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«At best, the walls act unsound and the exterior space is heard inside in the interior one.» – Robert Lippok
A conversation between Robert Lippok (RL), Inke Arns (IA) and Dieter Daniels (DD), conducted on July 5, 2004 within the »Sound & Vision« Series at the HGB Leipzig.
IA: I would like to begin with a question about a concrete project, namely the »Kölner Brett« project. How was that conceived? Was the music you developed for this building integrated into it and played out there – or did you extract data directly from the building and then make an autonomous CD from it?
RL: It was an autonomous project. Arno Brandlhuber from b&k+ approached us about developing music for a house that he and his partner built. At the Architecture Fair in Orléans, he didn’t want it presented conventionally, with blueprints and photographs, but rather as a piece of music. So we got together, and he presented his concept to us. Then we studied the matter on location and finally developed the music for the building.
IA: Then it wasn’t merely integrated as a kind of public art?
RL: No. The house was already occupied. There were a few office and living spaces on the premises. The building’s basic concept is rather beautiful: a simple cube divided into twelve modules that lie one atop the other, at right angles, like two bricks. You can arrange the modules in any way you choose, and decide on using either one or all four units. The actual building, like its interior, is conceived as a module. Originally the idea was to have an entire series of such structures, fitted together in a row. Only simple materials were used during the construction phase, and the spaces were far from complete at the time. Not even bathrooms were available. There was heating, yes; but nothing else. Each user was free to decide how the spaces would be divided up. There was also some beautiful detail-work: for instance a wall made of green-toned Plexiglas that faces the street, with a phosphorescent finish in the Plexiglas that causes a slight afterglow whenever cars drive by. It doesn’t quite work, since the amount of phosphorescent material wasn’t properly calculated. To make it
function, you would have to go right up to the wall with a flashlight. But I found the idea beautiful. We were impressed by the way that b&k+ handled materials like steel, Plexiglas, plastics, poured plastics and aluminum, and how a love of raw materials flowed throughout the entire structure. In addition, we noticed a strong connection to the way that we work with sounds, where different elements are also brought together both simply and greatly fragmented.
DD: How did these elements come together at the presentation in Avignon? It was all about establishing a structural similarity between music and architecture. Had I been at the fair, as a spectator, would I have been able to grasp that idea?
RL: I don’t know if that was Arno Brandlhuber’s idea. I wasn’t at the fair myself. We only delivered our production. The rest was done by b&k+. At best, I can imagine there being no photographs at all of the building, and simply hearing the music. In that way, viewers never have to somehow bring together the building and music in their minds. Instead, the structure of the building is revealed to them through listening to the music.
IA: Whenever you develop concrete soundsfor existing spaces – like now, in Münster, in the exhibition spaces of the Westfalen Kunstverein – how does that function? What relationship exists between the architectural space and the sound generated from it? You recommended Martin Supper’s book to me; it studies how music refers to architectural space  . What I found particularly exciting in the book was the example by Alvin Lucier from 1969: Lucier repeatedly records the sentence «I’m sitting in a room» on the same track, and through this procedure the sound becomes increasingly unfamiliar. Through the continual replaying and recording anew, the acoustic qualities of a (virtual) space become written into the sound. That would qualify as a generative understanding, where one has a relatively direct relationship between architectural space and sound. How does this function when you work in spaces that already exist?
RL: I also use a direct connection to space. In Münster, I spent two months studying the space
before the exhibition took place. During a session that lasted several hours, I recorded all the sounds that I heard, meaning all the exterior sounds, since there was no exhibition activity at that time and the space was relatively quiet. There are no windows in the walls, only small, high windows; and the outside noises entered the space through these windows. It’s actually a beautiful atmosphere – rather like standing on the bottom of a swimming pool. I was given the spatial dimensions and established a tempo based on its length. I also measured the speed of sound at a specific temperature, and from that I calculated the tempo for my piece. That’s how I managed to get so many small sounds: bits and pieces that constantly crisscrossed. The speed of sound, with the feedback, produced an intense spatial experience. With the help of a microphone, massive loud speaker, and a sine-tone oscillator, I then measured the spatial resonance. After forming the loops of feedback, I developed a small melody from the frequencies the space resonated.
DD: That’s a procedure similar to Lucier’s.
RL: True. In my case, though, there’s no conceptual superstructure.
DD: But it is a completely different approach from the one used for «Kölner Brett,» which concerns a kind of structural thinking and modular system, and where the actual space never appears as a sound or resonance body in the music. Like it did in Münster.
RL: Well, it didn’t appear in Münster either. The space, so to speak, formed the music.
DD: I see. Then both methods were ways of transposing spatially or architecturally-formed sound, but executed each time in a different manner.
RL: There’s no one way or technology for making a production. You don’t have any set rules. Each case calls for a special approach. That also includes the discussions with people who commission the work, and with curators. Question from the audience: Is there an actual extending of space, a transforming of exterior into interior space?
RL: Yes. At best, the walls act unsound and the exterior space is heard inside the interior one. I often work with rapid breaks in the sounds. The interior and exterior spaces are juxtaposed with hard cuts. In each and every case, what listeners or viewers experience causes a chain of associations. I’ve come to realize
again and again, during many conversations, how totally different these chains of associations can be. Question from the audience: Is that only the case with this exhibition – or does it generally happen that the sound unleashes such associations?
RL: That’s always the case, even with the music by «to rococo rot». The music is received in a variety of ways, sometimes in totally contradictory ways: while one person hears countless rhythms, another hears only surfaces! And I ask myself, What is it that these people hear? Does it depend on their stereos, on their ears? […] But all this is selected consciously. In our music pieces, you always experience an intense reduction: the omissions make the listeners do some of the developing for themselves. The listeners or viewers are always a part of the exhibition. They even play a role during the concerts. We react strongly to our listeners.
IA: To get back to your work with everyday sounds – an awareness or receptiveness directed toward sounds and objects, something which stands out in your work; in one way or another, this seems to connect with Musique Concrète. In 1950, there was apiece by Pierre Henri and Pierre Schaeffer, a symphony entitled «Pour un homme seul,» made up entirely of sounds either consciously or unconsciously produced by the human body. I remember hearing a tape made a few years ago that picked up on this concept a second time; it dealt only with noises produced by the human body. But now I don’t remember who made it…
RL: I do. Does anybody else remember? It was by Matmos, two guys from San Francisco, who also collaborated with Björk. They made a CD with noises taken from operating rooms: sucking out fat deposits, the scraping sounds of scalpels and so on…
IA: Okay. That would be a 1990s version of Musique Concrète! As «to rococo rot,» what kind of reference do you make to Musique Concrète, if there is one?
RL: There is no real reference . In the early stages of Musique Concrète, there were several techniques used to make everyday sounds unfamiliar. The goal not being to simply combine them and to let them exist as they were, but rather to achieve a certain anonymity,
more so a pure, sound-oriented existence as a simple reproduction. That never applies to us: our use of everyday sounds is always very direct. One of our works refers to a radio play by Walter Ruttmann. In the 1920s and early 1930s, Ruttmann carried out many fascinating projects in Germany, one being »Berlin. Die Sinfonie der Großstadt« a silent movie for which he developed his own editing technique. Ruttmann’s film depicts the passing of a typical day in Berlin: waking up in the morning, men cleaning the streets, then the raucous bustle of the workday, with howling sirens, throbbing machines, workers and coffee breaks, the workday ending again, and even more. Ruttmann also made a radio play version of this project, entitled «Weekend». (Walter Ruttmann, «Weekend,» 1930) Here he depicts a virtual weekend. Because there was no other technique for sound editing at that time, he used film sound. This technique is called TriErgon. He recorded everyday sounds while driving through the city in a van: people at work, walking or hiking. What makes this interesting now is that Ruttmann’s material was, so to speak, edited musically; he developed a score, and the sounds were edited in a way thatcreated a great dynamic. This is what makes his radio play sound so modern, and it ranks among one of the first «recorded» radio plays. Before that, there were only «live» radio plays, with actors that spoke into microphones. The radio station of the Bayerische Rundfunk approached us about making a remix of «Weekend». DJ Spooky and Mick Harris had already done so. But while listening to the original, we quickly realized that the original was perfect. It was too good to make again as a remix. For us, it seemed senseless to create samples and to put a beat behind them. So we tried to reconstruct Ruttmann’s method with modern means. We went through the city with mini-disk and data recorders; we eavesdropped on Berlin, and while certain sounds, such as church bells and footsteps, remained unchanged, other sounds did change, and more sounds were added to those, namely all the technical sounds: the subway, clicking noises, and money machines at the bank. All around us, everything peeped or whistled. From our own material, we created an audio-piece within a situation similar to Ruttmann’s. He was actually a Pre-Musique Concrète artist, and given the conditions he worked under,
extremely revolutionary. After him there came nothing new for a long time, until Pierre Henry picked up on Ruttmann’s work and developed a new approach from it. But we don’t make a direct reference to Musique Concrète.
DD: The question is to what extent one draws from historical models at all. Much of what we find interesting is created oblivious to history and only later becomes projected onto a specific historical background, perhaps not available at the moment of its creation.
RL: We’re often asked that question: whether we have something to do with «Krautrock,» «Can,» «Cluster,» or early «Kraftwerk» [EL]. And I always say no, because I never listened to such music in private. I grew up with Punk music, not electronic music. Of course, I saw and heard such things; they were on television and the radio. I listened to all kinds of music then, even to early works by Kraftwerk – I don’t think it’s possible to work outside of an historical context, unless you live totally isolated.
DD: So we’re talking more about a cultural zeitgeist and the question of personal preference, and notabout something one refers to explicitly. It exists far below the surface, but during the creative process one frees oneself from it.
RL: Exactly. There never were any models as such. I discovered Punk music when I was eleven, and I always recorded the nightly radio broadcasts of the John Peel Sessions. Then I learned about the electronic-music LPs of the late 1970s and early 1980s, for instance the «Throbbing Gristle» and «Flying Lizzards,» people without any special knowledge, and who started making music just the same. That really shocked and amazed me then. Not so much the art, but rather the courage and audacity of these people. That even gave me the incentive to make music myself.
DD: There was also that island-like situation of the GDR – but through television and radio, and then…
RL: An island! They would have liked that! But it wasn’t possible, thank god. English radio broadcasts like John Peel’s, for instance, were important for many people in the East. There was another great program, a broadcast of the radio station RIAS, the «Broadcasting Network of the American Sector». It was a progressive program, and so a lot reached us quickly. It was hard
to get recorded material and books, but the GDR wasn’t really hermetically sealed.
DD: Carsten Nicolai reports on important radio-listening events. Of course, all that really interests him in the end is the sound interference.
RL: That’s like him! There was also the New Wave – evening broadcasts on RIAS, in 1981, I think. They always began around eleven at night, and I listened to them with my brother. One evening, the announcer said, Tonight we’re going to hear a piece of music recorded entirely on a bicycle… And I found the idea so exciting that I stayed up all night with my finger over the record button – but they never played the piece! The idea fascinated me, and I definitely wanted to hear it. Only I never found out what it was like.
IA: Now a question on the beginnings of «Ornament and Crime,» which occurred in a scene – I’m focusing less on the Punk scene now – full of many inter-linking media connections, from music to other genres, for instance to the visual arts, literature, and film. To what extent is that important for your work today? Evenwithout such connections, «to rococo rot» still functions as music. But you yourself work as a visual artist with a strong emphasis on sound pieces. Did that long period with «Ornament and Crime» influence your own work?
RL: It’s like this: you get ready, start, just play it, and see what happens. That kind of spontaneity is still very important. And this kind of scene did exist: with musicians that painted, and painters that made music. That was a topic even then. There was the artists’ group the «Jungen Wilden» in West Germany, and the painter Salome, for example, had a band called «Geile Tiere» (Sexy Beasts). It was normal not to separate the genres. Since then, our working methods, and a certain composing style, have hardly changed much. The same applies to the technology involved: in the late 1980s, we began working on Commodore 64 with sequencing programs and small computers; early on, we were also given self-made synthesizers, or friends let us borrow their devices. That equipment hardly differed from what we have today, apart from all the Macs G3, G4 and G5 equipment. The basics are still pretty much the same. It was also important that
«Ornament and Crime» functioned as an open, group project: we worked with many other people, had lengthy discussions, and even all the excessive drinking had a special value. Everything was a lesson for future use. You developed a sensibility and came to know with whom you could work, and you learned to work quickly. Contrary to today’s approach, «Ornament and Crime» was never oriented toward a product, but rather toward the present moment. There were phases that sometimes lasted one or one and a half years, when we had nothing to say to each other. But after that we came together again, worked in twos, or welcomed others into the group. Stylistically speaking, the music was always different. After a while, what began with drums and radio was transformed into a small, Big Band constellation, with a banjo and two drummers. It depended on the situation.
DD: But «Ornament and Crime» never gave multimedia performances, and focused only on making music.
RL: That’s true. In relation to «to rococo rot,» I even think of that as being enough. Of course, you have counterexamples like «Pan sonic,» or CarstenNicolai, who really brought things to their conclusion and gave impressive concerts with music and images. But we weren’t interested in going that route – also because we found that images terminate music and hold it in place. You see this happen when you watch the video of your favorite music piece on MTV: the image becomes welded to the music forever. I found that disturbing for both our music and the concert situation.
DD: In other words, all of you see the visual and the music as remaining separated yet parallel. In the gallery setting, though, you make a decisive visual mark, and the adjoining sound refers to that space. The music isn’t necessarily linked to the image – yet it occurred to me, for example, you created a stage design for a Wagner performance. A universal artwork (german: "Gesamtkunstwerk") , so to speak.
RL: There it is again! The universal artwork…
DD: Okay. But Wagner wanted his music supported by forceful images. So how should we imagine you creating a stage design for Wagner, with such minimalist works?
RL: It only looks highly minimal – and alongside all
the applause, there was also a lot of vehement booing. Printed handouts encouraged people to obstruct the premiere – which, of course, didn’t happen. But all throughout, you heard hateful whistling in the audience.
IA: Do you see exhibitions as universal artworks? You do, after all, combine sound and images, and that’s actually a similar approach…
RL: I put the emphasis on sound in my exhibitions. When I refer to a concrete location, for example, I draw myself closer to it through images and tones; in the exhibition, though, this location is only greatly minimized, usually with photographs, and left on the border to perceptibility.
IA: Are there spaces that you definitely want or don’t want to set to music? What would it be like, for example, working in a huge industrial space?
RL: I prefer the White Cube environment over the industrial space. I find it more difficult to work when you recognize the history of a space – in such cases, I could never just start from zero, but would always haveto develop an approach within the context of the specific use of that space. Once I collaborated with a Norwegian artist on a project that involved setting a hiking trail to music. We gave people rubber goulashes, raincoats and compasses, along with a map that charted the trail and headphones. And so prepared, they were meant to walk the trail. Through the headphones, they could hear texts and music at designated spots along the route. What I found interesting was working with a location overrun with acoustic elements: chirping birds, passing cars, and planes flying overhead. I could enter all this and add more sounds to it… Question from the audience: Did you inspect the route beforehand?
RL: Yes. We walked the route several times, at different times of day, and in every type of weather. The various perspectives revealed along the way were observed and considered, as well as which stories could emerge from the hike. I also traveled the route with the laptop in front of me. I recorded the hike that way because the computer could hear a lot that I couldn’t hear. Microphones hear differently than the human ear; the frequencies present themselves
differently. During the hike, it occurred to me how much I’d like to do a project in the forest. The forest offers you a special acoustic situation, for it being totally open on the one side, and because of the tree trunks, totally closed-off on the other. I’d like to use that… Question from the audience: To set a forest to music…?
RL: Not exactly to set it to music. But I could, perhaps, give the forest something that it lacks – or take something from it. I had the idea of developing an effect from that situation, an echo program, but it was already done: a firma called TC developed a forest-echo program, where it was possible to regulate the thickness of tree trunks and the position of listeners, or better, the exact distance from the forest or tree trunks…
DD: There’s a saying: How you call into forest is how it’s called out again.
IA: Do you have a special dream? Maybe something connected to the forest we discussed? And that question leads to another: we recently discussed sound design, and I was wondering whether, as «to rococo rot» or at all, you ever worked in the area ofsound design?
RL: Computer-game sounds would be exciting, and now these games have reached a level that makes them interesting in the first place. As «to rococo rot,» we presented a work in the Museum for Applied Arts in Cologne, in which all of the sounds that we used were, in fact, designed: for example, the doors of Porsches. Sound design even plays an important role with beer: how beer sounds when poured into a glass, the noise made when swallowing, or the sound the foam makes, which should begin as loud and effervescent, before growing softer and fading out in a higher tone – that calls for investing a lot of time and energy. Or take chips: in Cologne, we invited a specialist who held a lecture on the subject. He spoke of small machines that can chew chips. Such a chip is a legitimate resonance body, like a violin, and when it’s broken or broken open, it doesn’t chew in quite the same way as before. In the museum, we created an installation with these sounds. I see it as an exciting field. Of course, here, too, you have to work with industrial products, and with firms. I don’t feel particularly at ease in that area.
DD: Yet you composed bathroom music for the armature-production firm of Dornbracht. In what way did the music and bathroom facilities relate to one another, and what did the firm do with the music afterwards?
RL: A long time ago, Dornbracht commissioned the Cologne-based advertising agency Meiré and Meiré to handle its advertising campaign. For many years, they did the job obediently and with charm, until they finally grew tired of showing beautiful, slim women in the act of turning water faucets. As a result, they suggested to Mr. Dornbracht an art project that would invite artists to respond to the theme of water and bathing. There were different teams. Rosemarie Trockel participated in the video team; Raf Simons, a fashion designer, designed a collection, and we were invited to compose music that dealt with the theme. We investigated the acoustic conditions in bathrooms and asked our friends what they did inside of them. Then we developed music from these findings – but music without a connection to a real bathroom.There’s no event extracted from an existing bathroom.
DD: But when I hear it, does it still leave me with a feeling of wetness?
RL: Yes, you’re drenched! No, it’s more like quicksilver or something similar.
DD: I saw Dornbracht’s company brochure, no longer a brochure in the traditional sense. On the cover, you only see a form resembling a piece of armature, and all the artists standing rather dominant in the foreground.
RL: I know. That’s what was so great about the project. We even met Mr. Dornbracht. He told us: Do whatever you like, I won’t interfere, and I don’t need to see anything beforehand. Nor did Meiré and Meiré want to know anything. No one ever asked, How far along are you? Or while we worked: What on earth is that? That was good for the work, which Dornbracht paid for without any guarantee of its value. In the end, a good many freakish things were created. I already saw Raf Simon’s fashion collection at a show in Paris: jet-black bath sheets covered with small, sown-on Heavy Metal details and studs, along with a jet-black sound system playing Heavy Metal music, and
photographs of beautifully tattooed, young man wearing motorcycle helmets. Here and there, Dornbracht’s clients did a double take – but he and his wife enjoyed themselves…
DD: So there wasn’t any underlying obligation to create something that really would function as advertising material?
RL: Well, of course. We do live in capitalism – and Meiré and Meiré is, after all, one of the top-earning advertising firms. It was all about trying to create a different kind of image, and having the kind of success that, say, Levis has with its jeans fleet and small stores. Over the last six years, they’ve made a complete turnaround with their image – and it really works.
DD: What still interests me is something directly related to that: how do the different survival and marketing strategies function, in the case of someone who works as a musician on the one side, and makes gallery-oriented work on the other. Does that have an effect on…
RL: …on one’s bank account?
DD: Yes, on the bank account – but also on what one actually does, and on how one feels whenconfronting one’s own product. The music that people might listen to while traveling, which connects them to their personal memories, is one thing; a collector’s item that goes on the shelf, or on a wall, is something else. Regarding the reception, or one’s own production, aren’t there many different, related references to be considered, including the financial as well as trade-related and emotional references? It would interest me to know, in every respect, how these two worlds relate to one another…
RL: My gallerist abandoned the idea of ever making money on my work ages ago. Now we have a different relationship: he likes what I do, and with his limited knowledge of music, he somehow values my work. In the end, he knows that when I have an exhibition, I’m filling the slot for another artist, someone who paints or photographs, and whose works really would sell. Nevertheless, he allows me the space and time for my work. On the art market, I’m as good as nonexistent at the moment. Of course, you do find collectors or museums that buy an installation now and then, which happens so rarely! Carsten Nicolai, who I know well, sold many of his works; he moves on a completely
different creative plain, though. But I like working this way. In the past, I sold many things; but ever since I started making only wall pieces, and setting up small monitors or screens, that doesn’t happen much. Now I don’t worry about it. Many artists who make video installation also hang a few images on the wall in the adjoining room, as a kind of surrogate exhibition, where the pieces can be bought. I never make sub-products.
DD: What is, in fact, your relationship to the product?
RL: As a product, I like the CD because it’s an industrial product and relatively inexpensive. Everyone can buy and use CDs, unlike artworks, which only a few can afford. I like the idea of never knowing what happens with my music, where it vanishes to, or whether it amuses people. At concerts, we also get feedback. For example, someone might tell us: Your music helped me survive the winter – or: Your music was like listening to the soundtrack of my past love. Reactions like those are great. I like that. I think of babies learning to walk, before vanishing as adults who go their own way. That’s why I will always prefer music over art.
Question from the audience: You said that you don’t have a rehearsal room or studio. Does this mean that all of your concerts are freely improvised?
RL: It depends. At times we play a conventional set: with drums and bass. Ronald plays the drums and electronics; Stefan the bass, but also the playstation and sequencer, and I have a computer. In this line-up we play pieces in the same version as heard on the LPs, even though the pieces change over the years. Then we have concert situations in which we do improvise, when I play something new that my two colleagues don’t know, or never heard before, and they react to it. Another variation is pure electronics: that’s when the concert really is totally improvised and unplanned. That’s something Stefan initiates. I prefer to rehearse, and to have a certain degree of security. When you improvise, you can fall into a hole that lasts 5 or 10 minutes and have no idea how the piece should go on or develop. In a band, you always have a structure that functions like a safety net. But when I
lose my way alone, no one can help me – that’s the big difference. Just the same, I like the challenge of standing onstage. We gave up the rehearsal room, but we still rehearse once a year, mostly for the sound check on the stage. I use an IBook with live software, a MPC 1000, and a midi cable that connects my MPC to the Norton micro-modular – a modular synthesizer that can be programmed through the computer: a small box similar to a modular synthesizer by Moog. It’s a fascinating device for researching sounds with. But it’s nothing special. These are all standard industrial products and not really exclusive tips…
Question from the audience: How do you record your LPs? Do you meet in the studio with your notebooks, and each of you just starts?
RL: Exactly. For the first LP that we recorded together in 1995, Ronald and Stefan didn’t know each other. I met Stefan at a «Kreidler» concert. I liked what he did, and I told him that I would contact him if anything was happening in Berlin. Then we had the chance to make an LP, and he came. Ronald and Stefan first met in the studio, and they got along fine. It was a stroke of luck: we recorded the first LP in two days. Itworks in other ways, too, like when we send each other tapes or CDs, and react to each other’s selections. But we usually develop the pieces in the studio. Ronald has an old but easy to work Yamaha sampler. He uses it to cut samples from every possible source, and later these serve as the main themes for pieces.
DD: Didn’t your band come together for the opening of your first exhibition? That was in the «White Elephant» Gallery, and the exhibition was called «to rococo rot» then. Am I right?
RL: That’s correct. The gallerist is a big music fan, and the exhibition was supposed to be called «to rococo rot». For the show, we made an LP that resembled a jazz LP: the names of the jazz musicians and the LP’s title appear in large print on the cover. So people thought «to rococo rot» was the band’s name. We tried to correct that misunderstanding during our first interviews; but after a while we gave up, and now it really is the band’s name.
DD: And the music? Was it played at the exhibition opening?
RL: It was actually a different product altogether,
not meant to refer directly to the exhibition. It was more of a parallel project.
DD: What was there to see?
RL: Unfortunately, everything is poorly documented. In the gallery, you saw turntables with all kinds of LPs, even those we produced ourselves. I attached drill machines to the small rods that hold the LPs in place. I had an Atari computer then, and Cubase – an older sequencing programs – was running on it. Through an interface, the program controlled all of the drill machines, and I could regulate the speed at which they made the LPs revolve. Naturally the sound of the LPs was heard all throughout the space, and there was also a mild interference between the different turntables.