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INTERVIEW: Oren Ambarchi
Albert Freeman , March 31st, 2014 06:22

Oren Ambarchi is set to open Unsound New York this week with a performance of his composition Knots, and another show scheduled for Sonar in June. He speaks to Albert Freeman about a renewed interest in rhythm, his forthcoming Knots record on PAN, and composing music for dance and theatre

From modest beginnings, in the last two decades Oren Ambarchi has risen to become one of the world's best-known experimental musicians, whose work crosses genres and boundaries with ease. His initial fame arose from a series of solo records released by Touch that brought him recognition more in electronic circles than in the improvised music world where much of his work now resides, but Ambarchi has never been one to stand still for long. Initially inspired by Japanese noise hero Keiji Haino to find his own approach to the guitar, the Australian went from admirer of the Japanese legend to a friend and performing partner in barely a decade, and they now regularly record and play together in various formations. At this point, Ambarchi's list of collaborators on record is as impressive for its length as for the names it contains - as well as Haino, it includes Sunn O)))'s Stephen O'Malley and Greg Anderson, Jim O'Rourke, Fire!, Z'EV, Fennesz and Robin Fox - many of whom have made important contributions to 20th and 21st century experimental music.

His solo work is no less distinguished. Combining threads from rock, free jazz, electronic music, and contemporary composition, Ambarchi's output is a combination of improvised elements carefully assembled into multifaceted pieces that draw from his many inspirations. It's dense, to be sure, and often thick with drones sourced from his unique guitar techniques, but depending on the performance and the setting, it's possible to walk away from one of his performances feeling as though you've witnessed anything from drone metal, to free jazz freakouts, to much more subtle sound art. Ambarchi's ideas have been further honed by his hectic touring schedule, which has taken him around the world and enabled him to acquire a sort of recognition rarely attained by musicians so resolutely experimental.

While the last few years have seen Ambarchi mainly performing solo or in more improvised free music contexts, for 2014 he has returned to the studio with a new album featuring Jim O'Rourke, more trio recordings with O'Rourke and Haino, a new solo record with a distinguished list of guests, and a growing interest in rhythmic and electronic music. Ambarchi found his own way to these ideas from his background as a drummer, and his interpretations are as personal as should be expected of someone with such broad musical experience and knowledge. As he prepares to revive his long-form Knots composition for the opening of the third New York edition of Unsound, he spoke at length to the Quietus about his forthcoming projects, his collaborators, his interest in music for theatre and dance, and other current events in the life of one of the busiest players in modern music.

So now is actually an interesting time to be interviewing you, because you actually haven't been putting out so much music recently.

Oren Ambarchi: Yes, but this year there are going to be a lot. so be warned.

I've seen you gigging in New York four or five times in the past year - was it all all the shows that have been taking up your time?

OA: Last year was a lot of gigging for sure. It was nonstop most of the year. It's why I didn't release that much stuff, but there's a backlog of stuff I've been working on. In the second half of the year there should be some releases coming out. I've been doing a lot of stuff with Keiji Haino, so there are two new releases from that project coming out, and another one with Haino and Stephen O'Malley. Those are more on the improvised band end of things, but then there's a studio record I made with Jim O'Rourke coming out on Editions Mego, and then there's a studio record I made with O'Malley and Randall Dunn on Drag City. There's also two solo records coming out. One is a live Knots record on PAN, and a new solo record that I've been working on for the past two years that's also coming out and has a lot of guests. It has recordings I made with the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra, John Tilbury, Thomas Brinkmann, Eyvind Kang, Jim O'Rourke, Crys Cole, etc.

So is it made of shorter tracks? That would be unusual for you.

OA: It's actually an epic 48 minute track that has many sections but doesn't stop. It's very rhythmical and almost has this techno vibe underpinning it, but there are many unusual textures used and clear sections. I kind of recorded it all around the world over the last few years. I finished it two weeks ago in Tokyo with Jim O'Rourke and a tabla player, and that was the last thing I needed to do to finish it. It had begun about three years ago with Brinkmann. Hopefully it will come out this year.

I remember reading something with you talking about this in its more embryonic stages, but it's interesting to hear more now that it's finished. It sounds really good and quite ambitious. These are mostly people you've been recording with quite a bit in other situations?

OA: Mostly yes. It's quite new territory for me. There's this rhythmical aspect underpinning it, but there is all of this other stuff that happens on top that is quite abstract and acoustic. It's different.

It seems to me that your music has been changing quite rapidly over the last few years. Is this a matter of all the gigging and coming into contact with new influences, or is there some other process at work behind it?

OA: Myself, I just always want to keep moving, so when you work with a lot of people from different genres or different schools it influences what you do. I do a lot of different things, but not all of it is documented or released. If you were in Melbourne or my hometown you would see a lot of different things that interest me, but most people only know the releases or the gigs. The last few things I've done are things that interest me but have not yet been documented.

I first crossed paths with you ages ago at MUTEK, and then it kind of surprised me when I next saw you doing drone stuff. Then last year when you played at Red Bull Music Academy in New York, I remember walking away from that set with a distinct Alice Coltrane feeling. Now that I've noticed you doing stuff more on the free jazz and improvised end of things it didn't surprise me too much. Is it unusual for you to revisit pieces several times like you are with this Knots performance at Unsound?

OA: In this particular case, the piece is something that really excites me, and it was hard to get it off of the ground to do it live. I want to challenge myself. I've been playing solo a lot over the last few years, but I really like performing with other people and having some kind of conceptual idea that we can execute as a group. For Knots, there is a lot of stuff that has interested me for a long time since I was very young – free jazz, Alice Coltrane, Impulse! ecstatic jazz from the late 60s, then the solo guitar things I've been doing. I'm not really thinking about it too much, but it seemed quite natural to fuse these things together. It just made sense to me - lots of ecstatic overtone playing mixed with this sort of rhythmic pulse really interests me. I think you can present the idea of having this underpinning rhythm under a lot of abstract music, a sort of momentum. It really interests me. It's almost like krautrock with more of a jazz pulse.

Some of the players in the ensemble for Knots are people you collaborate with regularly right? Joe Talia I know you've worked with a lot.

OA: Joe is a really interesting guy and a great jazz drummer. He also has a studio in Melbourne, so I actually mix a lot of stuff there, like the records I did with Haino and O'Rourke. We have a really close relationship, and I like working with him. He's a great drummer and he totally gets the idea I'm going for with Knots. We've been working together a lot over the last couple of years. He also has a duo with James Rushford, who is also playing in Knots, called Manhunter that came out on Kye Records. James and I made a record a year or two ago called Wreckage, which is more electroacoustic or compositional. There's just a very interesting scene in Melbourne with a lot of people doing a lot of different things that are really varied. It's a particularly healthy, exciting scene. A lot of the guys I work with do different things, and I find it all very exciting. They're great people to work with, so I'm really happy to bring them to Europe or America to do stuff.

Some of the other members of the group are also regular collaborators?

OA: [There's also] Crys Cole, who was on my last record Audience Of One. We also had a trio record with Keith Rowe that came out, and she's also on my next solo record. She does very textural, abstract stuff where she amplifies objects, such as a table, and uses brushes or different things to get all of these nuances out of objects. I'm really interested in the juxtaposition of these textures against acoustic instruments or against what I'm doing with electronics and guitar. We've been doing a lot of stuff together. Then there's a cello player named Judith Hamann. She's also from Melbourne, but she's working a lot with Charles Curtis at the moment and is based in San Diego right now. Like James, she's in the new music world and does a lot of new music and compositional stuff, but then she also does a lot of weirdo experimental stuff and is really open to that on the other hand.

Is this going to be the same group that you did it with in Poland last year?

OA: Eyvind Kang was involved in the Polish production, but can't make it for this particular show. He led the ensemble, and we had twenty string players in Poland. It was pretty lush having that many string players, and we obviously can't do that in New York. I think we have eight for this performance, and then there are a few Polish players coming as well.

It is still an improvised piece though, so different personnel mean different outcomes right?

OA: Well there is a clear structure, a path, and a concept that we're all going down, and Joe and I are quite free with where we're going with it, but it is not free improvisation. There is a clear composition and a clear arrangement. The intention is that is still have a very open and free atmosphere. [It's been performed] probably seven or eight times, but it has always been with different people in different situations, and it comes out quite different every time. I've done it as a duo with Joe, and in a sense the last solo show I did at Issue Project Room was a solo version of the piece. It's always changing. I've done it in concert halls; I've done it in clubs. It always changes depending on the context.

Is there any greater musical or theoretical basis for the expanded version of Knots? I had read an article concerning your work with the orchestra in Iceland whereby the conductor devised a system to allow the orchestra to react to your improvisations. Is something similar happening here? Is there a more involved compositional process? How does the string section go about interacting with the other musicians?

OA: For the string section there's actually a score that they're following. Eyvind Kang wrote the arrangement, and he or James Rushford directs the strings, so it is scored but there's a looseness and a freedom there. As far as the strings go, it's quite precise what I want them to do. [With regards to the PAN release of Knots], one side of it is a duo version that I did with Joe Talia that was recorded in Tokyo, and the other two sides are the Krakow version recorded with a twenty-piece string ensemble from last year. The duo version is about 25 minutes, and the Krakow version is about 40. They're very different.

Could you tell me more specifically about your other upcoming album releases? What others are there?

OA: Well there's two albums with Haino and O'Rourke coming out, one of which I'm especially excited about. It's a thing we did last year. Haino played this sort of Finnish harp instrument, and it's really beautiful. Jim plays twelve-string acoustic guitar, and I'm playing wine glasses and bells and gongs and struff like that. It's just a different facet of that particular trio, and it's quite beautiful and melodic and quite delicate actually. Haino is amazing on it; his vocals are gorgeous, and it's really nice to hear Jim play guitar like that too. That should be out quite soon. I think I'm supposed to play with him and Stephen O'Malley in New York in May actually. I go to Japan once a year to Tokyo to play shows, and they're all recorded, and that's pretty much how all of those records were recorded thus far.

You also mentioned you had a studio project with O'Malley that was coming out.

OA: Yes, it's with Stephen and Randall Dunn, who is a studio engineer who has worked with me. He also is a great synth player. That record is coming out on Drag City quite soon. It's the soundtrack to a Belgian film we did a few years ago. That should be out quite soon. That was a film director I'd worked with once before then, and he approached me about doing something with Stephen, so we went to Belgium and tracked a lot of material in the studio for the film. He filmed most of it in the outback in Australia actually, and when we met him he hadn't really put it together yet. When we made the music, it was really super open as far as what we were able to do, so we kind of just did what we wanted. He was really happy with it, and he basically cut the film to our music. This was quite a long time ago, about five or six years ago, but it was the first time I started to use drums and rhythms in this abstract context, and it really led to Sagittarian Domain and a lot of the stuff I'm doing now. There are recurring rhythms and electronics.

The film director finished the film and tracked it, then we kind of forgot about it because we were so busy, and then came back to it a year later to overdub some things, and then again a year later we mixed it. We all live in different countries so it's very difficult for us to get together, and it just took a while. Eventually we finished it and Drag City wanted to put it out. It's unusual because it's an older project and everyone is just super busy with other things. It's nice that it's coming out.  

You mentioned that in retrospect you think the album is actually quite a significant piece in your catalogue.

OA: I really don't get the opportunity to go into a studio that often because it's so expensive, so all of a sudden we had the opportunity to go into a studio for a week with all of these amazing instruments. I could try stuff and experiment. It was a very organic, natural, and fun project. It gave me a lot of ideas. I started doing stuff with the drums, and I eventually thought to develop that more subsequently. It influenced a lot of the stuff I have done since.

Then there was also the Editions Mego album you had with O'Rourke. Was that a studio project or a live project?

OA: It's a studio project with some live stuff mixed into it. We've done a few live shows in Tokyo, so there are elements from some of those mixed in, but it is mostly studio stuff. It's our second duo record, and that should be out soon. It's called Behold. [I also] just finished my solo record with him two weeks ago. We spent two days doing it, and Jim played a lot of synth on it and did a lot of recording for me. He's fantastic to work with in the studio, really easy and fun. We get along, and it's always a pleasure to work with him. It's a fifty minute piece, and it was about the last twelve minutes that I kind of knew what I wanted, but wanted to wait until I was in Japan to do it with him. Jim engineered some of it and played on a lot of it.

It seems like the two of you share a lot of common ground.

OA: Yes, there is a lot of common ground, and I'm a fan of his music and always interested to know what he is doing regardless of what direction it is in. I think he's a really important artist, and in some ways quite underacknowledged. I'm lucky to work with him in different contexts, like doing the rock stuff with him and Haino, then doing studio electronic projects, etc.

I've also been doing a lot of music for theatre and dance productions lately. There's a show that's going to be opening in New York in summer with Cate Blanchett and Isabella Huppert, a production of Jean Genet's The Maids. I think that's on in July, and I did the music for that. Some of it is existing stuff, and some if it was [specifically] composed. Actually, a lot of Sagittarian Domain was made for the same director for a play he did in Sydney, which is how the theatre projects came about essentially. If I have a sketch and the director is into it, it can help me to realise the piece. That's how Sagittarian Domain was completed.

Do you find it interesting that your music is being used in a setting where you haven't even seen the end result?

OA: Well, I've worked with the director a lot in the past and love his work. I think he's fantastic, and we were in close contact and I really trust his vision. The guy who was doing the live sound and mixing was in touch with me almost every day, and I've also worked with him a lot in the past.

So it's actually the result of a deeper collaboration?

OA: Yes, this particular director and I did Macbeth together in Iceland last year, and then we did some stuff in Sydney just after that. His name is Benedict Andrews. He's a really interesting guy who has done a lot of stuff with Cate Blanchett. He's quite young, and I like his ideas and approach.

One thing that I've been speaking about with other musicians recently and that you mentioned is the techno thing. There's a wealth of experimental electronic music that's drifting towards techno, and techno is drifting outside of its normally strict structure. Labels like Spectrum Spools have been engaging this quite heavily, and it's interesting to see someone like yourself getting involved in this.

OA: It's makes sense to me because I'm originally a drummer, so I'm interested in rhythm and have always been a big fan of Mike Ink and Sähkö since the mid-90s. It's always been there. I'm also a big fan of Thomas Brinkmann. He's really amazing and really important, and in a way not acknowledged so much these days. This idea of a recurring rhythm that slowly shifts and changes over a long period of time with lots of abstract things happening around it, I've always loved that idea. It's kind of like rock music in a way.

It's exciting from a techno perspective, too, as the people doing these experiments are coming from a variety of backgrounds not strictly rooted in club music, and bringing different ideas to it. Also, with new performance tools and techniques, improvising in electronic music is becoming much easier.

OA: It's exciting. There's not that precondition whereby techno or dance music has to do a certain thing or move a certain way. Things are evolving, moving and changing.

Oren Ambarchi plays Knots with the Sinfonietta Cracovia string quartet and accompanying musicians at the opening concert of Unsound New York, which takes place this Wednesday April 2nd at the Issue Project Room. For more information and tickets, click here to visit the Unsound website.

Ambarchi also plays at Sonar Festival, Barcelona, which runs from 12th-14th June - for information and tickets, click here.