Esteban de la Torre is part of the interdisciplinary artist duo EJTECH with Judit Eszter Kárpáti. They’ve had considerable success, international shows and collaborations with the likes of DIOR or Blade Runner 2049, but Esteban only recently started to play solo concerts as himself, and under the EccotVirgo moniker. The interview was conducted in the framework of the UH Fest and Shape+ residency program, where he collaborated with Orsolya Kaincz and Czech Ursula Sereghy over several days; the result was presented on 23 April at Lumen Café.
You’ve been working with sound in EJTECH for a long time, but you only recently started to play music as a solo artist. Why?
I’ve always worked and loved music and sound, but I never felt comfortable enough with any instruments to play a solo thing, only until I got into Eurorack modular synthesizers. In my teens I used to play heavy distorted guitar in a band, later I would love to go over to my friends’ house and scratch their records. Sometimes, they would invite me to do my scratch routine when they played. Besides that, I tried hardware which I thought was interesting like samplers, but where I found something that I really enjoyed was in Max/MSP. I loved the framework, and it was excellent for artworks and installations, but to play alone as a musician, it was too limitless. At that time, I was not at all interested in Eurorack and thought it was overpriced yuppie bs, but when by chance I got to babysit a friend’s Eurorack system, I fell in love overnight. In these hardware format I found a system that is crazy diverse, elastic, and modular, yet limited. These boundaries shaped a place where I finally found myself, a space that allowed me to feel confident enough, to say “This is my instrument, this is what I sound like”. This happened pretty recently.
Sound art and experimental music may seem to be close to each other, but it often feels as though they’re whole different worlds, different bubbles.
Yes, totally. That said, our installations are what we like to consider “hot media”, as opposed to “cold media” such as a painting or a sculpture that is already done, “solidified” and then exhibited. I studied animation at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, and in animation you sit down and animate something for like six months. At the end of this process, I often felt that when you finish it, it is like if you’ve killed your work. It’s done. It won’t change anymore, every time you press play, it is going to playback the exact same thing. I appreciate and hold love for such artworks, but this was not enough for me, and I wanted to make something that remains “alive”. This is how I got started into “hot media” and interactive/generative art.
With EJTECH, our work includes booting up, calibrating, electrons running; it’s sensitive, semi-sentient. It was definitely harder to bring it into established galleries and into the fine art scene, especially because it’s not as easily sellable as a photograph might be. But once we breached that barrier of being established as fine art, we can now hold our place in that “bubble” as you said.
Other than being in different bubbles, in what ways do you see sound art and your music as different?
For me, the main difference is that sound art means using sound as a building material, like ceramic, marble, or oil paint. You build an experience or structure a construct. In music the artistic intent is closer to an emotion. To put it in another way, music is like dance and sound art is like sculpture. You can walk around a marble sculpture that is solidified and observe it, dive into it from different points of view, whereas in dance you can only catch a glimpse of it from one perspective at one moment.
With EJTECH our installations are mathematical and calculated. There are a lot of variables we need to consider, materials we need to develop, test, run, iterate. Music for me is something that I can really just let myself go into, you know.
But there are also a lot of chance processes in your installations, for example when the sounds are controlled by the visitors, electromagnetism or even plants.
Yes, but first we have to create a system which allows things to happen. That is the thing about hot media, these emerging events from the system you created. What happens is the “hot” artwork. There’s definitely a parallel with modular synthesisers, you patch your own system and then work with that.
You described some of your music as “techno-organic”. What do you mean by that?
I give you an example. One of my pieces was a commission by Trafó, for a show called Subnature by Anca Benera and Arnold Estefán. The gallery space with filled with growing oyster mushrooms. I built a system that sensed the micro-voltage signals sent within the mycelia, the root-like parts of mushrooms that grow in non-hierarchical ways. The mushrooms use these signals to communicate, I tried to give them a voice, so I created a Max patch triggered by these signals and it became like a language. I used resonant filters spread out through the frequency spectrum to mimic vowels and throat movements. This is a techno-organic system because of the overlap between the technological approach as a tool, and the living impulses from an organism.
You also played with something like that in your concert at the Kolorádó festival.
There I played in the Árok (“Ditch”) venue of the festival, and I used the micro-voltage signals of a huge tree that was giving shade to the venue. I got the raw signal from whatever was happening in that tree. Of course, I don’t know if these fluctuations are from being happy or sad or whatever, those are human concepts and emotions anyways, I just know that the tree is alive and it’s pumping these changing micro-voltage signals through its network. I used them to control the pitch of my main oscillator and create the melody.
How did people respond to that? Because if you go to a contemporary art gallery or an experimental concert, you may expect something like that, but Kolorádó is a summer music festival, even if a more or less leftfield one.
I’m not sure everybody knew this was specifically what was happening. I didn’t want the show to be about that techno-organic stuff, I wanted the outcome to be musical and enjoyable regardless the process. If someone knew about it or read the text written about it, then it gave them an extra layer. And people enjoyed it, they wanted an encore because it was super chill. There were hammocks, it was summer, and I was playing very laidback stuff with super tight envelopes and infinite reverbs.
With EJTECH you had really high-profile collaborations with the likes of DIOR or Blade Runner 2049. Do you collaborate with other musicians?
A while ago I had a project in Mexico called Dead Hands Cinema, which was more towards experimental DJ stuff with visuals, but my first proper collaboration as a musician is with Bence Barta (Noahstas) as Hum. It’s harsh noise stuff with lots of feedback. We’ve played live once. Then there was this residency in SHAPE, but I wouldn’t call it a proper collaboration, it’s more like jamming together for a few days, and then we presented the outcome as a concert.
I assume it’s very different from your collaborations in the art world.
Totally. I really enjoy playing music because in it there’s no compromise for me. EJTECH has a certain profile, it has to hit a certain standard, and I’m humbled about that. But with music, I feel free to do whatever I want. I play a lot of drone, but sometimes I just play weird enveloped stuff. I really needed that kind of freedom. And with the SHAPE+ residency it was the same. Ursula Sereghy brought in very much song-based stuff, for instance, she said “I’m gonna play some Justin Timberlake funk, what do you think you can do with it?”, and I was like “I have the kickdrums, let’s do it!” So we just jammed, and the final outcome was 8 or 9 very different songs played one after the other.
It’s interesting that with EJTECH you don’t want to create any buyable products.
I know it sounds super cheesy, but we want to make art. And rather than a final art piece, we want to make tools. I really like James Turrell who creates “Skyspaces”, basically rooms with holes in the ceiling, or outdoor “Celestial Vaults”, tools through which you can observe the sky. I like this approach of creating a tool. Something usable to incite a process. That’s what we want to do with EJTECH. Fuck the products. I myself am not so fond of buying stuff. I love to eat, and I spend most of my money on synthesizers anyways, but besides that, I don’t buy much stuff. I know a lot of talented people who end up working on commercials. I understand that this is what the economy dictates, but I wish all this creativity would rather go into making movies or problem solving or anything else, and not wasted on figuring out ways of selling medicine to people who don’t need it.
Interview by Andras Ronai, originally appeared on originally appeared on mmn-mag.hu