Machinefabriek ~ Sahara Mixtape
Machinefabriek ~ With Voices
Rutger Zuydervelt / Gareth Davis ~ Sileen II
These three new works from Rutger Zuydervelt (better known as Machinefabriek) are each so singular, so utterly distinct from one another while retaining the artist’s signature, that I was inspired to catch up with him regarding his current work. Zuydervelt was the subject of the very first Sound Propositions feature, published in May 2012. When we began A CLOSER LISTEN, earlier that year, I knew I wanted to do a long-form column that would showcase in-depth conversations with artists whose work I deeply admire. I wanted to find a way to talk about music gear without fetishizing it, without making it about the gear itself. Instead, I was looking for insight about the artistic process, into examples of a kind of liberated creativity that finds constraints to be generative. Zuydervelt was the ideal subject and set the tone for all that’s followed.
Zuydervelt’s back-catalogue was already daunting in 2012, and has continued to grow apace. Sol LeWitt’s dictum that “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art” finds resonate expression in the work of Machinefabriek. After all, a machinefabriek is a machine-factory, “a place where they make things to make things with,” as he put it then, and each work is grounded in a core idea from which the work grows. This productive, industrial spirit persists, and Zuydervelt doesn’t expect his audience to keep up with everything he does. Some releases will appeal more to some than others. He tries to surprise himself as well as his audience, and makes no attempts at uniformity. At the time, Zuydervelt said, “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.”
The experiments have continued, and several of Zuydervelt’s records since have especially impressed us: Sneeuwstorm, a drone tempest of buzzing saxophones; the Soviet sound collage film score to The Red Soul; the unpredictable beauty of Crumble. And now his three latest releases, all fine windows into the different directions that this research can take him.
This diversity is partly driven by his continuing dedication to collaboration. We’ve witnessed recurring duos (with Banabila, Anne Bakker, Aaron Martin, Gareth Davis, and others), as well as group formations (such as Piiptsjilling or joining forces with the Dead Neanderthals). In some cases his collaborators are engaged participants, trading files or performing together, while in other instances Zuydervelt has activated his network as sources of raw material. This latter approach is nowhere more on display than the epic Stay Tuned, a composition crafted from “A” notes recorded by more than 150 artists! Yet, it’s not so much that collaborating has impacted his practice itself. As he explained back in 2012:
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.
Zuydervelt’s live performance practice has continued to develop alongside his recorded output, but recent years have also seen him working increasingly as sonic accompaniment to other media, such as dance, theatre, and film, and in other formats, such as sound installations. All of which one will find evidence of in these three of latest works.
Rutger is still doing his rough work in Sound Studio and Logic, still working with improvisation and hardware (oscillators, effects pedals, etc.), still orienting his live performances around looping pedals and working intuitively, from scratch, with a hands-on approach. But he has also continued to evolve as an artist, consistently impressing us and never resting on his laurels. It’s hard to believe that it has been seven years since that last conversation, so I took this chance to get caught up on what’s changed—and what hasn’t—in the world of Machinefabriek. (Joseph Sannicandro)
With Voices sees Zuydervelt collaborate with eight different vocalists, each of whom was given the same 35 minute backing track over which to improvise. He sought out vocalists who would be comfortable creatively with a rather unusual task. There is a balance between male and female voices, but there is also a broad diversity in styles and approaches. He notes that “some singers come from an experimental background, other are more singer-songwriters or into jazz. But all are flexible and open-minded.”
It is fascinating to hear how each vocalist’s personality emerges so distinctly in response to the same initial backing track, and how Zuydervelt’s interpretation in turn varies so greatly. In his review of With Voices, Richard Allen writes, “one might think that the variety of artists and styles would produce a fractured whole, but in fact the opposite is true; With Voices has a fine dynamic flow, rising from and descending to tendrils of tone.” Improvising over the same initial backing track ensured a through-line without overdetermining the end result.
Zuydervelt did not give the vocalists any guidelines whatsoever, and they did not have to respond to the entire 35 minutes of the backing track. “Some contributors came back to me with 10 minutes of material,” he recalls, while “others had 30 minutes of multi-tracked melody-lines.” As human beings we are naturally attracted to nuance in the voice (regardless of language or meaning) and this seems to really grant the work additional affective power. The album is not entirely without “words,” although the force of the voices doesn’t come from the lyrics.
The straightforward album title and numbered tracks simply offer information, shying away from any prescriptive interpretation. “Of course I did my fair share in manipulating the voices (sometimes subtly, sometimes heavily),” Zuydervelt qualifies, but it is the character of each voice that stands out. The “grain” of the voice (to use the terminology of Roland Barthes) is showcased for its instrumental and emotional potential, beyond the signification of language.
Thus each track explores different approaches to the voice as instrument. A very rich, reciprocal relationship emerges between the two performers on each track as a result, brought into relief in comparison with its surrounding. Zuydervelt “wanted the electronics and the vocals to blend and become one; but sometimes they can work against each other as well, it’s like a dance, a push and pull.” In some cases, a track can be quite long, while in others, such as with Marianne Oldenburg, the result is a dense composition of interlocking melodic parts.
“The nice thing about these collaborations,” he tells me, “is that they might inspire to do something you wouldn’t normally do; I always love to have a concept or limitations to work within (even when doing uncommissioned work) – and with these dance and film projects, these parameters can be unexpected and trigger new ideas.” Being open and adaptable has meant that one opportunity often leads to the next.
In 2017, the choreographer Iván Pérez invited Zuydervelt to score his piece Becoming, in which the trio of dancers are joined on stage by Machinefabriek. Zuydervelt was invited to Tapei the next year for a revised edition of the piece, with 12 dancers. There he happened to see an Instagram video and was blown away by the singing voice of Wei-Yun Chen, a dancer who participated in both versions of Becoming. This was the genesis of With Voices, as the collaboration with Wei-Yun inspired Zuydervelt to seek out additional vocalists. One project leads to another in such a spontaneous way, from music for choreography to a very different sort of work.
Sahara Mixtape may be the most radical departure in the entire Machinefabriek discography. These 33 short compositions were created (along with many other tracks) for use in a Dutch television documentary series about North Africa, produced for VPRO, a public broadcaster with a reputation for quality programming and a long-time supporter of the avant-garde. Host Bram Vermeulen travels across the Sahara speaking with locals and migrants, documenting social issues and the rich cultural history of the area.
For a work bearing the name Machinefabriek, Zuydervelt’s soundtrack is surprisingly rhythmic and bass heavy. Sahara Mixtape was “very much influenced by The Bug, M.I.A., Equiknoxx music,” the producer explains, and “the goal was to make an exhilarating, raw score.” In this the soundtrack is unquestionably successful. As one would expect with a work of this kind, both as a score for video and as a work billing itself as a mixtape, the music is diverse and constantly changing. “There might’ve been a change of style, but my working process didn’t change so much for this project, only the speed of it,” Zuydervelt explains. “But that’s also because the pieces were short. It was more like a ‘pressure cooker variation’ of my regular process. … Sahara was sort of a permit to explore all these new ideas.” And there are new ideas aplenty, no surprise considering that the above stylistic references seem so far removed from the typical Machinefabriek wheelhouse.
Tracks such as “Sahara” and “Moonlight” can be upbeat and playful, full of the pulse of the kalimba or staccato flute melodies, while others are much grittier and full of dread, as on the droning tribal rhythms of “Cargo” or the menacing static of “Travail.” The guitar patterns of “Tuareg” almost recalls Electric Counterpoint, alongside other similarly minimal tracks including “Mirage,” “Nightfall,” and “Breeze.” The intense snare hits on “Freighter” or the programmed beats of “Shaitan” evoke hip hop production. The purported influence of The Bug is felt in the low end punches and synth stabs of “Dash.” “Sirocco” sneaks in like its namesake wind, a kick drum pattern emerging out of the dust it blows up.
Zuydervelt felt it was important that the samples be sourced from the Sahara region, but emphasizes that “authenticity” was never the goal. “Although there are African music samples used, this wasn’t by any means an ethnographic project. That also wasn’t the intention of the directors of the series. If the idea was to use authentic music from the Sahara region; the filmmakers would’ve used original music. I would’ve felt quite uncomfortably if I, as a white European man, would try to mimic African music.” Instead the source material is heavily re-pitched, looped and manipulated, finding a balance between the vitality of the human elements and the more abstract synthetic tones. Still, the electronic elements do not seem to strive for fidelity or clarity, embracing distortion and fuzz. “I could imagine the music coming out of a crappy stereo of a pickup truck cruising through the desert, or an old boom box.”
The wide variety of short tracks enabled Zuydervelt to quickly work through his ideas without getting caught up for too long on any one piece, maintaining a sense of looseness and spontaneity. In any case, a television series of this type isn’t able to utilize much more than a minute of music. The production process was thus geared towards creating a library of choices for the TV producers to choose from. Working with MIDI instruments and samples, Zuydervelt ultimately produced approximately 80 pieces of music. “The idea was really ‘anything goes’, and whatever came to mind, I just tried. It was a lot of fun actually, and it worked out very well.”
When working to accompany other media, such as film and dance, Zuydervelt finds it important that he be involved from an early stage, “so the music and image can grow together, organically.” With Sahara, however, he had to produce the music beforehand, seeing the episodes only to make minor adjustments to the soundtrack. To find inspiration he sought out De Trek, a comparable series from David Kleijwegt, the director of Sahara. Zuydervelt was impressed by the bold use of existing music. This was “not some over-melancholic, romantic plinkity ploink piano music that you might hear in other documentaries, but music that gave the images power and drive.” Taking this as inspiration, Zuydervelt used this to approximate a mood of exhilaration and rawness that pervades Sahara Mixtape.
Sileen II is as much a formal composition as a studio work. To my mind, it falls under the same grouping of Machinefabriek works as Deining (2015), with violinist Anne Bakker, works which are defined by a very clear structure. Deining, for instance, consists of four sections, each focusing on one violin string, as upward and downward glissandi interact, producing a sustained drone at the point of intersection and ending with a minute-long low drone at the end. Sileen II has a similarly simple structure that produces a kind of complexity through interaction, akin to an audible moiré pattern.
Zuydervelt describes the structure in detail:
There’s three groups, and each have 4 or 5 sets of repeated chords of exactly one minute – fading in and out like a wave. Each set of repetitions is followed by a silence of the same length before presenting the next set. Since the amount of repetitions is different for each group (2, 3, and 4 times), the overlap shifts and differs each time.
As the title suggests, this isn’t the first composition to bear the title Sileen. The work was initially composed as a commission by Musica for the festival OORtreders, held on 22 October 2016 in Neerpelt, Belgium. It was performed outdoors, with 50 students from the Academie voor Muziek en Woord Mol (Academy for Music and Words) in Mol. The live recording below, in which the 50 person orchestra is augmented by Zuydervelt’s manipulated radio static and field recordings (and a very audible baby in the audience), is lush and maximal.
For Sileen II, Zuydervelt took a rather more minimal approach, abandoning the radio static and field-recordings and working with a single instrument and with a single performer, longtime collaborator Gareth Davis. Personally I just love the bass clarinet, and Davis’s particularly breathy and textural approach to the instrument compliments the simplicity of Zuydervelt’s score. The stripped down version of Sileen as realized by Davis is a strong fit for Edition Wandelweiser Records. The term Wandelweiser refers to a loose grouping of composers (such as Jürg Frey, Eva-Maria Houben, and Michael Pisaro) whose work dwells in an interstitial space between silence and sound, compositions which are often very slow and fragile and seem to be indifferent to the expectations of the listener. The results are certainly not to everyone’s taste, but they represent one of the most unique and creative networks of experimental composers working in recent decades. In addition to Wandelweiser Records, such works can also be found on other small labels including Another Timbre, Erstwhile, and Gravity Wave. It is a pleasure to see Zuydervelt represented amongst their ranks.
Some collaborators seem to improvise the “raw” material with which Zuydervelt works, but this composition is a bit different in that regard. So what in particular did Davis bring to this iteration of Sileen? “At first I made this studio version using only electronics but it was way too clinical,” Zuydervelt recalls. “There needed to be a human aspect, something more irregular and ‘alive’. The bass clarinet seemed like a nice choice; the sound is deep and pure, but also quite full.”
Here Zuydervelt ran into some problems, finding it difficult to mix the multi-tracked bass clarinet without interference between the parts. “By accident I found out the the trick was to slow down the whole thing to half speed; this gave air to the piece, and subtle details like beating tones became much more alive.” Beyond the additional space and texture of the slowed down version, the depth of the bass frequencies of a woodwind at that speed is simply gorgeous. The radio static and field recordings of the original served an important foundational role in a piece with 50 players, but they would have contaminated the purity of the piece built on one instrument. Finally Zuydervelt used an oscillator to add some additional contrast.
Since Sileen II is multi-tracked and edited in post-production, any live iterations with Davis would necessitate a reworking. “It would be a different, adapted version of the piece” in order to work around the nine multi-tracked layers. If Davis does perform Sileen II live, perhaps with effects, it might not be enough to designate Sileen III. Then again, Zuydervelt adds that “I think the piece would also be very nice when performed by a group of strings… Maybe someday…”
As one might expect, Sileen II bears the name of Rutger Zuydervelt (and Gareth Davis) rather than Machinefabriek. Perhaps we may read this as a confirmation of the piece’s distinction as a composition, although Deining bore the name of Machinefabriek. Why are some works Machinefabriek, and others Rutger Zuydervelt? “I must confess there’s no really clear explanation,” he tells me.
At least, not always. In the case of Sileen II it felt natural, cause it’s such a composed piece, and on a label like Wandelweiser, it just feel better to use my real name. And in the case of the soundtrack of Astroneer, I used my own name because it was such a departure from my Machinefabriek stuff… But then again, it’s the same with Sahara Mixtape, but there I used Machinefabriek – partly because Sileen II was released at the same time. And some times a label requests to use my given name. So in the end it’s simply very unclear. Sorry.
Thank you to Rutger for taking the time to discuss his work with me again. See all the Sound Propositions features here, or visit my personal site to find articles written for other publications.