Perfect Sound Forever

OHM- The Early Gurus of Electronic Music

Bill Laswell interview
by Jason Gross
(April 2000)

Q: What was your first exposure to electronic music?

That goes back a long time.  Probably things like Skiminovitch did this kind of musique concrete, trance thing with weird inventions.  Oskar Sala who did another invention- I don't know if it was electronic but it was certainly not a normal sound system. Ilhan Mimaroglu.  Gradually into more commercial things like Kraftwerk, Cluster, Roedelius, a lot of German stuff.  It was all a kind of gradual process.  Then gradually Eno and things like that, which I didn't really consider electronic.  Experimental, I guess, using electronics.

Q: What interested you about this music?

Because it's not an instrument that's so typical- the guitar-bass-drum idea.  There's another dimension because it's processed, expanded and mutated.  It's a whole other dimension of sound.

Q: How much bearing did this have on you when you started as a musician?

I think it was inspiring and it was encouraging to know that you could do that with sound and also that the sound wasn't limited to that genre.  You could apply it to everything, as people do now.  It was encouraging to hear how expansive and experimental you could be with the sound.  Any acoustic sound can be electronically processed indefinitely.  That's very interesting.

Q: What kinds of theories and philosophies behind this music that intrigued you?

Not so much theories I understand or was able to relate to.  There was certainly a lot of referentials, points of views and philosophies presented by people, especially Stockhausen and Cage that were very encouring.  I think you could apply that to any sound construction, no matter what the genre or the style is.

Q: What was it about what they were saying that effected you?

I couldn't really pin-point it in detail but it freed up your way of thinking.  In some ways, it eliminated the kind of structure and rules about sound.  In the case of Stockhausen, there's a lot of density in his very interesting combination of sounds that create other sounds.  With Cage, there's all kinds of different theories.  You can't directly apply it to something outside of what he was doing.  He was just inspiring to see how people were thinking so differently.

Q: You had collaborated with Brian Eno for a while.  How did his way of thinking or working have any effect on you and your work?

I think I first worked with him on My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, which was more to do with playing conventional instruments in repetition and then overlaying sounds and recorded voices, which was very influential at the time.  (It was the) first time I had heard that.  Later on, Holger Czukay did that with a record called Movies.

On Land was a little later and that was strictly ambient.  We were just creating sounds and then processing the sounds we had created.  We almost never create the sounds by using a conventional instrument.  It was always shuffling something or processing something and moving it with reverb and effects.  His approach in doing that was a really big influence.  His approach to technology was also a really big influence because whatever equipment he would buy to use or manipulate, he would never sit down and read the manual to learn how to use the machine.  He would just immediately start trying to incorporate the machine into the process.  So, it wasn't always the learning process, it was more like trying to find a direct function for whatever was available.  It was very influential, by throwing away the manual.

Q: What is ambient?

Ambient means the natural center or atmosphere of a space.   All music has that in it- a space or center.  I think it just means the atmosphere or what defines the environment of sound and maybe removing the more destructive, harsh elements and harder rhythmic elements and you get down to the stillness that's inherent.  There's an ambient quality in every sound.  You may have to enhance that to hear it or bring it out in a different way but there is that in every environmental sound.

Q: Do you that think that ambient evolved as a branch of earlier electronic music?

I think it probably came out of that.  No doubt.  I think it continues, it moves.  People are experimenting all the time with different ways of using ambient.  Everything has an ambience- we have it right now in our telephone.  We have it in the sound outside the window.  I listen to that all the time.  If you listen to really deep ambient records that don't move too much, very still records, long after those records are finished, you might find yourself listening for hours to the sound of the room.  And that's very interesting in terms of sound.

Q: What kind of influence do you think electronic music has had on other styles outside of its own realm?

Obviously, it's had a huge effect on repetitive music or dance music or house music.  Ambient in the last ten years has infiltrated into all those repetitive musics.  I don't know what part it plays in pop necessarily but I'm sure there's some connection.  But in all the music that deals with experimental repetition, drum and bass, dub, various kinds of house music, there's always been a quality of atmosphere and ambience.  I think it's infiltrated that pretty heavily.

Q: Are the same sensibilities at work there?

Only if you isolate the ambient.  No, it has nothing to do with the kick drum that goes on indefinitely.  I think if you isolate the atmospheric qualities of it, it's very related.

Q: Do you see yourself as someone who's inherited this tradition or as someone who's carrying it on?

I've incorporated it.  I probably first experienced it from listening to Miles Davis' In A Silent Way or Funkadelic's "Maggot Brain."  Those are ambient records before the word existed and it just meant atmosphere.  And with the arrival of Eno and people like that, we started to have a better understanding.  It was inherent with what I valued in sound from way back.

Q: What do you think might be the future of electronic music?

It's an old question but you never know the future of anything.  I would just say that there's a lot going on, there's a lot available, there's a lot that's been done.  For anyone who's interested, they could spend a lot of time just learning and experiencing and being involved.  So what's happening next we have no idea.  To say what's coming out is impossible, only that it will continue.

Q: You don't think that more convergence of styles is a real possibility?

That would be good but you really can't say.

Q: Do you see that electronic music has some kind of influence outside the realm of art?

I think it's now part of our life-system.  It's integrated into how we exist so it's the pulse of what we're doing.  In every way.  Everything is electric, everything is electricity.  Those pulses are no different that your pulse, your heart beat and how you breathe.  It's all connected.  It's that kind of age, an electronic age.

Q: Do you think this music is emblematic of the industrial age then?

I don't know because I see that electronic music can't exist without the human thought.  So everything that is generated is a thought and energy follows thought.  I think that all of it is generated by the human idea, constructed by the necessity a system, a structure, a sequence.  So I see it all as being very human.  It's very human, it's not cold like people think.  Computers and electronic music are not the opposite of the warm human music.  It's exactly the same.  It's equal.  You're not going to necessarily find the equivalent of Charlie Parker on a laptop because we can't perceive that.  But there'll be a time when someone can and then it'll happen.  It's all in your head.

Q: Why do you think people have this misconception that the music is cold and inhuman?

Conditioning.  It's the lack of knowledge, perception.  It's not the big mind.  We're not that smart.  We can't know these things.  How could you?  People are busy working and making a living.  They can't spend their whole day trying to figure out about music.  It's a full time job.  It takes a lot of commitment and integrity to live like that.  You do that 24-7 and you'll get it.  But you can't just step in occasionally and think you have a point of view.  It doesn't work.

Q: What other kinds of misconceptions about electronic music are there?

It's enormously misunderstood by people who play conventional music or who play conventional instruments.  It's not justified.  There's just not aware.  They're threatened by it and they don't consider it to be as valuable as what they do with their more traditional form of creating sound and music.  It's an old story.  It especially relates to jazz, I imagine for rock people, it's the same idea.

People are afraid of things they don't understand.  They don't know how to relate.  To them, it threatens their security, their existence, their career, image.  Miles Davis was someone who wasn't afraid of that.  He fully embraced those possibilities and delved into it.  He was criticized heavily from the jazz side.  He was supposed to be part of a tradition but he didn't consider himself part of a tradition.  He considered himself a person who was just trying to experience things and evolve.  Evolve is the key.  People who are smart enough to do that or are willing to try will embrace these ideas as new things and encouraging things and a new world.  So whoever will want to be in that new world will be open and think about it and make an effort.  And the people who feel that what they do is precious and in the tradition and preserving an art form, which is all complete rubbish, they'll not.  They'll stick to what they believe and think it's all cold and non-human.  There's as much musicality, artistry and genius and vision in the turntablist as there is in an alto saxophone player.  You just have to have your mind ready to accept that.  That's the new mind, not one who's in the past.

Q: So you don't see a convergence happening because of this ignorance?

Yeah but remember that styles... nothing was a style first.  Everything started as an idea.  A guy did something with an idea.  Someone copied him.  Then someone copied him.  Some copied all of them and it became important to copy that.  It became trendy and then it became a style.  Everything started as an idea.  Nothing started as a style.

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