Thomas Ankersmit on ghost sounds and working with Phill Niblock

TA at Lampo, Chicago (photograph by Alex Inglizian)

Thomas Ankersmit is a musician and composer based in Berlin. His work has been released on the Touch and PAN labels. Ankersmit has long-term collaborations with New York minimalist Phill Niblock and Italian composer Valerio Tricoli. Since 2006 his main instrument, both live and in the studio, has been the Serge Modular synthesizer. Acoustic phenomena such as sound reflections, infrasonic vibration, otoacoustic emissions, and highly directional projections of sound play a central role in his work. His music is also characterized by a deliberate misuse of equipment, using feedback and disruptions of the signal, and the extremes of frequency and dynamics, to create visceral but finely detailed swarms of sound. Ultimately, the result is an immersive, intensely physical sonic experience. Current projects include commissioned works for CTM Festival (Berlin) based on infrasound and architectural resonance, and for GRM (Paris) based on the research of Pierre Schaeffer, as well as new live electronic music with Phill Niblock. 

Can you talk about your project, Infra, which premiered at Berghain as part of CTM 2017 festival?

It’s almost an homage to Berghain. It’s the first of a series of performances that are based on architectural resonance – on literally shaking the building with sound. I tune my music to the frequencies that resonate the building and the things inside it, to create a kind of expanded spatialisation. It’s a duet with the architectural structure in which the concert takes place. It’s a quadrophonic – 4.1 – piece that uses the famous Berghain PA system to its full extent. They also have a subwoofer that’s extremely powerful as it goes all the way down to inaudible frequencies; this is where the title of the work comes from. Infrasound is a sound below the lower threshold of hearing; these are sounds that are too deep for us to hear. Humans hear from around 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz and any frequencies below that, in the sub-bass region, are referred to as infrasound. Those sounds are inaudible but you can feel them. It’s a way of using inaudible ghost sounds to activate the structure that we’re in.

How did you prepare this piece?

It’s challenging because my studio is located in a residential area in Berlin, and I can’t quite shake the whole building there. There were a number of rehearsal experimentations at Berghain and the sound technician has been really great. Everybody who was working at Berghain was freaking out when we were testing the piece. The Berghain office is above the main floor and they said they couldn’t work because the vibrations were so intense, so we moved our practice sessions to the middle of the night.

Infrasound is a phenomenon found in nature and has lot of uses. Certain animals produce infrasound and it is said that it has also been used for nuclear tests. Were you also interested in the wider uses and sources of infrasound?

I guess I tend to stick to the facts. A lot of the rumours about infrasound are mostly nonsense – ideas about infrasonic weapons, infrasound as a crowd control device, that you can accidentally generate infrasound that’s so powerful that something terrible will happen. I usually work with what I have, including my instrumental limitations (the fact that I never use sampling or field recording). I always play the same instrument, the Serge modular synthesizer. I use abstract source material that I make myself from scratch. I don’t have recordings of earthquakes or volcanoes. Once you work with sounds that have a physical impact you get into that territory anyway, and that’s something that I’m more interested in; using abstract electrical signals to construct something. These associations rather happen in the mind of the listener. I work with a lot of noise and quite intense, abrasive sounds that people respond to in different ways.

I was listening to one of your recordings on Soundcloud and one of them was quite physically intense to listen to.

I’m interested in the border area between pleasure and pain. I’m interested in creating a very intense, and at the same time very ambiguous, physical experience where you’re not quite sure what you’re hearing, for example. I don’t want people to leave but I’m OK if some people do. I don’t want to damage anybody’s hearing. I’m interested in these kinds of shadow phenomena of hearing, such as otoacoustic emissions, where the ears start producing sounds by themselves in response to certain stimulus tones that I make. Your ears respond actively by making other sounds. Part of the music literally only exists in the ears of the listener and not in the signal that comes from the loudspeakers. This creates all kinds of opportunities to create three-dimensional sound fields that immediately surround the listener, which are ways of exploring the space acoustically; by moving your head around you will find different chords or groups of tones that exist right in front of your head but maybe not immediately to the right of your head. A lot of this stuff is difficult to capture in recordings, which is one of the reasons why I focus on live performance.

So you are interested in an immersive sound situation, the spatialisation of sound.

I’m certainly interested in the potential of a space that you can activate with sound in the freest manner possible; where you can go from very loud to very quiet, and from very deep to very high tones. The ideal concert environment has the opportunity to create sound anywhere in the space of any kind. That allows you to make a very complex real-time sound sculpture that you can’t experience with the little white earbud headphones used with smartphones. People’s home playback systems have become a lot worse compared to the 70s. That’s also one reason to focus on live performance. I like the intimacy of it and its singular nature; the idea that we’re physically here in this room together, and I make something for a while, and hopefully it’s a really stimulating experience. If not, better luck next time. There’s a different kind of focus; in concerts you can expose people to things they would not be able to hear at home on their speakers. You can go way louder or way quieter.

In one interview you mentioned that the difference between you and your long-term collaborator Phill Niblock, is that he is a composer and you’re a composer-performer.

Phill Niblock doesn’t perform live as such. Phill is more like an environment that he sets up where he’s present. He plays recordings of acoustic instruments that have been combined with each other in the studio, but the instruments are not usually present at his concerts. Back in the day, Phill would play tapes; now he plays computer files. What I do is a combination of sampling of the analogue synthesizer, and live synthesis and processing. All the sounds at my concerts come from the synthesizer – some of them live, some pre-recorded and processed in a live situation.

Is this live element of creation important to you?

It allows you to be surprised, which makes it exciting. A space might respond in a certain way, an instrument would do something that you wouldn’t anticipate. I’m not an analogue purist though: I combine sounds from the synthesizer with real-time synthesis because I also want to have a certain degree of control, complexity, and access. The analogue synth is a complicated beast. To design a handful of sounds that run simultaneously and then to switch to a whole other group of sounds is almost impossible.

Have you ever been surprised by something during a concert – so much so that you used it later?

A lot of the sounds and patches that I use were actually discovered for the first time during a concert. I had to think backwards to be able to recreate them. That goes for things that happen inside the instrument, where you discover a new sound that you accidentally played, or something that has more to do with spatial acoustics, where a space responded in a certain way. The show that I’m doing for Berghain is a result of my experiments with subwoofers in club spaces and concert halls.

Do you still continue working with Valerio Tricoli and Phill Niblock?

Yes, both of them. Valerio and I are slowly working on a new record together. He used to live nearby, which was easy as we could just walk across the park to each other’s studio, but now he lives in Munich. Phill is working on a second electronic composition with material that I recorded. So far all of his music has been acoustic – acoustic instruments being recorded and overdubbed, resulting in heavy, dense clusters of sound. He records violin, cello, trombone or guitar over and over, and layers them on top of each other to make this very rich sound colour. He’s avoided electronic tones because they’re too static, but we’ve now made some Serge Modular pieces together, and with which he’s happy.

You use the Serge modular synthesizer nowadays but do you still play the saxophone as well?

I stopped playing it about five years ago. I didn’t feel like it anymore. I used the computer, the analogue synth, and the saxophone, so I was basically trying to master three different instruments at the same time. I’m always dissatisfied with my work, so I felt that if I get rid of one then maybe the other stuff would flourish. I also gave up saxophone to give more room to electronic music. I started with electronics and I’ll probably end with electronics too. I was making feedback and using junk electronics and circuit-bending when I discovered the saxophone. I played it for ten or twelve years and I’ve faded it out for now.

So you are happy with the Serge?

I’m certainly not going to do anything else. I’m always hard on myself and I’m always disappointed with the final result, I guess. Things always turn out differently than I had imagined them. But I’m certainly not looking for another instrument. If you have a computer and a big analogue modular synthesizer, the world is your oyster in terms of electronic sound.

You’ve mentioned that you are not always satisfied with your own work. Is it difficult to release records?

I come from this old-school way of thinking, where you only make a record when you’re proud of something, and I’m almost never proud, so I don’t make a lot of records. In the last few years especially, I’ve been focusing on site-specific sounds that you can’t really record or experience sitting at home listening to an iPod. Which is fine with me, as I really like traveling. For me, making music is, among other things, an excuse to travel the world. Having said that, I’ll probably make a few more records in the future and speed it up a bit. I’m slowly getting more comfortable with my own work.

Thomas Ankersmit’s work “Infra” premieres at CTM Festival on 27 January 2017.