The creative practice of Sebastian Meissner is scattered across numerous pseudonyms and disciplines. I am a huge fan of his work as Random Inc., Autopoieses, and Klimek and I never even suspected these projects were all crafted by the same musician until 2004. I began a dialog with Meissner earlier this year when he was gracious enough to allow me to use the track "Sand" to score a short video piece. As we chatted back and forth, I learned about his photography and video (see post) and I became increasingly curious about the atmospheric and spatial qualities that run through his diverse body of work. Sebastian was kind enough to take a considerable amount of time to provide a thorough contextualization of his art and music. This conversation addresses: aesthetics, Meissner's nuanced perspective on Israel, his thoughts on sound and cities and his opinions on the evolving electronic music market in Europe. He also has shed some light on his forthcoming Klimek album (due out on the NYC based Anticipate imprint later this fall).
A good place to start would be your myriad of pseudonyms. You have recorded under close to a dozen projects under the following monikers: Bizz Circuits, Random Inc., Random Industries, Autopoieses, Klimek and your own name. Could you discuss your perspective on identity in electronic music and how it relates to these many projects?
I find the average relationship of an artist ego towards the topics/issues he/she is trying to address as quite problematic. The artist as the carrier/distributor of beauty and aesthetic arrangements has stopped working for me. Such works have little to do with the outside world, which surrounds me delivering short-term entertainment and/or creating new virtual spaces, but without bridging them with reality. Above all what’s important for me in this "game" called art is participating in public life and reacting to society. I am interested in proposal such as expressed by Artur Zmijewski in his essay Applied Social Arts, which demands a new role of the artist in society. Urging him/her to take active responsibility for the shaping of the society which is surrounding him/her. Each of my projects has its own perspective and its own focus, thus they need different names to make contextual distinctions possible. I started to entitle my works with project names to draw a bigger attention to the subjects. From an economic perspective, it is of course more advisable to stick to the classical artist image using your first and family name (faked or real).
I consider your record Walking in Jerusalem to be one of the most interesting records of the last decade. It is political, without wearing a polemic on its sleeve and raises all kinds of provocative questions about the digital musician as a new kind of flâneur. What are your thoughts on the rhythm and sound of urban space? Also, could you talk about your connection to Jerusalem and perhaps provide a bit of a back-story to that specific album?
Well, thank you! I have watched, read and followed the many strains leading to the Middle-East region and it’s so called "conflict" over the years, but it was always a view from outside. On Walking in Jerusalem I wanted to get confronted with real people, being with them in their homes, looking them in the eyes. It could have ended with my first CD, Jerusalem: Tales Outside The Framework Of Orthodoxy, which was mostly about the mysticism of the city, but my visits turned out as quite productive, which encouraged me to keep on moving with the subject.
Lots of people on the outside who are debating on the politics of the Middle East make it easy for themselves to jump on one perspective, and defend it then by all means. Muslimgauze (Bryn Jones) to whom I was compared a lot during this time is surely an example for it. He never wanted to visit the region ("I don't think you can visit an occupied land. It's the principle. Not until it's free again"). Well, you can make an artistic point out of such neglect of dealing with the other side. It will stand like a monument erected by such an artist for the human right struggle of the Palestinian people. Fine, but as the time has shown this position is not solving anything and not contributing anything positive impulses in solving this "conflict" basically it’s only approving the victim status of Palestinians and it does even worse, because it opens up a mistimed debate on the right of Israel’s right to exist.
From a perspective of a person who is living in Germany it’s really difficult to deal with Israeli-Palestinian issues. On the far left you have people who no matter what stick to Israel’s right to defend itself (without even looking behind those actions of self defense like the "Jerusalem question": a matter of Israel’s self-defense or a matter of marking a dominant position in the region?). Those people are very easily manipulated by some key-slogans like: "survival of the Jewish state," "war on terror" etc. Looking for a meaningful place in the "western" society some people (like Mr. Jones himself) are escaping into allophilia (embracing cultures, ethnicities, gender and disabilities). On the political "far right" some are still handling a vocabulary like it was used some 70 years ago and living a strange, quixotic reality (silently supported by those who wants to get rid of this part of German history). On the representative level those people can easily be muted but it seams like nobody want to deal with them, which is causing a high probability for a (sub) cultural reproduction of those views and positions. The very center of German society is still too paralyzed, too dozy or too afraid of everything, which has to do with the Holocaust and/or the Israeli state. This is an uneasy starting point, but the most productive thing you can actually do is to take it as a challenge and to deal with it. But then again I didn’t want to do a work about the inner German controversy, but something, which could have been viewed from every other global position as well. National affiliation is playing not an important role within my identity. When you step a side of this construct you realize that you now you don’t have to speak for Germans, not for Poles, not for the culprit, not for the victims just for yourself. This exercise enabled me to develop a kind of natural born curiosity and a specific curiosity towards Israeli-Palestinian issues.
The Israeli society is divided into many parts. The traumas of the Holocaust and an anti-Arabic (actually and anti-Islamic) climate made it up to date possible that this joint-venture "Jewish identity in Israel" remains to the outside world in an uniform appearance and maintains an strong identity shaping instrument inside of the Israeli society. Israel is build upon the traumas of the Ashkenazi population (East/Middle European rooted Jewish population). The Sephardic (North Africa and Iberian rooted Jewish population) and the oriental/Iraqi migration of the 50ties were theoretically speaking a big chance for Israeli society to approach the arabic-islamic population inside of the state but also in the states surrounding Israel. Upon arrival in Israel those immigrants had a strongly Arabic shaped identity first Arabic THEN Jewish. The state of Israel tried to assimilate those people by all means and made them adapt the mainstream attitudes of the Ashkenazi dominated mainstream society, disposing them of their Arabic roots. But the biggest challenge for the Israeli state of all time will be the immigrants from Russia, who arrived there mostly during the 90s. The second generation of those immigrants is producing now distortions such as "Nazi Jews" vandalizing synagogues and violently assaulting religious people.
It was DEFINITELY not my goal to deliver sort of a well-reflected exoticism to the average electronic music lover. Not like it was proposed (for example) by Freeform's Audio Tourism (an audio artist equipped with microphones goes to an arbitrary country, collects lot of interesting sounding source material and decorate his own composition with that ambience, using an exotic looking picture on the front cover) or Deadbeat's Journeyman’s Annual (hotel, sound check, party, motel, taxi, airport). I wanted to open a door for a deeper, more complex/diverse view at this region and also to look for a little bit more then pure aesthetics and the love of new software and hardware technologies. This album and all my other works referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where part of my own journey and part of my own studies of how to approach a situation seemingly with no way out. I was studying Jewish history and the history of the Holocaust way before I started to play with sound. My interest is rooted in my childhood and adolescence. I grew up in a family with half Polish and half German roots. On the one hand side there were several members of my family exterminated by Nazis, on the other side people who served in the Wehrmacht. It is surely also a story how I was trying to understand what happen in Europe during the 30s and 40s.
The next step I did then was focusing on the era before that time looking for indications what could have make National Socialism possible. But somehow naturally my focus shifted to post World War II history. What happened to all those survivors who have decided to leave Europe and create a new state? My releases are documenting this slowly approach: Jerusalem - as the view from very far away, Walking in Jerusalem wandering through the city streets, Intifada Offspring arriving at peoples homes and finally Into The Void offering a view to the roots of what later shaped Israel.
Eskimo by The Residents is for me an incredible album and a perfect example how to avoid the aspect of a "flâneur". The written stories on this album accompanying each track are so deep and so disturbing. They are not creating in you the desire to travel to Greenland or to become part of the Ennui society but they make you think about human societies and its behaviors. Other good example is Geir Jenssen’s Field Recordings from Tibet album, where the journey itself is the topic.
Art (aesthetics) is for me just a vehicle to a deeper understanding of the world around me. The politics of the Middle East are so much present in our globalized western society, but so far away from a deeper understanding of the socio-cultural dynamics happening there. There are more identities at work in this region, which divide and connect people with each other more then as on religiosity centered main-stream debates wants us to believe.
The rhythm & sound of urban scenarios can’t be uniform, as companies advertising fashion accessories would have us believe. Drum’n’Bass and Downtempo-Jazzy-Beats might also have found a home in India or Tajikistan, but the urban sounds of such places (Jerusalem included) might be not those songs we would like to hear (like "cheesy" Arabic pop-songs). The trap is that if you want to look for sounds which represent a specific local vibe/way of expressing yourself, you have to move closer and not end your search at the local copy of a New-Wave, Doom-Metal or Electronica act etc.
It is clear from your recent Ghetto Ambient project, that you are interested in the aesthetics of the city above and beyond sound. How does this project and Autokontrast, fit into your creative practice?
Within the Ghetto Ambient project various aspects and different forms/methods of my work are melting into each other, displaying GA at the present time in a stage far away from having reached its final destination.
It started by linking my newer audio-compositions with my "animated photography". Here I am cutting some chosen motives from my pictures into numerous zooms and apertures and arrange them into a new whole, trying to develop an abstract narrative over a given time span. The pictures are showing predominantly specific symbolic places from geographic regions I have visited over the last few years. For example: construction yards and sites of house demolishing in East Jerusalem, suburban housings on outskirts of Algiers, the Bullring Shopping Center in Birmingham, Kazimierz, former Jewish neighborhood of Cracow, anarchistic stencils in Porto and many other. I am assigning then those movies to a specific track, which is sometimes from my Klimek repertoire and sometimes a newer composition, which is mostly turning out in a darker, slow motion dub-step like mood.
Recently I started also to expand this platform for my installation works. For example I will incorporate a series of installations dealing with socio-cultural and economic changes in the Upper Silesian region in Poland (where I grew up). As I already did with my work "Business Never Personal" for the Barents Spektakel in Kirkenes/Norway a work about "arrested" Russian ships in the port of Kirkenes and those seamen who are maintaining those vessels.
City above and beyond sound? Yes, definitely beyond sound or using sound in a new context. I think the Music To Fall Asleep album is portraying this step very precisely. Working with the motive from Jean Cocteau’s Orphée and using a dirty slop as a mirror, my attention started to shift (as someone described) to "forgotten places at the edge to the globalized world". By providing the listener with my associative tracks titles with double names such as "Pathways to Work," "Accompanying Guilty Thoughts of Unauthorized Candy," "Kingdoms Here We Come" etc I wanted to create a pool of keywords/verbal parameters allowing the listener to develop his/her own storyline, while listening to the audio compositions.
I really like to see the come back of the "walkman-culture" (now: "IPod-culture"). While walking through cities with my favorite music on my headphones I had experienced magical moments. Taking the music labeled as "ambient" to places outside safe environments such as chill-out launches and comfortably and stylish living-room couches ("The world isn´t a safe place," Artur Zmijewski), I wanted to create an everyday life soundtrack for subways and places that passing you by, while covering distances in urban scenarios. So "falling asleep" means NOT into a relaxing, siesta-like atmosphere, but into an uncontrolled passing away, losing control over your body like you know it from people suffering from narcolepsy or like exhaustingly returning from work on public transport.
Autokontrast is the output for my photography. I have been taking pictures (and working in video) for quite long time now, way longer that I have been involved in composing sound. The website is documenting a selection of my scanned, celluloid based works, divided into various aspects and themes, where intuitive navigation is part of this work.
Your Klimek project seems to oscillate between an almost confrontational sparseness and an incredible warmth and assurance. While these moods are polar opposites, the consistent theme seems to be an incredible attention to the slow, nuanced "pace" of melody. Could you describe the atmosphere you are creating and exploring with this work?
Klimek tracks are mostly based on edited / processed acoustic samples taken from songs / compositions / composers which / who influenced me over the years. For example the tracks "Milk" & "Honey" are based on guitar plucks from the play by Fred Frith and Bill Frisell. By disassembling these tracks I carefully listen and pay attention to the composition on a nearly microscopic level, and pick up those elements, which "speak" to me the most. Maybe you could compare it to what I was doing when I was a little kid: by taking apart my grandparents' cameras. Screw by screw I was getting deeper and deeper into those machines and discovering hidden, yet invisible elements. Later then led by thoughts of guilt I was trying to put back the cameras to their primary shape, but ended up having constructed three or even more new objects, with temporarily no practical usage. Maybe with a similar portion of passion, curiosity I am approaching my method of sampling and creating new arrangements out of it.
Slowness/slow motion is a very fascinating aspect in music composition for me. Working on Klimek tracks the question for me always was: "how slow can I get before losing the perception of a movement/rhythm? This aspect you could also convey to the Ghetto Ambient visuals as well, where I am trying to move the picture layers so slow, that it’s hard to realize when a transition has been completed. A phenomenon we are experiencing on everyday life basis: realizing that on our way to work a new building has been completed or when looking in a mirror and realizing that our face doesn’t look like it was looking some years ago.
So accordingly to this I am not associating my compositions with so called electronic "ambient" (or even "drone") music, but rather then with composers and bands who explored the slow-motion aspect in music such as Swans, Bohren & der Club of Gore and The Melvins. My compositions might sound less silence breaking as these artists, but I hope the Klimek sound can create other powerful perceptions ("violently sad sounding music" as the German magazine SPEX wrote about this album). Here we might come back to the aspect of losing control while listening to music not in an ecstatic mood but more out of a loss of control about oneself perception. Making you forget about time and opening doors to a new perception of the place you abide / dwell creating a mood of anticipation for a change.
Your next Klimek release is due out in November on Ezekiel Honig’s Anticipate imprint. The album, entitled Dedications, seems to dive further into the realm of tribute that you describe above. With this record you work through a range of personalities including artists including Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Marvin Gaye, Charles Mingus, your grandmother Zofia Klimek, an ex-partner/collaborator and even the fictional Jimmy Corrigan. Is this attempt at autobiography through aknowledging the work and influence of others?
Inevitably it is dealing with drawing attention to the work by people who - in one way or another - have influenced me in my life (but I wouldn’t say that the selection of names on this album is necessarily representative for my biography). I want to draw attention to the relationships and tensions between two characters symbolizing opposite values, different discourses or personalities.
For example using Spielberg’s name on one of the tracks goes back to my work Into the Void (installation + concert + composition + collaboration with Israeli artists Ran Slavin and Eran Sachs) I have done for the XIII edition of the Jewish Culture Festival in Krakow, Poland, where I have used parts of "Schindler's List" soundtrack to point out the aspect of virtual Jewish places/virtual Jewishness: klezmer nostalgia meets concentration-camp tourism meets pilgrimage to spots such as sceneries for film-shots, while being served by dressed-up Poles in orthodox Jewish "costumes" with semi-kosher food to the sound of second-hand klezmer. Azza el-Hassan, a Palestinian filmmaker, was urging Spielberg in one of her works finally to start working on his movie about the "holy-land," which he (meaning his production company) had announced years ago and which supposedly wanted to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It deals also with the artistic relationship between Grant Hart and Bob Mould, the Lennon-McCartney of the post-punk. It deals about working and doing art about work (Michael Gira versus Russian seaman Vladimir Ivanovich). It is trying to point out how "fame" can influence the "real" life of an artist (Ol´ Dirty Bastard versus Marvin Gaye) aka cocaine (ab)use. About real and staged loneliness, hopelessness and despair (my grandmother Zofia Klimek versus Gregory Crewdson) and about different approaches towards life (Lia versus Jimmy Corrigan).
The idea on this album is to confront people from different "worlds" with each other.
Mille Plateaux was an absolute hotbed of experimental electronic music from 1993-2004. The label was a vibrant testing ground for digital aaesthetics and yielded all kinds of new permutations of house and techno and speculations on pop and more experimental soundscapes. Could you talk about the culture surrounding the imprint and how being involved with it influenced you as an artist?
I have a very strong biographic connection to the label group of Force Inc./Mille Plateaux. I guess it started with Boy-Records (primarily a fashion store chain from London, which was famous in the 80s), one of the first record stores in Frankfurt where you could find a solid selection of by the end of 80s/beginning of 90s emerging dance culture. I was spending lot of time there listening to new house and techno records. Achim Szepanski was working there at this time, who in 1991 founded Force Inc and in 1994 Mille Plateaux. Force Inc was releasing at this time a colorful mix of Acid-Techno, Break-Beats and banging rave music. Thomas Gerlach & Ian Pooley, Alec Empire, Wolfgang Voigt and Thomas Heckmann were responsible for the main output. One day I found out that why paying more for vinyl in record stores, when you could call this local phone number printed on every Force Inc vinyl and getting those records for 1/3 less of the regular price. Something, which made me visiting Achim´s first office (which was actually his apartment at this time) on a regular basis. Force Inc started to get boring after a while, and I was (and like some more people) exhausted by the club culture, which had been absorbed by the mainstream. At the same time as WARP started to release their Artificial Intelligence series, Mille Plateaux started to release their series of Modulation Transformation compilations, which contained many adventurous tracks, which were at that time really hard to classify. Another unique aspect of Mille Plateaux was to link Deleuzian/Guattarian philosophy to abstract electronic compositions, which made it possible to attract new audience/listeners at the doorstep to universities. Most of the main Force Inc artists started now also to produce abstract (but most of all slightly downtempo) electronica tracks for Mille Plateaux. The real turning point started when Oval (later also Microstoria) started to release their albums for the label. They were the first seriously demanding act on Mille Plateaux with a fresh sound-design and lot of love for acoustic abstraction and reflection on their mode of production. Mille Plateaux wasn’t the only label releasing abstract electronic music at that time. But it had the popularity (achieved through well selling Force Inc releases) and so the strength to make new (and little bit older) abstract sound composers visible. The well acknowledged compilation series Electric Ladyland started quite abstract but ended up reproducing styles between Trip-Hop and darker down-tempo tracks (marking also the expansion of the label group to the Drum´n´Bass sub-label Position Chrome). Next label character defining new entries were Pluramon, Terre Thaemlitz, Ultra-Red, Thomas Köner, Curd Duca and Gas (aka Wolfgang Voigt). At the same time 1998 as SND, Vladislav Delay and Frank Bretschneider entered the release catalogue; me and my former partner Ekkehard Ehlers offered the label our first release La Vie A Noir as Autopoieses.
I think we were quite good example of those new "bedroom producers" who emerged around the globe, caused by affordable personal computers and Internet connections. You could maybe compare that boom with that one which happened during the 80s, when in Japan produced music hardware became affordable, influencing/creating lot of new house and early techno producers in the USA. By the end of the 90s those producers, who were skilled to write their own programs (and/or using platforms such as MAX/MSP) could shine with a new digital sound at the edge to noise by using like many times in music history before those sound effects, which weren’t originally intended to be used: "clicks"/"glitch" (like for example: guitar feedback = Jimi Hendrix, Roland 303 = Acid House). Talking about any possible culture surrounding the imprint of Mille Plateaux (but also lot of other exciting labels) you have to face the geographic axis between Western Europe, North America and Australia . If there was any culture surrounding the output of that time, then surely it had a predominantly virtual character.
By 2000 I had starteded working for Mille Plateaux and was beginning to gain a new perspective on the scene / market from this involvement. Between those young labels, young producers and the new media reviewing it developed a productive flow. The global aspect of this scene and its allocation beyond (post) rave cultures means: in galleries, established theaters allowed (at least in Europe) financial support by government and local state funds, covering expensive continental flights.
Right now I am realizing (after Mille Plateaux is practically speaking gone) that what I am missing right now in midst of this so-called electronic music scene, is this "rhizomatic" way of thinking and releasing music. Nowadays it seams like most of labels (dedicated to abstract electronically produced music) has a very strict and specific vision on sound aesthetics or are following a chose sub-genre. The artwork is uniform, the releases/products are adjusted, the focus is on creating "stars" and being represented by big festivals. Surely this is an economic/pragmatic/market orientated approach and - as described by the music business: "shrinking back to a healthy shape," but this development is also lacking new (creative) visions. And I still find that electronically/computer produced music can be and IS so exciting.
[Greg J. Smith]