Interview with Christina Kubisch

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 11.52.19 AMSpectral Cities, HeK Basel 2018 (photo: Boris Magrini)

Christina Kubisch
(b. 1948) is one of the most influential living German sound artist/composers, and one of the few women of note has has not simply stood the test of generations of technological changed, but embraced and invented her very own way of pairing various media to end that are multi-sensory and bold, both experimentally and conceptually. Since 2004 there have been over 75 international permutations of her Electrical Walks* series alone, and they are still going strong. For this interview I managed to catch Kubisch between a tour and readying for festival season.

TJ Norris/Toneshift: Hello, it is a real pleasure to have a chance to talk with you. Would you orient us a little – are you on tour or in the studio at the moment?

Christina Kubisch: Just back from a short tour to Cologne and Saarbrücken in Germany.

TN: As you were born in Bremen (Germany) you studied under several Italian composers in the 1970s. How influential did that cultural shift affect the way you understood your medium in your youth, and what do you think you may have retained in your process or changed since?

CK: The only serious studies in composition were with Franco Donatoni in Milano. He was very open but as well very precise when it came to the writing of scores. He was
my only “classical” composition teacher. I learnt a lot in the seventies meeting in New York with people like Phill Niblock, Annea Lockwood, Pauline Oliveros and others, who later all became friends. I listened as well to many concerts in NY of musicians I had not heard in Europe before. Information was limited then. There was no internet, just live music or vinyl — and talking just talking to each other. The first concert of minimal music with Steve Reich impressed me deeply.

niblock2Photos ca. 1975 in the studio of Phil Niblock, NY (unknown, archive Kubisch)

In Milano I spent most of my time with colleagues who worked with electronic music and with improvisation as well, people like Riccardo Sinigaglia, and I often met Alvin Curran in Rome. For a while I worked for Giacinto Scelsi and his record company Fore. The most important experience for me in the early seventies was meeting John Cage, first in Bremen and then several times in NY and Milan. The education at the music academies in Germany and Italy was very strict and conservative and I did not have
much information about female composers before I came to New York. Women were intended to be the performers of the music of male composers.

TN: It is a refreshing change to see so much growth since then. The first recording that introduced me to your work was Night Flights (1987), and then Diapason (2002) which was so different (and quite evolutionary in recollection) – so in shaping my personal experience there was a gap. It was just around this time that I started associating visual and auditory arts – and as a result opened an a/v project space where I was lucky enough to present some amazing sound-based artists. My question is two-fold. Most artists spend years developing their trajectory, their style, their community/audience. Do you have any thoughts about how your music is or should be perceived/experienced by the receiver? Secondly, when did you first consider sound in a gallery or installation context – and can you describe a particularly complex presentation that was particularly complex in production, and its outcome?

CK: Many of my installations since the early eighties were site-specific and therefore installed once and never again. I started to create a pool of field recordings, instrumental
recordings and other sounds which became the basis for such works. My first electromagnetic discoveries were in 1978 and since then a lot of my pieces are based on
electromagnetic fields which usually one cannot hear.

My first presentations in the art world was in a gallery in Milan in 1974. I have realized many complicated and crazy installations since then, several in museums. One from 2014 is called “Abgehängt“, a work inspired by the fairytale Rapunzel. It consists of 5000 meters of copper cable, 90 speakers and a complex composition of sounds of an original glass harmonica of the 18th century in combination with electromagnetic sounds. The braid was hanging in the tower of the museum and was almost 100 meters long. The work was questioning our ways of communication : once the hair of a woman and today the shiny copper cables. The public often stayed for a long time and listened in various positions.

Abgehängt ARp Museum 2014Abgehängt, Arp Museum 2014

The work was quite a success. Most of the time I want the the receiver/public to be able to move around, to decide by themselves the time and the way they want to listen. This fits true mostly for all sound insallations and as well the series of the “Electrical Walks“, but I have composed electroacoustic music and instrumental works, where the public just is seated. But even then I think a lot about how they perceive the music, where and how they are seated, etc.

TN: Are you still teaching and what do you find most rewarding about the relationship with future generations of soundmakers?

CK: I stopped regular teaching as a professor in 2013 and never missed it. But still I accepted two guest professorships afterwards each for a year. Now I enjoy my freedom a lot. I only give workshops, this year in Vienna, Berlin and Amsterdam.

It is very important for me to meet the younger generation, I learn from them and they learn from me. We often discover things together. This kind of teaching without beaurocratic duties is often intense but most of the time a lot of fun.

TN: Much appreciate the sentiment about the co-exchange of ideas, and how it can be mutually beneficial. Now, sound can often sculpt a version of place and time. However, you have managed to add another element into your work. Can you talk some about how light finds a place within your work. Between the electro-acoustic and the ultraviolet (solar) it would seem that the connection is electricity. Can you talk about the evolution of such in your work, and perhaps some key influences that drew you to these sources and conclusions?

CK: I was always fascinated by technical processes in sound production and as well in sounds which normally you cannot hear. The ultraviolet light is similar to the structure of electromagnetic fields: it reveals frequencies which normally are hidden. Light and sound are time-based arts and why separate them into separated visual and audible areas when there are so may parallels? I prefer not to divide but to integrate different materials and media.

For a short while I studied electronic music at the conservatory in Milan, but the teaching was boring and conservative. Therefore I started to take courses of electrical engineering at the Technical University of Milan. The studies were exciting, even if I did not understand only a small part of it. But I discovered the principle of electromagnetic induction during these courses. There were no specific key influences besides talking to friends, traveling a lot and most of all: curiosity and the need for research without knowing the result.

(extract of Undercurrents)


TN: Your recent collaboration with Annea Lockwood is as I wrote: “appears to breathe in discordant grace, laid back at times, and awoken by sporadic small waves of hiss“. Collaborations can be compromises, artists can easily butt heads and have polar interpretations of the same subject matter. I’m aware of your many collaborations though I am wonder if you might share a memory of an exciting (or challenging) with us, perhaps what made it work so well?

CK: My most exciting experience is always my actual collaboration. I founded a trio with Peter Kutin and Florian Kindlinger from Vienna and we just created a new performance called “Spectral Cities” where we put together all our technical knowledge and all our craziness. For some years I have re-started doing performances and I really enjoy it a lot. It gives me input as well for my other work.

Ekaterinburg 2017Ekaterinburg, 2017

TN: I’m always interested in sense of place. When I listen to your compositions I often get the opposite, an unseating (if you will) of where I may be, in the moment, a disruption in the in-situ experience. Is this in any way intentional, to transport or to mediate sense of place?

CK: I am happy if the listening to my music gets a reaction but I do not intend to influence this. I get very different feedback sometimes but often people have emotional reactions. So they do not talk so much about the structure of the composition but what they experienced by listening to it.

I am very aware of the places where I install, perform or make installations. The architecture, history and atmosphere of the places is fundamental for me. When I do electromagnetic recordings I am often impressed by the diversity of the normal acoustic sound and the electrical hidden waves and I become very conscious about the place I am.

TN: You did a work that looks as though it incorporated an ATM and/or amid other public space. This work makes me quite curious. How complicated is magnetic induction for public presentation? Are there harmonics involved at all or is it an acoustic scavenger hunt? Can you break it down in a simplified way?

Cloud ars electronica 2017

CK:  The installation ‘Cloud‘ (2011/2014) is in the permanent collection of the SFMOMA now and they have as well a special version of an Electrical Walk (see above).

TN: Your most recent recording is ‘Schall Und Klang‘ (Fragment Factory, 2019). It is my understanding that this is a live piece. Is the concept about a historic meeting of the minds in a specific location?

CK: It is a composition but there was as well a realization as a 16 channel sound installation in Berlin. The piece is dedicated to Hermann Scherchen and his studios in Gravesano in the 1950s. He was a self-trained conductor who later did important research about electroacoustic realizations of music for the radio. I made several pieces about pioneers of electrical, electronic and electroacoustic researchers , such as Nicola Tesla for example – but besides the fascination for their work there is included always as well some irony and a personal view on these personalities.

TN: One of the prized possessions in our archives is your recording Vier Stücke [Four Pieces] (2000, Kehrer Verlag + Edition RZ) as part of the in-depth hardcover KlangRaumLichtZeit. I’ve always been somewhat partial to the bends and twists in the piece Nostalgico, it’s like jazz music turned inside-out – the accordion is such a wondrous instrument. In the book I noticed a small grouping of black and white images (from the late 80s) where your work was presented in outdoor situations. I’d imagine this poses some interesting challenges, especially in a large city space. Can you share something about the variables of working inside vs outside?

CK: Outdoor spaces and spaces which are not white cubes are the most fascinating places for installations. I love to work outside, but it is not easy. You have to consider that nature has a life of its own, acoustics and weather conditions can influence and even change a work. So outdoors means: accept whatever comes next. Maybe huge rain, too much heat, a storm, and of course: people. As soon as a work is not placed in the safe art world space like a museum or a gallery, it usually needs protection and care. But very often I get an invitation which says: we want a work outdoors, we have no money to have a guard or maintenance. Just make it stable and solid…

Screen Shot 2019-05-15 at 5.14.51 PM

Working in a closed room often has the result, that people concentrate more on the work and on pure listening. They feel safe, they are in a special world just made for them. My last work, called La Serra which I realized at the Museum of Saarbrücken, consists of 200 meters of black electrical cable which form induction loops. It is a kind of electrical jungle in which people move with special induction headphones and listen to the sounds which circulate in the cable structures. Sounds of nature which slowly change into electromagnetic signals and then back to nature. Many people came more than once and spent quite some time.

Another problem might be the acceptance of soundwork in an everyday surrounding. The reaction towards “strange” acoustics is stronger than the reaction to visuals. Sound can trigger many emotional reactions. I remember a person in the city of Cork who complained that my work, based on solar energy, would disturb him at night because of the solar sound installation during the day. Some people are more sensitive to sound in general. But my work was silent without daylight and what he heard was just the “normal” sounds. For sure he had started to listen more than before.

La Serra 2019La Serra (photo: Anton Minayev)

TN: That’s a phenomenon in and of itself. Now, would you explain how intricate is it when composing work for an ensemble, or for dance (examples)?

CK: It is not more intricate than other works, but different. My last work is for percussion and electromagnetic sounds. I have worked closely with the Berlin based drummer Katharina Ernst for this piece which was premiered last Autumn. I wrote Undercurrents especially for her and her abilities. It is like creating site specific work: you have to understand the interpreter and his way of playing in order to write a piece for him/her. At least this is my way to compose for other musicians.

TN: I was so pleased with her Extrametric, it was pretty special. Before I say goodbye for now, can you tell me what you have currently in-progress?

CK: A series of new Electrical Walks in New York, Paris and Oslo. A large new installation for the Ultima Festival in Oslo this autumn. And the online-release of my electromagetic archive. For next year a site-specific solar installation in the superb park of the castle of Schwetzingen in southern Germany during a festival in May.

Screen Shot 2019-05-16 at 12.02.16 PM

Electromagnetic Investigations in the City

Since the end of the 1970s Christina Kubisch works with the system of electromagnetic induction, which she developed from the basic technique to an individual artistic tool. In 2003 she started her research on a new series of works in public space, which trace the electro-magnetic fields of urban environments in the form of city walks.The first Electrical Walk took place in Cologne in 2004.

Electrical Walks is a work in progress. It is a public walk with special, sensitive wireless headphones by which the acoustic qualities of above ground and underground electromagnetic fields become amplified and audible. 
The transmission of sound is made by built-in coils which respond to the electromagnetic waves in our environment. The palette of these noises, their timbre and volume vary from site to site and from country to country. They have one thing in common: they are ubiquitous, even where one would not expect them. Light systems, wireless communication systems, radar systems, anti-theft security devices, surveillance cameras, cell phones, computers, streetcar cables, antennae, navigation systems, automated teller machines, wireless internet, neon advertising, public transportation networks, etc. create electrical fields that are as if hidden under cloaks of invisibility, but of incredible presence.

The sounds are much more musical than one could expect. There are complex layers of high and low frequencies, loops of rhythmic sequences, groups of tiny signals, long drones and many things which change constantly and are hard to describe. Some sounds are sound much alike all over the world. Others are specific for a city or country and cannot be found anywhere else.

Electrical Walks is an an invitation to a special kind of investigation of city centres (or elsewhere). With the magnetic headphone and a map of the environs, upon which the possible routes and especially interesting electrical fields are marked, the visitor can set off on his own or in a group. The perception of everyday reality changes when one listens to the electromagnetic fields; what is accustomed appears in a different context. Nothing looks the way it sounds. And nothing sounds the way it looks.

All images ©Christina Kubisch

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