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Waterfront Festival

Janek Schaefer interview

7 March 08 words: Amanda Young
"I made the three-armed record player to transform a piece of sound on vinyl in as many ways as is possible to do"

Skate performance at Ars Electronica

Janek Schaefer is a sparky and enthusiastic character who channels all his ideas and energy into being a sound artist. Self defined as a creative recycling musician, he performs experimental music with pre-recorded samples, effects pedals, and handmade multiple armed record players. He has produced bountiful works since 1995, exhibiting around the world and performing at festivals including Ars Electronica in Linz. His collaborations include working with Brian Eno and he was nominated for British composer of the year award (in new media) in 2007. Alumni from the Royal College of Art, we spoke to him about sound, site and architecture.

Do you take the history of John Cage in your work?
Cage took his ideas from other people’s ideas in the past, as we all do but it is found objects by Duchamp that is very important to opening the doors to where I am now. John Cage had much more of an academic approach, I have a lot of ideas in my work but want to be very approachable, comprehensible and enjoyable – if it all comes out sounding weird and rubbish then I change my ideas and make it sound as I want it to.

Is your approach to the conceptual side much more practical?
My work is very much, ideas based, each part is a story, about an idea. A lot of my work starts with a context, where it is taking place, who it is for – in concert sometimes I get local records and create music with those so if bring along a record and ill try it out but I’m not a DJ.

What is the distinction between a DJ and what you do?
A DJ is someone who mixes other peoples’ music together, you get experimental DJ’s yes, but essentially I’m creating new music from old, found music. I also use my own microphone recordings and work in my studio to prepare the sounds, which are generally very different from the original sources. This is why I made the three-armed record player to transform a piece of sound on vinyl in as many ways as is possible to do. In my performances I sit down and play for an hour, it is more of a classical vibe concentrated and focused on the happening. I get upset when people call me a DJ. I’ve been a failure at DJing all my life, I used to DJ at the college bar of royal college of art trying to make people dance with Underworld but no one would. So I moved towards experimental.

The sporting guide to the speed of sound, performance

I saw you perform in Loughborough, at Radar, your work the sporting guide to the speed of sound. How did you approach engaging with the site?
The idea of the commission was to do a piece of work relating to sport in some way. An integral part of sport is speed, and speed and sound are closely related so I went from there. Setting up is very important to how the work is received. I like to use what I find around me, so I found this football net in the cupboard and played from the goal line. I used all the basketball hoops to engage with the building and the site as well.

Tell me about your relationship to architecture
I trained as an architect, for seven years. I would get a brief, find a vacant plot of land and have a client. With the history and context in hand I would come up with a story about how this design that I put on paper and built in cardboard relates to anything. So you have to make it all up and you don’t ever build the bloody thing, ever. So I started becoming an artist, all my work stems from that starting point.

Do you see a strong relationship between sound and architecture?
I do in context and site-specificity and using what you have around you along with the client’s agenda, feeding in and having my own Janek-ness about it. Loosely sound is space. We perceive our space around us through the reflection of sound and the way it contains, transforms and flows. You can’t see around corners, but you can hear around corners, which I think is genius.

Does your Polish/Canadian background influence your work?
Growing up I got a funny name Janek, and a German surname by a Canadian father and Polish mother. I just did a project reflecting on some of that heritage called Extended Play. It is about the fact that I had a daughter born a few years ago in leafy Surrey in a nice semi with a nice garden, but in the garden is a bomb shelter, when this house was built people were worried about getting killed, Scarlet’s life is pretty idyllic it is peaceful affluent and secure which is the opposite of my mothers upbringing which was in the middle of Warsaw in the middle of 1942. The piece tries to celebrate the child survivors of war.

What has been the best comment on your work to date?
In my work Vacant space, I made recordings of 200 empty spaces, and projected on a big wall scrolling images of empty spaces with the accompanying sound. Whilst it was showing in Birmingham, someone wrote in the comments book, “it was like being dead, I can’t wait!”

What is the politics behind what you do?
Positivity is where I try and aim my agenda. Talking about the incredible luckiness that you, I and all those around us have and to stop fucking moaning about everything. Take a view of the bigger picture don’t get stuck in a corner. Going to a concert and moving people is important.

From your experience of architecture and working with site what do you want from a new gallery when exhibiting sound as an installation?
The swankier the venue the harder it is to get what you want. The most incredible places to play are places that have a lot of existing character and history. Not being run of the mill regular would be an idea. I would like to not have a stage, to play on the floor when I perform. Scale is important as well as branding and iconic-ness like the turbine hall in the Tate. If you want people with challenging work to display there then build a challenging building for them to respond to.

What is your experience of limitation breading creativity?
My work Recorded delivery in 1995. The context was a self-storage centre but I couldn’t visit it, limitation one. I overcame doing something site specific with out visiting the site by sending a parcel to the room, and putting a tape recorder in it. There was not budget to record for 24 hours so, I went to Dixons and saw a full size dictaphone with a sensitivity switch and thought it can only record when it hears sound all night. So, I posted it, went to pick it up the next day and had a 15 hour journey recorded a 72 minutes of sound from beginning to end. That is limitation breading creativity. Recently, I’ve been asked to do a proposal for something else with a budget of £50,000, but I can’t work with that kind of money! All you really need is the basics.

Are you still world record breaker for smashing up 17 records in 30 seconds?

What collaborations have you got lined up?
I’m working with Charlemagne Palestine, doing a durational performance with held organ tones, repetition chords building overtones whilst he will be throwing his body round the gallery, it is very inspirational!

Janek Schaefer plays The Chameleon (17 Angel Row), 7 March, 7pm £3/4.

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