Words by David C. Obenour
Martin Brandlmayr is a third of the long-standing experimental post-rock act, Radian. Working in stark juxtapositions of sound coming from both acoustic and electronic instruments, over the years their music has been able to resonate with a familiarity in sound as it challenges with exploration in structure.
Branching out from his work in Radian, Brandlmayr has worked on a number of different compositions and improvisational projects, both solo and with a number of luminaries from those respective field.
The latest of these projects is Vive Les Fantômes, a radio play commissioned last year by SWR (Southwest Broadcasting, a regional public broadcasting corporation) in Germany. Taking samples from influential artists in Brandlmayr’s personal evolution, the play constructs a narrative through music and found sounds from Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday and many more.
Off Shelf: The concept of a radio play is mostly unknown here in the States – from the best of your understanding can you briefly explain what they are?
Martin Brandlmayr: There is a long tradition of European radio stations to produce radio plays. The first ones have been broadcasted in the 1920s. After second world war, a lot of theaters and cinemas were destroyed and radio plays became quite popular, with people sitting at home hearing the radio being comparable to watching tv nowadays. At this time, radio plays had a straight-forward story line, really comparable to films, just without pictures.
As time went by the format changed and through the influence of European experimental studios it also became a format for radio art in a wider sense.
OS: Each media and format conveys a project differently. What do you see as the strengths of Vive Les Fantômes as a radio play?
MB: I approached the format quite differently compared to only creating a piece of music. I was interested in the dramatic, theatrical aspect of the format. I wanted to play with the imagination of scenes and the construction of virtual rooms. I wanted to create scenes by people interacting. Therefore, I used footage of people talking, rehearsing, interacting with each other. If I hear music, I can imagine it just as an abstract room. I do not necessarily have to imagine musicians playing the music. But that’s exactly what I intended here. I wanted it to be about the presence, the image of people interacting with each other across different rooms and times.
It’s a broken language in which they are communicating, small snippets of repeated sequences, different grades of distortion until language is unrecognizable, where language becomes pure sound, still connected to what it originally was.
OS: Did you initially imagine you’d release it as an album as well? Do you hear it differently in that format?
MB: I did not think about releasing the piece as an album. I purely designed it as a radio play but when it was finished I thought whatever it is now this should as well work as an album.
It is designed for listening at home, alone. I had the opportunity to hear Vive Les Fantômes in a “concert-like” situation 2 times. The piece was played in a concert hall, one time during the award ceremony of the Karl Szuka Prize and another time in Sound Dome of ZKM, the well known Media Art Museum in Karlsruhe. Frank Halbig of SWR, who produced and commissioned the piece, and I created a multi channel version of the piece for Sound Dome, a room with 47 loud speakers and a location for the development and reproduction of spatial electro acoustic music. It was very exciting to design a spatial version of the piece and i enjoyed listening it together with Frank repeatedly. Listening to the piece in a performance situation though is something totally different than listening at home being by myself. In my perception there is a totally different tension in a performance situation, and therefore also the timing of the piece works differently. I think this piece needs intimacy, quietness and silence to really work.
OS: You talked about Jacques Derrida’s Spectres of Marx and conversations with your brother, Peter as an influence when choosing Fantômes/Ghosts for the title of this work. Can you talk more about that and how it related to naming and the creation of this work?
MB: My brother Peter Brandlmayr is working in the field between art and science. In the last couple of years he was intensely working on a critical theory of aesthetics of science, the aesthetic that constructs the frame in academic activities trying to reinforce a sphere of unambiguity. We’ve been talking a lot about the vague, the ambiguous that is very often tried to be displaced in our society, or redefined as something clearly determined or divided in separate parts.
Ghosts are a good symbol here. The vague, body/bodiless existence, the whole aesthetics of horror and fright, an aesthetic of avoidance. For me, a ghost is a symbol of something that is existing but hard to catch. It can be an idea, it can be a musical piece, a sentence that was said, it can be us. As soon as it is in the world it lives a life of its own. If you want, sounds are ghosts, coming from the past, changing their shape every time when they are played again, sounding different every time because they are played in different rooms, through different equipment. But they are also perceived differently with every re-listen, because the listener is not the same compared to some time ago. They enter ourselves if they somehow resonating with us, and they are changed in our memories and our imaginations.
So they are alive. They do something with us, but we also do something with them, so in the end it’s all about communication, a creative process.
OS: There are many subdued as well as abrupt moments on Vive Les Fantômes as on your work in Radian. What draws you to these sounds?
MB: It’s about sound, and the absence of sound. The silence after. That’s the moment when you start to remember what you just heard. The moment of hesitating, of awakening something that you got used to already, and suddenly you notice the absence of it.
If you see a color and then total darkness, you will see a form or color as an afterimage in your inner eye. I’m very interested in these things. The tension between impulse and emptiness.
In my perception, musical objects become something like visual objects in memory. While I hear them, they are bound to time. For example, the sounds of a sample appear one after the other sub-sequentially. When I remember them, they are spatial objects. I can see them at the same time.
That’s what I try as well in the composition: creating a discountenance of time. Musical objects are always there, even when the music already stopped.
OS: You talk about Vive Les Fantômes as a framework, part of a conversation, and an invitation for us to complete – how would you hope a listener would ideally engage with this recording?
MB: While working on the piece, I was listening to all the snippets countless times. So these sounds became part of me. When I constructed the piece I was listening to a small part of the piece and the silence afterwards, listening deeply inside this silence and inside myself. In this silence usually I have an association, a sound comes to my mind, a snippet out of the pool of sounds I was already involved with for the piece or something that I did not consider before.
So very often I constructed by intuition, discovering why I made the connection afterwards through analysis. Very often the reason is given through concrete parameters. Similarities in shape, tonality and the quality of sound. I’m kind of used to these connections when composing a musical piece in general but during the work on Vive Les Fantômes conversation, language gave me new possibilities.
For example, when Jacques Derrida is picking up the phone, who is on the other side of the line? Connections are made between different people, sounds and rooms, and conversations are constructed that never took place before. Sometimes Thelonious Monk is speaking on the other side of the line, another time Billie Holiday, then again it’s Derrida himself or simply an unrecognizable sound, unknown territory.
The unknown, again, a place for our own imagination. So I see the piece as a labyrinth of recurrent sounds, a mirror cabinet. There’s a lot to discover that is given but completed by the connections and associations made by the listener.