Jan St. Werner’s equipment. All images courtesy of Thrill Jockey Records. Photo by Mizuki Kin.
I’ve spent a few months listening to Jan St. Werner’s most recent album, Felder, which is a beautiful record and also a concept album. This is very hard to pull off as a composer. He’s writing music that is quite heady, but inviting at the same time, even moving—which is even harder to do.
Having just completed my new record, Become Zero, it was great to connect with another musician who was not only comfortable discussing the process involved in creating, but someone just as excited as myself by the visceral aspects of our art—playing, creating, and listening to sound.
—Alison Chesley, aka Helen Money
Helen Money There are some artists who want an audience to come to them, and others who reach out—and all shades between, I’m sure. As an artist and performer, what is your relationship to the audience?
Jan St. Werner My work is, in a weird way, a combinatorial game or system. It’s turning and there are different levels of orbit. Sometimes things really line up, and I feel everything is perfectly aligned and of one thought. But then sometimes it really feels scattered—almost total chaos. Still, there’s an angle or a gravity.
So, I don’t really perceive myself as a performer. I feel more like someone who initiates a situation and lets it grow or develop. If solo, I might conduct a certain set of actions on a computer that reaches a group of people that feed something back to me. I’m like an elevator operator (laughter) seeing how many people come in and out. “Okay, can’t miss this floor, since I saw people waiting there.” And Felder was actually performed by another group of people, not me. Each came up with a totally different concept. It’s like a weird dough you can stretch, and eventually bake into a record, but when you’re still working you get immersed in the ingredients. I hear that in your music as well, though you’re much more focused and have this single instrument. I can feel you traveling with it, as if it were a key, opening these different sections and inspirations.
HM People say to me, “Oh do you know this or that cellist?” I’ll say that I don’t, but I certainly know this or that guitar player or electronic musician, because I’m very interested in sounds outside of that world. I love the cello, but you’re right about it being a key. I’m into making it sound like something else, using a guitar pick or whatever, hearing it sound different. But on stage, the cello itself is definitely a focal point—which is a real advantage in a way. First of all, people love how it looks—such a big and beautiful instrument. Then there’s the sound itself, which is in the same range as the human voice. It hits us all in the chest.
JSW A wonderful instrument. I did one track with Marcus Popp [as Microstoria] where we manipulated a cello. All the sounds were from that instrument. It has such a size, and you can really explore it like a landscape. It’s a sculpture. When you have it in a case it looks like a human figure.
HM Did you start off playing electronics or a traditional acoustic instrument?
JSW I started with drumming and percussion, but I come from a very small town in northern Bavaria, so it wasn’t easy to find people to play with. I realized that to get what I wanted—which was already more about sound and less about instrumentation and songs—I needed to record things myself and be my own band. So, I bought a four-track, drum machine, sampler, and very cheap effects pedals. I became less and less a drummer, though I would always hit them in Mouse on Mars.
Now, the music is derived from rhythmic ideas. I’ve always hated synthesizer music, actually. It was the worst music. In the ’80s, these keyboard guys were horrible, with the worst haircuts! I hated everything about synthesizers, and now I’ve become a synth guy myself. (laughter) I don’t know how it happened! I’m existing in this genre somehow, but it’s not what I’m after. I want to hold the sounds as long as possible and still have twists and turns, even when hardly audible, even when fading out I want to be able to add something to them or guide them in a different direction. Once a sound is released it’s out there, and you can’t do anything more with it, but I have this weird obsession with continuously shaping it somehow. I want to sculpt sounds, hold on to them, and live in them.
HM So inspiring!
JSW Do you like to cook?
HM (laughter) No, but I love to eat.
JSW To me, there’s a really strong connection between cooking and making music, between taste and hearing. The human ear gets such a small slice of what’s audible, and I’m sure there are tastes we just don’t get as well. And everyone might be different in what they’re able to taste or hear, with certain frequencies that stick out a little more. Some people are great with bass. When you pick your cello it’s always rather low.
HM It’s like a tenor voice or something, a speaking voice, which must have resonated with me when I was a kid. My Dad had bought me a copy of the Dvorak cello concerto and I played that all the time. But I’m attracted to artists that cultivate a really unique sound. I would say I hate the sound of solid-state—hard things without much warmth to them.
JSW But you wouldn’t go for the piccolo flute eventually?
HM (laughter) No, though I can appreciate it.
Actually, what I really like about Felder is this same warmth and voicing, this same flavor. Like Tim Hecker, you’re a musician who manipulates sound with electronics, but it has a very human element to it. I need that as a listener.
JSW [Hermann von] Helmholtz did his scientific observations on sound, resonance, and overtones with a lot of care and love, analyzing every instrument known to him, and he said the human voice has the most range—not only in frequency, but also with regards to articulation. (Now you could build something that goes lower or higher, but the subtlety might not be there.) There’s tension when the voice comes at us, and we immediately want to decide what it’s doing, what it’s telling us. And there is cyborg language, like synthesized speech coming from our phones, that we’ve totally accepted. I think language plays a huge part in music—like a parallel track really, a competition even.
HM I never thought of it that way, but I’ve certainly thought about each human having their own voice, different from someone else’s, which is really kind of crazy.
JSW The voice, yes, and the hair too!
HM Hair grows even after you’re dead.
JSW Wait, really?
HM Oh yeah, for a little while.
JSW Perhaps we should do some research into hair and sound.
HM Well, you know the cello bow is made of horsehair.
JSW Fantastic! Because there’s power in hair, and it can ruin you too. There’s the old myth about the warrior’s power residing in his hair, and it leaving him when it’s cut.
HM I like when performers go on stage and there’s something about them that attracts you. It’s a special thing to share the performance at all, of course, but there’s something to how they look too—often their special hair.
JSW I actually consider myself invisible, even if I’m on stage, just zoomed into my screen. A lot of people don’t like live laptop music.
HM The laptop thing has a bad rap, but it also depends on how you’re relating to the audience. With my show, it’s me and my cello, in my little world. I do acknowledge the audience, but I have to get into that private space. If not, it would break the spell.
JSW So, what size is your music happening within? What kind of dimension is it that you’re experiencing?
HM Probably an area around my pedal board, like a circle about two feet around me, perhaps extending to the amplifier as well.
JSW And the sound world you can imagine? What would that be? Would it resemble that same size?
HM Probably. I can imagine the music pulsing out over the heads of the audience, but I generally keep it small.
JSW What I’ve heard from you is quite spacious.
HM It’s loud, certainly, but intimate and introverted somehow. I got tired of sitting down on stage playing with a band, so I stand up now. By the way, I saw you perform at MIT. Were you teaching there as well?
JSW Yeah. I wanted to see sound from a particular angle, and teaching at MIT really worked well along those lines. It was a weird mix of performance, making suggestions, and discussion—that’s my approach. The basic idea is that sound isn’t a thing you can approach from one specific angle, because it obviously radiates, expanding in space. Our idea of what sound is has been changed by the electronic media we use to consume and perform it, and even to store it. All these factors make sound exist in a box. So, the idea is to let it out a bit.