sound topographies | an interview with Marina Rosenfeld


from an interview conducted for CKUT in may 2003

Marina Rosenfeld played at mutek 2003 alongside Philip Jeck, Martin Tétrault, Martin Ng, The Mole.

How do you make your music? Do you always use two turntables? What other kind of gear might you use in a performance?

I make the music from scratch using instruments and the computer so I’m constructing most of these sounds from the ground up, not really sampling at all anymore. Sometimes I only use one turntable, because sometimes I get focused on one and can’t remember what was going on on the other one. But the basic thing will be two. For my show at mutek I’ll be using two. Like a lot of djs I’ve gotten into using guitar pedals and other kinds of little sound modifiers, delays, things like that. But I’m pretty straight ahead. What I’m really into at the moment is this idea of the needle as this incredible point of contact between your body and the body of this LP that you’re playing, really thinking about this little point as a kind of focal point for all these different things that are going on, and paying really close attention to putting that needle in different locations, and moving it, and treating it as a kind of little surrogate me, traveling around on the record.

The name of your track on the mutek 2003 compilation is “topographic”. Is this an expression of that idea of the vinyl as a kind of landscape or route?

I’m thinking about the surface of the record a lot, as an interesting terrain. It’s really like a micro terrain because the grooves in it can’t really be seen very well. If you’ve ever had a chance to look at a record under a microscope you can see so much complexity and a lot of beauty actually in these grooves, which look all uniform to the naked eye but actually are really full of complex contours and this whole kind of visual world that is the interface with the sound world that’s cut into there.

Would you say your music is a lot about the actual physical process involved in creating it?

Yes definitely. And also you get obsessed with different kinds of sounds. In the last couple of years I’ve gotten really obsessive in seeking out ways to make these sounds that I like, they’re kind of a combination of what I put on the acetate record, and what I can do with my hands when I’m performing, just kind of going really far with that, and looking for something like a really personal vocabulary of sounds that I can manipulate.

When you play live is it improvisational in a way depending on what sources you’re using, depending on each record?

That’s a good way of thinking of it. There’s definitely something planned, because I have to decide which records and which tracks. I usually choose combinations in advance but the actual movement of these things through time in the live moment is definitely improvised, and that’s where the live eenrgy gets to come in there and the adrenaline of being on stage and being in communication with an audience.

Do you use other sources at all, like video or live instruments?

I play a bit of guitar. My other big project is the Sheer Frost Orchestra. That’s my whole guitar world, and I actually just last week played one turntable and my guitar together for the first time in a really long time. I had a show down here in NY with Nels Klein and Lee Rinaldo, two total guitar monsters, so even though I was on the bill as a turntablist I decided to bring my guitar and I brought some nail polish bottles and called it sheer frost guitar, it was interesting for me because I never really put those two things in the same show in general but my technique in the two is actually so obviously similar, I had just never noticed it before. This thing about playing with the nail polish bottle as the point of contact with the guitar is really close to the way I’m thinking about the turntables so it was a learning experience for me.

Sheer Frost Orchestra is usually performed by a large group of women playing guitar with nail polish bottles?

It’s a piece for 17 women on electric guitar, its always 17 women. I’ve done it many times with different groups of women in different cities. I’m kind of joking around when I do it by myself as a solo technique because the Sheer Frost concept is definitely an orchestra and it has to do with this big array of different practitioners of this technique that I’ve made with the nail polish bottles.

Tell us a bit about your work The Fragment Opera?

The Fragment Opera is a series of recordings and visual corollaries to these recordings. The idea was to make a series of landscapes that would amount to an opera in the sense that it would be like a set of different places and locations/settings and then the interior elements of those places that you would have in a traditional opera, like the stories and the characters and the plot devices and all that stuff would somehow be supplied by the viewer and their imagination and the experience that they would have hearing these pieces and looking at these places to try to combine the idea of place and sound and image. With that piece I was just doing these recordings and making pieces where I would make a set of new acetate records and just call them “the sea” or “the forest” or “the garden” and then I was doing photography and some video pieces also that would accompany the music as an installation. It was a very open ended project, but it was really how I got so into making acetates. I didn’t know at that point that I would just keep on making them , I thought at that point around 1997 that I would just be making these records in the context of that piece. But I got so enamoured with that technology and that way of working that I’m still doing it.

Why acetate?

What it really is is an intermediary step between making the vinyl and just having the music that you want to put on there on some other medium like a DAT tape or a CD, it’s usually not meant to be played for as long as people like me like to play them. The only people who really like acetates are club djs because you could make some beats one night and you could go and make an acetate the next day. Same thing as a dub plate.

You have released a few albums, the first one being “the forest the garden the sea” from the Fragment Opera project. Tell me about some of your other recorded work.

Last year on that same label, Charisma, which is out of Berlin, the Sheer Frost Orchestra came out which was very exciting for me because that project has been going on for such a long time. The first Sheer Frost Orchestra was in 1994 so it was really a culmination of an 8 or 9 year history to finally put a CD out from a performance that we did here in NY at the Whitney museum so that was very exciting. And you know, its just one possible interpretation of that piece, I’ve made lots of scores for that composition over the years and that’s just one of them so it’s not really definitive but it was a good one.

When you do decide to record something – is it what you’re performing at that moment that you’re recording, do you manipulate it afterwards? 

You try to strike a balance. I’m one of those musicians who really likes the live performed piece better than the totally studio composed piece but at the same time you have to make some interventions into it because you have to accept that people are going to take this home and listen to it more than once and there’s a different kind of scrutiny than in a live performance. I try to keep as much as I can of the feeling of the performance but still the changes that I think make it a more durable object, because performance is ephemeral and about this moment. Yeah I think everyone worries about that in terms of making recordings.

I think when artists record tracks they often become the definitive version of the piece, whereas for you it seems like it might be the reverse. Because of the nature of your work maybe the live version is more true to what you do.

There is definitely no attempt to produce a definitive final say in the matter. I like the idea of leaving that door open. Actually on the first CD that you mentioned “the forest the garden the sea” there are 2 pieces, one is the forest the garden the sea and the other is the sea the forest the garden, and its actually two performances of the same composition but one is a solo and I introduced the records in a certain order, and the other has 7 players all on turntables and manipulating these records that I made in their own way and it introduces them in a different order so I’m definitely trying to look toward a model based on the idea of changes or variation. There’s always another version possible, even maybe one that you would go and make for yourself if you happened to get a hold of those records. It’s a strategy that doesn’t have to do with the market as a primary aesthetic consideration. Of course, I’m the one suffering the consequences for taking that attitude. It’s not particularly commercial, this piece isn’t finished, that’s how I think about it.

mutek aims to explore the relationship between music and new technology. How do you see your music in that context?

It’s something that I thought about a lot. It started to happen about two years ago that my work was more associated with this new digital media and I think probably my music sounds a little bit strange to some people in that they can’t tell which sounds are analog and which are digital. That’s one thing that I think is interesting about it. There is definitely a certain sound vocabulary that I’m working with that sounds very computer-ish, it has that nerdy computer feeling to it, little bleeps and things, but I’m handling it in this very tactile way that’s obviously analog because it has to do with my hands. I still really relate to a rhythm that has to do with breathing or something organic or natural. I have plenty of friends who are making computer music who are really averse to that idea, they’re trying to eliminate the trace of the human body altogether and that’s not my taste I guess.

It seems computer music would also eliminate the point of contact you were talking about

It goes down a different pathway. I think there are ways in which I’m using this approach as well. I’m playing with these ideas, like with the Sheer Frost Orchestra, one of the reasons I called it the Sheer Frost Orchestra was to emphasize something about frostiness and coldness. In that piece, I have all my guitar players lay their guitars on the floor and sit in front of them and play them without holding the instrument on the body so there’s a denial of that usual guitar thing where you’re holding it in front of your crotch and its very phallic and warm and heated. And we were doing this thing that was perversely cold. I’m inte rested in that aesthetic and I’m interested in sounds that are cold and hot also and mixing those things.

what are you planning for your show at mutek?

I think I’m just playing, I think I’ll do a solo piece that will have some sounds in it from a new series of work that’s not released yet which I’ve been working on this spring. And then we will do some duets and trios with the other turntablists, so we’ll kind of mix it up. There are some great players coming.