Squarepusher « Pierre de Rosette » (traduction parue dans Trax, novembre 2008)
Depuis qu’il a débarqué dans nos vies un beau jour de 1995, Tom Jenkinson a pris plus de détours et de passages secrets que n’importe quel autre tête brûlée de la musique électronique mondiale. Bassiste surdoué formé sur les bancs d’une école de jazz puis traumatisé par le breakbeats hardcore des premières rave jungle, il a confronté sa bête Squarepusher à tous les genres, et tous les défis : la jungle stochastique, l’IDM hyper mélodique, les bidouillages early electronics de ses ancêtres des BBC Radiophonic Workshop, le jazz électrique pur et dur… Et toutes les formes possibles et imaginables de pop music qu’il fait muter à l’envie via sa maîtrise prodigieuse des machines, des instruments et de la composition. Son nouveau Just A Souvenir pourrait pourtant bien marquer la première vraie rupture de cette carrière sinueuse, puisqu’il est le premier disque de Squarepusher à ne ressembler à rien d’autre qu’à du Tom Jenkinson. Mise en musique d’un concert imaginaire auquel il aurait assisté en rêve, il est comme le condensé multicolore de quinze ans de boulimie musicale, une Pierre de rosette futuriste, radieuse et bienveillante. Peu enclin à parler de sa musique, Tom Jenkinson nous fait le généreux présent d’une auto-analyse complexe, diligente et minutieuse de son art et de sa carrière. En voici la version complète, en version brute et originale.
Your musical path has turned such serpentine detours to become so amazingly unpredictable that it seems that only your person and personality control it: how do you value the term "auteur"? Do you view yourself as one ?
I have personally only heard the term "auteur" in the context of film. Maybe it has different nuances in French? Anyway, as I understand it, a film director is an auteur if they exercise such a degree of control over the work that it embodies their own creative vision. I suppose in the context of film production, where many people contribute to the final result, it is an interesting though I dare say controversial notion. Immediately, one thinks about the story on which the film might be based and also screenwriters, a fair few of whom will have doubtless found this notion more than a little condescending! More seriously though, it does raise the interesting question of exactly why we should care about the director's idiosyncratic methods of direction or his vision when appraising a film. Does the film not ultimately detach from whoever made it? How much sense can be made of it by specifically considering any of the people who worked on it and their respective inputs? It strikes me that this is the problem of gossip, so to speak, where information about the author of any work of art is seen as being critical in it's interpretation. Possibly conjoined with my shyness about talking about myself and concern to maintain my privacy (which isn't actually that hard really!), this is one of the things that makes me reticent to do interviews and so on. Quite often, at least in the English music press, strong emphasis is put on the artist's personality and quirks. Yet such information only seems to illuminate the work in a dim and foggy manner. Certainly the links from anecdotal information about an artist's life to their work are a maze, a hall of mirrors that is constantly changing in design. Yet the gossip and the intrigue are presented anyway. Of course, most people will find the fact the Mozart enjoyed obscene humour and wrote filthy letters to his cousin more interesting than a technical analysis of his compositions, because it shows the everyday part of the man that we (maybe?) can empathise with. It's just that I honestly have no taste for such things. I generally find biographical information about artists quite depressing and on the rare occasion when isn't, it still doesn't seem to tell me anything valuable about the internal content of their work. Thus it would seem somewhat hypocritical to indulge in revealing the nitty gritty of my life. In the context of film criticism, I imagine the concept of the "auteur" still has relevance. For me, a person who for his entire career to date has worked alone, it is less obvious as to how it should be applied -the auteur notion isn't needed to prioritise the creative influence of the contributors as there is only one person involved, namely me. Of course, nothing about working alone vouchsafes the manifestation of a personal vision. It may even make it harder to do. I have no group or entourage to prevent me from being influenced by the work of others. My ivory tower it is readily assailable! If a 'vision' is allowed to be fragmented and verging on incoherence, then yes I would say that my work is a manifestation of my vision -but maybe more like the vision of a compound eye than a conventional human one!
Is "just a souvenir" an actual concept album? reading your description of that dreamy concert you attended to in your mind, it seems to be so...
Certainly in the sense that it was an attempt to realise the work of a fantasy group, but that seems a rather thin conceptual gloss compared to what I think of as the grandiose 'concept albums' of the 1970's. And if "Just A Souvenir" is a concept album, then most of my other records are aswell. Themes are often involved with my work, I just generally choose not to talk about them.They can be technical, harmonic, abstract and so on. But in that sense, 'concept' seems to be reduced to something more like 'choice', which certainly sounds less austere. I suppose that my work generally inhabits a sort of quasi-conceptual grey area. I feel strongly against delineating a correct interpretation of my work, which in the past has lead me to be sceptical about revealing anything significant about how my records are made and my thoughts whilst making them. I have tried to foster the listener's ingenuity by deliberately keeping the background information ambiguous. I suppose this relates to my personal preferences -as I said above, I'm not a fan of immersing myself in the peripheral details pertaining to a piece that I find interesting. I prefer the products of my imagination, and that is what I try to encourage people to use when trying to make sense of my work. Maybe in the past I have gone too far regarding my reticence to elaborate on the context in which my work is made. Certainly it seems that information about the creative context abhors a vacuum. And the listener's imagination I have tried to foster has come up with ridiculous things -claims that I am a schizophrenic, a junkie, have aspergers syndrome -all total rubbish obviously, but also an amusingly bleak result to my perhaps unworldly optimism!. So I am compelled to supply some information to try to stem the flow of absolute nonsense that some people feel compelled to generate! As such, the account of my dreamy concert is a concession to my previously tight-lipped attitude.
It also seems that with this new record, you are really trying to achieve the dialectic synthesis of something unheard, rather that mingle your two musical backgrounds - being your academic training as a musician and the electronic music that you once said you started as a "hobby" - as well as the various things you love - hardcore rave breakbeat, electric jazz, old school electronic manipulations - like you were still doing until "Hello Everything". Would you agree with this? Could we hear the music of "Just a Souvenir" as some kind of a concentrated, or say, dialectic, harmonious squarepusher? Or even : the first Squarepusher record to display a full Squarepusher style ?
Yes, I think that would be quite a good way of putting it. In fact, that would stand as a more robust conceptual basis for this album. I have long found the idea of the dialectic interesting regarding my analysis of my work because on so many levels it seems that opposing or at least differing forces produce principal elements of it. You have highlighted one -though I should say that I was never formally trained as a musician -nonetheless, it is true that the more traditional aspects of my musicianship tied up with playing and performance are in constant tension with my fascination with electronics and automation. Though they use quite an informal take on the notion of dialectic, the following few examples I think illustrate conflicts and what possibly results from them.
1) Genius v. Idiocy. I am quite honestly obsessed with being as good as I can be at whatever I put my hand to. I hate the word 'genius' loaded as it is with romantic stereotypes of tragic madmen-artists, but if one could chose to be a genius then I would; as it stands I will do what I can to get near to it with hard work. And yet, I rejoice when it all falls to the ground aswell. Not rage but gallows humour overtakes me when I accidentally delete the best take I have ever recorded of my playing (yes it did happen!) I also feel compelled to ridicule my virtuosity from time to time. It feels very satisfying to follow a beautifully played guitar solo with a gesture of sarcasm. In a coded manner, this tallies with my juxtaposition of brutal electronic sounds with delicately played instruments.
2) Autonomous v. instrumental influence on compositions. This could be described as the conflict of the influence of tools [physical entities such as instruments, recording devices etc] with my decision making process. Now, I would not say that the tools necessarily affect the course of composition, but in my experience it is common that they do. An example of this might be: say I have written a melody line with the intention of playing it on a particular guitar. If I decide to use a different instrument on which to play that melody when I come to record it, I might find that the different sonorities of the new instrument will impel me to adjust the structure of the melody line. I might choose to emphasise different notes, remove or re -order certain notes and so on. Even if the melody is left unaltered, subtle differences in the note-to-note emphasis can sometimes be detected according to the new instrument's character.
The point is that a sort of feedback from the instrument to the composition seems to be possible. That effect will be pronounced in my case given that I am composing and recording at the same time rather than farming out the realisation of my compositions to a group or orchestra. That is to say that by virtue of associating the writing of music with the recording of it very closely, feedback between the domains can be quite pronounced. Although a hard "autonomist" might insist that it is still ultimately me making all of the decisions having taken account of the feedback, it remains hard practically speaking to predict what this feedback will be. As such, the feedback seems to embody a very subtle yet significant influence in tension with my autonomy.
3) Autonomous v. technological influence on compositions. Another sense in which the tools might in some way be said to interfere with autonomy, or perhaps more pertinently a composition's "originality", appears when one considers that technology makes new tasks possible. In that sense then, technology not only assists us but is potentially constitutive of our tasks. Thus when we mention a task, we may be implicitly referring to a technology, as we might when we talk of travelling to a certain far away place in a short time -clearly that can only achieved with the use of some sort of technology. We are ready to make the assumption that it is possible, but that possibility is only made available to us through our applied knowledge.
So we could picture a range of possibilities, things whose potential occurrence are and always have been possible, but nonetheless require applied knowledge for their realisation. Thus, I am not saying that it is logically impossible for a composer to conceive of a sonic aesthetic before it is practically speaking possible to realise it. It is partly such imaginings that have impelled technical progress. Nonetheless, it seems likely that a notion of what is currently possible will have some bearing on what a composer can imagine. It is in this sense that I compose in collaboration with history, technology, culture. It seems that however much I might like to make a break with the past, so much is always set in advance!
The main emphasis of "Just a Souvenir" seems to be composition: would you agree with this? And : how do you compose ? Do you have your bass and keyboards under hand or do you use score paper ?
Although it is fundamentally quite difficult to separate the composition itself from the means of its articulation, broadly speaking I think you are correct -my work has been moving in the direction of emphasising composition over construction. At times I have used a composition as a means of testing out an idea about technical realisation. For example, on "Hard Normal Daddy" I used a couple of compositions that I previously played versions of in a band that I was in a few years before. The fact that the composition was roughly set meant that I had a solid basis with which to experiment on how it might be realised. Not that many works of mine have actually come about in this manner; it is more conventional for me to compose, realise and record simultaneously. On "Just A Souvenir", the situation has flipped around in the sense that the means of articulation on this album are set; very little experimentation in terms of sound production or manipulation went into this album. Rather, I draw on a set of consolidated techniques developed over the course of my career. In that sense, it is very pertinent that you say it might "display a full Squarepusher style" -certainly it is the first time that I have largely removed the processes of sonic experimentation from the overall process of making a record.
Regarding how I compose, I will restrict the answer to this album only. In the main I used a combination of empirical technique (seeing what sounds good) with certain formula based ideas. When I say formula, I mean that I like to embody numerical relations in music. A simple example is in a polyrhythmic structure where phrases are superimposed on each other such that interference patterns are generated. Or in a harmonic context, certain intervals are specified in relation to a favoured group of numbers. I stress that my formulations are ad hoc and correspond more to numbers and groups thereof that I find interesting and satisfying to behold rather than them being part of some sort of austere theory. Music in that way often seems like an aesthetic department of mathematics.
The sound of the album sounds quite rough - the processing of the drums is scarce, and there's few cutting up (except on "the coathanger") or DSP wizardry: was it a voluntary decision to let the compositions stand in their own right? Or have the record sound like it was recorded live by an actual band ?
It is interesting that you make a clear division between processing and composition. Of course, they are separate concepts in abstract, but when they are embodied in a piece of music, I find it hard to cleanly separate them. Sometimes the patterns of processing can impinge strongly on the domain of composition. And it is not as if a composition always has the same import regardless of the instrument on which it is played. I see these areas as having porous boundaries, not impenetrable walls. But yes, I wanted it to sound possible in contrast to the sense in which I have often opted to produce impossible music. By that I mean, as you say, as if it was recorded by a live band, or at least theoretically could have been. I don't think it would be logically impossible for a band to play "Go Plastic", but as I put so much emphasis on the 'inhuman' strengths of technology in that record, it would be incredibly difficult. Maybe incredibly pointless aswell!
You said you dreamed of watching a band play the music of the record: have you considered actually play the songs of "Just a Souvenir" with a full band and make your dream happen ?
Yes. In fact part of the original plan that I subsequently abandoned was to make the record and then assemble a fantastic group of front men to play it for me. Also part of the idea was that I would deny any connection with it. I crave the idea of a fresh start without all the stupid baggage of "Squarepusher-the-maveric-drum-and-bass-artist." Unfortunately Squarepusher-the-maveric-drum-and-bass-artist is also pathologically conscientious and pretty dismal at lying. In the end I just couldn't face setting something up that I would have to systematically lie about indefinitely. Incidentally, "A Red Hot Car" and "Do You Know" are similar both in respect of them involving a plan for them to be fronted by an invented artist and that the plan was subsequently abandoned. For my upcoming tour, I will be using a drummer on stage to help me make live performances of some of the pieces from "Just A Souvenir" and others. I am in the process of selecting musicians for my fantasy group. But I don't really like talking about things I have actually done, let alone things that I've not yet done! I'm going to shut up about that for the time being...
Is exploring thorough composition and musicianship a way to evade the too easy and infinite possibilities of electronic music?
One of the reasons that I have explored some of the more esoteric or, less politely, more irrelevant areas of electronic music is to present myself with a challenge. As you say, it can seem very easy to make electronic music and so in order to keep it interesting I have been impelled to investigate more obscure methods of realising electronic compositions. Of course, it would be strange to equate the level of difficulty of a method of making music with a corresponding level of musical validity. This is one of the mistakes that in my view is typically made in so-called "musician's music" -just because it takes years of practice to play at that level, it doesn't mean that it's going to be worth hearing. I have to say that to me playing a conventional instrument is a practice that is worthwhile in itself. Even if I am not in a phase of recording, I always keep up my practice on selected instruments. Obviously, that helps me retain fluency, but as I said I also just enjoy playing for its own sake. Fluency is very much a thing that can be developed with electronic means too, but it does seem odd to make an electronic piece of music but not record it. In that sense I find electronic music production a little more end-directed than the more traditional means. Something of the "craft" element of traditional musicianship really appeals to me. Using electronic instruments may also be seen to incorporate an element of craft, but their inherent complexity and greater available range of options does ultimately seem arbitrary, unlike the limits of conventional instruments which are designed around the limits of the body. Maybe this detracts a little from them seeming like something you could really spend a lifetime developing a nuanced approach to in the same way as a guitar or a violin. It is almost as if the lack of clear limitations constitutes a bigger limitation in itself. Certainly, if an instrument embodies an infinite aspect in any obvious way then it will be hard to pin an identity on it. But then that also suggests why I always come back to electronic means too: the unfathomable is fascinating as much as it is abhorrent and that which is devoid of identity may just be waiting for one to be furnished.
Could you explain further the term "ultra" that you seem to really affectionate? what would be the best definition of "ultra" music? Of an "ultra" band?
It seems that words can be appreciated on an aesthetic level; the way a particular word looks in print and the way it sounds affect my feelings about it. Certain words I find disgusting for those reasons and not because of their meanings. Some words are very funny. 'Ultra' seems to me a very clean word, the vowels open and close it well and it has a pleasing consonant structure in the middle. It also has a compact and purposeful look. Beyond that, as an adjective it suggests going beyond norms and conventions, although the nuance that I am fond of correct or otherwise is describing an entity that is most fully itself, or in its most fully realized state. Bearing that in mind then, ultra music would be something where the varying dimensions of freedom are explored if not fully then very extensively. Of course, not such that the dimensions of technicality become an end in themselves, but such that they are ready to be facilitate fluent articulation of the composition. As I said earlier, I am wary of music that is so technically oriented that it comes to resemble a sport more than an art. Though I would shy away from saying that a piece of music could have any sort of absolute value or meaning, I don't endorse a notion of entirely free-floating meaning either. A specific piece of music provides a specific occasion for attributing meaning and though those meanings will vary through time and person, they will surely be offered a particular hue according to the content. With that in mind, some music seems to mean nothing or seems incapable of housing any interpretation. As I see it, some music that is heavily biased towards emphasizing technicality seems assessable only in a sort of "box-ticking" way. It suggests a listener with a clipboard rather than with a tear in their eye. With that in mind the burgeoning tendency to give music a 'score' in record and concert reviews seems to me a paradigm of laziness and insensitivity. Or maybe it is some brave new level of brute realism that I am too sentimental to comprehend...
Do you feel comfortable and at your place playing in jazz festivals, such as that event you played at cité de la musique with evan parker? What is the difference playing in front of jazz audiences and rave audiences? Do you make a difference?
A swift glance over the crowd at the event you mentioned suggested to me that maybe they were not a 'standard' jazz crowd. But I think the difference is not so much in the people that compose the audiences, but rather in the codes of conduct that prevail in each context. Obviously the codes are contingent and can easily be broken, but they are surprisingly persuasive. A bunch of people that you might expect to be quite rowdy at a rave can be quite well mannered when they attend a jazz or classical music concert. With that in mind, I choose the context according to what music I am playing. The seated, hushed context was appropriate to my solo bass pieces that I played that evening, as they feature very subtle passages that would simply be lost in the general hubbub and air conditioning racket at a rave. I know that from experience. On the face of it, the seated and hushed type event seems a little stiff and straightjacketed, putting quite a demand on the audience in terms of their behaviour. Obviously the advantage is in the sonic detail available. But is it not the case that the rave type event comes with its own possibly less formal, more diverse but nonetheless equally persuasive codes of behaviour?
You were considered a musical maverick at a time, both by fans of electronic music and by others, and you now appear of the British national TV as well as posing full frontal on your record covers : do you think your status has changed with years? And if it did, is it for the better or the worse?
I think that you may be better positioned to judge my status than I am. Whatever status is accorded to me seems like an idiotic simplification, experiencing myself as a living being and not a 1-dimensional stereotype. That has been a strong motivation over the years -to get people to eat their words about me. I refuse, naively or otherwise, to be a homogenous entity that is conveniently packaged up and sold to sleep walkers. I refuse to let you sleep!
It seems that in your twelve year (or so) career, you've been accommodating your melodic and sonic obsessions with whichever arrangements you could find in your mind : do you agree ? And according to this, what would be the essential difference between, for instance, two emotionally intense songs like « Tensor in Green » and, say, « Tundra » on « Feed Me Weird Things » ?
Yes, I do agree -the way I would put it would be to say that I have presented reasonably consistent harmonic and melodic notions in different stylistic contexts. As far as essential differences, I would be nervous to commit entirely as I don't see myself as the arbiter of interpretation of my work. On a technical level, and maybe that is where the majority of the difference lies, there is no midi sequencing as such on "Tensor In Green", whereas the bulk of the content of "Tundra" is sequenced. There is also no use of samples on "Tensor": the sounds predominantly come from guitars and basses processed in various ways and the drums are from a proper kit played live rather than the drum samples used on "Tundra".
The kinds of harmonic, complex scales and rhythmic complications you seem to affectionate so much are often associated with quite unpopular genres of music - prog rock and fusion jazz - that people often discard as "musician's music". would you say you also work for a rehabilitation of what can be good in those styles?
I think that is true; I think those genres are rightly dismissed because of the excesses of instrumental indulgence which seem to exclude anyone who isn't in the virtuoso club. But in dismissing them, many valuable musical ideas are thrown away too. Over the years I have developed a form of listening which tries to exclude the elements that I find uninteresting and focuses on the bits I do. Hence I can tolerate listening to at least some prog rock and fusion because in amongst the pompous nonsense are often some very interesting ideas. As far as rehabilitation goes, maybe the terms "prog rock" and so on are themselves perpetually tainted -but of course that is why it is interesting to smuggle key elements of those styles into other contexts. It highlights, hopefully not too cynically, how susceptible people are to basing their 'taste' on the social image of various musics. In that era, virtuosity was brought to the forefront of music-making. I don't see anything wrong with that in itself. Virtuosity is similar to having a good vocabulary and can maybe be similarly aggravating to talking to people who have "swallowed a dictionary" -there seems to be a flatly superiority-oriented attitude afoot. A sort of unsophisticated sophistication. Maybe it is so clever that it's stupid. Yet having a good vocabulary doesn't mean you have to use it all the time. Obviously a tendency to excessive musical boasting has lead virtuosity to be pretty much shut out of popular music. Yet that is also in its way a very unsophisticated response to unsophisticated sophistication. To my mind, like a good vocabulary, a highly developed technical skill on a instrument allows a more nuanced way to expressing ideas. With that in mind, virtuosity's musically illegal status is literally stupid. So, I like to put virtuosity to what I see as good service, ie not in the name of making people awestruck at my ability but in order to escape the mind numbing bluntness of now de rigueur unskilled musicianship -to articulate musical ideas freely.
Also, you are more and more coming back to the bass guitar, which has become more and more present again in your records. do you think you're working for a rehabilitation of this instrument as well? And may I ask who, beyond an obvious Jaco Pastorius, who are the bass players that you still value as truly innovative musicians ?
Well, maybe. Innovative bass players often seem to me bound to some sort of notion of being "entertaining", as if a solo always has to end with a smile and sparkling teeth. Many players seem to find it hard to really fuse musical integrity with technical skill. One bassist I really like is the chap in 'Lightning Bolt'. He has sound, technique and content very well balanced.
After covering a song by Joy Division, have you ever considered recording your own versions of jazz or jazz rock standards or do you just not care about those? (I must say i would love to hear what you could do with a song by the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever…)
That is something I would love to do. There are lots of lovely ideas like that but I feel impelled to prioritise my own compositions at the moment. One day maybe, when I have a big studio with sofas and views across the countryside and lots of lovely high quality equipment and an engineer -in short when I've run out of ideas.
When writing and recording music, do you ever think of the people that will listen to your records? And to the "audience" of followers that they might constitute?
I try not to, not out of disrespect for anyone but more so that I can try not to be diverted away from the ideas I am interested in. Bearing in mind what we said about prog rock and so on, certain social pressures can coerce musicians away from more contentious and unfashionable terrain and I don't think I'm immune to this. So I tend to isolate myself so that I can make thorough development of ideas without them being dismissed because they initially resemble some musical anathema. If anyone likes what I've done, it seems more of an achievement if I have followed my own path rather than if I had fulfilled some more generally approved compositional route.
A question that i'd love you to answer: do you care about the present musical world? And if yes, do you like it?
I don't particularly care about it really.
Do you think your music and records react in any way to the present world ?
I think there is one clear way that I see my work reacting to the present world. Something I detect as being prevalent is end-directed thinking. Thus, all human activities must have a purpose in order to be seen as worthwhile, which seems quite an industrialised state of mind. If an activity doesn't produce anything, and particularly if it doesn't produce any money or circumstances that are conducive to making money, it is viewed as secondary, irrelevant or even suspicious. It thus tempts me to try to construct music that is beautifully pointless; that celebrates an activity for the sheer experience of doing it. What is the point of a life anyway? Surely there is no actual point to being alive? Surrounding the end-directed mind set is a shadowy pointlessness, and that if anything is what I want my music to celebrate. Not nihilism, which is a mirror image of thoroughgoing instrumental reason, but an appreciation for activities in themselves. I try to make music that cannot be co-opted to a fashion statement because it is shot through with surface-image contradictions.
Eventually, a question i’ve been dreaming to ask you for a long time : are we allowed to detect irony in some of your music?
By all means! The trick at this point in musical history is not to be consumed by it.
[p.s. Thank you for these questions -I really enjoyed answering them. I hope my answers are useful for the piece. Please, if you need me to clarify anything, get back in touch.
All the best, Tom.]