The Wire Interviews 2000 & 2010
Janek Schaefer : Table Mannerist
by Paul Sullivan issue 201, Nov 2000
London sound artist Janek Schaefers explorations into weird audio
began when, as a student of architecture at the Royal College Of Art, he was
requested to submit an installation for a Brian Eno exhibition. Gloriously unaware
that Mr Eno had once been a postman, Schaefer had the idea of sending a package
containing a voice activated tape recorder to the installation site which would
record its own transit through the postal system. He called the piece
"The exhibition was being held in a self-storage centre" he says over the telephone on the eve of a tour of America. "We werent allowed to visit the site and being an architect I thought site specificity was an important aspect of installations. As I couldnt get any inspiration from being there I thought about self-storage centres being all about people moving things, like boxes around space. By sending the package to the site it would then become a site specific work."
The resultant recording issued on a limited edition post office red 7 " via Hot Air focused Schaefers mind onto the production of sonic art. Having enjoyed some classical training as a youth (he was head chorister at school) he began to incorporate audio into his architectural investigations, involving himself in lots of conceptual projects that inverted relationships with a built environment such as bringing live sounds into buildings from outside through hidden microphones. A major catalyst for his sonic career came in the shape of a Royal College concert in 1995 which featured Pan Sonic, Chris Watson and, more significantly, Philip Jeck who performed his monumental piece Vinyl Requiem for 180 turntables.
"I was completely impressed with what Jeck had been doing" imparts Schaefer. "He had 180 of these junk-yard, self-amplifying Dansette turntables all stacked up and playing at once. I didnt want to rip him off but I liked the idea so I inverted his idea of lots of turntables playing at once by making lots of record players in one."
Schaefers Tri-Phonic appeared in 1997, placing him immediately in the tradition of avant-garde turntablism along with mentors Jeck, Christian Marclay and Otomo Yoshihide. A step up from the double-armed Technics deck of Colgnes Thomas Brinkmann, the Tri-Phonic features three tone arms located at inordinate points around the turntable, which allows it to perform astonishingly deft vinyl manipulations. Records could be played forwards or backwards, at any speed between 0-78 bpm and could even play three records at once, though Schaefer admits that this last is something of an impractical gimmick.
"Its intended to be able to play an old piece of vinyl in any way possible to create totally new sounds from it." he explains. "It doesnt matter which way the arms face as it depends on which way the vinyl is turning. Brinkmann uses his to make a lot of beat stuff but Im not into beats, Im into textures and sounds. My main aim is to take something and change it into something new. Alteration and appropriation is my main theme, so taking an old record and playing it slowly backwards and then processing it and coming up with something new - thats the attraction for me."
After a glut of successful live performances, a poignant live recording, Out (issued on Belgian label K-RAA-K in 1999) and a few extra-curricular projects recorded for Fat Cat, Rhiz and Diskono, Schaefer has recently decided to move away from his invented instrument. Of late, hes been exploring the studio more and, although still employing vinyl manipulation techniques, focusing more on the field recordings and electronics that have always been intrinsic in his work.
His new album on Fat Cat, Above Buildings is the best example of this new direction; a beautifully abstracted and intensely spatial assemblage that manipulates recordings sourced from aggressive electrical surges in Las Vegas, wheezy church organs and solar eclipses, merging them with trademark locked grooves and crepuscular electronics to create a work that magnifies physical space and buzzes and crackles with an extraordinary energy. "I went on a big holiday earlier in the year to North America, Brazil and Mexico with my girlfriend and did lots of mini-disc recording," he reveals. "A lot of the sounds on the album are good manipulations of those original sources. I always purely worked live when I started but in the studio I create sounds and mix them in. I dont want to be known for just doing the work with the Tri-Phonic and kept in that turntablists pigeonhole. Im interested in just being a good musician and sound artist."
To this end, Schaefer is also planning a debut album with fellow musician Robert Hampson for their electro-acoustic project, Comae, (to be released on Viennese imprint Rhiz) and is also working with Philip Jeck on an album which will explore more fully a process he began in 1999 with his Wow single on Diskono. After drilling a hole off-centre in some test-tone vinyl to produce wow (the wobbling sound that so many turntable manufacturers have spent years trying to eliminate), Schaefer then combined this with sinewave fluctuations and other material to make a bitter-sweet collage. "The LP Im doing with Philip is using the same technique but with locked grooves" he reveals, "we will drill several holes and get different axes for the lathe so that theyll overcut each other - theyll be locked grooves thatll weave together. Well also be cutting incomplete arcs so that instead of cutting 360 degrees itll go for 90 degrees and then hit land before wavering off to find another groove. In effect itll be the record and turntable doing the composition."
.PDF here : The Wire Feature Article Jan 2010