. Press

The Wire - Scattered silence or PDF version (UK)

Radio Silence / Radio Noise Birgit Ulher’s Acoustic Materialism
by Johan Redin
, originally in Nutida Musik (No 2, 2011)
original article in swedish

Birgit Ulher - Interview Le son du grisli (France)

Audiovizuální svět Birgit Ulher, by Petr Slaby (Czech)

Radio Silence / Radio Noise
Birgit Ulher’s Acoustic Materialism

by Johan Redin
, originally in Nutida Musik (No 2, 2011)
original article in swedish

My first encounter with the German trumpet improviser Birgit Ulher’s music was the album Kunstoff (Creative Sources) where she played together with the vocalist and voice improviser Ute Wassermann. The extremely minimalistic and fragmented music was as strange as it was fascinating and intellectually insisting. The first time I personally got in touch with Ulher was actually an equally strange happening. I got an email at the very moment when I got stuck at a certain paragraph in the book Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers, by the German romantic philosopher and physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter, written in the first years of the nineteenth-century. I do not at all believe in supernatural or cosmic connections, but just as I was reading Ritter’s ideas about »sound rays« (Schallstrahlen) and associated to Ulher’s music, the mailbox notified an incoming mail. That was a start of a now long and comprehensive conversation about improvised music and its relationship to contemporary art, a dialogue that in many ways support my approach in this essay to interpret Ulher’s »radio silence« and her musical thinking in the lines of an acoustic materialism.
Birgit Ulher is quite reserved about her music making, and suggests that the listener takes a look at his or her own direction to form an idea of the musical expression. It is an attitude that is shared by many in the world of free improvisation today, and perhaps this was part of the reason why I was reading an old book by Ritter. My purpose was to outline a theory of musical iconoclasm, mainly inspired by the reductive tendencies in improvisation that began in the late 90’s, with pioneers like Ulher, Franz Hautzinger, Axel Dörner, Ruth Barberán and others. Instead of wandering into the labyrinthine subject of representation and abstraction in music, I turned to the question of music and perception.
As far as I know Ritter is one of the first to philosophically consider sound perception (Ton Bewusstsein) without a typically psychological approach. Sounds and tones are distinguished as »organisms of oscillation and figure« that exists acoustically and materially as a kind of bodies in waves and oscillations, like vibrating shapes. The beauty of this idea is that these »sound bodies« carries the ghosts of their own characters within themselves, fragmented acoustic matter that is vaguely perceived just as the tone dies out and melds with the air, the room and the perceivers own body. Ritter then moves quickly to various organic contexts (latest fashion in the philosophy of his time) in which he considers the relationship between language and music, noise and animal sounds as »incomplete music« and other interesting ideas. Still, his theory manage to go beyond the question of language and letters as Klangfiguren as he suggests an analogy between sight perception, and its ability to perceive different shades of light, and the ear’s capacity to perceive the nuances that progresses during the time the sound occurs. It is about the particular wavelengths of light and sound in relation to a world of aesthetic potentialities. Sound is orientating without necessarily being communicating, sound is warm and cold, sound is Schallstrahlen: shimmering and pleasant, yet also blinding.
Ritter’s philosophy is an inspiring contribution to the discussion of reduction as an aesthetic strategy in free improvisation, a musical phenomenon that is difficult to deal with discursively in texts like this or in reviews. Basically it is about extended techniques, the deconstructive potentials and redefined roles of the instruments. A lot can be said about techniques and practices, but what comes out of it is at the border of language, as a musical expression. Fundamentally this is what concerns us in Ulher’s music – a blinding of the hearing that emanates from a dialectical play between receiver and transmitter, a brightening sunray and a pitch-black fumbling darkness of the senses. Her music invites the listener to a neutral zone, although it is a zone that easily is misleading in the way that it gives the impression that it is silence that is the main collaborator. When I ask Ulher how she relates to the concept of musical reductionism, I get an equally obvious as puzzling answer:
I understand that people discuss my music as a form of reductionism or minimalism, but for me it’s also kind of strange because things happen all the time. It is a multiplicity of sounds.
Ulher is right in this. In fact, the zone acts interchangeably as a blank canvas for pure lines and as a foundation for three-dimensional structures. This is also illustrated in her use of mutes made of foil and other thin metals, projective surfaces as well as shiny blank squares. The music opens a temporary space where minute sounds of varying length and force gradually introduce a transparent, condensed body. The sounds materialize and disappear, just like breathing on a mirror. The trumpet is related to the color of condensation rather than the tonal scale, and controlled with such a precision that it makes you think that the piece is composed rather than improvised. The atmosphere merges perfectly with sparse live electronics, preferably by fellow players such as Gino Robair, where the albums Sputter (Creative Sources) and Blip and Ifs (Rastascan) reflects a radical combination of saturated timbres with crackling and buzzing noises.
A common objection to the contemporary European improvisation of this kind is that a lot of it »sounds the same«. However, this is something that could be said of many musical genres. But is improvisation such a genre? You can hear the difference between Lee Konitz and Charlie Parker, although they both play alto saxophone and performs within the league of bop jazz. But the harmonies and phrasings that become attributes and easily tell who is involved are of course rare in this form of improvisational music. I also have difficulties to tell who’s who if I am not prepared, and sometimes even tending to agree that some of it lacks invention or that many probably feel excluded from the very form itself. Anyway, this is what makes free improvisation both important and remarkable as an art form. Free improvisation always establish a challenge for the listener; regardless how often you experience it (live or by recordings) there seems to be a permanent provocation in the fact that it leaves you to your own listening, your own discoveries.
The perspective is recognized from the 60’s and the debate centered on Michael Fried’s article »Art and Object Hood«, where minimalism is signified as a silent and empty gesture whose only innovation is that it disrupts the intersubjective relationship between the art work and the beholder. For Fried, minimalism remained introvert and unable to represent anything other than a surface. But the more you reflect upon the surface, the more depth it gives. The intersubjective correspondence is far from broken; rather it is the act of interpretation that is reformulated – the situation itself. Turning to music, maybe it is the communicative breaking between the presentation of the sounds and the receiver that makes us reconsider our way of listening. Turning on the radio and there is no music except for noise and interference, you are still listening to the radio.
For some years now, Ulher has been experimenting with the concept of »radio silence«. In retrospect this is something of a turning point in her music making, officially manifested in the solo album Radio Silence No More, recorded 2007 and released in 2009 on the Swedish label Olof Bright. Metaphorically, one can distinguish this radio silence as just a communicative breakdown: no transmission, only the noise of non-information. This far Fried would agree with us. But then again, just as a white cube can produce a whole set of reflections, the radio will come to life the more you listen to it. Then there is the practical part: Ulher has constructed a series of mutes that is made of small radio speaker, whose faint noise is projected into the bell of the trumpet. The situation produces a kind of meta-level in her way of playing against the noise with clicking valves, layers of hissing sounds and suffocated tones. She discovers different forms of density in a material that by its nature is completely porous and volatile; by doing this she also establishes a communication that otherwise would be taken for nothing but sounds of a dead channel.
The contact between the radio and the trumpet is what renders Ulher a unique position in today’s improvised music scene, an artistic work that is decidedly sculptural. The sounds give visual impulses, although there is nothing to see, nothing to »imagine«. But just as you suddenly see individual shapes in clouds or patterns in trees or marble, there are glimpses of momentary assemblages. The situation is not about psychology or the compensations my brain would produce in order to create a hen out of a feather. The listener is oriented by the diversity rather than individual perceptions. It is probably because of this that the music often is described as reductive (in the absence of tonality) but, paradoxically, turns out to be more or less maximized in the presence of sounds – radio silence is radio noise.
Birgit Ulher often call attention to her interest in contemporary art; whenever she tours the U.S. or play in any of the major European cities, she makes sure to scrutinize the local collections and galleries. Her music also touches the contemporary art scene quite concretely, as in the collaborations with Jennifer Allora and Guillermo Calzadilla. In their installation Wake Up (2007) for light and sound she contributed with a deconstruction of the classical reveille, the traditional military morning signal. However, she actually has a background as a visual artist. Growing up in the Bavarian Nuremberg, she moved in her twenties to the geographical antipode of Hamburg, where she still is working. She was accepted to the art school, and when not painting she played brutal free jazz, partly because she found the form interesting, and partly to substitute for the heating that she could not afford to pay. Gradually, the music took an increasing part of her life; first as a percussionist, with an interest in African rhythm (that also included a trip to Togo in West Africa), then there was trumpet studies, and in the long run, she also ended up as some sort of radio operator. In fact, the radio components and the trumpet are now so closely linked to each other, that they should not be considered as separate elements, where one end is acoustic and the other electronic, rather they are extensions of each other that now has become a whole, and in its physical appearance not that different from a contemporary sculptural object.
It would therefore be no exaggeration to say that the art school planted the seed for the spatial thinking that has given her music the sense of development and identity. It is probably also in this context that you find the motivation behind her characteristic approach to improvisation, which is considerably more painterly and sculptural than just a musical expression of freedom or spontaneity. The period within the art scene also became a cradle for the many musical excursions to come, when meeting Heiner Metzger’s sound tables stuffed with contact microphones and brushes, or fellow artist Christoph Schiller’s prepared spinet.
This period included the formation of today’s improvisational scene in Hamburg, locally known as »Stark Bewölkt« and often housed in the small smoky Hörbar, near Reeperbahn. The scene is sometimes crowded, and sometimes small, quite dependent on the fact that the Berlin scene has exploded in the 2000s. In Berlin it is cheap to live and provides a lively network of musicians to play with. When I ask Ulher why she has not moved to Berlin, as everybody else, she admits that it of course has been tempting, especially since there are more opportunities for concerts. Nevertheless, she wants to stay focused on her own aesthetic development and this requires concentration. Hamburg offers this, yet with the disadvantage that the coastal town has its harsh climatic conditions and relatively few involved in the experimental scene. The quality is there. Despite the undersized staff of musicians, Stark Bewölkt has a relevance that can be compared with Berlin’s Echtzeit, and at the moment they are discussing whether it is time to document their history so others get the chance to actually see the whole.
There is hardly any need for Ulher to make a »career move« to Berlin. Since 1996 she has released over 20 albums; the early ones in an exemplary free improvisational spirit along with musicians like Roger Turner and Martin Klapper, and then increasingly moving towards an individual and intensified aesthetics. In the year 2004 she initiated a long association with Ernesto Rodriguez’s Portuguese label Creative Sources, including the solo album Scatter and 500gr with the quartet Nordzucker, as well as the praised 3:1 in collaboration with the Lebanese Mazen Kerbaj and Sharif Shenaoui. It is immediately noticeable that her taste for different musical collaborations shows a great geographical mobility: with Swedes such as Martin Küchen, Lise-Lotte Norelius, and Raymond Strid (under the moniker Unsk), British musicians such as Rhodri Davies and Tim Hodgkinson, the Americans Robair, Forbes Graham, Bryan Eubanks, Leonel Kaplan and Damon Smith, the Argentinian Lucio Capece, the Frenchman Heddy Boubaker and not the least a bunch of Israeli musicians in Tel-Aviv. The list goes on.
With the technique Ulher developed during the making of Radio Silence, she has today moved further into electronic interactions. One example is the project »Granular Fields« with Jacob Sello, where she with sensors and Max/MSP technology controls processes by slowly moving the trumpet in different directions. Even more interesting is her ongoing duo together with the Hamburg improviser and artist Gregory Büttner, a project that recently has been documented on the (somewhat skeletal) mini-cd Thetrics (1000füssler). When seeing Ulher and Büttner live (they played recently at Fylkingen in Stockholm and at the legendary Prinzhorn museum in Heidelberg), the intricate exchanges between speaker and radios are as visible as they are audible. Büttner uses bigger speaker elements that are set into intense vibration by sub-pulses. With the speaker as vibrating surface he then adds tiny peas, sticks, plastic cups and other fragile objects for different percussive effects. The sounds produced are then projected through Ulher’s speaker mutes, and with the trumpet as resonance chamber she ultimately modulates both the electronics and the noise from the radio. It might seem like an unnecessarily complex procedure, but still, the result is extraordinary: a microscopic mesh of acoustic dust that occasionally is given coordinates by punctuated sounds and markings. The radio atmosphere melds everything into an immense gray scale, a kind of abstract pencil drawing of sparse lines and dramatic, dense fields. The impression is physical and almost tangible; in the midst of the Schallstrahlen you are convinced by her acoustic materialism. So, if you pose the question where Birgit Ulher stands today, why she is not in Berlin, you will find her precisely in this condense swarm of acoustic particles, surrounded by the fragmentary elements of tonality.

Originally in Nutida Musik (No 2, 2011) published by the Swedish section of the
International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM)
english translation by Johan Redin

Michael Fried, »Art and Objecthood« (Art Forum 1967)
Johann Wilhelm Ritter, Fragmente aus dem Nachlass eines jungen Physikers (Heidelberg 1810)
Beatrix Ruf (ed.), Allora & Calzadilla (Zürich 2009)
Peter Niklas Wilson, Reduktion. Zur Aktualität einer musikalischen Strategie (Mainz 2003)


Birgit Ulher - Interview Le son du grisli (France, Juillet 2009 par Jean Dezert)

Née en 1961 à Nuremberg, Birgit Ulher est une trompettiste allemande qui a acquis ces dernières années une excellente réputation dans le domaine de l’improvisation. Organisatrice du festival Real Time Music durant de nombreuses saisons, elle a mené des recherches esthétiques qui se sont traduites notamment par la réalisation de polaroids retravaillés à l’aide de techniques mixtes. Que ce soit en solo ou en groupe (le quartet Nordzucker, ses duos avec Ute Wasserman ou encore Gino Robair), les principaux aspects de son travail résident dans sa quête de nouveaux sons et procédés. L’usage du silence et l’écoute réflexive prennent dans son œuvre tout leur sens. Ses deux derniers albums Blips and Ifs (en duo avec Gino Robair, Rastatscan, 2009) et Radio Silence No More (en solo, Olof Bright, 2009) constituent une excellente introduction à un univers riche et poétique. Le 24 octobre prochain, elle jouera en compagnie du saxophoniste Heddy Boubaker lors du Festival Densités.

Quel a été ton apprentissage musical et quelles sont tes premières influences ?
Plus jeune, j'ai commencé deux fois à prendre des cours de guitare, mais à chaque fois, je n'ai pas persévéré plus d'une année. En ce qui concerne la trompette, j'ai pris quelques cours, mais je suis essentiellement autodidacte. Je me suis lancée dans l'improvisation en jouant du free jazz dans un groupe pendant un certain temps. Je me suis d'abord intéressée principalement au free jazz, avant de me plonger dans l'improvisation et les nouvelles musiques européennes. Les artistes qui m'ont le plus influencée alors sont, entre d'autres, Paul Lovens, Manfred Schoof, Günter Christmann, Alexander von Schlippenbach, Derek Bailey, Roger Turner, John Stevens, Phil Minton, Joëlle Léandre, Annemarie Roelofs et Peter Kowald.

L'approche que tu partages avec des artistes comme Mazen Kerbaj ou Axel Dörner se distingue de l'improvisation européenne des années 60 et 70. Certains ont désigné ce renouvellement du langage musical de réductionnisme. Quelle est ton opinion par rapport à cette désignation et quelles sont les caractéristiques de ta musique qui s'en rapprochent le plus ?
Je pense que l'utilisation de termes comme celui de réductionnisme est toujours simplificatrice. A mon avis, le réductionnisme consiste à se concentrer sur certains aspects de la musique, les sons peu élevés et le silence par exemple, une approche que je peux partager. Je n'aime pas beaucoup le fait qu'il sous-entende qu'il manque quelque chose à la musique, qui aurait été « réduite », ce qui n'est pas le cas. Ou dans un certain sens, c'est toujours le cas, puisque tout genre musical réside dans une focalisation sur certains aspects sonores. Beaucoup de musiciens sont à mon sens injustement réduits à ce terme. Cependant, il y a de nombreuses caractéristiques de ma musique que l'on pourrait associer au réductionnisme, bien que je ne me sois jamais sentie inféodée à cette étiquette. Depuis que je suis installée à Hambourg, je n'ai pas entretenu beaucoup de relation avec les musiciens qui ont commencé à travailler dans cette voie à Berlin, bien que je sois au courant de leurs recherches. Ce type d'approche repose trop souvent sur des règles strictes qui peuvent conduire à un certain formatage. J'ai toujours préféré travailler selon une approche individuelle plutôt que suivre des règles conceptuelles précises. J'apprécie beaucoup le travail de réductionnistes « originaux » comme Axel Dörner ou Andrea Neumann, qui ont développé quelque chose de vraiment neuf à un moment crucial. Mais, comme avec beaucoup de genres musicaux, certains musiciens le font d'une manière forte et convaincante et puis d'autres suivent et ne sont pas vraiment à la hauteur. C'est ainsi qu'il y a quelques années, le réductionnisme en est arrivé au point mort à Berlin, probablement parce que trop dogmatique. Les musiciens sont alors allés dans d'autres directions.

Favorises-tu parfois un travail de composition. Si oui, comment peux-tu le décrire ?
Comme la composition a une bien meilleure réputation dans notre société, certains improvisateurs ont défini leur travail comme des compositions instantanées. Je ne peux pas dire que je favorise un travail de composition. Disons qu'il s'agit d'une autre approche avec des résultats différents. Par moments, il n'y a pas de grande différence entre la composition et  l'improvisation, surtout lorsque tu travailles en solo. Il y a plus de flexibilité dans l'improvisation, tu n'as pas le contrôle sur les musiciens avec qui tu joues, ce qui est pour moi « plus un défi ». De toute façon, peu importe que la musique soit composée ou improvisée, du moment qu'elle est de qualité. J'ai été influencée par des compositeurs comme John Cage bien sûr, mais aussi Christian Wolf, Morton Feldman, Helmut Lachenmann, pour n’en citer que quelques-uns. J'aime beaucoup le travail de composition de Michael Maierhof : très précis, avec de beaux sons durs et beaucoup de silence. Il utilise des sons divisés, comme on peut l’entendre dans le quartet Nordzucker (avec Lars Scherzberg, Chris Heenan et moi-même). Ce que j'apprécie également dans l'improvisation, c'est l'égalité qui existe entre les musiciens. Tu n'as pas de hiérarchie avec le compositeur d'un côté et les interprètes de l'autre. Un autre avantage de la musique improvisée est que tu peux, par la pratique, approfondir la connaissance que tu as de ton instrument. Cela permet de développer de nouveaux sons et langages musicaux. Ces raisons me conduisent à penser que pas mal de musique improvisée actuelle sont beaucoup plus intéressantes que certaines musiques composées.

Y a-t-il des échanges entre ta pratique de la musique et celle des arts visuels ?
J'ai toujours aimé le travail de nombreux artistes visuels qui se concentrent sur certaines problématiques bien précises. L'usage de bonnes proportions ainsi que le type de matériel employé sont très importants dans les deux disciplines. Comme j'ai cette formation en arts plastiques, je sais comme il est important de placer les sons exactement au bon endroit. Ensuite, certaines des plus intéressantes idées usitées dans la musique improvisée sont issues des arts plastiques, comme jouer de la guitare sur une table par exemple. Keith Rowe a en effet eu l'idée de Jackson Pollock, qui peignait ses toiles sur le sol. Autre analogie de la musique avec les arts plastiques, je considère le silence et le son comme les aspects négatif et positif d'une même chose, comme une sculpture et l'espace autour d'elle. Pour moi, les passages entre les sons sont aussi importants que les sons eux-mêmes. Quelque part, ils forment les sons. Une des meilleures choses qui puissent arriver dans n’importe quelle pratique artistique, musique comprise, c’est le changement de ta perception. Cela survient parfois après un bon concert, lorsque tu perçois ton environnement sonore différemment qu’avant. Une perception très proche de celle que l’on peut avoir de murs que l’on croyait connaître et qui paraissent différents après un travail de décollage. Les influences d’autres media peuvent être variées. Parfois, tu as l’idée d’enregistrer des sons de la vie quotidienne après avoir vu un spectacle de Sigmar Polke qui a documenté sa vie et celle d’autres artistes en utilisant la photographie. Ou, à d’autres moments, tu t’inspires d’idées conceptuelles, comme jouer chaque jour à un moment précis pour une durée déterminée. Les influences résident également dans le choix de ton matériel, dans la façon dont tu l’utilises, dans ton type de jeu et dans la façon dont l’interaction avec d’autres musiciens se déroule.

Peux-tu citer quelques-uns de tes disques favoris ?

Astro Twin / Cosmos (Ami Yoshida et Utah Kawasaki), Astro Twin + Cosmos (F.M.N. Sound Factory, 2004)
Tears (Ami Yoshida et Sachiko M), Cosmos (Erstwhile Records, 2002)
Nmperign (Bhob Rhainey et Greg Kelley), Nmperign (Selektion, 2001)
Hiss (Pat Thomas, Ivar Grydeland, Tonny Kluften et Ingar Zach), Zahir (Rossbin Records, 2003)
Greg Kelley et Jason Lescallet, Forlorn Green (Erstwhile Records, 2001)
Michael Maierhof, Collection 1 (Durian, 2006)
Agnès Palier et Olivier Toulemonde, Rocca (Creative Sources Recordings, 2005)

propos recueillis en juillet 2009.
Jean Dezert © Le son du grisli


bio | concerts | groups | cd's | works | press | photos | audio / video | contact | links