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Escape Velocity

Pipe Dream: Wojciech Rusin Interviewed
Jennifer Lucy Allan , April 11th, 2022 09:58

Jennifer Lucy Allan talks to the Polish musician and artist about his 3D printed pipes, his alchemical albums of speculative medieval music and what happens when you put a giant inflatable object on stage

"I put up this shelf yesterday so you could see all the pipes," says artist, musician and instrument builder Wojciech Rusin. We're in his shared studio, which is on an industrial estate in East London within sniffing distance of the Kingsmill bread factory. On the shelf are a collection of his 3D printed pipes: a blocky 'Hildegard's Wand' in popping neon green and a plasticky bronze; two white 'Doughnuts' that have plastic bagpipe reeds and sound like medieval shawms; a 'Yellow Bastard' ocarina with its raised demonic cartoon face on the front; a silvery 'Scarface' pipe with wiggly textured surface; a 'Wobbly Finger' double whistle, and assorted prototypes.

This is one half of his practice, the other is music. Earlier this year Rusin released Syphon, the second in his alchemical trilogy of speculative medieval music following 2019's The Funnel. They are world-building suites drawing a speculative medieval idea of the sort that appears in the Strugatsky brothers' Hard To Be A God – all mud, broadswords, parchment and space travel. Playing any single track from either album won't give you an idea of the whole. They include the sounds of his 3D printed pipes; acoustic and synthetic instruments including cello and harpsichord; digital effervescence and lurching waveforms; his own Auto-Tuned singing; soprano Eden Girma and singer Emmy Broughton, who also plays flute; and outdoor sounds like water, insects or birds. Last year he also released an EP on Cafe Oto's Takuroku digital label, and a cassette called Rufus Orbis on Boomkat's lockdown label Documenting Sound, both of which presented more long form collage work.

With Syphon and The Funnel, Rusin is pulling from an ambiguous historical time period. "It doesn't pretend to be old music," he explains. Instead, he's playing with ideas, sounds, and baggage from the past. On Syphon he says he was thinking about the dry, clipped sound of the harpsichord and its context in court music from around the 17th century. "It's almost synthetic sounding, quite sterile," he explains. "I was thinking about how there would have been peasants dying and gangrene everywhere, but then they extracted this super clean, laser-sounding instrument.

"[Syphon's] sonic ambitions are beyond a DIY aesthetic," he explains. "There is an intentional gloss through it, and ambiguity between the real and sampled instruments and the electronic parts. Everything is towards a contemporary aesthetic, but at the same time I basically have a laptop, MIDI keyboard and microphone. Moving house something like 12 times in 12 years – it's all just hard drives."

Syphon's precursor and the first in the trilogy is The Funnel, which itself was inspired in part by a site-specific theatre show he worked on in Port Talbot called We're Still Here for National Theatre Wales. For it he combined strings with industrial sounds of electromagnetic hammers, and loved the tightness of the conceptual and textural contrast. "They took me to Port Talbot steel works," he says. "It was the biggest thrill. You have silver dust in the air; things of scale you can't imagine. A human might appear and throw some kind of flux into a crucible of molten lava the size of a house which is floating above your head. There's a dissolving of boundaries, where things are big or small, but you don't know which."

One surprising discovery was that the molten steel was monitored sonically – in the past by a person whose job was to listen to the flame and interpret its material constitution, and now by microphones. It has an echo in the digital crackles on both albums. Around the same time he was reading the Hermetica – a collection of mystical and alchemical Gnostic treatises dating to the 2nd or 3rd century BCE and attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a legendary figure syncretised from the Greek God Hermes and the Egyptian God Thoth. Through these he began to think about alchemy, and (through Terence McKenna) began connecting these ideas to the inversions or dissolving of the physical world and the mind in psychedelic experience.

His Supernormal show in 2019, playing parts of The Funnel, was one of the festival's highlights. He and Jo Hellier performed wearing costumes made by his friend Joe Evans. Evans had turned up with a box of broken screens from the back of a phone repair shop and proceeded to stick them on binbags cut into Ziggy Stardust-ish vests. The broken glass began cutting into them as soon as they started. They played giant drainpipe didgeridoos with balloons over one end (a design taken from a children's instrument making book) as Hellier sang a list of gnostic animals from the Rusin track 'Dance' – the eagle of arrogance; the horse of impatience; the dolphin of lust. It was absurd and utterly brilliant, the clashing of the electronic and the classical manifesting as caustic electronics with parping, flappy low end from the pipes, and impressions of sacred music in chorus and strings.

Rusin grew up in Rzeszow in southeastern Poland. He lived in Germany for a while as a child, and later, Wrocław. He moved to the UK around 2004, after he visited Bristol and basically never went home. "It was very comfortable in 2004," he says. "Cheap and supportive, with parallel scenes." He had played around with computer music since getting an Atari at the age of 12, and while in Bristol made music as Katapulto, which he describes as "a poppy, weird project". He released on a number of labels, including Olde English Spelling Bee, worked as a graphic designer and partied for a few years, before he felt he needed to knuckle down. He began working on sound design and music for site specific plays in 2013. He also began building instruments. "I had a moment when I had a studio for the first time, and everyone was getting modular synthesisers," he says. "But I had this 70s book called How To Make Your Own Instruments or something. It had the basics of acoustics in it, so I started to understand what was going on [with sound] at a primitive level. It allowed me to come up with timbres that were not stock synthesiser timbres. If you attach a piece of aluminium foil to a bass string on a piano, it rattles for about three minutes, and then and you can sweep this with microphones. You could get a filter for a [modular] system for £350, but if you use your head, what can you do for the same kind of money? 20 mouthpieces for saxophones on eBay, plus PVC tubes, then you sample or record it, and create your own sound world completely independent from the economy of modular synthesisers. I knew it was the way for me."

From a box under the desk he pulls out one of these early home-made instruments, a 'proto-pipe' he says. It is a length of white plumbing pipe with roughly drilled holes and a tenor sax mouthpiece fixed to one end with electrical tape. "It sounds like a clarinet," he says. I take one look at it and think, I seriously doubt that. But then he blows out a soft half-riff, in a surprising approximation of a reed instrument. It's a little unruly, but the tone is resonant and miraculously woody.

When the instrument side of his work developed, he moved to London to start a sonic arts MA at Goldsmiths (which he has recently finished). There, he had a revelation in the university's 3D printing studio. Now, he prints instruments in biodegradable corn starch plastic. It takes about nine hours to print one, depending on the size. Finding the tuning and finger placements is a case of systematic trial and error. At Goldsmiths he also met Eden Girma when they were paired together for a university project. He discovered she was a trained soprano (as well as an astrophysicist), and so took the opportunity to record her. "For six months I didn't know what to do with it," he says. "There has to be a tight concept. Adding electronics, you can easily end up in New Age territory. One sound can mean a trope that you really don't want to get into. The whole process was figuring out how to make it work."

He also began to think about his pipes as speculative eastern European instruments, and nods to Jennifer Walshe's archive of the Irish avant garde, Aisteach, as an important influence. "It's about making your own heritage," he says. "I remember once I was playing guitar, I thought I was playing some amateurish Arabic scales, but somebody said, 'Oh, you're playing Eastern European scales.' That was interesting, because what I perceive as the east, someone else thinks is 4000 miles further [west]. I realised I could work with this, creating more confusion about the sub-Carpathian region of Poland. I could put any kind of meaning in and sell it back – present it to the Western gaze as something which is authentically mine. It's up to you to decode, reinterpret or question it. There was this very cheeky pretext to play with. I began making fake mediaeval drawings, tracing mediaeval images of pipers, but then putting my pipes in their mouths, and claiming these were proof that mine came from Polish musicological research. I'd have these two Poles in big hats, playing my pipes and I'd say 'look, these are my pipes, this is where I'm from'. I got some kicks out of this at university, playing with my supervisor. I'd say, 'I have another Polish traditional pipe I discovered, you're gonna love it!' It's quite delicate to know how to respond – am I playing with you, or not?"

More recently, the pipes have become a key part of his shows. At Rewire festival last May he played with a string quartet trio, and gave them each specially printed black and white pipes. He found that even just playing drones was interesting, because different embouchures, or in how hard someone blew created different tones. He compares the pipes to electronic instruments because you can pick them up and play, because there is no wrong way to do it, whereas, if you get a cello, "there's a repertoire and you have hundreds of years of tradition in your head," he says.

The pipes don't just exist as new instruments without historical baggage, but also as a visual spectacle. He can design and print custom instruments for a show, "so they become a kind of prop" he explains. "In recent years I've been getting big thrills out of spectacle. There is always a concern about playing gigs behind a laptop – I just don't want to see it. At least have some pipes on the table! But I realised I can have singers, and I'm still in control; if people are playing instruments: great. Then I added an inflatable object that stole the show completely as a complete disturbance of the recital."

The inflatable object was used at shows in Bristol and Brussels, sewn by his partner Ellen Wilkinson. "It was three metres by two metres, with a little turbine. I attached a little pipe at the top, probably nobody could hear it, but I thought okay, this might be a bagpipe now." He first saw a similar object during a play he was working on. "I thought, I need to basically steal this thing and make it work," he says. "But then, what if I don't make it work? What if it doesn't represent anything? I just blew the bloody thing up to see what happened."

There is a joyful absurdity around the pipes and inflatable object, which is transmuted into Rusin's albums too. "If you do something that looks different it encourages play. It's a different choreography too, because you can walk around with them. I'm interested in becoming independent from the sound system, so you can hear the physicality of the body on stage rather than have everything mediated through speakers. If [the pipes] allow you to sit on somebody's lap and play a little flute, does it make a better performance? Maybe, maybe not!"

He is mischievous in these interrogations and genuinely interested in the answer. There is, thrillingly, something unpredictable and something at stake in Rusin's music and objects. It's what makes his work feel so fresh, despite its archaic influences or renaissance elements. What do we do with our image of a musician if the cello is part software and part acoustic instrument recorded live? What happens to the meaning of a piece of music if played on an instrument with no historical baggage? What if someone sits on your knee while performing? What happens if a large, unexplained inflated object is then added? He enjoys the ambiguities and absurdities of these interplays between the historical and the new, which are sometimes received as humour, and at other times, produce a sort of sonic uncanny valley. There is a sort of alchemy in this, a process by which known elements are combined but the result is unpredictable. "If you present it to other people, you want to share this idea that things are unexpected." he says. "We are all children to a degree. There is a naive sense of wonder I want to recreate... There has to be laughter."

Syphon is available via AD93