The Sound Migrations of Janek Schaefer:
UK sound artist and turntablist Janek Schaefer works with custom-modified turntables, location recordings, and electronics. Trained as an architect, Janek focuses on the spatial and structural nature of sound in his work, as well as exploring the tactile and formal properties of the materials (particularly vinyl) that he uses to make it. His most recent release, Migration, is one of his most accomplished and dramatic works. Created to accompany a site-specific dance in a large atrium in New York City, with the dancers suspended high above the audience on bungee cords, it is a beautifully calibrated combination of vinyl, found sound, and field recordings made both close to home and on his travels around the world.
The interview was conducted by phone on Sunday, February 5 and broadcast on Thursday, February 23. To download the interview, click here.
I’m here with Janek Schaefer and I wanted to start by talking about your latest release, which is called Migration, and wanted to get an idea of the origins and the nature of the project. How did you come to work with the choreographer Noemie LaFrance?
Hello, everyone! I was touring in New York a couple years ago and I did a concert in Phill Niblock’s loft. A woman came up to me and had a chat, and she turned out to be a choreographer and said, “Would you like to do the soundtrack for a new piece I’m doing at the Whitney Museum of Modern Art?” And I thought, “Hmmm, those are the kind of people who come and talk to me that I like!” So, obviously, I said yes and she turned out to be an extremely interesting choreographer. It’s the first time that I’ve collaborated with a dancer and this kind of dance world. She’s a site-specific choreographer, so she had the big atrium space opposite [Grand] Central Station [where] she built ledges high up on these big glass walls and had dancers high up above and she said, “That’s the context of the piece and I like your music, so let’s do something together.”
Could you explain how you chose the sound sources that you did. Did you already have the concept worked out with her about the idea of migration?
No, she said, “The dance is called Migrations.” And I thought, “Hmm, okay, well, I’ve just moved to Walton-on-Thames, which is a town on the edge of London and I happen to have parakeets in my trees and I’ve been getting all into trees and the sort of more natural side of life and less cityside at the minute.” And I thought that would be a nice scene, because I move around a lot and collect my sounds from different places. She described the concept for the dance in which the audience would be in there, looking up at the four dancers on their ledges and they’re on bungee ropes and they fall out into the space and respond to the theme as well. So, I thought, “Well, maybe if we’re all looking up into space, it should all be sounds that are above us.” And, hey, there are lots of sounds that are above us, so I’ll manufacture through my record player and my own electronic techniques that sort of sound and use my field recordings of the parakeets that are in my trees. I went through a lot of archive material of my travels around the world, and, when I went to the Amazon jungle — the first track is a half-hour piece that incorporates a lot of us camping on a small island with a small family. Their radio came on and the signal got louder as the sun rose and the signal bounced off the sky. So, the sounds above us is the main idea, swirling around us, as we look up at [them].
Does the piece have any narrative structure, since it follows your sort of migratory patterns? Does it have a storyline to it, or is it more abstract?
…For the premiere of the dance piece, Noemie asked me to create a half-hour of introduction music, when the audience was coming in — there were queues around the block, which was very exciting, I’ve never had that before! It was a free event [laughs], but, you know, there were two performances with queues around the block. So, they came in, and I made a very ambient, drifting, floating, calm thirty-minute track. That was quite easy to do and it was a nice situation to do it for and then half an hour into the album, which is an hour long, the dance begins and the first sounds start to pick up and float up into the sky and build the energy of the piece. Noemie was very keen on the piece kind of building in intensity — she really liked the fiercer side of my sounds, so I sent her like a hundred and fifty sound files and she said which ones she liked and encouraged me to progress and progress the intensity, so it peaks at the end and then kind of drifts and floats off.
So how did you become interested in working with field and location recordings? It’s been one of the threads that’s run throughout your sound-making career, what attracts you about working with location recordings?
Well, in all my artistic and musical work, I’m interested in using found materials. I’m quite known for using record players and vinyl, which is all around us and you can take a sound and manipulate it and make new music from it, and it’s a similar way with field recordings. You go around and things just kind of pop up! You don’t know where you’re going to be or how you’re going to use them, but maybe a few years later, they start coming out on another album. But, originally, when I was going to school at the Royal College of Art, I did architecture and I went to an afternoon concert that was promoted by the Touch record label in England, which is a very influential label I discovered later, but I didn’t know anything about experimental music then. They had three performers there. There was Panasonic, who were doing their first UK tour, using very basic electronic, rhythmic music. There was Philip Jeck, who introduced me to how you can create new music from old records, and he was amazing, and Chris Watson, a field recordist, who works for the BBC and who releases some of the results on Touch. So there were field recordings, electronics, and record players and I thought, “Hey! This has changed my life!” And I just left the auditorium and went off and started my career, really.
Yes, because those really form the three threads, or tangents, within your work.
Yes, it’s definitely what I do all the time, but they’re incredibly flexible. I’m a site-specific sound artist most of the time, or context specific, I can always do new things, but with this very wide, but simple focus.
Since you’ve started talking about the origins of your working with sound, maybe we should rewind back to that period, and discuss how you moved from studying architecture to working with sound, could you go a bit into how that progression occurred?
I moved to London to the final two years of my M.A. at the Royal College of Art, which was a very fine establishment, which had a broad emphasis on creativeness, rather than anything technical, I suppose, or at least it enabled me to do that. When I got there, the program wasn’t functioning very well, but you were also encouraged to do whatever it was you wanted to do, so, while everyone else was moaning about the program not functioning very well, I just started to do stuff. I was very interested in music. I studied classical music as a child and was a DJ in the college bar, but I thought about sound and how important it is to us and, because I studied architecture, of course, sound is space. It’s a very simple sentence, but that’s what all my work is about: that we experience space through our ears and I started doing projects with architectural designs, where I turned the acoustic nature of a building inside out, or I’d make solid structures invisible, or transparent to sound. You’d think you were going into this big, solid concrete block, but actually it sounded exactly like it did on the outside, as if it were made of sheet material, like a tent or something. So I did all these experiments and that went very well. They appreciated what I did, those people that focused on it then.
Then, at that concert with Philip Jeck, he did a concert with 130 turntables all playing at once and that was pretty cool. It looked like an interesting idea, but it looked very difficult to take on the road — you’d need a big van. So, as soon as I graduated, I was thinking about how I could use vinyl without copying Philip or anyone else, but I didn’t know anything about the whole field of experimental turntablism. So I thought I’d just do the opposite of Philip, which is what I often do in my projects, and I made lots of record players into one machine, so I could transform sound as much as possible and then I thought I’d see if I could push the idea as far as I can and send it out to people and see if they’d give me gigs and I could start performing live.
So, that was the origins of the triphonic turntable, the first one that you created was the three armed version?
Yes, I tried to push the idea as far as it could go, in case someone had done anything similar.
Is that something you still use? I got the impression that after a long period of using it particularly live, you weren’t using quite so much anymore if at all.
I haven’t used it for several years now. I made another one, which has got two arms on it and it does basically the same thing. It allows me to manipulate sound quite flexibly and my two-arm, twin is much smaller. It’s much lighter. It goes with me on an airplane, so that it never goes through the baggage claim, so it never gets broken. My three-arm used to get broken a lot and used to stress me out and it’s heavy and now you have to pay for excess baggage a LOT, so I can’t take my three-arm anyway. And I got fed up with people going, “Well, what can you do with three arms, Janek?!?” You know, I’m like, it’s not a party-piece. It’s a tool to enable me to make this music that I’m playing for you, but, obviously, people also wanted to see the idea and hear the idea and I got fed up with that and hearing about who else had done projects with so many arms and so many this, that, and the others, which is why I put it in the Guiness Book of Records as the world’s most versatile record player was to shut those people up. Thank you very much, I’ve done that. Now, listen to the music.
So what was the appeal of vinyl, was it also the visual and spatial elements that was of interest? You spoke about the fact that it’s something that you find around in second-hand shops and, just around in people’s attics, but I was interested what else about vinyl was of interest to you.
It’s the tactile property that’s the main thing. Why you can make a three-armed record player and make it a successful improvisational tool is that vinyl is a wide, flat surface with about a mile line of information in it and you can touch it all at the same time, so you can put three different arms in different places and get three different results and you can physically — it’s the most physically accessible way that you can manipulate sound in my opinion. If it’s a cassette, it’s all bound up in a loop. If it’s data, it’s all hidden in a hard drive. [With vinyl] it’s there, you can play it with a fork, you can play it really slowly, upside down, backwards, lots at the time, so that’s why I wanted to use vinyl. And it’s ten pence from a shop and you don’t know what it is. You can play it at the wrong speed, put it backwards and then out comes this new thing, collage that together and it’s a whole new piece of music.
So, did you see yourself de-emphasizing vinyl, say, with Above Buildings, I mean, you still work with it, I know…
I combine it. Some of my projects I like to focus on it, and other ones, like Migration, for me, has lots of sounds that I’ve sourced from old records in it, but there’s not so many clicky, crackly, poppy, loopy sounds in there. I’ve hopefully tried to transform the sound into just, removing it from a very apparent relationship with vinyl that some of my other work has, but still a lot of my sounds come from there. It’s about 50/50 field recordings and vinyl recordings.
Have you ever been tempted to use a computer in performance, or is the latency issue something that gets in the way? Or have you used it? I don’t know that you haven’t….
I used a laptop once. It was my project Black Immure, which was set in the grounds of an old villa and museum in Portugal. I spent three days on site, recording all the sounds around me at the place I was, finding some old Portuguese music down the local shop and improvising a performance at the end. I made the whole piece in three days in my hotel room, on site. And, because I did that and I had structured them from beginning to end, I wanted to play them from the computer, because that’s the quickest way I could do it and I got to the end of the performance and — I hate using a laptop in performance, because it puts a barrier between you and the audience and it’s not interesting for anyone to watch — and so I wanted, just before I ran out the doors, down this gravel path at the end and run off into the distance and not come back into the performance space, I wanted to put my laptop down, half close it, so the light wasn’t shining on me. And, what happened? It cut off, didn’t it!! Right at the crux of the end of my piece! I don’t use laptops for those reasons. They’re not reliable and they’re not interesting to watch, and they put a barrier between you and the audience.
And we’ve all had the experience of hearing that Mac startup sound [laughs]
Ugh! It’s not funny, man, it’s not funny.
It’s awful because there’s not much you can do except —
Yes, chuckle and then go back to the beginning.
What happened in that instance [was] when my laptop closed and switched off all the sound, because I’d gone down to one sound, which was the blinkin’ laptop, I thought, “Oh, good God!” So I just took out this tango 7”, threw it on the record deck, chucked me arms on, turned it up and magic just flew out of the vinyl and it was like whoa, this is cool! I could go just instantly into this whole new realm and everyone could watch that happening. It really is engaging and then I picked up again and I went off and ended correctly this time. It’s so immediate, my record player.
So what projects are you working on currently? I know you have a couple release due soon that are from recent projects. I was very interested to read on your website about the Hidden Name project that you did with Stephan Mathieu. The sound sample that you have up on your website is quite beautiful, I must say. I was curious how you started to work with Stephan Mathieu — your style would seem to be very complementary, but how did you start working with him?
We met at Mutek in Canada. We shared the same evening in the same space and he was playing his sounds and I thought, “Wooo, who’s that?” It’s not often, I’m afraid, that I love the other sounds that are played around me. So, I welcome them when I hear them, and he liked what I did and we stayed in touch and saw each other again and made the suggestion that we actually get around to making something. I like when I collaborate with someone on a proper album to actually go physically with the person somewhere else so that we can concentrate and it turned out my sister was on holiday and she has a wonderful house in the country. Her husband is a famous composer so he’s got lots of pianos, exotic instruments and records in the attic, as well as guinea pigs, cats and dogs, a gardener and a fishmonger. So we went and spent a week in this amazing village in Dorset, just having a party and making music.
When you finally put this out, I’m going to have to listen for the sounds of the guinea pigs!
Ah, I haven’t got any guinea pigs. We do have — well, I’m kind of getting into my cheesy samples like the dawn chorus, but I’ve bought this amazing microphone that sounds great; I’ve got the sound of the sheep eating the grass — I mean I don’t want to advertise these things, but I seem to be! The nice sound was quite often we played ping pong out in the garden — or, badminton, which is what you probably heard on the website: that “dink” “dink” “dink” of the shuttlecock going back and forth, when we did a proper recording of it one of the cats — I set the microphone up so that Stephan was left and I was right and you could hear it going over the net, and when you listen to the recording closely, you can hear the cat come up and when he sits next to it, you hear “rrrrr-rrrrrrr” [purrs] and it’s not a mix, well, it’s a live mix! And then the bell goes off at the church. It wasn’t collaged together, it was just a magical moment and that’s what begins the album.
Do you consider it a sound portrait of the house? Or is that too simplistic a way to think of it?
Yes, it is, but not technically. We created all the sounds in there and Stephan raided all of John’s compositions, there were a bunch of CDs that they’ve got on a shelf and used them, and a lot of his pieces are just angelic. In the source material there are lots of choirs and choral material and religious music and Stephan’s process brought out a lot of the beauty of that. Oh, and I raided his loft and found some old records and this fantastic Mauri 7”, where I did a two-armed Mauri love song duet that just pops up in the middle. It’s unlike the other sounds. That was a magical moment.
It’s quite interesting working with Stephan Mathieu. At times it was tough. He’s very different from me in the way he works and at times that was tough. He’s a laptop artist and I’m a different person for that, so he’d get all his sounds, prepare the material and then press a button and just let it go and just hit go. I’d ask, “So what are you doing?” and he’d say, “Well, I’m working.” It took 20 minutes on his super high-speed laptop to process this at full-resolution, above cd quality that he mixes things at. I’m there, composing away and by the time his thing is finished we’d put it together at the end.
You both have at least in the end result a similar warm, textural quality to what you do. He doesn’t have a stereotypical cold sound to it.
Yes, it’s very beautiful and warm and serene and I pushed that side of him, because some of his albums have been quite chippy-choppy and I don’t like that. I like the fluidity in his work and he pushed the sort of thing he likes about mine — I can’t remember what it is. We haven’t done a lot collaging of the sound, which is quite interesting. He’s been leading the composition side of things, because he’s very, very particular. I’m a fussy person, but WOW! He crosses over the line. It’s nice, because it doesn’t sound like a Janek Schaefer album, I don’t think, and it doesn’t particularly sound like Stephan’s, though I let him control the composing. We also did some videos for it. We spent a second week in York University — they’ve got this purpose-built electro-acoustic theater and we spent a week there mixing the album on these 30,000 dollar speaker sets and we made three or four films in about one day, just running around collecting light patterns in these little perspex models, so we’re going to hopefully be showing them at festivals, when I finish them.
I also wanted to talk a bit about a project that I know you were very excited about called In the Last Hour performance—
—a recording of which I understand is going to be released on the label Room40 out of Australia?
Yes, my friend in Australia, Lawrence English, who’s doing a fantastic job down under.
Yeah, they’re been putting out a lot of really nice field recordings based things. Could you talk a bit about that performance and the project that culminated with the performance?
I could tell you a lot, but I’ll try to keep it brief. It was a commission for a kind of high-brow music festival in England, the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. They had a guest curator this year, who basically opened up to more unusual projects and composers like myself and said, “Come and do what you like!” So, I went up there and asked, “Where am I going to play?” It was in this town hall and there’s this fantastic organ in it that looked like a fairy wedding cake and I could imagine everyone in here lying on the floor, relating to the sounds of the organ — and I’ve always wanted to do an organ piece. So, it’s kind of like I came up with a performance-composition. It was like a very structured piece, but, through electronics and playing live small organ and then playing half off CD and then mixing it live, it was a kind of hybrid of strict composition and improvisation. I wired up a lot of speakers so that they could hang above the audience, so they could lay down on these long mats, with their heads facing the ceiling, which was all kind of faded, gilded ceiling, so they’d be looking up at the sound, falling down on them and then I make it really dark and have some sound-reactive lights occasionally on the ceiling. And just give them a whole different experience than what they would in a classical music concert. That’s what I wanted to do: I wanted to give them a new compositional angle to their normal experience.
Because I controlled it, there’s no interesting, but not very beautiful accidents that would happen in a normal gig. I just made it all, for me, as beautiful as I could. I tried to slow the pace of my composition down, so there’s this twenty minute organ droney, sifty piece at the beginning and then my daughter’s heartbeat — I’ve just had a daughter seven weeks ago and her little heartbeat starts the second piece, going up and into this other world, and ultimately, it went off; it worked perfectly. With my new microphones that I’ve just bought I did a beautiful recording of the space, as well as the live mix off the desk, beautifully recorded together. The audience was quiet as a mouse, just a couple of coughs would let you know they were there, so it was wonderful. It was just a magical evening and it was the last concert that I did before I gave my freedom to my new daughter and now she has it and I’m not free anymore. So, it’s dedicated to that — it represents that freedom that I’ve passed on.
And, at the end of the concert, I kind of faded it all out, and the audience just lay there. I was like, “Okay, they’re not doing anything!” So, I said, “Thank you.” And they came through into consciousness again and stood up, like “Land of the Dead” and came over to me and just looked at me. I was, “Hello, I can see you’re looking at me and you’ve all got inquisitive eyes,” but no one’s saying anything, and they were all speechless, to be honest. They were speechless. It was a great night. Ahh, it’s my favorite ever composition, to be honest.
Your description of it makes it sound absolutely like everything just clicked into place with the space…
Yes, I’m recording the architecture, you know — everything, all the kinds of aspects of sound design and music design and the way I like to experience and hear sound and give it to people — ahh, just everything! And I got paid a lot for it, too! [laughs]
So everything came into place!
Yay, yeah, I felt like a proper composer!
So, you said you gave over your freedom to your daughter, I was going to ask you about future projects, but I know being a new father is probably taking up a good amount of your energy.
It’s going pretty well, actually. We’ve got a very calm child and, at the moment, she sleeps on command and doesn’t scream much and she’s very well-behaved and I’m at home and my wife’s at home here and we’re extremely lucky in the way that we can have this child in the world here. We haven’t really got any problems and I did a composition within the first week when she was born for her that’s coming out on a new label from Belgium on a compilation cd with Charlemagne Palestine and stuff, coming out later, in a few months, so, you know, I’m back up and running at the moment. But my wife’s going back to work in September and I’m going to be a full-time man-mum, so I don’t know what’s going to happen then, but I’m going to have a lot less time.
You’ll be adding that to your resume. Well, hopefully, she’ll make some very interesting sounds.
Yes, I’m very much trying NOT to go down that route!
Yeah, I don’t think so that would be very…
Yes, that’s something that I’ve never really enjoyed in other people’s work and it’s very tempting and I just got a commission to do stuff about speech. Uh, I’ve just got this new speech machine land in my lap, or vocal machine, but I’m really trying not to go down that road and so far I’m succeeding. Okay, I’ve got a heartbeat in the Hudderfield project, but that’s it! [laughs]
I think maybe we’ll end with that. I wanted thank you very much for doing this interview.
You’re very kind. It’s been a pleasure.
And I hope we’ll talk again soon, I hope.
That’s very kind, Susanna.
Check out the RF review of Migration here.
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