A Conference of Three Positions of the Past Phillip Sollman

A Conference of Three Positions of the Past

September 8, 2020

Written by:

Dragoș Rusu

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In an attempt to unify different components of utopian music, German musician, electronic music producer Phillip Sollmann tried to bring together certain works by sound pioneers Hermann von Helmholtz, Harry Partch and Harry Bertoia. After many years of research and study, the result is called “Monophonie”, an album that was released earlier this year by Ostgut Ton’s little sister, the A-TON imprint.

The sound is at least intriguing. Actually, the album goes beyond any sound aesthetics that may come to mind at a first listen (such as minimalism), combining and decontextualizing unfamiliar and bygone instruments of sonic research of Hermann von Helmholtz, with the self-designed, microtonal instruments of Harry Partch and metal sound sculptures of Harry Bertoia.
For me it’s the same if I sit in a temple outside of Kyoto listening to Buddhist chants or to a Gamelan orchestra, or if I go to Berghain; I share the same interest.
Phillip Sollmann's studio in the forest. Photo credits: Phillip Sollmann
Phillip Sollmann's studio in the forest. Photo credits: Phillip Sollmann
Although he gained recognition and notoriety within the corners of the electronic music world through his DJ alias Efdemin, Phillip Sollman’s interest for the stranger, far-out side of music (whatever that means) has a long history. Like many others, I got to know Sollmann mostly through his techno projects under the Efdemin alias, so I was quite surprised to find out about his rich background and love for free-jazz and improvised music. “I’ve mentioned Evan Parker earlier”, he tells me. “When he turned 70, I travelled to London and heard four shows in a row; I’m such a huge fan of his person and his work. You know, it’s weird because with me being active as a DJ and a music producer and also as a house DJ for a long time, most people don’t know about my other side and interests.”

As one can imagine, this album is an intrinsic investigation on utopian music. The album is described as a firm and intriguing fusion of epic kosmische, polyrhythms, acoustic techno and microtonal sounds, but to me this is music which the more you listen to, the less relevant any description becomes.

“I’ve been dreaming of working with the Harry Partch instruments since a long, long time”, Phillip Sollman tells me in a Zoom conference we had some months ago. In 2015, Partch’s main body of work – Delusion of the Fury – was restaged in Germany, with built replicas of all the instruments in a very accurate way. “I had the chance to witness this and I was so deeply moved by listening to this instruments in a contemporary environment, with a little bit of amplification on a very good sound system; I was blown away”, Sollmann remembers.
Partch Sketch of Tonality Diamond from Harry Parch Archive, Urbana Champaign
Partch Sketch of Tonality Diamond from Harry Parch Archive, Urbana Champaign
In his book Genesis Of A Music – first published in 1949 – American composer, music theorist, and creator of musical instruments Harry Partch described his music as corporeal, and distinguished it from abstract music, which he perceived as the dominant trend in Western music since the time of Bach. He began asking himself why there were only twelve notes in the Western scale. He developed his own tuning theory based on just intonation (or pure intonation - the tuning of musical intervals as whole number ratios, such as 3:2 or 4:3 of frequencies), the ensemble of musical instruments of his own invention, and several of his largest musical compositions.

Every Partch instrument has his own musical logic. Every instrument has a completely different way of notating it. Partch wrote about all these instruments, why he built them, the reason of how they look as they look and all the problem that they involve, since all the instruments that he built are prototypes. “Comparing to a violin – which is like hundreds of years of practice and adjusting and making it better and better – most of his instruments were still fragile prototypes and suffered from touring and moving through the US and so they were falling apart many times. His whole life and whole background are captivating”, Phillip tells me.
Close up of Cloud Chamber Bowls (2017). Photo credits: Volker Beushausen
Close up of Cloud Chamber Bowls (2017). Photo credits: Volker Beushausen
Partch has spent almost a decade living as a hobo—riding trains, doing manual labor, sleeping in shelters or in the wild, contracting syphilis, working occasionally as a proofreader, and, all the while, rethinking every parameter of music. He composed with scales dividing the octave into 43 unequal tones derived from the natural harmonic series; these scales allowed for more tones of smaller intervals than in standard Western tuning. To play his music, Partch built many unique instruments, with such names as the Chromelodeon, the Quadrangularis Reversum, and the Zymo-Xyl.

goes beyond a specific music product. It is a fundamental attempt to bring together people who couldn’t (or didn’t) have the chance to talk to each other, but who shared the same interest, the same research and knowledge about sound. Although Partch, Bertoia and Hermann von Helmholtz never met in person, this project successfully managed to create a bigger picture, “like a conference of three positions from the past”.

Hermann von Helmholtz was a very important researcher and scientist for acoustics, making ground breaking work with one of his instruments, in order to prove some theories and to show certain acoustic phenomenon using the Koenig Double-siren. “There are only two or three left in the whole world and it is wind-driven. So, it is completely unamplified pure mechanical sound like all the instruments that I use in this piece”, Phillip tells me.

“For me, it was kind of hardcore. I’ve studied it for one year and honestly, I’ve only touched a third of it, the rest I still have to study. There are also some parts that I’m not very interested in, but per total it’s very profound historical work about the development of the specific tuning systems over the last 4000 years from China to India and Africa to Europe”, Sollmann adds.
Konrad Sprenger and Phillip Sollmann - Modular Organ System. Photo: Benjamin Flieg
Konrad Sprenger and Phillip Sollmann - Modular Organ System. Photo: Benjamin Flieg
While researching for this project he had the chance to visit Harry Bertoia’s Barn in Pennsylvania, a memory which he remembers as being “among the most touching experiences” in his whole life. “I went there twice. I got in touch with his son and told him about the whole project. He knew about Harry Partch; he knew that they never got the chance to meet, although his father liked his stuff, so he liked the idea that I was trying somehow to bring them together after death. He kept the place where Bertoia built the sculpture and where he showed them to the public, which is a barn in the middle of nowhere in the forest. It’s such an amazing place. Shortly after this, I was in Japan and sitting in a hot spring by myself and watching the trees being moved by the wind, I have realized how close he got to nature’s behavior.”

For the Monophonie project, Phillip Sollmann had several different approaches to work with. First, improvising with the instruments was very important; just to get to know them, “because the whole idea was to try to find out what else the instruments can provide beside the music of Harry Partch, the side of his vision – which is the reason why they were made. I always felt that maybe they can do more, other stuff too, because Partch didn’t have much time to explore; he was building them and trying to raise money and then he was touring a lot and he was mostly broke all the time.”

A big part of the whole project was sampling the instruments in a very accurate way. Being in the possession of a stack of 12 virtual copies of the instruments that he chose from Harry Partch, Sollmann selected half of them. “The challenge and the problem was that I’ve came up with patterns or musical structures that were absolutely not playable by a human, because was way too fast or complex. Playing very crazy random stuff on these big instruments, the arms are not even long enough to reach out to the notes in a certain time, so that was interesting.” There was a lot of back and forth and communication between Phillip and the actual players.

“That was really interesting and completely different from what I had done before as a music producer. I was completely depending on them to understand my ideas, or that it makes sense to play this hardcore pattern. We were practicing a lot. I’ve used all the money that I’ve got from the funding, I didn’t really earn a penny because we spend it all on practicing, studying and travelling, but it was really nice and intense. I’ve learned so much from that”, Sollmann says. He then adds that for this album, he wanted to have a very accurate version of the one from his own mind. “I wanted to have kind of a jazz band, or something similar, when musicians are listening very well to each other and becoming one thing, like twelve people without somebody telling them to follow the beat. This was very important to me.”
Modular Organ System in Hannover, with the Helmholtz Double-Siren used in Monophonie (on the left). Photo: Phillip Sollmann
Modular Organ System in Hannover, with the Helmholtz Double-Siren used in Monophonie (on the left). Photo: Phillip Sollmann
Nowadays, the core of Phillip’s work lies in a project made together with Konrad Sprenger, called Modular Organ System - an organ pipe-based installation that they do from time to time in museums and galleries. “My DJ career was constantly there (I also need to make a living), but my heart was mostly in this organ. I’ve spent most of my money in building and buying more pipes and wind blowers. It’s very focused on tuning of course, and even if it is controlled by computer, it’s completely unamplified; it’s just pure mechanical sound by the pipes.”

Since the whole world goes through a complete transformation and the entire idea of the DJ has changed ever since the start of the pandemic, I couldn’t help to ask Phillip what will happen with the DJ world in the future. “I consider my profession as non-existing”, he jokes. “I must say, when this lockdown came over us, I was so exhausted that for the last few months I’ve been sleeping every day for 8 hours. I feel like I was recovering from years of travelling and not sleeping on the weekends. I really felt that my body was drastically changing every day. It’s crazy what this DJ life does to you – it’s quite drastic.”

And as many others (myself included) can agree to this, he also didn’t got along with the development of the electronic music industry from the last few years. “I was in techno music because it didn’t have a stage, it didn’t have somebody to look at. It was just about sound in a dark room, repetitive trance inducing music. For me it’s the same if I sit in a temple outside of Kyoto listening to Buddhist chants or to a Gamelan orchestra, or if I go to Berghain; I share the same interest. It’s a completely different kind of sound and volume, but the concept is almost the same. But I’m not interested in how the DJ looks or what he did, or if he has a private jet or not; it’s bullshit!”. He admits that thankfully, he never got there, even if he was “tempted at some points from certain lifestyles and stuff that you get”.

“I think it can be a great chance to get back to the real idea of repetitive electronic music in a dark room. And also focus more on a local side of it. Hundreds of time I’ve arrived somewhere in the club super tired, and the warm up DJ before me plays such a good set and he knows the club so much better than I do; the system, the crowd, everything. But people only come and pay for the names and then it feels so wrong that he gets paid 200 and I get so much more. In the future there are chances that it will be concentrating even more on the star system and people will go only to see big names or it will be more local, cheaper, and real underground will come back. Go to rave for five euros.”

Monophonie was released on May 15, 2020 at A-TON.

Modular Organ System will be on display at LaVallée in Bruxelles, from November 9-15, with two performances.

*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Dragoș Rusu

Co-founder and co-editor in chief of The Attic and allround music adventurer.

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