Why the Graphics in NSA Leaks are 21st Century Masterpieces

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Simon Denny’s “Secret Power” exhibition; image courtesy of the artist.

At this year’s Venice Biennale, one of the most important contemporary art exhibitions in the world, artist Simon Denny used the New Zealand Pavilion as a platform to investigate the visual language of America’s National Security Agency. He commissioned a design from a former graphic designer and art director at the NSA, David Darchicourt, to illustrate various security-based themes… without telling him of their intended use. The Guardian broke the story and informed Darchicourt that the images were used for Denny’s “Secret Power” exhibition (pictured above courtesy of artnews.com) along with leaked NSA graphics designed while Darchicourt was a member of the agency’s art department. Denny’s deception added another layer of intrigue to an artwork about the culture of knowledge and secrecy. We asked him why NSA aesthetics matter and how his conversation with the NSA cartoonist went after the leak.

A.J. Samuels: What’s frightening or interesting to you about the images connected with the NSA slides Snowden leaked? 

Simon Denny: When I saw the slides for the first time I was maybe as surprised and confused about their content as many people were. But I was also very taken by the way the information was presented. The graphics, logos, layouts and logic of which phrases and images were used seemed as revealing about the culture behind agencies such as the NSA as the text information they contained. I saw particular languages and subcultures being drawn from—fantasy, pop-sci-fi, gaming, magic and wizardry—which I didn’t necessarily associate with the bureaucratic and technical languages of intelligence agencies of major nation states. For example, images were lifted from Magic: The Gathering-style game Shadowfist for slides describing QUANTUM, which is an NSA attack program that duplicates Internet traffic; there were references to the Terminator series and Skynet in the TREASUREMAP Internet mapping program; popular meme lolcats were used to represent the QUANTUMSQUIRREL program and representations of wizards showed up as icons for the phone-tapping program MYSTIC. And there are many more.

You’ve said of the NSA’s images that “the leak made them into 21st-century masterpieces.” In what way?

The images that Darchicourt and his contemporaries have created read as icons for the activities that have become so debated, which makes them extremely important cultural producers. They have provided easy visual handles or shorthand summaries to very abstract, complex programs that maybe only one or two technical specialists know the workings of.

So you think the images from NSA slides aren’t just primitive visualizations?

Actually, they’re highly sophisticated. I think the set of cultural referents—including military history and use of illusionists such as Teller of Penn & Teller in GCHQ’s [British Intelligence’s] Art of Deception slides [which revealed tactics governmental agencies are using to “control, infiltrate, manipulate and warp online discourse”]—shows a complex understanding of the cultural space around this material. I can only speculate, but building these kinds of references into imagery could suggest playfully boasting about their badass capabilities. Or perhaps they suggest a degree of criticality, using a symbol as potent as The Terminator to introduce a critical possibility into icon making.

A frame from the GCHQ slideshow "The Art of Deception" courtesy of edwardsnowden.com.
A frame from the GCHQ slideshow “The Art of Deception” courtesy of edwardsnowden.com.

Do you consider your installation a work of “reverse espionage” as The Guardian stated?

Not exactly. I think it was a very clever and effective headline. The fact that the paper “leaked” the details of my mildly covert project was very appropriate and made for a better artwork. Darchicourt eventually emailed my collaborator, designer David Bennewith, saying he had questions about the project and requested a phone conversation. Over the phone with Darchicourt, I explained what my intentions were with interpreting his material without permission. I also offered to host him in Venice. Actually, once the gesture was performed of making and releasing the exhibition without his knowledge, I felt like his close input would add even more value to what was presented. He indicated that he would have to consult the NSA before he could accept any further invitations from me. Unfortunately I haven’t heard from him since.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.

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How Grace Jones Became a Disco Diva

Disco started to go mutant before the backlash of 1979 compelled its producers to quit their exploration of punk, new wave, funk and dub combinations. As disco outsold rock for the first time during 1978, for instance, figures such as Arthur Russell, Michael Zilkha and Walter Gibbons were carrying dance music into dissonant territory as they added their left field touch to releases like Dinosaur’s “Kiss Me Again,” Cristina’s “Disco Clone” and Love Committee’s “Just As Long As I Got You.” But the shake-up arguably started even earlier, when Grace Jones recorded “I Need a Man,” “Sorry” and “That’s the Trouble” for the French label Orpheus between 1975-1977. Admittedly, Jones didn’t set out with any radical intent, her main concern being to switch from modelling to music. Yet these releases stand out as early studies in disco juxtaposition thanks to the way her stiff, gravelly voice combines so uneasily with the standardized disco-backing track. DJs and dancers could start to freak out in a different way.

Jones went on to release three disco albums with Island, Portfolio (1977), Fame (1978) and Muse (1979), all of them now reissued as part of an elaborate box set. Given that pioneering disco remixer Tom Moulton produced all three, and given that Jones is now widely regarded as one of disco’s definitive divas, it’s easy to assume they amount to a landmark trilogy, with Jones now deemed by Island to have been a “natural choice” for Moulton following his work with The Three Degrees, MFSB and The Trammps. But whereas the gospel-R&B tradition produced what seemed like a small army of African-American divas who were able to connect with New York’s predominantly gay dance crowds through a sense of shared emotional hardship as well as a relentless will to survive, Jones cultivated an inverted diva persona that combined affectlessness, dominance and drag. And while dance crowds loved her stage persona and style, relations with Moulton soon turned strained. “Grace became very grand when it was time to do the album,” Moulton told me. “I guess the success went to her head. I finally got so mad I said, ‘Grace, it’s amazing that with so little talent you can please so many!’”

Chris Blackwell of Island picked up Portfolio once it had been completed and went on to release Fame and Muse, having heard about Jones through writer Nik Cohn, author of the article that inspired the making of Saturday Night Fever. “He was a friend of mine,” recounts Blackwell. “He said, ‘There’s this unbelievable looking Jamaican girl in New York, you should check her out, she wants to be a singer.” Ready to enter the disco market after making his name in ska, reggae and rock, Blackwell was all set to sign Jones based on her image. So he was pleasantly surprised when he listened to “La Vie En Rose,” a new track from the first album, and deemed it “unbelievable.” But the triple dose of musical covers that took up the whole of the first side were sonically insipid as well as ill-suited for Jones, whose voice seemed stiff when faced with the melodic-emotional demands of the form. “Do or Die” turned out to be the standout track on Fame yet fell short of Moulton’s finest work; the sequence of French language covers seemed to be made for lounge listening rather than dance floor play. Muse sank because of the backlash and also because it was the weakest of all three albums.

While Jones fans and disco collectors will rightly welcome this reissue, history suggests that the releases were somewhat out of time, delivering an instrumental backdrop that was already beginning to sound generic and presenting an artist whose sense of discord was a little ahead of its time. Jones would find her ultimate expression on her next three albums, the Compass Point trilogy, when Blackwell took control of the studio. Dub, rock, soul, funk and disco swerved and clashed to create a new form of cacophonous bliss. Whether other disco artists struggled to survive the backlash, Jones would relax into her mutant self.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.

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Krautrock Icon Michael Rother Talks to Roman Flügel

“Today it’s always said that in a certain sense, Neu! is proto-techno. But I’ve never felt that,” Roman Flügel recently told krautrock legend Michael Rother over coffee in a Hamburg cafe. And still, employing trance-inducing elements of repetition as building blocks for long, spiraling musical exploration seems to be a tradition in which German musicians have helped innovate across time and genre, including Flügel himself. On his last album, Happiness is Happening, he offered up an homage to German synth music traditions, kosmische in particular, which is why it’s surprising that the dance music icon and co-founder of the Onagaku imprint insists that the conceptual bridges between krautrock and first-wave German techno were subconsciously constructed, at best. But as he points out, his approach to making music—unlike Michael Rother’s historical reinvention of rock and pop—was never about creating “new” sounds but rather rearranging prefabricated puzzle pieces into a unique but recognizable image of dance music.

For Michael Rother, the rise of dance music in the ’90s was something that barely registered on his musical radar. At the time, the co-founder of Neu! and former member of Kraftwerk and Harmonia was embroiled in legal battles surrounding the rights of his solo material and genre-defining Neu! classics. The eventual resolution, massively influential Neu! re-releases in the year 2000 via Herbert Grönemeyer’s Grönland Records label, helped usher in an era of krautrock’s mass rediscovery and canonization. Here, Rother and Flügel discuss narratives connecting hypnotic German genres and whether patience, beyond being a mere virtue, is also a common musical strategy.

Roman Flügel: Michael, I always hear a great sense of concentration and focus in your music, especially in your solo work. Do you have a particular approach to focusing or calming yourself, musically speaking?

Michael Rother: You need to really go inside yourself and hope that something happens through this internal analysis. Usually, it’s the finer aspects of emotional processes that can be found and then expressed through music. On the other hand, I love excitement. So there’s a good reason why I’ve lived in the small German town of Forst an der Weser since about 1837 [laughs]. I always end up coming to Hamburg in winter because it’s easier to endure cold weather in a city. But the rural tranquility, open space and fresh air in Forst are incredibly beautiful. When I look out the window I can see the Weser river, which runs right past my house. Behind it are miles of rolling meadows. It’s breathtaking. I passed through there by chance in 1971 with Kraftwerk, when I was playing in the band. I can still clearly remember how I looked out from our bus and being totally overwhelmed by this landscape. Two years later I found myself there once again while looking for musicians for the Neu! tour. Cluster—that is, Roedelius and Dieter Moebius—had been living in Forst for two years at the time. And then I decided to stay. That environment helps me to concentrate and to be calm. You live in Frankfurt, right?

RF: Yes, I live in a rather notorious district near the main railway station. A lot has changed in the last five years. Gentrification is happening with vengeance. Joy and sorrow still live side by side in Frankfurt. There are still a lot of junkies, a lot of people who have no money just trying to survive day-to-day near the train station. On the other hand, expensive apartment buildings have sprouted up for all the Deutsche Bank and European Central Bank types, and that obviously alters the structure of the district. But I grew up in Darmstadt, on the edge of the Odenwald forest. My parents’ house was completely idyllic, with lots of birds and a lot of nature. I moved away when I started my studies. City life has the advantage of being able to travel easily. The airport is just around the corner, yet the city center in Frankfurt has luckily been spared all the aircraft noise.

MR: There’s neither a highway in my immediate vicinity, nor a good train connection. But as you just mentioned birds: hearing birdsong is an experience that I enjoy anew each spring when I leave Hamburg and go back to Forst. When you’re surrounded by birdsong, your hearing chages immediately. It gains more depth.

RF: We have pigeons cooing, but that’s not quite the same thing.

MR: But do you know what I mean by depth regarding birdsong? You can hear precisely the distances of certain sounds. It’s like a healing shower of precision for the ears. By the way, how old are you?

RF: 44.

MR: So a generation younger than me.

RF: Yes. I first became aware of your music when Grönland reissued the Neu! albums. I already knew the later Kraftwerk, of course, but the rereleases were when I discovered much of what was happening around it, as well as the early Kraftwerk, of which you were a member. And the music captivated me immediately. This goes for Neu!, Harmonia and, of course, your solo records. I bought quite a lot of them—essentially after I bought a bunch of Brian Eno records and figured out his connection to your world. What I find so fantastic about listening to the music you made with Klaus Dinger [drummer and founding member of Neu!] as well as with Roedelius and Dieter Moebius in Harmonia is the completely different attitude towards what rock or pop is supposed to be. You radically broke with a lot of traditions and from that, entirely new approaches and paths suddenly appeared.

MR: It’s nice to hear because that is exactly what we wanted to do back then. For me it was always about forgoing all those classic structures, and to somehow discover a new musical continent. That was the aim. Klaus [Dinger] always had an ear for the essence and effect of pop. You can also hear it in his later work with La Düsseldorf. That helped me, because I was never looking out for that. I’ve always been more surprised if something especially pop-like comes out of what I’ve done. That was also the case with my solo albums, like Flammende Herzen or Sterntaler. The question for me was always: What can I draw from if I try to forget about Jimi Hendrix and American and British pop music? That’s why I turned to German folk music and children’s songs and also the classical compositions that I grew up with. And, of course, things that I had heard in Pakistan, where I lived for three years when I was nine. My father worked for Lufthansa and was stationed there. To this day, Pakistani music touches me in a very special way, especially the brothers Nazakat and Salamat Ali Khan. Their music flows on a kind of wave, with these two singers who always take up the thread and build the music in incredible ways.

RF: I’ve been going to India at least once a year over the past three years and the music touches me in a similar way. I eventually discovered Vedic chanting, the music that Brahmins, the elite priest caste in Hindu culture, created over decades with only their voices. It has meters that are completely foreign to us but which totally fascinate me. For me it’s primarily about the sound and the rhythms. In a sense it also reminds me of Harmonia, as you hear rhythms that overlap and time signatures that are unfamiliar to European ears. Were you consciously referencing such musical traditions, or was it the random results that came from your attempt to synchronize two drum machines?

MR: We never theorized much. I think the odd time signatures came from Roedelius. He played those kinds of melodies on the piano for hours, and that fascinated me. That was the reaosn why I absolutely had to make music with Harmonia. Throw in the surprising interjections from Moebius, and you had a kind of music that could happen on the spot. Like on “Watussi,” for example. That’s Roedelius, who sometimes got carried away playing with delays and getting into an almost trance-like state with these loops running the whole way through. We never ran two drum machines simultaneously. What sounds so messed up was the result of our edit and approach. For example, we ran a drum machine through a wah-wah pedal and sent them through a tremolo, which, of course, weren’t synchronized. We couldn’t do it any better back then, but it has a very special energy.

RF: The studio setup that you had with Harmonia in Forst is known from photos: two nearly identical blocks of keyboards and effects units, with two guitars in front of them.

Harmonia's studio in Forst. Picture courtesy of ValhallaDSP.com.
Harmonia’s studio in Forst. Picture courtesy of ValhallaDSP.com.

MR: Right, the heavy Gibson and the light Fender.

RF: The leopard print Fender always fascinated me.

MR: I bought that off Florian Schneider from Kraftwerk. I still have it. Nice and light, a Fender Mustang with a tremolo bar. I eventually removed the leopard skin because it became unappealing to me at some point. Florian had also decorated the guitar with colorful stones.

RF: What I always wanted to ask you is: What role does ego play in music for you? After Neu! and Harmonia did you choose to go solo in order to fulfill your own musical vision?

MR: For me, it’s a pretty straightforward development from Neu! to Harmonia to my first solo record. I couldn’t have omitted any of it. I never would have ended up with Flammende Herzen or Neu! ’75 without Harmonia. But the fact is that Harmonia failed at the time. It was simply a commercial flop. In 1976 we reached the point where we really just stared at each other and said, “It just can’t go on like this.” I suddenly found myself alone, and to get back to your first question, I had no other choice than to go solo. Flammende Herzen emerged out of that situation. Not because I wanted to finally gratify my ego, but simply because there was no one with whom I could collaborate. For me, it was an experiment: What comes out if I make music alone in the studio? The key to that happening was Conny Plank. As a producer, Conny had the incredible ability to understand and empathize with the ambitions of the musicians who recorded with him. He once said that he sees himself as a midwife who helps musicians to deliver their babies. Which is to say he works without pressuring you. He also sometimes subtly placed limits, without it being clearly noticeable, by saying at the right point: “It’s good like that.” There’s a lot happening spontaneously in the studio on Flammende Herzen. Conny and I never had any disagreements. Whatever he did, I always liked it.

RF: How was your work with Conny Plank financed at that time? I’ve had the luck that I’ve been able to build my own home studio gradually, and the means of production have become cheaper. For you, considerably more money and effort was needed in order to get anything onto tape.

MR: Indeed, it was stressful. Commercial studios were expensive. We always worked at night, because it was cheaper. For the first Neu! album, Klaus and I had four nights for the recordings and then a week of mixing in another studio, for which the owner of the studio got the publishing rights. That’s how things worked at the time. We somehow scraped the money together. That was also what was so special about Conny Plank: He shared the risk with us. Of course, it meant that he was involved in the licenses. But as an overall matter, it was hell. We suddenly could record on 16 tracks for the second Neu! album, where the first was recorded a year earlier on eight. We failed spectacularly with these new opportunities: “Oh, I’ll play another guitar and another reverse piano, and I can still throw a violin there.” And then the week was nearly finished, and what did we have to show for it? One side of an album. Then the B-side emerged in a crazy night, where Klaus kicked against the turntable so that the needle jumped. [Side two of Neu! 2 consists of previous singles, “Neuschnee” and “Super,” played in various speeds from both tape and a record player.]

RF: I have to admit, I was incredibly irritated by that the first time I heard it.

MR: I hated Klaus for it, but it was the result of sheer desperation. He would probably never have admitted it, but it’s the truth. We had these two pieces, “Super” and “Neuschnee,” and it was clear that they would be on the B-side, but they had a total of maybe six and a half minutes, so it wasn’t enough. And then Klaus put our first single on the record player and let loose. Later, the B-side of Neu! 2 was considered the first remix experiment.

RF: Indeed, today it’s always said that in a certain sense, Neu! is proto-techno. But I’ve never felt that. The fact that something is repeating has absolutely nothing to do with techno. Your music grabbed me on a harmonic level that pop music or the music that otherwise surrounded me never did. It was a different sound. I never associated it with techno. I made my first record in 1990 and I had no idea of your music back then. I didn’t know that something like that had ever existed in Germany! During the ’90s, house and techno led to the development of a new scene, which I was part of. People in Germany once again found their own language with electronic music, but for me at the time it had no connection to what you had established in the past. I still see it that way today because so many people who produced records in the ’90s had absolutely no idea bout music from the ’70s. Techno and house are and have always been club music and a unique youth culture, which has little to do with what was done in the ’70s. What happens harmonically on your records together sounds incomparable to me. One could draw the connection between your music and techno, but in the end it’s constructing something else.

MR: I noticed the development of techno only from a great, great distance. I wasn’t hanging out in Berlin or in the other cities where a lot of it happened. I can remember that I sometimes heard something on the radio and thought: “Ah yes, so that’s happening now.” But it didn’t really leave its mark. I maybe briefly considered it in order to see if it could serve as an inspiration. Repetition, of course, always does, like the magic of repetition I found in Pakistan, not just the strange sounds and melodies.

RF: For decades, repetition was something that people in Germany pretty much never got to learn. It was always more about pushing variations to extreme, to have as many combinations and changes as possible before something repeated. On the other hand, techno was an almost archaic approach to music, which felt extremely liberating to me when I started to work with machines. There is also a very important difference between the way your music was created back then and how mine has always been created. Namely, I was influenced by pre-existing record collections, by sampling techniques and the availability of music. My music consists more of puzzle pieces, of various connections that I make between different things that I’ve heard in my life. I never had the intention to break with everything that came before. And that’s a very big difference in approach.

For me, house and techno in the late ’80s and early ’90s was the most radical thing you could connect with at the time. I left the bands in which I had played as a drummer until then, and in the late ’80s, started to produce on the cheapest bits of equipment. My music has always been created as a form of sampling. I know you’ve said that you wanted to leave everything that was there before behind you. An important part of what you said was to withdraw as much as possible and not listen to much music in order to have your own sound. For me, it was always very important to hear a lot of music and to somehow process what fascinated me. I suppose it also had to do with different times. I’d be curious to know: How were the late ’80s and early ’90s for you as an artist? The positive mythologizing of the ’70s hadn’t really taken place yet.

MR: The ’70s were pretty much “out” during the ’80s.

RF: Exactly. How did that feel?

MR: It was difficult. But I had the good fortune to regain the rights to my first three solo albums after five years. The manager at Polydor then offered me a rather lucrative contract. But you could see quite early on that Deutsche Grammophon, which Polydor belonged to, was reorienting. They released a compilation called Alles für Zuhause (Die Neue Deutsche Welle) and stuck on one of my tracks. They probably thought they could somehow still shove me into this market where I didn’t belong. That’s when the trouble began. Not financially, but artistically. At the time, the public moved away from what I was doing. By the end of the ’80s, there was no interest at all. I prematurely terminated the contract with Polydor. I then continued to work for four years. It was pretty exhausting, because I realized that I could no longer relate to the reality out there. Then in 1993 it became clear that I could no longer wait for things to fall back into place. Consequently, I founded my own label and released everything myself.

FluegelRother_ElectronicBeats_1240

RF: That was also exactly the time when self-releasing became possible for me. Those structures emerged at the time. From then on, it was another way of working.

MR: Well, it remained difficult for me. Also because of the endless discussions with Klaus about Neu! reissues. It wasn’t all fun and games.

RF: Of course. Then let me ask you some more about Harmonia. Harmonia and Kraftwerk both recorded two very important albums around the same time…

MR: I believe Kraftwerk’s Autobahn came out one year after Musik von Harmonia.

RF: Yes, which is interesting, because I think that on the title track “Autobahn,” something happens musically that for me sounds exactly like a part of the Harmonia album.

MR: Really? I’ve never heard that. Great, I’ll sue them! [laughs] What do you hear there? I’m very interested to know.

RF: It comes in that middle section, where there’s a melody that, to my ears…Well, I’d have to have the tracks side by side.

MR: I would not insinuate that Kraftwerk had taken anything from Harmonia. But I can remember quite clearly how I proudly came to Düsseldorf with the first Harmonia album. I met up with Ralf and Florian in a billiard bar and then played the album to them in the car. I can even remember that they were especially impressed by one of the pieces, called “Veteranen.” And you know that I’ve jammed with Ralf Hütter. Back then it became apparent that we were on the same melodic path. It was a revelation for me, because at the time, to my mind, there was no one in sight who wanted to do anything similar to what I was doing. With other musicians, there was either still blues in what they were doing, or it was complicated and overly intellectual. With Ralf, I could immediately relate. That compatibility between us is perhaps a better explanation of where the similarity in the pieces come from.

This conversation was translated by Alexander Paulick-Thiel and originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine.

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Dub Veteran Adrian Sherwood On Drinking Tea With Björk

A as in AFRICAN HEAD CHARGE: African Head Charge was a psychedelic dub band I first produced back in 1981. Consider it an attempt to inject some “holy voodoo” into dub. The lineup changed a lot over the years but it’s centered on percussionist Bonjo Iyabinghi Noah. There was a lot of talk of African influences in Jamaican music during the ’70s and ’80s, but the heavy Afro percussion that Bonjo specialized in wasn’t so common. Most Jamaican roots tunes tended to use lighter percussion like repeater and bongo drums. With Head Charge we emphasized heavy beats, samples, chants, down-tuned vocals and backward-mixed tape. By Jamaican standards we made tracks that were pretty wack. Still, I stand by them to this day.

B as in BRITISH FOREIGN POLICY: God alive! It’s clear that British foreign policy is anything but just British, especially in light of “our” peace envoy Tony Blair’s criminal foreign policy adventures.

C as in CULTURAL CROSS-POLLINATION: Pollination is essential. Stop poisoning the bees! Cultural cross-pollination is great in music if the ingredients are properly seasoned.

D as in DYNAMICS: There’s a dearth of dynamics in modern music. What’s more important are dynamic people and relationships.

E as in ENGLISH DUB PRODUCTION: The originators are untouchable but time marches on. The Jamaicans have a saying: “Each one teach one,” and many producers in the UK—and the entire world over for that matter—have been attentive students who learned from the best. They understood the lineage and pushed dub into the future.

F as in FATHERHOOD: The best productions I’ve ever been involved in are my children.

G as in GRAVITY AND GROOVE: Both are strong forces that pull you about and lift your feet off the ground.

H as in HIGH WYCOMBE: What can I say? It’s a small satellite town west of London where I spent my formative years and forged lifelong friendships that have shaped me to this day. Glad I left when I did, though.

I as in IMPORTED WAX FROM THE CARIBBEAN AND AFRICA: Like receiving messages sent from another planet.

J as in JAH SHAKA: The pre-eminent sound system warrior and producer. I’ve been listening to him for over 40 years. Most people don’t know that he’s a jazz aficionado as well as a dub master. I still marvel at his ability to work his sound system non-stop for 12 hours straight. When Mark Stewart and I first started working together, the first thing he did was play me a cassette of a Shaka dance. The cassette was heavily distorted, like most live Shaka recordings, but Mark’s tape was particularly hot. I thought he wanted to record tracks in the vein of Shaka’s steppers rhythms but I soon realized that he really wanted his record to sound like Shaka’s sound system blowing up.

K as in KUKL: We often crossed paths with the Icelandic post-punk band at John Loders’ Southern Studios in London. We would wait for whoever was in the studio to finish, be it Crass, Exploited, The Jesus and Mary Chain, Subhumans or Minor Threat. Only then could we get our own sessions started. In the meantime we’d have funny chats in the kitchen over cups of tea with Björk and the rest of that strange and lovely crew.

L as in LYDON, JOHN: I first met the former Sex Pistol with [professor, journalist, author and musician] Viv[ien] Goldman. I came across him later on through Ari Up while I was staying at her mum’s house. Ari was the daughter of John’s girlfriend, who later became his wife. I really liked John. He had a video player, something I’d never seen before. I spent a few nights with him watching films like A Clockwork Orange.

M as in MEDITATE ON BASS WEIGHT: I’ve always thought the bassline is as important as the melody. Most of my favorite tunes are all about the bassline.

N as in NOSTALGIA: Being nostalgic is all well and good, but when you’re making music and pine for a time gone by or for things to be or sound a certain way, you better be careful as it can spell the end for you.

O as in OVERDUE PAYMENTS: An issue in all our lives.

P as in PINCH: aka Rob Ellis, dubstep pioneer and head of Tectonic Records. He’s genuine, intelligent, funny and I’ve just made a great album with him!

Q as in QUALITY CONTROL AT A RECORD LABEL: I’ll relate this to the old music business. When they were minted it seemed that large record labels didn’t have much of a policy regarding quality control. These labels were often run by tone deaf A&R people and businessmen who seemed to think that being financially successful meant they had quality acts. Anyway I guess quality, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

R as in RACIAL TENSION: It’s stirred up over and over again to stop us fighting the real dogs.

S as in SIGNATURE SOUND: Something to strive for. Most of my favorite producers are those whose style you can recognize instantly.

T as in TEENAGE YEARS: Not the best years of my life, probably because I was stoned and unable to speak for most of the time. Now I remember those years fondly because that’s when I discovered Jamaican music.

U as in UNCLUTTERED SPACE: A very important musical tenet. Carving out a specific place for each instrument and sound effect is what I love to do best. I like being able to isolate each part so I can grasp how one element plays off the other. I think this comes from my early experiences recording multiple musicians in a single room at the same time. Even after overdubbing, I made sure that everything could be clearly heard in a dynamic, three-dimensional field. Uncluttered space is vital to many modern productions. Tracks these days have become super minimal, though they’ve never had so much sonic power.

V as in VIOLENCE IN JAMAICA: The history of the island is cruel and violent, but let’s not forget how the CIA funnelled weapons into the country during the ’70s. Political shenanigans are played out in the poorest areas with the drug business and gangs fueling ongoing problems. It fills me with sadness.

W as in WHERE IS POLITICAL MUSIC TODAY?: Good question! Sadly, I don’t think artists are as political as they should be. With the exception of Sleaford Mods I can’t think of many articulate, angry new bands coming up.

X as in XCITER APP: A new app for your phone that’s supposed to enhance the sound of compressed MP3s. I’d like to have a go with it, certainly sounds interesting. It’s just another tool but possibly a great one considering that most people listen to low quality digital files these days.

Y as in YOUR INFLUENCES: I’m clearly influenced by things from the past that I’m admittedly a bit nostalgic about now. On the other hand, finding new influences is a must. See N! Generally these stem from working with and meeting new people, as well as seeing and hearing things that impress me and make me wish for something new.

Z as in ZERO ZERO ONE:  God. The beginning. Perfection. And also, funnily enough, the code for phoning America.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from the magazine.

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Can We Cure Tinnitus By Listening to Music or Using an App?

Tinnitus is a high-pitched ringing in the ears that can range in severity from mildly distracting to totally crippling. If you’re reading this magazine, odds are you’ve experienced it yourself. In terms of a cure, however, no one can quite agree on exactly what tinnitus is, and things can get a little heated when two opposing perspectives go head-to-head, as you’ll find in this conversation between sound artist Frank Rothkamm and Jörg Land, co-founder of Hamburg-based audiology company Sonormed. Recently, Land’s team developed the tinnitus treatment app Tinnitracks, which earlier this year took home the coveted Founders Award at the music/technology festival South By South West (SXSW). That same month, Rothkamm released his own highly personalized tinnitus therapy as a 24-hour-long algorithmic composition called the Wiener Process. Tinnitus has never been more present, and here are two radically different approaches for dealing with it.

Frank Rothkamm: I had never heard of tinnitus before I got it in 2010. I have subjective tinnitus, which is different from objective tinnitus, where the doctor can actually hear the sound when he does an examination of your ears. Subjective tinnitus, on the other hand, only exists in the listener’s brain. The only thing I knew before that was a certain kind of ringing you have in your ears, like when you come home from a club. But that usually didn’t last very long. I remember being shocked when I got real tinnitus because suddenly there was this persistent tone in my environment. I first thought that sound was coming from my TV. I had a very old one back then. But when I turned it off the sound was still there. That’s when I really freaked out. I went to the doctor, and they did a whole bunch of tests, which I found completely fascinating, to be honest. You’re in this bizarre room, and they put little headphones on you and somebody says certain words to you and you have to react. It was extremely interesting but in the end the outcome of all this testing was them saying, “There’s nothing wrong with your ears—there’s something wrong with your brain. You’ve got tinnitus. We can’t help you. Good luck with it.”

Jörg Land: For a very long time you didn’t have many treatment options as a patient, mainly psychotherapeutic approaches, which have a high entry barrier and a high dropout rate. This wasn’t just frustrating for people who suffer from tinnitus, but also for the physicians.

FR: My doctor in Los Angeles gave me a guide that included a bunch of crap, because there really is no cure for tinnitus. I had to do something because the sound was unbearable, so I started to do research and experiments. In my research I found no hypothesis or working model or approach to actually heal tinnitus. I came to the conclusion that the only way of dealing with it would be to change how you perceive sound.

JL: The key to understanding and dealing with tinnitus is the brain. Brain science is a comparatively new field of study; any findings are only 10 or 20 years old. Scientists still don’t really know how the brain functions as a whole, but they’re getting closer and closer while acquiring knowledge on how to modulate the brain. I heard about an approach in which physicians treated stroke patients to regain eyesight by stimulating the healthy eye. This approach is similar to what we do in terms of treating tinnitus. Obviously, because brain research is such a new field there are still many people out there who don’t believe in what the scientists are doing. The point is: There is no cure for tinnitus so far. I agree with you there, Frank.

What we at Sonormed are doing with our app Tinnitracks is designed for tonal tinnitus, where you can treat the specific frequency of your tinnitus—that is, the tone itself. We know from medical statistics issued by healthcare insurance companies that the vast majority of people who are diagnosed with tinnitus suffer from tonal tinnitus. This is the group of people to whom Tinnitracks can provide relief. We took published independent research and clinical trials as a basis and translated the findings into a unique technology that can be used for treatment. Key to this approach is to determine the exact frequency of the individual tinnitus tone. To that we tailor the treatment.

Jorg Land Tinnitus
Jörg Land, photographed in Hamburg by Katja Ruge.

FR: How does it work?

JL: It’s basically a contrast effect induced by filtering the frequency of your tinnitus from the music or sound you’re listening to. This contrast effect is extremely precise and causes nerve cells to reconnect and adapt. The neurological reaction is not only leveraged to treat tinnitus but also stroke patients. Not every single piece of music or sound is suitable for the treatment, though. Audio books, for instance—and speech in general—has a very limited frequency range. Also, classical music can be difficult.

FR: I do have my frequency. At the beginning it was at 16,000 Hz and 30 dB. But it started to modulate after a while. That’s why I don’t talk about hearing a tone, because what I am really hearing is a cluster of tones. They are not all of the same frequency. Looking at it as being only one single frequency is not right, I think. We don’t know enough about this disorder and where it’s located in the brain. We don’t have a medical cure or drug-induced solution so far. The best we have at this point is based on Pawel J. Jastreboff‘s model, which basically states that you have to get used to your tinnitus because you’ll hear this sound for the rest of your life. So you could call that a psychological approach—

JL: Sorry for interrupting you, Frank, but we do have clinical evidence indicating that the cause of tinnitus is hyperactivity within the auditory cortex. We know from working closely with doctors that in most cases it’s the volume of the tone that is changing and not the frequency. But I totally agree, if the frequency is changing in your tinnitus, it is a rare condition, and we currently could not treat that with our solution.

FR: I disagree with you. I don’t think there is any scientific proof for a treatment of tinnitus and to those people who say that there is I would call their data flawed. I had my own approach and my own “treatment”—if you want to call it that. I realized after a while of experimenting with sound, all I was doing was creating a piece of music. I didn’t find the magic bullet or a universal treatment but I found new ways of listening to sound, which then had an effect on my tinnitus and eventually led to the discovery of what I call “psychostochastics” and my release of the Wiener Process. This is not offered as a therapeutic approach, though, because the effects of psychostochastics are not known. What I made was music.

JL: What did you do exactly?

FR: I started out with the Jastreboff Model, the only one that is, in my eyes, based on somewhat decent science. It’s a form of “tinnitus retraining therapy” that first centers on ending the negative view of the sufferer towards the tinnitus and then reducing the actual perception of it. For me, this was achieved through trial and error of creating sounds, exposing myself to them and checking how it affects my tinnitus. What I’ve created is a form of sound treatment—either for low-volume headphone listening or listened to aloud with any other music or sound environment. It’s designed so that listeners will not remember what was heard a few minutes ago and what they hear will be different upon each encounter, which is the stochastic, or “chance” element of the music. After a while I realized that it worked, but not because it changed the tinnitus sound. It was because of how I listened to it. So you might not be able to change the physical cause of tinnitus but you can change how your brain operates when listening. That’s the premise of the Wiener Process. The Baskaru label released it as a collection of 24 CDs and as a 24 hour stream—the results of my four years of research. You can tune in any time from any device to the 24 hour stream. Obviously, my research is subjective, and the release is a piece of art. Its scientific effects are not known at this point.

JL: Just to clarify things here, Frank: our claim is to reduce the volume of the tinnitus-tone, not to cure it completely. What Tinnitracks is based on is clinical evidence that we can lower the volume of the tinnitus by up to 50 percent. And we are currently working to increase this percentage. It’s all based on independent academic research that has been published and verified by the academic community accordingly. To us it is extremely important to be transparent here. That is why we offer on our website a comprehensive list of the studies we based our solution on and thus enable anyone really interested to access the original data. I strongly disagree with your statement that there is no reliable scientific evidence of lowering the volume of tinnitus. We even have some cases where patients say that the sound seems to be gone after using our app. But we cannot reproduce this, so we don’t say we can cure it. All this brain research is quite new. And I believe scientists are on the right path. All of the partners we’re working closely together with, not only Sennheiser but also the European Commission, share that view. Moreover, all of these organizations closely monitor what we are doing, which has helped a lot in the process to achieve classification as a medical product.

FR: I think one real key word in this conversation is “neuroplasticity.” I think the brain can, within reason, reroute neurological pathways. I also think that it’s probably the key to understanding tinnitus, and in general to understanding music on the level of brain functions—what sound actually does to the brain. That became my main point while dealing with my own tinnitus. What is music? What is sound? I haven’t tried Tinnitracks yet since it’s not available in the USA at the moment.

JL: We are currently in the process of getting the Food and Drug Administration clearance in the US, which is a lot of work…

FR: …but I’ve looked at all the approaches out there so far. And I found them to be unscientific and some even seemed to me like scams, scams to get people to undergo expensive therapies. But I’m not here to discuss your product. You obviously are and you can vouch for it. I’m not attacking your product.

JL: I do not deny that there are wild theories and promises made out in the market when it comes to tinnitus. However, I cannot stress enough that our solution is based on acknowledged and published research. I think it’s a tremendous achievement that you have developed your own way to cope with your individual situation, but the tinnitus you describe is neither the most prevalent form nor the one we target nor the form scientific research relates to.

FR: That’s all fine. There’s just a difference in opinion. I am more of a skeptic. I just think we haven’t found a cure yet.

JL: We aren’t saying that we’ve found a cure; we have found a treatment to reduce the volume of the tinnitus tone. However, one day a cure might be found and to support that, it’s necessary to take different perspectives into account. I think it would be great if you could talk to one of our neurophysiologists, for maybe you have found something in your personal studies that could be of interest to us, too.

FR: Yeah, absolutely. And all my work is open source. I’d love to share all my findings and my research. I have to issue a warning, though: The effect of psychostochastics and the Wiener Process on humans is not known at this time. As a result, I urge you to use it at your own risk. For some it is extremely powerful if you listen to it on high fidelity headphones in low light with your body in the zero gravity position. For others, I hypothesize, listening to [revered Japanese noise musician Keiji] Heino may be just as risky.

This article originally appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.

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