Aler Besc

Text by Barry G Nichols / Level

An exercise in compositional restraint, LEVEL create fractured melodies, and disjointed atmospheres. Fragments of piano chords and shattered rhythms spontaneously cohere for brief moments, and then disappear into the ether to re-form elsewhere within the sound field. Here is a work which defiantly short circuits the listener's expectations. Much of what we perceive to be musical composition is based upon specifically laid down rules of structure, melody and rhythm. On "Cycla", LEVEL take their own original short compositions and splice, fracture, and layer them in order to break these rules, yet still maintain the integrity of the original material. Music here is treated as sculpture, having all the formal elements stripped away, then re-composited until only the original remnants of the original piece remain. On occasion, accidental silences, errors and tonal fusion are enfolded into the work, becoming the site of compostional focus. What we arrive at are beautifully crafted atmospheres which resist easy categorisation, placing LEVEL firmly at the forefront on a new wave of deconstructionist digital minimalism. The LEVEL project, like its sister project, Si_COMM strives to extend the notion of minimalism by fusing the composer's methodology with a visual artist's sensibility, an attempt at breaking old rules and mind-sets, and creating a new space for auditory exploration. The project is influenced by the deconstructionist architects - stemming from the much cited quote from Goethe, who stated that "architecture is frozen music" - when this process is reversed, it becomes the access point for new areas of examination.

Barry G Nichols / Level interview (interviewed by media developer, Matt Spendlove @ Polymorphic)

1. First of all, SI_COMM and ECM323 are established vehicles for your multimedia excursions. How did the Level avatar come to exist ?

LEVEL is yet another manifestation of my recorded work, which has only emerged relatively recently. The Si_COMM project is reaching increasing levels of abstraction and minimalism- Si_COMM has become something very cerebral, and I wanted to present something which would create access points to my work and thinking which wasnft as gdifficulth to listen to and interpret. Being primarily a visual artist and designer, I work with sounds using methods analogous to visual imagery. For me, every sound I create has an accompanying image or visual process in my head when I create it, this is the only way I can work in the way I do. LEVEL uses the same processing techniques as many of the Si_COMM recordings, but I use musical instruments as source material to create texture, and stimulate my imagination and emotions. I have always worked minimally, and this stems from a sculptural stimulus – that of chipping away at the un-essentials until the true essence of a piece is revealed. I am sure that many musicians will consider LEVEL pieces as being quite empty, perhaps requiring other layers. For that reason, I have worked in collaboration with artists and musicians to add to my pieces, or re-work them in some way. This is an open invitation to anyone who would like to do soc.

2. How long have you been producing sound pieces, and what influenced you to become involved? Are you from a 'classically trained' background ?

I have only been making sound works for published CDfs for about two years, apart from a few pieces I did for labels such as Selektion in another guise. For a long time with ECM:323, I had been working in sound installation, presenting sonic material alongside visuals in order to illustrate a particular line of enquiry and to show the potential of sound, albeit in a highly controlled way, using the audience response to complete the cycle of enquiry. Most of this could only happen in a gallery setting, and it became something of a personal crusade for me to try and get a recorded body of work together that could then be built upon, and integrated with the work previously undertaken with ECM:323.

I started Si_COMM initially as a solo project, although I have enjoyed collaborating with others such as Andrew Lagowski of S.E.T.I., whose genius for composition and technical knowledge has enabled me to develop my own ideas in a more coherent way.

I have been ginvolvedh in the experimental scene for about 22 years(!), after meeting Ben Ponton and Robin Storey of Zoviet*France back in about 1983, having discovered their work in a Camden record store. I contacted Ben, and we met up in London at the Town House recording studios. Back then, I was concentrating my efforts on visual art, and went to present some of my abstract work in the hope that he could help to get me commissions to do CD covers. Ben gave me a lot of help and encouragement, and a few addresses where I could get started, and I instantly became fascinated with the whole experimental and avant garde scene, and quickly got absorbed with writing, reviewing, CD cover design, promoting, etc and generally trying to make a worthwhile contribution to the experimental scene in general, which was, and still is, small and highly specialised. I donft have any formal musical, design, or artistic training,which I think in some ways has benefitted my peculiar slant on things. I think in some instances, those who are schooled in a particular discipline tend to become blinkered by their education to some of the possibilities that exist outside of the rule book. I have deliberately never glearnedh about the nuts and bolts of my art for this very reason. It enables me to think and create outside of structures and frameworks that are already well established, and possibly to do things that established practitioners would balk at. This is really a manifestation of what Joseph Beuys would have called gconnective aestheticsh – a subject which I am currently studying for my personal advancement.

3. Your Level work is clearly influenced by reductionist principles. Do you find you have a formal, structured approach to your composition ?

Far from it. My work really emerges organically, sculpturally. I deliberately avoid trying to create music in the traditional sense, and I have resisted being categorised as either a musician or composer, purely because what I create is not music in my opinion. The impetus for the bulk of my work comes from the desire to express something that cannot readily be categorised or put into words. Of course, this is purely subjective. Most of the work I do is the product of hours of experimentation, shaping and sculpting sounds, trying to coax something coherent out of this mass of recordings, something that resonates through the filter that is gmeh. For those that know of my work, I think it is obvious that I have embraced the whole concept of working with patterns and gliving processesh within the digital domain- a place where I feel most at home with all aspects of my creativity. I feel totally at home creating through my computer, and see it as a logical extension of my own faculties.

4. I found the Cycla release extremely compelling yet there's always a danger with atmospheric music that the listener can easily tune out. Does your interest lie in creating a complete sonic journey or do you focus on the micro elements that constitute the audio experience?

Both and neither! I really donft set about creating a sonic journey, especially with Level. For me the process is alive whilst I am creating it, and it becomes something else entirely once it is released into the world. When I am working on a piece, I am usually totally absorbed by it and have it living visually in my imagination for a long time, before it ends up as a recording. As I mentioned earlier, my methodology is highly organic, and I donft have tunes or sounds wandering around in my head like a composer would - it all happens very spontaneously and sometimes very quickly. Its very often like wrestling with a wild animal, very amorphous and difficult to contain. The fun part that really engages me, is in sculpting the sounds, and making something that has itfs own life and energy. One of the reasons why I donft classify myself as a musician is because I work in a highly visual way . . . I have to have a reason for a recording to materialise, in fact most of my work is fuelled by the desire to intuitively gillustrateh a thought process, usually as a result of ideas burning away in my head for weeks, mainly inspired by my research and the curse of an enquiring mind.

5. How do you approach computer music technology? In a field where advancements are constant, do you feel a need to keep up with the latest hardware and software developments? Can you give us an idea of what kind of tools you use in your compositions?

Without wishing to sound arrogant, I think naming the tools of the trade is largely irrelevant. Itfs like asking an artist what paintbrush, and what make of paint he uses (Itfs perhaps only of interest to other artists) - for me what is important is the end product, and how it moves or influences the listener.For me, this can be achieved with almost ANY software. I am convinced that any sufficiently creative individual can work with any tools and come up with something interesting and engaging, as long as it is faithful to the artistsf original intention. So in reply to you, no - I donft feel the need to keep up with the latest software developments, in fact most of the software I use is now considered to be massively out of date. Great creativity is most often forged out of extreme limitations, this is yet another aspect of a minimalist approach.

What is interesting is that in the mainstream media, certain sounds and methods go in and out of vogue in parallel with the latest hardware and software developments, so you get a gtrendh, which quickly becomes cliched and boring. I prefer to use existing software in ways it perhaps wasnft designed for, and by combining it with other elements and forcing myself to explore it to the full, this enables me to strive for more creative solutions to any software limitations that may occur. Ultimately, I have always striven to create sounds which have not been heard before, and invoke a unique audible and cerebral experience in the listener, rather than trying to jump on any bandwagon, or make some kind of fashion statement. Hardware is slightly different, as I always try to improve on the quality and capacity of the PC, so I have bought better quality soundcards, mixing desks, etc for that reason.

6. Although 'electronica' is now an independent section in my local CD library I still find I have to look to the peripherals of modern day culture to totally satisfy my hunger. How do you think the future of the marginalised genres will be effected by the Internet and the distribution channels that it offers?

Thatfs an interesting question . . . I think the internet has opened up huge vistas of possibility for those of us working outside of the mainstream. Distribution and availability are always going to be problematic, although the advent of small specialist web radio stations, and web-labels (Polymorphic, Aural Pressure, Radio 365) and the upsurge in the usage of MP3fs etc have indicated that we are on the brink of a massive phase change in the way we access sounds and images. When I embarked on this journey, it was never intended to gain mass acceptance or adulation – in fact, I am inspired by the idea that those of us operating at the periphery have a much greater influence on culture than is at first realised. We are small droplets from which great ripples are felt at a distance in time – the gbutterfly effecth applied to contemporary culture.

I think that culturally, we are now gradually creating a society linked not by geographical location, but by areas of cultural interest - this is the advent of the gnoosphereh, as predicted by Teilhard de Chardin over 50 years ago.

My only frustration with internet based art in particular, is that there is a distinct lack of censorship and quality control. Like the gcassette cultureh that permeated experimental art in the late 1980fs,the mass availability of the means of creativity, and access to limitless software, means we are now swamped by a whole sea of garbage, which is often very frustrating for those who are looking for something more intelligent and considered. Conversely, I am an advocate of free expression, and long may this continue. The whole notion of gdumbed downh culture greatly concerns me, but thatfs another interview entirely! I personally enjoy trying to track down interesting material, and I am fortunate, as I get sent a great deal of brilliant work for my radio show, and Ifm truly grateful for that.

I was attracted to the experimental scene purely because of itfs obtuse nature, and you had to actively go out in search of interesting material, an early form of gsurfingh without the internet. The search often led to accidental crossovers with other artists and organisations etc, which of course, made it all the more rewarding for me. I think Andrew McKenzie (Hafler Trio) encapsulated this when he said in one of his books that in having to dig for a bone, the dogfs senses and muscles are exercised, refined, and sharpened, and in doing so, he is rewarded with a bone!

7. Your Shimmer release on Polymorphic includes a collaboration with guitarist Tariq Hussain. Is this a direction that you aim to further explore?

Definitely- first of all, Polymorphic have been tremendously supportive in giving my more exploratory Level work a home, and the idea of a web-based label of this kind pleases me immensely, especially as it becomes a viable and popular forum for experimental work to be heard by a wider audience. From a purely selfish point of view, it has also given me a vehicle for presenting developmental work that I would not want released on CD, or presented in any other format. I am more than happy for this part of my work to exist exclusively in a virtual environment. The idea of collaboration and cross-fertilisation is essential to a lot of what I do. I always find that working with others is not only educational, but also opens up areas that maybe I would not have considered before. The extreme minimal nature of my work also lends itself to being layered or fused with something else, and like many others, I always encourage re-mixing and re-interpretation of a lot of my work. Tariq Hussain is a gifted guitarist, and it was an interesting experiment to juxtapose his free-form musical sensibility with my organic sampling - in some ways we come from completely different creative worlds, but had enough in common for something interesting to materialise. gShimmerh was the net result of several conversations, then an evening spent together improvising and working with each otherfs ideas, and as with all improvisation, some of it worked well, some not so well, but the process was still interesting.

8. The gPROBEh collaboration with S.E.T.I explored the notion of posthuman existence. Generative music defines the parameters in which a musical system can live and breath without human intervention. Does the notion of generative music engage you?

To an extent, yes. I did a lot of work and research into generative, and emergent systems a few years back, which filtered into my installation work. There are tangible connections between natural emergent systems and synthetic generative systems, which will eventually have an influence on all aspects of creativity. I think there is a fundamental desire in all of us to create life, and digital systems are now more than capable of emulating this faculty at a very rudimentary level. I think we are living in tremendously exciting times, perhaps the next great leap for humanity as we make the slow transition from being carbon based to silicon based life forms, or maybe something in between. At the moment, of course, we are still in the infant stages of this transition, but you only need to look at the huge developments in physics and medicine to see where this all leads to in, say 100 years time. Creatively, this transition yields possibilities that we can only barely imagine. I can already see music and art being created in a globally networked way, where the notion of one originating artist will become a relic of the past, and intellectual property ascribed to one person an impossibility. The seeds for this have already been sown in the gsampling erah, and access to digital technology has only compounded this problem further. I have already indicated this transition in the Four Acoustic Solids CD, where I sent out four base sounds to other artists to transform in whichever way they chose, but ONLY using my original sounds. The results were stunning, as my original gsonic DNAh was transformed beyond recognition. My authorship of the original sounds became redundant. Once again, the copyright industry is being forced into a very tricky position, and I can only barely imagine how much more complex this will become many years hence. I definitely feel that the music of the future will be a life form on its own, comprised of a digital equivalent of DNA, which evolves and adapts to a tune of its own making.

9. The ECM323 project investigated a visual representation of fundamental sonic artefacts such as resonance and feedback. Can you give us an insight into your preoccupation with audio visual interaction?

I was always fascinated with sound, particularly how it was applied in industry and medicine, but like many, I wanted to see how it could legitimately be visualised. I experimented a lot with sound waves being passed through water, and these experiments eventually formed the basis of my first successful installation work, TRACE. I also did some work with small lasers placed onto speakers to create laser trace patterns,and used video feedback and sonic feedback in gallery pieces, which were at a fundamental level, generative systems. The next logical step would have been to create digital sound forms, and make my own generative music, but I felt this area had been well covered by people like Brian Eno and Todd Machover at MIT, so there was little left to explore unless I was able to afford more complex equipment and programming - well beyond my means at the moment. I have always been interested in patterns and pattern making, and certain critical relationships between sound and architecture, and my current preoccupation is with architectural forms translated into sound, and how sound manifests itself within man made structures.

10. Do you have any plans for a live incarnation of Level?

Quite a few people have asked me this, and the simple answer would be no. This is made more complex by the fact that I resolutely insist that what I do is not music, but sonic art, despite the fact that my musical friends and associates vehemently disagree. The point could be argued forever. I have always struggled with the idea of live work, as I would not want a live event to be presented as a ggigh, or LEVEL as a gbandh. That is not what it is, and not what I represent. If another opportunity came along to create an event in a suitably serene and contemplative space, such as a gallery, then a LEVEL live incarnation may happen. As with all my installation works, I can be very fussy about the mode of presentation, and I like very much to involve the audience in some way. I think it is terribly important now to involve audiences in the creative process, particularly if they are not artists themselves. As I hinted at earlier, we are living in a gdumbed downh society where people are ever more exposed to un-stimulating, one way passive entertainment, which does little to spark the imagination, encourage the cross fertilisation of thoughts and ideas, and empower or energise people in any kind of creative way.

11. Any future projects on the horizon?

Too many c ! I am currently re-working the Hyperlanguage piece that I did with Andrew Lagowski of S.E.T.I, - we will get together shortly to re-edit those recordings we did for Resonance FM last year, and hopefully get it released at some point. I have also been in negotiation with a group of architects to create sound sculpture for public spaces- provisionally called ARCHISONICS, this project is close to my heart at the moment, as it is very much a direction I would like to move towards, as it satisfies all of my creative impulses. The next LEVEL CD is half way completed, and I already have labels waiting for that, and I have also just completed some Si_COMM re-mixes of tracks by John Watermann for Cold Spring (SWARM compilation). There is a slim possibility of Si-COMM doing a live presentation in Paris for the launch of gVIBRO 3h, a French published audio magazine which has a Si_COMM piece on it, but this is still in the early stages. I have one or two other collaborations in the pipeline when I eventually get more time, perhaps later in the year. I would also love to start a gsound laboratoryh in a gallery space, using other sound artists to regularly come together to create interactive sound environments in a public space. I have already made some preliminary investigations, and this may materialise early next year.