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Interview with Zenjungle

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.

For Athens, Greece-based artist Phil Gardelis aka Zenjungle, originality can never be fixed. It's an ongoing process to constantly challenge oneself and to keep changing.

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 don't think that this procedure ever ends. Things you see and listen to, blend together creating something new sometimes. I had always my ears and my eyes open, meaning that I was taking influences and inspiration from different directions around me. These influences at some phase started growing inside me, blending together forming who I am. Who am I? I 'm not sure exactly, it's for the others to tell. 



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?
I guess you're not exactly seeking originality but more seeking out things that speak to our heart, things that make you lose the ground under your feet. 
That said, I was always searching for innovative sounds, styles and musicians. Musicians like Coltrane, Don Cherry, Charlie Haden and his Liberation Music Orchestra, actually the whole free jazz movement of the 60s and the 70s, the post-punk of the 80s with Bauhaus and Joy Division and the electronic scene of the 90s and later, but also John Surman from ECM and the list could go on and on.


What's your own definition of originality?

In few words, to be true to yourself. To know what to do and why you do it but always leave room for accidents to happen.



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?
 As I said above it's always an ongoing procedure, that means I'm not exactly measuring values when I play/write music and in the end make a sum of it. So, of course it's important to be original but I guess I'm not thinking so much about it. 



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?
It's true that there is more music around us than ever. The last years it became much easier to create and publish your music out there. Hence there are as many labels as musicians, haha. Nowadays, it's easy to make an ambient track with a preset ethereal pad, a violin sound and some crackling noise or a drone track using a massive synth sound but is this really the point? In the ambient/drone scene that I‘m currently involved there are many musicians that are trying to stand out from the mass and this is inspiring on its own. Many of them are friends and collaborators as well.  



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.
Every time I start working on something new, if it's a piece of music or a concept album, the challenge is there. Most of the time I don't want to ruminate on things I've done in the past but try to create something new. I like to think I'm going a step further. Well, if that's a strategy I'm not sure but it's definitely rewarding; e.g. on 'Tales from Urban' with John Daly (Tunedin52) from Ireland there was a concept about the urban reality. We were trying to present different aspects of the urban process. From the everyday struggle to the sun setting behind buildings. From the shadows on the pavements to the ghosts of everyday routine.
On 'Leaving Stations' (Twice Removed) both the inspiration and the challenge came out of a phrase from 'Merciful I' of Nils Petter Molvær, a poem/song which is stuck in my head since the very first time I heard it: 'you leave just a shadow like trains forever leaving stations'. At that time I received some great field recordings from my friend Simjon Spengler (LeTryp) of Hong Kong traffic lights and bike day in Munich which I combined with my own recordings from train stations platforms and real instruments such as saxophone, a reversed piano sound and guitars. And another challenge which came up during the process was to keep the interest alive for 25 minutes.
On a new EP I have just finished working with Krzysztof Sujata (Valiska) from Canada, one of the challenges was the collaborative process on its own. While Kris is one of the artists I admire for his originality, we had never worked together before. I think it came out great but it's for the others to judge that when it is released (soon on Kate Carr's Flaming Pines). 



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?
I can't think of another model for recognising originality but surely it wouldn't have to do with copyrights and lawsuits. Those have to do mostly with charts and commercial music. For me it's more the moral aspect that counts when someone decides to 'steal' something from another, and by steal I don't mean influenced.


How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
Intimately related to each other. It's much easier now to stretch a sound from a field recording device with a great sound quality and create something new from scratch than it was some years ago. On 'Leaving Stations' the bass/ percussion kind of sound in the beginning came out from a stretched recording of the traffic lights of Hong Kong. The potentials are truly unlimited nowadays and all the technology is around us.


In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?

As I said before the potential with new technologies is unlimited. Personally, I think that one of the most interesting changes is digital recording. With a pair of mics and a good soundcard you get decent quality. That said, when I have an idea or when I want to experiment, the facility is more accessible than ever. Personally speaking again, I don't use that much; my DAW is mostly my mixer where I add all my recordings, whether this is an improvisation on saxophone/guitar or a field recording of my kitchen sink.


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? 

I do think that politics influences creative people now more than culture. It depends on the era that you live in and create. I don't think that we could separate these from each other. e.g. the crisis in Greece now is frustrating and a catalyst for change both socially and artistically. Occasionally, in difficult times better things are achieved. And I can see that happening here. More and more musicians and artists are visible and try to be more original than they used to be, to get out their own voice. I guess it's also a way to fight  against repression. 



Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I would love to travel to Ireland or to Canada and close myself into a room with John or Kris and make a whole album together. This is more of a financial problem but it's something that I have in mind for the future.

Zenjungle interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Zenjungle