Worst Case Scenario
Interview with Vinyl Terror & Horror
See the related “Vinyl Terror & Horror Gallery” in this issue of eContact! for images and recordings of projects by the duo.
Vinyl Terror & Horror is a collaboration between Camilla Sørensen and Greta Christensen, both educated at the Royal Danish Art academy in Copenhagen. The project has taken part in the exhibitions such as “Fishgrätenmilchstand” curated by John Bock at Berlin’s Temporäre Kunsthalle, “Enter II” at the Kunsthallen Brandts in Odense, Denmark, and has been performed at festivals such as Sound Around Kaliningrad (Russia), Colour Out of Space (Brighton), Sound of Stockholm and the Norberg Festival in Sweden, and Deep Cuts and Auditory Matters II (Brussels).
[Andreas Engström] Like many sound artists and experimental musicians of today, you both have a degree in the visual arts — you went to the art academy in Copenhagen together. Can you try and describe the transition you made from working in the visual field to working with sound? Was it a transition?
[Camilla Sørensen] We were both accepted to the art academy to study sculpture. We started to work with sound at the same time.
[AE] But how did you concretely come in contact with this field?
[Greta Christensen] We were talking about doing a collaboration and we wanted to find some common ground. We both wrote a list on things that we were interested in, and it turned out that we both wanted to work with sounds. At that time we bought a Hammond organ and this is were it started. We went on to build things around it and we played without really knowing how to do it, more like played with it, creating performative situations.
[AE] So you started from the premise that you wanted to work together, and then you tried to find out which would be your common ground, and then you found the Hammond organ and the vinyl?
[CS] Yes, each of us wrote a list of what we were interested in. Actually the only thing that was on both our list was the Hammond organ.
[GC] There was this endless stream of ideas. Later the vinyl came up and was integrated in the work. I also think this was a very natural step, considering that we both have a sculptural background. To choose this media and wanting to work with music is so physical in itself. You have this record that you can manipulate in very concrete ways. And with the record player there are lots of possibilities.
[AE] The process of picking up samples is very concrete; it is like working with a visual interface.
[CS] Yes, I think that the record player is one of the simplest technologies to manipulate.
[AE] I suppose that in order to master this instrument you need to know the record player, how a particular machine works. Then you need to master the physical act of playing and everything that comes with it. But you also need to “master” the bank of samples, knowing everything from where to find good material to understand the width of the sounds [and where they] actually are, in order to expand a vocabulary. How have you developed your skills in relation to this description?
[GC] I think this is a good way of describing it.
[CS] The records that we use are always picked out very carefully. In the beginning, we spent a lot of time in record shops searching for certain kinds of material which we would play on modified equipment in different ways. The outcome of this would be part of our own vinyl release, which again would be modified and played in different ways and used on the next release. In that sense, we developed a library of our own sounds.
[AE] So in this way you concretely capture your own æsthetic…
[CS] Some records that we make are also a way of capturing something that might show up while working with it at home, but which you will never hear again. These records are in a way unfinished compositions, or several fragments of compositions, that will be used in our performance. After a while, when the records become a bit broken or dirty, they have developed their own identity, in another sense.
[AE] So sometimes a recorded record is based on other recorded records, including these characteristics with cracks and scratches?
[GC] Yes, this becomes a kind of self-developing process. It comes further away from the original source and it is a part of our identity that the records are mistreated. We usually print these in just one copy. We have a few records each. In a set we then know that one record may be good in the beginning and another in a section further. To have these records as a background gives us greater freedom to experiment with heavily modified records.
[AE] For how long have you worked this way?
[CS] Apart from these one-copy releases, we have produced something like five releases. Nightmare Lullaby from 2003 was the first.
[AE] Do you use the records you print also in several copies as well in your live sets?
[AE] When you play live, how much is decided in advance and how much do you make up in that very moment?
[CS] We always make a kind of structure and lose idea about how to start. We also have a few cues when we are going from one passage to another. Within this framework there are lots of possibilities for improvisation. During the performance, we listen to each other and try to agree on if something needs more or less time.
[GC] We have some points so that we don’t lose each other. We may say that “ok, when you play that record, we go from there to there,” but the course between those points can be very different.
[AE] Does it happen that you really surprise each other? Or do you know each other so well that you immediately understand what the other is doing and can react [in an appropriate manner] to it?
[GC] There is always something unpredictable with this setup. Sometimes you have no idea of how a record actually will work in a particular situation. For example, the cut-ups, or when a record has too many scratches and constantly loops. But we have worked together for so long now so we have kind of an idea about how things will sound together and how to find our way through certain situations.
[AE] Do you take different roles live?
[CS] Yes, but it also has to do with the equipment. Greta has a tower of records and I play on one turntable and a loop station which I sometimes use while I change records.
[GC] I can play on more records at the same time, which makes it possible to change faster between records, and I work a lot with cut-ups.
[CS] It is only in the last year that we started to practice playing with each other. The usual process is that we prepare sounds separately.
[AE] So you don’t work so much together?
[GC] Yes we do, we build stuff and have our studio. We prepare and work together and talk about it continuously. But at EMS studio in Stockholm, were we have been a couple of times, we had the possibility to set up our gear and actually practice.
[AE] When I first heard you live, it seemed as if every sound was very well integrated, composed, if you will. Then it struck me that this was not like the typically idiomatic turntablism. The loop was there, but not as prominent as is sometimes the case.
[GC] There are certainly loops, but I think that our sound is very much being shaped by the medium we use.
[CS] I think it also has to do with [the fact] that we work very much with a specific atmosphere and storyline in our music. Some people work very technically with the instrument, like scratching. We play more emotionally, in a sense.
[AE] How much do you prepare the vinyls, like sticking tape for finding the right grove, or preparation in the more Cagean sense, like rebuilding the needle?
[CS] Since some of our vinyls are, as we explained, made out of different records, it is really difficult — even when you decide where to start on a record — to know what it will actually sound like.
[AE] When you play live, in what respect does the location, the room affect the performance?
[CS] The best is a kind of closed room where the atmosphere is very concentrated and you sit down and really take in without any disturbances. This was the case at the Norberg Festival in Sweden last summer, where you heard us play.
[GC] I think that we are more intuitive and emotionally than conceptually guided in the decisions we make. We often use very “big sounds”, like opera, classical music or “horror sounds” from films. These are sounds that can be related to a certain situation, or there are feelings and emotions connected to them. This is maybe why this closed room is so important for us. We tell stories, although abstract. The music is very visual, although not in the material sense but because it refers to different kind of situations, like the scenery in opera or horror movies. We may not evoke concrete pictures, but more like a general tension. These things are as important as the medium the sounds are played from.
[AE] Can you see a certain direction in the way you are working right now, where are you heading next?
[CS] We recently made an installation called Worst Case Scenario at the Kunsthallen Brandts in Odense, in which we use sounds we made at EMS. In this work, we managed to combine sculptural components with the kind of sounds we work with live and the way we compose music.
[AE] Is there a big difference between the way you relate to the material in the performance and in the sculptures?
[GC] The composition in Worst Case Scenario is very close to some live concerts we have played. The difference is that the live sets are improvised and this piece is composed directly to the visual installation. This brought our sculptural and musical practices together and I believe both benefited from each other.
[AE] In this sculpture, you have worked very clearly on the way sound acts with visual components.
[CS] Yes, for instance, there is this staircase of speakers where one can hear footsteps running up through them. There is also one speaker hanging very high up. The sound of an airplane crashing is synched with the movement of the speaker falling down on a pillow. So, on the one hand there is the connection between the sound and the movement, but on the other hand there is this rather absurd contrast between what is seen and heard.
[AE] How is the composition for the sculpture made?
[CS] On the computer there is a composition with several tracks which go out to the different speakers. There is also a midi track which starts different physical actions, like the opening of the door when you hear the sound of the door squeaking.
[AE] So in your sculptural works, you have both recorded sound from computer and turntable playing automatically?
[CS] Yes, and that is how I think we found a way of connecting the sound and the sculpture.
[AE] There is a rather tense, although vague, horror movie atmosphere in this sculpture. For example, with the opera aria, which is repeated by a pick-up which is jumping up and down hitting more or less the same groove.
[GC] We prepared that pick-up so it can only reach grooves within a limited area.
[AE] About your name, Vinyl Terror & Horror, where did you get that?
[GC] We were playing a concert and someone described our music as “vinyl terror” and then we added the “horror”.