portrait animation


Karlheinz Essl talking to Golo Föllmer
Halle (Germany) / Vienna (Austria) via telephone
12 Dec 2000


GF: How do you describe yourself? What's your profession?

KHE: Well, due to my biography I started in my teenage days as a rock musician. Which turned my into experimental forms of rock music later on. And then I decided to study musicology and composition in Vienna. And this changed my life quite immensely, because at this time I had to quit playing electric guitar and double bass, and I started to dig into this world of putting things on score, on paper. After a period of nearly fifteen years, when I was not active as a musician, I started again to develop sort of instruments by means of electronic devices [around 1995], with which I could come into a position, where I was also a performer on stage. And about at the same time I started to use the internet for artistic purposes.

GF: Could you live with a label: Are you a composer, are you multimedia artist?

KHE: I consider myself as a composer. Or to make it more precise: As a composer-performer. Two years after studying musicology I decided to make this application for the Musikhochschule, and I really started a classical composition study. I took all these classes in analysis, conducting and so on. But at a certain point I had the feeling, I don't want to get into this position where you are living in an ivory tower, writing very complex scores and giving them to orchestras, ensembles, hoping they will play them. So I remembered my time when I played double bass and guitar. At the same time I became very fascinated by the internet.

Musical activities in the Internet

GF: Which musical activities in the net do you find interesting right now?

KHE: If I'm honest I can not tell you, because I do not see so many things, activities going on in the internet. I'm not so interested, to be honest. I simply don't have the time to check out what is going on. So I must tell you that most of my knowledge is based on your articles. That was very interesting, because I never came across these things.

GF: But then maybe: What do you use, where are you active? Maybe you are part of Jerome Joys discussion group?

KHE: In the beginning I submitted a piece of mine for the Juke Box, but as it became so big with so many things happening, I had the feeling that my contribution doesn't play a big role. I like to bring things to a certain point, and I have a feeling that this is a sort of laissez-faire thing where everything can happen, which is not so interesting for me. And that's the reason why I stopped contributing to his Juke Box.

GF: Is this a general feeling you have towards the net in a way?

KHE: No. I can not say things too generally, because everything is different and has another outline.

Potential of the Internet

GF: Do you think that the net has a specific musical potential?

KHE: From my personal experience, I think that the most important thing is the communication aspect. So that you can get easily in contact with other people, either with musicians, composers, or listeners, with the audience. But on the other hand the technical infrastructure of the net as it is now is just the beginning. I think that the internet now can only be used as a very weak method of achieving something that can be maybe done in five years, when there is really a very broad bandwidth, possibility of streaming audio and video data in real-time. Which for me is very important in order to make, let's say, telematic concerts. When you do it now, all people use telephone. All these techniques that the radio developed with special modems, but they always use ISDN or telephone lines for this. The internet is not time-accurate, so there is always a latency.

GF: But then you can still for instance control MIDI things, like Max patches via OSC or something. Maybe there are things that work well in the net. --- Do you think there are things you easily do now, and you get an interesting musical result, and there are other things that you can not do or that are hard at the moment?

KHE: It's always so difficult to say things so generally. It really depends on the project itself. So I tried different things. And I tried also to use this very low developed infrastructure of the net, with all its hassles and problems, in order to make some very small sort of »Kleinkunst« in a way. Lexikon Sonate for example is a computer program, and I made a sort of Kleinkunst version for the internet called Lexikon-Sonate online. In order to make it very simple and working it's in fact a fake. Because it would require in its optimal version an Apple computer which's output would be then encoded by RealAudio, and transmitted over the net. And in fact I don't have the technical infrastructure that allows me to do that. So instead of having a real computer standing there and producing something in real-time, I use the following method. I made dozens of variants of each structure generator in Lexikon Sonate. So I used the program to generate a dozen of variants for each of the 24 structure generators, and produced MIDI files with them. And those MIDI files are on the server, and by Java script program, which makes a random combination of those pre-fabricated structures, the piece is constructed.

The nice thing is that the program for example would ask let's say for three different files from three different generators. So it would ask the server: Send me the first file, send me the second, send me the third. And this takes time. So by the latency of the internet, the entry of the different MIDI files is always staggered, and it creates a sort of polyphonic structure. So you always have three or four different layers playing together at the same time. If I hadn't those streams playing together, not synchronized, it would generate so-to-speak meta structures. So even if you select the three same MIDI files and ask them from the server, due to the latency of the net you will always have different sort of entrances - and results. This works very well with the net, because I use the inpredictable latency of the net to get variations. And the nice thing is: The piece, what you hear on the net, sounds like the "real" Lexikon-Sonate. Although there is not the original program running, but what you hear is really the same what you would hear if the piece is generated in real-time.

Esprit Joyce Gruppen Scala Fermata Ricochet Clouds MeloChord BrownChords Dependance Orgelpunkt SoloPlay Arpeggio Figuren Triller Glissando Generalpause RePlay User-Interface der Lexikon-Sonate

User interface of Lexikon-Sonate 3.2

click-able map: clicking on one of the boxes (like "Esprit") will supply you
with more information of this structure generator and a sounding example.

GF: This is interesting, this is very specific for the medium. You are using a problem. But that's what is done actually a lot. Marina Grzinic said that the aura of the art work is brought back through these time delays and through blurs and data loss and all this. And she describes it very detailed how this happens. So of course this is done: You have the filter of the net, and you look through a medium, and this look tells you something about the medium. I think it works kind of like that.

KHE: I mean most of the pieces I did with the net were conceived outside the net. Then I made special internet versions for it.

GF: Why did you make it? In order to make it accessible?

KHE: Indeed.

GF: That was the main idea about it?

KHE: Yes, maybe that was the main idea. Make it accessible, and to communicate it.

GF: But then you came across the problem that you had, and then you looked for an appropriate solution.

KHE: Yes. Once there existed a server for algorithmic music [Algorithmic Music Stream, run by Maurice Methot and Hector LaPlante at Brown University, 1997 ff.] which is not working any longer. They made two installations of mine. One with Lexikon-Sonate, and one with Amazing Maze. But this was only possible because there were two persons who did it. And they had to solve big technical problems at this time. But it was really running. But normally I don't have this infrastructure, I have to use very restricted means.

GF: But these things are changing now. You get cheap flat rates, so if you have an old Apple computer, you can run the Lexikon-Sonate online.

KHE: It would require a person who sets up an Apple computer and streams it into the net. I can't do that myself. I don't want to do that. Because if someone is willing to do that, it's okay. But I don't have time to do it. And the nice thing with the net is that you give something away. And then it starts growing by itself. That happens also with other pieces of mine, for example fLOW. I got very interesting feedback from people who use it as a sort of means to get relaxed, for stress release. I got people from the medical scene and from the esoteric scene who said, they use it for psychotherapeutic purposes with the clients. And for me it's really a piece, for me it has no function, just music, sound. But they use this for other purposes.

GF: Ok, that's a big question. You kind of explained it already, but what kind of product do you aim at? I mean, your idea is to make a musical piece in a classical sense, is that right?

KHE: No, not classical. Because classical is something that has a shape and has a fixed form. And a lot of pieces of mine don't have this, they are more processes than works. They are not classical.

GF: OK. But then the second part is: You see them of course as musical pieces, it's music. Somebody sits down and listens to it.

KHE: Not necessarily. It can also be an environment, creating a space, like fLOW for example. I think it's working well as an ambient piece.

GF: But that's what I just meant. Because if somebody is reusing it for non-usual musical purposes. So usually somebody is listening to music, so if these people use it to ambience a space or something, it's not in the scope of what you usually thought it to be. Because you said you want to fix things, you have an idea, and you want to get to this idea. And if I understand right, you don't want to happen anything with it, right?

KHE: But I think you also have to find differences in this field. I would like to bring things to a point, but this doesn't mean, that the outcome of this idea must be something that's fixed and can't be reproduced. It's only to concentrate ideas. And the result, or the offspring of those ideas can be a self-generating sound installation, for example, never repeating itself. That's also a method of bringing things to one point.

Communication aspects of the Internet

GF: Can we hear net audio projects as music, or are they fundamentally different? Do you see the notion of music change through your net projects? I mean there was sound installation before. So of course, and also very much in experimental music, process was introduced there. So do you see another somehow specific step in what you are doing?

KHE: With the internet there is another thing that comes into play, and that's the communication aspect. So the people listen or come across your things, and they comment on it. And this is interesting, because in fact this has changed my life in a way. There was one story I can tell you, and I think it's very important to tell it, because it was the beginning of something that started four years ago. There was a festival in Chicago called NEMO, and the focus of it was Northern Europe, and they made concerts with what you would call classical composers, Lachenmann and Zender. And there was an electronic music festival also organized around this big NEMO thing, and this was created by a composer from Chicago called Bob Falesh. On the internet he published a call for pieces. And I, instead of sending him a CD with a piece of mine, I sent him a program which would generate a piece when he started it. This was Amazing Maze. At this time the piece was completely hermetic, so there was no user interaction, it was completely running on its own.

There was a basis of samples which were carefully selected from instruments. And there were computer algorithms that would compose musical structures or, I called them sound particles.

Bob sent me an email: "I would like to include your piece into this festival, and I would like to ask you whether it's possible that a bass clarinet player [Gene Coleman] would play along with this piece."

My first reaction was a certain annoyance, because I thought: It's a *piece*, it's something that has a meaning. And now somebody is coming and says, well it would be nice to have a bass clarinet player playing along with it. But the next day I have changed my mind and realized that it was a fascinating idea, and a challenge. And then I decided to open the hermetic structure of the piece, so that it could be used as an instrument where a person could sit at the computer, and by hitting several keys and using the mouse he could influence the generation process of this sound environment. So then I started to create an instrument out of an hermetic process and gave it to Bob, and Bob was the player, and he played this together with the bass clarinet player, and he made the premiere of the piece. And to give them some outlines, because they asked me for this, I sent a description of this process that could be followed. I was thinking about a time span of seven or eight minutes for this process, but I didn't mention the time in fact.

After several weeks I got a tape, and to my admire I found out that they played it more than 30 minutes. I mean it was still very much related to what I thought about it, but it was something completely different.

Karlheinz Essl performing live

Karlheinz Essl performing on his m@ze°2
Photo: © 2004 by Helmut Lackinger
  Then I started to customize this instrument for myself. This finally led to the development of my own musical instrument which I am calling m@ze°2 now, based on an Apple Powerbook with MIDI controllers and pedals. And this is very interesting, because with this instrument different aspects of musical performance, of music itself, which were separated in the history, came together: instrument, performance and composition. All those three domains, so-to-speak, started to converge. And it is interesting because in the late 50s Karlheinz Stockhausen wrote his famous essay »Wie die Zeit vergeht«, and I think I remember that the last section of this article: "Maybe in the future time the boundaries between those separated domains of music - like instrument, performance, composition - will blur and converge." And then I had the feeling that now, in the late 90s or the beginning of the third millenium, where the computers are so fast that you can do sound processing in realtime, now it's really possible to achieve those things.

GF: So would you describe this as the biggest change that experimental music has gone through?

KHE: For me, only for me! I can't speak generally. For me it was very, very important. Because this took me out of a quite desperate situation of an ivory tower composer. And it was also due to the net, because those ideas came over the internet, about the communication with other people. And then on the other hand it brought me in contact with people from the improvising scene, who were working on the same ideas. At this time I knew nobody in Austria or Europe, but some people in America who worked in the same domain.


GF: So you made yourself a very specific instrument that met your personal needs and your personal ideas, and you brought all the production line together in your studio, and in your person also, so you make the whole piece. Interactivity is also a very important part of networked music I think. Interactivity of the receiving person or even original activity of every user are basic substances of the medium internet. So interactive audio works shift musical responsibility from the musician or composer to the listener? How far can the process of musical shaping or even musical creating be given to the listener? And: Does the listener want this musical responsibility?

KHE: Personally I am quite critical about interactivity, because I think real interactivity needs knowledge and dedication. And on the net I don't know who is using it, and I don't know the horizon and the background of the people. So when I make interactive things on the net, or also on computer installations, their interactivity is very very simple. So it's mainly that the user / the listener can change things, but he cannot know exactly *what* will change. So he only can say: I want something to change. But it's always a surprise what happens. That's also with Lexikon-Sonate. In the normal way, if you run it on a computer, in the beginning you could only say: I want a change, and a new combination of sound generators was done by the program and the music changes by this. Whereas in the last version the piece is more like an instrument. So it also would give a possibility to play on the keyboard of the computer, this triggering or starting processes. So I did it mainly for myself, because then I could really play piano so-to-speak on my Powerbook intentionally, not completely random. I have different types of expressions, of gestures, and I can just trigger them by hitting them as a certain key, although I don't know exactly what the program will give me. So it's like improvising together with a machine.

GF: But this interactive thing is very difficult to talk about. I agree personally with your approach that it's a good idea so-to-say to not let the user really know what's happening, because then it's done, it's not interesting any more. So either the possibilities have to be so complex that he can do a lot of things, but then he has to rehearse in a way. Or, if it's simple to use, then he must know what's really happening. So maybe these are the two tricks that you can do. But still there is the question: Does a listener of music want this responsibility? I mean, maybe listeners just want to listen to music and don't wanna have to play the piece.

KHE: I made an interactive sound installation for the technical museum in Vienna for the Bach-Year called The Untempered Piano. It's not on the web as an audio stream, but you can look it up on my web site. I think quite a number of people really started to learn this instrument, and they spent a long time in front of the machine and trying to play with it. And it's not predictable what would happen. If they let's say click on the blue button they would listen to long flowing sounds. And if they would click on the yellow button they would hear something very rhythmically. But they don't know what it actually will be. So maybe they learn, let's say, the grammar of the piece, and then they would start to build something with it.

screen shot

User interface of Untempered Piano

GF: So doesn't this include a kind of different layer from what's been there before? So before there was music basically, and you could somehow control it, some player could control it. But now there is a game element or something, isn't there? Because I think there is something coming in as soon as interactivity maybe sometimes takes something of the music away, makes it less interesting, there is this game element coming in.

KHE: I mean the game element could be a starter or something that could gain interest, and people could start to get involved. But I think the game element itself without structure would be quite hollow and nothing. I like this idea of post-modernism in the way that you have different approaches of perception. I am not speaking of post-modernism as a means of making a bricollage of different unrelated things. I am speaking of post-modernism as a philosophy that uses different types of languages which do a multiple coding ["Doppelkodierung"].

GF: To talk about one thing in several ways to get closer to it.

KHE: Yes, that's a good description of it. And this applies also to this piece: There is this game element which attracts people. But if they go deeper, they understand that they can create something. Not 100% personal, but they can control it. It enables them to create sounds that they would never have been able to do without this environment. But there is an instrumental aspect again, and then a composition aspect, which is more hidden behind.

GF: But that is like before: You first do the composition in the structure of the system …

KHE: Of course! I think it's really a bottom-up process. So you start with the composition, then comes the instrument idea, and then, on top of it, comes the game. The game aspect is not in the beginning.

GF: The idea of the fixed musical work is of course more and more given up. The question I have in this respect is: Doesn't this imply that the composer is more and more abandoning his individual expression? How can he put all of himself in there if the piece can have so many faces?

KHE: I personally don't have problems that I cannot control everything. I am very happy if I know that I have created something that lives by itself and can be used by others. And it uses my ideas, but it's not under my control. For me this is the most wonderful thing. It's like the creation of an organism. Or if you have children: Once you make them, but then they grow up and become their own personality. You have to educate them, but in fact they are persons and individuals. And thos applies also to some parts of my music, that I consider them as my children, but they develop their own life. For example Lexikon-Sonate. It was conceived as a revenge for the piano, because it's an instrument that I don't like. I thought I would like to write a piano piece that's so complicated that nobody can play it, and that's so long that it has no end and it doesn't repeat, it's always different. But other people only use the surface of it, because it creates quite complex music, and use it as a generator for MIDI files which they use in their compositions. For me it's OK that they do that. I decided to make this piece completely public domain, and if people use it to generate musical structures that they use in a completely different context, it's OK for me. And the nice thing is that some of those people send me their CDs or DAT cassettes with pieces they made using the structure generators of Lexikon-Sonate. For me in a way it's touching to see what they did with it. Also sometimes it's very, very different. I know a musician from Chicago, Ernst Lang, and he has a very strange analogue vintage synth that has some MIDI-to-voltage-converter, and he uses the Lexikon-Sonate to create control voltages for his analogue synthesizer. And it produces a very shabby industrial noise sound. It has nothing to do with the piece, but for me it was really a very strong experience.

GF: So is it something like: You give something away, and that is the total control over the piece, but you get something…

KHE: Yes, that's exactly the point: I get something back, I am getting so much, it's so rich, and makes me so rich! Because on the other hand, if I wouldn't have done it I would just have a piece that can be played by a pianist. But this piece really starts its own living. And then the internet is important. On the internet it's very easy to access this piece and download it and install it on your computer.

New artistic expressions

GF: Installation art, performance art, audio art… They all worked on dissolving the borders between the art forms. Through the computer and now the availability of every kind of software tools in the net, the borders between the art forms are still more vanishing. Where is this leading to? Will we be having totally new merges of art forms?

KHE: I think that this is a very good observation. I have the feeling that they will merge. If you make interactive compositions that use a monitor you always have a very strong visual element - and you have to fullfill it. And I personally feel that I am a specialist in making sounds, but I'm not a specialist in making pictures. And that's something I have to learn. I would really like to collaborate with a visual artist on this, and I think I will do it in the next future, because I came to a point where I have the feeling that the visual representation of the piece on the screen is sometimes more conceptual, but not aesthetic. I recently made a sound installation together with the architect Heinz Tesar. He is now in his sixties, and 30 years ago he wrote a text about music and architecture, and it was more a poem in the style of Trakl. I was applying methods of granular synthesis on this text material. First I had visual elements on the screen which would mirror the generation process. So that would tell the listener, the viewer about the state of the system parameters. But I found out it's so technical and couldn't be understood by people who don't know about these processes that I abandoned this idea, finally, and instead of this I came to the conclusion that I would like to do the same with the rhythm words of the text. So I made a visual surface that uses text as it was written, and this text was cut up into little segments and pieces, and they were appearing on the screen in a random controlled way, so that what you were listening and what you were seeing were so to say the same processes, but on different aesthetic levels. And this was for me quite successful, because you had the same idea in two different media: the visual and the acoustical.

In between popular and experimental music

GF: Experimental art also worked on dissolving the borders between high-brow and low-brow culture. Could net music bring about changes in the separation of popular and experimental music? Do you agree with my observation?

KHE: Absolutely. And I think it's a very good process. When I was starting to study music 20 years ago, there was this feeling that you have to get through all the steps from Haydn to Mozart to Beethoven to Brahms to Schoenberg to Boulez and Stockhausen. So you have to follow a certain path. But now I have the feeling that this is not true any more. So now I see that there is a possibility that people go into experimental music concerts who don't know the first Symphony of Mahler for example, but they have an open ear and an open mind, and an interest. And they also go to cinemas, they read books, they go to exhibtions. There is a new type of audience, that's generally interested in culture or in art, and who don't think they have to have a certain knowledge or education. And this would also lead to the thing that the people don't make the distinction between E- and U-Art. For instance the rhiz in Vienna where experimental and more popular music styles are mixed. It is an indicator of the change that happens. And the nice thing is, each night everything that's happening there is streamed on the internet.

GF: Which is a difficult topic, I think.

KHE: Yeah, it's like broadcasting.

GF: What do you think about this? I mean it's very important in a way: Audible productions can be distributed widely. But do you think this is really changing something? Are people really listening to that? From my position I'm some sort of sceptical about this notion of broadcasting every thing out.

KHE: I am listening from time to time. Because sometimes at night I think: What's going on at rhiz tonight? And then I start my web browser and listen to it. And there is also a remote control web cam, and you can lurk and look for people which you might know or not.

GF: OK, this seems to work well. I have several experiences with that where I just thought. It's a very small crowd of people listening to each others productions, which is not a bad thing of course. But the idea they usually put out on that is that this might really be heard by many, many people. And I think that's not what's usually happening, but only rather few people are listening.

KHE: Well, I know for example from Kunstradio, because they have a server that logs every access, and then you can see that there are 2-3-400 people listening on the internet. I mean on the terrestrial broadcasting you have much more listeners of course. But it's also nice that I can tell my friends in America: There is this concert going on, and you can listen to it on the internet. And some of the people really do.

GF: I have to say that I didn't follow up on net radio too much, so I know the old numbers so to say. And that was usually only like there was five people logged in. Which is not a bad thing, totally not, it's just a little disappointing to know, because it could be much more.

KHE: I think the combination with terrestrial radio is also good. So with Kunstradio they always have it transmitted "on air" and also internationally "on site."


GF: Which tools are necessary for this kind of musical work? Is everything you would like to have there? What's essentially missing?

KHE: A broader bandwidth, and a Max/MSP-Plugin for Netscape ;-) Which is possible by the way, but it has to be done. This would be wonderful.

GF: One could also put it into Java.

KHE: Yes, but it's enormous work. I think the best thing is to make a sort of Plugin that incorporates a Max/MSP-Player. I think we discussed it once on the net on this Max-list. And the developer means it's possible, but it would take some time. But this would be wonderful. It would be something like Shockwave, but much more powerful.

GF: And what about the interfaces? In my opinion it's not very satisfying to play a musical instrument with the mouse. Or with the letter keyboard. Do you have any ideas about that?

KHE: For myself, when I play on my instrument, I use external MIDI controllers with sliders, knobs and buttons. That's very important, because this gives me also the possibility to control several things at the same time. On the computer keyboard you can only hit one key at a time, and with the mouse you can only change one or two parameters at the same time. But I think for the normal internet user I have no ideas what you can use. Some tactical things with touch or… I don't know. Do you know Knowbotic Research? They developed something which is like a mass of rubber, and you can roll it between your hands and it would send out MIDI parameters.


GF: Where can the development be going to? What's your musical utopia? Do you see new forms of music making and new types of musicians developing? Are there new forms of music listening and a new type of listener evolving?

KHE: Yes I think so. The new type of musician is the composer-performer, which is the type of musician that always existed. I think it was just for 200 years that it was not so much in the foreground. And a new type of listener is one who - maybe as I stated before - one who has this broad interest and is not specialized in something. It is not necessary they have a subscription for the Musikverein which is inherited from generation to generation.

GF: But would this also change … We talked about interactivity, we talked about the problems that it brings or that are in there. But still interactivity changes a lot about how we listen to music. Does the medium and everything we talked about change the process of listening? I mean the listener is more active…

KHE: Yes, well I have the feeling that the listener has a very important function, because by listening he would in fact construct a piece in his mind. So I think musical composition nowadays should envisage this aspect and give a framework for the listener, where he or she can reconstruct the work personally in oneself. That's the reason why I'm not so much interested in those fixed works that are very strict. And even if I do something like that - because now I'm writing a string quartet that's completely notated - I try to compose it in a way that it also has these different layers of perception, where the listener can move between those layers and find his or her own way through this structure. For me these concepts of the so-called Radical Constructivism and discourse on this field is very important for the change of my artistic ideas. I came across those ideas [expressed by Humberto Maturana, Heinz von Foerster, Paul Watzlawick etc.] 20 years ago which had actually a very strong impact on me.

CD-ROM added to "Neue Zeitschrift für Musik", 5/2004
© 2004 by Wergo / Schott Music & Media

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