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The works of Merzbow aka Masami Akita, Christian Fennesz, and Antenna Farm represents electronic music at its most texturally diverse. Those who believe noise begins and ends with Merzbow's 'Pulse Demon' album require obvious enlightenment. Noise and electronic music over the years has offered so much more than the need to be extreme for its own sake. Electronica in even its most formless state is becoming as 'musical' as traditional structures as it reaches out to impinge on the listeners' inner emotions. Electronica is about environment and spirituality, of space and place and process over technique.
I talked to Merzbow, Fennesz and Antenna Farm to discover their approaches to digitised signal manipulation and the insights they offer
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Japan's Merzbow is easily the most prolific electronics artiste in history with over a hundred releases to his name. But in his case quantity comes with quality. With new releases out every month, the most recent being splits with Jazzkammer, Shora and Napalmed and a two new full lengths 'Dharma' and 'Frog', I asked him if he believed everything he did had to be put on CD.
> "Yes I do. The CD 'Hard Lovin' Man' from a Finnish label contains live performances I played at Helsinki last winter. A studio-recorded CD 'Dharma' was released from American label Hydrahead. A new 12' album 'Frog' from another American label Misanthropicagenda, contains sound of many kinds of frogs. I displayed this album and related images at Yokohama Triennale, International Contemporary Art exhibition. There are also more CDs in progress. Two CDs will come out soon, including 'Ikebukuro Dada' from American label Mad Monkey Records and 'Amlux' from Important Records. 'Ikebukuro Dada"' is based on the work I composed for an art exhibition called 'Mutations For City' held in Bordeaux, France. 'Amlux' contains a cover of Toru Takemitsu. These are concept albums about city. I've just finished recording two new albums. 'Puroland', which will be released from Norway, contains tunes I often played at shows this year as well as a tune influenced by 70's German hard rock band Jane and a cover of the Monkeys. The other 'Taste of Merzbow' will come out from Austrian label Mego. This is a concept album about gourmet, and each tune has recipe."

What do you think about your work and what's your favourite from the last year?
> "My favourite is 'Collapse 12 Floors' CD from Ohm, Norway. Since I listen to my CDs many times during editing, I don't often listen to them after completion."

Merzbow has strived to develop, transform or mutate his music over the years, sometimes delving into the latest techniques but most often than not leading the way through innovation. If you want to call it a trend, the current big thing in electronica is laptop computer music where Apple's Powerbook and the Max MSP software has attained almost religious adulation. Austrian Christian Fennesz's 'Endless Summer' album could be classified as a lap top classic but it is much more than that. Fennesz may not yet have the pulling power of Merzbow, but 'Endless Summer' is an album whose beauty and emotive power dominates almost everything that has been released last year.

I asked Fennesz how important the album was to him?
> "I´m not getting so much attention here in Austria. People still think it's weird music for weird people and all that. Same with Germany. There are nice reviews from all over the world though and I´m really pleased to see that many people seemed to understand what I was trying to do on this record. Some don´t however, especially those who focus too much on the technological aspects of the record. 'Endless Summer' was a very important record for me. I was really trying to do "more" than making just another computer music CD. Please don´t get me wrong, I like computer music, but I wanted to make a record that has some kind of ( sorry, I have to say it) "spiritual" energy which is not related to a certain genre. Something that has not necessarily to be seen as a record made with computers. Technology, software, computers and all that, should not be the first things that come to your mind when you listen to it. Technology is fascinating and important, but in the end it's all just tools that should not be taken too serious I think. If people like 'Endless Summer'. then they hopefully like the musical energy that I was trying to create. There was a great review in which each track was compared to a film. All of those films are favourites of mine. I don´t know if 'Endless Summer' will make computer music more popular. Actually I can´t see any major step forward in my career at the moment."

Fennesz is referring to the laptop phenomena. It's almost as if critics will only give priority to musicians who know how to switch on a Powerbook.
> "I think I will always be fascinated by the latest technology, but I also see its limitations for my music. A computer patch can definitely not transport any musical energy that I want . This might be perfect for many other artists in this field, just because it does NOT transport any values, but for me it isn´t. I use the computer as a tool-box, as a recording device, or like an instrument. I also like to use other instruments, like guitars or pianos, etc. The computer gives me more flexibility and possibilities in production, but in the end it's a tool. I really think that one reason why journalists and musicologists keep building up this weird, over-rated view on computers/laptops is the fact that they don´t understand them. There is this almost religious attitude. I find it very funny."

How did Merzbow feel about his music reflecting current trends?
> "I think they always reflect atmosphere of time. I use only computers to compose, but musical orientation has not changed. What has changed is time allocation in the process of composition."

And people like Bernhardt Gunther, Fennesz or Kid 606?
> "Although they all use laptops, I don't feel like calling them laptop music in all. They are just creating their own music. People in Mego were the first to start using laptops strategically. I was influenced by them a lot, and often play at concerts with them."

If to these musicians, computers/laptops are the means to an end, then the most important element that supersedes technology is process, the actual putting together of pieces and the manipulation of sound sources to evoke emotions and moods. London's Antenna Farm epitomise that through the release of their 'Early Mess' compilation CD and their collaboration CD with Main.

I asked Alastair Leslie (Antenna Farm is the duo of himself and Fat Cat Records' Dave Howell) what constitutes the essence of an Antenna Farm piece.
> "I really don't know. Hopefully that we've made a few good tracks along the way, done a few good gigs, and hopefully that we haven't gone up our own arse yet. We're just trying to push ourselves and find our own way through the mess. A lot of our material is recorded outside the computer (location recordings, etc.) and then pushed around inside it, taken out again, reworked. We also use sources like guitar, radio, turntables, location recording, contact mics, etc. We're currently getting a little bored of spending so much time staring into the screen, and both want to get back to some more hands-on stuff."

Are the moods on 'Early Mess' evoked through experiences or dreams?
> "The moods come from a mix of improvising, bad / shabby musicianship, the influence of the hugely varied sounds and music we are surrounded by, and a wide range of different experiences and ideas we're interested in - architecture, the technology of modern warfare, hacking and ham radio stuff, drugged states, explorations through our immediate environment, an interest in more chaotic / non-linear states and patterns, industrial processes, other factors I can't think of right now."

What part did your urban environment play in influencing 'Early Mess'?
> "We have both been interested in structure for a long time. Some of those tracks include the use of location recordings from various environments. I think we're also pretty influenced by the kind of environment we live in. Personally, the regular experience of walking back home from the studio down Brixton Hill, past various prostitutes, pimps, drunks, fights, etc., stoned and paranoid at 2am, is a bit of an influence."

Your collaboration with Main must have really been testing since Main is so rigidly minimalist while Antenna Farm are more textural and loud.
> "Well, we always try to shift around and this project was something we both really wanted to do to challenge ourselves to see how we could work under different conditions and collaborating with and learning from someone who works in a very different way. We actually hadn't been working together for that long before the project came about, and had never worked with Robert Hampson (Main) before. The audio was mostly generated quickly over the 3/4 days we were working at the studio. All of the material was played live, and was constructed purely from improvised sessions. It is overall a much more restrained and sparse release than 'Early Mess', which is a bit more jolting and full-on in places, and maybe had a greater sense of diversity. There is more of a singular dynamic throughout the Main CD, but we think the two CDs complement each other fairly well. It's not like listening to two obviously similar releases. It was a pleasure working with Rob, a really good learning experience for us."

How important is playing live as part of the creative processes for AF, as on the CD with Main?
> "It was something that was totally vital to the Main release. Elsewhere, playing live is something we don't always enjoy, because it doesn't always work. We set ourselves the position of using live gigs as a space to improvise together, it's pretty loose and unplanned, so that something new is always created. Sometimes it works really well, and sometimes we just fall flat on our faces. Our recordings are nearly always made up in some part from live material - often we just grab little sections or bits we've recorded of us jamming together, which are then shaped and multi tracked. We like to process sound separately then get together and push the sounds around live until something starts to work, using recordings from these live sessions we will often build sequences up by layering separate unrelated sections of sound. A lot of the material on 'Early Mess' was recorded in this way."

Tell us something about the technical processes that allowed the collaboration with Main to work?
> "The Main collaboration worked like this: we arrived at the Extrapool studio in Nijmegen, Holland with empty Powerbooks. Each day went out and grabbed some minidisc recordings from the town of Nijmegen and its surroundings, brought them back, spent hours and hours processing them individually, and then at the end of the day sat down, let the DAT run and just played together with what we'd been working on, and with a couple of guitars, objects amplified via contact mics and some FX. We ended up with about three and a half hours of music at the end of the week. When we got back home, we lifted the best sections from this, and just bolted these together in Logic. There were a couple of sections where we overlaid tracks, but we didn't do any additional processing, so what you hear is exactly how it sounds on those original DATs."

What did Main make you think about in your own music?
> "Especially in terms of dynamics and the use of space / silence, and also timing."

Whatever the final result is do you feel electronic music has to feel 'musical'?
> "No. But then how do you define what is 'musical'?"

Environment and response to place through noise also plays a large part in the live performances of Merzbow, who has contributed music to the work of Performance artists.
> "Not only the noises, my works may unconsciously reflect the chaotic mood of the entire city of Tokyo. However, I've never been interested in or influenced by the city's noises themselves. Composition is rather a creative activity. When filling the performance space with sound, the audience can be regarded a part of it. Since the audience is a sort of raw material, the condition of the space naturally changes along with the kind and size of the audience. Not only audience, of course, there are other important elements including the quality of audio equipment and reverberation in the space. I find some kinds of drawings and artists exciting once in a while. For example, I was impressed by Kiyoshi Yamashita recently. He was a kind of artist of outsider art, and lived a life of vagabond. I read his books of travel. I played with a VJ in my recent show, where he projected a TV drama about Kiyoshi onto the screen."

Are you still interested in the work of Dadaist Kurt Schwitters?
> "I held a concert at a museum in Tokyo, where I accompanied the reading of Kurt Schwitters's poems. Also, when I went to Norway this summer, I happened to get a chance to visit the small hut where Kurt Schwitters spent his last years. New relationship with Schwitters has been established in this unexpected way, resulting from borrowing the title of his creation."

Like Merzbow's responses to place and time, Fennesz's 'Endless Summer' which shares it's title with a Beach Boys album, is inspired by memories and evokes halcyon days.
> "There is a certain mood. It's very simple, but almost impossible to describe. It's probably all about simplicity, memories, happiness and loss. The Beach Boys influence is actually not as big as people might think. Of course Brian Wilson is a hero for me, but in the end it's just the title that makes the relation to the Beach Boys. However, Brian Wilson reached a level in his best songs, that for me will always be the perfect example of intelligent and spiritual pop composing. I once sampled half of a second from the vibraphone in the Beach Boys´ 'Until I Die'. David Toop from 'The Wire' magazine got me."

Were the moods on 'Endless Summer' evoked through experiences and dreams?
> "They were."

Despite it's deceptively simple lounge/ambient qualities 'Endless Summer' offers more. If the listener is inclined to analyse it, the album demands intense concentration, because there is so much happening on different levels and layers.
For a start, do you take your time composing your electronics in the same way as traditional music?
> "Yes. For me there is no difference. I don´t want to give any statement regarding "how" something has to be. Everything has to be different! I know what I am interested in when I create my music, and that also includes the need to go into details and work on a production for quite a long time. Other people have different approaches and that's fine. Masami Akita is actually one of my all time favourites, I really love his work. I love Merzbow. He has got a vision and the power to be able to chum his records out in that way."

So you've started noticing limitations in computer music?
> "Oh, many."

If computer music is about programming and sequencing do you believe anyone can produce a good electronic record?
> "I don´t think so. For me, it seems to be a myth that it can be like that. Can anyone who uses a dv camera and 'Final Cut Pro' make good films? is everyone who plays records on a turntable a good DJ?"

Fennesz started off playing in punk bands, before giving it all up for the keyboards and VDU, but how much of that initial learning had filtered into his computer music?
> "Don´t know. I have a history as a music fan, listener, player, so I suppose this must have been an influence."

Alastair and Dave from Antenna Farm had also delved in rock music at some point in their careers.
> Alastair: "I once played in a band at a stanley pool sailing club do as drummer and once guested for the Reverbs in a pub in Stoke on Trent and ran out of steam during "wipe out" "
Dave: "Sang in a rockabilly / psychobilly band just after school; played in a kind of Sonic Youth / Neubauten-inspired group in Bristol in the mid-90's, playing with people like Third Eye Foundation / Crescent / Movietone / etc. Yes, it was an influence just in terms of learning to play and discovering the possibilities of the studio and exploring different sound -sources (junkyard percussion, etc..)"

But for Merzbow, rock music has been more of an influence. Rather than pillage samples as you would expect from a poor dance DJ, he has tried to capture the essence of rock whether it be from the prog rock 70's or the extreme scene of the 90's. His two strongest releases, 'Aqua Necromancer' and '1930' are cases in point where the spirit of rock is extracted from a jumbled yet vibrant collage of loops, tapes, processed samples and 'noise'.
> "I hadn't used cassette tape for a while until the work '1930'. Another difference between this work and others at that time is that phaser effect was applied to it many times. I tried to create a bit of nostalgic atmosphere by reprocessing the taped recording. As a result, it should sound like it contains more sounds than other works at that time. It is something like an artificially compressed sound. I put a flavour of improvised jazz into this work, since it will be released from Tzadik. 'Aquanecromancer', one of the last analogue works, was composed by sampling progressive rock, while 'Door Open 8 AM' was by free jazz. The title 'Aquanecromancer' is based on the fact that the sampled materials were taken from songs in Vandergraaf Generator' s album 'The Aerosol Gray Machine', such as 'Aquarian' and 'Necromancer'. Other artists I used to sample include Patto, Le Orme, Fusoon and Formula 3. I tried to create Southern European atmosphere by using Italian and Spanish progressive rock."

These albums are a far cry from what many regard as the archetypal Merzbow release, 'Pulse Demon'. In what ways have you developed since that album?
> "'Pulse Demon' can be described as the work clearly representing one of the characteristics of my music, and the artwork is my favourite. So, I often use it as sample sound source even now. This work is characterised by being composed with only analogue device including EMS synthesiser, which aren't used anymore. That might be the biggest change."

In fact, 'Pulse Demon' is the archetypal 'noise' record. What do you define as noise?
> "The concept of pure noise is absolute nonsense to me, though I can imagine what it means. By categorising music in the world, it becomes difficult for us to create music which doesn't conform categories. Since noise is originally a non-categorised music, it seems completely strange to talk about things like pure noise. I should have the freedom of introducing anything like rhythms and melodies. I don't perform it in the same way anyone else do, though."

Do you keep in touch with the harsh noise scene?
> "No, I don't."

Are you not tempted by dance music?
> "Not at all."

So what are your basic methods of process at this present time?
> "I've been composing only with computers since I began using laptop. Although the instruments have changed completely, the sound is similar because I still use analogue recordings as material, such as records and my CDs recorded with analogue device."

Are you always recording noises onto tape for later use?
> "I don't see what you mean by "noise", but I often record demo takes for tunes. Especially before a show, I always conduct a rehearsal and have it recorded. When deciding tunes to include in an album, I sometimes choose from the takes. I don't conduct field recording now. I often use records and CDs, which contain sound effects of nature. The sound and structuring are both important. But the most important thing is originality, which allows us to be free from styles of the past. Being always innovative is essential."

Antenna Farm themselves source their sounds as diversely as possible, even techno dance beats.
> "Our favourite method is to use many methods. I think it becomes a little bit boring when you just settle on a reliable, tried and tested method. We basically just started out DJ-ing and chopping up other people's CDs, records, etc. live, and then increasingly processing this and adding our own material, until now where it's virtually all self-generated. Techno dance beats have already done so. But we are very good at camouflaging them!"

How much work goes into producing an Antenna Farm track. I mean, would you like to be as prolific as Merzbow?
> "We always spent a lot of time on everything we've worked on - it takes a while for the sounds to develop, and we are both active in other areas for periods of time. We prefer to live with things for a while and things do evolve at different paces. I'd rather do this than rush into releasing things that we later regret. I've only met Merzbow briefly, he seemed quite nice ."

Do you think you could make an album simply from processing analogue tape recordings of sounds, noises, environmental field recordings?
> "Yes, definitely."

Which was exactly the feeling shared by Christian Fennesz.
> "I did already- 'Hotel Paral.lel'. There is no dsp on this record, even if it's meant to be a "classic of the laptop scene", like they say sometimes."

What's the best advice Antenna Farm and Fennesz could give to up and coming electronic artistes?
> Antenna Farm: "Don't let half-arsed intellectuals, information regurgitators and education relieve you of your sensitivity. Just try and do your own thing, take your own time, follow your own instincts, don't be swayed into doing things in order to impress people or fit in with things."
> Fennesz: "Find your own style. Don´t believe the hype. Listen to many different styles of music. Be open minded. Don´t be boring. Stop reading computer music mailing lists. I think for the major advantage of electronic music is the fact that I can create and produce my music in an independent way. I have the complete control over my productions. That's the big thing for me. I am just trying to focus on my own way. I am not thinking about the relationship that my work has to genres, styles, fashions, or whatever. I just do what I am interested in, but I never think about how my music would work in a certain context."


Equipment
Merzbow: Max MSP; "I am now using one or two Powerbooks to create music. I don't think of
using other musical instruments. Since equipment became small by using Powerbook, I don't see much necessity for adding instruments again. Also in terms of music, I prefer simple sound structure."
Fennesz: fender Stratocaster. nord modular synth. joemeek sc2 compressor. trident channel strip; "I use max/msp, but it seems to want all my time and attention. I want to try Reaktor again, the new version looks good. I have tried Super Collider - it still sounds best to me- but I don´t want to start to study it again."
Antenna Farm: the mixing desk. No particular favourite sound synthesis software.