THE SCANNER (ROBIN RIMBAUD) INTERVIEW
Australian Musician’s resident electronic music devotee Baz Bardoe gets deep and meaningful with with Robin Rimbaud, also known as ‘Scanner’.
Fans of electronic and experimental music would most usually identify with Robin Rimbaud under his production and creative alias ‘Scanner’. The early 1990’s saw a rebirth and reinvention of electronic music, mainly via the dance culture aesthetic, and it seems like only yesterday that he had tracks on ‘This is Techno’, or ‘This is Trip Hop’, the diversity of his outputs making categorization fairly redundant. He became especially known for using a scanner to record snatches of mobile phone conversations, and whilst analogue prevailed few were safe. It is fair to say that Rimbaud combined anthropology with ‘musique concrete’, creating soundscapes that gave insights into the human condition. I recall a collaboration with Scorn that was especially creepy.
As befits someone with a huge intellect Rimbaud has never been content to tread the same old paths – he has immersed himself in a world of incredibly diverse artistic projects and continues to push the boundaries at a time when popular music has never been so stagnant. It has been many years since I saw him surprise and delight guests at a dinner party with funny magic tricks, and I think if there is one thing you could say about him it is that he never, ever ceases to surprise. He is a genuine treasure of Experimental Music Art and I thought it high time to pose him some questions.
You achieved notoriety for using bits of dialogue taken from analogue mobile phone conversations. How do you see this approach sitting in terms of the evolution of things like ‘music concrete’ – essentially you are taking ‘environmental sounds’ and treating them – and how influenced were you by the pioneers of this kind of approach to music making?
Sampling has always been part of my sound language, even before I was aware of what music concrete even was. I began using cassette recorders as a kid basically, recording conversations on the school bus, the sound of peas defrosting the fridge, the roar of a car engine, collaging them together into tape archives for myself and to share with friends. It was more a discovery about being able to store these moments (and remember this is before the days of digital technology where we can capture and stream almost everything in real time these days) and share them. When I went on holiday to Italy when I was 18 with friends I barely took any photos but recorded my entire trip from leaving home, travelling through the airport, checking at the hotel, walking through the streets of Florence, all on cassette. This clearly had implications for any of my creative endeavors over the years.
My sound world opened up with the discovery of a Teac reel-to-reel recorder given to me by my English teacher at school. Suddenly instead of placing one sound after another on a tape, and following a linear narrative, each sound following the next, now I could layer sounds and create combinations. I know this may sound trivial but sometimes just the simplest discoveries like this can alter a whole mode of thinking. It meant I could combine different sound worlds together, from slowing down voices, creating tape loops of repeating motifs, etc.
Sampling the world around me became part of my language, the same way a playwright like Harold Pinter would sit in cafes and note down the conversations of people around him. Ambitiously I saved up and bought an Akai S1000 sampler, to this day one of the best sounding machines I’ve ever used, with a whole ONE minute of recording time on floppy disc. At the time this was extraordinary and I found ways to expand the sounds by slowing them down so a half a second recording of a door creak could play out for 30 seconds once I had stretched it out. Again this was before I’d heard Pierre Henri’s work and other composers who had explored and presented such ideas to a much wider audience.
Of course the use of the radio scanner early on in my works where I picked up these indiscriminate voices and conversations from the ether, people chatting on their mobile phones, was a way to incorporate the very mundane and real world around me, sampling it and then introducing it into the darker more abstract sonic landscapes I was composing. It was also I suppose of humanising what was then certainly recognised as technological, cold and frequently lacking emotion. So in many ways these pioneers played very little part in my works, although once I heard the genius of Parmegiani or Ferrari the scope and sheer scale of what could be explored meant so much to me.
You have appeared on compilations such as ‘This is Techno’ and ‘This is Trip Hop’ alongside some truly huge names of these genres. In the early 90’s artists such as The Orb and FSOL had enormous success with prolonged ambient pieces, and generally experimental work as well. Was this a singular period or do you see it as being possible for such work to have continued mainstream appeal? And do you think the music industry is now more or less conducive to such outbursts of art?
This was indeed a very different time in many aspects, almost pre-digital and pre-social networks where information was still found and shared in often forums such as record shops, radio play, clubs and magazines. It was a time it’s unlikely we can ever return to where there was a definite sense of something in the air. I set up a club space, The Electronic Lounge, at the ICA in London, which occurred once a month for five years and offered a nexus point for curious minds and folks to meet up socially. We presented nights of live performances and DJs from Warp Records, Irdial, Rephlex, Ninja Tunes and others at these events and it was truly a way to connect with others. People were very open to new possibilities, arguably connected to a drug culture, but also partly because of the rise of the Chill Out rooms in club spaces where all manner of experimental beatless music was played out to audiences who would never otherwise have heard this material. I heard everything from Stockhausen to AMM in such locations. As you recognise other acts had more commercial success and electronic dance music for a period took over from rock and roll and indie music as the voice of a generation. There was a genuine energy, with countless promoters and artists creating music and events that made so many connections between art, music and creativity in general.
As for today the music industry itself is truly a dinosaur that has failed to adjust at almost level. The entire process of releasing and sharing music has changed in such a radically dynamic way that larger industries have struggled to maintain an understanding of how audiences access work these days. I remain very positive about our creative future. Any manner in which to bypass systems and retain autonomy, integrity and responsibility is encouraging to me.
You most likely are familiar with terms like ‘ambient media’ (the use of the ubiquitous and peripheral landscapes in advertising and marketing), ‘ambient technology’ (technology that blends seamlessly with the lived environment), and ‘ambient awareness’ (the way in which social media allows us to track our social network’s activities without deliberate or actual contact)……to what extent do you feel the consciousness surrounding ambient music, and related electronic music styles, has played a part in the evolution of other applications of the ambient cultural meme? Do you see an evolutionary link?
In my own experience I’ve found an idea of ambience has permeated many other spaces beyond music, especially architecture. For example In 2002 I was commissioned to create an audio environment for The Hopital Raymond Poincaré in Garches, France as part of the bereavement suite (Channel of Flight). The hospital is recognised for treating road injury victims, where every year 450 deceased people pass through its morgue, and after 40 years of conducting autopsies and talking to bereaved families, chief pathologist Doctor Michel Durigon decided it was ‘time to create a Salle des Departs, a place where families and friends could come to say goodbye to their loved ones without, as he says, “having to suffer sickly background music and a red carpet”.
The result was a commission for a very unusual piece of art: a room designed by Italian artist Ettore Spalletti. The luminous impact and ambience of this space proved a catalyst to the creation of this work. Consciously avoiding cultural or spiritual reference points, the work uses many personal recordings, of rainfall, birdsong, footsteps through snow, rowing in a boat, voices lost in the ether, through which a diffused piano melody slowly fades into the foreground, then softly retreats at intervals. The bereavement suite is a moving and inspirational work about an extraordinary humanitarian project, and where sound plays a key role in assisting this farewell.
Then later on in 2007 I installed another work in a hospital, Turning Light at the Walkergate Park Centre of Neuro Rehabilitation, a newly built hospital. The therapeutic benefits of sound, water and light in physical and emotional therapy are well documented, and Turning Light explores these in this installation in a purpose built swimming pool. The LED lights produce a field of colour across the space, complimenting the ambient sound, encouraging a healthy balance and harmony in both patients and staff working in the pool area, creating a positive energy in a functional space. The lights and sound can be programmed and adjusted as wished by visitors, allowing the ambience itself to mirror the mood of the individual.
Electronic music has seen a vast advancement in the technology of music making. From the synthesiser, to sampling, to advanced computer based sequencing the increments in technology have been truly amazing. Part of this has also been an evolution – or at least change – in the technology of how we listen to music. Not so long ago a record collection would take up an entire wall. We can now carry around 16,000 tunes on our laptop. How do you think this has changed the way we interact with music, and the part it plays in our everyday lives?
Music is most definitely far more portable and accessible than it ever was and I would argue that we indeed consume sound and images in a very different manner than we would have done some 15 years ago even. We are constantly learning to deal with shifts in new technology, shuffling our means of control and understanding to match and fit what is offered and for me that’s part of the joy of living today. Once upon a time, not so long ago, we shared our culture in a similar manner. We would all have watched the same TV show or heard the same music at a concert, whereas today our tastes and access has diversified to an extreme extent, so a shared sensibility is ever more remote. Once we heard music via the radio or the occasional TV music show, whereas today we hear music in every imaginable way, consuming it on games, on youtube, Spotify, telephones, television series focused on singers and performers and so on. The examples are endless. Music continues to play an essential role in our lives but there’s been a devaluation process in the last twenty years. Not so long ago record shops and even supermarkets would remain open until late so that fans could queue up outside to buy the latest David Bowie album. That no longer happens and I doubt it ever will.
There was a time when we found out about music via magazines, gigs, posters, and radio. There was well defined cultural sub groups associated with genres, and they would advertise themselves with patches on jackets etc. Then along came the internet and things like My Space. Today we can experience concerts on You Tube, and interact with artists on Facebook etc. I am interested in your thoughts on how technology of this type has impacted upon social organisation especially. For example we can say that punk influenced the DIY ethic and helped create a flourishing ‘independent’ music scene that divested itself of major label control. We can also observe that the punk ethos influenced a range of other lifestyle decisions, for example I tuned into animal welfare and other issues via punk. What I am interested in is how these new ways of disseminating and interacting with music might be changing the way we socially organise and interact.
I have touched on this in the other questions so without fear of repeating myself I will just say the birth of electronic dance music in the 1980s and the way it travelled across the globe in a fashion that none anticipated was revolutionary. It most definitely influenced the way that people dressed, thought and approached ideas and culture around them. Social interaction today frequently takes place within the span of a screen, with many young people meeting up but then failing to engage directly but via the power of the smart phone again, a culture and life lived within themselves.
We are seeing a huge upsurge in anachronistic approaches and technologies. There is a big interest in analogue synthesis for example, and new music releases are being pressed in vinyl. Some new artists are releasing cassettes. What do you attribute this to? Is there a dis satisfaction with where technology seems to have led us?
I think it’s all about a balance. I think you’d find that many of the folks buying vinyl today also still listen to digital downloads, it’s not about exclusivity. There’s definitely a dynamic return to the real, the analogue. I read recently that bookshops in the UK have had one of their best years in ages, whilst more record shops are opening in London than ever before, it’s quite extraordinary. There’s always an element of retro in culture aligned with nostalgia but a young people haven’t grown up with vinyl, with books, having lived within the screen for so long so their interests are igniting a movement that excites me. I have certainly rebelled against too many years of staring at a computer screen whilst making music and wanted to return to simply using my ears to make music so have invested in a grand analogue modular studio in the last years. It’s been a joy indeed and that’s reason enough to embrace this stepping back into the future.
You have embedded your musical output in a range of artistic contexts such as plays, dance, visual art, multi media etc. and from an outsider’s point of view seem to have been extremely successful with this. Other artists who have tended to rely upon ‘traditional’ outlets for their music such as releases and music gigs, are really struggling, and in many cases seeking other careers. The advent of downloading and the ease of sharing music files has meant that sales and sales revenue have plummeted. Many record labels have closed, and even the big concerns are struggling. What do you as being the way forward? And do you think that music has now been devalued in the sense that consumers simply no longer expect to pay for it in many instances?
Diversification and risk have been key to any kind of success that I may have had with my career and I can only speak from a very personal point of view here of course, but it’s patently obvious to see the restrictions of staying with one model of creativity, especially in the present day. I’m rather a restless being and have always had this opinion and keen mind for the new, for the surprising, to embrace opportunities where I honestly don’t know what to expect. Frequently these develop into things that offer so much back to me, beyond financial compensation, that touch the heart and soul. Then again I still feel remarkably fortunate to still be making a living making work that is largely invisible to the bigger world, yet at points interacts and connects with a bigger audience.
The internet has allowed unprecedented sharing of information. But it has also allowed corporate entities to manipulate demographics and gain insights into consumer behaviour that would have been difficult to ascertain previously. Taking a bigger picture beyond music, how do you see society heading in terms of this technology – generally in a better or worse direction?
This is a massive question indeed and I’m not sure how best to answer this without writing a book on it! I feel honoured to have lived through such a significant paradigm shift in our lives, on pretty much every imaginable level, from creativity, consumption, communication, relationships and so on. Our vulnerability in technology always lies in the way in which information is shared and transported, rather like a letter is in danger once it leaves the relative safety of your hand into the post box and left with the postal service and we know how badly that frequently turns out!
Reflecting on our past of course things are better today in countless ways, we all recognise that, yet at the same time an acceleration of technology has enveloped our lives to such an extent that many people are utterly lost within in. Even making a commitment in a relationship for many people is a challenge, since there are always other possibilities. How can you decide you want to be with this person when with the swipe of a finger on a smart phone you can be with a host of others. Commitment to anything has become ever more challenging. Social networks that many innocently believe offer a chance to connect with old school friends are being used for more sinister ways for terrorist organisations to communicate, or industries for data mining. In fact our lives today offer more opportunities for conspiracy theories than ever before.
So to make a judgement on good or bad, I would definitely argue for good, since time began people have used forces around them for evil if they wish to. There’s no way in which to stop such people from embracing these tools beyond their design. I remain optimistic about our future, as always.