Jan St. Werner: the limits of sound

Most of us know Jan St. Werner as being one half of the German band Mouse on Mars. But his prolific skill in electronic sound creation has also spilled out into other areas. We invited him to dBs Berlin for a guest lecture and he presented us with 7 of his pieces alongside some context.

Throughout a large part of our conversation with Jan St. Werner, he mentioned limits. The limits of the machines he works with to produce sound. The limits of music schools versus the limits of not having a formalised music education. Or the limits of journalists to come up with categorical terms to help an audience better understand the Mouse on Mars repertoire. We loved the anecdote about how he and Andi invented the terms Krautdub and Doomgrind on the spot. If his 25+ years in the business of sound doesn’t convince you of his authority on the subject, the range the tracks he decided to share with us ought to.

Here you will find the time in the podcast the track is played followed by a summary of its story:

[14:22]

From 2011 – a clip of from the Ensemble Musikfabrik based in Köln rehearsing a piece by Mouse on Mars. Titled Paeanumnion, the music was written with the orchestra in mind and each instrument was meant to represent a specific kind of sound from the digital world. It took them 4 performances, each lasting around 45-50 minutes, to finally get it right. Most interestingly, Jan didn’t ‘record’ the sounds you are hearing. He used some kind of wizardry to transform a shaving device into a sound capturing medium. And yes – there is video of it.

[30:51]

This piece was written with Kaleidoskop which is a 15 string player group who perform together without a conductor. Intended to be a take on the sawtooth character of strings, Lumio represents some of Jan’s solo work.

[33:31]

Taking inspiration from Candomblé’s rhythmic and intense style, Jan created Black Manual. This Brazilian song and dance is normally performed during a ritual of transformation referred to as “the dance of the gods”. After witnessing this ceremony, Jan approached some of the musicians to work with him on a piece where they interpreted electronic sound. Can you feel the blending of concrete and abstract taking effect?

[37:24]

Jan spent some time working as the artistic director of STEIM, an institute for electronic music, in Amsterdam. Their work developing interfaces, running a venue and doing research was tailored towards live performance. When Jan came in however, he challenged the facet of their dogma that focused on visual presence. So he created the NOISEROOM. This project challenged musicians to write pieces that would try to translate the intensity of a ‘look’ into sound. Participating in the event were the likes of Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth as well as Black Dice from NYC.

[41:06]

Continuing in the vein of sound transforming space and being curated for a specific space, the next piece was a collaboration with poet and singer Mark E. Smith from The Fall. Here, Jan built a room and played a piece called Molecular Hypnotics on a loop inside of it. It was commissioned by the Cornerhouse museum in Manchester as a part of the exhibition that celebrated their move to a new space. The piece reflects on meditation as a repetitive and predictable ritual as well as Jan’s interest in acousmatics.

[43:07]

Another piece created specifically for a place, Spiazzacorale is a composition for an Italian Piazza in the Umbria region. The idea was to create sound that could be played from everywhere while also having ‘sound events’ like tracks being played on loop in two different cafes or a bike riding down predetermined streets playing recordings of church bells. Unfortunately, due to the weather, the installation only half-worked.

[46:39]

Commissioned by the Abteiberg Museum for an installation about Sigmar Polke, a prolific German painter, Jan worked with Damo Suzuki on this project. Damo is the lead singer of the German band Can, but due to his ill state of health at the time, it was decided a live performance wasn’t possible so voice recordings would have to substitute. Their mutual interest in the visual arts informed the design of the installation to feature some speakers which would emit the voice and the others to broadcast the sounds. As people navigated the space, they could move these speakers at will. They also made a WDR radio podcast about it.

[48:43]

The concluding piece was a score created for a film by visual artist Rosa Barba. While Jan described his aversion to making film scores in general because you have to please the director, Rosa’s work doesn’t follow a traditional narrative structure. So, no surprise here, the abstract, non-synced visuals of Subconscious Society paired well with his aesthetic.

We highly recommend taking the time to listen to this session all the way through, Jan has some really interesting stories. But if you can’t – at least jump to these highlights:

  • [51:33] secrets to a successful collaboration
  • [59:12] the story of Mouse on Mars
  • [1:13:10] how to find out if performance is for you
  • [1:25:52] describing the way people pick up roles and specialise on tour

Enjoy these podcasts? Check out our other guest lectures on Soundcloud, or read about our session with Gordon Raphael.

 

Learn more about the opportunities at dBs Music and dBs Film.

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