Ricardo Villalobos: a fine balance
By, Apr 14 2012
Photo: Lars Borges
This month sees the release of a very special remix project: Re:ECM by Ricardo Villalobos and Max Loderbauer.
The source material is the catalogue of ECM, the seminal “jazz and New Music” label founded by Manfred Eicher in 1969. Over the last 42 years, ECM’s uniquely alive, tactile, spatially aware approach to recording – invariably overseen by Eicher – has resulted in classic releases from the likes of Arvo Part, Alexander Knaifel, Keith Jarrett and Bennie Maupin. Villalobos and Loderbauer’s appreciation of the label and its works is long-standing and deeply felt; Villalobos bought his first ECM album when he was just 15 years old.
Their Re:ECM is a double-album of specially created “sound-structures”, and seeks to bridge the gap – and demonstrate the pre-existing affinities – between ECM’s patient, minimalist aesthetic and that of their own techno and ambient electronics. After hearing their initial interpretations of, and responses to, ECM’s archival material, Manfred Eicher gave the pair free rein to carry on experimenting with ECM titles of their choice, and gave his final seal of approval by supervising the mastering of the album in Berlin.
“The most important thing is to harmonize these two worlds, without them aspiring to mutually deactivate each other, to keep both – the organic and the electronic – in balance.”
Villalobos first began to saw the potential in an ECM remix project when he began introducing elements of the the label’s recordings into his DJ sets. Noting the dancefloors responses to these textures, he concluded: “If one combines the functionality of reduced electronic structures with the living textures of ECM productions, it ignites new passions on a subliminal level….The most important thing is to harmonize these two worlds, without them aspiring to mutually deactivate each other, to keep both – the organic and the electronic – in balance.”
Over two years in the making, Re:ECM is the result of much deep engagement and painstaking labour on the part of Villalobos and Loderbauer, who developed and produced the album with the aid of vast banks of modular synthesizers in Berlin’s Laika Studios. It makes explicit the influence of ECM on such past Villalobos LPs as Achso and Thé Au Harem d’Archimède, not to mention Loderbauer’s work in NSI., Sun Electric and particularly The Moritz von Oswald Trio. Drawing upon recordings by Christian Wallumrød, Alexander Knaifel, John Abercrombie, Miroslav Vitous, Louis Sclavis, Wolfert Brederode, Paul Giger, Enrico Rava/Stefano Bollani/Paul Motian, Arvo Pärt and Bennie Maupin, it’s a towering tribute to this most meditative and enduringly influential strain of the European avant-garde.
FACT’s Bjørn Schaeffner caught up with Villalobos to talk about the project, and such other salient topics as synthesis, children, drugs and utopia.
Ricardo, you just arrived back home from your studio. What were you doing there?
“Max [Loderbauer] and me are working on this Bollywood soundtrack. We try to give some dance scenes a touch of our city. We’re Berlin-ising them, remixing them.”
Another remix project with Max Loderbauer. What attracted you to this one?
“First of all, we share a big respect for the Indian musical heritage, in general for Indian culture. Shah Rukh Khan is in it, and so are many other Bollywood greats. I suppose we really liked the idea of co-tailoring a musical costume for that movie.”
And how did the remix project for ECM come about?
“Stefan Steigleder, who works at Universal and who is well-acquainted with both the electronic and jazz scene, knew of my affinity to the sounds of ECM and that’s how the contact with the label came about, as Universal is distributing ECM. The project took years to develop, really. Slowly, step by step. I suppose that’s the way things happen at ECM. Of course, we didn’t want to go like a bull at a gate! [laughs]”
What is your earliest recollection of ECM?
“When I was fifteen years old, I bought my first ECM record – Ritual by Keith Jarrett, that was around 1985. And it really clicked with me. Since then, I’ve been collecting ECM records.“
“Listening to ECM for decades, it sharpens your ear really.”
You have a reputation for integrating ECM tracks into your DJ sets. To what end on the dancefloor?
“It’s amazing what can happen on the dancefloor, such emotionality and surprise! People really don’t expect, say, chorals or a clarinet solo to appear. It’s surprising in the context of this European rhythmical music. I really like that.”
It seems that traces of the ECM aesthetic already came through back in 2003 or 2004, when you worked on your album Thé Au Harem d’Archimède.
“Listening to ECM for decades, it sharpens your ear really. And your musical output is always the sum of what you heard before.”
If you take the guitar part in your track ‘Hireklon’ for example, it sounds like an anticipation of the guitar sample of Christian Wallumrød’s ‘Blop’, which you remixed with Max Loderbauer for the Re:ECM album.
“You’re right, it really goes in that direction. With ‘Hireklon’, I used a guitar preset sample from a specialist magazine. It probably really was a kind of pre-experience with the ECM samples.”
What have you learned from the ECM sound universe?
“A lot about sound itself, the distribution of frequencies, the use of space between instruments. In electronic music it all takes place in a very limited range. With jazz productions, especially with ECM, attention is given to the space between instruments, the silences in between. It was my goal to create such an aesthetic in electronic music. The spaciousness. And in this regard ECM made a huge contribution, with its unique aesthetic shaped by Manfred Eicher. He takes part in every production, and that’s how this sound comes about. He makes it the sound that it ultimately becomes.”
Manfred Eicher gave you the freedom to use anything you wanted from the catalogue?
“After we started with the project, Manfred visited us in our studio, listened to what we had done at this stage and then he told us that we could use anything we want, that we could do it without pressure. And that’s an extreme privilege, when something like this happens.”
“With ECM, attention is given to the space between instruments, the silences in between. It was my goal to create such an aesthetic in electronic music. The spaciousness.”
Do you know what Manfred Eicher’s experience of club music is?
“Manfred certainly has his experiences with electronic music. More importantly, he is someone who looks at music without pigeon-holing it. He is a bridge-builder. And I suppose that is what this project is about: openness. The joining of two worlds.”
Crossing bridges is something that characterizes your own music as well.
“Isn’t it all about building bridges in music? Tearing down boundaries, that’s what it’s about. On another level, the social aspect is really important for me. It’s about bringing people together. To jointly speak a musical language. That’s the main reason why I’m doing all of this.“
I suppose club music only occurs on an abstract level on the album…
“Of course, there’s no dance mania feeding it. It taps into the sources of club music, but at a much easier throttle. We respected the speed margin of 128 bpm, but mostly in offbeat or transformed into a triola. For clubbers, who have certain expectations from me and Max, it might come as a surprise.”
You recorded it a while ago.
“Two years, to be exact.“
How did you approach the ECM work in the studio?
“Very naively, as with everything I make. We did all the tracks on one day each. We isolated sounds we liked from the originals, put together an arrangement, and mixed it live. This naive approach to music is something that’s becoming more and more important. This process of not being fixated on a goal. OK, with club remixes, you’ll have to fulfill certain expectations. But generally, I try to not to activate my intellect. I try to become more and more child-like.”
You have produced club music for children in the past…
“Yes. Now that I have my own children, I try to show them all kinds of music. As did my parents with me. It’s astonishing which music my children like or don’t like. How this can change, depending on the situation. In this respect, you can learn a lot from children, because they actually perceive music on a completely emotional level. To them, it just is what it is.”
“That is what this project is about: openness. The joining of two worlds.”
They’re really just in the moment.
“Exactly. One should try to let the subconscious rule. As an artist you don’t work that well under the pressure of the conscious. You don’t play that well when you start to think about it, you should try to shut it off. The thinking about it. Pressure is one of the great creative hindrances.“
You face a lot of public pressure, too. How do you deal with it?
“For one, I try to keep a good balance between commercial and less commercial gigs. If I feel pressure, I always try to understand in which way pressure is exerted, so I can free myself from it. There are very nice situations in the public, and also very unpleasant ones. You have to filter out the negative experiences, so they don’t feed on your energy. Because you really need the energy for something else.”
Unpleasant as in the ever-flashing eyes of mobile phone cameras…
“Exactly. You should be as relaxed as possible in such a situation. It’s the big learning process of a person who stands in the public. You should try to be in a different place than where the avalanche is going down. That’s really important. My family helps me a lot in this respect. Now I have more reasons to escape from the hustle and bustle [laughs]. I like to spend a lot of time with my family.The kids are a very good reason to go home.”
Coming back to the ECM project: How did you meet Max?
“We met fourteen years ago in Chile and became friends instantly. A couple of years ago we made music for a silent movie, which was our first musical collaboration [Walter Ruthmann’s Symphonie einer Grosstadt, together with Moritz von Oswald]. We have a very buddy-like relationship. I learned a lot from him, because he has a lot of experience. Max is a great teacher.”
“You have to filter out the negative experiences, so they don’t feed on your energy. Because you really need the energy for something else.”
When you work together, who does what?
“I deal with the sound and rhythm, whereas Max is more concerned with the harmonic and melodic aspects. These are the only clear differences. Ideas flow back and forth, there are no fixed rules. And importantly, there is no competition. We like to joke a lot. Doing music together, it’s a lot of fun. And it works just great between Max and me.”
You also enlisted a small army of synthesizers for this project…
“We work on a Doepfer-module basis, which we use in combination with digital technology. There are hundreds of these modules! In Berlin, there’s this store, SchneidersBuero. It’s the nucleus for analogue synthesizers in the city. Andreas Schneider has an enormous know-how about modular systems. Gladly, he is ready to share all that wealth of information. It’s very important that SchneidersBuero is in Berlin! [laughs]”
There’s an interesting documentary about Schneiders Buero [Totally Wired].
“It’s a bottomless topic, they could have made another three films [laughs]. Schneider feeds us with hints, and also feedbacks our experiences to the developers. Exchange via Schneiders Buero is very, very fruitful.“
These analogue boxes can lead a life of their own. How did you deal with that?
“When you connect the synths cleverly, then they make music on their own and you get astonishing results. The whole interplay of modules can give you the impression that there’s a creature at work. A moody one at that: sometimes it’s really bitchy, sometimes in perfect harmony. It’s never the same. When you turn on the modules the next day, you get completely different results. And when you connect the synths cleverly, then they start making music of their own. With astonishing results! The longer you work with these modular systems, the more you get the impression that you can do anything you want with them [laughs].”
Over the years, your productions have become more and more radical. Do you see the Re:ECM project as further continuation of this development?
“I don’t try to make any separations between my more radical, abstract material and the more dancefloor-friendly stuff. They’re all expressions of one dedication and passion. But mostly, I never lose sight of the dancefloor. Half of my work consists of making music at parties; and I do my job with a lot of love and dedication. It’s this passion which makes the more difficult moments bearable. But it’s the diversity of activities which makes it really interesting. In the end, it all flows into one.”
“The whole interplay of modules can give you the impression that there’s a creature at work. A moody one at that: sometimes it’s really bitchy, sometimes in perfect harmony. It’s never the same.
For the more dancefloor-oriented stuff you have your label Sei Es Drum…
“Yes. It’s called Sei Es Drum [a German expression that roughly translates as ‘Be that as it may’] because you shouldn’t worry or think too much about the artistic aspect of the music, it’s just about the dancefloor. About getting down. And 99% of these tracks are produced in interplay with the dancefloor. We only release the tracks that really work. I don’t want to flood the market with more music, only when I feel it’s necessary that a track should come out. A principle that should adhere to all of art, really. “
Speaking of art, I think the cover artwork of the ECM double album is pretty radical. It’s fairly obvious to behold a generous dose of white powder there…
“Actually, that’s a depiction of a wave breaking in the moon light. But I see your point. You may see it like that. I really don’t have anything to do with it. [laughs]”
Club culture without drugs seems hard to fathom. Can you imagine a scene beyond drugs?
“Of course. If the setting is right, the sound, the air, the lighting, the beverage supply. If the harmony, the social interaction between clubbers is tuned just right. If it all becomes an entity, then it should work, no problem.”
If everyone was on a natural high, right. But that’s utopia, of course.
“Let’s put it this way. As a child I encountered Samba: I was dragged away into the rhythms and completely lost my sense of time and reality. It was that blissful moment, when you turn off your consciousness, when you just commit yourself completely to what’s actually happening. That’s exactly the state people want to achieve by taking drugs. To loosen up. It’s this search for your own childhood, those lost moments in kindergarten. And that’s what I’m looking for in a club.”
“I don’t try to make any separations between my more radical, abstract material and the more dancefloor-friendly stuff. They’re all expressions of one dedication and passion.”
Speaking of clubs: The release party will be at Berghain. It’s an obvious choice as a techno temple, but why did you really choose it?
“Because we only have to move our machines a couple of metres [laughs]. No, really because the Berghain has a very open-minded appreciation of club culture. And soundwise, it’s the best club in Berlin. Acoustically, it’s great, because of the very high ceilings.”
Where else will the ECM project be played live?
“In England, Italy and Switzerland. All in all, there will be around five or six ECM gigs over the next nine months. We’ll be having a special situation in Italy, where they’ll integrate a PA in a completely virginal surrounding. To be honest, I prefer to play in a venue where you know what you’re dealing with, where you have technicians who really know the context. Let’s see about that.”
You turned forty last year. Playing out a lot, while growing older, how is that going?
“I just realize that the audience is getting younger and younger [laughs]. But I try not to betray any signs of ageism. There are a lot of people who say people at parties are too young, too inexperienced and too uncultivated. I try not to think of it this way and try to be part of the game, try to stay relevant for the new generation, by producing stuff and deejaying. My father is 68 and he always bounces about with me in the club, dancing until the morning comes. He really is my big role model for the future.”
“My father is 68 and he always bounces about with me in the club, dancing until the morning comes. He really is my big role model for the future.”
So you don’t experience the slightest fatigue symptom?
“Not at all, quite the contrary.“
How are your ears then?
“They’re really just fine [laughs]. I have them checked regularly, and it’s a topic I’m really conscious about. But I don’t wear earmuffs while deejaying, because to me it’s really kind of a battle situation. A kind of boxing match, where you just go in and you just don’t feel pain! I try not to worry about me getting harmed. And this attitude protects me, I suppose. If I did start worrying about tinnitus, I would surely get it. So, yes, my ears are just fine! [laughs]”
You will just continue doing your stuff, business as usual?
“Yes, I will do my stuff as always. But everything is possible. I’m producing music, be it club tracks, electronic jazz or else. I try not think too much about what it actually is. I just go to my studio and record until the end of the day. And see what’s happening. Of course, it doesn’t stop me from making my thoughts about distributing what where.“
So what have you got coming up in the near future?
“There will be a Perlon album release at the end of the year. I have an other electronic jazz project with Max, there are a couple of film projects, various EPs and very soon probably an EP on Sei Es Drum. It will just go on like this. On and on.”