Frank Bretschneider: When I started making music, I just wanted to explore and see what I can do. Today I only want to make music.
Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) is the Swedish centre for electroacoustic music and sound art. The research organization started in 1964 and is based in Stockholm with six studios and a library consisting of a large collection of books about electronic music and sound art. EMS also organizes courses, various events and artist in residence activities. Between 14-27 July, EMS hosted Frank Bretschneider who – after working more than 20 years with digital sounds – was eager to submerge into the analog technology of the legendary Buchla and Serge modular synthesizers. On this occasion, we’ve talked to the co-founder of Raster-Noton to find out more about what is so special about these machines, and his current plans to shift from digital towards analog directions. Frank explains why computer sounds made such a big impression on him when he was younger, and strolling down memory lane he also shares his experiences with mono turning to stereo, raising the question what else is out there which could make such an enormous difference within the limits of perceptible sound.
Welcome to Stockholm, Frank! First of all, could you tell us how did you get in touch with Elektronmusikstudion (EMS)?
A friend of mine (Japanese artist Kyoka) had been here last year, and I was wondering how did she manage it… because I always thought that it’s not so easy to get in. She told me it was really simple, just had to apply. She introduced me a little bit to the people working here, so I sent a formal letter, filled out this application form, and that’s it! I have known EMS for a very long time, I have been following their work and the work of the musicians who had already been here, so this is a really special residency for me. EMS always seemed such an inspiring place to be and now I can say that it definitely is.
How is it different when you come and work as a resident artist from being home and working in your own studio?
Here I really have a set time, I need to make a reservation for the studio and book it for a certain time period. I have a schedule, which means that I really have to focus on what I do. At home it’s always so complicated, because it’s not only about making music. I have my normal daily life with the ordinary needs, commitments and appointments. It means that I shift work to whenever it fits, mainly at night. But here I come in the morning at 10 and leave only in the late afternoon or evening. So this is totally different, because I’m really here to work and spend as much time as possible in the studio.
Does this strict schedule inspire you? Isn’t it a little frustrating to be ‘forced’ to be creative?
No, not yet! Perhaps if it would go on longer, but I am here just for two weeks. The good thing is that since I’m here and I really have the chance to work with these modular synthesizers (the Buchla and Serge), I know that this is a chance that won’t come soon again, so I really have to concentrate. Once I’ve managed to focus, the ideas are coming. At home it’s different, because I know that if I don’t do it now, I can do it tomorrow. At one point I have to do it, but since there are lots of other things around, I’m often quite unfocused and not too concentrated on what I actually should do. In my case, it’s not like having something in mind, I need to work on something, then ideas will come.
What can you tell us about this machine here, the Buchla. Why is it so special to you?
First of all, it’s an analog system and it is beautifully designed. Of course there’s still plenty of analog machinery out there, but this is a pretty high quality system. Very unique and – at least for me – not affordable. The main parts were made in the 70’s, but it’s still working great. There are some small issues sometimes, but that’s actually quite charming. It’s completely modular, so you have to think about a structure, build patches, see how they work, play these patches, then record it. The sound quality is very distinguished from a computer or a software. Since it’s an analog module, you really have space for turning knobs. The potentiometer has a really wide range, you can turn them really precisely to the desired level, and this is what is very different from using a mouse or controller on a computer. There’s a nice sequencer built-in here, the Multiple Arbitrary Function Generator and another five-step sequencer built in there. The oscillators, three of them called Programmable Complex Waveform Generator are already combined modules with two oscillators in one module, so you don’t have to connect it separately. There are no envelope generators or LFOs, as with an ordinary subtractive synthesizer like a Moog, but instead there are these special kind of quad function generators, which you can use as a modulator. It’s a bit different from the usual synthesizers, but as soon as you start working with it, it’s completely understandable and easy to manage.
How about the Serge?
The Serge is unique and a great source for inspiration too, I would say the approach in general is a bit more direct and less exotic as the Buchla is. The model here at EMS is equipped with four oscillators, three step sequencers (5, 8 and 16 steps), two very nicely designed VCFs with simultaneous available LP, HP, BP and notch outputs. It has lots of mixers and signal modifiers too. And a very charming delay module, the Wilson Analog Delay.
You want to try out some new sounds for an upcoming project and album. It’s fascinating that you’re developing your own sound, but simultaneously you’re going back in time with the means by using such a historic machine.
In a way, yes… When I grew up, I was really inspired by this kind of electro-acoustic and electronic music what was made in the 60’s and 70’s, think of places like IRCAM, NHK Electronic Music Studio, Cologne Studio for Electronic Music, Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center and of course the EMS. I think that working with these sounds is also something like a reminiscence to that time. But of course I grew up, I’m a different person now and I have different experiences, so it’s kind of a reference to use this beautiful analog synthesizer. The machine is old, but my ideas are new, and the composition and the structure of the music is also something new, at least I hope so! Also, I want to have this typical analog sound, for this project I don’t want to have any digital sounds.
Why don’t you want to have the digital sounds anymore?
Probably I shouldn’t say ‘anymore’, but I had them already for 20 years, I’m a bit tired of it. If you have something for all this time, you try to have something new.
It’s interesting, because you want something new, but it’s not new, it’s old.
Yeah, this is true. I started to work with computers in ’88, when the big change from analog to digital came. And everybody wanted to go digital, because it’s so clean, no noise and hum anymore. Huge signal-to-noise ratio and dynamics. Everything storable and easy to access. So it switched completely to computers, and usually after 20 years you would look for new technology again. But there is nothing really new. Not really groundbreaking technologies. So people switch back to the old stuff, there is still plenty to explore. Of course you can try on multi-channel, field recordings, electronic processing, or go beyond the recognizable frequency ranges, almost unaudible volumes, like that kind of lowercase music, Bernhard Günter, Richard Chartier. I never had the chance to work with a real analog system before. I had a Korg MS-20 in the mid 80‘s, but this is something totally different here. And for someone who never had a chance to work with a real big modular system, this is totally fun and challenging too, so why not go back to the old times?
You are considered to be kind of a pioneer of digital sounds, so it’s impressive that you are ready to take this step back in order to make a step forward.
Probably you cannot be a pioneer all your life! I mean, when I started making music, I just wanted to explore and see what I can do. Today I only want to make music.
Personally what would you like to hear, what would you expect from future sounds from others?
Crazy stuff! Of course I would expect music I never heard before, but the more you know the less you find, and for me hearing something really new is pretty rare.
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Have you heard something nowadays which surprised you in a very positive way or is there something that keeps surprising you after many years of listening?
Yes, there is always something. Ernstalbrecht Stiebler – who is already 80 years old and studied with Karlheinz Stockhausen – makes music somewhere between minimal and contemporary, often written for small ensemble with cello and flute, but sometimes he also uses a bit of electronics. I saw him recently live performing, and it was really something new in terms of harmonics, I didn’t hear something like this before. You really have to focus, because it’s very quiet, especially if it’s live performance. If you listen to it at home, you can always turn up the volume, but if he performs live, you have to concentrate on what is happening and it really takes power, afterwards I even felt exhausted. Async Sense is good too, it was actually made in 1995, but I just found it recently. A co-production between Andy Mellwig and Gerhard Behles. Mellwig was part of Porter Ricks, Behles was part of Monolake before he founded Ableton. What I really enjoy is You-Sheng Zhang’s ‘Spry’, on Taiwanese label Kandala Records. It sounds very fresh to me. Kind of noise improvisation, pretty harsh but at the same time so playful and always changing. I also like some psychedelic rock like Pharaoh Overlord. Just a few examples of what inspires me somehow.
Do you like instrumental music as well?
I really like instrumental music. But as soon as somebody starts to sing, it turns into something different, it becomes too personal and emotional for me. People telling stories… I‘m actually not interested in listening to. There is some music, the stuff I grew up with, what became kind of timeless during the years, some soul, blues, rock, primarily black voices. I think the last pop music I enjoyed was in the early 2000’s with Missy Elliott, N*E*R*D and Prince’s ‘3121’ album. Some hip-hop too, I focus on the rhythm and do not understand the poetry anyway. Nowadays pop music seems to be so forced, sweet, emotional, pretentious. But maybe I’m just too old and I don’t want to follow these kind of things anymore, so I just prefer instrumental music. However, let’s not forget that the synthesizer is an instrument too!
If you grew up with these vocal sounds, how did you get in touch with electronic music?
I always loved to watch science fiction films when I was young. Nowadays they have Hans Zimmer for the soundtrack, which sounds like 19th century with his romantic stuff, but back then they really had kind of avant-garde soundtrack for all these films. ‘Forbidden Planet’ for example or ‘Ikarie XB-1’, a really good Czech movie made in ’63, even Stanley Kubrick was inspired by it. They’ve used real electronic sounds and I just enjoyed it. So unearthly! The Czech film was cut into 30 minutes pieces and they were broadcasting it like that in East Germany. Each Friday at 7pm I’d watch it on the television and be really mesmerized by the sounds. The age was so inspired and driven by technology, men went to space for the first time and to the moon and everything happened so quickly, everything seemed possible. And growing up during this period had an effect on me, made me interested in technology, computers and electronics. Also when it comes to rock music, I’ve always enjoyed the more electronic inspired rock music. Like Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis using all the new electronic devices, and The Beatles did lots of experiments in the studio when the first four-track tape machines came up around ’63, until an eight-track machine became available during the recording of their ‘White Album’ in 1968. Previously everything was just mono actually. I remember when our neighbours bought a stereo for the first time and they invited us to listen to it, because it was so new. It was such a surprise to listen to two channels, such a big step to jump from mono to stereo, that we’ve never had such a big change ever since, it really made a big impact. They were trying things like the quadrophonic sound and nowadays 5.1, but not really for music, mainly for movies.
What other sci-fi movies do you like from the past, what made the biggest impression on you?
Oh, there are plenty of them! Just to name the most influentials… ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ or ‘1984’ after George Orwell’s novel. ‘A Scanner Darkly’ and ‘Blade Runner’, Philip K. Dick is a really good writer, one of the best American sci-fi writers. The first ‘Alien’, ‘Brazil’, ‘THX 1138’, ‘Stalker’ and ‘Solaris’ by Andrei Tarkovsky, Chris Marker’s ‘La Jetée’, or the almost forgotten ‘On the Silver Globe’ by Andrzej Żuławski. Other favourites include Antonioni films, ‘Blow-Up’ is one of my favourite films ever, ‘Zabriskie Point’, Fassbinder’s ‘Katzelmacher’, ‘1900’ by Bertolucci. ‘Goodfellas’, ‘Paris, Texas’, ‘Pi’, ‘Quadrophenia’, ‘Rashomon’, ‘Requiem For A Dream’. I also really love Spielberg’s first, ‘Duel’ is genius.
Could you imagine making music for film?
If someone would ask me, I would see the plot and I would like it, probably yes. I kind of did it already for a friend, Carsten Gebhardt who did a documentary of Alva Noto and Ryuichi Sakamoto playing when they went on tour in Japan and made a documentary out of it, also made a film about my first band AG. Geige last year, which just came out on DVD. He also directed some shorts, had a story for each day from Monday to Sunday about a couple who wants to go to the Baltic Sea. I did the music for the Sunday.
If you could choose, is there any director with whom you would like to work with?
I always need to know someone personally first and then decide to do something together. I haven’t worked with anyone without knowing them, at least to talk and have an idea about who that person is, to have a connection.
Did it ever happen to you that you were watching something and it was so good that you were like, ‘wow, I wish…’ or you’ve seen a film which was brilliant, but the music was so horrible you felt like you could’ve done better?
Not really, but I’ve recently had a disgusting experience, which I think really ruined the whole film. At the end of ‘Gravity’ the soundtrack is so over the top and absurd… I think it’s terrible (just saw it won the Academy Award for Best Original Score!). Probably I’d keep it silent at the end. I think the best soundtrack for one of those big productions is for ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. I love it, because when they’re in space, there is no sound at all, it’s only silence or breathing inside the spacesuit, which is logic. Also the part with Richard Strauss’ ‘Blue Danube’ is genius, because the waltz feels like there’s no gravity, and indeed there is not.
You are soon finished with your residency at EMS. Are there any other places where you would like to go to work?
Of course, there are some places, for example IRCAM in Paris. They have a long tradition in electronic/electroacoustic, acousmatic music. Or in Germany the SWR Experimentalstudio in Freiburg. I had been there in 2000 for a concert with Porter Ricks, and the next day they gave us a short trip, really impressive. There are probably lots of places worth to visit, but I guess the access is not that easy as here at EMS. This is really something special, kind of almost public studio. You have really good conditions, you can come and go whenever you want. There are lots of local artists who try to find empty slots when they just want to make a production, I think this is really rare to find.
What are your plans with the material that you’re working on here?
Some of the material I probably want to use for a project with audiovisual artist Pierce Warnecke, he’s responsible for the video in this case. Other parts I want to turn into a release, of course. If everything goes well, it should be ready by the end of this year. I hope. You know, sometimes I have a good feeling and lots of material, and I think, ’wow, this will be fast’, but then as soon as I get to really work on the details, I am more like ’oh shit, I cannot hear it anymore, I have to leave it rest for another month’. It can get too much, then it takes long. But I think some of the material I’ve already recorded I’m really happy with so far.
Compared to the previous releases what can we expect this time?
It’s something completely different again from what I did the last time with ‘Super.Trigger’. Kind of abstract electronics/modular synthesis.