Pantha du Prince interview: "A sculpture in sound." Hendrik Weber talks about removing himself from the bigger picture for ‘Elements of Light’, his most ambitious project to date.
Talking to Hendrik Weber, the man behind Pantha du Prince, it’s difficult not to appreciate the sheer scale of ambition behind his latest project. Admittedly, his previous albums ‘This Bliss’ and ‘Black Noise’ – with their instinctive lyricism and penchant for finding expression through natural percussive tonalities – have positioned Hendrik within more innovative techno circles (‘Black Noise’ was even heralded as that most increasingly outdated of concepts – the “crossover” album). But while the seeds of ‘Elements Of Light’ may have been gestating for some time, few would likely have anticipated the spark of inspiration for Hendrik’s next project: the erratic frequencies of a 3-tonne, 50-bell carillon beaming out across the Norwegian city of Oslo.
This first wisp of an idea would eventually see ‘Elements Of Light’ grow into a recorded piece built around a dialogue between the percussive, organic sounds of The Bell Laboratory and Hendrik’s undulating, familiar beatwork. Although spliced into five sections, ‘Elements Of Light’ is intended to be consumed as a single entity. It’s one that, with its waves and motions, episodic passages and tight ensemble dynamics, ends up in a space more attuned to the atmospherics of a concert hall than the familiar darkened haunts of a Berlin dancefloor. The results are as complex as they are multifaceted: shifting between the structured and the uncontrollable, the instinctual and the programmed – areas Hendrik was more than willing to unpick when I spoke to him on the phone last month.
Considering this project first started with live performances, I’m wondering whether ‘Elements of Light’ took shape through improvisation – or were you always looking to more strictly “compose” something for the album?
It was planned as an organism. From the beginning the idea was to create a living organism that has parts melding into each other. Of course, there was already a piece we had, which we tried to figure out how to put into a score. But the musicians were a very basic part of creating the parts of the structure, as well as the sonic world that was created out of this rhythmic score. So I suppose in the end it was kind of improvised, and trying to get at and find possibilities – to see what is possible and what is not playable – what actually works musically. I think it’s both in the end.
A trial and error process perhaps?
There was error, but it was not the kind of error that you wouldn’t expect. We started very openly so my expectations weren’t really anywhere. I was curious to work with an ensemble, and the conductor – and how this could be a way for electronic music to find a new expression. This was basically the “path” for me. And when you’re on this path, you always have kind of good failures, moments of exhaustion, also of great euphoria, and everything in between.
This word “symphonic” has often cropped up in relation to the piece – was that in your mind from the beginning? Or did it gradually take that form?
“I think I’ve freed myself in a way – freed the Pantha from the bell.” – Pantha du Prince
Yeah, I created the skeleton for the musicians, which they could take as the basic task. It was never that I planned doing a symphonic piece. It just came from this idea of using the carillon, and then: how do you write music for a carillon? We created this sampled machine from the Oslo Bell Tower, a kind of MIDI “instrument”. Then I started writing melodies for this carillon, and then the idea of creating an ensemble around it was part of the whole process. There were two or three people really, really behind the idea who pushed me – to get them the material to play, and get the whole thing going in a way. And this was really fascinating – the way you get a certain group dynamic and a certain kind of energy from working with people and pushing each other’s envelopes. For them, it was a challenge playing along with the skeleton score we had prepared, and coming from both ends and meeting together.
I’ve got to ask about the bells – they featured heavily on ‘Black Noise’, and it seems like you have a certain fascination with these textures. Where does this interest come from?
I think it’s the texture of basically uplifting sound structures, where you don’t have a real control over the tone or the notes, so it really has this wild overtone and range that always interacts. You really have this interplay of frequencies and crazy overtones that stay in the room for half a minute sometimes, or a minute even. Of course, I had to step in this direction of working with an ensemble that that can create this kind of frequency range – this was something that led my way. It’s a kind of final destination in a way: to finally use the original and use the real physical presence of a sound. This was something I was fascinated with probably from the beginning.
I think my fascination was how you can visualise a sound, and how you can give it a material. A bell is a very fascinating instrument because it’s a sculpture: it’s a symbol, it’s a metaphor – and at the same time a sound. The form of the bell is a kind of sculpture in sound. And all these issues are revealing themselves as you step into the task. And now, I think I’ve freed myself in a way – freed the Pantha from the bell.
Pantha du Prince & The Bell Laboratory – Spectral Split
Last time Dummy spoke to you in 2010, you talked about a performance where you put some ice cubes in a glass and had a microphone inside capturing the sound produced. You’re a producer who’s consistently been interested in using natural sound, and presumably working with the carillon took that to a whole new level?
Yeah, and at the same time you know it’s a very precise thing. The carillon is far from being an instrument in itself – and it contains a story. It contains the story of the making of the instrument, and it’s so obvious that the making of this instrument is a tough and intense process. And when you use some ice cubes in a glass, you basically use an everyday tool to make music, which is also a symbol and a metaphor for duplicity, and the idea that music sits in everything. It’s a kind of “give the tools back to the people” type statement. I think the carillon is also probably in the same sense, taking these bells from a church tower and using them as a playable sculpture – it’s on that level in a way.
I saw an interview where you talked about a continuing Germanic wish for structure and continuity – you were referring to it in relation to the Berlin techno clubs. Do you think these ideas might link with the carillon, in its original form within the bell towers, as part of a larger structure?
I mean it does need a certain precision, and the mobile version of the carillon is a highly technical thing. But I wouldn’t necessarily connect this to these kinds of structure. I think you can also do really wild stuff with the carillon – so I don’t think it’s necessarily connected to this instrument itself. But, of course, I’m interested in this kind of heartbeat that keeps us all alive, and the heartbeat of, let’s say, the pulse or the rhythmical pattern that we are all a part of. And this is something that you can find in this organism [the carillon], this very precise archaic instrument.
That’s something I was thinking of with the archaic idea, how the carillon immediately links to something historical, and how there’s both an interplay and a sense of collision between you and The Bell Laboratory throughout.
“It’s this moment where you step out, and this was a really interesting moment for me. You realise that actually things are done without you always being aware.” – Pantha du Prince
I think it’s a certain limitation I embraced. Of course, there are moments where you recognise that you were not as free as you were before, and other moments you recognise that this limitation gives you a freedom that you would have never thought of working with machines. There were these moments that were really present for me where I was like: “Oh fuck, how should I deal with this?” For me, the only way was to let loose – to just let things happen, and get myself out of the picture – to just try and hold the strings, and focus on everybody knowing their job. It’s this moment where you step out, and this was a really interesting moment for me. You realise that actually things are done without you always being aware. You know, when you work with a machine, you have to make the machine work. You have to understand the machine – you have to kind of fool around with it. So it’s a totally different way of creating, because it’s already created: you just use what’s there, and then assemble it in a way. And with this working with… human beings. It’s a kind of translation, with human “interfaces” translating something that was originally the sonic world of a digital machine. Yeah, that was really interesting for me, and kind of a challenge.
So coming back to that process of creating a digitised version of the carillon – did that feel like a block to overcome? Or was it an intriguing part of the technological process?
The thing is, to create a kind of “centre” instrument – for me it’s already an electronic process. The difference between electronic and analogue, between the “real” and organic and the computer/electronic – it’s all the same thing in the end: to create sound. At some points, of course, an acoustic story has another story when you place a speaker in the room, and play it as an instrument. But as soon as it comes to fabricating a CD or making a replica – if you want to manufacture something and get the technology pressed into a medium – it already has this quality of being superficial, you know? And the recording process of making something electronically available, and digitally available, is already a system of “remembering”, so the difference for me is not so much. The difference for me is definitely in the live presentation, not so much with the album. I mean what you listen to at home already has the thing that was there. You combine it with a new moment, so it already has this electronic quality.
You certainly stay true to the “live” qualities in the recording – the piece begins with a count in, there are moments of feedback in Spectral Split…
That’s an important statement for the whole catching of the vibe. There is a human being interacting with a physical, present instrument, and this kind of interacting is recorded. It’s not a machine’s influence. So it was important for this “laboratory” situation. Also to make space in the music for this moment of physical presence, and what happens when you hit something and it travels through air.
Pantha du Prince live at Centraltheater Leipzig.
The whole experience must have really revolutionised your approach to playing live.
“You get new ideas, you get a new sonic world out of all this.” – Pantha du Prince
Yes, but it’s still not a club act this ensemble, you know, playing this piece at 3am. I mean you could of course – everything is possible. ‘Elements of Light’ is a three set work, you need to have a certain focus on what you’re playing, so it’s not so much about the interaction as you have it in a techno club, where you basically can react on the people – how they live during the day. You can embrace the atmosphere around you, and make it more intense, or take the intensity back. This is the classic club life, this sort of communication. And with The Bell Laboratory, it’s more about the communication in the ensemble. People are a part of it, of course – we play more intensely when people are more attentive. But I think the focus is more the interplay with each other.
Returning to the recording, in terms of the musicians and number of percussive instruments used – did that just keep expanding?
It was just happening, you know? I mean people brought what they associated with, and what they would like to play during the recording. I think you hear all of the instruments at some point. It’s a massive archive we have now – it’s just a very enriching thing, going through these recording processes.
And this is definitely a new encounter for my work. You get new ideas, you get a new sonic world out of all this. I think it’ll definitely be interesting for my new productions, for me to have done ‘Elements of Light’, and working with this ensemble. It’ll definitely be reverberating in the new solo productions I’ll do.