Communicating and Living Sound: An Interview with Lasse-Marc Riek and Roland Etzin of Gruenrekorder [+exclusive mix]

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Listening is a way of living in which sound can be a guide for many aspects of our life. As we live, we make sound, and as we listen to that network that is created in all our resonances, we start to be more conscious and attentive not only to the incredible aesthetic and musical potential present in our sonic terrain, but also the many possibilities we have for communicating, expressing, thinking and feeling it.

Sound makes us conscious of the whole universe in a completely new way, being always a surprise, a constant call, revealing a deep and diverse territory of reality and our task as recordists, artists, activists, writers, readers and ultimately listeners, is to be constantly revealing and communicating those spheres of existence. Germany-based artists Lasse-Marc Riek and Roland Etzin are the clear example of that, of how can we reach and explore those sonic dimensions. They met around 15 years ago and started a project precisely dedicated to that mission of not only transmitting sound, but also creating consciousness around it, teaching how to receive it, how to make contact with it and how to reveal its influence in our life.

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That project is called Gruenrekorder, widely known as a record label that has published a big amount of CDs, digital releases, Vinyls, and Cassettes dedicated to the art of field recording, although his project is way more ambitious, as it crosses the lines of a mere label in order to find their place on education, activism and philosophy, reflected not only in the fine sound works they publish but also in other outputs they have for expanding their sonic ideals, such as workshops, text publications, activist movements and of course, their kindness to share ideas towards sound, such as the following interview, in which we talk about the adventure of running such an amazing project.

Before reading any words, make some silence and listen to the following sounds, which perfectly showcase what words can’t. No matter if you already know their work; let yourself stop your current activity, get comfortable, quiet yourself, and just pay attention to the following mix, exclusively delivered by gruenrekorder for Sonic Terrain:

[All sounds have been published at gruenrekorder. For more info, check out the tracklist. You can also follow them on Soundcloud, Twitter, Facebook or subscribe to their newsletter.]

And now we are good to read:

For a start, could you tell us how you got started with sound and in particular how you started working as a team?

Lasse: Since the age of 17, I’ve been seriously involved in experimenting with fine art. It became my way of life and a way for me to understand the world. Aside from this, I learned several trades before starting my studies in Frankfurt/ Main around 1999, when I moved from the North of Germany. My career developed as a freelance fine artist, engaged across several disciplines – eventually, I decided that working with sound was what I was most interested in.

Roland: I love music and I love what it does to me. At some stage I decided to find my own way of creating music. I’ve always felt that working with field recordings must be a strong part of it. My main inspiration was a workshop – a group of people for two days in a black painted space, equipped with microphones and a bunch of musical instruments. It was a great experience to communicate with the other people through sound – also when it came to the cutting of the recorded parts.

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We met at the University of Applied Science around 2000 when we both happened to be out recording. This was our first encounter and from then on we began the Gruenrekorder project, learning as we went along.

Together we decided to run our own label and platform to discuss, promote and publish field recording based soundworks. Besides the main focus we were very open to all kinds of experimental soundworks, too.

It was not the very first step into field recording or soundwork in culture, but rare enough. It felt very intense to go out on stage with the idea to talk about listening and how to stay in the field with recording gear.

How did you see the evolution of the art of ‘phonography’ when you started and how do you see it now?

Lasse: When I look back at the last fifteen years of my own work with phonography and field recording, I can see that the genre is rising in popularity. A significant part of it is the availability of media platforms and devices that enable content, concepts and ideas to be easily managed. For example, a handheld recorder doesn’t cost more than 90 Euros and net-based distribution systems are there for free. This doesn’t necessarily bring about an increase in quality, but there is certainly a greater quantity of material out there to reflect upon. From my point of view, the current situation allows us to learn from each other; there are fewer barriers between us and the development of more ways of thinking and working with sound.

Because I have been giving a lot of guest lectures, workshops and seminars, I am in a position to realize that there is a growing appetite from universities for the creation of both sound lab-based institutes and curricula involving the study of sound. I know from these experiences that these universities are placing field recording and the art of listening right at the centre of things.

Even at Germans schools and kindergartens there is a growing interest and motivation to focus more on our sense of hearing as well as there are related offers for an engagement with sound.

Roland: I am always surprised when I discover works that have been published long before we even started. But I still feel that this story is a bottomless pit.

In this field there is so much to discover and we are only at the start. It is not only about songs – it is about stories to tell.

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What led you guys to start gruenrekorder and what kind of stuff are you particularly interested in?

Lasse: From 2000 to 2002/2003 we shared our experience and works with found sound, recording gear and the politics/ethics behind the genre.

During these 3 years we started researching the existence of labels and organizations.

It was clear: There were not that many chances to release works dealing with field recordings etc. There was no major label focussed on soundscapes or phonography.

Roland: And, of course, it has always been just interesting. It felt great that people started to get interested in what we did. It is also great to see what people come up with. It always was learning by doing and it was mostly interesting what we learned. So we never stopped.
We have always had the focus on works dealing with field recordings. The main part is just the sound and then the story behind it.

gruenrekorder_04I wonder how you manage the curatorial process and the publications and how has that changed over the years.

Lasse: Roland and I each get a copy and once per month we exchange lists with our results of listening to the demos.

If the results are different, we discuss the pros and cons till we decide for or against it.

Because we received so many demos from all over the world, we had to start working with filters. It’s not a question of quality, it’s more a question of positions you like to push, discuss or work on.

Roland: We both invest a lot of time into all releases. After ten years we now feel the need to calm down a little bit. Kind of reorganization and self reflecting – also we want to see where we stand as a label and in which aspects we need to concentrate more or less on.

How the curatorial aspect of the label and the collaboration with different artists has influenced your personal work and the possibilities you find in phonography and sound art?

Lasse: When we receive pieces that have been recorded in for example Africa, India, the North or South Pole, my own motivation to realize a project in these locations diminishes. I don’t consider that as anything negative, I rather see it positively. It shows me what has already been done in beautiful ways so I do not need to travel there as well.

It also shows how much has not yet been covered, though. There are so many ideas and projects that are still waiting to be realized.

I myself have so many notes flying around with ideas and projects. I do not have the time for all of them but try to take them up one by one just as I have the energy.

From my hearing-perspective there are so many aspects and themes from the world of sounds that we may be engaged with for a long time.

The occupation with the environment and its changes also leads to a growing interest in working with the deceits, ecological destruction, social deficits and unrest.

Roland: It was always great to have contact to different artists and their approaches. I see it as an inspiration, but I also know people who cannot deal with the work of others, because it is too exhausting for them and it decreases their own energy for projects. There are always artists who are better than you but this should not drag you down. This should give you a kick to find your own style of sound and further explore the universe of sound itself – it doesn’t matter if it is the surrounding environment or an analogue synthesizer system. One little sound piece can be just the start to get deep into a cosmos of never heard musical structures.

gruenrekorder_03I also wonder how the experience of managing the label has changed your perspectives towards listening and the way to relate with sound.

Roland: For me – in some ways it changed not so much. But through the long way working in this field I acquired a lot of technical experience to hear my environment through different gear. There are fantastic moments, so it is great to record them and play them back in another context. For me the memories belonging to these moments will be always there.

What makes a work worth releasing for you?

Lasse: It depends on the quality of the recording, the contents, the way of working with, thinking and feeling about the material and the perspective on it.
When we both like that we contact the artist.

Is there any kind of features you normally search in a recording/composition or it’s something always dependent on the work specifically?

Lasse: We are listening to the demos we receive over a long time period without discussing it.
This first (separate) approach is very intuitive. The work has to catch my interest in the first phase to listen further. Otherwise you loose interest or you are distracted from other contents.

Also, could you tell us how’s your approach on releasing material particularly talking about formats? what determines if something gets released on the regular CD releases or the virtual line?

Lasse: There are always different aspects that lead to such decisions. How much should or could be communicated with the work, is enough budget available, what kind of output has the artist? How long is the work etc.?

We would not distinguish between stronger and weaker works in order to decide if we release them on CD, vinyl or as a digital download. From our perspective that doesn’t make sense.

I own several CDs of gruenrekorder and I see a very different approach on them in terms of visual materials and how the stuff is showcased, sometimes even just a metal case without any kind of picture and that kind of things. How do you manage that visual aesthetics and how important do you think it is for publishing a sound work?

Lasse: If we decide to do a physical release, we see a connection between the financial possibilities and the options to realize a haptic, informative and entertaining publication. This evolves very individually from the reasons given above with the submissions we receive from the artists.

Roland: We let the artists decide how they want to realize their work. We can offer ideas and designers we work with.

Is there something you guys have found challenging and difficult on the process of the label?

Roland: It is very difficult to choose from the demos you get in the mail. First thing was to tighten the demo policy. Now we are more able to manage all the great offers. Time is one main aspect. It is sometimes hard to keep up good label work beside family and other jobs. Also your personal work has less space to get realized – you need to manage more work in less time. But I think this problem is very common.

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Could you talk us about the work you do on the label’s showcases, exhibitions and concerts? how do you normally approach those kind of events?

Lasse & Roland: Since our first release we continuously were performing festivals in combination with the projects in several places all over Europe, besides Germany, in England, the Netherlands, Norway and Finland as well as in Asia.

Since a couple of years ongoing series of events have established which we still run regularly in cooperation with our partners.

It’s all about different ways of presentation where the focus lies on various perspectives of our releases.

Also, Gruenrekorder has been supporting the Sonic Vigil Festival for a few years now. For us the festival is a strong connection between Ireland and Germany. The support we received from the Goethe-Institut in Dublin so far made it possible to bring a lot of German Sound Artists to the Festival in Cork City. The festival has a great and important status in the art world and helps to expand the connection between sound artists around the world.

To have a better platform for concerts, a whole group of other people and us established the Society for the Advancement of Phonography and Experimental Music to organize concerts. During the last five years the society hosted more than 50 concerts. Phonophon is a great place to meet musicians and chat about art and sound.

A newer series of events called „Hörsaal“, initiated and organized by Eckhard Kuchenbecker and Lasse in 2012, besides essential acoustic questions, answers and phenomenons, also presents projects from the Gruenrekorder sphere regularly and invites artists to performances and lectures in an informal way.

And what about the work you do with the Field Notes publication?

<< Field Notes is a free bi-lingual magazine edited by Daniel Knef and Lasse. Generally speaking our magazine is concerned with the phenomenon of sound from the most varied perspectives: artists, musicians, journalists and scientists contribute to Field Notes with their essays, interviews, travelogues, anecdotes, notes and picture series. >>

From the first issue to the fourth, developing at the moment, we constantly have a variety of contributions which we ask the artists from our Gruenrekorder catalogue for as well as we consider applications from the exterior.

What led you to not only publish sounds but also texts about it? Is there any chance of seeing 4th issue published soon?

Roland: In some ways it is not all about the sound we hear – it is also the thinking about sound. Field Notes was just the next step which led us in another direction.

Lasse: We think it’s important to picture sound and its ways in an artistic involvement as well as in scientific language and texts.

By this means we attract increasing attention and offer the chance for diverse possibilities of entering the field.

[Link: Series Invisible]

I find the fact that you not only publish and promote sound but also develop activities such as the Tonangel workshop very interesting. How important is that to the work you do on the label? Also, could you explain a bit more about the philosophy behind the activities and the process you normally follow on them?

Lasse: We are activists who focus on sound in different forms. The workshops for example are a good way to teach and discuss our experiences as listeners and soundscapers with the audience and people who like to be involved.

It’s a good feeling and atmosphere to put the labelwork in between all our other activities like recording and thinking sound as an artist, teaching sound and living sound as well.

For us running the label is a way of communicating sound in several aspects everyday.

Is there something you could recommend for anyone who runs (or is interested to create) a label for this kind of works. Also, what could you think about the future of this art of sound and what surrounds it?

Lasse: Don’t forget to save your environment and keep the peace around. Thinking before printing and producing something. Try to build up your own circle of sound ideas.

And please don’t trust social media in the world wide web.

It is so important to understand your work while working on the ground and in the field.

Grow your hair and vegetables. Share ideas with your families. Stay together!!!

Roland: Follow your ideas over decades then they become something special.

The art of sound has a long tradition and we are not the first ones and not the last ones who are dealing with it. I think many works in this area are so important that they need to exist. It is not about taste – they stand for themselves. The ideas behind the projects have something to say and something to change. Maybe it needs 20 years or more to have a look and listen back to realize the effects.

On your website, you say that phonography to you is a culture and a form of art. Could you explain what kind of ideas are behind that?

Roland: What we are doing is a dialogue between cultures and people. Through phonography we get in touch with so many people, all with different approaches to their work. For us phonography is art.

I also wonder how you approach those kind of perspectives, since field recording tends to move between such wide range of uses, including documentation, acousmatic arts, installations or music.

Roland: We are just open to all kinds in this field. There are no boundaries for us. In our releases we just do not like repetition and low quality.

How’s your perspective towards those aspects?

Roland: In some way like that of a little child. I am astonished and keep my eyes and ears open for all kinds of works.

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Any plans for the future?

Lasse: While working in the field and especially in the landscape and its related constitutions we see ourselves in the course of our duty to save and reenact the shifted values of problems and incidents.

On one hand this should happen by pointing out such acoustic incidents in order to offer the listeners an approach and the motivation for a deeper involvement, on the other hand it is about networking and exchange which doesn’t need physical ways. For example, we can’t talk about acoustic ecology and philosophize and in fact travel by plane to every acoustically fascinating place in the world to record the acoustic events and cut out the noise of planes afterwards.

In our times we really need to revisit our so-called freedom of traveling.

Therefore it makes sense to us to think in alternatives ways which we already have started by connecting various spots or places.

Among others we decided for a membership of the climate alliance and occasionally have points of contact with the organizations NABU and WWF.

Finally we would like to float a question:

What kind of environmental burdens are sustainable in order to create a document which (eventually) tries to describe this state…?

What are you currently working on?

VA: Landscapes of Fear (CD)

Various Artists / Animal Music / (Strange Attractor & Gruenrekorder)
Book & CD / Gruen 121

R. Schwarz: The Scale Of Things (vinyl).

Sounds of Iceland – field recordings by Hafdís Bjarnadóttir
CD / Gruen 157

…and many more on gruenrekorder.de

And finally, is there any kind of resource you’d like to share with the community?

Lasse: Yes, all the sensual experiences through hearing, tasting, smelling and touching in our surroundings.

How do natural landscapes feel like?

How do urban landscapes feel like?

Any other labels or any artist you consider worth listening?

Lasse: The genre and its output still is oversee-able but nevertheless there are many extern impulses as well as inspiring examples for us.

Under the purview of labels we have to name Wergo (especially the nature recordings of Walter Tilgner), Touch, em:t and Solitudes/Dan Gibson.

Other influences are releases from Bernie Krause, Walter Tilgner, Gordon Hempton, Bill Fontana and Ultra Red right up to Einstürzende Neubauten, Moondog, Future Sound of London, Sunn O))) and Autechre, that also should accompany us on our aesthetic paths.

Substantially we of course have to mention the positions of John Cage, R. Murray Schafer, Trevor Wishart, La Monte Young, Pierre Schaeffer, Jean Sibelius and Gustav Mahler.

Forums and organizations like for example the World Forum For Acoustic Ecology, Phonography.org, The Wildlife Sound Recording Society and Ear to the Earth have to be added as inspirations since 2004.

Also writers and thinkers like Meister Eckhart, Martin Buber, Theodor W. Adorno, Lukas Ohlburg, Byung-Chul Han, Andreas Weber, Joachim Illies, Daisaku Ikeda, Daisetz T. Suzuki and Jiddu Krishnamurti have been a great influence.

But above all things we would like to recommend listening to the world actively. To the sounds of the forest, the mountains, the sea, the valleys, the areas of settlement, into the elements…

Listen carefully.

Be silent.