Jan Jelinek Berlin’s experimental mainstay talks deceleration, chemical reactions, and new album “Zwischen”

Photo: Takehito Goto

To take a look at the German electronic landscape is to take a look at Jan Jelinek. The producer — responsible for some of the most notable and brilliant albums of German house, techno, and experimental music — has sketched the outlines of his country’s scene across various decades and noms de plume. Like others of his breed, Jelinek’s more recent output has moved toward a logic of abstract composition, away from the glitchy amoebic dance music that defined key records such as 2001’s Loop-Finding-Jazz-Records and 2002’s Textstar. Jelinek plays the role of a scholarly minimalist, but to define him in such terms would ignore the blithe, jubilant, twinkle-in-the-eye nature that is present in all of his work.

Across the month of April, Jelinek and I exchanged a few emails about his newest effort, Zwischen — German for “between” — which is out today, May 4. Adapted from an audio play that was broadcast on German public radio, the record is a curious thing. Jolts of synthesizer frequencies flirt with samples of pauses and vocal tics from interviews with art and philosophy icons like Slavoj Žižek and Marcel Duchamp. Ever the master of pulling music from spaces in between, Jelinek’s newest record is an ecstatic dancefloor for the interruptions of human voice. The record can be ordered now via Jelinek’s own Faitiche imprint, or it can be streamed and purchased via Jelinek’s Bandcamp page.

What have you been up to recently? What do you do to fill your days?

Right now I’m preparing a performance for next week — it’s a duo concert with the Swedish Free Jazz Drummer Sven-Åke Johansson. We performed only once before on the occasion of the Berlin Festival “Syn-cussion” last year. I had quite a bad feeling right after the show because the reception wasn’t very positive, but the recording is surprisingly good. Sometimes it happens, that there is a dissonance between reception and the final recording. At the end, the concert turned out to be successful. It will be released on a small Free Jazz label in autumn this year. What I’m doing to fill my day? Working in my studio, reading, arguing with my teenage son…

I know this isn’t a very interesting or unique question, but I do feel like your techniques and your body of work elicit it as important. What kind of hardware and software did you use to create Zwischen?

I’m afraid that you are right: My work resonates quite often technical ideas. But perhaps this is what Electronic Music is about?
Every machine and software reflects a certain compositional understanding — I’m tempted to say “ideology” — and I love to pick up certain functions, which trigger compositional questions or distinctions.

Zwischen is rather an archival work, though, and happened on two stages. The first stage was the archival part: researching for interview material, cutting out the silent moments and interviewee’s hesitations. This was done with the editing software Logic. The result were 12 voice collages, which strictly followed the nature of the interview material. Electronic sounds had been added to that on a second stage. Every individual voice conducted a synthesizer patch via amplitude and frequency, which was processed by a module from Analogue Systems. The processor’s algorithm shaped the tonal sequences and the form of every piece, so I saw myself in a rather observing than composing position, which was really relieving.

This piece was originally a play for public radio. How was the piece originally circulated and what is your relationship to public radio in Germany?

The piece’s premiere was broadcast in May 2017 and it’s going to be on air again this year in June. German public radio is a media dinosaur, but they finally managed to upload almost every piece on their website. Right after the premiere, it can be streamed for 12 months, and after that, my work usually gets lost forever in their archives, which is the frustrating part. I actually never had a relationship to public radio at all, but I was asked to do an archival collage back in 2012. Surprisingly, this commissioned piece won a prize, and during the prize ceremony, I started to realize that the program’s catalog contains a lot of very interesting pieces. Perhaps you can call it [a] pivotal point. After that, I wrote almost once a year a piece for the same program. I’m using it as a platform for projects which require a higher budget, like a cast of actors or audio material which is subject to licensing.

Photo: Ruthless Imagery

In a certain way, Zwischen is constructed via samples of “silence.” How would you describe the role of silence in your music?

So far, silence was no object in my music. It’s rather the opposite: Usually I’m creating repetitive loops which stream sound in a continuous mode. If it is successful, it reaches a state of limbo: you rather don’t notice the music anymore, and at the same time, it expands the room with an acoustic, becomes a part of the environment. You can call it a neutralization: It is the point where music shifts into function. I worked with silence before, but never as a musical narrative, more as narrative device for my radio plays. While working on Zwischen, I hardly realized that I’m processing silence, perhaps because I saw it as part of the musical narrative as well.

Your musical body of work — especially under your own name — has a long history of reconstructing sounds and samples into entirely new pieces of music. When you find these samples, how far do you feel you have to push them before a new musical element begins to emerge?

Luckily, there is no formula for this. But usually I try to process as little as possible. The most simple ways of audio editing are naturally the most effective ones: deceleration and acceleration. Especially deceleration is a wonderful way of microscoping analysis. It exposes rich and abstract textures full of former hidden information.

I remember when I first discovered Loop-Finding Jazz Records, I was fascinated with the phrasing of the records name. “Finding” certain textures within preexisting sounds seems to be at the core of that record and this one as well. How do you take on the project of “finding” sounds within other recordings?

I used to compare it with the work of an alchemist. Creating loops is based on synergy, like a chemical reaction. It can happen that two rather uninteresting audio samples start shining only in combination. A beautiful loop is mostly based on cooperation of different sound sources. That’s why such work is still exciting, even after such a long time. I never know how the particular components will react in advance. So many attributes are responsible for that: The “physical nature” of the recording, the historical information, what sort of connotation is getting triggered… Experience has shown that I rather avoid audio samples which contain strong indexical information. Mostly it happens that this information still shines through, even after a long procedure of editing. And at the end this effect is rather irritating. To cut a long story short: a hook by Madonna will always remain — and is nothing else than — a hook by Madonna. Interestingly enough, the same phenomena exists for field recordings. A recording of rain refers to nothing else than to a recording of rain, even after a long day of processing.

At times, I couldn’t help when listening to Zwischen thinking of the ASMR YouTube trend. Are you familiar with ASMR videos, and do you think their ethos has any implications on the sonic effects of this album?

Yes, I’m slightly familiar with ASMR, and I have to admit that I was sometimes thinking of that as well. But I definitely know far too little about ASMR, so I wouldn’t say that it had implications on the album. Again, what you hear is simply the nature of the audio source.

How did you decide on these specific people — Cage, Ono, Žižek, Duchamp, etc. — to include in the project? Some of the folks, such as Žižek most notably, are famous for their eccentric modes of speaking.

Thanks for asking that. I actually spent a lot of time with the interviewees selection, trying to gather mostly eloquent people because nothing was further from my mind than exposing verbal incompetence. There would have been a lot of easy targets, but Zwischen is not making fun [of] mistakes. It rather tries to expose beauty in such interruptions. Naturally, other aspects were important for the selection as well: the voice’s timbre, the microphone setting, sound quality, copyright. Also, the German radio version contains many more German public figures.

Were there any particular interviews you sampled for Zwischen that you had a more personal attachment to? Perhaps one where you were emotionally affected by what the interviewee had to say?

No, not really. Searching for silent breaks took all my attention — and, especially after reaching a certain workflow, words were fading away.

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