Franz Kirmann: Music has become playlist material, it completely changes the artistic value

November 22, 2016

Franz Kirmann is a French, London-based music producer and recording artist. He mainly works with German experimental label Denovali Records releasing music under his own name and with Piano InterruptedHe is also one of the founding members of electronic music label Days Of Being Wild and collaborates regularly with visual artists and film makers. His third album ‘Elysian Park‘ was originally composed for an installation and marks a new step in his ever-expanding oeuvre. We spoke to Franz about the origins of his last album, how he got tired of his own music and how we’re being constantly bombarded by music and how difficult filtering becomes these days. Franz is a great storyteller not just as a musician but also when it comes to speaking his mind – there is something for everyone to relate to. 

Franz Kirmann (Photo: Julian Abrams)

Franz Kirmann (Photo: Julian Abrams)

‘Elysian Park’ is your third album and your second for Denovali. It was born out of an installation you made music for in 2012. Could you tell us a bit about this and how you built up this soundtrack? 

Zeitguised (who created the installation) showed me three video loops they needed a soundtrack for, and we just started a dialogue around what could work. The videos have a strong sense of emptiness and loneliness. Also like all of their work the CGI aspect is very organic, you can literally feel the texture of the visuals. So I decided to use human sounds to get close to that feel, and process them digitally. I used saliva noises, voice and speech processors. The videos are repeating endlessly and the soundtracks needed to loop seamlessly too, I stayed very minimalist and discreet so that the soundtrack wouldn’t take over the imagery.

Both your first (Random Access Memories) and second (Meridians) album was more of a soft melodic, dreamlike electronica. ‘Elysian Park’ seems to be the total opposite: more experimental, fragmented with no traditional structures or melodies. Was the installation that inspired you to take this direction or was this more of a personal decision to explore new things?

It was a personal attitude but the installation sparked the action, it was the trigger. I wanted to break away from the sound I had developed. I just got fed up with it I guess. I had written a manifesto, some sort of creative map, and it was very much: “no more melodies, no more structure, no themes, no superfluous effects and production tricks etc… “ Like the Dogma manifesto developed by Lars von Trier for movies. I’m not sure why I reacted so violently, I just did. I didn’t see the point in making pretty melodic electronic anymore, maybe there is too much of it, and it kind of feels vacant. The installation work was a commission and I had approached it differently than my own personal music, so it helped me getting out of my usual frame of mind. When I re-discovered it browsing through old sessions I thought: “shit, this is exactly what I’m trying to do!” I had already started doing it three years ago!

The comparison with the Dogma is interesting, because already with ‘Festen’, the first film in the series, the creators broke quite some of the rules they’ve set themselves. Was it difficult to restrain yourself or it was easier than you’ve initially expected?

Well, it wasn’t as uncompromising as Dogma. It was a long list of statements, more like stylistic guidelines to give me a direction but I wasn’t religiously following it. Where it joins Dogma is the refusal to use effects and frills if you want. Modern software and the infinite choice of plug ins make it difficult to stay on track. You end up making an artistic decision because a plug-in sounds cool rather than because of what you wanted to do. I just got tired of over produced music I suppose, like Dogma got fed up of what came in the way of the story.

The material on ‘Elysian Park’ is coming from a wide range of sources. Could you tell us a bit about the origin of these sounds and the creative process?

Well because I was tired of my music I started working on the idea of removing myself from the writing process, in the sense that I didn’t want to play anything myself. So the only option I had was sampling, processing and also generative music, setting parameters and letting the computer do it. I wanted to be like an editor, listening and choosing or like a sonic peeping tom!  It’s also a good way to keep the element of surprise that I value so much. Also it needed to mean something to me, it needed to convey something I care about, say something about my emotional state towards the world. That was kind of a condition for me to release a new record. There is so much music around, you need to have something to say, otherwise you’re just adding to the pile of releases. And it kind of ties up with the idea of consumption and waste and recycling. Nowadays music has become playlist material, endless streams of music, it completely changes the artistic value of music. And on a conceptual idea I thought, why not re-use existing sounds and songs? It’s like recycling. Now I personally feel bombarded by media, information and sounds from every direction on a daily basis. And I find it numbing and confusing. I wanted to convey that, the schizophrenia of it. I used various sources, advertising, songs, computer generated melodies, radio fuzz etc…  that became the raw material form which I sculpted the pieces. 

How do you filter your own (re)sources when it comes to taking in information, discovering new music etc.? How do you make it feel less overwhelming and preserve the values that might have been lost already?

Hum… tough question! I’m not sure. First I don’t listen to new music as much as I used to unfortunately. I have less time! And also there is too much. My greatest recent music pleasures have been discovering something unexpected from an artist or band I didn’t know, or a DJ doing something different, taking me by surprise. Whether in the past I was maybe expecting a band to play tracks / songs I knew.  I like to be surprised these days and that’s usually a live performance or a DJ set rather than a browsing Spotify. The less I know what to expect the better. So that has become the criteria. Just not looking at what Pitchfork thinks is cool, cause it’s so boring to me. My favourite DJ is Vladimir Ivkovic from Salon Des Amateurs in Düsseldorf. A friend took me to see him and you just don’t know what he will play, and the records he owns are totally obscure. It’s so much more exciting! I saw Psychic TV a couple of weeks ago… Absolutely loved it, I was very moved by it.

You place your listeners into an interesting situation, since it’s kind of difficult to approach your music – it takes more effort from the listener’s side than your previous records. It’s not something you can (or should) just play anytime, anywhere. It needs its own space and habitat to let the music find its own way to the listener. How did you originally intend this album to be approached?

Like I said, it’s sort of the anti playlist. The tracks on ‘Elysian Park’ don’t make much sense taken on their own, but they do it you play them in order.  I just didn’t see the point in adding to the pile of “playlistable” music. There is enough of that. I mean don’t get me wrong, I make playlists too! And I listen to pop music and anything really, there is a place for all sorts of music. I don’t think my record is particularly difficult. It is compared to my previous ones but there are still moments of beauty and relief. And I like the idea of listening to something from start to finish and getting lost in it. I’m old school like that. My favourite records do that to me, they take you on a journey and you have to surrender to it. I wanted to make something like that. It’s always different when a piece of music was originally written for another medium – in this case the installation. 

Which are these favourite records?

Oh there are many. “Isn’t Anything” and “Loveless” are two albums that have that quality, that haunting mystery. Fennesz’s “Venice” also, The Cure’s “Faith”… I don’t know so many… The Velvet…There’s a thing about old records as well, music from another time… I find that very appealing. I listen to a lot of jazz, from the 60’s… Bill Evans…I don’t understand it, it’s beautiful. It’s always new.

When you know there is something more to it than just the bare audio, you wish you could be part of the original idea, to get the full picture. How do you think it changes, how much it gets lost from the original intent of the sound and what does the listener gain without knowing anything about the installation?

I think the music from the installation work on its own too. It is not necessary to know they were made to accompany a visual experience. That’s what I realised when I rediscovered them, it was just the audio files I found, and I realised they work without the images. Sometimes music videos or commercials make a strong association with a song, and you can’t think of anything else as soon as you hear that song. Which is a shame. You should be able to create your own memories and thoughts from a piece of music, that’s the beauty of music. But in this case, it’s different cause it’s very specifically composed to work with an abstract art installation and music and visuals complement each other. On the album the three tracks are integrated in a flow of other pieces, so I kind of repurposed them in a way, gave them a title and changed their narrative.

What do you think the ideal way of listening to ‘Elysian Park’ would be?

Loud… Eyes closed. I sent a few tracks to some friends when I was working on it and would tell them to listen to it in the dark. It’s really not great background music though.

How much have you changed the original soundtrack for this release?

I made them longer. But they were meant to be listened to as endless loops so really made sense if you watched the videos for a certain time, the repetitiveness was important. So I had to extend them to recreate that effect.

The themes you’ve been working with are inspired by Michel Houellebecq’s controversial post-apocalyptic novel ‘The Possibility of an Island’. It’s one of those books that you either hate or love, like almost his whole oeuvre. How did you get introduced to this book? 

He’s one of France most famous writer so I was aware of him through the media, I started reading his first novels years ago and picked that one up when it came out.  It’s not my favourite of his, but the idea behind the book haunted me for a long time.

In the novel’s post apocalyptical, dystopian future human clones are tracing back their origins from the 21st century in order to understand human emotions. Did you sort of put this in parallel with our emotionally alienated consumerist society, sharing Houellebecq’s bleak vision on humanity?

Yes, I kind of do yes. But I’m actually a rather optimistic person! But yeah I also do share some of his vision though, and that’s what the music reflects. But I love joyful and happy music too, am just not very good at doing it. Saying that I find Coldplay’s over exuberant pop music for example much more depressive than my record. It has no relationship with reality, it feels so vacant and emotionally cheap to me.

What do you think one of the book’s characters would think about this album if they would come across it in the distant future and it would be one of the artifacts that helps them understand the past

I really don’t think they should use my record to understand the past!  – – I don’t know…  A critique said that the album was all over the place… I think I succeeded then, isn’t our society all over the place?

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