I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Universal languages, performing in a trance, and the benefits of losing your work.
Helado Negro is the name Roberto Lange has assumed for most of his 10 year-recording career, over the course of which he’s released many tapes and records (many on the Midwestern label Asthmatic Kitty). His songs are firm and confident to the ear. Sometimes they leave me feeling naked and exposed; sometimes, strengthened and emboldened. While listening to the shifting surface of “Pressed,” a song that contains processed and exploded noises, I could understand the metaphor physically. That song, for all its aggression, is an outlier; most of Helado Negro’s poppier songs originate in keyboards and electronics, and many, like “Arboles Atras,” from his new release Island Universe Story Three, require Lange’s rich lyrics as their anchor, whether he’s singing in Spanish or English.
The raw emotive quality of his music pulses through each song, and on stage, where Roberto often performs with abstract video accompaniment, the effect is magnified. I wanted to know how Roberto, through his music, can simultaneously transmit and receive intense emotional content. I visited him at his sunny Crown Heights home studio, where he made me espresso with honey. Once we were jacked on caffeine, I started rambling at him about different theories of universal language so I could ask him about his methods of communicating without it seeming too weird.
Ari Spool The theories behind universal languages are really interesting. Like, if you were to have a universal language, you would have to standardize all the spelling within the language and make it completely phonetic? And which alphabet would you use? Would you use the Roman alphabet? Or Mandarin? How do you blend these themes into a universal language? That’s part of the reason that Esperanto never worked out—it followed too many of the rules of European languages. A new universal language would have to follow the rules of all languages, but also be standardized and be formed by some committee of people or something so it would be equal. It’s very difficult.
Roberto Lange Seems impossible.
AS Perhaps! But visual languages have had more luck. There are a lot of universal visual symbols that have worked, like the power button on the computer, or the steps in a little square for exit. Airports are good at this.
RL I see what you’re saying—people pictograms, people doing actions: opening a door, or a person doing a hazardous thing. Recently, a friend and I were talking about his sister’s husband, who builds these micro-controllers for researching data. He builds this box and sinks it in the ocean to collect data for a year. We were talking about how that’s a lot like synthesizers, because it’s just a grouping of sensors connected to a controller. The only difference is that it’s collecting information over a long period of time, and music is real-time. We were talking about compressing all that, and making it so the information could equal musical values. And he was telling me that there were these sensors for plants, to measure PH balances, and they tweet when they need to be watered.
AS Those kinds of sensors can be used for a lot of things! There are sensors that look like the little electrodes that you put on a body when it’s getting an electrocardiogram. I saw an artist who played music from a plant, based on the sensor’s readings. Her name is Mileece, she’s British. She had an orchid with her, and she put an electrode on it, and she had a little box connected, and it emitted a tone. If you touched the plant, the tone would change. She did a whole show where she wired up Kew Gardens to play music.
RL That’s so cool. I want to see that. Oh, but you know what I was going to say? With language, the only thing that I can think of that’s somewhat universal is how everyone has to write or type “www.” It’s the only three letters that people everywhere in the world stay exactly the same. Because not even water is universal.
I remember being in Japan on tour one time, and it was the last show. It was three in the morning. It was my first tour in Japan, 2004 or 2005. I was so tired, and I went up to the bar and said “Can I get some water?” and the bartender said, “Huh?” and I thought, “Oh, shit.” I was doing charades of washing my hands, and drinking, and throwing water on my face, and she kept pointing to things, but nothing worked. It was crazy! I had to go find somebody and ask what the word was, and I found out it was mizu. So I went up to the bar and said “mizu” and she was like, “Oh yeah, why didn’t you just say so?” But you’re right! It’s interesting that really simple things like that, things you need to live, aren’t standardized.
AS Should we segue into real interview questions now? We could ask, “What is the universal language of music?” or “Is there a universal language of music?” That’s a hard question. Is that even possible?
RL What is the universal language of music? There isn’t one.
AS Why not?
RL Because it’s like everything else that’s been standardized. Someone made a language—notation—a long time ago. Everyone said, “That’s a good idea, let’s stick with that!” It’s an ancient tradition that music has always been steeped in. And so the avant-garde musicians usually go and study that, and then they stop practicing this stuff. I think that’s funny, because that is even a tradition, like, “You have to learn the rules before you break them.” There’s no need for any of that. If you know how to do something, or you know what you want to do, you do it because you can do it, not because you need permission.
So for me, I think that’s why there is no standard other than the ways thing sound. All of music is so subjective. It’s all based on the environment: how you feel, how old you are, what you ate that morning, what you’re in the mood for, how exhausted you are, and how many connotations you have with a sound. The gamut of why it isn’t standardized is beyond something physical because it’s such an intangible thing. It’s like what I was saying before: music is so real-time that you can’t describe what’s happening while it’s happening. You can only try to interpret that experience afterwards.
AS Maybe the universal language of music is time.
RL It is. It’s like the collection of time, the document of it. For me, I make my own language with it, among my friends and my peers and the people I work with. I talk about music in terms of textures, shapes, and sizes. “Make that shit bigger,” or “Make it crazier, make it wider, make it more colorful.” Even though it’s a little ambiguous, I think there’s a common ground with language like that. Everybody makes her own language, I guess.
AS Do you think that’s a problem in experimental music, that people accidentally become ingrained with systems because they feel like they have to learn them in order to break them?
RL I don’t know if it’s a problem, but it makes things more boring. It doesn’t make things experimental, because there’s a foundation. The foundation is a tradition, and the experiments are based in the tradition. It’s tough. Even I do things in a tradition. I learned how to make music by listening to hip-hop. I bought records, and I bought an MPC because of hip-hop. Somebody was rapping and they said, “My man made a beat on his MPC,” and I thought, “Oh, I gotta get an MPC to make a beat!” I was like eighteen or nineteen years old.
I think that anyone who says something is experimental music isn’t being completely real. I think experimental music doesn’t really exist, and maybe hasn’t ever existed, except maybe as a product or a commodity.
AS That’s an interesting way to think about it. When I think of what happened in twentieth century experimental music, I go back to like John Cage, and Henry Cowell—very academic traditions, extremely rooted in written rules. And I think that’s bizarre, but it’s because music had to be written before it was played at that time, to a certain extent.
RL You’re right because that’s when everything changed, when the recorded medium came along. I think recording blew people’s minds and it became more and more heady.
AS It’s interesting too that the first thing people did when they got tape was chop up the tape—
RL To make it better—I think that’s a product of utilitarianism. Obviously the people who made tape recorders intended it to be editable, and that was a very utilitarian idea. People said, “Oh, you can edit it now? Well, let’s scoop up all these bits from the floor and see what they sound like.”
AS It’s so true.
RL But experimental music is weird. It’s just so much more than what’s represented in an academic sense or institutional sense. It’s so much more exciting than that. It’s more about community-based things, and not so much communities based in old gentlemen’s clubs, which I think exist a lot here, in New York especially.
Experimental music is much more than playing music that sounds weird. It’s about a community that has less to do with the tradition of making an elite that’s exclusive. It’s an inclusive thing, making that much more of an array, instead of making them so serial and related to one tradition.
AS It’s hard to be experimental or break new ground. If you look at the “technically” experimental groups like the Oulipo, which was literally a club of men in France, they were also using these strict rules. One was called N+7 where they would write a story and then replace every noun in the story with the word seven entries ahead of it in the dictionary. That was interesting, but it’s not really communicative. It’s kind of for the sake of itself.
RL I don’t know if it happens with you, but I’ll think of something and I’m like, “Oh, man, that would be great.” But then I don’t even want to make it because I already thought about it! (laughter) The making, the work going into it, isn’t worth it because that is just an interpretation of the idea in my head. And it will never be the idea in my head.
AS Which was such a great idea!
RL And then when I make it, I think, This sucks. (laughter)
AS Speaking of sucking, I read about your hard drive catching fire! [Roberto’s hard drive contained his work on a new record.]
RL Yeah, it’s here. I’m going to test it and see what happens.
AS What happened? Did things just get too hot in here?
RL I blame the United States for producing too many hard drives. (laughter) I don’t really care. I did care for a minute, but if that didn’t happen, then something else would happen. Who knows? I wouldn’t have made all the things that I’ve made since then.
AS Yeah, that’s where I’m going: it sounds like from literal ashes, a new project was born.
RL Yeah, and this whole other record I’ve been working on has been really exciting. The old hard drive is kind of like a time capsule. It would be nice to maybe preserve that somehow and send it to myself in the future. And then I could see it in fifteen years and think, Oh shit, that’s what I missed out on!
AS Maybe you could cut a hole in the wall, stick it in the wall, and repair the wall.
RL And just hide it indefinitely?
AS Or just set a gCal alert for yourself 15 years in the future.(laughter)
RL Google might disappear by then. I think that’s the only reason I release things is so I have a photo album for myself to be like, Oh, that’s what I was like when I was 15.
AS That’s the only reason?
RL I think so. It’s just a way to have a milestone marker. It’s a trail for myself, and then making little markers so I can go back and forth, or I don’t know, take it somewhere else.
AS So then, what’s the ultimate goal?
RL I have no idea. I don’t have an end, but it’s always an accumulation of the experiences of doing something. That’s why I release it, because it’s a collection of time, like we were talking about before. Time compressed. There’s no way for anyone to be in here while I’m making something and feel that same feeling. Even performances don’t capture that.
AS Well, but you try to do a different thing on stage.
RL A different interpretation, yeah. I think ultimately I don’t have any other motivation though. It’s not like I make money. I think my only motivation is because I like to do it.
AS For sure. I’m also interested in that alternative interpretation that you do as a performer. Do you have a rubric for that? How does it work?
RL It was developed for crossing my own psychological boundaries with music.
AS So you didn’t originally enjoy performing?
RL I didn’t know what I was doing at first. Then you become pretty aware of yourself and then I think there’s a moment of getting past that, where you’re not even there. For me it’s almost like I black out. I don’t remember anything most of the time. Unless something really weird happens, something out-of-place. And what I mean by out-of-place is something not within my own rules of what’s supposed to happen. One time, I was doing a performance in Spain and I was doing a bunch of things I didn’t usually do. I had the microphone in my hand, and the microphone just fell out of my hand. It hit the floor and I looked up at everybody and I was like [mimes a shocked expression]. It was almost like it broke me out of a strange dimension.
AS Like a trance?
RL Yeah, for me it is.
AS I can’t believe you can do stage banter in a trance! (laughter)
RL It’s almost like a segue for what’s happening, to not lose myself. I think the stage banter is out of nervousness sometimes. I’m always trying to sabotage myself in the sense that I’m trying to make something where it doesn’t feel like a dude who has been rehearsing a lot and is really good at something. I like the idea of an athlete, because I treat what I do with that mindset. I’m performing to understand it and be ready for anything. Athletes do all these things where they work really hard to be good at something specific, or to becoming toned. And I think that happens with musicians, in a performative sense, they do that really well. With people I am involved with sometimes, they’ll perform constantly. They’re always doing these performances, they’re on tour, they’re working in the avant-garde and experimental world or whatever. They’re always on the scene, doing something all the time. So they get so good! When it comes to making music, they don’t really do that anymore. And that’s kind of funny.
AS They put out their record once a year, and they maybe work on the record for a week.
RL Exactly. And what I try to do is I try to split my mind up. I try to make sure I’m ready in all senses. I usually make one or two songs a day, and performance-wise, I try to keep that up as well. I try to develop what I’m doing all the time.
AS So if you’re home, you’re making one to two songs every day?
RL I wish I did push ups instead, so I would be healthy. (laughter) I wish I was more obsessed with something that was fruitful for my longevity. But I’m not saying that in a bragging kind of way. It’s kind of like an affliction, it’s kind of partially self-sabotaging, and it’s something that partially informs what I’m doing when I’m performing. I’ve been trying to develop this way of communicating with people and not being so insular. I toured from like 2003 to 2010 in Japan and Europe doing this experimental hip-hop and beats type of thing. Six shows a week, cross-country in clubs in Japan. And it was so insular—just me making electronic music at a club, for kids. I was a kid, too. It was just me playing beats and messing with them, and people nodding their head. And then something changed. I wanted it to be more. Someone said something really good: they said that I make myself vulnerable on stage and people react to that. It makes them feel comfortable because I’m not creating this wall or barrier between me and the audience. It’s about us being together.
Helado Negro was born in South Florida in 1980. Island Universe Story Three is available to purchase on his website.
Ari Spool was formerly the Managing Editor of Impose Magazine and of ’SUP Magazine. She lives in Queens and loves Errol Morris.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee