Interview: Morten Poulsen

Photo by Anna-My Scheibel Christiansen

Dark Web is the latest project from Danish sound artist Morten Poulsen: a generative, interactive audio/visual piece without beginning or end. While the output of Dark Web can be manipulated by the user, the project ultimately stands independently from observation and interaction; it exists whether the user is present or not, divorced from the traditional hallmarks of music playback and the linear passing of time.

Just how successions of hyperlinks drag us into strange and unexpected corners of cyberspace, this interview started by focusing on Morten’s new project before swerving into a discussion about our day-to-day relationship with the internet: the ubiquity and intensity of covert monitoring, the concept of “digital manners” and the negligible physical investment required to generate gigantic consequences (for better or worse). This conversation gave rise to the same sensations I experience after episode of Black Mirror, leaving me with a reinvigorated paranoia around the use of my phone and laptop. If you’re happy to nurture that lingering guilt for a little while, read on.

This Dark Web project is rather addictive, isn’t it?

You can sit in front of it for a long time. It’s made for that – to see if I can keep you there, which is difficult. Our attention span is so short today, and the way regular people use the computer is very fast; we switch between things all the time. In that respect, it was difficult to find a way to make people stay there.

So you were consciously trying to “re-wire” people’s concentration level to keep them interacting with the project? 

Yeah. It’s part of a thinking process I’ve had for a couple of years: figuring out how I present my music. I thought it was a problem that sound art is being presented in the same way as any other music. Sound art and more “sophisticated” music needs time. You need to give it enough attention in order to get something out of it, you know? If you present it through the same platform as a pop song on Spotify, then you listen to it like you would listen to a pop song on Spotify. That’s what I see with my friends and other artists – if you go on Spotify to hear sound art, you don’t listen to it in the same way, and you don’t have the same attention level that you would give to a vinyl or something. A lot of my friends are not necessarily interested in sound art, so if I wanted to show my music to them, I have to find a way to keep their interest.

It’s a tricky dilemma you’ve got there: trying to identify a means of engaging those without a pre-existing interest in sound art, without resorting to the platforms they are most familiar with. Personally I found this project very interesting as I was constantly discovering new facets of Dark Web’s digital mechanics, but have you been able to assess whether it’s effective at holding the attention those without an established interest in this sort of sound?

It’s something I’ve been working on for several years. I live in a smaller city in Denmark, where I’ve never heard anyone talk about deep listening or anything like that. I’ve been trying to find ways to play my music to people, but sort of “trick” them into deep listening. That’s how I got into performance art. If I just went to a venue here in town and said, “now I’m going to do a one-hour noise concert”, not many people would come. Even though I’m super-interested in noise and building my own analogue instruments, there isn’t a big audience for that kind of thing here. I have to find a way to play my music and get what I’m interested in out to the audience, so I’ve been doing a lot of performances that retain my artistic integrity and consider the fact that the audience are not necessarily used to this type of music or art in general.

Why are you targeting the “uninitiated” in particular? Do you think it’s important that people are exposed to works that encourage deep listening?

I think there are several reasons. Again, I live in a smaller city where the community is not that big. If you want an audience, you have to make your audience. And if I want friends in the community, I have to create friends in the community [laughs]. That’s the private aspect of it: trying to build a community. Professionally, there’s a challenge to reach the kind of people who wouldn’t just immediately “get it”, you know? It’s one thing to accommodate listeners from a music conservatory or from an academic environment. You need to have your album out on a certain label or give an interview to a certain type of media, and then you’ll gain respect from people in the field. That’s one approach. I got interested in seeing if I could get other people interested in what I’m doing. It feels like you can make a difference there as you can get people curious about art and get them to ask more questions; not just about the music, but about society and the times we are living in.

Also, I finished my Bachelor’s degree at a music conservatory two or three years ago and started working with experimental music a lot. No one from the music conservatory was attending my concerts. However, non-musicians from other parts of the university starting coming. They were not seeing my work from a musically theoretical point of view, so I started getting different types of questions about my music. It wasn’t so much about how it was made or the technical aspect, but questions like, “how do we relate to this experience?” Right now I’m not in touch with the music conservatory environment at all. I’m in contact with people from other art fields instead.

Some of the most interesting reactions to my work have been from people using their personal, non-theoretical vocabulary to try and articulate or rationalise the experience.

I saw a quote from Kenneth Kirschner about attending school to learn your craft versus being self-taught. He said something like: even though we go this process of learning a lot of stuff and then unlearning it, there will still be a part of us that remains attached to what has been learned. We internalise ways of thinking from our time in education. I think that’s why comments from someone outside your field are more interesting. What I feel from other musicians is that they have a certain way of thinking that has been shaped by their education and teachers, and often they present very similar views.

I’d imagine this project works well for trying to engage these outsider perspectives. The dark web captures the interest of all sorts of different people from all kinds of interest groups. It’s almost like a universe beneath our feet. Why did you choose to explore the dark web? 

It comes from my thoughts about working with the musical parameter of time. I’ve always been interested in working with the most basic aspects of music and sound. Time is one of those aspects. I was thinking about how to create eternal music without it being automated or generative or something, but thinking of composition as one long stream – just as a lot of artists have done before. I started thinking, “what else works that way?” In our part of the world, the internet has become like the water in our houses; it’s a basic part of life. It’s open 24/7, and it’s happening whether you’re there or not: whether you’re Skyping, or on Facebook or on your phone or whatever. It’s larger than my existence here and now. When I’m on the internet, I’m just tapping into this eternal stream for 30 minutes or so. When I close down my computer, that stream continues. I thought it could be interesting to take the music in to this field, and think of the music and the internet as one river that is going whether you’re there or not. You can choose to bathe in the river and then you can leave, but the river will still be there.

One of the first things I noticed with Dark Web is how I entered the composition at a different point each time I loaded the URL. In which case, I guess the music doesn’t have an explicit beginning or end. Is that right? 

I’m the only one who knows where the beginning and end are. That’s super-fun. When people are going to website and I’m there, it’s always fun for me to feel that: they’re tapping into the project and they think that this is the beginning, but I know that this is two hours into the piece. There are some nice contrasts there. People experience the music in a different way to me, and I can never experience the piece as they are.

Agatka 1 Drop

I understand that you worked with another artist for the visual component of Dark Web. 

Yeah. My friend Jeroen Derks is a Dutch artist and he did the visuals. We’ve been communicating back and forth on how it should be. I think we’ve been working on the visuals for a year or something, mainly because we’re both really busy.

So did the music inspire the visuals or vice versa?

There was definitely a sense of collaboration between the sound and visual elements. I was telling him the thoughts I was having about how I wanted the experience to be, and I wanted both the visuals and sound to reflect that. I made some music and showed it to him and he made some visuals and showed them to me. There have been a bunch of other sketches that just didn’t fit with the sound well enough. For me it’s a music release, so it’s very important that they fit the music.

In my own experience of the project, I heard field recordings that felt like they were trapped behind a pane of glass; drums ricocheting off the walls; extracts of existing music that had been sliced and looped…what was the process for putting the sonic element of this project together?

I’m a very improvisational composer. In the beginning, the process was about creating sounds that reflected these thoughts. Along the way, I created concepts for the sounds. I had a studio alone for three days with my drum set, and I was thinking about what I could do in that environment. I knew I wanted a long structure, so I was thinking about how I could layer everything so that you could tap into the music at any point. I then went to my own studio and recorded synthesisers. I also did some field recordings that could reflect the theme of being monitored on the internet. I’ve been deliberately trying to get these “digitalised” sounds. For me, a lot of the sounds are digitally rough. Sales on vinyl are going up at the moment, and that warm vinyl sound is really popular. Dark Web is really digital, and you can hear the digital techniques of stretching the sound. That’s an important part of it: you are on the internet, so it’s the whole question of, “are we being monitored right now? Are people actually listening to what I’m saying right now? Are they following what I’m writing?”

Yesterday I was have a voice conversation on Facebook, and then all of a sudden there was another voice in the conversation. Whether some other signals were passing in the same data stream or something, I don’t know. Facebook is obviously monitoring us – there’s no doubt it. For me, this was really scary. I wanted to bring that into the music: this feeling of being digitalised, field recordings created to feel like you’re listening to someone else having a conversation through a wall, or outside a subway listening to people on the train. You hear it through a computer. You hear it through a data stream.

As well as being observed by outsiders, I guess there’s also the consideration that we’re all observing other people by perusing social media profiles, “Facebook stalking” etc.

There are some great discussions there about how the internet and social media has become a part of our communication, and what is good and bad in that respect. What is “too much” information? How much are we giving away in terms of data and information relating to our personal and professional lives? In a way, we try to show the persona that we would like other people to see. At the same time, people are doing all sorts of weird stuff that they probably wouldn’t be doing in real life, and that they wouldn’t want to be associated with in real life. We’re still inclined to say bad stuff and harass people on the internet. It’s a really complex thing.

I’ve been thinking about the whole idea of having “digital manners”. I teach electronic music for kids, and as I’m doing that I’m also trying to incorporate thoughts about how we use this technology and the correct way to use it. When do we use it too much? When does it take over us? How should these kids know when to put the phone down, even though they’re doing the music on the computer? They’ll pick up the phone if, for some reason, the music isn’t interesting to them at that point. They’re 13 years old, so there’s a lot of other stuff going on in their heads. I’m trying to say to them, “you can use your phone at any other time, but right now you’re doing music on the computer. Try to have focus.” Because I can’t say, “do not use technology.” Right? We’re using technology, and I’m the one using it the most as a teacher! It’s not a question of ignoring the fact that we have the internet and this way of communication and these distractions; we have to learn and consider how we are using it.

Are there ways in which you cultivate and maintain a sense of focus amidst the ubiquity of the internet? I frequently worry that I’m turning myself into a distracted, less invested human being through the way I utilise and navigate the internet, and I’m often thinking about ways I can potentially push back against that. 

I think the first step is to express and be aware of it, and then to find ways to deal with it. On and off, I’ve been trying to organise myself on the computer so that I’m able to better control myself in terms of how I’m using it. That involves cutting off distractions, but also knowing when distractions are good. Sometimes I feel that I want to be distracted, and it can be just as bad if I get too deep into my own world. There needs to be a balance. Especially when you’re someone who works with a computer a lot…this laptop here is my professional work tool, my television when I get home, my communication tool, where I listen to music…I just use it so much, so I need to figure out how to balance it. It’s still a work in progress.

I feel as though we’re not at a stage where we treat our digital worlds with the same care and cleanliness we employ in the physical world: desktops and phone screens full to the brim with icons, for example. It’s the digital equivalent to having clothes strewn all over the floor. I regularly contemplate how that affects concentration levels of people using the internet.

The internet can be such a mess. If you don’t know how to organise yourself on your computer, you are just being taken over by all of this commercialism and everything that you see. There’s so much stuff on websites that is designed specifically to grab your attention, and it’s the same as someone standing in the street and shouting at you saying, “you should come and see this.” People don’t do that in real life because it’s not real and relevant to you, but I think a lot of people have problems with doing the exact same thing on the internet.

It’s also potentially problematic that the very mechanism for engaging with work and engaging with distractions – as in, clicking on something – is the exact same. It allows advertisements to co-opt that reflex.

Yeah. And there’s the physical difference in terms of making an action on the computer and making an action in real life. You have to move you finger a centimetre or something like that; it’s such a tiny movement. In a split-second and you can change a lot of things, both good and bad. It’s amazing but it’s also one of the reasons that people get so easily distracted. On the outside world, if you see someone who doesn’t look too good and you know that they just need to talk to someone…it becomes too much of an action to do. On the internet we’re doing so much all of the time, and I think that says a lot about how we’re not able to control ourselves online. As it says in some pop-ups: “it’s just a click away.” You can send some money to a prince in a non-existent country, or send some money to people who really need it.

It certainly opens up possibilities for enacting positive changes very easily. To make a very tenuous transition, I see that you’re currently developing a new musical interface through Max 7, which could be considered an example of how to generate and manipulate something very complex through nano-movements. What are you trying to achieve with that? 

It’s more of a hobby I do once in a while when I’m not doing other music [laughs]. I’ve been playing drums since a was five years old, and this very natural feeling of moving your arm to create a sound…it’s so immediate. I’ve been doing contemporary improvisational music and free jazz for some time, and it’s gotten to the point where I feel a very immediate sensation of receiving information, listening to the other members in the band and making a sound without any thought process in between. It’s immediate improvisation through communication with the other musicians. I’ve always thought about how that’s difficult to do with a computer and digital instruments. Just for fun and experimentation, I thought that if there’s not an instrument I can buy that fits with my way of improvising, then I should make it, right? It’s more of a hobby than actual research.

Morten Poulsen

How far along is it? Has it reached a stage where you can actually use it?

I played a concert with it in August 2016 actually.

How did it go?

It went…okay. I’m not satisfied with it. It’s going to be something I’ll be working on for many years. I haven’t the history of it, but I guess that the concept of how a violin is made wasn’t arrived at in a day. It takes time to develop this thing, and if I’m truly trying to create an instrument that feels as immediate as a guitar or a drum set or a violin – as immediate as any instrument we’ve had for many years – then it’s probably going to take some time. I’m not saying that I’m not going to take a substitution for a violin within a year or something. Again, it’s a hobby so I’m not particularly into working on it too much on a regular basis. It’s going to take a while.

So other than Dark Web, what else have you got coming up?

Having worked a lot in 2016, I’ve started the process of self-evaluation and looking at my own process and concepts in order to develop some more. Then there’s the whole Aquasonic project which is going to start up again very soon. That’s going to take up a lot of my time. Then there are several different projects with dancers and visual artists that I’m working on…there’s always a lot of stuff.

Morten, this has been great. I still feel like I’m just at the surface of Dark Web in terms of understanding how it works.

If we’re ending it here, I just wanted to end on something for “the listeners”. I think there’s something interesting about the fact that everything is digitalised. History is digitalised. We can delete and edit this history, just as we can go to Wikipedia and change the history to say that Prince isn’t dead. We can change history. This idea of information not being static anymore is really interesting to me. Dark Web is realised now, but the history of Dark Web could still be changed. You never know whether, in the future, there are going to be some changes to the sound. Maybe there’s going to be new music, and the music that’s there now never existed.

Are you dropping a hint there about the “future” of Dark Web?

It’s on the internet. It’s alive. A lot of stuff could happen.