Under the alias Machinefabriek, Rutger Zuydervelt has made a name for himself as a diverse and experimental composer and improviser, whose work exists equally in areas of ambient, noise, minimalism, drone, field recordings and electro-acoustic music. Over little more than a decade he has amassed an almost inhumane amount of recordings, collaborating with an impressive array of artists along the way. His album ‘Ghost Lanes’ (2011) – a live improvisation with the clarinetist Gareth Davis – was personally one of the most formative albums to my own practice, and as with so much of Machinefabriek’s work, remains a stunning example of his nuanced, explorative, and deeply textural oeuvre. Rutger was kind enough to take a little time out to answer some of my questions. Enjoy!
Daniel Hignell-Tully/ Toneshift: You are an incredibly prolific artist, particular in terms of your recorded output. What affordances do you perceive in releasing your work so regularly? How does such prolificacy impact upon your ability to reflect upon your work, either subjectively or with consideration as to its public response?
Rutger Zuydervelt: I guess it’s two things: First of all, I’m not so interested in perfectionism. For me, spontaneity is way more important. I’d rather have a piece that is a bit rough and intriguing than overworking it and taking the liveliness out of it. Secondly, creating the design for the sleeve, and finally getting the physical product is as much part of the process as creating the music itself. It feels incomplete without it. I know that it wouldn’t hurt releasing less music… but I guess I got used to it – it’s my ‘natural flow’.
I don’t make my albums with the direct goal to please an audience, but of course I’m aware that people will hear it, and I only release my works when I have the idea that they are worthy of being heard – that they have a potential to intrigue. But I don’t expect anyone to buy everything I do (though there are some people…).
DH: You seem to be describing the release of your work as an almost extra-music process, in which the cover-art and physical product are an integral part of a holistic package. How then does the artwork and nature of each release feed into, or fundamentally frame the music you create? Do you find you are considering the art-work and release format during the compositional process, or does this come later?
RZ: Most of the times, the idea for the artwork is formed during the process of the music making. The music will always be the core of the end result, and dictates the design, not vice versa. So the music frames the artwork I’d say… And the sleeve image can actually be very free association with the sound, it isn’t always conceptually linked. An idea I would get when doing the music, and can’t get out of my head, so to me it always makes sense, but maybe not always for the audience. But as long as the image is in some way evocative, that’s not a problem. The music itself is very associative anyway – at least, I hope it’s open enough for the audience to ’project on’ in any way they feel.
DH: Many of your works are collaborative, in one way or another. What is it you enjoy about collaboration? Do you tend to take on similar roles with your collaborators, or do you have perhaps an underlying collaborative ethos?
RZ: Though I like being in it, it’s also nice to step out of my bubble every once in a while. Or to at least invite someone in. A fresh pair of ears. Most of the times the roles are similar, just bouncing sounds and tracks back and forth until we’re happy. With live collaborations, I (and most people I performed with) prefer not to discuss too much beforehand, but just go with it, and navigate and react by listening (to the other).
DH: How does this reactive approach change as you gain familiarity with your collaborators? For instance, your work with Gareth Davis, with whom you have an ongoing collaboration – how does this relationship evolve as you learn one another habits and tendencies?
RZ: To be honest, we don’t really think about this. I guess we just get better the more we do it. But we only get together when we record, and that doesn’t happen too often. I think it’s clearer with my collaborations with Michel Banabila. Still, I don’t think it has to do with evolving, but more keeping each other fresh, and trying out new things each time. Every album we did has a specific quality to it, different from the others. So no idea what the next one will bring, but as long it doesn’t feel like we’re repeating ourselves, but that we’re exploring new directions, it’s a good thing.
DH: Given the role it plays in such collaborations, do you consider improvisation and composition to be separate facets of your craft, or is there some crossover?
RZ: I’ve always said that my studio work, and my live improvisations were different beasts, but now that I think of it, there’s actually many similarities as well. Although my compositions aren’t developed in real-time, like the improvs, there is still a lot a chance and intuition involved. Most of the time, I don’t map out the structure before working on it; I start and see where the sound leads me. Besides being able to go back and forth in time, and correct myself, this is the same with performing live; it’s mostly about listening and having the sound guide me.
DH: Many of my favourite Machinefabriek albums are conceptual in nature. What do you enjoy about exploring a particular concept or theme? Do you find that having a concept in advance limits, or expands, your creativity?
RZ: Having set limitations, or a clearly outlined set of boundaries to work within, helps my creativity a lot. It gets me to focus on one concept, and to explore it, without being distracted by endless possibilities. It’s a cliché, but finding the possibilities within a (relatively) narrow set of rules really sparks my creativity. And for me it makes sense that (the tracks on) an album are really connected; that they share the same core thought.
DH: When working conceptually, do you always initially respond musically? Or is there an element of research, or otherwise planning out or engaging with your theme prior to actually making sound?
RZ: In general I definitely respond on a musical, emotional level. But there are exceptions to that rule. I did a few pieces that were very thought out before they were performed/constructed. Pieces like Sileen, Deining and Stay Tuned for example. These were plotted out according to a few very basic ‘rules’, with the idea that a simple starting point can actually accomplish a very complex result (sound-wise). The core of these pieces is the simple question ‘what would happen if….’ It’s all about curiosity, and focusing on one small thing that can have the potential to grow to something interesting. So it’s not so much about research, but simply trying. The music is the research, you could say. For ‘Deining’, for example, I wondered what would happen if a violin would be played in a very very slow glissando, each strings, from low to high. And to the same reversed, at the same time. Tones would constantly collide and overlap, the combinations constantly shifting between harmonious and dissonant. A very simple idea, but (I think) it worked out really nice, it’s an exciting listen.
DH: There seems to be an underlying interest in ‘liveness’ within your compositions. Whether this is performing live, or physically exploring a particular idea or object (I am thinking here of a work like ‘Drum Solos’ or ‘The Eskdalemuir Harmonium’). Are notions of physicality, presence, and liveness important to your work as a whole?
RZ: Yes, physicality and liveness are important. I sometimes refer to my pieces as ’worlds’ or ‘organisms’. Not to sound pretentious, but because I feel the need to have a quality that transcends from just being electronic (or treated) sound – to elevate it to something with a more organic quality to it. I actually wish that these pieces take away the notion that they were created on a computer, or even man-made – that they come across as self-contained living entities that intrigue and are able to appeal in an emotional way – either if it might not be so palpable. Did I say something about sounding pretentious?
DH: You’ve worked on a number of soundtracks. How do you find composing for a visual medium changes your process? Do you find there is any tension between the inherent structure of film/video and your typically quite abstract music?
RZ: The great thing about working on dance and film scores is that the before-mentioned limitations I always prescribe to myself, are in these cases dictated by someone else, and by another medium. This creates a whole new framework to explore, and therefore it always feels fresh and exciting. So it might be a limitation, but it actually feels like an expansion. It’s also a reason why I don’t consider these commissions as strictly ‘un-autonomous’, a lot of the times I can explore territories that I normally wouldn’t go to. My soundtrack for the Dutch documentary series ‘Sahara’ for instance: it’s certainly the most rhythm-based material I ever made, but creating this felt very natural, as if these ideas were there already, and finally had the right motive to ‘get out’…
DH: You originally trained as a visual artist, and still work in that field. Do you feel your background as a visual artist shapes your musical voice?
RZ: So yes, I guess being trained in visuals influenced my approach for my sound work. Doing graphic design is a lot about organising; creating order and clarity. Moulding rough materials into something that makes sense. In that regard my music-creating process is the same. And there I specifically mean my studio-work, which is a lot about editing and ordering. Construction work, you could say, just like doing design. I like the combination of the pragmatic and the intuitive. I guess with the music, the latter has a more prominent role than in the graphic work.
DH: You have a habit of taking acoustic instruments, or field-recordings, and subjecting them to electronic manipulation. What is it about the relationship between electronic and acoustic means that fascinates you?
RZ: I love contrasts in my work… loud vs soft, hi-fi vs lo-fi, constructed vs organic, etc. The same with acoustic and electronic sounds, they can compliment each other so nicely. The abstract, alien quality of the electronics can be high-lighted when juxtaposed by more organic, acoustic sounds. Once again, it has to do with liveliness. An important aspect of my work is creating rich textures, and combining these sounds can result in something that might be static, but full of life at the same time.
DH: This suggests that perhaps you are interested in creating sound-worlds that operate on a different part of the consciousness than that of more concise or traditionally structured music? Is there a particular mode of listening you aspire to engage with in your work?
RZ: The simple answer is that I simply make what I like to hear. I sculpt the music as I go, and therefore the structure might be more organic. But not necessarily, because especially in recent years, I tend to use a lot of jump-cuts.
I imagine my music is best heard on good headphones, with eyes closed, in total immersion. But I’m totally cool with it if people listen to it while doing office work or the dishes. It’s not up to me to dictate how it should be listened to.
DH: You recently released ‘With Voices’ on Western Vinyl. It is a lovely album, and one that, for me at least, stands out somewhat from your existing aesthetic. Could you tell me a little about your compositional process on the album?
RZ: The core of ‘With Voices’ lies in improvisation. Each vocal collaborator was sent the same 35-minute soundscape, and I asked them to react on it, with their voice, in any way they felt like. The resulting recordings then formed the starting points for the pieces on the album. Basically I tried to create tracks that made the contributions of the vocalists shine at their best. To have these voices dictate (in an abstract matter) the shape and feel of each piece. This is actually not so different from some of my earlier albums, such as Sneeuwstorm and Crumble, but the fact that it was solely vocalists this time did put a stamp on the result.