About a month ago I was asked to do a brief 550 word interview with former frontman of Not From There and Nightstick and now solo sound explorer Heinz Riegler for The Music magazine (man, it still feels weird not saying Time Off!) about his upcoming cassette release Sleep Health and the show he was doing for Lawrence English's Open Frame festival (happened on the same night as Sonic Masala Presents' Pale Earth show a fortnight ago, unfortunately couldn't make it - from all reports it was incredible). What transpired was over an hour of discussion about art, site-specific music, field recordings, sound as therapy, sound as beauty, Room40 and Lawrence English, and lots more besides. I have cut it down some, but here is the first half of what was an enthralling conversation with a truly wonderful and interesting man.
SONIC MASALA – So what brings you back to Australian shores?
HEINZ RIEGLER – The making of a record is what’s brought me back to Australia this time. I did a collaboration with an artist friend of mine, Allyson Reynolds. I also did an artist’s residence up in the Blackall Ranges not far from the Montville, Maleny area, living on a farm for four months just working together, the outcome being this exhibition with her paintings and six channel audio work that I made. There is a vinyl made of that work too. I also have a tape coming out with Lawrence (English) and a show (with Francisco Lopez), so it seems like I’ve been busy, doesn’t it?
SM – Indeed! I will ask beforehand, before we get into the cassette, the idea of working with someone in a different medium, how do you find that? Do you copy one or the other’s work to an extent, putting it into your own context, where someone leads and the other follows?
HR – It kind of turned out a lot different than when we first talked about the idea. A couple of things happened, i.e. we were going to be in the same building where Allyson was going to paint in a room there and I was going to set up a studio in the next room, it was gonna be a lot more direct. But there was a landslide on the property meaning that the building which was going to be our studio, the whole family who lived on the property had to move into that, so Allyson had to rent a studio nearby and I had this little cabin that was on the land that was barely big enough for me to live in. so that collaboration ended up being quite verbal in the sense that I would make my work and we would discuss it. The idea for the project was that it would be informed by that land we were on, so both of our works were in indirect relation to this space that we inhabited. It was quite a new idea for me and for her, so the collaboration essentially took place over the breakfast and dinner table. We would look at what we had been doing, not so much in I would play her what I’d been doing or she would show me what she had been doing, that mutual stuff, but talking about our processes, thinking about where it was all heading, and those verbal exchanges went into our respective practices, and it all came together in the installation at the very end. I saw some of her work but she didn’t hear much of mine because I became quite insular there. So there was no collaboration of her hearing my work , it was all done in the realm of talking about the land, talking about the geological history of the land because it’s very dramatic kind of space where the whole area, the Blackall Ranges is all volcanic, it’s all on basalt. The hill on which I was staying, there is these exposed basalt columns. The way that lava cools is in these hexagonal shapes, these perfect geometrical hexagonal columns, and I was blown away by it. I was speaking to Lawrence, and he had written an essay for the book that is coming out in conjunction with the vinyl, an essay about the work from an outsider’s perspective, and he told me that there are people up in North Queensland that actually use these columns to generate sound from them. If they are the right size they can be “tuned” so to speak. So it’s been this really amazing, enjoyable process, these past two months. Having time to consider the work and having space to consider it in…
SM – Well landscape seems to be informing a lot of your work of recent times, hasn’t it?
HR – Yeah, it’s definitely a continuation of the last thing I worked on (Survey #2 - One Thousand Dreams I Never Had). I was lucky enough that my grandparents have a cabin up in the Austrian Alps, and recently that place had gotten electricity, a big electrical line had to be laid from one valley to the next that was actually going through this property of my grandparents, and they laid down the law saying “If you are going to do this, lay this massive cable across our land, then the least you can do is hook us up!” I was still in Australia when I found out about this, and after talking to my uncle said I’d really like to go up there for an extended period of time, in the middle of winter, two thousand metres above sea level, no humans – fantastic!
SM – Obviously that idea of interacting or being impressed upon by the landscapes is a major part (of the process), but even listening to your latest offering (Sleep Health), I get a sense that a lot of people that are engaged in either field recordings or sound collages seem to have this interaction with isolation, the idea of deliberately being insular and being set outside the hustle and bustle of urban living? Do you actually enjoy that element of it, deliberately isolating yourself when creating?
HR – I have really enjoyed it, but it hasn’t come 100% easy either. I think I am an urban creature at heart, but I really needed to tune out a lot of noise. Not so much the city, but the Internet. I love technology and I love information and I love partaking in it, but I also found my patterns become increasingly driven by that thirst for that information, and being generationally positioned in the sense that I remember a time when emails didn’t exist when I first moved to Australia, and a minute on the telephone to Europe cost six dollars. So I think I've been swept up in it, and I needed to reconsider how I interacted with that, and part of that was to isolate myself from it. Going up to that cabin was an exercise in that, because I knew there was no Internet up there, unless I wanted to wade through two metres of snow then up another three hundred metres, then stand there with my telephone trying to get a signal. I gave up doing that for a while, thinking that this was ridiculous, and that allowed me to remove myself from that part of my life, which admittedly I didn’t enjoy being weaned off it at first. For the first four weeks up there literally nothing happened, I was in shock. I was close to saying this is ridiculous – I had my entire studio carted up there, it was quite a massive deal to get everything transported and set up there, but after four weeks of sitting around amongst my instruments and nothing happening, I had to consider abandoning the idea, it wasn’t going to work for me. Then of course when I got to that moment of thinking that this might end, things started happening for me. Suddenly I was the most productive I had ever been in probably the last twenty years. I'm still going through material on hard drives that I recorded over that three months that I haven’t used for any projects that I am still looking for ways to utilise. It certainly made an impression upon me and I feel that I would like to be more productive, I would like to finish more things – I have been a notorious quitter of things, and have been for a large chunk of the 2000s – and I needed to come up with a system that would help these things to come about. That’s a long answer to your question…
SM – That’s often the way though, there is no easy answer… And the way that you describe that time in your life, talking about technology, I mean, seeing some of the snapshots you have taken over time including your time spent up in the Blackall Ranges, and a lot of that immediately comes to mind when I listen to your music as well. A lot of visual and situational experience comes into the music you have been making. Has that been feeding off what you experienced up in the Alps as well?
HR – Well, I think there are a number of layers when you talk about making site-specific work. I think there is a straight attempt at translation where you would probably want to employ a lot of field recordings, you would attempt to create what your ears hear when you are there. That’s not what I'm really about though. It’s more about what the place has imprinted upon me. And what these last two projects have done, the one in the Alps and the one in the Blackall Ranges, they are very dramatic places. I mean it was really hard at the beginning in the Alps, yet you become attuned to it and it leaves an impression on you. At first you might try to be a translator of the space or an interpreter of the space, but when you learn that is not the role, that’s when it gets really interesting. It’s more intuitive, that’s the kind of language I'm attempting to develop and I see myself at the very beginning of that process, I have a long way to go. I want to keep making site-specific music, I'm really driven by that at the moment. I'm just learning a language that works for me.
SM – Let’s talk about the latest album that is coming out on Lawrence’s cassette label A Guide To Saints. Where was the natural jumping point from your last piece to here? Coming back here to creating this new piece?
HR – I came back here from Austria in February, in the middle of winter, to come to work with my painter friend, so this is really preceded by the work I did with Allyson. I pretty much went straight up to that farm, and I started working on that right away. That was informed immediately from a very quiet, mountainous, wintry territory to landing in the middle of summer, which in a hearing kind of sense it is so insanely intense, so that was the first impression that made on me. And then in conjunction with the conversations with Allyson about what we were trying to get at, and in conjunction with being placed upon this enormous mountain of basalt, this really dense rock, the work is a very dense piece of audio. At the same time I was making other work while I was there, and that is what has become Sleep Health. When I did come to Australia I had some real issues trying to get some sleep, like a really hard time getting my head down and passing out. So while doing the installation work, I was trying to make something that would help me sleep. How I would do it was after I had wrapped working on Score For A Mineral Landscape for the day, I would start making these pieces of music designed for me to nod off to. Because of the way the studio was set up, my bed was right there, so with a Bluetooth mouse I could lay in bed and make and record things and do manipulation of sounds and processing while I was in bed (laughs) and that was the starting point for it. I would then put sections of it on loop and I was sort of able to sedate myself through that action. Another factor into this was that someone that I really care about was having health problems at the time and he really likes to sit down listening to slow droney music, and in my kind of naivety and my desire to make that person better, I thought I could make music to make that person better, and those two ideas started merging. That’s what that album really is – I actually dare anyone to listen to it and still be awake by the end of it. It’s my most boring work to date, and I'm really into it (laughs). I do love this kind of deep listening that you can do to tones that obviously don’t have to be made by me, in fact there are many people who do it incredibly well. I love listening to single tones, I love listening to drones, and what happens if you are in the right space, after ten minutes the things that start happening to that tone in your head. I think it is a really wonderful experience.
SM – Referring to site-based works, sometimes listening to it in a particular situation changes it for you too. I know that a lot of sound artists and drone artists look for venues outside the norm for that express purpose, so that you can engage with the music in a specific way without outside influences. I saw William Basinski play in a church in London a few weeks ago…
HR – The Disintegration Loops guy?
SM – Yeah, yeah. And he played a piece from his Nocturnes release which is basically this small loop, something like fifteen seconds long, and it’s played over and again for fifty minutes. He slowly manipulates that loop so that by the end it’s crackling and wavering in and out of sync with the original loop…and that’s something that really strikes me with this kind of music is that the venue mattered – it was a church without electricity, there were tea lights lit everywhere, everyone was sitting on the floor, on plastic chairs or in pews, and it was almost clinical, “this is what it needs to be to listen to this”…but it worked, you know? At the end of it you were unaware of the time, you were unaware of place even, although it had clearly been created for you, and that’s what I really like in Sleep Health itself and the excerpts that you have connected visuals to, you’re immediately being sucked into the visuals – the music almost disappeared. And the excerpts are only a minute and half each; I found that incredibly interesting. Sleep is health, and health is sleep, the two notions feeding into each other, a self-perpetuating type of idea…
HR – You should write the press release! (laughs) I think what you just said about Basinski and creating a space for, for the lack of a better word let’s say meditation, right, and I think these kind of spaces or these kinds of events, I'm pretty interested in art or sound – art is an umbrella term – but having a purpose, having a objective. Whether that is then accepted or embraced by the audience becomes kind of secondary. Purpose is useful, and I think that having spaces that you can go to, which remove ourselves from whatever and wherever our lives are, I think that’s really becoming more important, to have these spaces, these thirty minute blocks in our lives where we're not staring at our glowing rectangle. You have to be careful when saying these things because you start sounding like an old man, railing against technology, which I'm not, I love technology, but I think it is of benefit that we allow ourselves a time to remove ourselves from it. There has been examples all along. I made this film up in the mountains, and for me it was a reference, you know those old VHS videotapes with a fireplace on it or an aquarium? I think those are early versions I'm trying to get at (laughs). I'm very interested in making work that creates environments or possibilities for that time to disengage, or re-engage. If people engage with it, that’s great, but that is the purpose that I'm attaching to this sort of stuff.
The rest of this interview will be posted tomorrow.
The rest of this interview will be posted tomorrow.