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Conversation with Folkmar Hein

Originally published in German in DEGEM-Mitteilungen vol. 41 (December 2001), Pfau Verlag, ISSN 1435-5884. Published in eContact! 10.2 — Entrevues / Interviews for the first time in English.

At the Electronic Studio at the Technical University, Berlin, 1999.

Folkmar Hein was born in 1944 and grew up in Westfalen, Germany. He graduated in Electronics from the Technische Universität Berlin with a major in Technical Acoustics and also received a Tonmeister diploma from the Hochschule für Musik with a major in cello. Since 1974 he has worked as a research assistant at the TU Berlin and has been director of the university’s Elektronisches Studio. Up to the present time, he has realised 134 electroacoustic works for various composers. In 1982 — together with the Berliner Künstlerprogramm of the DAAD — he founded the INVENTIONEN festival, with a programme which emphasises electroacoustic music and sound art. He is an active promoter of projects and public presentations both in Berlin and the European community. From 1991 to 1998 he was President of the German Confederation for Electroacoustic Music, DEGEM.

[John Palmer] First of all, I would like to thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to record my music with Vinko Globokar in this beautiful studio and for taking the time for this conversation. I proposed this conversation because I wanted to help promoting these studios particularly within the English-speaking world. The first time I came here I was very impressed to see how much work has been done here and what a long history there is in this place. What is it exactly, forty, fifty years?

[Folkmar Hein] Almost 45 years.

Oh yes, and you have given me this book about the story of Boris Blacher… it seems to be a very intense history which I’d like to make even more public.

Good, I am very happy about it!

Could you first of all tell me about the history of the studio and link it to the current activities which are taking place here? After that, I’d like to know more about you as the director of these studios. I also want to link these questions with real-life situations like the one we have experienced today: a composer or a performer comes here with a score or a musical idea in order to do a recording or even realise an entire studio production. When listening to music, we usually tend to think of the composer who wrote the music and the performer who is playing it, but seldom we really think of those people like sound engineers and producers who work behind the scene, in fact musicians like yourself. With this in mind, I’d like to focus the second part of this conversation on your work here.

Yes, I understand your points.

Let’s deal with the first question. When and how did everything begin?

As we recently celebrated an important anniversary which put us in the position to build this new studio I took myself some time to think about the history of this place. The beginning of our Studio for Experimental Music — that was the initial name — has to be traced back to the end of the Second World War: The Technical University here in Berlin was included in the British Sector of the city and from the brown history of this University (think for example of the facts related to the books burning) the British Government decided to extend the University curricula to a new area of study like Humanities. I personally think that this was a very important and clever idea. The institute we are part of belongs to the Department of Humanities of the Technical University of Berlin. We actually feel ourselves equally integrated with both the Departments of Humanities and Science.

Of course since everything is changing so rapidly we have some difficulties in keeping ourselves continuously updated in both areas. On the one hand we want to be fully integrated in the studies of Humanities, particularly through Systematic Musicology, on the other hand we want to continue our research and teaching in the fields of Applied Science. This means that we are dealing with a huge area of studies directly related to electroacoustic music which includes for example acoustics, computer science, electronics and electrotechnics.

It is such an enormous environment that I wonder how can your relatively small department deal with such a task.

It is for this reason that we have developed a tradition that refers particularly to “Studio Techniques”, and this was in fact the name of our field of specialisation. Today our name is “Communication Science”, a much longer and less attractive definition in my opinion. In 1954 we began our work in electronic music. Initially we were not a significant studio and our main task was to play tapes during the lectures of Professor Stuckenschmidt. It was a kind of service role which we had to fulfil in those days. But soon the field of action got wider and at the end of the 1950s we began to build our own studio equipment: our first mixing console for instance was developed and built by us. We should not forget that, unlike today, in the 1950s there was no music computer nor electroacoustic equipment available. We had only laboratory equipment like analysers, oscilloscopes and the equipment of the radio. We had several tape recording machines which at the time were the most important instruments. Gradually we were in the position to produce our own tapes. In 1954 the first production for a small puppet theatre play took place. Probably this was the first musique concréte production in Germany: the composer was Herr Schröpfer. The whole work is 80 minutes long. In the following years our production had increased and was also linked to many lectures given by Fritz Winckel here in Germany and in the USA. Winckel was the founder and director of the studio and at that time he was using several tape examples for his lectures. He specialised his research on the singing voice and was also particularly involved in the relationship between space and acoustics.

If I am not mistaken, the 1960s happened to be a crucial time for your research activities.

Yes. 1964 was a time when one could set up a real studio not only with self-built instruments, but also with commercial equipment of professional standard. Another important step came about in 1968 when we built a new studio in a different location which had been specifically designed as a new studio and recording space. (Up to this point the studio had been located in an office space!). This change of premises coincided with a very big and difficult project, namely the technical realisation of Karlheinz Stockhausen’s project at the World Exhibition in Osaka in 1970. Our team of six or seven engineers was given only one and a half year to develop this special spatial acoustic project. They managed very well to resolve the problem of controlling sound in a specific space.

At this time the artistic director of the studios was the composer Boris Blacher who was also the director of one of the Music Colleges here in Berlin. What role did he play during this important phase of development?

Blacher was a kind of composer-in-residence in our studios. His task was also to experiment in the area of spatial music and spatial acoustics. The spheric auditorium in Osaka was also there to be used not only by Stockhausen, but also by Blacher and other German composers. Unfortunately, after the end of the Osaka World Exhibition the entire electronics and the spatial sound control system were destroyed. This caused a huge disappointment here in Berlin because we expected this wonderful auditorium to come back to Germany and that we could continue to use it for further concerts of electroacoustic music. The only equipment left was two tape recorders with magnetic film which are still in our possession. The years between 1970 and 1974 were a transitional period in that both Fritz Winckel and Boris Blacher retired. With the death of Blacher in 1975 the studio reached a low point in our history and virtually no production work was taking place at this point. This is the time when Fritz Winckel asked me to join the studio as Tonmeister (sound engineer). Up to this point I had studied Electronics and the Technical University and Tonmeister at the Music College. As I took over in 1974, I tried to build up a new platform which would embrace both scientific and artistic work.

What was your first goal?

My initial idea was to invite old friends to work here. Together we initiated a new group which we called Klangwerkstatt [“sound laboratory” or “sound workshop”]. A particularly important member of this group was Frank Michael Beyer (he was Professor in Composition at the Musikhochschule and I studied with him for a short time), but of course there were other musicians from the Musikhochschule, which by that time was called Hochschule der Künste, and a couple of members from the Technical University. The work of the Klangwerkstatt was very productive; the group believed in the importance of education, for us it was crucial to teach through regular lectures and to produce educational films about the history of electronic music. For example we did some research on the Trautonium in connection with the work of Paul Hindemith and Trautwein and the Hochschule der Künste in 1928, and in 1976 we organised a concert at the Festwochen, where we introduced the Mixturtrautonium and other electronic instruments to the audiences. This was a typical work example of our Klangwerkstatt: we were not only focussed on production, but also on research and education.

This must be the time when Herbert Brün and Józef Patkowski arrived.

Exactly. This was the time when a big step forward took place. We invited the American Professor Herbert Brün in 1978. Brün was actually born in Berlin, lived for a while in Israel and later on took up a Professorship in the USA at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois. While in Berlin, he focussed his activities in our studios. He had a group of about ten people around him (students, musicologists and other people) and for the first time this place became a centre for discussion and exchange of ideas. Up to the arrival of Herbert Brün there had not been discussions on the philosophical and æsthetic aspects of electronic music, but with him a new direction in our history was initiated. A second crucial moment arrived one year later, in 1979, when Józef Patkowski, the Director of the Experimental Studios in Warsaw was invited here as guest professor. Like Brün, Patkowski’s activities were essentially based in our studio. He had an enormous knowledge about the international scene of electroacoustic music. Patkowski’s major contribution was the promotion of our activities to a larger scale public. We started to organise concerts not only with our own works, but also with other external productions. The fact that we now began to play also other musics from other studios around the world was in my opinion the most important step forward.

We really have to thank the work of Józef Patkowski for this “non-local” thinking.

What about the 1980s?

From 1980 onwards we were finally in the position to foster regular contacts not only with composers and students from Berlin, but also from abroad. Ricardo Mandolini from Argentina was the first professional composer to work here for a whole year. Mandolini was the first composer to produce professional tape pieces during my time here. Through this new opening to foreign composers we became associated with the DAAD scheme (the German academic exchange service) [Deutsche Akademische Austauschdienst] which has helped this exchange programme to take place on a regular basis.

I know this is still the case today. Can you tell me more about this cooperation?

First of all we started by organising a concert series called Stimmen; Stimmen took place mainly at the Technical University, in our Lichthof [lit courtyard], at the Amerika-Haus and at the Hochschule der Künste. Since 1982 this concert series with the DAAD turned into a festival called Inventionen.

Inventionen is today one of the most important festivals here in Berlin. What is the emphasis of the festival?

It is a festival of contemporary music whose priority is electroacoustic music, experimental art and sound installations. For example, at the beginning we invited the GRM from Paris. In 1983 we did our first perspective on British music with four concerts spread over two days. This was our first approach to the British electroacoustic music world and we invited Tim Souster and other composers of his generation. We are doing another British programme in 2001. Thanks to this cooperation with DAAD we have been able to invite forty composers to date to work here. Small and large works by DAAD guest composers have been regularly featured in our festival. The main idea of the festival is to keep a musical spectrum which is as large as possible. We have also given a theme to each festival event, for example in 1986 it was Music and Language and in 1999 it was Fifty Years of Musique Concréte. Very often we also work together with other partners such as the Academy of Arts, the Berliner Festspiele and the Sender Freies Berlin Radio.

We believe that by opening up to the music of other composers and other countries we should be able to promote visiting composers and provide studio and concert productions of the highest professional level. For example our studios have been conceived in such a way that we can use our equipment both for studio work and stage performance.

How many people are working here on a regular basis?

Before October 1996 there were two scientific assistants and four teaching assistants who were working with me. Today, apart from me, we have only one scientific assistant and no teaching assistant at all. This reduction was for us a very bitter blow! As a result of the current financial cuttings here in Germany all the assistant teachers positions have disappeared. This means that we had to look for other ways to get associated teachers and assistants. We managed to find a cooperation with the Hochschule der Künste (Academy of Arts) which was actually based on a long tradition. We had a teaching position for Sound Installation, one for the Aesthetics and History of Electroacoustic Music and we have occasional teaching contracts for software programs like Csound, Common Music and Sound Design. We are lucky that we can find many competent teachers in this field here in Berlin. The latest development, starting from the year 2000, is the Edgard-Varèse Visiting Professorship in Computer Music which will be sponsored by the DAAD scheme.

I have the impression that despite all the financial problems which have hit Germany since the reunification, there is still a very lively and productive musical environment in this country.

At the moment the situation in Germany is somehow very astonishing. On the one hand we are going through huge financial difficulties, on the other hand in the past few years we have witnessed the financing of entire new studios like the ZKM in Karlsruhe, for example. Something similar happened to us in 1994 when we were finally given a substantial financial support which put us in the position to get these premises and new equipment.

Can you tell me more about your present studios?

We have two major studios. The size of the big studio is approximately 80 square meters; the small studio is approximately 45 square meters large. Additionally, we have a few other rooms hosting for example Workstations and a separate Control Room hosting all the computers in the studios. It was very important for us to store all the computers in one room in order to remove any computer noise from our working environment. For this reason both our studios offer excellent recording facilities (as you have experienced today by recording your music here in the main studio). Another important aspect was the possibility to control the sound diffusion in both studios. Both studios are equipped with directional loudspeakers which hang from the ceiling and are completely movable in all directions. The big studio comprises a twelve-loudspeaker system and the small studio eight loudspeakers. In order to optimise our sound diffusion techniques, we are using a movable circular angle ranging from 30 to 360 degrees which allows us to abandon the traditional front-side-back scheme.

And now let’s talk about Folkmar Hein, the sound-engineer and producer! People like you are very important, but at the same time very often undervalued. Let’s look at the production and performance of electroacoustic works for example. Many composers come here with little knowledge of sound production and you take them through all these instruments and relevant compositional techniques. In the concert situation the audience will never know of all the work that is behind the music they hear. A sound engineer and producer like you is an authentic musician who often bears huge responsibility on the final musical results. What about your experience in this context?

Well, we really do not need to talk about Folkmar Hein because this is a general problem. I have often been thinking about this issue. In an article I wrote a few years ago, for example, I have tried to discuss the same question that you have just brought up. I also gave a lecture at the Music Academy in Basel in conjunction with the Sound Design course introduced there by Thomas Kessler and often encouraged him to address this issue in his courses.

A performer of live-electronics is an interpreter. The function of such a role has changed rapidly in the past decades.

Yes. In the 50s we still had the old studios. In the radio studios you had a situation where you could not work alone. The work had to be conducted in a rather mechanical way and you would usually find yourself working at least with two other people, one dealing with the mixing console and the technical details, the other who would be checking the sound production. This is also the studio situation I experienced when I started working with Ricardo Mandolini: the composer was ultimately responsible for the whole project and would put his signature on the final production. My job was to propose technical strategies which would enable the composer to reach his musical objectives. Very often the composer’s goals were very unclear, and sometimes there were no goals at all, but only a vague musical idea. This means that I had to think very hard about the goal in the composer’s mind in order to be constantly thinking with him. The most important thing was to “play” the music like interpreters do; by “playing” the music I mean designing the sound in order to create what I would call an interpretation of that sound, the shaping, and Gestalt of the individual sounds and the sound structures.

The interesting thing is that I am always facing the same musical questions that I am dealing with when working in a string quartet as a cellist. And I experience so clearly how my traditional background as a cellist and in chamber music is the best musical prerequisite for my studio work. I don’t see any difference between these two situations. The instruments are different, but my musical approach and feeling is the same. For this reason I am fully convinced that today we can train this kind of new interpreters very well. In this sense I see three essential skills: good recording techniques, the ability to shape the sound (sound design) and the representation — I mean the performance — of these sounds. All these aspects are very interrelated in one integrative activity, especially when composers work together with interpreters. I am also aware that many times composers do not understand such complex logistics. For example, very often composers do not know how sounds are “built-up”, nor do they know, for example, how the registers of an organ work or what the spectral characteristics of a flute are. It is sad that still today’s most music courses do not cover this aspect.

In order to gain such a knowledge it is also important to encourage the young musicians to experiment.

Experimenting is always very important, also in order to be able to use, and extend, other aspects of acoustic sound production through electronic instruments. An interpreter of electroacoustic music is someone who can “play” an electronic instrument and integrate it with the acoustic instruments in the most musical way. That’s why I am always promoting an awareness of this professional attitude and I always tell our young musicians who work here how important it is for them to be able to serve today’s art forms in this way.

Why “serve”?

This is a difficult issue because interpreters of electroacoustic music are usually not located on stage. There is no spotlight pointed at them and they are not sitting at the piano before the orchestra. So far, they work in the background, hidden behind a mixer, although they are responsible for the music the audiences are ultimately listening to. One has to accept that “interpreting” the music actually means “serving” the music, “serving” the composition and the musical thought which lies behind it. My duty is to interpret a musical thought in such a way that whether in a concert hall or in a sound installation a loudspeaker will sound “right”.

A mixer or a software program is actually a musical instrument being as important as a violin or a piano; an instrument with its own technical requirements and performance logistics.

Yes, exactly; it is actually very simple. I also have another definition for electroacoustic music: the re/presentation of sound in space. By “space” I don’t mean the studio (unless the studio becomes the performance space, which happens very seldom), but the concert hall, the sound installation space and any other performance space. I do mean all sorts of spaces where music is being played.

By the same token we could also say that even a CD or a broadcasting programme is actually a well-defined music space.

This is the difference between electronic studios and radio studios. A Tonmeister in a broadcasting station works either for a canned product, like a CD, or for the transmission of a broadcast programme reaching out to an anonymous space such as a kitchen, a car or a headphone. But only in exceptional cases are these the spaces that composers have taken into account for their works. There are also new art forms which take into account anonymous musical spaces such as Radio Art. But in general composers don’t want this kind of anonymous situation. In my experience I have seen that composers ask for specific spaces and this has always been the case in the history of European music. This is the reason why for me the relationship between performance and sound diffusion — I mean the distribution of sound in space — is so important!

Well, you are a real musician.

I consider myself a Tonmeister and an interpreter. I could have well become a cellist and played in an orchestra, but to be honest I am glad that I haven’t gone down that road because I can’t identify myself with the life of an orchestral player. I actually find the musical work in a studio like this more interesting.

Are you saying that, as a musician, you are realised here?

No. To me it is clear that here you are not officially employed as a musician. But when somebody asks me what my position here is I answer: I am a Tonmeister.

But I have used the word “musician” intentionally.

Yes, that is right. For me, a Tonmeister is a musician. In the German language we also have the notion of “Toningenieur”, sound-engineer, but this is another story. The definition Tonmeister is not protected, meaning that virtually everybody can say: I am a Tonmeister. But today in a Tonmeister training here in Germany you really have to learn all the things we have been talking about so far. The training programmes in Berlin, Detmold and Düsseldorf do not cover contemporary music, though. I wish that in the future Tonmeisters will be able to use their tools as real music instruments so that a performance will not only be shaped for a CD production, but also for a specific space.

What you are saying is crucial for the increasing importance that Tonmeisters will have in the future. Let’s try for a moment to project these thoughts on the music of the 21st century (I know it’s a too generic point), but I am interested to hear any opinion you may have on this: the role of the Tonmeister will increasing significantly in the future, I can even imagine that out of this circumstance we may see new music genres taking shape.

I actually have the same vision! Even now I can tell you that there are very interesting Tonmeisters around. By the way, the notion of Tonmeister in German defines the person who is responsible for the entire recording production, as well as the technical and musical quality of the end-product. The Tonmeister is also the one you may swear at if the musical idea represented on the score has not been well fulfilled. Hans Peter Haller, the former director of the Heinrich Strobel Studios [Ed. now the ExperimentalStudio für akustische Kunst] in Freiburg would agree with me entirely. He is a very dedicated musician who has always given his best in order to reach the most musical realisation of a music score and to develop new instruments. Here at the Technical University I am very happy that we have created a centre for national and international exchange of ideas and practices, as well as a centre for teaching and interpreting works of art. This is the reason why I believe that a regular contact with artists is so important. I am often saddened to hear that in Britain, for example, the university studios are only open to those students who are studying there, because I think that the more experienced composers can teach a lot to the younger ones by just working there, speaking to the students, showing their techniques and sharing their views. We have a similar situation here in Germany where it is not easy to let guest composers work in our studios. On the other hand in the Strobel Foundation Studios in Freiburg you have the opposite situation where there are no students working there, but only guests. In any case, here at the Technical University we feel that it is our duty to be able to provide both services to the community and we are very happy to do so.

As the director of these studios you are in continuous contact with musicians from other countries and cultures. How do you experience this? What does it mean for you to come to term with other perspectives and different approaches to music?

According to my experience I can say that the differences are actually not that big! At the moment I perceive the world of electroacoustic music as being essentially a European world. Other worlds do not exist! We don’t have anything in Africa; there is very little in South America which we can really define as being “non-European”. In Asia, in India, it’s the same situation. We have to accept that electroacoustic music is essentially a European cultural thing.

Do you really think that this applies also to Argentinian composers, for example?

Of course! You mention the Argentinians who are very linked to European culture. Composers like Viñao, Mandolini, Vaggione, Teruggi are not really the exotic ones! I have also worked closely with the Korean Sukhi Kang during his residence here and I could notice how clearly he was embedded in the European culture. Of course in his music you can hear some interesting Korean elements but I don’t think we can talk of a Korean music as such! I am also convinced that most of the listeners don’t hear such elements, nor they hear whether a composer is European or Korean. Unlike other art forms, I think that in electroacoustic music there is a prevailing European cultural identity and character. Nobody will notice whether an English composer has composed his work in Birmingham or in London, or whether he has been working at the GRM in Paris. You really don’t hear a specific French, English, German or Italian attribute in an electroacoustic work. You have to really be a connoisseur to be able to identify the national identity of the composer. For me there is an international basis of electroacoustic music. I can see this here in Germany where nobody thinks in “German” terms, but rather in European terms.

Do you then perceive this as being very positive for a Japanese composer, for example?

Yes, of course! But I must also say that intercultural exchange will inevitably provide new intercultural ideas in music; see for example the effect that Chinese instruments had on Western composers during the recent International Computer Music Conference in China. However, we still cannot talk of a pure Chinese or Japanese tradition in electroacoustic music. Perhaps this will change in the future and, of course, this would be very exciting! At the moment I see electroacoustic music as a global product just like the industry, and, to be very honest, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I can imagine that through the continuous development of new technologies, electroacoustic music will be the most international form of art, and when I say “international” I mean it in the most positive sense of the word.

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