Labchat with Peter Kirn

by Zach Huenink

Technology and music have forever been intertwined, with each pushing the other’s boundaries deep into the unknown and unfamiliar. At the center of this relationship is the focus of today’s lab chat, Peter Kirn. If you’re not familiar with the name, a bit of research will reveal that his accolades, influence, and passion have been a constant force within the analog and digital world for quite some time. He is the editor-in-chief and founder of Create Digital Music, co-creator of the MeeBlip synthesizer line, and label owner. Not to mention as well, a prolific producer of ambient, techno and everything in between.

For his latest offering, Peter dives back into the swirling eddies of ambient and downtempo with a four track EP titled, ‘Pink Cloud Syndrome’. Each entry, twists through time and creates a unique feeling not unlike walking through an art gallery and peering into the mind of the artists.

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Hi Peter, the start of this release was rooted in runway show commissions. When you’re approached for these types of requests, are there any restrictions or guidelines you’re given? For most of our readers including myself, I imagine this is a realm none too familiar.
Making music for people outside of music is always stimulating, partly because you tend not to get clearly stated restrictions. People are looking for a feeling and they may not know how to describe it. I was lucky on the work for Julianna Bass, as I communicated a lot with Carolyn Thomas who was working for the fashion label. Her background is design and so also knows what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a client’s desires, and I think she also had good instincts about what the spirit of the thing should be. So a lot of this was about me talking to Carolyn and figuring out what would fit. I think it helped too that the first show we worked together on was a DJ-style runway mix, so there we were able to experiment with lots of moods and cuts and it wasn’t my own music.

But you know I see a lot of releases from other people I love that began as some kind of commission. I think we all are grateful for that chance to have challenges outside ourselves, not just to be sitting alone in the studio trying to make something out of thin air for no one.

As a follow up, was the addition of the visuals something you wanted to do from the start, or added along the way. I know you have an affinity for combining the two (auditory and visual) stimuli so I’m interested in the influence on the creative process here.
Oh, I definitely had colors and imagery in mind for each piece, so there was always this stuff going on in my head! Then actually putting the release out with video is really thanks to Kero from Detroit Underground. Kero is as much a visual artist and tastemaker, both with his work and his label, as a music one. And it makes perfect sense that he has a VHS label, because his aesthetic is both futuristic and retro … like some dystopian future where we’re back to using VCRs. Kero saw one of these show videos and said he wanted an AV release, which is something I’m always up for.

I didn’t want this to be a fashion film or anything connected to the industry, though, so again I got to conspire with Carolyn and collect behind-the-scenes videos - what people were running around shooting on smartphones, plus this interesting lookbook imagery and animation that came from Ryan Michael Kelley and Jen Campbell. And so we’re intentionally rough and lo-fi and destroy the video and the point of view is quite literally from Carolyn, Sonny, Johanne, Laura, and Colleen behind the scenes. It’s the point of view of the people making these shows.

And then from there I approached it as a VJ; the videos were composed live, and Kero took another pass doing live glitching and destruction with analog equipment and his iPhone, and then I did another round of layering those together.

A bit of an oddball question here but I’m curious to hear your answer. To build on that pairing, if you could pick any full length feature film to compose the film score for, which would you pick and why?
Oh, that’s a great question. I think to be honest I’d want some new more experimental film. The last generation had Tarvosky and Solaris, but now of course there’s no Soviet Union to fund this sort of moviemaking. I would love for someone to make a film of Dhalgren, the Samuel R. Delany surrealist book. I did a techno version of that as my last full-length Bellona USA but … I would throw all of that out and do something totally differently, actually.

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Switching gears here a bit, you mention the ‘dark side of euphoria’ as an overall feeling for the release. I think you nailed that throughout, especially in III. Is this a feeling or atmosphere you find yourself gravitating to frequently?
I mean, music making is about being emotionally vulnerable somehow, isn’t it? And yeah, I’m always personally drawn to those moments where you feel some brew of emotions that are many things at once, even conflicting in ways you can’t put into words. The music I guess is even a bit simple, but maybe then it’s just the way of expressing, I have no way to express this.

An addendum to that as well, do you feel as though there was a shift or change in your productions when you moved from America to Berlin? This move isn’t an uncommon one so I’m interested to hear your take on the matter.
After seven years, I think I’m only now catching up, actually! Especially in terms of music - I personally find I evolve sort of slowly and need a lot of time to obsess over things and fail a lot. There’s a wonderful disruption to self, living in another country on another continent and dealing with relocating a single-operator business here. I got an intense view of technology; I’ve learned a tremendous amount about production and synthesis and how music products are developed. This is a capital of music technology as much as it is of techno. And it’s a capital of scientific understanding - I’ve visited a particle accelerator (it’s walking distance from the S-bahn). I’ve had a rich experience of new thinking, musical and political and otherwise.

Coming from my musical life in New York City, I’d spent a huge chunk of my life writing for voices and instruments, even, and my entry into electronics was experimental sounds for modern dance. I think when I tried to adapt to the club in New York, it mostly didn’t work. I was short both on technique and the culture around club music. I mean - I didn’t go out. I discovered I needed to go out and dance; some part of me was incomplete without it. So here there is this incredible and international feeling of the techno scene.

And then I’ve felt some need to put all those experiences back together again. So it’s wonderful here that “techno” so effortlessly moves between club contexts and totally out-there experimentalism. It becomes this umbrella that can mean a Detroit electro or Communist-era Polish avant-garde experimentalism or both at once. It can mean those people can even swap places. I’ve played duos with artists from Kassel and Tehran.

You can’t ever put all of that into your own music. So part of what I hope to do with what energy and time I have is also to support connecting other people and putting energy into platforms where we can all share.

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Can you tell me a bit about the setup you used for this release? You’ve got synths, a piano, drum machines going from what I can tell but I feel like you’ve always got something up your sleeve as a special touch.
I’m the sort of person who gets overwhelmed by presets. It’s actually way easier for me to sit in front of a relatively blank screen and design some sounds to try to match what I imagine. I’m actually trying to remember what’s in these tracks; I should actually go back and dig up some of these sounds as maybe they could have some other life. But I love Applied Acoustics’ physical modeling things, I constantly come back to Pianoteq for modeled pianos, I’ve been using Output’s instruments and effects - they’re really modern sounding, and it’s great to have Ableton’s built-in instruments sometimes for quick sound design. I’m totally addicted to Eventide effects. Oh, and I did some singing.

And as a follow up, was each track a continuous stream of thought or were there multiple sessions involved? I know you perform live with an almost all improvisational approach as such does any of that output make it’s way over to being released?
That’s what I really enjoyed about this set; it was really about trying to make things as playable as possible to commit to finishing them, so really going through and playing it all live. One of them I did with a portable keyboard in a hotel room in Ireland, like literally set up on a bed because there wasn’t a desk. Then there’s always some processing or mangling, some sense of making something into something else.

I went back for the album and mixed everything again, though, which for me involves a funny ritual of switching DAWs - so these were made in Ableton Live but then mixed in Logic Pro. It’s sort of the virtual equivalent of moving to a different studio.

 photo credit Frank Michael Arndt for Stiftung Planetarium Berlin

photo credit Frank Michael Arndt for Stiftung Planetarium Berlin

Speaking of improvisation, I watched your TED talk where you used an xbox kinect in a brief demonstration, what are your thoughts on VR and using that? I know it’s a bit of a jump but with how tech is progressing, I’m sure you have some great ideas.
I’m newly excited by this, especially after playing this massively multichannel system in the Zeiss Grossplanetarium. I’ve always sort of thought spatially and architecturally and we’re finally getting some interfaces that let you exploit that.

The funny thing is, the companies driving this want you to sit on your couch alone, basically, and have this mass-market experience. I guess we want to do the opposite - I think VR tech could transform the experience in venues. It can map sound to architecture in new ways. And then yeah, for those private listening experiences, maybe it can enrich independent and experimental music and create better listening environments.

And to me, it’s really great when this tech can be played like an instrument, even the techier ideas. As I was saying in the TED talk, it’s about that immediacy of playing.

Peter, for this release you’ve picked both a digital one, as well as on VHS. Does the release medium have any effect on the creative process beforehand? Why did you choose VHS as a format?
Oh, that’s all Kero. It’s fun, because know I’m finding out who owns a VCR and who doesn’t. I think I have to go buy one at the Flohmarkt!

But I love this format. It’s how I learned to edit, and using two VHS decks was way more intuitive and improvisational than the way something like Premiere makes you work. And it’s definitely not nostalgia, either. I hated tracking problems and snow and all the distortion of VHS when it was our main format. Of course, now I can’t get enough of those very things. I think this is the unexpected side effect as we adapt to technology: we start to better assimilate the old stuff as well as the new. We become comfortable with the unpredictability of tech.

 photo credit Frank Michael Arndt for Stiftung Planetarium Berlin

photo credit Frank Michael Arndt for Stiftung Planetarium Berlin

Finally, do you have any fellow artists or labels that are up and coming? People that we should be on the lookout for, doing great things?
That’s a long list! I think Detroit Underground is a great starting point - this label is almost like finding a great zine as far as how much music Kero has found. I love the Allegorist’s AV release, Anklepants is amazing, Dmitry Mazurov does wonderful things, and the list goes on - basically everything he’s putting out. I’m also blessed to have worked with Christian Schachta’s Snork Enterprises here in Germany, and I love their raunchy, grimy, totally underground techno and resistance to trends. In Berlin, another unsung indie up-and-coming label is oqko, and their artists are doing some spectacular things.

In techno, I’m glad that midwest techno is getting some attention - fast, bouncey, dirty, made by people who often have nowhere to go out and really do this for love. Noncompliant is getting some deserved credit for that, and she in turn has introduced me to labels like Anode Records out of St. Louis who I got to go visit recently. Other artists - it’s great to see people like Nadia Struiwigh, Dasha Rush, Susanne Kirchmyer and others tread this line between techno and experimentalism. I’m also a huge fan of Xosar and what she’s doing - dark and inventive new stuff, not to mention exploring resonance and healing. I also love what’s happening in Russia with more eclectic and adventurous sounds and an emphasis on live music, and great to see something like Kotä Records doing new things. Also my friend Robert Lippok has had an incredible year as far as live performance, and put out a wonderful album. So I was really grateful to go hang out and play at Raster’s intimate Campfire event in St. Petersburg; the was a highlight of 2018 for me.

To wrap this up, a big thank you to Peter for taking time to answer our questions as well as creating the Pink Cloud Syndrome release, not to mention his others as well. He’s just played a live set on the 25th of November at a planetarium in Berlin and we wish him the best on his future endeavours!