Interview with Thomas Ankersmit
For modular synth virtuoso Thomas Ankersmit, the live experience always takes priority
Berlin Kreuzberg, November of 2011. Andy Graydon and I are about to film an interview with Thomas Ankersmit as well as a live performance in his studio. We enter a typical Berlin backyard with its confounding combination of industrial flair and inviting red-brick homeliness, then mount a few stairs to the apartment, which, used to be occupied by mastering engineer and sound artist Rashad Becker before. After we've entered and put down our bags, the first thing I notice is how empty the space is. There's a small kitchen to the left, where Thomas will prepare hot black tea to warm us up from the cold outside, and a table to the right. In the back: a bed and a few shelves with records and books. A small passage leads to a second, smaller room which sports Ankersmit's Serge modular, the instrument he has made his exclusive focal point after many years oscillating between the sax and the synth. Other than that, however, you can almost sense the space surrounding you, waiting to be filled with sound, signals, ideas. Perhaps one of the reasons for the absence of standard furnishing, I think to myself, is that Ankersmit is so rarely home. For the past decade, after all, he has travelled from one concert to the next, from club gigs to festival appearances, from Europe to the States, where he has found one of his most important collaborators in indefatigable drone master Phil Niblock. With so much time spent on the road, the impetus for developing studio documentations of his work has remained feeble. This may also explain why, contrary to many of his peers in the improv community, he has eschewed building up a vast discography. Instead, it has remained puny compared to his strong standing in the scene, and today includes a mere three entries: An early split with Jim O'Rourke, a widely praised live recording on Ash International (Live in Utrecht) as well as 2011 collaboration with congenial creative sparring partner Valerio Tricoli, Forma II. Although he has just released his new album Figueroa Terrace on Touch - a document of recent work on the "Black Serge System" at CalArts in Los Angeles - it seems unlikely that the future will see a splurge of recordings. To experience his work, as he points out in this interview, you will have to go out and see him perform live, to witness the music being born in the moment, the space. Perhaps that's only for the better: Thomas Ankersmit's apartment may be empty, but his mind is filled with memories.
Did you have a studio before this one?
I’ve always just had a home studio like this one. I don't need much space, although this place is actually very big, but empty! I'm not a collector of anything. I just have a computer, some speakers, a mixer, two analogue synthesizers.
Do your ideas develop in the studio?
In part, but also during shows and from reading and such. My studio setup is basically the same as my live setup. I just unpack it and then it's the way it is here. I do prepare raw material for live shows in the studio, both in terms of designing synthesizer patches and recording chunks of audio material. I try to play the synthesizer every day even if it’s just to experiment and mess around. I'll often record sound fragments in the studio to then cut-up and process them in performance, combined with live synthesis. Or I'll record more specifically designed parts for compositions and use them for records ... I mean, I've been playing in public since 1998, when I had my first gig in Amsterdam. But my first CD only came out in 2010. That's to say my first proper CD - I made a mini-CD-R around 2001, but that was just fifteen minutes of saxophone playing. Then there was a split LP with Jim O'Rourke and then there was nothing for five years. So basically, for me the studio has been more of a rehearsal space. I’m really quite new to the idea of completing a piece of music in the studio.
So is performing live and producing an album one and the same process to you – or do you actually sit down specifically with the intention of releasing something?
Because I’ve always focused on live performance and not so much on recording, for me the studio has been more of a place for experimentation where the results are live shows, instead of records. But that’s been changing a little in recent years. For example, most of the raw material for Forma II, the CD with Valerio Tricoli on PAN, originated from this set-up. And some of it was recorded specifically for the album, where one of us would say we need more of this or more of that and then I'd record for a day and then we'd have more building blocks. In terms of experimentation, I generally create a new Pro Tools session each month and that becomes a kind of notepad. Sometimes, with the Serge, I'll stumble upon some very unstable sounds that I like, but that I wouldn’t be able to reproduce, so I'll just hit the record button to capture it and try to sustain it for a while ... Even if I try to patch up the synth the same way at a later stage, I know that particular sound might disappear. With the way I use the synth, a lot of it is quite unpredictable. I frequently don't really know what's going to happen. Often though, these very fine, complex textures appear and those are frequently the sounds I’m most interested in.
Was there a change in approach after that first CD?
You mean after Forma II? I guess so. I am a little more comfortable with recording and making tracks these days. If someone were to ask me to contribute a piece to a record, I'd be more likely to say yes than in the past, in part just to have a reason to finish something. Just to have a deadline.
Why did that album take you so long, then? Was it because it was becoming more difficult the more you were postponing it?
Yeah, it's a classic thing I suppose. If you think about something for ten years, it becomes this enormous project in your mind. Also, I never had anything specifically against CDs, but I was never excited about the prospect either. Part of my thinking was that the whole process of making a CD starts when the music is finished. And when the music is finished, instead of going through what I imagined would be quite a painful process of having it released, I'd think to myself: Why don't I just go out and play more music (laughs). It simply didn't happen. In the past decade, the death of the CD and the death of recorded music has been on so many people’s minds. And everybody had been complaining about it, about how CDs don't sell and how it's such a hassle. And I figured that it didn't really seem necessary. I think a lot of people thought that if you made lots of records, it would put you in the picture and people would call you more often about gigs ... So on top of all that, I had this perfectionist ideal and every year it would become a bigger deal. It was a good thing that Mike Harding of Touch/Ash International pushed me to have him publish Live in Utrecht, which I didn't really intend to be a CD, but I'm glad it got to be one in the end. And I'm happy with the way it happened. It's been a lot more rewarding than I thought it would be.
Has the release added anything specific to your approach of preparing materials?
I do think that my way of working has become a little more more effective, that I'm not just switching on the machines and playing around. For example, this one instrument [points to the Serge Modular], I've only had it since 2006, so that's seven years ago. And I'm only just starting to feel that I know my way around the thing and that I can realize some of its potential. I've also switched instruments a few times. I started playing the saxophone in 1998 and the computer and modular synthesis came in around 2000 and I've had three different synthesizer set-ups. So I switched analog synthesizers twice and each time, it took me a couple of years to become comfortable with it ... and then to become uncomfortable with it again (laughs) and to get rid of it.
What made you want to start playing the modular in the first place?
When I started messing around with sound/music as a teenager, my first instruments were primitive electronic devices; a discarded radio, pieces of an electric guitar and an amp - both built by my dad when he was younger - a contact mic, stuff like that. The saxophone came a few years later. So I’ve always been interested in electronic sound; in particular the “hidden noises” of analogue equipment, and the physicality of playing with these machines; putting my fingertips directly on the printed circuitry to make feedback sounds for example. Around 2000 I got my first Mac that was capable of running audio programs, and I also discovered the Doepfer modular synth which was one of the first of a new generation of affordable modular systems. Maybe I thought of it as more tactile than the computer, but more sophisticated than the broken radio?
Then in 2003 I had the chance to buy an old EMS Synthi A, which I like very much but it never really suited what I wanted to do. In 2005 I discovered the Serge and that still seems ideal to me. I’ve also stopped playing the saxophone for the time being so I’m really focusing on electronic music now.
What makes the sounds and sound creation possibilities of the modular so appealing to you?
Well, I hate most modular synth sounds, and I hate most synthesizer music (laughs). Same goes for the saxophone by the way. So it’s not that I find their sound inherently appealing. The Serge modular in particular is like a construction toy; you can build almost anything with it. I’m interested in the analogue “glitches” and distortions in the signal; internal feedback, little bursts of sound impacting on other sounds, things like that. I like the Serge in particular because it’s designed to be extremely open and flexible - anything can be patched to anything else - and it’s full of unusual sound-processing modules. But at the same time it’s really precise and high-end. So you can have really fine control over your sounds if you want to, or you can make all hell break loose, and you can really “dial in” the impurities.
The Serge was invented in the early 70s at CalArts, an art and music school north of LA. They have a really powerful and heavily customized early Serge there. That’s actually where I first discovered the instrument several years ago, when I was visiting their studios as a guest. In the winter of 2011/2012 they invited me back to record with the instrument, which had just been restored by Kevin Fortune, who used to work with Serge, so it was in really great condition again. The piece I made there, “Figueroa Terrace”, will be released by Touch in early 2014. It’s a quadraphonic piece originally, mixed to stereo for the release.
One of the most important things to me is that, unlike the Moog and Arp instruments for example, the Serge was really designed with sound-experimentation in mind. It’s also really dense and compact: I have something like forty modules that I can take as airplane carry-on. There’s a really nerdy book by someone called Mark Vail that has interviews with Serge Tcherepnin, the inventor, and Rex Probe, who builds the Serge synthesizers these days. Serge was talking about how he started making music by messing around with broken radios, and how he really appreciated distortion and fuzz circuitry etc. He was also close to Maryanne Amacher, whom I spent a fair amount of time with and whose work has always really impressed me. I’ve never met Serge but he always sounded like a very interesting guy.
Tell me a bit about the learning curve with regards to performing on the modular, please. How did you gradually go from your early approaches to your current mode of performing?
I still have a long way to go. I guess some common paradigms for playing a modular synth are to either rely on continuous drones and slowly tweak the controls, or to sequence things so that the instrument plays somewhat automatically, or to play it similar to a piano, triggering sounds from a keyboard, which usually leads to a kind of tonal “plink plonk” result. None of these things are what I really want to do though. I’m more interested in a kind of sound-collage approach, and in how the sound behaves in the performance space and inside the ears of the listener.
I’d like to be able to really shape many different aspects of a sound in real time, and build these dense clusters of events, and make them come and go as I please. But that’s easier said than done. I mean, that’s stuff Varèse was already fantasizing about almost a hundred years ago. And there’s a tension between wanting to sculpt the sound very precisely and wanting to do it all in real-time. Like I said earlier, the kind of sounds I’m most interested in are happening at the edge of control; the “dirt” in the signal. You can’t really control that dirt. An obvious limitation of hardware is that there’s limits on how many instances you have of an oscillator, for example. Also, the knob settings and the way the cables are patched for one sound might all have to be changed to make another sound. I use a matrix mixer to switch between patches and I built a little interface that basically lets me circuit-bend the machine without opening it up. So those are ways to mess with the sound more dynamically.
Are you recording all of your performances?
No, none of them, actually (laughs).
Why was something like Live in Utrecht recorded, then?
It just happened. Sometimes the sound person will record your gig and then give you the data afterwards. And to be honest, I usually don't listen to those (laughs). But I did listen to this one and I liked it, so I gave it to a handful of people to show them what I was doing. But that was it.
There is of course this whole dualism about improvisation/composition, intuition/intent, live/recording ... You don't see these terms as being mutually exclusive, do you?
No, to me they're just means to an end. A lot of what I do is based on improvisation, just as a method of generating something. I find it easier to generate a sense of energy or tension by playing in real-time as opposed to constructing it on a Pro Tools timeline. Valerio Tricoli, meanwhile, is very good at that - constructing something edit-by-edit that has a real sense of development.
It seems to be quite the norm these days for people in improvisation to perform in different group constellations a lot. You, meanwhile, seem to prefer the solo situation on stage – or at least, it seems to be the norm, not the exception. How come?
I just always thought it worked out better that way. I think group improvisation can be amazing, and it can have qualities that you don’t find anywhere else. I still go to a lot of improv shows. But for what I want to do, just in terms of the music I’m imagining, I think the chances of success are (slightly) higher working in a solo electroacoustic medium.
Is there a sense of structure before you start playing live?
I’ll usually know how I want to start and I'll have an idea of how to end, but I don't want to choreograph the whole thing. A big part of playing live is interacting with how the instruments and the room acoustics are behaving; finding things in the moment. So I’ll usually have a rough idea of where to go beforehand, but I often end up deviating from it.
What will you usually start with?
Ultimately I look for some kind of intensity and tension in the sound, ideally through a detailed live-assemblage of sound. I like to start concerts seemingly in the middle of the music; starting at a point of high intensity out of nowhere for example. But it can also be more process-based; feeling my way through the first few minutes and having a form emerge from that.
In the studio, how I start will depend on whether I’m trying to record a particular sound, or “rehearsing” something I want to fine-tune, or trying out a new patch or new hardware. For example, this little box here (taps on it), I've only had it for a couple of months. It's a matrix mixer, basically. I use it with the synthesizer and it allows you to switch any of these eight inputs to any of these eight outputs at the push of a button. It's made a big change, actually; a rare case of buying a piece of gear and it’s actually helpful (laughs). It allows you to jump-cut between different sounds. The synth can become a real patchchord jungle and a lot of the buttons end up hidden behind the cables. So this makes it a lot easier to play it like an instrument, to shape the music spontaneously. For me, that's always been a big hurdle.
Why has it been a hurdle?
Because I really want to play music. I suppose I think of myself as an instrumentalist. I've invested in this thing and I want to play it like an instrument. It's not just a studio device, it's not just for endlessly processing things. But as soon as you feed an oscillator electricity, it oscillates; you simply have a sustained sound. So to me, the technical but also the artistic question is how do you articulate sounds, how do you place them in time and take them away again. I don't want to just make drone music and I’m not so interested in a kind of automated composition either. I don't use sequencers or self-repeating triggers much. I almost think of the synth as a percussion instrument; I've always played it in a very hands-on way, mostly triggering sounds manually.
When you say you want to play the synthesizer like an instrument, does that mean you want a certain fluency in the way you interact with the equipment?
Is that one of the reasons why you decided against the typical keyboard as an interface?
The black and white keyboard is pretty irrelevant for what I want to do, I think. I can’t play the piano anyway, so it’s also not like I’m used to that interface and want to hold on to it. One of the things I like about the Serge and Buchla synths is that those guys always refused to produce a piano-style keyboard. They were against the idea of playing a new electronic instrument that could produce all kinds of new sounds and shapes with an interface built for the conventions of the piano. In my case, it’s more a matter of designing several sound-streams, several sub-patches, that I can combine and switch on and off in various ways. I use manual switches and faders, and different kinds of control voltages to shape the dynamics, to make things come and go. These CVs are triggered by switches, or envelope-following a contact mic, etc. You certainly could play the Serge or any other modular with a piano-style keyboard and get a very predictable, organ/piano-like response, but it’s not what I’m interested in. In terms of documenting my patches, I’ve largely given up on that; I just work from memory.
In an interview I did with Markus Reuter, he stressed the importance of using the volume pedal, of being able to stop the music at any point. Is that something you can relate to?
Yeah, sure. I recently started using one again. Where to stop and start is such a crucial part of music. A lot of experimental music involves feedback circuits, loops, or oscillators which, when switched on, just keep running. A lot of the music that inspired me when I started was free jazz stuff for saxophone, people like Evan Parker or Peter Brötzmann, where every sound is a physical act on the part of the performer. This as opposed to switching on some boxes where you can just sit there and tweak a control occasionally. It's sort of a paradox, but the only instrument I really did that with, where I’d set something very simple in motion and just observe it, is the saxophone.
Why is that?
Maybe because on the saxophone, it's a very conscious decision. When it comes to sustained-sound music, the recordings and the performances that made the biggest impression on me were the ones that were played on acoustic instruments, like Charlemagne Palestine on the piano, Tony Conrad on the violin or La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela singing. To play a sustained sound on the saxophone was just physically more gratifying than switching on the oscillators and then sitting back.
There is also an obvious end to the process, simply due to depletion of physical strength.
Yes, that's true. And when it comes to that kind of thing, I was also interested in a kind of trance state. Because for me, sustained sound is closely related to ending up in a kind of different state ... Playing the saxophone with circular breathing, it becomes this cyclical, almost self-sustaining process. You don't have to pay attention to it anymore; like breathing itself maybe. But it becomes physically quite intense nonetheless, it really takes over your body, if that is what your body is focused on at the moment. And then using your voice simultaneously with the saxophone sound ... you don't really hear the voice, but you hear a kind of acoustic overdrive, like on a guitar amp. It just creates this complex roar of sound.
Does it matter that you've known the saxophone longer than any other instrument?
Not so much. I know a lot more about synthesis and electronic music ideas than about the saxophone I think. I basically know nothing about the saxophone. I’d been playing it in my own way since the late 90s, but I never had any lessons or anything.
I guess it fits your description of you playing the synth more like an instrument in a traditional way than the saxophone.
Phill Niblock and I did a gig in Bern a few years ago, where I played electronics and sax. It turned out that the festival organiser was a virtuoso saxophonist and the sound person also, and a number of people in the audience as well. They had a saxophone quartet together. We all had dinner together afterwards and they asked me: So what was this note that you were playing? But I didn't know what the note was. I know most of the keys on the saxophone by their frequency in Hertz, so I could tell you where to find 138 Hz or whatever, but not where the F# is. So I said it's the one where this valve closes and you open this one ... And they said: That one doesn't exist! (laughter) And I said: Well, it's 307 Hz (laughs). So I probably know a handful of things that not many people are interested in and I don't know all the other stuff basically.
Do you believe in the notion that ignorance can be bliss in many respects when it comes to music?
Uhm, no. I do think that you can spend a lot of time learning things in a conservatory for example that you might want to move away from later. But that’s more a matter of being trained in something and then realizing later on that you don’t want to go that route. I’ve run into a lot of conservatory-trained musicians over the years who say I’m lucky I never studied music, because they had their virtuoso jazz skills to deal with for example, that maybe they felt were blocking them from developing their own sound. I think that as long as you have your own ideas on what you want to do and you pursue those, you can study as much as you like.
I noticed that you don't have many records in your apartment. Does that mean that listening to other artists is not that important for your own work per se?
It is; but mostly live. Growing up in a small city, I bought a lot of records in my teens; that was the only way to hear underground music. I largely stopped buying records when I moved to New York and then to Berlin; I couldn’t bring my records with me and there was so much going on in terms of live music. If I play at a festival I’ll usually try to stay for a few days to hear the other people too. Hearing live shows can be a really direct inspiration for me. It doesn’t have to be closely related either; I can hear an orchestral piece and then want to go home and play the synthesizer.
So there's no specific focus on people doing the same thing, like Thomas Lehn.
No. I mean, I like Thomas a lot, and I like his music a lot. But the inspiration is rarely that close to home. It can also be a vocalist or the sound design for a movie or the lighting to a dance piece or whatever, that makes me want to try something out.
What about spaces as a trigger for music?
I’ve always been interested in environments that have a strong acoustic “character”; like a distinct echo or a very long reverb. Like the Teufelsberg for example, which is a complex of abandoned radio-antenna domes on the edge of Berlin that the Western intelligence agencies used to run in the Cold War. I've been sneaking into the place since around 2000, mostly just to record there by myself. One of the domes has literally something like twenty seconds of reverb and also very directional echoes. The sound reflections change very dramatically depending on where you stand. So if you're standing in the middle for example, you can hear yourself whispering into your own ear. If you then take a few steps your voice will scatter all over the place and it becomes this huge cloud of reverb. A place like that allows you to magnify acoustic sounds and turn them into this complex pattern, where the immediate past is still there, overlapping with the present. So I really enjoy playing in places that have strong sound reflections for example. In terms of more conventional venues I like to tune the oscillators to resonant frequencies of parts of the building for example, or to create standing waves in the sound, so that the sound changes when the listener moves his head a little; creating different acoustic perspectives.
Do you enjoy being at the cusp between chaos and control like this? Or is that interpretation too far-fetched?
No, that makes sense. The balance between turbulence and noise on the one hand and a more conscious structuring and sound design is important to me. That's something I see in my instrumental set-up too. To me the computer kind of represents control and the “known”; it has this sense of precision and predictability, and it allows you to make these micro-changes and cuts in the sound. But then, on the other hand, you have the much more surprising, risky analogue electronics. I like using both parts of that divide.
Do you still, as mentioned in a previous interview, find it hard to get excited by your own work?
(laughs) Well ... For me, it's one thing to go out and play a gig and say this is where things are at the moment, this is something that I feel comfortable sharing. It's something that happens once, a bunch of people will hear it and then it's over and everybody goes home and there's just a memory of it. For me, there's a difference between doing an event like that or, hypothetically, capturing something forever, a kind of tension ...
Maybe the reason why I don't listen to records all that much is that I think actual experience is the most exciting thing there is. I’m also not a big consumer of fiction books or movies. If I can choose between doing something, even if it might be quite mundane or listening to some kind of story, I would almost always prefer doing something. There's something about actual presence, about a group of people being in the same room and one of them making music in front of everybody else. And he or she can fuck up, or it can be amazing, or it can fall flat and the audience is there, right there in the same space; there's literally nothing like that. I always found it hard to make it audible what I want to hear. So I'll be playing and I'll think this is okay and this is kind of interesting. But it's never what I had in mind. After ten years, I've finally accepted that.
Interview with Thomas Ankersmit by Tobias Fischer. Conducted in person in November 2011 and by email 2013/2014.