Black to Comm’s Marc Richter has been making electronic music since the early 00s, piecing found sounds into intricate, multilayered compositions. “Music is alchemy transmuting seemingly mundane objects into a magic whole,” he explains.
The German-born composer’s last album, Seven Horses for Seven Kings, was ominous and overwhelming; his latest Oocyte Oil & Stolen Androgens works on a quieter scale, exploring the human voice, art and history through a fascinating array of sonic textures. Here he talks about his beginnings in music as a young man in the Black Forest region of Germany, the experiences that pointed him towards electronics and the art and artists who have inspired his latest work. Richter wrote some of the album’s tracks for accompany site-specific art installations. To unpack a couple of them, he brings in his collaborator Seb Patane to this email interview. | j kelly
Aquarium Drunkard: There doesn’t seem to be much about you, personally, on the web. Tell me a little about yourself. How did you get started in music?
Marc Richter: I think personal information should remain personal for the most part so I don’t really share that much on social media or other “open” channels.
I live in Hamburg, was born and grew up in the Black Forest in the south of Germany, a beautiful, magic and mythical rural area that I still visit every year. My interest in what I would call weird music started very early, when I was around 12 years old. My theory is that children or young people would gladly listen to the most weird music if only they had the exposure. Personal taste or preferences are not predetermined. I was lucky to receive some amazing radio stations where I grew up. The Black Forest is close to the Swiss and French borders, so I could choose from three country’s radio programs, and there were always some courageous late night radio shows somewhere. So, I often spent the nights taping music from the ethers.
Anyway, I started to go to gigs very young, then started to write for small fanzines when I was still in high school, had my own radio show on pirate radio, started a record label, moved to Hamburg…..
AD: Did you play instruments at first or have you always worked with computers and electronics?
Marc Richter: It took a long time before I realized I could make music myself, even though I listened to all this DIY home-recorded music where the threshold of making it yourself should be diminutive — but it wasn’t for me. Making music always seemed to be for other people. I did try to play the guitar and (Farfisa) organ but wasn’t particularly talented; I played in a garage band for a while but they fired me for good reasons.
I only started to make music myself when personal computers became more affordable. I was always interested in the studio-as-instrument and before personal computers studio gear wasn’t really accessible. Funnily enough, I’m using a lot of often cheap old acoustic and analog gear now that I could have easily obtained back then.
AD: Was there an “a-ha!” moment when you realized exactly what you wanted to do, in terms of music? When did that happen?
Marc Richter: I’m not sure there was one exact moment but rather a series of revelations. My interest in sampling was piqued by a visit to Moers Festival when I was around 15. There were improv sessions every morning in a gym, and I saw Christian Marclay improvising with a turntable and cut-up and glued vinyl records every day. That was the first time I saw someone make music with other people’s recordings. At the time, I was aware of Nurse With Wound, Eno/Byrne’s My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts and some of Holger Czukay’s works, but that was the first time I saw someone doing it right in front of me. Then came years of distraction until a new wave of sample-based artists working with computers appeared such as Workshop (on Talent), Microstoria, People Like Us, Colleen — finally inspiring me to do it myself and on my own terms. Of course, this is all hindsight and memory is clouded, but I loved the way one could manipulate time and space.
AD: Are you still evolving as a composer? Are there things you’re trying on this record that you haven’t done before?
Marc Richter: Absolutely. There’s a mini-evolution every day. It’s hard to specify though, sometimes it’s just a new reverb or recording technique, sometimes it’s a whole new approach (and mostly something in between). I guess “Gustav Metzger” is the most narrative piece I’ve ever done and I’ve always had a narrative composition style, and “Rataplan” is…..I don’t really know what it is. Some of the voices are literally guiding the music as I transposed the speech to musical notes. Themes are always changing so the outcome will always be different anyway.
AD: How do work on music? Do you have a process? Is there a regular place you go to?
Marc Richter: I have my own studio now. Before that, I recorded at nighttime in my bedroom and went to work in the morning, but the sleep deprivation took a toll on my mind and body so I had to make up my mind — keep the job or be an artist. Having a separate space to record can be helpful. It’s easier to focus as there is not much else to do there.
AD: You take lots of sounds and cut them up and layer them over each other to create your work, I think. Do you spend time looking for sounds? How do you find them?
Marc Richter: That would be the prosaic account of how I make music, yes, even though the process can vary. I rarely look for sounds. They usually come to me. A lot of time is spent listening to music until something piques my interest, or just recording myself improvising with some sort of sound device then cutting up the recordings afterwards—there’s lots of frustration and the rare epiphany. Seven Horses took five years to finish.
Music is alchemy transmuting seemingly mundane objects into a magic whole; at least that would be my ideal. The path can be boring, frustrating, annoying even. The actual process of making electronic music or music on computers can be quite detached from the outcome and this is a constant challenge.
AD: You’ve said that with Oocyte Oil and Androgens, you wanted to explore the human voice. Why do you think that was? What was it about voices that interested you?
Marc Richter: The fact that there are voices on most tracks was not really intended so it wasn’t conceptual. I just happened to have all these recordings with a common theme at some point. A lot of music for visual art is instrumental so me being a bit of a contrarian I just had to use voices.
AD: Your previous album Seven Horses for Seven Kings seemed a lot denser and louder – this one has more quiet in it. Is that because you were using voices? Also, that album title, about ovaries and hormones, has a very reproductive air to it. What does it mean?
Marc Richter: Yes, working with voices allows me to use more silence in the songs but there are still tons of layers in these particular pieces. My 2012 album EARTH was much more reduced to give David Aird’s voice more space. Seven Horses was made to overwhelm the senses, the new one is made to seduce.
And yes again, “reproductive air” sounds about right. Oocyte Oil and Stolen Androgens are basically songs about sex and sexuality, hormones, gender….. But it’s a difficult matter and it can be presumptuous to assign too much meaning to some (for the most part) wordless pieces of music.
AD: The first piece, which is very long, seems more like a theatrical experience than a song – is there a story to it? Did you see a movie or some other visual element when you were working on it?
Marc Richter: Many of the different elements of this piece were given to me by visual artist Seb Patane. He recorded them for his installation piece, “Abdomen,” and later asked me to rework the piece for a new art installation. I always think of my music as being very narrative and the voices probably enhanced that notion. There were no visuals attached to the original piece (I think a red screen for the original installation, but I’ve only seen photos), so visuals were not really a particular influence, but the way I sometimes compile a piece (especially in the longform) can certainly be compared to film, especially film editing. I don’t do verse chorus verse music but rather arrange and place certain acoustic events in space and time. And the color of each element is crucial.
I try to not take direct influences from film or literature. Music is a different lifeform and has to be treated as such; and even when I’m sound tracking something (a film, a piece of art), I try to make the music be a separate entity, a comment on what I’m seeing instead of just an aid to the visuals.
AD: There’s a Gustav Metzger who was an artist associated with the Auto-Destructive Art movement—and then Erwin Piscator was a German theater director in the early 20th century – are they the ones you’re referencing in the opening piece? What do they mean to you?
Marc Richter: The male voice on the opening piece is by the late Gustav Metzger, a German-born conceptual artist who’s the originator of the so-called Auto-Destructive Art movement. It was recorded by visual artist Seb Patane during a mutual residency at Wysing Arts Centre in Cambridge. The lyrics are derived from Erwin Piscator’s biography, hence the title.
Seb Patane: I liked the fact that both Piscator and Metzger were German, but were however disconnected by time and space. Because as an artist I’m interested in the potential of artifice and fictionalized history, but also the crossover of these into biographical narrative, I thought it would be interesting for a German artist to act or perform the words of a creative fellow countryman. Both artists were highly experimental and politically liberal and forward thinking so it was almost like the thoughts of one were suggestively transferred onto the other, through time, sound and performance.
AD: There’s a really interesting bit of recorded speech right at the end of this cut, it sounds very old and the person is describing extreme hardship—having, among other things, two unmatching shoes. Where did this come from and how did you find it?
Marc Richter: I will let Seb explain this…..
Seb Patane: That line came from the beginning of Piscator’s biography “The Political Theatre”, where he describes his ill-fitting outfit when about to join the German army during WWI. Piscator was a vehement anti-war person, so I liked the way the simple description of what he was wearing was actually deeply metaphorical of his state of mind, and his unwillingness to go to war.
Metzger read the word into my recording machine one afternoon when we were at Wysing Arts Centre at the same time during a residency. It was not too long before he passed away, so he was already pretty frail and would get easily tired therefore we only did two takes. In those recordings, however, I believe you can literally feel the pain of age, the weight of history.
AD: Some of these pieces were composed for art installations. Can you tell me a little about the art they were paired with and how they were used in the installation?
Marc Richter: The piece we were just talking about was used for a pure audio installation, so there was no other (visual) art in the room; just my piece and Seb Patane’s original on loop in a dark room in an art gallery with some bean bags to lay on. The last piece on the LP is an alternate version of it; and there’s another more abstract 11-minute version available to download on the Thrill Jockey website.
“Stolen Androgens” and “Oocyte Oil” were made for my partner’s artist group. One was for a series of lathecut picture discs, the other to accompany a few miniature sculptures made of PMMA, a synthetic resin. Sculpture is a three-dimensional artform and music can be a time-based fourth dimension in that equation.
“Gepackte Zeit” was a mobile installation, so people could listen to it outdoors at one specific location in Hamburg by logging in their mobile phones. It was interesting to compose music for a fixed outdoor location and to engage with the history of the place.
AD: How do you make music for art installations? Is it different from just composing music for your own recordings?
Marc Richter: The actual composing process is not that different, but usually there is a period of preparation where I try to read and learn as much as possible about the particular piece of art and its origins and themes and its creator. Then I try to forget everything I just learned and start composing.
AD: Do you make visual art as well as music?
Marc Richter: I do some collage work and film but it’s mostly used to accompany music.
AD: “Stolen Androgens” has a really beautiful female voice in it…was that sourced from a pop song? (It said in the notes that you got some of these sounds from pop songs.)
Marc Richter: There are clippings from some obscure songs by a famous singer on both “Oocyte Oil” and “Stolen Androgens.” I can’t reveal the original sources because, well, it’s illegal. I was looking for a voice that sounds neither male nor female but somewhere in between genders. Early versions of both pieces were made a few years ago so they predate the music I made under my Jemh Circs alias, the first of which was almost entirely constructed (or rather deconstructed) from Pop Music voices in a similar process.
AD: “Gepackte Zeit” is another one that refers to an artist, Hanne Darboven. Was it meant to accompany one of her pieces?
Marc Richter: Hanne Darboven was not only a minimalist visual artist but a fantastic composer herself. Her music is based on transcriptions of her serial artworks, so it’s very mathematical but quite beautiful. Her compositions are usually very long, and I had just visited her exhibition that was named Gepackte Zeit (“compressed time”), so I had this idea of compressing several hours of her music into a three-minute track, and so I did. It’s an antidote to Darboven’s very patient, almost infinite music. During the installation people were only allowed to listen to it in front of St. Michaelis church in Hamburg where most Darboven pieces had their premiere. The church itself was destroyed and rebuilt many times in the last 400 years, so that was an interesting analogy to my music which is built on destruction and reconstruction.
AD: There seems to be a running theme of war, at least in the first and last tracks. Was this something you were thinking about?
Marc Richter: Both were composed for Seb’s installation, so I’ll let him comment. To be honest, it wasn’t something I have dealt with particularly myself besides these pieces, even though we certainly live in a time of upheaval and (hopefully) renewal. What interested me was the fragility of Metzger’s voice in which you can literally hear the sound of time elapsing.
Seb Patane: I’m interested in the history of conflicts, clashes, and in political struggle, both collective and personal. I’m also intrigued in the anxiety of transformation, either physical or mental, which something like war can obviously bring, so my research before starting composing those pieces was heavily influenced by all this.
My work always seeks to change shape or structure hence why I asked Marc to rework the original sound piece, since he is such a master of audio collage and sonic manipulation.
AD: Is there anything about your music that people don’t understand or misunderstand?
Marc Richter: There’s a lot of humor hidden somewhere in the music but I guess if i have to explain that it didn’t really work. Also, it’s not as dark and sinister as it might seem…..there’s always light…..
AD: What are you working on now? Any side projects or collaborations that you want to talk about?
Marc Richter: This year is quite busy with releases and due to the pandemic they’re all coming out this fall (some were postponed from spring). There are two releases of my new Mouchoir Étanche project — a 12″ on my old more or less dormant Dekorder label and an LP on my new Cellule 75 label as well as a Black To Comm cassette recorded during the lockdown period in April/May.
In the last few years, I have started to do more abstract sounding multichannel pieces at institutions like the INA GRM in Paris and ZKM in Karlsruhe for as many loudspeakers as I can get (usually eight but sometimes up to 40 to 50 speakers) and I had a few presentations during lockdown — people could walk through the installations distanced. I’m currently working on several multichannel commissions.
Oh, and I have just finished mixing a new Vindicatrix album which we’re shopping around to labels now. It’s the first time I mixed another person’s music — something I would love to repeat.
AD: Will you be performing these pieces live eventually? How will you do that?
Marc Richter: I have a lot of music that wouldn’t really work in a concert setting, so no I don’t think I can perform these pieces live. I usually completely disassemble my studio works for live situations, and these pieces are not really suitable for this kind of deconstruction, so they will remain as fixed installation pieces and this album of course. Also, I often play new unreleased music when playing live as it helps with the composition process. I really don’t know how and what I will play live after this whole mess is over though — my concerts before the virus hit were loud and noisy and I’m not sure this is what I’m interested in at the moment.
AD: How are you doing with the pandemic and the lockdown and all?
Marc Richter: It’s been a surreal six months for everyone. On one of our first walks during the lockdown period, we saw a dead body carried out of a house in the neighborhood. People were wearing hazmat suits and the police was present so we immediately sensed the imminence. The person probably died from old-age but it was a scene straight out of The Andromeda Strain.
The virus has brought out the best and worst in people so it has been illuminating and not always in a good way. Age-old problems have been amplified….. I do hope we all come out transformed on the other side of this, but I’m not hopeful. Personally, I’m doing fine — a lot of artists are missing traveling to unknown places to get inspiration, but for me music is that unknown place. But I know I’m talking from a very privileged position. It seems like the virus is used as an excuse for a war on culture in some countries since art has always been a driving force for any kind of social progress and some people are trying to turn back the clocks.