BL!NDMAN Akenkaai 2, B-1000 Brussels +32 (0)2 201 59 47
 
 

line-up

*matthew wright & eric sleichim*> artistic direction, composition & concept
olga mink > video

BL!NDMAN [drums]
ruben cooman
tom de cock
yves goemaere
hannes nieuwlaet

BL!NDMAN [new strings]
floris uytterhoeven
marieke berendsen
ine kuypers
joyce kuipers

brecht beuselinck, karel marynissen > technicians

TOTEM is a BL!NDMAN-production, coproduced by deSingel – Antwerpen and Kaaitheater Brussels with the support of Canterbury Christ Church University

BL!NDMAN is supported by the Arts Administration of the Ministry of the Flemish Community and the Flemish Community Commission of the Brussels-Capital Region. BL!NDMAN [sax] play Selmer Paris Saxophones. BL!NDMAN [drums] is supported by Muremo, distributor of Bergerault Percusssion Instruments.

TOTEM

This program, conceived by Eric Sleichim & Matt Wright (UK), focuses on the use of turntables. With a video by Olga Mink (NL).

Intensive cooperation between Eric Sleichim and Matthew Wright (UK), composer and DJ, leads to a concert whose unique instrumentation of 8 turntables puts the BL!NDMAN musicians in a new light. With their record decks they create an alienating world that takes this instrument, found mainly on the club scene, into the realm of contemporary classical music. The video artist Olga Mink (NL) is building the totem.

One might describe Totem as an installation in which 8 musicians and 2 composers are taking part and a video artist is creating a thrilling environment. 8 classical trained musicians make use of a rather unusual instrument: the turntable – to create an alienating world that finds itself somewhere between the club scene and contemporary art music. With a live video installation by Olga Mink and an intervention of the two brains behind the program: Eric Sleichim and Matthew Wright. The audience is invited to enter the space and undergo the fascinating sounds and sights of an urban, 21st century experience.

programme

eric sleichim > mass 4 turntables
matthew wright > mixtape zen
matthew wright > contact theater
eric sleichim > strange attractors II (new work)
matthew wright > totem for brussels (new work)
eric sleichim/matthew wright> melting wax

duration: 70’

première > 17 november 2010, deSingel РAntwerpen

****

THE BEAUTY OF THE MECHANICAL
An interview with Eric Sleichim

Percussion quartet BL!NDMAN [drums] and string quartet BL!NDMAN [new strings] both perform in Totem, but what makes this truly exceptional is that they do so on a rather unusual instrument: the turntable. BL!NDMAN has been working with turntables for a few years now. Is this concert the culmination of a long quest?

In BL!NDMAN¬’s early days, when we were still just a sax quartet, we focussed on expanding musical possibilities and enriching textures, primarily proceeding from the instrument itself, by working on alternative sax playing techniques, but also by opening it up in all directions: electronics, tape, and so forth. A couple of years ago we expanded further, into a four-quartet structure (saxophone quartet, percussion quartet, vocal quartet and string quartet) and our quest is still ongoing. Our desire to expand our instrumentarium is a factor here, but a more important motive is a problem I was already wrestling with 20 years ago: how to get the musician out from behind his instrument? Traditionally, musicians more or less hide themselves behind their instruments and behind the score, so that they can perform that score to the best of their ability, from a sort of anonymity. But personally, I often find that approach lacking in interest, not only for the audience but also with regard to the music itself. I want to bring the individuality of the musician to the fore. One of the ways of doing this is to confront him with an instrument he has not yet mastered, or at least, has not yet mastered as well as his own instrument.

In 2006/7 I started thinking about the programme for BL!NDMAN¬’s twentieth anniversary, the programme that eventually became ¬‘20√—20¬’. One of the ideas I came up with was the compilation of a large collection of sound objects, found objects, ¬‘junk¬’ percussion instruments… In addition to this, I also thought of those little cassette decks and little record decks; you know, the ones, the ones with the speaker in the lid. So at first, I started collecting those until, at a certain moment, I saw a work by Matthew Wright, ¬‘Contact Theatre¬’, and that used real turntables. I didn¬’t initially want to work with DJs, because of the whole DJ context, the ¬‘club attitude¬’. But when I heard Matt¬‘s work, I was suddenly tempted for the first time to start using professional turntables.

What fascinated me so much about ‘Contact Theatre’ was its total abstraction. In Matt Wright¬’s hands the turntable became a real tool, something to work with. There is a sort of abstraction of emotion when you are working with that instrument. With a violin, for example, you can accentuate expression by vibrating the string with your finger, a technique we call ¬‘vibrato¬’. Here that sort of musical ¬‘gesture¬’ makes way for more mechanical actions: turning on and off, pressing a button, adjusting the rotation speed. These are clear, objective actions. And that appealed to me enormously in that work.

That set me thinking about how I myself could work with turntables. One of the things that immediately came to mind was an old test LP of my dad¬’s I still had. Philips brought out such records when they released their stereo record deck. Now you need to understand here that the transition from mono to stereo in the living room was a real revolution. A change of tack in the listening experience as radical as that jump from mono to stereo has literally not been heard of since! Anyway, a test LP of sound material was included with those new record decks to demonstrate the potential of stereo. It has clich√© things on it, such as a car driving past, but also tracks with pure sinus tones, which were used to test and adjust the deck. And that gave me an idea: If I could accurately determine the speed of the turntable, then I would be able to get various pitches from such a sinus tone. When you reduce the speed by 50%, the pitch drops an octave; when you increase it by 50%, you get a pitch a perfect fifth higher, and so forth. Later I realised that John Cage had already worked with test LP sinus tones in ¬‘Imaginary Landscape #1¬’ ¬– a gratifying realisation, because Cage has been an important reference point for my own musical thinking.

So it can partly be situated within a tradition…

As with many musical parameters, Cage has been a visionary. But when it comes to the use of turntables within contemporary classical music, we can¬’t really speak of a tradition. I have been composing for combinations of turntables for two years. The four BL!NDMAN quartets have meanwhile performed pieces for vinyl. And in each case, it turns out that it works! When they play their instruments, their personalities are very different: percussionists, strings, singers, saxophonists. But when they are working with the turntables, they become very comparable in attitude. And I find that remarkable. Anyway, that then led to ¬‘Totem¬’, a programme that consists entirely of turntables and vinyl.

Despite that mechanical character you have described, the turntable also has a tactile quality. When you see a professional DJ at work, manipulating the spinning record by hand, ¬‘scratching and so forth, that does involve a form of expressivity, doesn¬’t it?

I have to admit that from a neophyte perspective, lacking any real knowledge of the turntable as an instrument, that mechanical aspect was the first thing that appealed to me. But a turntable is naturally also a musical instrument. And vinyl is a material, just as a saxophone reed is also a material. That gesture by a professional DJ, that manipulation, is ultimately also an expressive gesture. In fact, it is a phase towards which we are evolving with BL!NDMAN. Our point of departure was the mechanical, which was very much in the foreground in our performance ¬‘Kwadratuur #2:Transfo¬’. That whole concert was built around the glorification of the mechanical, which was also repeated symbolically, in the texts from the futurist manifesto we integrated into it. This approach gave us a form of abstraction I still find very beautiful. But the more expert the musicians become with those turntables, the less we will experience that phenomenon. It would be ideal if all of our musicians could acquire that virtuosity. They too all find it very exciting. And here I am thinking especially of our latest quartet BL!NDMAN [strings]; for them making music with turntables is like a breath of fresh air. That enthusiasm is naturally contagious; it inspires me to write.

How did you select the works for this concert? From what angles do they approach your alternative instrumentarium? In other words: how can you put together a varied concert using 8 turntables?

We started with existing works, by me and by Matthew Wright. Actually, there are only two completely new works in this programme: ¬‘Totem for Brussels¬’, by Matt, and ¬‘Melting Wax¬’, a work that he and I make together.

We start with ¬‘Mass for Turntables¬’, a symbolic choice in that this is the first piece I ever wrote for turntables. On the one hand, it is all about radical abstraction: it is built up of pure sinus tones from test LPs, very tight. Now listening to sinus tones remains a strange, almost unbearable experience. But on the other hand, you also have the imperfection of the medium. After a couple of plays, LPs start to crackle. The imperfections, surface noise and even the scratches all contribute. And they have a poetic value. I have worked with three different test records and by turning the rotational speed to the minimum or the maximum you can actually get several pitches from a very limited number of sinus tones.

¬‘Mixtape Zen¬’ is written for percussion quartet. Wright uses the turntables as metronomes: if you apply identifying marks to an LP and then play it at a certain speed, they give you your tempo. He combines that with loops from classical LPs and percussion on all sorts of objects. It is actually a percussion piece, in the sense that it is very virtuoso in its tempo and rhythm combinations, in which percussionists are generally very strong. It begins with a spread of rhythmic ideas and ends in static drones: sustained tones on Tibetan singing bowls that are spinning on the turntables.

¬‘Contact Theatre¬’ was initially composed by Matt Wright for 6 musicians. For this version, he has arranged it for 8 musicians. This piece focuses on an extreme handling of the vinyl, with extreme DJ manoeuvres, such as the very fast manual rewinding of the vinyl or the throwing of the needle onto the vinyl. It is not exactly gentle on the LPs and the needles. Everything happens in a hyperactive canon: it is a truly polyphonic concept. And just as in ¬‘Mixtape Zen¬’ it all ends in sustained tones ¬– in this case synthesiser tones.

¬‘Strange Attractors¬’ is a work I had already written for ¬‘Transfo¬’. Here I develop it further. It is now for only 8 musicians instead of 16. And those musicians now also take on the role of the ¬‘missing¬’ musicians: the strings thus also use their voices and the percussionists not only manipulate the turntables, but also the infrared sensors that distort the sound live. Here we use old demonstration LPs, on which sound technicians explain how to adjust a turntable, and so forth. So there is a touch of nostalgia for the LP age. The other records we use are ¬‘Pinky records¬’: these are vinyl records that contain a digital code signal. This code allows you to use your computer to allocate whatever audio material you wish to those LPs and then to scratch with it. They are normally played through a computer, which turns that digital code signal into audio, but we use them directly. Then you hear digital beeps, a bit like with a modem. And when you start to mix those, it sounds a bit like an ant colony. In addition to the voices that come from the demonstration LPs, we also have the recorded voices of BL!NDMAN [vox], our vocal quartet, which is thus present here virtually, the only human element in this otherwise very tech-sounding piece.

¬‘Totem for Brussels¬’ is the third piece in a cycle of ¬‘totems¬’ on which Matthew Wright is working. The turntable as metronome remains a constant in all of Wright¬’s totem works, but in each of them he places different accents. In this case, it is that a totem is built. Literally.
I have so far said nothing about the visual aspect, but it is important to know that this whole performance has actually been conceived as an installation. The turntables are spread throughout the performance space and the audience can walk between them. In the middle a real totem is built using scaffolding material and percussion instruments. This is the only part of the programme in which the string quartet get to play their own instruments, although the sound is now completely saturated, because the strings are wrapped in silver paper, which distorts everything.

The last piece probably has the most human texture. ¬‘Melting Wax¬’ is a true closing tutti; the eight musicians who have featured so far are joined by me, on baritone sax, and Matthew Wright, first on computer and then on tuba. Here too we ultimately arrive at a single great sustained ¬‘drone¬’, in which the breathing of sax and tuba are very important.

Totem is no ordinary concert; it is also a spatial installation. And it also has integrated video. What is the function of the video images?

The idea wasn¬’t simply ¬‘let¬’s add something else¬’. Our opting to include video was inspired by the club associations of the turntable: the idea of the VJ in combination with DJ. I went in search of a video artist with a foot in both worlds and found one in Olga Mink, from the Netherlands. Olga is a young artist who also works as a VJ. And she has very conceptual ideas and often thinks like a visual artist in her work. We asked her to set to work on the material on which we were working on an auditory level. And to my surprise, that turned out to be very difficult for her. She is very concerned about how she can enter into the proper deep dialogue between her images and what is happening in sound: it is not enough simply to come up with some pretty pictures to accompany the music. The video too seeks old-fashioned contact with the material. In the music, it is a direct contact with the vinyl; you send the needle running tactilely through the groove. In the video, it is contact with the projectors; they will be manipulated in real-time. By moving them, you can literally ¬‘sound out¬’ the room with images, for instance, and make it metamorphose.

Maarten Beirens, November 2011 (with thanks to deSingel)


TOTEM played among others on the following locations:

2010
ANTWERPEN / ANVERS - deSingel (muziekstudio)
BRUSSEL/ BRUXELLES - kaaitheater
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BL!NDMAN       contact info

Sainctelettesquare 18-19
B-1000 Brussels, Belgium
+32 2 201 59 47

contact:

general and artistic direction:
management:   M +32 485 30 98 01
technical coordination & sound engineer:   M +32 485 53 68 16
production manager:   M +32 498 54 96 81

BL!NDMAN is supported by the Arts Administration of the Ministry of the Flemish Community and the Flemish Community Commission of the Brussels-Capital Region. BL!NDMAN [sax] play Selmer Paris Saxophones. BL!NDMAN [drums] is supported by Muremo, distributor of Bergerault Percusssion Instruments.