In ethereal stretched harmonic recollections of Debussy, across cooly confident grooves echoing from dance floors, composer Marie Wilhelmine Anders has again constructed a rich musical reverie. I spoke to her about her process for Frozen Music, down to the bar, and how Scottish poetry fed this lush sonic landscape.
Frozen Music follows a dense series of releases – remixes, LPs, EPs – and Anders’ return to Germany Broque label. The Berlin-based, East Berlin native has a complete musical background – from composition and theory to multi-instrumentalist escapades on not only piano, but percussion and drums, violin, e-bass, and engineering training. She’s improvised; she’s run ensembles. I don’t have to repeat Discogs here; I trust you, diggers.
This fifth full-length is especially notable as it brings together so much of that past background. Particular club genres she’s covered in the past are more muted here, or gently blurred together – but this is equal parts listening and groove, ambient and sub-friendly tracks all at once, without too forcefully coming to another. It’s an album you can commit to in some outstretched headphone listening, without ever losing a sense of clarity and concept.
CDM: First, about the Chopin – the harmonic language on the whole record is beautiful! I’m curious which Chopin pieces are here? I hear some stretched-out harmonies in “Prelude,” of course, with some Chopin-y chromaticism, but there are some direct quotes throughout?
Marie: For the harmonies in “Prelude” and “Signal,” I borrowed only a few chords from Claude Debussy’s Prelude from Pour Le Piano. This is particularly evident in my ambient intro track “Prelude.” I kept the 3/4 time signature and lowered the tempo to 85 bpm. Then I recorded bars 2-11 + 14-15, omitting the rhythmic structures, stretching the bars, and adjusting them a little when I felt it was necessary. Seen in this way, the beginning of Debussy’s “Prelude” reappears in mine, enlarged.
In “Signal,” I then used Debussy’s chords from bars 127 and 128; you can hear them from the epic, overlong break onwards, again with the same Massive sound as in “Prelude.” It made sense to me to limit myself to one external source for my chord progressions. Debussy was an obvious choice, as his music is characterized by tone-painting and the specific harmonic shifts that also define the harmonies of electronic dance productions.
Later, I researched the connections between Claude Debussy, Robert Louis Stevenson, and electronic dance music in the 20th century and came across further coincidences, such as David Toop pointing out that Debussy’s “liquid works” (and “Pour Le Piano” can be counted among them) influenced the ambient music scene.
What are those stretched-out textures, actually? Some nice fuzzy ambient language in there.
In “Prelude,” I sent a sound from Massive into Valhalla’s Supermassive reverb, Soundtoys EchoBoy and into various other FX, especially Soundtoys Crystallizer, and added further atmosphere to the sound. Then there’s a recording I made here at home years ago when Berlin TXL airport was still open and the planes were taking off over my house. It’s raining, and this track goes into the Valhalla Space Modulator.
Also I use sounds from Steinberg Materials: Metal & Ice, various Spectrasonics Keyscape sounds and a few others. I wanted to create the impression of an ever-so-slightly changing continuum, where only now and then instruments stand out from the overall sound until the piano enters, first as a bass, and then gradually floats upwards.
By the way, the previous album, Travels, ended with exactly the same recording of the airplane taking off. I also wanted to create a connection to my dark ambient album She’s Leaving through the ambient intro track on Frozen Music.
We also have these nice stuttering vocals added on “The Kitchen And The Bed”; how did those come about? (To some extent, was the germ/seed for some of these tracks a particular sound, as also on “Clap” or possibly “Signal“?)
This is my voice. I took a sample from one of my tracks from my album Andersworld and processed it in the granular synthesizer Steinberg Padshop Pro. For “Clap,” I took whole parts of an Andersworld track; when “Clap“ was finished, I was missing something. And the vocals from “Keepsake Mill” were a perfect fit.
But the vocals are not the moment that motivates me to make a track. Especially on Frozen Music, they’re more something I add at the end, like a little piece of jewelry to an otherwise finished piece of clothing.
A big motivator is my musical examination of what I hear. I make the music that I miss — the music I want to hear. Beat programming is a point that keeps me busy. I’m also driven by the fact that I want to have a certain energy, a certain color. At the moment, it’s mainly Drum & Bass and the history of the genre that fascinates and motivates me.
Also, all my albums are initiated by extra-musical concepts, lyrics, and images. In the case of Frozen Music – once again – poetry by the Scottish poet Robert Louis Stevenson, here, the poem “Evensong.”
Pictured: The artist’s workspace, for CDM.
These have these wonderful transitions between ambient and groove tracks; there’s a narrative sense to all of it. Did you conceive it that way? Are there images you’re working from across all these tracks; are they just impressionistic in the flow of them or was there an overarching narrative? It does start to feel like a Chopin songbook, in that there’s some progression across the full album.
That’s a wonderful compliment! Yes, there is an overarching narrative, and there are images.
The concept behind Frozen Music has one of its pillars based on the aforementioned poem “Evensong.” Long before I started producing, I had the idea of developing the album along the strong and evocative imagery that this short poem evokes. The idea was to make a single track out of almost every verse. I developed the color and sound of the individual tracks, but also of the album as a whole, in my imagination, so I had the album roughly in my head before I went to work. The track titles are quotes from the verses of the poem.
Generally, are there ways your compositional background has made you think about this music, about form? Or have you treated this idiom from a different perspective?
That’s not easy to say. Because now that I’ve been making music all my life, it’s not easy to tell what has influenced what. With Frozen Music, I did not deliberately draw on my compositional background — that was more the case with Andersworld. More than that, my narrative style in my music seems to me to go back to the long, composite forms in progressive rock music of the 70s and early 80s. So I guess the influences of “The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway”, “Supper’s Ready” (both Genesis) or “The Ninth Wave” (Kate Bush) are greater than perhaps that of “Le Sacre Du Printemps”. More than half of the tracks on “Frozen Music” are intended for the dancefloor or should work for both: in the narrative album context and on the floor. That’s actually what I’m aiming for.
There’s such a gorgeous sense of space and spectrum across these, across all the mixes. How did you approach the mixing process? (And you worked with Sunchase on mastering?)
I’m very pleased that you said that. Because leaving space is very important to me, both in music and in life. I think that has to do with the production first and foremost and then with the mix. When it comes to mixing, I mix my grooves before the actual production. Because I assume that I would get tired of listening to the beats while I’m working and my judgment would suffer as a result. I mean, my judgment suffers anyway, but at least I tried to make the best of it by doing production and mixing at the same time. Basically, I do classic mixing with proper leveling, EQ, sidechain compression, saturation, panning, etc. No tools here that can do that for me.
Above all, I paid attention to the progression of the whole album: It starts with mild, dark colors in “Prelude” and then gets lighter and lighter as “Embers” and “The Kitchen And The Bed” progress. Until there is a first climax with „Clap“, which I produced and mixed accordingly brighter.
Sunchase did the mastering on his own. Of course, there was feedback on the masters from both me and the record label Broque during the process. For example, it was very important to me that the short ambient track “Breeze”, which acts as a transition to “Signal”, should not be nice but rather overloud, not beautiful but rather rough. But the credit for this wonderful mastering work goes to Alexander Pavlenko alone.
I have to say that I was very happy that he agreed. After all, his music is a direct inspiration for me and I wished he would do the mastering for “Frozen Music” from the very beginning. The fact that this came about and that the collaboration was so uncomplicated and fruitful makes me very happy.
[Ed.: If you don’t know Sunchase, the Kyiv artist has been one of the foremost names in Ukrainian electronic music. If you need a jolt of energy…]
There’s a quite compelling approach to instrumentation, as well. What are you working with as far as technical materials? Is this an in-the-box sort of affair, or do you have a studio rig you like to work with? How live-playing-oriented are you versus sequencing as a kind of analog to written composition?
Yes, my production is currently “in-the-box.” I also do my own vocal and field recordings. I used to record my grand piano myself, but Keyscape has taken its place for a few years now. I actually regret that I can’t work with synthesizers and make use of the really great possibilities and sounds. But I wouldn’t have room for a studio here and I love the idea that I could pack everything up in a few minutes and leave. I’ve been working with Cubase for a long time, and I mainly use instruments and play via a fairly rudimentary MIDI keyboard and then manipulate the recordings further. Editing or sequencing is more fun for me at the moment and takes up most of the production time, much more than live recording.
You mentioned being inspired by the foghorn; how does it figure in here?
The foghorn is actually less a source of inspiration than a link between the two pillars on which Frozen Music rests, found almost by chance: the poem, which was written in the late 19th century by a Scotsman in his home of choice in Apia, Samoa, and my desire to lean towards the history of Drum & Bass with my music. For a long time, I couldn’t actually get these two ideas together. Then I happened to come across a book on the cultural history of the foghorn while searching for Samoa literature — Jennifer Lucy Allan’s The Foghorn’s Lament: The disappearing music of the coast (2021). There, I read that the foghorn was invented by a Scottish engineer in the year Robert Louis Stevenson was born (the author Stevenson also comes from a Scottish engineering family) and that a discarded foghorn was later, in the 1950s, installed as a powerful bass amplifier in a Jamaican sound system. Producer Donna Maya was able to tell me more about the latter and confirm that the sound of the foghorn found its way into the sound of Drum & Bass in this way. I programmed a foghorn sound in Massive and used it in “Signal.”
[Ed.: Unsound delightfully combined foghorns, Allan, and The Bug:]
Now with a few releases out, how would you say your voice has progressed, or where do you imagine exploring next?
It’s not easy to estimate your own development yourself. I think that Andersworld, with its diversity of form and production techniques and the tracks that move into a completely new direction from the middle onwards, will remain an album for me that is not easy to surpass. With Frozen Music, I took a different approach and deliberately adapted some of the tracks to the dancefloor. Here, on the other hand, the mix was perhaps more successful. What I have in mind for a new album is to delve further into Drum & Bass in terms of genre and production but to remain as experimental as possible in formal terms. I’m still not sure whether Frozen Music was the last album in my Stevenson series or whether I need another album to complete the series. My preoccupation with Stevenson’s involvement in colonialism has made me realize that I don’t want to simply set his poems to music again without addressing this at the same time. At the moment, however, I have no idea how this could be achieved. We will see. There is also an idea to make a Frozen Music remix album.
[Ed. Speaking of remixes, as we’ve covered The Allegorist before, don’t miss Marie’s terrific remix of Anna’s music — ]
What are you most passionate about musically at the moment; what are you listening to?
I listen to a lot of Drum & Bass, and some time ago, I discovered the Finnish Drum & Bass scene. Fanu’s music, in particular, fascinates me enormously. I love his dark jungle vibe with excellent beat chopping and beautiful synth sounds. His drum processing is complex, but the mix is always wide, and you can almost call it airy. Take his track “I’ll be in the shadows” from his EP Northern Exposure: I find it hugely inspiring how he always manages to add another level of energy as the track progresses.
I would also like to take the time to explore the beginnings of Drum & Bass by listening to it again.
Thanks so much, Marie! Looking forward to more and … now on to learn more about foghorns.