An examination of the expansive avant-gardisms of Black To Comm’s latest release.
As the age of conventionally guitar-driven music fades, so must the age of the songwriter, and Marc Richter – the mastermind behind the droning explorations of Black To Comm (it’s namesake derived from the track by proto-punk icons MC5) – is a man looking toward the future of music. Whilst Richter has been walking amidst the artistic wilderness of paid work – which has seen a number of explorations in sound design tied into a multitude of art installations across the world – the gap between new LP Seven Horses For Seven Kings and it’s full-length predecessor has been some time.
‘Seven Horses is a far darker beast than previous Black To Comm material – alongside its formless collages lie a multitude of darkened sounds; incorporating everything from broken techno beats to samples of medieval music. The blending of organic and digital sounds is utilised purely as an audial device, as opposed to a device with which to reinforce quasi-philosophical underpinnings behind the release (of which there are, refreshingly, none).
With a sonic palette that meanders between analogue and digital sound, the release is a collage of uncanny blend of soundcraft, challenging conventional form through its total rejection of melody or song structure. It’s this buzzing synergy and the melancholic sheets of noise that tie ‘Seven Horses into its predecessors – and to various other artists on the Thrill Jockey roster – but through its form, and total rejection/reinvention of such, brings something entirely different to the table.
It’s difficult to put into words exactly what the musical outcome of Seven Horses is – to ask questions of Richter based on this would arguably be a pointless task, given his entirely unconventional approach here. Instead, we quizzed him about cinema OSTs, artistic resistance and sonic approaches into the unknown.
This is your first release on Thrill Jockey – what was it that brought you to the label in the first place?
I’ve been in contact with Bettina Richards on and off for a very long time – maybe ten years – talking about a Black To Comm release on Thrill Jockey so it didn’t happen overnight. Since Type and De Stijl are not really active anymore I needed a new label and they were an obvious choice.
I’ve been following the label from its early beginnings and they always had some adventurous signings like Microstoria (Init Ding!), Radian, So (!) or KTL which was quite unusual for a label of that status and then there are/were so many radical and/or singular artists like Boredoms, OOIOO, Circuit Des Yeux, The Body, Matmos, Mouse On Mars, Sumac – they don’t seem to have a fixed sound aesthetic, which is great because I hate being pigeonholed – Bettina seems to follow her instincts, which is a rare thing.
You’ve been involved in various film and theatre and installation projects between your previous release and this one. Tell us some more about some of the more notable projects you were involved in.
Working at INA-GRM studios in Paris and presenting my electroacoustic work on François Bayle’s Acousmonium (with him and other legendary composers in the audience) was certainly a high point as well as similar projects at ZKM’s Klangdom, a 47-speaker concert hall in Karlsruhe. Working with spatialisation and a more abstract form of composition freed me a bit of the (admittedly self-imposed) song-based frame I usually operate in and helped to let go of traditional elements like melody (well, sometimes anyway).
Last year’s The Mysterious Lai Teck, a theatre/installation piece by Ho Tzu Nyen for which I composed the music was an interesting experience as it was a more collaborative practice than I’m used to. As a mainly visual and conceptual artist Ho Tzu Nyen has a different approach so we’re cross-fertilising each other.
Seven Horses has, at least to our ears, a very filmic quality to it. What is it about cinematic music that interests you? Are there any film soundtracks that particularly stick in your mind?
I know that a lot of people call my music cinematic but I’m not entirely sure what that is meant to say. The way I arrange my music tends to be highly narrative but I’m not intending to evoke specific images. It actually often doesn’t work well in film because it can be too overwhelming – it’s not meant to be background music.
Sometimes this kind of obtrusiveness can perfectly enhance a film in an incredible way like Goblin‘s excessively loud prog rock mutant in Argento’s original Suspiria, but the director has to fully embrace that notion. Some personal favourites include David Cronenberg’s Crash, soundtracked by Howard Shore, where he used some beautifully sterile sounding electric guitars to replace his usual orchestral strings – it perfectly emphasises the kind of emotional absence of the main characters.
I adore Mica Levi‘s Under the Skin, I love how lo-fi it can sound, almost as if she processed the orchestral sounds through a cheap cassette recorder (which she probably did) – a perfect antidote to the unbearable kind of Hans Zimmer Hollywood opulence. And I find the use of musique concrète in film quite intriguing – Gus Van Sant did it in Paranoid Park with Parmegiani‘s Dedans Dehors. It’s often used in animated films but definitely should happen more often in other films.
What was behind the Black To Comm namesake? Is MC5’s (at their time) transgressivity something you are trying to mirror in your music?
Absolutely. They did reflect the atmosphere of the time – of course there was all the flower power bullshit happening but simultaneously it was a dark and militant time with the Vietnam War et al and musically it was the MC5, Stooges, Velvet Underground, Sun Ra, 13th Floor Elevators, Red Crayola and many others who were incorporating the darker and crazier side of things. Musically the song ‘Black To Comm’ by MC5 evolved from a simple rock’n’roll song to a 20-minute feedback orgy, which nicely mirrors my own sonic evolution.
Your native Germany has an incredibly rich history of absurd and abstract art – with the surrealist, magical aspects of your sound fitting in with this. Are there any artistic movements, musical or otherwise that influence Black To Comm?
I don’t have a particular interest in specific movements or genres (likewise in music) but there are always people who stand out and bring new ideas or styles to the table; artists abandoning traditional techniques and attitudes; I’m especially thinking of the late Mike Kelley who had a huge influence on my approach to music. I’m basically a non-musician – never learned to play an instrument or read notes – so ideas and concepts are an important part of my work. I don’t *play* the music, it’s a collage of working methods, approaches and sounds.
Recently I discovered the work of R. B. Kitaj which left a huge impression and had an influence on the new album. And I love The Red Krayola – whose whole oeuvre and history is basically a piece of conceptual art while simultaneously being a simple rock band. Other than that, my various collaborations with visual artists have always fed back into the compositional process.
The dadaist movement arose at the same time as a rise in right-wing militant sentiment in Germany in the years following WW1. In the present day, an emboldened far-right has emerged in Germany once again (although it must be noted that they have faced far heavier resistance than they did 100 years ago), what kind of creative resistance have you witnessed alongside this new emergence of hatred?
It’s a difficult question as I’m not entirely sure if artists can have a significant influence on politics – but still, what else can you do? Bands like The Pop Group, Ton Stein Scherben or Crass I think successfully incorporated politics into their music as did composers like Ilhan Mimaroglu but very often it can go very very wrong. I’m making instrumental music – can it have an impact? I don’t know…
I guess the attitude of many seemingly non-political bands that I have followed in my lifetime can be an act of resistance, refusal or change in itself. Perhaps art can create an environment for discussion, plant ideas in people’s heads, be a spark – it certainly pushed me into certain directions and helped deprogramming myself.
The pure existence of certain (very diverse) strands of art and music might be a strong and positive influence even if not intended – This Heat, TG, Henry Cow, Sun Ra, Halcyon Veil, Senyawa, Suicide, Julius Eastman, Jlin, Luc Ferrari (to name just very few); the presence of noise, improvisation, queerness, surrealism, spiritualism, even violence in music (and art).
Then there are activist art/music collectives in Germany like Schwabinggrad Ballet, Ligna, ZPS who are actively interfering public life in interesting ways. Time will tell if anything can ever change…
Seven Horses’ sound represents the barbarity of life, but at the same time, takes that barbarity and anger and builds something beautiful from it. What is this meant to symbolise?
Beauty might be our concept to find hope in dismal situations.
The blending of organic and digitised sounds, which is a huge part of Seven Horses, is a hot topic in the current musical climate – why do you think this is? What does the merging of digitised and organic sound signify to you?
I don’t really make a difference anymore and musically the digital is just another tool to cut-up, distort, mutate sounds – a lot of times you wouldn’t know the difference between a digitised and a so-called organic sound in my music.
I spend a lot of time on transforming sounds both in the computer/sampler and analogue hardware such as tape delays, spring reverbs, EQ, tube compression, different types of distortion and then arranging them into new forms – the lines are blurred. In real life though it seems the so-called digital revolution has become a new tool for mass hypnosis, unfortunately. But I guess that’s a different topic altogether…
What was behind the inclusion of more rhythmic elements on Seven Horses?
As with the digital/analogue debate I’m not really making a distinction between music with or without rhythms – drums and percussion are just another sonic colour and I rarely used them in the past because my (non-grid) compositional system makes it difficult to incorporate rhythm in an organic way. Also I try to introduce new modes and approaches whenever I record a new album.
Will you be touring anytime soon? Do you prefer to play your music live?
I have mixed feelings about playing live. It can be very powerful but it’s not easy to translate five years of studio work into a live setting. I try to focus on the strength of pure sound; no visuals, nothing else – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.
Seven Horses For Seven Kings is out now on Thrill Jockey. Purchase here.
Words: Richard Lowe