Compiling & Filing: Jan St. Werner's Favourite Albums
, April 30th, 2015 11:23
With his operatic performance-cum-radio play Miscontinuum released as an album earlier this year, the Mouse On Mars man takes Nick Hutchings on a trawl of his favourite avant-garde and experimental records
Photograph courtesy of Mizuki Kin
Jan St. Werner's third and latest addition to his Fiepblatter series of carefully-installed sonic architecture, Miscontinuum Album, deals with the vagaries of time. My inter-cranial flux capacitor takes me back to the last time we met in an instant. The wormhole I emerge through is at the foot of the stairs inside the old TV-am building, the soundtrack is the hum of a fish tank and the hustle and bustle of researchers doubtless off to get a coffee for No Doubt. Jan was there with Andi Toma, the other half of his most celebrated band, Mouse On Mars, plus the now sadly departed Mary Hansen of Stereolab. They were recording VJ links for a show I was producing for MTV Europe, talking about their 1997 album Autoditacker and choosing favourite videos to play alongside those we had for 'Frosch', 'Bib' and their collaboration with Stereolab, 'Miss Modular'.
Now nearly twenty years later and we reconvene to do a similar thing, substituting seminal albums for videos as our touchstones. I remembered Jan to be a sparky, eloquent student of music and his enthusiasm for his art is undiminished.
Miscontinuum Album is a fully immersive experience, the secrets and depths of which reveal themselves slowly but assuredly in the most absorbing of ways. St. Werner has acted as careful curator. He has spliced spoken vignettes by the sardonic Dylan Carlson of Earth into libretti written by long-term collaborator Markus Popp of Oval, while the electro-acoustic movements and organic field recordings are laced with vocal performances by Taigen Kawabe of Bo Ningen and Kathy Alberici.
Designed both as an operatic live performance and radio play, it's a piece whose complexities appear simple, and is the work of a confident composer of the avant-garde rather than a seasoned producer of danceable electronica. Of course, the two maxims are not mutually exclusive. On close inspection of St. Werner's choices for his Baker's Dozen, a considered panoply of pioneering composers unfurls itself. I ask if, at this point in his musical (mis)continuum, he sees himself now as composer or producer.
"Neither one. I've been doing a few things during the CTM festival and I felt very at home there among people who are sometimes composers, producers, or just totally idiosyncratic nerds," he says. "I had this flat share in Cologne in the early 90s where we had a record shop basically in our kitchen. If we didn't close the kitchen door people who came into the shop would see us hung over, having coffee. When I was artistic director at STEIM (the Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music in Amsterdam) I lived above the venue where there was constantly something going on and I'm now living above a second-hand music store. I've always been close to sound and I really enjoy that."
He continues: "I call myself a curator or an archivist when I put my Fiepblatter series together, compiling and then filing. Markus Popp has a really good terminology of defining himself as a worker who arranges and organises all this flow of data and information and visual stimulation, artistic ambitions and technical skills. I think really I'm a listener. Active listening is a form of composing and the listener is basically the most important part of any music composition."
Fittingly, St. Werner has carefully compiled and filed the following list of influences. As you might expect, they are all brimming with ambition and technical skill, which require and reward both active and repeated listening. And for a man fascinated by time, they are infinitely timeless.
Miscontinuum Album is out now on Thrill Jockey. Click on his image below to begin scrolling through Jan's choices