Jan Jelinek Interview

jan jelinek - focus berlin

[photo: pil01]

This past fall Vague Terrain had the pleasure of inviting Jan Jelinek to Toronto to perform at the Music Gallery's X Avant festival. Jan delivered an incredibly visceral, droney set which was largely comprised of material from his Tierbeobachtung album. I'd be hard pressed to name another musician who has released as many groundbreaking and ambitious recordings over the last decade. Some artists define genres, but I think others destroy them by pushing them to their logical conclusions and breaking through stylistic conventions into uncharted territory. Jelinek cracked open minimal house with his Farben project, and the full lengths he has released on ~scape have served as essential documentation of his ongoing experiments.

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Greg J. Smith: Lets start out with your musical roots, and try to move through your body of work semi-chronologically to try to get a good sense of your development as an artist. In describing your Farben work, you’ve talked about "trying to make house music, but failing." Could you elaborate on this quotation and contextualize this ongoing musical project?

Jan Jelinek: To be honest I don’t even know if Farben is still an ongoing project. I haven’t thought about it in the last two years, which means also, that I had no idea, how to continue with the Farben-moniker. I tried as Farben to produce techno, because this genre placed as a disposal a minimal formula, which allows non-musicians and dilettantes to compose. I Guess that I felt attracted to this and still do. Also I still love the idea of abstract reductionism, somehow a technological version of funk and house music. But I don’t know, how to add something further on to this idea, how to add something to the idea of Farben. Farben was something like an attempt at making post-techno and post-house music. Techno was already defined, was working with fixed sound-paradigms so I tried to generate everything on a digital-platform, with a digital aesthetic. Guess that this idea became at the same time a aesthetical canon called “clicks and cuts“. Anyway, while I tried to expand the sampling-idea of Farben – not the sample source, the sampling process as the audible subject – it was causing at the same time an implosion of my sampling-machine. A self-referenced idea of sampling, a kind of audible emphasising of the machine’s operating-system instead of the sample-source: When you try to establish that, you don’t have any prospective options with the sampler anymore. At least I felt so. I thought that I have to do a radical turn: house music as a conservative genre, referring well defined styles and codes, creating historicism. The Farben, Presents The Presets EP was an ironic take on that, but I think other producers are more talented at this.

GJS: Several years back, I remember reading an interview where you stated that you considered your Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records album as an “aural translation of op-art Moiré paintings.” Are you still making auditory op-art? If not, what?

JJ: I don’t think so. Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records created an audible flickering, which made a comparison to op-art appropriate, it generated a certain a kind of hallucination, that’s why I referred to op-art. While I was thinking about the idea of Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records I didn’t had the intention to transform visual aspects into sound. I realised that this concept, which was ostensible based on technical aspects, is much more clear, while I’m explaining and comparing it in items of optical-art. So this metaphor became helpful, even to myself. Maybe in general the reference to art is helpful in getting closer to the idea of digital music than the traditional parameters of music do. Computer based composing does have a strong visual component. The software-interfaces are set up like this. So audio collages do have a double meaning. In general the composing process is an audible and visual creative act, the computer is visualising the compositional parameters, and the composer is working with the visualised interface of his/her composition. So in that sense I would say that I was doing audio-collages. The working process of graphic-design and music are not that far apart from one other.

GSJ: I think it is safe to say, that in terms of sound design you wear your influences on your sleeve. Your earlier work, say up until Kosmischer Pitch, positively glows through a constant referencing of old soul and jazz through sampling and the overall mood of the mix. The lushness of your work sets you apart from the stark formalism of many other electronic musicians whose work could be described as minimal (i.e. Pan Sonic, Carsten Nicolai). Could you address the mood that you are looking for when you are making music and how that relates to your working process. Does one emerge from the other?

JJ: I’m not interested in transporting a special kind of mood while I’m starting to compose a track. I don’t think that I would be able to do that if I wanted to. Everything emerges in the working process. There is no intentional decision of sounding "moody“ or “noisy,“ but the sound-character reflects the mood I’m reaching while I’m producing. Unfortunately its hard to channel the creative process in a certain kind of direction. At least in my experience.

GJS: Could you share a handful of older recordings that changed the way you think about sound design? I’m not so much inquiring about wonderful records but interesting or innovative recordings – could you talk a bit about your choices and their significance to your work?

JJ: Concerning contemporary electronic music, I would say, that there are two components, which are important to me: On one hand, there is the idea of creating emotional, lush music, which can transport intense feelings without falling into the trap of kitschy pathos and alienation. Music which can transport universalized frames of mind while sounding as abstract as possible at the same time. In my opinion no one does this better than Oval (still!). On the other hand I like the Idea of absolute reductionism, especially in dance orientated music. A modulation of two tones for instance, which can create a deep concentration, and which restates the listener as an active recipient, hallucinating their own musical events. The Electro Music Department records are really good for this.

jan jelinek - album covers

GJS: I know you’ve made a break in your work over the last few years where you are no longer exclusively harvesting and processing samples but have embraced creating your own improvised sound and music as sample material. Could you speak about the tension between collecting and creating samples? Beyond that, is there a friction between the loop and improvisation?

JJ: There is actually no difference between collecting and processing samples. A sample, taken from an existing piece of music is always involves a process of editing. Beginning with the decision which special moment to extract and how to set the start and endpoints to a more complex editing, where loops and modulations can be created: Sampling itself is always a creative process. I actually make no distinction between my own, self-produced, sample sources and foreign material. As for friction between the loop and improvisation, I think that this proposition includes a more traditional, jazz-orientated idea of improvisation, which is good, but doesn’t apply to my idea of improvisation. I understand loops not as such firm events, which distinguish themselves as a unbreakable and musically constant. Loops are a more soft in nature. Sound and time code modulations can deform their shape, without losing their steady character. That’s where I see the chance to improvise.

GJS: I appreciate your care in dealing with the idea of improvisation. Your identifying loops as being soft suggests a more “incremental“ improvisation then the dexterity or encyclopaedic knowledge of scales associated with virtuosity in jazz. This is probably as good a time as any to ask you about your collaboration with Triosk. Could you tell us a little about how recording 1+3+1 impacted the way you work?

JJ: Actually, I was not really improvising with Triosk, while we were making that record. I started to work on very simple one-track loops, which I sent to them. They were improvising to these files and after sending them back to me, I was manipulating the results of these improvisations in a very discreet way. My role was focusing on drafting some sound sketches, drafting a musical base, which Triosk was using for additional compositional ideas. So the fact is, that we were not improvising together, but after the album was released and a joint tour was planned, we decided to turn the project into a collective improvisation, which I think was a good decision. It was my first experience in joining a “non-loop-orientated“ music collective, so I had to think about creating loops, which weren’t tied to a strict time code, or which had a nearly non-audible time code. I tried to create these sort of loops on Tierbeobachtung as well.

GJS: Your newest album Tierbeobachtung sounds like a step forward from the suite of experiments you’ve conducted through your albums on ~scape. What has changed? Where does this album sit in relation to your other work?

JJ: Tierbeobachtung works more like a live-record. All the tracks are based on the idea to do one-take-tracks, which are not reproducible anymore. They were recorded with very small, basic setup, focused on outboard gear, like guitar pedals and a loop player. The reason why I decided to work with such lo-fi equipment is because I was getting really tired of working with the sequencer, and with the graphical aspect, as I mentioned before. I was tired of seeing a graphical translation of my sound, I wanted to concentrate exclusively on the audible experience. Looked at that way it was also an experiment on myself, seeing, if there will be a notable difference between this album and my older work. Also I tried to work really fast, finishing one or more compositions on one day and leaving all the mistakes and bad moments just to underline a sense of fleetingness.

GJS: Stepping away from the graphic representation of composition and arrangement is bold, and an interesting decision to make considering how much artists fetishize the visualization of information and interface at the moment. It sounds like this new working methodology is as much about control as perception. How do you find working with more lo-fi technology effects your creative process?

JJ: I think both ways are effecting a creative process. Working with lo-fi technology gives you the chance, to concentrate on the audible experience. Everything is a bit more vague. It is more easy to construct layers on unclean, incorrect statics, while everything seems to drift apart and comes back into a tight settlement again. On the other hand this construction doesn’t allow you to add clear rhythmical events, which is also the reason why there are no such events detectable on Tierbeobachtungen.

GJS: What can we expect from you in the near future?

JJ: Right now I’m working on totally different material, limited on three old analog synthesizers, without using a sequencer and effects. Everything is about synthesizer-modulation.