Sound Extrusions: Interview – Power of the Sound with Michal Rataj

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After the Second Nature event at The Edge with Hans Tammen, I would like to follow up with an interview exploring acousmatic music.

Michal Rataj is a Czech music composer who steps out of traditional composing and experiments with sound and music composition on his own terms. Multi-channel installations, acousmatic music or orchestral music with realtime signal processing techniques in MAX/MSP are just a few areas he’s currently working on. We met at the music academy located in the Lesser Town, one of the central parts of Prague famous for its picturesque baroque architecture. Besides talking about technical nuances of his projects, another topic, central to Michael’s work, emerged as well: the power of sound.

Can you introduce us to your current project?

The most recent project is called Spacialis (2013) and involves live electronics and classical music ensemble. The space is amplified by an 8-channel audio setup and it becomes a music instrument of its own. The classical music ensemble instruments are processed live in MAX/MSP and they act as a sound source, contributing to the new music instrument, which is the space amplified by the audio processing. It was commissioned by Prague-based orchestra, Berg. I did also some final arrangements at CNMAT, UC Berkeley, California.

Have you always worked with classical orchestras?

Not always, of course, on the contrary. Usually it is the case that the acousmatic music makes you deal with the sound on its own as well as the classical composition techniques. My latest album called Spectral Shapes (2012) was all about the soundscapes of music instruments and live electronics. Also I have done various field recordings. For example I was recording old non-functional organs in abandoned churches. My latest composition called Small Imprints (2013) for Esther Lamneck, is actually a piece for clarinet and live electronics.

What’s the connection between the club electronic music and classical composition? I have gone through the book The Rest is Noise, which you have been editing for the recent Czech edition, and I have noticed surprising direct connections there.

The origin of electronic music experiments can be traced back to music concrète, there were lots of experiments in this field before it entered the pop culture domain.

What would be the contemporary examples of music composers using electronics and classical composition?

For example Philippe Leroux or Jasper Nordin, who is well known composer and author of the great Gestrument application. Gestrument allows for free improvisations in specified scales and rhythms, while using your favourite mobile device.

Could you explain what exactly the acousmatic music and multi-channel audio is about?

Acousmatic music traces back to the Pythagoras, the classic story goes that Pythagoras didn’t want to distract his pupils and was teaching them from behind a screen. The same approach comes from musique concrète, while acousmatic music defines the actual music performance as direct experience of listening to sound. From there, it’s just a small step to multichannel audio setups, which take the sound experience even further.

How to do you treat the compositions in space?

I usually use live spatial distribution controllers. It can be a Wii game controller for example. The spacial attribute becomes an expression on its own in the end. The multichannel sound creates the powerful images in sound.

How would you compare the multichannel and surround sound?

Surround sound is the term usually connected with cinematic sound. It’s more about creating narrative structures, but very few people can work creatively in that environment. Multichannel sound refers more to experimental music and wide verity of sound diffusion concepts, while establishing creative connection between music and specific spatial conditions. Space becomes an instrument itself – that’s the important difference from the so called “surround sound”, which works more as a technological tool.

Thank you Michael for your time!

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