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An Interview with Ernst Karel

Formerly based in Chicago, musician and sound artist, Ernst Karel, works with analog electronics and, until last year, trumpet. Although classically trained on trumpet, he long ago abandoned traditional repertoire and technique, instead exploring beyond the limitations of the trumpet using electronics and other means. More recently, he’s left the trumpet in its case altogether, working directly with electronics and recordings of acoustic spaces. In Seattle and then Chicago, Ernst was active in a number of noise, new music, and improvisation groups. Since the late 90s, he has collaborated with oboist, Kyle Bruckmann. As EKG, the duo combine electronics and acoustic instrumentation to create alien, often austere music comprised of microscopic fragments of sound, crackling static, and undulating burbles and blips. In his solo work, Ernst works with analog modular synthesizers, sometimes combined with acoustic sound sources and phonography.

On Thursday, June 7, Ernst will play live on Rare Frequency and answered a few questions by email beforehand. The interview took place about a month before his appearance on the show.

Tell me a bit about your background, if you would. You trained as a classical trumpet player — how did you become interested in working with electronics and what precipitated your move away from classical performance?

Well, when I was in high school there was always a disconnect between the music I played and the music I listened to, and then finally in college while I was an exchange student in Thailand, sitting in a concrete block house with corrugated steel roof in Chiang Mai practicing orchestral excerpts in preparation for an audition back in the US, there was this crisis moment where I finally realized that what I was doing made no sense to me at all. From that point I only played music that I felt like was “mine” in some sense, which usually meant improvised, or invented, but also for a long time included jazz. Given the limitations of an instrument like the trumpet, it also meant pretty quickly starting to experiment with guitar pedals and amplifiers and feedback, which I started to do while living in Seattle around 1990. Soon thereafter I started playing noise with Blowhole and more abstract stuff with Key Ransone of Small Cruel Party in a group called Kalberer Hotel Supply that put out some cassettes. All along I stuck with the trumpet, augmenting or burying it with electronics.

How did your partnership with Kyle Bruckmann as EKG come about?

In Chicago in the later 1990s both of us were really active improvisers, and we both ended up playing in the ‘horn section’ of various new music kinds of things, like with Olivia Block, or Art Lange, or Gene Coleman, etc., playing for example Cardew’s Treatise, and other stuff. I knew him as a new music oboist and improviser and for a long time had no idea of the whole other side of him that was exhibited in Lozenge, which really blew my mind the first time I saw it well after we started EKG. Anyway we joked that each of the groups we played in together was really the Ernst and Kyle Group, which is the stupid origin story of the name EKG. I think it was Olivia who first had us doing some duo improvisations for a piece of hers, and then we just started playing as a duo with the analog electronics that both of us were into.

To what extent are you able to maintain that partnership now that you are on opposite sides of the country?

Now that neither of us is in Chicago anymore, we’ve gotten together to tour and record occasionally, and actually we’ve managed to overlap a fair amount given the distance. I was living in the Bay Area for 6 months when he moved out there, so we did some playing and recording there, then we did a little tour with Giuseppe Ielasi, which led to the last CD, and we also managed to overlap in Berlin and did some recording there.

Has the nature of the way you work together changed dramatically in the last two years?

Well, it’s become more about working with material after the fact, since the live concerts are fewer. So with the record with Giuseppe, the tour and making recordings took a small amount of time, but we worked with them for a while afterwards to create the CD on Formed Records. And for the concerts coming up next month at the Stone in NY, Non-Event in Boston, and Bowerbird in Philadelphia, in addition to improvisations we’re also doing our first pre-prepared studio thing, Morton Feldman’s Oboe and Orchestra (1976) realized for oboe and analog electronics, which has been quite a time-consuming project.

I know you’ve done a number of sound installations in the past — do you have any plans for installation projects in or around Boston?

The transition period has been a little long, moving here and starting a new job etc., and I don’t have any installation work planned, though that is something I’m interested in continuing.

You recently moved to Boston after spending a year in Berlin, where I know you were extremely musically active — how are you adjusting to the somewhat slower musical pace of Boston after such an intense period of activity? Are you involved with any local ensembles?

Actually in addition to taking a break from the trumpet for the first time, since coming here from Berlin I’ve also been basically taking a break from ‘improvising,’ and doing more independent studio-based work, which is pretty interesting. So it’s been a period of recentering in a number of ways. But I am invested in live and collaborative work, and recently I’ve gotten into helping set up shows, which is a new thing for me. And there are a lot of musicians in the area that I admire, and now that I’m starting to feel settled I’m looking forward to working with them also.

Since moving to Boston, you’ve been working on a composition using materials created using Synlab modular synth system at the Elektronisches Studio at Technische Universität Berlin. Could you describe the history and nature of this particular project?

Right, that’s one thing — This is an instrument made by a Berlin company in the 1970s, of which there seem to be only 2 or 3 around. It’s interesting because it’s a hybrid patch-cable and matrix system of patching, which leads to some unique results when you try to ‘play’ it. There were also great discoveries like that just holding patch cables near different modules, and moving them around, created different electric sound fields.

What other projects are you currently working on?

In addition to the Feldman, I’m also starting to explore the Serge and Buchla systems in the Harvard analog studio; the Serge in particular is interesting because it contains these prototype modules since Serge was the brother of Ivan Tcherepnin who ran the studio for many years. Also, in the area sometimes called phonography, I’m working on a project called “Heard Laboratories”, which is a sort of sonic ethnography of scientific research labs at Harvard. It’s been fascinating getting into the various labs and seeing and recording all the low-to-high-tech, and often homemade devices that are in use — lots of these crazy things all wrapped in tin foil with tubes and wires coming out. I’m recording all of these sounds with extremely sensitive mics and preamps; instant electronic music. Anyway I’ll be presenting that piece this summer at a conference of the Royal Anthropological Institute in Manchester UK, where the theme is “Beyond Text: Synaesthetic and Sensory Practices in Anthropology.” Meanwhile, two duo projects are in an overly-drawn-out postproduction stage: one with Annette Krebs, and an almost orchestral multitracked sound-video-text collaboration with Alessandro Bosetti, both recorded last year in Berlin.

-Susanna Bolle


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