Pole Plays Tenori-On
A wide-ranging interview in advance of Stefan Betke's TENORI-ON demo on April 11th
Stephanie Kale - April 01, 2008
by Stephanie Kale
Taking two steps back has always resulted in one step forward for Stefan Betke, the originator of the Berlin-based dub-techno project Pole. For much of the past decade, Pole’s approach to making music has largely revolved around taking a genre of electronic music – be it techno, dub or hip hop – and deconstructing it either to its skeletal remains or, beyond that, to the point of disappearance.
Betke likes to create what he calls a “non-referential space.” He’s explored this space through five major releases so far, and though the results have consistently met with a rollercoaster of critical opinion, no one can say that Pole hasn’t been fearless in his approach.
His rollercoaster is currently on an upswing with Steingarten and its attendant remix album, which features Shackleton, Deadbeat, Ghislain Poirier and many others. Since the release of this last full-length album, Betke has been busy running his ~scape label, doing the mastering work on various projects, and occasionally playing live.
On Friday, April 11th, Betke will share the stage with Robert Lippok and Sutekh among others, at the Société des Arts et Technologies, for a demonstration of the new Yamaha Tenori-On console. Invented by Japanese media artist Toshio Iwai, this sequencer not only makes the audio visual, but also lends a transparency to the composition process, as the audience can follow what the artist is doing by watching the lighted interface.
We had the opportunity to interview Betke a few weeks before he plays Montreal, for a wide-ranging conversation about the Tenori-On, Steingarten, his creative process, and life in Berlin.
When is the last time you performed in Montreal and what do you anticipate for your upcoming performance?
The last time I was here was two years ago, with Jan and Mike and the band. It was on a Sunday night in this industrial area, for the closing night of the [Mutek] festival. How I understand this upcoming performance is it’s a sort of collaboration. They want to launch this instrument, the TENORI-ON, worldwide. It’s is an interesting instrument for some ways of production. I try to use it on stage so that everybody can see what this thing can do in my type of music. And when Sutekh is playing, he’s uses it in his way of production. It’s a totally different genre of production but it makes sense there too. It combines both interests and shows what’s possible to the audience with this machine.
When did you start working with the TENORI-ON? How do you like it? Does it expand what’s possible for you?
Not long ago, actually. I got it about two months ago at the Transmediale festival in the Berlin. The designer of the whole thing, Toshio, he’s a media artist. So he comes from a kind of light installation and sound installation side of the business, which is really different from what I, especially as Pole, do in the studio – which is pure audio work, where every tool I use has to follow a certain function. And while I think that this TENORI-ON, being designed by a media artist and it works a lot with light design and flashes and looking really good and nice and entertaining, it has some features which a normal step sequencer, if you see it as a technical tool, doesn’t provide so far. It has bounce mode, it has a draw mode, where you can draw with your finger the notes to play. It has some really weird shortening parts of the whole sequence. So, it’s a very intuitive instrument, and also very easy because you can carry it around with a battery and headphones and make something really quick.
In my case, I’m not using it as a stand-alone tool. I combine it with other instruments in my set-up, and then it adds a new element to my performance. With this machine, lets say you want to have something random, something not following the same time measurement like the main song you’re working on or the main track you’re working on, so with this machine it can run out of time and then come back after a while, and then hits the beat again and then goes back out of the beat again. It is interesting to use it as an improvisation tool. It gives a good Steve Reich kind of style when you using something like the bounce tool. You have these percussive small sounds and it goes out of rhythm. It can go really on the side of serial music and that’s what makes it pretty interesting.
Have you incorporated any other new hardware into your recordings lately?
I’m testing a few new synthesizers at the moment and some studio electronics, but these are mainly instruments, nothing that comes down to sequencers. I just found out about some old vintage stuff which I’ve never used in my studio which I’m now using – specialty made forms which were only existing in the early 80s only made for a short time and not built again. But I’m not really a technical nerd. I produce my stuff with what I have. If I can’t hit the point of where I want, I ask myself is it because of the instrument that I’m using or is it my lack of fantasy. And only if it’s a missing instrument then I buy something new. But usually I stay with most of the stuff that I have. I’m not buying that much stuff actually.
Your last full-length album, Steingarten, was a break from your previous releases, in a way there’s much more going on. Was your compositional process different from your earlier work?
That’s interesting because a lot of people think that there’s less going on, but I tend to agree with you in that there’s more because of this Kraftwerk-influenced guitar sound in nearly every track, building up kind of like a wall of sound. With Steingarten, I tried to go one step backwards again, and I was thinking a lot about what I did on the yellow album, and on the red one, and how I designed tracks there, and also the one with Fat Jon – the Pole record. And I tried to take the most interesting elements of those parts and combine it to a new one, and work with techno influences again which were really much obvious on the yellow album and absolutely gone on the hip hop sound of Fat Jon. I wanted to go back in this direction, without producing a techno record. I wanted a lot going on with a very thin sound but without any traces of influence. It’s music that could’ve been here or it could’ve been there, like an alien in the electronic music world, standing there.
The idea behind Pole has always been to play with genres, to deconstruct them to a minimum so that they are there but not obviously recognizable. It has to go so far that it becomes a non-referential music. That would be the goal in the whole thing, non-referential music. I have no idea if I hit this, but that was the intention behind it. I think my first three records were kind of non-referential, yet at the same time they were referential - especially the yellow one to this kind of dubby-electronic techno from Berlin. But it was so much deconstructed that it was something not existing. And the record that I did with Fat Jon, that was very more concrete and beat orientated, so it was genre-connected. It was very much hip hop, it was experimental hip hop, of course, but it was hip hop in the very end. And that is my interest – to continue in this direction.
The energy that Pole has is to deconstruct something to a minimum and see what’s the rest, what’s staying there and what is intent enough to use it as a single line and it creates something that keeps you on the track for six minutes. That was always the original idea behind Pole and it is still the idea behind Pole.
How do you know when a particular track is finished?
To be honest, I have no idea. I think my music is something that starts and ends, it doesn’t have ‘A part,’ ‘B part,’ ‘C part,’ and then comes the chorus line and then goes back to the ‘B part.’ It’s kind of like sequential music with no real beginning and no real ending, of course you have an intro and a very small outro, but that’s just because you have to start somehow. All of my music is following a permanent process, so I finish something when I feel that I can’t add something to this track anymore, when I get the feeling that I’ve said everything to this, so I don’t have any new comments to put on this existing part.
When I have the feeling that it is enough and it works, and I don’t have to say anything in addition to it. Sometimes a few weeks after I’ve finished a track, I think ‘Eh, wow, I could’ve added this to that part.’ So I try to bring more of that element into the next track. The main idea of deconstruction is still imminent in the process of making music. It’s not a big deal if a track is not 100 per cent finished because it’s a permanent developing of the same part, just the forms are changing.
When you said that you were interested in carrying along techno influences from your yellow album to Steingarten, are there any particular artists that you are inspired by?
I’m living in Berlin and I’m traveling a lot around the world playing these festivals where other producers are performing live as well. So whatever I see is influential, right? Whatever I listen to, it’s all influential. You can’t leave your flat or your studio and close your ears and think ‘I don’t want to hear anything around me.’ That would be stupid. It is important to listen to other people’s music. I try to be really open-minded and follow a lot of different genres and different producers and get an overview of what’s going on, and how, especially young producers are now making their own stuff and which direction they want to go and if that changes or not.
So all of that it is influential. But when I mention that I want to use the techno element again, the idea is not to follow a particular genre or subgenre, like Berlin dub-techno or Cologne minimal school, or whatever, that is not what I want. If I say techno it’s the name for everything that is electronic dance music, and I deconstruct it so that it is in my music but not really obvious. So you hear a four-to-the-floor beat, but it’s not the banging tune. If you want to be non-referential, you have to forget about your influences.
What are some of your non-musical influences? How do these affect your composition process? How do you feel about collaboration with artists working in other mediums?
Is that important though? If they [the influences] are in there, but not visible, then there must be a reason why they are not visible. And then it would not really make sense to explain something when it’s not visible except that it would have this specific function involved. I think my music is not that complex in this case, that this part would become necessary for the whole music. The things that you can slightly see are more important than the non-visible things.
With the red album, I worked with a choreographer here in Berlin for a dance piece. They used my music for this dance piece and it was pretty interesting to see that. But I barely work with video installation or video artists on stage, or I’ve never done a video for one of my tracks or whatever. Of course, when I produce my music, I have a visual process going on while I’m making music, which is natural I think – every sound you create, you combine it with something you saw before, or big cities when you walk through the streets and you see special architecture then in your brain you hear a tone or a beat or an atmospheric structure that refers to what you see in this moment. So visual and audio sentiments are very close together always.
But I’m not really sure if this is the main part in the composing process in my case. I doubt that actually. I think that, especially when I mix the final track or whatever, it goes down to this pure audio sound, you could call it sound design or whatever, and it’s pure audio. And this makes it interesting actually. That’s why I give my tracks these weird titles, which means in the ends nothing to this track, as it could be any other title as well. It is a little for the audience who listens to this track to create their own images in their minds, and that is the idea. It’s not important what I’m seeing or what I feel, it’s important what the audience sees in this.
What have you been working on since Steingarten?
I’m working on a couple of tracks, and I want to use the 12” or 10” inch as a kind of fast medium. At the same time, I’m working on an album concept. But this will take a little bit of time and I don’t want to not release in between Steingarten and my next album. And I thought to make tests and to have a very flexible and fast medium I wanted to chose the 10” or 12” inch format to release these two tracks, when they are done and I’m happy with them, and without a big conceptual idea like you need for an album release behind it, and just put it out. I’ve also done a few remixes, and I’m playing live.
What is like to be an electronic music artist in Berlin right now? How often are you playing live? Is there a supportive crowd for what you are doing?
We have public funding for festivals, but most of the really interesting festivals are privately organized and they get company sponsoring. There’s Transmediale every year, the biggest one in Berlin. The culture of funding festivals isn’t that big in Germany, it’s not like in Denmark or in The Netherlands, where the government has a lot of money to give to these kinds of performances and festivals. The government here is not into funding electronic youth culture, they mostly fund classical music. In Germany you are performing really often if you are performing boring minimal techno or breakbeat or something like that. Everything else is not existing here.
I play outside of Berlin every four or five years. In Germany or in Berlin itself, I play in friends’ clubs once or twice a year because these people are friends. It’s challenging because there is no scene for alternative electronic music. It’s a lot of boring minimal techno. Every club in Berlin plays exactly the same music. There’s not diversity or something. When you go to Watergate and stay there for an hour, and then go next door to Club 103, and from there you go to Weekend and then the Panorama Bar, you have the same sound in every club – you don’t have to go anywhere. You can just connect all of these clubs and put a big speaker on the central place in Berlin and let it play and we all are happy. [Laughing]
I have no idea why people are following just this. For me, the electronic music scene and how it was ten years ago there was a lot of diverse places and different things. Even in the same club you had a main room and an ambient floor where you heard something totally weird, and I have no idea why this isn’t existing anymore. In the end, if you want to be really negative, it is a commercial decision. You can see that some artists are successful at what they do even if the music is absolutely stupid and boring but it works. And because it works, so many people are following the same track and make the same music and become successful.
At the same time, you sell fewer records, it’s not easy to introduce something new that’s risky on the market, and you can’t make a living out of that anymore. It’s easier to make money via live performances and everybody follows the live performance that works, and brings money. But that makes it boring. And the clubs are changing their bookings, they are only booking the same type of music every weekend. So, I play mainly outside of Germany.