Six Days

Super Deluxe, Tokyo, 17–22 June 2013

As shifting arrangements of dots are moved across four sets of magnified staff lines projected onto the back wall of the music venue, and the unconventional notations slowly reveal themselves to be isolated fragments of a blown-up, halftone, TV guide cut-out of the face of Aunt Esther, the complex and comical sensibility of Jim O’Rourke comes into focus.
The transposition of an old weekly listings clipping into the arrangement for a composition; the creative displacement of an icon from a popular ‘70s US sitcom into the rigours and free play of experimental music in a club in Tokyo, where memories of Sanford and Son are as good as non-existent; and the realisation that there is still so much to learn about and from the work of O’Rourke were characteristic of a surprising and wide-ranging showcase in June of this musician’s formidable talents.

Playing six consecutive nights in his current city of residence, and offering a rare opportunity to witness him revisiting material from the past, both solo and accompanied by a variety of groups, O’Rourke’s tireless approach to music was plain to see, and hear. Avoiding the commonplace ritual exhumation initiated by ATP’s Don’t Look Back series, the work history that O’Rourke presented stretched back to certain periods in which it is unlikely anyone in attendance would have seen him perform, and happily looked to the future too.

Appearing uneasy about returning to ground covered more than twenty years ago, O’Rourke’s replication of the style of his earlier interactions with a six-string launched the Six Days event. The opportunity to see the handiwork behind the type of prepared guitar playing that appears on Remove the Need revealed an array of interventions by O’Rourke that went beyond a checklist of tricks that has given even this non-normative use of the instrument a predictable traditionalism. Remote control interference and curious extra-circuitry adaptations sent screeches through the speakers, tempered by hand to muted emanations and, at times, a gorgeous ambient drift – the unstable discordances and the gentle melody of extended technique.

The shadow of O’Rourke’s younger self was literally cast during the second set of Day One, onto the side of a tent. Camped out indoors with only an EMS synthesizer for company, the crowd were left out in the wild, immersed in throbbing, babbling, brutal analog tones tearing through the monitors. Recent archival LP releases have provided a wider picture of O’Rourke’s explorations of synthesis which have been ongoing for many years, but the unexpected performance setup was a reminder of the non-academic trajectory of his research.
Day Two began with a version of the 1990 composition Mizu No Nai Umi, the original drone work played back and accompanied by several performers who moved around the floor space sounding various percussive, resonant objects. The clink of beer bottles and chime of crotales thickened the cloud of overtones. Screened at the same time, a looped and processed video clip of a commercial plane landing at sunset – a notoriously painstaking and expensive shot excerpted from Brian De Palma’s widely reviled film, The Bonfire of the Vanities – provided a visual complement to the music. The shifting colours and contrast of the golden image, already blurred by the warm air currents of the JFK runway, the pools of light and the deepening shadows, mirroring the nuance and microtonal movement in the shimmering sound. A ten-second shot extended to last thirty minutes, a cinematic drone of equal density.
Aunt Esther dates back to O’Rourke’s college days, and is emblematic of his challenges to the strictures of the Academy, the piece’s untypical notation interpreted by an ensemble of improvisers playfully switching classical snippets into free jazz fits and starts. No doubt a failure in the eyes of his tutor, the composition reflects both the discipline and humour which together defined much American and English experimental music after John Cage, a tendency seemingly forgotten by many dour contemporary experimentalists. As with much of O’Rourke’s strongest work, assumptions were gladly upended.
The young performers of String Quartet and Oscillators – Atsuko Hatano, Hiroki Chiba, Eriko Teshima and Masabumi Sekiguchi – might not often be tasked with sustaining tones for long durations, but their combined, concentrated bowing built a moving wall of pitches. Swapping the classical, romantic melodies usually associated with a string quartet for stacked harmonic rapture these players too showed themselves happy to dismantle expectations. Waves of acoustic frequencies swept over the buzzing of oscillators, stripped of extra-musical referents down to thick tone colours and textures. Like the work of American minimalists Phill Niblock and Tony Conrad, the result was physically captivating.
It was instructive to programme the performances of Bad Timing and Happy Days back to back on Day Three, since they illustrate two ways of exploring a single musical connection, that between the folk and blues influenced concert guitar style of John Fahey and the massive drones of Conrad and Niblock. The brass fanfare of Bad Timing was sadly absent – the album performed by O’Rourke and his regular band, with Sudoh Toshiaki on bass, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums and Eiko Ishibashi on piano – but shorn of its joyous tooting horns, the signature melodies of the album were driven home with more percussive punch.
Repeatedly plucking two acoustic guitar strings against a rising storm of hurdy gurdy, whose blasting tones lent a pleasurably oppressive weight to the air, O'Rourke's performance of Happy Days was almost scuppered by a broken string at the very end of the piece. Though evidently unintended, the hiccup seemed to be a necessary structuring element of the performance, as if O’Rourke was meant to go on unceasingly, aching and exhausted until the string could bear the tension no longer.
The blisters were allowed a chance to heal on Day Four, as O’Rourke conducted Big Band and Tapes, for a group which included firebrand saxophonists Akira Sakata and Kazutoki Umezu, flanking the composer on either side and bolstered by Yuji Katsui on violin, Daisuke Takaoka on tuba, Tatsuhisa Yamamoto on drums, Todd Nicholson on double bass, Shinpei Ruike on trumpet and Yasuyuki Takahashi on trombone. The uncertainty was clear on the faces of some of the musicians, a little perturbed by the idiosyncrasies of O’Rourke’s score. Nevertheless the exertion and musical prowess of all the performers was compelling. The intermittent blare and solo flights into the edges were riveting and unpredictable, though the overall conceptual framework of the music remained somewhat obscure. Still, with this much raging force the audience knew what a real Salvation Army band could sound like.

A new Jazz Trio kicked off Day Five with a monstrous version of ‘Back Woods Song’ by Gateway, the effortless saunter of the original being ignited by O’Rourke’s guitar shredding, the electronic manipulations of Hiroki Chiba’s double bass and the exploratory thump and clatter of Tatsuhisa Yamamoto’s percussion. All of O’Rourke’s stylistic predecessors may be readily acknowledged but there are few guitarists who could marry the modes of John Abercrombie, Ray Russell and Tisziji Munoz in one sitting with baffling ease.
Another trio, Kafka’s Snore played a thirty-five-minute set unfurling a single improvised piece. Beautifully paced, emerging from Eiko Ishibashi’s sparse piano motif, allowing quietude much duration within an elegiac melody, and elaborated by Yamamoto’s intelligent reassessments behind the kit, and the steadily amassed tones, chords and timbres of O’Rourke’s electric guitar and synth, the dynamic steadily moved on into a fiery rock spree to close out the evening.

A packed house on Day Six eagerly awaited renditions of O’Rourke’s pop songs. Tracks from each of the 'Roeg' albums that feature singing were played, as well as selections from the Halfway to a Threeway EP and the second Loose Fur record. Having performed with a regular band in Japan for some time – for song performances; in improvisational contexts; in various combinations with other musicians – O’Rourke’s music benefited from the familiarity, elasticity and invention that such extensive group playing across these contexts can encourage. With the addition of pedal steel player Ren Takada, unfortunately not involved in the earlier Bad Timing performance, it sounded powerful and assured in the club space; O’Rourke’s rarely heard vocals much fuller and louder than on record, and the sight of his fretboard navigations a further confirmation of the unassuming complexity of his Drag City albums.
From the looped, harmonised solo guitar and feedback which opened the show, to the final, urgent, bellowed refrains of ‘The Workplace’ the thrill of hearing this increasingly influential music played by a band so alert to its possibilities is only matched by the thrill of anticipation as to where O’Rourke will take his music next. Good times.    

The first album by Kafka's Snore, Okite will be released by Felicity Records in January 2014 (an EP is already available for download at For more information:

Nine albums of mostly unreleased music by Jim O'Rourke, including the String Quartet and Oscillators performance from the Six Days event can be downloaded now at

More photographs of the Six Days event taken by Ujin Matsuo, can be found on the Super Deluxe Flickr page:


Completely in the Present, Partly in Lincoln

The first exhibition of material concerning Tony Conrad to take place in Lincoln, Completely in the Present was a surprising and welcome addition to the 2013 Frequency Festival. Drawing on excerpts from a forthcoming documentary film, with the same title, the exhibition was focused around two looped videos of Conrad being interviewed about the nature of sound. One video was projected onto a wall from a small antique table flanked by framed photos of Pythagoras – its audio track played loudly into the room through speakers. There were a few other pictures relating to the Greek mathematician in the room, including one sat alongside a picture of Hermann von Helmholtz on a mantelpiece underneath this large video image. These two figures, as well as Jean-Philippe Rameau are subject to criticism in the 7-minute clip of Conrad cycling around New York and sitting in the park – an excerpt which has been available online since 2009. Theories about sound, music and harmony developed and consolidated over the centuries by these thinkers are declared to be manipulative, generalised and politically loaded in Conrad’s fearless monologue.

The other video in the same room was played on a small television screen, on the opposite wall, and two chairs and pairs of headphones were provided for visitors to sit close to the image and listen in on a car journey conversation. In this video, Conrad expands further upon his ideas about sound, declaring “It’s not a cosmic harmony baby, it’s language!” This brief, but illuminating speech asks us to step back from the romantic notions about music that have shaped human thinking for many eras, to put aside judgements of ‘like’ and ‘don’t like’ and to contemplate critically how music functions and how our normative responses to music have been conditioned over time.

Conrad gives credence to scientific arguments that music is a mating ritual but criticises such theories for their “reductivist” approach – because they suggest that everything we do is for the purposes of the reproduction of our DNA. They also fail to account for why we tend to prefer harmony. On this question, Conrad has startling ideas of his own, borne out of years of study and practice. Comparing the relationships of fundamental pitches and combinations of harmonic notes to the formation of low vowel sounds and the pitches produced by the nasal cavities and the mouth, Conrad directly links our ability to understand language and the qualities we delight in in music. Far from being a comforting analogue, however, Conrad points out that if we treat music and language as being so intimately connected, then music will inevitably go in directions in which language goes: languor, nostalgia, aggression, power.

The exhibition gave almost no indication of Tony Conrad’s long and varied activities in the worlds of film, music, art, teaching and community-focused media. Conrad was at the heart of a vibrant New York experimental film scene beginning in the 1960s, which spawned not only the infamous Flaming Creatures (directed by Jack Smith), but also his own material interrogations in The Flicker, Straight and Narrow and later his Cooked Films series. This is the man who indirectly gave the Velvet Underground their name – in the early minimalist group The Theatre of Eternal Music he played with John Cale, who went on to form the well-known art-rock band with Lou Reed, taking his electrifying viola drones from one group to the other. Conrad has influenced, collaborated with and has been supported by contemporaries and younger generations of experimental composers and improvisers too; his violin drones intersecting with both the krautrock of Faust in 1972, and the American noise and electronic underground in the 1990s and 2000s. He is currently a teacher at SUNY Buffalo, where he has been involved in the university’s energetic and progressive media studies department since the 1970s. Its history has been documented in the mammoth and invaluable publication, Buffalo Heads. Although Conrad’s inspiration is far-reaching he is still clearly under recognised in both academic and journalistic histories of modern film and music. It is typical to reduce Conrad’s output to a niche concern, his violin music still hard on the ears for many casual listeners (an example could be heard in an adjoining room of Chad Varah House, where Conrad’s music provided the soundtrack to Tyler Hubby’s film ‘Folded City’).

While it was wonderful to discover that attention was being given to Conrad’s work here, the room was, sadly, largely empty – the wrong type of minimalism in this case. My hopes were raised when a motion sensor in the room set two film projectors whirring away and casting abstract film images on another wall. Had the festival organisers managed to get some of Conrad’s film works for presentation in their original format – works as inventive and dazzling as those to which a three-day event was devoted at Tate Modern in 2008? Inexplicably, this was instead the work of another experimental filmmaker, Karel Doing.

Knowing that the entirety of a festival such as Frequency, of which this Conrad exhibition was a part, could have been devoted to the man’s rich and multifaceted artistic life, it seems somewhat rude to interrupt the space between the two Conrad video installations with the work of another artist. Yet, since his involvement with the Theatre of Eternal Music, and especially with the ‘attack high art’ protests along with his friends – notably Henry Flynt – at the Museum of Modern Art in New York decades ago, Conrad has continually questioned the status of the artist in relation to the audience, and other artists. Conrad has always been chipping away at the edifice of the art world and its elitist habits. Socially engaged and ever critical of the power games that surround many aspects of our lives and culture, one gets the sense that to overly revere to the point of enshrining, or rubberstamping Conrad’s art in the white-walled rooms of modern art galleries would be to undo everything he’s been taking on since the 1960s. As the video projections in this exhibit confirmed, Conrad is still ready to take on an icon or two. The hope is that visitors to this exhibit gave fifteen minutes of their time to listen to what Conrad has to say. You’re unlikely to encounter such insightful, combative ideas about the luring frequencies that appeal to us anywhere else. More immediately, they offered a reassessment of one’s experience of the rest of the Frequency Festival, the guiding theme of which was, vaguely, ‘revolution’.   

Working Life: A conversation with Phill Niblock

The Movement of People Working 1973–91 (film still) copyright Phill Niblock

There is a modesty that has repeatedly characterised the presentation of Phill Niblock’s art for the past fifty years, from the title of his 1982 India Navigation LP Nothin’ To Look At Just a Record to the current retrospective of his creative output since the early 1960s, Nothin’ But Working. All of the apparent simplicity and humility belies the immense power, density and singularity of his intermedia explorations.

Niblock is known primarily for his microtonal drone compositions in which recordings of specific tones, played on a single acoustic instrument, are amassed to create a dense, continually shifting cloud of overtones, through multitracking and playback at volumes of up to 115db. Despite the careful compositional choices, the results efface the sense of a directing hand, as well as the typical identifying marks of the source instrument.

Niblock’s series of 16mm films, The Movement of People Working (1973–91) – which comprises scenes of individuals engaged in traditional modes of manual labour, in countries including Mexico, Peru and China – avoids rhetorical, and non-linear editing as well as any narration, which might contextualise the images more specifically but also ask us to interpret them. They are more engrossing and unusual without.

Presentations of Niblock’s works primarily involve pre-recorded material played very loud, along with multiple projections of the films of workers. Yet far from yielding a result which is unresponsive to the particularities of a given performance situation, the sound interacts with each space in a different way and the films are not specifically timed to follow the music. In addition, Niblock often invites musicians to accompany the material, sometimes a recording of their own playing, in the live situation. The audience’s attention is not directed toward any single point of focus and the different rhythms imparted by the sound and pictures eradicates any normative sense of time.

This year Niblock celebrates his 80th birthday but he is evidently a tireless and enthusiastic artist. Niblock regularly performs in various countries, and several records have been released through Touch Records over the past decade. In addition to the retrospective – taking place in Lausanne, Switzerland – a collection of essays and interviews, Working Title has been published, in a bilingual edition by Les Presses du Reel. It reflects the diversity of Niblock’s artistic undertakings, which also includes jazz photography, street photography, films of musicians including Sun Ra and Arthur Russell, as well as a number of asynchronous sound films collected on the Six Films DVD available from Die Schachtel.

Touch has recently made a number of Niblock’s records available for streaming online. While the accessibility of Niblock’s work in a recorded format is invaluable, the direct experience of a Niblock live performance opens up entirely new possibilities for audition and physiological interaction with sound. I spoke to Niblock in February prior to a performance at Café Oto, in London. Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Yusef Sayed: One thing that is fascinating about your drone works is that they can be experienced somewhat differently in each new context in which they are played.

Phill Niblock: This is literally true, because so much changes in the acoustics of the space and the sound system that it can be an entirely different piece. You don’t really hear the music if you’re playing it from a recording on a home sound system. You have to be in a concert space where it’s happening and then it has to be happening well. So there are a lot of concerts where the sound is so-so.

Is that what keeps you excited about going to different places to present them?

It’s interesting that there is that much variety. We did a concert in Lisbon recently, in a pretty lousy hall – with a low ceiling with two Meyer speakers in the front and two JBL Eons in the back – and we were going to show video, but the projector was so dim.

Of course, it is not just the space in which the drones are played that determine what is heard, but the technical conditions as well. Do you just have to rely on whatever equipment is at the venue, or have you had the ability to specify?

I used to carry a projector, but my projector broke and wasn’t fixed properly.

And in terms of the sound system?

Whatever you get.

When you arrive at a venue to setup, you must do a soundcheck before people start filing in. As I understand it, when the audience come that changes the extent to which the sound can move and the overtones can react. So how much can you do beforehand, or do you not get too hung up on it?

Well, the main thing is to find out when you play it at the right level, that it doesn’t distort. When you get a really bad system, it’s so distorted, you can’t do a lot.

Is the setup in your loft in New York the ideal, in terms of the playback equipment?

It’s very good. Ideal? I don’t know, because of the old speakers. On December 21st I do this six-hour concert – which I can’t do anymore – and sometimes, towards the end, one speaker will start to sound raggedy. But then the next time you try it, it’s perfectly fine.

Are all the pieces finished by you at the loft, or are they worked on and finished wherever you are at the time?

Wherever I am, basically. I wouldn’t probably play it on the big system until it’s finished anyway. I’m working with monitor speakers in one place or another. Even in the loft, I don’t work in the same room, with the same sound system.

Phill Niblock in performance, 2006 copyright Diogo Valério (Creative Commons)
Are there certain engineers whom you prefer to record your pieces?

The chief one is in Belgium, Johan Vandermaelen, but I’ve recorded recently with Marcus Schmickler in Cologne. He has a Brauner microphone, it is really fantastic, so when I recorded my last piece in Boston, in the Fall, I asked them for a Brauner microphone and it turned out they had a Brauner microphone – because it’s the Berklee school of music. The guy who was the chief of the sound crew came with a microphone himself and put it on the stand, left, and as soon as we finished the session he came and took it off and put it back in the locker. It was a $10,000 microphone, he really wrapped it up fast [Laughs]. Another recording engineer is Robert Poss, in New York. Robert is a composer and guitarist, with a small studio. I have made many pieces with material recorded with him. On some of them he is both the engineer and a playing guitarist!

I came across a piece that you did for Touch Records, called ‘Sound Delta’ which is comprised of field recordings, and it struck me as being one of the few recordings of yours that was somewhat distinct from the typical drone pieces.

It’s totally distinct, yes. There’s a series of twelve or fifteen sound collages. There’s a new one, of crickets.

Where was that recorded?

In Ikaria island in Greece, in August. I do quite a bit of work with my partner, who does live video and I play those sound collage pieces and I mix them – so I’m constantly mixing, which I never do otherwise with the music.

What are the other recent pieces you’ve been working on?

I finished a scored piece, 'To Two Tea Roses', in September 2012. We recorded multiple tracks with the Ensemble NeoN and then I mixed them to make the recorded piece, the playback. In the concert, the ensemble played live along with the recorded parts.

In 2011 I recorded three versions of a scored piece called ‘Two Lips’ which was commissioned by the Champ d’Action in Antwerp three years ago, and they were played by three guitar quartets, three different guitar quartets. So we’re issuing the next Touch CD and one side will be those three versions, one after the other. Then in 2012 I made a piece for cello for Arne Deforce and a piece for electric harp for Rhodri Davies, both of which are a half hour long, and so that’s the other CD of the two CD set. I finished the masters, they’re at Touch but I haven’t finished the notes. I was hoping to have it out before the retrospective opened in January but I didn’t make it.

That label has recently celebrated a milestone of their own, 30 years. You obviously have a good relationship with them.

They reprint my stuff too, which was my request – they just reprinted 'Touch Food', which had been unavailable for a couple of years.

I’d heard that the plant had lost the masters tapes.

They just found a CD copy and copied that, which is not uncommon. Everybody’s having their trouble with pressing plants. One thing that is interesting about Touch is that they’re always willing to reissue the stuff because it simply continues to sell. It’s a weird phenomenon. It’s the same with XI, that stuff’s really old. It doesn’t sell as well as Elaine Radigue’s ‘Trilogy de la Mort’ – our bestselling record, which is great because that’s a really beautiful piece and the best piece of hers, I think.

XI is the other label that you release stuff through, which is your own. Do you have any plans to keep that label ticking over in terms of anything that you want to put out?

There’s only a couple of CDs still in the works, and then we have to decide what to do. There's a CD from Ulrich Krieger and he just simply has been too busy to get it out. He keeps saying, last year he said he’d finish [Laughs].

And related to that, in terms of the history of Experimental Intermedia, I’ve come across some archived recordings that have been put in a couple of places online. One of the websites is Art on Air and there’s a couple of pieces in the Free Music Archive.

We’ve been putting on some recent concerts for Art on Air. But the label New World Records, which has a division called DRAM – which makes music available to universities, music schools, subscribers –they’ve taken the archive. So they have all the archive recordings and they’re digitising them now. They will either keep the archive tapes at the end or we’ll find a place which will take the archive. There’s a couple of places that want to take my archive and that archive, but it is not decided. But they will have them all digitised, that’s the most important part.

Do you foresee then that it will be only available as some sort of subscription service to a limited number of people, if it’s through music academies? Do you think those Experimental Intermedia archives will be available at anytime to the wider public?

They said that we could have the files and that we could do what we wanted to with them, but if we compete with them directly by making them all available it doesn’t make a lot of sense. It’s relatively easy to get access to that archive. It would be more likely that we did the same thing that we’re doing with Art on Air, to make some things available on a piecemeal basis.

It seems that there’s such a rich history and archive there.

There’s a page on the website where you see all the composers who have performed from 1973 until 2007. And there are omissions in it as well, because the advertising of the early concerts was done using postcards. It was before computers. In those first years, when the postcards were just typed on a typewriter and sent out, we always kept a stack. But if we lost the cards, we didn’t know who did concerts on certain dates. We didn’t start recording until ’79, so there’s six years when there were interesting people but none were recorded – there was Julius Eastman, it would be nice to have a copy of that.

I found it heartening reading the history of Experimental Intermedia that Bernard Gendron wrote that sometimes there were just a handful of people there at shows.

Sometimes even less than a handful.

A lot of that stuff has a tendency to be romanticised, that it was this buzzing hive full of artists. But it was a lot more small-scale for much of the time.

Well some people simply weren’t well enough known and frequently we would prompt people to send a card themselves and in a few instances people didn’t do that at all and nobody would show up, zero audience. In one instance a guy played and one woman came. It turned out she was a former lover of his from years ago – but she was also a former lover of mine [Laughs]. So I was shocked to see her.

Currently, there’s a huge retrospective of your work underway in Switzerland. How did that come about?

It was actually supposed to happen in 2010 in Lyon but the financial disaster bombed their budget so they cancelled it – and it probably won’t happen there. What the curator Mathieu Copeland wants to do is put together the films, the Movement of People Working films, which are pretty much together now, and music, and sell it to a few museums as a playable archive.

Getting the material together was extremely hard work and in the middle of it I had a heart bypass operation, so I was in the hospital. I came out and there were two weeks when there wasn’t any thinking or working at all, I couldn’t edit film. And then I started editing it, and it was just very hard work.

From the series Buildings Along SoHo Broadway, 1988 copyright Phill Niblock

So a lot films were edited for the first time?

The basic editing was all done in 16mm film and they were transferred to video at a very high level shop in New York. They were all spliced workprints and one thing that happened with the splices is that when a splice got to the shutter it bounced – so at the end of every shot there’s usually a bounce. So I was going through anyway and cutting out the splices but then also the bounce; or if there were any flashes. And then re-colour correcting what they had colour corrected. There’s no montage or anything like that, I’m not reversing or changing the order. It’s really trimming and colour correcting.

And what were the arrangements for the audio aspects of the retrospective. Did you have the opportunity to put in place an adequate technical setup?

They simply kept saying there was no budget, so they got a relatively shitty sound system in the place where the most sound is, which is too bad because it could have really sounded great – if they’d had a couple more thousand to spend. Johan Vandermaelen was supposed to come with a sound system but it was bureaucratically impossible to bring a sound system from Belgium to Switzerland and take it back again, totally insane customs. And they couldn’t buy the sound system, so we were arranging to rent it to them at a very cheap price, but then he’d have to take it back again at the end of the exhibition. We couldn’t do it.

That’s disappointing.

The sound system they got was okay, but it could have been much better sounding with a bit more money.

When you perform live you regularly involve your films as an accompaniment, and a lot of the time you have multiple screens going. Again, a lot of that must be dependent upon the space and what resources are available at a given time. Does the exhibition in Lausanne reflect your preferences here?

The stuff in Circuit is really pretty good. It’s three screens that are roughly four metres wide and a big enough space so the sound is good, except the sound isn’t as good as it could be because the sound system is 20 per cent below what it should be. What’s mostly wrong is that the clarity in the high end is simply not there. So the volume is there, but the clarity of what happens in the overtones is not happening.

Alongside the retrospective there is the book, Working Title.

Yvan Etienne is editing a whole series of books, for the publisher Les Presses du Réel, in Dijon, France. The first book was Paul Panhuysen, who’s a very close friend. So Yvan and I got together and collected articles and decided a few things that had to be written, like the Kase article on the films. One of the interesting ones, in fact I just read it myself recently, is Volker Straebel’s music analysis: I learned a few things reading it (finally) [Laughs]. And I’ve even been in lectures where he presented the ideas, but it was in German, in Berlin.

I was hoping that the visual material would come out through the book, not having had the opportunity to see some of your photographic work. So was that a conscious decision, to not publish any images?

They decided that it had to be in black and white and no pictures. We did the four DVDs, so…

Of course, two double-sided DVDs are included with the book – a new installment of the Movement of People Working Series, shot in Japan, and the rarely seen Anecdotes from Childhood videos – but I'm particularly interested in the photography which isn't so often seen. I know it’s part at the retrospective.

There have been a number of proposals over the years to make a book of the jazz photos, which I did early on in my photography. I have resisted. The problem with the jazz photographs is that they’re just pictures of people and I have felt the artistic merit to be at a low ebb. Recently, after the retrospective in Lausanne it is perhaps more determined to do a book. I have proposed doing a duo book with the Boatyard in Brazil project, which is also in the retrospective and which I like very much - maybe a book that one has to turn over so that the book can start with either project. 

The boatyard project was shot on Kodak Tech Pan film, which is very fine grain, for 35mm it looks really good. The Panhuysen’s wanted to do that at The Apollo House Editions, but it was simply too expensive, $15,000 in the early ‘90s and they had about $5,000. To print it badly, not having it be duotone, just sort of didn’t make any sense. We even went to printers and got tests of the duotone printing which looked really great; you virtually couldn’t tell the difference between the photograph and the duotone print, it was really good. So it would be nice to get them to do that as a book.

Duke Ellington in control booth, 1962 copyright Phill Niblock

In Lausanne you’ve also restaged 'Environments', which was last presented in 1972.

The Environments pieces were done as events with dance and music, with three simultaneous film images and two slides. And we looked for the prints of the three images and I couldn’t find them and then I found something that had two – I don’t know what they were ever used for – and so that’s what I converted and that’s what’s showing. There was another big batch of 16mm film negatives from 1986 from China, where the film was fogged very badly by the Chinese X-rays and the print was no good. It was printed but I never could use it. But I did do a conversion of some of that material to video and the uneveness across the frame wasn’t so obvious, so I was hoping to use that…but we couldn’t find those negatives and we couldn’t find the three screens films. Then at the end, as we were getting ready for the show, Mathieu came again and we moved some stuff away from some shelves and there were six boxes of film. So we found all the stuff. But it would have cost five to ten thousand dollars to redo the Environments and it simply wasn’t possible within the budget. And we were going to try to do ‘China ’86’ and another film which hadn’t been done, from Brazil.

The Movement of People Working films on the Extreme DVD set were almost impossible to get for a while. It’s nice that those are available again.

They had a really lousy distributor. Then it was sent to Microcinema and they do a really good job of getting it about. It’s still selling. I just got 100 copies myself, because I was running out totally. He originally issued it without the notes (beause it has a really extensive notes). In fact, I even printed the notes myself so that I could put them in copies that I send out.

Are there any plans to release any more from that series? The one I’m intrigued to see, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen footage from, is from when you shot in the Arctic.

That one’s less interesting. I want to do four DVDs. One of them would have been out a year ago on Mode, it’s of Brazil. But it hasn't come out. I found a good place for mastering in Cologne, from Marcus Schmickler, so I’ll try to do one and see what it’s like.

I also want to do a two DVD set on Touch. So we’ll do four hours – two two-hour films – and then I have to find the music. Some of it will be music that hasn’t been issued before, but a lot of it will have to come from stuff that’s already out on Touch. There isn’t very much music that I have done that isn't published, that I want to have out anyway.

I’ve read your comments about your earliest pieces that you released on LP. The medium clearly determined how long the pieces could be, at a certain quality as well. But in terms of standalone compositions, there seems to be a point beyond which you wouldn’t go in terms of length, despite the possibilities for data storage today. I think the longest piece you’ve done is 70 minutes for Pan Fried, which I like a lot.

70 minutes for the piano piece, yeah. It has a beautiful sound, there’s an incredible amount of bass. But because the timbral qualities of the piano played that way are so loose, there’s not really a heavy fundamental and all of the microtonal stuff doesn’t really do anything. You put two microtones together and they simply don’t do anything that they’re supposed to do.

It’s much more interesting to play 3 or 4 pieces in a program that’s an hour and a half than it is to play one long piece. So I’m not sure that in concert I’ve ever played the piano piece at 70 minutes. There’s another version of that track that’s 27 minutes and yet another version which is 11 minutes.

  The Magic Sun (film still), 1966–68 copyright Phill Niblock

I saw Frederick Bernas’s short film ‘Loft Chronicles’ on the Internet recently, and it includes footage of you preparing a film of a music box. It strikes me that an interest in close-up and detail links a number of the film works. It's especially striking and untypical in the musician films, the Sun Ra piece and the footage you shot of Arthur Russell.

Arthur Russell was shot just with a standard old single-tube colour JVC camera which had a fairly long zoom lens, so it’s all just shot with that lens. Whereas, in the Sun Ra film, the second two-thirds was shot with a Bolex, but with a Kilfitt 135mm lens with extension tubes. So with that I had extension tubes and a 135mm lens.

I like details. There’s a bunch of nature stuff that’s a completed film called ‘Ten Hundred Inch Radii’, the last of the Environments pieces. There are a lot of close-up images of ice and running water at the end of that film. I have a commission to make a new video and probably a new sound piece for a Paris gallerist, who has a house and garden (actually, more of a park) which also has an exhibition space within the garden. She wants to make an exhibition there for one, two or three years, so we have to design and make screens to have projections and sound. And probably I would project the film 'T H I R' there too, as a historic piece from ’71. I am shooting in May, I hope!

The retrospective exhibition, Nothin’ but Working continues at the Musée de l'Élysée and Circuit in Lausanne, Switzerland until 12th May. My review of the book 'Working Title' appears in issue #351 of The Wire.

Special thanks to Phill Niblock and Rie Nakajima.

LWL Wide Angle - FJ Ossang

The latest installment of my Wide Angle blog for Little White Lies is online now. This month, I have written an introduction to the work of FJ Ossang. Thankfully Ossang's feature films, except for his most recent, Dharma Guns, have been collected in a fantastic boxset issued this year by Potemkine/Agnès b. The set gets my vote for best DVD release of 2011.

Jeremy Lemos Interview

Photo by Jacob Boll

Jeremy Lemos is a recording engineer and musician based in Chicago. As a trusted pair of ears and hands in the studio, he has helped artists such as Smog, Jim O'Rourke, Singer and Afrirampo turn out fine, fine records. Out in the field, Jeremy has manned the sound board at shows for Sonic Youth, Pavement, Slint and countless others. This year he has been on the road with Iron and Wine, working hard to make Sam Beam and his group resound in all their glory to thousands of fans.

Beginning his musical activities doing live sound at the Fireside Bowl in Chicago and engineering at Acme Recording, Jeremy later opened Semaphore Recording Studios in 2000 with several fellow engineers, in order to offer an affordable and supportive studio to local acts. There he helped a wealth of bands with recording, mixing and mastering duties. And as if that wasn't enough to occupy one man, Jeremy plays in White/Light and in 2010 issued a debut full-length album with his new group The High Confessions (with Steve Shelley, Chris Connelly and Sanford Parker).

Jeremy first came to my attention through reading the duck's head shaped credits on the sleeve of Jim O'Rourke's masterpiece Insignificance. Jeremy kindly agreed to an interview via email, mostly conducted in between legs of the Iron and Wine tour, in which I picked his brain to find out about recording techniques, capturing a band's live sound and the artists who he feels have developed a distinctive and impressive sound.

Yusef Sayed: What were your first experiences with audio recording and live sound and what tools did you have at your disposal to begin with?

Jeremy Lemos: I had a strange start with audio recording. I didn't really do any home recording at all; I learned in school. I went to Columbia College for Audio Recording, where I had access to professional gear, and then worked in the studios in Columbia. Acme Recording gave me my first studio day job and I remained there for six years.

This all got started when I was growing up in the 'burbs, being in love with music. I frequented the Fireside Bowl as a fan for many years in high school and that's where I fell in love with shows and all the wonderful weirdos hanging out. One day I helped a band, 90 Day Men I believe, carry their amps into the club and I got in for free. That seemed like a good deal to me and may have been the beginning of it all.

The first experiences with doing live sound were at the Fireside Bowl, where they hosted five bands a night, seven days a week - with two shows Friday and Saturday. I was working at Fireside maybe three nights a week. You learn a lot about working fast in live sound! Particularly in a situation like that: no soundchecks, we just set up festival style and threw bands up one after another every night. Soundcraft board and some rusty was the best!

YS: What are some of your fondest memories of your time spent working at Acme - can you remember the first session you worked on there?

JL: The first session I ever assisted on was with Martin Atkins from PiL and Pigface. He was doing drum overdubs, for a band called the Impotent Sea Snakes (!), and I still consider him to be one of the best drummers I've ever done a session with - a total machine, he had all the parts mapped out in his head after hearing a song once.

Smog Supper (2003)

I worked at Acme for years and made a lot of records, including two Smog records and a number of Jim O'Rourke's. Doing sessions with Jim and all of his killer band are my fondest memories from the time I worked there. I was so young and was really discovering myself at the time as well. Jim is the most inspiring person I've ever met - I owe my work ethic to him.

YS: Are you able to characterise this work ethic - for instance, is it a matter of the time you will dedicate to a recording project, or your approach to the use of equipment perhaps?

JL: By work ethic I mean working really hard all the time. That guy never stopped, he barely ever slept, and was always working on six things at a time. Sometimes I have trouble relaxing (my wife will agree) because I'm always worried that there is something else I could be doing that might pay off in the future. Watching TV is a dead end; that time you spend never comes back to you in any way.

YS: In 2000 you started Semaphore Recording Studios with Sanford Parker, Eric Block and Elliott Dicks. What initiated this development and what advantages did it provide?

JL: I knew that most people record with a studio rather than a specific engineer. Unless you are already well known, no one will ever call you as an outside engineer but people call up studios all the time and record with whoever answers the phone. So it was a way for us to get more work. We wanted to provide a cheap all analog studio, for people who couldn't afford to record with Steve Abini anymore.

YS: When Semaphore started there must have been a good array of recording equipment that you could all pool. Can you pick out a few items, perhaps some that aren't mentioned very often, that you swear by - whether you've discovered them recently or long ago?

JL: I was really obsessed with optical limiters - the Teletronix LA2A, Urei LA4 and the Manley ELOP - as well as plate reverbs. I had a real plate reverb, a digital plate reverb and a spring reverb emulator. I also had some DBX 118s - they were weird expanders and I got really into using them on drums.

YS: Can you give an example of where we might hear this and can you explain what makes the sound so distinctive?

JL: I'd use those 118s on the kick and snare if they weren't popping out in the mix enough. I would probably use them on almost every record I mixed at Semaphore, but it was probably pretty subtle.

YS: The way you record the drums has always stood out to me, specifically the kick drum, and I would call attention to the recording of Glenn Kotche playing on 'Laminated Cat', on the eponymous Loose Fur record, as a perfect example. At this point, do you tend to have a go-to setup for mic'ing the drums in the studio?

JL: You start to get used to your 'normal' mics and start with those because they have worked well in the past. You listen to it and go from there. If I was starting in my old studio, without having heard the drummer, I would grab an EV868 for the kick, a Sennheiser 441 for the snare top and whatever is around (usually a Shure SM57) for the bottom. Toms are often tricky: I like to use medium condensers and if there is insufficient gear I will double mic them on the top and bottom - SM81s are nice, but AKG 414s are better. I regularly use side address condensers, usually my little AT3525s and my 414 on the floor.

Then, depending on what room I'm in, I like to mic cymbals close (if you need them later later for the mix, usually 81s, or whatever is around, again). For overheads, I use AT4060s, the great tube ones. Then two Stapes omni condensers, now the Avenson Audio STO-2, on the floor in the room for ambience - you have to experiment to get them in the right place - and another room mic coming in on the floor tom side, to help hi-hat bleed, that I really crush for character. I run that one through the 'Nuke' setting on a Distressor, or the 'All the buttons mashed in' setting on the 1176 Peak Limiter, or super smashed on the FMR RNC. Jim would never do that but I love that extra mic to fill the holes. If it sounds like all the parts of the kit aren't glueing together, you can add some of that smashed mic in there to bring it together.

I measure the overheads to be the same distance from the snare and I do the same for the room mics. I would typically delay the room mics 5-9ms, depending on the drummer. After listening to that I would make changes from there. Unless it's jazz, or 'funky', I really don't ever need any more hi-hat than I already have in the snare, rack tom and overhead mics.

Loose Fur Loose Fur (2003)

YS: Not overlooking the fact that each band has their own, unique requirements, what is your recording 'recipe' for the rest of a typical four-piece rock band?

JL: Bass seems different for me every time. If the musician has a nice bass (and it's the right genre) I love a well recorded direct signal. But sometimes I will record a mic and combine it with the DI using a phase aligner - the Little Labs one, or the Radial JDI, will work well. For a mic I like a large diaphragm condenser, the Neumann U87 is nice, or a large dynamic like the Shure SM7.

For guitars I always use two mics and one of them is always a Beyer M160. Guitars never sound right to me unless there is a 160 on it somewhere and I usually use two mics to get more space. Keep the two mics on the same speaker cone (always check your phase) and then the 160 will pick up all the great highs; the other mic (perhaps a 441 or a 421) will pick up things that the 160 won't. Both are capturing the same cabinet, but will sound quite different. As long as they are in phase, you should be able to pan them and widen out your guitar image. If I have lots of room in a mix, I'll widen the pan more; but if there are already thirteen things going have to decide how far you can go.

With keyboards I usually mix it up. If it's a digital keyboard I like to run it through an amp for some air and if it's a nice, old 'real' keyboard I like to get it direct. Of course, these are only starting points and you have to find out what works for each band. Many musicians already have an idea of how they want it recorded and you have to listen to them. They just might know how they want to sound!

YS: You've been on the road for much of this year, with Iron and Wine and spent most of 2010 with Pavement. You seem to revel in learning new tricks regarding live sound. Can you share any epiphanies that you've had this year, which may help budding sound engineers?

JL: One thing I've been doing lately is a lot of wild and quick compression. A good example of this would be when mixing a band in a large, reverberant room. The room you are mixing in has as much to do with your sound as the PA or band does. If you sculpt certain elements of your mix using very fast, radical compression on transient sounds you can make a massive difference in how much unwanted energy is thrown into the room. A good example of this is the very hard 'S's and 'P's on a vocal. Use a very hard compressor with a very fast attack and release time, to crush out the spikes. It's something you would never use in the studio but it will keep all of that energy from floating around a huge room and smearing your mix for the four seconds it decays. Doing things like this has cleaned up my mixes a lot, and when you have twelve multi-instrumentalists on stage I need all the help I can get!

YS: Which bands can you recall seeing recently (who you didn't engineer) who impressed you in terms of their live sound?

JL: There are two ways to think about this: using the left brain and the right brain. My left brain says the L-Acoustics K1 line array system is the greatest PA I've ever heard. It's the clearest, best sounding, longest throwing speaker system of all time - incredible. Right brain? I saw Swans at a festival this year and they really translated through a huge PA in a way I never thought possible. There are two bands in Chicago that I have always been impressed by when I've seen them: Disappears and Anatomy of Habit. I've only been able to hear them play through small club PAs but both have their sound together already, so it really doesn't matter where they play.

YS: Could you identify a few records that you think are representative of exemplary audio recording/production and comment on one or two in particular? While the selections on your website are incontestable, particularly Talk Talk's Laughing Stock, maybe there are some others that that have caught your ears more recently.

JL: It's going to be hard to not talk about Laughing Stock, because it's the greatest record I've ever heard. But a couple of others spring to mind: Muddy Waters' Folk Singer has always impressed me. The echo chamber in the studio sounded great and they weren't afraid to use it. Modern blues sounds so horrible, like modern country, and there used to be such characters! This record is a lesson in getting out of the way and letting the talent do the work.

Frank Sinatra's In the Wee Small Hours is also one of those records for me. It may be the first concept record (LPs were collections of singles until then) and it's just Frank at his peak singing in front of an orchestra. If you ever need a reference point for what an orchestra is supposed to sound like, this is it. It will make you think of Frank much more seriously and you will forget the 'New York, New York's and think of this from now on.

As for recent records I like what John Congleton is doing. The new Disappears record sounds like a million bucks. I'm biased but I love Sanford Parker's production as well. I would be hearing a band do takes through the walls of Semaphore and they wouldn't sound very together, but they would always sound unreal after I walked in the control room and heard what Sanford was doing to them. I also love the soundtrack to The Social Network. I liked it so much I went back and bought all the Nine Inch Nails records, but that was a mistake. Those records are so teenage-angry and the lyrics are really immature. The recent work may be him not wanting to be the focus and have a supporting role, but it works. So I'm waiting for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, can't wait. I'm slipping into fandom and away from engineering but I'm into almost everything on Kranky Records. The last Valet record is great and so is the new solo record from Christina Vantzou.

The High Confessions Turning Lead Into Gold With The High Confessions (2010)

YS: I'd like to ask you whether you can articulate what it is that excites you when it comes to engineering. Are you typically looking to achieve the most natural sounding recording, or is it a matter of finding a way to represent a particular band in a way that is sympathetic to their wider ideas about music, which could include shaping more unconventional and 'unnatural' sound elements?

JL: This is a strange question for me right now. I used to record bands every day, all year round. I was almost always trying to capture what they were doing in the studio as well as I could. I always thought of myself as the guy that could speak to the band and would translate what they wanted to all the gear in the studio. Now that I'm recording more of my own music and not making a living recording other people, I've thrown that out the window. When I was working on mixing The High Confessions, I thought it was funny that we didn't hesitate on trashing the drums! If I had been recording Steve Shelley for a different project and I was only the engineer I wouldn't have dared messing with the drums. But as soon as it was my band we smashed them up, gated them and in some cases replaced them! As a recording engineer I find myself very left brained and trying to be helpful, but as a producer of my own bands it's very easy to switch to the right brain and not worry about any of those things. When I was working a lot with Jim O'Rourke I always thought it was funny that he didn't ever care about things like what mic on the guitar was right or left, and I would always have to document everything down to the inch. I guess that's the real difference between engineer and producer, right?