Sounding Floor

Prolific sound artist Zbigniew Karkowski talks about personal technology, collaboration, and live performance.

As rootless as he is active, Zbigniew Karkowski is a portrait of the modern sound artist. His work is complex, especially for listeners who prefer to have their avant-garde hung on the skeleton of a proper song. Much of his extensive recorded catalog — five dozen albums to date, by some estimates — is built from field recordings. Take, for example, Mutation, his recent collaboration with Akifumi Nakajima, also known as Aube, which involved the taping of sounds from a temple in Kyoto, material which was processed at a later date into something one suspects the locale’s elders would be hard put to recognize. It’s a haunting, ethereal field of textures and noises, static and grace.

Karkowski was born in Cracow, Poland, on March 17, 1958. Since then he has lived in Gothenburg, Sweden; Amsterdam, Holland; Berlin, Germany; Paris, France; and, since 1994, Tokyo, Japan. He can seem surprised, himself, by his geographic resume: “Somehow I moved around a bit.”

At best, these various locales serve as a kind of base of operations. “I’m spending maybe at the most five or six months a year here,” he says of Tokyo. “I have to travel a lot due to my work, so my life has became very nomadic lately.” He studied classical music when he was a kid in Poland and then studied composition for five years in music conservatories in Sweden (Gothenburg) and in Holland (Den Haag).

In the preparation of this interview, Karkowski corresponded with on and off over the course of the month of October 2000. When asked what he was up to presently, he provided an extensive near-term itinerary and the associated web links:

“I’m leaving Tokyo for a month to Europe again on Nov 1. I have two performances at the Observatori ( festival in Valencia, Spain. Then I’m doing a rather huge audio/laser installation during Audio Arts Festival ( in Cracow, Poland, then having new orchestra piece performed (have to rehearse it first with them) by Orchestra Municipal de Barcelona during LEM ( festival there — see, then I’m performing with Sensorband at the 38rugissants ( festival in Grenoble and then doing solo concerts in Nantes and Paris. So for the whole month I’ll be on the road again. And on coming Monday I have concert with Sensorband (and solo) in Tokyo. Many things happening lately (I’m also having something like 10 releases that will be out before the end of this year, hopefully — all the masters are already in the hands of the labels) but I don’t know though whether it is necessary to mention it all in this interview. I’m not so very interested in making promotion for myself.”

Despite this reticence, Karkowski openly discussed his record techniques and the nature of his collaborative work, still something of an anomaly in a field populated largely by solo artists. He remarked on the importance of packaging to his recorded projects, which often appear in unique formats, like collections of tiny CDs with individualized artwork, and on the unique tensions of live performance. And he talked about the unique sources of his sounds, from the floor of a Japanese temple to a wildly processed clarinet.

Marc Weidenbaum: The foremost thing about the Mutation album for me is how beautiful it is, the sonority of particular elements, the way they build over the course of the hour. Rather than take anything for granted, I want to ask whether “beauty” is what you’re striving for.

Zbigniew Karkowski: I never think in terms like “beautiful” or “ugly” because they’re so subjective. Something that is beautiful to someone can be very ugly to someone else and vice versa. When you make music, the only necessary parameters to think about are time and sound. Sometimes I don’t even think that sound is that necessary. It’s all about time.

Weidenbaum: Mutation is even more intriguing when one learns about the source of the sounds. The liner notes read, in brief: “Original Source Material Recorded At ‘Uguisi-Bari-No-Roka’ Of Chio-In Temple In Kyoto.” How did you come upon this particular temple in Kyoto?

Karkowski: Yes, we recorded “uguisu bari no roka” (“nightingale sounding floor”) in Chion-in temple in Kyoto in January 1998. This floor was build in this temple by some artisan (nobody figured out yet how it’s really done) and it functions in the way so that when you walk on it — it starts sounding like nightingale singing. It was an alarm system for monks who lived in this temple — when some robber wanted to come there in the night, they would hear nightingales and know that somebody is inside. Akifumi Nakajima (Aube) lives in Kyoto and I was visiting him and we went for a walk and he took me to this temple and we liked sound of this floor so much so we’ve said, let’s record it. So we did and afterwards (six months later) we were both in Europe and we had three days studio residency at Steim and we just did a CD out of this field material.

Weidenbaum: There’s a kind of tension in the origin of these particular sounds. On the one hand, their provenance is a religious sanctuary. On the other, we’re told that this hallway served as a kind of intruder alarm or security precaution. Was that tension on your mind?

Karkowski: No, the sound source was just a sound source. Of course it’s necessary to have good sound sources in order to make something good out of it but I don’t think that we ever considered these recordings as anything else then pure base material to work on and do something interesting from afterward.

Weidenbaum: So much of electronic-oriented music is the work of lone musicians. The act of collaboration remains if not an anomaly, certainly an area worthy of further exploration. How do you and Aube divide the responsibilities in your work together?

Karkowski: My work has always been about a process of learning. I work only with the projects that can give and teach me something new. And there’s a certain limit to what you can learn on your own. I do not want to create only one style of my music and then spend the rest of my life just repeating it — I’m very curious and I always want to try new angles to my sound production. I guess Akifumi feels in same way too. So we’re both creating much solo (lonely) work but at the same time we’re open to many collaborations. For somebody who is curious and open to experiments — collaborations are just a logical extension of his work.

Weidenbaum: The Mutation album’s liner notes divide the process that resulted in the CD into three stages: (1) the recording of the source material, (2) the composition at Steim Studio and (3) the live concert performance. Can you describe these three stages in some detail, perhaps the kind of equipment you used, and certainly what constituted composition and what constituted performance?

Karkowski: You know — we didn’t really plan anything from the beginning, it all happened in a somehow spontaneous way. First we recorded source sounds during a walk in Kyoto (we’re both sound artists so we carry often recording equipment with us and we just do these things nearly daily). Then we were in Europe in following summer (to do mainly Sensurround orchestra projects in Berlin and London) and we got invited by Steim in Amsterdam to give a concert there (just two of us). Steim also invited us to make three-days residency in their studios. It was the first time ever that we’ve got invited to perform together (we’ve played together before only in bigger ensemble like Sensurround orchestra and noise orchestra that I created for Blixa Bargeld project in Tokyo and Osaka in 1995) so we thought — we have to prepare some material for our concert. And then we’ve had these sound sources that we’ve recorded in Kyoto and we’ve just spend three days at Steim working on it and then we did a piece out of it and a concert in which we played this piece. Radboud Mens from ERS label came to this concert and he liked it very much and offered to us live broadcast of this piece on Radio 100 program (pirate radio station in Amsterdam) that he had the following night and then asked us whether we would agree to release it as a CD on his upcoming new label. We’ve said yes, and that’s it.

During work on this piece we used mainly computers and samplers (actually Akifumi was working with sampler mainly and I with computer mainly). Live show consisted of playing prerecorded layers of sound and processing it a bit live with some effects (like delays, echo, reverberation etc. etc.) — composition happened pretty much in real time — form was just created during the concert. We did two different versions of this piece — one pure studio recording and one live recording from concert at Steim. For CD we’ve chosen live recording because it has more tension in it (of course live situation has more tension then laid back studio work) and also because during our concert there was incredibly this huge rainfall in Amsterdam and sounds of this rain are interpolated in this piece (it’s a stereo microphone room recording that you hear on a CD) — we think it sounds great and we like unpredictable elements to be part of our music.

Weidenbaum: Speaking of this “tension,” would you agree that electronic-oriented music and sound experiments lend themselves more readily to the studio than to public performance?

Karkowski: I don’t really understand this question. Most of electronic-oriented music is made in the studios (lately mainly in small home studios because with new generations of computers we don’t need anymore access to big institutional studios — they’re becoming obsolete) but of course performances of this music happen usually in public (unless one wants to do just a streaming Internet concert, etc.).

Weidenbaum: Do you consider yourself something of a sound “activist”? I ask this because performing live, as someone who works closely with sampling and other computer technology, you put yourself at risk in a way that traditional musicians do not. I’m talking about risking the level of imagination — and, in effect, the patience — of an audience.

Karkowski: When you do something live (performance), you have always a choice of putting yourself at risk or not and this is regardless of whether you work with electronic sound or traditional instruments. If you are into true experiments, you always take a risk. But there are several sound artists who make everything sound the same. And on the concerts they even only play their records or tracks from their records. You know, artists like Ryoji Ikeda, Carsten Nicolai, Pole, Oval etc. etc. etc., they’ve became quite big and quite hyped-out lately. But this is exactly what they do: they function like old-fashioned rock bands. I guess it’s just therefore they’re so popular, because people can go to their concerts and recognize material from the CD that they bought and listened to before. Then, they can identify with something they already know. There are no risks in it, both for artists and the audience.

Weidenbaum: I have another question about collaboration, again based on my sense that electronic-oriented music tends to be the work of one person far more often than it results from two or more people working together. Can you recall a moment when working with Aube on Mutation that the two of you disagreed about how to proceed, and how you overcame that disagreement — through compromise, taking a break, someone pushing a choice through, or some other strategy/incident entirely?

Karkowski: No, we never had any disagreements. In fact when we worked on this project we hardly spoke to each other about it. It happens very often in my various collaboration with Japanese artists — there’s very little talking and planning or theory involved. It’s all about pure work on sound, very non-verbal and non-intellectual.

Weidenbaum: As much as I want to talk about the music, I am particularly intrigued about graphic design. I have in front of me three of your releases: the Mutation album, which we discussed earlier; the IT recording you released on the Mego record label; and the three-part work you released on Firework Edition Records, titled Reverse Direction and Let the Sound Reach Out to You. Each of these releases has a very unique look. Mutation comes in an elegant cardboard box, sort of like incense or cigarette packaging. The other two recordings are on tiny CDs — in the case of the Fireworks record, a set of three tiny CDs. How important is the packaging to the presentation of your music?

Karkowski: I think that packaging is very important and I always make an effort to make my CD’s look good and different. You might know that IT release from Mego has different cover for each copy — so 1000 different covers. When you go to record store the first thing that you always see about the CD is its artwork. So packaging is obviously important — interesting artwork can make people curious about the sound of the CD itself.

Weidenbaum: The way the various sounds interact on your IT album, on Mego, makes me wonder how much you plot out your work in advance, and how much you are surprised by your own creations. There is a moment early on during IT where a deep tone extends for some time. Even as the listener focuses on the tone’s texture, it almost becomes part of the background, as a high-pitched hiss appears atop it. That hiss combines with other sounds, which have random qualities. Where did these specific sounds come from? Did one sound suggest a correlation with another sound you already had “on file” or did you seek out complementary elements?

Karkowski: This piece is very much composed (meaning that everything in it is very thought out). I’ve spent considerable amount of time editing it. The sounds you hear on this CD are generated in C-sound software and they’re all emulations of the sound of a clarinet. Might sound weird, but it’s true.

Weidenbaum: When you do field recordings, do you risk drawing attention to yourself with lots of equipment, or do you take efforts to work surreptitiously?

Karkowski: No, I just do it when I hear some sound that I like and want to record. It’s never any problem for me to do it.

Weidenbaum: If someone wanted to experiment with field recordings, what kind of inexpensive, basic equipment would you recommend? Perhaps equally important: Is there any equipment you would steer people away from?

Karkowski: I use a small DAT machine (Sony DAT walkman) and I have two Sony ECM microphones. I know that some people are using lately Mini Disc recorders for field recordings. I would not recommend it because in my opinion MD has a very bad sound compression — it just sounds like shit.

Weidenbaum: I ask the following question of many musicians and composers I interview: If you could invent an instrument — something highly futuristic or highly rudimentary, something extravagant or practical — what would it be like? What would it do?

Karkowski: I did invent a few instruments already. I’m working with a group called Sensorband and we all play on instruments which were developed (or at least very modified) by us. We also created one of the biggest instruments that exists. To see more details about it please check

Weidenbaum: Could you recommend, for new listeners, one album of yours as a primary example of your musical work. And why that one?

Karkowski: I make very many different kinds of music. It’s difficult for me to recommend one CD because I have very many releases out (more then 60 I think). I usually like my recent releases most. These are records released over last three years:

  • World as Will (with Tetsuo Furudate) (Staalplaat, Netherlands)
  • SPL with MAZK (Masami Akita and Zbigniew Karkowski) (OR, U.K.)
  • Disruptor (with Helmut Schaefer) (OR, U.K.)
  • Or some computer music (with Le Depeupleur) compilation (OR, U.K.)
  • END ID (with Helmut Schaefer) compilation (Digital Narcis, Japan)
  • Datastream (with Edwin Van Der Heide) (OR, U.K.)
  • Coalescence (with Sensorband) compilation (Alien 8 records) Canada
  • Voltage (with Edwin Van Der Heide) (Bake, Netherlands)
  • Mutation (with Aube) (E.R.S Records, Netherlands)
  • Locked Groove compilation (E.R.S records, Netherlands)
  • Area/Pulse (with Sensorband) (Sonoris, France)
  • Traceroute (with Sensorband and Ulf Bilting) (Ash R.I.P., U.K.)
  • Nature Is Perverse compilation (Fylkingen Records, Sweden)
  • [R*] iso|chall (Hecker remixed) (Mego, Austria)
  • Meltdown of Control (with Senssurround orchestra) (Mort Aux Vaches/Staalplaat Netherlands)
  • It (Mego, Austria)
  • Erratum 3 compilation (Erratum revue sonore, France)
  • Reverse Direction and Let the Sound Reach Out to You (Fireworks Edition Records, Sweden)
  • Le Deupeupleur (with Kasper T.Toeplitz) (CFET/CrossFade EnterTainment, Germany)
  • falsch 01 (compilation) (falsch, Austria)
  • Erase Your Data (compilation) (Namseiko/Heioka Records, Switzerland)
  • MAZK (with Masami Akita) (Sound Factory, Hong Kong)
  • Choice of Points for the Application of Force (Ytterbium Records, France)

Weidenbaum: Could you recommend one album by someone else, whose work sheds light on your own practices, interests and techniques — preferably someone with whom you haven’t collaborated?

Karkowski: I cannot recommend any particular album but the person who influenced me most in my own music making is definitely a composer Iannis Xenakis. I even studied with him (just summer courses etc.) and all of his music means a lot to me.

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