"Ambient" music, found sound, and valuing process over product.
Since the mid–1970s, electronic composer K. Leimer has produced a rich and vast body of work. It has often, if somewhat hastily, been referred to as ambient—that is, when it has been referred to at all. While some of his albums do exhibit certain tropes of that drifting, sometimes unnerving calm, the more comprehensive truth is more complicated, and more interesting, than that tag might imply.
Leimer's work is content to veer. If stillness is a recurrent theme in his work, so is agitated motion. One can certainly draw links to the golden mid–’70s of German Kosmische (Cluster, in particular), the more tuneful sides of This Heat and Throbbing Gristle, the “Fourth World” explorations of Jon Hassell, and the malfunctioning computer funk of Eno's collaborations with David Byrne as well as Fripp and Eno's tape loop experiments. In his systems–based pieces, a strange collision of sounds and influences hold free reign.
Based in Seattle, but inspired by what he heard coming from the UK and Germany, in the mid-’70s Leimer bought a Micromoog and a tape machine and set off. Geographically marooned, in a sense—such interests were very much off the grid in the pre–Grunge Pacific Northwest at the time—he and his peers created an infrastructure of independence, with Leimer establishing his own label, Palace of Lights, in 1979 and releasing small edition recordings, not to mention stockpiling a good many unreleased reels of tape.
A new collection of archival recordings, A Period of Review (Original Recordings: 1975-1983), curated and produced by Matt Werth for his label RVNG Intl, brings to light a rich, expansive, and time–specific body of work. As such, Leimer fits into a particular territory Werth seems to seek out: music that is clearly connected, in time and tone, to ’70s and ’80s Cosmic and Avant–Garde, but for one reason or other did not fit into the dominant paradigms of the time. Werth has also reissued music by Harald Grosskopf (of Manuel Göttsching's Ashra) and Franco Falsini (of Italian ensemble Sensations ' Fix). Werth first encountered Leimer’s work in The Land of Look Behind, Alan Greenberg's documentary about Bob Marley's funeral in Jamaica and that country's remote Cockpit Country. Leimer's score for the film locates an uncanny, eerie atmosphere, and stands out as a brilliant juxtaposition to the film's images—in that it occasionally calls to mind Popol Vuh's soundtracks for Werner Herzog's 70s films. Since 2003, Leimer has lived in Maui. He and his partner Dorothy grow olives and citrus for local restaurants. He continues to make music, working in his studio every day.
Collaborative releases with Marc Barreca and Taylor Deupree are forthcoming, as is the RVNG Intl reissue of his Savant project.
Alexis Georgopoulos What are your earliest memories of music?
K. Leimer First was a square picture disc from the Hanseatic—a recording of the German ocean liner's triumphal theme song given out as a souvenir. After that, assembling a little cardboard guide to place on the keyboard of a Wurlitzer I took lessons on, converting musical notation to alphabetical equivalents so that I could more easily learn to play nineteenth century tunes like "Beautiful Dreamer" by rote. Then being pretty sure I was tone deaf since the sort of music I heard as a child made no sense of any kind to me. It was all kind of anti-music, really.
AG What led you towards the arts?
KL I began to spontaneously draw when I was about seven years old, without making a conscious choice. I grew up in what I’ll call a post-movement art world. The –isms were pretty well over with, so my exposure and interests were free of indoctrination. Add to that the social and political climate of the time, and the Dadaists and surrealists seemed still relevant to me. The work of Duchamp, of course, made a huge impression. I always felt fortunate that I didn’t have to choose an interest or career, that certain aspects of the arts simply seemed intrinsic to me and to my interactions in the world.
AG What about Duchamp—rather than contemporary visual artists of the time—clicked for you?
KL That his work ranges from the almost dismissively casual—like In Advance of the Broken Arm—to the ultra-detailed and documented works—like The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even—was unprecedented at the time. Form didn’t matter, traditions and technique were not even secondary. And the humor was remarkably dry.
AG You practiced automatic writing and painting initially, right?
KL Yes, the drawing lead to painting and writing seemed to be a part as well. There may still be a few copies around of some of the writing, but the paintings are long gone. Some appear in a few photos, but like music, I was never completely satisfied with the result. I'm very lazy about technique.
AG What kept satisfaction at bay in your music?
KL I’ve always lived with this particular strain of disappointment regarding finished work. The most accurate appraisal I can offer is that of familiarity: by the time something's determined to be complete, the level of familiarity with it can be crushing. So I always tilt toward the process more than the product—the product is almost always problematic in one way or another. It takes a long time to be able to come back to something and really see it or hear it correctly. The decades between recording the music on A Period of Review and hearing it again seemed just about the right interval.
AG What led you away from other art forms and towards music?
KL Music has always been a bit more elusive, slippery stuff. It was easier, at first: my naiveté accepted very rapid outcomes. I had and still have a love of machines—the recorders, amps, speakers, electronics. Wires not so much. But most of all, I found a strong personal preference for the ways in which sound and music can be perceived. I don’t watch music; typically videos place it in a mostly subordinate role, in my opinion. It might just be what Chris Cutler wrote—and I’m paraphrasing here—that music offers the ideal way to experience time. Of course, he’s a drummer.
AG Were you incorporating ideas you found exciting in writing and visual art into the field of music – was that the idea?
KL Absolutely. Transposing, using found objects (found sound), inversion, juxtaposition, layering, arbitrariness, dust collecting... These are all very applicable and offer immediacy while defeating typical expectations.
AG You've said that meeting Robert Carlberg [who records under the name Anode and was an early collaborator of Leimer’s] was instrumental in moving you towards music, yes?
KL At first I'd actually been recording with another friend, John Holt. He was an art student too, and we put together a pair of found sound mash-up albums called Grey Cows and I’d Rather Cadaver. The surviving track is a cover of "The Sad Skinhead" (originally by Faust) that’s still posted on some Faust cover site, probably due to Mr. Robert. I had known Robert first, but that friendship was initially based on reading and a shared political outrage. This might be a false memory here, but I seem to recall us both actually falling out of our seats with laughter during a showing of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. He introduced me to a lot of recordings and a lot of ideas and our tastes shared an extensive overlap, so we did end up recording together under the name Anode. But I am, at best, terrible to work with or around. That and our divergent interests—coarsely put, Happy the Man vs. Swell Maps—put us at odds in the studio in fairly short order. He still works under the Anode name and has produced an enormous volume of recordings that are far-ranging in approach and result. They’re pretty funny and always interesting. And we’re still friends.
AG Have you seen the documentary about Jodorowsky's DUNE? There's a certain influence of the Existential Void on tracks like "Acquiescence" and certainly "Malaise"—was science fiction an influence at all?
KL I never read Herbert. I was always put off by the “House This” and "House That” stuff. Swords in space and all. And I’m unfamiliar with the documentary, but perhaps not so unfamiliar with the void. The science fiction I read—I don’t read it any more—was primarily the work of Stanislaw Lem and Walter Tevis. I’d say Lem’s One Human Minute sums things up nicely—it was the basis for my Statistical Truth album, the title at least. But a sense of emptiness (not to be feared) is built-in for me. It’s a preferred state of mind, having been long suspicious of extended or elevated episodes of “happiness” (also the title of a great film).
AG You say in the liner notes to this compilation, on the subject of influence in your work, that “None gave me more of a push than Eno, specifically his first collaboration with Fripp—No Pussyfooting—and its ties to Terry Riley. While many people may have focused on Fripp’s improvisation, I was completely taken by what was underneath. The attractor was the loop: the loop provided an instant structure—a sort of fatalism. The participation of the tape machine in shaping and extending the music was a key to setting self-deterministic systems in motion and held a clear relationship to my interests in fine art: the found object, the impartiality of producing work and events ‘without preconceived object.’” This “fatalism” that you describe—what was it about that that appealed to you? The imposed limitations?
KL You’re collaborating with a system rather than an individual—a system that doesn't really react as much as simply repeat in the form of an extended decay. So you're dealing with the initial signal and then some manipulation of that signal, in real time. It results in a music that seems immediately comprehensible, more reliant on timbre and generally free of, let’s call it, ostentatious gesture. It’s not a music of distraction or necessarily a music to be sublimated. In my experience, it encourages a form of concentration that incorporates a lovely, entropic sensibility. It’s “fatalistic” in the sense that it is intellectually automatic and emotionally elegiac.
AG—Do these closed systems appeal to you because of their—to borrow the title of one of your albums—imposed order?
KL Yes. Automatic solutions, self-deterministic systems, sets of limitations, and artificial variation all place the focus on devising some rules of interaction. But Imposed Order referred to the way in which human perception generates qualia from unrelated phenomena: “Look! Jesus is on my toast!” So, through the juxtaposition of pitches, durations and timbres without traditional compositional influence, you acknowledge what is happening anyway: that the listener is making determinations about form and order. But I never quite took that far enough.
AG Many artists turn to creative endeavors to escape imposed order, no?
KL As defined above, I’m not sure escape is possible.
AG What was the music scene in Olympia and Seattle like at the time that you made this music?
KL There was OP Magazine and a few bands I found to be interesting—the Blackouts, Young Scientist, 3 Swimmers and The Wipers come to mind. I was listening to Wire quite a lot, too—what could have been better at that time than “Reuters”? Robert Carlberg had introduced me to Glass, a local prog outfit. Bruce Pavitt [co-founder of Sub Pop Records] showed up a few times, clearly unimpressed with the music Palace of Lights was pursuing. But through it I met [composer and Palace of Lights recording artist] Steve Peters, who I felt was doing some of the most beautiful and significant work then and now. And of course, Marc Barreca [with whom Leimer would collaborate with in the group Savant]. Those relationships have endured to my great honor and pleasure. The recordings put me in touch with others of like or related interest—Steve Fisk, Gregory Taylor, Michael William Gilbert, Roy Finch, Alan Greenberg, Dennis Rea. So, the scene as I knew it was not geographical, was small in number, particular, and generally uninterested and unable to connect with the locals that were aspiring to be commercially accepted.
AG How do mean "not geographical”?
KL I mean that there was no local movement. Gregory Taylor was in the Midwest, Michael William Gilbert on the East Coast, and Roy Finch was in New York at that time. And if you consider what Steve Peters pursues, or what Gregory Taylor or Marc Barreca pursue, there’s no particular shared aesthetic about it, except in the broadest sense. And, our records were purchased and reviewed pretty much anywhere but Seattle, a town, they say, that dislikes its own until they leave.
AG What led you to work with tape loops?
KL While I tell myself that the music I pursue now is generally emotionally neutral, I’m always personally drawn to sad music, to elegy. And I heard that quality in open loop works: the decay, the thinning and collapsing signals, the persistence of what came before. The machine presence is a nice detail, an acknowledgment of recording rather than an effort at concealment. As I said earlier, a combination of a somewhat automatic solution with decay seems to be something for which I had an overdeveloped receptivity.
AG What was it about the sort of Cage–ian notions of chance and self-generating musical systems that attracted you?
KL My sense—and it seems especially true in the commercial need for personality or celebrity to be an aspect of work—is that while the artist may now be considered to be the product, I don’t even consider the work as “product.” From that perspective, acquiring some impartiality is both interesting and healthy. And incorporating an arbitrariness helps you fool yourself. It’s never been idea-to-execution approach for me. It’s been: play, mistake, accident and surprise—heuristic out of necessity since mastery over the work strikes me as a false notion.
AG Do you mean that these strategies offer an antidote to a preconceived outcome? Can you elaborate on the statement that “mastery is a false notion?”
KL Heuristic in that there was no specified goal, and that music is always something of a lesson for me. Oblique Strategies played a key role during that time, so yes, an antidote for defining the initial idea too closely. And mastery seems unlikely, or at least unavailable, to me. Especially given my posture towards this sort of work. The definitions would need to be so codified and specific, so contextual, and the practice so arduous that the results would demand to be measured against some rather detailed creative brief. There are only a few ways the culture measures creative success, and the most prominent—I hope we can agree on this—have very little to do with any intrinsic value of the work itself. In my experience, it’s impossible to so fully codify and detail any undertaking that someone could not immediately respond, “Or, you could do it this way.”
AG RVNG will also be releasing material from Savant, your collaboration with Marc Barreca, Dennis Rea and others. How did you approach that material differently than your own work?
KL Yeah, I understand they’re planning on an early 2015 release date for the Savant catalog. The approach was not so different. Savant is meant to be a sort of exercise in artificial intelligence, separated areas of ability, expertise and understanding that meet only on a length of tape. The Savant tracks use musicians as sources, instead of machines. Musicians react in different ways to identical instructions and limitations. Through this trait the Savant tracks achieve a sort of artificiality that my “solo” work cannot. And while the process was so abhorrently odd, the results seem very familiar. And that’s problematic for many experimental musics: unless the listener makes a study of the process, the outcomes may often seem familiar even though they really shouldn’t. I don’t know how many people, on hearing “Stationary Dance”, find it to be sarcastic, which it obviously is. Yet I understand DJs still play it, and I guess that means people dance to it.
AG Savant’s record, The Neo-Realist (At Risk), seems to emphasize the dislocated “Fourth World” approach that appears in some of your solo work, i.e., "A Spiritual Life" and your soundtrack to The Land of Look Behind. It’s more of a fractured computer funk that evokes My Life In The Bush of Ghosts or Remain In Light.
KL It does share quite a lot with those recordings, and at the same time it began to take on a sort of belligerence, especially in the title track. I think that comes as close as anything I’ve been involved with to making a social statement, other than the implications of some titles. I still quite love that track, especially the way the percussion elements thrash around: a lot of cardboard boxes and plastic containers were used. But as a whole, rhythmic music is sort of a mystery to me. I don’t have a genuine feel for it, and that’s probably the dislocation you hear.
AG What inspired you to start your own label, Palace of Lights, in 1979, as opposed to releasing your work through other, established labels?
KL I don’t have a coherent answer for you about this, but there are a few things I can offer. Having known, and on occasion worked with, people who sought the attention of labels, I was neither encouraged nor impressed by the motives or requirements. My assumption, as a non-professional, was that the value in my work is intrinsically low. There was an emerging, and for several years, reliable independent distribution network, specifically Greenworld, NMDS and Rough Trade. We did everything else ourselves anyway. I didn’t want to perform.
AG In recent years, the term new age has been re-defined by many underground artists from something that was once looked down upon to something that is rich and expansive in possibility. How do you feel about tags like new age or ambient? Are there distinctions to be made between them?
KL I’m not aware of new age music beyond Enya-style prattling. The Burning Shed label comes to mind in this context, but only because I find the recordings too pretty as a whole. Or perhaps something like the work of Loscil, which strikes me as ultra-demure, or the releases by Stars of The Lid, which are somewhat two-dimensional. So maybe that’s the new new age?
More broadly, genre and form seem imposed after the fact, as an organizational or learning tool, which in turn becomes at least as destructive as it might claim to be useful. I don’t consider genre in anything I do, other than housekeeping.
AG One thing I find interesting is the way you, especially when incorporating rhythm, find yourself in a musical terrain that is much more ambiguous—ambiguous of form, and in a way, of the concept of genre.
KL It’s pretty obvious that I do not understand rhythm or how to use it. So, yes, it’s very ambiguous, and very good of you to notice. Since beats have been de rigeur for so long, I tended to treat them as a placebo, slipping a rhythm track under some loop or pattern that seemed interesting but unfulfilled and incomplete. Whenever I use rhythm, I’m cheating.
AG This collection certainly concentrates on music that is less deliberately ambient than many of your albums. Drum machines, rhythm boxes, and rhythm—in general—is much more prominent.
KL I’m very egalitarian in my listening, and when it comes to recording I tend to avoid those things that I know so many others to be so much better at than me. Given time and place, the influences on A Period of Review are completely naked. I was expressing my taste more than anything else: trying to illuminate my preferences by emulating work I admired through my own understanding and interests. I was thinking about records like Ralf and Florian, Zuckerzeit, and Metamatic and the primitivism that drove recordings like Alternative TV's Vibing Up the Senile Man (a long, long time favorite) and others, so the presence of the rhythm box is no surprise.
AG You even sing on the track "Lonely Boy"—which I love by the way. Did you ever consider making an album of "sung" songs?
KL Ha! Not. Even. Once.
AG Your score for the documentary The Land of Look Behind —a spellbinding, haunting film– reminds me, in a way, of Popol Vuh's scores for Werner Herzog films: drifting, shimmering tones that cast a spell on the viewer. How did you get involved in the film?
KL Alan Greenberg, then a protégé of Herzog’s, had come across a copy of Closed System Potentials and was taken enough to get in touch. He brought me down to Miami for a few days to look at some of the footage and talk about his ideas concerning a soundtrack. I only recall the words of one of his hangers-on: “The ocean has always been a powerful metaphor for me.” Alan used very little of the new material I wound up recording—which drew extensively from the location recordings. It was also a rush job, which hurt in a way because I had just begun work on a new album, which would have been Statistical Truth. The interruption completely derailed my schedule and by the time I got back to work on my own project the whole thing fell apart and became Imposed Order instead.
AG I also hear a bit of My Life In The Bush of Ghosts and Holger Czukay's Movies, both early examples of sample-based works, not to mention some of Jon Hassel's early ’80s work. How do you feel this music responded to the different cultures it was, in some sense, imagining from a distance?
KL Music is self-assimilating. Awareness and exposure continually reshape the possibilities, so I think you’re simply hearing what these artists had become aware of, most probably at a distance. My Life was prefigured in a number of ways, but the obvious onset occurs with "Kurt’s Rejoinder" from Eno’s Before and After Science. The tape speed manipulation of Hassel had many precedents as well: a favorite, and a technical marvel to this day, is Godley & Creme’s “I Pity Inanimate Objects” from Freeze Frame. The same techniques, very different outcomes. How genuine the cultural influences actually were is something I can’t speak to, though with Hassel it's obviously much more than an affectation. You can hear his influence carried to different conclusions now by Arve Henricksen. In my case, it’s only affectation.
AG People seem to need to bring up Eno as an influence in your work. You don't seem to have a problem with this. Do you see Eno, like Cage perhaps, as a philosophical pivot of sorts, someone who should be seen as a turning point?
KL That’s a pretty easy association to make, and flattering as well. Eno deftly distilled a number of exotic and established ideas into a popular format. The first two Roxy Music albums are incredibly complete and distinct works, more finished-seeming than Here Come the Warm Jets. But what really matters is that Eno did not persist solely as a pop/rock figure, but that he produced and released works by Gavin Bryars, Michael Nyman, David Toop and others. To me, this is very different and far more important than producing U2 or Coldplay records. Early on he’s very important to a great many things about music. I do struggle with some of the more recent pieces, but again, to his credit, he has continued to change his approach and his means.
AG In many ways, the music on this compilation conjures, not just Eno but also my favorite era of Cluster. It’s material that is often propelled by rhythm boxes more than the beatless work that you went on to make.
KL My assumption is that anything with beats is automatically more accessible to people, though why I cannot say. But you’re right: I was much more involved with Eno’s ideas than his music, and at that time, much more engaged in Cluster’s music. That the two met up at some point shows the shared aesthetic at work: rhythm boxes were a pretty automatic solution in their own right.
AG In 1983, you decided to put music aside. Were the reasons financial or did you feel like focusing your energies elsewhere?
KL It wasn’t financial. By that time our design office was taking on business at an alarming rate. We drew clients from around the U.S. and Canada and so I went with my education and training and put all my time and energy into design. Early on, the reinforcement loop was very seductive and really did not encourage the better aspects of my character. I didn’t consciously put music aside, but the time for it vanished into fulfilling the needs of others, and the experience of such a sustained ramble through commerce and the corporate world eventually confirmed my worst suspicions of that way of being and living. I couldn’t genuinely fit into the design world any more than I could fit into the music world, but because music was always in my mind, I finally found my way back to the studio. Looking for some sanity, my wife Dorothy and I set aside the business and I returned to the other “practice."
AG How did you come to work with Taylor Deupree?
KL Taylor is a remarkably talented and receptive person. I think I became aware of his work while reviewing for Darren Bergstein’s ei magazine. Darren mentioned that Taylor had a passing awareness of my recordings, so I felt brave enough to contact him for help. He mixed and mastered Degraded Certainties. We then went deeper with Permissions, which he did quite a lot of work on. It’s an important resource for someone like me, working mostly alone, to have a sympathetic and objective external resource act as an editor and critic on technical and creative issues.
AG You were quite prolific when you returned to music in the early 2000s. Did you feel newly invigorated?
KL Walking into the studio, pretty much every day now, feels as it always has: new and promising while remaining persistently problematic. After all these years, Marc Barreca and I finally completed a genuine collaborative album, Premap, and Greg Davis is mastering one I’ve just finished of my own work, The Grey Catalog. We’re going into manufacturing for Gregory Taylor’s collaboration with Darwin Grosse titled Tourbillon Solo. And I’m about halfway through another project that I hope to complete with Taylor Deupree’s help again. Then there’s the Savant project as well. So yes, very invigorating.
Alexis Georgopoulos is an artist and composer based in New York City. He makes records and sound installations under the name Arp. His most recent album is MORE (Smalltown Supersound). September 2014 will see the release of the Pulsars e Quasars EP and a collaborative art installation with RO/LU Studio and filmmaker Paul Clipson at Jack Hanley Gallery. Visit ARPsounds.com for more.