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Five Records: Chris Madak

The artist otherwise known as Bee Mask guides us through five records that hold particular resonance to him and his working practices.

Best known for his exploratory productions under the name Bee Mask – each of which feel very much like their own self-contained universes of sound – Chris Madak has been a cornerstone of the USA’s underground electronic scene since 2006, when he returned to his hometown of Cleveland from New York and released his limited run debut on his own Deception Island label. Although the Deception Island imprint was retired in 2011, it was arguably one of the most important cassette labels of the last decade, releasing music from a number of like-minded artists, including various projects from the Emeralds trio of Steve Hauschildt, John Elliot and Mark McGuire, and Betrayed In The Octagon, the seminal debut release from Oneohtrix Point Never.

Later moving to Philadelphia, Madak came to wider critical attention with the vinyl re-release of the Canzoni dal Laboratorio del Silenzio Cosmico tape on Elliot’s Spectrum Spools label in 2011, a two-track LP of sonics indebted to musique concrète which fused baroque melodies with some truly otherworldly textures, creating an overall effect that felt very much like being in the laboratory of its title. However, it was last year’s brilliant When We Were Eating Unripe Pears LP on Spectrum Spools that saw him really breaking through, taking his sound into realms that delicately balanced challenging sonic textures with a physical sense of euphoria, as demonstrated by the sublime “The Story Of Keys & Locks” and the bracing noise of “Pink Drinq”.

Earlier this year Madak’s Vaporware EP was itself the subject of one of the year’s most intriguing remix projects, in which Donato Dozzy provided seven remixes of the title track. Released by Spectrum Spools as Donato Dozzy Plays Bee Mask, it was undoubtedly one of the year’s most blissfully immersive sonic experineces. This week sees Madak complement that album with the inaugural release on his Pear Growers Series label, a private press 12″ imprint that commences with a record in which Abdulla Rashim and Surgeon both rework tracks from the aforementioned When We Were Eating Unripe Pears album. Anyone who has heard Surgeon playing the remix on his Rinse FM show will agree that his unashamedly emotive breakbeat reworking of “The Story Of Keys & Locks” is arguably one of the simplest and most affecting remixes this year.

Given Madak’s unique sound and eloquent past interviews, we thought the artist to be an ideal choice for our Five Records feature. Speaking to Scott Wilson over email ahead of a European tour in January which will take in dates at Berghain and London’s Corsica Studios, Madak revealed five wide-ranging and unexpected choices; honing in on his favourite tracks from five very different records, he picked one of the final works of the composer Richard Strauss, stripped back grime rhythms from Pearson Sound, an ’80s synth pop classic from Yazoo, drone from Phill Niblock and a track from early electronic megastar Jean Michel Jarre, discussing their emotional meaning and how they relate to his driven and intense working practices.

1. Jean Michele Jarre “Equinoxe V”, from Equinoxe LP (Disques Dreyfus 1978)

Let’s start with “Equinoxe V”, because I guess I find it easiest to equate this with what you do, even though you’re very different artists. My in-built response to Jean Michel Jarre’s music is to find it quite “cheesy” for want of a better word, like it’s come from a time when synthetic music (and the audience response to it) was a little more innocent, perhaps naive than it is now. Even now when he tours now, he still does these insane stage shows with lasers and visuals. What’s your response to his music?

For sure, this does require a bit of suspension of disbelief to get into in the same sense that, say, all the Yes LPs through Close to the Edge are great if you forget about the wizard capes and imagine that they’re your friend’s housemate’s band or something. That said, there’s also some interesting stuff at work in our ideas about cheese. For example, I first heard Neu! ’75 and the Ash Ra Private Tapes when I was a 15 year old kid hanging around bothering the heads at record shops and at first I couldn’t understand how something that “seminal” wasn’t, you know, “dark” (i.e. without a superficially obvious chip on its shoulder, which is a pretty teenage way to relate to things). So, I think it’s important to be self-aware and try not project our own worldview or the street price of a record onto our judgments of what’s beyond the pale of taste.

Regarding the laser harps and all that, I guess it would be tempting to say that this stuff was the Vegas EDM of its day were it not for the fact that the whole art and tech axis is much more sinister now than it was in 78. But if you mean that people were less jaded about gear, my sense is that people in general are still very naive about it, which is crazy given how much more accessible a lot of the underlying technology seems to be in terms of cost of entry and how much higher the cultural stakes are now. On that “gee whiz” plane of electronic music I think that the audience response to JMJ was probably basically analogous to…I dunno, Deadmau5 or whoever the fuck in certain important regards. Honestly I have no clue, though, and pointless visuals are currently epidemic in nearly every niche of electronic music, not just at the top, so maybe it’s JMJ’s world and we’re just living in it?

Did Jean Michel Jarre provide a way into electronic music for you, or does his music hold a different kind of appeal?

I wish I could invent a good story about Equinoxe having been the ur-text of electronic music for me, but no, my point of entry was via a few things that converged when I was in college at the beginning of the 2000s: academic study of 20th century Cage-continuum stuff and electroacoustic music along with an appreciation for synthpop and synthy post punk stuff leading me to a desire to start digging up the disco and electro records that those bands were mining, plus a certain armchair engagement with critically fêted ’00s house and techno that no one is supposed to talk about in public now.

Ha, very honest! So why did you choose this track in particular?

I picked this one mainly because I love the way that sentimental resonance can get stuck over time to an objectively ridiculous record, and in this case my attachment goes back to being on the road with Emeralds in 2007 and listening to Equinoxe and Oxygene over and over again in the van, spinning out more ridiculous play-by-play dissections every time. If thought that JMJ had the slightest bit of a sense of humor about his work, I’d say that he should commission Steve Hauschildt for a commentary track on some deluxe anniversary edition or other.

Anyway, I snagged my copy of the LP from a dollar bin when I got back from that tour. At that point I was running live sound in a venue where part of my job entailed playing records between live sets; I actually loved doing sound and it takes quite a lot to get under my skin as an engineer, but I did develop sort of a private code with the other staff over time in which the first track I played after a set was sort of like the thing where the judges at the Olympics hold up those cards with numbers on them. A needle drop straight into “Equinoxe V” was a ringing “0.0,” so the track has the added bonus for me of conjuring the memories of hundreds of comically terrible performances. Regardless, it sounds eerily less absurd now than it did even six years ago and is a $3 grip that’s better than any $50 kosmiche rec. Contrary to popular opinion I’ll go for this sort of thing over TD or Schulze or whatever any day when the vibe of my own living room is at stake.

2. Yazoo – “Midnight”, from Upstairs at Eric’s LP (Mute 1982)

I guess a good place to go from here would be Yazoo’s “Midnight”. You said that you had an appreciation for synthpop in college, is this something that began there or had you been listening to it for a while?

Funnily enough, while I’ve known Upstairs at Eric’s forever, it’s a record with which I didn’t really connect until maybe three years ago. Even though I love it to distraction, it’s almost totally free of autobiographical associations for me aside from the fact that my girlfriend can’t stand it, so I always make a point of heckling her about how I’ve been getting onto a Risky Business tip with it around the house whenever she’s out of town. In other words, no tears on my pillow over this one!

What is it about Yazoo in particular you’re drawn to?

Instead, my appreciation is pretty much purely wonkish and formalist. For me, Yazoo both epitomize and transcend the formula of the diva/producer duo, and Upstairs at Eric’s is one of the few cases in which the promise of synthpop is actually exceeded in execution. It never has the feeling of being less than the sum of its parts, and its idiosyncracy and formal clarity are such that it doesn’t strike me as a prisoner of its historical moment either. “Midnight” demonstrates all of this perfectly in miniature; Alison Moyet is a hyperadvanced camp archetype hard-selling the most beautiful and dog-eared cliches regarding rain, work, money, loss, and (naturally) midnight atop a frankly massive hook while Vince Clarke constructs a spare, weightless universe around her ex nihilo. The moment around 0:30 where Clarke sets that baroque, pinwheeling multitracked Pro-One counterpoint into motion knocks me over with a feather every time.

So why have you chosen “Midnight”? It seems, on glancing at your other choices to be a more personal selection, (especially given that “Don’t Go” and “Sitaution” would be the big ‘club’ tracks of theirs from that period). It’s definitely more poignant, more designed to elevate Alison Moyet’s vocals than Vince Clarke’s production, and I sense it may hold some particular emotional resonance from a more innocent time in your life – would that be accurate or not?

Actually this is perhaps the least “personal” of any of my picks! I suppose that my motivation for selecting “Midnight” is that it’s been hugely influential for me both in terms of aesthetics and in terms of production technique in ways that might not seem outwardly obvious to most people who are familiar with my work. I’ve always thought that the assumption that producers arrive at what they do by listening to a lot of more or less similar-sounding material and need to involve themselves in an arms race of seeking out more and more obscure sources in order to stand out misses the mark. Instead, I think that truly interesting work comes out of the ability to hear something different in the things that everyone around you takes for granted.

Relatedly, I think that there’s quite a lot of flaky romantic talk about the importance of limitations in electronic music that’s never seemed terribly interesting to me. At a time when so much in the world conspires to limit us, why wouldn’t we be more concerned with our right to think big? Over the last few years, Upstairs at Eric’s has come to be the benchmark by which I evaluate when limitations are essential to a given musical outcome and not merely a convenient excuse for rushing something out the door; it’s the quintessential example of an electronic record the success of which is inseparable from its economy of means. If my understanding is correct, the vast majority of Upstairs realized with a single monosynth, the Sequential Pro-One, and a single sequencer, the Roland MC-4, and a deep understanding of the characteristics of each of these pieces of equipment seems to inform every aspect of the arrangements. In particular, so much of the wonderful starkness of these tracks could easily sound “unfinished” without the taut and pointillistic character of the MC-4, and “Midnight” would likely be the first example I’d reach for in favor of the argument that different sequencers sometimes have very different “sounds” to them. It’s a beautiful illustration of what’s to be gained by getting one’s hands dirty with the finer points of timing, and all the more so as it’s not outwardly showy about that fact.

I think what you’re getting at in talking about “rushing stuff out the door” is the current trend for “one take” hardware produced techno/noise, which can often feel undercooked, especially compared to your releases which seem impossibly detailed to me in comparison. Do you think there’s an increased trend for laziness in electronic music, and the hardware itself being fetishised without people really understanding how to utilise it?

Yeah, I was definitely baiting that whole “one-take analog hardware jam” thing a bit talking about “rushing stuff out the door”, but I’m not sure that there’s any more or less laziness in the game now than at any other point, or even that laziness is really the issue; a certain kind of laziness often leads to really elegant solutions. What there does seem to be right now is a specific desire among the people who discuss this sort of music to privilege narratives involving “liveness”, “outsiderness”, and all the other qualities you mention. I can absolutely see the appeal of those narratives, particularly for people who don’t actually make music, but honestly they’re phenomenally boring to me.

I could split hairs all day about why I think the underlying assumptions are politically problematic or whatever, but my specific issues are kind of beside the point because in six months the people propelling this conversation will have burned themselves out on it anyway and the only ones the worse for wear will be artists who got caught up in that frame of reference and lost control of the discourse around their own work. At this point, I’ve seen this play out enough times that I’m finally starting to get relaxed about it. There’s more than enough really incredible music being made right now anyway and the best part of a bummer zeitgeist is that the ensuing backlash will probably produce some really interesting stuff.

You said that “Midnight” is hugely influential in terms of aesthetics and production technique, perhaps because of the limitations the equipment presents. Can you expand on how exactly that’s something you’ve put into practice in your own productions? Do you use hardware yourself, and if so do you like to explore the full possibilities of a given piece of hardware despite its limitations, and could you give examples of how you might have done this with different hardware or software in a specific record or track of your own?

Sure; like basically everyone else I use both hardware and software depending on the task at hand. I’m still a little skittish about naming names, not out of any sense of “protecting trade secrets”, but because the vibe of “talking about gear on the internet” sort of grosses me out. As far as exploring the full possibilities goes, absolutely, but more in a spirit of understanding the the decisions that went into designing a given piece of hardware or software and the constraints that informed those choices so I’ll know when it’s the right tool for some future job than one of “what happens if I turn this knob?”

Anyway, the timing thing that I mentioned with regards to “Midnight” realy started to rear its head when I was doing “Vaporware.” Producing all those slightly different subspecies of timing for the various sequenced riffs in that track so they would sort of glide across each other instead of sitting in the same “pocket” involved a nightmarish amount of manual work for results that still felt “almost there” to me. Because timing on hardware MIDI ports is inherently flaky and the timing of slaved MIDI sequencers is usually even worse, I was spending a crazy amount of time printing tracks and taking the wrong idiosyncracies out by hand so I could put the right ones in. That ultimately took something like five eight hour days of solid DAW editing and my hands felt like claws for about a week afterward. Anyone else could probably have gotten comparable results (or better ones) with ten percent of the effort, but that’s just not how I am. I’m stupidly, self-destructively in love with the aesthetic effect of things that appear spontaneous at first glance but are actually obsessively constructed.

So that’s one example of hitting limitations that are just a simple and straight up pain in your ass. It convinced me of the need to iron as many of the timing quirks out of my setup as possible and I started playing around with approaches to doing that with some of the last bits that I tracked for “When We Were Eating Unripe Pears”, though that record was mostly done by that point so it’s not something that’s nakedly apparent aside from maybe the acidy bit at the start of “Pinq Drinq.” Since then I’ve gotten it sorted; there are very good tools now for doing sample-accurate automation of voltage controlled gear from computers, as well as adequate ones for quickly assembling generative DSP stuff that works at the single-sample level. It adds up to a studio workflow that’s sort of a hybrid of Vince Clarke’s MC-4 style and the things that Morton Subotnick was doing in the 70s with encoding control voltage in forms that could be edited on tape.

3. Phill Niblock “Early Winter”, from “Music by Phill Niblock” CD (XI 1993)

OK, let’s go on to Phill Niblock’s “Early Winter” next. I have to say I’m not familiar with his work, but from what I can gather much of his work seems to be focused on using multiple tones to explore texture, would that be correct?

If I understand correctly, it’s made by choosing the set of frequencies in the drone in advance, then recording instrumentalists sustaining tones at those frequencies and editing the recordings to extend and layer the tones and remove the attacks and decays of individual notes. The variations you hear are a function of the ratios of the original frequencies, the spectra of the instrumental timbres, and the small fluctuations that the players naturally introduce as they try to match a tone played for them in headphones over a long period of time.

So this is “process music” in a way, but it’s very much not the sort of thing where you can’t appreciate the work properly without knowing about the process. I quite like this kind of “private systems music” and I’ve definitely played with variations on this technique in the past, most obviously on the A side of the Hyperborean Trenchtown LP where I tried to maintain the tuning of an inherently unstable configuration of handmade oscillators over time to keep it harmonizing with a very long tape loop, which is itself slipping and warbling quite a lot.

This piece seems to move at a glacial pace over its 44 minutes, but it never feels like there’s a repeated moment. You mentioned when you were making “Vaporware” that you were trying to get “slightly different subspecies of timing for the various sequenced riffs in that track so they would sort of glide across each other instead of sitting in the same “pocket”. It seems similar to what’s going on in this piece, albeit with more of a focus on drone. Is Niblock a particular influence on your work?

Yes, Niblock’s work was a formative influence on me at the point when I was working out the basis of what would become Bee Mask and making the first pieces that would come out under that name. Toward the end of 2004, when I was living in New York I went out to hear some friends play a gig in Brooklyn, got nearly blackout drunk at the show, and begged a ride back to lower Manhattan with someone who was headed over to catch the home stretch of Niblock’s annual six-hour winter solstice concert. Being less than steady on my feet and thinking that I was about finished for the night, I had intended to walk the few blocks back from Niblock’s loft to my apartment and crash right away, but as soon as we stepped out of the car and I heard that impossibly dense sound radiating into the night, there was no way I wasn’t going to go up there and get as close to it as possible. I’d had “Music by Phill Niblock” in rotation for a while at that point but the sense of hearing this work in its natural environs, lighting up the composer’s own insane soundsystem like a million suns while he just sort of hung out at home, not “performing” per se, but simply doing no more or less than was necessary to keep the sound going as if he was tending a fireplace or something, was a legit revelation.

When I left New York, the solstice concert was one of the only things I missed and I came back for it every year for quite a long time. Now, the neighborhood has finally gotten the Midas touch to the point at which not even this sort of ritual can be allowed to continue. That pretty much says all you need to know about making art in places like New York circa 2013.

What is it that draws you to “Early Winter” in particular?

I think that there’s something in that sensation of stasis without repetition that gets right at the heart of a lot of what’s most interesting to me about music and records. Sound as a physical thing seems to lend itself to ideas about self-similarity across different time scales and hence to a certain “as above, so below” outlook; a sustained tone is at once a series of discrete rhythmic events happening so quickly that we can’t distinguish them and so slowly that the second event in the series is always located at some inaccessable future point, so in some sense everything we hear is only a small fragment of a total sound of infinite extent.

The expansion and contraction of time that one often feels with this type of “high minimal” music can produce a sensation of unusual freedom; you aren’t being led around by the nose and your attention is able to traverse it in a very loosely determined way. However, in extreme cases there can also be a kind of amnesia and vertigo. Recordings of Charlemagne Palestine’s organ work in particular always give me this really unsettling feeling that I could start listening at any arbitrary point and it would sound exactly the same, that the sound of the record is only changing as a function of how long I’ve been listening to it. That’s obviously untrue, but it’s scary, seductive, and difficult to shake.

Incidentally, I’ve found the same qualities at work in a lot of techno, particularly in the context of a really proper set. Being out at a party and feeling the same things happening with time that I’ve felt in Niblock’s concerts, or La Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream House, or in the work of Eliane Radigue was the “eureka” moment at which I first felt like I “got” techno as a visceral, bodily thing and not just on an intellectual level. I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that a lot of drone music is doing essentially the same formal things as certain sorts of dance music albeit on a different time scale; one is zoomed way in and the other is zoomed way out, but it’s impossible to tell which is which. That might go some distance toward explaining how well they both lend themselves to communal experience on large soundsystems.

4. Pearson Sound “Clutch”, from Clutch EP (Hessle Audio, 2012)

This was for me the most unexpected choice given that it’s so rhythmic – almost purely so – while your own music has a real absence of percussive rhythm.

Actually, that very pronounced contrast with my own material has a lot to do with why I chose this one; David Kennedy’s productions are really fascinating to me in part because it’s nearly impossible for me to imagine making anything like them; I have the impression that his intuitive strengths are 180 degrees opposite from my own. So while it’s sometimes hard for me to hear tracks that are really oriented toward harmonic or timbral complexity without reverse engineering them or thinking about what I’d have done differently, there’s a sense in which I just have a straightforwardly lizard-brained (and I mean that as the highest form of praise) “whoa…KILLER” reaction to hearing David’s rhythmic chops going off.

I can almost see structural parallels to your own work in that it has its own self-contained sense of internal logic, would you agree?

Having said all that, I do take your point about internal logic. I’m very into the way that David has been able to maintain a tangible sense with each new release that there’s some productive friction between this work and his prior productions, and I think that this has been true across all of his projects to date, but especially Pearson Sound. That’s an ideal to which I certainly relate and I’d say that it has a lot to do with how he manages to always sound different while always sounding like himself.

That sort of thing is part of a broader craft that extends to all the other nuances of presentation as well; he’s been able to maintain a very deliberate and measured pace of new material for quite a long time, always revealing just enough information to keep you guessing where things will go next, but never so much that you’ll ever actually guess correctly. That vibe of being very much in control of the flow of information without being cryptic for the sake of being cryptic and making things that are often deeply strange but rarely wear the full extent of their strangeness on their sleeve is central to the ethos and aesthetic of Hessle Audio in general. It’s extremely classy and something that’s stayed compelling and inspirational for me for quite some time now.

What is it that you find striking about “Clutch” specifically?

It’s a track that’s at once really visceral and very arch and subtle; when it came out I remember being really into the way in which it seemed like no one could play it in a set without implicitly revealing some kind of analysis of it. To some extent it’s just a truism about playing a record that you’re putting across some idea of what you think it’s for, but “Clutch” really seemed engineered with a particularly elegant balance of functionality and challenge that made DJs put their cards on the table in surprising and funny ways. My favorite contrast was almost certainly between Appleblim slipping into the track sort of mischievously and Ben UFO punching it through a mix very declaratively; both of them got into it with an air of having just gotten away with something and hearing it in each case was like watching someone execute a really hair-raising parallel parking job in one shot.

You mention seeing Ben UFO and Appleblim playing the track which surprised me. I guess it’s because of the type of music you make, but I don’t imagine you going to clubs often. Is the club a place you fine yourself in often, and is it an inspirational space in terms of your own music?

I wouldn’t say that it’s ever been a way of life for me, and to be honest my interest in dance music developed through records for quite a long time before I had a classically life-altering experience of hearing them in situ. Maybe it’s a function of where and when I grew up, but I definitely felt and still feel to some extent like an outsider to that culture, albeit not in an especially fraught or problematic way. These days I do go out now and then, more when I have time off on the road than when I’m at home. I’m a pretty reclusive person by nature, particularly when there’s studio work to be done. The sort of party that’s essentially “a DJ you’re curious to hear at a bar you wouldn’t have gone to otherwise” isn’t my thing, but really life-ruining after hours very much is.

The way in which those experiences translate to my work is very much an open question at the moment. When it’s working and everyone in the room has been bodily wired into a killer soundsystem all night, fried beyond any semblance of common sense and ready to explode at the drop of a pin, there’s nothing else like it in the world and that kind of emphasis on affect and physicality has definitely crept into what I do, but when it’s not happening and it’s just a bunch of punters standing around taking each others’ pictures, that isn’t really my cup of tea and I can think of a million things that I’d rather be doing.

5. Renee Fleming/Christoph Eschenbach/Houston Symphony Orchestra “Im Abendrot”, from Strauss: Four Last Songs / Orchestral Songs / Rosenkavalier Suite CD (RCA Victor Red Seal 1999)

Finally, “Im Abendrot”, which I must say I was very surprised by. Is classical music something you listen to a lot of, and if so, how do you digest it?

Sure, I suppose I do listen to a fair amount of “western art music” or whatever the appropriate blanket term is, though my tastes are pretty scattershot and I’m not quite a serious head by the standards of the idiom. My parents were both classically trained musicians, however, so I did absorb certain elements of that culture from a very early age. In particular, the ideal of musicianship as a devotional practice in which one’s whole life is placed in service to the ideal of becoming a more perfect conduit for sound, while not limited to this sort of music by any means, finds an expression there which I think is a thing of great beauty and importance.

I’ve gone through on and off phases of being a regular at the orchestra for most of my life, especially when living in Cleveland, but I’m too picky about repertoire to really be all in on that front. My background being what it is, recordings of “classical” music have been part of my life for as long as I can remember and were such a fixture in my childhood that a lot of my earliest memories of records have to do with my being blown away by brief glimpses of other kinds of music and tying my brain in knots trying to put them into some sort of imagined context.

I actually saw Ligeti’s “Violin Concerto” at the Royal Festival Hall in London recently, and there was a part where the soloist was just making the barest of scrapes with the bow, the acoustics of which I couldn’t imagine getting across on a recording. I personally feel that classical music, more so than any other type of music, can lose a lot of nuance in recordings. There’s little that can compare to seeing this kind of thing performed by a full live orchestra. Is that something you would agree with?

I’d have loved to hear that performance! All told, though, I think that in the same way that the soundsystem can make or break a party, the sort of experience you describe depends very much upon the acoustics of the concert hall and how well-suited it is for a given type of material. When it really works, I agree that that sort of hyperreal acoustic depth of field is unlike nearly any other sonic experience. Severance Hall in Cleveland always delivered for me in this respect, and this is probably my memory playing tricks, but I recall it having sounded even better in the pre-renovation era when the bandshell was like an insane mid-century modern pineal gland tucked into a rambling art deco brain. I haven’t really connected with the Kimmel Center in Philly on the same level. It feels a bit like a sports arena for Mahler, and I think that smaller orchestras playing more formally precise repertoire sound at something of a disadvantage there.

Anyway, I suppose that the skepticism you have about the transmissability of a given concert experience on a recording is the crux of the entire history of making records of that sort of concert music. On the one hand there’s the sisyphean quest to come as near as possible to erasing the distinction between the concert hall and home listening which has produced really arcane and rarefied ideas about mastering and distant stereo miking technique and given classical records pride of place in mainstream audiophile culture. On the other hand, there’s the idea that because the experience of records is in some basic way different from the experience of performances, we should be looking for the studio to do something for the material that the concert hall cannot. That school of thought is probably most associated with Glenn Gould, who saw in the studio and in the craft of audio engineering a means to expand his role as an interpreter of musical works far beyond what he could be counted on to do in real time in front of an audience on any given night. I suppose I’m much more in this camp than the former one; while I don’t necessarily share Gould’s wholesale negativity about concerts, I am basically a partisan of records and I think that their relationship with performance is always a fraught and difficult one.

As for the piece itself, it comes from Strauss’ last completed works before his death, but the four piece as a whole aren’t necessarily meant to go together. What is it about this one that you feel stands apart from the other three?

The short and very true answer is “it has the sickest hook.” But yeah, even though the “four last songs” as we’re used to hearing them are a essentially a posthumous compilation, they’re a great example of a basic formal device that I’m quite preoccupied with and have used over and over again in my own work: sets of four with one mismatched element. “Im Abendrot” is the only one of the four which sets text not written by Hermann Hesse (it’s by Joseph von Eichendorff); it was written first but is generally performed last, perhaps because it is the only one in which death is identified by name and not only by allusion. It’s nothing if not high melodrama of course, but it works devastatingly well.

So what is it that “Im Abendrot” means to you? And specifically this recorded version?

I do have a few versions of this piece, and if I’d anticipated your question about how I think this sort of music works on records, I might have opted for the 2011 remaster of the Elisabeth Schwarzkopf / George Szell / Berlin Radio Symphony recording, in which the orchestra has an intense, iridescent, and in my opinion specifically phonographic clarity. Anyway, the Fleming / Eschenbach version is the one that I fell for initially, and I do think that Renée Fleming has a certain edge in her reading of these songs, not necessarily as a conventional technician compared with Schwarzkopf but in terms of the weird, luminous weightlessness of her delivery.

I’m not sure that I have a ready answer about what “Im Abendrot” means to me. I only really had an “oh shit” moment with the last songs toward the beginning of this year and they have gone on to become sort of the defining enigma of 2013 for me. I’ve been playing them constantly, all the while suspecting that there’s a useful epiphany right around the corner, but for the time being it still feels as though it’s hidden at some unknowable future moment. That might actually be part of the attraction. I suppose that death is always deferred until it isn’t, if that’s not too glib a way to put it.

Interview by Scott Wilson
Header image by Ilaria Pace

Bee Mask will be playing an upcoming BleeD night at London’s Corsica Studios on 27 January 2014 – tickets and more information on that can be found here.

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