Live transmission from a "polyphonic outputting organism."
Oscar Powell made a name for himself over the last decade with music as confrontational as it is creatively unhinged. Like the post-punk and no wave bands that inspired him—most notably Suicide—he was both playful and avant-garde, always refusing to play by the rules but never above having a bit of fun. This slightly crazed, oddball energy made tracks like "Oh No New York" and "Sylvester Stallone" unlikely hits. His label, Diagonal, became a vital source for bold music from artists like Yally, Russell Haswell and Powell himself.
These days, Powell is finding new ways to push his craft forward. This year, he launched a ƒolder, a multidisciplinary project combining his music with imagery from Berlin-based filmmaker Michael Amstad and Norwegian visual artist Marte Eknæs—"a polyphonic outputting organism," they lovingly call it. In the first six months of its existence, that organism has output two full-lengths from Powell and a slew of other surreal bits you can find on their website. RA.736, a predictably unpredictable rollercoaster through the archives of Powell's music, is its latest transmission.
What have you been up to recently?
All I have done for three years is work, walk the dog, cook and love my wife and family. In a sense, I've been in isolation for over three years, so not a hell of a lot has changed this year for me personally—except that everyone else is broke as well. What's exciting for me is to finally feel ready and happy to start sharing things again, and to be doing it with other people [Micha and Marte] rather than on my own as I have in the past. To summarise, in the last two months we have released three Powell albums and an EP, four short films directed by Micha and Marte, a slew of image and text work, a live video album with Mathias Gmachl and a virtual home [afolder.studio] that we hope will offer people an alternate way of consuming our work outside of restrictive channels. We like to think of a ƒolder as a polyphonic outputting organism—a way for us to release the things we love all the time, and not get caught up in the crap that too often goes with releasing music, film etc.
How and where was the mix recorded?
The mix was recorded live in my studio in London. I saw it as an opportunity to excavate large swathes of my own musical archives. I stopped DJing a few years back because the attachment I was feeling once again to my own work didn't leave much room for engagement with other music. This odd situation might change again in the future, although I definitely do sense that the world has enough DJs as it is—a quite modern pandemic, in fact!—so to continue doing it half-heartedly or just for financial support seemed pointless.
From the outset, then, I knew I wanted it to only contain only my own music, and a lot of time was spent remembering things I had made, revisiting old folders of stuff, pulling projects or fragments of ideas out etc. I had a feeling that it should somehow respect the interests of RA listeners, so I definitely had one eye open for more rhythmic material, at least as a starting point, knowing full well that the end product might dissolve into something else entirely.
I had also recently downloaded the new version of Logic Pro X which includes this excellent "cells" view/functionality; a bit like Ableton I guess, it enables you to run multiple timelines rather than one that travels from left to right. So I threw perhaps 50 different pieces/tracks/ideas into this new environment, and then worked on programming a way to travel through them, begin them at different times, play objects simultaneously—the kind of decisions you would normally undergo yourself when performing live. Those navigational functions/shapes were also used to generate and compose new music that would sit in the gaps between things, but also bleed into sections and, at times, take over completely. Once these laws had been defined, it was a matter of finding a nice chunk of time to actually sit down and "perform" it. All channels were summed to a Morpheus Russom stereo filter to give the overall mix some kind of colour or coherence, and I used a touch of digital EQ and Zyanptiq Wormhole to tame/enhance parts after the act.
Can you tell us about the idea behind the mix?
I wouldn't say there was an idea — more a series of ideas, a patchwork of states, a harlequin's jacket of affects. Whether those things amount to a coherent or overarching idea, I'll leave that up to the listener. Perhaps each one finds a different idea in it, or no idea at all. I certainly had a feeling, though, of wanting to promote discontinuity over continuity, a sense of being constantly on a threshold between different states. I also wanted to develop some live processes, and actually do the mix live—as if it were a show.
Thinking about it now, if there is an overall idea it more likely lies in the overall constellation of things that Micha, Marte and myself are doing at the moment—in the musical releases, films, imagery, text stuff, future performances—and of course in our virtual archive that we make available for free at afolder.studio. This was always the hope for a ƒolder—that the things we put inside it would eventually amount to an idea of sorts. This mix is one of those things: a single cog in a bigger machine.
You described part of the process here as "stochastic navigation of personal music libraries." Can you walk us through what you mean there?
OK. So, I have an ADDAC506 VC Stochastic Function Generator that I have used as a sort of brain that sits at the centre of all the music I have been generating and releasing recently. This is not a brain in the sense that it displaces my own, thus diminishing my role; it just means my thoughts can be put towards defining relationships rather than following them. So in this case, with libraries of files/ideas thrown into this new Logic environment, the function generator would trigger a change of direction or new track/part/fragment/section based on the information I was putting into it. It's essentially using probabilities to disperse music across time—control of when and where things happen is not relinquished, as it would be with chance, but broadly defined. I can define the likelihood of when things might happen, and then use these unique "events" as the basis for other things. For instance, the same probabilities that are used to move between musical objects are also generating envelopes that, in this case, automated filter settings on the Russom, as well as the wavetable synthesis I was doing with Synthesis Technology E352. To communicate with the computer, I was pairing it with the ADDAC 221 which converts CV into MIDI messages, as well as the ADDAC 222 to generate musical notes [for an OB6 synthesiser].
What I feel emerges from these kinds of processes is something almost non-human but entirely natural. I'm not consumed with decisions such as 'what the fuck should I play next' but can rather invest energy in generating new shapes and managing the piece as a whole. Explaining how things are done with music often has the effect of diluting its mysteries, but in this case you did ask [!] so I felt I should comply. I would hope the music doesn't require this contextual layer. "Stochastic" to me is not an important word; it just provides a way to explore different relationships besides the traditional "pitch against time" duopoly.
In the absence of gigs, what drives you to work on a new live set? Are you actually prepping for that first comeback gig, whenever or whenever that may be, or does this process serve some other purpose for you? (Aside from working as a podcast, that is.)
I had hoped, with the a ƒolder project, that we would develop a more fluid and flexible way of continuously releasing things, in a way that didn't put us at the mercy of things like album cycles, lead times, distribution modes etc. The reality is a little different, though, and you are inevitably sucked back into structurally imposed ways of doing things. Mixes like this then become beautiful opportunities for artists—chances to express something while you wait for records to be pressed, digital streaming platforms to fulfil their recommended lead times, distribution partners to complete pre-sale periods etc. So with no gigs on the horizon, this was a chance to present unheard music, like a release of sorts, but packaged up in a way that fits the format. It was also a chance to learn some new processes that I'm sure will become useful when real world live opportunities start to emerge again.
What are you up to next?
I have six unreleased albums all mastered and ready to go, so I will try to get those out in good time. I thought about releasing them as an overall collection, but felt it might be overwhelming or impenetrable to people. Similarly, the world seems to reward or prioritise things broken up into manageable slices of information, so I went down that route. Problem is, you then have to live with these things you have made for so long. Perhaps they'll never come out at all. What I know for sure is that I will continue to generate lots of stuff, enjoy my work with Micha and Marte, and be grateful for whatever opportunities come our way.