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Interview with Felix Thorn

The following interview took place on Saturday 4th October 2008. Using questions posed by artists, writers and musicians, the aim was to interrogate the artist's approach and decision-making process from a range of perspectives. The conversation was moderated by Gasworkers Anna Colin and Robert Leckie (GW).


Eileen Simpson and Ben White (Open Music Archive): What relationship do Felix's Machines have to the player piano and other early automated music playback technologies that preceded the gramophone?

My machines perform as well as play music. The fascination with a piano that plays itself is caused by peculiar differences in the rigidity of a mechanical performance as opposed to a human performer’s emotion-driven flow. All that clever pneumatic design and the music it plays is a comic imitation. My machines are not here to re-stage human performances . For this reason, I suppose they have a closer relationship to a music box – playable only by the tiny mechanical parts that hit the bits and pieces inside it. It is not trying to be something it can't be.

GW: Talking about the relationship between performance and play, can you say something about your project's position to the relationship between performer and listener?

People are used to human performers. It is something they can relate to. I am interested in a more direct and non-deceptive performance method: a machine that reminds the listener that the satisfaction received from music can happen without the intervention of a human performer; this is made possible with audio/visual synchronicity.

GW: So what do you do with ideas of authorship and fandom? Let's start with fandom: in the event of Felix's Machines performing, are people becoming fans of the machines or are they becoming fans of the absent performer?

If anything, I would hope that it would be the machines. The attention should be on the music. People often like bands because of who is performing, their reputation and appearance.

GW: And then authorship. You, Felix Thorn, are still the author of Felix's Machines – you don't intend to hide your name.

No, that is just silly (laughs). What is the point of that? Who knows, maybe in future performances I will bring myself back into the equation to manipulate it live. At the moment I want to prove that you can get emotion from inanimate objects. I think it is possible. Some people have it… objectophilia.

GW:
Do you think the absence of a performer makes it easier or harder for an audience to relate?

I think it makes it easier because the structure of the music is spelt out visually. For example, if I played my mum a powerful piece of Breakcore-Electronica, she would most probably hate it. If the machines performed the exact same piece, she would enjoy it. Rhythmic structures in music are mathematically interesting and it's good to see them.

Some say that the only people that truly enjoy Breakcore, Glitchcore etc. are the people that make it. You shouldn't need to understand the inner workings of a computer to take pleasure in the music it plays, but you should be appreciative of work that has gone into it.

Joana Seguro (independent producer, Lumin): Does your machine have personal traits, moods or quirks?

It does in the way it has developed; its manifestation isn't hidden. The early badly measured parts can be seen next to the newer, better-constructed components. The whole process is on show, which I suppose, indicates what I have learned since the beginning of the project.

GW: So you are not really a perfectionist as far as technique and form is concerned…

I've heard that 'The Prodigy' spent a lot of time and money building 'the perfect studio'. When it was complete, he found he had musician's block. He ended up ditching the studio and quickly created his entire album on a laptop with the audio software Reason.

You can't prepare for creative moments, you just have to feed off whatever you have in front of you. The construction of the machines has definitely made use of this type of method. I tend to experiment by being as productive as possible and somewhere in the mess of dreamt up musical machines there would be something worth developing. And this also applies for the composition of the actual music. The method is exactly the same: the challenge of extracting the music you hear in your head is counteracted by forcing as many musical ideas/phrases into the score as possible, and somewhere in the chaos there will be a tiny little structure that sounds great, that needs repeating and developing.

GW: The machines are at once futuristic and organic. You refer to them as being ‘inhuman’, yet they also reflect the actions of traditional musicianship. This relationship is interesting, could you talk about it?

Whether I like it or not, there is going to be that human imposition because I happen to be human unfortunately. I am not a robot yet. The imperfections give it an organic, evolving appearance, but eventually it will look like it has actually been designed. At the moment it just looks like some kind of fungal infection growing on drums and things.

Tim Exile (Warp, Planet Mu): Did you have any unexpected practical issues you had to overcome when making the idea a reality?

For the character of the machines and the integrity of the music, practical issues are necessary limitations. In the same way an automated crane designer tests their machine with the weight it supports, the music I make aims to challenge the machine's practical boundaries. Consequently, this encourages improvement. Obviously I can't build a flying blade-cutting Gabba snare rush machine yet. I can just use bits of piano, which is a start. So I hope there are plenty of unexpected practical issues to come!

Tony Gibbs (BA Sonic Arts programme leader, Middlesex University): There is a long history of the creation of mechanical instruments stretching back at least as far as the musical box and often featuring unorthodox uses of technologies. Some have been serious attempts at innovation in composition and performance practice, some have been predominantly whimsical and others have come straight out of nowhere. I'd like to know where your thinking stems from and what you've set out to achieve with your Machines. Do you see them as primarily machines that have music as a secondary activity or are they musical instruments that happen to be machines?

An unorthodox use of technologies seems to dominate the world of mechanical musical instruments/robots. Most musical robots are built with the aim of matching human potential. I think this is a waste of time: ridiculous budgets and teams of scientists later, and all its doing is playing a guitar!? I want to demonstrate the advantages of mechanical performance and forget the instruments designed for people. What I am making are musical instruments that happen to be machines with the purpose of being performers. I aim to demonstrate that this is possible without any anthropomorphic references. People have seen it and said 'Why don't you give it eyes?'. It is not about that at all. My machines are not trying to have a personality, instead they are tools. Ultimately, I've set out to create a multi-sensory music show.

GW: So in what ways are your compositions different now from how they were at the time when you were just using a computer?

It is more of a challenge now because I have so few sounds to play with. With the machines I have to get every element of the composition right to keep listeners interested. I can't rely on effects. Would it be possible to make a machine capable of making every electronic sound acoustically? No is the answer, worth a try though.

GW: Do you see this as a continuous project? And is there an ultimate goal you want to achieve?

It definitely is a continuous project and the goal is to make some sort of acoustic synthesizer.

GW: So your working process involves trying to copy something that already exists to start with.

I listen to a lot of electronic music and wish it had more of a physical form. The working process is a visual fantasy of what I imagine a sound should look like, and a desire for others to see it. These visual fantasies are far more interesting than the appearance of computer chips, matrix patterns or spectral analysis effects.

GW: I can hear a lot of percussive elements in your machines, but sustained harmonic elements such as drones are absent. How does this affect the way you compose? Do you miss these elements?

I am rhythmically driven with composition and think there's much to be done with a solenoid. However, I do miss the drones and harmonies. They're just not there because I haven’t made them yet. I will be experimenting with wind instruments and pneumatics eventually.

Chris Weaver (production manager, Resonance104.4fm):
Do you feel there are sonic advantages to sequencing physical objects? I'm thinking specifically of variations of the materials over time or unforeseen interactions between the parts of the whole.

While making music, the fact they are physical objects can be interesting. Whenever something needs adjusting, instead of pointing the cursor at a fader, I have to pick up pliers and make adjustments.

Also, the fact that they are physical objects means they sound more organic. This makes the music I make more accessible. For example, somebody like my gran could listen to it perform rhythms in a Drill 'n' Bass style. She would enjoy it because she doesn't attach it to a genre or relate it to any background knowledge of different types of dance music.

Plaid (Warp): What advantages does acoustic synthesis have over digital synthesis?

[Acoustic synthesis: the reaction to the phenomena of computer performed music. Acoustic synthesis reconsiders the virtual music world and has the purpose of enhancing its tangibility.]

I think acoustic synthesis brings the music closer to the listener. A person can walk round the machines and experience a multitude of sonic variations depending on the environment they are set off in. This is an advantage because spatial interaction is something synthesis sometimes aims to simulate. The kind of fascinating 'unreal' sounds a synth makes could be made acoustically.

Ed Baxter (programming director, Resonance104.4fm): Freud thought music was a means of dealing with paranoia. (The 'Ur' piece of music, then, is whistling in the dark as you walk alone through the forest.) I'd like to know in what ways the mechanical performance realised through these devices you have made constitutes a deliberate displacement of consciousness?

If you're lucky, a displacement of consciousness is feasible. I think that this is created by the crossover of two synchronized sensory experiences: the patterns of the light and music happening exactly at the same time. I think that this type of uninterrupted joining of the two senses takes you into a more trance-like state. A different type of consciousness I suppose, without the help of psychedelic drugs…

Ed Baxter: And to what extent does your music attempt to address or resolve that curious aspirational feeling that no one really understands you?

GW: Do you think no one understands you?

I did. The machines were built out of frustration with people who didn't appreciate the music I was making before. I would put a lot of effort into my music, and play it to people and it would just be noise to them. It led me to find a way to get my music heard, and I think it works.

GW: Is this really what drove you to do that?

It is one of the main things and to obviously see it happening myself. There's plenty more to come.

GW: So in a way you have given yourself an activity for the rest of your life?

Yes, I have found my medium to work in. I have messed around with computer music for over a decade, but this beats it now.

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