Interview by Richard Pinnell
London, December 2008
John Wall is a London-based electroacoustic composer and now improviser who first began to make music at the age of 40 when he acquired his first sampler. Between 1993 and 2005 he released seven albums on his own Utterpsalm label to considerable critical acclaim. Beginning with samples appropriated from his CD collection, he gradually refined his music away from his early collage approach to create a highly individual music using tiny fragments of sounds specifically recorded for him, which were then processed and refined in his home studio. Known for his meticulous attention to detail and the considerable length of time each piece of music takes to make, his releases sound like the most finely crafted audio sculptures, somewhere between the contemporary composition of Lachenmann and the experiments of the early laptop musicians of the mid 90s. After struggling for months to complete 2005's stunning twenty-minute work Cphon, Wall went quiet, only to re-emerge a couple of years later as an improviser standing behind a laptop, a role that seemed to fly in the face of everything expected of him as a musician. I met John in his studio and I began by asking him the most obvious question.
Why have you chosen to start improvising?
I think the critical moment came back in May 2006 at a concert at the ICA, the Sonic Arts thing, where I performed a playback of some of my music and I just felt completely and thoroughly sick and tired of listening to it in that context. I was also frustrated by the quality of the sound that was coming across and thought, no, I can't bear this, it has to change. At that time though I wasn't even sure about what form the change would take. So it seemed in many respects that the only way out was to try and embrace something more spontaneous, more alive. Of course, that was very different from my spending so many years working in the studio keeping everything nicely tight and controlled. It's taken me at least two years to get to this stage now, and I haven't released anything since Cphon because of this process of trying to reconcile how I can work with constructed pieces but within an improvised scenario. As you know I'm not a great fan of improvised music (smiles).
You've told me that before – ironically usually over a drink at improv concerts! – but when I think about the albums of yours I like most, which are probably the last four from the Constructions discs onwards, they actually do feel almost improvised. They have fluidity, almost as if we're listening to a group of musicians playing in a room, albeit with somewhat alien instruments. It always felt like you were trying to achieve something close to that feeling of improvisation. And many of those pieces begin with recordings you make with improvisers.
Well, that was about trying to get the best of both worlds. I could invite an improviser, for example John Edwards, who would come round and I would put headphones on him and and ask him to improvise along to some music that I would provide. I would then be left with just what he had been doing, and pluck out the bits that suited me best. I was getting the best of both worlds. I could use it as a compositional sound but it came about through an improvised moment. I could then weave it into some sort of structure as opposed to it existing as a free-floating event. This may well be why you get the feeling that the music has an improvised element; the sounds themselves could only really have come from that sort of environment, but then they've been almost forced into a composed set-up. How the sounds were used was something I considered really seriously, with each piece taking a long time as decisions were made about where the sounds would end up. In many respects it's a good thing that you can hear them flying along in an improvised manner, but there's just no way in a million years I could have arrived at that level of compositional integrity without the initial improvisation. I picked out tiny moments, though. As you know, you might go to an improv concert and hang around for ten minutes before something really starts cooking and then it often stops again two minutes later!
There's a definite leap forward in your music that can be traced back to around the point that you started to have samples created specifically for you, maybe from the Constructions pieces onwards, rather than previously on say Alterstill and Fractuur, where much of the raw material was extracted from other CDs and you can see the joins. There is more of togetherness to the music, an organic feel.
Alterstill had a very different agenda, because as I look back it comes from a point of relative innocence on my part. To me, having come to making music late, there was the sheer pleasure of being able to just grab bits of sound from somewhere and arrange them, and in a way Alterstill represents that period. I have said many times I didn't approach sampling as a political, anti-copyright gesture, in the way John Oswald did. It was just the sheer pleasure that came from realising that I could do this, and not care about the legality of it. I think I was covered by my obscurity as much as anything else, and so I could just plunder anything, and the only questions were the aesthetic considerations, the compositional positioning of the samples and so on. It was only really with Fractuur that I began to feel the need to expose the process somehow. Alterstill almost existed in trompe l'oeil territory, whereas Fractuur began to deal with the question of exposing the process, glitches, time stretching, pitch shifting etc. It was then probably inevitable that from there I would move towards the approach realised in the Constructions pieces. That was kind of being worked out through Fractuur.
Something I find very interesting is that as you began to take longer and longer over putting the pieces together, with each album getting shorter but taking considerably longer than the one before it to create, the music also somehow manages to sound progressively more natural, more organic, if you will.
Well, don't ask me how that came about, I have no idea! It just evolved that way (laughs). There are other reasons for all of this, though, alongside me becoming weary of doing playback of my music in a live setting. I've always felt a discomfort towards the academic electroacoustic world, and somehow it felt that if I was to continue doing this playback method of performance I would have to embrace that kind of world, and I just didn't want to do that. Once a CD was done I virtually never listened to it again. What is odd now is that as I prepare fairly structured wavefiles intended for use within a genuine live situation, I'm still doing basically the same thing. I'm still just improvising a whole lot of noise, creating perhaps a half-hour long file that I then go through meticulously, selecting maybe thirty seconds out of it that I'll go on to use. So nothing fundamentally has changed from the days when I used to go through some horrible improvisation CD to get one tiny sound out of it. The process of how I accumulate sounds is fundamentally the same. What has changed, though, is that now I make up soundfiles for use in a live performance, I've got myself into the headspace where I'm making them specifically for their manipulation in that live situation. So I'm somewhat divorced from the idea that the sounds themselves might be a finished article, and it feels odd because you have to somehow be a little separate, and remember that it's not just the sound itself to be considered, but how it might be used in that live setting.
At the same time, as this process has been evolving over the last two years, I've accumulated a lot of material that lends itself to the idea of composing again. At the moment it is just a series of little bits and pieces that may or may not work together. I think though I am actually avoiding creating sounds that work in a certain compositional space. I might have one sound, and follow it with another, and another, and together these may not make any compositional sense, but that isn't the point. The point is that these things will find their way into a live situation, and that in itself will open up a whole different set of possibilities, because if I am to embrace this idea of playing live, I have to take on this thing that all improvisers have to consider, the risk element that it might not work.
That must be one of the biggest challenges for you. You've always been able to sit separate from your audience and spend as long as you need crafting something to perfection, and your CDs have always seemed to have been warmly received in the press – I rarely ever read a negative word about your music – but now you're placing yourself and your work into a position where it can fail, and given that a lot of this is new to you, it will on occasion do just that.
Absolutely, you're right, but you must consider that, perhaps on some level, I'd just got fucking bored with it all, bored of what could be a quite torturous thing in many ways, and having to be so stubbornly driven to carry on with it. Cphon is a good example of this. I was determined to make a single piece that was just twenty minutes long, and when it was just about finished I invited a friend around to listen. She told me to leave the room so she could listen to it alone. She listened to it twice, and then came downstairs and said, John it works fine, there's a strong section at the start, and another and the end but the middle section, for three or four minutes is weak. And she was right. It was. I'd just been compromising. That set me back a further six months. In the end I got round it and Cphon is the answer. After that I thought, I can't go through that again. That's the problem I find I'm up against now: I'm accumulating all this material, and there are lots of things in there I know would lend themselves well to a composition, but I feel really reluctant to set that process in motion.
I remember meeting you a few years back and asking you what you were up to, if there was any new music on the way, and you seemed almost disgusted that I'd asked the question. You didn't seem comfortable with how things were going. When I heard you were going to be playing live I was pleased to see you'd found a way forward, even though the live stuff just isn't the same.
It is, as you say, a work in progress. It’s not the same. There is something very important about the visceral immediacy of the live situation but I doubt very much that any of it really survives outside of that context. I don't even want to test it. For my work I remain convinced that composition, considered composition is the only thing that has some sort of survivability. A lot of improvisation should in stay where it was time-wise, mine included. I'm not going to release a CD of it, because for me it just doesn't have the same value. If I record the live stuff it's just because I am trying to generate some more material for a composition. I'm being a bit too hard on my improvisation, but for me it just isn't the same. A good example might be in listening to say, [Helmut] Lachenmann. A while back a few improvisers started to incorporate many of his musical ideas. But when I listen to a Lachenmann piece, and hear the certainties of gestures, how they're placed, I realise I prefer his composition to an improvisation that sounds similar in terms of texture, extended techniques and so forth. I think something that is important is this idea we have discussed before of looking without seeing, hearing but not really listening. This concern is about the ability to seriously listen, to truly engage with a piece of music rather than just have it on while you do the washing up or whatever. Does this music really stand up under those conditions? That's the test. Does a lot of this music warrant that degree of examination and involvement and immersion? I don't think a lot of it does.
One of the demons I've been struggling with recently is my inability to really listen properly if I have my eyes open at a concert, how the visual elements detract from my ability to really concentrate fully on the sound.
Yes – when you become aware of technique, the music is failing. The classic situation is when you have discussions with people, particularly younger musicians more interested in what software are being used, or how was that done? There's a failure to ask what they really want from this engagement with music. I want to hear something more. I don't care as long as it's not boredom. It should all follow on from Bach, where you can deal with emotion but through strong form and structure, not just sentimental bullshit. For instance Richard you're interested in Shostakovich, but I'm sure you find that you whittle quickly through some of the more overly romantic pieces to get to the more formally structured compositions, like the piano pieces, or his quartets.
Definitely, and I adore those quartets in part because of their emotional qualities, but they are also finely crafted, so beautifully formed.
That's what saves them from becoming this dreadful thing, an illustration of suffering. These things really matter: structure, form, and compositional integrity. How much of the music we hear today is failing to address these issues? Maybe it's impossible for this area of computer music to deal with those concerns and not just be something that might be admired in abstract in its own time and nothing more, I don't know.
There are major differences between your composed music and the new live material. There always seemed to be a lot more space in the composed work, whereas the live material seems faster, busier, perhaps more aggressive. There's an intensity to the composed music but it seems more refined than the live performances. I've been shocked at how loud you've played, and watching you onstage too – you have the body language of some kind of coiled ball of energy that looks like it might just explode at any moment. You seem really angry.
There might be something in that. I've tried to articulate this musically in a clearer way. At the same time, I don't want the music / sounds to end up like some kind noise beast catharsis. There's still this question that it all has to be consolidated. The live thing has to remain visceral. This shouldn't mean one long bombastic fucking sonic tirade, but a coherent, structural, intense and yet improvised piece of music. At its core it retains the potential to fail or the opposite – to get to transcendent musical spaces that you simply could not get to when composing.
So you are introducing a degree of chance into what was before a very rigidly composed scenario, then.
I think a lot of contemporary composers are having to integrate these issues into their music. I'm doing something similar, I guess. I remember once talking to a composer friend who was asking me how he could get an orchestra to produce the same sounds as he heard in my music, but you cannot replicate that. You can't notate what John Edwards might do when he kicks the back of his bass and it bounces across the floor and then get someone else to reproduce that somewhere. The minute you write it down you kill it.
You've also played one or two concerts now in collaborative settings; one as a trio with John [Edwards] and Mark Sanders springs to mind. How did that go?
It seemed to be received very well by people. We played two 20-minute sets, and I think people were surprised at how integrated it all sounded. You know, a laptop with John and Mark could have sounded completely out of place. I also had to learn how to respond that fast, so I could keep up with the way they operate, and then I was worried I might overwhelm them with sound, either too loud or with too many complex sounds too fast, but people said it all sounded very integrated. There is also of course a circularity to all of this that I really like, Mark and John are my oldest musical friends and here we were together, rather than me being slightly outside just recording them.
You couldn't have played as densely as you did when I saw you play solo; there wouldn't have been enough room in there for John and Mark.
Indeed. I was forced into being more restrained, subtler, and that's a good thing, as I need to bring that into the live material. For a similar reason I'm going to play a set on the closing day of the Sound323 shop, and there I'll have to play quieter. I can't just play with that degree of ferocity there, in that situation I'll be forced to consider a much more delicate treatment of sounds.
So how much do your CDs convey of you as a person? Do elements of your personality or your feelings appear in the music?
Apparently. Hylic is a good example. That was formed at a time when things were very bad for me on a personal level, and that somehow manifested itself in the music. People always seem to consider that album to be quite nasty, in terms of the severity of the emotions coming across from it. I don't see that, but for many people it is a quite intense, maybe dark composition. There is a definite sense of anger and frustration in my music right now, which may be a mixture of age, weariness, and concern about this period of time we are living in, a certain pessimism. At the same time there's no way I can stop. Even though I keep thinking that all this research into the musically abstracted digital world might just be a hiding to nothing. I'm stubborn enough to just keep investigating it.
Without being too pretentious about it, it's a classic Beckettian dilemma. Somehow I do think that it must be possible to address long-term concerns, things that could make this music have relevance beyond the time of its conception. Listen to some of the computer music that came out just a few years ago and how dreadfully dated and completely irrelevant that stuff it sounds now.
Yes, but good music will overcome the changes in technology and last. Alterstill sounds slightly dated today, as if you made it with your finger on the pause button of a tape deck, but it still has a powerful charge to it.
I guess Alterstill will fail if it can't reinvent itself, if the technical questions remain in the forefront of the music. This is my problem with a lot of the early digital laptop stuff, so much of it now sounds like some kind of sound exercise, utterly locked into its time and unable to transcend that time. We don't listen back to Webern, Varèse, Coltrane or Buddy Holly and say their music sounds dated; we appreciate their work for its qualities that came about within the limitations (cultural, technological, political...) of their day. The same could be said of, say, Parmegiani or Nono. When it comes to using electronics or tape, compared to today's music, the technology they used was cruder, but it's how they used it within the right context that matters. There's also a further risk we run of applying too much acclaim to pioneers of technology. Just because someone did something first does not mean they fully realised its potential. We are confronted by two things – one is the idea of structure, the composition conveying a broader picture, and then there is the sounds themselves and their relationship to each other. A new, previously unheard sound quickly becomes yesterday’s sound. Xenakis, Luigi Nono, and Stockhausen are examples of people who succeeded in taking their music beyond this kind of simplistic consideration. I am actually amazed we don't have a piece of software called Parmegiani that replicates what he did with tape, those sound relationships, at the touch of a button. If that did exist we would all have to take it up a level, apply an even more critical approach to things, but of course most people don't.
So when you play live, and you are standing, or maybe crouched in a ball behind your computer, you are working with soundfiles you have prepared maybe weeks in advance. What happens with them? How much of what we as an audience hear is live and how much prepared?
So how much is improvised and how much is playback? Ok, well I have these semi-composed soundfiles of say a minute to two minutes in length, and they could allow me the freedom of just sitting back and letting them evolve on their own should I need to do so, but so far I have never done that. I've never just played one of them straight. It is almost as if I am trying to push myself into these places of accident, and strangely enough these little synchronicities happen, where maybe I would pile three samples on top of each other and the most surprising little relationships will develop which I could not have achieved if I sat in the studio on my own. Of course I am contradicting myself here because I should be recording this. Improvisation in this manner can sometimes achieve absolutely stunning results, and I want to try and reach this also. Then at some future date extract and put it into a composition. So yes, there is a contradiction in that I don't often record it, or if I do I don't listen back for a long time, maybe out of fear that it won't sound as good as I thought at the time.
So how does having an audience of fifty to a hundred people sitting in front of you change things? All of a sudden it’s not just you and a computer, you have a room full of people in front of you.
All with their eyes closed hopefully! (laughs) Well, again I don't understand the process that is happening here. You know, when I used to do the playback thing I just used to get pissed, I was that nervous. I was completely drunk for one concert. The idea of sitting at a desk pretending to twiddle knobs used to really freak me out, whereas now I feel absolutely no fear whatsoever, no intimidation, no concern; I'm surprising myself at my willingness to put myself on the line like this. If the computer was just to crash after five minutes I could handle it, whereas just playing something back in the dark used to terrify me. I don't understand this, apart from maybe it has something to do with caring less about these things, being less self-conscious – being a bit older.
Your music has a slightly more harsh, digital feel now when you play live as well. Is this a result of using different software to improvise with?
The acoustic presence has pretty much gone, even though it should be said that if you follow them way back all of the sounds I am still using were born in acoustic instruments.
All of this endless recycling and mangling and destruction has created this situation of complete alienation from the original instruments, there's not even the suggestion of the acoustic presence remaining in them. Are you happy with that?
This issue is important. There is the idea that, well, if I am going to deal with this machine, this computer, then I want to get to the essence of what this thing is all about. I like the honesty of someone like [Florian] Hecker, who in one sense is dealing with this question. He is producing data music using data sounds, and he isn't trying to pretend otherwise. Regardless of whether it is successful or not, that is not the issue; it's to do with the honesty of the engagement. I'm convinced that there are possibilities within computer music to make, forgive the vague word, meaningful work.
In the CDs there was a warmth to the music, though, that came out of that acoustic presence. For instance, there was never any digital silence, the spaces in the music were taken from the recordings you were making in this room.
No, there was never any digital silence; what you hear on the CDs are essentially gaps in the recordings we made here. I even extracted silences from the recordings to use, because they held a certain kind of quality.
No, there was never that kind of pure computer-generated silence. There is in what you are doing now, though?
Yes, and there is something else that has to be addressed. You see, I am avoiding this question you are trying to ask me, because right now I am not concerning myself with the idea of composition. Once that starts, and I know it must fairly soon, then issues of quietness (as opposed to silence) will come to the fore. Things like tail-offs, the way a sound has to sit significantly before the next sound comes along, will matter. I'm not considering that kind of thing at the moment. On the CDs the gap between sounds, the pause before the eruption of the next sound, the internal rhythms that are important to the compositional integrity, are there to some degree in the live situation, but it is a work in progress and they will develop further.
On a slightly lighter note then, where do your CD titles come from? Are they important?
Not really, but at the same time I am concerned that titles can create a certain distorted perception of the music. So for instance if Construction I was actually titled Everglades at Noon or something. (laughs) You know what I mean? The title seems to suggest something about the conscience behind the making of it in some way. You can't get away from that though. If it were instead titled Piece #1.65 then that suggests you are approaching the whole music as some mechanical exercise, which is not the case either. So, yeah, it is torture to some degree to come up with titles.
So here is no great meaning behind a title like Alterstill?
No, not at all. Alterstill just came to me as a combination of two words that just sounded great. Though that is reflected in the music, where you might place a Napalm Death sample beside a Xenakis and see how they work together. Generally speaking, though, I have tried to deny any suggestion about the music in the titles.
The CDs that up to now you have self-published have been beautifully packaged. How important is the presentation of the music like this to you?
Well, when I release a CD I am making a statement. This thing is what I consider to be important, not the other stuff I've toiled over or thrown away, not the material lying about on DATs everywhere, but this CD. I've become weary of the countless numbers of players, playing endlessly. All this music everywhere, it’s a form of pollution! Stop and consider how much music you are releasing for Christ’s sake! Technology has opened new doors, been democratised and creatively emancipatory blah blah blah, but it's the funniest thing, it's a double-edged sword in that we now have absolute herds and herds of "creatives" rushing across the plains! It's a quite ludicrous situation, and I'm not at all trying to excuse myself or absolve myself from this. What I am trying to get at here is the question of what do we do with all of this? Do we trust to history to filter all of the shit out? Can that ever be possible?
Well, this is a problem I face daily, wading through so many CDs that are all quite good, but in search of something that really stands out. I think, though, that no matter how much is out there, no matter how thick the fog is, the real highlights will still shine through. It has just become much more of a task to spot them.
OK, well, maybe this just exposes my pessimism. We now have a world where humanity has a real chance of fucking itself up good and proper, a "back to the stone age" experience. Also, this is happening at a time when capitalism is in a deep, irresolvable crisis. How are artists and musicians going to respond to this? Anyway, fuck it, you either jump ship or you resist in any way you can. You just have to carry on.
See Richard's Pinnell's blog at http://www.thewatchfulear.com, and also other interviews of related interest with Michel Chion, Luc Ferrari, and Philip Samartzis