interview and photography by OLIVIER ZAHM
with STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI
imagine having to pack up a whole studio and move from new york to ibiza in 24 hours, while recording the lovotic project with charlotte gainsbourg. that’s what happened to stephan crasneanscki and his team, who have been experiencing, for the past year, what it’s like to create electronic music surrounded by earth, water, wind, and fire.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your universe has evolved so much over the past few years. Let’s start with the books because your studio is filled with books.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, they are important for me. I pile them up like skyscrapers. I navigate in between them, spending infinite hours searching for a book that I never find, while in the meantime, I rediscover others that make me forget what I was initially looking for.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And your music is strongly influenced by theory, novels, science fiction, essays. It’s like a musical epistemology — the science of science. You were saying yesterday that for your project with Charlotte Gainsbourg, you’ve taken a lot of elements from sex theory.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, it is an AI-driven sound installation entitled Lovotic, based on scientific data around sexual research collected since the 20th century until today. The piece explores the possibilities of human-to-AI connections within the realm of sexual intimacy and desire. Humans traditionally divided themselves into formatted and highly codified categories of gender and sexuality. Lovotic challenges the possibility of autonomous machines with living circuits, life-enhancing, providing a different kind of sexual identity, confounding classifications… The installation will premiere at the CTM Festival in Berlin in May 2021, one of the most respected events in adventurous and avant-garde music and art.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Tell us about how you connect books to music.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — I often see books as imaginary landscapes. An idea forms from a fragment of text I read, or sometimes a word simply ends up staying inside me. Eventually, a sonic translation takes place, from within.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Interesting.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Our last collaboration with Patti Smith, entitled Perfect Vision, was all about words, landscape, and memory. Patti mentioned William Burroughs regularly when we were recording in the studio. She would say, “Okay, this is a product of the third mind.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay. That’s why you recently brought up William Burroughs, who made an interesting connection between sound and writing in his writing process, recording his own readings.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, he was taking the cut-up technique to the limit of sense. Through this process of cutting up a text and rearranging it, new structures of communication emerge. Between the words, there is a message leaking through, the possibility of an unknown language finding its way through. Words gain power when they lose the boundaries of semantics.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The sonic material…
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The physical act of cutting up tapes, creating tape loops, and all that has a strong reference to Burroughs. His cut-up tapes systematically rewired linguistic structure and form, revealing submerged meanings and a sense of déjà vu. Burroughs saw human consciousness as a cut-up, sexuality as a cut-up, and reality itself as cut-up.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, this possibility of the computer creating endless counter-solutions of cut-up could be a source of poetry or art?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, but more of a post cut-up practice made of generated random texts with new meanings, for the age of future mass media and the new “global society of the spectacle.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — Through a mechanical source, in a way. Systematic?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Can systematic machines still be creative? Algorithms that synthesize all our data and bring us unthinkable possibilities, such as the Chinese board game Go, for example. Up until now, we thought all possibilities were explored, and then this deep-learning algorithm shows us a move that was in front of our eyes this whole time, and we didn’t see it… At the same time, there is increasing discussion on the possibility of AI being developed to the point where it would reach a “singularity,” beyond which it will continue to improve without human help. The default outcome from advanced AI is human extinction, one might fear — another possibility that we might have not entirely thought of.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And then, you connect that with your musical creativity or research.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes. During our recording process, we are using various modular sound tools that generate arbitrary and unpredictable voltages, trigger signals, creating complex and chaotic sequences, and giving shape to algorithms that are self-operating and self-sufficient. We also apply sound synthesis based on physical modeling, until we find the sonic landscape that resonates with the words we imagine.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You seem to be very sensitive to voices. The voices of Patti Smith, Charlotte Gainsbourg… Nan, also?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, we presented a very special performance with Nan Goldin in Berlin, a few years back. The piece was based on various texts and correspondences of the artist, writer, and activist David Wojnarowicz. Nan was performing live with us onstage. She was close to David. It was very emotional.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the voice is important.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — A voice is an instrument — the way you deliver words, the punctuation, the rhythm, and the silence in between. All of that has its own musicality.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And it all sounds a bit conceptual in the beginning, but then it becomes very sensual.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The voice has such a deep impact. We take it for granted. But a voice is like the wrinkles we carry on our face. It tells a lot about us.
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s true.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The way in which we respond to someone has a lot do with vocal intonations.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The power of intimacy, too.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — You can fall in love with a voice. [Laughs]
OLIVIER ZAHM — Especially when you spend night after night listening to them.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Absolutely, but those voices can also haunt you. Just after 9/11, we made a piece with Paul Auster based on recordings from phone calls of passengers in the hijacked planes and in the last floors of the Twin Towers. Most of those recordings were the last voice messages to their loved ones. Their voices seem calm, most of the time, even reassuring, but they knew that they would not make it. In the background was the distorted sound of destruction. I had nightmares for months.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I’m sure. And sometimes, you mix different voices. For the project with Charlotte Gainsbourg, you will also involve Arca [Venezuelan musician Alejandra Ghersi], right?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, Arca and Atom™. Arca navigates the spaces in between worlds, languages, genres, and genders, and has become one of the most visible figures exploring what it means to transition in public. Her work is both delicate and fierce, a truly astonishing artist. And Atom™ — aka Atom Heart, the Santiago-based, German composer known to be one of electronic music’s most prolific and prodigious post-techno experimentalists. He has put a lot of thought into mechanical voice and surveillance. There’s a huge focus, especially in the robot industry, about what kind of voice we’re going for.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And this is what the project with Charlotte is about? This idea of a nongendered AI enunciating sentences about sexuality that give the impression that the machine is starting to have desires, that it’s making a sexual connection with you.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The future of intimacy is a kaleidoscope of sexuality and gender, expanding exponentially. These new AI relationships offer new possibilities to explore the concept and possibilities of human love.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the machine is capable of learning sexuality.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — I believe so. The Pandora’s box has been opened. The artificial-intelligent agent is another mind that understands us, and perhaps we can feel for it, too.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And the machine is genderless?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — I think human identity in an age of human-machines will finally challenge the construction of sexuality, intimacy, gender, and sex.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s neutral.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Neutral, yes, but synthetic love will also come with new vocabularies.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, the machine — whether it’s a voice, a computer, or a moving robot — speaks to you. In the end, it’s always language, or the voice, that creates the connection.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, but the real question will be: what kind of voice and sentence will be given to AI to create a new identity of desire?
OLIVIER ZAHM — That’s true. And then, maybe, this sexual cyborg can propose sexual possibilities that you had never before imagined?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, it will propel itself toward a sexual singularity that humans cannot foresee. Our entire system of receiving and giving is a limited one. This will be a possibility for a new frontier…
OLIVIER ZAHM — For the mind. So, in all these projects, music is a medium, an atmosphere, or a space that allows these new connections?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — The idea of transmission has always been at the center of our work as sound artists. Sound is a propagation of acoustic waves. Those waves have always been a great fascination for me, especially the ones we don’t hear.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Like sounds in nature?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Nature is permanently in conversation. From the networks of fungus in the soil, which have more connections than within the human brain, to the ultrasonic sounds emitted by bats as they use echolocation to navigate through caves in complete darkness. What we as humans can perceive is very limited, somewhere between 20 Hz and 20 kHz. It deeply affects our understanding of reality. Animals and other species have different, varying hearing ranges. We all hear the sound of our Earth differently.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Okay.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — We are now working on a new piece called Toilet Talk, based on fragments of conversations that I collected in clubs over the years. The sonic composition is based on field recordings of architectural vibrations and resonances recorded inside the club buildings. We wired all surfaces of concrete, glass, and metal, recording the micro-movements of the building under the impact of the music. The whole structure is oscillating: the windows, the toilets, the staircase — everything is vibrating. The inaudible, distorted words that come and go while you are on the dance floor, in the toilets, dark rooms, or coat check became the raw material for the composition of the songs. Those words are all resonating and echoing a night that doesn’t want to end.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A real slice of life.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, a slice of nightlife. Berlin, where you can dance like there is no tomorrow, is a good place for this type of life. Dancing is liberating. Electronic music in those clubs cancels all time and space — endless nights that blend into days and back to night. This state of mind has a specific language that comes with it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Once again, it’s a machine, a musical machine. It’s music, but also art installation, and poetry, and directing… Are you exploring new territory here?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Maybe it is more about the margin. The interzone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Maybe we will soon tire of galleries and museums being filled with objects, paintings, and installations all the time…
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — When you see how much has been produced over the past few decades, I wonder how long we can go with this approach. Somehow, there is something with sound and its immateriality that has always seduced me.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It was also a way for you to constantly travel the world, recording sound and discovering places.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, the practice of hearing. Traveling and listening to the world.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Has being based for one year in Ibiza changed your way of working?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — We were in New York, recording with Charlotte in the studio, when I saw an alert from The New York Times app saying that in 24 hours, all flights to Europe will be shutting down. I’ve lived in New York for 30 years, flying back and forth between the old and new continents, countlessly. Not even in my wildest dreams could I have imagined this scenario. I remember very well looking at Charlotte recording The Future of Sexuality. In the next 24 hours, we had to decide where to go. We have another base in Berlin. Berlin and New York have been the two…
OLIVIER ZAHM — Poles of creativity.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, but this time, I felt it was not the time to be in a city. I wanted to be in nature, isolated on an island. I have spent a lot of time in Ibiza. We produced an album with Patti Smith there some years back, on the last poem of Nico, who also lived and died here. I also came to Ibiza as a kid, and I immediately fell in love with the place. So, we took all the equipment and found this old Ibicenco house all the way in the north part of the island, very remote, surrounded by forests and the sea. We set up a studio there and started a little community, which has been able to sustain itself.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So, has being in your community in Ibiza changed your music?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Well, I think it is more about the flow. Here, you are living with the rhythm of nature and its seasons. Nature is so indifferent to our tragedy — it’s reassuring. Its indifference allows us to breath and gain some perspectives. Night after night, we are going back to the studio to work, filled with the days at sea and long walks in the forest. It is a very different mindset.
OLIVIER ZAHM — And there’s also a tradition of artists coming to Ibiza.
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Yes, since the ’30s. Some, like Raoul Hausmann or Walter Benjamin, came from Berlin in exile during the rise of Nazism. Hausmann found resonances with the Dadaist architecture in an Ibicenco rural house. Benjamin would rise early and bathe in the ocean, then ascend the hills to his favorite spot, where he would sit among fig trees, finishing his essay “Experience and Poverty.”
OLIVIER ZAHM — And how do you see the future? Do you see yourself returning to the electricity of New York?
STEPHAN CRASNEANSCKI — Let’s see. It is a Homeric journey. We always want to return, at the end. Right now, the only thing you need to be is a skilled and vigilant sailor. There’s a storm, your boat is your life, and you have to weather the storm.
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by Olivier Zahm
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