In another room: A Q&A with Stian Balducci

Stian Balducci approaches music with a keen intellect. Whether he is orchestrating his scholarly pursuits at Kristiansand conservatory, working with the Punkt collective, or in the skin of his Techno moniker, +plattform, there is an inquisitive consciousness to the way he produces, plays and listens to music. His instincts and ideas about music are born from that grey area between everything, where genres and schools of thought amalgamate and find no unique distinction as they conspire to blur the lines. As +plattform and the head of the Techno label Gråtone, his perspective germinates from the thin borders that try to define Techno while his work with the Punkt collective and his academic pursuits is the work of Stain Balducci, performer, avant gardist and live improviser. There is however no clear distinctions as to where one musical identity ends and another begins, these disparate areas of musical exploration coming together in the middle in one big “X”. “Everything is one big thing” he says over a call and elucidates, “there aren’t any clear lines between school and everything else.”

Using the computer as his exclusive musical vehicle, Stian adopts an eccentric, inquisitive approach to music that spans the dialect of everything from music concrete to drone. His work is an intriguing mixture of marvelous, alien landscapes and the familiar, whether his attention is turned towards the dance floor, or the more abstract ideas created within/through improvised performances. A few 12” under his belt as +plattform and some recorded material as Balducci, most significantly the experimental folk album Hildr, which he recorded with Karoline Dahl Gullberg, Stian is also no stranger to the live context. Often working with people like Jan Bang and Erik Hónore, fellows at Punkt, Stian uses live sampling techniques and electronic media, to create evocative sonic landscapes that envelope the listener, and plots an unknown destination each time he performs.

It’s in this context where we’ll meet next, so I’ve called him up, as he prepares for the stage again, a live improvised showcase with Hilde Marie Holsen, to ask some questions about improvisation, playing with others and what the term ambient music implies.

What are you particularly focussing on in music at the moment?

I want to do quality stuff. It needs to have a certain weight behind it, either if it’s Techno or if it is something else – It needs to be defined, clear ideas. It sort of cross-pollinates. When I’m doing the extended Jazz stuff, I still have my foot in Techno and the other way around.

We spoke a little about that the last time we had an interview, and about Gråtone’s intentions for operating in that grey area between the functional and the cerebral when it comes to Techno. But what of the improvised music? Is part of your ideology to perhaps move that area of practise into the more accessible plain?

It depends on how accessible you consider Techno to be.

Or to put it another way; are you looking to move the world of Jazz into the club environment?

Well, we do Punkt klubb, which is Techno with instruments, featuring a new line-up everytime. And that’s four hours straight, with people that come and go. There are no dogmas on instrumentation so it’s not only machines or only live sampling. For example when we did P Klubb at Mir with Robin (Crafoord), we were two guitarists, two percussionists and Robin and myself. I had my live sampling computer plus another one on the side spitting out four channels of DJ tracks, so I could DJ a backbeat whilst playing and sampling. As a result everything sounds a bit Krauty.

From Kraut to Ambient is not such a far stretch. When I mentioned the upcoming gig and that it’s focus will be on ambient music, you immediately jumped at the chance. What struck a chord with you when I mentioned ambient music?

The possibility of creating stuff in the moment. Often my role in these live settings, is based on live sampling, as I normally don’t use any sound sources of my own. I can make stuff with Hilde in that moment, without having to prepare a live set. It’s open and it’s close to home within both fields.

How important is it to have another person there in the improvised live setting?

Very important. As soon as I feel safe with the other person, then my role can be fleeting. It’s easier to not play, and hand over controls for a while, to see what happens and then join in again. You can sit back a bit more and listen, while you get a stream of inputs.

The listening part is an important factor?

Yes, absolutely.

Do you feel then that you miss out on something when you play solo, as +plattform, for instance?

It’s different. The +plattform thing is a continuous experiment in how to perform that stuff by myself in a way that is not boring, yet keeping true to the material.

When you are working with somebody like Hilde who plays an acoustic instrument that you process in the electronic realm, what do you believe you bring out in their music that might not have existed there before?

It’s deeper, the perspective is longer and it gets more interesting, more alive if you do it right.

Do you find a feedback-loop starts to exist between you and the musician where they are in turn affected by what you are doing?

Absolutely. If you do short quick movements with electronics, then that definitely makes a difference. Like if Hilde is playing a note and she hears that exact note being played back again, either while she’s still playing it, or just after, and maybe with some pitching on it, or small variations, then that will create an immediate response.

Will you have any pre-meditated idea of what you’d like to achieve during the performance?

Nothing concrete, but there are some vague ideas. I don’t know what it will sound like, but I know that I will probably use certain techniques at certain points of the performance with Hilde. But they’ll be based on the variables of what she’s playing and I don’t know what it will eventually sound like.

Will you be discussing any of this with Hilde beforehand?

We might talk about structure, in terms of a time-frame. For example in the live remix situation for Punkt in London recently, we agreed on one sample of the live concert from Mira Calix ,a violin going crazy, and we decided this would be our end point. We have cues, just to make sure everybody is on board, but it also depends on the setting.

Was there any reason you wanted to specifically work with Hilde on this occasion?

I’ve been a fan of her stuff for a long while, and I think her album (Ask) is really good. I think the electronic component in her work is very interesting and I would like to explore that further. I’ve also seen her live and I think it will be a good match.

Do you think she might be able to bring something out in your music, that you might not have considered before?

Probably, yes, but it’s hard to do it in just one gig. You have the immediacy of stuff, but the immediacy of stuff is based on muscle memory and approaches and techniques. So getting fresh perspectives and ideas, they come in and they groove for a while and then they come out again at a later point as a part of yourself.

I suppose that’s why improvised movements are collective movements with changing musicians to keep things fresh.

Yes to have new influences. I think within the luxury of doing freer electronic music, is that you can “fake it”, by just dragging one track in and treating it on the fly. For example in London again, the opening set was an ambient set I did with a guitarist friend of mine. Towards the end of that set I chucked in some Ethiopian folk music that lasted for nine minutes. And it worked, and this completely threw Johannes, the guitarist who immediately changed his sound on his pedals to resemble the African instrument, and it made me more passive. In reality we didn’t have another musician on stage, we did it with an MP3, but it opened up a new world.

With your electronic system, do you ever feel yourself being limited, more than the musician?

I feel musicians who are constrained by traditional training, more limited. I don’t find my system limiting. It’s the only instrument I’ve ever played. It’s a matter of taste and technique and the fact that you can always change.

Getting back to the ambient component. You are very much a futurist for me when it comes to this music, looking for that extension of where this music could go next. In terms of ambient music, where do you think this music will lead to in the future?

That’s a difficult question. Again, it’s how you categorise it. How far are you gonna stretch that term, because it can stretch quite far I think. A lot of what’s happening in Techno at the moment could be called ambient, because it has this flat thing going on.

How do you intend to approach ambient music in the live context?

I’ll focus on creating rooms or spaces – It’s quite easy to do when I’m playing with another person. Hilde has these textures that are more sporadic and scattered. So I can take her unprocessed trumpet, and in a few clicks make a drone, something liquid. That’s how we find ourselves in one room/space, and where do we go from there? It depends on what she does. At a certain point we’ll need to enter a different space.

I think quick changes can be more powerful than some slower ones, which is something that might be missing in a lot of ambient music today. You see people on You Tube uploading one hour sessions of a single Brian Eno track. In that case you have the same thing going on for a long time, but when we do it live, we can possibly open a door for sudden changes into another room.

And that’s something you can only really achieve in the live context, that unexpected thing.

Well, i think it;s doable in recorded music too, but it’s all to do with expectations. People might for instance think that you fucked something up when silence kicks in. When you are in a musical room you are comfortable as a listener and as a musician, and if you cut or change something quickly you run into a different space, you wake up again. That’s also perhaps an answer to the question, where will ambient music go?

In this live improvised world of the unexpected.

Yes, it’s all about balance, and to avoid it becoming stale.

More of an active listening experience perhaps than Brian Eno’s pursuit of making music that is there and not there at the same time?