Interview with Udi Koomran (Soundengineer / Tel Aviv)

Explain how a classically trained composer with an academic background like yours is collaborating with musicians coming from an avant/rock and tell us how these two so different worlds meet can they actually influence one another?

Since the mid-eighties I had been composing nothing but contemporary classical music, but after some years I lost interest in this. I was particularly annoyed by the artificial arrogance of this music scene, which had a paralysing effect on my creativity. The sound of a rock band and electronic instruments inspired me much more than a string quartet. I listened to music by Chris Cutler, Fred Frith and Heiner Goebbels, which appealed to me a lot, though I never had any intention of composing that kind of music myself. However, this radical and provocative music had a huge influence on me. In this period I also turned towards electroacoustic music and composed several pieces for solo instruments and electroacoustic sounds. That was a kind of transitional period in which I didn't want to work without live elements. Some of those pieces can be heard on the CD "Scenes from No Marriage". Those songs were all still strongly influenced by my work on contemporary classical music. I also made various attempts to include musicians‚ improvisations into my compositions, but often I couldn't identify with the results; it didn't feel like "my work" anymore. One of the successful examples for the integration of improvisations is the CD "Domestic Stories". That's a cycle of songs based on lyrics by Chris Cutler for the singer Dagmar Krause. I composed these songs in great detail and fixed the form very precisely. Nevertheless I left a lot of space for supplementary improvisations. Chris Cutler, Fred Frith and Alfred Harth then added wonderful parts, which corresponded very well with the electroacoustic sounds I had prepared.

Your web site bio states that at one point you built musical instruments for your compositions. Can you tell us a little about that.

Actually this already started when I was playing in a rock band. I built an electric guitar - which certainly did not sound any better than the ones you can buy in a shop, and was quite difficult to play, but still, I had built it myself and no one had a similar one. Creating something unique and never heard before is still very important to me. That's also the reason why I don't often use synthesizers and sound modules. The reference on the web site is to the piece "Ruhestörung" (disturbance of the peace), about a quarrel I had with my landlord about my music - which annoyed him. For this I developed and built my own percussion instruments out of noisy household objects: tins, bottles, steel pipes, metal buckets and so on. Currently I'm still working in two areas. On the one hand I'm calculating, developing and building acoustical modules for my studio and on the other I'm engaged in sound art, developing and building sound art objects and sound installations with architect Malte Lüders. Many artistic elements are contained in one of those objects - they are at once instruments, resonating bodies and sculptures. I concern myself mainly with the musical part, while Malte takes care of the sculptural part and the design. And, once in a while, I have to build a loudspeaker, since that is a kind of obsession.

Tell us little about your studio and how is it set up.

The digital heart of my studio is an Apple Computer G4 with Protools hardware, 1000 Gb
hard-disc capacity and various sound programs. I mix with a 24-chanel Tascam analog mixer, having the possibility to listen in stereo or 5.1, depending on what I work on. A Surround Monitor Controller allows me to configure a flexible set-up. I use an S1000 and a K2000 from time to time, as well as some analogue effect machines and filters. Oh yes, I also have a 32-Band real-time analyser next to a 21 inch screen, which serves me very well when mastering and mixing. What else? Numerous frequency absorbers which create a well balanced sound and high-end studio monitors (Geithain RL902)

What is the main programme/system you are working with.

I work exclusively with the TDM version of Logic Audio 6 and Prootools Mix hardware. Furthermore there are three interfaces which are routed to the analogue mixing board.

As a sound engineer I can state that sonically your are very well balanced clear precise and have a very wide dynamic range. How did you achieve your engineering skills ?

I did that by trial and error. The music I make is not something I invent in order for it to be performed by someone else and later be turned into a studio mix by a sound engineer; it's already being developed at the mixing console. It's composed by listening in front of loudspeakers. So the conventionally divided processes of composing, performing and producing, or rather preserving, music are fused together. I invent the music and the sounds by generating, mixing and preserving them on a hard disc. This is a single work process, which I have learned to do over many years so as to be able to realise my ideas about music and sound. I learned to write scores in the same way. But that doesn't mean, of course, that I'd be able to produce a mix for an orchestra or a rock band. I'm not an all-round sound engineer. I gathered my engineering experience mainly by mixing my own music and realising my own sonic inventions. Furthermore, the field of electroacoustics has been a hobby of mine since childhood. Thus numerous affinities are combined. By the way, I think my music does not have a wide dynamic range because in general I don't continuously like to adjust the volume of music. I only like a wide range of dynamic when pieces are being performed in big halls. The same applies to home cinema since the dynamic range which could be reached is actually unbearable at home. That's the reason why I radically compress all my material before working with it.

How do make sure the reference of your mixing room is "true" and translates well in the "real" world.

The "real" audio world is so multifarious and the situations in which music is heard so different, that I'm neither able nor willing to create a compromised mix for every hearing situation. That's simply impossible. There are many reasons. I don't believe in the ultimate test on a car radio,
or on Auratones and the like. Music which achieves all of its effect by melody and harmony can certainly retain all its fascination, even when played on lousy speakers. In my opinion one can enjoy the 9th by Beethoven even on a cheap kitchen radio, since it's great music. That reminds me of the times when, at the age of 14, I used to listen to the charts on a tiny, terrible sounding transistor radio. I got goose-pimples anyway. So I guess there are more important things than the choice of loudspeakers. So much for the pros; on this topic the cons, however, are rather more complicated since I exclusively produce non-live music which can only be heard through
speakers. So I compose for speakers. Even though they are not an instrument, they still render my music - and the better they are, the more the listener will be able to perceive, and thus feel. I produce with reference studio monitors, which sound very neutral and have a flawless phase response. I work with the entire range of audible frequencies. Hence I quite commonly use tones at around 30 Hz. Someone whose speakers can't reproduce those tones will certainly miss some parts of my music, but I hope there's still enough left for middle-quality speaker owner. I also don't believe that the quality of music exclusively depends on either the rendering quality, nor on a choice between 16 or 24 bits. The final mix should nonetheless be balanced and powerful. That's the reason I made large scale and very precise acoustic adjustments to my studio. After extensive measurements, I designed and built frequency absorbers that guarantee a well balanced frequency field. Speaking technically, I have a divergence of +/- 3dB (concerning 1/3-octave Pink Noise signals) at my listening position. The average reverb time is around 0.4 seconds, and that's acceptable. All this helps the listener get a technically first-class product. What's then done with it, how it's perceived, lies beyond my influence.

Obviously the technological tools and techniques you worked with on Domestic Stories(1993) are very different from what was used on Lost in Rooms. Can you tell us what kind of technology were you using then and how it evolved to your current working environment

During the process of composing "Domestic Stories". I made a complete sonic simulation, apart from Dagmar's voice and the electronic parts. Everything else was simulated using MIDI and samplers. This was recorded on an analogue 16-track Tascam. The MIDI tracks were then replaced by live musicians and the improvisations were synchronised. Sometimes I even used
the improvisations by themselves. It's always a problem to replace something in a demo version, because the rough mix already presents a compact idea. The guitar in track 3 for instance had the exact sound I wanted it to have even though it wasn't played live. Live instruments aren't always the better choice - it depends on what you want. And then -
you know how it works - we mixed and mastered.

Ten years lie between "Domestic Stories and "Virtualectric Stories", and a lot changed in this time. Nowadays I nearly always produce on my own. That means I do recordings, composition, mixing and mastering in my own studio. If I need material I can't generate myself, I get it from where I can find it. For "Lost in Rooms" I used sound fragments from the dancers' voices, and of their dance movements. All the other sounds are complex combinations of material I've stored in my archive over the years. Actually I don't always need new material, since I could work with the sounds I've already archived for quite a long time. It makes me nervous to have too much material. It's the same with always updating my computer with the newest software and plug-ins. There are periods when I don't go into a music store for two years. "The less material, the better" - this efficient work with material derives from my study with Georg Katzer. Give me a tape with ten minutes of any material and say: "create a piece out of that". That's the most exciting thing for me. That provides clear conditions and productive boundaries.

Can you explain how the evolvment of technology effected the creative process (ie,compostion/mixing-matching/deconstucting ect.) Is this what you mean by the terms virtual and recycled music.

I am afraid there's no official or international meaning, or definition, for the terms virtual and recycled music. I just use these terms to paraphrase a certain musical procedure. An example of virtual music is a clarinet quartet I created from the improvisations of one clarinettist. I extracted all the sounds I found interesting out of 20 minutes of material, then composed a quartet using only this material and no electronic manipulation. This means we hear a quartet - also visually imagining one playing - but in reality it's a computer reproducing samples of one musician. I would call that a virtual or acoustical delusion. Recycled music, on the other hand, refers to recycling. In my last answer I said I like to use material from my archive, material that was quite possibly used before. I think remixes are also connected with recycling. Sometimes I listen to movies, without actually watching them, and follow only the sounds. Once in a while I extract something in order to put it into another context. I find that nowadays too much is being thrown away too often - sounds too. But I guess that's normal in times of sound inflation. It's hard for me to throw things away in general, especially sounds, because they can be used to accomplish many purposes. If, for instance, I don't want to listen to a CD anymore because it annoys me, I can just as well put it under a table leg to prevent it from wobbling.

On the 5th Elephant the method of work was by isolating a piece of sound >from one context and using its rhythmic / harmonic content for inspiration on a new composition. Did Lost In Rooms need a new or different modus operandi?

No. All through the last few years I've followed the same work pattern, whether for radio, film or CD production. I'm always trying to extract as much as possible from as few as possible motifs - in the classical sense. The material from "Lost in Rooms" merely had a different origin from that in "The 5th Elephant". The thing that is important to me is that the sounds be fresh. If I haven't heard them before they inspire me. That's also the reason why I don't use synthesisers: they always have the same sound characteristics, no matter which pre-set I choose. I'd even claim that a synthesiser has a basic sound, just as a drum has.

If you need to think of a software program /or some other device that would help you do something you can not achieve with your current tools - What would it do?

Well, a dream of mine would be to have a direct interface from my brain to the computer. An interface that would make it possible to record spontaneous musical ideas or thoughts. More exactly: say I sing internally, and hear a voice, let us say a fusion of Björk and Caruso, then this voice would be recorded on the computer exactly as I imagine it; this would be the materialisation or digitalisation of musical visions. Unfortunately I will probably not experience this in my lifetime but I'm sure that this and much more will be possible one day. At least we can already dream about it.

How do you balance these 2 different energies of the creative process. The spontaneous vibe and stream of inspiration and new ideas with the well controlled and meticulous and painstaking process of scrutiny and analyses and decision making

The most important thing is everyday to reassert my original idea, to remember it emotionally and rationally. Sometimes I have an idea which seems very clear, and the next day it's gone. All that's left is the feeling that it was something marvellous, that had fascinated me the day before. If I am able to keep this inspired mood, which is connected to an idea, going for a longer period, this is a good ground for the following exhausting production process.

It seems that each of your works has an idea behind it. How do you arrive to this idea is it pre meditate or it occurs to you after you started already working

The idea comes in two parts: The first part marks the beginning of a production. The idea for "Lost in Rooms" for instance was: "I want to invent a virtual voice using voice samples from the dancers; a voice that sounds as if it is live but can't be reproduced live". The second part of the idea is the actual work. You have to come up with more ideas to fulfil the daily tasks you set yourself. I think that ideas only come through dealing intensively and painstakingly with certain material. And of course it's my aim to have someone listening to my music say :" What a great idea". If that does not happen then something went wrong. I want to say that real ideas emerge during the work process, not before. When I start a project I'm uncertain of its outcome. And of course one always learns while composing, and one changes as one grows older.

Can your music be performed live on stage in front of an audience? If so is it open to possible spontaneous improvisations can your music that is very structured and composed benefit from this free element ?

Yes, of course, you can perform anything on a stage because there's nobody saying: "You're not allowed to do that". I mean there are also music bureaucrats who give laptop concerts. Sometimes I'd like to go on stage and ask: "Can I open an account here?". Anyway, it's yes and no - one could but doesn't have to. "Lost in Rooms" is music for loudspeakers. A stage has something to do with performers, otherwise it makes no sense for me. Loudspeaker concerts fake communication but do not realise any, no matter how advanced and multi-channel the system may be. I think it is nonsense to let musicians improvise to a CD which is already a finished piece of work, just to have it performed on a stage. This kind of music lacks the possibility of interpretation unlike songs and other live melodic music. Beatles songs can be performed on a solo guitar or by an orchestra on a stage, that way it can be interpreted, but the same at doesn't work with my kind of music. It's a shame, but it doesn't work. "Domestic Stories" would have worked as a performance piece, but unfortunately there were no offers of concerts and so I wasn't able to experiment with playing my pieces live. Had there been concerts, maybe a lot of things would have gone differently.

The well known Israeli architect Y. Fogel told me the music of The 5th Elephant evokes visions of spaces forms and physical mass can you relate to this comparison?

I'm happy when I receive concrete feedback in form of a precise association. Yes, I do believe that this music has a lot to do with space forms and physical mass. Especially in the first two titles there are distinct sound quotations which could evoke this effect. These are very dense, spatial musical structures. And the effect was even intensified by the mastering tool I used. With T-REX, I spread the stereo width in all the pieces, which created a lot of virtual spatiality. On the other hand I've been working with an architect for some years and I'm sure that this collaboration has had an influence on the sound of my music.

Does the fact you live in berlin that is famous for its architecture have any effect on your work?

The lively atmosphere of Berlin certainly had a huge influence on my work, and I can't imagine living in another city any more. But that actually has nothing to do with the architecture but rather with Berlin being a national and cultural melting pot. I'm very close to real conflicts and I experience "today" with all its ups and downs. I can't imagine living a secluded life in the country because I need the atmosphere of a large city. I think this can be sensed, or rather, the big city is reflected, in my music, especially in my last production "Lost in Rooms".

Tell us how you met Chris Cutler and what made you want to work with him and choose ReR as a home for your music

This contact was mediated by Dr. Kersten Glandien who undertook in the 1980s to make Western avantgard-rock better known in East Germany. She curated the annual concert series "Music & Politics in Berlin", for instance. Chris Cutler was often a guest there, bringing various bands, or participating in discussions. At one of those events Kersten Glandien introduced us. Working together only became possible in the early 90s when the Berlin Wall came down. I had a concrete project, a piece for electronics and drums, I asked him to do it, and he agreed. I think "Strange Drums"(1991) was our first collaboration. After that we produced various other pieces together, and since Chris runs a record label (ReR) we were able directly to release them.