“Reality is precise; memory isn’t.” Pierce Warnecke used these words from Borges’ “In Praise of Darkness” to introduce his recent release, “Memory Fragments” (Room40). Let’s see why and get to know this interesting sound artist better.
Chain D.L.K.: Hi, Pierce! How are you?
Pierce Warnecke: I am good. I am tired. I am excited! I am busy…
Chain D.L.K.: Compliments on your last release, but before speaking of that, let’s metaphorically shake hands and introduce you to our readers. Let’s begin by looking back…you were born in California, but you lived most of your life as an ex-pat in Europe. Have you ever missed California? If yes, why?
Pierce Warnecke: I moved from California as a child and haven’t lived there since. I’ve always returned to California to visit family and friends. At first, I missed it a lot, and I felt quite displaced living in Europe, but after a while it flipped and I started feeling more comfortable in Europe.
To be honest, it was so long ago now that I don’t think about it that often. I’ve moved around a lot, so often I don’t really know what to tell people when they ask where I’m from. Yes, I’m from California. But I haven’t lived there in 20 years. From France? Yes, I can fake it a little, but I’m not French, that’s for sure. I have very few American friends, and I live in Spain now after a good number of years in Berlin, so…geographical identity is somewhat of a difficult question for me!
Chain D.L.K.: Why did you decide to stay in Europe?
Pierce Warnecke: I actually left Europe to study music in Boston – I didn’t find a proper place in France to pursue more modern approaches to electronic music composition (I had no desire at the time to go through the conservatory process), so I left.
But after 4 years in the US, I realized that the things that interested me the most (sound and visuals, more experimental electronic music) seemed to be happening in Europe. I also quickly saw that to survive as an artist in the US I would either need a day job, or else fully embrace the specific artist/entrepreneur model very particular to countries like the US, where state support for artists is more limited.
And most importantly, I married a French girl :)!
Chain D.L.K.: When and where did your interest in electronic music go from a spark to becoming a fire?
Pierce Warnecke: It’s an ongoing slow burn. I grew up with the psychedelic rock of my parents, but even in that music I think I was always more attracted to the effects; I started getting interested in warp-era electronica as a teen in France, and over the years I listened to more and more experimental music. These days I’ve become more attracted to somewhat historic electronic music, or musique concrete, a lot of Parmegiani, Ferrari and Vaggione, for example.
I’ve gone through a lot of stages and interests in my appreciation of electronic music – I’m sure those will continue to change over the years somewhat, but I think I’ve really started to find fertile ground for me to explore for a good while in experimental areas that move a little away from western harmony and repetitive rhythms.
Chain D.L.K.: You know the academic environment very well. What are or what were the most interesting and the most boring subjects you had to study or explain?
Pierce Warnecke: Actually, anytime I had to study something that wasn’t music or video related, it was always a bit of a struggle, except for maybe a few history classes. I had many mandatory music courses during my studies such as ear training or conducting that I found boring at the time, but if I went back and did them now I think I might find them more interesting!
Right now I teach a course called Non-Linear Structures in Real Time Media. I try and make it a course that covers discovering different schools of experimental sound and video, and pair that with tools students can use on their own to try their hand at those genres. It’s quite a challenge because a lot of students already have a developed palette and a specific idea of what they like and want to create. It can be challenging to have them look into what they would probably call ‘weird music.’ Sometimes there are very strong reactions against it, but most of the time I’m surprised at how open students are and how they manage to take concepts and tools and make them their own, integrating them into their work flow and personal aesthetics.
Chain D.L.K.: What’s the most important lesson you are trying to give to your students?
Pierce Warnecke: Oh boy. I try to get students to think beyond the 4/4 grid, think beyond genre and established format. I try and get them to experiment, take risks and keep an open mind when listening to new music. It’s a challenge to remember myself as being very stubborn against the tastes of my professors as a students, and now realizing that tastes change and that I am interested in many things I used to find boring.
It’s very hard to relay that gained perspective without sounding patronizing or having students dismiss you as an academic bore.
Chain D.L.K.: One of the directions of your artistic research was focused on the relation between aural and visual arts. What’s the strictest meeting point that these forms of arts reached amidst the ones you knew or you made?
Pierce Warnecke: The first thing that pops into mind is Raster-Noton; for me, in the early 2000s, this really set a benchmark for what I wanted to do. An equal focus on sound and visual aspects of a composition, and not a ‘sound track for film’ or a ‘VJ set for music.’
But in reality, that stuff goes way back to artists like Len Lye and Oskar Fischinger, who were the first among others to really explore this idea of audio-visual elements being one and the same, meaning that for each sound, there’s a visual counterpoint and vice versa.
But in fact, cinema as a whole is really the paramount audiovisual experience; I just happened to be interested in films that don’t necessarily tell a story of people, or a story of good versus evil, or a story at all, even.
Chain D.L.K.: That quotation by Borges is a mouthwatering and evocative way to introduce “Memory Fragments”…could you explain why you thought his words (those words) could match it?
Pierce Warnecke: Memory is a captured moment of reality, subject to transience, meaning the details and subtleties get lost as time progresses. In this quote, ‘reality’ refers to an ideal objective view, whereas since memory needs to be stored, it is inextricably linked to the subjective thing capturing it. So memory is doubly unreliable, since first it becomes a viewpoint of a specific person, who decides to focus on certain details, but also those specific subjective details inevitably fade over time.
For me, Borges is saying that documenting or observing means adding a subjective device that is unable to capture the fullness of reality.
This got me thinking about memory as a storage device, a capture of a specific portion of reality. It sounded very much like an audio or a video recording to me, with the exception that in theory, a digital recording does not really change over time in the way that an analog medium does, or the way memory does.
Actually, the degradation of digital memories is very…digital: It works until the software isn’t supported or until one of the hardware components fail – it either works or it doesn’t, 0 or 1. But what I wanted to explore with this work (in both aural and visual realms) was a sort of imaginary analog (or progressive) process of disappearance: not the digital all or nothing.
Chain D.L.K.: It seems that memory plays an important role…besides field recordings, how did memories influence the synthesis of sounds?
Pierce Warnecke: There’s a recurring, very slow theme throughout the work. Sometimes it’s hidden behind a big minor chord, out of which is appears slightly, sometimes it’s pushed towards the bass and very high frequencies, or sometimes the notes are replaced with field recordings, so that the rhythm remains but the pitches are gone…For me, this relates to memory as a reappearing and ever-haunting specter from the past, continuously resurfacing here and there, whether it fits or not, sometimes clear and sometimes veiled.
Chain D.L.K.: The strong “mentalism” of your music and this link to mnemonic aspect reminds me of another Hispanic musician who used to deal with these dimensions in his sound, Murcof…but if you can think of another electronic musician to find some possible connection to, which would you pick?
Pierce Warnecke: I’m not actually of Latino origin, but I like that you think I am!
I really did enjoy Murcof’s first album. It was very new when it came out in…oh boy, tempted to say 2002? I liked the depth of the sound design, and the richness of the processing he did. Adding a minimal techno rhythm worked quite well at the time and it was definitely an album I listen to often.
I have to say that, since then, I haven’t kept up on what he’s been doing. His music was very harmonic and rhythmic, which is something I’ve been trying to move away from. “Memory Fragments” does contain very harmonic passages to it, but I think these might be the last works I’ve created with any kind of harmony or harmonic structure/ arrangement. My newer works, for example ‘Perspection’ with Matthew Biederman, or ‘Functional Mating Calls’ commissioned by Deutschland Radio Kulture, explicitly move away from western (or any other) harmony and periodic rhythm. Recently I’ve been quite influenced by the music of Richard Garet, Kenneth Kirschner, Marcus Schmikler and Thomas Ankersmit.
Chain D.L.K.: I didn’t think you were of Latino origin actually, but, yes, I guessed you had some knowledge of that world, due to the Borges quotation! Why did you detach “Memory Fragments” into two ideal parts instead of thinking of it as a continuum?
Pierce Warnecke: Actually, I first wrote the piece as a single, 1-hour work. Most of my sound compositions these days work in this manner, in fact. Then, depending on the final format and medium, I’ll either keep it as is or cut parts out and re-edit those. For example, I’d most likely leave a work for radio in the original format; a single long piece is very appropriate for that medium. But an album, a CD, works well with shorter tracks for many reasons. Regarding your question, to me, music is best when it can tell a story, even if it’s not explicitly narrative. I know many artists dislike the naming process of their tracks, but being able to take the time to find titles that fit the tracks is part of the storytelling in a way. In any case, it orients the work and informs the listener a little. So cutting things up like this helps the narrative.
I also liked a more book or theater influenced approach of having 2 parts.
Chain D.L.K.: I enjoyed the depth you gave to single isolations in tone in moments like “Shivering as the Warmth Returns” or “Fragments of Things Forgotten”…how did you treat those (piano?) tones?
Pierce Warnecke: The process was more associating similar sounds than actually processing the original ones, such as the piano. I wanted to try and extend the piano, but did not want to delve too much into time stretching or reverb, which would be the first and easiest way to make that happen, but has been done quite a lot and gives a particular sound. Instead, I tried to make cascades of similarly pitched sounds that fade in slowly to take the relay of the piano sound as it dies down (ebowed guitar, simple sine waves, saxophone tones held in circular breathing).
So I worked more in the idea of matching and blending sound sources over longer lengths of time (using volume and EQ) rather than using effects or digital processing to modify them. There are of course reverbs and effects in there, but these were used more in the traditional production approach to create a virtual space for sound, and not in a sound design or processing way.
Chain D.L.K.: “‘Memory Fragments’ explores recordings as memories by taking samples (sound, images, objects) of a physical space and then placing them in an imaginary process of transformation and transience that slowly erodes these digital memories until disappearance.” I guess these are your words about this output…I wonder why the process you mentioned is just imaginary.
Pierce Warnecke: Erosion is a gradual process that can be compared to the decay of analog mediums…the more you use or abuse tape or vinyl, the more deteriorated it becomes. But as mentioned previously, digital has a sort of all or nothing decay to it. It works as long as the hard or software works, and then one day it doesn’t. That constitutes one reason why the process I propose is imaginary, since it tries to imagine a progressive, time-dependent process of decay, like emulating an analog erosion, but on a digital medium.
Additionally, it’s not based on anything besides my idea of how to veil and mask the sounds or videos that are clearly presented as main subjects. In reality, all things undergo their own physical transformations until they’re gone or have become something else. That process is quite slow, not one that can be portrayed in the length of an album or on stage in a live performance. And even if it could, I wouldn’t be interested in having a scientific or very accurate model of erosion or material transformation of objects and sounds.
I like the idea of using this as a sort of poetic starting point to inform the creative process. Yes, I am about to create things, tones, samples, whatever. But in this case, I tried to think as well about how I might un-create them, how I might let them come apart and disappear.
So in that respect, it’s more of a personal, subjective approach that I imagine while I’m composing. And not a very accurate, strict-to-definition method. It’s not imaginary in that I actually try and realize it, but it’s based on a fictitious scenario.
Chain D.L.K.: Are you going to bring “Memory Fragments” on live stage or let it collide with another form of arts?
Pierce Warnecke: Actually, “Memory Fragments” originated as an AV performance for MADEIRADiG Festival, commissioned in 2013. But I was not satisfied with the music a created for that, so I kept coming back to it and editing it until I finished up this album. In anticipation of this release, I’ve now gone back and created two new videos from similar concepts used in 2013, basically studies of decontextualized found objects by placing them in a very neutral, almost sterile visual environment: hung, slow rotation, simple moving light source. I have a new version of this AV performance I’m just finishing up, and look forward to bringing it to the stage.
Chain D.L.K.: Any work in progress?
Pierce Warnecke: Always! I have a commissioned work for Deutschland Radio Kultur entitled ‘Functional Mating Calls’ that studies language and communication by working on hybridization of animal sounds and electronics.
My collaboration with Matthew Biederman on the piece ‘Perspection’ has been moving about quite a bit, in both installation and performance formats, MUTEK, then Currents New Media Art festival in the US, then to the FILE Festival in Brazil.
I have a new collaboration with Yair Elazar Glotman (KETEV), an AV performance that takes cues from Cronenberg’s mutant organic forms.
Frank Bretschneider and I are also working this summer on some new AV material, although I’m not sure when this will be ready.
And other things…I’m always doing too much, really.
Visit Pierce Warnecke on the web at: piercewarnecke.com