Aural Chaos – Q&A with Lu Katavist

Lu Katavist’s Inburst, the third in a line of albums that explore the modular synthesiser through improvisation, resonates with something deep in the subliminal corners of the listener’s mind. It’s like the instrument is talking directly to you, not by expressing some human dialect in the form of a musical construct, but directly communicating with you in the language of an organic machine. Airy drones in the lower registers, modulating like a speech pattern, come across as if their trying to formulate a sentence to express some idea. It’s not in the way of some grand gesture of emotion, but rather a subtle greeting from a humble personality, just trying to say “hello”.

Inburst introduces the newly formed Cusp label out of Manchester, UK. The label falls somewhere between “Free Improvisation, Experimental Electronics and Acousmatic Music” according to its founder Sam Weaver. Having been involved in Synth-Building and circuit building workshops, Cusp is the result of Weaver’s vision of a label that mixes the techniques from those worlds into others he’s obsessing over. “Free Improve / Acousmatic music / Sound-Art! I love all three but none of those genres seem to make coherent albums per say. (Improve on its own tends to best experienced in the moment, Acousmatic suffers in stereo and Sound-art tends to be lo-fi room recordings!)” In his search for that fine line that bridges all these genres Sam came across the music of Luka Höfler as his Lu Katavist alias. After Richard Scott brought the artist’s debut, Retoxis, to Sam’s attention, it bolstered Weaver’s intentions to start a label. “To me, Luka makes a kind of improvised electronic gothic chamber music!”

Inburst does at times feels like a chamber, a sensory deprivation chamber, where music arriving at you from different angles in the stereo field, cuts the listener off from the outside world. It warrants your undivided attention as the modular synth communicates with its audience through randomised pitch intervals, brassy tones, and subliminal drones, breaking through the speakers in waves of undulating expression. In the commencing Q&A with Luka we lift the veil on how exactly the artist achieves this and try to pin down the success for his improvisational techniques through the modular synthesiser.

 

Firstly, Inburst is the inaugural release on Sam Weaver’s newly established Cusp label. Can you tell us a little more of how this fortuitous merging happened and what exactly it means to you?

Richard Scott had introduced Sam to my vinyl LP “retoxis“ and he liked it. He then offered me a vinyl release and invited me to play at the Sines & Squares Festival taking place in Manchester in October 2014, and I happily attended. Being offered a full-length release means a huge lot to me, it’s a great honour and reward.

Sam mentioned that Retoxis specifically spoke to him because it is purely improvised, which can be enjoyed outside of the defined moment. What element in the recording process do you think helped him come to this conclusion and is it the same for inburst?

Well, the recording process was as simple as it gets. I just played and recorded everything ‘live‘ to stereo. Back then, after years of experimentation and buying/reselling tons of equipment, I had finally arrived at my (nearly) perfect setup and playing technique: Haken Continuum Fingerboard with modular (plus some external looping/effects here and there). Those early sessions were the starting point for my Lu Katavist project. I think it’s the immediacy and the lack of post editing or multi-tracking that gave “retoxis“ its special appeal. The fact that I stuck to a relatively narrow range of sounds rather than exploring all sound possibilities of the Haken and the modular certainly also made for a homogenous and coherent album, if I may say so. As for “inburst“, this one is a bit different. Here, too, all parts are improvised, but they date back to different sessions with slightly different modular setups. And the biggest difference is that the whole thing was multi-tracked to a collage in logic afterwards (with the exception of “needle sandwich“, “undult“ and “fingerzeugung“, which are just stereo-tracks).

I find it interesting that you re-approached some of the music like a collage during Inburst. What effect do you think it has on your improvisations when you re-approached it in the recorded context?

It wasn’t a very radical step and it didn’t alter the overall character of the initial recordings. But it surely was an additional step of ”composition“. I tend to think of the preparations I do prior to recording sessions, i.e. choice of modules and patching, as a first step of “composing“. Then follows the improvisational (playing and recording) phase, and in the case of “inburst“ there was one last step of composition: Arranging the recordings (partly on two or three stereo tracks) in Logic for the album.

Improvisation on the modular synthesiser is quite an interesting concept in itself. You are effectively improvising more around tones than pitch. Is there a particular sound in the back your mind when approach music in this way?

As for the “more around tones than pitch“ part, I’m not sure if that is actually true, I tend to think it’s the other way round – but anyway, the sound aesthetics I’m aiming for has the following traits: density; simultaneity of contrasting frequency ranges and timbres; and a certain kind of brittleness that I usually achieve through digital sound sources (Haken Continuum) and/or processing.

Can you tell me more about what you focus on when improvising: a certain mind set; a creative concept; or a theoretical approach and how you apply it to pitch?

That changes from time to time, but usually I don’t have any concept in my mind, I just start playing. Any new modular patch is a “new instrument“ to me, and I want to get to know it. This early phase of “becoming acquainted“ is usually most fruitful and rewarding. As for the mindset… I mostly just try to be open and un-ambitious. But once I’m playing, I focus on the sound, of course, and on how it builds up an inner landscape in my mind. The application to pitch is the most difficult thing actually, as I still have to train my hands to become more musical and adapt to the instrument. Sometimes though, the most grotesque contortions yield the best results. But the whole improvisation thing is not a principle, let alone an ideological concept for me. I also feel it’s kind of crippled when done alone, improvising with other musicians is much more interesting to me. Part of my set up and patching arose from my wanting to simulate “players“ apart from myself, hence my use of frequency dividers and (sometimes) randomising modules.

I found an emphasis in brass-like tones particularly in your music. Do you hear it too and do you actually emphasise it?

I haven’t heard it this way yet, but I agree – yet it’s not something I especially emphasise.

On ‘Precession’, it’s almost like the m synthesiser is talking directly to the listener in some subliminal way. What do you generally hope for in an execution, and does it ever conspire with your initial concepts?

If the music speaks to the listener, then that’s a wonderful achievement! I often feel that words that come out of my mouth may “say“ a lot, but always remain an approximation and never fully represent anything genuine, whereas music can be a real language – while not “saying“ anything that could be translated into actual “words“, it can transmit real, genuine truth. Generally speaking, I’m trying to produce music in a manner that “frees“ it from the realm of the unplayed/unheard, from the vast space of masked aural chaos that surrounds us, rather than “creating“ it by my own efforts. Or you could say, I let the machines do the talking – by directing them blindly with my fingers, hoping for a kind of meaningful conversation that yields a new piece of listenable material which I then further tame and sculpt with my fingers.
I’m not sure if I understand the second part of your question correctly, but there’s always a huge amount of surprise and deviation from initial expectations.

What reaction do you hope to get from your audience from this album?

That’s easy… I want them to applaud and praise me, of course 😉 Joking aside, I would be most happy if people enjoyed “inburst“ as an album of beautiful, strange, at times even absurd music that can still be emotionally touching and even slightly shattering in a subtle way – just as it was to me when I put it together. I’m hoping to have delivered an album that transcends the modular synth geek world (not that there’s anything wrong with it, I do owe this world a lot!) and finds its way also to the not-so-technically-inclined recipient. My background as a music listener and record fan was shaped predominantly in the early-to-mid 80s when I discovered albums by Throbbing Gristle, Laughing Hands, Dome, Mnemonists, This Heat, Zoviet France, Nurse With Wound etc. and spun them at night in my bedroom – not really knowing or caring much about the equipment and recording techniques they employed, but enjoying the sheer blast of new and exciting music blowing me away. Part of this fascination was irretrievably lost in the process of my acquiring said technical knowledge over the years. Hence my never ending search for new sounds and playing techniques that might have the potential to surprise and mesmerise listeners. Reactions… Well, I’m always interested in hearing what people think and feel listening to my stuff. So yes, I’m hoping for some feedback like I usually get when playing out.

Can you tell me more about xenharmonics and how you applied this device to your music?

The term “xenharmonic“ indicates scales that differ from the twelve-tone equal temperament scale we are used to in western music. For example, “10-edo“ means “ten-tone equally divided octave“. I’m not really trained in musicology and I use alternate scales in a rather playful and intuitive way, but one thing I realised is that using the “notes between the notes“ is a great way to avoid the all-too-often-heard and enter new tonal (and emotional) territories. Music, to me, is the one real adventure of my life, and I’m glad that through xenharmonics I found yet another gateway to new territories to explore. Especially on “inburst“ this softly alienating effect seemed to make a lot of sense, and so I used it in some parts.

Something weird happens on Undult as you pan around the stereo field. It’s almost like sensory deprivation. Can you explain what’s happening and is this something you set out to do? 

I guess you’re alluding to the abrasive and discontinuous sound in the foreground? That’s the Doepfer wave multiplier going berserk… I use this module a lot for this kind of effect.

Last question. What’s next for Lu Katavist?

I hope to play live more often, solo or with others. I’m also open for collaborations. Apart from that I will continue recording (an ambient album is in the pipeline). Then there’s another musical project I’m working on, but as it’s very different and will be published under a different moniker, I won’t go into details here…