Emptyset are one of the most innovative acts currently working in the techno domain.
The London-Bristol duo, comprising James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas, are preoccupied with interstitial spaces: the points at which distortion takes on its own volition; at which form begins to dictate content; at which techno yields to the equipment with which it is made. You might refer to Emptyset’s album work as process music, but their processes are definitively separate from the practices of composers like Reich or Stockhausen. Although, as Purgas explains, Emptyset often explore the potential of composition based on complex “rule-sets”, the duo instead seem primarily interested in the potential of hardware; in the unpredictable possibilities of analogue boxes in labyrinthine signal chains.
Recur, the outfit’s first full length for Raster-Noton, sees Emptyset return to some of the tightly wound barbarism of Demiurge and the Collapsed EP, following their explorations of architectural space on Medium and Material. On these records, Ginzburg and Purgas used space as signal processors, ‘playing’ environments like mines or power stations. Recur, meanwhile, is a studio album, and in this environment the pair gravitate towards furious explorations of what initially appear to be simple rhythmic patterns, each of which the duo eke out and tease, pulling them into new, ever more distorted configurations.
Speaking from Multiverse, the Bristol studio that constitutes Emptyset’s spiritual home, Ginzburg and Purgas explained the theoretical basis for the pair’s work, their intersecting non-musical interests, and their enduring fascination with analogue.
You record at Multiverse. Do you spend most of your time in Bristol?
JG: Not really. We’ve been touring a lot this year, and I’ve been doing quite a lot of projects which have kept me out of Bristol for the majority of the time, but we always come back to Bristol to work on Emptyset. Bristol is where the studio is, where our office is, and it’s where we spend time on projects when we’re not on the road, and also where we ingest the projects that we’re working on remotely.
So you do all of your writing in Multiverse?
JG: The majority of it. I’ve also been working with another guy called Matt Sampson [also the location engineer on Material and Medium], who runs a totally analogue studio. We recorded some of our album in his studio, because it gave us more flexibility in terms of more complicated routing and processing possibilities, because he’s got a huge live room and a huge console. We’ve got a lot of outboard in the studio here, but he’s been running studios for 25 years and is an electrical engineer, and is a very useful person to have in the studio. So we were doing basic structures and processing in his studio, then bringing them into Multiverse to fine-tune the results.
Do you work primarily in analogue, or is Multiverse a combination of the two?
JG: There’s lots of outboard, but it’s not built around an analogue desk. Everything we do in Emptyset is in the analogue domain, except for the computer as a capture device. What we always end up with is basically a stereo track, or a few stems. All we’re able to do in the computer is…
PP: Sculpt and shape initial structures.
JG: Exactly. But everything you hear is an analogue signal chain of one kind or another.
What do those original signals tend to be?
JG: If we ever showed somebody the skeleton of a track, it’s very crude. It just sounds like sine waves and noise, like the first computer had made music and it wasn’t particularly interesting. They’re really unremarkable in and of themselves, and quite comedic actually.
PP: It’s looking at outboard equipment as a means of ornamentation and shaping, and adding texture and form to that very basic, elemental signal.
JG: Or thinking about if from the other way around, where you have a very basic form and it’s being used to activate the innate properties of mechanical, electrical, and spatial processes.
Have there been key signal processes that you’ve used on Recur that differ from your previous work, clearly aside from the fact that you’ve used architectural spaces as processors in the past?
JG: For sure. One of the attractions of working in Matt’s studios is that he’s got some very unique pieces of equipment. For example, he’s got the plate reverb out of Abbey Road Studio 3 that was used on the White Album and Dark Side Of The Moon. Using that mechanical apparatus – for reverb, but more so to create very peculiar feedback chains and relationships – created some very unexpected results, particularly using them in conjunction with his other plate reverbs, spring reverbs, the large live room, and the vast collection of vintage amplifiers and exceptional collection of microphones. We could get very interesting and variable results by changing the bits of equipment that we were using in the signal chains, or playing with different mics in different configurations, or different configurations of these mechanical reverb units, and various kinds of quite exceptional bits of outboard.
PP: His collection of equipment is quite unique, and it was really good for us to be able to step outside of our current process and the current bits of equipment that we were using, and to be able to work with a different desk, work with a different reverb unit. Listening back to the results fed back into the production of the album, because it had a very different texture to what we’d previously been working on. It helped define the sound of the record.
JG: Simultaneously we brought some equipment that forms perhaps the core of our working process with us to his studio. But it became hugely augmented and ornamented by the other equipment that we were using, and very much held together by the desk. There’s a track on the album which is pretty much one take and a performance, which is just using the desk as a performative interface. That ended up creating a very different workflow for us, because we were setting up these chains and then creating structures to input into those processes.
PP: I think from our position we had to almost justify the act of making another album. In order to do that we had to consider all the work that had taken place up to that point, across Demiurge, Collapsed, primarily our more studio based albums, and think about how we could take all of the knowledge we had, all of the processes we had, and how could we ornament them, test them, and push them as far as we felt we could take them within that structure.
The desk being a performative element of what you do is interesting. Previously, in your studio work, I’ve always thought of it as being almost authorless. You have the equipment, which processes the signal, and there isn’t a huge amount of human performance. Is that something that you agree with?
JG: In previous work we were setting up systems where we could interact with the process as it unfolded. So for example, there was outboard set up, microphones set up, various signal paths set up, and as we were adjusting them we could find thresholds where interesting things started to happen from their own side. There were moments where accidents happened, where it required [us] to turn a knob at some point, but for the most part the processes were speaking for themselves. But in this particular album, because we had the desk and four hands to manipulate it, we instead would set up processes, find those thresholds, then do take after take where we were manually moving within those thresholds with the faders and EQs and various parameters. That created a relationship between the innate complexity of the interrelationship between these processes, and the spontaneity of gesture and the unexpected artefacts of some kind of human intervention.
You were talking about the importance of the live room, and I was wondering, particularly in comparison with Medium and Material, to what degree the properties of that room had a bearing on how the record turned out.
JG: If you were a band and you wanted to record an album, and you were thinking about the sound you wanted that album to have, the choice of studio would be very much driven by the qualities of the live room. It could almost be that you chose an anechoic room, and then you would use synthesised reverbs to create the sense of space. Clearly the sound of the room colours the recordings, but Matt’s room has basically wooden panelled walls, but it’s also quite low ceilinged and quite a peculiar shape. But in terms of the elements of the recordings that are the mic signals from that live room, in relationship to the parts that you are hearing just directly from the processes, it’s not like the final pass is entirely recorded in that live room and would pick up that specific thing.
PP: The complete whole contains the spatial aspect within it. But once again this wasn’t a record that was approached like Material or Medium, where that was a central aspect. It was more a case of taking that as a strand that existed within a multi-layered approach. There wasn’t an intention to extract the intrinsic properties of that room; it was more, how could we add texture through space, through applying space to the signal chain?
Clearly Material and Medium were informed by your interests in architectural practice. I was wondering if there is a similar theoretical grounding for your studio work.
JG: My background and primary interests outside of music production, and which I’d maybe put hierarchically above music production, [are] literature and the essence of narrative.
PP: I trained as an architect, but I’ve been involved in electronic music since the mid-‘90s. I think it’s almost like those projects came about through a conversation between our interests ultimately in electronic music, but simultaneously all the interests that we had that extended beyond that, whether that be in literature, architecture, visual art, cinema. In a way, Emptyset became for us a meeting point of various interests that ranged from the literary to the art historical, through to the sonic, to the history of technology and media, about how all of those interests could be compiled into a project that had a very refined, disciplined approach.
There seem to be quite distinct and discrete theoretical groundings for each of the records, and yet there is a very clear Emptyset aesthetic. I was wondering if you have an overarching sense of what that aesthetic might be.
JG: I think it’s maybe the reverse of that in a sense, because the systems, processes, and approach dictate the aesthetic. When we started we kind of pushed aside what we’d been doing previous to the first album, and we started from zero. We were looking at starting from as reduced a palette as possible, in terms of the components of the sound we were using to the approach to rhythm, to the approach to processing, even. So by taking some basic ideas and iterating them over time, that process of exploration dictated the aesthetic. I guess within that there’s always a process of defining what falls within the boundaries of the universe and what doesn’t.
PP: It’s ultimately the idea of defining a world through sound. That world is governed by a certain rule-set that we know internally. Having worked on it so much to this point, we’re aware of what defines the edges of that world. It’s just a process of elimination or decision-making in terms of seeing what can or cannot exist within that.
JG: I guess you could call it an editorial process. We end up throwing away or not pursuing certain ideas or pieces because, when put into a timeline with everything else, [they] feel like lateral steps, steps backwards, or…
PP: It’s almost like you produce sounds that feel like they belong more in the world of sound design, or a more definable genre-based music. Then, in a way, that ceases to be of interest to us personally, because it defines something either within a technological moment, or a specific moment within music history. Within Emptyset, we’ve almost wanted it to be able to exist on its own terms as much as possible.
During that editorial process are there any primarily aesthetic decisions, or is it all to do with what you think works within that framework?
JG: For all the theoretical or conceptual discussions and bases for our approach, those become part of a process. By approaching something with this kind of idea, what kind of results are generated? But for the results to be valid, let’s say, they have to be of aesthetic interest. So things that are of no aesthetic interest are immediately discounted or thrown away, because the core of the project is a kind of visceral experience of sound that we hope evokes a sense of otherness, or allows the listener to feel that they’ve entered into the universe of something rather than to feel alienated from the experience of listening by somehow being precluded from understanding it by not having access to or a relationship with whatever intellectual basis we have for approaching it. In a way you could say it’s aesthetics first.