Monday, February 9, 2009

Interview with Yuri Landman: Guitars and Men

Yuri Landman, a noise guitarist and comic artist from Holland, put down his guitar and his pencils ten years ago to devote his life to building electric string instruments, “a universal art” combining “music, science, and the visual arts.” Landman draws on a vast theoretical foundation in acoustics, science (Helmholtz, Chladni, Jenny), and esotericism (Partch) to craft custom noisemakers for an international coterie of experimental music all-stars. In this extended interview, Landman speaks about his working process, his creations, and his collaborations with customers like Lee Ranaldo, sharing a few interesting tidbits on harmonics, consonance, and temperament along the way.

Sophie Pécaud: When did you start making instruments?

I started building in 2000, right after I left the band Zoppo. For years, I had been playing prepared guitars in the studio and couldn't recreate those sounds properly on stage, with the screwdrivers slipping out and different stage amps all the time. Also, audio feedback is a big problem on small stages when you prepare your guitar and overdrive the sound. With handmade instruments, this problem is easier to solve.

The black overtone zither, my first construction, was a very rudimentary instrument. It was the leg of a two-legged table. I painted it black, screwed some iron parts on it as best as I could, and added an old curtain rail system under the string positions that allowed me to “break” the strings with the curtain hooks. Working with metal is quite different from working with wood, so the instrument didn’t work very well. It was impossible to tune. But the sound of it was already very good and workable, just too atonal.

Sophie Pécaud: What are some of your favorite guitars, and whom did you make them for?

I made the Moodswinger first. That one was for Aaron [Hemphill] of Liars. The Moonlander was made for Lee Ranaldo. Then I made a Bachelor QS for Jad Fair, a very odd instrument and one of my favorites. And the fourth one was the stereo-guitar, the Springtime, which is my main commercial success, because it is pretty easy to play for a guitar player and doesn't require much knowledge about physics.

Sophie Pécaud: So you have worked with Lee Ranaldo!

After working with Liars, I approached Sonic Youth's managers to propose something similar to them. The message was forwarded, and one day later I received an email from Lee Ranaldo. Ranaldo mentioned he wanted an electric variant of a harp guitar, a guitar with an additional resonating string field. One month later, I met him at a festival in Holland and showed him the sketches and he agreed and was very enthusiastic about my work. After 6 months, the instrument was ready, and I delivered it to him in Holland in the summer of 2007. The Moonlander is a weird instrument, but totally spectacular in its own unique way. It sounds like you're standing in a cathedral: a very massive, broad sound.

Sophie Pécaud: How do you come up with ideas for new instruments?

I talk with musicians who want to have something done, and then I mention some solution, or show them rougher earlier models, and we continue with an improved or totally new design. Enon's Twister, for instance, is a 2.0 upgrade version of the Springtime. And I read about physics, or listen to sounds everywhere, and start considering how to incorporate them into a tonal device.

I’ve also become interested in Chladni patterns [a 19th century German physicist who studied the properties of sound waves, mainly by dropping sand on metal plates, EN], and the cymatic works of Hans Jenny [a 20th century Swiss physicist known as the father of cymatics, the study of wave phenomena, including sound wave, EN], trying to adapt these physical phenomena to my musical objects. White noise doesn't actually exist. Sound waves always shape themselves into a certain pattern. Within the field of white noise [frequency denoting a sum of all possible frequencies, EN], “flowers” appear. This explains why hard rock fans like the “atmosphere” in loud guitar music. When you are in a group of people and everybody is talking, you are capable of focusing in on a single person’s voice. A hard rock fan does the same. He excludes the “noise” and listens to the harmonic “flowers” within the noise. Those are the shapes I tried to recreate in the Moodswinger scale, and they also appear in the scale of the Guquin, an ancient Chinese instrument.

Sophie Pécaud: You seem to be really interested in the link between physics and music. When did you begin to explore this relationship, and how do you integrate your findings into your work?

It was after finishing the Moodswinger, a more mathematical and polished version of my first guitar, that I started becoming interested in physics, and attempting to transcribe its principals into musical terms. […] It’s a really strange story, me being a noise punk rocker and all, accidentally discovering a very clear coherence between physics and loud noise rock that nobody had detected before. Cage's opinion was that every sound or tone is beautiful, depending on how you focus on it. I disagree with that. The 3rd Bridge Theory [an alternative playing technique that consists in placing an object, often a screwdriver, between the neck and strings of the guitar, dividing the chords into two sections and thereby producing a new harmonic field, EN] explains why I disagree. The theory is based on the works of the ancient Chinese and Harry Partch [the first American composer and theorist to have worked systematically with microtonal intervals, smaller than a half note, NDLR], but no one in the music literature had ever explained it the way I did.

The instruments are not just arty-farty oddness, or only boring microtonal physics. I think about the color of sound and how it could be enhanced by building a logical tonal device. Using physics is required to get this result.

Sophie Pécaud: So do you reject the idea that consonance, harmony, or the “beauty” in musical intervals is the product of cultural conditioning, and that any sound might considered beautiful if it is emancipated from our musical norms?

Cage is a great hero for many avant-garde music lovers. I like him too, but I dislike the big appreciation and following, since I am becoming more and more convinced that his opinion is not so solid at all. What is beautiful is not a human perception. Nature decides what's consonant and we, being part of nature, prefer nature, so we prefer the rules nature dictates to us with a small individual tendency called taste. Lets take it the tone E, and look at its series of harmonics, from strongest to weakest: E-E-B-E-G#-B-D-E-F#-G#. Take a close look at the beginning of the series, and you recognize the major chord. So humans didn't invent the major chord, nature did.

Many Western musicians agree with Cage’s belief that consonance is a normative value. But there is a difference between subjective fausse [the quality of being out of tune, EN] and objective fausse. Cultural development leads to certain aesthetic convictions of what's beautiful and what's not. In 1949, the very famous Dutch physicist Adiaan Fokker conducted tests with the Meantone temperament and the equal temperament. The audience agreed that the old tuning was more aesthetically pleasing. I went to a lecture in 2008 and the same test was done and the audience voted for the 12tet! My conviction is we are being indoctrinated by the 12tet, because we are born surrounded by recorded music. The people in Fokker’s audience were not born with that tuning around them twenty-four hours a day. So the 12tet is a normative tuning for Western people, but it is objectively fausse, and therefore not perfectly consonant. To avoid confusion, it's good to speak about normative consonant and objective consonant.

Sophie Pécaud: But the history of music demonstrates that the very idea of consonance, whether it stems from this “normative consonance”, or from what you call “objective consonance”, is the most cultural thing in the world ! The Ancient Greeks, for example, believed that only the octave, fourths, and fifths were « divine, » and therefore consonant. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the third or the major sixth were considered to be so as well!

I've read that too, yes, but really have strong doubts about this storytelling. In 2000 BC, the Chinese already used the major third, the major sixth, the minor third, and the 7/8 position.

What the Greeks did was calculation, not music. They wanted to create a transposable musical system derived from pretty smart calculation. Therefore they had to drop the major third 5/4 position. Which doesn't mean it’s not divine. Maybe that's what they called it, because they couldn't use it in their Pythagorean scale calculation. They chose the poorly sounding 81/64 instead. In other cultures, however, the 5/4 is always present and widely used. The Greeks were aware of its beauty, for sure, but it just wasn’t practical when they transposed.

Sophie Pécaud: What projects are you working on now?

I'm working on drum guitars for The Dodos and Liam Finn. I am very excited about those instruments. I'm also working on a harp guitar for The Veils and a guy from Barcelona. And some other rough new things for Lightning Bolt, These Are Powers, PRE, and maybe Melt-Banana.

Besides building, I do a lot of other projects. Gaspard Claus, a French musician, has been invited to curate a day of the Guitares au Palais Festival in Perpignan, which takes place from August 28th to the 30th. They are booking a group of famous artists who will perform on my instruments for a unique, one-time show. I will be present there with a friend from the Dutch band The Moi Non Plus to explain how the instruments function and then the musicians are going to adapt their music to my instruments. My 5-year-old son is also going to perform. I've asked the school board, and he can get a day off for doing a show in the Medieval Castle of Perpignan. He's very good at drumming loudly with sticks on stringed instruments.

Interview: Sophie Pécaud

Photo: Yuri Landman

Cool Tunes:
The Luyas
Blood Red Shoes

Continuing Education:
Yuri Landman’s Wikipedia page
Transcript from a conference at the Primavera Sound Festival in Barcelona, published in Perfect Sound Forever
Interview with Pitchfork

Click here for original French article, published in Fragil Magazine

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