Beyond a culturally determined reality with Burnt Friedman

There’s something about Burnt Friedman’s music that’s impossible to pin down between  genres, styles or cultural cues. The German artist’s music exists beyond any zeitgeist or totemic musical pole in an unifying artistic language all onto its own. With an acute focus on rhythmical structures to an almost obsessive degree, Friedman’s work operates on the fringes of electronic, experimental music, reinforcing a pervasive, primordial musical form that exists through and inspite-of every and any musical tradition and stylistic trope. If Friedman’s music conforms, it’s a fundamental conformity, a precursor to all music and something he consolidated recently with an Anthology that contextualises a career spanning the better part of four decades.

Friedman engaged in the experimental aspects of music from an early age, using toys and household items in a “primitive” pursuit to create music. A drummer in various projects throughout the nineteen eighties, his focus, like so many of his peers, shifted towards electronic processes during a time  when musical machines were commonplace and allowed musicians to start exploring music outside of the limits of natural and institutional human impulses. Through several solo projects and collaborations, Burnt Friedman created music throughout the nineteen nineties, with his largest contribution coming via his Nonplace Urban Field project in which he first established the idea of music with origins from- and designs on a non-place. Nonplace is music that lives outside culture, identity and music politics as a form of artistic expression that moves “beyond a culturally determined reality”.

In the early 2000’s Friedman established this idea as a concept for his new label, Nonplace and embarked on the defining solo project of his career as Burnt Friedman. It’s as Burnt Friedman he joined forces with Jaki Liebezeit, the legendary drummer for the penultimate avant garde rock group Can for five albums as the Secret Rhythms series before Liebezeit’s untimely passing in 2017. The exploration of rhythm through the series  engaged with music on a primary level with poignant effects without alienating the listening experience. Using a universal numbering system rather than track titles, the music was laid bare with little by the way  of subjective influence from the artist informing the listening experience. The music is free thus to exist in its nonplace, not even bound by the identity of the artists involved.

Burnt Friedman has explained this at great length through countless interviews in the past and more recently in an XLR8R interview and Resident Advisor exchange, leaving very little left to be said in fact, but when an opportunity arises to ask an artist like Friedman some questions, there is only ever one option…

Hello Mr. Friedman, and thank you for taking the time to answer some questions for us. I’d like to start with the recent Anthology. What inspired you to revisit this material?

A few years ago I received offers from various labels to conduct a release. Since I had amassed a vast archive of recorded pieces dating from 1980 on all sorts of audio formats of which only a tiny proportion were ever released, I felt the temptation not only to finally digitize everything for reasons of secure storage, but also to scan through it. I did not manage it completely at all. There was a beacon of hope that I could find something worthwhile which I had forgotten about or would hear with a fresh mind, so as interest rose, this was when I decided to do something about my productions of the past decades. I edited and retrieved the audio from tapes, DAT tapes and hard drives. The idea not to release any of the current productions for the Nonplace label determined my selection. The anthology compilation should also reflect my current view of music so that many of the materials would make apparent the continuation into my actual repertoire in that the concept of Non-places and Non-times are brought to light.

I read in a recent interview that your first experiences with making music used a shoebox, some rubber bands, a microphone and toy instruments. How has this type experimental (for lack of a better word) approach informed your music throughout your career?

There are 2 things. It informed my music clearly insofar as playing on an instrument is primary. After my first reclusive discoveries with primitive toy-like instruments I’ve joined or founded many groups, several engaged at once, often trios or spontaneously many more members, in which I would be drumming – for a period of 8 years I think – while my point of focus shifted more to  the production process as much as  investigating sequencers and automata. Going into the rehearsal room always meant to record something new.

Around that time during the early 80s machines and electronics became a natural component amongst the group process, this is part of the reason why one can still hear such components, the Ms20 synthesizer foremost, for instance. By the end of the 80s the Atari computer became the household tool and changed the environment quite drastically in that the rehearsal rooms which I occupied from 80s to 90s were given up. A second thing that informed my music and I think it is more important is having limitations back then. In a weird way only by limitations forced on one, a state of freedom can be experienced. When you know what you want to do you can handle today’s privileges, the vast technical applications, the choice of styles, etc. by which I mean, now it is necessary to know what to ignore. That is something Jaki Liebezeit would have confirmed also, whose influence is a major one to me. His findings in rhythm practice and theory ( inform my music thoroughly since the 2000s.

I know you started out as a visual artist. What and who were your influences in music and beyond that set you on the path to sound?

Firstly, I do not believe that one starts out as someone. A deliberate move into an art academy doesn’t require to be someone either, and the fact that the resulting diploma, approving the existence of such artist, doesn’t help to confirm that deep down in the soul. Rather upon increasing reception and acknowledgement in public appearance it is that such a persona becomes negotiable. Now, early on, it was Tubeway Army´s “Are Friends Electric” that hit me really strongly in 1978 and inspired to a fairly loop driven, repetitive music. I remember I played drums backed by Jean Michel Jarre´s first 2 albums a few times and noticed how to keep up with the machine. I liked Robert Görl´s drumming as DAF as much as ritual traditional music that I eventually came across. Sakamoto´s Riot In Lagos is a monster.

The music across your projects defy classification, and I’ve read about your own misgivings on class distinctions in music too. What adverse effect do you think it has had on music?

The future decides as to whether my projects defy classification. You see, I am amazed how current identity and gender politics in prospect for equity, inclusion and diversity is reflected in the pop history of increasing inter-sectionality of music when individual freedom broke loose in the 60s. Imagine also that on the other hand, people were talking of “african music”, etc. as if it was a category. The only way I found to oppose the struggle with natural diversity by releasing more and more subjective categories, I finally learned to address the matter on the level of the individual. Music does come from small groups or individuals and they might claim it came to them from the gods. In the standpoint of an artist as well as in the position of a scientist, their utterances have no obligation to culture, by which I don’t claim they do not have any cultural imprints at all, we are naturally born cultural beings. Yet, music and science (maths) appear beyond a culturally determined reality, hence, those disciplines are negotiated with on a universal or at least transcultural scale and not with notions of territory, biography, bloodline, skin color and traditions even.

How do you see it playing out in the future?

Tomorrow’s music will be tomorrow’s past and so on. The future of the music lies in the past forever and the acknowledgement and continuation of its core principles can be interpreted with ears of today.

There’s been a constant development in your music throughout your career. Do you feel it moves contemporaneously to musical developments around you, and what usually influences a change of direction or a new area of focus?

Generally speaking, in the beginning one tends to imitate, but the way of an artist is then to see whether you can contribute something of relevance which obviously requires an interesting proposition, a statement if you will. As for me, now, I have found a direction and as I said before, in other words, a freedom to swim in many directions has became a freedom to follow the essential in my perception of music.

There’s an inquisitiveness to your music, like you’re constantly searching for something unattainable in the structure of your songs. What part of your creative process would likely be accountable for this feeling of discovery?

Hell of a question. But yes, I prefer music to remain unattainable, but at the end of a day it is a subjective observation and each one of us will have a deviant idea of this. The rhythms for example are of such a nature that they are easily executed and moved naturally by using minimal force, so that´s really attainable, at least when you got used to it. Feeling of discovery ?, pretty much one’s point of view. You could put it into different  terms maybe. I noticed that in most previous productions I tend to arrange instrument tracks and overdubs in such a manner that a group process can be imagined, a process in which the music was not precomposed, jammed rather, ordained by the mandatory structure of the rhythm.

To what degree do rhythms usually inform and dictate a musical work?

To inform is easy to answer. Rhythm and melody belong inseparably together, generally speaking, music that is periodical does have rhythm but not all music is periodical, think of ambient, drones, free jazz, etc. To dictate is more delicate to answer. In my own music it is obligatory almost, and welcomed to execute the rhythm rules on the smallest elementary level, whereas I do not see any particular dictates in rhythm ruling in many other musical fields, in sheet music for instance and rock music, too. I am now contributing a thesis to a book project about Jaki Liebezeit and my main argument is, that no practically coherent concepts of rhythm rules can be found in the western popular music.

I look forward to reading that.  What do you feel is left to be discovered in this area of music?

If I knew, what would be left to discover ? Avant-garde is a backwards method. As stated before, in other words, let’s acknowledge that a drum can not be improved. It would be naive to think, that the playing got any better over thousands of years. To keep up with the training is not easily maintained, especially in the format of groups and a cultural shift towards a DJ as a liberating force behind the music.

An anthology in the past usually suggests one phase leading into the next for an artist. Where do you see the Burnt Friedman going after the anthology and what are some of the concepts and influences that will inform the next phase of your career?

I’m not launching a next phase as I am merely phasing in, learning how to develop the right grooves outside the even spectrum. It’s not possible for me to say I convey this and such emotions, although I am aware that many listeners relate to music strongly on this level only. If this was not the case, the music would be design rather, or staged, not a living being. I get goosebumps when the music has me.