Constructing music as constructing a sculpture – 4 Questions to Helge Sten

Interview by Clara Bolin and Elena Brandenburg

We met the Norwegian composer/artist/sound engineer Helge Sten (*1971) due to a concert in Cologne where the Ensemble Musikfabrik played his Sow Your Gold In The White Foliated Earth. This piece was composed for Harry Partch instruments, which were invented by the American composer, instrument-builder and theorist Harry Partch (1901–1974). Partch developed a sound system consisting of 43 pitches in an octave and built some unique instruments in order to compose music using scales of unequal intervals in just intonation.

Sten has been active in the music scene since 1991, mostly under the name Deathprod, but he has also worked with various bands and collaborations, e.g. Motorpsycho (1992-1994) or Supersilent (since 1997). Working with electroacoustic instruments and tapes he was mainly focusing on electronics during all those different projects.

norrøna: Being educated at the Academy of Fine Arts in Trondheim, you have several approaches to different art forms, represented in Fine Arts and music. How would you describe the possibilities of articulating yourself through these different art forms? Would you claim differing potentials of representing yourself through different media?

Helge Sten. Foto: Carsten Aniksdal

Helge Sten: Most of my work is represented within the scope of music and sound, even though on many levels, fine art is more of an influence to me than music or sound art. Music education in Norway was very conservative in the early 90s, and art school seemed more open to approaching music and/or sound in an exploratory way. In the mid-80s I started working with performance art, and even though I was producing the sound / music for these performances, I did not see myself as a musician or composer. It was a part of a bigger construct. The audio tools I was using were pretty crude and unusual, and I found it very liberating to make music in a context where it was not perceived as music. Constructing music in much the same way as you would construct a sculpture, has always been of interest to me.

norrøna: You’re part of the project »Pitch_43_Tuning the Cosmos« which has been initiated by Ensemble Musikfabrik specialized in Contemporary Music. Based in Cologne, the ensemble owns the only set of Partch instruments in Europe. How did you get involved with this project? Had you been in contact with New Music in Norway? Why were those instruments interesting for you? What is your approach working with those instruments/›sound producing sculptures‹?

Helge Sten: In the early 80s I was very into the various aspects of the San Fransisco based art / music collective The Residents, and Harry Partch was often mentioned as a major influence to them. Songs like »Death in Barstow« and »Six Things To A Cycle« (from Fingerprince) more than suggest a certain influence. Seeing Harry Partch’s name mentioned in the context of The Residents led me to investigate, and someone made me a cassette of some of his music.

I have been involved in various aspects of the New Music scene in Norway, but it has often been more in the outskirts than dead center in the heart of post-modernism. I have performed at the Ultima Festival in Oslo several times since the mid-90s, and it was their artistic director Lars Petter Hagen that initiated the idea of me working with the Pitch 43 project. I had just gotten back from Los Angeles, where I found several first editions of Harry Partch´s music on vinyl. Lars Petter was preparing for the Ensemble Musikfabrik performance of »Delusion Of The Fury« at Ultima in 2013, and somehow we had a casual conversation about these things, which led to Lars Petter connecting the dots in the direction of the Pitch 43 project.

The instruments are interesting on many levels. Obviously the tuning is very important, but also the DIY approach, ideas and craft that led to the instruments creation. The realization that ›normal‹ instruments would not be able to create the pitch, timbre and depth Harry Partch was seeking is crucial. He abandoned the contemporary instruments and institutions and created his own platform, and I find this very intriguing in relation to music and composition, but also in relation to life and politics.

Christine Chapman, Ensemble Musikfabrik. Foto: Janet Sinica.

My approach to working with the instruments was to visit Musikfabrik in Cologne a number of times, and play and record all the instruments and parts myself. I found that it would be impossible to compose a piece for these instruments without exploring the exact timbres and functionality of each instrument. This is how I compose most of my music; I record all the different parts and arrange them inside a digital audio workstation. Harry Partch used a tape recorder and overdubbing in a very similar way to compose many of his pieces. However, I would like to emphasize that the piece was not a result of improvisations.

I also disregarded a few of the playing techniques that Harry Partch established for some of the instruments. The Kithara looks very beautiful, and you would except a very full-bodied sound when playing the instrument, but I found it quite disappointing and weak, and decided to approach the instrument differently. This limited the possibilities quite a lot, but the sound and tuning became way more interesting. Approaching these instruments as if they are classical instruments seems redundant and in opposition to the ideas of Harry Partch.

Helge Sten and Dirk Rothbrust, Instrument Marimba Eroica. Foto: Klaus Rudolph.

norrøna: Your creative repertoire includes high diverse musical production such as ambient, jazz, rock and New Music. Even if the genres which you are involved in are highly heterogenous, in my ears, the common sonic signature of them seems to be a sense of something eerie and disconcerting, especially in regard to Deathprod and Biosphere/Deathprod music. 

Cultural theorist and k-punk blogger Mark Fisher labels ambient musicians such as William Basinski or Black to Comm as ›hauntological‹ referring to Derrida’s concept of hauntology. According to Mark Fisher, these artists are suffused with an »overwhelming melancholy«. Would you agree that Deathprod as well as your music production within the New Music and your collaborations with your wife Susanne Wallumrød are characterized by this »ineradicable sadness« of the 21st century music according to Fisher?

Helge Sten: There might be a sonic signature in much of my music, but I would not subscribe to it being »overwhelming melancholy«. Much of my sound material is generated from noise sources and abstract sounds, but I find this material more connected towards nature than retro hoarding and/or temporal disjunction. Much like Werner Herzog´s description of nature in »Burden Of Dreams«.

norrøna: Being not only a musician, but also a producer, you are able to deal with technology materializing memory such as tapes, CDs, vinyl and digital music archives like Spotify/YouTube. The producing technology of modern studio and recording techniques are highly developed and enable the clearest music production that is possible. Still, the imitated use of crackle as well as the surface noise of vinyl succeed alongside the vinyl not only for subcultural music but for the mainstream music market. How would you judge this anachronistic movement of retromania?

Helge Sten: The interesting thing with vinyl is that it is an amazing carrier of sound. It was developed through many decades, with massive scientific advances throughout. It is to date the most successful physical carrier of music, also because it is very visual and visceral. Listening to vinyl involves a different process than streaming and other digital platforms. The digital platforms are great for mass consumption, but very bad for art. Scrolling through Spotify is more like wandering the endless aisles of a supermarket, than an environment for listening, learning and exploring. Repeated crackles, pops and clicks on vinyl are a result of poor production and/or poor handling. Being into that seems like poor judgement, and poor cultural understanding. A vinyl that has been properly mastered, cut and pressed will sound really great. Most streaming and digital platforms still only offer sound quality that is worse than CD, a digital format that was specified in late 70s.


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