“There is trust involved in intimacy” – Vanessa Amara’s First Interview
Back in May, P/A contributing editor Macon Holt sat down to have a slow-motion chat over email with the founding member of the critically acclaimed Danish ambient and experimental band Vanessa Amara, Birk Gjerlufsen Nielsen. What started as an interview about the band’s new record, “Music for Acoustic Instruments and Feedback”, became a wide-ranging conversation about the problems with beauty, the intimacy of music and the sociality of sound. What follows is an edited version of this exchange rearranged for clarity.
MH: So, to kick things off and set the scene: Vanessa Amara has been a celebrated music project for a number of years now but has never been one for interviews. What is it about this moment and this release that has made you want to engage with the music press?
BGN: It was never a conscious decision not to do interviews. There has just never been any arriving in the mailbox. We do like to keep our elbows tucked in and make space for those who need or want it more. I think that’s the main reason it might seem like we haven’t been interested in putting ourselves out there and thus didn’t get the invitation.
At this stage, we’ve learned that if we don’t say or explain what we’re doing we can be misunderstood or assumptions can be made concerning what we’re about. With this release it was important, first of all, to just explain how the music has been made. Because we hope, if you’re interested, it might help you to notice some of the subtleties we hear in these recordings. That’s really why we wanted some words to go along with it. And also with this specific corner of our practice, there’s more thought behind it. More words to share and more conversation to be had. Most often I get confused when thinking about music; thinking in order to make choices or navigate. It’s like it’s the wrong instruments to measure it. Like how it is to force words upon emotions or impressions that are too complicated or too different from how we’ve developed language to explain things and make deductions. This is not to be understood like I’m against talking or thinking consciously about music. Sometimes there’s just nothing to be said.
From my end of this, it’s interesting – if I’ve done my research correctly – that you are integrated into academia. I don’t know why I mention this now. I dropped out of a musical education because it didn’t work for me to understand music through other people’s experience of it, I suppose. Maybe I was too young. And I’ve since been very cautious about incorporating other people’s ideas. I guess if you have the time during this correspondence, I would be pleased to hear your perspective as well.
MH: You have done your research correctly, I am in academia. Currently, I’m working at Copenhagen Business School of all places. But I started out studying music technology over a decade ago, with a particular focus on creative or experimental applications. But by the end of my masters, a few things were happening that made me switch to writing about things instead. First I realised I was much better at writing than composing. Second, I was frustrated by the kind of representational gap I felt in most of the experimental electronic music I was exposed to. Most of the pieces I was studying only seemed to be about things they claimed to be because the composer said so. There was nothing actually in the music that touched on what it wanted to explore, it seemed. I think this may be related to the way you say it didn’t work for you to understand music? And then there was the way the politics of my country (UK) were shifting at that moment. I felt like I wanted to talk to and about what was going on more directly. But still, for me, I was most interested in the role aesthetic experience played in shaping people’s ideas about what was possible. So I wrote a PhD in cultural studies about the political possibilities of post-financial crisis pop.
As you say, it is a bit tricky to be either silent and misunderstood or risk saying something about music which has no relevance to the experience. These options, I have found, have burdened music writing (my own included) since forever. But the way through, I have found, from reading people like Kodwo Eshun, is to think of it more like you’re creating something new in response to music rather than claiming to explain or translate it. I think your new record lends itself to that really well.
BGN: I want to continue on this representational gap you mentioned. I always consider the material of what we’re working on. How to also expose the material. Material as in what it consists of. In my experience, this brings the sound close to the process. Creates a relationship between the sound and the process, and potentially also an audible connection to what the work concerns. With this new record, the material is very present in the sound, because how the sound changes and develops is partly generated by the actual physical material. The recording tape and the acoustics of the room.
When we worked on the EP “Poses”, we wanted to leave the tracks more like sketches, unfinished you could say, hoping that there would be more of the process left, more of our direct touch, as well as sharing our practice. Sharing in the sense that we hope for it to be easier for other practising composers, music makers, or whoever want to learn and take something from it, to take what they want from it. Perfecting a piece of music can create this hard shell, that makes it inapproachable, closed. Some years ago – when I was in my early twenties, I suppose – my partner gave me a collection of writings by Pauline Oliveros. I really understood when Pauline Oliveros talked about how music can have a dominating nature, or structure, that tells you to like and respect it, tells you what to feel from it even. I really don’t like that. Writing this now I realize it is also how I feel about this natural beauty. That I can’t approach it with my own being. To be honest I haven’t actually returned to the book, “Sounding the Margins”, because it put me in a very difficult state of mind and I stopped composing music until recently. I’ve tried to forget it again hoping that I would still subconsciously carry it when composing a structured piece of music.
“Poses” is a collage of samples. It is quite dogmatic because we only changed the pitch of the samples we used. Sampling is a wonderful way to compose music. There’s also a material to expose. The material of putting different pieces of music together, creating a new piece of music. A new feeling. So when we didn’t want it to sound like well-produced and convincing electronic music, it was to try and let the material of sampling be heard in the sound as well.
I believe perfection can work sometimes. And it is great to be taken on a ride and give in to something. If I’m looking at the ocean or these hills, I don’t mind giving in to them. I don’t mind giving into Kanye West’s “Yeezus”. Especially not the five-track run from “I Am a God” to “Blood on the Leaves”. This year in lockdown I’ve been obsessed with all the Kanye West leaks you can find on the internet. And the community dedicated to getting those unreleased tracks leaked. It is obviously wrong to leak other people’s music. It’s fantastic, the mumbling, the nonsensical freestyles, the presence and the intimacy there is. It is sketches again, and it’s improvised, most of the verses. I really love it. When “Life of Pablo” was released it was a really rough mix, then a week later a properly mixed version was released and replaced the rough mix on streaming services. So it’s probably that one most people listen to. But I always stayed with the rough mix, because it’s more direct.
I was studying to become a certified organist. It was mostly the emphasis on functional harmony that fucked with my own understanding of music. Functional harmony is everywhere and I didn’t want to know about it. There’s magic and poetry in music somewhere, functional harmony made it impossible for me to feel that. The whole thing about learning the rules to break the rules is pointless. I think you’re confirming the rule by consciously breaking it. Every time I listen to Jay Electronica’s record from last year and he says “if you want to be a master in life, you must submit to a master”, I disagree. I really like that record though.
And also post-financial crisis pop. Would you mind going into specific examples of songs and their political possibilities?
MH: Just to jump to Kanye, I was at the museum Louisiana yesterday to see the Arthur Jafa exhibition, the centrepiece of which “Love is the Message, the Message is Death” is a supercut of joy and horror as experienced through US blackness all set to West’s track “Ultralightbeam”. And again, I was left thinking that here was a piece of art, the aesthetics of which would never meet the traditional notions of “the beautiful”, yet it provided an occasion for the radical experience of beauty and pain, which made something quite intimate out of footage sourced from the internet and news outlets. And then West’s track gave a sense of direction to the rush of images before you. I think more than any particular song or musical quality, this is what I mean when I talk about pop (broadly defined) and its political potential. The way it either allows for or feeds on the desire for a kind of connection can be framed or recontextualised as a reminder of the importance of realising how we are together. And, that much of what seems like common sense is often little more than discursive post hoc rationalisation for fear and sliding into the comfortable inertia of perpetuating the status quo.
But before we get too off track, could you please let me know what are some of the particular subtleties on this record you would like people to attend to?
BGN: I guess it is important for us to tell people that – except for one track – everything is recorded live, and there are no extra layers. What you hear is how it sounded when we recorded it. And it is important to tell that all of these recordings are improvised; the choice of notes and the development of the feedback. Acoustic feedback acts completely autonomously. At least we haven’t been able to control what frequencies happen to develop, and trigger other frequencies to develop, triggering other frequencies etc. When working with feedback one of us is equalizing the signal to prevent whatever frequencies are increasing in volume from getting too loud, taking over and preventing other frequencies from developing and taking shape. If you let it develop on its own, you’ll end with one feedback tone as we know them from a PA system. If you keep the dominating tones down you’ll hear a wide spectrum of frequencies pulsating and expanding continuously. It is about allowing and encouraging many frequencies to grow and develop by preventing a few from pushing them down.
I appreciate the way Seb (Sebastián Santillana of Vanessa Amara) and I are both occupied, both part of and connected to the same sound as it develops without our force, without our ideas, without our will. I was about to write that it is like a duet between us. But it is more between us and the material of the room, the acoustics of the room.
What I hear, when I listen to these recordings, is a contrast. On one side I hear how the feedback works and develops. How those two materials, I mentioned before, create sound; the feedback frequencies slowly unfolding and expanding, the sound of the recording disappearing into the grain of the recording tape. Both relatively abstract sounds and progress. On the other side, I hear the notes chosen on the different instruments. There’s a feeling in these notes, something to hold on to and connect with. This contrast between the notes and the feedback somehow makes it easier for me to appreciate each contrasting part. The abstraction of the feedback is reachable and somehow situated against the feeling of the notes. And I don’t question the sincerity of the feeling, the emotions that are communicated in the choice of notes. Sometimes, a certain negativity within me gets triggered by how “beauty” – like natural beauty and romantic beauty or whatever we call it – is being more exposed and also extra valued in music. It is not to say that I want anyone to do or appreciate anything else than what feels right for them. And I totally get it and I’m moved every time I listen to Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”. The first time I heard the B minor Mass, I got free tickets, and was running late and got to my seat literally seconds before the performance began and I started crying during those opening chords. Powerful stuff.
Most of the time now I feel more connected when searching for a sense of intimacy in music that is not as loaded as naturally beautiful music. In some way, I think the appreciation of “beautiful” music is connected to how music is being used. What we want from music and how we want it. But it’s getting too complicated for me to continue this thought. I’ve reached my limit and if I go any further I will enter a field I’m not sure I have the necessary information to really share my opinion.
MH: I definitely relate to your problem with beauty. It reminds me of how so many involved in music don’t consider themselves to be artists or making art. After spending some time around them, I came to realise that, to them, music was more like a science of the “trad sublime” and they were the engineers or craftspeople who would execute the necessary commands to realise it. But to me, all these experiences seem so contextual, so tangled up with the person’s experiences that to work – to be beautiful – a musical performance always has to come into contact with so much more than just your ears. Like in the story of the Bach piece, I can’t help but think the details you chose to reveal to me played some role in forming the tears that the opening of the music let loose.
I also resonate with the idea that music can be more about intimacy than “beauty”. These kinds of complications fascinate me, so if you’ll indulge me. I think this is part of what makes something artistic; the notion that when you’re making something, you can imagine the occasion when it will come into contact with someone (maybe just yourself) and take them somewhere else as they come to some kind of understanding of their experience. I certainly hear this kind of consideration on the new record. There is a lot of complex and rich sensation on it but at the same time it has been formed in such a way as to give listeners space to integrate and reflect (maybe emotionally or unconsciously) on this new window on the world they have been granted.
The feel of “liveness” on the record certainly comes across. Of course, these days, it is hard to know from the sound alone, but when you say that it was a live process, it just makes sense, rather than, say, making me hear it in a totally new way. And the way that feedback plays a role in both creating and documenting the sounds is quite fascinating. It makes it seem like the recording has an agency of its own but as you say, like all agencies, it can only act in a way that is comprehensible to our physiology, and then it is met by certain restrictions while other elements flourish. Again I see parallels here both with the process documented on Kanye’s demos and the commentary on US blackness in Jafa’s films. The particularities before us are a product of a process that both runs through restrictions and gaps. So I guess this leads me to my big direct question which is, beyond these kinds of abstract dynamics, how do you position this work in relation to some kind of social field?
BGN: We started working with this feedback system when we recorded what became “Like All Mornings” in 2016. “Music for Acoustic Feedback & Instruments” is very much a direct continuation. I actually don’t remember why we started experimenting with feedback like this, or how the idea emerged. One thing led to another. There wasn’t any theory behind it, only experimenting with sound. Out of curiosity, I suppose. We finished working on the LP “You’re Welcome Here” with the final piece “Untitled 7” which was recorded with a very similar but simpler tape-based feedback system. Then a year later, when we started recording music again, we continued where we left off, adding the acoustic section to the feedback system; piano, room, speaker and microphone. It was a really wonderful experience when those frequencies started to grow. We spent the next three months just recording and recording, learning how to navigate through what was going on and how we could help it along. For the specific time we were recording “Like All Mornings”, the immediate practice we had together was exciting. I personally experienced a new way of learning, creating, hanging out. There was coherence between us. This is the first social field I can relate the work to.
Later, during conversations about sharing these recordings, we reflected on – as you so brilliantly describe it – the quality of these musical performances as they come in contact with people, situations, outside the cottage we were staying in. At some point, my partner was reading “Elsewhere, Within Here – immigration, refugeeism and the boundary event” by Trinh T. Minh-ha. Around the same time, I was very deep in trying to work out some of the possibilities of sketches or very quickly made compositions. Trinh T. Minh-ha writes “Passage: the state of metamorphosis; the conversion of water into steam; the alteration of an entire musical framework. Intervals-as-passage-spaces pass further into one another, interacting radically among themselves and communicating on a plane different from the one where the ‘actions’ of a scenario are explicitly situated. In intensity and resonance (more than in distance actually covered) the journey here continues.” This has had an imperative influence on the way I look at the form and its boundaries. I always consider it when I’m making music. I’ll quote my own formulation concerning the new record: “The autonomy of the feedback is critical as it demands an improvisational relationship to the shaping of sound. We wish to trigger a capacity for refusal of perfection forcing awareness. Our hope is that the transparency that we believe improvisation holds a capacity for, can at once connect and nourish solidarity, provoking movement as well as continuity in and between our, as well as our audience’s, collective and individual labour in life.” For me, this music, this process, is very much an adaption of what I got from Trinh T. Minh-ha. It was a very brief process of learning and I trust the importance of it.
I think maybe the struggle I had incorporating the rules of functional harmony was because I already felt grounded in music and I couldn’t not see the history, the legacy, from which functional harmony is moving ahead. Moving ahead in a direction that I personally would like to at least try to diverge from. Diverge, because at what point do I accept what I consist of and take it from there?
I think of intimacy as a quality in the approach. Both how a piece of music can approach as well as how a piece of music can be approached. There is trust involved in intimacy. Then there’s touch. And a sense of opening my boundaries as well as feeling my boundaries. There’s grounding in feeling my boundaries. Knowing that I am contained.
And then sensing from that position. So when I search for intimacy in music it seems more like I’m in the pre-game. The warm-up. What happens after is another story altogether. There’s a connection. This is getting erotic.
I think what I can expect from music’s capacity stops at intimacy. Anything beyond that is too abstract for me to try and put expectations or words to. As you are suggesting concerning my experience in the opening of the B Minor Mass, the situation probably played an important role. What had happened during the day that put me where I was. The delivery of the music, the intonation, the collectivity within the choir, between the instruments, between everyone in the room. More so than Bach’s taste in harmony.
MH: Speaking of erotics, it is a shame what has happened to that term because it covers so much of what is important about personhood and life, but it ends up being reduced to bunny ears and sort of very patriarchal and colonial ideas of individual possession. When, as you say, eros is about the production of some new interstitial space through a wonderfully disorienting intimacy. I’m inclined to connect this to your position with reference to feedback. In a way, the intensity of its sonic iterations has some deeply corporeal resonances, which to some are just sumptuous, but I know that many find this kind of bodily reminder of their physical finitude invasive.
Is there a way in which these things, erotic, intimate feedback connect for you too? Could this be a way in which you could perhaps expand on the structural qualities of the music on this record and its affects?
BGN: I think a lot about structure. How a musical idea is affected when I decide to structure it. For now, I’ve come to the conclusion that I don’t want to structure music. At least structure it as little as possible. If I sit down with my midi keyboard to try and compose a piece of music I tend to end up with a very short composition that only sounds right when it is re-iterated. A loop. Or I end up with a composition that sounds right when it is constantly expanding but not repeating. It never sounds right if it goes back and forth. This is interesting. I see some very similar qualities in these two movements – iterating and expanding. I think this connects to what I was talking about before concerning approach and intimacy. And I wouldn’t argue against it fitting into the philosophical meaning of eros.
On a structural level the iterated composition relates only to itself; what is being held in the section of time that is iterated. There’s no before, no after, no narrative, no structure, only a very clear focus on what is there. And I think this clarity allows for a gentle and honest approach, possibly facilitating an intimate relation to the composition, the sound. And then there’s the expanding composition which also mostly relates to itself in the sense that what is there, what you hear, is directly connected to the previous moment. There’s no anticipation of what is going to happen based on what has happened. Again, no before, no after, no narrative, no structure but a very clear focus on what is there.
This is interesting because it is two structural opposites that have some very similar ways of being out here, taking space. It is a circle, like biting its own tail. And it’s like a moment stretched out in two different but fractally similar ways.
MH: So I guess to draw this to a close, my final question would be; this project touches deeply and a whole mess of things we have discussed so far. So, given that, where would you like this journey of musical/technical/personal/interpersonal to lead you next? Or more perhaps more in keeping with the project, what do you think the next interaction of feedback will bring?
BGN: At the moment we’re working on a new collection of sample collages. It is a good way to work when it has to be via the internet and the telephone. We’re sending samples, loops, sketches back and forth, continuing each other’s lines. Most of our communication used to be in the chat room of the chess website www.chess.com. We play a lot of chess. We joke about the chess chat being safe and encrypted. That is the reason we’re communicating there. But we wouldn’t be chatting about any secret stuff. There would be a lot of comic relief kind of bullshit talk on that chat. I think humour is important, it is like a secret language. I really don’t feel like I’m a naturally funny person, not deliberately at least, but between Seb and me, I feel like I’m saying some pretty funny shit.
In a way, the distance I have to composing music when using samples makes space for more humour. Both in the process and in the music. I would love to find a way where humour doesn’t tilt the music too much. It really rarely works in my opinion. Not because of humour itself but because of how it’s executed. When it does work, it is the most wonderful. The Meredith Monk track “What Does it Mean?” is incredibly successful. So beautiful. Those vocal sounds and that incredible staggered piano chord progression. I can’t figure out how that piano was played. Maybe by four hands. It is one of my favourite tracks of all time. DJ Nate can do it as well. Footwork DJ’s in general. I like The Kinks too in that respect. I was obsessed a few years back and wrote a musical in my head as I was biking back and forth between Copenhagen and Birkerød every day. I did put it on paper and recorded a sketch that I then burned onto a couple of CD’s and brought as entertainment for the tour bus. I was going on tour with a rock band that summer. Staged, the musical would have been four hours long. Would be is the better phrasing of that possibility. The idea was to simply include as many songs as possible so the narrative span over two generations, each rebelling against the previous in different ways, I suppose. Nina Simone had a serious but stunning presence of humour in her music. Her recording of Randy Newman’s “Baltimore” is a mystery to me. I’ve always found it awkward but also funny how Randy Newman’s very liberal picture of life and struggle in Baltimore is turned into a funky reggae song. The string arrangement, the rhythm, the muted wah-wah guitars and ‘oh Baltimore, ain’t it hard just to live’. But apparently recording that album was a struggle for Nina Simone because she didn’t have creative control over which songs were included and how they were arranged. I can hear a distance, maybe an unwillingness in her performance that certainly underlines the absurdity, the awkwardness of the song in itself and her recording. I guess, as I included Nina Simone in these reflections on humour and music and chose to write about “Baltimore”, I thought it would have something to do with her sense of humour. I realize this is possibly not the best example. Or maybe it is a good example. I choose to keep it in this email nonetheless.
We’ll probably continue this feedback work at some stage. For now, it makes the most sense to look elsewhere. For the time being, I feel like I need more of an injection from music. Not only from the listening experience necessarily but also from the process of working with it.
The recordings that are included on “Music for Acoustic Instruments & Feedback” have been lying around for a handful of years waiting to be sorted out. You know, they weren’t really intended to become anything other than the practice of it. A way to fit in music in the sporadic life between Seb and I. Then we agreed to play this gig in Helsingør last summer and prepared some works for pipe organ. And the recordings from that gig turned out great, so we included a section of it. It was really what put some adjusting weight on the balance of these last years’ recordings. We realized we had so many great recordings of different instruments, different textures. That cembalo recording was always a bit off when I listened back to it. I knew it was an amazing sounding recording, probably the best recording, really. But somehow the very improvised and directionless pace took away some focus from the rest of the recordings. Then when the pipe organ recording came along, the cembalo had something to talk to.
When I look at the direction of our feedback process from when we started with the final piece on “You’re Welcome Here”, continuing with “Like All Mornings”, a few tracks on “Manos” and now with “Music for Acoustic Instruments & Feedback”, I realize we’ve practised a lot, really trained. A lot of the time has been spent navigating through the practicalities. Like what equipment to use and how to use it, learning how to listen to a one-hour long recording and make the right cut from it. That is interesting too. We want the development. From before the performance really starts working, so we hear it coming together. And we want to leave the performance as it is settling.
If we were to continue from here, I would love to expand on our experience with various instruments. Every instrument asks for a different type of playing. The cembalo or the piano can have many variations because of their percussive notes, still leaving a lot of space for the feedback frequencies. The pipe organ or the accordion works best together with the feedback frequencies when the playing is more contained. Like a loop for instance. Or something very slow. I guess it is a pretty basic continuation. A while ago I made some recordings of just the feedback in my bedroom. But I really think something was missing in the abstraction of it. As mentioned before, there is that something in the relation between the acoustic and the feedback.
But change and movement are essential and I, here from my tiny musical bubble of a life, would like to end this conversation by acknowledging and resonating with what precedes the previous Trinh T. Minh-ha excerpt: “From one category, one label to another, the only way to survive is to refuse. Refuse to become an Integra table element. Refuse to allow names arrived at transitionally to become stabilized. In other words, refuse to take for granted the naming process. To this end, the intervals between the refuge and refuse, refused and refuse, or even more importantly between refuse and refuse itself, are constantly played out. If despite their relation, noun and verb inhabit the two very different and well-located worlds of designated and designator, space in-between them remains a surreptitious site of movement and passage whose open, the communal character makes exclusive belonging and long-term residence undesirable, if not impossible.”
Info: “Music for Acoustic Instruments & Feedback” was released by Posh Isolation on May 28th.