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Interview: John Richards, Dirty Electronics
An interview with the builder and proselytizer of "dirty electronics" before his Beijing workshop and performance next week...
By Jan 9, 2014 Arts

Gear heads take note: builder/maker/performer/conductor John Richards is holding court in Beijing next week. A lifelong musician, John has spent the last decade working primarily on a project called Dirty Electronics. On one level, the name functions as a descriptor of the instruments he makes and uses: home-engineered one-offs with names like Dirty Carter Experimental Sound Generator, as well as collaborative designs, such as this synth he made for pioneering industrial/EDM label Mute. On a more symbolic level, "Dirty Electronics" references an almost Luddite disdain for contemporary computer culture, a call to get one's hands dirty by playing — and being played by — transparently hacked & soldered noise toys.

Since starting Dirty Electronics in 2003, John has collaborated with such experimental/avant-garde music heavies as Merzbow, Pauline Oliveros, Rolf Gehlhaar (of the original Stockhausen ensemble), and Chris Carter (Throbbing Gristle), and created ad hoc "Dirty Electronics Ensembles" with eager geeks and self-serious noisers the world over. He makes his China debut on Monday, January 13 at XP, when he'll invite audience for an informal workshop introducing his instruments and concept. The thusly-formed Beijing Dirty Electronics Ensemble will then perform at Zoomin' Night on Tuesday, January 14.

Here's more on John, Dirty Electronics, DIY synth culture, and making noise as cultural exchange:

SmartBeijing: Ok, let's start with a general introduction. How long have you been composing and performing music? Building instruments? What is your background?

John Richards: I have been a musician all of my life. That’s it really. Music lessons and college, school of hard knocks as a musician living in London, working as an improviser, unemployment, more music study… Although I did go to art college briefly and it has been good to explore other ways of artistic expression through Dirty Electronics.

SmBj: You've been doing the Dirty Electronics project for over a decade now. Can you give a brief introduction to the concept behind it, and how you initially developed the idea?

JR: During the 1990s and the rise of personal computers, I missed doing stuff with my hands. Playing musical instruments for me was very much a tactile thing. I liked the idea of an extended process where making stuff and playing were combined. In English there is a saying, "get your hands dirty," which means to get practically involved. I had also been reading Henry Cowell’s essay on noise where he discusses the idea of noise as analogous to disease. So this is where the idea and name Dirty Electronics began. I started doing events and working with lots of people and learned as I went along. There was no plan. I just enjoyed it and luckily got more invitations to create and work that enabled me to develop my own practice.

SmBj: Since 2003, you've collaborated with several legends of contemporary avant-garde composition, noise, industrial, and electronic music. What have been some of the more challenging/inspiring/memorable collaborations you've done?

JR: It is really hard to pinpoint a specific collaboration, but working with performance artist Anat Ben-David, who was in the group Chicks on Speed, was always great fun. We supposedly met years before at a party in Vienna where she spent most of the evening running around naked. Our collaboration for Supernormal Festival involved making a giant cardboard synth. It looked a bit like the sculptures of Brian Griffiths and the Tardis from Dr. Who. It was such hard work making it in a day, I went straight to bed after we had finished and missed the rest of the festival. On the plus side, I did get to sleep in the former country house of Ian Fleming, the author of James Bond.

Hosting Merzbow in Leicester for a week and finding vegan food other than curry was a challenge (Leicester is known for its Indian cuisine). And all I remember about Rolf Gehlhaar (original Stockhausen group) was his eccentric bow tie and braces. Dirty Electronics sat in silence for what seemed an age with improviser Keith Rowe contemplating our "first" sound event; whilst old friend and collaborator, Nic Bullen (Napalm Death and Scorn) has always been an inspiration for his love and knowledge of music.

SmBj: Big names aside, the "Dirty Electronics Ensemble" expands to include virtually anyone interested in building an instrument in your workshop. What kind of people gravitate to this? Is it experimental/improv musicians? Circuit-bending heads? People approaching it more from an academic standpoint or a pure noise level?

JR: What has been the biggest surprise is the range of different people interested in the arts who have taken part in Dirty Electronics events. So, yes, there are usually a few geeks and noise musicians, but also, for example, people into sound art, performance, design, craft, and visual arts. The events I run are very self-sufficient and can exist outside of mainstream organizations. So as well as being involved in bigger events, I’ve enjoyed working in small pubs and clubs and with independent arts groups.

SmBj: What instruments will you be bringing to Beijing? How will you build and conduct the Dirty Noise Ensemble over your two events here?

JR: I mostly travel on my own using public transport and there is always a limit to what I can carry. I sometimes prepare for gigs with a scale! I’ve been working on some pieces with the new Dirty Electronics Mute Synth II that is being released on Mute Records later in 2014, and the 7-Segment Display. Both of these devices generate visuals with LED dot matrix and numerical displays. But I like to explore how electronic sound "meets" the acoustic domain. I have a giant DIY spring reverb and "bouncing" microphones controlled by feedback that help mess up the synths, or bring another level of complexity to the sound. Then I’ve got some more hardcore DIY devices. Synths made from scissors and motors from old printers, and the use of nails, wood, wire, old scouring pads, and flickering light bulbs. Performers and bodies can become extensions of these machines and processes. So I’m not really conducting a group of musicians. It is more the machines that play the performers.

Mute Synth II (photo by George Benson, Stereographic)

SmBj: You created the first Mute synth In 2011, and you've also worked with Dutch electronic music instrument lab STEIM. Where do you see potential for future innovation in the design and production of new musical tools?

JR: I’m interested in the relationship between tools and their users and affordances: actions associated with tools. In my work as Dirty Electronics there is always a tension between tool/instrument and composition. Are the circuit designs and synths compositions or artworks in their own right? My work follows in the tradition of David Tudor and "composing inside electronics." The future is thinking about how these tools "are" the music.

SmBj: Over the last few years, big companies like Korg and Novation — and smaller companies like Arturia — have been churning out mass-produced, budget analog synthesizers. As a creator of niche synths and noise generators, what do you think about this trend?

JR: I recently interviewed the designer of the Korg Monotron [and Volca series], Tatsuya Takahashi. Initially it was really hard to get any information out of Korg, but it was obvious that Tatsu and companies such as Korg have been influenced by DIY culture. Perhaps there is a little bit of self-satisfaction and bias in thinking that big companies have been influenced by the likes of myself.

SmBj: On your website you say that Dirty Electronics is about "face-to-face shared experiences, ritual, gesture, touch and social interaction." How well does this work when you're in a context with a significant language barrier? How effective is a mutual interest in Dirty Electronics as a platform for cultural exchange?

JR: Well, luckily, verbal language is not the only way to communicate. I’ll turn up with some sound-making devices and we’ll play and listen together, following body gestures and actions. I like to create new instruments because they create a tabula rasa — clean slate for composition. So the group members have to find a way to communicate through instruments they have never experienced before, and how to communicate musically with each other. Sometimes the more obstacles that exist in the chain of communication, such as verbal language, the more creative you have to be to find solutions.

Catch John Richards' Dirty Electronics on Monday, January 13 and Tuesday, January 14 at XP.

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