Sounds Apart: An Interview with Asmus Tietchens
Germany's Asmus Tietchens is one of the more enigmatic figures in experimental electronic music. His work doesn't fit easily into any single category: it slips across stylistic boundaries, ranging from rigorously sculptural works of abstract micro-electronics like his Mengen series to the playful experi-pop of his pseudonymous avant-lounge project Hematic Sunsets. A self-described "adventurer in the studio," Tietchens makes music that even at its most apparently straightforward is beguilingly skewed.
Tietchens began experimenting with electronics and tape composition in the mid-1960s, and yet he didn't publish a single record until almost fifteen years later. Since then, he's made up for lost time, releasing a veritable mountain of music -- almost 90 releases at last count -- both as a solo artist and in collaboration with a variety of musicians including Okko Bekker, David Lee Myers, Vidna Obmana, Felix Kubin, Thomas Köner, and (most recently) Richard Chartier.
Adding joyous insult to injury to hapless Tietchens completists, there has also been a steady stream of Tietchens reissues in recent years. The Die Stadt label is in the midst of releasing an encyclopedic 18-disc series of out-of-print vinyl by Tietchens from the 1980s. As if that weren't enough, this year the Vinyl On Demand imprint put out a phenomenal 4LP set of Tietchens' cassette releases capturing his early abstract noise experiments as well as some uncharacteristically gothic drones.
When we exchanged emails for this interview, he was -- not surprisingly -- busy at work in his Hamburg studio. In the next two months or so, he's got three full-lengths due out, including a sharp, minimal beaut of an LP called Teils teils on Swill Radio, Eta Menge on Line, and his fourth avant-lounge album as Hematic Sunsets on Klang der Festung.
Susanna Bolle: Do you come from a musical background? What inspired you to begin making music and what attracted you to more abstract experiments with sound?
Asmus Tietchens: As a child (8 –10 years old) I was a so-called radio-drinker: a person who listens to the radio almost permanently with a maximum of attention. Once a week late at night they broadcast music of Stockhausen, Schaeffer and all the other heroes of the early electronic and concrete music. That was in the mid 50s. And this kind of music fascinated me, much more than rock 'n roll or jazz. When I grew up and became a young man (appr. 20 years old) I decided to try first steps with tape recorders, looping the tapes, playing them in reverse etc., because I was so curious to overstep the musical borders. Enduring fascination. I never had a musical training, neither theoretical nor practical. I learned always by doing.
Susanna Bolle: Though you began making music in the sixties, you did not release any recordings until much, much later. Why did it take so long for you to begin releasing records? Did you perform live at all in this early period?
Asmus Tietchens: Luckily, I very early measured my music against the music of these "heroes" and, much more luckily, I found that their music had more substance and was much better composed. So I never considered letting anyone release my early experiments which were of course quite poor affairs. This was my point of view until the late 70s, but then Punk and Industrial taught me that I could have a total different approach to the value of my music. Thus my never ending devotion to Punk and Industrial of the early days. I never performed live.
Susanna Bolle: In past interviews you've expressed considerable ambivalence about your releases on Sky records. How did you feel about their reissue on Die Stadt? Has your attitude towards them softened at all?
Asmus Tietchens: The ambivalence about the Sky releases is based on the insight that my efforts to create a certain kind of pop music turned out quite helpless. Well, I did my best, but already some years later I must admit that "the best" was not nearly good enough. The reissue series on Die Stadt shall honestly represent all my musical approaches of the 80s also including the more funny wrong ways. I am not ashamed of them. See your next question.
Susanna Bolle: What is the origin of Hematic Sunsets? It's so different from the rest of your current work and seems somewhat obliquely related to the "pop" sounds of your records on Sky. Do you have any plans for future Hematic Sunsets releases?
Asmus Tietchens: In the mid-90s I tried again to create pop music. The Hematic Sunsets (anagram of 'Asmus Tietchens') are a virtual band. The first album (1997) and the two follow-ups still stand the test and, yes, I still like them. Perhaps my approach to pop music became a less serious one since the Sky period. I'm just recording the stuff for the fourth Hematic Sunsets LP, which will be released in early 2008 on my own label, Klang der Festung.
Susanna Bolle: What is your relationship to the overall music scene in Hamburg? Is there much of an experimental music scene there that you can plug into there?
Asmus Tietchens: There is very vivid experimental music scene in Hamburg – whatever "experimental" means. This term became a little bit poorly defined in the last 20 years. Anyway, yes, I am plugged into the experimental/noise/electronic/microtonal/atonal scene. We have some locations here ('Hörbar' and 'Waagenbau' to name only two) which guarantee live performances not only of local artists. Next week e.g. we have the Big City Orchestra in Hamburg.
Susanna Bolle: Could you tell me a bit about your recent collaboration with Richard Chartier on Fabrication? How did the two of you come to work together? After listening to the Postfabricated CD and hearing the early sound files, I'm particularly curious about how the collaborative process worked and how those sounds evolved into the final composition.
Asmus Tietchens: The collab is casually based on the 37 brief samples Richard sent me along with an invitation to participate in his Re'post'postfabricated compilation. After I had recorded my contribution ("s.17") I had the idea to use some other samples for a series of additional pieces. Richard agreed and suggested a collab aiming a material exchange. I recorded 12 new tracks (not pieces) which Richard reworked, recycled, and treated with his methods. After a fruitful discussion of the results, we tried two different mixes, and third one was the final one.
Susanna Bolle: How do you handle performing your music live? Do you plan to perform in North America in the near (or distant) future?
Asmus Tietchens: In a way I do not perform. All I do is mix a lot of sound files live. After my laptop crashed twice in live situations, I desided to use CDRs. So for a live appearance I need four CD players and an analog mixing desk. If one or two of these devices crash, I still have two or three left to do my job. No, I do not plan to perform in the States. Firstly, because I'm a heavy smoker and secondly I will avoid the humiliating procedures of the US airport authorities. And thirdly – who knows – perhaps I'm even a communist?
Susanna Bolle: Do you have a typical process that you follow when creating a composition?
Asmus Tietchens: Mostly I'm interested in the basic material. Before I begin composing, I develop some ideas about the structure of the piece. After that I have to research the material to see if it fits with my methods (filtering, ring modulation, time stretching etc). Now I have to think about durations of the single sequences which constitute the composition. Very important is the permanent control of the dynamics. I'm a very slow worker: sometimes I need more than a week (8–10 hours per day) to record a 5-minute piece. My tools are always a mixture of digital and analog devices. Sometimes the computers are more efficient, sometimes the analog machines. Usually I use them both.
Susanna Bolle: Are you still teaching at the Hamburg University of Applied Sciences? What kinds of courses do you teach?
Asmus Tietchens: Yes, I'm still teaching at the HAW. My subjects besides the basics (how to handle microphones, software, mixing desks etc.) are Sounddesign, Soundscaping (or more fashionable: field recording) and analysis of electronic and concrete music. I do *not* teach music. Much more I try to impart a feeling for sound.
Susanna Bolle: I read recently that you are working on some new Hydrophonien to be released on Die Stadt, which is very exciting (for me, anyway). How are these experiments similar and/or different to your earlier Hydrophonien?
Asmus Tietchens: The Hydrophonien to come will differ totally from the old ones. After all, I recorded "Hydrophonie 19A" twelve years ago. In this time my esthetic strategy has changed radically. So far I've recorded two pieces of the new series.
Susanna Bolle: Are there any projects, records, etc. that you're currently working on that you can talk a bit about? Will their be future installments of the Mengen project?
Asmus Tietchens: Hematic Sunsets' fourth vinyl album (see above) and Eta-Menge to be released by LINE later this year. Scott Foust will release the LP Teils teils on his label Swill Radio (Amherst, MA). The next re-release on Die Stadt will be Aus Freude am Elend.
By Susanna Bolle