Words by David C. Obenour
Appreciating and furthermore trying to understand Jan St Werner’s music is one thing. From his work with Andi Toma in the highly influential outfit Mouse on Mars, to his solo projects, to his many collaborations, there’s a vein of artistry and exploration worn on the sleeve in exciting and provoking ways. Comprehending all of what’s happening in the music would take many listens for even the keenest of ear from the most informed, but as long as it’s engaging, knowing the how’s and why’s aren’t always essential.
Appreciating Jan St Werner as a person is just as immersive as consuming his music. His interests and credentials roll out through collaborations with artists of all medias, as well as curators, exhibitionists, and even students of his own, through lecturing at MIT and serving as a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Nuremburg.
His latest release for Thrill Jockey Records is Glottal Wolpertinger, a composition derived from a series of radio installations culminating in a live performance in Athens, Greece.
Off Shelf: I read an interview from a number of years ago where you were being very hard on yourself. Striving to always create something new but being frustrated with the strands of previous work found in whatever you put your hand to. Is this something you still struggle with?
JSW: Sometimes I think as a musician you might like to stay away from releasing your music because you’ll probably never be satisfied. There is that moment of euphoria after finishing a new record but then you feel like you have to specify, improve, explain or reconsider your approach. Bands less often have such a crisis because their momentum of group inertia is strong and pulls them away from profound experimental artistic changes.
Anyway, with my releases I’m probably describing a similar concern from extremely different perspectives and the number of possible perspectives is continuously growing.
OS: Glottal Wolpertinger was initially conceived as a multi-part radio installation with a live performance of the series in Athens at your completion. Can you tell me a little more of your inspiration behind releasing new music in this way?
JSW: I was approached by documenta curator, Paolo Thorsen-Nagel about a possible involvement in documenta 14’s sound program. There were two elements: the “Every Time A Ear Di Soun” series of electro acoustic commissions broadcast via documenta’s various terrestrial radio stations and the listening space in various venues in Athens. After juggling a few ideas I suggested to do a mix of both: composing a series of pieces for various broadcasts being aired via various global radio transmitters and then a performance in Athens where those pieces would be combined in one performance which featured Aaron Dessner [of The National] on live guitar. The result was a multi-fragmented composition, implying that no one would ever get one coherent picture.
OS: Are there other ways you’d like to explore releasing new music?
JSW: I’ve had various thoughts: installations with sound being played through speakers plus acoustic elements, music being played back on various media and speeds and distances and rooms and situations, sound in different gases (sounds in lower densities are higher in pitch), sound directly transmitted into your neural system and sound that’s hardly audible. I guess composing to a big part is designing filters to focus attention, setting up a framework in which certain actions are considered intentional while others are ignored.
OS: The press release for Glottal Wolpertinger describes the pieces as consisting of “microtonally tuned feedback, multispectral drones… modulated and filtered with a purposeful, and indeed vocalized, emphasis given to the different frequencies and textures used.” Is it possible to break down your process on Glottal Wolpertinger any simpler?
JSW: all sounds were made with a Reaktor software patch created in collaboration with Dietrich Bank. The patch produces a complex feedback system which I filtered and modulated, recorded and edited. Aaron & Bryce Dessner provided the guitar parts and I arranged the record from various sessions and live performances.
OS: This release is the sixth of the Fiepblatter Catalogue series, which I had a hard time trying to find information about online. Can you tell me more about the series?
JSW: It’s a series of works I produce in various contexts, field studies, commissioned works, software experiments, ensemble works, collaborations with other musicians and artists curated by me and sometimes also featuring my artwork. Aesthetic consistency is provided by Rupert Smyth Studio [a full service creative agency]. The Glottal Wolpertinger cover features a collage made by Paul McDevitt and Cornelius Quabek who run the Infinite Greyscale record label and who also designed Andi Tom’s Damn Lieu Lit” as well as my Split Animal Sculpture 10″ and Mouse on Mars’ Lichter. The first ever incarnation of Glottal Wolpertinger was a live performance as part of an Infinite Greyscale showcase in Berlin’s Silent Green venue where I performed a 40 minute long piece via 6 separate speakers. A limited hand printed CDR was released on that occasion and few hand printed tote bags were produced, too.
OS: I was fortunate enough to catch some of your performance at The National’s Home Coming event last year. Can you talk a little about the experience of collaborating with a new group? With such talented musicians sharing the stage I’d imagine it would be simultaneously complicated and natural.
JSW: It’s pretty easy. Most sounds in modern music fit together well since the basic harmonic principles are mostly pentatonic. We’re also more used to noisier sounds these days and sounds that aren’t obviously synced. It’s easy to collaborate if you stay open to whatever the result might be. We’ve worked on The National’s new album again, chopping up their sounds and recordings. It’s on them to mix those edits. We might at some point get back and come up with our versions. I always wanted to construct a different version of The National. Collaboration is great if you keep stay open to what happens. Sometimes you’re provoked to reach further than with your own work. It’s a good method to challenge your technique and sound.
OS: Just as fascinating as your process for Glottal Wolpertinger, I started to look into your Interactive Media / Dynamic Acoustic Research class at the Academy of Fine Arts, Nuremberg. Could you tell us a little more about your work as a professor?
JSW: We cover a vast area where sound is not necessarily being considered music yet. This is from our program, “The class explores contemporary and historical practices that emerge outside of purely musical environments and investigates specific compositional developments of post-war modernity and electro-acoustic music, as well as non-musical disciplines related to the psychophysics of hearing and listening. Sound is understood as a means of artistic exploration through practical exercises, performances, installations, writing, recordings, diffusions and instruments building.”
The class is a collective of young artists each approaching our course from their own artistic perspective. Yet most of the work is collaborative and incorporates different opinions on what sound, composition, installation or performance might be. Our homepage gives a pretty good overview, that you can find at https://daf.adbk-nuernberg.de/index.php/info/
OS: What drives you to teach and lecture?
JSW: Teaching is a huge gift, it’s an obligation to continue learning. It also keeps me focused on issues which tend to slip out of view when I produce music: cognitive science, acoustics, musicology, research, and instrument building.