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John Wall

Andrew and Howard Jacques of These Records in conversation with John Wall on the eve of the release of his new CD AlterStill.

...strains of Bernard Parmegiani's Violostries permeate the room...

JW: Sets the tone nicely don't you think?

AJ: Hmmm, anyway, John, why AlterStill?

JW: It was totally arbitrary, a joining together of two highly charged words to form a meaningless word.

HJ: So does that imply that the music contained within is also devoid of meaning?

JW: What exactly do you mean?

HJ: Does your music have meaning?

AJ: Yes, is the meaning of your music tied up in the process of sampling?

JW: If I understand you correctly, then No.

HJ: Would you care to elaborate on that John?

JW: What I do is to use the process as a means to an end, and not as a point of politics or confrontation on the issue of copyright, or as the primary aesthetic behind the production of the music.

AJ: So do you think that sample-based musics that are primarily anti-copyright in nature have their own merit artistically, or is that just conceptually based in your opinion?

JW: If you mean do I thrill to the audio experience, then the answer is sadly no, my main concern has always been to try and produce a coherent collage of music, sound, noise that has some emotional and formal complexity to it.

AJ: Could you describe your compositional methods?

JW: Well, first I accumulate samples. These come mainly from twentieth century classical music and occasional avant-jazz, thrash metal, electro-acoustic music and so on. Then comes the lengthy process of assembling these fragments as building blocks for a piece. As for how these fit together, and how the constituent parts are treated, looped, altered in pitch, reversed, it's very much down to intuition. For example, the middle section of Fragmenter features an increasingly layered string quartet sample which remained musically unresolved for some time. This was only 'sorted' when I eventually used a thrash-metal sample which worked so well that it radically changed the way I was looking at the piece, so I completely reworked it. Recognising that moment is crucial.

HJ: I think we've strayed from the point. People like John Oswald are not just using sampling for sound effects, but are confronting the copyright laws to free up people like you from prosecution. This seems not to concern you.

JW: The point is not missed. I'm aware of the debate and how it might affect me, but my work is not satirical, or conceptual.

AJ: Hmmm.

(Andrew leaves the room)

HJ: Would you care to elaborate on that John?

JW: What do you mean, elaborate? Are you trying to undermine my raison d'etre?

HJ: Erm, yes ... no, ... here comes Andrew.

(Andrew re-enters the room)

JW: Ahhh ... quality lagers, how nice, let's move on.

AJ: There are pieces on both your albums which sample from our label's releases ... we could sue you for that.

JW: Are you threatening me?

AJ: You'll be hearing from our solicitors. (laughs)

HJ: I think we should move on to something else.

AJ: I believe you were a painter for a number of years, do you believe this had some influence on the collage aspects of your work?

JW: I was a painter and decorator.

AJ: Painter and decorator?

JW: Yes.

AJ: So can we expect an ambient album from you soon, do you see any qualities in wallpaper music?

JW: Are you trying to be funny?

AJ: There's nothing funny about 'electronic listening music'.


HJ: So! What is your musical background?

JW: It's irrelevant.

AJ: You say that, but you've used tapes of your own past performances, mixed in with the sampled stuff.


AJ: Yes, stuff.

JW: What you call stuff is in fact a highly selective appropriation of small fragments of sound taken, for example from CDs of self-indulgent solo improvisations, separating the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, then seamlessly glued together by my fair hand, via a mouse.

AJ: So, you think you take the best bits.

JW: Yes, best for me.

HJ: Are you saying that a lot of the improvised recordings you use sections from are filled with "gratuitous material"?

JW: With a few notable exceptions, yes.

HJ: Would you care to elaborate on that?

JW: If you mean, do I thrill to the audio experience produced by intense insect-like males ... angsting away, then the answer is sadly no.

AJ: I think we'd better move on to something else.

JW: Yes, I think we should. What exactly would you like to move on to?

AJ: OK then John, you seem generally unimpressed with some of the sources you're plundering from.

JW: Yes, some.

HJ: So do you assume that by sampling from 'great works', that you somehow appropriate longevity and greatness?

JW: My music will last for a thousand years.

AJ: Barring major ecological catastrophe ... and what exactly do you mean by 'my music'? If you remove all the samples what's left?

JW: Complete silence, I would imagine, for about forty-six minutes, and then a scratchy guitar solo kicks in.

AJ: The bit that you play.

HJ: This conversation is beginning to feel like a Beckett sketch.

AJ: Or a situationist sit-com.

JW: I'd imagine that Sam would not be pleased with that comparison, and if this is a situationist sit-com, as seems usual in these interviews, the interviewee is required to express opinions on their musical likes and dislikes. So, ever mindful of the anal retentive nature of this whole sorry exercise, I have prepared a list of my top one hundred, in no particular order and subject to change at a moment's notice.

HJ: (to Andrew) Christ, he's lost the plot.

JW: Gentlemen ... THE LIST!

  • Violostries / Rouge Mort: Bernard Parmegiani
  • Te Deum: Arvo Pärt
  • Aurore: Etant Donnes
  • Process and Reality: Evan Parker
  • Quartetto per Archi: Krysztof Penderecki
  • Morton Feldman
    • Two pieces for two pianos
    • Intermissions VI
    • Piece for four pianos
    • Piece for four hands
    • Five pianos
  • Cop: Swans
  • Sleep III: Paul Schütze
  • Northumbrian Pipes: Billy Pig
  • Coco Bolo Nights: Hans Reichel
  • Concerto for Choir: Alfred Schnittke
  • C.S.C.L.D.F.: Young Gods
  • String Quartets 1,2,3: Mauricio Kagel
  • Quartet No. 3: Sofia Gubaidulina
  • Vererzchnung / Studie: Wolfgang Rihm
  • Sarang Dadra: Bismilla K*

I haven't finished yet ... I've not mentioned the obligatory obscure composer yet. Schoenberg stated Cage was not a composer of genius, but an inventor of genius ...

HJ: Please Stop!

AJ: How the hell did he speak that text box?

JW: ... but I could be misquoting.

AJ: So, do you think that people need some kind of "understanding" of musical theory to do what you do, or as Beuys stated, "everyone is an artist", and everyone could buy your gear and become a "sampler extraordinaire"?

JW: It's a myth that technology is predominantly emancipatory, and knowledge alone is not power.

HJ: Products are sold to us by emphasising their negative attributes as positive, as people buy into this there is a negation of alternative possibilities.

JW: Would you care to elaborate on that?

AJ: I can't believe it's not butter.

JW: And I can't believe you just said that ... I think we should move on.

HJ: Would you consider yourself to be a reconstructuralist?

JW: I know your game, you're trying to baffle me with language and lager. My music is to be taken seriously, unlike this farcical dialogue, with its badgering, mocking tones. People want information, contentious opinions, substantiatable facts, challenging consumer durables ..... (Voice trails off, sulks)

AJ: So! Back to the album. Are you post-modern?

JW: (petulantly) They don't call me "The Recontextualiser" for nothing!

AJ: How very cutting edge.

HJ: .............................

JW: .......................

AJ: ....................

All ears turned to the stereo. Newfoundland by AMM "cuts through the strained silence like a knife", and together we tap into the word processor:

"It is midnight. The rain is beating on the windows.

It was not midnight. It was not raining".