’t change the structure of certain songs. You have to understand the hierarchy of the players. And if you’re visiting people’s houses, you have to understand how their religion works. A lot of the culture there is about respect.

JDV: With all of this organization and coordination in mind, do you think that you’ll be able to put Manana on again this year?

HF: We have plans in place for our second festival to take place in February 2018. All of our efforts so far this year have been going into showcasing the best collaborations from Manana 2016 at The Barbican in London, as well as launching Manana Records. Our first release by Santiago’s rumba pioneers Obbatuké just came out, and there will be two pretty incredible collaborative albums out by Ariwo and Soundspecies before The Barbican show this May.

JDV: The Mexican crowd is really interested in Manana, and it would be great to work on doing more co-productions between our festivals, like when Comunité brought Manana artists like DJ Jigüe to play last year. Maybe we can showcase some Latin American artists at Comunité first and then bring them down to Cuba.

HF: That would be amazing. I think we need to do everything we can to make sure there’s a lot of sharing going on between the electronic scenes in Mexico and Cuba, and to create new musical projects that cut it on a world level. The thing to think about moving forward is that this connection shouldn’t only be about the frequency of how many times we can have Cuban DJs playing in Mexico and how often we can have Mexican DJs coming to Cuba. I think what’s really important is giving local and visiting artists more musical references so that they can really experiment with the sounds, rhythms and melodies of Latin American countries.

Cover photo of Manana courtesy of Harry Follett.

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Aybee On Why Cookie-Cutter Techno Has Got To Go

Armon Bazile has carved out a unique identity in the world of electronic music. His music as Aybee seeks to shake off the rigidity of homogenized house and techno, and the influence of jazz looms large over his works, especially his Miles Davis-inspired collaborative album with Afrikan Sciences, Sketches Of Space. With improvisation guiding both his live and studio work and that of his associates, Bazile bares influence from pioneers like Sun Ra. His latest LP, The Odyssey, contemplates his life and draws on familiar signifiers, but it also reaches into new territory. We sat him down with esteemed Chicago-based music writer and curator John Corbett to explore the deeper meaning behind Sun Ra’s work and examine the roles that improvisation and experimentation serve in times of political and social upheaval. Corbett is well placed to discuss such issues, as he’s the acclaimed author of books such as Travelling The Spaceways: Sun Ra, The Astro Black And Other Solar Myths and A Listener’s Guide to Free Improvisation.

Aybee: I think [the current political climate] enhances the importance of what we do. I’ve always said musicians operate on a plane above religion and politics and we’re able to connect people that have political differences. As a musician I travel to different countries and play music to different people, and although we may not even share a common tongue, the notes and chords that bring us together are a higher language. Especially when there’s this type of divergent energy in the world where people are getting clannish and tribalistic, it’s very important for us to lead the way and show how we are connected and how we stay connected.

John Corbett: I think there’s a definite relationship between making sound in the world and being aware of the world that you live in. Even for somebody like Sun Ra, who in some ways theorized being removed from the world, being here and being tied into terrestrial politics was a very important part of his early writings. As he moved along in his own thinking he got further from that, but those early writings were particularly interesting to me because they represented him literally on the ground out in the park handing out pamphlets. He was, in his own very special way, fighting for African American rights in the world and fighting for a kind of global identity rather than some kind of recognition in the United States. The way I think about improvisation, for instance, is that one is not just making things about being in the world, but one is in the world while making things. The time frame of it is condensed, so I think of improvising as a microcosm of political or social activity. It all boils down to something that you’re doing with other people or alone as a model social entity.

A: Improvisation is everything for me: it’s breathing; it’s the essence of humanity. There’s a big discussion here in Berlin with the younger techno kids about how certain sounds have become so dominant, so predictable—an industrialized cookie-cutter formula—that it just rips all the humanity out of the music. What people adore about early electronic music is that people were reflecting their own personalities onto the machines. What you’re saying is that we’re all affected by our environment, and how you translate that with your instrument is your personal statement. For me, studying nature and trying to be in tune with my surroundings when I create music is very important.

JC: I love listening to what you do because you don’t follow that cookie-cutter. There’s a sense of looking for new sounds and exploring them and putting them together in different ways that aren’t particularly regimented. I’ve been writing a little bit lately about early electronic music—particularly in Germany—and I might see it just a little bit differently, but I think it’s related to the way that you’re talking about it. Look at the early years of Kraftwerk, for instance: you see them coming from a communal hippie context originally and then rigorously rejecting that. They didn’t strip personality away, but they stripped away the pre-existing assertion that music should be emotional and have personality as the most important element. I don’t think that’s the way the most interesting music is made now, because back then it was a reaction against the dominant form and now it is the dominant form in electronic music, and what’s much more interesting is where there’s personality. Diminishing personality at that moment was an extremely radical move, and it allowed us to do something completely different as listeners. Now, who cares? It’s not so interesting any more.

A: It’s like a lot of people are going for shock value, but if you know it’s coming it doesn’t shock you. Everything now is about being louder or harder. I really had to learn a lot when I moved to Berlin. I came into a field where everything was more regimented and people were like, “Why did you take the snare here and put it there?” Even my hip-hop friends would listen to some of my slower tempo music and say, “Well that’s not hip-hop because you’re using this type of kick drum.” Isn’t it about the artist and what I’m trying to say? Everything has become such a formula that we’ve lost the identity in it.

J: Considering the persistence of pulse, I noticed you’re more open to dropping the pulse for periods of time and having sections with a stretching or changing of time in these ways that I am unaccustomed to hearing from that world. For me that’s a very important part of fostering improvisation, because I feel like the beat can end up being an overly dominant force, especially if you’re playing with other people, but even when you’re playing solo. I wondered what you thought about that?

A: The drum is a part of the language; it’s a word in the sentence. The way I hear the instruments, they all have their individual purpose and meaning and they do things individually. They also do things collectively. Listening to Sun Ra, you have all of these complex harmonies and all of these things that he was doing, and people would say, “That’s just a big mess.” But as your ear listens a bit more acutely you go, “Oh!” I feel like when you’re dealing with harmonies and melodies and polyrhythms and you’re trying to layer a lot of instruments to make some complex statements, you’ve either gotta go for it or you don’t, and I feel that here people just do what the marketplace rewards. And if the marketplace says, “This is what people want—keep doing it,” that’s one type of artist. But then there’s another type of artist that tries to express themselves and grab as many tools as possible to get their point across. For me the principle thing that I got from Sun Ra was his reckless pursuit of what he was doing harmonically and rhythmically. No boundaries; no handcuffs. For me, in my label and with everybody else that I’ve tried to associate myself with sonically, that’s the house on top of the hill that we’re trying to get to. We’re chasing something and we don’t quite know what it is, but we know it when we hear it. I know that I can’t get there by restricting myself to a monochromatic outlook on sound. That’s the ethos of the label. Miles going electric and the whole ‘70s jazz fusion era—that’s a big influence on myself and a lot of my other guys. Sun Ra was there way before a lot of them even began to take that leap, but what those guys were doing was utterly fascinating. When I started doing music, I wanted to pick up where they left off and keep running with it.

JC: Sun Ra called the musicians he was working with “tone scientists.” I like that sense that it’s something you have to take very seriously. He had these two terms that he came back to again and again: “discipline” and “precision.” What I take from having spent a little bit of time with him and a lot of his associates is that if you have two different bands playing the craziest, wildest music you can imagine, there might be one that’s disciplined and precise and one that’s not, and your job as a listener is to be able to tell the difference. With his band, that meant that they had to dedicate themselves to living together and working together at any time. Sun Ra called rehearsals at three o’clock in the morning, and they’d all come downstairs half asleep because he had realized that there was something that they were doing wrong. That takes a kind of dedication that comes out when you listen to them play. You’re hearing something that is very different to people who don’t have that sense of discipline. I love something that has a sense of total abandon or recklessness as much as anyone else, but I think that message about discipline and precision within the music is very important right now. It expands to how you live your life, how you are towards other people and how you think about your position in society. This is a time when we need to be paying particular attention to those things and following those examples.

A: Especially when you break it down into tone and vibration. When you go out to perform to a crowd of people as a musician, most of the people who come understand the type of music you do. When you DJ, you put on a record and you see how people react to the bass tones, the mids, how you can accentuate it, and you learn things about people. You’re having this active conversation with them. Your heart tells you, “I’m gonna play this next because this goes with this,” and you put that on and you get an immediate reaction from people, so you become a social scientist in a way. I feel like I’ve been listening to a lot of things being taken away over the last 20 years, and I think they’re very important because they affect us not only harmonically but also emotionally. I don’t think there’s a disconnect between the way popular music is being rifled at people and how we’re treating each other right now. I think it’s on us as musicians, and not from an elitist standpoint, to say, “Hey, this is important.” We do need to discern that this is candy, this is a vegetable, this is a steak and this is why you need to eat that steak before you eat that candy.

JC: It might be vegetable music time.

A: We’ve got to get our diet correct!

JC: I love that! It’s funny you use that social scientist description. There was a great saxophonist who played with Sun Ra on a couple of occasions named Von Freeman who once told me that he was in the process of writing a book on the audience, because that was the one thing he’d been studying the most over all these years. He said, “I’m up there every night, so I get to see people, and the thing is that I still can’t figure them out. I’ll get up there and do something that’s absolute bullshit. I just played one note for 25 choruses, and they thought that was genius. And then I played the most beautiful, subtle, complex thing I’ve ever done and they’re all asleep or talking to one another.” He positioned himself as a social scientist, sitting there trying to figure them out.

A: It’s fascinating, especially when you go from city to city. You’ll play in Berlin on Friday and you might have a phenomenal set, and you go to Paris the next night with those same records in your bag and get the opposite reaction. You might learn some things, but you learn that you don’t really know anything in the end. What I try to do in that situation is play what I feel and hope that it connects with you, and if so, then we’ll go somewhere together. Sometimes you can be in an adversarial position where what you’re doing doesn’t connect, and I think, “OK, now it’s me versus you. We’re gonna battle it out until we come to some sonic consensus.”

JC: But that’s the thing when we talk about improvisation in DJing: a lot of people think about that in terms of self-expression. To me that’s not the improvised part of being a DJ because that’s there for most music, but it is in feeding off the audience, playing for or against or to or around the audience, and those are the same strategies that improvisers who are playing together are using too. That strategy you just mentioned of antagonism—that comes up from time to time, and it’s sometimes really necessary. If everybody just plays the same thing together, you just end up saying “ohm” for a while and it drifts off into nothing.

A: It’s push and pull. It’s completely different when I do a live set because I’m actually building things right there in front of everyone and I’m having the conversation with myself. If I’m collaborating with another artist, then it’s even better because you don’t have time to think. I have to just hear and react, layering and building as I go along, and it’s always interesting. This summer I had a lot of people come through my flat to jam. It’s been great because when we go back and listen to the recording, I can’t remember what I did. For me there’s no greater feeling than when you communicate with a human being on that level.

JC: There’s a great record by two British improvisers from the 1970s, Trevor Watts and John Stevens—the Spontaneous Music Ensemble—and the liner notes on the record say the paradox of playing improvised music is that you have to be all ears, only listening, and you also have to be dedicated to what you’re offering the other person at the same time.

A: It’s an exercise in submission, and it makes me a better producer. I learn something new every time. It’s more humbling every time, and it helps me leaps and bounds when I play by myself. I hate myself sometimes when I work on music, but improvisation helps me stay in the moment and not think too much about things, and for me that’s where the magic happens.

JC: There’s also a different line of improvising that Evan Parker called the “agree to disagree” line, which is the idea of listening to two things simultaneously that have very little to do with one another. Your brain is wired to figure out the connection between things. It’s sometimes really stimulating to have two things that never fuse. Many times when the Dutch improvisers Misha Mengelberg and Han Bennink played, they seemed almost like they were in different rooms. They were great improvisers, and if you listen closely they’re really reflecting what the another is doing, but certainly not in any direct way. I like the idea that there are these various strategies that we’re talking about that have different joys and stimulate different parts of your brain.

A: It tickles the mind. I did a jam session with my friend Luca a few months ago, and I put him on one synth, I jumped on another synth and then my buddy Eric [Afrikan Sciences] was on the Octatrack and some other things. We got going, and Luca kinda locked in with me, so we just let Eric do his thing. We had two synths in this groove side by side, and then I said, “Let’s switch synths,” and then Eric started getting into what we were doing, and then I locked in with Eric for five minutes. It was these different conversations that were going on. It sounds like a coherent body of music, but it was really these different conversations, and regarding what you just said, there were certain points where you could hear where people were going in their own little directions but still staying connected. It’s fascinating because it’s counterintuitive to how we think. I guess you can go to school and be taught how to think, but you can’t go to school to be taught how to feel.

The things that motivate me to do music are emotions. What’s going on in my world: a conversation? A kitten running up the street? How does that make me feel? How do I translate that in into music? I think I’m a more effective communicator if I just disconnect. If I think too much about what I want to say or how I want to say it, the right emotions will never connect. But improvisation puts me in a state that enables the potential for magic to happen. It’s not guaranteed to happen, but when it happens it’s a feeling you can’t describe.

We have it as music listeners. I’ll never forget going to hear Idris Muhammad and Ahmad Jamal at SF Jazz in San Francisco. This concert was just—I didn’t want to do music afterwards. It was an out-of-body experience, and you realize that you can’t really have that experience unless you go out of the body, and that’s something I learned from Sun Ra. A lot of people didn’t get him, and although he’s popular now, I still don’t think people get what he was saying spiritually. I think some folks think it’s a gimmick, but it’s not. If you really listen to what he was saying and how it relates to what he was attempting to do musically, there’s something deeper in there that I wish people would dig into more.

JC: Well, he was very serious about what he was doing. I think his otherworldly persona was a platform for talking about really serious things in a way that transcended the normal, quotidian everydayness. He could talk about being together in the world, but he could talk about it in terms of extra terrestrial issues. His early writings are thinking about the fact that the Bible had been translated multiple times before it got to the King James version, so it doesn’t look or sound much like the original. He and others asserted that coded messages had been embedded in the Bible, and that the only way you could find them was to perform experimental surgery on biblical verse. Likewise, he said that you have to go back into music by performing surgery on it. The experimentation wasn’t there just to be weird. He was into all of those things because they tell you something. You had to cut stuff up so you could get deeper into it, and I think the way he sometimes is understood is very superficial, like “I like Sun Ra because…”

A: “…he wears costumes.”

J: I asked him about costumes the first time I interviewed him in 1986, and he said, “The costumes are music. It’s all music. It’s all about vibrations. It’s how people in the room feel and how they understand.” He took it very seriously. It was part of the thing. It wasn’t just because it was funny. He liked funny things, and he had a very dry sense of humor, but it was all for a purpose. Even if you look at Space Is The Place, which is a really funny movie, there’s a monologue at the beginning of it that’s one of the deepest things you could get to in terms of questions of race. At the end of it he says, “The first thing we’re gonna do on this new black planet that we’re making is abolish time.” He has this whole thing about time, and then he makes jokes through the movie about the fact that Sun Ra was known for being late. You have to spend some time with it, and really deal with it, to understand what’s going on. A superficial read of it doesn’t really give you much.

A: You said something that struck a chord with me a few seconds ago, and that was that experimentation is not just for experimentation’s sake. You’re looking for something, and that’s what myself and the guys talk about a lot. We’re not doing things just for the sake of doing them, which has its own role, but we’re looking for something. When I’m making music, I’m looking for something, and sometimes I find it, and sometimes I don’t. I’m using the rhythm and the tone to try to express myself emotionally without words. That’s the quest. We’re not just doing it just to be weird or to be different. We’re looking for something and the conventional tools are just not going to get us there. For me, no matter what I learn, there’s still much more to learn. I don’t understand people who don’t experiment. Being here in Europe where classical music is so big, and they play other people’s music all the time, I’m like, “Wow man, you never just go in the house and grab your violin and go apeshit? Plug it into this? Or do that?” For me, having that blank canvas and some crayons and just saying, “Go”—that’s living.

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Can Electronic Music Make Classical Music Great Again?

In September, alt-pop musician Emika took her career in an intriguing new direction by announcing a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to record with a symphony. After surpassing her €20,000 funding target, the British-born and Berlin-based artist signaled the arrival of the project’s product, which will come in the form of her forthcoming LP, Melanfonie. The album was created in collaboration with the Prague Metropolitan Orchestra and seeks to take influence from both Emika’s electronic music grounding by placing an enlarged bass section of the orchestra at the center of the seating plan and her history of classical training.

Fellow Berliner Yair Elazar Glotman also combines a background of classical music with electronic techniques. He trained for much of his life as a contrabass player and rose to prominence by exploring electroacoustics and abstract techno for the underground labels Opal Tapes and Where To Now? as Ketev. Last year, under his own name, he recorded Etudes, focusing on the contrabass as a source of sound but approaching the instrument from an experimental angle, and he will soon release a new album entitled Blessed Initiative.  We paired him with Emika to explore the notion of the classical music world in the modern age and how it fits into the context of electronic music.

EMIKA: As a kid I very quickly got into playing the piano and writing my own music, but I struggled with traditional schooling. It was all about sight reading and playing Beethoven, and I became really frustrated with that as a teenager. So instead of going to university, I got a job in a studio and learned how to record my pieces instead of having to notate them. I had a very frustrating love-hate relationship with this so-called “classical training,” and when I went to uni and studied Creative Music Technology to learn how to be a producer and a sound designer, I always had unfinished business with the classical world. My goal was to do massive orchestral pieces, and having left that world I’m now coming back to it with a slightly different approach.

YAIR ELAZAR GLOTMAN: Making peace with it?

E: Yeah. I met a lot of classical major labels this summer, and all these people are interested to talk to me now that it’s paid for and done, because my fans paid for it through Kickstarter. It’s amazing how I feel like nothing’s changed in 10 years. It still feels like this elite upper class world, but the thing that’s changing is that people like yourself are actually pushing things forward.

YEG: My background story’s pretty similar. I played the upright bass but felt stuck within the boundaries of university and music education—and on top of that I struggled with the boundaries of the instrument itself. In the classical context, bass had a very straightforward role that you never really step out of. When I moved to Berlin I wanted to study classical music, and I was really in love with the idea of playing in the orchestra. I wasn’t thinking about being free to explore the potential of the instrument. After a while I realized that I don’t have the fire to become a classical musician, and I was more interested in being self-sufficient. For you, the piano has so many opportunities in terms of harmonies, but back then I was dependant on other people in order to explore, since bass is always part of a larger arrangement. Going to electronic music was my way to become free to work by myself.

E: That was definitely my main motivation for getting into music technology: you can work independently and explore the sound outside traditional notations.

YAG: What you said about your love-hate relationship is funny because I left feeling this sense of failure back then. I realized I was interested in composition, and I was at a crossroads between going to the traditional route or approaching music from the art department. I was mainly interested in electroacoustic music, and I thought there was a big gap between sound art and music that would give me more freedom to explore, since I feel like people perceive music as a form of art. It’s the form of art that has the most expectations. Everybody knows exactly what they like and what they hate, but if people were as opinionated and narrow-minded about other mediums, it would just be things that are very easy to digest.

E: That’s a really good point about how hard it is to cope with the history of classical music. It’s been around for centuries, whereas electronic music has only been around for decades. If you look at classical labels, you’ll see that very little of the market promotes and encourages new classical music; they basically release the same pieces re-recorded by some young performer. If all of these major labels next year decided to sign 100 new composers, we might be able to start pioneering a future for the orchestra. I’ve had so many conversations over the years are about how it’s literally a dying market. The audience is old now, but it’s very difficult to try to balance the history that we have with what could potentially be the next thing. I just don’t see a point in re-recording Beethoven again and again.

YAG: The opportunity of a musician to also be the composer, performer and maybe even the mix engineer—that’s what I think is interesting and what was exactly lacking when I studied classical music on the contrabass. The repertoire for contrabass is so small it’s almost funny, but I could see that a lot of people weren’t really interested in music outside of that context. I guess it’s about that idea of devoting your life to one thing and mastering it, and right now I feel like we live in a time where it’s more interesting to spread your knowledge and abilities across many things rather than to devote your life to perfecting one pursuit, at least for me. Interpreting what exists and creating something new are two different things.

E: That’s partly why I came up with the plan to do everything directly, in the sense that I’ve got my own label and I don’t have any management dictating what I should do. I decided to write the music and find an orchestra, and then I went to my fans and asked if they would help me financially to pull it all together. If you cut out everything that we’re talking about, you free yourself from the history and the education.

YAG: In terms of the business model, nowadays people are encouraged to be doing different roles at the same time. The musician can be their own booker, record and mix their own things.

E: I feel like most artists are encouraged to follow the same concept for success and be one thing when actually they might be a great business manager or engineer. There’s a lot of pressure to get a manager, get as much exposure as you can and play loads of shows—and that’s fine, but it’s really not what I’m interested in.

Another thing is that I really don’t want to be “avant-garde.” I don’t want to be forced to go into the avant-garde world just because there’s a traditional world. My music is romantic and lyrical with universal themes, and I don’t want to have to be something obscure and niche just because it’s not Beethoven, so I feel like I’m spending a lot of time trying to create the alternative context as well as the work to go inside of it, and if that’s what you want to do, you can’t live in your bubble and have a manager that speaks on your behalf.

YAG: I think, since I’m working more outside of the mainstream, I do enjoy the benefits of being free since it’s not just something I depend on to make a living, so I don’t really have to compromise. I guess, like you said, if you do one thing it would be easy to market it and know exactly what it is…

E: …to come up with the formula and then keep feeding into that formula once it’s working.

YAG: …But for me it’s really important to change and always evolve contexts and genres. My ideas don’t necessarily fall into a certain genre, so it’s really important for me to transform them and let them grow organically. It becomes hard when people don’t know what to expect from you, but for me it’s all part of my exploration and my ideas and the question of changing the context. Something that could work in a club situation could also work as a sound installation, but also as a traditional concert situation.

E: It’s that question of, “Are you going be more true to yourself or to what the world expects of you?” And that comes back to the responsibility that you have when you’re an artist. I feel like, because I got into the music business at such a young age and before I’d fully formed as an artist, I spent the last five years just trying to unlearn loads of things that weren’t true to me. The music industry educates and influences everyone in such a profound way that it can be really hard to see that objectively and decide what you actually want to work on and be known for. There are so many people working in the creative industry, but what we actually see from artists is often a different face with the same concept for success.

YAG: I think it’s very important to maintain control over your decisions. But what you said is interesting in terms of un-learning something: trying to forget it and learn again.

E: Yeah, my favorite word is “unlearn.”

YAG: I just came back to the contrabass. That was how I started playing it again after three or four years. It’s a big instrument, so it would be in my room always making me feel guilty, but I couldn’t really hide it. After studying in the art department, I thought, “It’s such a big part of who I am and I have such a strong relationship with it that I need to find a way to solve it.” For me it was really about how to unlearn certain habits. I wanted to free myself from the instrument and also in a way free the instrument from me, so it was important to develop ways for the instrument to play by itself. I decided to make a sound installation revolving around the instrument, and then develop certain techniques of letting the instrument resonate by itself by creating feedback chains of vibrations on the instrument.

You try to gain control when you learn classical music. You do scales every day, you need to practice so much, and in a way the worst thing when you’re a classical musician is to be surprised by your instrument. When I went back to play with the instrument, I was trying to see how I could play it without falling into routines of playing the same type of thing that stopped me before.

E: I had a similar thing with the piano. I always had a piano in my room, and I also felt guilty, like I should be playing it more, but every time I sat at the piano I would just see shapes and harmony. This chord next to this chord makes it jazzy, and this chord next to this chord makes Shostakovich Russian style. But I also had a time like that with electronic music where if I would put the hi-hats there it would sound like dubstep, if I put the hi-hats like this it would sound like house, and if I use this particular hi-hat it sounds like a Detroit record.

I think the breakthroughs I’ve had have been when I’ve left it alone for ages, and then when something happened in my life—when I had something inside me that was worth expressing—I went to the piano or my computer and something original and decent came out. I did a lot of training, understanding the building blocks of music, but then I found that I had to just abandon it until somehow the music always started to play in my heart again. Then I could sit at the piano and actually work instead of feeling overwhelmed by all the education.

YAG: It’s really about losing control as well.

E: It’s funny because I still have never played a piano concert, and I put out a piano record last year with hardly any promotion, and it was very successful. But I still can’t do a piano show, even though it would probably be a great thing for me to do. I’m terrified of playing the wrong note.

YAG: I know exactly the feeling about playing the wrong note. Playing composed music is very absolute about when you’re right and when you’re wrong. What was important for me was putting myself in a situation where I cannot be wrong. I also wanted to embrace failures and mistakes.

E: That’s what the classical world doesn’t teach you. It just teaches you that you’re bad, and now I’m 30 years old with this huge block afraid to perform my music in case I do it wrong!

YAG: I guess I see playing other people’s compositions as being an actor. You have a context and a script, and you need to find ways to interpret it, but the boundaries of what you can do are very clear. Eventually you need to bring something personal into this interpretation. I found myself in a situation where I couldn’t relate to a baroque piece in a very authentic way. Like you said before, there are so many amazing interpretations recorded that I don’t really have something new to bring into that. I’d rather stay in a personal and authentic space where I don’t have to pretend.

E: You just used a really key word: relate. When Mozart was around, the music he composed was of his time, and I find it really strange that we keep trying to relate to really historical pieces. I respect it and it moves me, but for me the most important thing is to create classical music or orchestral music with themes and narratives that we can relate to today.

YAG: My biggest nightmare is to be an artist making their classic comeback and being expected to play something I wrote 30 years ago over and over again. I see a lot of situations where people find a winning recipe and then try to recreate that all their life just because it works. That’s kinda scary to me.

E: These are all the things I’ve been thinking about, and it’s really nice to talk to you about them. I’m really excited by the fact that, when I decided to announce the symphony, DJ Mag was the first to push the project for me and the classical labels weren’t. I’m so excited by the fact that the electronic music world seems excited about doing all this work with orchestras and redefining classical music in a completely different context. We’ve talked a lot about failure and problems, but on the other hand I’m pretty blown away by how much new classical music is actually coming in the context of electronic music.

YAG: I think there is an overlap between traditional experimental music and the club situation, which is interesting. Now you can hear the overlap between electroacoustic music with some techno, and the fact that there’s a label like Subtext that releases industrial techno but is also willing to release a solo contrabass album or organ pieces—that’s a positive environment. I think the more these categories merge, the more the music will benefit from that. 

E: And now there’s a crowd receptive to this kind of music and able to find out about different forms of music more easily. Look at my fans: I just took the idea to them, and they were up for it. If the audience wants, they can also find out and support music independently and really tailor and discover exactly what they’re looking for from their music.

Photo of Emika by Adam Krena. Photo of Yair Elazar Glotman by Andrew Onufrienko.

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Thurston Moore Talks Berlin-NYC Connection With Schneider TM

It seems that Berlin is all the rage in New York these days. Local clubs market themselves as Berghainish by barring bottle service sections and cameras while smaller venues and even bodegas boast a supply of Club Mate for those who miss the fizzy energy tea while they’re away from the German capital. But this interest in Berlin isn’t a passing fad fuelled by hype over techno hedonism; in fact, it’s a relationship that spans decades—at least since the 1980s, when German kraut, new wave and noise/punk-oriented bands like Einstürzende Neubauten and Mania D! shared a mutual influence with New York noise-rock outfits like Sonic Youth. In our latest artist conversation, former frontman Thurston Moore discusses the roots of this affiliation with German experimental musician and former Slices star Dirk Dresselhaus, who attended one of the gigs during Sonic Youth’s first German tour in 1990.

Thurston Moore: Hi man, nice to see you again! What are you up to these days?

Dirk Dresselhaus: I just released an album with Jochen Arbeit and Günter Schickert called A S S, and I’m in the studio with the bands Faust and Mutter. I heard you’ve recorded a new album as well—some kind of improv record, isn’t it?

TM: Yeah, Rock ‘n’ Roll Consciousness. It’s mostly songs, but it has free improvisation noise elements entwined. It’s an interesting co-existence to do records of high-profile rock compositions as well as completely marginalized experimental stuff. Actually, I don’t see so much of a difference between the two, but it’s surely different to the booking agencies and the managements. Sometimes they’re confused. I think I just have to come up with a different name when I’m playing noise music. But then I wouldn’t get any attention!

DD: I think it’d be interesting to do different things under the same name.

TM: It’s a different thing when you start out as a solo artist. For example, it’s a challenge for me to do something that doesn’t have the name “Sonic Youth” on it. After all these years with Sonic Youth, there’s this idea that I only play in an avant-garde rock band. I should be able to capitalize on that and get these gigs, but I shouldn’t get on stage with a chain saw in my hand. Well, I keep it together in that respect, but I like to create some sort of disturbance. When you started out, what was your name? Was it Schneider TM?

DD: I call myself Schneider TM when I do solo stuff. You were the first person who did a remix for me back in ’97 or ’98, remember? I remember meeting you in Cologne with your drummer friend David Nuss. You played free jazz around this one note that was in my track. I loved it. It was my first record on City Slang, an EP called Masters. Did you often do remixes in that style?

TM: Not really. But the track you sent me had this very linear idea behind it. I was really fascinated by this process of making music where you have a stabilized idea and then bring in ideas about abstraction and improvisation. I saw myself more as a “free-mixer” than a remixer.

DD: That’s funny because the Schneider TM project has been moving more and more into the free improv dimension over the last ten years.

TM: When we played in Berlin together last autumn, did you improvise your set?

DD: Partly. The frame was composed, but what happened to it inside was improvised. There were two pieces from my Guitar Sounds album, one of which turned out to be a Velvet Underground cover.

TM: Are you from Berlin?

DD: No, I was born in Bielefeld. Actually, I saw you guys play at a local club called PC69 during the Goo Tour in 1990. It really blew my mind.

TM: I do remember that club in Bielefeld! How did you come to Berlin?

DD: I came here the first time for a longer period shortly after the Wall came down in December 1989. I saw burning DDR flags everywhere at Brandenburger Tor, and that scared me a lot. But Berlin was the only place for me. I had been doing music since the late ‘80s and had moved to the countryside with a few friends to build a studio there—like a commune kind of thing. But when the whole project collapsed, I finally escaped to Berlin in 1998.

TM: It was an exciting time. On our first tour in Germany in the mid ‘80s, nobody knew Sonic Youth because we only had one record out. We had tapes of the second, Confusion Is Sex, with us so that we could play them for the promoter. And it actually worked out! The first person who came up to us when we got our amplifiers out of the van in Berlin was Blixa Bargeld, who asked us if he could help us with the amps. He was wearing his leather priest suit and his hair looked like a tarantula. I was like, “Who’s this guy?” He was pretty nice and really excited about the New York no wave scene.

DD: Did you know Einstürzende Neubauten at that time?

TM: I had heard about them because one of the first Neubauten shows supported Glenn Branca in Berlin, and our guitarist, Lee Ranaldo, had played with Glenn. When he came back to New York, he told us about this unbelievable Neubauten drummer called N.U. Unruh who played on a kind of metal construction he just smashed on. They came to New York shortly after and, man, they destroyed New York! On their first US tour, they drove around in every city they played picking up pieces of trash and metal from the street to mike it up on stage. They even started fires onstage. You can’t do that anymore.

DD: Zappi [aka Werner Diermaier] from Faust still does that. I’m actually producing their new album at the moment.

TM: Ah, cool. I once played a gig with them in London. We rehearsed in Jean-Hervé Péron’s place just around the corner from where I live now. Jean-Hervé had all these graphs on the wall that he made to go through all the ideas in his compositions.

DD: He’s doing the same thing at my studio right now. The whole studio is full of papers, and when I first looked at it I didn’t understand anything.

TM:  What kind of record is this going to be, and who’s publishing it?

DD: There are live songs Faust did on their US tour and studio recordings with American singer-songwriter Barbara Manning singing some improvised lyrics and saxophonist Ulrich Krieger. It’s going to be released on Bureau B.

TM: The German scene was probably the most important inspiration for a lot of us in New York, outside of our own artistic environment in the States. So there was a Berlin-New York connection in the late ‘70s, when people like Gudrun Gut and her female trio Mania D started to come to New York to do their first performances. I saw them once in a tiny off-venue called Space A in Manhattan, which was right next to where I lived at that time. Years later, when I met Gudrun again and told her that I had been at her concert, she couldn’t believe it because there had been only ten people in the crowd. I said, “Yep, and I was one of them!”

DD: That’s weird, because in Germany, all those krautrock bands like Faust, Can, Neu! or Ash Ra Tempel weren’t anywhere near as well-known as Sonic Youth. I learned about all the German stuff from the interviews you gave back then. Before that krautrock was considered as something very bad—some kind of theatric prog-rock that we didn’t like at all.

TM: That says a lot about the acceptance of music and its cultural importance in its own country. I just published a book with [art book editor] Eva Prinz in our publishing house, Ecstatic Peace Library, that’s about black metal from Norway called The Death Archives: Mayhem 1984 94. Mayhem was the most influential black metal band in the world, and they are no strangers to controversy. At first, the subculture was demonized in Norway, but now, after it slowly but surely has become a very successful Norwegian genre in its own right, visitors are welcomed to the home of black metal. First they burned the churches, killed each other and killed themselves. But it all started here!

DD: I often think the branding of a particular music scene can make things difficult. The name “krautrock” was invented by British music journalists. And then, step by step, some bands gathered around something that was nothing but a word.

TM: Absolutely. That’s what the bass player and only surviving band member from the original Mayhem lineup, Jørn “Necrobutcher” Stubberud, shows in the book. He collected enormous amounts of photographs, recordings, video diaries and memorabilia and shares rarely seen photos of the band before the death of singer Pelle “Dead” Ohlin and the brutal murder of Øystein “Euronymous” Aarseth in 1993 by Varg “Count Grishnak” Vikernes, who’s internationally known as Burzum.

DD: Books and cultural history seem to get more and more in your focus.

TM: I really love making books, and I’ve been writing poetry for a long time. I even teach writing from time to time at Naropa University in Colorado, the former home of Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman and John Cage. I have a passion for cultural movements that were in some way marginalized; take our very latest publication, Musics. It was London’s first magazine for improvisers and was published between 1975 to 1979. It was a blueprint for all kinds of activities of sound art and 20th century composition and an entry to the arcane world of the 1970s experimental and improv scene.

DD: It’s good to work on cultural phenomena that doesn’t necessarily belong to the official canon. Basically everything is sound, everything can be an instrument, and music can be made out of everything. You don’t need to know how to play an instrument to make the most beautiful music with it.

TM: I talked about that with David Toop, who founded Musics. He told me that he always liked bands who didn’t know how to play the most because it’s more interesting and always new. Once I listened to my old tapes to remember what I was doing and how to play my old songs, and eventually I realized that it wasn’t too sophisticated because I had kept it simple. I think about how to keep things primal and simple all the time.

DD: I also go back in time and re-learn things. I started to play drums in the early ‘80s and then didn’t play for 15 years, and when I started again I could play things that I hadn’t even dreamt of. The same goes for guitars or electronics; don’t try to understand the machines because it fucks your brain. Discover the beauty of mistakes, which are defined by the brain. Anyway, Thurston, you should come to my studio the next time you’re in Berlin. We can call Zappi to play drums.

TM: Okay, sounds great!

Read our interview with Randall Dunn, the producer who worked on Thurston Moore’s forthcoming album.

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