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 recontextualization 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, film and writing. He will perform his piece barzakh at the upcoming CTM Festival in Berlin.
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 the 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 I guess 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, 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 out for 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, so 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 performative 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 it’s about dulcimers. On the one hand, Ornamental Noise is about an acoustic ensemble situation with more 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, about listeners finding their own structures and ways of perception, it’s not a given thing. It’s related to barzakh in some ways, which I’m going to perform at CTM Festival soon. That piece is about massive energy and it is supposed to be very loud – like an elephant swimming in the 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 it up in an electromagnetic way and then amplify it to booming heights, while treating it with electronics. At the same time, there is a background-noise of field recordings, which I’ve made during the last ten years. All this results in strange perceptional fields which can go 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 space in-between?
We could start with the criticism of the Cartesian coordinates, empirical philosophy whose premise states that anything 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 area in-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 12th century Sufi scholar Ibn al-Arabi. He wrote extensively about the sound of language, letters, and their influence on being as well as 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 spiritism, 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 would always need the 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 for the aforementioned a purely acoustic ensemble for nine instruments and I‘ve recorded the material for Quellgeister no. 3.
Quellgeister was created in abandoned churches in Romania. Can you talk about the project?
Coming from electronic music, I’ve always been fond of the church organ with its thousands of pipes, all related to each other, being blown into the air. During my civil service in Romania in the early 2000s, I used to live in one of these Saxon fortress churches built 600, 700 years ago as a protection against the Ottomans. All of the German minorities fled during Communism in the 1980s 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 all these instruments had deteriorated within that time. They were left as they were 30 years ago unlike the organs in Western Europe which are like a Ferrari or 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 in the periphery to then treat them like a synthesizer. Quellgeister means to search for „well-rotten organs“ in Transylvanian villages and then record there for two weeks. These areas are now re-inhabited by the Roma and Sinti, which is great. Besides the poverty, I would also witness a great atmosphere in these 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 archeology.
Stefan Fraunberger performs in Berghain on Feb 1. Click here for more information.