THE WIRE Magazine “Nowhere Man” (2000)

THE WIRE Magazine “Nowhere Man” The Wire: Burnt Friedman, 2000 by Chris Sharp

“Identity is the enemy. Isn’t it much more difficult today to disappear than it is to emerge ?”

I’m reading an email from Burnt Friedman. It’s a dense, allusive, elusive 3000 word dance through the network of ideas that makes him one of the most interesting figures currently operating in – or, as he would say, breaking away from – the amorphous, greyscale nebula we call electronica. And glittering at its heart, these two sentences, which come as close as he’ll get to a statement of intent, and which neatly display Friedman’s mercurial knack for turning preconceptions into misconceptions, not to mention his taste for the obliquest of angles.

Friedman has been fighting a dogged rearguard action against identity for the last decade and more. He’s recorded under any number of names and launched a string of projects : Gummibox, Some More Crime, Drome, Nonplace Urban Field, Flanger, The Nu-Dub Players, Bernd Friedmann – hell, he’s even used his own name – once. Tellingly, he refuses to erect fences between these incarnations – his preoccupations, tactics, techniques and sounds well up over the boundaries, a rich oil slick of intuitive sound spreading ectoplasmically through an increasingly tangled discography.

Although he now works from Cologne, B. Friedman grew up in Kassel, an almost archetypally provincial town in central Germany. It’s assiduously marketed by Germany’s tourist authorities as the focal point of the “Fairy Tale Road” – the Brothers Grimm lived and worked there in the early 19th century – but it’s fair to say that Friedman was probably less influenced by the likes of Rumplestiltskin, or the ornate neo-Gothic architecture of the town centre, than he was by the Documenta festival. Since its inauguration in the mid-50s, this 100 day long event – held in Kassel every five years – has acquired the status of the Olympics of Modern Art, attracting exhibits by – and visits from – visual and multi-media avant-gardists from all over the world. It was in this context that Friedman decided to study fine art at college in Kassel in the mid-eighties. (…)

Friedman’s artistic and musical explorations finally fused as his fine art course drew to a close – he submitted a CD instead of artwork for his final diploma – while some of the drawings that he made at the time have now been given a new lease of life as part of the promotional material for recent releases. Further DIY sonic explorations followed : gradually expanding his home-recording capability, Friedman started stringing together what he coyly refers to as “experimental audio equipment”, performing and recording with various collaborators under the name Gummibox (which translates as Rubberbox). He sends me a package of 80s relics – photocopied flyers for cassette-only releases with titles like “Holocaust Vol 1”, “SoundKadaver” and “Musica Povera”, a picture of himself playing the “gummibande-gitarre” (and looking alarmingly like a young Boyd Rice); another photograph taken to promote a 1990 live performance of John Cage’s “Music For Amplified Toy Pianos”.

(…) Friedman’s evolution musically was as surefooted, as instinctive as it was intellectually. Drome – as the fact that the project picked up a licensing deal with British beat-heads Ninja Tune might well indicate – was altogether less abrasive, less frenetic than Some More Crime – this despite the second Drome album revelling in the confrontational title “The Final Corporate Colonisation Of The Unconciousness”. Increasingly from here on in, the music takes over the argument from the rhetoric : Friedman’s progressive and instinctive escape from the shackles of sequenced beats and uninflected rhythms stems from as strong and as essentially humanitarian an impulse as his rejection of the commodification of our cultural life. As he puts it : “I got the feeling that the powers within music are much stronger than any verbal “social critique” – because music can also offer a way out.”
It was his observation of this last phenomenon that brought into being Friedman’s next incarnation – Nonplace Urban Field – under which name he recorded three albums and a remix project for the Incoming! label between 1993 and 1996. The concept remains a central unifying theme for his intertwined work as cultural critic and post-electronic composer – although his argument is sometimes opaque :

“Ever since the arrival of the sampler, the concept of “electronic music” as a separate genre hasn´t made much sense to me. A sample is not an imitation – played, interpreted, filtered through human consciousness – it is a simulation. It saves pieces of the world for purely aesthetic purposes – like special FX – and its very nature produces fragmentation. The crucial point is that the sampler faithfully extracts only what we asked it for – the result can never offer more than the answer to whatever question we posed.” (…)

Despite – or just maybe because of – the weighty concerns behind its gestation, the music that Friedman released as Nonplace Urban Field was his most accessible and, for want of a better phrase, charming to date : records like “Raum Für Notizen” are hushed, busy, microbial and softly expressive. And they require diligent, attentive unfurling, their subtly-varying surfaces magically developing extremes of light and shade with repeated listens – and opening up to reveal unexpectedly warm, squelchy tones squelchy that offer a quiet but firm alternative to the austere electronica proliferating at the time.

But the continuing serious intent behind Friedman’s music was underlined by the Ash International release at the same time of his Leisure Zones recording – an adaptation of an earlier tape piece released on cassette in Kassel 5 years earlier. This piece is one of the most intriguing in the Friedman discography, mutely linking the thematic thrust of Nonplace Urban Field with the (a)formal concerns of John Cage and aleatory pranksters like the Hafler Trio. It’s a seamlessly edited blend of atmospheres and location recordings – evanescent and hypnotic – although Friedman says that if he reworked it now, he’d edit out the eructations of electroacoustic noise that rise up sporadically. The sleevenotes are brusquely specific : “Recommended listening times : i) shortly before or during sleep ii) while breakfasting on a balcony or terrace. Recommended listening volume : approximating the throb of traffic.”

Friedman is typically disarming about the music’s genesis, and typically practical about its purpose :

“I basically just wanted to record something that i could fall asleep to. I put countless mixings to test before ending up with the final version. In order for the music to mingle with the natural disquiet of the atmosphere and the noise of the exterior world, it is absolutely neccessary that the volume be properly regulated. Only then, does some kind of hypnotic atmosphere builts up which at best, puts the listener to sleep, although its not quite similar to the effects of a seashore or a waterfall. I tried to record neutral outdoor atmospheres for later use in soundtracks and it struck me that it was impossible to record a coherent, uncorrupted atmosphere in this part of the world. That’s what brought to mind the question : do we Europeans ever experience acoustic leisure zones ? By which I mean areas which lack industrial disturbance and the hum of civilisation ? Given the realities of sound polIution, I thought it was more practical to let the given ambience play its part.”
The flurry of Friedman activity, which had seen him release no fewer than twelve full-length albums in the period between 1990 and 1996, was about to come to an awkward and unpermeditated halt. The last release was Golden Star, a sort-of-but-not-quite remix project that featured reworkings and contributions from Porter Ricks, Scanner, Pluramon and even Muslimgauze – and after that, the problems began :

“It wasn’t that there weren’t any completed records, there was just a succession of ridiculous business disasters… First Incoming ! went bust, just after releasing “Golden Star”. Then, after that, I went through a spell of negotiating with lots of labels including Dot in Sweden and Kiff SM, both of which were going to release an album called “Plays Love Songs” – I’ve had two sets of masters and two sets of finished masters for that album now – and both of which went out of business. I did start to get a little depressed !”

These tangled and exasperating difficulties resulted in an enforced hiatus lasting fully three years. But when the silence was broken, it was broken in typical Friedman style – with a rush of new identities, coming from different directions, but sharing a familiar set of concerns. As he puts it : “I’m trying to get values together, values drawn from our physical characteristics. In evolutionary terms, my ears certainly didn´t develop so that I could receive codes like commands or loops, they developed so that I could manouvre myself safely through the darkness. That’s why I can´t shut them down ! I started thinking about the sounds that stimulate this biological ability – and they are all nonrepetitive, fractal patterns, such as the ocean, a waterfall, rain, bubbling mud, wind through leaves – all of these are the opposite mains hum, traffic, lawn mowers. For me, the trick is to generate similar patterns within a musical language.”

And the three most recent Friedman projects draw explictly on old-fashioned musical languages – genres with a rich history of sounds and rhythms played in real time by real instruments. Flanger – a collaboration with prolific producer Atom Heart (aka Uwe Schmidt) – draws on jazz, the Nu-Dub Players on reggae, while the recent“Con Ritmo”album (released, punningly, as Burnt Friedman) takes a lead from 70s fusion and adds polyrhythmic latin elements. Crucially, though, Friedman is anything but retro – his music goes effortlessly beyond pastiche, posing instead some crucial questions and, once again, eluding easy assimilation.

In his email to me, Friedman alludes to the science fiction of the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, a writer whose profile is shamefully low in the UK, but whose dizzyingly inventive and intellectually thrilling books mingle Kurt Vonnegut’s warm didactic humour and Philip K Dick’s obssesive fascination with the nature of reality. In books like “The Cyberiad” Lem – like Dick – is fascinated by robots that are so nearly human as to blur the boundaries between the cybernetic and the organic, the real and the synthesized. And, entirely intentionally, Friedman’s music delights in blurring exactly the same boundaries.

And so “Templates” and the forthcoming “Midnight Sound” (Flanger), “Just Landed” (The Nu-Dub Players) and “Con Ritmo” all, in their different ways, exist as strange and intriguing hybrids of the programmed and the performed. “Just Landed” confounds the expectations generally raised by the phrase “digidub” – soulesss mogadon beats designed for squat-dwelling upper crusties – by offering a succession of spectral, stealthy dub cuts of poplated by immaculate and haunting chimes and drones. And “Con Ritmo” similarly elevates the latino clatter of post-Herbie Hancock fusion to new heights of microscopic percussive accuracy. Every last rimshot seems at once supernaturally well-placed and breathlessly improvised – the effect over the course of a whole record is that of inhabiting a dreamlike interzone where time is infinitely malleable and infinitely intangible at the same time.

Armed with what he descibes as “a serious sense of humour” Friedman delights in aiding and abetting the confusion by constructing arch little meta-fictions around his music. “Just Landed”, we are told, was recorded on a Great Barrier Island off the coast of New Zealand by a mysterious posse consisting of Friedman, Crucial Guenther, DJ Booth, Bernie The Bolt, and Cousin Of The Sausage Smearer. Similarly “Con Ritmo” is billed as the work of The Disposable Rhythm Section, for whom an elaborately ironical biography is constructed on the sleevenotes. The album is presented as having been recorded live at a South American club, features the voice of a Patagonian compere, crowd noise and between song-announcements – all of which conspires to generate the illusion of a concert document even while the music embarks on passages of vituousic complexity that would have been impossible to capture in real time. This is as close as music comes to science fiction – embodying the classic Philip K. Dick.

As the mournful, hand-drawn figure of Bernie The Bolt on Friedman’s self generated press-release says “the Disposable Rhythm Section are playing music that stands at the apex of those traditions that really matter in the history of jazz : power, beauty, invention, insurrection”. It’s true, and it’s good news that there’s another spate of Friedman productions waiting in the wings for release over the next few months.(…)