Yair Elazar Glotman is a classically trained composer, contrabass player and sound artist living and working in Berlin. Currently his focus is on experimental electroacoustic composition, sound installations and sound sculptures. In addition, he works as sound designer and composer for film, dance and video art. He’s been releasing music under his own name and his KETEV moniker, we could hear him play the contrabass in ‘Nimbes’, a collaboration with James Ginzburg and he recently released his second full-length album, ‘Études’ on Subtext. We met Yair at Elektronmusikstudion (EMS) in Stockholm, and we had the pleasure to talk about his new album and his special relationship with the contrabass.
When and how did you get interested in music? What were your first impressions, and what types of music did you listen to when you were young?
My first memory of music must have been from when I was 5 or 6 years old. I used to live in a small village with my family and I found my parents’ ‘L.A. Woman’ cassette by The Doors. We didn’t have a tape player, only in the car, but I was obsessed with listening to it on repeat in my dad’s Subaru. Just sitting in the car and listening to the music. This was the first time when I really got into it. Then I started to play the guitar and things evolved, I was playing classical guitar, slowly getting into electric guitar, bass guitar and contrabass and since then it’s just always evolving… in high school I played Jazz Contrabass and then switched to classical music. I used to play in many different bands and of course in orchestra constellations, but after a few years I turned to electronic music mostly to work on my own and to be self-sufficient. Bass is always a very specific part of a bigger musical whole, and I wanted to escape that role.
It was quite some time before you started releasing music.
For a long time that was not my ambition. I was mainly focusing on sound installations and studying, playing with different people and working on finding my own voice. However, I do think it’s mandatory for a musician to release their music, communicating is as important as making music and creating a connection with the audience. This is what creates context for your work and validates its existence. I think there are different ways to engage with the audience, of course performing live as well as other formats such as installations.
You’ve also done music for theatre and film, what could you tell us about those? Is it easy for you to respond to the filmmakers’ requests or to fit a certain already set mood?
I made music for lots of short films, initially through friends. One of the most important things I learnt is to be flexible and respect the surroundings and context you are in, so in this case I’ll always try to serve the greater good of the film. The most difficult thing is to communicate certain ideas, because people have such different vocabularies and associations to sound that it’s really interesting to talk about music with people from other cultures and creative fields. In the beginning it can be very frustrating, but when you manage to find a common ground it can make you see or hear in ways you couldn’t before.
How did you get to EMS in Stockholm for the first time?
The first time I came to Stockholm was for a show at Fylkingen in 2013, which was an amazing experience. Then I met Daniel Araya and other people here, so I decided to apply for a residency at EMS when I had a concept in mind. When I decided to make ‘Études’, I knew it would be a good place to record it.
You’ve been to Sweden quite often. What made you come back for a second time?
I was drawn back by the sense of community in the electronic music scene, which is small but very creative, supportive and all in all inspiring. I had such a good experience at EMS and I’m so happy that this place actually exists.
One would think you can find proper facilities in Berlin. Aren’t there any places like this over there?
Not that I’m aware of. The university offers some opportunities, but I think also part of the point is to go somewhere else from your everyday life and have a very specific time schedule to work on something specific. Someone enters the room and makes me think differently about the music I’m currently working on and evaluate it differently. When you work alone in the studio at home, you can get stuck in your own pattern of thinking, it’s not just about distraction but also a spiralling, self-defeating process you can get stuck in.
How did you meet James Ginzburg and ended up with the ‘Nimbes’ project?
I met him during a festival in Madeira. I really appreciate what he and Paul Purgas are doing as Emptyset and his label, Subtext. I was really happy to meet him and we became friends. When he was doing the ‘Nimbes’ project, he asked me to play Contrabass for it, and the connection just happened. It wasn’t intended to be a contrabass album, just doing different recordings, but I’m happy it happened like this, you never know how things work out.
If you’d have to choose, do you feel more comfortable with the instruments or the electronics? What you are doing is a really subtle way of involving both.
For me both are equally tools for expressing certain ideas and there is no choice between them. I don’t work dogmatically with one or the other but rather it’s important to have as wide a range of possibility as possible. I appreciate musicians whose distinctions between the two are enigmatic like John Zorn, Oren Ambarchi or Keiji Haino. Even though each one produces different types of music they remain cohesive in a sense that you could still feel their personality and their interests. I also think that in the KETEV and the contrabass project the essence, the core is not really that different.
Could you tell us a bit about the idea behind the contrabass project and ‘Etudes’?
You asked me what I felt more comfortable with. I have such a long history with the contrabass that it has so many connotations, memories and expectations that were left unfulfilled… My goal was to become an orchestral contrabass player but I realized that it wasn’t going to happen. I could never really imagine myself as an orchestra player. I realized that I fell in love with the idea and not the actual thing. It’s crucial for me to express my own feelings and my own ideas in a very direct way; I guess you could say that Bach could be played in many different ways and that it’s all about the interpretation, in fact it already has its structures, rules and connotations. I was more interested in creating my own music than mastering a tool for interpreting someone else’s music. When I stopped studying classical music, the instrument became this presence of guilt in the room that looked at me and made me feel bad about failing to fulfill my earlier goal.
A friend becoming an enemy… what could you do about it?
For 3 years I didn’t really play the instrument at all. In the final year of my studies I realized that this unfinished business is troubling me, I felt that it needs to be resolved. I needed a way to free myself from the instrument and the instrument from myself and find a different way to look at it. Enough time had passed, and I could make peace with it. I made an installation last year that deconstructed the contrabass, identifying different connotations and memories that I had for it. I found different techniques to let the contrabass play itself without me. I wanted to make peace with the contrabass without the contrabass itself, so I recorded many hours archiving the act of building the instrument with a violin maker. After the installation, I felt like I could finally play it in a different way.
It’s easy to fall into a certain way of playing, because your hands develop physical muscle memory. After so many years of trying to gain control over the instrument, I wanted to actually do the opposite, to lose control and to be able to be surprised by it. When you play you want to be in control, some musical ideas could surprise you but not the actual instrument. This is when I decided the concept of ‘Etudes’, which was about investigating the hidden sound of the instrument. Playing outside of its natural dynamic range, either extremely quietly or louder and more energetic than the instrument could. Even when you play as quietly as possible, an acoustic instrument’s goal is to be heard in a room — once you use other recording devices you can catch sounds that are being produced but not resonating in a space. But with all the possibilities offered by recording, I could investigate what’s actually happening beneath this boundary. All the years that I was playing, I never stopped to try and think about it.
I guess this is also due to the fact that you’ve been studying it, you’ve been taught how to do it.
It’s like trying to teach myself to forget what I learnt and embrace the ‘wrong’ way of playing. For instance, playing extremely quietly, so that you lose control and the energy goes to lots of different places. It spreads across the instrument, in contrast to projecting one note, and creates different layers of sound, which reveal the materiality of the instrument. Another example from the album is that when you saturate the use of analog recording equipment – which is usually meant to be as transparent as possible – it reveals its own behaviour, and creates a hybrid connection between the hidden sounds of the acoustic instrument and the hidden sound of the saturated analog recording equipment. The most interesting fact about this process is that it creates a non-place in the act of playing: when you are recording you can’t perceive what is happening, what is actually being played. Only afterwards you unearth what it was that you’ve captured. It’s a bit like analog photography, there is a separation between the action and result and in between you have room for speculation and surprise, a place where you are highly aware of the now and have no feedback pulling you out of that moment.
What if someone would want to learn a string instrument by themselves…?
That’s an interesting question, I think there are both up and down sides to being an autodidact. On the one hand, it’s extremely important to be aware of what has happened before you. But on the other hand some of the most interesting musicians have no background in studying music. For example, I’m interested in electronic or generative music made by people who have background in programming or sound art… a lot of them come from art and not really music, but I think there’s an advantage to not knowing some of the rules and with doing things without knowing you are breaking conventions. I often feel that many artists have great ideas but lack the right method for resolving them, and some musicians have great techniques but their ideas remain within the boundaries of musical research. So those few people that manage to do that, to work in both worlds at the same time and use the best of each world are those I look up to.
Are you interested in modular synthesizing?
I’m interested in using different tools, but in this case it’s too expensive a hobby to even get into… I’m trying to restrain my excitement as much as I can so I will not get into the need for buying. Certain things are very easy to do in digital software but with the modular synths you start to appreciate the process more than the result. This also happens with programming language in generative music, but I think anything that you do with music needs to have the result in mind. It should work as music, and still function for people who don’t know the story behind it. Of course it has a story but it’s important to leave room for people to make their own connection, their own stories. At the moment, I feel that there is a lot of conceptualisation in music, whereas I think the concept and the music need to work together. By hearing the concept and hearing the music you should be able to get the same result.
What are you working on currently?
At the moment I have a bunch of shows lined up with both projects and I’m working on the live sets and how to continue innovating for shows. Otherwise, I’ve been recording lots of different materials with different techniques and archiving new palettes of sound. I don’t know where all this is going to lead, but it reflects my mindset at the moment. I’m feeling confused about my relation to music and music industry, but I’m trying to embrace my self-doubt and find a way to utilise it in a productive way.
What do you like to listen to these days?
Lately I’ve mostly been listening to music by friends or people I know. I’m interested in the way your listening and perception of music changes when you have a personal connection to the person who made it and knowing where they come to their music from.