Electro-acoustics on the fringe
Christoph Heemann sculpts the unknown
The origins of Christoph Heemann's music can be traced to a sewer in Germany, which couldn't be a more appropriate setting for the birth of such an experimental body of work. In the early '80s, Heemann and bandmate Achim (Dr. P. Li Khan) Flaam ventured below the streets in their hometown of Aachen, as the Dada-esque sound-sculpting duo H.N.A.S. (Hirsche Nicht aufs Sofa or No Moose on the Couch) to record their 1985 debut, Abwassermusik. The aim was to document the sounds of traditional instruments played in a very nontraditional place.
Antics like this, coupled with a peculiar sense of humor, earned the group a reputation as one of the most bizarre acts of the time. But for Heemann, a yearning for artistic growth outweighed simple experimentation, resulting in the two members going their separate ways.
"H.N.A.S. was a period of learning for me, finding out how to do things, and how to deal and come to terms with [my] personality in the results," says Heemann. "I was figuring out some new ideas and how to realize them quickly. But soon after, I felt that my ex-bandmate became more of a hindrance to me than anything else. No flexibility and no real interest in artistic progress. This don't-fuck-with-the-formula attitude made me lose interest in and terminate the project eventually."
Nearly 20 years later, Heemann's attitude hasn't changed that much. These days, he spends his time in a studio churning out vast electro-acoustic compositions — layering drones and bits of musique concréte, and spending hours cutting, pasting and manipulating sounds. Both as a solo artist and alongside experimental music luminaries such as Jim O'Rourke, the Legendary Pink Dots, Andrew Chalk and Merzbow, Heemann has earned a spot among fringe music's finest. He has made appearances on several Nurse With Wound and Current 93 recordings, and through his Streamline Music label has released material by like-minded artists including Edward Ka-Spel, Ragnar Grippe and Annie Anxiety.
Despite his own growth and accolades, Heemann's interests still lie in bending nontraditional sounds. "The recording studio is my main instrument," he says. "I use drones and elements of minimalism in my work. But I'm trying to use the sounds while paying attention to what I've learned from musique concréte — the meaning and significance of the individual sounds, and how sequencing and combining them affects the results."
Heemann's 1990 solo debut, the 10-inch EP Über Den Umgang Mit Umgebung und Andere Versuche (On Handling the Environment and Other Experiments), was an obvious departure from his previous offerings. Two discernable elements in his recordings developed — one based on drones and long, sustained textures; the other on a collage of cut-up and disembodied sounds.
Throughout subsequent recordings, more cohesive elements began taking shape, culminating in his most "cinematic" full-length, Days of the Eclipse. Recurring sounds serve as quasi-audio narratives arranged to instill images in the listener's head.
Bringing such a complicated sound to a live setting isn't easy. Traditional instruments have never stood out in Heemann's work, and many of his recordings are the result of long hours in the studio. His solution: four CD players and a live mixer.
"I found this an appropriate and helpful way to represent my music in a concert situation," says Heemann. "It's almost like having an eight-track tape recorder where the tracks are mobile. Most of the sounds I use are richly manipulated natural sounds. Creating these sounds sometimes takes days in the studio, thus they cannot be created live on stage."
Heemann is preparing for his Atlanta show (one of only two U.S. appearances) much like he approaches his recordings — without convention.
"So far, I have always performed a different piece every time I have done a concert," he says. "There could be sounds you might recognize, but the piece will be a new one. I don't know yet where the sounds will be coming from."