This is a really interesting conversation with Los Angeles-based German electronic composer and musician, philosopher and conceptual artist Frank Rothkamm. In 2010, Frank was diagnosed with tinnitus, a brain disorder that disturbed his sleep. He started to research a proper treatment that would soothe or eliminate the high frequencies he was doomed to hear for the rest of his life. The monumental release “Wiener Process” (24 CD box set released by the excellent French label Baskaru) is one of the result of his “research”. Let’s look at it a little closer!
Chain D.L.K.: Hi Frank. How are you?
Frank Rothkamm: Thanks for the interview. It’s nice to finally have a conversation with the famous Chain D.L.K.!
Chain D.L.K.: Before speaking of your recent monumental release, could you introduce yourself as to a complete stranger to electronic music?
Frank Rothkamm: I am Frank Rothkamm, a music composer. Most of this music has been made using computers and other electronic means (rather than musical instruments, like a piano or drums). My music was always created for practical purposes, so I did dance music, commercials, remixes, trailers, and theatre music. Most of it has been made in order to change the chemistry of the listener. This means “experimental” or “avant-garde” works that propose new models for the perception of sound. To finance working in this rather speculative field, I have held many positions working in Web technology lately, I restored a house built in 1935. You can call me if your drain is clogged.
Chain D.L.K.:…and now introduce yourself for someone that knows a bit about the electronic music scene?
Frank Rothkamm: I am Frank Rothkamm and started building a studio around a UHER reel-to-reel machine when I was in my mid teens. My first release, done on a Yamaha CX5M, was “Music After Sculptures” in 1986, put out by the Cologne-based Gallery Bonk. I studied privately composition with Clarence Barlow in Cologne, Forth with Kenneth Newby in Vancouver, Canada and Csound with Horacio Vaggione in Berlin, Germany. Since I came to the States in my 20s, I have organized “Rave New World” events, produced the first Hardkiss EP, did commercials for Levi 501 jeans and trailers for 3D Star Wars experiments and worked for Peter Scherer (Very Neon Pet) and Elliott Sharp (Field & Stream) in New York and appeared on 59 records. I founded Flux Records and the Lodge For Utopian Science. My releases are mostly done with vintage or esoteric instruments, like the Yamaha FB01 sound module (FB01,FB02,FB03) or with 3 electronic organs tuned 33 cents apart (Just 3 Organs) or a Casio Privia PX-100 made to sound like a 1950 vinyl record (Opus Spongebobicum). The catalog of all my works lists 550 so far.
Chain D.L.K.: “Wiener Process” is maybe difficult to describe in detail…but let’s start from the beginning…it was an attempt to treat the sound with regard to tinnitus, wasn’t it?
Frank Rothkamm: Yes, it was. In 2010, I woke up one morning and heard this high piercing tone that I thought was part of our TV. But no, it was still there when I turned the TV off and no matter where I went in the house it seemed to follow me. That seriously freaked me out and I went to see a specialist at the hospital. They did a bunch of tests, which I found endlessly fascinating, but in the end there was nothing physically wrong with me and I got diagnosed with subjective Tinnitus. That is basically a brain processing disorder and since that day I constantly hear a 16000 Hz tone cluster in both ears. This “sound” exists only in my head. As there is no cure for subjective Tinnitus I started to devise possible ways to counteract this constant tone cluster; I was really convinced that I could find a cure for Tinnitus. So I studied the neurobiological literature and got involved in quantum mechanics. This led to my first Wiener Process; it was of indefinite length and I could use it as a form of sound therapy or like a drug. I started to make experiments to figure out which parts were effective. I would expose myself to the sound for like an hour a day, sitting or lying down.
Chain D.L.K.: How did tinnitus influence your sound?
Frank Rothkamm: Tinnitus is constant. It is everywhere; at least for me. It is around me; I don’t have it in one ear only. So this is the big influence. If I want to compose something, I always have to be aware that I’m just adding more sound to an already ongoing composition that will play within me all the time until I die. This really changed my outlook as to what music is, or what we do to make music. We simply give it attention and call it that. However, the loudest thing and the one we pay attention to are not the ones that necessary influence us the most. Let’s say I lay here on the beach in LA and hear the sound of people walking by, some idiot blasting some music, the conversations of others, airplanes flying overhead. But the most influential sound is the one I already forget about, or habituated, as soon as I walked on that beach. This sound is of the ocean. It is always there, sounds pretty much the same and so I forget about it. It is not an event. So Tinnitus got me to point to compose music that is like the ocean, that functions the same way.
Chain D.L.K.: Why did you dedicate the title to Norbert Wiener? What’s the most interesting aspect of Wiener’s thinking?
Frank Rothkamm: I call this the Wiener Process because by coincidence this is the name of a continuous random process in mathematics. The phenomenon of randomness is extra important because I try to make music that your brain will not be able to predict nor to remember. Kind of like the opposite of a hit record. I want to detoxify the brain, to get rid of the constant perception of a tone cluster. For this I used statistics which consists of random distributions. The one that I found the most effective was the uniform random distribution, the Wiener Process, or the random walk. All are the same thing, with the random walk being discrete rather than continuous and it is what we use in computer science. Anyway, Norbert Wiener was also the inventor of cybernetics. Not quite sure if you have heard of this, but it used to be pretty popular in the 50s in academia. He did some amazing work like constructing simple machines that showed human-like behaviour using very simple rules. So this action of machine modeling towards human beings is what I find super valuable. I studied the opposite of this in Berlin back in the 80s: Bionics; taking natural processes and modelling them mathematically and applying this to machines. As a matter of fact, my first job as a student was to work for the talking car Mercedes Benz project. They tried to have the car understand what you are saying and do stuff like turn off the lights. I was sitting there going through the audio files and tried to get rid of the noise floor. Norbert Wiener also is a funny name. There was a famous New York politician called Wiener who was caught taking pictures of his “wiener”, a slang word for penis, and sending them out via Twitter. So, the Wiener Process ought to resonate as a title. Not to take it all too seriously.
Chain D.L.K.: Could you explain by which criteria did you match the hours of a day and each track?
Frank Rothkamm: Yes, the hours of the day start with 0 hour, or the witch hour, which is the time between midnight and 1 o’clock. So, in the first Wiener Process, called Urgestalt, which is usually translated as archetype, the quintessence, the philosopher’s stone, the raison d’etre, the prima materia of everything exposed, demonstrated, materialized. This first hour is the most ethereal, the most difficult and the easiest, at the same time, the most complex and the simplest part of the Wiener Process. Then from hour 2 to 5 we have various developments of noise that condense to a dense form, a bass drone if you will, in hour 6. So each hour of the Wiener Process is mapped to the hour it is in because it is part of the human division of the day into 3 6-hour periods and 1 rest period, 4×6 altogether. So you could split up the Wiener Process into 4 “acts” or “sections” or curves, etc. Anyway, each hour in the day is mapped according to human perception of each hour. So, afternoon tea time has it’s own piece, dinnertime, etc…
Chain D.L.K.: You said you “simply used the Scottish philosopher David Hume’s skepticism on causality as a starting point and ended up with the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ludwig Boltzmann’s hypothesized self aware entity.” What’s in between these two extremes?
Frank Rothkamm: The whole history of philosophy? Hume starts with scepticism about our concept of cause and effect, demonstrating it’s merely a human convention, but not necessarily attributable to the things in and by themselves. Boltzmann’s self aware entity emerges out of total entropy. Here we have the uniform distribution again, and will go back to it. The concept of total entropy in Boltzmann’s boxed universe is fascinating and mirrors that of Hume’s disregard for causality. The self aware entity is the emergence of causality attributable to things themselves. So between Hume and Boltzman is Kant who proposes a framework for the understanding: Time and Space, outside which we can know nothing, so time and space are the conditions for the making any kind of transcendental or a posteri statement. This really feeds into our suspicion that there really is no time or space per se, but merely the effects of gravity, since Einstein showed that there is only spacetime. That is what is in between the poles of Hume and Boltzmann.
Chain D.L.K.: …and, above all, how do you translate Hume’s skepticism into sound?
Frank Rothkamm: That is easy. Since we know that causality and its effects are a mere convention, we can postulate that there is an unnecessary or random connection possible between any event in time. So it is possible to understand music as something that has no time, meaning it does not rely on a before-and-after chain of events but is comprehendible as a random series. One of the design features of the algorithm that seeds all of the 24 hours of the Wiener process is that each event is placed independently of any other in the one hour segment of each Wiener Process. In other words, the events that follow each other when you perceive the piece do not have any necessary connection. All causality is put in or is perceived by the human subject. Any meaning is not inherent in the events themselves but by the way we as humans make music through the pure act of listening. In a way the Wiener Process proves Hume’s suspicion. The meaning, the music only exists inside us humans.
Chain D.L.K.: How do Coldfusion, Python and Forth influence sound?
Frank Rothkamm: They are computer languages that were used to generate code for another language: Csound. Csound is a descendent of Max Mathews’ “Music X” languages from the late 60’s. Max was a genius. You only have to read his “The Technology of Computer Music”. I created a meta-language IFORMM, which generates code for the Csound “engine”. The first model was written in Forth, which was invented by Chuck Moore to control telescopes. I have been using this language since I did a sort of cheap imitation of Iannis Xenakis’ UPIC system for Science World of British Columbia in 1989. Later on I used Coldfusion to make a more diverse probability model, only because I used that language for all my corporate clients so I knew it really well. Finally I rewrote everything again in Python, because this language is used in scientific computing. It has numpy and scipy and other stuff to make more and more involved calculations possible. By now my calculations come to the point of all possible combinations which would take longer to compute than the lifespan of the universe. But in the Wiener Process there is only opus 499 that goes to these extremes.
Chain D.L.K.: Have you experienced any standstill during the making of the “Wiener Process”? If so, why?
Frank Rothkamm: Well when I did the Wiener Process it was not called this. It just happened that after 4 years it shaped up to be this. So all the while I was doing these sound therapy experiments and making progress, I was also restoring a 1935 Steinkamp house here in View Park, which is part of the Los Angeles megapolis. I was looking at plaster and wire and pipes and toilets and paint all day long, every day for the past 5 years. During this time my mental health greatly deteriorated and I became suicidal and had to start drug treatment. You could say that my brain was not working with me to complete the Wiener Process. I remember doing the opus 490 computations at Grand Canyon Village in Arizona and I got sick there, so in a way the Wiener Process is also the way I finally made it past being a useless composer in an ignorant world.
Chain D.L.K.: What are the main differences and similarities between your work and generative music?
Frank Rothkamm: The main similarities between generative music and my work can be explained by the fact that some of it is generative in the traditional sense of Lejaren Hiller and Iannis Xenakis. It is also generative in terms of Brian Eno’s unsynchronized tape loops, which are mathematically simple, but elegant. However, the Wiener Process is a departure from generative principles. It proposes a quantum-mechanical and bio centric model for human perception. It places music into the mind of listeners, not outside. Most composers have been busy changing the world instead of changing the brain directly. This is not generative music, as in having machine-generated events, but rather a realization that music is put together; is made in each listener’s brain. So the proposition is to change the neuronal pathways directly, in order to affect change in the limbic system and to benefit humans, as well as all biological systems capable of perceiving ordered sets of frequencies. The difference is psycho-stochastic; the application of random processes to biological perception.
Chain D.L.K.: Are there any compositions that could be considered close to your one, with regard to electronic music history?
Frank Rothkamm: Hard to answer, but I’d say there is always John Cage’s “4.33” which basically contains any music within it. And by extension there is Eric Satie’s “Vexations”. But they are only conceptually related. The music is embedded, it is omnipresent, so perhaps Nikola Tesla’s idea or composition of the resonant frequencies of the earth? I’m just picking in the dark here: Tony Conrad, aspects of Jean Barraqué, Jean-Claude Éloy, Luc Ferrari? Doc Martin’s DJ mixes in San Francisco warehouses of the early 90s? But now I’m talking more of influences. I’m quite aware that the Wiener Process is within the parameters of 21st century western culture, so there are a lot of others working on drones, field recordings, random processes. The godfather will always be Xenakis.
Chain D.L.K.: You said that the effect of psychostochastics is synesthetic and not dependent on the number of listeners, nor their attention. How come?
Frank Rothkamm: We usually think of music as something we pay attention to. Therefore, we usually crank up the volume to what we call music. So the loudest thing in the environment everybody pays attention to is music. The Wiener Process does not work like that. It will function beside any other kind of sonic event and it should always be one of quietest things in the environment. The ears of humans never shut down. Even when we sleep, we are still scanning the environment because we can never stop listening. Our limbic system might be disconnected, but why limit our perception? I always joke that it would be perfectly possible to perform the Wiener Process along side and during a Bruce Springsteen concert. I mean, he is the boss, right? The Wiener Process would definitely be the quietest thing in the environment and would perhaps color or alter perception, so it will still work. This above all is “Gebrauchsmusik”; music you can use for any purpose. Come to think of it, it would be even nicer during an Udo Lindenberg concert.
Chain D.L.K.: The study you made to complete “Wiener Process” is really impressive. Did you apply any of the ideas you developed to some of your previous releases?
Frank Rothkamm: Can I walk back in time? You betcha, yes. So it is easy for me to point out my 1989 release of FISCH IV. That was when I left Europe and tried to develop something that would fit into the vast distances of North America. In a way it is all there, drones, textures, fields, field recordings, etc. but I was smoking a lot of pot back then, does this matter? My previous release on Baskaru, ALT has similar deus ex machina ideas, but nothing really has the same approach, the same Kantian Copernican Turn than the Wiener Process.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s the source of inspiration for the final piece: “Hyperacusis Man opus 82”?
Frank Rothkamm: It’s a field recording made at the Lodge For Utopian Science, on a specific day. It is edited to fit into the 1-hour time slot. The specific day was chosen at random and the recording was made by placing microphones at the same distance as my ears were. This is a “Kunstkopf” recording, and the effect is super/surreal, especially when using headphones.