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Interview with Hecq / Ben Lukas Boysen

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 ripp-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, composer and electronic producer Ben Lukas Boysen / Hecq argues that originality can only truly be appreciated if the artist eliminates all superfluous elements from his 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?
I was always surrounded by music through my family, mostly listening to classical music and jazz and some rock as well.

I started finding out about certain artists (like Autechre, Seefeel, Drome, a lot of the Harthouse  and Force Inc stuff and ambient records like Illusion Of Safety and Biosphere just to name a few) by going to a small record store close to my hometown (after all it was before internet times) and in addition I was pretty much the only person in my circle of friends, with one exception, who actually cared for this kind of music.

I was maybe around 16 or 17 years old and very happy that i have found these gems... They were (and are) a totally own universe and the fact that the interest of people around me in this music was mostly small, gave me a chance to really build my own universe and aesthetic.

However for a few years (until I was 22 maybe) I obviously tried, as an exercise if you you want, to find out how these role models got to their sound... which was not easy given that I did not have any of the knowledge, let alone the equipment. I bought some gear over time and experimented more. Eventually, I noticed that I found it much more interesting to transform the previous "imitations", my early attempts, into something of my own - distilling the emotional impact my role models had on me into something I can call my own work, much more than adapting to their techniques. That was quite a great moment and time, yet I wouldn‘t say that I found my own voice stylistically until today. If at all, i would define "my voice" as a concept of how I perceive music and sound. And it‘s not imperatively connected to a style or scene.

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?
For me the concept of originality shaped over the years, since there was so much to discover and listen to. For quite a while, I could find something fascinating on almost any record. Once I developed certain listening customs and got a relatively extensive record collection there was a point where the the "sonic field of vision" starts to focus on the corners, the less lit places of, what I think was already, a pretty obscure musical landscape - the weirder the better. So from the quite academic and traditional ground I was educated on, to the first experimental and technoid records to Stockhausen, Schnittke and  Riley, I was and am looking for the red line, the constant element that connects all these works and approaches. Technically, everything is music, based on a relatively controllable set of rules (that I never really learned though...) everything needs to be written, produced and performed... and nothing of this offered an answer to my question.

It is the untangible element, the question how on earth they come up with a certain idea and how they make it so unique, original, that you‘ll think of it forever - I should add that this is very subjective - there‘s no ultimate truth in this.

Until today this effect, the necessity to be really overwhelmed by what you hear, always attracted and will always attract me.

Some of the composers and artists that will normally always have this effect on me would be Arvo Pärt, Thomas Köner, Rachmaninov, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Johann Sebastian Bach, Krzysztof Penderecki, Jon Balke,  Terry Riley, Pierre Schaeffer, BJ Nilsen just to name a few.

What's your own definition of originality?
Fifty percent of this definition is how you, as an artist, perceive and shape your work. I think it‘s important and natural to have an extensive testing phase, in which you experiment, imitate, learn and remodel tracks and artists you know. The moment you realise that you "converted" this into a mindset and found your own approach (not to be mistaken with being good at sounding like one of the musicians you admire) you made the first step into  an independent workflow and understanding of how to process original ideas.

The other fifty percent for me is the feeling that originality is highly subjective and works only through the combination of sender and receiver, how you perceive an idea of an artist, what it does to you personally, depending strongly on the time and moment you are in, and ultimately what you can draw from it and how you use that emotional effect for your own compositions.

So in a nutshell - both artist and audience are in charge of making something original through mutual cognition.

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?
Of the top of my head, I‘d say reduction and efficiency. This might sound strange, since the aim of the earlier Hecq records was clearly to clutter arrangements with as many elements and edits as possible. There was a moment where this felt more like a sport rather than a musical need, as if I was hiding behind the endless possibilities of the technology. I read an interview with (or article about) Arvo Pärt - who‘s one of the few composers I admire endlessly, and he said that he‘s trying to "decorate" his music as little as possible - everything in there should have a meaning, function and reason to be there - this impressed me deeply and I fell in love with the idea of music as "acupuncture", where every element hits a certain nerve and where there are no fillers, no needles elements.

Only then you can see (respectively: hear) the true nature of a song and notice its intention, therefore evaluate it‘s originality (as per definition in the previous question). So yes: the importance of originality (in any possible definition) can not be stressed enough for me and is getting more every day.

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?
This is very tough to answer. I‘m quite undecided about this because I think we live in the best of times to make and distribute music and I could not be happier about the fact that pretty much everybody is enabled to create and release music. This also means though that quality control (even if it‘s the artists own consideration if whatever he created is ready to be released in any way) is too relative and undefined. Too many releases (and I‘m pretty sure we now have more releases in general than ever before) can only result in a lack of quality.

That‘s why I‘m also overwhelmed by the general output of music - even if I‘d only focus on the artists/labels I care for most.

I hardly ever actively explore any social media or music websites and mostly update my own profiles for the people that do... it‘s just not really my kind of media (which should probably concern me), you could say I‘m very oldschool when it comes to this..

One of my most favorite labels however is Sonic Pieces. You can buy their releases, which will normally be out in very small numbers but in amazing quality - musically and especially regarding the packaging and artwork!

This is the kind of pace I like to keep up with and I would generally say: less is more. Less and more thought through content and planning of everything (releases, apps, gear, et cetera) would be very good for the music world.

And again.... this is what makes it very schizophrenic  for me: I‘m happy and amazed that we have all these possibilities - I‘d just whish we‘d use them less inflationary and more considerately.

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.
I suppose a question that will always be part of a musicians work is if what he creates is contributing to what‘s already there or if it‘s an uneeded repetition. This can be obviously quite frustrating but at the same time it can be a great motivation. A practical example might be the work on the Conversions album. The idea of reworking some of my most favorite tracks sounded very thrilling and I was highly motivated... until I had to start. I noticed that these tracks were like holy grails for me - it felt strange bending them out of shape at first. After a few weeks of thinking and experimenting I decided to forget about the remix principle in its classical form because i just would not have come far. I had to find a way of how I could actually make this a tribute rather than a personal take, if that makes sense.

Reinventing and overthrowning concepts until a point where you‘re out of the expectation zone (may it be your own expectations or the ones of others) is so refreshing. Then it won‘t matter how close or far you are away from the original track - for me the trrain of thought behind matters more and more.

This is also the case for the differentiation between Hecq and Ben Lukas Boysen. Both projects have entirely different goals and ask for different ways of thinking. While Hecq is still focusing on a really borderless stylistic approach, Ben Lukas Boysen tracks are living of a certain restriction and limitation (at the moment at least). The really rewarding and inspiring aspect of this is that you will automatically focus much more on the composition and shape the sound afterwards while with Hecq all components of the tracks develop alongside eachother.

Overall, I want to find a balance between music being my one and only outlet and at the same time trying to contribute something "new", which can only mean highlighting another "microshade" of all existing music, and trying not to repeat myself too much.

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 still draw a lot of inspiration from fellow musicians work but also all other forms of art from movies and installations to paintings and even quite a few video games. It‘s all about being set into a certain mood, then the brain will start processing all by itself really. Let impressions sink in, ferment and send impulses to create something.

This is also part of the reason why I don't find playing live particularly interesting for me at this moment. Whenever I‘m at a concert or performance I like, I always think "that‘s how you perform! if you can‘t do it like that - don‘t bother to do it!" ...needless to say, that‘s only valid for me.

My work takes time to ferment as well and is very rarely coming out of a improvisation or jam session (actually, it never is).

I need time to let it rest, come back to it, find its strength or weakness and decide what to do with it. I‘m a pretty bad live musician in the classical sense and would see my qualities elsewhere (in the studio to be precise). Accordingly, my writing techniques are based around this rather interminable production process. I really like it that way - all the things you want to be considered within a track (or album) can be included if you take your time.

If there‘s such a thing as a production signature, planning and constructing might be mine.

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 recognising originality than the one currently in place?
Really tricky to answer since the concept of creativity and labeling is so vague and relative and this could be discussed for hours. The short answer for me could be is that I think the current evaluation and definition of a composition makes sense to me and works quite well, yet personally I wouldn‘t be so strict about some things.

The problem I see is that a slight variation over a theme or song can have a totally different impact on the listener - the same three chords for example can be 100% different if their arrangement is just slightly changed. I could imagine this being the reason for copyright laws being quite strict - it‘s trying to grasp something rather ethereal and unseizable actually.

To be honest, I wouldn‘t have a better answer to this, mostly because I haven‘t thought about this topic too much. Which could mean I‘m actually okay with the current model.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
Very ambivalent. On one hand I‘m in love with the gear I use. On the other hand, the gigantic amount of new plug ins, apps, devices etc (as mentioned above), is simply overwhelming and distracting and I find myself going back to the pretty basic set of things at the end of the day.

The bottom line for me is: No tool will save you if the idea isn‘t good. Of course there are sessions and times where I just experiment with samples and processing possibilities (i.e. i‘m getting into kyma for quite a while now and I think it‘s in its nature that you experiment with it without aiming for anything for quite a while) but in the end I will try to pin down an idea that was flying around my head rather than getting to a result by experimenting.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
I like tools that you need to breathe live into to be interesting, tools that are not doing too much on their own. Again, Kyma is an interesting example. Someone who knows the system might disagree with me and might say that it‘s overwhelming abundance of choices are a source of inspiration. Wich might be true, but for me it‘s different. The structure and concept of Kyma is looking at me, as if it‘s trying to tell me "you won‘t be able to get anything out of me unless YOU come up with an idea" ...almost like it‘s mocking me. This is very entertaing and challening.

On the opposite side, there‘s Abletons Push, which communicates the exact opposite. You don‘t really have to think about it and get right into a creative process.

So, depending on what I‘m trying to achieve, I think that being challenged and conquered by the gear you use is a wonderful thing. The fact that making musicer get‘s easier is not necessarily the best thing for the writing process... sometimes, "earning" the result on a number of levels feels good.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
The first thing I can think about is the work of Stockhausen, more specifically the famous helicopter quartet. Even though it‘s a piece placed in the more recent history (I think around it premiered only in 2003) it‘s exemplary for how you can push the boundaries of what is considered an original composition, technically and musically.

So here‘s the thing - as a musical experience I have a really hard time enjoying Stockhausen's work - it really does nothing to me (i‘d love to me reminded about this sentence in 10 years time and see if still think the same) but what struck me (also with a lot of his earlier works) was that above everything he did, the statement "because it‘s possible!!" hovered above it in huge neon letters. His work is incredibly encouraging, it makes you fearless... which is why the fact that I don‘t like it musically is entirely unimportant - his contribution and help happens on a meta-scale which is much more important and strengthens the very core of a composer.

The plain fact that we live in times where experiments like this is supported and embraced by society is simply great and I think more than helpful to the cause of cultural and artistic progress and development.

However, the interest of people (and society) could be a lot bigger - it‘s a quite sentimental (maybe even romantic and subjective) thought that people are not interested enough in exploring, finding and also (on a monetary scale) investing into important cultural developments and projects. I see this is the biggest obstacle really... how to make people aware of their own possible potential and the incredible treasures created by so many great artists. We could get alot further intellectually and artistically if we‘d be more open and interested. I‘m not forgetting about all the wonderful projects that are existing and being supported and funded, however, that‘s why it might be romantic and subjective, it could be so much more.

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
Yes, quite a few. Mostly choir- and orchestral works which will take some time to be brought to life, for technical and financial reasons... but I will do my best to make them a reality.

Hecq / Ben Lukas Boysen Interview by Tobias Fischer
Picture by Claudia Gödke, 2014

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