Kathy Alberici is a musician, an experimental violinist, inhabiting a tingling space between noise, soundscapes and drone, a sonic potraitist who captures the aural genius loci as she has done in her piece Sonic Portrait of the Funkhaus Nalepastraße, a CTM commission. She collaborates with filmmaker Martha Jurksaitis under the moniker Polymitas. Kathy is best known for her role in psychedelic kraut-doom outfit, Drum Eyes (Upset! The Rhythm), and her collaboration with Jan St Werner in his electronic opera, Miscontinuum (Thrill Jockey). She is currently based in Berlin.
You are classically trained. Can you describe your musical beginnings?
Kathy Alberici: I studied violin when I was really small and continued until my late teens. At that point I fell out with it a bit. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do with it any more. It was in part because I had to leave an extremely inspirational teacher, but also it started to feel a bit more ‘political’, and I didn’t like that at all.
In what way?
KA: There was a lot of competition within the music school. I didn’t like the feeling of being used in other people’s business. I withdrew and took some time just not playing at all. I still played classical music at home, but I realised that I wanted to find a different way to express myself using my instrument. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I wasn’t sure how it was going to come out of me. I went back to study music at university, but I took a Popular and World Music course. I did jazz violin for a while, and focused much more on composition. It was a period of experimentation. Eventually, I moved to New Zealand. In New Zealand, there is a really strong improv and noise scene and I got really inspired by the musicians I encountered there. I loved the fact that there were no questions and you could do whatever you felt like.
After I returned to the UK, I moved to Brighton and got involved in the scene there. I started playing with Drum Eyes, a psychedelic krautrock band. That’s where I cut my teeth. DJ Scotch Egg was the leader. I’d done some other experimental electronics projects but when I started playing with Drum Eyes, I learned a lot more about sonics. Playing violin, so much emphasis is on melody and timbre. Suddenly, when you are playing within the context of a rock band, sonics become a lot more important. I got better at performing in general and the whole scene opened up in front of me. Drum Eyes are on hiatus right now. When we moved to Berlin, everyone was in different places and it ended up being really difficult to keep it going.
And that’s when Bocca al Lupo, your solo project, was born?
KA: Bocca al Lupo was a journey of discovery. When Drum Eyes came to an end, I had to find something new to do. I didn’t know many people in Berlin at that time. I jammed with some, but I found playing solo a more natural progression after playing so long in a band. I wasn’t really sure where I was going with it, but I needed to establish my own voice again. The turning point was when my laptop broke. It was a really important moment because I couldn’t record anything I was making, which meant I had to change my approach. I’d been stuck in this loop of jamming and recording myself, and trying to recreate things. I was using analogue gear so I was always struggling. When the laptop broke I had a show booked three days later and so I had to find a new way through my material. That meant approaching everything from a totally different perspective. It was really refreshing. I never used my laptop again.
It was a breakdown and a rebirth.
KA: Yes, and getting into the mentality of the gear that I was using; learning to ride it. Of course, you can sample lots of lush synths and use sequencing, but that wasn’t what I was interested in. I was interested in my own body and what I could do alone on the stage in real time.
The physicality and the relationship between the man and the machine…
KA: Exactly. Music is a kind of a meditation for me, regulating my mood and giving me purpose. The more I focused and centered on that, the deeper the performances have become.
Are your shows improvised?
KA: Not 100 percent. I know what approximately what shape I’m going to make. I have certain landing points, certain patches and melodic ideas that are set, but then the rest of it writes itself, feeding off what I’m feeling outside, feeding off what I’m feeling inside and riding off what the machines are doing. It’s like sculpting.
The concept of the sonic portrait featured only in your Funkhaus project, or it is also present in your other work?
KA: When I first started doing Bocca al Lupo, I thought very much of each mood that I would portray. Those were closely related to people or places. I was really interested in capturing the colour of somebody’s personality, stripping things away and representing it musically. At the same time I also started exploring the relationship between sound and film. The sonic portrait of the Funkhaus was born out of the idea that you can push people’s emotions in a certain way and have a very powerful story with sound, but then also fusing that with documentary style of gathering material. This came alive when I first starting working with Martha Jurksaitis, an analogue film maker. I’d always done field recordings, but before with Martha, I had not done anything particularly artistic with it. It was more a means of capturing my surroundings. I always carry my recorder. I try to capture moments, resonances, sounds of the city as a way of solidifying memories. When I started to work with Martha, on the first Cinesonic Portrait, The Garden of Polymitas, I wanted to tell a story using sound that manipulated the images that she presented. Both of us put a focus on being present in a situation and feeling alive in a moment.
Do you connect sound to the emotional and other senses?
KA: Yes, and also story-telling. I like to find ways to weave that into the sound work that I do. I’m interested in the process and technical things of what I’m doing up to a point, but I’m much more intrigued by what journey I can take people on.
Could you describe in more detail the Funkhaus project, a sonic portrait of the former East German broadcasting house, which entailed research, recording, recontextualising, working with archival material, sound and vision – a Gesamtkunstwerk.
KA: I’d explored the building a fair bit before I made this project. I like it because it feels simultaneously stuck in time and revolutionary. The site centres around a big red Bauhaus style building that is called the Red Mountain. It is quite overwhelming. In one block there is a suite of recording studios, where they used to record orchestras and radio plays. Hidden behind these grand halls there are these barrack style buildings that are all rotten and falling down. They were squatted until quite recently. Thrifters have gone through the place, taking light fittings, door handles, furniture but then when we went into the basement there were still the dregs of people’s working lives: old magazines, calendars, rosters and lists of phone numbers. It was really surreal. There was old tape strewn in bundles all over the place. Myself and Martha came up with the idea to profile the building in a new Cinesonic Portrait and we submitted a proposal to CTM Festival as part of their Discontinuity program. We wanted to try to capture the building’s spirit, but also looking at it historically through time. Martha came over to Berlin to explore with me. The tape was still there. I couldn’t leave it behind, so I reclaimed it for use in the project. There was armfuls of the stuff. It took about a week to untangle it all and put it onto reels. It was badly damaged and decayed. I was so lucky; it was recordings of some orchestral concerts broadcasted in the late 80s. It sounded amazing.
How did you proceed with the collecting of all of the material needed for the project?
KA: We went into the radio archives, watched a lot of the archival footage and learned a lot about the history of the building and what they were doing in there. It was fascinating. I had a German friend to come and help me understand the nuances and provide insights that might not have been apparent otherwise. We interviewed people who had worked there during the days of broadcasting, as well as the people who work there now and developed a structure around the stories. I was particularly interested in the fact that the building had always been a home of creativity. Nowadays it’s being used as artist studios, inhabited by a community of creative individuals from all disciplines. Originally it was the home of broadcast services for the GDR, the ‘Voice’ of East Germany. So much of the work made here was intended to shape the beliefs of the people; there was a dream to convey, and an imagination to inhabit. I like that there is continuity in this way despite the different political circumstances.
Are you planning similar endeavours?
KA: Right now, I’m working with Martha on another project that uses some of the ideas that we came up with towards the end of the Funkhaus piece, exploring tape loops and film loops. We work a lot with analogue technology and we have a great synergy when we work together. I am continuing my Sonic Portrait ideas; I learned so much doing the Funkhaus piece and that’s given me lots to work on. I think what this project taught me more than anything is how important it is to find what genuinely excites you. For me, it is all about discovery. If I am discovering something, whether that be a new idea, a new technique, or a new space, it is that sense of adventure that keeps me going.
You have also been involved in an opera project with Jan St. Werner from Mouse on Mars called Miscontinuum, which was released on Thrill Jockey this year.
KA: When I first met Jan, I had no idea who he was. He told me he was working on an opera, and had seen me playing with Drum Eyes. We exchanged emails and I didn’t think much more of it. It was a few months later when we met properly. We talked for hours in my tiny kitchen; there were so many connecting threads that even though the idea of an ‘opera’ seemed quite intimidating, I knew I had to work with him. When he sent me the tracks over I was blown away, transported.
The performing of Miscontinuum is not about reproducing the record, and that makes it all the more electric to watch. Each performance is unique, and will morph and change through time; it will never grow tired because it is always renewing itself and finding new paths. Just when you think you understood the point, it’s morphed and you didn’t even feel it morphing. In this respect it maintains its urgency and immediacy. It’s a really amazing way of working, because it gives you the space to grow and take risks. It has been such a great experience so far. I feel very lucky indeed!
Music has been a constant in your life since you were a small child. What would you say is the common thread that runs through all of your various projects and sonic incarnations?
KA: It’s about exploring myself through sound. When I was really small that happened in a constructed way with the violin lessons and music schools, but when you are small you are learning so fast and everything is brand new. At some point that reached a stagnant stage and after looking I found something I was into, but you’ve always got to be opening a new door. You always have to be ready to stand on that edge where it’s not totally comfortable, but that’s what makes it exciting!
PS: Kathy plays at the ICAS Festival which takes place in Dresden, Germany, between 27th April and 3rd May 2013. For more information, go to: http://icasfestival.net/