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Interview with Erik Mikael Karlsson by Sophie Haller

This Sophie Haller interview with Erik Mikael Karlsson took place just a week after the release of his new CD "Night of Enchantment" on the Caprice label (CAP 21666) containing three hauntingly beautiful electronic compositions deeply rooted in classical musique concrète traditions - Night of Enchantment (1997), Réponse/Reposante (1999) and Accents/Accidents (2000).


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Sophie: You spent a good ten years or more composing music with a lot of concrete material, sampled sounds and refining a digital processing technique that has become something of a Karlssonian trademark. When did you first start using digital equipment in your work? And when did you start using digital synthesis in your music?


Erik Mikael: Well, let me think. It has to have been around the end of the 1980s when I started to work a lot with the DEC VAX-11/750 computer at EMS (The Electronic Music Studio in Stockholm). Previously, I had been splicing tapes using mainly analog equipment, old Telefunken M5s and M10s and sounds came either from the Buchla 200 Synthesizer or the huge custom-built synthesizer controlled by the DEC PDP-11 computer. On the PDP, I started working with Frequency Modulation on a software called FMT and learned all the basic and boring stuff about modulators and carriers and then worked my way through additive synthesis on the same system. Mixing was in the beginning done on an old custom-built console - built by EMS - but I moved on to a MCI-console and MCI 24-track tape-recorder with an automation which was a complete nightmare [laughs]. At the end of the 1980s there were a number of composers working and programming on the VAX at EMS. Peter Lundén was heavily involved in digital synthesis, Bo Rydberg in computer processing of recorded material and Tamas Ungvary - my former teacher - was into spectral representation of sound and music. I didn't program myself - never been into programming since I'm much too restless, lazy and sane for that [laughs] - but started to use the IRCAM's Chant software for digital synthesis and some in-house software for processing sounds. Paul Pignon had written some really interesting software for the VAX-computer that I used quite a lot during a number of years, for instance SW for Giant Fourier Transforms and it could produce amazing results. Just listen to Paul's piece "Z" from 1987 [on 5 composers, Fylkingen Records FYCD 1002] or to some of the sounds in "Threads and Cords" [on 5 composers, Fylkingen Records FYCD 1002].


For mixing, I used the Studer Dyaxis I-system which I still think sounds great even if it is incredibly limited compared with today's standards. The Dyaxis was installed in late 1989 or 1990 in studio 2 at EMS (now housing a 24-track ProTools-system and 8-channel speaker set-up for multichannel purpose) and I first used it for two movements in the music-drama "Threads and Cords" which I composed together with composer Jens Hedman for the Swedish Broadcasting Corporation.


And then in the beginning of the 1990s EMS purchased the Lexicon 300 which I instantly fell in love with and still consider to be the best reverb-unit I ever worked with. The warmth, the depth in it is just incredible. And you can probably hear it in some of my pieces from that time. The reverb-times on some of the sounds are just ridiculous![laughs]


SH: Any other units you use and throw into the mix nowadays?


EMK: Yamaha manufactured, in the end of 1990s, the excellent EX5 which I've worked with quite extensively both on Réponse/Reposante from 1999 and Accents/Accidents, composed in 2000. It's a very versatile and complex instrument with a huge potentiality. I mainly worked with two different synthesis techniques on the EX5. Yamaha's famous AWM (Advanced Wave Memory) and the Virtual Acoustic Synthesis, which is based on a physical modeling technique. It simulates complex vibrations, resonances, reflections and other acoustic phenomena that occur in wind or string instruments. And I'm still very fond of the complexity and transparency you can get in sounds generated with Frequency Modulation, so now and then I switch on my Yamaha SY77 for this purpose.


And for my new composition "Lignage/Liaison" which I just finished in France, I also used an old string-machine from the 1970s, the Yamaha SS-30 for generating the raw, unprocessed material. Can you imagine, I'm using a string-machine! [laughs]. Seriously, I'm actually a firm believer in restrictions and limitations. They force you to think in new creative ways and to start to focus. It may sound like a paradox, but limitations create a feeling of freedom and vice versa - complete freedom is a jail-house for the artist. What more - let me think - oh, yes I almost forgot, I also used an old analog synthesizer, the Mini-Korg to produce some dirty timbres which I think you can hear rather clearly in the piece.


I had a very good conversation with my friends Françoise Barrière and Christian Clozier [studio-directors of Institut International de Musique Electroacoustique de Bourges] when I was in France working on "Lignage/Liaison". We discussed the lack of variety in timbre in electronic music today. Almost every composer is using the same kind of tools and software synthesizers or software processors and this produces a uniform, super-polished and almost anti-bacterial sound-world which can lead to a stagnation. Everyone has ProTools and the plug-ins - well, I admit it, I have it too [laughs] - and everyone is tweaking Metasynth, Hyperprism, Soundhack and this produces - whether you like it or not - a certain timbre which is more or less the same in every piece you hear. But now we're slowly changing subject here...


SH: Yes, but this is interesting! What about the future of electroacoustic music then? Does it even have a future?


EMK: Well, let me first finish the thing about timbre. Every unit or program has its own "sound", whether it's hardware or software... even if you really get deep inside the machine. It's an extremely banal statement but something composers tend to forget. And every instrument bears with it an architecture, an ergonomy which produces a certain pattern of behaviour when you use it... this is also a pure banality but something we also tend to forget... so I'm using different kind of units, both analog and digital, hardware and software and recorded material in order not get trapped in a certain fixed behaviour when I'm composing but also as a way to get as wide palette of sounds as possible. I guess what I'm aiming at is that I think that every composer has a responsibility to not get stuck in a technique or tool whether it is a very simple editing-technique or a very complex software-processing or digital synthesis. I'm so fed up hearing pieces which only screams a one-way technique, it is as if the mystery is gone - like everything is revealed.


Regarding the future, that's a completely different story. Of course it has a future, the question is what kind of future. A future of fertility and of openness towards visionary and new explorations in this genre of music. Or a future of standardization and of closed and fixed ways of experiencing and interpreting electronic music? That's the question, and to be honest, I have no clue whatsoever what the future will look like. I'm a pessimist and optimist. I'm fluctuating between these two both extremes as I'm talking right now. But in the pessimistic scenario I think that in a way, this music is already dead. It has frozen into a form of expression with a very limited acceptance for new explorations among the electroacoustic society and a very fixed way of thinking among composers and musicians. Very much like what has happened to jazz-music or opera.


In the optimistic scenario, young people are starting to make a new kind of electroacoustic music with different kind of tools and different kind of aesthetics. Not necessarily better tools or more interesting aesthetics. They could actually be a lot worse than the tools and aesthetics we have at our "disposal" today but just the fact that the music is changing - and that we allow and support this movement - is necessary for this genre if we want to stay alive and not die of a reactionary, conservative set way of thinking.


SH: But let me also ask you about the compositional techniques. Do you feel that you have established a technique you feel comfortable with or are you still searching?


EMK: Well, if you're comfortable with a compositional technique, then it's time to move on. That's my opinion. I have been doing electroacoustic music for more than 15 years and I have defined and developed a compositional technique that I'm quite comfortable with, I know what I'm doing and this scares the shit out of me [laughs] since I believe that creating music is a continuous search for eternal questions regarding form, energy, movement, drama and timbre. Please note that I say search for the questions, not the answers. Art and creating should not be comfortable like old shoes, it's all about searching even if the word searching tends to sound like a cliché. And I'm not interested in answers since I'm continuously redefining the questions.


SH: Which is your favorite piece on the album, and why?


EMK: My favorite on "Night of Enchantment" is the title track which spans from being almost operatic in its dramaturgy to be very intimate and vulnerable. And this transformation is hardly "visible", it's like moving through veils of sound and emotions and I love the ending of that movement with the bells actually playing a "quote" from Bergman's "Smiles of a Summer Night".


SH: What was the most complicated piece?


EMK: Accents/Accidents. I consider that piece to be a closure of a compositional technique that I've been dealing with on and off for more than 10 years and I felt that this period had to be summoned up in a piece and it became Accents/Accidents.