Interview : Jan St. Werner
Jan St. Werner has long been an instrumental figure in IDM music, having spent decades working as half of Mouse on Mars with Andy Toma, as well as collaborating with Oval’s Markus Popp in Microstoria. But his latest project, Miscontinuum, is a much more complex work, blending elaborate electronic music elements with a multi-part vocal element that transforms the album into more of an experimental opera. On Miscontinuum, St. Werner works again with Popp, who wrote the spoken libretti that serve as transitional pieces in the opera. He also enlists Earth’s Dylan Carlson, Kathy Alberici and Taigen Kawabe of Japanese group Bo Ningen to provide vocals.
The album, out this week on Thrill Jockey, has a lot of high-minded conceptual background to it, and can be a lot to wrap your head around on the first go. But in a conversation from his home in Germany, St. Werner helped break it down for us.
Treble: Miscontinuum has a pretty complex concept — what inspired this?
Jan St. Werner: I think it’s really more derived from an experience I had quite heavily at a certain point, and I came back to it and explored it more and more. I actually found similarities between technical interpretations of digital music and, let’s say, certain phemomena in cognitive science. Like, certain artifacts we have in our visual and acoustic perception, and then also certain literary … ideas you’d find in science fiction literature … like rather mystic fiction, which is actually quite old already. And then links to mystic descriptions of certain revelations or illuminations people have had, like monks. Meister Eckhart is one of the Catholic mystics, and also Jewish mysticism, and it also reaches to Philip K. Dick who had certain revelations. There’s a link between all that, and it’s also something you can find in certain audio or visual phenomena that causes dizziness or double imagery. Or things like EVP — Electronic Voice Phenomena — where you have a sound fragment and you repeat it, and then you start deciphering meaning in fragments of voices that you randomly capture.
That captures very obscure elements of occultism and the supernatural. But my idea is something based in very real restrictions we have in our perception. And I play with that and how you can use these irregularities in a compositional artistic way. And then linking that to a theme, a story that could be told in a musical way. So this is also why this is coming across as an opera. But the idea was really to have different spheres that are usually separate — the technical, the musical, the artistic, and the story — and I wanted to have a situation where they interlink, and that description of certain everyday observation kind of could also be translated into sound. So if you have the phenomena of the Western wheel, if you watch a Western movie and the coach is moving and the wheel is moving forward, at a certain point it begins to look like it’s moving backward. So you can find that in music, or you can also build a story around that. It’s kind of like a flashback in memory, where you repeat a certain word, or a moment where you remember, and you have a rewind within a rewind. So that could actually lead to something that could point to something in the future — like a mantra that prepares for something to happen. Having all these different elements together, it kind of creates a heavy system of references and ideas, but basically it’s a very simple and profound play, which is dealing with the concept of time, where if you don’t read it literally from, say, left to right… you would see kind of a force, like a natural force that provides you with experiences. Time is a medium in which we actually need to be able to identify relationships in life or in our perception. If you see it that way, it’s like an “Aha!” moment, and that “aha!” moment is stretched out to a whole album.
Treble: I understand that Markus [Popp] wrote the spoken-word parts of the album — how did you collaborate on that element?
JSW: I had what I described to you, the idea for the whole play. And I approached Markus with this concept and asked, ‘Would you want to script for that movie? … Do you want to make that into a piece of poetry? Do you want to make this part of your creative mind and come up with something that feeds through your language?” I was excited to work with Markus again on, not a musical level. We’ve made a lot of music together. I feel we have a lot of things in common in various levels, but I wanted to do something that wasn’t like, coming from the routine we already had.
He was surprised but he took on the challenge. It took him a few weeks actually; I gave him the musical sketches. He didn’t have the voices, only the instrumental parts. And he got back to me and said, “I think I have the hook. I think I can now digest what you want to do into something that would become a story.” So he was on board, which was great.
Treble: There’s a striking juxtaposition of screaming voices and ambient textures on the album — what led you to pursue this contrast?
JSW: First of all, the juxtaposition to me like the basic tension that makes me want to create music or get involved in music. It’s less the idea of creation and more the idea of getting involved and being within this field of tension. This juxtaposition as much as, by definition it explains something that plays with opposites or things that don’t fit together — that’s what makes things come together. If I feel that things are consistently fitting to each other, I don’t actually really see any more differences. Whereas when you find these gaps and these little holes, where it isn’t really consistent, you feel like your brain is really engaged, and you become part of what’s going on. And that makes a more fulfilling experience. I had the electronic pieces in the beginning, and what they carried was the idea of infinitely stretching and running out, in synch kind of weirdly composed music that’s really not perfectly arranged or perfectly composed. But being generally processed and let go. But at the same time, not being totally ambient, and also not totally disturbing. For a long time I was thinking about how I wanted to present these ideas, and how I wanted to deal with the, and then I realized that you could have certain types of voices that could do exactly that. You can use a voice that’s not tied into the narrative task… if you have the voice as an instrument, and see the full potential that there is, you see there’s an amazing range within the voice, just how we create it.
Treble: The sound of the album can sometimes recall influential works by Steve Reich or Philip Glass; is this an intentional parallel?
JSW: I totally respect Steve Reich and Philip Glass’ works, as much as John Adams and Meredith Monk. There’s quite a few people who came from that liberation that repetition brought into music. And repetition not just playing music over and over again, but having these changes that are subtle. You tell yourself it’s repetition, but your brain already knows what’s going on. I think Steve Reich, especially his early works did some amazing things with phasing. But I must say working in the digital realm opens up wider possibilities in terms of expression, where the tonal and modal restrictions that you would still have when you work with an orchestra or tuned instruments — you can leave that behind. If you spend time with Miscontinuum, I think you’ll find the melodic and harmonic elements … you’ll realize you can totally leave that behind. You don’t have to think about these tonal relationships. With the microphasing element, it probably has more in common with someone like Morton Feldman, even though his music has more breaks.
You lose your idea of time sometimes, and you realize that there has been a rhythmic structure, and it just expanded over a very long period of time. And then it hints back at something that has been quite a long time ago. And if you go into the musical structure, there are certain things that travel slow and other things that travel fast. So one sound can be a full on composition, and that’s something that’s hardly achievable in acoustic music. But these people had to work with rougher tools, so that to me is a huge gift in modern music production.
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Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.