Joseph Sannicandro interviews Rutger Zuydervelt, aka Machinefabriek, in the first installment of an ongoing series exploring the creative process and a non-fetishization of equipment.
“A rather poor instrument,… but how wonderfully they use it.” In this quote, James Joyce is referring to the French language, but at its heart is a lesson for artists working in any medium.
Along with our fascination, and fetishization, of our instruments, can come a desire to harness an aesthetic of liberated creativity. Too often the tendency is to see a direct correlation between technological “progress” and development of the arts. Or worse, in the wake of digital technology we may forget that experiments in arts technology predate the digital era. There is no correlation between creativity and the ownership of equipment. One could have the most expensive equipment and still not create anything worthwhile, while another can have junk electronics and change the world.
So much of the evaluation of music, particularly electronic music but also rock, pop and so on, tends to focus on gear. Companies that produce music gear rely on the fetishization of their products in order to expand their markets, and this aspect of music communities contributes to a subordination of raw creativity to equipment. Yet if we look to some of the most productive artists and scenes of the 20th century, the marketing ploys ring rather false. Brian Eno famously said that over-reliance on computer processing would be akin to a painter mixing all the colors on his palette together. Eno’s innovation came from realizing that combining simple inputs can result in generating complex and unique results. Similarly, when Pauline Oliveros, one of the great unheralded composers and improvisers of the 20th century, first began experimenting with tape in the late ’50s, she created groundbreaking work by manually winding the recorder, allowing for a variable speed recording that was not at all the intention of the producer. These sorts of explorations often encouraged composers to become technicians and vice versa, designing and building their own devices (such as Ramon Sender and Morton Sobotnik, Oliveros’ colleagues at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, or Kraftwerk‘s legendary Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf, or conversely Studio di fonologio di Milan RAI’s technician Marino Zuccheri, who composed the drone piece Parete 1967 to represent Italy in the Montreal Expo of 1967.) Writing about the San Francisco Tape Music Center, John Rockwell notes that “…one is struck by how modestly funded it was, how they made so much of so little. But sometimes penury can be a spur to creativity, however romantic that may sound. Maybe had these composers had all that institutional equipment, they might have been subtly— or unsubtly—undermined, denied the stimulus of bohemian penury.” Though the major studios may have produced lasting theoretical contributions and technical achievements, it may very well be the case that the more influential music and even technical advancements came from those who made due with less, those whose creative instincts were sharpened by constraint, forced or otherwise.
Sound Propositions sets out to challenge this fetishization of gear, instead taking a close look at the creative act itself. It will explore music that constitutes a questioning of technological determinism through its very form. What if we cast out on the alleged neutrality of our technologies, instead seeing them as embedded in the larger context of their creation, socially dependent and shaping the quality of the results by the nature of the mechanism? The apparatus now appears quite differently, and this shift in tension results productively in new artistic work. It is in this transformation that this series will dwell.
It seems that more and more, we expect out tools to lead us, rather than the other way around. We ask how we can use our tools, rather than how they use us, how their “proper” uses may actually constrain us. Of course there are interesting works that may seem to let the tools guide the process, an exploration of the tool’s capacities itself, but this is still guided by a concept that orients the exploration. Artists like Maurizio Bianchi (the pioneering Italian industrial/noise tape artists MB) draw on the same source that inspires arte povera, eschewing proper instruments or techniques in favor of developing new uses of equipment that is easily available, such as a DVD player, a broken microphone, and a tape deck. Steve Roden and his “lowercase” sound represent the purest distillation of this aesthetic, and hence brings the nature of electroacoustic improvisation into clearest relief. Touring at times with nothing but a microphone, Roden performs using found objects, delicately coaxing out sounds and amplifying them. It is no surprise then that he often comes up as an important influence on the artists we cover, including Machienfabriek, who’s current live set up (see below) no doubt takes its cues from him.
I can think of no artist more appropriate to launch this series than Machinefabriek, whose vast output is not so much characterized by any unity but instead by an ongoing series of creative explorations. An experimental artist in the truest sense, in so far as the results of his explorations are not planned or determined in advance, Rutger Zuydervelt continues to release groundbreaking music at breakneck speed. Never content to repeat himself, he has paired down his equipment, no longer using laptops or even his guitar, so long a staple of his live performances. Rather than work with the same tools, Zuydervelt instead refines his process, creating a replicable technique and identifiable aesthetic that is not dependent on specific equipment or even notions of supposed fidelity.
As an artist becomes more proficient, the number of tools needed goes down. It isn’t possible to take in all of his output, (even in an age of file sharing, Zuydervelt now has over 100 releases to his credit), and a Machinefabriek release can no doubt be enjoyed on its own. Even so I’d argue that a hermeneutic reading of his oeuvre, taking in to account the parts that comprise the whole, clear the way for a deeper understanding of the ever expanding work itself.
The work of Machinefabriek demonstrates that process may have just a few moving parts, and yet can produce beautiful, complex results without utilizing expensive equipment or professional techniques.
Can you describe what led your interest in making music? What is your musical background, both in terms of playing instruments and musical “scenes” which you were shaped by?
Somewhere between when I was 8 and 13, I had guitar and piano lessons. But the first music that really started the fire, was extreme metal. Grindcore and especially death and doom metal, that was my thing for some years. I played in a band for three months, and then we broke up. Not long after I found out that I could also make music on my own, on a computer. By then, I also listened to early Warp stuff, drum ‘n bass and trip hop. It was all much more rhythm orientated then what I’m doing now. At that time, I didn’t really feel part of a scene, and most of the stuff I did didn’t leave the room.
The music I was interested in grew more and more experimental, leading to where I am now.
I think that is actually a more common passage than it may appear at first. Interest in extreme music, I’d argue, leads to a similar transformation of our understanding of time. Grindcore, for instance, is so fast that one must simultaneously perceive the music on various time-scales, the hyperfast as well as the structural changes. And it is also quite noisey, of course, which creates an appreciation for different types of sounds, different aspects that are more textural and timbral.
It’s often said that your live shows are quite apart from your studio practice, and though they are related in approach the latter of which seems more central to your artistic identity. Is this the case? And although your live performances are in some sense “improvised,” Machienfabriek doesn’t seem to have much in common with established improv scenes, (which are often from my perspective really about interacting with other performers as much as anything.)
If I really had to choose, I’d say the studio work is more important. There’s more freedom there, simply because stuff doesn’t have to happen in real time. But on the other hand, the feeling I get when a gig goes well, that kind of rush, that’s almost impossible to get when working at home. Live performing is also more a hit or miss process. It’s mainly improvised, and I like to keep options open and to surprise myself, which sometimes can be a bit stressful, but at other times can be really rewarding.
I do sometimes improvise with other people. That’s important, cause it keeps things fresh. It can open new doors.
You’re saying that Machinefabriek doesn’t seem to have much in common with improv, but to be honest, I’m very inspired by ‘lower case improv’, such as John Butcher, Keith Rowe, Mark Wastell, etcetera. Not that I come close to their instrumental skills, but their approach is extremely inspiring.
I can see how you are inspired by “lower case improv” such as John Butcher. I guess what I meant is that the free improv scenes strike me as something of a clique, with established orthodoxies and traditions, whereas your approach to improvisation seems more narrative and less dogmatic.
Ah yes, you’re right about that. I indeed meant those who are able to go beyond the ordinary… The Erstwhile/Confront/Another Timbre scene… Those who dare to go beyond the academic and more into micro-sound or noise territory…
There must also be some connection between ‘lowercase sound’ and “lower case improv.” Of course your collaborations are almost as numerous as your solo releases. Anything else to add about how collaborating with such a wide variety of artists has shaped your creative approach?
Hard to pin something really specific… To be honest, I don’t think my collaborations changed my way of working, but more so broaden my musical horizon. Though live improvising with another musician is always a good exercise. The fluid, droney playing from Gareth Davis for example is totally different then the all-over-the-place vocal acrobatics of Jaap Blonk. Doing these kind of combinations more and more make more flexible as a live performer, though honestly, there’s still a lot to improve in that area.
You’ve been releasing music since 2004, at the age of 25, and have established yourself as an extraordinarily prolific artist since then. I believe the first release of yours I came across, or at least the first I really listened to carefully, was your first release for Type, the split with Aaron Martin back in 2007. As I encountered later releases over the years I’ve often found myself having to go back and re-listen and re-assess your work, as the sheer volume of your output makes it hard to construct a clear “identity” for Machinefabriek in the listener’s mind. You near-monthly output (or so it seems) of 3″ CDs seems a perfect medium for you, as they are limited in terms of material copies but also short enough to allow for the execution of an idea that isn’t as grandiose as a full length. But I wonder if you could talk a bit about why you do release so much music. Is there a Merzbow-esque goal of obscuring any unitary idea of “Machinefabriek,” or do you just work very quickly? If the latter, do you ever worry that some of your releases that might find larger audiences get hidden within your larger discography? I suppose another way to phrase that would be, for those just discovering your work, where would you suggest they begin?
A question I’ve been asked many times before, and one that I ask myself too, but I still find it hard to answer.
First of all, last year already has been a bit slower, in Machinefabriek terms. So no 3-inches each month. Actually, the whole 3-inch thingy is a bit over.
But anyway, I’m not trying to obscure a ‘Machinefabriek identity’, but I simply try to do something different for each release. To make, it doesn’t make any sense to make an album in exactly the same style as a previous one. The difference can be in small things. Things that might only be obvious for me, but still. I see Machinefabriek as a vehicle for unlimited research and experiments, and the releases are documenting that. I’m not making it easy for an audience, but I’m also not expecting that they will like or buy everything. I think every record I make has my signature, but each one should also be rated on it’s own terms. I’d rather surprise people (myself included) then have an oeuvre of uniformity.
And yes, I do work very quickly. The releases are really made ‘in the moment’. Once I have an idea in my mind I find it hard to focus on anything else except executing that idea. Another important aspect is that I try to keep things spontaneous, and not overdone. Things may be a bit sketchy sometimes, but that’s nice I think. If music is ‘too finished’, it doesn’t leave so much room for the listener to discover things.
One way of dealing with the issue of releases staying hidden in my discography, is compilations, such as Daas, Vloed, and Veldwerk, which were released on Cold Spring. These give a very good idea of my work, and are widely available. These are also the ones that I recommend as a start in my oeuvre.
I think the use of field-recordings demonstrates a careful way of listening, listening in a way that extends itself to your way of organizing sound. (The Jerusalem Tape of the Day makes this pretty obvious, but I think it’s true of your work in general.)
The most important influence on my music has been minimalism. And especially how Oren Ambarchi uses that. Listening to his (and similar) music made me realize that you can sometimes say more, with less. The idea of Cage’s 4’33” was also inspiring. The tiniest sound can work miracles, and field recordings can be a fantastic example of that. A lot of the times I’m finding the balance between boredom and tension. And that’s a thin line.
Again, doing it live or for recorded work makes a difference. Live, my setup depends on whom I playing with… For studio work, most of the time it’s a file-sharing affair, so using each other sounds and process these, edit ‘em, etc.
One of my best memories of a collaboration is the one with Stephen Vitiello, which was something different all along. Instead of sending each other sound-files, we sent each other objects to make sound with. That was great fun, and a really nice creative process. Also the live performances we did (using the same principle) were a blast. [See Box Music and Birds in a Box.]
Can you describe your working process? For instance, do you begin with an idea for an effects process, or a particular sound, or some particular idea?
Most of the time I have a half-baked idea for a sound or mood that I want to set. Most of the time I use a recording of me improvising on an instrument, or a field recording, which I’ll use as a soundsource that I cut up, layer and edit ‘till a track exists. But when I start, I don’t have a clear idea about the structure or duration of the piece. It’s where the process takes me that decides the final track. I find it really important to keep the possibility open to be surprised by sound. One moment dictates the next…. It’s quite a organic process in that sense.
What equipment do you use?
Again there’s the difference of studio or live work. As for the studio work, the basic sound can be anything. The actual composing then happens on the computer. I used to work with this really simple editing program called Sound Edit, but that doesn’t work on [Mac OS] X , so I had to look for something else when I bought a new computer. I bought Logic, which is a really good program, but I must admit that most of the editing happens in Sound Studio, a program similar to Sound Edit. Super simple, and probably as unprofessional as you can get, but it works for me. I like the simpleness. There’s no filters to hide behind, it’s just very rough cut and paste work.
Live, my most important gear is obviously my looping pedals. There’s been a few changes in my live setup recently, but for a long time I used a guitar, with two volume pedals, each with a looping pedal, left and right divided, to make syncopating loops. Nowadays I’m not using the guitar anymore. An analogue tone generator took over, which again goes to some looping pedals, a freeze pedal and reverb.
What I do live (either with guitar, tone generator, radio, etc) is really looping and building layers, not so much heavily processing the sound. Except for a reverb, and sometimes an equalizing pedal, there’s no other effect pedals.
As we speak, I just decided what to use in my upcoming gigs with Celer. It’s a setup that uses a little box with contact mics, and a set of tuning forks. This goes through the Freeze pedal, a Boss RC20 looper, a Line 6 DL4 delay/looper and a Fairfield Circuitry ring modulator. I also have two cassette Dictaphones connected to my small mixing desk, each of ‘em with a 30 second looped cassette. I also use these to record sounds I make, and then replay the loops, adding a nice wobbly effect cause of the oldness of the tapes. It’s the smallest setup I’ve used so far, which I’m very happy about. An important aspect for my live performances is to use as little as possible and still be able to do something interesting. The more stuff on my table, the harder it is to concentrate.
How has your set up and technique, and approach to music, changed over the years, with different projects, with growing skill, etc. Perhaps studio vs live process misses the point, even, as it strikes me that your work, regardless of the form it takes, is about exploring acoustic properties. The shape may differ depending on the equipment, the intent, the setting. Is there an underlying interest that is being mined? Can you describe a typical, or a particular Machinefabriek equipment set up?
It’s 80 to 100% improvised. I try to start with a concert not knowing where it will end. Again, surprising myself is important. It can go both ways of course, it’s a hit or miss process, so the results are not always satisfying, but I still prefer this way of working then having to perform the same songs over and over.
I don’t think my music is really about technical skills. I don’t have much of that. But what I (think I) do have is good ears, and a good sense of musicality. After years of playing live, I’ve came to a point where I can go onstage without hardly any preparation. Again, it’s not a guarantee for a successful performance, but this sense of liberation is where the power of music lies…
You don’t use a laptop except for recording and editing, is that right? If so do you find benefit in forsaking the limitless possibility of the laptop?
Correct. I don’t use much processing on my sounds… That’s all very basic. It’s the recorded sounds themselves which are more important. And yes, the laptop can have limitless possibilities, but it’s also a lack of interest and patience on my side that I haven’t really explored that. I love hardcore computer music like released on Editions Mego, but I never felt too attracted to it do try that stuff myself. I think that if I’d do that, my music would lose personality. I think I won’t recognize myself in it anymore. I like a more hands-on approach, with a clear human touch. An important influence is Steve Roden. I had moment that his music assured me that really simple methods can have great results. That it doesn’t have to take super expensive equipment or complex processes to create appealing, intimate music. Using less can definitely result in more. In that respect, I find it interesting to keep searching for more limitations to create new possibilities. Does that make any sense?
Yes, exactly. I can imagine what just a tuning fork and that Freeze pedal can accomplish in your hands. And I’m glad you mentioned Steve Roden, as I have the feeling his influence will be important to most of the people I’m interviewing for this series. You guys are like MacGyver.
Often when writing about Machinefabriek it is said that you work for a living as a graphic designer. Now I think knowing someone’s career and/or interest in other media can be telling, but often those kinds of trans-medial comparisons are misleading, as they minimize the specificity of sound as a medium. Vision is already over-privileged. Anyway, that said, do you find any similarities in terms of the technological interfaces you use (e.g. between graphic design software and digital audio workstations) that may affect your process?
I’m actually living as a musician now, but still do graphic work. In my case, the working process isn’t that different as with making music. It’s both quite intuitive, and I like to make quick decisions. Interface-wise it’s very different though, but obviously, making music on a computer program like Logic, is obviously a very graphic way of working with music. There literally are blocks of sound to move, the sounds themselves are made visible with waveforms, and (for example) volume adjustments are made by moving lines up or down.
Most of my sleeves are being created simultaneously as the music of that same release. So it’s an integral part of the process. I’m a sucker for nice sleeves (I don’t by music with sleeves I don’t like), and I don’t really like downloads. So yes, I think that how an album looks is integral part of it. As an artist, I try to establish a consistency in quality, and the sleeves should reflect that. The sleeve is also the first step of ‘pulling the listener into my world’
Last year the Dutch announced huge cuts to arts funding. How do you feel about this? Has the Machinefabriek project received any public funding?
I have mixed feeling about this… I think we were spoiled for a long time, compared to finding in other countries. But still, the way politicians speak about art nowadays is terrible, as something useless and mediocre, eating up tax money for nothing. That’s sad, especially ‘cause artists that have just started, or small theater of music groups are affected the most.
As for my career, it didn’t do much harm to me yet, but I think it will next year and after, when it comes to playing in the Netherlands or doing projects. I’ll probably get asked less, and get less paid… We’ll see…..
Other than some vague ideas about Ultra, I don’t know much about the Dutch experimental tradition. In some places I’ve been, like Italy, I’ve found experimental musicians often perform regularly in gallery spaces. Is this the case in the Netherlands?
Sometimes, but not much. It’s mostly small theaters and venues that are specifically programming experimental music and film, like WORM in Rotterdam or Extrapool in Nijmegen. Indeed, in other countries I have played in galleries often, but here it’s not so common.
This may sound like a strange question, but I wonder if you have any strong feelings about the relationship between art and politics. Is there a politics to machinefabriek?
Nope. Machinefabriek has and will always stay away from politics. With my music, I try to create sort of abstract worlds, not referring to the here and now, but to transcend into something that can trigger the listener to really let go of anything else and immerse in the music. God that sounds pretentious, and I’m not sure if it’s truly working, but I guess you can see it as some form of escapism…
An understandable impulse, when the world can seem so bleak, and particularly the world of formal political institutions so trapped in their outdated orthodoxies. The role of the artists can be simply to offer a temporary respite from the everyday, an escape, but I think that simply by choosing to be creative, to produce mini-works of art and self-releasing them and contributing to a non-hegemonic culture, this too positions the artist in an inherently political role, even if it’s only implicitly. More so, working with “non-musical” objects and sounds changes our way of hearing the world around us, aestheticizing the mundane.
Recently you’ve been taking part in more contemporary art installations and sound art projects, and even your recent release Bridges has a very (sound) artistic concept behind it. You provided the score to an upcoming film about Sol LeWitt. Are these (installations, scores) something you’ll be engaging in more often? Any thoughts so far on your work in this category?
I definitely want to do more in this direction. I love it to make site specific work. It’s interesting to get into a dialogue with a place (or a film), and it can trigger choices that I might not make when making uncommisisoned music. For example, I’m working on a short piece for a machine room in an old building. People will get a tour through the room, while the sound of my piece will complement the sound of the still working machinery in the space. By walking around, the sound will also change. You’re really digging deeper in music as an experience, which is fantastic.
Which reminds me, why did you decide to use the moniker ‘Machinefabriek’?
Around 2004 I lived in Arnhem, and each time I went shopping for groceries, I passed a building that had the text ‘Machinefabriek’ on it. I fell in love with that word, so when I was thinking about a name for my project, it was easy… The meaning of the word is also nice, as a place where they make things to make things with… There’s something funny about that…
All of which makes you, to my mind, the perfect artist to score a film about Le Witt, who wrote, in “Paragraphs on Conceptualism,” that “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Contemporary art practices, including sound art and music projects such as Machinefabriek, are best understood through the lens of conceptualism. In the case of sonic art, what Seth Kim-Cohen has termed non-cochlear art (a play on Duchamp’s non-retinal art, that is to say that a work always has additional registers that it functions on, extra-scultural, extra-sonic etc).
Any projects coming up or recently released you’d like to highlight?
Sure thing… A few things… Like a second 7-inch with Celer, that will come out later in the year. [Just released following their tour together, available here] Our collaboration works really well, so after the first 7-inch we decided to do more… There’s more plans for that, so keep your eyes open.
Fang Bomb just released my solo album Colour Tones, which was made a year ago, for an exhibition about colour. Each track soundtracks a story about a specific colour. It’s one of my most playful records… Quite like how that one turned out.
The French label Nuun is releasing my album Stroomtoon, which was made using a tone generator, effect pedals, and a lot of editing. It’s quiet a rough record, adding something new to the Machinefabriek discography… There’s even some beats in there…
And there’s more, but I’ve mentioned enough already…
Thank you again for inaugurating this new series.
Readers, I hope may have deepened your interest in Machinefabriek, and may also serve as inspiration to create for yourself.