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Any number of musicians operate in the area of tape-collage today. When Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry pioneered composition with taped found sounds in 1948 (and called it 'musique concrète'), the primitive technology they used was very much the province of an elite. Schaeffer's first tape composition, using recordings of railway locomotives, owed inspiration to the turn-of-the-century futurists, and to Balilla Pratella's demand that music "must represent the spirit of crowds, of great industrial complexes, of trains, of ocean liners, of battle fleets, of automobiles and aeroplanes."
Some later concète composers strove to break free from the elitism of the academy. Luc Ferrari strove to create audio photographs, allowing the sounds to speak for themselves, free of processing and manipulation. He noted: "My intention was to pave the way for amateur concète music, much as people take snapshots during vacations." With the advent of cheap and widely available tape recordings, and the invention of digital sampling, Ferrari's vision was realised more and more from the end of the 60s. First came the experimenters of psychedelic pop, Krautrock and progressive rock, and later the army of bedroom-boys inspired by industrial music.
Aphasia is one of Britain's latest exponents of this tradition, a one-man project from Richard Johnson. When I reviewed Aphasia's first CD release, Brume vs. Aphasia, in the last issue of EST, I described it as an "extremely carefully poised blend of environmental musique concète and post-industrial noise collage". It's a fair description of the Aphasia sound, although perhaps it doesn't really highlight just how singular a musician he is.
Aphasia's second CD, a split disc with Yorkshire's Dachise, continues in the spirit of eclectic sound-collage. Subdued field recordings of wildlife segue into bizarre, hallucinatory voices, then eviscerating bursts of aquatic noise; the music of the fairground is obliterated by churning mechanical rhythms, only to subside into near silence. There's a tension between quiet and noise that provides a great deal of drama. It's tempting to treat it as a soundtrack and try and imagine a surreal narrative that could match the sounds, but there's really no need. There's enough pleasure simply from the very confident juxtaposition of sound, the way that every element is treated with great care.
It's easy to sit back and compare Aphasia's music to its antecedents in electroacoustic music and elsewhere, but Johnson isn't particularly concerned about the dim and distant past of this tradition. "I do employ noise and electro-acoustic elements in my work but I'm not in touch with either type of music. I don't listen to a lot of noise, I've only heard one Merzbow album (not that I think noise equals Merzbow) and have never heard anything by Luc Ferrari. It's funny when you get compared to artists you've never even heard of, never mind their music!"
The resemblance to Luc Ferrari is sometimes striking, as Aphasia's music shares a willingness to know when to sit back, when to let the sounds be themselves and develop in their own time. Jim O'Rourke is perhaps one of the only other musicians working in tape-collage who shares the taste for extreme contrasts of silence and volume. Aphasia's influences do perhaps relate to this sort of more recent recording.
"I try hard not to be influenced by other people's music these days which is difficult as it usually happens subconsciously. I do not want to copy somebody else, I have to feel what I'm doing is original or there is no point. Sure, I can be motivated by other people, by their ideas. Ideas arouse me as much as sound does. In the earlier days I was certainly influenced by Illusion of Safety currently I'm motivated by work put out by Asphodel, Mego, Mille Plateaux / Chrome, Touch, Staalplaat, Lo Recordings / Leaf, Sub Rosa, Incoming!, really too many to mention here."
Johnson's route into experimental music was certainly via industrial music, a movement that possibly did far more to create a widespread DIY ethic than punk ever did. Like the rest of us, his musical beginnings were more prosaic. "I grew up on heavy metal, thrash and hard-core, all pretty much intense music, or at least I thought it was at the time. There is actually a Christian heavy metal band called Aphasia in America, which I recently discovered (their sleeve credit notes are really funny and one of them looks like David Copperfield). I started to listen to more industrial based music only shortly prior to Aphasia. It was the industrial stuff that tempted me to play with sounds. I began just mixing existing sounds (e.g. records, CDs, telly, videos) on a two-channel mixer and recorded the results. I liked being in control of the actual process and the possibilities available. After toying with this for a few months I began to have ideas that could only be achieved with the use of a sampler. From buying a sampler in late 1993 I began my exploration of sound. This is also when I began listening to real experimental music, which greatly inspired my early work. These days I listen to anything, both underground and commercial."
Aphasia's first full-length album, Stereoisomerism, built on the previous releases while adding new elements. As well as Johnson's own recordings (some of which are listed on the CD inlay card: "small tin cans / rotten timber / plastic / electric static / barbed wire / shovel, grit"), sounds were contributed from like-minded sound-sculptors Brume, Dachise and Toy Bizarre. More radical is the unexpected presence of drum-and-bass rhythms dropped in on top of the beautifully balanced ambience.
"I thought the beats which only lasted a few bars or so worked best in relation to their background composition. Others possibly took up too much space and promoted mental stagnation. Aphasia has always been about mixing and processing sounds in non-rhythm structures to create music purely for mental stimulation. It has up to Stereoisomerism always been a non-physical event, beats have never really painted pictures in my head. However, to keep moving and mixing different styles to create something new, I felt I had to use beats. Certain artists probably influenced me to do so too, I listen to a lot of beat orientated music."
The rhythms added a tension that's often lacking from this sort of music, as well as demonstrating a rare breadth of vision. And it's not just drum-and-bass: on the track Stereoisomerism 2 there's an industrial pounding and screeching that rivals anything Test Dept or Einstürzende Neubauten ever came up with.
"I am certainly going to continue using beats but they will be kept to a minimum and used subtly to create a feeling or change (perhaps only lasting quarter, half bars or 3 to 4 at the most). I probably won't continue to use recognisable styles such as drum n' bass but more abstract heavily processed beats not easily identifiable with any style or even with actually being a beat but still retaining the rhythm."
The sheer range of sounds on Stereoisomerism was impressive, particularly the fact that nothing seems out of place. As on previous albums, contrast is key. I wondered to what extent Johnson was happy with the way his music had progressed, how he felt about previous releases.
"I don't really look back at past work, apart from my collection of model aeroplanes. Once it's released you cannot change it so I don't think about it. I don't even have a copy of all Aphasia CD releases. It is the feeling of creating something new that satisfies me. But I would say that I am happy with all previous work, be it now or when recorded. Satisfaction does tend to wear off as time goes on, which is only natural. If it didn't I'd be less motivated to continue. Each release has acted as a stepping stone to the next, progression would not have occurred without each one. So whether I now like them or not becomes less important. In particular, I suppose Stereoisomerism was quite satisfactory, being the most accessible work I've done without compromising any elements. Perhaps the use of rhythms made it friendly to the ears of the general listener. It was also made special being the first full-length album, I suppose."
Stereoisomerism also makes plenty of use of other music, such as hymns sung in French or folk accordion music, both left untreated and sometimes grossly distorted. Again, it's tempting to try and impose some sort of narrative, but these fragments aren't treated any differently from the other sounds used.
"Sound sources are chosen purely for the original sound and their potential for manipulation. It is never for a conceptual interest. The potency of the sounds has to be high, and visual images they create are considered. But sounds to employ within a composition are never really pre-planned. I just let my ears guide me rather than my mind. Was that a contradiction? The composition structure, however, is often thought out. That is something I need to be straight for and use my mind. The journey has to be engaging as well as the sounds. Some compositional parts do happen though when sounds combine by chance meeting. This occurs when I mix improvised pieces together. You could call the result accidental or natural. Composing a piece or combining sounds is quite a selfish thing, they are not created with other listeners or people in mind. If I am happy with the result I am fulfilled. I don't need anybody else to like them to further my satisfaction. Sounds can bring back memories and emotions connected to a time better than something physical like a photograph. I think of each track as being a slice of my soul of a particular time".
Although Johnson was born in Abu Dhabi, he began making music as Aphasia while living in Banchory, in north-east Scotland, not exactly renowned as a hub of the experimental music world. More recently, he has moved to Glasgow. I asked whether the comparative isolation from musical 'scenes' influenced his music in any way. "I don't know. I create what I like. Why I like what I like I guess many factors are involved I think a lot of music scenes are imaginary anyway. The UK appears to be almost dead when it comes to extreme experimental music, so it doesn't really matter where you live. It's very much a postal thing. People rely on fanzines and mail order outlets to hear of news and development rather than word on the street or in Smash Hits. I know only a handful of retail outlets stocking this type of music and fewer clubs that have experimental noise nights.
"I would however say that the rural isolation of Banchory has influenced my actual sound to some extent. Obviously I didn't notice this until I lived elsewhere. It tends to be clean sounding but more cut-up in rural areas. When I recently moved to Glasgow the sound became dirtier but also more accessible. Perhaps I try to imitate my surroundings I think both rural and urban areas have equally goods points as backdrops to listen to experimental music within. For example I enjoy listening to noise based music driving through housing estates, both have their intense elements. But equally, I enjoy listening to similar music driving high up in the hills in isolation, where mental imagery becomes involved. A physical journey meets a mental journey, in the right frame of mind this can be quite overwhelming."
In addition to the record releases, Aphasia has provided music for short films by Image 37 Productions, and a full-length film by the Wolf and Water Production company. A new album has been completed for Noise Museum, titled Mesospheric Breaks, collecting breakbeat collages and soundscapes, and a 7" single will see release on the French Kaon label.
"This is happening quite slowly as I recently sold all my recording equipment, and I'm only gradually building up again. I'm going for a computer-based system with hard disc recording. I think that computers take some of the fun from making music but the editing facilities and sound quality are too tempting. Remix work would also be made easier, which is something I want to pursue."
Johnson has begun a drum-and-bass only project with a friend, and is continuing to use his own label, Atmoject, for occasional releases. The most recent have been three limited-edition CDs (100 copies each) by Aphasia associates, with special packaging hand-signed by the artists. Justin Broadrick's Final project is also due to release a CD through the label.
Aphsia really does stand out amongst the host of obvious comparisons, and I look forward to hearing more magnificently visionary output for some time to come.
Interview by Brian Duguid, 1998, © 2003
Photographs by Daniel Löwenbrück, featuring Aphasia, Dachise, Tape-Beatles (piano and bass guitar), Jaap Blonk (voice) & Werner Durand (plastic wind instrument).
Contact: Atmoject, Aldersyde, Station Road, Banchory, Kincardineshire AB31 5XX.
Aphasia / Dachise - Split Disc - Realization - 1995
Brume vs Aphasia - Series One: Round One - Atmoject - 1996
Aphasia - Stereoisomerism - Korm Plastics / Staalplaat - 1997
Aphasia - Mesospheric_breaks - Noise Museum - 1998
Various - Staalplaat Cocktail - Staalplaat - 1997 - 3" CD feat. Aphasia, Barbed, Stilluppsteypa, Public Works, BMB Con, Muzictoerist, Jaap Blonk
Brume vs Aphasia - Series One: Round One - A_001
Toy Bizarre - Musique Pour Bernard Clarisse - A_002
Dachise - You Pay Angels - A_003
Brume - Les Victims Sont Dangereuses - A_004