Author : Lisa Blanning
Spanish artist Francisco López has been operating in multiple realms of experimental electronic music and sound art for almost four decades. As a composer, musician, field recordist, installation artist and more, his work spans various countries and continents, from the most esteemed institutions to the tiniest obscure labels.
As an archivist, López is responsible for the founding of an experimental music archive in Spain called Sonm Archive. And, as his recent projects audio-MAD in Madrid in 2014 and audio-DH in Den Haag in 2016 make clear, he’s clearly interested in many of the social aspects involved with the music, as well. As someone who came up in the former location and currently lives in the latter, he’s got intimate relationships with both cities, enabling him to tap a group of “curators” to invite their networks to contribute. The resulting vast compilations – 100 artists from Madrid and 250 artists from Den Haag – are simultaneously glowing portraits of a city’s experimental electronic health and statements about the social nature of the work, something López explains clearly in our interview with him.
Tell me about the origins of the project? How did it come about?
The most important reason for something like this has to do with recognizing the social spread of sound creation and experimental music-making. It’s more of an interest in the social process than the traditional idea of who creates. For a few decades now, the practice of creative music – and this is particularly the case in experimental music – is a social practice more than an individual one.
I have been personally involved in networks of exchange, collaboration and creation in experimental music and sound art for a long time. So these projects – in Madrid in 2014, and in The Hague in 2016 – are two examples, glimpses of the local and social networks of people in these two cities. These are projects involving people who are from those cities, live there, or who have lived there for a number of years in a significant, creative way. I am originally from Madrid, and I live now in The Hague, which is why I did the projects there.
But these two focus really on a lot of different people who wouldn’t be classified as musicians or artists, who work in a very intuitive way, in an improvised practice. And I think a lot of these people do very interesting work. So both projects include – and for me, this is very fundamental – people who normally won’t be doing releases or would not be part of artistic or musical projects.
I thought that there might a more specific geographic point that you were trying to make. It’s interesting that it comes from a social question. You’re basically talking about scenes.
Yeah, but in a different way than what is traditionally understood in the realm of electronic, popular, or classical music. Scenes today are extremely changeable, much more so than in the past. If you look at the scene of a city in a traditional way, that scene will have mutated into a completely different one in a couple of years. And these people will move somewhere else – the dynamic is very different. And the way you measure who is part of the scene is also different than it was 20 years ago. That’s why I basically try to avoid the term “scene,” because I think it has a lot of connotations that describe what is a community of people in a way that I think is not really accurate.
That gives this some different layers. I thought there was also a statement you were trying to make about a city’s sonic identity.
No. I don’t see things that way. I think cities stopped being centers of creation quite a long time ago. Big cities in Europe and North America or Asia are definitely centers of production and exchange, places where a lot of people meet and places where the likelihood of something happening might be higher for a number of reasons. But there’s been already a long period of time where interesting creators also come from very small places. They might be isolated. Of course, the possibilities of tele-communication post-internet have multiplied and facilitated this for a lot of people.
Because of a number of reasons that have to do with the movement of people and information and its change, the way we communicate, spread, and receive feedback from the work, I think cities don’t operate the same way that they did before. For example, Berlin has a very long, varied cultural history. But the main reason that a lot of underground artists live in Berlin today is because rents are cheap. Berlin used to be one of the cities in Europe that was defined by the scene. And I think that scene is not in Berlin anymore. There’s a lot of people there, and they perform everywhere. They do their work on all kinds of labels that are not based in Berlin or Germany, and if you ask anybody in Berlin they will tell you very similar stories: “Yeah, I live here, but I do work everywhere.”
I don’t think Madrid or The Hague are more relevant than other cities today. When I did the project in Madrid, my goal was to find 100 artists. That was my vague estimate of the number of people I could find doing experimental music of different types. And a lot of people told me, “You won’t find so many people here.” But we did, because if you scratch under the surface, you will find a lot of people working with sound in an experimental fashion.
I have to stress that in both projects, we didn’t select people – this is not really a curatorial project in the traditional sense. In The Hague, we had 60 invited “curators,” basically people who are not normally curators but people who know a lot musicians, who run small labels, or organize festivals. But we didn’t reject anybody on any grounds that had to do with their music or their practice or their style.
When you bring up the example of Berlin, wouldn’t another big factor be the Schengen Agreement and the fact that free movement is allowed within the EU?
Yes, that’s one of the reasons why I have my base in The Hague. My work takes place internationally, I don’t have a fixed job in one place. So I could live in different places. One of the practical reasons for me was not to be too far from an airport; I know that’s relevant for many other artists or people that work internationally. Schengen is a relevant factor within the continent of Europe, because it makes your life easier – so far – and makes it more possible in terms of exchange. For distribution, for example, of physical releases, it also makes life easier.
When I was first listening to the music and reading about the projects, I was thinking of it through the lens of geography – which I know now is incorrect. But one of the things that really struck me – I started with the Madrid one – is that these musicians are more or less all part of the same musical category. That drove home the point of a scene. There is probably a lot more music going on in Madrid than is represented in this compilation. It seems very targeted. When I went to the Den Haag one, it seemed a little more diverse, but not much more so. Given that it’s a bigger project with more people, that could be the case.
It’s important to understand that we’re talking about experimental music, not any kind of imaginable music-making. We didn’t include many other practices of music that are very common in both cities. Like jazz – jazz is very big in The Hague – classical music of different types, rock, pop, DJs, electronica, more dance electronic music. None of those are included. Then you would have a very generic music project, which I’m not particularly interested in.
If you look at the artists who are part of these two projects, you will definitely find all kinds of things there, diverse sonic practices within the realm of experimental music – also things that would never be in the same compilation together. For example, there’s contemporary music together with absolute noise, things that are lo-fi and radically different from instrumental work. This doesn’t mean that they’re not compatible – they are, of course. But the other thing I can tell you is that in both projects, a lot of people that are together in the compilations will never be together, not only in any edition, but in the same room. We all know that there are all kinds of smaller sub-communities in each one of these places, or types of music within the realm of experimental music. If you understand experimental music in the wider sense, the whole spectrum is pretty much represented in these projects.
Of course, I suppose for the average listener of commercial music, these are all strange sounds, strange music, that maybe sounds all the same. But there are examples of field recordings, noise, minimalist music, contemporary music of different types, instrumental, computer-based music, lo-fi, a lot of music based on improvisation, toys being used, people who do hacking of physical hardware and software. Aesthetically speaking, there’s also drone music, very noisy stuff, very melodic stuff, a lot of voice work of different types, repetition, loops. In my view, and it’s certainly a goal of both projects, these projects show the diversity within experimental music.
This isn’t how you approached the project, but did you draw any conclusions about either city from doing this?
Only very vaguely. I got to know many artists that I didn’t know before. That expanded my perspective of the city in a sonic creative sense. And I think it will do the same for anybody who listens to the compilations, whether or not they’re familiar with the artists.
I definitely had that thought. Another conclusion that I drew was that, on the surface, Madrid and Den Haag don’t really have that much in common, but you can see how this interest in a specific realm of outsider music is actually very similar. Especially on the Madrid compilation, not knowing really any of the names, but thinking that most of them appeared Spanish, so maybe most of those people were local. It’s hard because the Den Haag one is so much bigger, there’s a larger group of people to draw from.
You’re right. But even if you pick randomly 100 people from Den Haag – the same number as Madrid – you will have more diverse nationalities. The main difference between these two communities, geographically speaking, will be that in the project in Madrid, I think 95% were Spanish people. For Den Haag, we have people from 45 different countries. Which is very telling of course, it’s a dramatic difference. But still – and here’s the interesting part to me – aesthetically, in terms of style, diversity of music, you don’t get the same imbalance. Aesthetic communities are obviously international, long before internet, to be clear, and for many sonic creative practices, the more experimental and underground, the more international the network.
Yes, I thought it probably said something to the effect of, “people who are interested in this kind of experimental, electronic music have more in common with each other, probably, across the world than necessarily other people that might live in their city.” And this goes back to what you were saying about the noise scene being a global thing before.
Absolutely. I always stress this, it was already so in the ’80s cassette culture times, for example. And the communities were global. Of course it worked with different technology, different speed, different capabilities, but it was already there. The generation of audio social experimental work happened before the internet. This is very important to keep in mind. But now, of course it is multiplied and sped up, as well.
You said that doing this also exposed you to a lot more different people in both locations than you had known were doing this. How did that part make you feel, especially as you’ve been involved in these communities and this music for a really long time?
Yeah, it’s always gratifying, it’s always nice to hear new sound work after spending my life listening to many different things. I not only listen to a lot of experimental music, I also know many hundreds of artists that I’ve been in touch and collaborate with. From that perspective, when you listen to something that think, “Oh, this is different,” it’s remarkable. It’s a very important reason to do a project like this, because you discover something new, surprising, interesting, funny, original, challenging. This always happens.
One of my interesting conclusions: more often than not, these gratifying surprises come from people that have no proper musical training, who have very little background, no real knowledge of musical history or context. They haven’t been studying composers, artists, or listening to other stuff before doing certain things. But they might have an original sense of intuition. They might have some crazy ideas, in the best sense of the term, that come precisely from their lack of connection or their smaller background knowledge. And this freshness manifests in the music. I think this is also very important. It’s a trade-off between knowledge and a degree of intuition.
It’s also interesting for the second big idea behind this project, which is this automatic “recombinator” – a specifically-developed software for real-time transformation and performance with the audio contributions from all the artists. Because we have a very unusual opportunity where it will be combining simultaneously people who have started doing this stuff, say, last week and people who have been doing it for their entire lives – professional composers, for example. And you put them together in a peculiar way. For me, it’s like a game of exploration of combinations – between the new and the old, the experienced and inexperienced, between the most “informed” perspectives and approaches with crazy, intuitive ideas. I think that collision and merging, that combination, leads to very surprising, interesting results.
One of the main positions of most of the people who are in these networks, these communities, has always been collaboration with other artists. These are usually very open, I think more so than the realm of normal musicians because you don’t have set instruments. You don’t know how it’s going to sound, what it’s going to do. Part of the allure of doing this is the surprise.
Of course, most music has always been about combining previous ideas, creating new styles and using ideas from the past, and moving forward with that. We recombine melodies or notes or formal styles; the difference now is that we can also recombine the actual sonic material, the actual sounds that are being produced – this has been possible for more or less a century. There are even some styles of experimental music that are defined by the recombining of these materials, like plunderphonics.
When you have some many contributors, the number of possible ways of doing this is endless. So, why not include this other element, another agent, which is not human. And these things have become quite autonomous, and can produce results that are very surprising and interesting. So I included a last additional member – an autonomous software – of both communities to be in charge of combining all of these contributions. It was understood from the beginning that these would not only be independent tracks, which they are, but also building blocks for a sort of meta-composition, something to be combined together.
This software is not just remixing the tracks in real-time, it does the basic elements of what you could call “composition” in experimental music. It selects fragments of any tracks – not just randomly, but with some equivalent to “listening” – then transforms them through some electronic processing, mixes them in different combinations and then performs all that together. And the next decision depends on what is happening already. So, it’s a machine system that listens, and then decides, taking sonic elements, transforming them, and mixing things live. What it’s doing at a basic but very convincing level is basic composition and performance at once in real-time. And it’s different every time, using all of the materials from all the different people.
And what is most interesting about it is the final result in performance. I would challenge anybody to tell me whether or not there’s a person doing it live. And that’s why I say it’s sort of a game, but a serious one. I’d say that this really passes the Turing test.
I feel that it helps that the material is really cohesive thematically, though. We’ve talked about some of the micro-differences of the genres that are included, but ultimately they all fall under the broader umbrella of experimental electronic music. Even though you’ve arranged them alphabetically by artist, it still flows pretty well.
It works thematically, but also that’s a statement about the social aspect of it. It’s really friends and friends of friends, isn’t it? You know the people that you invited to be the initial curators. And then they invite the people that they know, and so on and so forth.
Sure. In 2010, I established a sound archive of experimental music and sound art in Spain. There’s a physical archive and there’s also a streaming, online archive of what is already digitized from this archive. It’s basically my collection of experimental music that I put together over many years of exchanging with people. I am not a collector, but I’ve been exchanging music for a long time. Today, it’s in a cultural center in the south of Spain. I don’t remember the numbers now, but there are thousands of releases on CD and vinyl, thousands of cassettes. Most of them are from very small editions from thousands of underground record labels. This is an ongoing work, and today we estimate that the number of artists represented in the archive is around ten thousand. We’re talking about experimental music.
This gives you an idea of the number of people who are doing this kind of work – it’s really massive. And the other difference between this type of community and practice of experimental music from other types of music is that the ratio between audience and artist is close to one to one. Virtually any person that listens to experimental music is doing experimental music. Pop music might be one hundred thousand to one. And that completely changes the dynamic. It changes the feedback you might receive from somebody, because that person is not just a listener, they’re a creator as well. It affects everything: distribution, the way releases are done, the way people collaborate, everything.
That close to one to one ratio is of course also present in these projects, and it has to do with what you were saying about friends of friends and people who get encouraged to do something. In the realm of popular and commercial music, you might be encouraged to play guitar, but the classic paradigm and true aspiration is really to “make it” in terms of fame, and you will only “make it” if you’re lucky through a very long and difficult, chance process. Experimental music is very different in that regard. Of course, there are some people who are more famous than others, but the number of people who are doing things and have been doing things for a number of years – who become relevant as artists – is gigantic. And proportionally speaking, the number of people who listen to this wide realm of music AND are also artists/musicians themselves must be in a proportion of almost 100%. So this situation is also acknowledged in this project, and I think it’s a fundamental difference with other practices.