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Interview with Cristian Vogel

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, Cristian Vogel opines that a negative feeling towards imitation is more often than not a mechanism of consumer culture – and new perspectives and terminologies may be required for a more fruitful discussion of originality.

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?
I am not sure if that phase is over. I certainly never stop learning and being inspired by phenomena outside of myself. Its been a long balancing process between the banal and the transcendental. If we are specifically talking about learning my craft, lets call it the techniques for creating sonic music, it has been the ear which has led the way. We could say I found my ear, before I found my voice - I am completely self-taught, and so I had to learn by reverseengineering a sound or a style which had caught my attention. That process of trial and error, of haphazard investigation was the way I learned about my material and my craft and from that, a characteristic style emerged.

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?
Quite early I think. I can identify one memory from way back. I grew up in the UK Midlands during the 80s. When I think back to being about 12, town was grey and provincial and I didn’t have any pocket money. I was curious about music but everything was difficult to discover. I didn’t know yet about alternatives to commercial broadcasting or high-street record shops. Anyway, I remember in Woolworths there were the normal albums on cassette and vinyl, and then there were these bargain buckets with much cheaper cassettes in them. They had the same titles as the real albums, but much cheaper so I bought them. Stuff like Johnny Cash and Queen. But when I got them home they turned out to be recordings of the music in the style of those artists, but done by other musicians. I listened to them a lot but with this awarness that the singer was pretending to be Johnny Cash singing "Ghost Riders", but not “as good” as the original. I equated the copy-artists with weaker recordings, crappier cassettes and fake artwork. I felt kind of ripped off and ashamed for spending my pennies on the “fake” version. Looking at it now, with a much wider scope of understanding about Music (with a capital M), I realise the negative feel- one of the “fake” cassettes was a mechanism of consumerism, more than music culture. Concepts like “authentic quality” relating to the better manufacturing quality of an original brand shoe instead of a fake one, for example, don’t completely translate onto music do they? A “fake” recording of "Bohemian Rhapsody" has plenty of abstract qualities and knowledge encoded in it, as much as the ‘real‘ one, right? The quality of the experience of engaging with any music, depends on what you get out of it. I loved ‘Bull Rider’ from the fake Johnny Cash for example.

What's your own definition of originality?
In Music, “Originality” is a multidimensional variable, composable like all of the others.

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?
I don’t agree that originality is a simple measure of quality in music. What about the quality of technique involved in say, Jamie Lidell trying to emulate the *sound* of a recording made by Sun-Ra? (I refer to that cover he did of "Daddy No Lie"). Or what about Sampling? The combination of the sampled elements is entirely original, yet in themselves the elements being combined are not. Or how do you begin to judge the quality of audio  software which tries to emulate hardware from the studio, down to the scratches on the front panels? “Originality”, in the sense that you seem to be getting at in these questions, is an old idea which will adapt better into new creative paradigms if its allowed more dimensionality, more than just the axis of “original” to “unoriginal” - How about an axis going from “innovation” to “duplication”? Or from “figure” to “background”?

As for my current perspective - well, before I decide on a using a Preset, I’m thinking about the nature of embodied knowledge or about alternatives to the old paradigms of causality and evolution. I’m pondering Promethean/ Epimethean modes of creation or how birds fly in the same direction knowing nothing about the flock. Sometimes it feels lazy to choose that piano sound one more time, other times it feels like genius. Its the deeper patterns that decide, not me.

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?
I think any creative person who has been exploring improvisation in a serious way begins to question where the act of original creation is happening, in time and space. In other words, on which timescale does the moment of original creation operate on? Is there some kind of necessary relation between intention, action and when it all gets perceived? It seems that the duration of a moment of originality is arbitrary as far as music is concerned. It has lasted for an entire career in some cases. I think the potential for creative acts with high dimensions of originality grows when artists map their expression into other formal domains. Like when musicians start painting or become actors, or when composers program code or write literature.

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.
The classic “blank tape” is a familiar challenge, and an enjoyable one. Recently for my album “Eselsbrücke” which was released on SubRosa last year, I set out to establish a formal system for the work, which ended up raising issues about rigour and responsibility in the taking of decisions with useful significance. I created a compositional system where the notion of originality came up well before beginning to work with sonic material. I documented the whole process in a paper which was published in Hz journal issue #18 - the album can be found at bandcamp.

In my latest release, Polyphonic Beings coming out in November, a renewed search for originality led to a music whose complex origins are not immediately apparent. I traveled to LA and Japan and around other places, like a wandering spirit ‘studio-surfing’. My aim was to seek out subtle experiences with which to infuse the music, and try to remain open to shifts of beliefs and being. I tried to sustain a vibrational awareness with the outside world and the potential music in my cells. Through my craft and the equipment of radically different studios, from West Hollywood to Kawakami Town to Nørrebro, I attempted to channel the music out. In relation to this discussion, I think my new album communicates a message about the original transformative power of music.

Cristian Vogel Interview by Tobias Fischer
Image by Marie Staggat

Homepage: Cristian Vogel