In Conversation: Petronn Sphene and Sunik Kim
Petronn Sphene and Sunik Kim both performed amazing sets at Counterflows 2022, spilling their overflowing, amorphous sounds off the Glue Factory walls on the Friday and Saturday nights of the festival. After performing, they met for the first time and found they both had a rapport and equal fascination with each others work. We decided to ask them if they would be interested in continuing this conversation. Through the magic of zoom they recorded this fascinating discussion just a week after the festival.
The conversation was transcribed from zoom by Sarah Lawson.
We should just fire things back and forth. I was thinking of stuff and there [were] a lot of threads that we started on. I’m sure we’ll be able to just bounce off what is going on.
Exactly. First of all, I guess I’m very curious, what parallels do you hear [between our music]?
A lot of things really. I mean, the use of maximalist dense structures of sound that have this aspect of being really precise and intentional, but are operating at the limits of sensory input. And using that in a way that has this quality of being both an ecstatic thing, but also this force that’s standing very close to an outpouring of really intense energy. It destroys the form. I also definitely got this alien, queer energy from your music.
This really strongly emotional quality, whilst also operating within a sonic grammar that was highly abstract and highly futuristic. The thing that, for me, is always really compelling about radical queer music, is this quality of world building or world manifestation. Where you’re trying to tear a rift into the alternate future. The music has this kind of extremity that’s like violence, but it’s not a negative, mean-spirited violence. It’s not supposed to really hurt the listener, but it is supposed to be something that engulfs the mind and the spirit and is transportative. That was something that I felt was really apparent for me from the first 30 seconds. I was like, wow! A lot of the time when people hear my music, it’s so much for people that often the thing I hear people say is ‘it’s really kind of intense and all consuming’. And I often don’t hear that in a lot of other people’s music. I feel that, for me, this expression of hysterical, xenofeminist energy, it just comes out of an actual honest set of experiences and phenomenological things in the world. When I heard your music, the use of rhythm in a way that was highly un-quantized, it had this rhythmic quality where it operated at a high rate of information and was not locked into any standard idea of one singular grid. It would always be several overlapping grids that would phase in and out of one another. And it was clear that it’s not random, this is very intentional. So there was this honest feeling of something being expressed that was a very intimate part of this person’s soul. And also I felt the intensity and the range of emotions and the complexity of it. For me, this is a kind of kindred thing. I feel if you’re a marginalised person, you’re somebody who feels totally like an alien on this planet. The daily experience of dealing with the world, humanity and just trying to survive and [not] have one’s cognition be assaulted … the response to that, it ought to be quite strong. And it often confuses me, when I hear a lot of music that’s supposed to be queer music. And I’m not really dismissing it, I know that really highly dense, challenging [and] stimulating music is not for everybody. I know that some people just want to play their queer version of pop punk, or whatever. You know, we’ve all heard it.
But it’s just, for me, I feel like I want to immolate myself with the emotions [and] the intensity of feelings that I experience when I feel the injustice, and the tragedy, and the insanity of it all. It’s this response to highly upsetting circumstances, it’s using that energy in a way that’s very far removed from something that comes out of a tradition of power electronics. This really mean-spirited…
I hate that stuff.
Yeah, me too. I was faithful that you would feel the same way because I didn’t hear that in your music at all. But it’s just one of those things that certain people [compare to] when they hear very intense, very sonically rich electronic music. It’s a comparison that gets thrown at my rock band guttersnipe as well. People would just reach for things like Swans and White House and I was like, it’s got more to do with the queer pop punk kids than it has to do with that, you know. Ethically, spiritually, ideologically, for me, this stuff exists on the same kind of lineage as a lot of queer cinema and music that’s not even necessarily very extreme, but has a very strong political intent. I said this recently in another interview, I think that feminism taken to its logical conclusion is psychedelic. I think that science fiction and feminism, ought to really complement each other in their realisation. All of the aims of liberatory, radical kind of practices that we see these days surrounding gender identity and neurodivergence … if you actually follow all that thinking through to it’s logical conclusion, what we actually really want is something altogether different from what we have now. I’ve always been really drawn to insects and invertebrates and a lot of non-human life, like bacteria. Things that have a consciousness and a body that is totally different from ours. There’s something about seeing those other organisms operate in the way that they do that I find very inspiring and I feel it gives a lot of suggestion as to how we, as sentient beings, might be manifested on Earth. I feel like music that has this real urgency, just not really giving you any choice of leading you up to it, but just blasting way beyond what exists in the world or what there is even a language for or set terms to describe. You just have to create it in order for people to even be able to imagine that it exists. And I really, really got that from your music. It was beautiful and it was terrifying and it was ecstatic. I couldn’t stop moving throughout the whole thing.
I saw you actually and it made me very happy. I feed off of that energy. I don’t make club music, like I don’t make music for people to dance to, per se. But I value that so much. I value that collectivity, that energy. And, as you were saying, that glimpse into a possible future, right? I’m less of an explicit world builder, per se, than just kind of thinking about it through the lens of a history. It has to be optimistic basically, and understanding that the possibilities have not been exhausted. Whether that’s artistic possibilities, political possibilities. I am just allergic to any kind of cynicism or pessimism that is not grounded in reality. I’m not gonna be like, be happy, be happy. That’s fucking stupid. [But] there are so many musicians who are incredibly cynical, jaded, think they’ve heard it all. I’ve been there too. But I want there to be that moment of like, oh, fuck, I was wrong. Like I was wrong, there’s so much more to be done. And that applies to politics too, there’s all this, end of history nonsense. And it’s just like, no, we haven’t seen that in history. Like, there’s a lot to be done here.
Yeah, totally. Because I think that narrative is totally based [on] a lot of assumptions about what constitutes the human that is able to make that kind of judgment. I guess I wouldn’t have necessarily been able to identify that your kind of musical practice is really rooted in a historical perspective, but it makes total sense. I think that it is incredibly important to know history, and to be able to not repeat it. To be able to create the future by being like, I’m aware of all the stuff that happened before. And I’m aware of what hasn’t been thought of, [or] tried, and the things that are still taken for granted. I mean, if it was to just strictly talk about it in terms of music, it’s like rhythm. Rhythm is one of those things that still so much of the time, [and] in the west especially, people just can’t get out of these particular, very restricted ideas about how time is supposed to behave and how our attention is supposed to process chronological structures. I used to always get so annoyed back in the day, when breakcore and all that kind of stuff came around in the UK and people would just be like, ‘Ah, you’ve gone too far, you can’t even dance to it’. And I would be like, ‘Oh, yeah, you can’t dance to it? Well, I can fucking dance to it. Obviously, there’s some kind of conservatism in how you’re thinking about this’. I’m not adhering to any religious faith or anything like that, but I’m definitely spiritual in it. And if I had to articulate that spirituality in any kind of concrete way, then it’s like, music is religion for me. And I think that the function of that is to have a very clearly defined set of circumstances in which we can commune with the Beyond, that which is not conceivable to our minds, yet. You can call it whatever you want, but I do think that there’s something incredibly powerful and vital about that, it can really psychologically affect people. Just speaking from my own experience, some of the most profound emotional and psychological experiences that I’ve had, have all been in conjunction with music. I totally agree with you that all of this end of history narrative is nonsense. I think the fact that it is discussed in this way, by a certain kind of population. But, another very large population, including both of us, just have an unquestionable, lived experience of that not being applicable at all. I guess when I was younger, I felt so much alienation from everything and I was subjected to so much aggression and discrimination from people, I was very misanthropic. I was not really interested in politics, because I was like, the politics is about people in general and I’ve so far not identified any specific group that isn’t aggressive towards me. So how can I really be able to engage with a discourse that is serving people as a whole and I haven’t got a seat at that table? And the same with stuff like punk as well. Before I knew about the history of punk music [and] was aware that it is music and an art movement that actually mostly came from queer people who weren’t white, and it was an expression of their experience of the world. Especially in the UK, with the exception of a few bands like polystyrene from x-ray specs or the slits, the narrative that endured in culture was just angry white men who were drinking booze and not giving a shit and this very shallow idea of rebellion. And I was always just like, what are these people rebelling against? And not to say … I knew of punk kids who were working class, there’s many sides to dealing with the oppressive society that we live in. But it really didn’t … I was into metal as a kid. Because electronic music at that point in time was not really accessible to me. I always liked it when I heard it, but the UK for a lot of my growing up, was extremely factional in terms of what you were allowed to like [and] listen to and what clothes you wore, to show your membership in a certain subculture. And for a long time, you weren’t really allowed to like rock music and electronic music. The people who liked electronic music would beat you up for liking rock music. The kids that would attack me were listening to dance music that now I think is great. There was a really interesting point at the end of my school life when I was taken out of school for mental health reasons. I was in a kind of youth psychiatric unit. And when I came back to school, the attitudes of people towards me changed in really interesting ways. And one of the most interesting ones was that the working class kids, that were wearing like tracksuits and who liked heavy hardcore, they all were really nice to me after I came out of [a] psychiatric unit. Because they were like, ‘Oh, you’re fucked up, like us’ and I was like, ‘Yeah’. Then they were like, ‘you like taking drugs and stuff?’ And I was like ‘yeah!’. And they started playing me all this stuff. That was a real turning point for me. Besides that, the idea of politics and music sharing the same space just did not make sense to me until I really was part of the queer community and I understood more about the potential that music has for psychedelia that is intended to be emancipatory. It’s not just this bullshit, 1960s hippie idea of –
Ah, I was gonna say this!
psychedelia, as long as it’s good vibes. No, psychedelia, sometimes it’s not a good vibe.
Yeah, I could speak to that personally.
Sometimes it’s a reckoning, you know.
Absolute reckoning. Yeah, I literally could tell you about … I mean, I haven’t done psychedelics in several years, because the last time I did I had a terrible trip. But, when I look back at it and I have more distance from it, I literally had a reckoning. I saw life and death, like literally. I walked through, it was just the door of my friend’s apartment, but I thought I was walking through the portal between the living world and the dead world. It felt very serious, and also incredibly casual and quotidian. I came away from that feeling incredibly rattled, but also like I’d genuinely seen some part of reality, some slice of reality, or like some foundation of reality. And yeah, I’m so glad you brought up the thing about 60s psychedelia, and what people think psychedelic means, because my whole project is about psychedelic music.
It’s completely about psychedelic music. But it’s like, ‘Oh, so you like Jefferson Airplane’? And it’s like, no, no, no. And they’re on the better end of the spectrum.
I was gonna say, there’s some alright Jefferson Airplane LP’s to be fair, especially when they were still called the big society, right? I think Grace Slick is an amazing singer. I was just reading a book about Hawkwind, the psychedelic group in the UK, and it was all about how their version of psychedelia in the 70s was not supposed to necessarily be a good time, all the time. It was this sense of psychedelia that was coming out of the Vietnam War [and] all the supposed attempts at changing the reality for the better in the 1960s [that] were just quashed entirely by the beginning of the 70s. I mean, I’m a huge fan of their early records and my family are all rockers, so it’s the kind of thing I would listen to with my parents. But yeah, that notion of psychedelia as just being this thing … [where] you don’t really get to control what happens, you have to submit to it. And that was another thing that I really got from watching you play, was you have to just allow this experience to subsume you and also possibly change you. You’re not going to come out the same on the other side of that necessarily. You allow yourself to feel all of the things that can be felt in that. A lot of the time, as humans or whatever we are, [to] try and keep a lid on things enough to be functional we have to sometimes really fight to preserve the structure or integrity of our psyche. And sometimes that means … for me, it can be really difficult to listen to a lot of my favorite records. Because it’s just too much emotion or profundity and you just can’t access that kind of experience in a way that’s casual.
Also you try to recreate old experiences sometimes, and it rarely ever matches up. And then you’re stuck wondering, was that experience untrue? Or is the music not what I thought it was? At least for me, it makes you doubt and feel like this is incredibly complicated. And it’s not just, ’I had this amazing experience with this piece of music a year ago, [so] I can just neatly recreate it’, right? It’s all contextual and where you are in your life and all that.
And again, that gets back to the religious angle of it. I feel with some music, I have to really set up this context for hearing it, that’s like going to church almost. I have to prepare myself for a visitation by something that’s maybe going to really disrupt whatever was going on before that moment. I might be thinking one thing or feeling a particular set of feelings and this thing is just gonna really rattle me and possibly change the direction of things. And you have to respect that.
Yeah and if I could talk briefly about your set, the thing is that everything you’ve been saying, I think you could apply to your own work. Which I think is just fantastic, that we can talk about each other’s work and even though it’s different music, there’s so much conceptual and artistic and political overlap. But what you’re saying about this religious aspect is very interesting to me. I’m not a religious person, but I also don’t see spiritual dimensions in this work, I tried very hard to ground it in what I see around me. But I agree with you in terms of the intensity of experience that you can have through music and social experience. I bring in the religious aspect because it feels to me like repetition and duration is very much a part of your performance and your practice, right? From the first second, it’s just these tightly wound rhythms that scatter and then recollect over time, but it’s the same few components dancing with each other. And that is a repetitive cycle. And so to me, it almost feels like you could keep this going for like, five hours, and it’s almost matter-of-fact to you. Like to me, you were [a] very active performer but it felt like you were casual, almost. You’re just like, ‘Okay, I’m just doing my thing, it’s cool’.
Yeah totally. It’s weird … It’s not that it’s necessarily unenjoyable or that it feels overly restrictive to have to operate on the level of social functionality that makes interacting with other people possible, I often enjoy it a lot … These days, [I am] way more into politics and socialist, collectivist oriented thought, for lack of better words. [And] even though I am often only really able to speak for a minority of marginalised people, I still see that in a more collectivist sense. And that means I actually have way more fun being social and operating in the world of humans. But I’m really glad that you said it, because it’s not like I have to psych myself up for that, you know, that’s the thing that I’m trying to keep down in order to have a normal conversation with someone all the time.
I love that.
I mean, the way in which I use words like spiritual and religious … I was hugely critical of anything religious for a long time. And I’m not a 15 year old anymore who’s like, fuck christianity, because you can’t really boil it down like this. There’s tonnes of christians who don’t agree with the mainstream christian doctrine and there’s a lot of ideas in all religions [that] have something that really makes sense. I guess I just use these words for lack of a better set of terms. I use [them] as a shorthand for lifting the veil and being like, this is what’s really going on. The roar. The unfiltered maelstrom of experiences that constitutes your individual sense of self and experience and cognition. That’s not having to be moulded into the shape that is for the sake of coherence to other people. Communicate in a way that is … assuming it would be coherent. Communicating directly. That’s my intention with [how I use] a lot of this language. Because I know that they’re very loaded terms, but I think it’s a good way of getting to the essence of what it is that I’m trying to say. I know that a lot of jazz musicians did have christian adjacent spiritual feelings. But I feel by the time that you’re dealing with people like Sun Ra, who’s one of my biggest inspirations.
That spiritual feeling he was talking about … It’s a thing that I think very much incorporates being political, being aware of history and being connected to, like
Nuclear war, right?
Yeah. I spent a lot of time throughout my life, leaning in to quite escapist ways of thinking. Or just the feeling of being like, I don’t want to be here, just take me somewhere else [on] this godforsaken planet. But I feel more and more now, the things that I’m inspired by, the things that I’m dealing with psychologically, the experiences that I wish to communicate and put into some sort of art form, that it is equally as much a tangible response to the things that are going on in the world as it is trying to blast a portal into another dimension. They support one another, they’re not mutually exclusive. I think a lot of that dichotomizing of that way of thinking is rooted in the enlightenment thinking. It does tend towards conservatism, or it can become quite fascist. That way of being like, ‘No, the body and the soul [and] the mind, they’re all these separate territories’. That you can’t be in one and the other at the same time. Or that one is somehow more valuable than the other. I just think all that stuff is nonsense and I want to just blast that into smithereens, that whole paradigm. One of the other things that I want to say about your music I really liked … A lot of the time these days, I am dissing computer music a lot … It is vindicating to be like, okay, there’s someone else who is very much operating on the same lines of intention as me and using a computer to make their music but it doesn’t have any of the other things about it that I feel are very frustrating about computer music in the world that we live in. This incessant obsession with a meta narrative and this idea that there’s no sense in imagining anything futuristic. It’s like we should look backwards and create this mutation. It makes a false idea of the future out of something from the past that serves to cement the idea that everything has been done. Like, only a process of redressing what has already been articulated that is worthwhile.
For sure. You can blame Mark Fisher for a lot of that.
Yeah and a lot of it is just really cynical, or ironic. And I hate irony more.
Yeah I was going to say that, I hate it.
You know, a lot of the early punk music had this postmodern ironic sneer to it. And I think that was really significant and effective at a certain point in time because there was this towering edifice of the prevailing cultural mindset that just needed to be spat in its face.
There was a point where that was necessary. But I think with a lot of these things … They are destructive forces, and they can be wielded to a liberatory, or positive effect, but they need to be handled with a kind of temperance. And I feel that the problem with a lot of contemporary music … and digital culture … is this overall sense of nihilism about it
That I find very, very hard to relate to. This ironic art or media or cultural content, It speaks in this position of almost like, ‘Oh, imagine having a feeling’.
Or ‘imagine really believing in something enough to be honest about it. Grand narratives, utopian ideas are just so passe’. And I think that narrative totally benefits tech billionaires and people who want to sort of further enslave humanity. Like that, ‘Oh, it’s fine, you don’t have any human rights. It’s fine that you don’t have any time because you have to work all the time. It’s fine, you don’t have any money. It’s fine that you can’t survive, or it’s fine if you can’t have relationships with people, because you’ve got technology. And you can do all that stuff that you can do with a human with technology’. I encountered this a lot, especially in the real thick of the pandemic in 2020. I hadn’t really used a lot of [social media and] I’ve never really been into forums or online chat room spaces that a lot of queer communities are very reliant on. I dated several computer scientists and … obviously there’s a huge overlap between the queer neurodivergent community with computer programmers, as you well know.
But I never found myself being really drawn to that stuff. I think I always found those things a bit difficult to use. [But] in 2020, I was doing some of my notes doing singing lessons for my record with my project, the ephemeral noob. I was using the teachings of this amazing voice specialist who is a trans woman who works specifically with trans people. She’s a very deeply accomplished microtonal composer. I saw that she had a discord and I was like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna go and check this out’. But then when I got on there, I was like, ‘Oh my God, there’s like 200 trans women in this thing’. I had sort of cast my mind away from that whole world. There [are] these spaces, where it’s entirely this specific group of people that I’m in, that is there. I really hit off with it with a couple of people in there, I got really into it for a while and I was having a lot of discussions with people expressing my dissatisfaction with the false promises of liberation that technology and the internet offers. And a lot of the time, [the] people [that] were there, their situation was pretty rough. And they were really interested in this notion of digital prostheses and assimilating with this entirely digital space as a way of escaping the world that we live in. To go somewhere that’s actually nicer to be. And it was a very difficult conversational territory because I obviously feel this real intense sympathy for the people I spoke to, because I understand why you just would take any alternative to having to suffer the life that you have to go through on Earth. But also, at the same time, I’m just not convinced by any of that stuff.
I’m not either.
For me, one of the reasons I didn’t really use a lot of those chat rooms is because I feel there is a way in which one must construct a version of themselves. It’s like the online version. And I’m not very good at that. I just try and transcribe myself literally onto the internet. And people are just like, ‘What is wrong with you? You need to chill’.
I get that too.
I just feel like I’m always speaking from this corporeal, analogue set of perspectives. I definitely want the future and I want it now, but I am just not sold on this idea that technology is a suitable replacement for just having rights. It’s something that me and my musical partner in crime, in guttersnipe, we’re often talking about. At the moment, we don’t have a practice space anymore and it’s pretty hard to find one that can accommodate our needs, which are not really that extensive. It’s literally just that we need a space where we can leave our equipment and it seems like it shouldn’t be that difficult to find a space. Often when me and Tipula Confusa are talking about this stuff, or when we’re really dissatisfied with … a band that’s like advertised as No wave or avant garde
Don’t get me started.
and I’m just like, ‘this has a four, four beat, what are you talking about?’ Like, no! Sometimes we see these bands, and a lot of it is just idiotic bro’s, but occasionally it’s actually people … reaching for something that’s really good but it hasn’t been able to get out of its shell. And I’m just like, why is this? It’s like the last tour that we did in 2019. We didn’t play with almost any other rock band, everyone else who we played with were solo electronic musicians. But you still see all these massive posters for pop bands from the last like 15 – 20 years making a comeback and headlining festivals and stuff. So I’m like, people still do want to hear guitar music. And also [the] response to guttersnipe has been, for the most part, unbelievably positive. So I’m just like, people like this and they want to hear this, why is it that no one else is doing it? And I think one of the more practical reasons that we’ve landed on why people can’t do it is just because there’s just no places to rehearse. It’s economically not viable to have a car and drive your equipment around to the jam space. A lot of people just can’t do it.
Petronn Sphene at Counterflows 2022. By Dawid Laskowski.
That’s half the reason I use a computer is convenience and not wanting to piss off my neighbours, to be honest. I know that sounds silly, but when I have had to record loudly, I feel self conscious that I’m pissing people off, that people are listening, that I am bothering someone and that does restrict your music. So it’s at the point where it’s like, well, if I can just turn this all the way up just on my headphones and get the full experience then I’ll go all out with it.
This practical aspect, we have to respect people … you know, we were lucky to have the situation that we had. And now we don’t have it, and I’m sure there’s a lot of other people who are in this situation where they want to do it. We have the fortune of [having] five years of being able to put all our power [to the] band to the point where now we have a sound and a basis of which to operate upon. But if people hearing this stuff for the first time, feel like they want to do it but they just can’t, then obviously the logical alternative is to do things electronically. And in theory, even just purely in terms of what is possible to make with that interface, there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think that there’s so many forces out there coming from the companies pushing the technology, you have this really conservative set of ideas baked into the cake. It’s this model of the solitary individual and their computer [where] they can just make [and] don’t have to collaborate or communicate with anyone. There’s nothing wrong with that really in theory, but … I was saying recently to another person, [in] an interview that I did, it’s an interesting fine line to walk being a marginalised person, or if you feel like an outsider. You have this perspective that is really specific to you and that doesn’t terms to be articulated out in the world. So I get why making music in a solitary, individualistic way, really makes sense for expressing this kind of perspective and lived experience that is just unique to that person. But at the same time, I don’t think that that is superior … [or] that’s evolution, or a linear movement in the right direction.
That’s just one particular situation. I would definitely really prefer it if people had the option of being able to work solitarily or with others. I feel like as a society and as a species, [we are] being forced to only be able to do things in a very solitary way. And there’s a lot of language and things out there that seem to be really pushing this idea that that’s a good thing in some way.
Yeah I hear that.
When somebody’s got a really cool, musical thing there’s this urge to valorize their individualistic competency. As an individual they were able to solely project this thing. And it just really serves that enlightenment thinking. The individual and the lone genius and the creator kind of thing. And I’m just like, No! Any of these people who are able to do all this stuff, they likely either have some combination of privilege and extreme determination. And there’s obviously different grades of privilege. I even include myself in that category. There’s a lot of ways in which my life is difficult, but there’s a lot of ways in which I have access to certain things a lot of other people don’t have. I mean, for one, you live in the US where there is no basic health care. And in the UK, I get benefits for being disabled and unable to do most kinds of work. The fact that I can just feel I’m having a hard day today, [so] I’m just gonna try and focus on making dinner. I’m not gonna worry about whether I’ve made enough music or if I’ve put enough stuff on the internet to promote myself because, ultimately, I don’t have to worry anywhere near as much about money. There’s other kinds of scenarios where people want to be making art that’s extremely anti commercial, but can’t because they have no other way to live.
I’m always trying to lament it, and remind people. I want to always be very kind of vocal about this.
I appreciate that.
Technological stuff, it’s good and everything, but it’s not better than ‘stuff’. Data is not better than ‘stuff’, you know?
Yeah and if I could pick up on this technology thread … Honestly, it’s at the core of what I do. And I hate 99.9% pure music. I think it’s utter garbage. Because there’s this flattening of what technology is. It’s either an utter fetishization, techno optimism of ‘technology’, however you define that, is the solution to XYZ, it’s completely abstract. What problem are you trying to solve? What technologies are you talking about when you say that? But then on the flip side, there’s like this Luddite thing of like, technology has created, ushered in this new world, this new, shitty, alienated world that we live in. Therefore, it’s technology’s fault, right? That’s also completely flattening what technology really is. And if you think about it, technology is not neutral in the sense that people make it. So there are political ideas infused in all technologies. But on the other hand, it is somewhat neutral, because it’s all contextual. Like, Marx talks about economy as a social metabolism. It’s like a full on organism. And so, technology plays a role in that organism. It’s not this standalone thing that you can just fetishize and say, it’s that thing’s fault. So for me, I’m just like, we live in a time when computers are more accessible to more people. More could be done there, of course, definitely, in terms of literacy and whatnot. But pretty easy to get a computer compared to 20 years ago or whatever. You can download the software. Obviously, there are tonnes of barriers to learning that stuff. There’s all these barriers, of course, but at the core … And this is what the 90s computer music people were all about, right? Like the laptop is liberation. But that hit a dead end because the music started getting fucking bad. They got in this black hole of ephemeral kind of fiddly stuff, right?
Yeah, whatever is new in technology dictates the sort of aesthetic, the music or the feeling of the time. It was all technology driving creativity, instead of it being the other way round, of it being in service of creativity.
Yeah, so now that we are in a time when you can tell a computer to play a fucked up french horn MIDI sample at 1000 beats per minute. It’s like that is quite literally something that someone from 50 years ago couldn’t have done. Like Nancarrow is the only person that has approximated the way the computer can actually push forward music. So that is genuine newness. But that’s become this utter cynicism of computer music as this ossified thing. It’s a sound. That’s already flawed, computer music as a sound, it’s bullshit. It can be any number of things, right? EDM is computer music, like, what do you define as computer music? The finest computer music is bullshit, as I was saying, fiddly ‘academic’, whatever. Just as you’re saying meta work, nostalgia, right? It speaks to how alienated we are from communities around music that all we can do is fantasise about the golden age of this or the golden age of that. Try and recreate it with 1000 word press release. Now, it’s just depressing to me, right? So I just want to capture like, ‘Guys, we have this thing that can do all these amazing different things, we are nowhere near done exploring this’. And computer music, it’s sadly ossified, but there’s so much to be done there. And I want people to feel that humour. That’s the other thing I wanted to raise. And I don’t want to make assumptions, but I got genuine joy and humour from your performance.
Sunik Kim at Counterflows 2022. By Dawid Laskowski.
Yeah, I mean.
This is fucking absurd. What even is this, but that’s joy, right? That’s joy. Whereas the humour you’ve also described, it is completely the humour I could never relate less to. It’s cynical. It’s ironic, it’s not about the joy of human experience, but it’s about how can I seem smart and detached and above it all? I hate that stuff, but that’s become popular because of this kind of alienation. And the other thing is, talking about the festival, and I’ve been saying this to everybody, but I genuinely was transformed by that time. People say that about all kinds of musical experiences. I know it’s a watered down thing. But I take this stuff very seriously. And I’m rarely very genuinely moved by things that happen in the music world in that way. I became jaded about live performance, about the possibility of genuine community. But I came out of that weekend, the only way I can put this – like high on life. I genuinely had a transformation because of people. I came out of it loving people just so much.
Yeah, me too.
And think about that, that was because of the music, right? And obviously, people always say that, but to me, it was just so incredibly profound. Because it created this new space, and this new way of relating to each other, and I think that is so valuable. And that’s the untapped potential of not just computer music, but like all music. Is being able to see glimpses of, let’s say a society and economic structure of society that’s equitable. Where people can gather in social spaces and make art freely and relate to each other as like human beings. Not as people mediated between so many different things, whether that’s work or internet, or just all these things that alienate us. I just got a slightest glimpse of that. And that is just like, so valuable.
Yeah, totally. There’s a really nice passage from this work … called, ‘Them Goon Rules’, written by this feminist writer called Marquis Bey. It’s this whole idea of the unruly ground of genuine, radical Praxis. It should kind of offer this glimpse, this flash, that’s not actually supposed to necessarily be a thing that’s sustained and tried to be conserved … it’s like a call to arms, not of an aggression or a fight, but of a
Necessitation of committing to figuring out how to exist in this way that’s totally unprecedented. And it’s this thing that must, by necessity, be wrought into existence .. It’s unruly, it’s ungainly. It can’t be handled and categorised. That’s the kind of the thing that I always come back to that I feel. A lot of the things that come from this sense of profundity and this sense of humour and absurdism, and kind of transcendence. All of these things, I think they’re all kind of qualities and types of experience that are very unambiguous things. They can be of an indeterminate nature or morphology. The thing that really bugs me about the cynical thinking that we’ve been talking about, it sort of speaks from this perspective, as though they don’t know what’s good from bad. This whole idea of like, ‘Oh, we don’t know how to be subversive anymore because the subversion that we knew before is now just marketing’. And I’m just like, you can’t sell something that you can’t describe … You can’t be unsure about something that is this eminent, total experience … it just resists all of that kind of cynicism, and detachment. With a lot of this jaded idea of computer music as just being this kind of sense of like, ‘Hmmmm, is this good? Or bad? Or funny? Or is this just shit’? There’s certain things where you don’t actually have to be asking that question. They’re just clear that these things have a power to them, and they have a value to them. It doesn’t need to be analysed, you know. It’s not that thinking analytically is kind of … It’s a necessary part of critical thinking. But it’s just one of these things where it’s a tendency that can be very empowering, if used with restraint.
You know, this is so interesting. Because we’ve talked about intensity, and that’s the word I get all the time. Is intense, intense, intense, right? I’m fine with that because I understand it’s hard to find the language to express what something means to you. That’s almost like critics training, that takes a lot of experience writing to identify; how do I describe this feeling I just had? But anyway, intensity. So at least from my perspective, I think … There are two things I want to talk about with this, but the first thing was intensity as this gendered thing. And it’s often dismissed as this like ‘male’ thing, right? Like ‘aggression’, ‘intensity’, ‘full-on’, ‘overwhelming’, let’s say ‘violent’. Because ‘violent’ is one of those more complex and somewhat almost neutral words, it’s not a morally loaded word in certain ways. That kind of music, right? It’s popularly gendered as this male thing. And to take that a little further, in political movements, this idea of violent or armed resistance to oppression is seen as a gendered and male thing as well. It’s like, ‘No, women are about care and compassion and don’t want to take up violence against their oppressors. And it’s the stupid men that are standing up and doing all this reckless things’. It could not be further from the truth in terms of just how it should be and how it has been. And, you know, I try to emphasise that all the time. But I just wanted to raise that because we both make very intense, full on music. Neither of us are men. And I think that’s very valuable, because we need to say, this is a valuable kind of dimension of human experience. Not being aggressive for the sake of being aggressive. This is an expression of ourselves, this is an expression of history, politics, like, all that shit is intense, right?
Yeah. I’m really so glad that you’re saying this. This is something that I’m always going back to when I’m having discussions about the nature of the creative things that I do. Just trying to extricate the idea from this very … There’s just this notion that you can’t simultaneously have violence and also a force that is trying to heal or be protective, or liberating, like you can’t have these things happening at the same time. There’s just this kind of idea that … violence is something that destroys indiscriminately. That doesn’t attack certain things, whilst empowering or transforming other things. It’s also just extremely dismissive to anyone in society, who is not a man, to suggest our experiences of the world don’t … I just feel the intensity of living in the world being the person I am just warrants a very severe response. And a level of complexity and a level of high affect. There’s this idea that the urge for aggression is the opposite end of the spectrum [from] sensitive, and caring, and then you can be, disruptive and unemotional on the other end. But I’m like, No! For me, [and] we’re clearly expressing a similar feeling on this matter, our inclinations towards what could be considered a violent creative expression, it comes from an intense sensitivity. It doesn’t come from this fixed goal, this troglodyte thing of just like, ‘Yeah, just smash stuff’. For me, I would not have this need to scream and to transmogrify myself by sheer will if I weren’t so sensitive and so attuned to emotional things.
And emotion. Yeah, exactly.
And that I’m actually quite a fragile, vulnerable person … This idea that you can’t be both vulnerable and the agent of aggression at the same time. But I think for me, that’s kind of what it’s all about. I’ve no time for music, generally, that does not have any vulnerability in it and yet is really aggressive.
I think it’s really important to have these kinds of discussions. I’m really glad that we’re getting to have this conversation.
When I go out and do a performance, or I release something, it’s always there in my head that people are gonna hear this, and they’re gonna make an assumption about what I’m trying to get across with this. And I am sure that a lot of the time, it’s not going to be accurate. … It’s interesting, seeing how people talk about these kinds of things, depending on what kind of gendered experience they perceive you to have, and how they’ll describe it in different ways depending on what they think about that. The history that we have known well, primarily it has been non men who have sort of been subjected to the most violence and oppression. We know violence better than anyone else, we’ve had the boot on our fucking necks over our existence. Obviously, it permeates you. And it’s not necessarily a negative thing. It just can’t be boiled down to any set of binary opposites of like, good and bad, or negative and positive, [or] male and female, or any of this bullshit. Like, all that stuff is, is highly omnidirectional and highly rhizomatic.
There’s just so much vitality in these practises. Like what you were saying about … just seeing it do really positive things for people when you put on a performance. Like someone came up to me afterwards, a good friend of mine, and he had tears in his eyes. And I was just like, that’s beautiful that people can get this, this kind of experience. I think the profundity that can be wrought with this endeavor, that glimpse of the beyond it gives people, both for me when I’m doing it and for other people, it gives you something to believe in.
It just reminds you that all the shitty things about the world that we live in, that actually that’s just down here at the bottom, and there’s all this uncharted territory out there.
That we can get to if we want. Obviously, there’s the material barriers in the forms of government and all this kind of shit. We don’t have a lot of agency to fight against that stuff in a material way but in terms of the psychological element … people have to be able to believe that there is another way. And I think that’s why it’s really important to not compromise on your expression
Because it offers this glimpse of just like, ‘No I’m not satisfied with the world’. And it’s sometimes hard to imagine a thing being different unless you have a counter example.
Exactly. And continuing your point … This question of infantilization is central to this, to me. Because I feel that my frustrations with so much music, it stems from condescension and infantilization coming from the artists and the performers. I know, it’s complex to be an artist, I don’t want to place blame where it’s not due. But I feel a lot of the laziness comes from this idea that I need to speak to this audience that is not on my level, right? Like they don’t understand everything I do and everything I think, so I need to mould this so that they can really digest it. Because they can only really handle one thing at a time. I’ve been deep in this, so I know everything about this, but they don’t know so I just need to trot it out step by step and just like, be careful.
Yeah, like dumb it down.
It’s incredibly infantilizing and condescending. It’s like people that come from such a diversity of experience. As you were saying, everyone responds to a specific event or thing differently based on their own experience. Who are you to short sell to people that are digesting this work? Right? Like, that’s why I value intensity so much, because it’s like, the complete opposite of any kind of infantilization. Right? It’s like we’re throwing you in. And that’s what I sensed from your performance. So you just got up and it’s just like, boom, boom, there’s no like, ‘Yeah, we’re just gonna do a little warm up and then’. Like, no! Just full on, nonstop, right? I got that from the Ahmed set afterwards too, just full on. Repetition, repetition, repetition, because we can fucking handle it. And if you can’t, that’s fine, too. Because you learn, you understand that was the limit I hit today, right? Whereas you get these other kinds of approaches, and this is the most common [kind of] approaches, [where] as I was saying, you parcel it out, you make sure it’s digestible. Like, fear of not being understood when that’s actually the hope is to not be understood. Because that pushes your perception and challenges you.
Yeah, I really couldn’t agree more again. I’m just always so pleasantly surprised that the kinds of people who come up to me after I played being like, ‘Wow, that was amazing, that gave me this particular kind of experience’. So many of the times, if I was tasked with imag[ining] the perfect audience, I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of that person. But people were like, ‘Yeah, I’ve never heard anything like that’, or ‘I don’t listen to stuff like that’. I’m so critical of that notion of short selling people and making assumptions. I think that’s what a lot of the academic world of music, institutions of art and the conservatories … Just this idea that ‘Oh no, you have to be trained properly, to know how to understand this thing. You can’t just walk in here and hear, you won’t get it, you need to know how to hear it’. And it’s like, that’s true to an extent
There is truth to that.
But you also just can’t devalue or miss direct experiences, that are just not on any set of particular terms. That’s the experience that they had in the moment and it’s fucking valid, whatever it is.
That whole idea just really serves to gatekeep access to participating. I think that’s why a lot of the time, you just end up with these really cynical people being the face of future music and contemporary music, because they’re the people who totally buy into this idea. And they want to keep out people who they think are beneath them. They don’t want just any random person having a go at it, they want to be able to be like, ‘No, I’m special, and I learned ways to do it, and I know the rules, and I have authority on this’. Like, ‘I’m important, and you’re not’, you know. Like, fuck that, no! It all again, wraps round into the things that I try to emphasise when I tried to draw parallels between the aims of emancipatory radical politics and experimental music. Which is that if we’re trying to project towards something that’s not yet articulated, somebody who is totally uninitiated in a lot of ways [is] more likely to produce something novel. Because they don’t know, they’re not totally grounded in the rules and the way that stuff is supposed to be done. And they don’t have this sense of appeasing the higher class. It’s just letting people do it and not having to worry about how it’s going to be perceived. I think it’s tremendously important. And nine times out of ten, I would much rather hear totally untrained musicians, than people who have learned how to do it properly or gone through all the proper channels. I think the further you go into that thinking, the more you lose your sense of individual, the validity of the thing that I experienced, that doesn’t need further explanation.
Yeah the thing is, I value technique and study hugely. Training and learning and everything is so important. But I could not agree more with what you just said. And that’s because I think of these social and cultural things that form around technique, right? And the institutions that teach you technique, like that forces so many people into this narrow tunnel of just fiddling, right? And, you know, we can be real and say that has to do with actual economic circumstances, right? People need funding from institutions, if they want to work on their art full time, blah, blah, blah. These are real conversations that we’ve had. But talking about the quality of the art, it’s like, they’ve worked this idea that technique and learning is essential to making good music into this codified, ossified thing. As you were saying earlier, it’s like gatekeeping. But I always emphasise learning and study and technique is so important. But it’s your journey, right? That shouldn’t stop you from creating your own school. Right? Like, create your own university with the people that you love, and teach each other things. That’s incredibly important. But the way that it works in [an] institutionalised sense, it’s very flawed. And it makes people think, ‘Oh, learning is bad, learning is compromised’. Which is just so fucking sad. Like, that’s just the saddest thing I could ever hear.
It’s true. It’s interesting, even just taking higher education as an example. I think I was actually the first generation of people to pay for university. Up to that point, it had always been free and you were going there to learn about something that was possibly very esoteric and didn’t really have much like application yardstick, the value of just learning and acquiring these skills and ways of understanding and seeing things. [But] the institutions that make the environment where learning is possible, have really twisted the whole endeavour. So it’s like, people now associate this kind of position of being a learned person, with superiority or
This conservatism and being entrenched in a specific, inflexible way of seeing things that has this particular set of morals.
Yes, exactly, it’s morals.
That makes it so that people [have] this reaction [where] they would rather choose this anti intellectual thing, because they’re like, ‘Well, at least I know that’s not just a loads of bollocks’. And I’m like, no. It’s not the learning and actual stuff itself. When I was at university, I loved getting to learn about things. I just want to have the agency, understanding and awareness of things that I currently don’t understand and I’m not aware of. That is tremendously valuable. But that’s also, as we both know, something that you can, in theory, cultivate by yourself. But it’s just trying to live in the world for most people, it’s not really very easy to do that. There are a tonne of things that [are] there to do anything but have you think you have the power to do that on your own. That’s the message that we’re generally surrounded [by] is like, ‘Don’t fucking get too big for your boots and start thinking that you can do some shit that like you can’t’. I mean, generally the situation these days is like, unless you’re already born into it, you shouldn’t be doing it.
And it’s just more of this gatekeeping shit, which is just so depressing.
It is depressing.
Because I was doing a masters. I did cognitive psychology and I was starting to do a research degree. I remember saying this to you at the festival, I still see myself as a scientist. I still feel like I go about my activities as a creative person in a highly scientific way. But the pragmatic material circumstances is just so inaccessible for people and even actually untenable for people who are already in it. The devaluing, the defunding of the institutes, of the university, all the other ways in which that stuff it’s just been gutted and eviscerated. The watering down of the quality of the education, the mismanagement and the misrepresentation of the endeavor in itself. Like all feeds into people’s just like general disillusionment with the idea of being educated or literate. Even with music, there’s certain things, to really kind of refine it, you have to work on it. And it’s just a really difficult territory of trying to extricate those two things. This is a different thing, working on your shit and trying to develop it as much as you can, versus this idea that engaging in that way of thinking is like bowing down to the institution, and therefore, it’s better to just not go anywhere near it. And I’m like, No. It’s actually this thing that needs to be rescued from the situation that it’s in, you know.
Exactly, and even the words you used, or mentioned just now, educated and literate, right? You hear those, you think of university, you think of a college, you think of elitist, right? Neither of those words have any connection to those things inherently. You can become literate, you can become educated, you can become an expert on something without participating in those things. And I’m not advocating for a black and white like, we opt out, that’s just not how the world works. You can’t opt out of capitalism.
But just thinking about it in terms of, so many of these words are tied to things that they don’t need to be tied [to] in an alternative vision of society, right? That covers everything, music making, performance, education, technique, all these things. They’re just basic parts of human experience. Like it’s sad that it gets attached to these things that then you just throw everything out altogether. It’s just like, I’m throwing out education.
Throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Yeah, it is sad. Darling, I feel like we could definitely keep going in this conversation for a lot more time, but I need to get ready to go to this gabba party.
We should just do this [again] because this is what it’s all about.
This is what it’s all about. It’s why I do music. Seriously.
I’m just so happy to have such a wonderful new friend.
Me too, seriously.
No, it really means a lot, this has been amazing.