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Interview with Francisco López

img  Tobias Fischer

Many fans of Francisco López first encountered his work in 1995 and by means of his album Warszawa Restaurant. By that time, the Barcelona-born artist had already built a sizable discography on the tape network, running the gamut from intriguing ambient-industrial soundscapes to the colorful experiments of his Zane Francisco collaboration. It was easy to see, however, why Warszawa Restaurant, published on Bernhard Günter's seminal Trente Oiseaux imprint, would have such a profound and powerful effect. It was a work of almost intimidating quietude, a record so withdrawn that it seemed to suck you into a space of radical inwardness. In many respects, Warszawa Restaurant summed up the search for new modes of expression at the threshold between silence and sound like no other piece before it, giving a voice to the unheard. As France Jobin would put it, when we asked her about what, precisely, happens at this threshold: "Everything happens. It changes one's perception, it forces one to listen more intently and by that very act, makes the listener actively involved with the work. It opens up the floodgates to the myriad of possibilities." For López, too, the album would mark a plateau which he would use for his ongoing explorations into the nature of sound, into its mystery, its powerful potentials, its inexplicable nature, its rawness, immediacy and viscerality. Over the following twenty years, his presence would be felt through his releases and lectures, his installations and famous blindfolded performances, his amazon workshops and his archive for experimental sound art in Spain. And yet, despite the cliches that have accompanied his activities, López has always continued to confound and surprise, recently releasing, on his newly founded Nowhere Worldwide imprint two albums of pure field recordings for the first time in his career. Which is a good sign for newcomers to his oeuvre, despite the slightly intimidating size of his discography: Even if you missed out on that important moment in 1995, every new album makes for a perfect entry point into the work of one of today's most important sound artists.

For this interview with Francisco López, we spoke about the albums that shaped his work, from his early tape releases to the radical Metal mania of Untitled #104 as well as the formidable 5CD box Through the Looking Glass on new music imprint Kairos.

You've mentioned that you want to pursue your own path rather than search for acceptance. When did you first have the feeling that you knew what your path in life would be?
Even today I'm obviously not really sure what that path is, exactly. Still, I remain convinced of not giving that uncertainty up for acceptance. In any case, acceptance is definitely not an issue for me. A good number of people connect profoundly with what I do, as I do with other artists. And that's what really matters anyway.

According to your list of works, twenty pieces were produced between 1980 and 1982, but never published - while, for example, those from 1983 have appeared on the "Nowhere" box set on Blossoming Noise. What were they like?
You'll be able to find out soon, as a selection of those are about to be published on a new CD release called 1980/2010, that also includes a new full-length piece created by evolutionary transformation (not a "remix"!) of those materials into an entirely new piece (untitled#250). To me, they sound like music from Mars compared to the "underground" music of the time (new wave, punk, techno-pop...). I knew absolutely no one who even remotely would consider that as anything like music.

In terms of equipment, I was using only cassette recorders and walkmen. This is before affordable cassette multi-track recorders and I couldn't afford anything like a reel-to-reel recorder. In fact, I remember the stage at which I could actually record directly through line outs an ins in between recorders as a great technical leap for me!

I wasn't involved in any "scene" at all back then. But my friendship with Arturo Lanz of Esplendor Geométrico - we grew up in the same neighborhood in Madrid - was decisive to reveal to me that there was a bunch of other people out there also doing  that crazy stuff. At a time when it was basically impossible to find any records published outside Spain, he introduced me to the likes of SPK, TG, Maurizio Bianchi or Whitehouse, which I embraced with fascination from the very first listening.

Between 1993 and 1995, you briefly, but intensely, worked with Zan Hoffmann on a project called Zan Francisco. What was this about?
Zan and I had, by then, been involved from the very beginning in the "cassette culture" throughout the 80s. We both had quite massive collections of cassette releases that we had exchanged with artists all over the world. So we decided to collaborate in a series of shows based on live no-cue mixing with a shared 16/24-channel mixing board, eight tape decks, and hundreds of cassettes from many different artists, including ours. Because of obvious reasons, we thought "Zan Francisco" was a funny  and catchy name. A remastered version of excerpts from these live shows is about to be released  on cassette by The Tape Worm in the UK in early 2011.

I look back on the tape scene with great interest. Because of the spread of the commercial CDs in the early  90s and the consequent decay of the "prestige" of the cassette, there was a general feeling that that was the end of the whole underground home-music network. There was then a period of a few years when there were no affordable devices to record CDs (of course, no CDRs and no computers for this). As soon as that happened, socially speaking in the mid-late 90s, the same un-organized social phenomenon took shape again (CDR labels, etc.), in many cases carried out by a new generation of underground artists that sometimes where not even aware of the previous manifestations of this socially natural international network. The widespread notion today that "social networks" are a consequence of the Internet is a fundamentally wrong assumption. Cassette culture is but one among many historical manifestations of this repeated naturally social phenomenon.

How was contact with Bernhard Günter established, which would lead to your important Warszawa Restaurant album?
Bernhard and I met in Rotterdam (I was doing an installation for V2) around 1994, I believe. He was one of the many people frustrated with the constraints and difficulties of releasing very difficult stuff (let's put it that way; his notoriously quiet early stuff was definitely in that category, even as measured by "experimental" standards). I encouraged and convinced him  to start his own record label, which happened one year later when he set up Trente Oiseaux. The dynamic range palette in my work has always been extremely wide, and the ultra-subtle, quasi-silent part of that spectrum a particularly cherished territory for me. Bernhard and I shared that in an essential way. My Warszawa Restaurant was then the first Trente Oiseaux release. And for the first time, thanks to Bernhard's courage (and also thanks to the audio digital domain), I had the opportunity to create a work entirely within that subtle territory. It remains one of my personal favourites to this day.

In a way, Trente Oiseaux acted like a creative cell for a few years. We even did a Tentre Oiseaux tour in central Europe (Bernhard Gunter, Marc Behrens, John Duncan and myself), in the best tradition of the label roster type of event. All of us had overlapping territories of creative interest and, to a certain extent, I think we were even complementary for a while.

In this time, the notion of silence or near-silence representing some kind of deep philosophical statement seemed to dominate the debate. Do you think many people misunderstood what you were trying to do?
I think we managed to put that seriously quiet and subtle part of he spectrum on the map of aesthetic sonic possibilities in its own right. Not just as a fleeting occasional component, but as full-fledged territory. To me, this has nothing to do at all with any "conceptual" of philosophical undertaking. In fact, it is somehow the opposite of the Cagean or conceptual art type of take on silence and void, as it is fully phenomenological, experiential, perceptive, and emotional.

Around the same time, for La Selva, during my biological research in the Costa Rican rainforest I spent a lot of time working alone at night (and, of course, doing recordings), which provided me with this unique experience of an intensely, and naturally, acousmatic world, extremely complex and rich yet invisible in its sources. It drove me head on into a world of experiential sound like nothing before. Coincidentally, this happened at the same period when I was going deeper and deeper into the exploration of the subtle, so the two extremes coalesced somehow in a seismic expansion of my understanding on the work with sound.

In a 1999 interview, you expressed satisfaction at the fact that, in your music, the audience and the composer were "equally naked". In which way?
I believe the context was the fundamental take on the decisive act of sonic creation by listening. The openness towards sounds as entities by themselves and, therefore, the possibility -and the right- for both the composer and the listener (and the listener as composer) to take decisions concerning what they might be and might do to us all.

At the time of its release, Untitled #104 drew a lot of attention for its allusions to the world of Metal. It certainly still today sticks out from your oeuvre. What sparked the idea for the album at the time?
Well, it was more than allusions, it was entirely made from metal samples. Again, this wasn't a conceptual or referential (or even ironic) take on this kind of music. Somehow, I tried to distill some hidden essence that, to my taste, is normally obliterated by rock culture stereotypes and standards (the song format, the lyrics, the clear definition of the instruments...). This is no critique or revision at all, just my personal vision of what's in there, lurking as an amazing potential that, for me, is dissipated in a traditional conception of music.  And coming out very often, even when it's not so noticeable. I always thought that arriving at so- called experimental music from that background and personal experience was an advantage as compared to one of, say, traditional so-called electroacoustic music. We didn't have any teachers and no pre-defined "experimental" standards to conform with.

At the Sónar Festival, where the work was premiered, it definitely did open the audience up to the essence of sound! Somehow to my surprise it was definitely a blast.

If I understood correctly, it was approximately around 2000 that the idea of doing blindfolded concerts came up. You've already spoken extensively about the ideas behind it, but how did it come up in practise and what were the first reactions to it like?
I believe I did the first blindfolded shows in 1998. For years, I had done performances in the dark, but it's nearly impossible to get most spaces pitch black, especially because I perform in the middle of the audience (with lots of small lights from the equipment). So the blindfold was a simple, practical -and I think also strong and beautiful- solution to that technical conundrum. It's also voluntary, so the reactions have to be assessed accordingly. Without being the original intention, I've realized (and some people have pointed out to me) that the situation of a large number of people gathered blindfolding and letting themselves to be drawn into an immersive sonic experience is quite akin to some kind of collective "ritual" or something like that. In any case, it predominantly works great for most people; the feedback is positive and I haven't found any better solution that will easily work in most spaces and circumstances, so I keep doing it. A possible answer to those asking "are you still doing blindfolded shows?" is "are you still doing speaker shows?".

One of the most interesting aspects of sound recordings is that they immediately raise a set of questions -and trigger practices- around the notions of realism, representation, simulation, disembodiment, recognizability, transformation, abstraction, etc. After more than a century of recorded sound (both musical and non-musical) the overwhelmingly predominant understanding of a sound recording is in essence that of a representation of reality. In a standardized world of simplistic communication, transmission and storable documentation, this is perfectly correct and probably enough. But behind the models, the icons, the metaphors and the patterns we have the phenomenal (the phenomenological). Ready to be revealed and explored, particularly with the non-cognitive machines we have today to gather extractions of reality (much better than us in that respect). To me, the phenomenological path is, in the end, a spiritual one. So I don't collect field recordings to represent or simulate the world but to explore that other path that, like dark matter, is hidden but everywhere around us.

Through the looking glass constitutes the first major collection of your works. How was it put together?
The idea of this 5CD-box release was to show a bit through different pieces the range of transformation of so-called sonic reality, from apparently "natural" to apparently "abstract". It presents in a straightforward way both the question of creation by listening and that of the evolutionary distillation of sonic essence into non-representative virtualities.

Kairos knew my work and contacted me with a general proposal for some sort of comprehensive release. Working with them in this project was as smooth, efficient and interesting as you can get in this "business" (quote/unquote never so necessary) of dramatically and unbearably sluggish, unreliable, flimsy -and yet still pretentious-operations.

Köllt / Kulu once again features images. Your position on working with video work has undergone various phases in your career. What's your current perspective on it?
I've always been working with images here and there, occasionally,  whenever there seemed to be an interesting and engaging project, in many cases collaborating with another artist. I'm just much more a sound-oriented/sensitive person, that's all. "Köllt" and "Kulu" are very different pieces that I think fit nicely together in the same release. "Köllt" is a new take on that metal essence I mentioned before, made with a professional film maker and a lot of action. "Kulu" is a playful exploration of visual expectations, simplicity and lo-tech (all video footage taken with a pocket photo camera) with high- tech audio and a very wide dynamic range.

Your call for absolute music is all the more relevant today, because we seem to have entered a phase where the physical packaging actually seems to be gaining in importance. Do you feel as though the general development is rather moving away from your ideals or towards them?
As so many other things, this goes in cycles/periods. I've seen many periods when packaging was paramount (I think today there's more of a focus on "format" than on packaging per se). Personally, I'd be very happy with being allowed to have all releases without any artwork, even format-free, etc. I always struggle for it, but in the interaction with record labels, distributors and public you need to wait until a cycle of "back-to-simplicity", "less-is-more" mood to be sort of acceptable to do it. I'm not talking about ethics, but rather about not being able to put out something simply because of this. Nevertheless, what I've been able to defend against all odds is the predominant absence of a title in most of my works (i.e., the "untitled" thing). After being very excited about the music and ready to go into production, a well-known experimental record label rejected a release of mine - upon my insistence in having no title for it - on the grounds that "that has already been done" (laughs).

Francisco López Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Francisco López