Combining Compositional Precision and Uncontrolled Processes: Interview with Thomas Ankersmit

RESEARCH SERIES #23 by Arie Altena Kontraste Festival, 12 October 2013 Thomas Ankersmit is a Dutch musician and installation artist whose work displays a deep interest in acoustic perception. Sonic frequencies at the threshold of human hearing, sound reflections and other acoustic phenomena are vital elements in both his studio recordings and his live performances. Combining analogue and digital electronic instruments, careful sound design and improvisation, Ankersmit creates visceral yet finely detailed sonic experiences. For his electronic music performance at the Sonic Acts Academy 2016 Ankersmit delves into the ideas and instruments of a Dutch titan of electronic music, Dick Raaijmakers (1930–2013). His homage re-evaluates Raaijmakers’ concepts of sound, composition and spatial experience using similar means as Raaijmakers: tone and noise generators, modulators, filters, mixers, amplifiers and speakers. Ankersmit’s homage was commissioned for the opening night of the 2016 edition of Sonic Acts Academy at the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam. On 12 October 2013 Arie Altena interviewed Thomas Ankersmit about his work and his set-up for his concert the following day in the Minoritenkirche in Krems. Ankersmit was there as part of the 2013 Kontraste Festival: his solo performance was one half of a double bill with American minimalist pioneer Phill Niblock.

Thomas Ankersmit, Silver Apples of the Moon, Kontraste Festival 2013. Photo by Karkus Gradwolh
ARIE ALTENA (AA): In your performances you often work with the spatiality of sound. What do you expect as far as this is concerned from the performance in the Minoritenkirche? And what’s it like to perform on the same stage as Phill Niblock? THOMAS ANKERSMIT (TA): Churches have reasonably reliable acoustics. Their architecture has always been limited by fairly uniform rules, which actually have predictable acoustic results. But if you perform you must of course adapt. Phill Niblock and I have performed together for about ten years now. Usually it’s a double-bill programme: I start, he ends. He presents his music as a composer, and I mine as composer–performer. Since 2012 I have done less with the alto sax and focused on electronic music and installation pieces. I had to give up something so as not to spread my attention too thinly. Normally I play a partly improvised, partly scored concert through two or four channels – whatever is available – consisting of electronic music I create live with the Serge, an analogue modular synthesizer, supported by a computer. But what the computer does isn’t particularly interesting: I only use it to play previously recorded raw sound clips from the Serge that I then process in a live situation, usually by sending them through the Serge again. About half of what the audience hears is live analogue synthesis; the other half consists of fragments of previously recorded analogue synthesis. AA: You say that your concerts are partly improvised and partly planned. Does the planned aspect consist of these prerecorded fragments? TA: No, not really. I can just as well improvise with them. When I say ‘scored’, or ‘planned in advance’, I mean that during the soundcheck I seek out those frequencies that produce interesting effects in the space. Think of the resonant frequencies of objects in space, frequencies that interact with the entire space, or sounds that, when combined with other wavelengths, cause a certain sound behaviour in your ears – things that take place on a human scale. But it’s also about simple things – a particular noise that sounds really good on the PA system. Based on the soundcheck I decide how I will begin and where I want to end up. I make a kind of roadmap for the concert. AA: What are you trying to achieve as a listening experience for the public? You tune frequencies to the space, and what happens is that as a listener you can move your head – and therefore your listening ears – between the nodes in the wavelengths... TA: Yes, that’s the rough idea. My interests are quite broad, and my concerts can explore many different areas in the half-an-hour to hour that they last. But I do have a strong interest in the thresholds of human hearing and acoustic perception and the special things that can happen in those zones. And I also like to make objects in space resonate so that they vibrate and hum with the music. I also use very low frequencies as a kind of remote control to make objects move.
I also use very low frequencies as a kind of remote control to make objects move.
You can stimulate inner ear otoacoustic emissions, in other words, you select a particular interval, and with two simultaneous tones generate a third tone in the ear. That’s something the American composer and sound artist Maryanne Amacher worked with a lot. But I’m also interested in overwhelming masses of sound, and in contrasts between things at the edge of our perception, between the very fine and fragile and the loud and dense, between the almost silent and the tremendously loud. I want to make a kind of music that is quite dynamic, and challenges my instrument; music that is constructed as a swarm, and consists of small, carefully designed sound particles that move according to a kind of logic and merge into groups, the character of which can change rather suddenly. You could say that what I strive for is somewhere in between the acousmatic music of Pierre Schaeffer and Bernard Parmegiani, and David Tudor’s live electronics. In a sense they represent the two extremes in electronic music – on the one hand a painstaking design of material and form that evolves over time (Schaeffer, Parmegiani), and on the other, free experimentation (Tudor); the idea being that that you’re on a wild horse, that modular synthesizers and analogue electronics do things that catch you unaware. Although you can also make software do unexpected things, in my case the surprises lie especially in the analogue section; I use digital tools if I want precision. AA: Can you explain more precisely how you use the Serge synthesizer and analogue electronics? TA: The way I use the synthesizer is pretty close to ideas of circuit bending and hardware hacking. I use a lot of internal feedback. Often it’s pure guesswork: I place my fingers on contacts to produce so many forms of variable short circuits and feedback that they sometimes flow in ten directions at once. That causes all kinds of small shadow phenomena that also spread in multiple directions. This is how I directly interfere with the electronic sounds. That’s actually my basic material. In the studio I use the computer to capture some of these elusive things. I do this to introduce more layers and more detail to the sound. I’m constantly striving to reach a compositional balance between compositional control and untamed live processes.
The way I use the synthesizer is pretty close to ideas of circuit bending and hardware hacking.
AA: Do you sometimes perform only with analogue electronics and the Serge? TA: I do sometimes perform concerts with only analogue synthesis. But someone like Keith Fullerton Whitman, for example, is more interested than I am in instruments that play themselves. He builds artificial intelligence patches, with processes that drive themselves. I prefer to shape sound with my hands; I really do perform with my hands. You can approach modular synthesizers in a variety of ways. They can indeed play themselves, even if it’s as drone machines, but this is something I try to avoid. That’s a lot more interesting to do with the saxophone. I use it as tone generator, as a kind of drone machine. It also feels like a deliberate choice, and moreover is also a physical act. Physically playing the saxophone also produces micro-fluctuations in the sound, which is also why Phill Niblock mostly uses acoustic instruments as sound sources. An oscillator just oscillates; it’s just a kind of loop pedal. I’m more interested in fragmenting the loops, in continuously updating them by hand. I see modular synthesizers almost as percussion instruments because you constantly have to make sounds yourself to really hear them.
I’ve always been interested in acoustic instruments, prepared piano, percussion and suchlike. A musician has a direct tactile relationship with acoustic instruments. The knobs on hardware have an actual range, and you’re interacting with real electronic circuitry, not with software.
AA: How important are your physical gestures to the performance? TA: The audience sees my movements as gestures, but all I’m doing is playing the instrument. Nonetheless, the haptic and the tactile are certainly important; just as important as knowing which knobs on the Serge crackle – so that it can be used as a crackle generator. This is why I move bits of metal back and forth in a little short-circuiting interface I built. I also often have a contact microphone around my neck with paper clips or something like that attached to it. I have several simple hardware boxes and techniques to make the electronic music somewhat more tactile. Sometimes I hit or scrape things. That sound can then be run through ten different synth modules that make it sound completely different, but I’m still introducing a measure of tactility to the music, and that’s very valuable for a musician. I’ve always been interested in acoustic instruments, prepared piano, percussion and suchlike. A musician has a direct tactile relationship with acoustic instruments. The knobs on hardware have an actual range, and you’re interacting with real electronic circuitry, not with software. You twist a potentiometer, and that has an effect. So you develop muscle memory. You have this less with MIDI controllers, which you can program differently every time; then twisting the knob causes an entirely different effect from the time before. The intimate relationship such as the one a cellist might have with their cello is all about knowing every idiosyncrasy of his or her instrument after playing it for twenty years, and that’s invaluable. That’s why I only work with one synthesizer, the Serge. I have no other synthesizers. If I play a concert I have to take my studio apart, put all the gear into flight cases, and take it with me. Thomas Ankersmit is a Dutch musician and installation artist based in Berlin and Amsterdam. His site-specific projects have involved radar domes outside Berlin and an abandoned seaplane hangar in Tallinn. His installations have been presented at Berghain (Berlin), MoMA PS1 (New York), REDCAT (Los Angeles), and elsewhere. Ankersmit has collaborated with Phill Niblock and Kevin Drumm and has released albums on Touch, among others. ‘Ankersmit constructs a musical world that feels alive and capable of going anywhere, and yet also manages to give the music a strong sense of structured purpose’ (The Wire). Translation: Mark Poysden

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