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Interview with Ergo Phizmiz

img  Tobias Fischer

„The Faust Cycle“ picks things up where Goethe left them in the 18th century. In a nutshell, how does the story unravel from there?
Faustus has retired. He's living in a grandiose and labyrinthine house, which exists as a sort of extension of his previous adventures and has become a sort of Kunstkammer for his many diverse interests. Birds, collage, automata, dolls, and so on. The story of The Faust Cycle concerns an attempt, during my period as a postman, to deliver a parcel to the Doctor. He's not instantly accessible in his house. So I need to look for him.

Sections of the text of „The Faust Cycle“ were contributed by befriended artists, including Martha Moopette and James Nye. How did you present the concept of the project to them and in which way did they contribute to the narrative?
James & Martha (along with The Travelling Mongoose) were the main consultants on the project, so have been closely involved since near enough the beginning. In terms of the story, it is James who is the main consultant. He is something of a specialist on all sorts of slightly obscure subject matters, the court of Emperor Rudolf II, 17th century occultism, ventriloquism, Surrealism, and so on. There's a lot of his "knowledge base" in there.
A lot of the development of the project came from long night-time conversations, with lots of laughter involved, between myself, James and Martha. This is, in particular, where the whole George Scrape / ventriloquism / dwarf story originated.

There also some instrumental collaborations recorded „in a range of contexts“ – what kind of contexts were they, more specifically?
The whole project did take place in a lot of different contexts and environments. Over the process of making the piece, my family and myself lived a somewhat nomadic life. Lots of travelling, constantly moving. We were never really at home for more than three weeks at a time over one period. For this reason the piece is recorded all over the place, which reflects in the audio - I can hear clearly which sections are in Brittany, or the Isle of Wight, or Normandy, or Devon, or whatever. I can't even begin to count how many different rooms it was recorded in.
I'm something of a creative opportunist, so for example when Mark Upton, a top-shelf trumpet player who is also going out with my sister, came to visit, I seized the opportunity and dragged this brilliant musician kicking and screaming into my studio for what eventually became major parts of the Kinetoscopes & Dung section of the cycle. There was a lot of me sort of going "Do you fancy popping into this room with me for an hour or so and we'll try some stuff for a stupidly long radio play?".
There are collaborations where I was directly involved, and also where I gave musicians & composers free rein to create a piece that could enter the texture of the work. It's important to me, especially in a work on such a large scale, to keep certain elements external and not coming from inside of my brain. These works are then "fed" into the piece, and juxtaposed throughout it.
I think in the Internet-age, if one chooses to enter into it it's important to be constantly communicating, and as an artist the most effective way of being communicative is through collaboration. The Internet has entered my creative process in an integral way. Much of this piece was created and facilitated through the Internet.

How precisely did you map out the project before starting to compose?

There were certain things I knew, and certain things I didn't. I knew roughly what it was I wanted to explore. In some ways the whole piece is a big analogy for the creative brain, but in other ways it isn't.
It developed with a sort of Surrealist consciousness. I was interested to try and use all the elements of radio, first the obvious elements of dialogue, collage, music composition, sound-design, but also more non-tangible elements, space, density, suggestion, cross-reference. The Faust Cycle was a strange piece to work on - sometimes I would feel as if I knew precisely what I was doing, other times I was completely in the dark and tearing my hair out. The process became a kind of conversation or collaboration with the piece itself, and slowly it took shape. It was not made in a linear fashion at all, but gradually formed through self-suggestion. If that makes any sense.
So it didn't develop spontaneously by any means. Rather it was like a pinball machine in which the ball kept bouncing off elements in the machine and suggesting things which may or may not have had some kind of interactivity with something somewhere else within it.
The other element I really wanted to explore with it was this kind of presentation of a drama without any sense of realism, so characters become representations of characters rather than believable entities. Like a cartoon. It's a big cartoon in sound, really.

I was under the impression that while finishing the „Faust Cycle“, you were also working on many other different projects at the same time. How did you keep track of things?
Over the three years of production I was working on many, many other projects. Mainly from necessity - I make my living from commissions in radio, installations, theatre and so on and can't afford to ever focus on one project. I would love to, but at the moment it's not possible. The upside of this is that all the projects inform one another, as a result they all also cross-reference and you can often find the same musical themes or textual ideas popping up in very disparate works. I'm an avant-garde whore. Skills to pay the bills.
I keep track of things by a notebook and lots of bits of paper stuck all over the walls of my studio. Might I add, right now, my very, very cold studio.

How did you shape the album – gradually, through accumulating smaller chunks of music or in hour-long sessions?

Very slowly and gradually, and there was no pattern or system - for every section of the work I had to start fresh, from square one. It wasn't at all a case of "I've finished episode 1, now for episode 2". Rather I found myself with hundreds of sections of audio that over time found form.

It took three years to finish the cycle. Were there moments when you thought you would never get it done?
I hate to sound like one of these self-pitying, trumped up, idiotic artists who always complain about how difficult it is to be an artist, but really this piece eventually made me rather ill, physically and mentally. The final push to finish it came in a twenty hour session with two bottles of Whisky, a moment of desperation to get it out of the way because I couldn't take it anymore! Dr Faustus was trying to kill me!
In many ways it's "definitively unfinished", as Duchamp said of his Large Glass. It was impossible to bring the work to any true kind of resolution or conclusion. It became too large, like the canvas was growing outwards and outwards and I could no longer reach the edges.

Did the story you wanted to tell require a long form or was a „long form“ something you wanted to work with in itself?
Three or four years ago I wanted very much to work on a huge canvas like this. Nowadays I only make very short, small pieces!

Two genres „The Faust Cycle“ alludes to are Opera and Radio Plays. What is their appeal to you?
Radio is the medium where I've found the most possibilities for what I do, both creatively and in terms of finding work to pay the bills. I am obsessed by the possibilities of creating images in sound, conjuring up the impossible.
My favourite moment in the history of radio is in Spike Milligan's "Goon Show". The characters are lost in the desert, and see a big house, they all run to the house, drink water, feel great. Suddenly it begins to fade-away, it was all a mirage. Disappointment. Then a scream of descent, and somebody falls, hits the floor. "Where were you?!" "I was upstairs".
Opera is another obsession. Most of the work I am doing this year is in theatre or opera of some description. I misspent my teenage years being one of these grotesque and disgusting little child prodigies, writing 13 operas between being 12 - 16. I think they are all lost now (I tend to lose things), although I do have some amusing press cuttings from the time, with me as a fat little teenager. There may be some recordings somewhere. Possibly the opera references in The Faust Cycle are to do with this.

At 15 hours, not all that many people will listen to the work from beginning to end in one go. In addition, its stylistic diversity and conceptual depth might make it a difficult experience for others. How important are questions of listenability for you as a composer?
Very. I like my work being listened to and enjoyed. The strange thing is just how inaccessible my work is considered, whereas to me it all sounds rather light and fluffy, particularly my songwriting and instrumental music.
Having said that, I can see why The Faust Cycle would be considered inaccessible. But the reality is that it isn't. It's long, but we live in the media-on-demand age, so length isn't really that much of a problem. One thing I like about it is that listeners can customise their experience. Listen to an hour then go back later, or listen to the whole thing in one go. I've certainly never listened in one go - I have two kids so it's impossible!
It can be dealt with like a book - read a few chapters, go back later and read a few more. Also I like to think of it as one of those "bedside books" - it can be dipped into at random points. There's also a very deliberate use of space within the piece - I didn't want to do 15 hours of constant dialogue. I like the idea that it can be tuned in and out of. It is radio in the classical sense that it can be left to linger in the background, as well as being used for focused and detailed solitary or group listening.
A lot of the stylistic diversity is also because of the time it took to make the work, and the non-linear nature of it's composition. At the beginning of making The Faust Cycle I was primarily a samplist, nowadays I work entirely with instruments, voices, sound in the room. The Faust Cycle spans that transformation and everything in between.

On the headphonica website, you thank „Satanicpornocultshop“ – who are the people behind this lovely name?
A bunch of Japanese geniuses, who produce the most inventive "beat-driven" sample music I've yet come across. The only person that compares in my taste you have right there in Deutschland, the great Vernon Lenoir, who I think is stunningly musical. Satanicpornocultshop were going to work on material for the opera section, but were casualties of my need to stop making it, having already gone way past schedule and frying my brain.

By Tobias Fischer

This interview was originally conducted for and published in „Beat“ magazine.

Ergo Phizmiz Discography:
Pangolin Variations (Mukow Productions) 2004
Plays Aphex Twin (Mukow Productions) 2004
Rites (Ergo Phizmiz Self Released) 2006
Arff & Beef (Womb Records) 2007
Honeysuckle Boulevard (Arts Council England) 2007
Nose Points In Different Directions : Music By Ergo Phizmiz 2001 -2006 (Womb Records) 2007
Perpetuum Mobile (Soleilmoon Recordings) 2007
Handmade In The Monasteries Of Nepal / Eloise My Dolly (Gagarin Records) 2008
Pie Hateaux (Proot Records) 2008
Rhapsody In Glue (UbuWeb, Plurgo) 2008
Withers In The Waking (Touch) 2008
Rock n Roll Machine: Dadaphone (Ergo Phizmiz Self Released) 2009
The Faust Cycle (Headphonica) 2010
Cover Versions (Ergo Phizmiz Self Released) 2010
Things to do and make in the Community (Care in the Community) 2010
The Faust Re.Cycled (Headphonica) 2010

Ergo Phizmiz

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