We speak to our Creative Production Masters Degree programme lead, synthesist Richard Scott, about his fascinating collaborative release with trumpet player Axel Dörner. Recorded in Prenzlauer Berg’s emblematic water tower, A Journal of Elasticity is a two-sided reservoir of creative brilliance.
If you’ve ever found yourself strolling through the Kollwitzkiez neighbourhood of Prenzlauer Berg, you won’t have missed it: the 30-metre-high tower that has long been an emblem of the district. Since the round building is known as the Wasserturm, you’ll have guessed that it once had something to do with storing water. In fact, the industrial complex, housing several structures, was Berlin’s first public water system, supplying the entire north of the city from 1875 until 1914. The tower remains one of Berlin’s most architecturally interesting landmarks. And if you’re lucky enough to attend cultural events such as the Bohemian Drips label’s Speicher festival – taking place annually inside its large and small reservoirs – you’ll discover that it’s one of the city’s most acoustically interesting landmarks, too.
During the first edition of the festival for site-specific music, in 2017, our Creative Production MA lead, composer, synthesist and recording artist Richard Scott, had the pleasure and challenge of performing in the larger tank with trumpet player Axel Dörner. The unlikely duo’s soundwork was based on the bricked space’s ring structure – which provides up to 18 seconds of reverb and unique echo effects – using a hexaphonic speaker system, modular synthesizer and a modified trumpet triggering electronics. This was the first of two acoustically idiosyncratic sessions – the other performed in the empty space without an audience – of which the recordings, almost four years later, have been released on vinyl as A Journal of Elasticity.
“Two boundary-breaking musicians do not so much explore a middle ground between them, but rather use the dynamics of the peculiar spaces around them,” goes the LP’s blurb. “Scott and Dörner masterfully construct and play with tonal, temporal, spatial and sonic dualities.” For electronic music connoisseurs and acoustic nerds like us, A Journal of Elasticity is a two-sided reservoir of creative brilliance.
What was it like to perform in such an iconic location and how did the fascinating project come together? Following the release, we spoke to Richard about his experience, and some of the exciting projects he’s currently got in the works.
We love the combination of your modular synthesis and Axel Dörner’s trumpet playing. How did your collaboration come together?
Actually the first few times I heard Axel play, although I liked it, I didn’t imagine we would ever work together. My background was a bit different – coming from a UK ping-pong dialogic kind of post-free jazz improvisation, derived from the Spontaneous Music ensemble – but with Axel it is very different. He came up more through the German echtzeitmusik tradition, and what we do is more like coinciding lines that have a lot of freedom in and of themselves but which don’t necessarily need to be discursive in the same way. It can also be very different between concerts. I always imagine we do some kind of ambient music but as the second side of the record shows, it can also be almost uncomfortably intense. We trust the moment and space – and each other – to tell us where to go.
“Working with Axel is an interesting balance between knowing and unknowing and weighing up which of the many paths available in any one moment to take.”
How challenging is it to synergise with another musician?
Working with Axel is an interesting balance between knowing and unknowing and weighing up which of the many paths available in any one moment to take. One is never certain one has taken the right decision, or how long that decision remains valid but it is essential to commit as completely as possible to what is happening between us at any one moment, without distinction over which one us is playing. That more individualistic aspect really has no meaning in the moment of playing this kind of music.
Above: Richard and Axel performing at Speicher I. Photo by Carina Khorkhordina
This composition was recorded almost four years ago in Prenzlauer Berg’s water tower during the Bohemian Drips annual festival for site-specific music, Speicher I. How did the location influence your conception of the piece?
The sense of constant ambiguity and elasticity between the two of us was amplified on these two recordings by the influence of such a unique and almost unwieldy sonic environment. The space is an interactive compositional element in its own right, creating transformational possibilities and limitations on every sound we performed.
What gear did you use and why?
Eurorack modular synthesizer, an EMS Synthi A and a Ciat-Lonbarde Tetrassi. Esoteric stuff really. These are my performance instruments, very dynamic and responsive to touch and either slow or fast changes. It's more than I normally take to concerts but the venue is only a few minutes walk from my house so I took a little more.
Above: Richard performing at Speicher I. Photo by Nikolaus Götz.
At what point did you decide to release the composition as a record?
When we heard the recordings we realised this was more than a gig, but something which reveals itself more slowly, something someone could really get into by listening multiple times. Not all recordings are like that. Like a lot of records, this one just took years to finally get out there on vinyl.
You captured the spatial information using a binaural dummy head microphone for optimal immersion. How close is the listening experience of the recording to the live experience?
Firstly, I didn’t record, mix or master the record – which is unusual, and a relief. In performance you don’t get an overview, I am only hearing from one spot in the room. The acoustics in that space are insane and really every person in the room hears a different concert – the microphone just captures one possibility amongst thousands. I am not sure how well a recording can ever witness just how non-linear that environment was. But this stereo reduction somehow works in its own right.
“The artwork is not always the event itself; often it is a reduction or documentation of a kind of absence, like a book of paintings is not those paintings; a poem about the sea is not the sea.”
One of your recent Creative Production M.A. graduates, Shehryar Ahmad, explored the immersive potential of binaural and 4DSOUND in his final project. How did you mentor him on this topic?
This project was an interesting mix of sound design, sound art, conceptual art and composition. Once the composition was in place – I do think it is important that spatial music be musically interesting – I talked with Shehryar a lot about how to document the project. In many ways it is very similar; you create a kind of infinitely spatial piece intended for many speakers or a 360-degree experience, but you can’t put all that either on a LP or in a master’s thesis. The artwork is not always the event itself; often it is a reduction or documentation of a kind of absence, like a book of paintings is not those paintings; a poem about the sea is not the sea. This process of translation and documentation is very important for all MA students and actually for the whole idea of artistic research.
In 2020, you performed at Moers festival - your only solo performance of the year. What was it like to perform for a stream instead of a standard audience? Did it influence your approach going forward?
Well, I played at Moers this year as well – crazily enough combining my modular with Seicento Vocale, a 22 piece renaissance choir which also only streamed. I can only say that, while it is nice to address many more people than would normally hear me via the Arte TV channel, it is a very strange and unusual experience to perform in a huge room with only TV cameras, sound engineers, festival staff and journalists.
You are under a microscope and have no idea how the cameras are focussing and translating your performance. It is a documentation you have no control over, so you have to just believe in what you are doing, and even if you don’t, you have to at least look as though you do! This is a new thing for me; concerts are normally more about intimacy and spontaneity.
Now that the school year is through, what do you plan on creating this summer?
The MA semesters run through the summer so are never really over! This summer I am working on a solo double album, on two Hiss & Viscera albums – my duet with Audrey Chen – and an album with Audrey and Canadian saxophonist Yves Charuest. I will actually perform again in the water tank, this time with Hiss & Viscera on August 21st, again at the Speicher festival. I have a duet album with EMS Synthi master Thomas Lehn, which we have been mixing apparently since the dawn of time but must be nearly finished. I have recently launched a YouTube stream, Irregular Transmissions, a weekly broadcast of me playing and talking about modular synthesiser matters. I have several mastering projects coming up, apart from performing and teaching, that is my other job. For better or worse, I am always working on several fronts.