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Interview with Burnt Friedman

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, Burnt Friedman points at cultural differences in the concept of originality and describes how studying visual arts changed his perspective on music.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
That´s correct. At the very beginning I also emulated others from a spectrum available predominantly through radio and TV. In the crucial period from 1975 to 1982 I would say, the mainstream media were at the controls. Nevertheless, during the high school times, some were running around with the latest hot record that someone had discovered. It was a phase of many drastic, quick leaps in taste and also in my own musical development.

However, the very beginning was not conceived to become a public artifact. When I first owned a drum kit in 1980 I think, I started learning to play the drums on my own, which meant I was taking the common practice for granted, as it was necessary to look right with an American drum-set and of course, I did not know that it predetermined the way I understand rhythms. When you don´t know what you don´t know, the mind is best prepared for ideology. To be more precise, with such a naive disposition, people are more likely to follow unquestioned the normative soft powers of emperors, until today, what could also be described as a postcolonial condition. Since my parents didn´t have a musical background, I was pretty much dependent on, firstly the media, then friends and others musicians with more distinct preferences.

I have to confess that until I turned 35, I felt fairly confused about music and solely trusted my intuition, grew fond of simulating instruments and patterns on the Atari sequencer to confront the question of authenticity on musical artifacts. If someone would have told me that music can be seen as an energy closely related to cosmic laws and these were the only laws in existence, I would supposedly not have been ready for it.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
The first artists? I'm trying not to confabulate, because it occurred to me that quite often one loves a piece of music so much on a first listen and thus it would have been a strong impression or emotional impact, although one neither may have owned the record, nor listened to it a second time. Such crucial poignant pieces tend to disappear from focus when trying to remember moments of such influential character.

I do remember listening to "The Robots" just when it came out, the famous Kraftwerk piece - played on the radio - which I thought was original, later on, also remember Gang Of Four, Talking Heads, DAF - tracks as something outstanding, at least very special. Music that incorporated electronic machinery and instruments using rhythm took my attention, Throbbing Christle, Gary Numan.

Studying fine Arts changed my view on creative production. With a piece of art, everyone knows that in the Western world, if you copy or emulate other established artists that you use up credit. I don´t think that this "rule" applies for popular music and if it did for the arts along current and modern art history is under negotiation. On the contrary, forgery, faking and even directly stealing ideas by taking samples is very common amongst music producers. Some singers or bands may appear original but may instead cover, interpret the original. Famous hit singles might in fact belong to widely overlooked originators. As naturally for commodities, originality with the face of the next hip thing could always be prefabricated - Kitsch before Kitsch, or be a presupposed part of the music´s creational process. A certain bunch of samples meshed together in one song can even be considered extraordinary original, especially when also the insufficiencies of the production process were made audible.

What's your own definition of originality?
Music is a constantly moving force, so are our decisions upon originality. One great, natural feature of music is to travel beyond territories making way to discuss the matter in terms of Western and Non-Western to describe a state of mind rather than continents. Let s agree on the condition that in Western culture we're focusing on the individual achievements, the virtuosity of players, the depth of her voice, etc.. A  quote from the radio, introducing a recent classical live recording: "Beethoven´s piano pieces are the Mount Everest of chamber music" or the term "Hi-Speed jazz" prove to me that innovation and originality is closely related to a singular live performance, a rather sportive performance. However, in the West we pick up on the significant differences between the artists, establish parameters of measurement for soloists. My point is, that I don´t have the feeling that this is the case with traditional Non-Western music, no matter how alien they appear to my ears, where my attention is drawn to concordances and music being a totality, a ritual trance inducer, for instance, without an emphasis on particular individual players. A self doesn´t seem to be the center of interest in a type music that was given, inherited, mutated over the centuries, therefore, an author is not immanent. The concept of originality and with it the idea of authorship is obviously at stake. As it was in the early 90ties when techno music confronted the same issue with the hyper-speed production and release of self-similar white label 12"s, which in a way seems to have been the Western equivalent to ritual music.

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognizing originality than the one currently in place?
It s a popular argument comparing artists or self-entitled originators to a bio-feedback system, that solely allows to generate "cultural" output from a given environmental source of inputs. Like a scientist who would never invent a law but merely discover it. In this utterly materialistic view - which many won´t agree to, I hope - of creation and creators, the idea of authorship owning copyright is dismissed. It is, so to speak, uncool to claim authorship for the many arbitrary variations based on the letters of the alphabet, or the choice for the sound of things. Reading through the imaginative worlds of Franz Kafka, this opinion appears to me as a severe humiliation.

It occurred to me often recently that producers, from popular electronic music and even new modern classical music, so to say, from the popular low - and the academic high- end of the spectrum would agree to the assumption that in composition and sound everything has been said until today. As if there was no chance to create an original piece of music anymore. I strongly believe that this is total rubbish. But it works well as an excuse to taking samples from the music archive to dwell on comfortable tedium or lazy appropriation.

To answer your question straight, it has always been a difference to me whether a piece of music was commissioned and payed for, like the soundtrack or for an advertisement, image campaign or suchlike, or whether a piece was created independently, for the sake of it, so to speak. The line between design and art is surely very thin, but it doesn´t mean that it isn´t recognizable.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Originality was and is a key value in artistic production but studio producers, DJs or musicians may not naturally always care for credibility, but may also prefer to appear as public servants. The conditions seem to have turned upside down. The more significantly different or singular a piece of music might be, the less it is placeable, especially in an increasingly redundant, digital environment. I believe, that since the late 90s maybe, it has increasingly become a handicap to release music out of context or music that avoids the prefabricated palette of genres, or music that doesn´t directly link to famous names and current trends.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
My impression is that empty gestures, notions of agitation and resistance, with festival events that promote their motto as A-tonal, Un-sound, Un-tune, Dis-continuity prove that the old struggle with an hallucinated authority is still going. I question: Free Jazz from what? Settle down settle down, it is hard enough to find the right tune, play in tune and get things properly in order to make the music work. As a musician you obtain a message, it conveys when the music works, while the music is at work. Traditional techniques of music making remain unnoticed or simply do not belong to Western cultural standards. As a consequence, to me, the most radical original music to play today is traditional music without a territorial music-idiom, an emphasis on the individual or notions of deconstruction or destruction.

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
With my recent project with Daniel Dodd-Ellis, Cease To Matter, many of the tracks were spontaneously created after the actual piece was finished in a long term process. It doesn't prove anything, but I have the feeling that it´s best to get the very first ideas right.

There is no recipe for successful composing, but one thing I know for sure. It is impossible to rely on a personal creative source that might have once been there. With each new piece of music, the rules of the process seem to be set to zero again.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
I'm sorry, I can´t talk about this, as it is too complicated to describe it and I don´t understand it enough, especially when you rely on an empty mind and do not have a simple message to operate with as in the lyrics about the beloved one or so.

Burnt Friedman Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Burnt Friedman