Interview: Jockel Liess

I was wrong. I’d assumed that the tones that make up Jockel Liess’ Bordun Chorus were artificial emulations of the human voice, laced with the hiss of electronic breath and the faux warmth of faux body. In the interview below, Jockel corrects me. Actually, the process is actually travelling in the other direction; the composition is based entirely on actual samples of Jockel’s own overtone singing, with certain harmonics artificially accentuated to create these strange, shimmering overcoats of high frequency. 

The composition suspends itself, teasingly, above the conventional notions of duration and tonality. It has no beginning and no end. It has no tonal centre. Instead, this strange vapour of vocal sounds rotates and undulates, forever redressing its own tilts and sudden upturns, constantly on the edge of condensing into something I can make better sense of. A conclusion perhaps? A moment of perceived resolution? An explicit allegiance to the organic or the artificial? The composition was presented as an installation at Café Oto’s project space back in November 2016, and has since been released as a 22-minute EP on Resterecords. You can watch a video extract of the installation here. Below, Jockel and I discuss indeterminacy, circles and becoming a Hikikomory.

Unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it to the Bordun Chorus installation at the Café Oto Project Space in London, although it sounded fantastic. How did it go?

I think it went well. That is I very much enjoyed setting up the work in the project space, and we had a great turnout over the weekend. It is a nice space for installations and the staff at Café Oto were great. It was very nice to get their feedback too, as the people who work at Oto are probably amongst the most critical audience I can possibly encounter.

How did you find the process of condensing an ever-changing, non-durational, quadrophonic artwork into a fixed, durational piece in stereo? Did this pose any technical or conceptual hurdles for you? 

A recording of the work, like the one for the release with Resterecords, is simply a window into the piece. It is not that dissimilar to someone listening to it during an installation. It’s just when it is installed, everyone has the freedom to determine their own duration, and everyone experiences their own version of it depending on when they choose to start and stop listening. I prefer to give people this freedom. To impose a set duration on the work gives the impression that there is a beginning and an end. The work however is an environment and can be experienced for any length of time. It is like the wind or the waves, they don’t begin or end, but you can choose to walk away or stop listening. The algorithms producing my work are build to emulate natural systems. To improvise the progression of the work in a similar way as nature improvises its development. So a release, like the one with Resterecords, is only ever a recording of the work for an arbitrary duration. It is like a recording of the wind or the waves, it is never itself the work.

"BORDUN CHORUS" INSTALLATION AT CAFÉ OTO PROJECT SPACE

“BORDUN CHORUS” INSTALLATION AT CAFÉ OTO PROJECT SPACE

Am I correct in saying that 2016 was the first year that you moved into releasing your work on physical media, having worked primarily in the form of concerts/exhibitions/installations up until now? How have you found this transition?

Yes, Bordun Chorus is only my second release with Resterecords, and I’m still getting used to the idea. Coming from a visual art background I started working with sound and composition to support my visual work. For years I’ve seen my work as consisting of three equally important elements: the visual, the acoustic and the physical. All three aspects then come together in the audiovisual installation; it’s the idea of a multisensory environment. In many ways I still see that as the ideal way of experiencing my work. The audible component however has gradually become the most dominant and important part of any piece. Now I feel it can actually stand alone as a composition. The visuals and installations have over the years become more and more a source of light and framework for the sound to be experienced in. My interests and influences have also shifted from what is traditionally considered fine art towards music. So in fact it has been a long and gradual development to arrive at this point.

I’ve been listening to the audio version of Bordun Chorus in several different playback contexts: over speakers, over headphones indoors, over headphones by the sea etc. Each listening environment completely reframes the perceived shape of the piece; unsurprisingly, the overtones feel much more chaotic and pronounced when permitted to emanate in physical space. Have you experimented with different playback contexts, and do you have a personal favourite?

I think I’m probably quite unadventurous in this aspect, or maybe too much of a control freak. My preferred environment to experience the work is always in its installation setup, so by default indoors – well, up till now at least. Saying that, as I work from home in a not-so-sound insulated room, there is a lot of sound leakage from the outside when I work. Especially since I started to manipulate overtone frequencies, I’m sometimes not sure if a sound is occurring within the piece, or a car going past outside for example. In many ways I quite like that. And as I can never go back and re-listen to what I’ve just heard because the piece is only ever generated in the moment, the sonic environment of the road I live on probably influences my work more then I would like to admit. I wonder if my work would change if I create it within a different sonic background.

A lot of your work seems to involve the partial relinquishment of composer control, with the output guided largely by chance/indeterminate operations and generative computer systems. I’ve also always seen the absence of duration to be a form of surrendering control as well, as it results in the artwork bleeding beyond the artificial borders of time that surround performance/installation pieces. What appeals to you about allowing “external forces” to govern the outcome of your work?

I think it’s a multitude of factors that have drawn me to this way of working. To begin with probably the fact that I don’t like to make too many decisions all the time. I think it is simply unnecessary for me to do so, especially in the context of progression within a piece. I’m aware that my own imagination is quite limited, and many more interesting things may happen over time if I surrender my immediate control; things that I could never have thought of. I like the unexpected; I like to observe it happening and be surprised by it. And this never happens if your mind is too much in control, or at least not if mine is.

Of course, this way of working is very influenced by John Cage and his concept of chance and indeterminacy. But not just by – there are lots of composers who took his ideas forward and developed them. People like Richard Maxfield, La Monte Young or Pauline Oliveros have built on and, lets say, “refined” these Cagian ideas. Seeing composition as a musical territory rather than as a linear progression with a beginning, climax and end was something Maxfield propagated for example. His entire compositional process was build around this, and a lot of Young’s and Oliveros’s practice has to do with surrendering control to improvising musicians within a compositional structure.

In a way, each individual algorithm I create is the instrument, the improvising performer and the composition, all in one. What is predetermined by the algorithm is the musical terrain and the behaviour with which this terrain can be explored. However I don’t want to choose the path on which it is explored. The work is given the ability to play itself in an infinite variety of unpredictable ways. And this allows the music to develop organically within the boundaries of its musical territory. I like to call this an organic composition. The format and methods are very much taken from observing and studying the infinite complexity of the natural world. It’s the idea of creating infinity within a finite space. There’s a lot of Chaos Theory in my work. I like Chaos Theory – it makes so much sense.

JOCKEL LIESS – NOTHING

NOTHING

The timbre of the “instrument” on Bordun Chorus makes allusions to the human voice but doesn’t emulate it precisely. Was there a deliberate objective to straddle the boundary between the organic and the artificial? From my side feels rather appropriate, given how the composition draws on both computer processes and the influence of the natural world to work toward a sort of generative autonomy… 

Bordun Chorus is actually entirely based on my voice. Everything you hear is part of the natural timbre contained within the original recordings I made. It’s all me trying to practice overtone singing, which I’m not very good at. Bordun Chorus is a bit unusual in the fact that I normally work from very short recorded samples. I’ve made works with no more than one second of recorded material in the past, but I always base my work on actual sounds. I have used my voice a lot as a “sound-producing device”. The human voice is such an incredibly flexible instrument. The sounds I build a piece on can be anything that I find sonically interesting however. One of the sounds I was extremely happy with recently is the “squeaky” noise produced by stretching a bit of grass between your thumbs and blowing at it. It makes a shrill high pitch whistling sound with some quite incredible sonic qualities.

For Bordun Chorus, I have used 28 different recordings of my voice, each with a different overtone distribution. The computer system then sings me in a way. The inorganic qualities you refer to are partly already present in the original recordings: my attempt of throat singing. Partly they emerge through further artificial amplification of individual overtone frequencies within the played samples. As the volume of each overtone within the audible range influences the timbre of a sound, one can manipulate the timbre in many interesting ways by filtering and amplifying different overtones. While I worked on this I always wondered if a group of singers, with incredibly well trained voices, would be able to perform Bordun Chorus without any artificial means. In our western musical tradition the voice is used to such limited effect. What is considered a great singing voice is such a narrow range of what can be produced vocally, and there are many vocal traditions that do not have this unhealthy focus on the purity of pitch.

But to answer your question, I like to create organic results through artificial means. The artificial means however are modelled on the organic. So maybe two snakes, each biting the others tail.

Visually, I notice that circles seem to form a large part of your work. Two eyes occupy the front page of your website, while works such as Iridescent Self and Nothing use circular patterns very prominently. What draws you to circles?

I like circles. I always struggle to not only make circular visuals. But squares and extreme wide screen formats are nice too. As to why, I think it often is easier to say what I don’t like to use. I’m drawn to circles or squares because they set them self’s apart from the formats we are surrounded with all the time. The A4 and the 4:3 image ratio have such a dominant position – they are the norm, are everywhere – and I find that I’m quite saturated with seeing these proportions. But these formats also cause visual limitations, especially for abstraction. The visual language I use tries to be devoid of sides. There is never any intentional up or down, left or right. The more homogeneous a shape becomes, the lesser its content is restrained by sides. You can flip a square vertically and horizontally and it stays the same, so it allows for more freedom than any other rectangular shape. And of course a circle is the ultimate in this respect. As a geometric shape it can’t be altered – it is unaffected by the position from which you view it. It’s simply not possible to look at a circle from the wrong angle. That makes it very appealing to me.

IRIDESCENT SELF

IRIDESCENT SELF

Do you have a particular environment that you find to be most conducive to creating your work?

I work from home normally, and quite happily. Preferably on a warm sunny day, the room I work in is south facing, and I love the sun streaming in through the windows. A lot of people need to leave the house and go somewhere to be productive. I’m at my most productive when I don’t need to leave the house at all for a few days, and can spend my time alternating from being inside my own head to being inside my computer. When I’m very drawn into a project, which happens a lot, my friends call me a ‘Hikikomory’. (the Japanese term for a reclusive who withdraw from social life). But sadly, or maybe luckily, the world has the habit of never allowing this to go on for too long.

What other music have you been listening to at the moment?

A piece that I listened to a lot during the making of Bordun Chorus is Yoshi Wada’s “Singing in Unison”. It’s a beautiful piece for three male voices, with extraordinary vocal techniques drawn from Indian Raga, Sufi and Throat Singing amongst others. I also recently came across a recording of “The First Dream Of The High-Tension Line Stepdown Transformer From The Four Dreams Of China” by La Monte Young. It’s a very simple piece, based on only four pitches, the 17th, 32nd, 36th and 48th harmonic. The musicians then improvise the progression of the work according to a set of rules outlining the acceptable and unacceptable combinations of these notes. I’ve only ever heard the “Second Dream” before, so I was quite excited.

Then there is a lot of piano music; I love the sound of the piano when it is played a certain way. Like on “Revelation” by Michael Harrison, with its beautiful just intonation tuning, and Elodie Lauten’s Piano Works, or Wayne Siegel’s “Autumn Resonance”. And there are the three works by Julius Eastman: “Gay Guerrilla”, “Evil Nigger” and “Crazy Nigger”. I think he didn’t compose them exclusively for piano, but they are played on four pianos on the release Unjust Malaise, and to such great effect. I very much hope that more of Eastman’s music is going to be released. He is slowly getting rediscovered at the moment, thanks to Mary Jane Leach, another amazing composer. She is collecting and archiving Eastman’s scores and recordings, and worked so hard in recent years to revive his lengthy.

I could go on forever. There are so many composers out there that I like a lot, but I’ll restrain myself to one more piece. It’s by Pauline Oliveros, who was an incredible composer and performer. Sadly she passed away in November last year. Since then I have listened a lot to one of my favourite pieces by her. “The Beauty Of Sorrow”, a piece for accordion tuned in just intonation and Pauline’s “Expanded Instrument System”. Its title is very much reflected in the music, it’s a sad piece, but so stunning. The album it’s on is subtitled “Two Meditations on Transition and Change”. Pauline Oliveros was such an inspirational person.

What else is on the horizon for you?

I’ve been very distracted in the last few months. Mainly with politics and, in my opinion, the rather sad state of affairs that we have arrived at in the UK, in Europe and well, a lot of other countries in the world. I’m still wondering what it means to live in the UK as a European, but then the future of Europe as a whole doesn’t look that encouraging at the moment either. On New Years Eve I worked out with a friend that the most remote place on Earth is the Easter Island. Now there’s a thought.

But I probably wouldn’t do all that well as a drop-out, so in the short term I have to try to start working on a new piece. There are lots of thoughts in my head already about what I would like to try, but I haven’t had the peace of mind recently to start. Maybe I’ll try to make a really angry piece. That would be nice, but I think I tried that before and it didn’t turn out angry at all in the end.