Interview: Zeno van den Broek

There’s a wonderful calm to Zeno van den Broek’s latest album, titled Paranon. Partly that’s the inherent softness of those sine waves. Whether listening over speakers or on headphones – which make for drastically different experiences – the record graciously adapts to the space rather than assaulting it, pooling like warm water across my lounge or welling up in the depths of my head. But this calm is also rooted in the album’s  consequential acceptance. Zeno sets the algorithmic parameters and then leaves then be, allowing duration to unspool through an array of gentle throbs and harmonic reflections. Listening to Paranon is like sliding downhill, allowing a simple negotiation between gravity and gradient to govern my descent.

Paranon is out now on Moving Furniture Records. Have a listen and pick up the exquisite CD version here. Below, Zeno and I discuss the meeting of multiple sine waves, composing through drawing, and the (in)stability of systems. 

I understand that Paranon was developed using “parameter canons of sine wave generators.” Can you tell me more about the mechanics of this compositional technique?

On Paranon I use sine wave generators that I programmed in Max, which allow me to play and compose with various parameters with great precision. You can see the first track as an “interference canon” while the second track can be seen as a “phase shifting canon”, as those are the parameters composed in canon structures. But because of the physical characteristics of the sine waves, much more happens than just the sequence of parameter alteration I’ve composed: the sound waves collide and interact with each other, resulting in unexpected but welcome results.

What compelled you to use them as the basis for Paranon?

The sine wave has played an important role in my work for many years, even back in the days when I was still playing by the moniker Machinist and the guitar formed my musical foundation. The sine waves were a recurring element in the soundscapes. One of the initial thoughts of creating Paranon was the desire to deepen my knowledge of and relation with the sine wave even further and to take the time to fully focus on this elemental wave. After some sketches I realised that besides the beautiful pure nature of a single sine wave, it is especially the meeting of multiple sine waves that fascinates me. The use of the canon was a way of creating relationships between multiple sine waves in a structured way that allows me to explore the tension and possibilities that lie in the nature of the sine.

After researching the canon I became fascinated by the many forms a canon can have. I think most of us are familiar with the canon used in songs, in which melodies and phrases are repeated after a certain interval. But there are many more forms: rhythmical, riddles, encryptions, inversions, just to name a few. These forms are all related to more traditional composed music and I saw an opportunity to apply the concept of the canon in the new territory of electronic music. You could say every canon is in a way a ‘parameter canon’, even the most familiar canons are based on the repetition of a melody after a certain interval, altering the frequency parameter. By using this term, I wanted to emphasize the abstract nature of the parameters I’m working with. For example, in the first part the interference is created by very slight alterations of the frequency of the sine waves which you could see as a melody, only now the alteration of frequency is not in musical steps or related to the tonal system, but in small frequency shifts at times almost imperceivable to our hearing. The result of the beating and interference becomes dominant in our perception so the result is the spatial and physical interaction of the sound, not the musical structure of the canon itself.

It appears that this technique brings a certain generative aspect to this music, in that compositional development occurs of its own accord once the parameters are set. What it is that appeals to you about relinquishing real-time compositional control, at least in part, to the freeflow of a computerised process?

You are absolutely right – there is a strong generative aspect to the album. You could say I work with a form of algorithmic composing. This originates from the conceptual approach I take in my work: the compositions start out as an idea and an intellectual challenge, from which I develop a method of composing often by making drawings. By using this method the work is constructed and the sounds that evolve from this process are the result and final work. In a way the composition creates itself, and I do not go back to alter sounds if something sounds unpleasant or unexpected. If the result does not satisfy me I have to go back to the point where the concept becomes a system, and see what interpretations or methods I can change to give better results.

At this point Paranon is still a work of labour: I’ve drawn and programmed the composition of parameters by hand in the computer, in relation to the drawings earlier in the process. I’m researching ways of using even more generative methods of composition to be able to have the programming execute a bigger part of the process, which will hopefully enable me to create more complex systems. Moving more towards a “composition of behaviour”. This is something I’ve worked with for the first time in my Panauditum installation. This work surveils the visitors of the museum and generates soundscapes from these recordings based on generative composition rules. I love how the installation almost feels like a living creature with its own, sometimes unexpected, behaviour based on the rules and parameters I’ve programmed.

My own listening experiences to Paranon have been intense and consistently enlightening. Despite the simplicity of its construction, each play-through has exposed more detail and tiny harmonic movements. It’s like constantly adjusting the zoom on a microscope slide, unveiling the processes that reside within processes. Could you talk to me about your relationship to Paranon as a listener? Did this change over the course of putting the record together? 

Thanks for the beautiful description of your listening experience! It’s great to hear you’re discovering so much in the album and that it does not immediately reveal everything it has to offer.

Because of my conceptual approach and method, there is a quite a difference in the relation to the work being the composer or the listener. Perhaps due to my methods, our listening experiences are more alike due to the fact that there is more distance between the composer and the final music. During the development of the music I don’t listen to the results, because it wouldn’t make sense to listen to one separate piece of the work while the whole album revolves around the interplay of the various lines of sound. So I construct the composition, as mentioned before, according to the system developed around the concept of the canon and then eventually, I hit play! This first encounter with a result of the process might be quite similar to the first time you, or anyone else, plays the record. Of course there is a difference in that I know exactly what is behind the progressions and developments of the music and I know “what to listen for” within the abstract world it creates. But still, I try to listen with an open and non-technical mindset when I listen to it for the first time. After that, the composer kicks back in and the process of going back to altering the process to get better results begins.

Could you talk to me about the relationship between Paranon and the space in which it is listened to? It strikes me as an album that would be very sensitive to different listening environments, room sizes, playback methods etc.

Exactly – that is one of the key aspects of this record. The sine waves on Paranon create interference between the different canon layers. For me it is very important that these collisions of waves happen in the space the album is listened to, so it merges with the space and the acoustics. Especially on the first track the speakers emit stable sine waves, but by slightly shifting the frequencies between correlated waves in the two speakers these waves begin to create rhythmical patterns. This result of the creation of these patterns, at the time you are listening to the album, adds immensely to the experience of the listener. Another method would be to have the waves merge and collide during a recording process. Those results would be more controlled and I would know exactly what would happen when you play the record. But that’s not in line with the concept of the album: the unexpected nature of the physical events that happen when you listen to the record in a space are an essential part of the concept and process. Before the release I’ve played the compositions in some different rooms and the work changes a lot according to the characteristics of the spaces. Moving around while the sine waves are exploring the architecture adds another layer of perception.

You could say the creation of the music happens when you listen to it: your ear hears what happens in the space surrounding you, while if I were presenting a recording of this process in a different room it would feel like presenting an image or an instance of the music, not the music itself.

What does your studio space look like, and how have you sculpted/optimised this space for working with sound and/or intense concentration?

I don’t think my studio space is anything special. Actually I do most of my thinking outside during walks. I’ve noticed it helps being away from the actual material and instrumentation to formulate good concepts and processes. I do have quite some visual work in my studio, some of my own but also from friends and my father, who used to be a painter. It helps to have visual stimulants and I get most of my inspiration from visual arts. In my studio I hardly listen to related sonic works to be able to retain a clear creation process. Because of the nature of my work I always make sure to play it in different rooms and spaces and on different sound systems, exploring the acoustic and technical alterations that occur. 

I see that Shift Symm.two was shown at International Film Festival Rotterdam last week. How do you find the process of developing a visual counterpart to your sonic material? Do you see these visuals as a sort of intuitive, synaesthesic equivalent to the sounds on Shift Symm? Was it always obvious how this visual element would manifest?

Actually the visuals originate from the same concepts and methods as the sound, so there is very little intuitive to them and they are of equal importance to the sound. During the creation of the Shift Symm triptych I was focused on deepening the relation between the visuals and the sound, so when in the process I got to the point of moving from concept to materialisation, I started simultaneously with creating for both senses. Shift Symm is based on the concept of the (in)stability of systems – that a system has a symmetry of in-going and out-going forces and can take a certain amount of disturbance, or shifting in force. After these shifts have reached a certain tipping point, the system falls into a chaotic trajectory which eventually reaches a new form of stability: a new entropy. This concept can be found in physics but also in society, where for example slowly built-up anger and discontent can suddenly explode after a seemingly small event which acts as a tipping point, resulting in a period of chaos.

It was quite a challenge to work with this concept in both sound and images and it taught me a lot about how different our senses work and how visual and auditive material are totally different substances. But I think by evolving both media at the same time and based on the same concepts I’ve been able to find good new relationships between the two. The relation between sound and image is a delicate one: I’m always aware of the easy trap to create obvious reactions and relations, like in a Mickey Mouse movie – when Mickey hits his head you hear a related sound, which is something you also see in a contemporary abstract form all too often. The visuals of Shift Symm are constructed out of a minimum of two layers, one composed and fixed in time and one reactive and generative. With this layering I aim for new connections and a certain friction between the senses.

I’m very happy that the 2nd part of the triptych was screened at the IFFR! I grew up in Rotterdam so many years back I used to ride my bike in the darkness and snow to get bombarded with movies and video-art, it’s great to have my work being presented there now, last year as a live performance and this year as a screening.

Speaking of the dialogue between imagery and audio – the artwork for the CD edition of Paranon is wonderful. I’m always delighted to see artists wielding the presentational potential of the CD format. Even to my untrained eyes and ears, there’s something about this image that feels analogous to the sound of Paranon, too.  How was this artwork generated?

Thanks! I’m really happy you’re sensing the relation between the two. I’m afraid I’m repeating myself… but once again, everything originates from the same source and the same concept. For this cover I worked with a shifting in positioning and a related shifting of a parameter such as the wavelengths of the sine wave forms and the colour of the blocks. I worked in a vector-based illustration program, drawing these shapes and patterns by hand. I’m thinking about extending the Paranon project into a video work, working with the same principles but then in moving image, generated by algorithms.

In an interview with Tokafi, you mentioned that music and arts don’t often surprise you these days. Could you tell me about the most recent album or listening experience that surprised or invigorated you?

That statement evolved from the whole discussion about originality and experience. I do think I’m less frequently surprised nowadays compared to many years back when everything was new and fresh, but I do think it’s worth much more now, seeing surprising new work and being able to grasp the context and background at the same time.

A recent discovery that opened a new world to me was seeing installation work by Ed Atkins. At first I was blown away by the weird sense of “nowness” he creates with his video work. Later on, after watching some interviews and reading about his work, I discovered his work is mostly built up out of texts he writes and that he draws inspiration from writers such as James Joyce and Samuel Beckett. Following this trail I got into the poetry of Beckett, exploring a new and inspiring world which somehow feels related to what I do but from a totally new perspective. I’m totally fascinated by the repetition, the abstractness and physicality of his work.

Music wise I’ve been listening a lot to Lorenzo Senni, which to me has a weird mixture of feeling nostalgic and brand new. I grew up in Rotterdam where trance music was huge at the time and Senni is able to take the characteristics of this genre into new unexpected territories. 

What’s on the horizon for you and your music?

I think in the near future I’d like to do more research and study into the perception of conceptual art and how this perception differences between visual arts, music and moving images. I suspect that time plays a big role in how we are able to perceive the underlying concepts and processes and that this differs greatly between the senses.

The last few months I’ve been working on the successor of Shift Symm: a new audiovisual performance named Hysteresis, which revolves around the notion that the current state of a system is dependent on its history. This performance will premiere this spring. Besides that I’m collaborating with Robin Koek on a project which originates from our shared love for the relationship between sound and architecture. We are in the first phase of this Raumklang project, aiming to be able to present our first immaterial four-dimensional sound sculptures in the late summer of 2018!