No-one can make a dance track shine and twinkle quite like Hendrik Weber.
The Hamburg native emerged as one of Dial’s banner artists in the mid 2000s, releasing the colourful techno LP Diamond Daze in 2004 under the now-familiar Pantha Du Prince moniker. 2007’s follow-up This Bliss, however, was a game-changer – a coruscating, heart-tugging, remarkably accessible minimal techno disc, and one of our ten favourite albums of the last decade. A third LP on Rough Trade in 2010 (the finely tuned Black Noise) proved a crossover success, and Weber’s territory, situated at the threshold between electroacoustic music and melodic techno, remains pretty much entirely his own.
Elements Of Light is, in many respects, Weber’s most ambitious production to date. Produced in collaboration with specially convened Norwegian ensemble The Bell Laboratory, Elements Of Light is a 44 minute composition featuring a host of live percussion – marimba, xylophone, clapping and a ginormous 50 bell carillon, which really has to be seen to be believed. Inspired by an encounter with Oslo’s imposing City Hall carillon in 2010, Weber crafted an expansive long-form ‘skeleton’ piece, before incorporating carefully arranged live percussion and bell-ringing into the process. The resulting record is a charming synthesis of microhouse and contemporary classical, and one which studiously avoids the trappings of more jejune ‘techno-meet-Tchaikvosky’-style projects.
FACT took some time out with Weber – who’d been ensconced all day in the studio working on some “jams” – to discuss the Enlightenment, the perils of fancy dress, and, surprise surprise, bells.
“I was already researching on carillons for quite a while, actually, so of course if you have an open ear for carillons you will recognise the differences of the carillons all over the world. I started my journey with the carillon before the recording of Black Noise – we were in Hamburg in a church where there was this old lady, and once a month they make an open door for the carillon. We went there, and this lady was playing this really old carillon, and it was so fascinating for us to watch her play and see all the mechanisms triggering the bells. This probably started there.
“The bells in the form of the carillon is just a logical progression, if you consider the frequencies which are fascinating for me. Also, the carillon was also getting my attention immediately when I heard it, because it’s a wide range of tones. They have a lot of bells up there! More than we have now for our piece. So when I heard it the first time, for me it was clear that you have a lot of possibilities with this instrument, on top of the city. Everybody would be able to listen to whatever you would play and whoever would play it. It’s just there and they have to listen to it. When I first listened to the melody – it was running all over the city – I couldn’t believe it. It was kind of a poppy, happy melody. The carillon is just fooling around sometimes in Oslo – these guys are sometimes going crazy up there. They’re playing songs by Metallica or Madonna.
“So it’s a fairly open source, and the moment I heard it I was like ‘Okay, I want to write something for this carillon.’ It would be cool to have this piece played over Oslo and everybody would hear it, and you could record it in several corners of the city and make a sort of acoustic mapping of the city through the piece, and then make an online project where people could download certain spots in the city where they could listen to the reverb and map the city with the melodies. All this basically floated into this whole Bell Laboratory, because then we got [arranger] Lars Petter involved and the musicians, and this is how the whole carillon story started.”
It makes sense to me what you’re saying about the carillon being situated in the city, and being able to map the city with sound. I find that interesting in relation to the work you’ve done before, particularly on Black Noise, where a lot of the tracks were love letters to particular locations…
…were very much musical snapshots of places. The carillon is an instrument that can penetrate so many spaces all at once.
“Yes, that’s correct. It’s a very powerful instrument. In our field recordings of Black Noise, we have the church bells from nearby, from far away villages, and we already have it on there. Even though you just hear it far in the back and you would hear the guitar in the front and some birds closer by, you would always hear if it rings. It’s unbelievable how far it can get with the sound, how far it is transported by air, and how precisely it travels through air. It’s really a logical progression to also use it as a musical source.”
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A fascinating thing about the bell – and this isn’t just relevant to Elements Of Light, because bells have featured quite heavily across your work – is that it’s unique in its social and cultural associations. It calls people to prayer, it warns of danger, it’s used in sea travel…it’s more than an instrument. It has social functions. Is that something you bore in mind particularly?
“Yeah, it’s also a metaphor, of course. Using the bell in a dysfunctional way, but making it functional again. The connotation of the bell is set to zero, is stripped it down to what it really is. This is also part of our research, I think: to give back a musical power to the bell itself, and hold back the symbolic value of it. This is also where the title comes in here. It’s linked up with a certain emptiness, that gives you the chance to use an instrument like the carillon in a new manner, let’s say, and somehow free the bell from all the tradition we are used to. You have this social/cultural approach of techno music, and then, combined with an iconic instrument like this, it basically gets a new connotation. It gets a certain redefinition that we were all very much interested in – to make it fruitful with music, to make it a new beginning.”
You mentioned the album title – I was curious to know what the thinking was behind your emphasis on light, and the constituent elements of light.
“I think it started with the whole period at the beginning of the 20th century, when we had these unbelievable scientific discoveries, and art and music also really got a redefinition. I think this whole time had a certain fascination with how scientific models can influence art, and how they’re interdependent, these models of reality, a restructuring of your way of receiving yourself. This theme that the light includes within itself, in constructing the world that we see – this was the interesting part for me. With the model of light as we know it today, we can explain so much, and we also can’t explain a lot of things.
“To step into this metaphoric telling of what light could be was there from the beginning. It was there when I listened for the first time to these bells, because it was a super sunny day, and I would try to figure where the tower was and I couldn’t see the tower. I was constantly blinded by the light. You’d look up into the air and you wouldn’t find the origin of the sound. This was the picture where we met, where we started the idea to create the Bell Laboratory. It’s a whole kind of complex thing that was revealed in that moment.
“I think also the reception of time, the reception of space, how you experience the piece on a timeline. You lose yourself in your own sense of time – time becomes this abstract thing where you listen to music and suddenly 44 minutes are over, and you’ve completely lost the measure. This whole reception also leads back to this era in art and science where everything got redefined in a way.
“You can also see it as much more simple. Of course, the light is a symbol of…in Germany, we say the Aufklärung, the time of Rousseau and Kant. This is also part of the whole picture. The combining with the bell, with the power tool of the church, this was an idealistic approach in a way, as I said earlier, to reset this instrument to a new level, and reset our senses and our reception of art, in a way. Giving not the history, but the chance to grab ourselves, to always be able to free yourself from connotations that suppress a certain development, that suppress a certain social intelligence, that suppress intelligence in general and openness and reflecting upon structures and society and economy. And all this, I think, is important – to put a finger on this kind of picture, that the light shines through the darkest cellar. And of course we need darkness as much as we need light. It’s a continuous project to get into the corners, and to raise the sensibility, and not to shut down.”
That makes me think of the images I’ve seen of the Elements Of Light live premiere: you’re all wearing hooded outfits. Speaking to you now, I get the sense you were, on the one hand, nodding back to what the original users of the carillon would wear – but it’s almost as if you were dressed as warriors, as wizards, as bringers of the new.
“It’s interesting that you say that. The thing is that we’re now wearing laboratory clothes! It’s also part of this process, you never know in the beginning what you are dealing with. When we entered the stage with these hoods, you have this medieval, archaic atmosphere that I recognise is the opposite of what the music is about, and what we actually wanted to say. So to make clearer what we wanted, it’s better to wear these other costumes, where you don’t have this kitschy, cliche’d, fantasy, Game Of Thrones whatever…
“I see both outfits in the piece, so they both have every right to be there, but we need both. To have a certain sense of responsibility to the music, we need to wear both outfits, because both things are in there. There’s a mythical thing in there that you don’t know yet, but there’s also their part that’s very human and very scientific, so we need these two pictures to balance what is happening in the music. So at a certain point I said, ‘Okay, we have to change the costumes.’ And we’ll probably change them again if we feel like we need to, to make it more neutral. We would probably do that – dress in black and in suits like normal classical musicians. It’s all flexible, it’s all in the flow. It’s not a set picture that has an ideology behind it. It’s an open system where changes are allowed, basically.”
It makes for a very different spectacle to electronic artists who have previously collaborated with orchestras. I revisited Jeff Mills working with the Montpellier Orchestra – are there any precedents for this meet-up between machine and orchestra that you had in mind when working on this project?
“No. I was just interested in how it could work. First of all, it was kind of a challenge. It was definitely not the normal way to approach an orchestra, because normally you would write a track and then try and figure out how this track can be played by an orchestra. In this case, I started with building the instrument itself, and the instrument was built out of field recordings from the Institute For New Music in Oslo. They did a recording from each bell in the bell tower so I could create this instrument where I could play the Oslo bells on my EDPM. This is how I started.
“There was a communication from the beginning. It wasn’t like, ‘there’s this orchestra and I have to write a piece for the orchestra.’ It was more like, we have this idea and we have to somehow incorporate what we were thinking about, so we incorporated this from the beginning, and then tried to find a way to fulfil the picture and make these musical themes work, in a way. I think it’s more interwoven, and they’re closer to each other in this project than in other projects which I know of, where you play with a big band or where you play with an orchestra, or where you play with a chamber orchestra, or where you play with a quartet, a brass ensemble or whatever, where you basically transfer the music into another outfit. Here, the musical origin of where Elements Of Light was coming from was already based in the whole ensemble idea, so this is probably the difference.
“I thought that was the interesting part of it – to know what they’re going to do on their instrument, but kind of also not know? To keep a certain openness, and keep a certain skeleton, so that the musicians have a chance to enter into the music that’s already there, and that you could listen to, but that would never be playable for the musician. And that’s the problem, I think, for a lot of these projects that try to play electronic music, because the resolution for electronic pieces is just so high. The frequency range is just so different from the range that you have on a string or on a marimba, compared to what you have on a CS80 Yamaha synthesizer or whatever. So to incorporate it, to have in mind that certain things are not replaceable, and certain things are better replaceable, better played by a classical instrument than by a synthesizer…that was probably the interesting part of the whole project. We had a close communication on what should be played where and how, and what should be more in the electronics, and what should be played by the musicians. It’s a process that was, from the beginning, a patchwork.”
You were saying that a virtue of the project was that you gave the musicians some latitude and flexibility. I find that curious, considered how very detailed and meticulous your studio albums are. Obviously you had the Ursprung project [with Workshop’s Stephan Abry] last year – are you looking at continuing to work in collaboration with other artists?
“No, at the moment I’m coming back to [solo work]. But I always work with the machines as well. The finishing is always very set, but the process of getting to this position is always the process of letting things happen. With the normal Pantha stuff, it’s also about losing myself in a certain instability, and this instability was happening even more with The Bell Laboratory. But then you get it back into a precise form, where you use all the input that failure and chaos and coincidence can produce, and use it to make a form that, in itself, brings everything together. So, I think this is why you say everything has its place and is well organised, but to actually be able to let music happen, I have to step into this complete chaos and confusion beforehand.
“The musicians were free to make mistakes, or not-mistakes. All these thousands of possibilities of how to play a melody – more hard notes, more loud notes – they made for an open communication, a way to find the right solution as part of failure and this process of letting things happen. I had to listen to the skeleton a few weeks ago, and it’s a completely different track. The musicians were interpreting the skeleton, which for me was really the fascinating part of the whole process – that I can also be part of the interpretation, and create something out of an impression that came from the computer. In the end, of course, it came back to a final decision that we had to make while mixing and mastering it. We had to make decisions, and the precision comes from that choosing.”
Is the skeleton something you’re happy with people hearing one day?
“I don’t know. Of course, it’s not finished – it’s not like I could press it on vinyl. But probably someday I will release the electronic version of Elements Of Light, of course. That’s an interesting aspect of this piece – you don’t have an electronic origin that you can refer to. It was created with the ensemble. And you don’t have a piece that was only played by an ensemble. So if I ever release the “original”, it should include the Oslo bell-tower carillon. On the [Elements Of Light] recording, we used the mobile carillon from Denmark.”
Is that the one you’re using in your live shows?
“Yeah, exactly, and it’s also on the recording. It’s a mobile carillon from Copenhagen.”
You’ve said in the past that this project really comes into its own as a live piece. I was interested to hear from your perspective what sort of effect the carillon has on crowds. It’s almost like the subwoofer of its day, right? Creating huge, very impressive physical vibrations?
“Well, it’s not so…it’s not very deep. The tonal pitch is really high. It can be really loud, but we use it really as an instrument. You would look at it and it looks immense, but the impact is probably more the physical presence. The sounds are living in the whole ensemble, they are part of the ensemble, they have their place next to the marimba and next to the the vibraphone. Of course they have some prominence, but it’s not as if they’re over-present or super-loud. It’s very much balanced, and used as a classical instrument. It kind of sleeps in the mix.”
What you were saying about the physical presence…to look at the carillon, it resembles a sculpture – or even a building – as much as it does an instrument. It’s so imposing. Do you get real joy showcasing it around the world?
“Yeah, we always say we are ‘catching our whale’ when it comes into the car. Here comes this thing, and five or six people have to help to unload it, and it’s kind of a process that everyone is really happy to do. And of course it’s a sculpture – it’s a living organism, it’s a sculpture that you can step into and be part of. The atmosphere is kind of peaceful around it, because it’s so big, and you need to stay calm when you unload it and place it. ‘Where should we put it on stage?’, ‘where do we unload it?’…all these questions. It very much gives a certain gravity to the whole project. You have this core that is very quiet in a way. There’s this nothingness that you carry on stage. I don’t know…it’s really nice! Martin, the guy who transports the instrument, is part of the crew, he’s part of the Laboratory. It’s funny.”
Now that this project’s ready to go, you’ve said you’re returning back to more structured, typically Pantha-style recording. What are you working on at the moment
“We did a lot of analogue electronic recordings on old synthesizers and modular systems, and I’m just pulling my way through all this material that we recorded, or I recorded, in the last two years. Just rendering and jamming on some stuff, and jamming with real drum machines and synthesizers. It’s kind of a combination of live, living analogue systems, and controlling the systems with arrangements from sequencing programmes. This is really fun, i really enjoy it. It’s a completely different world now, but it’s really fun. It’s really fascinating what these machines are capable of doing.”
Can we look forward to hearing a few of your “jams” as well?
“I think so! Later this year, probably, there will be some new jams coming out.”