Interview: BESS

Mooncore is a percussive autopsy. After sampling the drum kit from every direction – using an array of different microphones, capturing the sounds that reside in every material within the kit – BESS processed the source audio into looped resonances, vacant white noise and downpours of plastic and wood. Each sound is a new method of comprehending the instrument. By layering these noises on top of one another and slotting voices and obscure sampling into the seams, the album becomes an intense inward scrutiny of body, vibration and ritual, fanning outward across the spectrum of perceptual possibility and burrowing down into ever-greater levels of intimacy.  

To accompany the release of Mooncore, BESS is currently conducting a series of performances that exhibit the music in a variety of ways, including texts from her notebook, graphic prints and activities that dance with the fixtures of audience expectation. The video of her first performance can be seen here. Below, BESS and I discuss the process of deconstructing the drum set, transposing to other materialities and the atmospheric tension of her Mooncore performances.

Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me. I’ve been listening to Mooncore for a while and had planned to review it, but when you sent me the email explaining the exhibition side of the project, I started to feel that reviewing the album would only cover one aspect of what you’ve created here. 

I’m eager to talk about the whole project, but I see the music as the core of it. For me it would also make sense to only talk about the music. It’s very important that the sound is the starting point.

So the sound can exist independently from everything you’ve built around it?

Yeah. It should have a life of its own – it doesn’t necessarily need the visual parts. These are just ways for me to work with it further, extending the thoughts of what the record is and exploring what it’s about.

So is there a concrete set of ideas that you’re driving at with Mooncore, or are the visual aspects of the project a way to uncover the concept for yourself?

It’s probably mostly the latter. I like to work in this semi-concrete, semi-mysterious way. I should have some unknown things and be interested in what is going to happen. I don’t want to have a complete masterplan of what I want to say, because some of the signals coming out of my work are out of my control. In the beginning, it was about having a method. I gathered all of the sounds from a drum set – it’s like an investigation of the drum set as material.

Compared to what I’ve heard of your previous material, the melodic aspect of this record seems almost “implied”; it seems derived from the process of looping samples and allowing melodies to arise from combinations of drums at different tunings. What was like to dig down into the possibilities of the drum kit in this way?

I was very eager to make a project that was very minimalistic in concept. The sound should be very “narrow”, and not as expansive as it had been before. I just wanted to explore the drum set and only that. I recorded a lot of “small” sounds – maybe 100 or so recordings – all over the drum set: on the metal, on the plastic, on the wood. I tried to see what textures are in the drum set when you don’t play it as you usually do. I also  had some different pre-sets of how I recorded it. Sometimes I tried to play on it as exploring textures, and sometimes I’d make some grooves. I did it without thinking of the compositions at this stage. I just saw it as my new “ground” material – just as you could gather clay or paper.

It’s very digitally produced: nerding with the sampling, pitching and putting sounds on top of eachother, and playing around to see what I could get out of it, and transforming it away from just being a drum set and being more white noise, or this landscape of sounds where you can’t recognise the drum set. It was about getting these other qualities out of it.

grafisk-tryk_1

 

There is such a diverse array of recording fidelities here. On some of the recordings you can hear the drums quite vividly, but on others it seems that the drums have been recorded with the worst microphones possible. Did you play with the fidelity when you were recording the drums by using different microphones, or was that all constructed in post-production?

I used different approaches when recording it. I used my iPhone at some points and then better microphones at others. That’s also part of getting different materials out of it; I just wanted to play around with that. I was just very curious about getting all sorts of sounds out of it with different recording techniques. It was like, “how does it feel to have this very filtered thing from the iPhone and this clearer recording, and what happens when you put them together…”. I just wanted as many possibilities as I could. I wasn’t interested in making a “pure” sound, and so it didn’t make sense to record using these very high-quality mics. It’s good to be aware that there’s a filtering going on with microphones, so you might as well show that. I’m not a purist in that way. I don’t like the idea that I should get the drums as pure as possible.

You sent me over a set of notes from your notebook, one of which said, “maybe I should just be totally punk”. Does that tie in with your point about purity, or is that something else entirely?

Those notes I sent you are this flow of thoughts. It’s kind of personal. When I exhibited it, I put out all of my notes. What you saw was just two pages of it. For me, these notes aren’t necessarily made up of key points that explain the music, but they explain the personal narrative I went through when I made the music. It also allowed me to see the visuality of my project. I’d transferred the notes from hand-written to a digital form, but I put them on the page in the same format as they were by hand. So it had this graphical outlook, which maybe shows the process of transforming my thoughts. Some people have said that it can almost look like a graphical score for the music in a weird way. Sometimes it gets kind of rhythmical too, because you have a little spot of words here, then another spot here, then again over here…it’s also like a painting, on its way to becoming a form in sound.

I’m making these performances now, where I’m trying to transfer the material into other materialities. I made these clay sculptures too. It’s an intuitive and philosophical investigation of how form is born. How do my ideas become these compositions on the record? Does the way I create form on the paper, physically, directly influence the form of the music and the sound waves I create? I work with Ableton Live, and I’ve depicted my session views in graphical prints. I also reflected upon how it looks in the session view compared to how the music is actually formed, because I think that also means something.

The way in which you’ve exposed the process of your work – essentially making it part of the work itself – is really interesting. 

Yeah. Although as I said in the beginning, the music is completely valuable by itself. I wouldn’t recommend people read my notes in order to understand Mooncore. It’s just an extra part. That’s what I thought was interesting and fun about making the exhibition. A lot of the time, text is used in an explanatory way and I think that can be so boring. I thought of the text as more of a graphic thing, but it was also about posing questions. It’s very personal. I didn’t want to give people a very clear key to going, “oh – it’s about this and this,” because I don’t think it’s like that when you listen to a piece of music. That’s not how I perceive art.

It’s often really disappointing to learn that a work is about something specific, and thus feel like your own personal relationship with it is based on an inadequacy in your understanding.

It can be really sad. I don’t think there’s any experience that is wrong. It should open up and give multiple answers, as opposed to science and other such ways of exploring.

In your email to me the other day, you described your role in a recent performance as being “half-dead matter”. What did you mean by that? 

Did you see the video of “Performance #1”, where I had just my back on show?

Yeah. It took me a few minutes to realise what it was.

I’m really curious about how people perceive the video. That was what happened at the concert, too. I hadn’t announced what would happen – I just said that there would be a performance at a specific hour. People came into the room, and I was sitting there with my back facing the audience. I could just hear them talking and chit-chatting. I just had my friend inviting people in, but he didn’t point out anything – he just made it open so that people could get their own hold on what was there in the darkness. Some people didn’t notice me there for 15 minutes. It was a really weird experience.

What I mean by “half-dead matter” is that I was there in the room as a visual thing. The sound was there in the room but I was not performing it – I was just a body that was sitting there while people were listening through the album. People slowly got a hold of the fact that I was actually there. I wanted to be a static part of the installation, but still there and present. Being in the middle of those two was kind of interesting. At one point, I “woke up” and began to move. I sang from behind the curtain with a backing track. Then they could see that something was happening and could sense where the voice was coming from, but it was still obscure. I was half object and half alive.

Did you speak to anyone afterwards about what they thought about having the material presented to them in that way? 

They were overwhelmed about not knowing that it was my back, and then going, “woah – it’s moving!” People had different moments when they experienced that, and some people didn’t even understand it as being that part of my body. I don’t know what else they thought it could be – they just saw this piece of meat [laughs]. The atmosphere was very tense and present. I really felt that. I think it was nice, as it made something of the way they listened to the whole soundscape.

I guess there’s still a certain “etiquette” that surrounds live performances of sound, in that if the performer is present, they are expected to be actively engaged in the sonic element of the work. Some people find it strange when the performer is only “passively” connected to the sound. 

Yeah, exactly. When they see me, they know that I know whether they’re listening or not. [laughs] I was observing them with my back in a weird way. That also felt a bit teasing, which I liked.

I cheated them a little bit, but I think it had a symbolic meaning to just having a back in front of you. I made this whole work on my computer – it’s very much made in front of this goddamn laptop we all sit in front of so much. You don’t think of that part of the reality. When I make music, I think of it as something bodily and open and much bigger than that. But actually, I’m just sitting there a lot of the time with my back bowed – often sitting quite badly – so I thought, “that’s what they’re going to see. They’re going to see that back, with which I’m sitting and working for hours.” That’s how the body is connected to this music.

ableton-session

MOONCORE ABLETON SESSION

Speaking of the presence of body in the work, I’m really interested in how your voice is utilized in Mooncore. Often it seems that the music beneath you is offering nothing fertile on which to plant a conventionally musical vocal line, and yet you come in with a melodic conviction that suggests that you’re hearing a hidden melody within the drums somewhere. How did you go about incorporating your voice into this album?

My idea from the beginning was that it should be a sonic input in parallel to the drum textures. I would like to think of it more of a texture than something that should make a melody. That was my mindset when I did it, but I can see that it ended up providing a more melodic element. It’s not like I’m thinking, “I miss having chords here”. [laughs] I don’t know. Perhaps I just create the chords with my voice instead. Normally I would use synths to provide the chords. Perhaps I’m just skipping that part and making the melodic part with my voice instead.

On “Det / The” – the kind-of techno track or the Mooncore piece as I see it, where I’m reciting this text about Mooncore – I play this shaman. I think of it as me being in a ritualistic mode; I was being this priest figure without being religious. Just spiritual. I just improvise it, so it’s hard to explain why it becomes how it does.

It must be strange doing interviews like this. You’ve already provided text accompaniments to the work that are specifically not designed to explain the work. With interviews there’s almost this requirement to be direct and explanatory.

It’s interesting. I almost feel eager to instead ask you about your experience of it. [laughs] It’s more natural to think of it like that as a conversation, where it’s both ways. It’s a dangerous place to be, where you feel that you have to explain stuff. It can make you say things that are actually not that constructive for the work; it’s this social thing where it’s like, “you’ve asked me something so I have to explain.” I’m just trying to investigate myself and find out what I think is interesting.

So you’ve got several further performances of Mooncore coming up. Do you have any ideas for how you’re going to approach these, or will the outcome of each performance inform how you plan the next one? 

I’ve done two performances and I’ll be doing two more. I’ve not been thinking about the whole. After the back performance, I was thinking “right – what would be interesting to go into now?” I’m trying to think more site-specific, even more so than before. I think about the room I’m going to and what would work there. What expectations are there, and how do I want to play with them in some way?

It’s something I have to go through personally with expectations. I have a lot of resistance to these codes that we experience all the time, both socially and artistically. I think I’m over-aware of that sometimes. I have to react to it in some way, probably because I’m very sensitive to it. It becomes something I work with in these performance situations.

BESS website – besslyd.dk
BESS on Facebook – facebook.com/bessASbess
Mooncore on Bandcamp – bessbessbess.bandcamp.com/album/mooncore