"I would recommend everybody to change your places from time to time and see what comes"
In the sixteenth issue of Stravinsky's Dialogues: Switzerland, the conversation is conducted by a composer, sound engineer, programmer and the co-director of Electronic Studio Basel Volker Böhm and a composer, lecturer, Associate Professor of the Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory Olga Bochihina.
Stravinsky's Dialogues: Volker Böhm & Olga Bochikhina
— Firstly I want to say that I’m really happy to see you here. And I’m happy to welcome you to the project “Stravinsky's Dialogues: Switzerland”. Before I will start to introduce you, let me ask one very brief question: What did you do today right before our meeting? Just because to understand the point of reality where I found you now. I mean, what did you do today?
— Today was a meeting at 8 am/ we were talking about the possibility of extending our campus? actually. It was quite a political thing: buildings, we never have enough rooms, spaces and stuff like that. Then I had another meeting with Svetlana, your colleague. And I had something to eat between. And just now before this, for us it’s just 5 pm, I was just briefly at home to eat something and to send a few emails. And went to this space here and just things running on to ready for the interview.
— And probably after this meeting, you have another meeting?
— Hopefully not. I will go back and go to sleep or something like that.
— Cool. Again, thank you for your coming. And today I would like to introduce you as the head of th Electronic studio of Basel Music Academy. And, a professor, improviser, software maker, sound designer, and many other things you’re doing. Please tell us, how do you define yourself?
— Depends on whom I talk to. I mean you did up professionally. I would call myself a musician, electronic improviser, programmer and occasionally also a composer, depending on the context. And on the other side, I’m a lecturer for a very long time already. So this is probably my main profession. And the other stuff that I do revolves around that.
— You remembered that I’ve been studying at Basel Music Academy about 10 years ago. And when I had been studying you were leading our design program and now you’re the head of Electronic studio. And there are some changes that happened since this time, while Erik Oña was a leader of the Electronic studio. And we were talking with you that he was quite unique person who combined both composition and electronics. And you follow this in your studio? Tell us a little bit about these changes that happen in the moment that Eric left.
— This was basically 3 years ago. Eric got ill and I was in charge from that on. Right now, I want to correct you: I’m not the only head of the studio, we have a co-leading situation right now. my new partner in the studio is Svetlana Maraš. She started now in September. So, we’re two people now running this studio basically.
Things changed a little, that’s true. Eric was clearly a unique person. He was able to teach a lot of different subjects, he was able to give lectures on very different things, he advised people on many things. He was technically well worth it: he was musically superb well worth. He was a great composer; he was a very sort lecturer. And all this made him so unique in this position.
It was always difficult if somebody was such a big influence on the institution and he is not there anymore, and you have to decide how to continue. And we had a lot of talks with our colleagues also, what will be their expectations for the studio to develop into. Finally, we found that it was not the idea to find a kind of exact replacement for him. But it was time to go a slightly different pass. And then we started to look out of people, there was an application round where people could introduce themselves. And finally, we found Svetlana Maraš, who is now my new colleague as I said. There are a couple of differences now, of course: she is mostly a composer of electronic music, also a performer and improviser. This part wasn’t what Eric was doing. Eric was also very much interested in instrumental composition and all that. Yes, we had always a situation of composition and audio design at the same school, same department. As things go on, I would say that the line between the two classes at the last years already started blurring a lot. So, it’s not as clear as it was, for example, 15 years ago or something like that. That you have somebody who was clearly just audio design and somebody just doing composition. It wasn’t our idea to continue to have two different classes basically. In our school now we have still composition classes with composition professors: they’re doing mostly instrumental compositions. But in the electronic studio itself, there’s not a dedicated separate class for electronic composition anymore. But I think we have extended our team a little bit, the things that we can provide to Svetlana also. We opened it up a little bit for the other classes also to take part in the courses that we offered at these things. So mainly it’s now one slightly larger class with audio design, but as I said the subjects overlap a lot. I would say quite a lot of our students regard themselves as being composers or producers just as well as the others.
— How do you decide this problem of collaboration? I mean, when the person who is very well educated in traditional composition comes to you, does he still have a chance to be deeply involved in this electronic stuff like to combine it on practice? Am I correct? This is the question for me about how you construct your classes, for example, because you have a lot, I mean, somebody who can be very good at programming software, somebody can be very good at making instruments, somebody can be very good at improvisation, performance or whatever, somebody can be very good in composition. How do you decide the problem of the main subject of the person and then to share with the other fields like going deep into one subject or maybe trying that and this, then decide how it’s possible to combine in an individual project?
— Difficult question. I would say we regard coming to us students as being individuals just like everybody else. So it’s not a person studying a design or a person studying composition. As I said I think a lot of these subjects and fields overlap. Of course we have a curriculum that “normal”, audio design students have to go through — bachelor or master — in top of that there are different ways of keeping of [sharing] the other process, so improvisers and composers, as you said, can take part in the activities at the studio.
There is one thing for the composers: they can have classes with their main professor, but then they can pock the other professors from other departments to take classes just as well, they have to organize that. Somebody from the composition class can say: “okay, for the next two semesters I want to have an emphasis on electronic music, and I need some tutorship or something like that”. And then they can inscribe through that. On top of that, there is a possibility for students to take part in some open, introduction course. There are introductions in electronic music, in recording, live electronic, and things like that. A lot of people take these courses. It is also a way of opening the studio, on the one side; on the other, for us, to meet these people, to learn to know them, and to make collaboration happen with our students. If you don’t know people, there is no collaboration, but if people meet and sit together in the class it’s much easier. I think I answered your question, but I’m not sure.
— Yes, of course. It was a question about how students collaborate with each other, find each other: because it’s a moment of shared interests at the one studio, that’s important.
Volker Böhm solo
Live solo set by Volker Böhm, 2016
— May I ask you personally, how did you enter the world of electronics? Where and how did you start it? How many troubles you had with electronics when you start? Because it’s hard sometimes to trust technology. It doesn’t let you down. Because not so many times ago I had some problems with things, and my colleague had a big premiere at the festival and then she had a big orchestral piece with tape music and at the premiere, everything was collapsed. And it was like you can’t trust the technology. How do you still trust it?
— So, I’m almost desperate now. when I started, I mean, it was some time ago, the late 90s, when I start electronics. I was a student just a regular classical music school, I was interested in piano playing and wanted to be a piano player. But there were other people who played piano very well. Then when I ended school, I’ve noticed “okay, there are other things next to piano playing that interest me” like music theory at the point, that was super interesting for me. And I was always interested in the music of my time. I was interested in what kind of music composers write today. I was going up to Freiburg in Germany? It’s not far from Basel here. I was quite lucky because there were a couple of very good ensembles of contemporary music there. And I was able to visit concerts and see what they’re doing. I was captivated by that. Then I started composing by myself still in school. And my colleagues played the pieces and stuff like that. It was not so easy because I’ve noticed that what I wrote down is not what they were playing. You probably know this problem. It was a problem because of me not being able to express myself clearly with the scores and stuff like that. And I finally found electronics to be one way out to really be very precise about what I want to tell or sound. Because with electronics you are very close to the result. It’s not necessary for somebody still interprets your music on the instrument. But if you’re working on a tape piece, for example, you really designing the sound of the final result.
— How did you trust technology more than people?
— I mean, the aspect that somebody is interpreting your music is a wonderful thing. But for me, the problem was that I couldn’t express myself through just scores. I was really fascinated by electronic sounds at that time. I knew about Jean-Michel Jarre and stuff like that. But that wasn’t interesting for me. I was interested in a new kind of sound. There was a little electronic studio in the place where I studied. And I excess to that. Coming to your question about trust, when I entered that studio, it was a composer’s studio. There were people that were doing interesting stuff, having interesting thoughts about music. But the technical knowledge about processes was not that high. The ideas were interesting, but everybody had kind of found the way around the technology. And somehow that doesn’t really work for me. And if I see a mixtape in front of me, I try all the [knobs] and understand what’s going on. Pretty soon I was kind of getting a tutor in this studio, maybe not the composer by default, but had an easier excess to technology. I found myself helping others with how things work. But I wanted to be a composer still at that time. And I had to decide to myself that if I want to compose the electronics, I had to learn electronics from ground up. That was a very clear idea for me. So, before I would be able to study composition, I would need to learn the instrument. That was my conclusion at that time. And this is when I went to Basel, actually. Technologically it was acompletely different time, we didn’t have everything that people have nowadays, I didn’t even have a laptop at that time. We had to always work with other peoples’ schemes. I think it’s part of the rehearsal process of building a piece, working with your equipment and learning to know its software also. Maybe I was lucky, but it only really happened once to me that something broke just before a performance. And I was doing the live electronics for contemporary music ensemble in Freiburg for quite some time. And it has happened that my computer was broken once for one of these performances. I think that the electronic part is the instrument that you have to learn. It’s like having a violin and exactly knowing how to treat it that it performs well. It’s similar to electronics. It’s better to work with the stuff that you own yourself because then you really can control it. As a programmer, I always program musical patches, musical software. I must keep understanding the computer, maybe this helps to prepare in this way that it works for the performance also.
— As I see, this is more the question about professional confidence. You’re learning the instrument; you’re learning how things happen there. And then you’re starting interpret them somehow and to get out of this thing. Let me ask you about your collaborative projects/ a lot of them dedicated to collaborations with Sibylle Hauert and Daniel Reichmuth. I’m really interested in how many things you did for them or with them. And my first question is about the problem of collaboration because you see this problem from the special point of technical point of view how to solve the problem. My question is: your collaboration with these people happened because you had the problem and solved that, or you had common problems and then your solution influenced how things can be? And it can change the initial point. Or doyou just solve the problem? I mean, how these artistic point and technological point are meeting together?
— It’s a good question. But this collaboration with Daniel and Sybil went for a couple of years and we did a couple of projects together. And each project was slightly different, I would say. Daniel and Sybille are an artistic duo, they’ve been doing stuff together before I met them. I was kind of third person coming in there. The first project was clearly just like an application. They had a problem that they’ve had just solved, as to how you described. And I wrote some soft for them so they could perform the artistic idea. And this went very well. It was quite a joyful for me too. And the next project runs from the first idea. And this changed the whole situation a lot. In this trio all of us have special fields. For example, Daniel is very good with hardware electronics, building stuff. Sybille is doing a lot of the text work involved in this stuff, developing artistic ideas, and also fundraising stuff. And my part was mostly doing software and working with sound and stuff like that. I would especially with these interactive installations we did there. There was a lot of artistic shared work. The main idea mostly came from Daniel and Sybille as a couple. They also live together, and they talk a lot about it and come up with these ideas. The ideas are very fantastic. They are not onto the ground and being realizable just like that, so we have to find the heart of the idea and then say, “how we can realize that with all the whistles and bells”. This was a very interesting collaboration always.
Installation at shift festival 2009. Photo: Peter Schnetz
— Maybe we can talk about a special project. Let’s talk about Trickstr. Who is Trickstr?
— Trickstr is an artificial character. The name goes back to trick, trickster is somebody who tricks people. It’s a very old character that was many hundred years ago in literature. He is somebody that plays tricks on you. Not completely bad or good, somewhere in between, likes to play with you. We often have the idea of impersonating electronics as a character somehow. And the tricks were the most direct way to translate that. It is an electronic creature if you want to that you can interact with this. The interaction part is always very important for Daniel and Sybille. And for “Trickstr” there was a huge dancefloor (that's how they call it), it’s a floor that people can step on. And that’s one of the interaction’s points. And the other part is very even bigger wall art of ancient light pups, it had 320 lamps, there were two lamps in each box. The idea was to combine some ancient and electronics with very new stuff, and everything worked on the computer. To have these ancient ideas of artificial intelligence also in there.
— It’s interesting ideas. Because you’re combining artificial intelligence with [low resolution images]. You don’t know the real personality, it’s beside this screen, and you never know who is hiding there.
— It’s not hiding. The thing is that the wall is this person or character. It has a voice; it’s also directly dressed people and talked to them. Even at that time, it was not the most high-tech voice that we have. We wanted to have something with character. All our collaborations are not about technology by itself.
— Yes, I felt it. Because they were conceived like anaudiovisual environment with anartificial personality. It’s like you have somebody who has kind of body. And it’s presented as a human. And it’s a trick also with our perception to perceive the machine as a human, without abody but still existing somewhere. We like to talk with him or it to have answers at least. You have a question and then you want to have an answer.
— Yes, it plays with you a little bit, gives you an opportunity to get into exchange. It’s very playful idea. But a machine is dictating the rules still. If you want to get in something like it, you must somehow play a little bit to the rules. Trickster sometimes changes its mode and switches to another thing. So, this is the tricking part of it. It wants to play with you, but it doesn’t completely let you understand what’s going on. And it’s confronting you with all those historic questions about computer’s intelligence, machine’s, people’s and stuff like that.
— And still I was talking with Cedric Spindler this summer about artificial intelligence (AI). We still think that this artificial intelligence is a kind of as human thinking about that. But it’s still just a question of the how many data you put into the AI, it’s just a question of the data inside. But what about the character, how much these human ideas can be put into that technology mind?
But the question still remains: how much these human ideas can be put into that mind?. And his character...
— There are two things that I related, but not the same. The one thing is the corpus of knowledge of an AI; the other thing is how it gets into communication with humans. If you think about new technology like Apple and stuff like that, they have a voice and this is designed in a way to be human, to be approachable. This is more what we did. We tried to create a character. I mean, we said that it’s AI, but technologically that’s not at all. We fit it with information but it’s not able to learn. This is very important point which is needed for a real AI.
— This Trickster exists in two modes, yes? And it’s like generative modes, you call it. And also this interactive mode, when it starts to communicate?
— This had some very practical reasons and artistic reasons, I would say. A very practical reason is that at the time we [build it], we already have the experience in having the interactive installation inside of the exhibition can cause many problems for the space in that you are doing this thing. We have a lot of these installations, and they push all the time with the sound and images. Then you get quite stressed with all these machines in a room. We always had the idea of “okay, if there’s nobody going to interact then the system is going to sleep or it’s going to be silent”. So that was a practical reason, but also the artistic reason that Trickster is not going to shout in the empty room, for example. It’s censing if somebody comes in and wants to interact/ and then it’s a second interactive mode. If nobody is around, it gets mostly quiet, that’s only little sounds that going on and some blinking lights. It’s doing self-amusement.
Yes, there were some practical and artistic reasons for this. Practical reason: when we built it, we already had an interactive installation inside the exhibition… It can lead to a lot of problems for the space where you do it, when there are a lot of installations, and they all push their sound, pictures, their images.
— And it also produces music. My question is: when somebody is interacting with Trickster, who is producing music? Does the person who’s playing producing music, or it’s a Trickster who is producing music?
— That’s a common question that comes up with all the installations that we did. I don’t know if I can answer it clearly. But you could say that the Trickster is doing the music because we designed the system, we designed the possibilities that people must interact with this system. We designed the sounds that are revealable. But on the other side there is the audience that is invited to interact. It wouldn’t be the interaction if it’s not just paid attention to the gesture of the input. There is some certain kind of control that people interact with it have on the sounds that Trickster does. But to say that people are doing the music themselves is probably also not correct. Because you can’t do the sound that you want to do. You can interact with it, and you can control them over time to some extent. But it’s not that everybody would say like “I’m doing the music”. It’s more like you’re finding the music mostly. And through your interaction, mostly through the organization of time in there, you’re creating unique output.
— You’re making the direction of this music, but you’re not creating the sound. You can just control a little bit the sound.
— Yes, that’s true.
— Can we also treat the Trickster as an instrument in this case? I mean, violin, you said about before.
— No, I wouldn’t call it the instrument. It wasn’t conceived as an instrument. It was conceived as a character that is kind of mysterious. That plays with you a little bit. And if you want to you can try to get into the dialogue. But if you’re not interested you just watch it or move on.
— Could you predict the reaction of Trickster on a person who is on the stage? Is it predictable or not for you, one of the creatures?
— Yes, it’s pretty much. Sometimes funny things happen. But mostly, I would say, yes. We designed the system, and we know well what Trickster can do and why. This is a fun part. And we as creators really need to step back at some point and say “okay, we designed it, mow it’s here, people come. And we really have to observe”. This thing should talk directly to the people without you trying to mediate. It’s also a difficult part because you know what’s going on. It’s a space to explore for the people. It’s not about us telling people how to do this. The interesting part is that Sybille and Daniel always had in mind that these interactive installations are also in social situations. All our installations are not one-to-one situations. Always as all people come together, everybody is invited to see that, to try them out themselves. There is always the idea of a social meeting point. It gives people something to discuss and talk about.
— Does it also mean that with this system we are learning to communicate with these sounds? I mean, the sounds as the sort of nonverbal communication with each other. Just like signals and emotions, without what we are talking about. Yes, you can see something that is written on the wall, but it doesn’t mean that you express yourself with the words. Is it correct?
— I‘m not exactly sure that I understand what you mean. But yes, meaning is very deep and it’s not direct information. Communication is still very important in this installation. Music or sound is the medium that makes us communicate with it. It’s also the lights that super strong in this installation. It’s huge and bright, and it’s a lot of warmth coming from these lights. So, there’s an energy in the room. But I think what really reaches out to people is a sound that synchronizes with the lights. Communication is not only between one person and installation but, even more, important for us is communication between several people in the room. We found some very interesting stuff when we’re doing our installations — Trickster and others — how people behave in the situations, and how people learn by observing the situations like this: someone is doing this and what can I do, how will I behave? The social context is even more important than just between you as a visitor and the machine.
— Yes, it’s interesting, but when people reacted, did they express themselves by the sound? I mean, that machine is reading only the behavior of the person, not the sound. Or the sound also influences something?
— You mean the sound of the visitors, now I understand. Let me think… no. there is a technical component: the dancefloor where you can step on, and by the movement, you can provoke the machine in a certain way. There is also a three-dimensional camera that can sense the distance. But there is no microphone, so you can’t directly interact with the sound.
— I have an impression like, is machine observing the people. It’s really like anexperiment when someone is hiding behind the machine and looking atwhat’s happening there, how do they really behave to provoke me to do something. Did you find yourself thinking as if you are a Trickster after this installation?
— While designing you step somehow into this character because you’re thinking about ways of interaction, ways of what might be interesting to confront people with. There was a certain time when we felt a little bit like this character. But in the end no, because it’s a thing by itself, which consists of many different things. It’s not just the work of me or Daniel and Sybille. It’s a communitive thing and we all put our ideas into this. It really has its own kind of personality even for us. Because sometimes you don’t know what exactly will happen. If you build something like a system that should behave independently, if you succeed then it’ll surprise you also to some extent. And it happens sometimes.
— Yes, truly. And you have some other projects with machines. Could you answer please, for you, machine is fiction or reality? For example in a Local project you’re also talking with the machine; you have some questions and you’re also trying to collaborate with it. And to think, how the machine is thinking, and machine thinks the same or whatever. What is this for you? I mean, how do you estimate the machine itself; is it a reality or fiction?
— I wouldn’t say it’s fiction. The word “machine” probably goes back to something mechanical. Mechanical things are part of a physical world. But nowadays, of course, we moved on, a lot of our lives are digital already. There is nobody anymore, no mechanics… well there is still physically involved but the software and interaction with software are not something from the physical world. So, all idea of machine is not the same anymore. It’s shifted clearly. With AI it even goes further. Of course, for a long time have wanted to have AI in some way. But it was always pretty found what a machine could do. As a designer we must think about the limits of this thing, what are the situations hat machine can handle by itself. Nowadays it went further. With AI learning comes into play. So the designer doesn’t really design the borders of the limits. But the limits basically endless if the machine can collect out itself can make the decisions from this. Now it’s not fiction, it’s a reality. This happens and it has a huge impact on a lot of our lives. I wouldn’t say that it is fiction at all, but it’s not like the material world anymore.
— After this experiment with the AI, do you treat an instrument as a device or also it’s a kind of machine for you? Do you think about this into your electronic improvisation or whatever?
— To some extent I started very early on that because I found a need as an improviser “to design the instrument” that can confront me with stuff that I didn’t choose. It’s the first step. I mean, this is not a new idea. Other people had situations that surprised me when the machine, the instrument — whatever you can call it — makes decisions by itself, delivers stuff by itself. I always find that idea super interesting. And the big difference with instruments that I’m improvising today is that I don’t create every single note by myself. But I have more like a partner in there, that contributes to the whole process. So, I can start a process in the background, for example, and in my concerts, I use microphones, electric guitars, and stuff like that. So, there are still some kind of hands-on instruments in there. But I feed this to the big instrument: and the instrument does some process on that and gives that back to me. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I designed the process that is applying to this thing. And this, I think, is very interesting. Also, with electronics, you often have the situation that you’re not working on a single layer, but you have a possibility to do the several layers on top of each other. And setting something emotion that continues after following acertain algorithm or certain behavior. Designing this kind of behavior is very interesting for me as a musician. And this is where I would say it is an instrument, but not like atraditional instrument.
— Yes, of course, my question is not about thetraditional instruments. It’s about how do you treat the table that prepare things to let something happens in this situation. Let’s keep this question about instruments. I want to ask you about this interface because your SoundCloud account has kind of name of “Geplanteobsoleszenz”. It’s also like, do you think about yourself as an interface as well when you present in the digital area? How do you treat yourself when you are in this special digital area?
— That’s quite individual, I would say. When I first started this SoundCloud thing, it was more the idea of being unrecognized, being something or somebody who [just put music on it], and the name actually “Geplanteobsoleszenz” means that something planned to be obsolete.
— Yes, I like it very much. This is like the machine that isrequired to be you the next year because already it’s old.
— That’s true, but also it has very negative connotation. It is a ? that describes build in faults of something. It breaks sometimes so it gets obsolete, so can buy something new. It’s a kind of mixt meanings to it. But I still think it’s a kind of true for me at that time. It’s not doing music for eternity, it’s doing music for a moment, for a moment it works and in some point, it might not work anymore. I can see even, especially while listening to the old stuff, that it breaks sometimes, it doesn’t work anymore for me. That was a basic idea about it. And yes, it was a kind of hiding. Nowadays I have still this name to this thing, but my real name in there just as well. And I decided in dome point “no, this is not that I want to unify at all on my person”. And I started out there with a lot of different projects and I was working in contemporary music; I was composing music myself. I was doing this installation stuff as well with some funny stuff in there. I then was also playing in folk bands, I was doing techno music, jazz music. So, all these different things that I was always start, I can’t do as one person. I must put names on that, and then at some point, you realize “no, it’s all me, it’s coming from me”. I don’t need the idea anymore that it is different persons doing that. All of this is interconnected in some way.
— Let’s go back to this very deep question about the instrument, about the sound at thelist. Let’s talk about the models or systems you’re designing in a digital scene. You said about thedigital modeler audio processing system. And you talked about this as trying to find and define the sound. Let’s divide this question into two. For me it’s a question more about producing the modeler, producing the kind of an environment for producing sound. So, they really depend on each other: the environment and the sound. And you talked about what you tried to find, and you tried to define your own sound. Let me ask you first, did you find and define it already or not?
— Yes and no. yes, it was true that at time when I wrote that. I was very much involved in the development of the machine that I was talking about. After a few years I can say that I found that sound I was looking for. But, of course, you never finish with anything, and time goes on. Mostly I think it’s attributed to getting older, getting tired of things, being interested in new things. So, it’s not really like “this is one spot and then I consider what to follow”, it’s more like walking in a circle and stuff like that. So, to some extent I found this specific project, but in general, I haven’t found it. It’s like a continuum, it goes on and on and on. I realized that a long ago it’s not surprising to me. New things and ideas come up, we meet new people, we read new books, we have new ideas. If it wouldn’t be a case anymore then it was probably time to stop all this.
— Tell us a little bit more about the project like Mutable instruments and whatyou did out of this like making something of this hard and putting it into the digital?
— “Mutable instruments” is a Euro rack module developer from France. The modules themselves are digital already, most of them. Émilie Gillet is a developer, she was kind enough to source scores of these modules, and they are very popular because they are good, they are well designed. She decided to put the source score online. To open source code that is running on that little module. I heard about that threw students. Some of my students came up with this Euro rack, formed, and asked questions about it. And I knew that it existed, but I wasn’t so much interested in it at that time. And they show me some of these modules, especially from mutable instruments. And I said, “well, okay, let’s try it and see what it does”. It was interesting. At some point, some students asked very specific questions about the working of one of the modules. Then I found the source score and I was able to understand what’s going on, and I was able to explain it and transcode it into Max. the response that my curiosity to find out how well or how easy it would be to make a code available to myself for my own projects. I mostly worked still with Max MSP. And I was then building the objects for Max out of that code. And made the opensource again. This is basically the idea. It was a fascination about the functionality of the modules, the sound. But it was also a huge curiosity, and I would be able to do this and would is it able to me. But of course, it’s a difference. Now it’s just software, it can be used inside of Max which is nice because you can patch around it, just like you do with a patching system like Max. but the hardware part of it — knops and the connectivity through the patch cards — of course, is not there anymore. So it is a bit of a different thing than the original.
— Do you use it right now, I mean, do you still develop this idea of Mutable instruments as a digital instrument or not? Is this idea still working for you it already stopped?
— It is still working for me. There are still things I will be done. I parted most of the modules that I find interesting and suit well or work well as just a digital module. I hardly have any time right now to do extra coding work. School work is really taking a lot of my time up right now. It’s always like that: if you want to open source of something, if you want to give something back to the community, there is a huge overhand of work in trying to make it excisable and understandable for people how to use it.
There are still missing bits of it, the documentation mostly. He is really taking a lot of time. To create, but without that people have difficulties in using it. It’s always this sort: should I open source right now or should I put it somewhere, then people can make be use it. It’s cool, but then the questions come back: okay, this doesn’t work, and how do I do this? And this creates even more work. So, it’s always like, you must think about if you want to put the time into supporting something. With this mutable stuff, there are a lot of people that are interested in that. So, I made its opensource again; yes, still there is missing some stuff, mostly the documentation. I try to finish it very soon, but I don’t know, do I have time for it.
— Let us share the objects you’ve already done. Because it’s like in a public area, so we could share it, yes? You also like to work with the prepared instruments. I saw your work with prepared electro guitar, for example, and you do a lot. Can you please describe a little bit more about this? Also, how do you think, what are you doing with the instrument? If you change the instrument, it means that you change the sound. You approach in this connection between the instrument and the sound. Do you prefer to start with the instrument, or do you prefer to start with the sound?
— I wouldn’t say that there is the clear “at first I do that”. It just happens, I would say. I mean, as mainly an electronic musician, I’m interested in sound in general. Whether it comes from purely electronics or has an acoustic origin docent really matters. The idea with the guitar was… basically, I’m not the guitar player, I’m a pianist. At some points, when I improvised, I’ve noticed that my fingers keep repeating certain patterns on a keyboard instrument. I couldn’t get away from it. I wanted to have something different in there, something surprising, as I said before. I abandoned the keyboard instruments from my repertoire, even though I have the skill to play…
— The contemporary violin players hate the instruments, and the composers don’t prefer to write something for this. To start with something new.
— Yes, exactly. I abandoned work with the computer and interfaces and stuff like that. But I missed the tensibility and directness of a real instrument in my setup. And I kind of compensated it to a certain part by using contact microphones to tensible stuff. But the electric guitar was interesting for me because there was no additional microphone needed. It just has a pickup in there, it’s a magnetic pickup, that’s even more interesting sound wise. You can directly interact with the strings, you can do stuff with the tuning, and you can through a lot of objects on there. It’s not easy to break, that’s also good. And you have no problem picking up the sounds. There’s no feedback problems and stuff like that. And it was very distensible with your hands, it was very attractive to me. It is how I got in there. First, I would say, it was more like software ideas and the idea with the guitar came in this project. I used guitar also with the modular digital thing that I built, you mentioned that before. I could show it on a screen if you want to see that. So, I want to explain everything. It’s just the idea of this audio boxes that is what I mean in modular. I try to set it up then I can stick some stuff in there, develop something new, try it out. And if it doesn’t fit I can just go here and through it out again, and it’s gone. So, that is the system behind it, I have the ways of designing these boxes here. It automatically works. In this way I can still extend the instruments while I already have rehearsed the experience with it. So, play with this, I rehears with it and then I can add a little stuff that changes little things and not the complete system. I would able to perform this system and still extend it over a period 8 or 9 years now.
— So, you’re more creating the environment than an instrument?
— Call it environment or instrument, I don’t really care so much for that. For me it is a sort of an instrument because it’s not just a software, but it’s also the controllers I use. The muscle memory that I built up to play this thing. And this is quite important. I can’t just go there and exchange the controller that has a falter (fluctuations) in the different positions, the knops in the different positions. Then I must think again how to play this. And this is like the instrument then again. If you have a keyboard instrument and you’re taking out a certain keys and ranging the keys that you can’t play anymore without, and you think: this is over here now. On this respect it is a kind of instrument, it is something that stays the same and it only changes slightly in there.
— Tell us a little bit please about your solo album release which calls Endless Undo. How it was produced, what was the initial idea, did you also use the modular system to create the sounds? How do you combine everything what was a general idea?
— Yes, I did it with the environment that you’ve just saw. All the sound basically came from here. But I have to say, that I worked a lot with sample sound also. So, the little snippets of sound that I processed with this modular system. So, I treated them mostly the same as the guitar input or the contact microphone input.
— As if you have something that you put into and there’s something happens with this inside.
— Exactly, yes.
— Like with the guitar. So, the guitar is a kind of the environment. That’s why I’m asking you about how you treat the instrument and the environment. Because the guitar also can be the environment or something that can be processed inside.
— Of course, yes. But a lot of that basically you record the certain amount of time that you have something to work on. And now if this little audio’s limit already existent on your disk or if you recorded it through the microphone, that doesn’t make any difference anymore. I didn’t plan to do the album at that time. I was very busy working on this project improving my improvisation skills and my solo improvisation set with this: the guitar, the modular thing. I tried to define the sound that I wanted to do with this in the improvise manner. And then, through the SoundCloud I think, I was contacted by somebody, who was a label owner of this label. And he asked me if I would be interested to release something on his label. I was pleased to hear that and then I asked “okay, what kind of sounds are you thinking about?” because at that time I was already having some different stuff on this SoundCloud page. And then he named a few of those tracks. At first, I was a bit disappointed, because he named tracks that were quite old already and that were a lot based around the danceable rhythms. At that time a was completely into free improvised stuff, not necessary by straight beats. Then I set down and thought “okay, what I’m going to do? I have a chance to do a record now, here with this label. But I don’t want to do the old stuff, I don’t want to go back to the old stuff”. O I decided to do something hybrids and I started just recording this stuff. I was doing a lot of improvisations, all the recordings were done by improvisation, long improvisations. I recorded that directly. After I did multichannel recordings, I had the output to the single modules separately. And the start to edit that. Album itself is initialized by interaction with the software. There’re a lot of gestures in there. I think I told you, I’m using mostly this graphic.
— You can interact with your all improvisation.
— Yeah, I use this for improvisation basically. It’s an interface where I can very quickly play sounds with. And use this just with the software I’ve shown. Through the motion of your hands and the pressure and the angle, you’re pressing you can map these on the power of the sound. So it’s very direct. It’s not the same as having your fingers directly on the strings of the guitar. But it is similar to directness for any kind of sound. may they come from the guitar or may be prerecorded or may be synthetic or whatever.
— It’s like a finger of a pianist which is touching the key with different pressure.
— Exactly. And it takes a lot of practice. Rehearsing in there to get the exact feeling of the pen. That is very nice. It’s not based on midi; it has a high resolution, and it is made for graphic artists basically. You can take that and use in your music. So, it’s very precise instrument. Although it’s a little bit clunky, you have this pen in your hand and sometimes during a performance you might drop it. But basically, I like the control of this thing. So, a lot of gestures in there. Recorded and then edited basically. That’s the main thing that the album came from. I tried to get into interesting beats. So, I wanted to follow the wish of the producer to have beaten and stuff like that. And I thought “what can I do today with the idea of any beats and still have the improvised session around it”.
Volker Böhm - Heissenberg
Heissenberg by V. Bohm from Endless Undo
— Two extra questions. I understand that our time is almost done. But I want to ask you, please. I was very interested in project you did as an Interactive sound walking at Klybeck in Basel which called “H.E.I Guide”. Which is designed by you as a sound designer and also as the software programmer. My question is about being between the realities, as we talked about with “Trickster”, being between fiction and reality. How did you realize it in this project?
— The project was led again by Sybille Hauert and most of the software design was made by Thomas Resch. He designed a whole engine of the background. I was in that project to develop the ideas and to do sound design and interaction design exactly. The idea of a sound walk came from Sybille and it was very closely connected to the location where we did it. [We did a project in the airport building], that’s an interesting area where a lot of different things are next to each other. There are little bars, there are open fields where many people walking with their dogs. There are a lot of divorce fields. We wanted to do the sound walk that mixes the perceptional reality that we have with [augmented] reality, we sometimes call this. Mix of what you see and what you hear on the top with stuff that we play back on the headphones. We tried out different things and we found the most compelling the idea to have recordings made exactly in this area but at completely different times of the year. It is open-air and in winter it behaves completely different than in summer. In summer, for example, there are a lot of people hanging out there: drinking a beer, going to bars, having parties, joking around, walking the dog. And in winter it’s much quieter. Also, during the day, it changes a lot. The idea was to make binaural recordings. We had in-ear microphones and walked around, recorded stuff to put that back on the headphones. And then it was breaking of reality, you just walk in the same area, you hear the sound that just happening but on top of that you hear a recording of a different time at the same area. It is very convincing because most of the sounds that you can hear are quite believable, but somehow it doesn’t really match. One example is there was a ping-pong table where people play. One of the recordings was we walked by there in summer, people playing ping-pong, laughing and stuff like that. And then we put that back on the headphones for people who walks by there in autumn when the exhibition starts. And through the GPS-system we could detect when the visitors were at which location. If people walk past the ping-pong table which was still there, but no players around we could play the recording from that time. You walk there and you see the ping-pong table and suddenly you hear people playing there. So, we found as very interesting thing to mix in there, mix these realities. It’s not completely artificial. It comes from another time. It’s like a memory.
— It’s really interesting like overlapping the times of the past in the present and going into the future, because you could overlap them and used the same recording for the next time, where the other person comes at the other season.
— Exactly. And of course, then extend the whole idea to research a bit about the history of that space. And we deliberately put sounds there that were past long ago. There was, foe example, big tanks and we imagined stories about that, some time there was a big accident happening with a big fire there. And of course, we didn’t record at that time but we kind to fake that to happened there. People walking by the tanks and get a bit of the history of this place that happened there at some time, much further past. There are a lot of different content in there. Some of these completely imagined, some of these very real, like I said, recorded at just a different time of the year. And some of those in between here. And system tracks when people move alone and then knows “person is near this fence, for example”. And now we can play on the sound from the fence without people touching it. This was very interesting, we also had a head tracker, so we knew where people look at. And can just a sound position it the room surrounding them. Normally if you have headphones, you have a stereo field here and if you turn your head, stereo field moves with you. This is something that we wanted to overcome, so we wanted to have a stereo feed that is somehow more real outside of you, which stays here even if you tilt your head. The headphones tilt and we wanted to stay like that. Then we detect the head’s movements and then correct the stereo image to make a movement against the one that you’re doing actually. So, the sound actually stayed there. If you have a barking dog, virtual barking dog in front of you wanted the dog to stay there, not to jump around. This is the mix of the real sounds, and the playback sounds are much more believable in the end.
— At the very end, please, tell me something about how your working stage looks like. When do you prefer working? Do you have a special workplace as something like behind you, or you work sitting on a chair? Because for me it’s very important, you know a very nice book by Giorgio Agamben which is called Autoritratto nello studio (Self-Portrait in the Studio), he is a philosopher, the person who is describing his own projects through the other persons. And the working place becomes in a kind of working stage which is also very meaningful. Could you show something as the working place, or you would describe something very specific for you to work?
— That’s an interesting question actually. I would generally say that the working place at the situation I work depends on what I’m working on. I have a preferred way of working the most stuff. And it’s mostly like this: the table, the computer in front of me, the screen, and loudspeakers. So, I can do mist the stuff I need to do. Most of the programming stuff happens like that. But I very much enjoy working in slightly different places. So I’m not getting too much comfort in one thing, too much tricked into the situation that be always the same. I have this room here, then I have my room in my apartment which is slightly smaller. Well, mostly I need loudspeakers, without them, it’s not possible and without the computer. This is what is always there. But I have several places for working. Found this very interesting, because I stand to have different ideas at different locations.
— How your ideas depend on the locations?
— I would recommend everybody to change your places from time to time and see what comes.
— Yes, it’s like place surprises you a swell, as from interface.
— Exactly. And, of course, it’s a studio where I work every day, as normally as a lecturer. But sometimes I also verify my mixes there, and it’s completely different situation again. Everything is completely [concentrated] to the only essential, loudspeakers and playback medium and focused on only what’s going on in sound. No other [things] around like tables, keyboards, and microphones, but just that. And you can see here on the right side I’ve also investigated the Euro rack stuff. This is a kind of a different situation. It’s not in front of the computer, it’s away from the computer which is very nice. Even if the digital modules, many of them, they have the interface designed. It’s not my task to design it, to program it. I can connect it and listen to the sound. This is something I found very refreshing from time to time. Completely different working situation. Also, these are portable and I can take one of them to my apartment and do some stuff there. And as I said, it worth to try some different stuff again being surprised by stuff you need. I feel I need to be challenged again and again by new stuff, by new inputs somehow. To again adapt to it and to find my new positions and ideas to the new situation.
— If you would associate yourself with a tree, what it would be?
— Oh, God. I don’t know, actually, it’s completely ambivalent and very personal question by the way. Don’t know that I can say much about myself. I don’t know who I am actually. I tend to know exactly who I am as everybody. But then if I think about it, I don’t know it. And so, it’s difficult to answer that… what kind tree. I think I’m slow, so a tree is quite… the idea of tree is pleasing me, because it has this roots and stuff like that. But choosing which kind of tree… I don’t know, sorry!
— Thank you, Volker. Thank you so much I really love our conversation and I think it will be very nice to see it written. We will add it a little bit later, maybe we will combine a little bit some parts of it together. Thank you for your time, thank you for your coming. Good luck with your projects because I know you have a lot. I didn’t ask you, but I can imagen how much you do as a professor with students. And as a head of the studio know? And as a composer thank you so much.