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Magnetic Psychology

img  Tobias Fischer

Times may be fleeting, but Martijn Comes' Infinite Spaces and Beyond certainly left a lasting impression. Marking, according to one reviewer, "a new dawn for dystopian music", the album sounded emotional and complex all at once, sending a deceptively familiar EDM-template through a supernova of galactically expansive arrangements and bizarrely deformed sounds. Perhaps one of the reasons for these stunningly ambitious and perplexingly complex structures is that the work falls into a period of intense activity for Comes, who is constantly oscillating between his Dutch home of Amsterdam and various European cities, producing and performing his own oeuvre and curating pieces as part of his work for Dutch national radio station Concertzender. It is a recognisably eclectic agenda of tasks, in a way, but Comes has managed to not just make it his own but also to uncover the underlying synergies. This may also be a reason why his participation in the Panospria collective, which he describes as "a hub of artists curated by Constantine Katsiris" and "a very free, non commercial platform of ideas", is so important to him: Contrary to the initial impression the music may convey, Comes is by no means a top-heavy, overly intellectual artist, but instead intrigued by technology's ability to channel and catalyse human emotion. If the results won't make your heart beat faster and jump up from your seat – what's the point of complex concepts?

What were some of your earliest influences and what do you draw from all these musical universes? How has the multitude of potential stimuli changed your own way of working and how do you keep focused?
Influences that are pretty big in my emotive expression are the 80s as I grew up with MTV Europe and Dutch pop-tv programs. In the 90s my mom bought me Speedy J's !ive album for my birthday, which meant a lot looking back in terms of honest electronic music. In my days as a young communication student I started organizing parties, playing electro and IDM with an international artist collective called Headroom, of which Jeff Samuel, Jugoe and part of Twine are still remnants. That time I got to know so much of modern electronica. It wasn't until I heard Markus Detmer's impressive selections on Staubgold, got more connected emotionally with the Twine (Chad Mossholder & Greg Malcolm) sound and meeting the Désormais boys (Mitchell Akiyama & Tony Boggs) that I started to realize that we could do anything we wanted, however complex, however beautiful. Then the mindset of traditionally trained composers and musicians who are started meeting in the Conservatory put everything in perspective. I started mapping my own tradition. When there is perspective, focus becomes a natural thing. You zoom in and out.

You went on from there to study in Amsterdam. How do you see the ongoing relevance of universities in a time of mainly self-taught producers?
Without getting too deep into the semiotics and motivations behind the creative process, we all need stimulation, ideas, ideology, cultural and aesthetic idioms, methods, going back and forth within our intellect to create your own vision. Self-taught, or within an educational system, we are human. Our qualities are already latent. They have to be triggered and put into effect. As a musician, I see myself absorbing a lot of knowledge until I reach a reflection of the culture I think i can resonate with within a timeframe. Then this knowledge is put into effect. Sometimes it is very personal and has to do with the psychology of identification, sometimes it is more ideological. We all seek meaning to our actions. Creative education is a sensitive thing and teachers have a lot of influence. If things don't resonate, your energy goes to waste, and the money too.

A stimulating environment is sometimes essential. The Conservatory in Amsterdam was great for me. When I was studying scoring for film with its methods I learned a lot about my personal motivations and how I was dealing with music. It showed me how fascinated I was by musical clichés, idioms, tradition and its human psychology. Albeit commercial, Hollywood's relatively narrow minded but very effective film music scoring methods took clichés out of the collective subconscious and used it to tell a story of its own. Now those borders are fading in intense flux: technically, musically, aesthetically. The only thing left for me to do, is to research where I come from, where I am now and where I am going: to protect and project my own cultural heritage as a human being into the world. At the same time trying to tell a story in an effective way that is equally educative, recognizable and exciting.

You graduated in 2004 with a thesis on live stage performance with the aid of digital media. What were some of your conclusions and in which way are you still integrating some of them into your current live programs?
I was interested in the real-time improvisation possibilities between physical movement and visual/audio. Sensors and movement tracking software was coming up and academia provided a lot of backup to let things go towards where they are now. I definitely had visions of where I could take it and I still have them in the back of my head, but within my limited computing power, this is all I can do. Even without mastering it is impossible for me to get to so much computing power in real time. I simply need more computers for that. I could use it in the composition process, but the piano and guitar are just close to me.

You seem to consider research as an important basis for developing your music. Can you tell me about this a bit, please?
Research for me is about keeping an open mind, a reference for collaboration, and it is providing the main reflection on how the flux of my music and music in general is behaving through time. I think having the privilege of working in broadcasting is great because it stimulates me to find productions that are relevant, innovative and refreshing to my understanding. Although I love science and the way it tries to map and discover things, I do not make it a core business. I try to use it where and when necessary. I think a poetic mindset is a more driving force to my actions. Most of the music I listen to is research (it's hard for me to relax and enjoy a piece of music as it is). I focus on its concept, tradition(s) and production techniques. I absorb them until my brain gets so mathematically charged (while I have no idea of math whatsoever) until there's an urgency to having to start putting down chords and attach these to concepts I have in my mind. I start to create problems like: how does this morph into that? Does that concept work live in combination with that technique? Eventually: how do I tell a story that is equally interesting and exciting to myself and the audience of today? In a way, this has nothing to do with inspiration from the outside but more about connecting the dots and creating your own inspiration.

Practising buddhist meditation, the non-materialistic side of things interests me a lot. Subconscious channeling of ideas and visions. There's a lot of information coming from the unconscious that you can only express with your eyes closed and being intensely connected to your instrument. Most importantly, studying ideas gives me the confidence now and again that within the process everything is possible. 'Everything' is an understanding that I rediscover every time. It goes from: "Why shouldn't I connect dub and techno concepts to contemporary classical, microsound, acousmatic or field recordings?", and: "Wouldn't it be extra thrilling inside the sonic landscape to move back and forth between the respective qualities of the landscape, without loosing their cliche's which make them tangible, exciting, and therefore become a meaningful part of the narrative?". Which in theory could lead to something iconoclastic. Not in large am I even close to something of that stature because most of my techniques are quite low-key and still in practice modus, but it is about the process. To reach a personal musical or sonic revolution is a really good thing. As a counterpoint: artists that do the same thing over and over again should probably ask themselves how much they differ from other contemporary consumer products.

What is your current studio like?
I run a MacBook Pro with Ableton and plugins, I have a Roland JUNO-60 and a midi keyboard. Beyerdynamic headphones. You'll find this funny, but I have KEFs 104AB as studio monitors. Their technique was supposedly made for the BBC in the 70s as studio monitors and the 104ABs are the consumer model. Atmosphere, honesty and character are very important to me.

I think the most important factor of 'keeping your tools sharpened' is that I should be able to write from anywhere. A creative day or moment could be anywhere at any time, so I have a laptop only as a starting process where I put down the basic music and sound design. Because I am slowly getting more acoustics into my work, sometimes I need to translate the given design into an specific synth or acoustic instrument. Then there has to be note-transcription, and it will go to the respective musician to record. 'Do it with what you have' is basically my main method. In the end the overall sonic spectrum and its dynamic is super important for me, and I can only fill this need with reasonably professional headphones which show me most audible frequencies without the acoustics of the room present. This, in close collaboration with the my monitors. If this is not convincing on all levels, it doesn't work. I was lucky that through the label I got to work with mastering professionals that understand the music and are able to emphasize the complexity and versatility of the musical dynamic. Both Twerk (Galactic Cinema) and Taylor Deupree (Infinite Spaces and Beyond) did fantastic work.

In which way will you allow technology to make decisions for you, to arrive at new ideas and concepts? What have been some of the most convincing (software, hardware, app) solutions from your point of view?
Whatever gets you going, I guess. I find Ableton still a great platform to be multifunctional, effective, intuitive and open to experimentation. As a computer user, I am not that forward-thinking. I am not a MAX user for instance, and I don't experiment endlessly to get to the most experimental innovative advanced compositions. I like to keep things relatively simple. I stick mainly to the notes and build on top of that. Perhaps I am a bit stubborn, like my dad. If a greater idea transcends out of combining different elements, hardware, software, that's great. You never know when that's going to happen. But you have to trust the logic or illogic inside the machines, and destroy it when you have to. I find the Linear Display product series really innovative, and thoughtful. And i am still a big fan of the smartelectronix VST stuff. They are very modest but effective. I try to keep control over things I use, and consider a new plugin or instrument carefully as in why I would need it. In this way I can build a deeper relationship with them. It's just like writing notes. It's about the effective decisions. But experimenting and going deeper into glitches and artifacts is a side-dish. I want to keep stuff reasonably recognizable but at the same time a bit ironic because of the instruments' personal touch and history, if that makes sense. I can't wait until I have some money to buy the GRM Tools. I never properly got into them because they are quite expensive.

I was absolutely blown away by the sound design and overall sonic impact of Infinite Spaces and Beyond. What do you still remember about the process of recording? What was the sound shaping stage like and what were some of the specific aspects of the music you worked on in particular?
That's a nice compliment. The first stages of a project that feels 'urgent', which this was, always starts a bit manic, overriding all rational arguments, endlessly turning buttons and clicking the mouse on machines until you find something refreshing and interesting. Day after day. It's very instinctive. One valuable thing I have learned about creating is that in the initial stages I just keep on creating idea after idea, sketch after sketch. Each has its own merits according to technical and compositional exploration and quality but 60 percent of its ends in the bin or on a side track. Someday a seed sprouts, and you start collecting ideas and they become nice ideas with a scope and effect. Sometimes, the motivation and idea is great, and it becomes nothing. That's the way it works. Creative life becomes a lot easier being aware of this.

Specific aspects I get deeper into is the morphing, the transitions. How do parts move from seemingly surface and superficial to deeper more complex landscapes. Then the final mix has to be of some magnetic quality. It has to take me in and not let me go. These are fun creative problems.

On the surface, Infinite Spaces and Beyond makes for a riveting, physical listen. The deeper you dive in, meanwhile, the more complex it gets. What makes complexity an interesting factor for you and how will you consciously create a multi-tiered listening experience in the studio?
I have always been a synesthetic. Even only in my imagination I have been always been intrigued by the magnetic psychological, colorful, sometimes transcendent possibilities of a lucid piece of music. I can compare the current technology and some experimental mixing to the process of painting. Even with a stereo setup and a decent PA you can unravel very nice sonic landscapes. I try to push the mix as far as I can technically and experimentally in creating the transformations. Here I often get deeper into the sound and the piece as a whole. The composition and the mix are therefore closely interrelated. The artifacts become seeds for new ideas, and vice verse. That's they key to the riveting, organic sound you describe, I think. Then the mastering engineer polishes and enhances the final mix to make the different ideas shine.

Pierre-Alexandre Tremblay once asserted that "writing for electronics requires the same knowledge as writing for orchestra". With regards to your arrangements and approach, is that something you can relate to?
Partly. You have to know your instruments and their sonic qualities and (im)possibilities. Overall electronic, or imported acoustic elements are easier to keep under control in the sonic spectrum than an orchestra. I can only say this from studying some orchestration, but acoustic orchestral music is a completely different game because it requires multiple other fields of knowledge: you write for human playing techniques, timbre, coloring, emotional spectrum. It requires a completely different psychology and psychoacoustics with its own challenges for both the author and the listener. It takes a lot of expertise and rehearsal time which i have a great respect for. The tension between acoustics and electronics in my personal development is a long but interesting journey.

Martijn Comes interview by Tobias Fischer
Martijn Comes image by Gerwin Nysingh

Homepage: Martijn Comes
Homepage: I/O Sound