Oli Warwick unpacks the sprawling career of Jan Jelinek, the highly adventurous German artist who's about to reissue Loop-finding-jazz-records, one of the best electronic music records of all-time.
"This collage was a commission for two Dutch filmmakers," Jelinek told me. "I had two tape machines running lots of exotica and early electronic samples, and I had one channel on my mixing desk constantly switching from one news channel to the other, recording randomly, and that's why, for instance, Donald Trump went on this record. It was not curated, it was really random."
"PrimeTime" still resonates five years on. Its sweep of international news contained an avalanche of negativity that could just as easily be broadcast today, as though nothing has been resolved in half a decade.
Collecting and layering samples is fundamental to Jelinek's work. These methods have been applied in many different ways throughout his career, and they continue to produce fascinating, starkly original results. He emerged in the late '90s with the slender micro house of Farben. But it was his first album under his own name that showed his flair for sampling. On Loop-finding-jazz-records, released in 2001, Jelinek layered gossamer melodies with rhythmic ripples in a way that transcended much of the "clicks & cuts" music of that era. It became a highly sought-after classic. As the title suggests, the source material for the album was entirely lifted from jazz records.
"Without a doubt it is the most popular of my releases for people who listen to electronic music," Jelinek said. "Nevertheless, Kosmischer Pitch was kind of popular with a different, more alternative rock-focused audience, while my radio pieces are received by more academic circles in Germany. Over the years my body of work and its reception became very varied."
Loop-finding-jazz-records will be rereleased in late April through Jelinek's Faitiche label, a rare glance backwards for an artist who's continually embarked on new, conceptually-rich ventures. When we first spoke, in the summer of 2016, the German artist had taken up a temporary artist residency at Villa Aurora in the Pacific Palisades area of Los Angeles. Once owned by the German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, the idyllic property was bought by the German government and now serves as an international hub for artists of various disciplines.
Jelinek's creative mission in California has the working title of LA Screen Memories. It involves conducting field recordings at locations across LA that have been immortalised in film, from Hollywood blockbusters to obscure independent cinema.
"I want to expose this very special Los Angeles hyper-realism; this contrast between the filmic significance and the real significance of the public space here," he explained. "The whole city is charged with this fictional significance, but it's also a bit disappointing while you're here and looking at these places because most of them are much smaller than they're presented in the film."
Having processed visual loops from the relevant movie sequences, Jelinek will convert their original soundtracks into musical notation, which will then be used to play the field recordings. If this sounds complicated, that's because it is. Prior to our conversation, Jelinek had been researching for four months, cutting loops from LA-based movies, and was yet to start the field recordings. When we reconvened, in February 2017, he was preparing to start work on the composition with a view to presenting a first version at a festival in Frankfurt in September.
"After staying in LA for three months and spotting film locations, I noticed something else," Jelinek said. "While watching movies which are obviously shot there, I'm not able to concentrate on the plot anymore—instead I'm spotting locations. It must be terrible for Angelinos to watch Hollywood movies, to be always confronted with their everyday environment."
While his earliest music as Farben adhered to the 4/4 pulse of club music, Jelinek's work has increasingly turned towards academic projects with specific aims. In recent years he has, among many other things, embraced radio plays and collaborated with a choreographer. "I don't even see myself as a musician," he told me. "First, I have a concept and then I try to work on that. For instance, for my radio pieces there's a very strict concept and I'm trying to fulfil the ideas which I had probably a few months before."
Since 2012, Jelinek has done a piece every year for the Ars Acustica series, broadcast by the German TV and radio station SWR2. The first piece was a commission called Kennen Sie Otahiti?, a collage of German travelogues from the 1950s to the 1970s. Since then, he's explored themes including the isolated Tasaday tribe of the Philippines and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. His next project, which is presently in production, investigates silent moments in interview situations, making a collage of the sounds a subject makes while they search for an answer.
"I called it a fermenting process," Jelinek explained. "Depending on the person's timbre and the mic-ing, those moments can have a beauty, which I try to expose with the collage. It's important to note that I'm not trying to laugh at the interviewees. All of them are very eloquent people."
There's a playful, inquisitive quality to Jelinek's experiments, none more so than with Gesellschaft Zur Emanzipation Des Samples, or the Society For The Emancipation Of Sampling. G.E.S. is a theoretical collective Jelinek dreamt up that would provide paying members with financial support were they to meet with legal challenges through sampling copyrighted material.
As Jelinek asks in the accompanying text for the 2009 G.E.S. release Circulations, does a field recording of a carousel playing Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" constitute a copyright infringement? On this basis, Jelinek (presented as an anonymous member of G.E.S.) made Circulations by conducting field recordings of public spaces, where he installed speakers playing his desired sampling material.
"The idea was to choreograph the sound of public spaces," Jelinek said. "I wanted to create an atmosphere of an open public space to make it legal to use that sampling material."
Jelinek readily takes his work out into the field, but a diverse range of studio projects form the core of his discography. The only constant is unpredictability. 2014's Farben Presents James Din A4 LP was likely a surprise to devotees of the early '00s minimal scene that Jelinek rose from. Dennis Busch, AKA James Din A4, was prolific between 2000 and 2007, with scores of albums largely released on his own Esel label, but he remained a cult figure who was largely overlooked. A Hamburg label approached Jelinek about remixing one of Busch's tracks, but he decided to take the idea one step further.
"For me it didn't make sense to do a remix of one piece," said Jelinek. "When you cut out one piece of [James Din A4's] albums it doesn't work that well any more. You need the whole album, the artwork, the whole thing, otherwise his releases lose their charm."
Jelinek gathered his favourite James Din A4 tracks and created a remix album that would make sense as a whole. The resulting record is an astounding collection of off-kilter pieces that often pivot around 4/4 kick drums but are laden with head-spinning samples and dubby effects processing. It's as wild and weird as any of Jelinek's work, echoing Busch's raucous original pieces and his vibrant visual patchwork that adorn the cover.
Aside from a couple of EPs, the Farben project had been mostly dormant until that point. But back in the late '90s, it very quickly earned Jelinek a strong reputation. His music was signed to the respected Klang Elektronik label, and a series of lauded EPs appeared.
"I never had a plan actually to work as a musician," Jelinek told me. "It was really shocking to me, because I started to produce electronic music in 1996, and two years later I already had my first release. Everything went very fast, and two years later I could already live from my music."
Jelinek looks back on those years as "a golden age for techno and house." He was in his early 20s and fresh off a move to Berlin. He mentioned experimental music sneaking into peak-time DJ sets as a vital inspiration. While it may have provided the initial impetus for his career, Jelinek now feels too removed from the party circuit to return to his first project. "I received a lot of requests to perform Farben live," he said. "But I'm not hanging out in the club every weekend anymore, so it would feel sort of artificial to me. Maybe I will think differently in a year, but right now it doesn't make sense."
These days, collaboration has become a central facet of Jelinek's work. Most notably he's been working with the Japanese vibraphone player Masayoshi Fujita, resulting in two spellbinding ambient albums, 2010's Bird, Lake, Objects and 2016's Schaum. The two met in Berlin, eventually making it into the studio, recording improvised sessions and performing concerts.
"I really like Masa's approach to performing live," Jelinek said. "He's not playing the vibraphone in a traditional way. He prepares it with metal chains, foils, toys. It's a very fruitful collaboration. Mostly when we perform live nothing is prepared, but the results are always surprisingly very good."
Faitiche is the focal point to Jelinek's ever-spiralling endeavours, but elsewhere he's part of the kosmische-inspired band Groupshow and can be found performing all manner of different live shows in gallery and concert settings. Before the year is out, he hopes to have completed and released yet another collaborative album, this time with the Japanese drone act Asuna. Jelinek admits that he's constantly driven to satisfy his appetite for new ideas.
"After a certain point I start to think about a new project while I'm still working on an old project," he explained, "so that's the point where I have to finish the old thing quite quickly, otherwise it doesn't make sense. Mostly I'm putting this pressure on myself, it's not like someone is telling me, 'You have to release the Masayoshi collaboration album in autumn 2016.' I just have more projects I want to work on than I have time for."
Faitiche began in 2008 with a collection of works by Ursula Bogner, a previously unknown pioneer of early electronic music. Jelinek met Bogner's son by chance and discovered that there was an archive of her recordings and scores dating back to the '60s. Since then, the label has been a vessel for Jelinek's various projects, with some of his radio plays and commissions being collected on the Temple Vinylbox. Aside from its quadruple vinyl boxset, Jelinek wanted to experiment with the presentation of the digital version, which commented on the practice of including download codes with vinyl releases.
"I'm interested in this contradiction of the reception of sound carriers," Jelinek said. "Most of the releases which I have released on my label don't include download codes. It makes the vinyl itself only an object for the record shelf."
The Temple Vinylbox consists of more than 80 minutes of music (too much to fit on a CD), and so in searching for a suitable digital sound carrier Jelinek settled on creating a 70-kg concrete cube with a USB slot.
"It's sort of a contradiction to the idea of digital media," said Jelinek. "I wanted to install a digital sound carrier which is not portable, but is more like a monument, confined to one certain place. The vinyl box is also kind of a big thing, and I needed a digital equivalent, so I thought, OK, a 70-kilogram USB block would make sense." So far the concrete block has been installed at two different galleries in Berlin, but Jelinek would ideally like to find it a permanent home in a public space.
Jelinek has become interested in the notion of exoticism. It looms large in his radio plays, while the Circulation project largely used samples of exotica records as its source material. Discussions around the idea of exoticism have been on the increase recently, with Don't DJ in particular raising the topic in his releases and his talks at various festivals. "I've been fascinated by exotica for a while," said Jelinek, "but I also realised that there's a growing interest right now, and I was even wondering whether I should focus on that because it's getting so popular."
His second radio piece, Dialoge Sur Anthropologie (Dialogues On Anthropology), was based on creating artificial field recordings from the rainforest. In the conflux of the authentic and artificial, Jelinek explained the strange contradiction of early exotica music, where Western classical music was being interpreted on steel drums and other instruments in an attempt to sound "exotic," and how that compares with Jon Hassell's notion of "fourth world" music in the 70s, which fused traditional sounds with experimental Western music.
"This was a new approach which, like original exotica, isn't a real reflection of the music which is going on in these places," Jelinek said of Hassel's work. "With the help of world music it influences a really interesting new direction far away from traditional European music. Right now there's a mixture between ethnological recordings and these exotic fantasies coming together."
For someone so concerned with moving onto the next thing, it's not surprising it's taken so long for Jelinek to reissue Loop-finding-jazz-records. Having revisited the 15-year-old release at the behest of his distributor, he reconciled the idea of a repress by adding the B-sides from the Tendency EP to the release, including his personal favourite recording from the period, "Poren."
"Loop-finding-jazz-records follows one certain production idea," Jelinek said. "This probably made it successful. All the pieces are like well-designed objects: no random, accidental moments, all focused on a harmony. This makes it enjoyable as functional music—music to work to, write emails to, etc."
For Jelinek fans, the repress is exciting news, but bearing in mind the scope of his current work it almost represents one of his finely chiselled micro-samples, carefully positioned but simply a fractional part of a much grander composition. Jelinek admits that he doesn't have a career plan, but viewed as a whole, he's created an incredible body of work, with each new element as unpredictable as it is thought provoking. These projects are bound together by Jelinek's thirst for exotic destinations and the sonic tools he uses to get there.