And.Ypsilon is a real sound scientist. As a beat maker for Die Fantastischen 4 he shaped the sound of german hip hop. Norient met him in his studio in Stuttgart to talk about his love for electronic music and his re-discovery of modular synthesizers. An Interview for the research project Cult Sounds.
[Immanuel Brockhaus]: What do you find appealing about electronic music?
[And.Ypsilon]: When I started with electronic music, it was back in my childhood – I found it especially interesting that you could make unheard-of, unheard sounds audible. So right from the start, my experiences as a listener were at the forefront. That’s why, when I was 12, I got hold of a Korg MS20 synthesizer, and that also meant more or less the end of my lessons on the piano. Well, electronics for me have always been bound up with research. To me, the basic idea was not to imitate sounds that already existed – the idea of imitating pianos or other instruments somehow isn’t interesting to me. You don’t really need electronics for that. It’s nice, of course, that we can simulate all possible real sounds in the studio today, and that you have a whole set of sounds at your fingertips. That’s nice on the one hand, but on the other hand it’s a bit inflationary.
[IB]: To the next question: we’ve already spoken extensively about it, but how did you perceive the shift from analog to digital technology, especially with regard to sampling?
[AY]: Ah, yes. When digital technology came up, I was aware of it being something new. I was a teenager, and I heard of the possibility of sampling, in part, through the hip-hop records that I used to buy in an import shop at the time. But I’m no longer quite sure if I’d also heard of it from elsewhere, through my interest in new-age music. Because sampling occurred early on in that field. Well ... the label «new-age» music was only used for this whole branch of music at a later date, when it had all become a bit kitschy. It’s not quite this that I’m talking about (laughs quietly). Anyway, there were also pioneering, extreme examples of sampling – here I ought to mention Burgner-Meier and Zuschrader from Austria, who did groundbreaking things on the Erdenklang label, using sampling as a musical instrument in and of itself.
They were sampling natural sounds at an early date, which really fascinated me and inspired me, because that was of course the whole idea behind sampling: that you could take naturally occurring sounds, and draw them into the electronic sphere and use them just like any electronic sounds. For me as an electronic musician, it was totally fascinating to be able to process the natural features that these sounds have. Of course, just like before, you can combine them with traditional electronics and process them that way, so that you take these sounds back into a more abstract direction in aesthetic terms.
But working with natural, emotional components was what I found really exciting ... Then, moving on from there, there was the loop sampling technique in hip-hop. That technique was for me a kind of recycling of existing, older music that was made with natural instruments – I like to call them «physical» instruments, or physical/acoustic instruments; the acoustic instruments are a subgroup of the physical instruments. And there were these whole grooves of black music – all that threatened to disappear back then. No one knew it any more. My generation didn’t know it directly from the sources any more, but the DJ experts and the record collectors still knew it. And at the same time, this group of people was very important in filtering out the really useable, useful highlights of this music, out of the huge spectrum of what was on offer.
To sample these and to loop them – in other words, to place them in this strictly repetitive context: I found this, aesthetically, absolutely the right thing. And the fact that I could do that with sampling, with computer technology in general, was what I found exciting. Because computer technology was just getting started – you still have to point that out, given our perspective today. It wasn’t as powerful as it is now, that’s why you needed samplers as external devices. The computers themselves couldn’t do sampling yet, for it took more processing power than the machines possessed back then. Well, the sampling technique in the sense of looping in hip-hop was a nice method of recycling. The clashing together of different samples, working with the organic components of samples – that was particularly exciting to me. How can I moderate between different sources, how can I unite stuff that’s been programmed and stuff that’s played by hand? In the process I naturally learnt a lot about the music you play by hand, by holding up my programming stuff against it and looking at how they compare.
[IB]: What’s your opinion of presets?
[AY]: Presets? I’d say: being able to store sounds, which then results in presets, is a blessing of course, but also a curse at the same time. For me it’s obviously a blessing if I can conjure up a sound I want when I’m in the midst of my creative work. But then I often decide that I need a very specific string sound. And that’s a catastrophe, because I start to listen through 1000 presets and after just 20 presets I’m so emotionally deaf that I can’t judge properly any more what’s really needed for the music that I’m making right now. This searching through presets is dangerous for the creative process. I can really understand it when someone says: OK, I’ve now got my favourite 10 string sounds, that ought to be enough. I think that’s a sensible way of doing things.
Really, you have to work with presets a lot before getting a personal preset collection that really functions for your own purposes and that isn’t confusing any more. I’m a bit too lazy to work with huge banks of presets. I even find it difficult with drum sounds. To hunt through thousands of bass drums to find the 10 or 20 that I like the most – that’s a bit stupid to me. That’s why I have now returned more to a modular technique. Here you can’t save anything at all, I just create the sounds for the moment and for the music I’m making right now. I find that attractive in a certain way. I’d actually like to save these sounds, but that’s not the main point. It doesn’t prevent me from making music in this manner, and from making inspired music, because sounds actually like to grow into the form they need in the musical context of the moment. And that’s what I can do with the modular synthesizer.
For example, I can design a bass drum that functions best in this groove, and that doesn’t take longer than hunting through 100 bass drums. In my experience it’s always the case that I find a bass drum that suits me well in my bass drum library – which is very personalised. But after an hour with this bass drum, I get the feeling that it doesn’t fit. And then I start to fiddle about with it, using electronic means – equalisers, compressors etc. – I’ve got the technical skills I need for that, that’s why I don’t give up so quickly on everything that I can achieve with a basic sound, in a sound-engineering sense. But all the same it’s pretty stupid, because you then spend an hour fiddling about with the bass drum until you feel that it’s enough, and you like it. Maybe you even think it’s great. But an hour is too much for it. By then, I’ve lost track of the actual flow of the music.
[IB]: So what is it that characterises your individual sound?
[AY]: What characterises my individual sound? ... An incredible sense of AndYpsilon-ishness, of course. I can’t explain it any more precisely (laughs) ... well, maybe I can ... I really try to get an organic feeling, even in the most abstract electronics. It can be abstract, but that won’t hinder me because what I feel to be organic, and thus in a certain sense natural, also has to function as a bridge to this abstract world. Of course, by no means everything I’ve done is abstract and electronic. But I really come from abstract electronics, via loop sampling and via working with our band musicians. I started to work with a lot of musicians and I know all about what’s so great about that. This great feeling is something I’d like to have in abstract electronics too. In general, I always want that. It’s a functional quality in the music that feels familiar in a way, and also feels comprehensible in a corporeal sense.
The characteristics of materials are important, as are physical characteristics. I once said that a drum, a bass drum or a snare drum generated by computer, even if they’re digital, only sound «bang», but they don’t make «bang» – in other words, they don’t make a sound that the body can feel. And the body always feels when we hear music, even if it’s not physically involved. Even if I only hear music on my headphones, I am experiencing material properties, physical sound characteristics. This whole listening experience that we have all our lives, it’s always there with us, and you can speak to people through this listening experience. Or you can leave it to one side, but then you miss the opportunity to provoke deep-seated emotions in the body. And bringing forth emotions, I find, is really the basic mechanics of music. That’s what makes music what it is: triggering emotions. If you leave out the physical side of things, the corporeal, then you miss a great opportunity to reach people’s emotions. And doing that is my prime concern.
[IB]: Let’s stay with something concrete: How do you actually combine your sounds? Do you have some inner set of rules as to how you proceed? Is there a system, or is it purely intuitive?
[AY]: I think that the way I combine my sounds… I don’t have any set of rules that I could formulate in an abstract fashion, but for me it has something to do with architecture. In my inner world, when I hear sounds, they already have a graphic dimension for me. I could in simplified terms call it form, colour, movement. When I hear sounds, these characteristics appear before my inner eye, on my level of abstraction. If I hear a lot of sounds, they have a particular context. Their aesthetic and harmony are revealed to me in a geometry that I can perceive inwardly. And so these things fall into place as if according to my inner ordering of them; they fall where they seem to belong in my opinion. And if I formulate this precisely enough, then it creates an expression that others can also perceive.
[IB]: Architecture is a concept I find fascinating ...
[AY]: It is. Especially in electronics – just see Kraftwerk, for example. This whole design aspect really only came into electronic music with Kraftwerk, into that burgeoning electro-music, then later into techno music. Here, architecture and its geometric relationships are utterly essential. Because if these relationships don’t emerge, then the music hasn’t got any power. Physical and geometric relationships express the same thing – any physicist would tell you this. In harmony, in wave theory, these relationships are fundamentally very simple – you can express them in geometric or numerical terms. Harmonics have a whole-number relationship to the fundamental wave. It’s a very simple relationship that can also be expressed in geometric terms. At some point I came upon the idea that you can compare this feeling best with architecture. The architect also has this feeling, it’s also a personal harmony that he expresses in a building, in proportions. How proportions relate to each other is the same thing. And it’s what architects create that remind me most of it.
The full interview can be read here.
Video Interview (German)