Earlier this year, Emptyset released Borders, their Thrill Jockey debut. The experimental duo sat down with Thrill Jockey veteran Jan St. Werner of Mouse on Mars to talk about music production, the evolution of sound and much more.
On first listen, it would seem that British/American industrial sound architects Emptyset and German electronic trickster Jan St. Werner (best known for his work in longstanding electro-IDM-pop duo Mouse on Mars) have little in common.
However, after listening in to their latest works (Werner’s Felder, released late last year, and Emptyset’s Borders, released January, both on seminal Chicago label Thrill Jockey), it becomes apparent that despite differences in output, they share a great deal in common, especially in philosophy, concept and practice.
The two records offer complementary sonic visions: Borders is describing a space from the inside out — as if the record were trying to describe an unknown structure. Felder, meanwhile, is the opposite: it is describing a mental space, the inside of someone else’s brain, with its infinite fluctuations — a field.
FACT sat down with Werner and James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas of Emptyset for a freewheeling conversation that began with the concept of “space” — and extended outward from there, becoming an extended rumination on the hows and the whys of music, why we make it and why we listen.
“The world is my studio”Jan St. Werner
Jan St. Werner: [Felder is] a selection of different ideas. Each piece has its own history, and some came to me really casually, in that I wasn’t even thinking about making a piece of music. Most of my solo music comes to life on my computer. That’s the studio that I have everywhere. For me, it’s a weird idea to make music in this kind of dedicated space that has been built meticulously for you to “make music in there.” I’ve always felt intimidated and, also, kind of patronized [by that phenomenon]. So Felder really displaced that — I could take my studio anywhere — the world is my studio.
James Ginzburg: When we started working on our first Emptyset record, we very quickly came up with the idea of working on a cycle of albums. By the time we had finished our third album, we were still touring it, and the conversation came up: “Are we going to continue doing this? Do we want to continue doing this? And in what form?”
Paul Purgas: Prior to [Borders], we had been working on this project called Signal, a commission from CTM and Deutschland Radio. We were working on such a vast scale, working with radio transmissions across thousands of miles, and it was a way of working that just felt so abstracted from even music-making — it became an industrial production process. We really enjoyed it, but we kind of got lost within that, a little bit. And I think touring alongside that, we just needed to have a moment where we could ask ourselves, Why do we enjoy making music? A lot of it is fundamentally about a kind of teenage exuberance — that exists somewhere within yourself, that relates back to this innate pleasure in music.
JW: I really want to understand how and when things fade out into invisibility […] when they can no longer be grasped, but during that process, so many other things come into the picture. On the one hand, to construct an identity, a musical one, how much is really needed of us, as composers or musicians — how much do we need to do, and how much can we simply let happen? On the other, how much is in your instrument that you can explore without perpetuating cliches that other people have taught you?
JG: I don’t think either of us expected to work together in this way for as long as we have done. As a consequence, I think we needed to find a way of doing something that felt like a natural evolution, that felt interesting to us, that there was something to explore — rather than trying to sustain what we were doing by making worse and worse versions of what we had already done. So we came to a point where we tried to start from the beginning, design an entirely new way of working, and try to do that in a way that was based around actual instruments — similar to what Jan was saying in a sense, trying to “get out” of the formal studio situation as a way of creating very “designed” music. This record — we wanted to try to create a system where the whole system itself was the compositional process.
PP: And also thinking about the way that we’re working, particularly with instruments, strings and percussion, and locating that within a lineage of music-making, both Western and non-Western traditions. We’re almost trying to rebuild a narrative for ourselves to think about Emptyset as a project. What was it trying to say? What kind of history is it correlating with? Beyond this abstract idea of “making electronic music.”
“We’re creating the edge of our universe by designing a system and then working within that and seeing what it does”James Ginzburg
JG: The first few singles Emptyset did were basically techno. We see that as a process of getting to know each other, getting used to working with each other. I think there was a point where we thought we’d pursue that even further, but we just hit a brick wall. And hitting that brick wall gave us the freedom to stop trying to make music with any kind of function, and to just make music as a kind of exploration, an opportunity to bring in other things that we were interested in into the project: architecture, design, philosophy, literature, etcetera, etcetera.
JW: Felder is a field; it is a thing that spreads out. It’s not 100% clear to describe it; it fluctuates. It’s like the outer limits of the field are impossible to describe, and it’s impossible to know what the field is actually about. Fields are defined by what they actually carry out, what they are used for, what is possible within that field — but not about defining the outer limits. Everything that comes into [Felder’s] field is part of its composition.
JG: I think the idea of Borders is simultaneously a bit narrower and a bit broader, in the sense that we’re really looking at is how musical form arises out of what is, technically, a limitless space. And the way that human existence is defined by processes of demarcating space, defining territories. That process of defining territory is endlessly complex.
JW: I think Felder is very aware of dimensions and forms, but it questions the idea of identity in composition or sound or music. We find form very quickly — I do, at least — and it takes a very long time to surpass that, leave it behind. What is form in music? What do we really need to identify a musical piece as a “track” or as a composition?
JG: The way that we have constructed music — we’re creating the edge of our universe, the boundaries of our territory, by designing a system and then working within that and seeing what it does. The feedback between the limitations of the system — the different ways you can approach it, activate it, how it responds, the complexity of sounds that arise out of that — and how you can adjust the way you move, adjust that you strike the strings or touch the drum, both kind of respond to and activate this process. It’s the limitations of that system that are the walls of the architecture, so to speak.
PP: As James mentioned earlier, when we started Emptyset, there was a desire to think about it less as a musical project, explicitly, and more as a means of connecting together different disciplines, approaches, ideas. These spanned from composition through to ideas from literature, design, visual art, etcetera. And our way of working probably has parallels to Jan’s; how music is located as a cultural object or idea, or working with a visual arts context, there’s a sense of trying to think about what sound or what music is and what is possible for it to do, as a method, as a material. In a way, I find it quite exciting to look at what Jan’s doing and how he’s navigating those territories. So there’s definitely a dialogue that exists between our ways of working and thinking about that.
“Music still has potential to be birthed in unlikely contexts without the need for a massive infrastructure to deliver it”Paul Purgas
JG: [Music takes] disorganized social aggregates and brings them together in some kind of coherent form. That idea of audiences — music doesn’t exist without an audience. That circuit is incomplete without the actor and the recipient. On Borders, we’re thinking in a more explicit way about the kind of situations that music is central to and that music creates: particularly with an interest in early forms of rhythmic music, and how they relate to various kinds of religious traditions, etcetera. Part of the very basic function of music is subdividing time in such a way that it isn’t a completely intangible kind of vapor; that it gives existence a kind of tactile nature.
JW: We tend to think that music is “out there” for us to be shaped, to be considered in certain ways. But I’m not really sure if music was “there” in the first place, and we kind of discovered it, or if, to a certain extent, it was an evolutionary jump in the human mind to claim that something like music exists, to help us to cope with reality on many levels. This, I think, is an important moment to think about these things, because politically we are in a very weird situation right now. We have exactly these big problems because we are not open to abstraction and the possibility that lies ahead.
JG: I was thinking as you were talking, Jan, about my first experience of going to raves as a young man. I think in that time, in those situations, I honestly believed I was connecting with something that was going to change the world — it certainly changed my world and had a profound effect on me. Even the idea that we listen to music to cope with reality is too “gentle” in a way — we’re not trying to cope with reality, we’re trying to get to the marrow of it, to cut to its essence. Striving, with music, to connect to something transcendent.
JW: Music can be part of profound perceptive processes that can change how we learn and progress within these systems.
PP: The contemporary context of making music — or producing anything in this moment — is something that a lot of people I’ve spoken to in various artistic fields are struggling with at the moment. How do you make work now? One of the beauties of making music, as opposed to working within other art forms, is that somehow there’s still a great amount of freedom, and a lot less baggage, that comes in working in music as opposed to, let’s say, cinema or visual art. There’s still a fluidity or freedom of movement — there’s a scale of production, in fact, that’s much more direct. As Jan’s saying, he can produce anywhere on his laptop a record. That’s one of the things that makes me feel incredibly positive about music as a medium. It still has this dynamic agency. It still has potential to be generated, to be birthed in unlikely contexts, unlikely situations, without the need for a massive infrastructure to deliver it. That’s the thing that still makes music very exciting and very powerful.
JG: For me, in my own little naive ways as a kid who had just moved to England and gone to his first rave, these situations were suggesting a kind of collective movement towards transcendence, or at least a kind of reverence for the idea of a kind of transcendence. And that ran out of steam pretty quickly. I think we, as humans, all suffer from a degree of confusion — what are our values? What is the point of our lives? What are we all moving towards? The kind of transcendent moment that music allows for is at least a kind of suspension of discourse by a connection with something more visceral, a question that answers itself.
“Is your brain stereo? What is it? How many dimensions are there in your brain?”Jan St. Werner
JW: In composing, I always wanted to keep things “light” and “airy”, in terms of how things are mixed and produced, especially in terms of Mouse on Mars. We spent a lot of time mixing things. Andi would never, ever stop mixing anything, actually, if you let him. The idea behind making music is, essentially, infinitely structuring and sculpting these acoustic forms, identities. So going spatial is just a logical extension.
PP: Previously, we’d never really thought about space much at all in the framework of Emptyset, until we came to making Demiurge — we went to this place, Woodchester Mansion in Gloucestershire, a big abandoned house, and we made this record called Medium that involved re-amplifying compositions inside this peculiar constructed space. From there, that informed a certain lineage of our way of working that very much correlated to architecture and sound. The idea of space, for us, is more exciting in thinking about context and the physical structure and its sonic potential, as well as the kind of connotations and narratives invested in certain spaces, and playing with those kinds of boundaries.
JW: What is spatialization? Is it your perception of space, in your perceptual apparatus, the image of the world around you? Or is it being aware of yourself and your orientation? For me, spatialization is a huge stack of artifacts: reflections, phasing, all kinds of weird effects that come through at different frequency ranges, different speeds, directly at you, and you make something of it. So for me, the act of composing and making music is using these artifacts, embracing them. The question is, what happens in your brain? Is its representation of a highly spatialized surrounding mono? Is your brain stereo? What is it? How many dimensions are there in your brain?
JG: For us, we’re more interested in a different set of relationships and possibilities than necessarily using an array of speakers to create a sense of spatialization. Our idea has been to find as elemental a way of using whatever technology we use in our work, and the idea of creating more complex systems that require more complex technical or computerized solutions don’t feel so connected to the way that we work. I would probably argue that it’s been a long time that I’ve thought about Emptyset as a music project, and I would guess Paul feels the same way, so we’re less interested in the tools of contemporary music-making — because the expectations are oriented in a different direction.
PP: How can we get as close as possible to the materials that we are using, to the kinds of structures we’re trying to generate, and the spaces that we’re performing in? There’s been a sense, for us, that the more layers of mediation or technological requirements imposed in a system, often pull us away from the act of making or producing, somehow. So Emptyset has been a way for us to try and get as close to that “creative act,” that potential, as possible. Trying to find the most direct, easy way from point A to point B. And for us that’s been a quite unadorned, uncomplicated avenue. It generally ends up being “un-technical,” quite a lot of the time.