Interview in Mahala from Johannesburg, South Africa before the concert with Tlale Makhene
The German-based artist Burnt Friedman played live with percussionist Tlale Makhene recently. We sat down with him prior to the show to talk about time signatures in music, the concept of ‘rhythm’ as understood by the Western world, and why he likes the idea of Kraftwerk but can’t stand them. It went something like this…
MAHALA: What inspired the tour which you’ve been embarking on?
I think the reasonable part of this tour, whether conscious to the organisers or not, is the material I carry, the music itself. The rhythm language that I use originates from a partner of mine, Jaki Liebezeit. We both have developed a system of playing rhythms that could be called universal. It’s a kind of motion formula, a way to move that applies to all the instruments, all the elements in the music. They all follow the same…
It’s a pattern if you like, but it’s more than that. It also gives you a hint to move properly balanced. Since this is frequency, it requires left and right, a plus and minus pole. It’s not something that could be memorized or played back by listening to it, it needs to be felt. Each stroke when the motion formula is applied is felt. I would claim that the rhythm works as the music requires it to move. With those physical components in mind – I’d say they they’re the same anywhere in the universe. Usually, to all the regions I come to, and especially in Europe, we have one predominant rhythm. It’s slightly different from this continent, but it’s been exported to the US and most other places.
Is it the 4/4 pattern?
Yes! It seems like a harmless statement, but in fact it’s been drawn into everyone’s muscles. If another natural rhythm pattern appears, people tend to not understand it, especially people who are trained in music. It’s actually easier for people who have no knowledge about the ingredients to be more at ease with these irregular grooves. It’s just a different symmetry that incorporates longer cycles than four. On this continent we can often find – for instance on the West African coast – a constellation running in 12.
Or even 6/8 patterns?
You say 6/8, but this is already Western thinking, because how would you divide 6 by 8.
It’s not possible. Well, it is Mathematically, but doesn’t result in a whole number.
It’s one indication that proves how mad and obsessively imaginative notation and musical thinking is, because it doesn’t account for the motion; it doesn’t account for a rhythm coming from somewhere, and going to another place. It doesn’t account for the cyclic nature of rhythm.
How do you mean?
Cyclic, as opposed to rhythm and notation in bars. That’s called divisive rhythm – hence why we have sections in bars. A bar goes from a start to an end-point, and then repeats. But a cycle doesn’t have a start and end-point; it depends on your perspective, it accounts for someone who perceives the music. It’s not simply a picture of the music, it’s an abstraction of what’s in motion; it’s just an abstraction. With what we do, it’s much simpler; constructions like 6/8 or 3/4 are a big handicap in understanding how this music works. They are especially a handicap for people who try to drum to it. So what we have is 5/5, 7/7…
But that’s 1.
Why is it 1? 5 divided by 5 makes 5 equal components of the rhythm. It’s 5 equal components, which is 1 of course! So what I’m saying is it’s very simple, just divide what is called a bar into equal parts, and not into something that’s not real. It might be real for classical music, for instruments that follow notes. It defines the length of the note. But with rhythm you don’t have that. You have either a strong or a quiet impulse; you have impulses of almost the same length. Maybe you can have a deep and a high tone to account for, roughly. But that’s not needed, it’s superfluous. If you put it cyclically, you don’t have an accentuated or an un-accentuated part of the bar. The beginning of the bar must not be accentuated, not necessarily. That results in the natural motion pattern.
Have you always been inclined towards electronic music?
No, I wouldn’t even call it electronic music. I’ve been using microphones and all sorts of instruments, but because I’ve started producing music as well to keep the recordings, to archive those recordings, to edit recordings, and to layer or overdub recordings, the recording tool or the electronic device…I take it for granted. I’ve been throwing synthetic and acoustic elements together. To me it doesn’t matter; it describes the surface of the music but not the language of it.
Is there a definition for the sound?
On this tour I came up with the term ‘traditional music from nowhere’ or neo-traditional music by electronic means. This means it can incorporate a computer as a recording tool. [It provides] treatment possibilities that are not possible with any other instrument, and it accounts for the playback on the speaker system. I’m used to having loud speakers, otherwise you can’t hear the stuff that’s been recorded. This is maybe the most significant difference to an orchestra or a solely acoustic set-up. But what’s played back could also be acoustic in nature. However, any of those elements – whether electronic or acoustic – are driven by the same kind of formula. So when I want to describe the music, I’d rather not choose a term that describes the sound of it, but rather have something describing the language of it.
Are you familiar with the music of Kraftwerk?
Of course, yes!
Did they influence you?
No. They influenced me as much as any other group did. Around their time, I was a lot more interested in…not in pop music for sure, and Kraftwerk to me is a pop band, it’s a caricature of pop music.
The characters as they appear in Kraftwerk, as puppets, absolutely over-designed and styled, functioning as robots, giving a concert in two places at the same time. It’s an ironic statement of how the pop star can be displaced, functioning almost like a robot. They were revealing the mechanical nature of pop music.
That sounds like you admire certain aspects of them, even if they weren’t that big of an influence.
I like them for their conceptual approach to music – taking a piss at pop music. Musically, I didn’t find them too inspiring. At that period, I was more into psychedelic music, or music that incorporated tribal music as well, that wasn’t linked to western or American styles.
What examples can you provide?
For instance, Can; I work with their drummer Jaki Liebezeit. They are probably even more influential to musicians than Kraftwerk was. Around the same time, in the mid-seventies, David Byrne had the idea of tribal music that didn’t have any origins; his record ( with Brian Eno ) was called “My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts”. Can were coming up with tracks under the “Ethnological Forgery” series, trying to sound as if the band was coming from some unknown territory somewhere on earth. I like the idea of music not being related to a certain territory. What the agents of music marketing do is to first link it to a territory.
Do you have any particular set of sounds that you’ve found, or any sound library that you keep re-visiting during the production process?
I used to have a sample library. I found that the sounds that I sampled myself are the ones that I always kept. Most of the foreign libraries are a bit too indifferent; they were made for specific purposes; they already have an idiom contained in them; they remind you of something. It’s also strongly recommended to always build your own signature sound. In the end it will make a difference; the competition amongst all the music worldwide is exploding.