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In Extremis

Perceptions Of Sublime Simplicity: Thomas Köner Interviewed
Joseph Burnett , April 17th, 2013 06:23

In advance of his London show at Denovali Swingfest this Sunday, sound artist/composer Thomas Köner speaks to Joseph Burnett about last year's Novaya Zemlya album, the lure of empty spaces and how his seminal duo Porter Ricks use techno as a cloaking device

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Thomas Köner is a German composer and multimedia artist who has become renowned worldwide for his exploration and recreation in sound of remote, icy landscapes, generally situated geographically within the cold borders of the Arctic Circle. 2012 was a vintage year for Köner, one that saw his first album for Touch, Novaya Zemlya, released to rave reviews, and the reissue on Type of Porter Ricks' 1996 album Biokinetics, the seminal debut of his dub techno duo with Andy Mellwig. Both albums showcase Köner at his very best, be it deploying abstract drones, whipping wind and crisp noises in thoughtful and evocative ways on Novaya Zemlya; or displaying an acute sensitivity to space and rhythm as one half of Porter Ricks. All of which has made him a perpetually fascinating figure in modern electronic music. The Quietus caught up with Köner to discuss his recent output, the contrast between live music and studio production, and the appeal of desolate, remote landscapes as inspiration for composition.

I saw you perform in Brussels, at the Meakusma event. What did you make of the concert? Were you pleased with how it went?

Thomas Köner: I liked it. I was impressed by the space [Brigittines Chapel]. I had prepared a different set for the night, different music things and some visuals, but when I saw [the venue] I changed it, switched off the lights. It was better in the afternoon, because you got a pitch-black space, without lamps, just tiny rays of sunlight from outside that would seep through the blinds. It was a magic moment.

Did you stay for the club night afterwards?

TK: Yes, I had a look, but didn't stay longer than midnight.

How do you approach performing live in comparison to recording in the studio? Do you have to set up differently?

TK: Oh yes, they are completely different tasks, like swimming and skating: they're both related to water but completely different. I don't really think you can compare them. In classical music, the whole concept is completely disconnected. They're celebrating (for example) a pianist who has never created a piece of music themselves and is just playing something they've found, the score, but still we consider this pianist to be a great artist; whilst the composer, who would have been in a similar situation, writing this music in the studio. They have two jobs that have their own qualities and talents, but I don't think you can compare them to each other.

Did you perform tracks from your albums at the Brigittines Chapel, or do you only improvise when performing live?

TK: Yes, both [laughs]. I am composer of these things, so whatever I try that I didn't write before would qualify as improvisation. And the moment you do it again, it probably becomes a pattern. In improvised music, [the musicians] have patterns that had been conceived once and that become like words, words that maybe don't mean much, but if you shape a very nice sentence, you can even have hope to write a novel! On one level these would be improvisations, but you still have a sense of shape and form, even in things that are completely new. It was a bit different at Brigittines but usually I have two parts, one very known and the other completely unknown even to me. If you have a nice audience, you can test-drive things. You can never be sure that something is interesting for somebody else just by presenting it. It's a collaborative thing. You want to be providing inspiration and an experience, so feedback is very important to me.

I was intrigued by the fact that, as you mentioned, you performed entirely in the dark. Could you please explain what the idea is behind this?

TK: From my personal experience, it's a bit tedious to have a visual capacity that is not really in charge of everything. I find it a bit distracting, like in a symphony orchestra when they're doing funny movements or playing with their ties. I would prefer it if they switched off the lights and let us enjoy the acoustics. Things like vibrations, which are felt. The other approach is to present something visual along with the music, which can also be distracting or counterintuitive. Also, we have a situation where you can hardly find anyone doing contemporary research in sound in a way that you would find satisfying to watch. [In my case, using] a laptop and a little plastic keyboard... You know what I mean.

The most interesting concerts are the ones that have the ability to be a complete failure. My most satisfying musical expression is a collaboration I do with the filmmaker Jürgen Reble and a performance we call 'Alchemy', where he projects a film loop and treats the loop with chemical as he's projecting it. You really see what destructive or transformative changes appear on each film frame. I place a lot of microphones inside the projector and on the sound desk and the whole soundtrack is an amplification of the treatments. If Jürgen were to smash a cup of his liquids on the film and therefore the microphones, all the fuses would probably blow! There's always a sense of immediate disaster. That's very inspiring for me, but those are very rare situations.

Novaya Zemlya was one of my favourite albums of 2012. Why did you choose the island of Novaya Zemlya for inspiration?

TK: Some years ago, I was talking with a Russian soldier in Murmansk who had been stationed on Novaya Zemlya. I have a very keen interest in all things Arctic, so I was determined to deliver a topography of this space.

Without giving away too many trade secrets, how did you go about creating the tracks on Novaya Zemlya?

TK: When I'm composing, I don't use the computer in the way I would in a concert. I do have a lot of instruments in my studio that I play and record and somehow arrange. All the inspiration for how the sound develops is something in the sonic quality of each event which is just extended in a way that becomes a commentary of the sounds that I play in the first place. For this piece, there are analogies to the situation in Novaya Zemlya and Arctic places: the military zone, the destruction... There are several versions of the piece, and the one that became the official one was maybe number five or six. I kept removing bits until it could not be perceivable as a musical flow. It became a sort of vast emptiness.

Where do you think your interest in remote, cold places stems from? How do you achieve the distinctive aesthetics on albums like Permafrost and Novaya Zemlya?

TK: [Laughs] I was probably born with it. I don't recall getting a letter! I find it rather obvious to have a landscape that is so open yet also so intimate and dangerous and which speaks to your sense of beauty or your perception of sublime simplicity. These are things which you can also search for in music.

Your albums seem at first to be very austere, but further listening reveals layers that are very emotionally resonant. Would you agree? Is this a difficult to maintain that balance?

TK: Absolutely! The difficulty always borders on being completely idiotic, because you can easily perform very interesting things if you use the classical elements of music, as they have been used successfully for centuries, things like harmony and melody and rhythm: all these things that are readily available. Instead, if you refrain from using all those, and just work with leftovers and the spaces you design in-between these leftovers, it's not a very desirable task, to be honest. It's a dirty job but someone has to do it!

Do you also have, in a way, a desire to recreate the environments of places like the Arctic circle via music? Would the term 'psychogeography' apply to what you do?

TK: I think I'm more interested in providing something like a layer that is also part of the environment I find myself in when I'm not in the Arctic. A lot of music lovers are based in urban situations and cities. So, even if you're travelling in the Arctic, you're still never there because what constitutes you, as a self, is a model and the environment is apparently created by the brain. It's a representation in consciousness, a mental image, not an optical image. It's the same for the sounds and for all the impressions that you could get. In a way it's not even interesting to go to these places, because what is interesting to have a narrative that unfolds as a part of your life story. It's all internal, a representation of impressions, which could happen anywhere. The music I do could filter impressions that you have, in your place, something you have created, rather than an illustration of [somewhere else].

Can you see yourself recording an album centred on somewhere geographically different, such as a desert or tropical island? I imagine you'd need to change your aesthetic and use different sounds...

TK: Certainly, yes, sure! Physical temperature is somehow correlated to speed, and speed is related to tempo, in music. In cold places, everything happens slowly. Movements are slowed down compared to things in a boiling volcano. The question for me is always whether it makes sense.

Last year also saw the reissue on Type of Porter Ricks' Biokinetics, another fantastic album. Have you always been interested in beat-based music?

TK: I have very good memories of that project. We are still doing some things together... I'm very interested in music, and that of course involves beat-based music. I'm still very interested in it, in terms of composition and current discussions of how it's been evolving. The difference between that and what I showed at Brigittines is that, with a beat-based approach, you are limited in a much stronger sense. You have fewer tools and you can never have empty spaces. It's part of the service, but you can't leave things too open for imagination, which I think is interesting for an audience. The beat and rhythm are so simple, in this context, that I always think that it's the first thing you could abandon. But obviously not, because it's the first thing that appears and the last thing to go in a club night. It's kind of a paradoxical situation, but I love it.

I imagine the Porter Ricks tracks involved a very different creative process to your solo material. Would I be right?

TK: Not really! Should it? No, it shouldn't. There are things that repeat [in beat-based music]. If you use a hi-hat, there are changes in its appearance but it will always repeat as a hi-hat, and there's an element of luxury to be able to enjoy music [like Novaya Zemlya] that only repeats at a very small level. For Porter Ricks, we had elements that were repetitive, but others that weren't. It was like buying the easiest ticket to get in and then to do what we'd do anyway.

And you are still working with Andy as Porter Ricks?

TK: It is a process. Andy is busy doing some compositions that he wanted us to do, but we haven't recorded in a long time. You can't do everything everywhere.

Finally, do you have any other albums and/or concerts in the pipeline?

TK: Yes... [laughs]

Ooh, is it all a bit of a secret?

TK: No, there should be a new album for Touch. We will continue this exploration we started with Novaya Zemlya, and that should be this year. I'll continue to do re-releases of my work, as well as a DVD of a piece I did in 2009 for the hundredth anniversary of the Futurist movement. It had a strong visual component. I'm doing more concerts, including London in April, and I'm soundtracking a silent film by Murnau for the Louvre, which will be shown in June. Things like this! Concerts are rather boring. They just happen! I would prefer not to do them, but there are so many interesting things going on around them, and so many things I learn about my music and how it behaves in unexpected situations. And of course there's the service of doing something that someone might find interesting.

Thomas Köner plays live at the Denovali Swingfest in London this Sunday, 21st April, at the Scala in King's Cross. For more information and tickets click here.