This month will see the release of Koenraad Ecker’s fourth full-length LP, A Biology of Shadows, on his nascent In Aulis imprint. Ecker’s music exists in a kind of netherworld between jazz and… experimental electronics? Sound design? Noise-art? The music is hard to categorise, not least because terms like ‘sound design’ are vague enough to be void of any meaning. What music isn’t ‘sound design’, exactly?
Moreover, sound design doesn’t fit the bill as a genre so much as a job. To be a sound designer has sense of the professional attached to it. Alongside the roles of director, editor, and producer, you have the sound designer, whose role is to turn the creaking of doors and patter of rain into spine-tingling effects. Perhaps this is why a lot of sound design music evokes an almost automatic visual narrative. Listening to Ecker’s music, it is hard to resist the rolling of imaginary film in your head.
Ecker’s work with the Lumisokea outfit has made compartmentalising his music even harder. Every release is forged from a wealth of resources: natural sounds, digital processing and the live recording of acoustic instruments. Ecker himself works with the cello and guitar. This provides a much broader foundation for his work. There is a sense in which, with Ecker’s music, the dualisms between electro-acoustic, natural-nurtured, organic-inorganic become meaningless. Sound is sound: its source is irrelevant.
I meet Ecker in the bustling hubbub of Berlin’s Neukölln district. On the street, there is the racket of fruit markets and Reggaeton blasting out of passing cars. But the inside of Ecker’s flat is peaceful and sedate. There is Massive Attack’s Mezzanine and some Kropotkin essays on his coffee table. After a string of evenings at CTM festival, I can, for the first time that week, hear the ringing of tinnitus in my ears. It’s only inside the quiet interiors of Berlin do you realise the cacophony of the outside world. “So,” he begins. “Where do we start?”
I didn’t hear any music from you in 2017, which is unusual for you! What have you been up to?
I was a bit off the radar. It was a year of a lot of changes and I had to work a lot on the side to make rent. I had one big project with Fred [Meulyzer] doing the music for a dance performance in Norway. Aside from that it was very much a year of preparation for me. I was working on Lumisokea’s new ‘Dervish’ project (a new Lumisokea live project with two percussionists), and on this new album that I am about to release, A Biology of Shadows.
Tell us about the album, where did it come from?
It was a very long process, one that I restarted from scratch three times. I actually started working on it right after Sleepwalkers in a Cold Circus, back in 2015. I finished something of an album then but when I listened back it wasn’t right. I realised that to make this album, I had to collaborate with other people. That’s when I contacted Audrey [Chen] and Alex [Rendall] and the clarinet players Kai, Michael and Chris and I organised a few recording sessions. Then in 2016 I moved to London for a few months because of my wife. I didn’t really know anyone there, so I had the time to work with that material pretty much non-stop at home for five months with headphones trying to create the second version of the album. I finished it by the time I left London. But when I listened back to it with some distance after coming back to Berlin, it wasn’t right.
In what way was it ‘not right’?
I had a lot of ideas that I wanted to put into it. And every time I listened, it just wasn’t what I was striving for. Somehow the isolation of London made the album seem strange too… I started revising and revising it but it wasn’t happening – and at that point I basically gave up on the idea of doing the album altogether. But it was like a ghost haunting my brain – after six months, I was still thinking about it. I realised this ‘guest’ would not leave and that I’d have to deal with it. On January 1st 2017 I began writing it for the third time.
Do you think you work slower than most musicians?
Maybe yes, at least I have the impression I work much slower on my solo work than on other projects. This album was certainly the slowest process I’ve ever been in, but I’m not sure if it’s for the better? It seems there’s a point at which a constant critical evaluation of your own work becomes immobilising rather than creative. It’s a difficult balance. In my daily practice I feel there is very little correlation between how complex a sound sounds and how complex or laborious it is to make. Sometimes something extremely rich and sensitive can be the result of an accident. Or I can work for two weeks on a sound – recording and re-recording, editing and enhancing – but it still sounds lifeless.
I guess a lot of the labour you put into music happens prior to the event too.
Indeed, a lot of it is technique and vision that one develops through years of simply doing it. If I work with a cello or guitar, there are lots of techniques and sounds that I have been developing for years and I are now part of a kind of repertoire, but it took a long time to lead up to that point. The same goes for microphones – I am constantly learning my way around the specific ‘ears’ of different microphones.
You’re from a jazz background; how much of your sound design output comes from this?
A major inspiration from having worked in the experimental improv scene is how a lot of people are constantly in search of beautiful, special sounds. For example, one of my best friends, Onno Govaert, is a fantastic drummer in the improv/free jazz scene and a lot of his praxis is also a kind of sound design. He is always looking for a particular bell, a particular skin, a particular way of playing that one sound and refining it and so on. In a lot of his music, it’s no longer strictly about rhythm, there is a lot of very detailed work on the texture of the sounds. I think many free jazz/improv musicians are sound designers without computers. That world was a gateway for me into computerised sound design. It’s a long term goal for me to build interactive processes with the machines and instruments I use. I like setting up processes, and learning to ‘play’ them as an instrument. This way, I feel like I can make sounds that are way more surprising and dynamic, because what I am doing is less premeditated, and more decisions are taken simultaneously, rather than making music in a step-by-step additive process. I wanted the album to have a looser, more embodied feel.
Like a kind of ‘naturalistic’ process?
Maybe ‘embodied’ would be more accurate… A praxis, a collection of processes and techniques that I can ‘practise’ and refine and which have the freedom to move into unplanned territory. For me, working with sound is a way of discovering how (in a very non-scientific way), everything is animate. You can go very deep into a sound or you can experience your surroundings in an intimate way through sound. It has happened so often to me that the simple act of consciously listening to the sounds of my everyday environment allow me to discover the extraordinary in the mundane. You realise that objects are not dead, they are alive. Listen to a short sharp snare drum [clicks his fingers] – it was fleeting and you missed it. But you can record it, resynthesise it, stretch it and suddenly it starts speaking: you can hear all of its voices. They were there all along but you miss them because your perception of time is different from that of the snare.
To me that sounds like a very scientific approach to music.
Yes in a way it is, like ‘uncovering’ what is hidden. But in another way I prefer to see it more as a spiritual, non-quantifiable, thing, without the aim of ‘controlling’ something: using technology to partly unveil the incredibly beautiful world that surrounds us. There is so much music made from things that people never thought could be instruments. In many ways, that’s a defining mark of much of the last 50 or so years of music: making music from things that weren’t meant to be used that way.
I guess it’s an important lesson we get from structuralism.
Yeah it ties in very well with general structuralist thought where the tools you use to measure, to see, to hear, to talk about things, re-create and define reality – a consensus. It depends on the tools you use and the overarching ideological structure. That makes a huge impact on what you hear and what you don’t. Aside from the ideological, there is also the simple biological need to make some perceptual ‘choices’: for example, if we were in a bar, we would filter out the background noise to be able to hear each other. And as our surroundings become progressively noisier, we become progressively more deaf to a lot of beautiful sounds simply because they are weaker and softer. The metaphor in that is telling I think…
I read recently that some birds are getting PTSD from the noise of deforestation
That’s quite shocking, but not surprising unfortunately. I have recently discovered this branch of ecology dedicated to sound; ‘acoustic ecology’. It’s about how we can measure changes in biotopes with sound. For example, how a pond or a swamp or a forest changes over 10 years – you listen to how it sounds at different points in time and you build a very clear acoustic picture of how the ecology has changed. For instance, in many places the noise of insects in summer is much quieter now due to pollution. An acoustic analysis allows you to measure certain long-term ecological changes that remain hidden to the eye.
Do you use many samples from the natural world?
A lot, yes. And I like working in opposite ways – ‘de-naturalising’ natural sounds to find the uncanny in them, and making unnatural sounds sound as if they could be found in nature. In a kind of naïve praxis, I like to make kind of ‘foley’ environments that could be ‘real’ acoustic scenographies or attempt to do things like replicate bird songs with synthesisers.
Kind of like Olivier Messiaen I guess?
Exactly, but Messiaen was much more systematic in this: he was a real ornithologist. He could tell the different bird songs apart, whether they were in mating season and so on. It is fascinating how sometimes I visit a place I’ve never been and hear a bird song that sounds like it could be coming from a feedbacking sherman filter. And vice versa! You can spend days working on a sound, you think it’s really out-there and special and the next day you hear a bird singing it better than any computer could. I would love to one day just try and create the sound of an entire imagined forest using only synthesisers and play it back into the forest. I want to cross those barriers between nature and nurture: the web of life is actually very entangled though our particular world-view tells us everything’s neatly compartmentalised.
Have you seen the video of the lyrebird replicating the sounds of deforestation and car alarms?
Yes! It’s really baffling. It’s part of a David Attenborough documentary right? I actually saw it in an exhibition in Berlin at the Stoschek collection. I think it was part of a group of works dealing with conception of the ‘self’ and subjectivity. They were showing it as an example of how animals are capable of adapting to their environments in moments of rapid change, by becoming the environment. It’s a kind of extreme alienation (from our traditional view as a ‘self’ as autonomous from the environment) through extreme embodiment, paradoxically enough.
It’s funny how many of those 20th century composers were interested in nature. I remember seeing Penderecki using the veins of a leaf to guide the notation of violin parts.
That’s true, in the 20th century composer there was a lot of direct referencing to certain natural processes – but also in earlier classical music there are a lot of references to nature, even though they are maybe more poetic, less systematic? I’m definitely not anthropologist but it seems like the majority of music reflects the maker’s environment. The first things people painted were things from their immediate environment (whether visible or not). I don’t even think they saw this art as ‘imitation’, the art and the nature was all part of the same continuum.
I guess someone like Plato would argue that’s because art is by nature representational. What art does is represent the ‘real world’.
Plato was an extreme compartmentaliser. He wanted to separate everything into categorical divisions: what is human, what is an animal; what is real, what is ideal and so on. Where I disagree with this perspective is when the truth is placed in an intangible location, accessible only to men of standing, philosopher kings. Concepts like ‘justice’ are suddenly placed completely outside of our immediate and shared human experience and only accessible to a subsection of people. Out of this you generate an immediate social hierarchy.
Tell us about the political side of this album.
When I was London, I would start every day with a walk around this small park in Arnos Grove. It struck me how often I would be walking there and I would hear the sound of helicopters. And the underground was just full of adverts trying to get you to monetise your own debts. It was like an extreme subjectivisation of yourself as a commodity. The majority of talking points in London seemed to be making rent and being successful. There was a kind of weight permeating the air, a pressure to give in to the “there is no alternative” consensus. At some point I got really tired of the same voices, in politics, newspapers, fiction… repeating ad nauseam that this is how it is going to be, there is no alternative. I have been lucky to experience how people have an enormous capacity of mutual aid and solidarity, even though the circumstances and power structures do everything they can to sabotage it. I kept asking: how can I investigate this? I had the idea of imagining the ‘infernal machine’ as a biological outgrowth that we could surgically investigate with sound. I split the album in two halves: on the one hand, here’s the current situation (you’re alienated from the rest of the world, you have debts, you have to see yourself as an investment); on the other hand there’s also an anarchic solidarity, a sense of community and warmth, that keeps people human. The tension between these two poles was on my mind a lot.
I understand you have written some pieces for Black Mirror. What are your thoughts on it as a show?
I think Black Mirror has an acute understanding of our current trajectory: smartphone addiction, social status and ratings, the dehumanisation necessary for war and so on. But I also think that most current sci-fi is intellectually lazy: there is nothing extraordinarily creative about taking the development of the last 10 years and mirroring it linearly another five, 10 years into the future. I think that at this point dystopian fiction has become so much the dominant vision of the future that it becomes reactionary instead of critical. If the future is exclusively imagined as dystopia in contemporary fiction, it loses its critical function and becomes a smokescreen. The message is: the only future we can imagine is a slightly worse version then the present – accept it. I much prefer the science fiction of someone like Ursula le Guin: for all its imperfections and vulnerabilities, it dares to imagine alternatives (worlds without gender, or anarchist communes on the moon), with all the difficult, far-reaching questions that they bring along.
It seem like for many people, watching dystopian sci-fi can become a surrogate for serious thinking about transforming society: ending capitalism, patriarchy and so on.
I guess that these dystopia provide some temporary relief, in the sense of ‘it’s quite bad now but not as bad as it could be’ in the same way as a Macron needs a Le Pen to be perceived as acceptable. But that kind of reasoning reproduces the power structures by making them seem inevitable. Neither the ‘there is no alternative’ camp of neoliberal hegemony, nor the nihilism of fundamentalists (whatever brand) are workable ways of dealing with our present situation. And the ubiquity of dystopia as a past time says something about privilege too. Take climate change: we have the option to be endlessly fatalistic about it because we are in a privileged part of the world. We’re not farmers in the Mekong Delta or poor inhabitants of New Orleans. There, climate change is not some metaphysical problem, it’s not an abstract set of statistics, not a script for a Netflix series, it’s a brutal reality. We have a responsibility not to think of the end of the world as merely fiction – and thus, a responsibility to dare to imagine alternative ways of organising our societies, however difficult that is.
‘A Biology of Shadows’ will be released by In Aulis on February 23rd. Pre-order here.