The digital attitude of Kasper T.Toeplitz

Interviews 03.11.2021

Faithful to his instruments - the electric bass and the computer - and clinging to his convictions - an electronic sound generated live - Kasper T.Toeplitz (born in 1960) composes and plays music that today irrigates all areas of the artistic scene: witness an impressive discography and a profusion of transdisciplinary projects that multiply collaborations, both artistic and human. In the wake of the pandemic, the musician talks about a personal experience of time from which he wants to draw the benefits.   

Michèle Tosi : Thank you Kasper for accepting, for the second time, to answer my questions. We talked in 2012 about Noise, bassComputer, live electronics. Have your tools changed since then and have your orientations evolved with time and practice?
Kasper T.Toeplitz : It's hard to say; with the progress of computers there have been changes in my tools, an evolution perhaps in my sound research on the computer, but there has been no radical change in my practice and it's the same furrow I dig today. Let's say that the tools remain what they are - the bass that I had custom-made (by the luthier Philippe Dubreuille) about fifteen years ago, and the Max software, still accompany me in my music; it's the circulation that I have with them that evolves and the thought of a music that takes on more and more meaning over time. I have the impression that the musical world has changed quite a bit, or maybe it's my own vision of music that has become clearer... In any case, I have the impression of doing things differently.

Can you tell us about your vision of the musical world?
It's an idea that I've been carrying around for about ten years, that of "electronic thinking" which has repercussions on the world of music. Let me explain: the younger generations have certainly heard more music played through electronics and loudspeakers than written repertoire, based on pitches and played by acoustic instruments, without amplification; and even if there is now a return on their part to acoustic formations, their conception of the instrumentarium is no longer the same as before. This is what I call "electronic thinking", a mutation in the musician's desires, in the places where sound and practice are thought of. The electronic world has shaken the pyramid schemes of classical music, those of the composer in relation to the musicians, the conductor and the sacrosanct score. I really feel that this situation is changing; it doesn't call into question the validity of musical notation, but I would say that the burden of invention is more equally shared, or at least that the responsibility is common.

Do you feel that you have experienced this change yourself?
Absolutely. If I think back to things I did fifteen years ago, I was still writing for one of the given formations; let's take the example of the three string quartets I composed, music that is defined first and foremost by its reference to the formation. But what interests me, I quickly realised, is working with people, considering that the instrument is the musician's choice but does not determine my compositional project, it is a personal matter, specific to each instrumentalist.
Let us take the example of the music composed for Eric Drescher, Areas of interferencefor glissando-flute and live electronics, which I wrote for the musician friend. It was much later, when I started working on the piece, that the idea of the instrument came up, as a constraint, or even a stimulus, which nourishes the invention and channels my desire. I never start a piece by placing chords, looking for a melodic line or a sound combination. I start with a very informal idea, where there is no music a priori, or at least no sound, and which could be a painting project, if I knew how to paint.

Your approach reminds me of the "image" chosen at the beginning ofÉliane Radigue's pieces...
Yes, this can be a good example, even if this image, in Occam, is always linked to water. I would also mention Phill Niblock who does this, addressing his music to a particular person. I have done this for the flutist Eric Drescher , but also for Hélène Breschand (harpist) and Bruno Chevillon (double bassist). In the case of the trio Zinc & Copper, for whom I wrote a piece that we have just premiered in Berlin, the ensemble is for me an entity in itself, almost a "person". The technical questions related to the instrumentarium (a tuba, a trombone and a horn) only came later. 

"Tam évaporé" by Kasper T. Toeplits for Didier Casamitjana, for solo percussion, December 2021

You mention in your September newsletter a project at Césaré, Centre National de Création Musicale de Reims, with a modular synthesizer. Is the return to analogue something that interests you?
Oh no, not really! I used to have modular synths and I sold them all. It's now fashionable; it's a pretty thing, full of wires, with little lights... But it's not my world. I'm perhaps one of the few people who prefers digital distortion to analogue, just as I prefer to listen to CDs rather than vinyl; that sharpness of sound appeals to me more. The modular synth is a slow machine to "change the world", heavy when travelling and quite expensive. Musically, the solution of one or two computers is much more viable and responsive for me. I spent four days with these analogue machines in the Caesarean studio and ended up rewriting the module I liked best (the Benjolin generator, to be more precise) in MaxMSP. It is not excluded that I will evolve the project towards a duo solution, with another person playing the synthesizer live.

How do you get your catalogue to appear on your website?
This is an old problem of mine; I have never made a catalogue, even for myself; I produce a lot and continuously and I don't know what strategy to adopt in terms of classification. The usual presentation by genres and formations wouldn't make sense; I have a lot of pieces that don't fit into the boxes. The only thing that could be done would be to proceed chronologically... (sigh).
Concerning my compositions, I would also like to mention the question of the form itself, which remains open to change. Just recently, during the show Structure Souffle given at the Chapelle Royale du Château de Vincennes with Myriam Gourfink, I played a purely electronic piece generated live, whose form is evolving; a bit like in rock concerts where the unfolding can be significantly different from one evening to the next when the whole remains the same. If the beginning and the end are fixed, there are a certain number of elements at the centre which are not always present in their totality and whose order is flexible; in the same way I wanted to record Elemental II by Éliane Radigue twice, versions which are undeniably the same music but which, in the detail, offer differences of the order of the micro-composition. I have only made one work of fixed sounds, "wolf Tone", a commission from the Groupe de Recherche Musicale (GRM) in 2013 for the Akousma concerts; it was an experiment I was keen to do but which did not entirely convince me; I prefer the piece to live in the moment when it is played.

From the concerts you play, it seems that the bassComputer has regained a certain importance, even the upper hand over the computer.
It is now my favourite "voice". When I stopped playing bass, a stop of less than two years, I was discovering the possibilities of live electronics and I thought at the time that the electric guitar was a bit too much like 20th century "folk music"; that's why I had my instrument custom-built, so that you could play it sitting down, using the bow. I quickly realised that all that time spent doing scales, learning technique and getting comfortable with the instrument should be put to good use, not to mention the obvious pleasure of playing it; even if, for me, the computer is also an instrument. The advantage of this bassComputer is that it is more flexible and faster than him in improvisation situations, when you want to change the textures and the path, whereas the electronic tool requires programming time beforehand. It's a bit like the piano, which is shaped in such a way that you can't get everything right unless you plan ahead.      

By the way, I saw that you had a duet project with the German pianist Reinhold Friedl. What role does the computer play in this kind of situation?
When I play my bass guitar, the computer is always behind, prepared to transform the sound of the bass guitar, but it is not the only sound generator, on the contrary. It becomes the extension of my instrument. Concerning the project with Reinhold, I don't want to transform the sound of the piano even if my intention is to do cross-synthesis, ring-modulation in fact, a process I like. This will be my only attempt to intrude into the sound universe of the piano (if I do it), the conception here being that of a duo of instrumentalists. This is not the case with the piece I wrote for Hélène Breschand or the very recent Zinc & Copper piece and quite a few others, where I only play the computer, which has a double function, that of generator and that of transformation of the sound of the other musicians - it's a bit like what was called Live-electronics for a long time; whereas with Reinhold, on the contrary, I play my bass (with computer) but in fine doesn't interfere with the sound of the piano.

Vents stellaires is the title of the piece you just wrote for Zinc & Copper, a brass trio that says it has developed a sound characterised by "the warmth of low brass"... Have your dynamics changed as a result?
"The warmth of low brass" refers to the ranges of their instruments, the tuba, the trombone and the horn, low brass trios, without the presence of the trumpet. But my dynamics remain the same. In fact, I don't think my music is very strong and I have the impression that I'm wandering around in a variety of dynamics. Sometimes I made really loud music, a bit demonstrative it's true, at a time when Noise was assimilated to a certain form of violence, of very assertive brutality. It's not like that anymore. And, perhaps surprisingly, I like to classify Éliane Radigue's music as Noise. I don't think it's a question of volume but rather of path, of choice of texture and form. I know I have a reputation for making very high-voltage music, but that doesn't bother me at all, although I don't think it's true. There's a lot of fear of volume, but there's a power in it, of course, but also a power of thought! 

I would like to mention once again Éliane Radigue's claim to low volume for a finer and more acute listening...
Yes, I can hear that... but I don't agree with her. Statistics show that musicians who have just spent two or three hours rehearsing at high volume hear better afterwards than before! It is quite possible to get into the sound of music that is played very loudly if it does not assault the ear with repeated abrupt changes. Let's take the example of the harsh noise wall, a uniform wall of sound whose intensity will not change, allowing for an immersive and fine listening experience in the same way as Radigue. The music of Vomir or Merzbow, although very strong, acts in the same way. One of the most beautiful revelations - an epiphany - was for me this CCCC concert in Japan where, listening to them live for the first time, I had the sensation that I could lie down on the sound, with an enormous quietude... I think that there is a prejudice about the volume as if we forbid ourselves certain words or a certain way of speaking.

I would also mention the distribution of earplugs at the entrance to concerts...
In this regard, I asked visual artists if they would consider handing out sunglasses to see the work of certain light painters... Often, the ill-informed public imagines that there is a desire to provoke. But they are mistaken. I'll take one last example, that of the American rock band Sunn O ))), which plays without drums, at a high and constant volume, without aggression and in the joyful fullness of sound.

You collaborate a lot with instrumentalists, dancers and choreographers, but your transdisciplinary work extends far beyond these two worlds. What about your relationship with the image, the text, or the canvas?
If we're talking about images on screen, I've done a lot of projects with the video artist Dominik Barbier, including a recent beautiful work at the Mémorial des déportations-Musée d'Histoire de Marseille, a multi-track installationfor music and multi-screens. For Art Zoyd Studios, where I am composer in residence, I am putting back together the show "Paysages des enfers" in a stage version for which I asked the same Dominik Barbier to make a film; and it won't be so much a film about music as a music with film.

Landscapes of the Underworld - Teaser (2021) from Art Zoyd on Vimeo.

Besides the image itself, the field of plastic arts is without doubt the universe that attracts me the most. I have recently started working with an American artist, Daria Gabriel, who makes very textural, expressive paintings, full of energy. A three-way project, with her and the Swedish musician Lars Akerlund, is planned soon, a project that consists of taking as a score a version that is always different from the painted canvas and playing it; this joins another collaboration with Gabriela Morawetz, a Polish visual artist, who takes my own existing scores that she reworks graphically, implodes from the inside and deploys on several canvases; it is then up to the instrumentalist who is familiar with the original version to play this new state of the score, as if dynamited. Another project is in the making with her, taking as a support the idea of space and of an interaction between music and visual representation through an evocation of the interstellar void; the detail is amusing because it is precisely the place where sound does not exist.
On the other hand, I have never been attracted by film music, whose narrative side puts me off. It's the same problem with theatre and the linearity of the text. I like working with words more. I have revived an old project, "135 façons de sauver la Terre" (135 ways to save the Earth), with the writer François Bon who, to my music, reads texts, sometimes from several books at the same time. 

How did you experience the months of confinement and how did you feel after the pandemic period?
Overall I loved it! Insofar as, of course, I did not have any seriously ill relatives and I did not fall into a black misery like some. I realised, in that period when everything came to an abrupt halt, how dangerously my own artistic practice could take a back seat to material concerns - tour planning, time constraints, etc. - if one is not careful. - if we are not careful! And I had time to rethink the way my pieces were constructed, the way I used my bass. On a very concrete level, the confinement allowed me to optimize the efficiency of my tools, time-consuming tasks that I finally had time to do. And in the end, I feel like I don't play bass like I used to. I have just composed a solo piece, Arche, which I would certainly not have written like this without this new experience. What saddens me the most today is this eagerness to go back to "the way it was before" and not to take advantage of the fruits of possible reflection.   

Interview by Michèle Tosi


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