Founder of Ars Electronica, this Austrian composer talks about his work on 'Erdenklang' and his own approach to the Fairlight CMI
Founder of Ars Electronica, composer, orchestrator and computer technician, Hubert Bognermayr has become one of the world's leading experts on the Fairlight Computer Musical Instrument. His album 'Erdenklang - Computerakustische Klangsinfonie' recorded with Harald Zuschrader exploits to the full the sampling and sound manipulation facilities of this versatile instrument. Here he explains the content of 'Erdenklang', the philosophy of Ars Electronica and his feelings on the music of the future.
"I started Ars Electronica in 1979; for me it was an important way of finding a new opening for electronic music. I invited Robert Moog, Wendy Carlos and so on, because at that time there was no real outlet for electronic music in Austria; in fact there is still no place in the world like it because it is a festival for all the electronic arts. But the main theme of this festival was electronic music because I think electronics in music, especially now using computers, is very, very important, so much so that it is changing the very basis of the music.
One of the well known people in classical music, Herbert Von Karajan invited me to use the Fairlight at the Salzburg Music Festival and I ended up playing the bells on Wagner pieces! I thought it was very important to have electronic music in this festival — we did it for 2 years and met many professional players there; it was very interesting.
I feel that electronic music should always be the base and the other arts should stem from it. The problem is that very few people except ourselves play live. They have developed the festival from our ideas but you can invite the people from Moog and they all say "please give us electronic music!"
Two years ago we held the Grand Prize. It's a very interesting contest where you can see new instruments and it was where I first saw the Fairlight.
Last year the second prize winner was the Lyricon, and the third prize winner was Ivan Tcherepnin's synthesised dulcimer.
Recording and playing live are two different things but I am involved in both areas. Live, we use the Fairlight programs as well as human soloists, dancers and so on. You see, at the beginning of the concert a man is playing a tune on the cello and I wanted to show the computer in action by taking 'live' samples. It's taken me four years to learn how to do this well. So we played a duet, he on his own instrument and me on mine. It is important to show the people how to use electronics. Bob Moog isn't a performer, as such, yet — but he will be. It is very important that he performs because he is the man who invented the voltage controlled synth.
Traditional electronic music has used basic waveforms as sound sources. But I am interested in bringing new sounds into music and I think there are great possibilities with bringing together electronic and natural sounds to form a new sound. For me it is much warmer than just electronic sounds.
I think now is really the time to bring new instruments into music because I have always told people who are biased towards classical music that we have achieved so many things, this century, with science, yet we are still using the same old instruments. I really think the new direction is to work with natural sounds. Many composers are coming up to me and asking me to show them what I am doing because they realise that it is the future.
I think things will really take off when machines like the Fairlight become cheaper in 5 years or so. I always tell people not to use this new generation of instruments in an old tradition. Don't use the sound of a violin like a violin, be different; use the sound of water instead, to create new sounds.
It is very important for me to have a compositional language because we did everything with this computer language. We played nothing manually, but used the MCL and the normal rules of music — pianissimo, fortissimo and so on, to compose and playback. It is an important feature because it means a musician who can only play a guitar can now do his own orchestration and that was the problem with electronic music — that only keyboard players were able to use it, but now we're a step further on. Why should a person playing guitar be confined to playing a solo instrument?
I always tell the people it's very important at this moment to know what's going on in electronic music. The composition languages are coming and so I think all the composers who are interested in music should know them. I'm looking forward 10 years. I should know that everything is changing in music, because we are working every day as a team — not everything is down to me. We have been working for the last 4 years, 12 hours a day to tell the people at Fairlight, "that's not good for music, that's only good for technique." I think we now have a really good system, with over 4,000 samples. I like going to a tree with a hammer, and there are about 100 sounds in a tree, and that's interesting for me! So listen and you will hear the future, and you mix everything, you can mix the sound of a raindrop with a sinewave and create a new instrument. Let's say we don't see synthesisers as a new instrument of our time but the only one, the only thing that was invented in this century.
It was at the first Ars Electronica that I met Mr. Peter Vogel who created the Fairlight. It was 1979 and I thought this is a real chance for me to go into this new dimension. The sound quality is a limitation, but if you use this equipment very seriously you can bring it to a level with good quality. We are the only people who are using this kind of possibility in this way. Ultimately everything you do can still be a live performance, using only natural sounds.
A critic told me that we have done a work that is a little bit traditional for the possibilities of this instrument. But I told our friends that the first step is to produce a music that people can understand. Of course I could do a very big experimental work, but only 200 people in the world would say "very interesting".
Not only the people who come to the concert, but also the composers find it difficult. They were coming in and saying "it is so hard to use a computer," but they have to study and to know the machine's potential. It's easy to write down the composition language. If you sit down and learn the rules, then you can learn in 8 days if you want.
The problem is you have to know the rules, and then you can work with the machine, and that's the important step. I've been planning an International Summer Workshop for composers, journalists and so on, where all these people can learn the elementary rules to use computers in composition. I know in Germany many people call me and say "can I come to your studio to learn." A lot of journalists say we are killing orchestras, but if I want to hear violin, I use a man who plays violin, but to use the sound of a tree, nobody in the world can play a tree as a instrument, but the Fairlight can do it. It is so important for the composer, and now we have been working with the machines 4 years and never had one minute when I was not thinking "it's amazing what we can do." I think now for my composition "I need the sound of this," so I go and sample it and work with it, and this is a real step into the future. We are a team and we have to do TV spots, film music and so on. We have all learnt music because we studied music and have done commercial music, jazz music, so we have really a wide field of knowledge of what's going on in the music world.
Also you should never forget that with electronic music, the music is going directly from the ears to the hearts of the people who are listening to the music, we can't tell the people why this music sounds as it does and how we did it, because it's a new technique and it's very experimental. I want to bring together the few serious musicians who are working with electronic music in Europe, I'm using Bruno Spoerri, I like him very much because he's a really serious musician.
So many journalists are telling the media they are not able to hear the sounds of nature. So it is not very important, as I think we have found a new sound in electronic music. I think if you listen to a record by Tomita and after this a record by Erdenklang, you can hear they're really different. But I don't say that everybody should go this way as we want to do.
I want to do the workshop to bring important people together to discuss what we can do together for electronic music, because it's the music of the future. That was my first objective when I founded Ars Electronica. Bring out all these people who are doing electronic music in small rooms and working by themselves. Bring it together; it is very important to have contact with other composers.
At first we were looking for a new way to use natural sounds and using the composition language of the Fairlight in a dramatic way, not in a way we can use a sequencer but with the important features of music, because music has to become a living thing. So we had 5 new movements, and with each movement we want to see the people. We have sounds from nature, good sounds and bad sounds like human history. That's the philosophy of our composition, so we are starting with the movement which is called 'Urban Life', the easy earth. Life is coming out from earth, also from sound, humans and so on, and the human being has life in a way which has come now to Eden. It's paradise. He wanted an Eden, but he has found that an Eden is no aim for us, and so we used all the sounds of the city in the movement. We used dancers to emphasise all this.
Urban Life means life is coming out of earth and at the beginning everything was open, in the second movement the earth in the main has found its rules for all the sounds. Everything comes in rules, even the music, and there you will find the part which is like a fugue. The third movement is Erdung. Music coming out from energy. So we have used the sound of water and the sounds of being in a big transformer, big electricity voltage building, like a power station. Here we use very electronic sounds. In the fourth movement, everything is hectic. Everything is sounds from traffic. The fifth movement is 'After Eden', and music is bringing life again; because I think we shouldn't live without hope. So we use some of the same themes and sounds in the first and last movements.
We used the sound from our windows and the sound of some trees and we have done special instruments that sound like pan pipes, but we have only made one sample, blown in. At the end, life is coming out again. The choir is our own voices; everything is by samples, and everything is done with the computer. We don't even use much echo or reverberation.
There is a stage set but it is very abstract. We use silver foil with very slow moving pictures; they will give you the feeling that you see over water, because a girl at the start of the concert is lying in water on stage, she is producing water sounds and we are sampling them. All the water sounds we use as samples are made during the performance. Half an hour before we start our performance our technician is going with the microphones through the people who are standing in the foyer and he is sending it to my Fairlight, and I will be sampling it and will bring it back for the people to hear what we have done with the sound of it. I think it's very interesting for the people to see that we can use the sound of their voices.
You have 10 minutes silence on stage beginning only with movement, and basically sounds from these movements; there's a girl standing on metal you see. Then it's like life coming out of this material, and we go into the first movement, and then the dancers are dancing the voices of the music. Very dramatically, and if you go to the second movement man is now working, he has found his rules and has to live with these rules, so it's like a very abstract movement, like robots, and also you can see this with the music.
The screen will show you only a factory, and nothing is happening. There is so much in this concert, so you can have dancers, you can have new music and have so many things happening on the floor space. All the musicians have a score of events. In the first movement the basic composition is coming from the computer because we only have five soloists, but Bruno is playing to these programmes. The solo voice is on a Lyricon and also he is trying to get up the sounds from the Fairlight via an interface because we can start to try out if it's really working at the performance! With the Lyricon you can treat the sound very interestingly, and it's coming out as a new instrument. And it's interesting for me that it is possible that a human soloist can play together with a computer, and it's live music. The Fairlight programmes are synchronised by a special sine wave oscillator which we've recorded onto tape, there are only four of us it's better to do it this way.
It's really no problem because you see all the programmes in the Fairlight start at the moment when the sine wave is coming in, so it will all be in sync.
It's an English mixer from Allen & Heath, and we are using their 16 track. It's a very old one, 2 inch tape; it's a very robust and good machine. We use Dolby A but only for 8 tracks because we really don't need it if we are working with the computer because I always have full power on the tracks. We have especially rebuilt a Revox A700, we have changed it to studio quality, and three speed operation.
We have some half track machines, because we don't really need 24 track, and although all the samples are made in mono originally they are mixed down into stereo. We have JBL monitors and some little car speakers, and also a Dolby noise reduction system. I stopped using the Teac A3340 because it was too noisy. We have a dual graphic EQ, and the only instrument is the Fairlight itself. If you want accurate samples you have to practice, but now I can even do it for a flute, and it's really hard to get an accurate loop for flute. Some people say that if you record a piano it's only useful over one octave, but if I wanted a piano sound I'd use a real piano. For one sample we used a huge steel plate fitted with two microphones. It's used in the second movement. It's amazing what sounds you can get; we even tried bowing it and got some fantastic overtones.
I think you must always construct. That's the interesting way for music, not to use strings with the computer. If I want to use strings, I have strings, and if I want to play piano, I shall play on a piano. Why should I play on a computer? It's much more interesting for me to bring out new instruments. Also with traditional sounds; we are using a Fender sound, an old Fender bass. But it's also interesting to have a section on the keyboard which is producing a new instrument because you can't play bass in this section.
For me, a trained pianist, it's always the same, all these electronic keyboards are like a harmonica. But you can use the key velocity. It's interesting to be expressive in the music.
We are composing in the traditional way. We write music down, and then we bring it to the computer language. Erdenklang took about one year, but now we do things much more quickly with our experience. If you have experience you can be very quick with this machine, because the most important thing is if you have done your work properly as a composer you will get on very well with the Fairlight.
That's why we interest so many people who are interested in computers, who can see what it means to treat a computer in a serious way. The computer means nothing if you don't use it properly."