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10 Questions for musician Burnt Friedman - with video exclusive | reviews, news & interviews

10 Questions for musician Burnt Friedman - with video exclusive

10 Questions for musician Burnt Friedman - with video exclusive

The Berlin-based musician on taking his experiments to Africa

Burnt Friedman in a room, in Africa

Bernd “Burnt” Friedman is one of the most relentlessly questing of experimental musicians. In over 30 years of making music and 25 years of releasing it, he has specialised in researching ancient, hypermodern and as-yet-undiscovered methods of soundmaking, including traditional and home-built instruments and the application of high-tech methodologies to established forms from around the world, in particular jazz, western club sounds, and African and Japanese styles.

A tireless collaborator with a staggering array of other musicians, he has formed long-running partnerships with other genre-agnostics including Uwe Schmidt (aka Atom™ / Señor Coconut), David Sylvian and Steve Jansen of the band Japan (with whom he formed the trio Nine Horses) and his most consistent partner, Jaki Liebezeit, the drummer who reached international prominence with Can in the 1970s. Friedman's latest project, though, has been a tour of African cities, setting up short-notice collaborations with local musicians, and it was this I discussed with him in this email interview. We are also happy to have an exclusive video clip documenting a little of this project.

JOE MUGGS: What led to this specific tour taking place?

Burnt Friedman Kampala posterBURNT FRIEDMAN: As you may know the German Goethe Institut maintains outposts in most countries of the world. As part of their cultural programmes musicians are invited to travel certain approved tour routes and communicate their ideas far from trodden pathways. I think that the “reason” for this tour, whether conscious to the organisers or not, is the material I carry, the music itself. The rhythm language that I use originates from a partner of mine, Jaki Liebezeit. It’s a kind of motion formula, a wave form if you like, but it’s more than that. It also gives one a hint to how to move in a properly balanced way. Since this is frequency – energy in motion – it requires left and right or plus and minus, up and down, etc. It’s not something that could be memorised or played back easily by listening to it, it needs to be felt. Each stroke is felt as it results from a natural movement. With those physical components in mind – I’d say they they’re the same anywhere in the universe – I think, why not put this system to test elsewhere, at least on the globe, instead of exporting or negotiating styles that come and go with the latest fashion? So I gladly excepted the invitation.

Lagos, Nairobi, Kampala, Johannesburg: four places that are far apart geographically and culturally. What was the thinking about this project taking them all in rather than focus on one place?

Any place could have been considered culturally far apart. In this case, I didn't choose the four stops but relied on the invitation of each Institut. I only spent three days in each city which didn't leave much space for extra sightseeing, etc. One day before the concert was needed to acquaint with the musicians and to make a choice on the tracks we wanted to play live. It was just enough to find out whether this musical concept could be negotiated and presented to the public. It took me years to get used to my own method, so I was not too surprised that it earned controversial response from the musicians.

Of the musicians you met, which was the most memorable and why? And likewise, where was the most memorable or stimulating audience response?

Burnt Friedman and Hakim Kiwanuka in rehearsalI'll answer these two questions together. Tlale Makhene and I received the strongest response from the Johannesburg audience, which is not such a big surprise given that the region is widely known for its contemporary jazz scene since a long time. To the other audiences our musical material would have been much stronger tobacco, especially because I presume a more entertaining, lighter kind of music might have been expected. However, I would be a lot happier knowing I had changed one person´s life, instead of having adulated huge crowds. The conditions for the concert in Kampala were incredible, with a top-end outdoor PA system in a lush garden and a percussionist and lute player, Hakim Kiwanuka (pictured left and below with Friedman), blending perfectly well into the patterns. It proved that all aspects, from technical to atmospheric, very much determine the success of such an unlikely musical mating. Imagine how improbable it actually is to transport a distinct musical content to someone else, from Berlin to Kampala, Uganda, hoping that it creates a worthwhile interference. I reckon it is the music's greatest feature, to provide such an entanglement, as if such entanglement is naturally given – just like the behaviour of electrons in quantum theory – no matter where the music originates from, or how far the music had moved away from one another territorially.

What did you take away from the experience of this tour in terms of changes to your working method?

I would pretty much do it the same way next time but trying to involve more than one musician per concert.

Do you think you left something behind, in inspiring or changing the approach of anyone that you worked with?

One should not ignore the social component of binding musical formsI'm tempted to say "of course" but in fact, it's impossible to claim. I quickly give up trying to look into other people's brains. Lee Siegel in his book Net of Magic says: "I'm writing a book on magic", I explain, and I'm asked, "Real magic?" By real magic people mean miracles and supernatural powers. "No," I answer: "Conjuring tricks, not real magic." Real magic, in other words, refers to the magic that is not real, while the magic that is real, that can actually be done, is not real magic...

On a more common level, what was detected as magical moments in the music of Can for instance, when they had moved towards a rather simple, straight, repetitive groove in the late Sixties, was not so much the success of ingenious individuals liberating themselves while jamming or improvising, but the group executing what was preordained by a fundamental musical structure. They would keep repeating cycles they wanted to play really well. One should not ignore the social component of binding musical forms. What I am trying to say is there are a lot more cultural hurdles to the understanding of a musical piece and performance than meets the ears. A successful entertainment requires learning appropriate gestures of listening.

In our parts, the line between performer and audience is clearly distinguished, whereas in other parts of the world, the role of the participants can be mixed. If the music was garnished by the erratic, irregular expressions of, let's say, an acrobatic individual, a creative participation of others would rather be disapproved. An instrumental musical ensemble of robots or human-like puppets for instance, challenging the gesture of listening and attending in a weird way, may drastically enhance the emotional effect on the listeners, and thus it could possibly be made obvious that "feeling or emotion in music", which I love to call "resonance", is internal, it is not something customarily conveyed through the authentic presence of a human being inventing the music. However, I would yet also be happily applauding the group of robots afterwards if they had managed to bring this "cultural condition" across.

You've worked musically with people from a huge range of backgrounds, from acid house to Krautrock to maintream pop to local African traditions. Do you approach them thinking about the music they've played before, or try more to react in the moment?

Jaki Liebezeit's concept of rhythm, practically as much as intellectually, has helped me a lot in looking at music in fundamentally different way. Before we started playing together my approach can solely be called intuitive. Some of the skills that dominated my working method or musical discernment until 10 years ago were unquestioned, but now I can challenge distinct, established concepts with musicians, in order to help clean the trash can of prejudices that persists and unfortunately obfuscates the perception and nature of music.

So clearly yes, I do approach them thinking about the music they've played before, but specifically in order to provoke them to submit to a system that basically doesn't focus on the individual, on their emotions. It´s a working method that doesn't aim at exhibiting either personal accomplishments or liberation from something. Surprisingly enough, most of the musicians on the small tour did gladly embrace the ideas instead of feeling disapproved. Hence, it's enjoyable when it gels.

Burnt Friedman and Hakim Kiwanuka in soundcheckWhat particular benefits does electronic music have in terms of its ability to interact with other established forms?

I would like to challenge that "electronic music" is "form". I assume by "form" you mean playing music on real instruments as opposed to programming "electronic" music on a computer and/or using it as a playback device, implying that any audio material, even originally played on real instruments and recorded into a computer - is considered "electronic" music, as long as it is coming out of a black box, i.e. playback machine or computer. Anything thrown into a computer somehow could be considered "electronic" music, whereas I refer to electronic music as "radiophonic" instead, which is: music made audible solely on loudspeakers.

Under this light the music I produce is obviously not electronic: the computer merely a multi-track playback device, it could also be a tape reel. Regardless of the sound of the materials, regardless of its processing, the musical concept that I pursue, is music that is fundamentally preordained by a formal logic, structured by natural laws of rhythm or simply by harmonic proportions at its very core, adoptable by any means; musically, it doesn't make a significant difference whether the incorporated instrument or sound sequence was programmed or played by hand. Noise, bleeps, strings or drums follow exactly the same obligatory, harmonic formula.

Yet, I can't see any specific musical benefit in having a computer on stage, while someone else beside me is playing to pre-recorded material as we were, instead, it is also a technical handicap, an orchestra shrunk to data size, so to speak, merely a half-live or half-dead performance, precisely because the playback device unfortunately is at least certainly deaf. On the other hand, the digitally memorised musical concept is at any time immediately accessible by pushing a start button. It offers to carry around all sorts of musical artifacts that do belong to my music as much as microphones tracks; like rhythmic noise, obvious synthesiser sounds etc. Above all, the variety of quantised, interlocking sequences that appear to sound rather uncanny, post-human has a coercive clarity, as its painstaking, effortless accuracy doesn't aim at resembling the qualities, the many facets of incredibly trained instrument players.

When embarking on a new project or partnership, do you think about the context in which it will be listened to, and in particular, as a lot of your music is groove-based, do you think about how people will dance to it?

I have no idea about those contexts. In reality it could be any context, any imaginable listening scenario I can think of could be appropriate or not. I would hope that some tracks would be played in clubs as well but the reality is that those tracks probably contain too many elements that only become mush on a club sound system. In my opinion, redundancy is required when recordings shall succeed in club spaces.

What's next for you?

Currently embroiled with the mixing of pieces that become a new solo album recording. Lyrics and sounds incorporate impressions from this tour, but I actually did not make any instrument track recordings during the tour. I will hopefully open a video channel for Nonplace once the recordings are finished. I also have an EP out presently and still available – the Burnt Friedman and Chronomad Tohuwabohu CD/vinyl EP – and will be playing my first live show in Dublin, Ireland with Jaki Liebezeit as Drums Of Chaos on 28 March at the Grand Social.

Overleaf: watch the video of Burnt Friedman's work with Hakim Kiwanuka in Kampala, Uganda


Noise, bleeps, strings or drums follow exactly the same obligatory, harmonic formula

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