Ruhe made a big splash on the scene in the last year or so with his lovely tape compositions. Bryan has been nice enough to produce for us a mix bringing together some of his favorite tracks from his cassette tape collection, including some assorted field-recordings of his own. If you’re interested the full tracklist is wayyyy down below the (not so) mini Interview, but this mix in particular lends itself to mystery. (Joseph Sannicandro)
Firstly, let’s clear up the basics. Who are you, and what do you do?
My name is Bryan Ruhe. I’ve chosen to use my last name as my moniker, as it is the German word for “peace,” but can also mean “rest” or “silence” depending on context. Funny how life works sometimes – my surname has sort of ended up being a reflection of my taste in music! Silence and rest are important to me – the pace of life is too hurried and I get overwhelmed if I don’t stop to slow down and take some quiet time. In a sense, my music is an outpouring of those feelings and a means for me to slow down…
As for what I do – too much! I create sound and music, mostly by means of tape-based recording techniques and physical hardware, although I use a computer for multi-tracking and granular synthesis here and there. I also create visual art – collage, video, intaglio prints, etc. I run a tiny little record label called Clothbound, which hasn’t seen a release since January of this year, but I’m aiming to have another Clothbound album released by the end of summer/early fall. I somehow manage to find time to be a student and do room service for a Portland hotel, too…!
Where are you based? I know you’re in the Pacific Northwest. Were you in Washington? Or Vancouver? You’re in Portland now? I should know this…
To be honest, I actually live in the small but quickly-growing town of La Center, WA. It’s only about 25 minutes north of Portland, so I often connect myself with the city. The music scene (and the art scene in general) is vibrant and varied, and many of my friends and contacts live there. So there’s the truth for you!
So in the last 18 months or so it seems as though you’ve been quite busy, releasing what I think was your debut release and a string of others, compilation appearances, your live debut, a UK tour. I wonder if you can tell us a bit about your history, to put this in context. You used to have a radio show, is that right? (Maybe you still do?)
Yeah, I had a radio show for about two years (I think?) called “The Outpost.” When I started it, the focus was on post rock, but as time went on, my tastes began to shift as I discovered all this amazing music on labels like Fluid Audio, Home Normal, and some netlabels like 12rec and Serein. One thing led to another, and thanks to the wonders of e-mail and Facebook (with which I have a real love/hate relationship), I’ve had the opportunity to talk to amazing people and to share my work; to grow and to discover. The mixes I created for The Outpost sort of read as a log and a history of my discoveries and connections made.
Harry Towell, AKA Spheruleus and the man behind Audio Gourmet, was really excited about ‘A Beautiful Weakness’ when I shared it with him, and I have been very humbled by the responses to that little mini-album. The pieces on that album are very personal and were made using nothing more than a monophonic Sony tape recorder and free multi-tracking software, but that bit of music, thanks to Harry’s enthusiasm, started things out for me…
‘Easing’ came about when Danny Clay heard a few of my songs and asked if I’d put together a cassette for his label (currently on hiatus), but as I put the music together, it quickly grew beyond what we felt was within the scope of a cassette. Craig Tattersall (The Humble Bee and head of Cotton Goods) heard it and asked to release it, and there you have it…
It sort of all came to a head back in April when I was invited to play at Off-Key Sessions: Oceans & Ornaments in Bristol. What a night that was. It’s great getting to meet people in person that you’ve previously only known on the www. I got to meet Craig, he’s a good friend of mine and has been a constant inspiration to me, and a slew of other people to whom I look up, including Richard Outram, whose beautiful photographs have been used for many ambient and experimental releases. He was extremely kind and set me up for a week in Wales with his family… There are no words adequate for the gratitude I have for that, so Richard, diolch yn fawr!
As for compilation appearances, many of those tracks were sort of personal experiments that ended up coming out so nicely that they ultimately found homes in collections of other tracks.
The fact that all of this has happened so quickly has less to do with a fast rate of work than a building up of projects that all ended up being finished around the same time. I have a hard time working on any one project for a long period of time; it’s nice to have multiple projects to bounce between so that none of them get stale.
Had you been working on tape music for years and gotten your craft to a place where you started to release music publicly, or did you stumble into a new practice or device that opened up your present way of composing?
I’ve been working with tape for the past couple of years, and simply put, I sort of kept things close to my chest until I was happy enough with them to share them with the world at large. Except for those experiments with happy results, of course (e.g. “First Sight” on Don’t Be a Stranger’s first compilation release – it was actually my first published track).
Speaking of which, I’d be interested to hear more about your practice itself. Do you create the various tracks in the same key and just focus on blending them together? Do you work with found sounds and samples or produce the stems yourself, or some combination, or is it a trade secret?
Definitely not a trade secret! I know some guys are really mysterious about their processes and such, but process is central to my way of working. Many of my peers have inspired me to try new things and a few have even shared their methods with me and have helped me find solutions to my problems. Sorry if that’s a bit vague…! To be more specific, I use sampled sounds of both my own and found. I use cassette four-track units often, and loop tapes within them; I also use a dusty old reel-to-reel that’s all gummed up on the wheels, but it works well-enough. These in tandem with a multi-effects unit make up most of the hardware I use when creating music. I do a lot of transferring back-and-forth between tape and digital and play with tape speed, effects layering to loops, etc. It’s great that I can create sounds using analogue tech, and then move them to a digital workspace and arrange them – almost in a collage sort of way. And yes – working in this manner often requires me to play and record parts in the same key in order to avoid too much dissonance…!
I like to take field recordings and work them into the music, too – place is an important aspect of memory, a theme I like to which I like to allude often, and much of my music is made as a response to a time or place. Incorporating sounds from those times and places makes the connection that much stronger.
I really enjoy recycling sounds and seeing how far I can take them, as well – in fact, here’s a bit of trivia: with the exception of one song, every song on ‘Easing’ is a reworking of a track from ‘A Beautiful Weakness!’ I’d be interested to hear if you (or anyone, for that matter) can identify which songs are which. I’ve made a lot of references to ‘A Beautiful Weakness’ in ‘Easing’s’ track titles, sounds, etc., just sort of for fun and for mystery… Like Easter Eggs in DVDs or hidden messages in lines of text.
We really do live in an amazing time for music – we have access to analogue and digital technology, and right now, both are affordable and fairly easily accessible. In both my audio and visual work, I like to explore the spaces where analogue and digital meet. Hybridity is exciting – I’ve seen quotes (and I agree) that basically say “there’s nothing new, the only way to create ‘new’ things is to hybridize existing things.” I suppose one could argue that all hyrbids have even been explored already, but then we might be getting too philosophical…?! Which nicely leads me to another thing: I don’t like to do an awful lot of research regarding “what’s been done,” instead preferring to explore all the possibilities of a medium or piece of hardware myself. The feeling of discovering something new, whether I really have or not, excites me and drives me to continue exploring, creating, and improving.
What drew you to tape in general? Personally I see something of a political (in the broadest sense) in the reclaiming of something deemed “obsolete,” but also in the aesthetic that emerges from medium specificity. My friend Mimmo (Sec_) says “aesthetics isn’t about content, it is about practice,” and I think the emphasis on practice is a needed one. At the same time, we shouldn’t obsess over process, or intentionality, but on the actual results. I don’t think these things can be neatly separated either, but I wonder where you fall in this spectrum. Is it about the process? Have you found the discipline, the practice itself, has an effect on you, how you listen or how you act in other non-musical aspects of your life? Or is this just the most expedient way to achieve a desired result?
The shortest response to the question, “What drew you to tape?”, is that tape is cheap and available where I live! Every thrift store within 20 miles has at least one tape recorder and boombox, and I’ve been lucky enough to get tapes for free and machines for cheap. I’ve been asked, “Why would you want this awful old condenser microphone?” and my response has sort of been “Because you don’t!” The medium and technology definitely have a huge role in creating the quality of sound, so your point about medium specificity is valid. But as I said before, I love blending mediums. I adore tape for its physical aspects, as opposed to the sampled bits of digital tech, but both have their place and they serve to enhance each other wonderfully. I’m not a purist in any sense; whatever tools are available to use, I say – “Use them!” It’s better to have a crummy recording of something than no recording at all (a paraphrase of something I heard said by the talented Robert Crouch).
Memory, the warmth of nostalgia (the good kind, if such a thing exists! I say it does), love, hope, and peace are all things I try to express through the sounds I choose and create, and the sound of tape is one of the tools I use to help me express those things. And tape loops… Don’t get me started, I could go on and on… I love them, that’s all there is to it!
A lot of my music is very process-based, primarily using hardware components. As much as I appreciate the digital tools available today, I often find them too overwhelming – anything is possible, and that huge freedom can cripple me! I find freedom within limits – give me a piece of hardware with a finite number of functions, and I will explore them all… Then, once I find a process that works well for me and gives me a result with which I am pleased, I stick to it and feed different things into it, getting different outputs accordingly. When I use the computer, I stick with simple things – Audacity, and a great piece of software called Real-Time Granular Synthesis 3. I love it. I sort of just toy about with it until I find a sound that really resonates with me – when I hear the sound and think, “Aha! That’s it…” and my heart turns over inside me.
There are currently three or four processes that I use frequently; at first, each process was separate, but it has been fun to mix the processes (there’s that hybridity idea again) and get results that are richer in terms of the varied timbres, sound qualities, etc.
As far as obsessing over process, I know some guys do, and I’m pretty particular about it myself as you can see, but if I may quote one of my favorite abstract impressionists, Franz Kline: “The final test of a painting, theirs, mine, any other, is: does the painter’s emotion come across?” Although I speak of process, if the result doesn’t resonate with me on a personal and emotional level, I don’t use those sounds. That peaceful and quiet mood – “Ruhe” – is one for which my heart listens almost constantly. So process is key in my work, but if the result doesn’t reflect my mood, I’ve used the tools incorrectly, and I work with them until everything feels right.
What can you tell us about this mix? About your tape collection? About the scene in the Pacific Northwest? Tape culture has been thriving pretty hard out there, no? It seems to me there’s something in the culture and the scenery that promotes a kind of appreciation of ambient beauty that’s distinct from the more urban experience of the Northeast, or even Southern California/Los Angeles.
I love tape and I love that cassettes are still being released. It seems that there has been resurgence in the popularity of cassettes over the past couple of years, in large part due to the physicality of a cassette – it’s novel! – and the inexpensive cost for both producer and purchaser. I still have a cassette player in my car and I use it often!
Your connection between environment, culture, and ambience/cassettes makes perfect sense to me, I think that’s a valid assumption. The variety of environments all within such a small area is awesome, and the grandeur of the mountains and rivers and ocean definitely inspire me to create sounds that have a lot of space and emotional weight. Portland has a huge DIY spirit, and cassettes and DIY go hand-in-hand.
There are countless interviews and documentaries on cassettes, so I won’t go into it too much – I’m no expert on cassettes, just an enthusiast, so suffice to say that this mix is made up of tracks from tapes that I’ve loved enough to purchase. They are all tunes that have resonated with me in one way or another at some point in my life. I hope you enjoy the tunes, and thanks so much for taking the time to put together this interview!
Keel Keathley – “Miniature III” from ‘Ti Morf Raf’ (Few Quiet People)
Ruhe – Assorted Field Recordings / Wixel – “Tape Rain” from ‘Revox Tapes’ (Jordskred)
Merryl – “Part I” from ‘Slow Spell’ (Bathetic)
Concern – “Leases” from ‘Living Wage’ (Digitalis)
Josh Mason – “Untitled (For Ruth)” from ‘Conduit’ (Scissor Tail Editions)
Olli Aarni – “Untitled” (A1) from ‘Ylitse’ (Avant Archive)
Sashash Ulz – “Untitled (A3) from ‘Cladonia Rangiferina’ (Sweat Lodge Guru)
Keel Keathley – “Miniature IV” from ‘Ti Morf Raf’ (Few Quiet People)
Gareth Hardwick – “Carnations” from ‘Carnations’ (Peasant Magik)