Portrait by Yasmina Haddad
Phillip Sollmann has a uniquely panoramic perspective on music. Trained as a cellist, he traded sociology for a degree in electroacoustic composition, dabbled in music journalism, played in bands and ended up resident at Berghain, his interest in club culture stemming from an early love of hip hop and Detroit luminaries like Moodymann. Today, he is equally at home working on art installations and playing Tony Conrad tributes with his band PNIN as he is composing for New Music ensembles and touring the world under his DJ moniker, Efdemin. This month sees the release of his fourth album – New Atlantis – on Berghain’s Ostgut Ton imprint.
When we meet in London in December, it becomes clear that – regardless of which artistic hat he’s wearing – his primary concern is with the materiality of sound, and he is studious in his quest for new acoustic possibilities. He has recently been working on Monophonie, a new composition for ten performers which expands on the instrumental designs of Harry Partch and Harry Bertoia, and its influences on New Atlantis are palpable. While for many others this obsession with timbre can become a hermetic pursuit, Sollmann is decidedly outward looking and socially engaged. To him, it seems sound – and by extension, music – presents a different way of knowing and being in the world, and he stresses the importance of making space for sound and listening as a site of unstructured play in an age where increasingly all aspects of experience are curated by obscure external forces.
To this end, New Atlantis takes its cue from Francis Bacon’s utopian novel of the same name, conjuring an aural image of a self-contained world suspended in time, with some of his fastest and most driving beat work to date kept in check by earthy drones and shimmering, celestial pads. The first track features legendary Californian artist William T. Wiley singing a funeral hymn by Charles Wesley which reads like an invitation to abandon, in good conscience, the earth and the body, and take up residence instead in this new space – vast yet knowable, open to the touch, and gently revealing to you all of its manifold intricacies.
Let’s start by talking about the influences behind the new album.
Phillip Sollmann: I first came across Francis Bacon’s novel as a student and really took to his idea of an island society, trying to rise above themselves and create a better world. But it was only when I started thinking about this album that I came across his description of the Sound House, which was a revelation because it’s a remarkably accurate prophesy of what we can do now with technology and the digital manipulation of sound. This became the starting point for the album and it allowed me to bring together all my different ideas of music, different textures. For the first time, it allowed me to reconcile my other personality, as someone who works more in the field of sound art, with my club-oriented work as Efdemin.
I always thought that there was club music and then the serious stuff, but now I realise that they have always worked together. In the 90s, there were all these abstract minimal techno approaches – Mike Ink, all the Profan stuff, Porter Ricks – and I appreciate now how important that was, and how much it shaped my idea of techno.
I think that, for a while, I had some insecurity about my position at Berghain and within the club scene generally, but over the past few years that has changed and I feel really at home there. The curatorship changed not too long ago as well, and Alex Samuels is now doing extremely interesting things – I feel what he does reflects my broad ideas about music; he connects the dots somehow. He was the one who told me to focus on this other side on the album, and I am so grateful to him for helping me to go there.
I want to talk about the idea of utopia. You said you were interested in it from a sociological point of view, but why do you think it has been such a recurring theme in dance music more generally?
PS: The obvious examples of this – Drexciya, House Nation, etc. – sprung up from black communities, or gay communities, so there was a need to create an enclave for groups that were otherwise marginalised in society. My own perspective is one of concern about the rise of nationalism, authoritarianism and fascism around the world, especially being German, coming from a very leftwing background but knowing my history.
I’m starting to see this tendency in the music as well. My interest in techno started was when I realised it didn’t have a stage, or a performer who was bigger or more important than anyone else there. The first clubs I went to were left-wing, Antifa type places; it was just about sound. Of course there was someone directing things [as well].
But it was about reciprocity
PS: Yes. I remember parties where you didn’t know where the DJ was, there was only darkness, fog, and music. Now we have the total opposite, these huge festivals. Have you seen the stages at Tomorrowland?! I wouldn’t say no if they invited me to play but they would never do it! Stages are getting bigger and bigger, and the people are so passive! Their attention is focused in one direction, up there, and they don’t interact – they are just consuming.
That’s why in my own music, I’m trying to use minimal progressions and really open up the space for people so that they can think and interact. I know this is a strong word, but people’s passivity kills me. We are told that we live in the age of the individual, but looking at the crowd I often wonder, “Where are these individuals?!”
It can be so great to lose yourself, to get absorbed in this big crowd that is out of control. It’s important. But it’s a very thin line. If you look at some performances now, the lighting, the visuals, the DJ set – it’s all choreographed and has to be 100% efficient. There’s no space to get to know the crowd musically, to tease them. You’re expected just to bang the shit out of everyone for an hour, to create a perfect…
PS: Exactly. I don’t like perfection at all. I love strong ideas and strong execution of ideas, but not perfection as something finite and untouchable.
Utopias seem to embody an interesting tension in the sense that they are pure future – they can never be actualised – but whenever people have written about them, they have relied on images of the distant past to furnish what their utopia would look like. Even the title New Atlantis has that, and I was wondering whether you were thinking about this in musical terms when you were putting the instrumentation together on the album?
PS: Totally. Now that you say it, it makes perfect sense. I’m always coming back to the philosophy of early 60s minimalism and thinking about how I can project those ideas into the future. One of the downsides of digital music production is the fact that you have infinite possibilities. So for this album, I limited myself to some very basic ideas. It’s how most composers work – they decide on an instrumentation, and then figure out how to convey their intentions through that media. The title track is just hurdy-gurdy, [Roland TR] 909, [Roland SH] 101 and a Space Echo. I managed to find a very special semi-electric hurdy-gurdy which has a super intense sound, but, working on the album, I realised how hard it is to integrate that sound into an electronic context because they’re totally different acoustic spaces.
There was a very real past-future tension there, because acoustic instruments are so complex harmonically, whereas the 101 – while great in other ways – is not. You have to make space: just the bass and the high frequency buzzing of the hurdy-gurdy and that’s it – no claps or anything. The simplicity makes it sound timeless – removed from time in some way. More and more, I am leaving things out, deleting, and the result becomes stronger.
I really hope that the album doesn’t just sound old, though. Utopia means that I’m dreaming of something, trying to think of another way in the world. What’s happening now in Germany, Italy, Brazil – in some perverse way it makes sense that after the triumph of neoliberal ideas for the last 30-40 years that this is the backlash, and now we have to deal with their bullshit. Obviously there’s an element of escapism here, because I’m tired of dealing with this, so the thought of a perfect island is attractive. My music has become more positive in a way – more major harmonies, purely tuned ratios – because I’m trying to say that there is still beauty out there and that we can’t drown in all this negativity.
But I also realise that’s irresponsible. I don’t want to escape – I’m a father, and it’s my daughter that will have to face the real shit in twenty years. What kind of world will she inherit? Sometimes I feel weird that we became parents at this time because there is so much uncertainty, but my mother says it was always like that.
How did you come to use the words of Charles Wesley here? Is religion important to your practice?
PS: That would open up some nice interpretations, but no. It’s a very touching story actually. I bought a record years ago which was a collection of lectures given by artists, and one of them was William T. Wiley who is the vocalist on the opening track. In his lecture, he was talking about unconditional love and, as far as I understand it, about transcendence in art. He started singing this hymn in the middle of his lecture and I was totally overwhelmed when I heard it. We approached Wiley to ask if we can use the recording and his son got back to us the same day, saying that he was visiting his father who is now a very, very old man, and he said that listening to this youthful voice brought them to tears. They were so happy to hear this recording.
I kept thinking about this scene, this old person facing death – hopefully not soon, but it is coming nearer – listening to himself preach the acceptance of death. It is beautiful – utopian, even – to think of it in terms of letting go of all earthly burdens, and of parting on good terms. My parents are getting older, so death is something that plays on my mind, and especially in becoming a parent yourself you start to think about these things more. I felt weird about using it on a techno record for a while, but in the end it felt important to include it.
What are you going to be working on next?
PS: The next thing is to do a proper mix-down of Monophonie. We recorded all seven performances and some studio sessions, and there are so many tracks! I’m not used to working with 60 tracks, but I’ll get through it and then hopefully release it and do more concerts. Because working with those musicians [Ensemble Musikfabrik] was so fun – they are so cute and amazing. Initially I sketched the piece in MIDI, using very precise samples, but then wrote out the score for them to play. I told them, “You have to play like the computer guys!”
How did you negotiate relinquishing that control in the final stage, handing it over to the players? How did the performances go?
PS: Honestly, it got better. The premiere in the Volkbühne in Berlin was horrible. It was the best night in some ways, because there were 600 people there and I knew about 250 of them personally. It was the best audience mix you can imagine – Ricardo Villalobos, my shrink, my mother, so many old friends with different ideas and expectations. And they had to listen to ten people playing very minimal music on these strange, very quiet instruments.
A friend of mine who is this classic techno head said at the end, “Well. It might have been nice but I couldn’t hear anything so can’t say anything. Goodbye!”. So funny. But musically it was far from perfect. They are a new music ensemble, so while they’re used to playing something like [Italian composer, Luigi] Nono, which has its own challenges, they weren’t used to all these interlocking rhythms. But they liked my ideas and tried to get closer. For the last three concerts we had a percussionist who’s really famous and just such an amazing guy, and he really helped the rest of the ensemble lock in to his playing. He was so precise – like a master clock – and through him, they seemed to understand what I wanted.
I find it so interesting to see very complex but extremely repetitive music being played by humans. In Haiti, they have this Rara music which is so simple in essence but creates the most complex layering and oscillation. It’s a total rave. Acoustically and spatially it’s mind-blowing because everyone in the community gathers for a ritual, and the music is all around you, coming at you from all sides because nearly everyone is playing something. It reminds me of playing in an orchestra as a kid. You become part of the sound, you can’t hear yourself because everything else is so much louder.
And your role is determined by your instrument, not by your background or whatever.
PS: Right! You’re only a little part of the whole thing. I love that as a model for society.
New Atlantis is out on Ostgut Ton on February 15 2019