The sonic archaeology of Stefan Fraunberger


Stefan Fraunberger is a composer and sound performer with a distinct interest in transformation. Engaging in an electro-acoustic dialogue with unconventional instruments such as dulcimers or decaying baroque church organs, his music reshapes the liminal conditions of culture & perception while evoking images of sonic ambiguity. Interested in the recontextualisation of archetypal musical architectures, and the shaping of fluid sonic sculptures, Fraunberger aims to translocate the polarities of difference. His compositions and performances work their way through permutating realms, capturing otherworldly fragments and bewilderment. The possibilities of relations and presence are the basic ingredients for his non-linear approach. The study of different languages, traditions, modernities, and experimental electronic music influences works intermediating the fields of sound art, vocal, and instrumental compositions, as well as film and writing.

Could you talk about your path to music?

I don’t have a classical background in music. I played a range of instruments, such as electric bass, double bass, piano, and drums when I was younger but I never chose to study them in the classical sense. This doesn’t mean that I’m against tradition. I’m fond of lots of classical European composers, but I’m not fond of the way they are treated by traditional modern museums. A caged classical musical approach could be blocking the possibility of getting in touch with a contemporary way of treating perception, which is all about sound and sonics. It’s all about perception – which was and is what it is: embodied information.

What is your approach to tradition and its deconstruction actually? Because you also work in an interesting way with instruments and organs.

My approach is to change things from within. I can take certain ideas that would be close to my personal history. I don’t really like to just pick things at random. I prefer a personal approach in the sense of being related to places and contexts, and having lived and experienced them, which then brings me to a kind of abstraction. Like using old, rotten organs for my Quellgeister series, or different kinds of dulcimers, instruments that are traditionally used in Iran, Kashmir, Eastern Europe, and the Alps. The Iranian form, the Santur, is in fact the ancestor of the piano.

Are concepts and ideas important to you in the beginning of a project?

Definitely. I would also naturally take the radical position of saying that music – or sonic arts in general – doesn’t need to be bound to any concept because it needs to function on its own, but that’s not the reality because an artwork would always be bound to the cultural understanding of modernity or tradition. I try to find abstract understanding and ways of explaining these things, especially with the organ. If I am working on a composition on an old destroyed organ, somewhere in an abandoned church in Romania, I would treat this instrument like a modular synthesizer. I don’t really care about the whole tradition that is standing in front of me. I don’t need to be able to play Bach. I try to find ways of dealing with the instrument as it is.

You have lived in various countries around the world, including Syria, Iran, Turkey, Belgium, and the UK. How has language influenced you and your music?

It’s all related to my personal history. Having lived in various places spawned a certain interest in language, which was always related to my basic interest in music and my compositional and performance ideas. I was never good with languages but I realised later on that through hearing basic street slang, the dialect, you perceive the musical approach of a certain language. It wasn’t about the rational. You sense the way sounds are shaping the being – vowels and consonants, for instance, are creating the perception of meaning for millions of people. It’s very close to music. This also drove me to learn Arabic and a bit of Persian. It’s like perceiving sounds and how they would influence our states before we even come to understand them as rational meaning.

Could you talk about the Ornamental Noise project and barzakh?

These are two different projects that are quite related because they’re about dulcimers. On the one hand, Ornamental Noise is about an acoustic ensemble situation with several instruments, where I’d have four dulcimers, flutes, and a leather drum all interweaving into poly-melodic structures within circles. It’s about a purely acoustic approach to composition, which relates to the sound of the instruments themselves, and about listeners finding their own structures and ways of perception. It’s not a given thing. It’s related to barzakh , which I’m going to perform at CTM Festival soon, in some ways. That piece is about massive energy, and it is supposed to be very loud – like an elephant swimming in the river Styx. The word “Barzakh” describes an intermediary of perception. It describes the possibility of individuals not being isolated. Something outside the subject/object situation. I take the Santur, the Iranian dulcimer with 90 strings, pick up its sound electromagnetically, and then amplify it to booming heights while treating it with electronics. At the same time, there is a background-noise of field recordings that I’ve made over the last ten years. All this results in strange perceptional fields that can range from melodic to hardcore noise structures. I don’t want to be afraid about going into any sort of extreme. The concept of the word “Barzakh” denotes that there is basically no limit between the subject and the object, between the real and the imaginary. It’s all about blurring the lines.

Could you talk about this liminal in-between space?

We could start with the criticism of the Cartesian coordinates and empirical philosophy, whose premise states that everything has to be plus or minus. There’s nothing wrong with that. I like to have acoustic explanations or a computer programme. But what I do with it doesn’t have to be explainable. Maybe, from the musical side, what I’m interested in is the irrational aspect. You can never really prove this in-between area exists – the area between the physical and the imaginary, the subject and the object. You could relate it to so many phenomena like, for example, climate change, which is feedbacking through what humans culturally imagine, construct, and do to the earth. It is the unthinkable. We cannot rationalise all these processes. I realised this while writing my final thesis in the field of Arabic language on certain concepts of the 12th century Sufi scholar, Ibn al-Arabi. He wrote extensively about the sound of language, letters, and their influence on being, as well as on the connection between the rational and the irrational and how we, as human beings, are related through this intermediary. His writings could be compared to postmodern philosophy. He was very open and liberal – lots of his work still inspires me.

Even Thomas Edison, the inventor of the phonograph, was a spiritualist. The Electronic Voice Phenomenon explored sonic spiritualism; spirit voices intentionally or unintentionally recorded. The relationship between sound and the threshold of the rational/irrational has been long explored.

Spiritualism implies that there’s something we don’t understand. And if we are open to this dimension, something strange happens. It’s like science fiction. It shouldn’t be so separated. Everything that is irrational is normal and part of life. We are indoctrinated by certain ways of perceiving things through our education. We are afraid of the irrational.

When you create a composition and when you play, is it more like building a sculpture, or is it more like a narrative, a story that develops in a horizontal way?

It could be also said that the narrative would be the sculpture. You always need form if you use the phenomenon of time stretched out in space. It’s like composing architectural relations through time, or improvising them. The way vibrations shape the space always has to do with a kind of sculptural aspect. Imagination doesn’t have to be an image, it can also be something else, for instance, a sculpture. I wouldn’t say there is a big difference between the two in sound art.

What are you working on right now?

I’m trying to adapt barzakh, which was premiered last April at the Donau Festival, for Berghain. Part of the concept is to always adapt the piece to different contexts. I’m also working on a South African film production called The Woodwind, which should get released around next autumn. I am also composing a purely acoustic ensemble for nine instruments for the aforementioned movie, and I‘ve recorded material for Quellgeister no. 3.

Quellgeister was created in abandoned churches in Romania. Can you talk about that project?

Coming from electronic music, I’ve always been fond of the church organ, with its thousands of pipes, all related to each other and being blown into the air. During my civil service in Romania in the early 2000s, I used to live in one of those Saxon fortress churches that were built 600, 700 years ago to protect against the Ottomans. All of the German minorities fled during 1980s Communism, and after the fall of the Iron Curtain these villages ended up empty. I lived in a priest’s house in one of these places. Naturally, I sometimes went to the church during the night and started playing on the organ there. I returned after seven or eight years, to find that all those instruments had deteriorated. They were left as they were 30 years ago, unlike the organs in Western Europe, which are like a Ferrari or a Porsche, on a technical level. But I wouldn’t like to drive a Porsche in that sense. I tried to find modernity in these old rotten ghosts of the periphery, to then treat them like a synthesizer. Quellgeister means to search for “well-rotted organs” in Transylvanian villages, and then to record there for two weeks. Those areas are now re-inhabited by the Roma and Sinti, which is great. Besides the poverty, I would also witness a great atmosphere in those villages. The word transformation comes to mind – instruments transform, the environment transforms, and I’m trying to extract from these instruments what time has done to them musically. That’s why I would call it sonic archaeology.

Stefan Fraunberger performs in Berghain on Feb 1. Click here for more information.