Mark Fell – ‘Vortex Studies – 2′
“Since then my interest was in the texture of synthetic sound – there was something much more beautiful (and perhaps more emotionally charged) about a sustained square wave than any guitar solo. Soon I began to search out and replay sections of music which dropped to a single sound – these for some reason were the best.” – Mark Fell, UL8 liner notes
Best known as one half of the production duo snd, Mark Fell has focused on the singularity of sound as a composer, and technological art as a multimedia artist and curator for over twenty years. By applying academic techniques to his background in Sheffield’s historic ’80s and ’90s rave culture, Fell has consistently extrapolated dance music’s combination of minimalism and extended pop song structures into challenging and original territory. His two latest solo albums, Multistability and UL8, released within weeks of each other, show two distinctly different, yet inherently linked explorations of his intense interests. We caught up with him to find out more about their conception and his individual approach.
Multistability has been released on raster noton, as was snd’s last album Atavism. Was this a commission?
“It was kind of made with them in mind, but not a commission. I had been working on some ideas, thinking about making some music of this sort and wondered which label it would best suit. I spoke to Olaf at raster noton and he was keen on the idea, so I sent them some sketches and it just went from there. Although it’s not raster noton ‘central’ (ha) it seems to fit with their vibe somehow.”
A bit like Atavism.
“Yes, though that was also a bit outside their central aesthetic too, to an extent.”
It is described as being two different outcomes of the same starting material, so the album is actually featured twice, once in one way, once in another. Was it specifically designed to only have the two paths, or many?
“Well as the project developed I ended up thinking it would be a nice way to structure the album, two versions of itself. But beyond that there’s scope for several more releases as a result of the project, because I recorded loads.”
Since the tracks are essentially results from a starting point, I guess you arranged them in numerical order, but did you mean for them to be played in that order too?
“I’m not too keen on track follows track, etc. It’s nice to have a different overall structure; thats what i liked about some early Brinkmann or Ikeda releases, the structure of the album. I think it’s down to the way I play music; I rarely play something from start to end, so for me it’s just something to skip around in. People who come to my house are always annoyed at me because I just play 30 seconds of stuff here and there. Actually, I never listened the whole album through until recently. With UL8 I didn’t even listen to individual tracks the whole way through until I got into the master studio in Berlin, haha! At one point I had to stop Lupo and change something because it was a part I hadn’t really heard properly. I guess it’s a bit silly really, but I have such a short attention span.”
Mark Fell – ‘Multistability 10-A, 11′
But if it produces output then arguably it’s a good method of working for you.
“Yeah. I mean, I overcame problems with it a long time ago. Like, for example, I couldn’t work with timeline-based sequencing of music. So that’s how snd and the early Shirt Trax stuff came about; snd where nothing changed and we just tweaked sounds, and Shirt Trax (the album on OR) which was just chaos!”
As a ‘beginning-to-end’ listen I found Multistability difficult in stages, mainly durations of certain tracks. There is amazing content throughout, but what felt a little like some missed opportunities within it too, things that were only touched upon.
“Yeah, I like long durations. The listener can always skip forward. And missed opportunities, I guess you mean things I could have done, but then again I didnt want to introduce extra elements into tracks. I find some tracks have different energy levels, some pull you along, some are in your face, some create a kind of space or distance. It’s a kind of foreground and background.”
True. I think those levels of foreground and background distinguish it largely from an snd release.
“Yeah, to me it’s nothing like an snd record, but lots of people think it is since it uses some of the same kinds of sounds. But they’re used in completely different ways. People will hear the chords and the percussion, but even those are quite different. Then again, I guess I listen to these things differently having made them – I hear massive differences where perhaps the difference is only small.”
Well you do seem to have an intense focus on the listening experience in a way many others don’t.
“It’s probably hard to be objective about that. I guess people listen differently to things. But I think making patterns like that for several years has changed my sense of what is nice and what is crap.”
“I used to be totally anti-academia, but really it makes more sense to see what academic and non-academic practices can offer one another.”
Yours and snd’s music manages to bring something inherently of the immersive, physical club music scene, yet retains a more arguably academic approach and mastery of technique. It’s a rare balance of mixed aesthetics. Hecker seems to have captured this too, having a similar audience while using such totally academic approaches.
“I’m definitely interested in bringing together academic and non-academic musics, though not because one is better than the other. I used to be totally anti-academia, but really it makes more sense to see what academic and non-academic practices can offer one another. I think Hecker’s background is also in techno circles to some extent, and although his music is in a way academic sounding, his approach is very much intuitive. It has an energy you don’t find in many academic contexts.”
I think there is a tendency in academic music circles for the audience to be expected to sit and listen intently, to analyse the piece as it unfolds. Since there is a quote attributed to you about ‘music being a technology for an experience of time’, I was interested to know your take on that.
“I just put that quote in just to spark off questions! [laughs] I used to think there was a problem with seated spaces for music, but clubs were also a problem. There wasn’t an ideal space. I think I have changed my mind now though; in the past couple of years I’ve got more into seated spaces. But I’m not really into the idea that analysing music is somehow superior to just listening, so I react against that, I think. I mean, I am heavily into philosophy, but I don’t make music that you need a philosophy degree to enjoy. Like, people always say my stuff is ‘conceptual’ or whatever, but its actually just meant to sound nice.”
How much improvisation/intuition versus more rigid elements/processes went into Multistability compared to an snd record? And what kind of techniques are you using to accomplish these?
“I’m not really strict about process. Well, in some ways I am, some ways I’m not. Most of the tracks on both UL8 and Multistability are procedures implemented on a computer to generate patterns and timbral data that I will typically mess about with as they go along. It’s all dead simple, I have no real interest in technical complexity. I find the best systems are the very simple ones, where it’s just a very few linked procedures. They sound complex, but could be summed up in a couple of lines of text. So there might be a few parameters I change and that’s enough to create the level or change I want; I tweak the parameters until it sounds right. Lots of the time it sounds totally wrong, but then I find a set of values that work and explore those. On Multistablity there are only two places where I actually ‘composed’ notes, at the ends of part one and part two. I wanted to end with just those two bits after all this ‘non-composed’ stuff. The rest is all real time interaction with very, very basic pattern generating systems.”