Derek Holzer is an electronic luthier. With «Delilah Too» last month at Berlin Club Transmediale, the American artist reactivated the vocoder, an ancestor of electronic music. Archaeology and instruments fabrication are the source of his artistic work, he explains.
Can you tell us how the idea of Delilah Too came to you?
A few years back, I was artist-in-resident at the Klanglabor of the Kunsthochschule für Medien Köln. The place seemed like a museum of disused sound technology, and one of the instruments gathering dust in the back room was a rather large Doepfer modular synthesizer with a set of vocoder modules. Vocoders were invented to act both as an encryption device and a bandwidth reducer for long distance telecommunications. I dragging it out, set it up and as the vocoder is completely patchable, I started experimenting with what happens when you feed different types of signals into it. There are a lot of digital softwares out there now for the convolution of a sound signal with a room impulse, and I was very curious how differently it might work in the analog domain. But more importantly, I was deeply interested in how much information is still present when you start swapping the analysis and the synthesis channels around.
Around the time of these experiments, I discovered a lesser-known piece by Alvin Lucier called North American Time Capsule (1967). This piece was one of the first musical uses of the vocoder, in conjunction with Sylvania Applied Research Laboratories. He instructed performers of the Brandeis University Chamber Chorus to try and communicate Earth’s present situation to beings from a faraway space or time. The results of his manipulating the vocoder—much as in his I am Sitting in a Room—left the cadence of human speech while completely stripping away the symbolic, referential and linguistic parts.
A bit later, I ran across music journalist Dave Tompkins’ How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder from World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks. The gem I found in this book was the connection of British mathematician, cryptanalyst, and one of the father-figures of modern computing Alan Turing to the history of the vocoder.
“As a persecuted homosexual who was forced to accept chemical castration to retain his security clearance and therefore his career, Turing would have intuitively understood the need of the many different reasons (political, social, sexual or otherwise) that groups of people use “encrypted” language (slang, jargon, dialect, etc) to communicate in public spaces.”
So Delilah Too was initiated as a media-archaeological research into speech privacy. While many people seem to relate it to issues of online privacy, I am completely uninterested in adding to the endless heap of art projects about the Internet. I see the project much more about the Real and Symbolic qualities of language, and especially how removing the Symbolic component reinforces the physicality of speech as a sonic phenomenon in its own right.
You’re more and more dedicated on constructing electronic music instruments. In 2012 you presented an optoelectronic hurdy-gurdy in Pau (France) for Accès(s) festival, and this year a vocoder with Delilah Too for Club Transmediale. Can you describe how things developed for you?
One of my first formal trainings was as a silversmith, so the idea of making real things with my hands has always held far more appeal than the symbolic substitutions and semiotic shell games so beloved by the more conceptual and theoretical wings of the contemporary art world. But I think my instrument-building also reflects an economic reality one faces as a non-academic, non-institutional artist these days. There is so much digital music out there right now, and no one pays you for making any of it. But since we are working in the era of the “pro-sumer”, there are plenty of people who are constantly spending money on the tools to make their own music.
Demonstration of the WolfToneBox in 2014:
What satisfaction you get in making instruments?
I have never seen the tools of electronic sound creation as being “instruments” in the classical sense. “Instruments” are much more transparent and agnostic of what is being played on them (or how) than electronic tools, which by and large make it “easier” to create by reducing the available options and making decisions for you.
“Since available options are often dictated by what genres of sound are currently popular, you have people seeking out tools to help them make the same kinds of music they listen to already—a kind of self-perpetuating commercial loop.”
Composing with any kind of tool that makes creative decisions for you means you are actually collaborating with the person who made that tool. So calling them “instruments” isn’t nearly as accurate as calling them interactive compositions, particularly if you think of things like iPad apps where there are only two or three parameters one can manipulate on a touchscreen and a whole world of sound comes out! So I think the real composers of today are by-and-large done with deterministic pieces where every note is specified and repeated with precision.
Instead, it is more productive to think in a post-Cagean, post-Tudor sort of way which sees music not as a fixed product but rather as an ongoing process or set of tendencies which provides the performer with a certain number of parameters to affect the process and change the tendencies.
“My practice, like many of my peers’, is to distill my non-deterministic compositions down into a piece of hardware whose sound happens to coincide with what others would also consider “their music”.”
This music may or may not ever be performed in public or pressed on a vinyl, and in fact I think the bulk of the instruments I or anyone else produces never leave the shelter of the buyer’s bedroom or basement studio. This doesn’t matter in the least, since the main point is that the music is created for that person’s own self-satisfaction. This is where I believe the origins of all music began. So for me, the emphasis of this moment is once again on creation rather than propagation.
You also run many workshops, is it for the pleasure of collaboration?
Workshops began for me also from cold, hard economic realities. Aside from a few well-funded situations on the European art festival circuit, payment for a live appearance of experimental electronic music is frequently little more than 20 euros, a beer and a kebab for playing in some moldy basement somewhere. And seeing as at least half the audiences in those basements are practitioners of some kind, it doesn’t take a venture capitalist to figure out that, to add value to your appearance time, reaching out to those people in a more involved way makes a lot of sense.
The other issue for me is my extreme aversion to so-called “interactive art”. This touches on Delilah Too a bit, since the first presentation of the work went too far in this interactive direction where people come into the space and expect to be entertained. They see something with buttons and they just start pushing them, looking for the “trick” that will get the machine to recognize them and validate their presence.
“This uninformed hand-waving, button-pushing kind of instant-gratification relationship with an inanimate object is shallow and meaningless for the audience, and it is ultimately un-gratifying for me as an artist.”
So I have always preferred the word “participatory”, which implies a commitment on the part of the “audience” towards their own role in the work, and an active rather than passive relationship. Instead of spending 20 seconds in front of an installation, or 30 minutes looking at me and my boxes on stage, people can participate in a process which is far more intimate, with more social contact as well as more knowledge being transferred, which can take place over several hours or days.
How do you run your workshops?
There are a lot of people out there now giving technical workshops to build and hack electronics. I see at least one workshop a month in Berlin, for example. But I think what is missing in a lot of them is a synthesis between the technical and creative processes. I have always ended my workshops with a performance by the participants, and an invitation to the audience to explore the instruments which have been created. This last step is very educational for the instrument-builders, because they immediately see how someone else relates to their creation, and often in ways which the builder could never predict!
“I have begun more and more to set aside half the workshop time to do listening exercises, improvisational games and collective score-writing with the instruments in order to emphasize this creative process. Otherwise, the participant performances usually just end up in a chaotic noise orgy. And I think the world has seen enough of those for now…”
One of the last workshops I did, for the RITS Winter School in Belgium, was a perfect workshop for me in many ways. First, and very importantly, the gender ratio of the students was actually in balance. There is nothing worse than giving a workshop to a room full of guys in black hoodies whose testosterone drives them to prove that they know more than anybody else there! Secondly, the backgrounds of the participants were quite varied. Some were writers and actors who were more comfortable with the creative, performative parts of the workshop, while some were theater technicians or radio producers who were quote at home with circuit diagrams. But each group was pushed outside their comfort zone by a program which involved both in equal levels, and that made things very exciting!
Sound creation after the workshop at RITS Winter School: