RAI JUNE 23, 1990 - by Arturo Stalteri


On the occasion of his installation at the Palazzo della Triennale in Milan.

In 1975 you founded the Obscure label and released Discreet Music, which can be defined as the first ambient-music work. On this record you changed your way of making music and your image as a musician as well, openly rejecting the role of pop star.

Can you talk to us about this important turning point?

Well I guess in my mind I've always wanted music to do something to me. And maybe I've always wanted it to do almost the same thing, but to make the music do the same thing you have to keep making different music. When I first started making music I was interested in the personalities I could play, the different figures I could be. Then I lost interest in that, I didn't want myself to be in the center of the music anymore. So I began experimenting a lot with trying to remove the personality in some ways, for example by making more than one voice so that it stops being a simple figure in the middle of the picture.

Then I tried singing using nonsense words, using words backwards, putting strange sounds on my voice... finding different ways of reducing the importance of the figure in the picture. What I was starting to get interested in was not the figure, but the landscape behind the figure; I found the figure more and more of a problem.

The same is true in a painting: if you have a picture of a landscape, you look at it and your eye moves freely over the landscape; if you put a human figure in there, even if it's a tiny little one, it becomes the center of your attention, it's very difficult to ignore, because humans relate to other humans. With music it became a problem, because I felt that as long as I was in the center of the picture this kept you, as the listener, outside the picture. Now if I took myself out of that picture, this left a kind of open field, a sound-field of some kind, which invited you in; and I felt that by removing my own personality - as represented by my voice - I opened up the music in a new way, I made a space that people could come into. Just that single act made the music much more "environmental".

Years ago you said "I'm a non-musician, the tape is the music". In your opinion is it still possible to do research in music without using electronics, using for instance a piano or a classicaI guitar, or is the acoustic era definitely over?

No, I don't think it's over. In a strange way, electronics have re-opened that area, for two reasons. First of all, recording techniques are so much better now that acoustic instruments suddenly stort to sound interesting again. For a long time acoustic instruments were compromised by recordings; electronic instruments were developed for recording, and worked better on records for a long time; but now recording has started to catch up again, so suddenly acoustic instruments sound interesting. The other reason of course is that sampling has suddenly reinterested people in acoustic sources, they feel that there is something very moving about the "humanity", the material quality of a real instrument.

I was thinking about this a lot over the last few years, because I prevalently work with synthesizers but I also make loudspeakers and create strange constructions, to make the sound more complicated.

It occurred to me that the real problem with synthesizers is that what you are hearing in the end is the movement of a few atoms amplified, really it's just a few atoms. When you're hearing a grand piano you're hearing the movement of billions of molecules, everything is active: the wood, the strings, the metal, the temperature in the room, all these elements change the way that thing sounds. For this reason those instruments remain interesting because they are never the same twice. If you play this piano today, it isn't the same piano that you play tomorrow.

So I think that actually the "novelty" of electronics has slightly worn off, and people are starting to look to those instruments again. The same movement happened in painting, there was a period when everybody wanted their colours to be totally flat and with very hard edges. Towards the middle of the '70s people started to get messy again, you started to see brush strokes, evidences of the human hand and of the materials.

I think the same thing is happening in music, and once again it's exciting to realise that this thing has a history, it's not just something that was invented in a factory in Japan last year. There are a whole history and a tradition which become part of the performance: you can't listen to a piano without listening to the whole history of piano music as well.

In 1983 your released Apollo: Atmospheres & Soundtracks, a record containing the soundtrack to Al Reinhert's documentary on the American missions to the Moon. How do you judge this work, seven years later?

I like that record a lot, because it does something that is musically very interesting, it makes a sort of "space country & western". On the second side of the record the songs are all country & western songs, but they're really expanded, it's the biggest space you can imagine.

It's a very American thing, the feeling of being on the frontier and of pioneers going out to the future, which once again is happening or was happening in space research. It's the same feeling. So I thought that music was very much of the right spirit for that adventure.

Do you believe there might be life on planets other than Earth?

No, I don't think so. I don't know if you saw it, there was the most beautiful photograph that came back from Voyager. Voyager I is many million miles away now, and they told the machine to turn the camera back to look at the Earth, in fact it looked at the whole Milky Way, thousands and thousands and thousands of stars, and they applied a technique to discover whether there were any other planets with an atmosphere like ours. It was a kind of filter they used, and any other planet that had on atmosphere that could sustain life would show up as blue, a blue planet. So they looked at this picture with four million stars on it, and there is one blue planet, and it's ours.

I thought this was on almost sad thought but beautiful as well, that suddenly we realise that we might be alone in the universe, there might be nobody else.

I think this is a most important thought for the future, because I would like people to understand and to act as if there was nobody else, as if it was just us, and we have to take responsibility for that.

And when I say nobody else, I mean not only no other great creatures, but no gods, no rules, no final realities, no absolutes; it's just what we make, we make the reality and nobody else will make it for us.

Now I'm thinking that we're out in the universe, and we look back, and what do we see; a dead universe actually, it's dead except for us; maybe we're the only life in the whole universe, it's an amazing thought. There is no evidence that there is any other life.

We have a computer in America that is permanently scanning eight million different rodio frequencies, looking for any sign of regular transmissions. They haven't found any, nothing.

I believe if UFOs existed there would be at least one good photograph. We have good photographs of the most extremely rare occurrences. There are good photographs of meteors coming in to land on the Earth, and that's very rare, but we even have good films of them; we've got films of neutrinos colliding. These events are so rare, and if we can film those then we should be able to film UFOs.

1980 is the year of My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts, a very stimulating record you did with David Byrne in which you make use of materials from the radio, among others. We live in times that privilege the image. Do you think the radio has by now lost its reason to exist?

No, I still think radio is much more exciting than television. And one of the reasons radio is so exciting is because it's relatively cheap, it's fast - it can very quickly respond to affairs - and it's casual, in a certain way. If we were doing this interview for television I would know that everything I said was going to come out two minutes long. lt's very rare on television to have chance for something to go into any depth at all, there is no detail, it's always simple little sections.

I don't watch television but I do listen to the radio a lot, in fact I have a short-wove rodio that I always take with me. When I'm here in Milano, for instance, I tune to North African and Middle Eastern stations, because I like those musics a lot but also just because I like hearing the way people talk, I don't understand what they are saying, but just hearing the music of their language tells me something about that culture.

Do people talk in deep, soft voices, like they do in France, or do they kind of scream and shout like they do in some of the Arab countries? This tells you a lot about the style of a culture, and there is no comparison with the television.

At home in England I can get four channels on the television. If I had a satellite dish I could get maybe twenty channels. But with my radio I can get four thousand channels, it's like a huge library, and it's a very exciting thing.

Is restlessness a necessary characteristic in a creative person or is it possible to be artists without being restless?

Yes, I think it's possible. I'm not a very quiet person, I'm fairly restless, but there are some artists that had very, very quiet, unexciting lives. I think Matisse was such an artist, Bonard perhaps was like that, Rousseau of course, Magritte - all those people had extremely boring lives. They lived at home, in the same house; well, Thelonious Monk actually - talking of a more recent example. You know, Thelonious Monk lived his whole life in the same house; it's very rare nowadays to do that. I actually envy the kind of artist who can just get his routine sorted out, get up every day and do his work and stop at half past five. It's an interesting attitude.

You often travel to Italy. What do you think of Italian folk music?

I like it very much. I like any music that has an influence from Arabic music. I can hear the Arabic in Southern Italian music very strongly, I also hear it in Irish music. Yes, I think that's a very Arabic-influenced music as well; this is because the Phoenicians from North Africa traded with Western Ireland, and left behind a way of making music which still survives. I guess that I have a taste for complex singing, so I like gospel music for the same reason.

Instead I find a lot of what you would call white popular music boring because the singing is so simple, it just doesn't do anything, it just seems that colours are very simple in that music. But in the Southern Italian music I find something exciting, a lot of colour.

In my opinion On Land, released in 1982, is a very important work. Listening to it one has the feeling of traveling inside one's own unconscious. I would define it as a "therapeutic" record. What are your thoughts regarding this work?

I love that record, I guess it is my favourite record in many ways because it really took me somewhere where I felt nobody had been before, this was really like a new land in music. I still feel that was really the opening of a new territory for music, and I'm more proud of that record than any of my other ones. I like many of my records, of course, but that one has a special historical position of some kind.

I suppose that with that record I was trying to think of music as a place, not as a story, as a dance, but as a place that you go to. So when you want to go to that place you put that record on. In that sense, there is a therapeutic connection.

In the past, when I was doing a lot of traveling, I would always bring along a tiny hi-fi that fitted into a box, and in the hotel I would set this up and put on four or five tapes that I always carried around with me. I realised that these tapes where like the shell on a snail, it was my little house, my musical house; it was very important to make one part of my life the same place, a place that I could go to, and for me it was very therapeutic, I would put that on and think "now I can settle for a moment". Discreet Music has been used a lot in hospitals, maternity words and such places; I think that it has special therapeutic quality because it has these waves of sound very slowly repeating, and repeating at a rather interesting speed, it's the speed of rather slow breathing. I think what can happen when you put that record on, is that you slightly relax your breathing. This wasn't something I intended, I didn't think of it, but I noticed afterwards that it has that effect of making your breathing more regular, of calming you somewhat.

I wish somebody would do some serious research on this area because I think it's a promising one.

You have now shifted to the visual arts. How did this change come about?

Well I was trained as a painter so I started as a visual artist. In fact before I really worked with music I was working as a painter, but I wasn't a very good one, actually, too impatient! What happened was that I started working with light: light has always interested me and it's light I'm working with now, really, not paint or anything like that. It interests me because it has such a strong effect on us, we are so affected by light, it's so powerful a medium, and very few people work on it. The best example is cinema, cinema uses light in the most interesting way at the moment, as opposed to holography and video art which instead I find quite boring.

The only interesting light-art for me is being done in cinema, but it's nearly always as the servant of a story, you're not really quite conscious of the light-aspect of it, it's always underneath.

I started playing with video and televisions, and I very quickly went through the same process I had been through with music, of realising that what I wanted to make was not a picture based on stories, or figures, or human presence you could say, I wanted to make paintings really with light, first of all with video.

I did quite a lot of expositions using video images, most of which were very slow-changing and really constructed as paintings, so I was looking at compositional values, colour-values, and so on.

Then I started to realise that I didn't want television images either, I wanted to move it away from television, so I started using the television as a source of light. Television is not very good for images, I think the images are rather crude, but as a light-source it's on excellent machine and very easy to control.

So I thought I had discovered a little territory here that nobody else was using, this was a way of using television that was quite original.

In this show I'm using slides. I guess I like the idea of working with materials that everybody thinks they understand, and then using them in a totally different way, in the same way as television before.

I would like to conclude with a question on world music. In 1969, just before he died, Brian Jones recorded ethnic music from Morocco on the album Joujouka; in 1979 you conceived with Jon Hassell the album Fourth World Volume 1: Possible Musics (Third World-inspired music, with the integration of electronics).

In your opinion, is today's boom of ethnic cultures in the field of contemporary research the result of a real interest, or could it be a way to overcome the current standstill in the field of music by drawing on new sources?

Well it's a good question, and I think in fact that both of those things are true.

I think it is a very real interest for a lot of the artists and for a lot of the audiences, because when you listen to the music of another culture and when you respond to that, you're not only responding to music, you're also responding to a set of values about what is important within music.

For instance, there is a very big difference in mental state between listening to music that is based on words and language and listening to music that is based for example on rhythm, or in another way on music that is based on texture and on colour.

Those are all different worlds, and when you respond to one of those you are responding to a whole world-picture, it's not just music, nothing is just music, music stands for a lot of other things.

I think it's very interesting that audiences are responding to African rhythms, much more complex rhythms than we've known in the past, but also rhythms that connect with a part of the body that we haven't really been so interested in the past. That's a difference in how we view ourselves as well.

Word-music is directed at the top part of your body, and it moves you because it moves your brain; rhythmic music moves other parts of you, and the fact that we find it interesting that those parts should move tells us something different about ourselves. We are changing, and that's why we're listening to these other musics, because the musics that we have don't quite fit us any longer, the musics we had in the past don't fit the "us" that we want to be now.

Human beings are always moving between what they were, and what they want to be; you are a description, that's all you are. When you talk about yourself you are talking about a description, you don't say I'm eighty-four percent water, point-four percent magnesium, point-nine percent phosphorous, or whatever. You talk about the description you've given yourself, and people are describing themselves in different ways.

One of the ways people describe themselves is by the music they choose to live with, by the clothes they wear, by the paintings they look at, by the radio stations they listen to... these are all part of the description of yourself.

When people become interested in ethnic music what they are expressing is an interest in other possible descriptions. That's why this phrase "possible music" is an interesting one; it's like saying that there are other ways of describing ourselves that we could have: what about a way of describing ourselves where we say that the story isn't important, the words are not the issue, something else is important. In Western culture, where words have been important for so long, this is a revolutionary idea.