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Interview with Jan St Werner (Mouse on Mars, Lithops, Microstoria)

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi there. Thank you, generally very well. I'm in Duesseldorf right now, recording a new album with mouse on mars.

What's on your schedule at the moment?
Traveling between Cologne, Duesseldorf and Berlin. Playing gigs with mouse on mars. Working on a new album with mouse on mars. Working on new ideas for lithops and finishing a project which will come out on Important Records in Summer. I'm also preparing an open air concert for church bells, street noises and electronic sounds in Peruggia for June 09.

Your recent activities feature a lot of work for galleries and installations. What is the appeal of these projects for you?
They free me from the routine of recording albums and performing that material live. They offer a different understanding of how the perception of sound changes with the context in which it is performed. I also enjoy to not think in sound terms but still work on a musical output. That's the fascinating thing about sound: You can play it blindly. You can think of anything and play an instrument. No visual work can compete with that, if you don't look at your artwork, design or archictectural sketch with concentration it becomes a mess. Another simple reason for working with visual artists is because I am interested in visual art and like to see issues from different angles.

"Ye Viols!" collects pieces from site- and project-specific compositions. Would you still say that there is a sort of recurring theme running through all of them?
Yes, there is an idea behind the compilation of those tracks. a story which is supposed to work without the original context of the single tracks. It's like a slide show with each slide lasting for the length of a track. The story is associative, abstract but intentional. musically none of the tracks are supposed to really go anywhere or drive you forward.They are all already there, shifting nonchalantly around a center which you don't really get to grasp. There is still enough musical substance to explore but the overall appeal is calm.

For all of the 'functional' aspects of these projects, I was under the impression, that the music on "Ye Viols!" was very much spontaneous and intuitive. Wouls that be a correct perception?
Sure. the aspect of placing a sound in a visual context makes it easier for me to come up with immediate results. You can decide quickly whether a sound fits or not. If you produce "pure" music you shift the arrangements around much more and get concerned about details.

In which way (if at all) was the material on the record re-edited for the CD release?
Every track has been re-edited to work on the record. It was easy to do that, the material was patient and flexible. I also added some ideas here and there to make it all come together more smoothly.There's a tension between careful editing and letting go. You give a hint towards precision and make space for improvisation at the same time.

What were your primary sound sources for "Ye Viols!"? Do you prepare a fresh timbral palette for each project before you begin or is this a process which continues as you write new material?
I usually start from scratch. Some sounds exist as patches or modules so I can easily re-edit them. But my main work is to build music out of nowhere.Each element suggests the next one. It's a kind of intuitive collage technique. If you have too many pre-existing parts, it becomes more difficult to put them together organically. I also try to not hang on to a single element too much. If something isn't right, I take the whole song apart again.

In multimedial works, one of the returning questions for composers is whether they want to be "visual" with their music as well or to instead offer a second, alternative layer of perception. In which way was this a concrete question for the various projects collected on "Ye Viols!"?
If the music is made for an installation it will rather work three dimensionally and influence a directional and spacial preception. If you make sound for a film the focus is directed. The sound becomes part of a narrative. It disappears within the movie and sharpens the images. I've always been fascinated by the strong influence of soundtracks on movies. Jacques Tati movies are like sound compositions brought to you through pictures. On the other hand, spatial sound can be very subtle without any visual evokation. but even sound installations which you can hardly hear can influence your sense of the actions in a room and their social meanings. I guess the cause and response situation between sound and image is complex and quite unpredictable. Sound can change the way you see an image which again changes the way you understand the situation which again changes the way you see and hear etc. So to answer your question: I think both qualities are present if you match sound with visuals.

The picture on the cover of the album was taken from the "Bacchus" series and features a "hybrid creature". Was the crossbreed like style of the pieces prepared for this particular project, both highly organic and extremely artifical, an obvious reference to that imagery or would that be overanalysing things?
It came together organically. The collages were made in the same period as the music on the album. The connections you describe were not obvious at first but became plausible after the album was compiled.

In which way did communication and collaboration with your artistic partners differ for the various installations and choreographies?
Some artists have specific requests, others are more open. Sometimes they don't even want to hear anything and just take what I come up with. Working with Rosa Barba is usually quite intense. She is critical and very aware of the influence of sound on images. I made sound for her film installations and movies. Some were more sound effects and atmospheres, some really musical. David Maljkovic took a finished song from mound magnet for one his new heritage videos. For his most recent series of collages, he asked me to write a new score. I watched his images as a slide show on a laptop while working on the music. I tried to write a piece which would carry those pictures without changing them. A sound which would be spatial (the score was played back through 6 separate speakers each one with a separate track from the piece) but would not appear as an entropic music piece. I tried to replace the main musical theme with the theme of the images. Modern dancers can dance on everything so a song as apps can be just right to make them do fast movememts as well as slow ones. apps is a song which is running as much as it is standing. Bacchus is like dinner music to me. Like a carravaggio painting, dark and baroque. It was like a slow reversed vortex in the center of the exhibition space.

Everyone nowadays seems to use multimedia in some form or the other. Juding from your experiences in the field, how often has it happened that you actually considered visual or other non-musical elements as disrupting the impact of the music played at an event?
With mouse on mars we just use one slide by Diango Hernadez during our live shows. no moving imagery except a text with is running through the holes of a head. I dislike that obligatory visual bombardment which you get at parties, theatre performances, stadium rock shows or dance theatres these days. As if the organisers want to compete with the home entertainment that some people already have in their homes. It takes away the focus which gives the qualification for really letting go. Public performances have become a multimedia battle. You don't have to give in so quickly. People can deal with breaks, they are able to explore stories. It's rewarding to break into a system and read the code rather than getting stunned by a constant audio visually simulated surface. It's not real just because you feel anything. For me, this audiovisual pathos has an overwhelming lack of substance.

There has, of lately, been a trend towards electronic instruments allowing for a more physical and intuitive use. Is this something you welcome?
Working for steim in amsterdam for two years made me very aware of the physical qualities of interfaces. But for me, in the end, it's always about sound. The non visual, non physical experience of focusing your attention to listening. This feeds back physically and has a strong emotional impact, too. But I try to avoid having all this already before even producing a single sound. Like playing the Guitar so intensely that the sound which comes out of it must be intense, too. The quality for me lies in not moving at all and still feeling shivers down your bones. In general, I support all tendencies to personalize musical set-ups and to find customized solutions for artists. But I wouldn't make this a priority for the production of an idiosyncratic work.


What is your stance on the influence of technology on your own work in general? Are you following equipment-related developments? Could you think of instances where it provided concrete assistance in realising a particular piece of music?
I developped a tool called meshbox at steim. A drum sampler with a simple controller interface which is quite solid and mechanic. I've also followed the development of maschine, a new drum module from native instruments. My favourite self-built instrument is the crackle synth by Michel Waisvisz. It's the most intuitive electronic device ever. And it's beautiful: A wooden box with a built-in speaker and open metal contacts which you can patch with your hands. The keys are simple switch buttons playing notes with no velocity.

By Tobias Fischer

As Jan St Werner:
Der Zufall Der Strahlen (self-released) 1992
Slow (Gefriem) 1992
Hauptmaße Für Elektrogeschirr (self-released) 1993
Übersteuerungsmomente & Schallverteilungen (self-released) 1994

As Lithops:
Didot (Eat Raw) 1998
Uni Umit (Sonig, Moikai, Tokuma Japan Communications) 1998
Scrypt (Sonig, Headz, Thrill Jockey) 2003
Mound Magnet (Thrill Jockey) 2006
Queries (Sonig) 2006
Mound Magnet Pt. 2 - Elevations Above Sea Level (Sonig) 2008
Mound Magnet pt. 2 - Elevations Above Sea Level (Killer Pimp) 2008
Ye Viols! (Thrill Jockey) 2009

As Microstoria:
Init Ding (Thrill Jockey, Mille Plateaux, A-Musik) 1995
Snd (Thrill Jockey, Mille Plateaux) 1996
Reprovisers (Thrill Jockey, Mille Plateaux)  1997
Improvisers (Sonig) 2000
Model 3, Step 2 (Thrill Jockey, Zomba) 2000
Invisible Architecture #3 (Audiosphere) 2002

With Mouse on Mars:
Vulvaland (American, Too Pure) 1994
Iaora Tahiti (Too Pure) 1995
Autoditacker (Thrill Jockey) 1997
Instrumentals (Sonig, Thrill Jockey) 1997
Glam (Tokuma Japan Communications, Domino) 1998
Niun Niggung (Thrill Jockey) 1999
Agit Itter It It (Thrill Jockey) 2001
Idiology (Thrill Jockey) 2001
Rost Pocks - The EP Collection (Too Pure) 2003
Radical Connector (Sonig, Thrill Jockey) 2004
Live 04 (Sonig) 2005
Varcharz (Ipecac, Sonig) 2006

Mouse on Mars

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