In pop and folk, the voice is often considered the most direct route to emotion, and lyrics are the articulation of the feelings expressed. While many singer-songwriters adhere to that orthodoxy, Los Angeles-based composer Julia Holter uses her voice to approach emotion from a more oblique angle. Using allusive texts from various sources to render her “self” an abstraction within elaborately constructed baroque pop, Holter has based previous records on everything from Greek tragedy to musicals. But her most recent LP, Have You in My Wilderness, shows that her music remains both intimate and direct without revolving around her own identity.
Similarly, Colombian musician Lucrecia Dalt has turned to external sources such as New German Cinema and microbiology to inspire her electronic productions. Dalt’s struggle with her own vocals led her to drop not only singing but also “traditional” instrumentation—looped and treated bass and guitar—altogether. On her recent self-titled EP, she presents a decidedly more abstract approach to composing which, like Holter, has drawn comparison to one of the great manipulators of sound and voice: Laurie Anderson. Dalt and Holter have worked together in the past, and when they met again in Berlin they were eager to discuss making music that isn’t a pure expression of personality.
Lucrecia Dalt: We first crossed paths via Gudrun Gut…
Julia Holter: …in 2008.
LD: She asked us to contribute music to a compilation series called 4 Women No Cry. Each volume featured four female musicians from four different countries. Then we went on tour together in Poland and Germany. I remember Gudrun wrote to me on Myspace.
JH: Myspace was amazing back then. I found out about so much music that way, particularly new artists doing crazy work under the radar. Now Myspace is a dead zone.
LD: People could format their Myspace page the way they wanted. It was a very clumsy platform, but in a charming way. I liked that you could judge the artist by how they tried to organize all those chaotic boxes and images that Myspace let you customize. It all disappeared when they tried to streamline this mess that everybody was making.
JH: We also worked together on the Terepa project for Nicolas Jaar’s label Other People. The two of us, along with five other artists, including Laurel Halo, Rashad Becker and NHK’Koyxen, recorded music simultaneously for 20 minutes with zero communication between the composers. Then these individual recordings were layered over each other to form a chance-based or “telepathic” composition. We didn’t have a discussion about what we were doing, just a time bracket within which we could play anything.
LD: I definitely left a lot of space.
JH: Yeah, I felt that too.
LD: Once the recordings were put together I was lost sometimes as to who contributed what.
JH: You can’t really tell at this point. The final piece is a real wall of sound. It sounds like it took place in a murky sewer. I’m totally saying that in a good way.
LD: And there’s no space or silence. That would’ve been nice—if there were empty points where everybody left space for each other.
JH: Terepa was a good exercise in balancing external criteria with personal, intuitive composition. On the one hand, there’s the romantic idea of channeling an internal state, and on the other, incorporating non-musical materials into the music-making process.
LD: I’ve stopped channeling my internal drive into my recordings. Now I need external objects and pieces of information around me in order to make music. I need stimuli because the idea of pulling something from “inside” and playing a song in a romantic way became alien to me. I worked in that traditional way in the past, but it doesn’t make sense to me anymore. Now I follow a methodology.
JH: So you’re letting different things come at you and then you’re responding to them rather than just dealing with your own thoughts?
LD: Yeah, exactly. When I create only with my internal resources, without any exposure to anything outside my head, I tend to be very mathematical and structural. I end up repeating patterns, generating fewer new ideas. When I have input from outside I start to see more surprises in what I’m making. I feel this is good because, since I work alone all the time, I can get confused and tired of myself during the work. These external sources become creative partners, telling me, “Hey, this way!” For my upcoming album I worked with projections of New German Cinema. I’d play them silently while I was working on the tracks. I came to Berlin on a scholarship, and I decided that I wanted to investigate German film because I didn’t know much about it. So the album feeds from this cinema, from Ferdinand Khittl, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Werner Schroeter and Helke Sander. I can take a little cluster of information from a film, and those scenes become a force that takes the music beyond the proscribed structures that internal “channeling” reproduces.
JH: That’s how I work with stories. Maybe they’re not as obvious an external material, but the key is that they existed beside myself. They have their own life. Then I can work with that material to make a song. People are always like, “Why do you use other people’s stories?” Whereas for me that’s precisely what’s interesting. They want to know, “Where’re you in this?” I don’t understand the question. Obviously I’m in the work—it seems like a given that you’re in a song you create. So isn’t it more interesting to find that structure or impetus via something else? You need something that pushes you. Maybe you won’t find that drive within yourself.
LD: I’m not using words anymore either, so locating a self in my work is problematic. I sing a very simple line at the beginning of my new record and then the rest is decidedly abstract. It’s a journey of some kind of object that’s dealing with time as it’s passing through different sound possibilities. The movement and acceleration of this “thing” is affecting the way the sound is perceived, and it becomes more elastic. One idea forms and when you’re trying to hold or reach it, it leaves. It’s always moving. It became a record that’s more related to physics and relativity.
JH: I’m not going to form a story of my life in my record. The idea that you’re not in a work because you’ve used other sources to push against rather than drawing on an autobiographical journal is so narrow. Yet it’s a pervasive idea that we’re constantly confronted with. Some people like to think that using external sources means no emotion exists within the music. That’s the other weird question I get asked: “What about your emotions?” Well, they come through. It’s not like something isn’t interesting if it’s not about you, or entirely from within you. It’s a very strange idea that people have about art. Maybe it’s also an argument hinged on gender. I don’t mean to attack anyone, but people tend to think of women as writing about their feelings. I can’t adopt a story without confusing people because they have these sorts of expectations. How can I sing a man’s perspective? There are plenty of weird assumptions people make regarding what a female artist can and cannot do.
LD: For me it was a fight. Every time I took the microphone it didn’t feel right, especially performing. Paradoxically, I was generating a more interesting dialogue without my voice, when I was just playing the music. The voice is susceptible to everyday changes and it behaves differently according to the situation. I feel I have more control over a performance when I’m not singing.
JH: When music is physical or absolute, it’s not working language anymore right? It seems like you find that liberating.
LD: It can be liberating on a personal and a creative level. With my album Syzygy, I was passing through a crisis and living in a weird state of mind generated by sleep deprivation and over stimulation. I enjoyed being in this state, because I was able to let this thing out. I would say it was my most emotional record in this sense because I was desperate. I needed to make this album to have relief.
JH: I have this idea that’s hard to logically explain in plain language: I don’t think of music as a form of communication. Or art in general. The only time that I come up against a contradiction to this idea is when I think about political music, or music that is somewhat political, but not obviously so. In any case, when it comes to my music, I don’t feel like I’m communicating. It’s a confusing thing for people because I work almost exclusively with language. I started making music in school. I was writing music for other people to play and I thought of myself as a behind-the-scenes person. Then I found that I was most happy when I was recording, and one of the main things that I found difficult is to make absolute music, to make music that is just there. Classical music is very much about developing themes, musical figures and motifs, and it was really hard for me to do that in music school. I couldn’t get interested in it and I think it’s because I’m not really much of a musician, in a weird way. I don’t find it fun to work with the development of musical themes. I’m much better when I work with words.
LD: But I have the sense that your album Tragedy was working with themes.
JH: Maybe. I don’t like to think about it. In school it was always like: [in a curmudgeonly voice] “How does this theme develop?” Instead, I was working with language, and the language was guiding me through. It doesn’t mean that I only work with words, but it means that when I don’t work with words I might be thinking about language. That said, I don’t think of the music as a message, so it’s confusing. I don’t have a thing to say, I just have things that come out of me so that people can feel something. I kind of spew things out and make people make sense of it. I feel no sense of responsibility, which might make me a jerk. There’s a mystery in things and that’s what I like to bask in. When I make these songs they’ll start by just coming out—then I develop them. There are songs that appear with imagery whose origin is beyond my logical understanding, and then I like to work with that as a basis. I think there’s a surreal quality to it because I don’t know where the imagery comes from. It’s like looking at another person’s sketches and then developing that other persons’ work. That’s what the process of making this new record was like. It’s not like my last album, Loud City Song, where it was all inspired by one story. By the way, did you go to music school?
LD: I studied civil engineering.
JH: That’s so cool.
LD: I worked two years in a geo-technical company, designing foundations, retaining walls and other stuff. We’d do all the tests of the soil, analyze the samples and from there produce the results and offer recommendations like, “Okay, you have to dig down 20 meters and there you can lay your foundation, it has to be this diameter, et cetera.” It was mostly an office design job, mathematical design, but someone would have to eventually go down underground to make sure the strata reached was the expected one for the foundation. I was one of the few who didn’t mind going way below the surface of the earth. It’s not a very nice situation, being god knows how many meters down there in a hole that’s only around one meter in diameter. You’re beneath the water table so it’s raining basically. It was a cool job and I really enjoyed it but it was a very, very difficult job for a female.
JH: Because you were treated weird?
LD: You come into the industry, your boss puts trust in you, but when you reach the construction projects, they’d expect someone older, most likely a man. And they would suggest to hear a confirmation from another engineer. There is this gendered history behind you that’s quite difficult to fight.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine. Photo by Luci Lux.
For over fifteen years Mid West mavericks Wolf Eyes have managed to bring jaded hardcore heads and improv nerds together under the crucible of eviscerating noise. The Detroit-Michigan trio currently consists of John Olson, Nathan Young and Jim Baljo, who man an arsenal of anti-social handmade electronics and perform with a ferocity that psyches up and repulses crowds in equal measure. Over the course of 500-plus releases, Wolf Eyes have managed to create a dialogue between Neubaten-esque industrial, ragged American hardcore and vital free music improvisers like AMM. Yet despite their penchant for the extreme, the enduring legacy of Wolf Eyes is their ability to make noise genuinely fun, and their ascent into decidedly mainstream waters via releases on Sub Pop and more recently, Jack White’s Third Man Records, is an unusually successful alloying of larger audiences with mace-wielding, gore soaked anarchy.
Another anti-social project embraced by a surprisingly large audience is Ron Morelli’s imprint L.I.E.S. Since 2010 Morelli has corralled many a bedroom loner, introducing the world to the reduced, beaten-up house sounds of Beau Wanzer, Florian Kupfer, Xosar, Person of Interest, Delroy Edwards and Terekke, to name just a smattering of Morelli’s ever-expanding roster. L.I.E.S managed to capture the imagination of an international dance music scene hungover from the minimal era and the omnipresence of grey-scale techno—indeed, the hype surrounding L.I.E.S’ early period has thankfully dropped in intensity, allowing Morelli to discretely churn out a bevy of satisfying club tracks alongside a trio of his own LPs for Dominck Fernow’s Hospital Productions… an imprint that has released Wolf Eyes material in the past.
Rightly or not, L.I.E.S has always been associated with noise, so bringing together Morelli, Olson and Young for a conversation cast the boundaries and bleeding points between dance music and noise culture into relief. And with Wolf Eyes on the cusp of their biggest release yet, the question of how underground ethics interact with the mainstream has never been more pertinent.
Nate Young: Tell me something about yourself, Ron. I might know who you are.
Ron Morelli: I run this label, L.I.E.S. Records, and I do records with Dom [Fernow, AKA Prurient]. My own music comes out on Hospital Productions. I’ve seen Wolf Eyes play in various situations throughout the years: some solo gigs, sometimes with Black Dice, sometimes with other bands. I saw John [Olson] playing solo in Detroit at the Russell [Industrial Center] building years ago.
NY: You saw Olson play as Henry Hazel & Slaughter up in Russell Industrial?
RM: Exactly. It must’ve been three years ago.
NY: That’s cool, man. That was one of my favorite Olson shows. It was like an endurance test, too. Motherfucker, you played for hours straight.
RM: And it was hot as fuck, too. When I first came out to the Detroit area, I guess that must’ve been somewhere around 2004, my friend brought me around everywhere. In that weekend, I hung out with all kinds of people: some chick in a garage band, or some fuckin’ dude in noise—it’s not separate. Everyone was interested in music, flat-out.
NY: There’s nothing here, and we don’t have a lot going on. You said you were able to see everything, but you know, I do think you’re able to see a wider variety of stuff in other places. Detroit is great and the local music scene has always been really amazing, but you don’t get that many international or national acts coming here.
John Olson: We’re like our own desert island. Touring people go from Ohio to Chicago—they don’t dip up to Detroit, especially punk bands. Some electronic bands come up to pay homage to the OGs, but there’s really not a lot of touring people coming through here, which is a benefit to us as artists because then we have to come up with it ourselves. There’s no system set up. It’s like shooting freedom into your arm.
RM: It was just sick. In that weekend alone, I saw Rodriguez playing live, met Robert from a Number of Names, Mammal, Joe Preston, DJ Havery, Traxx. It was everything and anything, and people were just down, man…everyone would come out, from garage rockers to techno heads. People were just down for music across the board. It got my mind open—it wasn’t like that in New York. It’s one way or the other way, which is unfortunate that people don’t get their heads open like that.
JO: There’s all this back and forth [about distinguishing between music genres]: is it this? Is it that? Us Michigan boys up in the woods, we’re just like, “Let’s just call it trip metal.” All this “Well, it’s techno-noise,” “Well, it’s goth-noise,” “Well, vampires like it”—whatever man, just invent your own name and whatever happens, happens. There’s no guidebook for trip metal, and there will never be. People are already starting to define trip metal without us even being a part of it. I think that’s better than getting the balance beam out and weighing techno on one end and harsh industrial, nihilistic feedback on the other end.
NY: It’s not a big deal, but people get really protective and territorial over their specific branches, experiments and investigations, which is fine. But it really works to close peoples’ minds rather than encouraging them to explore and progress. If people actually consider themselves artists, isn’t that the idea? Not to limit yourself and only do things that you’re comfortable with.
JO: So many cats shut it down if it’s not in their genre. In the Pandora and iTunes world, the computer decides what you would like, so maybe having something forced down your throat is a better way to listen or gain knowledge than clicking through 13 people who sound like Jose Gonzales and wanting to shoot yourself afterwards…But hey.
NY: What about you, Ron, what’s your take on all this?
RM: I’d have to agree 100 percent with you guys. It becomes an unfortunate thing when the people who are generally making the music have their own well-intentioned reasons for wanting to do what they do and then it gets blown into this whole other fucking extremely restrictive view by the media, by the Internet, by the fucking goons and what have you. Especially for my label, no one ever goes out and says, “I’m this, I’m doing that, I’m doing that”—they just do their thing with the intention of making music, not saying “I’m house, I’m this, I’m that.” It is what it is.
NY: The media definitely has a lot to do with that. We were in Finland, where they have an amazing music library. It’s so vast and has everything you can imagine: experimental noise, industrial, classical—everything. You’ve got to categorize that in order to catalog, you know? So there is that point. I understand why things need to be cataloged. It’s not very fun, but I guess from a historical standpoint it makes sense to go through stuff.
RM: In the sphere of electronic music, maybe it becomes more narrow. There are ideas and rules about what house is and what techno is. They’re territorial about what can be something, what something has to be and what it can’t be.
NY: It’s our job to confuse and blur those lines, right? We’re not librarians. We’re musicians and artists. It’s not our job to adhere to anything at all. I believe my role is exactly the opposite: to do anything and everything that I feel like doing, and it’s against any categorization and whatnot.
JO: A lot of people around here find their groups and stick to that. We did an experiment once—the Clash of the Titans concert series where we tried to get people from different groups to come together to have one night of local music—and it was a nightmare. People had fun, but there were personality clashes and yadda yadda yadda. So a lot of people stick within their own little enclaves. The experiments we tried to do, doing gigs with punk bands, never worked out, anywhere. Even in Mexico City it didn’t work out. But that’s, you know, no holds barred. We’ll try it. But in terms of the audience, there was a lot of confusion.
NY: It is hard, but it is better now, I will say that. We did have problems trying to put on more musically-diverse shows, but we’ve had shows at our little spot, MUG [Michigan Underground Group], that have gone off pretty fuckin’ well. One sticks out: what was that, Hair Police with a punk band—Kremlin. That was great. Everyone got along.
JO: When we did a bunch of shows with Sonic Youth, some of those were the most volatile concerts ever. Me and Nate opened up for Kim [Gordon] and Thurston [Moore] solo, and that was the most insane clash environment ever. Even “noise” fans didn’t want to hear it. It’s kind of like Frankenstein: the more they want to put us down, the more we get shocked with a bunch of bolts and we get stronger.
NY: That’s always been our path since the beginning. We knew what we were doing. It was part of a mentality of “Let’s see what we can get away with.”
RM: I mean, to be straight-up, I’m not from the world of noise. I’m not—for the lack of a better term—of that world. I’m around it, I’ve known about it, I’ve witnessed it, but my roots—I haven’t been touring in a noise band for 17 years or something like that. I come more from the side of DJ culture. I don’t DJ noise records when I play. You go to the club, you put the records you play that reflect some of your taste, you challenge them a little bit, but you don’t just rip peoples’ heads off. I like Traxx because it’s challenging to watch him DJ. He’s pushing it, but he’s not completely alienating the crowd. They want to dance. He, in my opinion, is one of the few people DJing who actually pushes it with what he does.
NY: There are similarities between us, though. We do have crossovers, like Container. And we all call ourselves “artists.” There are traditions. We all agree on that, right?
NY: And then the next thing is that we’re entertainers. Is there a mentality now where people are entertained by being alienated? Is there a certain alienation that they want in their music? Is that the challenge that they’re looking for, exactly?
JO: I think you gotta look at the audience. We consider the audience for this kind of category to be outsiders, but they go to shows to be in a social group. What my man Ron was saying about still being able to dance, it’s the same thing with us: the audience is a bunch of outsiders, but they’re still there to have fun.
NY: It’s interesting to me, because there is a relationship between club and noise. There is, I really truly believe there’s something there. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but I do see it work here and there.
RM: I mean, yeah. I oftentimes just wonder, because you hear people say this and that, but if you go back and listen to [Jeff] Mills’ Waveform Transmissions and you have some of the heaviest brutality out there—it’s grindcore. It’s power violence. It’s everything, man. Sometimes when people see it as “techno” because that’s how they associate Jeff Mills, then the music is more acceptable than when its seen outside of that context. If someone else does it, it’s not that. But since he’s that, it’s that. Sometimes people can’t get that out of their heads to see something else.
NY: We definitely enjoy challenging our audience with different aesthetics and working with different people. The elephant in the room is Jack White. That’s part of our history, but it’s also incredibly shocking to people. Third Man is inviting us into their world, and in turn, we’re inviting them into ours. We consciously knew that a lot of what we were doing wouldn’t be appropriate for a lot of different environments, so it’s interesting watching the progression of things. Obviously, noise and experimental music and trip metal as we know it has become more popular.
JO: More accepted.
NY: OK, so let’s try this out. Yo, I’m a A&R guy with Warner Brothers, Ron. We’re looking to sign more experimental music. We’ve been checking out your label and your music specifically. What do you think? Do you want to come over?
JO: Your fan base will probably freak out.
NY: It’s different for us because what we’re doing with Third Man is definitely a part of our history. We were pulling pranks on him at a shared rehearsal space. We were playing shows at the same time. I think we even played with him. So it’s a bit of a different circumstance. But if Warner Brothers was to approach us and offer us a ton of money, I would consider it, definitely. But if they were douche-y and had no idea what was going on—I don’t know man. I don’t know if I could deal with it. The Sub Pop thing was the first time we experimented with a larger label, and that was great. I really felt like that helped noise in general take off a bit more and be recognized by more people than ever before.
JO: Ever before?
NY: Yeah, why not. Ever before. That’s important for culture at large. Let’s just fuckin’ do it. If no one’s gonna do it, we will. And I feel like we do it the best way it can possibly be done. Signing with larger labels can be detrimental and fucked-up for bands’ careers, but we’ve had really good luck, and everything has started to make sense. It’s a strange world we’re living in. We wouldn’t be in this situation if people weren’t able to have access to anything, anytime all the time. It would still be very much how we all came up in the ‘90s. I’m an old man nowadays.
RM: Yeah, I came up with no internet, just seeing dudes skating with a Misfits shirt and talking to them to see what’s going on.
NY: Totally. Those were the days. Talking about skating as your way of meeting people—without those simplistic signs, like a Misfits shirt, you wouldn’t even meet someone. And sometimes when you did, you’d be like, “Fuck you, I don’t want to know you. I was into this, and now you’re here.”
JO: That’s pretty much what it’s like nowadays when you see someone with a Misfits shirt.
NY: Still applies.
JO: Kind of applies a little bit more. It’s like a sign of someone you don’t want to hang out with.
NY: What’s that great story of Roach? That shirt that someone was wearing.
JO: Oh, yeah. I don’t live in Detroit, I live in Lansing. It’s 90 miles west. We’d come up to Detroit when there’d be a gig. Around ’95 or something, a good friend of ours—the buddy I drove with—Danny Ramirez, came up to Roach at a show because he was wearing a Merzbow shirt. He was like, “Aw man, cool Merzbow shirt,” and Roach just looked at him and said, “Fuck you.”
NY: That is a true telling of Michigan lore. That’s what our culture is kind of like. “No one likes it, and I want it to stay that way!” But I have this thing I’ve been saying that kind of ties everything together. Trip metal attempts to capitalize on confusion as a means of connection. That isn’t a threat to authenticity. That’s where we’re at now. We all have confusion in common, that’s the one thing that bounds us together, and we can talk about it. Endlessly.
JO: It’s confusing times. Everything’s coming at you at once. You’re two clicks away from hearing the entire Jeff Mills discography. You have access to the biggest library in the universe, and you’ve got to do something with that. It’s a big job to step up to. Then somebody tells you to fuck off in a Merzbow shirt. The funny thing is, my homeboy Ramirez didn’t think he was a dick, you know. It’s what you expected, I guess.
In part one of our in-depth conversation between techno progenitor Jeff Mills and renowned installation artist Ólafur Elíasson, the duo fervently discussed the digital future of education, viewing reality through the lens of culture and the possibility of sentient art works. Here in part two, Mills and Elíasson explore how the world would be different if we orbited two suns.
Jeff Mills: I once met an astronaut, Mamoru Mohri. He’s the first to have gone into space for Japan, in 1992, and he went on a second mission in 2000. We had many conversations about the psychological effects of his trip. I asked him if he was the same person when he came back, and he said no. He said that there were things he had experienced, things that he had seen, feelings that he had of being in cold space that he could never explain to his wife and children or put into words. What he spoke a lot about, actually, was the sun. He said the sun will definitely be the thing that ends our civilization—that it’s the most dangerous thing that we could ever imagine. Of course, it’s the thing that makes everything grow, too, but we’re also living at its mercy. So I was wondering about your relationship with light, and how you use it. When I walked through your studio, you had lots of works that were positioned to use the reflection of light through windows and things like that. What are your thoughts about the rays the sun creates?
Ólafur Elíasson: I am a sun nerd, and I sometimes imagine that I’m on the sun, or I’m in the sun, or that I’m trying to see the earth from the perspective of the sun. I’m interested in how to make the energy that comes from the sun more tangible, not just literally but also emotionally. What does light feel like? We know to a great extent what happens when light bounces off a surface and what happens with color, how much of the energy is transferred into heat waves and what is visible. This is interesting to artistic ideas, but the psychology of it is also fascinating, because you almost need to take a perspective from outside of the earth to understand what we look like. There are a number of famous quotes and pictures of the earth rising above the horizon of the moon, when Armstrong was the first man on the moon in ‘69. What does it take for us to see ourselves in a greater perspective? Only then can we actually ask things about interdependence. And the whole issue with the climate is so hard to get your head around—the fact that the globe as an object is struggling.
JM: OK, I have another fun question here. If we existed in a binary rather than singular sun system—if we had two suns in the sky, as some planets like Alpha Centauri do—what type of effect do you think that would have had on humans?
OE: I worked with the idea of a double sunset, and there are a few lovely images of two suns in science fiction movies. The idea is, of course, amazing. It also reminds you of another important aspect: the shadow. In our society, the shadow is an underestimated but incredibly important indicator of spatial depth, positioning, and time. Are you side-lit, are you top-lit? If you’re at the equator, you’re more likely to be top-lit—there is little or no shadow. When you are at the Northern or Southern hemisphere, there are long shadows. I think this has influenced our culture, our architecture and our heat management. Our identity is connected to the quality of the light and the sun, so adding an extra sun to that equation is a great idea.
JM: We live with the idea of a single god, a single power. If there were two forces like that, how would that shape religion? Perhaps we would not be the people that we are. Maybe we would not be so conflicted.
OE: Clearly, these two suns would have existed since the beginning of time, and that would’ve meant our sense of central perspective would be less centralized. You would have two shadows: one would be long, and the other would be quite short. I was with a goalkeeper for a soccer team the other day who said he loved evening training. There were two lamps behind the goal, and by looking at shadows, he could see the distance between himself and the goal. There would also be navigational consequences if we had two suns. It’s a fantastic thought.
To be a little more intelligent about your great question, clearly the revolution of the earth—one revolution every 24 hours—is based on one sun. I’m very interested in how we on earth know that we are turning. One way of knowing is to look at the sun. As we all know, the sun doesn’t actually move. It looks like it does, but it’s us, you and I, Jeff, traveling 300 kilometers a second or something insane like that through space. Having two suns might bring the earth to orbit in a kind of infinity sign around two suns, which would be beautiful.
JM: Right. What effect would that have on nature or animals? How would moons and satellites fit into that scenario? How would we age? It’s kind of interesting to see how we’ve shaped our lives around a singular sun. I just wonder if we would look at two suns the same way that we look at one. How would we look at each other? Would we walk through life imagining that we are so self-conscious, for instance? Would we attach ourselves to other people more easily because of the way that we’ve been taught by the sun and its relation to its twin? Would we have a type of personality that was more like a Gemini, like myself? On Monday I’m one way, on Tuesday I’m somebody else. It drives my wife crazy, but that’s the way it is. Would we have split personalities?
There are places in the universe that have these binary suns, and very far in the future, humans could find themselves in situations where they have to psychologically recalibrate themselves to accept the effects of all that happening. In 2020, we’re supposed to send people to Mars on a one-way trip. I wonder if they’ll make it—if they’ll be able to cope with how different it is.
This is an online-only extension of an article that appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from our print issues.
Detroit native Jeff Mills is one of electronic music’s great conceptualists. Treating techno as an art form that transcends dance floor euphoria, his musical investigations of science fiction and utopian themes overlap with the work of Danish-Icelandic artist Ólafur Elíasson, whose large-scale installations explore the manipulation of space, light and reality. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Eliasson has long found inspiration in Mills’ work, and vice versa, which is why when getting to know each other for the first time, talk of art education and collaboration had both artists buzzing with ideas.
Ólafur Elíasson: I remember when I first encountered your music. It must have been 1997 or 1998, and I had just moved to Berlin a little while before. I’ve always been very interested in the structure of sound but I wasn’t very articulate about it back then. I’m still not, really. But sometimes you hear things that seem to be expressing themselves on your behalf. Sometimes you go to a concert or to a club, and you hear something that is almost like it’s verbalizing something that you wanted to say, but you hadn’t quite found out what language to say it with. I had that experience with your music. And if that happens, the interesting thing is that you connect to the sound so that, in a sense, you become the producer of the music. You identify with it to such an extent that it becomes a part of you. I haven’t found out exactly how to coin that phenomenon, but I think you, Jeff, have successfully created sounds that speak on behalf of others over the years. Personally, back then it had a lot to do with having left Denmark, coming to Berlin and starting to make my works.
Jeff Mills: I wish I had met you then. You can probably relate to the fact that when I create something, I’m kind of lucky if I can retain that type of relationship with it. In most cases, I become the spectator of my own work. The public’s opinion kind of takes over. It takes it away from the creator, whether you want it to or not. I’ve produced things where I’m kind of in disagreement with other people’s interpretation. It can happen. There’s always that risk. So I’ve resorted to a way of just making music for myself and not letting anyone hear it, and I listen to it only to inspire myself to realize something else.
OE: Wow, that’s a great luxury.
JM: Do you ever do things like that?
OE: I search for places that will inspire me. To be inspired is actually hard work. I really respect the people who somehow seem to be inspired out of the blue. I always have to bloody listen or read or work on something to achieve that. When I stop and pause, I literally stop getting inspired. I wonder what would happen if I really took a break from working. I haven’t tried that for 30 years now. But essentially, I don’t know if I make works for myself. But I like to experiment and those experiments very often don’t turn into anything. There is that moment where an experiment sort of turns around and takes on its own agenda. So instead of you pushing it, the experiment pulls you with it. This turning moment sort of indicates that what you work on might potentially be artistically valuable. But this doesn’t happen very often. You keep pushing and pushing, and it just gets more frustrating and, eventually, nothing comes out of it. Then again, ten projects that do not turn into something bring you to another point.
But I’m curious about the consequences of working with sound. If you think of a soundscape, or an architecture of sounds, it’s very spatial. It’s not a linear thing that goes out of the speaker and comes into your ear. It’s the whole environment that is somehow vibrating or pulsing, and it’s very three- or four- or five-dimensional. How does that feel, and what happens to you when you are in that space?
JM: I really believe that all humans, no matter how many people they’re connected to or how many friends they have, really spend most of their lives by themselves. You experience things in ways that are very difficult to explain in words or in conversation. I always think about that when I’m composing music. I’m never really composing for people, but for an individual listener. There’s a whole bunch of psychological aspects that go with that.
One thing, for instance, is that for most of us, we graduate from college if we’re lucky, and then after that, structural and formal teaching is really over. The average person doesn’t really have many opportunities to realize new things because they have their life, a family, responsibility and so on. And so I always thought that if we can slip more things that are relevant, more teachable things inside of art, using music to whisper something to someone to kind of nudge them in a certain direction, this feeling of learning in a very structural way then takes over. I always keep that in mind when I’m sitting in my studio alone and I’m thinking about the way that I would like to learn about new things. Ideally, it would be through something that I enjoy, like electronic music, science fiction or classical music. And I wonder, why can’t I learn something about planets at the same time?
OE: That’s a very valid point. It points towards what type of active role, if not music, then creativity and artistic agendas, can bring to our society in the future. Because I do think there is a tendency to think that creativity is something that you consume. When you go to a museum or a concert, you do that in your spare time as a kind of recreational escape. I am not a fan of education in words, as it is a bit patronizing in this context. But the idea of having confidence in people being able to evolve is, I think, one of the great strengths of cultural production. Because when you go to a concert, people are not being patronized; you don’t first walk out and explain this sound means that, and that sound means this. Essentially, you let it flow and people just have an experiential relationship with it, which is very much driven by trust. There aren’t many places where people can exercise trust with such precision.
If we look at society as a whole, one of the great challenges is the lack of a feeling of interdependence: to trust the politicians, to trust the finance sector, to trust the scientists who work to fully understand climate change and how to deal with it. So trust is a major issue. And cultural production, if it is not marginalized into some kind of experience economy, is fundamentally trustworthy. It’s the strongest parliament of our times; it’s creativity. I totally agree with you that there should be no limits to where one can take these things.
JM: I went to see The weather project when it was first shown in Tate Modern [Gallery in London directed by EB contributor Chris Dercon]. It was the first time I was exposed to your work. What was most interesting was the way that people behaved when they first saw the installation. It was literally like they were seeing Jesus in front of them. And they began to walk very slowly and their movements began to slow down, actually. Some lay down on the floor, some became more quiet and started whispering to one another. I’ve never seen that before. I’ve never seen an installation have this much power.
OE: I was struck by the experience of the people as well. I often think about it. As you mentioned, a lot of people did a lot of different things, and yet they were not seeing the diversity and activity in the space as a conflict or disturbance to the experience of the piece. I’m very curious about what types of environments actually see difference as a success. In Europe we have a lot of exclusion going on right now based on difference. Different cultural background, different religion, different skin color, all kinds of things. And in that sense, I’m curious about what types of spaces successfully acknowledge that people see things differently; they are different, they come from different places, and that this is actually a contribution to the quality of the space.
When you say, “Oh, that sound. I didn’t really like that,” and someone else says, “Actually, I kind of liked it. It sort of touched me,” you can still be friends. And we don’t think that’s remarkable, right? But the truth is, that’s actually quite a big deal. If you see a position in politics, everybody says something and then uses the differences in their points of view as an excuse for acting politically. I’m very interested in the question of why we are so touched by sound. It’s so irrational. And why are we not using sound and music to teach mathematics in school? It has unbelievable potential, yet it’s somehow just sitting to a great extent in a very passive or, let’s face it, stupid industry. Or it’s an art form that, just like the art I do, is a little bit elitist and marginalized for a certain group of people. That’s why your thoughts on teaching resonate so much with me. And I don’t just mean bringing music into school. Maybe it’s also about bringing the school into music.
JM: I think that there will be a great change in the way that we learn. When I was in high school, we never finished the book, meaning that whatever class it was, we never reached the end of the textbook. And that was routine in Detroit public schools. So what does that tell us? I think that the old ways of teaching won’t be enough. I think that probably the best way to teach a human will be to simulate reality so they not only open up a book and read it, but they have the opportunity to feel like they are experiencing it firsthand. And I think that we may be entering into an era where virtual reality and the simulation of reality are better teaching tools. Because you not only feel that you’re there, but you can experience it from different perspectives. You can be taught the Civil War in the U.S. from the Confederate side and the other side. You can be caught in between. So I think we’re just on the edge of using art and sound and all these things to teach.
Technology will have its most profound use there—I think it’s going to replace education. And I think when that happens, we’ll be looking at art and art forms very differently. Not only can you listen to Miles Davis, but you can also understand the context in which he made Bitches Brew, or the first time that he played at Carnegie Hall. I think that in the end, we will become, in a utopian kind of way, super-human, super-intelligent, not because of the books that we read, but the type of experiences that we’ll be able to live in our short lifespan. So I can be a fireman on Tuesday, I can be the president of Ghana on Thursday, I can be back home and watch my soap opera on Sunday. It may be like that. And then when you think about experiencing things outside of here, other planets, going to Mars, and having the feeling of walking across the surface of Mars and what that would be like, it’s going to be an enormous leap forward. And I think art, music, all these things will have incredible impact as teaching tools.
OE: Since you were at my studio yesterday, maybe you saw that we have a number of digital spatial experiments with these Oculus Rift glasses. We 3-D printed a camera that has hexagonal filming capabilities of the space, with six GoPro cameras in it. What I’m interested in is the link between the virtual and muscle memory, because I do think people totally underestimate the experience that one has. Of course it’s not the same as being on Mars, clearly. On the other hand, it allows for storing knowledge in a spatial and bodily way much more complex than pure theoretical or algebraic teaching. And this is how culture and sound and music and art and theater have been operating for a long time. It has always been physical. And I do think that we see more and more education and training and skill enhancement, involving culture as a guiding light. We are searching for ways to store knowledge in our bodies or brains in more sophisticated ways.
JM: But you also teach as well, right?
OE: I did. When I taught at my former school, The Institute for Spatial Experiments, I made a point to explain something very specific to the students, or “participants” as I called them. They would come to me and say, “Listen, I have a great idea.” And they explain the idea and say, “Isn’t this a great work of art?” And I say, “No, it’s an idea about a great work of art, and you are about to go on a lovely journey to try to turn this idea into action. And this is one of the most rewarding things one can do.”
The journey is in fact first a sketch, then a model, then another sketch, then many models, then going back and forth reading a bit about it, asking a scientist for guidance or assistance, having people help you, testing it on a bigger scale, and so on and so forth. And gradually, the idea gains physical space. I’m very interested in this process, when an idea leaves the state of language or intuition and gains physicality. This is what I call “reality production.” Eventually it might even be shown in an exhibition, but that is just another creative step. And I think it’s important to see that the creativity in this isn’t in taking a sketch and turning it into a model. The creative part, I think, lies in understanding the consequences that creating art has on its surroundings on the other students, on the world, and how the world inspired you to take that step in the first place.
So this means that what makes things creative or gives them potential is actually not what I do in the studio. Rather it is in the consequences of having a studio that creativity arises and inspiration is nurtured. I think this is very important to understand for teaching, because there seems to be the suggestion that you can teach in a closed environment, a school, whereas the criteria of a potential success of a school should be rooted in the frictional quality it has with our times. And I do think, in a very odd way, this is why at some point, Detroit realized that they were alone. And this is the moment when they started challenging that idea. And out of that challenge, people like you emerged.
JM: I think that we aren’t able to detach ourselves from the problems in which we grew up. And I think that when they go to Mars, they’re gonna take Earth problems to Mars. If you have a man and a woman, a young and an old person, somehow they’re going to bring up these differences, and they will create the same world that we exist in now.
OE: Well, the reason why I’m optimistic is that I think that sometimes, even without knowing, we take it for granted that reality is non-relative. Reality is relative. We live with things that we mistakingly think are pre-defined, given by God, made by nature, and we say this is beyond the reach of negotiation. And if you take a different stance and say everything, including reality, are models—especially social conventions or cultural conventions—then the way we see things is cultural. We don’t see reality, we see things the way that we’ve learned to see things. That’s why I always insist that reality is relative, much more relative than you would normally think.
One great area to rehearse your relationship with reality is, for instance, culture or art or sound. Because I do think that it’s a very healthy exercise to counter the essentialism that comes with saying, “This is something God decided. Nature is predefined. That’s how cities look. This is how architecture has to look.” Things are the way they are because of the social regimes with which our society has chosen to organize itself. To criticize that can be very liberating. I do think that one can actually adapt to major changes, because we see that, well, reality is not real anyway. So we might as well just change it. And that’s why I’m generally quite optimistic with regard to the confidence in people’s ability to shift or adapt to new environments.
A good example is the way I listen to your music. It’s almost like there is a huge area or infinitely large space of what we all know. These are the things that we learn, and this is the world that we understand. Then there is a threshold, and then on the other side of that border or threshold, there is everything that we do not know. And that’s my very simple version of the world: the known versus the unknown. And our life, to a great extent, consists of expanding the known into the unknown. The older you get, the more you know. Or so we hope. But walking up to that line is reminiscent of how I think of your music, which is the meeting of the two. Right? That’s the sound of that line between everything we know and everything we do not know yet. But by listening to it, we kind of expand. Because then we’ve heard it, then we know it, and before we heard it we did not know it and it was unknown, right?
The idea that you could walk up to your own horizon I think is a lovely one. We kind of make the mistake and think the horizon is always moving with you as you walk, no? I think you just walk up to your own horizon and say, “Look, actually the horizon is not a line, it is actually a space.” It is a space in which things are both familiar, known, and they are also abstract, unknown, at the same time. And there’s actually plenty of stuff in there. One can build a house in there, one can live in that horizon, where you adapt to the unknown and you have a lot of known stuff with it. So when I make a work of art or exhibition, I very often try to think about, well, if this is now the end of everything known, let’s say the galaxies, the Milky Way, the horizon of the Milky Way, beyond that there is the other thing. Let’s say the exhibition is right there hovering in that infinite emptiness.
JM: OK, I have another question. Could you ever imagine that your artwork could become a living, breathing thing?
OE: Oh yes, absolutely. I say it also because I think as a rule, one should never suggest no-goes in art. The way I see it, art is more a language, and the language can be anything, everywhere at anytime. It can be anything at all. I have gradually learned that. But what is much harder is to say something interesting with a language. I think that requires a lot of talent to stay connected somehow, so that you know that what one does is interesting. You have worked so long now, Jeff, also, clearly to stay on top of…I don’t mean career or anything like that, I just mean creativity. To be creative requires a lot of, for lack of a better word, connectivity with the world. You have to be able to feel what is going on, not just around you, but just in general. On other planets, for that matter.
JM: I’m Afro-American, which means that as with other Afro-Americans, I don’t really know where I’m from. So we have to make up and construct a hypothetical past and then create a reason for living from that. So it’s different, because we’re not really tied to anything or anyone or any place. We have a notion that we’re from a certain continent, but we don’t really know, and we don’t really have those ties. So at a certain point in our lives, we really have to make it up, and as a result, you don’t really have many boundaries. Nothing is outrageous. You have Sun Ra and people that literally just create their personal history, and no one can tell you that it’s not true.
I wouldn’t say that Afro-Americans are prime candidates for creating surrealism, but our typical circumstances lean more to the idea that we need to live, and we need to have some basis for living, so there we create our world and our purpose. Music is a device. It has always been something that we can use to manipulate, to create, to use as an extension. But it’s really a world that we live within. And it’s a world where there are no rules, there are no laws, there’s no one telling you what it should and should not be. Of course we have critics, but the truth is that you have the ability to be able to move mountains if you can find the right code. We know this, and we treat it almost in a religious way. And somehow it’s handed down in Afro-American culture in a special way that we hear it differently, and we can interpret it differently. I don’t know where it comes from—it’s not something we’re taught in school, it’s not something we can read and understand. It’s rhythm, it’s a very natural thing. I’ve never had any conversations with really old black people about it, but it’s a very instinctive thing, and if you’ve done it as long as I have and you do as many things, it really becomes one of the few things you can really rely on.
OE: I think that as the world grows more complex, the idea of identity also changes. Traditionally, identity was very strongly defined by the past. I think there is an increasing tendency to say, “Well, my identity is the compilation of moments to which I belong.” And that belonging very often transcends national borders. I might have more in common with a guy in Japan than with the person living next door. But even though we have cultural landscapes and identity patterns that are shifting so fast, it does not replace the need for having a sense of history and belonging in the trajectory of time. I do think it’s important to see that identity also needs to be seen as something extending into the future, the trajectory in front of you. And clearly it does not mean that one should not address holes or traumas in the past. But I think that our identity lies in how we identify with the sounds we make in the moment we make them.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine.