Sounds of the Future

It’s time to expand the audiophile consciousness: we visit the people who are pushing back musical boundaries at the Reeperbahn Festival. It’s about creating new sounds and the influence of technology on our listening and our experience. With Michaela Pňačeková, who developed a generator of everyday symphonies. And with Ólafur Arnalds and Torsten Posselt, who use high-tech at the planetarium to teach people how to slow down.

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Man becomes music

Text: Steffen Greiner, Photos: Roeler

A VR project makes visitors explore the musicality of their everyday existence. Author Steffen Greiner took a deep dive. A report from the “Symphony of Noise”.

On the S-Bahn to the Reeperbahn: the guy beside me is nervous. That makes me nervous in turn, the way he taps the window with his index finger. You barely hear it, but the rhythm is fast and insistent. I try to look away. What I don’t try to do is dance. What would my world be like, at this moment, if I closed my eyes, thought of the window as an instrument, a resonating body, and the nervous guy beside me as a composer, adding his miniature works to the city’s sound?

Our bodies as instruments

“A Symphony of Noise” is the very promising title of a new virtual reality experience that is premiering on the Heiligengeistfeld in Hamburg. A year and a half after the first prototype, the project has moved into a deep-sea container at the entrance to the Reeperbahn Festival’s Arts Playground. There, the makers on creative director Michaela Pňačeková’s team have set up their generator of virtual worlds that feed on everyday sounds and the users’ input. The starting point for the VR trip is a book by the British house producer Matthew Herbert, displayed unobtrusively in the antechamber of the container, which is divided by a black curtain: “The Music” is a novel through sounds. In virtual reality, it now finds an artistic extension.

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The new worlds weigh heavy: author Steffen Greiner, wrapped in VR equipment.

Herbert, whose first albums were released back in the mid 1990s, always did more than just churn out dance music. For the "One Pig" album, for instance, he took recording equipment and shadowed a pig from birth till its death in the abattoir. You could call it Musique Concrète, avant-garde music from existing, renegotiated sounds. But even more than this 1960s genre, Herbert is about politics and responsibilities.

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Trailer for "A Symphony of Noise“: the environment becomes a stage for the sound of voice, body and simple rhythms

Divorced from what we generally call 'music', what does the system sound like – in other words with all the high-fives and that cough and the fingers hitting the keyboard? In his book, a series of scenes describes poetically the creaking of tectonic plates and the hum of refrigerators – and in between, life, our bodies as instruments.

Disinfection before poetry

Where Herbert finds language for sounds, the project finds sounds and visualisations for his worlds. Producer Michaela Pňačeková says that the “Experience” is intended to describe a journey from the interior to the exterior. “To start with we wanted to create very concrete worlds. But we realised that the sounds people create are already so concrete that everything had to be aestheticised. I wanted it to be surreal and Sci-Fi, I wanted David Lynch”. To bring the miracle of the sound of voices, bodies and simple rhythms tangible, the environments are intended to give them a stage, not upstage them. The very real sound of my body in visual, virtual poetry.

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"A journey from the interior to the exterior": producer Michaela Pňačeková.

Before the poetry comes disinfection, at the back of the container, behind the curtain. The device I’ll be wearing in a minute is more than goggles, it’s an entire complex, and we wearers are sweating profusely over it on this summer day. Lilian will be my companion as I enter the worlds that await me. While she prepares my goggles, headphones and microphone, she explains what lies in front of me: she talks of singing, breathing, of objects that I can activate with two controls. We tweak the equipment thoroughly till my head finds itself wrapped in total isolation, all viewing slits are closed and the image focused. Then I turn round and take a deep breath. The new worlds weigh heavy.

The fact is: I’m singing. And I’m enjoying it.

All around me is a red desert. Text and spoken words explain what I’m supposed to do. My breath can influence reality here. I breath in and slowly out, through the mouth, through the nose, and nothing happens. So what’s supposed to happen here? I discover a billowing object. When I blow on it, it gets bigger. And the harder I blow, the more the mass above the red infinity balloons up. That interests me. I take a deep breath, blow into the microphone as hard as I can, till the sky is filled entirely with a transparent, glittering, soap-bubble-slimy object. Then everything goes white.

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"My breath can influence reality here."

When I’m told to sing something into the landscape of rugged icebergs that towers up in front of me, the only thing that comes to mind sounds like a mixture of half-remembered early Sigur Rós and that triumphal-baroque fanfare I once sung into my mobile phone on an excellent trip in a forest in the Harz mountains. Happy-making associations, sure, but my heavens: why sing these Iceland sounds in such an Iceland environment, and why not Tamikrest or Olympia? The fact is: I’m singing. And I’m revelling in it. And the world responds, as the tunnel that’s carving itself into the ice in front of me throws back my sound and expands further as I get louder. I won’t remember that Lilian and our photographer Tom are standing just a metre or so away until she removes my equipment some ten minutes later.

As I stand sweat-drenched in front of the container, back on the Heiligengeistfeld, I’m not quite with it. No, I’m not hearing the world with different ears, but the happiness I felt in these solitary, poetic worlds, which I was capable of filling entirely, with my voice and my body, is still reverberating in me. At night in the empty S-Bahn to Berliner Tor, I notice how wonderful the window panes sound when you flick at them with your fingers. Like a lunatic, or like a composer.

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Discovering slow

Interview: Ariana Zustra, Photos: Roeler

Ólafur Arnalds and Torsten Posselt have an antidote to perfectionism and hurry: the undervalued notion of a calculated slowdown. With “Ekki Hugsa 360°”, Icelandic multi-instrumentalist Arnalds and Berlin designer Posselt have created a transcendental, all-round experience – and discovered the planetarium as a playground.

In “Ekki Hugsa 360°”, sound and visuals mingle – the result of your collaboration. How did you actually find each other?

Ólafur Arnalds: Torsten and I have been friends for many years, we’ve also worked on artworks and music videos together in the past. We originally met through our mutual friend Nils Frahm.

Torsten Posselt: Back then, Nils wanted to see a performance by Ólafur at the Babylon in Berlin and took me along.

“Ekki hugsa” is Icelandic for “don’t think”. Where does the title come from?

Arnalds: Four years ago I was going through a bad patch in my life, I was suffering from anxiety. One evening, friends took me to the theatre to take my mind off things. It was an interactive performance where the audience could pass through different rooms. In one room, there was an actor hanging paper on a washing line. When he looked at me, he suddenly took one of the sheets of paper, scribbled something on it and handed it to me. The message read: “Ekki hugsa”! That moment inspired my work I’ve done in the past few years. I still have the sheet of paper on my wall.

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Docu-video for “Ekki Hugsa”: “This project is an experiment,” says composer Ólafur Arnalds.

What effect do you expect when someone sees your work in the planetarium?

Arnalds: The aim is an immersive experience. My hope is that people don’t think about work while they’re there. That they live right in the present moment instead.

Posselt: It’s great when visitors let themselves in for these 40 minutes without knowing what’s going to happen. Even if they’re bored in the first five minutes because they’re expecting something that doesn’t happen.

Arnalds: That’s the cool part. It’s a challenge. The brain may send a message at the beginning: boredom. You’re stuck here. But you’re forced to accept it – and you power down. And then you’re much more impressed by what follows. It’s a trip into not-thinking.

… and therefore a statement against the hurried way we live these days?

Arnalds: Exactly! Sit down for an hour and be bored! (laughs)

Posselt: Bore yourself happy! (laughs)

Arnalds: That’s a separate philosophical debate. Boredom is so undervalued. It’s important to be able to be bored. We want to remind people of that.

“The overabundance asks a question: what value does music have?”
Ólafur Arnalds
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Torsten Posselt and Ólafur Arnalds at the Reeperbahn Festival.

In the installation, your 2018 album “re:member” is re-interpreted. Where did you get the idea to continue working with the music?

Arnalds: For “re:member”, I developed the “Stratus” software with which one piano triggers two other, self-playing pianos at every keystroke. I did so much programming for it that I was struck by an idea: all this data could be used for other things as well. I’m fascinated by making music tangible in new ways. Nowadays, the artwork for an album has to be more than a cover photo that’s inserted as a little square in Spotify. Music is so readily available and we artists have to make an extra effort to make it unique again. Because the overabundance asks a question: what value does music have? And our show offers one possible answer: look at what more music can be. Personally, I think that music should be something bigger than just the sound that comes from a streaming platform. That something can be community, a movement, objects, places – such as a planetarium, for example.

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It soon goes quiet again: "At some stage we got into the flow – the images for "Ekki Hugsa 360°" were products of experimentation," says Torsten Posselt.

Posselt: We took the artwork for “re:member” as a starting point. Bit by bit, we combined parts of the music with ideas for visuals that I had in my head, in a kind of ping-pong process. At some stage we got into the flow – the images for “Ekki Hugsa 360°” were products of experimentation.

A program plays piano, and the visuals in the installation are based on an analogue printing technique, cyanotype. What role do you think switching around between analogue and digital production techniques plays?

Posselt: Our works combine the love of two worlds. It’s always a combination. But I have to admit: I love working with things I can touch.

Arnalds: Oh, yes. And I prefer a real button to a mouse click as well. My music is always very much about physicality. Even if I could generate a beat on a laptop that ultimately sounded identical to a drum, I’d rather go through the creative process by the analogue route. It was important to us to take our productions out of the digital world and make them into objects – even if we digitalised them again for the show.

Posselt: We always come back to the analogue. When we scan in a visual, for example, at least it was on real paper at one time and isn’t just an image on a projector. Even if you don’t consciously realise it, you can see that. For example, what looks like a starry sky was created from the structure and specks of dust on the paper.

… which ultimately comes down to random chance. Is that part of your work as well? Sacrificing control?

Arnalds: Art happens while you make it. Making art is already art, for me at least. I enjoy the act of creation more than the end product. Stratus enabled me to break out of the automatic mechanisms in my head and let myself in for unpredictable twists and turns. In the process, you forget you wanted to create something “perfect” and just think: Oh, that sounded cool just now, how can I repeat it? You achieve a flow between you and your instrument.

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The world premiere of "Ekki Hugsa" at the Reeperbahn Festival will be followed by a tour of various planetariums.

Posselt: In the final analysis, random chance and perfection are just concepts that we humans have invented as contrasting pairs. They imply that there’s always a conflict between these concepts. Obviously, that conflict does exist, but it’s not because these two worlds don’t fit together. It’s because we have the feeling that they should be separate. I’m convinced that it’s for us to decide that.

Arnalds: Making art is like a duel between you and your perfectionism. It’s about finding holes and poking into them. Because the really interesting things are in there.

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