“Imagine a Zen Buddhist with unresolved emotional issues.”
-Mark Fell describing snd
Sound Propositions set out to be a kind of anti-gear gear column. A studio diary that was about artistic decisions, not copy for a consumer electronics catalog. In short, I wanted to explore questions others weren’t asking. I wanted to tentatively take a position and start to carve out a niche for thinking about the future of music in a particular way. Along that way I’ve encountered artists (like Francisco Lopez, John Butcher, and Pete Swanson) who articulated their practice in very different terms than I initially had in mind. All the better. My correspondence with Mark Fell proved to be similarly challenging.
Mark Fell is a Sheffield-based curator, critic, and multi-media artist. In addition to being well-known for producing electronic music as part of the duo snd with Mat Steel and under his own name, he also regularly works in collaboration with many other artists, as documented on his Editions Mego 12″ imprint Sensate Focus. He’s released records through such venerable labels as Mille Plateaux and Raster-Noton, and contributed to dozens of exhibits around the world as artist and curator.
January 2013: one year into Sound Propositions and Fell publishes a Collateral Damage column for The Wire. He tells a possibly apocryphal anecdote featuring Thomas Dolby, about how “the sound begins its life in his head,” and quickly establishes that this is a narrative he finds problematic, and counter to his own lived experience. He then retells the story of electronic music’s most famously over-turned knob:
Although the music made by Phuture that day was undeniably remarkable, I do not see anything remarkable about the role of technology here. Their hands-on exploration is a very common way of working. … The function of Dolby’s system is to more or less accurately express a predefined musical proposition; Phuture, by contrast, enacted a previously undefined musical proposition.
This difference – between technology as a means of construction and as a means of expression – is important when considering the relationship between musicians, technical systems and music. It means we can redefine technology, not as a tool subservient to creativity or an obstacle to it, but as part of a wider context within which creative activity happens.
This discussion of Dolby and Phuture suggests to me one of the crucial differences between engineers recording performances and producers creating music. The former generally creates recordings that ostensibly aim to sound like a live performance, whereas the later aesthetic is that of working with the available means to create something new. The producer asks, what potentialities of this art form (of recorded music, of electronic music) have yet to be fully uncovered? Fell goes on to articulate the key point I hope to make with Sound Propositions. Through computer programs such as MAX/MSP,
…all technical limitations, internal characteristics and boundaries [are] removed. And despite the rhetoric of openendedness, the first thing people do when they encounter these allegedly open environments is to develop variations on extremely limited systems.
The tendency when discussing electronic music, and recorded sound work more generally, is to see a near infinite array of sounds capable of being synthesized, manipulated and arranged. By focusing on the technological aspect we tend to ignore the role that humans play. It is just as common to only focus on the human, which is why many listeners who don’t understand electronic music react so negatively to the idea of laptop music or DJing. Mark Fell has carved out a fine middle path, conceiving of his work as a network in which human and non-human nodes play equally important roles. Fell has been remarkably open regarding his processes, his techniques, the hardware he prefers and the nature of the patches he creates in MAX/MSP. Rather than this commitment to transparency somehow demystifying his work, it makes it all the more significant. His work stands on its own, it is never about playing Oz hiding behind a curtain of secrecy.
As a live performer Fell seeks to remove gesture entirely, refusing to interpret any element of the sound physically for the audience. Both in his solo work and as half of snd Fell has generally concentrated on producing an unapologetically digital sound, a polyrhythmic assault of fragmented sonics: techno in shards. The rapid attack of the sound is at odds with Fell’s appearance on stage – an image of icy composure behind his laptop. He deliberately inhabits the cliché of the laptop artist who appears to be checking his email – emphasizing the impossibility of ever translating the computer’s hidden digital processes for an audience.
“Mat and I made a definite decision never to nod our heads on stage in time to music,” Fell said in a recent interview. “When we first started doing it, you kind of get into it, you start nodding your head, and it is a bit of a signal to the audience that the performers are enjoying it. But what’s going on in that kind of relationship? It’s like prompting the audience to respond in a certain way, or to have some assumptions about how we’re relating to the music.” Instead of delineating the experience for the crowd, Fell severs any relationship between his physical gestures and the sounds being produced, even going so far as to suppress any emotional cues that might be understood as manipulative. That is not to say that his performances are exclusively aural. In fact these performances are often accompanied by visual projections, reflecting his training in the visual arts and his career as a visual and installation artist working with light and projections. His compositions are rooted in the process that creates them, though as with the work of Giuseppe Ielasi (as discussed in SP 06) it isn’t necessary that the audience understand the process in order to appreciate the result.
I find Fell’s work particularly interesting for the ways in which it integrates generative and mathematical systems into the compositional or productive process. He explains to The Teeming Void in this 2007interview:
this is my view of technology and its function in art. It’s not about the encoding or transmission of a previously “disembodied” meaning. Although for me technology in action is a kind of thinking or understanding which makes some kind of meaning. Like a Wittgensteinian view of language, I don’t think it has an inherent meaning of its own. This is how I think about the notions of technology and absence of intended meaning in my practice.
How wonderful when an artist seeks to engender confusion, to ask viewers to think and ponder and unravel and wrestle with something rather than insist on the primacy of their own intended meaning or “expression.”
2014 has already been a busy year for Fell, and he shows no signs of letting up. His installation “Vertex at Infinity,” which ran from April 12 through May 11 of this year at South First Gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn was his first solo show in the US, which included a performance at the venerable Issue Project room. The exhibit included 6 visual images, Convolution and Resynthesis, which function as a visual equivalent to a 4-channel sound installation, I Refuse to be Complicity in Your Pathology (2014). Drawing on his interest in the utopian promise of house music, he focuses on the constituent parts of early ’90s NYC house music (rather than the earlier garage style pioneered in NY in the early 80s) including the kick drum and cut up vocals. As usual, despite using recognizable sounds in his loving homage, Fell’s take sounds nothing like the original. A nice window into Fell’s interest in electronic music of the ’80s and ’90s can be found in his amazing Dawn of Man mix, inspired by academic Georgina Born (whose own work focuses on computer music through institutional ethnography, among many other interests).
Fell has been commissioned to produce an installation in the Victoria Tunnels in Newcastle, England as part of the Tusk Festival, using synchronised laser, strobe and sound. He will also be doing an installation at the 2014 edition of Semibreve in Portugal, possibly also utilizing lasers and strobes with sound. He also has an upcoming double 12″ on en/of coming out soon, which as usual will be limited edition, signed and sealed, and thus will no doubt quickly sell out.
Joseph Sannicandro: Can you talk a bit about your relationship with rave and club culture? I get the impression that you’re not too interested in ‘clubbing’ as such, though maybe you were at in the ‘80s and ‘90s when the rave scene was at its peak over there. One aspect that I find most off putting is the manipulation that comes along with the club (though I’m at turns repulsed by this I’m also quite seduced, I wish I could feel what others seem to, the abandon and shedding of the ego, or at least inhibitions. Marcus Boon has written positively of the bass interface, that physical need to move and synchronize with the beat. But your music doesn’t really try to make people move or do anything. There’s no ‘beat’ to drop, no sub-bass, no easy to follow moves. It’s confounding in many ways.
Mark Fell: I first got into music in the early 1980’s when I was a teenager. The pivotal record I always quote is love action by the human league. Then I got into more marginal forms of electronic music and around 87 became aware of early house and techno musics. I was totally into these. And that scene became the centre of my world for a couple of years. But around 1991 I became quite unhappy with is all. I think this was mainly due to the fact that most of my friends were excessive drug users and I was not. And typically they would go to these kind of hard core nights. And I didn’t like this at all. So I felt quite alienated and bored in a club context. And gradually I stopped going. I was lucky however to meet a dj from Sheffield called Callum Wordsworth who introduced me to the kinds of house music coming of out new york… deep slick productions with nice organ stabs. And this became my thing for a few years. But still I didn’t enjoy going out to these nights. And I began to try to make music using the house music kind of template but somehow quite different. I guess I’m still doing that to some extent. In general I like music that prevents people from responding in a very usual manner to musical contexts. So I would much rather make people feel alienated than happy. For me the feeling of alienation and curiosity is a much healthier state of mind.
My academic training was in philosophy and history, though I dabbled in music and visual arts for fun, or personal expression, as an outlet but also as a means of engaging directly with things that didn’t rely on rhetoric, something pre-linguistic. My philosophy thesis explored connections between Heidegger and East Asian aesthetics, sort of in opposition to a post-modern critique of value, one that posits the value of a work as brought to it by the spectator. I still believe that the community around a work has an influence on its meaning, but I think a great work of art is so inherently, that it is not primarily defined by its audience. Art and technology, our popular and often even academic orientation, is defined in terms of Western values (grandiosity, permanence, etc). I often wonder is sound, as a medium, has been slow to catch in the art world because of the inherent ephemerality of sound. Of course sound recording changed this, but what we got was a fetishization of sound objects. How does your work as a curator and as an artist (in the gallery) deal with these issues?
We engage with artworks and environments in a number of different ways. But I would say it’s impossible to step outside of ones historical context and see the “meaning” of a work from an objective point of view. So for me it makes no sense to say that the artwork has its own meaning, for me the meaning is created as people encounter and consider the artwork. I think it was Hans Ulrich Gumgrect who suggested that artworks can produce meaning effects and also presence effects – ie that the phenomenological presence of an artwork might be considered as opposed to its meaning. But for me the dichotomy is a false one. I don’t think we can ever fight free of the symbolic world and enter into some direct and unmediated encounter with the object itself. For me as a curator this dichotomy is an interesting one, and one that I try to explore in different ways. But my work is not about “trying to get the audience to understand the theory of the artwork”. Instead I want to create a kind of ambivalent kind of encounter with the alleged phenomenological character of the work. So for example in my house music work this concern manifests itself in terms of house music structures that feel like you can dance to whereas in fact you cannot. Or in multichannel works critiquing techniques commonly used by electro acoustic practices. So although I’m dealing the phenomenological or aesthetic character of the work in an ostensibly ‘detached’ manner I am always necessarily dealing with beliefs and cultural contexts that are a play within those works and practices. For me its kind of irrelevant whether or not the object is a sonic one, a painting, a book, a film etc.
I don’t deny that at all, in fact, that transcending our context is an impossibility, but likewise the work has its own context that can’t be denied either. That may change, but it can’t become anything, and not anything can become a focal point that can sustain the attention and engagement of an audience long enough to generate meaning. [EDIT: I want to further clarify my point, because of course Fell is right that meaning is dependent on context. So, two brief examples. A Japanese Buddhist statue carved from pine inherently reflects the Buddhist value of impermanence by making it an aesthetic value, as pine decays quite quickly. Conversely a Western sculpture made out of marble or bronze has pretensions of permanence, reflecting the aesthetic values of monumentality that goes back to the Romans. Christian Marclay’s recent work the Clock strikes me as another example of this. Even though the meaning generated by the work may change overtime, as the references take on new meaning (for instance, in the wake of Robin Williams’ suicide, his segments may read a bit differently,) the inherent structure of the work, being a 24-hour loops tied to the real time of the viewing location, and reflected on the screen, produces a type of meaning that is inherent to the structure of the work itself. This creates social meaning that can shift, for instance viewers are far less likely to look at their phone to check the time and be tempted to check Twitter as well, because the time is constantly on the screen.] Can you clarify a bit about your background, aside from as a producer? Your training, professional activities, your work as an artist and curator and critic?
At school I was the uber nerd guy. But discovered politics and radical critical practices at an early age, along with electronic music, and totally dropped out of the system. I began to produce anarchist type pamphlets while at school (age about 14). After leaving school I studied graphic design because I was interested in printing and producing distributable things such as magazines, records and video art. Then I studied philosophy and communication theory for 2 years. Then went to art school to study experimental film and video. I didn’t really have any professional activities… I just made work, read, wrote stuff, organised events etc… and generally didn’t have any kind of life outside that.
Earlier this year I spoke with John Butcher. “Most westerners,” he claims, “it isn’t clear that they come from any particular musical culture, culture is kind of self-accumulated, very few people actually grow up in what you could call a musical culture that’s really theirs, so you’re drawn to all kinds of places.” I think we’re also a bit adrift when it comes to dancing. Having spent time abroad I’ve come to feel that deficiency, in particular amongst African and Latin cultures. But in some sense that’s almost another reason not to trust the bass. Is this something that you think about at all when you are programming rhythms, the bodily implications of what you do? You’ve said that you and Mat intentionally try to erase any potential cues to the audience, but…
Well I hope my work has a kind of physicality to it that is similar in some ways to club musics. But the patterns do not allow simple dance moves. But people still dance to it.
You recently participated in an installation for the label Pan at an event in NYC, screening your short film music of the eternal now: post-husserlian temporality, pattern cyclic time-consciousness and computer music. This seems like a natural collaboration in some sense, as both you and the label seem to simultaneously embrace dance music in a sense while also subverting some of its signifiers.
Pan is an interesting label right now. Bill [Kouligas] is acutely aware of the history and current movements in electronic music. And for me that kind of level of awareness is something that resonates with my own practice. Of course people are returning to the history of electronic music all the time in a very instinctive manner, and this produces lots of interesting work. But for me I’m quite interested in having a kind of historical awareness of what happened when, by whom, in what context, etc etc. I think Bill sort of shares this concern.
You often work with pre-sets, with recognizable hardware. Is this self conscious re-appropriation? You purposefully seem to avoid clues but you must also find something in these sounds and rhythms that resonate with you. Or do you see your work as working on a more conceptual register?
I work with those presets because they come from a kind of music I really like. And basically I’m still trying to explore them in the context of my work. It’s not ultimately some kind of critical reflection, analysis or even nostalgia. It’s just a case of liking those sounds and trying to do lots of different things with them. The sounds always suggest more uses and variations of themselves. Like I say this of course also necessarily means dealing with everything that surrounds the sounds – in terms of social, cultural, political, historical, technical analyses.
Your recent collaboration with Sasu Ripatti comes with a pencil. I think of experimenting, trying things out. Erasures, writing, arithmetic. Do your compositions follow some sort of process? Can you tell me a bit about your working practice? How you develop a composition or a work?
Different projects happen in different ways. Sometimes with a collection of sounds, a style I want to look at, a set of processes, a sense of how the record should feel as a finished object, etc. For the thing with Sasu we basically got a bunch of sounds together, he played some, and I wrote some into Logic with the pencil icon. Then we structured these over time.
I suppose another way to pose this question might be, how to you devise the rules or processes that guide your work?
Again this varies from project to project. With the Multistability CD the emphasis was on creating systems that were very simple. Although what constitutes simplicity is open to interpretation I don’t really have a problem with using that word in this context. Like if you saw the systems and patches they are often just a few basic objects creating timing structures and parameter changes. Generally speaking I don’t use complex computational or algorithmic processes.
Can you choose one work, in any medium (visual arts, film, literature, music, sculpture, theatre, whatever) that really speaks to you as an exemplar of your ethos?
I did an installation using a speaker which was attached to a motor on the ceiling and swung around to create a circle. The speaker produced a Shepard tone.
Therefore a relationship was constructed between physical circularity and pitch circularity. This relationship seems both complex and simple, both obvious and ambiguous in phenomenological terms. And that really is something I try to do.
Perhaps I should ask about Yasunao Tone, as well, as his work seems to come up a lot. One, his work seems to do a fair share of revealing as well as constructing. He constructed a process to produce sounds from the error correction of CD players, but in some sense is revealing hidden aspects of how a CD player functions, that is making the ‘error correction’ visible, turning even that concept on its head, “what is an error.” This is very different from say the glitch of Markus Popp, perhaps. What is it about Tone’s work that attracts you?
Actually I like both Tone’s and Popp’s music a great deal. Although both work with the CD ‘skip’ to produce music, both are very different. Popp for example has said that works like systemisch were constructed in a very painstaking way by editing together small bits of sound. By contrast Tone discovered that the error correction system of a specific CD player could be used to produce certain outcomes. The position adopted by several critics is that Popp’s work is a kind of aesthetic exercise while Tone’s practice is a kind of ideologically authentic reappropriation of a technology to reveal something that is occluded within it. In this sense it kind of mirrors the post-structuralist rhetoric about language and meaning in general. Similarly it has been suggested by some that Tone’s practice does not impose a pre-existent aesthetic vocabulary on the materials with which he is engaged – much like the rejection in modern architecture of disguising one material for another (for example making concrete look like brick etc). So in that sense it’s often thought that Tone’s practice is a kind of truth to materials ethic. I find this division (between Tone and Popp) to be quite problematic. For example if we listen back to Tone’s earlier work as a saxophonist some of those pieces are strikingly similar to his wounded CD works. And in the construction of the MP3 deviation piece several strategies were used to deliberately mimic the CD skipping works. This is not to denigrate Tone’s practice, but to say that a reading of it as a search for the inner truth of the machine is quite misguided. Having spend many hours with Tone discussing his work, I can say that there are several concerns to do with reframing our understanding of technology, intentionality, and so on. And that I’m still trying to formulate a satisfactory reading of his work and approach. For me I think a Latourian account of Tone’s practice is quite interesting – if we read Latour’s essay “networks of humans and non humans” in the book pandora’s hope, I think this offers a formalized framework for getting to grips with some of what Tone’s practice is demonstrating.
In terms of what constitutes an error, this I feel is again context dependent. There is an interesting essay somewhere called the “metaphysics of malfunction” which offers a definition of what malfunction is – generally defined in terms of the failure to carry out the task for which the tool was developed. But for me this is not the case. For example what is the purpose of a technology like lego? The function and therefore malfunction of a technology can be attributed to a number of different factors that in my opinion are rather more specific. For example if Tone’s newly aquired cd player did not skip in the way he expected, this itself could constitute an error. I have seen first hand the process Tone and his wife have developed for testing cd players. And this is far from random, it involves measuring equipment, analysis, etc etc.
Thanks for chatting with me, Mark.
Mark Fell has described the JazzOrg preset on the Yamaha DX100, as featured on this Arthur Miller track, as the perfect sound.
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