Lars Holdhus is nothing if not meticulous. I met the Berlin-based artist after a live performance and lecture on artificial intelligence at the CTM Festival, and found him to be a fastidious musician and visual artist as well as an obsessive tea and cider connoisseur. For Holdhus, all pursuits are artistic, and the vacuum pack of Oolong Tea I depart with is hand-stamped with the same “TCF” moniker he assigns to his music.
Since his first tape release in 2013 on the Berlin imprint YYAA, the Norwegian multimedia artist has pricked discerning ears with detailed electronic productions that transform code into musical sounds and structures. The code-based titles he assigns to tracks, such as “D7 08 2A 8D 2A 37 FA FE 17 0E 62 39 06 81 C8 A1 49 30 6F ED 56 AD 5E 04,” belie the seductive, playful quality of his music, which dramatically blends hardstyle riffs, glitchy ambience, and grimey brass. His latest project, TCFX, is a command line that allows users to input text and chat with an algorithm that responds to their submissions with text and code.
Holdhus’ other endeavors include regular appearances at Berlin’s Janus party, and fellow resident M.E.S.H penned a gushing recommendation for the most recent TCF release on Liberation Technologies in the latest issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. During our conversation, however, he seemed admirably hermetic, and consumed by an interactive, socially pertinent practice which constitutes his primary engagement with the world.
Laurie Tompkins: Could you give me a picture in layman’s terms of how you use code to make your work?
Lars Holdus AKA TCF: Well, I try to use code in every possible way. There are basic approaches—like turning images or simple code into sound—or more advanced techniques where you go into the micro level of sound and insert things. If you imagine sound as an object, you can approach it from all angles and inject things into it. I’m obsessed with building systems for my own sake more than actually communicating them. There’s a certain feedback in my practice, and it’s mainly feedback back to me and not to every single listener. I’m not necessarily interested in seeing something that you immediately understand and that’s it. Maybe in the future we will all produce our own things, instead of the producer making something for the listener.
Do you find that listeners hold onto that sense of expectation more than visual art audiences?
They’re very different, and I like that. I appreciate all the different entry points that people can take. I’m a visual artist, but I also import tea into Germany for example. People can enter through these different avenues and then take their own stand towards my practice. I’m just building systems all the time, and people can follow and see what’s there. I take into account everything that people say and sometimes I incorporate it into the next performance. I like the idea that you’re a part of this larger group of people, and that the listener is also a part of the creation itself.
As much as the listener navigates dense layers of sound, the way that the your live set progresses from moment to moment is really unusual. It’s as if your visual or conceptual perspective on sound pushes you into new musical patterns.
I think it comes from everything you mention. There’s some structure to my live set-up but it can also flow in all directions. I want to perform highly complex pieces of music that utilize the complexity of the computer but also me as the performer. There’s a game between us and I try to feel that tension. You have to incorporate humour in subtle ways, so that some will pick it up and enjoy it, but in such a way that the humour won’t break the vision of the rest. I keep the experience open. I don’t want to direct people’s feelings in certain directions—I don’t even know myself how it will develop.
How does the reaction to your show change from the club to a concert space? Do people ever move to the music?
So far, it’s been a listening experience. I like people to be seated, and if people feel like sleeping, I’m not offended. Why not? I play to keep my own brain active, and it’s almost like an exercise, simply a continuation of producing. Some people might be disappointed because there’s no highlights or dramatic structure to the performance, but I’m not so passionate about those expectations.
I tend to associate the idea of people sleeping in concerts with ambient music. Your releases certainly have similarities with that style of music, but there’s also dramatic, detailed gestures, like massive rave synths. How do you make the two work together? Is it active on the small scale and more placid as a whole?
You have to be a very active listener, as you can’t just put it on in the background. That’s how a lot of people use ambient music, because it doesn’t demand your attention in the same way. People would find it annoying if my stuff was on in the background. Some people also say that about the live performance, that they’d like it to be simpler, with a clearer narrative, but that critique doesn’t really fit with my intentions. My intention is to make the audio more complex than I can perform, and sometimes it becomes clear to me that I can’t perform it, which is an interesting process.
What’s interesting about using the brash rave sounds is that they’re tied in with an implied narrative in that they’re associated with build-ups to a massive drop. You’ve got an interesting pull there.
I try to move these sounds outside of a club environment and see them as another instrument. I enjoy that culture a lot, but my latest record doesn’t really have anything to do with it. It’s important to separate the instruments from the music, and to remember that these hardstyle elements can function in so many other ways. You can take these elements and use them without that connotation.
There’s actually a lot of traditional compositional craft in your work. The details add up to much more than pure concept.
I come from a purely conceptual background; as a visual artists I am trained in concepts. But it’s interesting to navigate between that and more classical compositional values. I see myself primarily as a composer. Although I’m not classically trained, I somehow manage to navigate in that world and I continue to try to learn from previous composers. As a visual artist, I have an interest in studying composers in a way that I can understand it. I don’t do classical notation but I’m a computer composer, so I essentially study MIDI.
So you assess notation purely visually?
Yeah, and just read up on it. All of the electroacoustic pioneers are also very important, and all these things come together if you really study it. It all merges into TCF.
Is our ability to collide these disparate influences a condition of a society that’s mediated by the Internet? Are noise, personal codes, and retro dance styles all just cultural detritus available for us to use?
The internet is so integrated into our lives that there’s no separation anymore between life and the Internet. I just see it as a platform that society uses in various ways. It’s a part of the work, but I don’t want to make a distinction between one or the other because it all comes back to human action.
You’re presenting people with something that contains all of life’s messiness, and data is a very contemporary manifestation of that idea.
This is something that affects the contemporary being, and we can’t not relate to it. I mean, I don’t think that there’s one way to express something, and that’s because I never really believed that you could express something; you can’t take something and make it happen in another medium, you can only make a translation. So I find it strange when people say to me that “This really relates to today,” because everything around us relates to today. So I can’t say that I’m trying to “coin” today, I’m just experiencing this world and trying to describe it. Others do the same, and arguably anyone who makes anything makes an accurate representation of today, even with all its flaws or nostalgia. It has to exist in our society for us to utilize it.
Clearly code allows you to escape musical habits, but there’s another side to code which is the fear that life is being reduced simply to data, and stored.
I don’t think that life can be reduced to data—it can only be transformed into data. If you say you can reduce life to data, you would also have to say that life has a certain size or value. Imagine in the future when we can measure more aspects of human life than we can conceive, then it’s certainly not reduced. It’s the way that humans read data that is reduced. In terms of politics, the way that data is used is often very problematic, we need to regulate the ways it’s used. You could argue that quantifying life in any way is problematic, but it has been happening since technology emerged, since punch cards and even before that. Humans have this impulse to quantify and organize life, and maybe we should be talking about how you organize it rather than simply advocating chaos. How much true anarchy do you want, and what level of self-regulation?
If we read your work in this sense, you’re not trying to project a world view or manifesto, you’re simply using these materials to prompt these questions?
It’s good to be informed and value all aspects of this discussion and then people can take their own stand on it. I’m not going to tell people what to think and have a heaven and hell perspective on things. This world’s not like that, and it never has been like that either. I don’t like to inform people directly but ask them to consider that there is a certain complexity to life and we must all find our own way to navigate in it.
Click here to read Laurie Tompkins’ guide to the most compelling installations at CTM and Transmediale.
Since releasing a career-spanning compilation on archive label du jour Finders Keepers in 2012, Suzanne Ciani’s impact on modern electronic music has never been more obvious. From her early days soldering circuit boards in Don Buchla’s synthesizer studio to making pinball machines speak and designing sounds for big brands like Coca-Cola, 68-year-old Ciani has long sensualized technology by emphasizing its continuities with nature.
Italian DJ and producer Donato Dozzy is on a similar sonic journey. A veteran of Roman techno, Dozzy remains unparalleled in crafting tactile and immersive electronic atmospheres. Over the past decade, the Labyrinth Festival resident has been a driving force behind the highly influential techno projects Aquaplano and Voices from the Lake. More recently however, his music has broken through the confines of the dancefloor and ascended into orbit with a slew of releases on Spectrum Spools and Prologue that both define and explode the concept of “hypnotic techno.” The two met at Dozzy’s house on the outskirts of Rome and found out, after shedding a few tears, that their connections run deeper than either would expect.
Donato Dozzy: Suzanne, this is quite an uncanny experience for me, talking to you here right now. I heard your voice for the first time when I was ten years old. I’m not joking. I was with my mother on holiday and I came across this pinball game called Xenon. We were in a skiing village, and I was actually looking for the right place to go play video games, and I became fascinated by this pinball machine. I put a coin in and you showed up.
Suzanne Ciani: When you put the coin in my voice goes [puts on a sexy voice] “Ahhhh.”
DD: To a ten-year-old boy that was quite a new and exciting experience. It left a lasting impression.
SC: I like sensual technology. To me that was fun. When Bally hired me to do the sounds for the game, I had never played pinball before, and when I watched guys play it it seemed like…
DD: . . . like they were having sex with the machine?
SC: Well, in a sense. But there were some vocal things I wanted to do that were too far out for the manufacturer. Like, when you hit the flippers, I used a harmonizer to lower my voice so it went “Ohhh, ahhh, oooh!” I also wanted to put a whip crack sound on the flipper, but they wouldn’t let me do that.
DD: I remember going home after playing and I never forgot about that.
SC: [provocatively] “Try me again.”
DD: Yeah, I remember! I’d never had a machine talking to me before, ever.
SC: “Try the tube shot.”
DD: Oh my god.
SC: I was actually inducted into the Pinball Hall of Fame last year. I was the first female voice in a pinball machine. I didn’t think that was that worthy, I thought I should’ve been inducted because of all the hi-tech work we did. But I’m glad you experienced it.
DD: You and “Pinball Wizard” from The Who—the combination really fucked up my childhood.
SC: I had a lot of guys come up to me and tell me that. I wasn’t aware of it because I never went to a pinball parlor.
DD: I also have a vinyl of yours here with the recording you made for Coca-Cola, the sound of the bottle opening and the bubbles fizzing.
SC: Yeah, in terms of recording, you could never get those bubbles going up perfectly, so those are imaginary. You actually don’t hear bubbles when you open a Coke! Here was the job: I’d been trying to meet with the Coca-Cola people for a year, and I finally barged in. They had a song already made for the advertisement and they had a blank space, a little opening of a couple seconds, and then the song started again. The Coke guy said, “Can you do something in there?” I said yes, not knowing what I was going to do. He says, “Well, what do you need?” and I said “My Buchla!” I ran and got the Buchla synthesizer, brought it in, and then it occurred to me that if I did something generic without a pitch center, then they would have much more latitude in using it again—they could use it in more places. So I thought of the bubbles and I used the Buchla to make the sound of fizzing and the lid popping off. Sure enough, they used it in all their ads, every year or so they used it. They made a whole campaign around it, this pop and pour.
DD: It sounds better than any Coca-Cola you’d ever open in reality.
SC: When you think of the real sound, of an actual bottle opening, it doesn’t have all that finesse and detail. So you create a sound that is the Platonic ideal, an imagined perfection that doesn’t really exist. Then it informs people’s perception of the reality.
Working for these big companies was fun because it was different every time, and I had a lot of freedom because nobody understood what the Buchla could do. Everyone was like, “What is that?” Nobody had ever seen this machine before, and then I got hot and so everybody wanted to hire me. But the Buchla, as a modular synth, had no keyboard, and companies would hire me to play riffs and I’d have to say no because it was physically impossible to play a simple tune.
DD: Of course, it doesn’t work like that.
SC: When I went to American record companies they’d say, “OK, what do you sing?”
I’d say, “I don’t sing.”
“Oh, so where’s your guitar?”
“Well, I don’t play the guitar.”
“Well, what do you do?”
I said, “I play the modular synthesizer and I need a week in the studio to make a demo.”
“A week? We’ll give you three hours.”
Their idea of a demo was, you go in and sing a song, and for me, a demo was a week around the clock in the studio. That didn’t work, so I went to Europe because Tangerine Dream was happening here and I thought maybe Europe would have a more receptive environment for electronic music. I went all around, and it was horrible. Then I went back home and continued to work on my album, and I had about five pieces done. I heard that Japan was the second largest synth music market…
DD: …and still is!
SC: …so I went. I took somebody with me and that’s how I got my first deal. They had some electronic consciousness there. It was completely different. The worst experience was the United States: they don’t listen at all, they talk on the phone, people are coming in and out. Europe is second worst. In Japan, they’d take you in a quiet room with some tea and a good sound system and you sit and they listen to your whole record and they don’t say a word. Have you had this experience?
DD: Oh yeah. For the Japanese it’s the deepest form of respect. It can be confusing at times because you don’t know where their real interest ends and where mere politeness begins. Generally the culture is really into respecting the act of listening. I can say at the moment that Japan is probably the place where I personally have the biggest satisfaction because the people have the biggest enthusiasm towards the music. Sometimes I wish I was born a bit earlier just to experience the vibe of the past. Every time I try to relate myself to musicians and artists that belong to a different generation I feel like we are the same age. I try to look at the old days like they are present right now. This is the way I feel because I think that things haven’t changed as much as people may think. The way to the music is still the same. You’ve found your Buchla attitude many years ago and it’s still in your heart. Basically, I think you’re bolted to that.
SC: An Italian understands this. Some people think that machines are inanimate, but for those of us who play them, we know they are alive.
DD: There is continuity between nature and synthesizers. It’s not only about using an internal oscillator to create a certain sound. It’s also the way the machine can interact and process sounds coming from nature. You can manipulate nature and establish a relationship with it through the machine. So you use a synthesizer to get closer to nature in some way.
SC: Are you talking about processing a sampled sound?
DD: Yes. Recording them, watching their waveforms, comparing them to the waves within a synthesizer. The distinction between “real” and “artificial” doesn’t make any sense to me anymore. For me, a sound is a sound. I’m interested in what I can hear in my surroundings and putting them in relation to artificial ones, and seeing what happens when they are combined.
SC: You’re sonically orientated. I feel when I hear your music that you’re into the color of the sound. Because I grew up with the Buchla modular system, I have always focused on the way the sound moves. I’m talking about the old days. What happened was that people thought synthesizers were about making specific sounds like, “Can it sound like a flute or strings?” That was never a focus for me. I was all about sonic movement. No, my synth didn’t sound like an oboe, it sounded like thunder going up into the sky. It was moving in a very ephemeral way that didn’t stop long enough for you to say, “This sounds like that.”
DD: And without human control. I’ve been reading the notes you’ve printed to accompany your compositions. It seems like you have a very specific, preconceived idea in your mind and you try to use the machine to recreate something that is related to reality, to daily living. But it’s the way you make it that’s totally free from any structure. It follows what’s in your mind, an idea.
SC: It’s a poetry. You live the poetry. That’s what I heard in your music also, the conjuring up of atmospheres and environments. Every time you listen it’s different. When you make a piece to please yourself, one in which all the details are just exactly the way you want them, that’s available for people to hear. If a piece isn’t constructed right it gets so boring. Don’t you think there’s something Italian about that?
DD: This has to be related to the way we are influenced by the place that we live. California and Italy have many common points. Plus, if you add on top that you also have Italian origins, everything comes full circle. We are surrounded by environments that are full of colors and smells, and that is easily transposed into the music.
SC: When you’re working in electronic music, you do think about that, because you’re getting down to the nitty-gritty, to fundamental elements of sound. You can deal with the frequencies that rub, and you can control so many raw elements when you’re electronic. You think about the pitch, amplitude, timbre; you think in all these little separate fields. You analyze sound as you’re making it.
DD: That’s totally true. The same principles can be applied to nature in general. It’s the way the universe is constructed. People get used to these principles and sounds because they’re surrounded by them from birth, so they take them as given. If you have the right attitude or if you start thinking in another way, you can see the principles of synthesis apply to everything that surrounds you. It’s about how cause relates to effect. Think of how a certain action of the wind will make things sound in a different way. It’s the sort of modulation you will find on a synthesizer. Now I’m in a stage of life where everywhere I go I hear sound. I hear something I like and wonder, “What is the pitch? What is the note? Will this fit to something else?” Electronic or not, it doesn’t matter.
SC: As humans we apply our consciousness to all sounds. We can’t help but listen in a human way that organizes what we hear. As for the ego, our judgement—why do we get wrapped up in liking and disliking and identifying with some things? It’s part of being human, yet there seems to be so much noise that goes around creation which doesn’t feel authentic. How do we get back to what is primal?
DD: The voice is the primary instrument. After years of working without vocals, I’ve regained interest in this form. I’ve gone deeper into rediscovering the origins of where I’m from, especially the musical scene in Italy back in the late ’60s and the beginning of the ’70s. I’ve been going deeper and learning about the people who had been using the voice as an instrument, like Demetrio Stratos, who died young at age 34. He had Greek origins and he came to Italy just at the right time. Not so many people know about this guy, but he was one of the fundamental elements of the Italian prog band Area, which was one of the biggest in Italy in the ’70s. Listen to Stratos’ record Cantare la Voce; it’s breathtaking the way he does things with the voice which we would do with a synthesizer.
So the point is not even the voice itself, it’s the way you use it. It’s about the brain and about the attitude. Many people do amazing things with the voice but this guy especially was doing it in a way that we would understand immediately. I’m glad Sony is repressing his works. I discovered that his vocal technique had been influenced by Eastern culture. You can watch videos of monks who can create multiple notes with the tone of their voice—singing chords. The overtones are crazy. This is what I learned: We all wake up in the morning with our own unique voice, but there are some people who are blessed and go in amazing directions. After that experience I thought that it was the right time for me to try to work with the voice. I’m not able to sing myself, just a little bit. So I thought that if I found someone who had the right voice, then I could try to work with some of these effects. In my opinion it worked pretty well.
SC: So your new album is only voice?
DD: Only voice. I made the album, Sintetrizzatrice, with a singer named Anna Caragnano. The idea came from a guy who was my mentor since I was 18 years old. He taught me how to relate myself to a crowd. His name is Paolo Micioni, and he’s a producer and DJ known for his involvement with disco. Anyhow, at the beginning of this year he was facing a very heavy illness, and he told me [Donato wells up], “Donato, I’ve always been your big brother. I’m very proud of what you do. But there is one thing you haven’t done yet: confront yourself with the primary element.” I knew what I had to do, and he put me in touch with this girl. Then I learned that she grew up in the same town where my mother was born, which is in Puglia in the southeast of Italy, a very small village called Mottola. Then I thought, “OK, this really is a sign.” We made an album in two weeks. Two weeks! It’s going to be out on March 30.
SC: For me, the voice was an expressive tool, but it was always related to technology in some way. When I started working with electronic music there was no expression, no velocity or pressure control. So I built a device I called the “Voice Box,” which was an assembly of processing stuff, like compressors, a vocoder, and equalizers. It allowed me to use my voice to control dynamics and expression on a synthesizer. It’s charting that continuity between nature and machines again, right?
I actually knew Harald Bode, who invented the vocoder. He was German, a lovely guy who worked at Bell Labs. Sennheiser had an early vocoder, but the Bode vocoder was the best, and he did a custom mod so that the unpitched part of the voice at the high end would pass through the effects so it made a more breathy sound. I have vocoder on all my albums. It was subtle, but it was there and that was why I got into it. In order to spend all the hours that you do with that machine you really have to be in love with it. You want to have a rapport, you want to feel connected. Early on I went through a period where I said, “This machine isn’t behaving like a machine! It’s not calibrated, why doesn’t the tuning hold the way its supposed to?” It’s supposed to do something logical. And then I said to myself “Oh my god, it’s not a machine. It’s human! It makes mistakes.”
DD: In Buchla terminology, this is called the source of uncertainty.
SC: I said to Don Buchla, “This is not tuning properly,” and he said, “Well, do something else.” The attitude was that you shouldn’t come to the machine with a preset idea of what you want to do—you should feedback with the machine and evolve your language with it. But I came to the new version of the Buchla with a language developed on the old machine. So I’m suffering now because I’m not approaching the machine on its own terms. I want it to do what it used to do, and it’s not doing it. When my original Buchla was stolen, I . . . [with tears in her eyes] I basically had to have an intervention. Friends came over to try and get me back on track. I was suffering. The machine broke down, and I broke down.
DD: I feel so bad.
SC: People in New York said, “We have to do something.” Somebody actually bought me another machine and said, “You just have to start playing something else.”
DD: Like after you have a car accident, you just keep moving and eventually start driving again.
SC: Then my studio became this huge clearinghouse for all kinds of instruments: Yamahas, Rolands, whatever. After I lost the Buchla, I designed DX7 sounds and I worked for Roland. They would hire me to go out and inspire people to play the synth. The other thing that happened was that I gradually weaned myself off electronics. My first two albums were all electronic and as I went on more and more acoustic instruments came in until finally it was all acoustic. Now I play the piano, but I’m going back to the Buchla. You never know what’s going to happen.
[Donato picks up an ornate box.]
SC: What’s in there?
[Donato pulls out a jaw harp, places it between his teeth and begins to play.]
DD: It’s a jaw harp. This is a Russian variation called a khomus, which has a way longer sound than the average jaw harp. Somehow this strange little instrument has become like an extension of what I do in the studio with my machines. This is something that you can do without using a synthesizer, and the sound is so similar. My studio hasn’t been switched on for two months now. I play the jaw harp because I feel this is its moment for me. At some point you need to switch from what you usually do and extend it to other types of instruments. There are one or two instruments in particular that are going to call you and this has been mine. It’s inspiring to recreate machine sounds with non-electronic instruments and see what the difference is, the effect that it brings to my brain, my body. When you play the jaw harp, you feel all your bones vibrating because you put it between your teeth and then your whole head starts vibrating. It’s crazy. I want to be good at it.
SC: You could tour with the jaw harp.
DD: I would, but my mother is worried that I’d break a tooth.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read more from this issue, click here.
Lorenzo Senni is no longer the sole property of the underground. The Italian composer’s early releases appeared in 2008 on Simon Scott’s Kesh imprint and then on his own Presto!?, and his detailed, effervescent electronic music rapidly gained the respect of abstract computer music fans. However, he didn’t remain a secret for long. His profile reached new heights with the release of his “pointillistic trance” albums Quantum Jelly (2012) and Superimpositions (2014), and after his appearances at the avant garde music and festivals Unsound and CTM, Senni’s name was on many lips.
Senni’s trance works marry the analytic precision of the likes of Florian Hecker with the wide-eyed euphoria of ‘90s hardstyle, allowing the genre’s beatless moments to disperse in seemingly endless sequences. Senni was perhaps the number-one breakout artist at the Unsound Festival in Krakow last fall, and I met him in Berlin shortly after another standout performance at CTM, where he presented new piece titled Advanced Abstract Trance. The project, which had only been performed as a studio version until CTM, dissects the genre’s aggressive drops and presents them in a sterile yet overwhelming display, punctuated by obscene carbon dioxide cannon explosions. Though the performance is certainly puzzling, it’s also enticingly playful and optimisitic—much like Senni himself.
Laurie Tompkins: Tell me about Advanced Abstract Trance.
Lorenzo Senni: Before Superimpositions and Quantum Jelly I did a record of abstract computer music called Dunno. I wanted to go back in that direction and use the sonic material that currently interests me. Quantum Jelly was born because I was interested in the build-up of trance tracks. I went through thousands of tracks and analyzed build-ups to see what was going on. I used the same method on Advanced Abstract Trance, but I was looking for breakdowns and studying what was going on with the falling bass and the moments that follow the drop, when the producers need to keep the tension high but provide a sense of release. I put together a display of these moments. It can be a stressful and frustrating listen sometimes because it seems to give false starts.
Yesterday, a friend asked me, “Why don’t you layer it?” The answer is, because it’s supposed to be a display that wants to be a composition, rather than a composition in itself. I hope it will develop every time I do it. There were already bits written by [computer music trio] Evol in this performance. Friends who I really respect are slowly joining the project, which will become a collaboration.
Superimpositions is completely beatless, and the moments between the beats of a standard trance track are really stretched out. AAT is all attacks, but because you’re hearing these isolated explosions one after the other it defeats itself, it refuses to build up.
Exactly. Neither are supposed to build up. Everyone has an idea of how this material develops in a usual track. When you give just a few seconds and then another one, the brain wants it to go somewhere over time, but instead, I’m giving another strong impulse for the sequence to restart. This material is made to climax, and it’s very precise. If you don’t have time to make it explode, and you have another strong input, you begin again.
Do the carbon dioxide cannons give people a proper drop within the context of these stunted moments?
They raise the hope that there will be a drop. Usually, carbon dioxide cannons go off and everyone goes wild. In AAT it’s a bit mutilated, but at the end it’s a real drop with this long CO2 emission until the gas finishes. When the cannons are winding down, the pressure increases and it sounds like a trance build-up. It’s a cold breeze that’s acoustic, loud, and very precise.
So, essentially, you’re bringing club dirtiness into the concert space.
Exactly—or, more than exactly. It’s circumscribed euphoria.
What’s the attraction of reimagining trance? With the title Superimpositions, for instance, there’s a sense that the super saw waves in your Roland JP-800 are piling up, but also the idea that if you could go back to early hardcore afresh you could rewrite its history.
We have a different point of view and different technology now compared to when trance was first made, but it’s also important to me that we have an emotional link with it. These tracks are highly structured and dry, and without at least a bit of emotion they’re uninteresting.
A title like “Elegant and Never Tiring” from Superimpositions really evokes that feel of infinity in your music. To me, infinity embodies the optimism of the never-ending party, but it also taps into this contemporary reality of an endlessly overbearing social life.
For me, it’s just a display. I really like the idea that people have to make an effort with the music. With AAT, I give short inputs and the audience has to develop it into a longer idea. With Quantum Jelly, it’s an inverse process. For a period, I was very into early Plastikman, before Consumed. When you get the archives box you also get the studio takes. You’ll have an 11 minute track with a 50 minute studio version, which is super precise with the filter moving in a very minimal way. I have this little section of a longer build because I like the idea of really learning from something.
Trance, like many ’90s dance styles, is highly accelerated. Zooming in on a small section of the build up is, to me, political. Perhaps the music urges us to slow down, concentrate wholly and re-evaluate?
I was looking at this musical structure seated in my studio, and not trying to make club tracks. I wasn’t looking at where the track could go but something very different. So in that sense, yes—but I’ve also had very diverse reactions. Sometimes it was very confrontational, and sometimes people were really happy even though it was 4 in the morning and they expected beats. I’m very open to the reaction, and honestly I’m not interested in being challenging just for myself. It’s for an audience.
Your stuff is certainly provocative in a different way to Florian Hecker. There’s less aggression in your music, it lures you in.
Maybe I could play loud or play a track for 15 minutes, but I’m more interested in leaving a bit of space for people to get involved. If it’s not enjoyable because of its length, at least you can pick up on its melodies. I’m interested in seducing people into a territory where they feel comfortable, but if they look around, they’re like, “Where am I?” When I’m in the studio I fight to be not too much one way or the other. If I go too much into routine trance then I’ve failed, and if I go too much into abstraction and lose the emotion, I’ve also failed. It should be just on the precipice.
There’s so much cheese with trance that if you don’t play it just right, there’s a risk you really could make something rubbish.
It’s very risky and that’s important. It’s interesting in that it takes you into the mainstream, and you have to deal with things outside the closed circle. I like playing with fire and keeping things moving.
Quantum Jelly was released on Editions Mego, which puts it in a crucial context of abstract computer music, despite the trance influence. When you work on something, are you creating with a specific imprint in mind?
I’ve always liked Mego, and when I was nearly finished I only sent one demo out and it was to Peter [Rehberg]. I said, “I’m not used to sending out demos, but you should listen to this.” He wrote back to me in 30 minutes saying “Let’s do it. Track 06 should be twice as long.” I wasn’t really thinking about the label, but I wanted Peter to hear it. With this new material, I got a lot of propositions from some unexpected labels, but I had to ask them to let me go deeper before I committed. I want to be free of their expectations, and totally proud of what I’m presenting. People around me are making a lot of records, like maybe three every year, but I want to come back every few years with something condensed and strong.
It must be a struggle to be that disciplined.
I like that you used the word “struggle.” I was reading this interview with an artist really respect, and I was a little disappointed in him saying how much fun it was to make a record. Even if I can understand what he means for himself, I can’t accept the word “fun” from an insider’s perspective. It’s fun when I’m here with you, drinking, and when I get to play and meet people through music, but being in the studio trying to make something good is really a struggle.
Maybe there’s the context of dance music, and the function of these things being party fuel?
Do you think that if you talked to Robert Hood or Plastikman, or Carl Craig doing their good stuff they’d say it’s fun? I just can’t see it.
I was reading some of the sculptor Richard Serra’s writings recently and he was saying that the quality of work is in the effort that’s gone into it. Even if you end up with a minimal final piece, you can somehow feel the hours that contribute to something really strong.
Exactly. Friends always kid with me like “It’s easy for you, you just open the filter,” but it’s a real struggle.
Late last year, we tapped Bronze Teeth to compile a mix for us. They had recently released their debut 12″ on Diagonal, the noisy label run by Powell, a staple at experimental festivals like Atonal 2014 and CTM 2015. The duo, a collaborative project between Richard Smith and Factory Floor’s Dominic Butler, sent back one of the best sets we received all year. It was a gritty and punk-influenced trip through tightly-wound acid lines and busted-up mechanics from the likes of Hieroglyphic Being, Metasplice, and EBM icons D.A.F., but we couldn’t post it because the stellar tracklist caught the attention of SoundCloud’s copyright detection algorithm. At long last, we’ve found a workaround, which explains why this EB Radio special is available on YouTube.
Update: You can also download the mix for a limited time, here.
Until 2014, Mica Levi had cultivated hushed adoration in the peripheries of multiple scenes. Levi, better known as Micachu, has penned grotty pop with her band the Shapes, composed meditative instrumental music for leading ensembles, and produced wayward electronic music since her first Filthy Friends mixtape in 2006. But her blood-curdling score for Jonathan Glazer’s 2014 sci-fi film Under the Skin propelled Mica’s challenging and eccentric work reach a new level of mainstream acclaim. The modest musician is characteristically nonplussed by the hype, and has continued to dedicate her energy to the underground, holding down a chaotic slot on London’s popular online radio outlet NTS, and closing out the year with a hallucinatory mixtape for Demdike Stare’s DDS imprint titled Feeling Romantic, Feeling Tropical, Feeling Ill. Over an afternoon cup of tea at her home in South London, Mica seemed optimistic about a forthcoming instrumental commission for the London Sinfonietta and buoyed by the reception of the DDS tape.
Laurie Tompkins: Your recent tape, Feeling Romantic, Feeling Tropical, Feeling Ill, could have just as easily been a free online mix. What distinguishes it as physical release in your mind?
Mica Levi: I can’t take any credit for that decision. I got a call from Sean from Demdike Stare and he said, “Hi, we’ve been enjoying your show on NTS, do you want to do an hour mix for us on a limited edition cassette tape?” I handed it in like five days late and then it was out on tape the next day.
Do you mind the fact that it’s a limited release?
If you make a piece of work, you don’t want to restrict its availability, but I think it’s very respectful for the Demdike Stare guys to make it a physical artefact. It just makes it rarer, more precious.
Do you reckon people think of it differently because it’s pressed? A lot of your other mixes are similar length and feel, like the NTS shows, but perhaps the physicality makes this one seem more like “proper music” than a casual mix.
Yeah exactly, and that’s what they asked for. Music makers might want to cuss labels or say they could just do it themselves, and you can, but it depends on how much self promotion you want to do. It helps to have someone else backing your music. Sometimes it feels unnatural for people to be like “Hey, I’ve done something—look at it, look at it.” At the same time, you’re making music and you obviously want people to hear it, so you can’t save your ego that much. If you’re working with other people and you’re all pursuing an outlook together, that’s the best way to do it. If I was to have a label I would want to be doing it with a bunch of mates.
That’s the NTS show formula, right? You’re the constant, but you jam with loads of guests.
That’s right. When I went to talk on the mic during the first show, I had no idea what the fuck to say. The next time I got my friend Brother May to come down, and he promoted all the Facebook, Twitter, and NTS loads of times; he was a proper pro. That seemed like a good way to do it—halve the load. I’ve done two shows with instrumentalists, one with May and one with my friend Steph, which was a divas show where we just played diva music and got friends to phone in requests and did this uber-girly thing. The joy of it is that I don’t have to think about it too much, and that gives it a vitality.
It’s been interesting to watch as a new audience finds your work following the success of Under The Skin. What’s changed at your end?
Ah man, it’s such a circus! What is it that Woody Allen said? Something like, he wouldn’t want to be a part of any club that would have him as a member. That’s kind of how I feel. I think the score was pretty solid and a good version of some work I’ve done, but I really work in phases. Sometimes I resent that in myself because I go into a new phase and feel like a tourist in an unfamiliar scene. Mostly, I just like making things wherever I can get away with it—that’s what I do, and so that comes out in different forms. I’ve looked into making physical things, like drawing pictures, but music’s what I mainly do. Mixtapes are quick to produce and a very particular discipline. You follow your gut and try to stay true to it and that expresses your tastes and your preferences.
The tape seems to bear the traces of your recent projects. You can hear the electronic productions crossfading into the strings scores.
Pretty much. I tried to split it into three. Ages ago, I was working on this synthetic romantic string music and then I was making stuff that felt quite tropical. This was just an opportunity to release it.
Your music is often considered “experimental,” which seems like a vague term these days. Does it mean anything to you?
I don’t know, really. The word experiment is kind of funny, because anyone who makes anything is experimenting. You try this and that works, that doesn’t work—that’s an experiment, isn’t it? I’m being a bit coy, but that term might be about testing weird combinations and formulas out. It could be about doing something previously considered bad taste. It’s all subjective. I hope anyone that’s writing is experimenting because that’s when it’s enjoyable.
The last Micachu And The Shapes album, Never, consists of short and scrappy tracks, yet they develop a clear narrative. Do you apply that same methodology to the mixtapes or is it more free-associative?
I practice doing mixes, and I try to put stuff into collections. When I work with the band, we just write songs with the instruments we use, and that nails it into a collection. But if I’m working with my friend Tirzah, I’ll make a load of beats and we’ll try to narrow it down into a collection. A few years ago, I went on Boiler Room, but it was a really last-minute thing. I was like, “I don’t have any hot tunes, I’m just going to suck.” The only thing that I could play was my own stuff, because I knew it, and I could mix it, and nobody had heard the tracks. From then on, I realized that was the best way to do it.
When you write instrumental music, do you use a pen and paper?
Pretty much. I work on a piano and I think harmony and melody and structures are important in everything I do. Then there’s some sounds I gravitate towards, strings I’m most fluent with.
You don’t take electronics as a starting point for acoustic music?
Oh yeah, totally. Everything comes from everything. It was a good test when we did Chopped and Screwed with London Sinfonietta because we didn’t want to just tape ourselves to an orchestra. We had to try to make our stuff acoustic by creating some electronic-sounding impressions. The instruments we made and played are called “choppers.” They’re a bit broken and not completely finished, but they generate something which is quite electronic. They produce a loop and their rough sound is similar to the kind of recordings that we make.
You sometimes DJ at gigs which blend classical and modern instrumental music with more contemporary electronic music.
I have done a few but I don’t run to them, I’ll tell you that.
Is that because they lack that practical thinking about how you expect music to behave in a particular space?
Exactly. Like, what do you want to do? Do you want to sweat and move and listen to something really bass-heavy or something more meditative? I don’t think any music discipline is better or worse, it’s just about strength of vision, commitment to an idea. I think what’s amazing about writing a score for an ensemble is that you can achieve something that’s coordinated and that can happen for a long time. If you write for an orchestra you’ve got a great breadth of textures and range, and you basically create a map that a lot of people can follow in great detail and lasts for a long time.
So what are your hopes for the near future?
It’s all downhill from here, isn’t it? They’ll let me in the club and then show me out the back door in a couple of months I’d imagine. I don’t fucking know, man. I don’t have a plan.