Just imagine a desk with an EMS Synthi A and a laptop, a sax laying on the floor inside its open case, just waiting for being awaken and a tall, fair-haired guy, with a very young face, and a serious and concentrated gaze.
Just meet this gaze for a second, before everything starts, to see immediately in his eyes the flame revealing all the arriving joyfulness. Suddenly an explosion of sounds, only accompanied with Thomas Ankersmit’s stiff movements of hands on his EMS synthi A. This instrument, original of the 70s, gives a special poetic tension to the live performance. Chaos and raptures skilfully orchestrated by a real genius! And suddenly, again: silence! Mr. Ankersmit stands up and gives up the apparent movement stiffness. He slowly unwinds gently “hugging” his sax, as he was dandling his baby. He starts to breathe softly awaking the saxophone and so the sound spreads filling all the place.
At this time you are already deep in the new long and intense sound flux, orchestrated by the seducing swinging of the musician and his instrument. They are now a only creature standing between the wall behind the artist’s back and the public spellbound by the sound flux. As he wanted to have his privacy and remain alone with his music, Thomas turns his back on the public and goes on playing. Everything is great, passionate and intense despite his easy and spontaneous approach. Thomas Ankersmit is a skilled saxophonist and an electronic musician from the Netherlands. He can combine the abstract sound of his saxophone with hyper-kinetic analogical synthesizers and can give birth to electronic improvisations thanks to computers. He’s able to realize installations where sound, infrasound and “sound feature modification of space XX” melt and turn upside down the normal space perception of the hearing public and even his presence in that place. So guys, if you have the opportunity to see his live performance don’t miss it!
Claudia Moriniello: You attended the Art Academy in Amsterdam and then the School of Visual Art in New York. Your academic background seems to be more “artistic” than musical Can you tell us how did you approach music and when?
Thomas Ankersmit: Listening to underground rock (Sonic Youth etc.) as a teenager quickly led me to more avant-garde music, although looking back it’s hard to say why I started digging into that music. At that time I started messing around with a guitar and with electronics (cassette tape players etc.) found by chance. I just kept going on, starting with the saxophone a few years later and again pretty much by chance (I found an old Russian army saxophone in a pawn shop). In the summer of 1997 I started going to the Art Academy in Amsterdam, and from that time to New York, where I kept playing in parallel to my studies. I never integrated very much with the work I was doing in the Academy. Although I started working with sound there too, I didn’t think of that as “music”.
Claudia Moriniello: So, a spontaneous and instinctive approach. Which were your music influences?
Thomas Ankersmit: I guess the first things I heard that have somewhat to do with my involvement were free improvisation (not so much the free jazz), noise, minimalism and electro-acoustic music. All of that really at the same time. As regards as the sax my “masters” were Evan Parker, Mats Gustafsson, Don Dietrich and Jim Sauter of Borbetomagus and Tamio Shiraishi. All people with very far-reaching approaches to the instrument, but with different backgrounds. I remember listening a lot to “Noise Capture” by Gert Jan-Prins and Kevin Drumm’s first CD in 1997/1998. That combination of rawness and tension was appealing, a sort of a meeting of the noise sound world with a very sharp sense for time. With hindsight those might have played a role in influencing me.
Claudia Moriniello: The Netherlands represent a very important source for quality of music in the European scene, growing and producing good artists and musicians. New York is a prominent crossroad for the experimental artistic scene. What did push you to move to Berlin?
Thomas Ankersmit: Thomas Ankersmit: When I came to Amsterdam I felt pretty isolated. In the late ’90s I felt that there was a free jazz scene, a high brow contemporary music scene, maybe some sort of post-industrial scene, but I never really felt tied to any of those circles. The noise/industrial crowd hated saxophones and the notion of playing instruments in general, I think. The jazz scene felt too “jazz” and most of the musicians were my father’s age (although now I’m on tour with a 73-year-old, so who cares). I’d always want to spend time in New York. I’d been there twice or three times on short visits before moving there in the summer of 1999. I had to leave about a year later, my visa had run out, and I needed to return to Amsterdam to continue school there. In New York I realized I didn’t necessarily have to live in the country I was born in, that I could just pick an interesting place and go there and see if I could make it work, which was an important realization for me at that time. I briefly considered staying in New York and dropping out of school and never coming home again, but I’m glad I didn’t. I had some friends in Berlin, so I simply thought I’d go there for a while as an alternative to being back in Amsterdam, in the summer of 2000. It’s been really great so far. I’m probably only in Berlin about half the time though. I’m still frequently in Amsterdam too, I still have an apartment there.
Claudia Moriniello: Which is your perception of the German, Dutch, Italian and American scene?
Thomas Ankersmit: Of course, I can only speak about the very small slots of the music culture that I know. With the stuff that I’m involved in, I probably wouldn’t talk about scenes in the case of Holland or Italy. The people I know there are pretty isolated as far as I can tell. Gert-Jan Prins in Amsterdam for example, or Domenico Sciajno or Giuseppe Ielasi in Italy. In Berlin it really seems that lots of people who play experimental music somehow know each other and spend a lot of time together. There are so many musicians there, and so many concerts, both by the locals as well as a constant stream of visitors. The improvised music circle that I best know there feels like it’s disintegrating a little. That is probably okay. I haven’t spent enough time in one place in the US recently to have a clear idea about that, but it seems like there’s a big experimental music network there too. It’s always been more of a do-it-yourself scene there. In America nobody makes a living producing (or playing) experimental music concerts, in Europe some people do. The European scene has always been much more professionalized. Then again: people in Europe initiating gigs are very often simply fans themselves, not professional producers.
Claudia Moriniello: You often play with the great Phill Niblock. Tell us how you met him.
Thomas Ankersmit: Phill and I met in 1999, when I was living in New York . We met at each other’s concerts. Phill is a very talkative person so he’s always going to people’s shows if he’s in town. At the time he was still teaching, I think, so he was probably in New York more than he is now. He hosts performances at his loft on the border of SoHo and Chinatown , so people visit his place too. We started collaborating and doing shows together only in 2003 though, when we were booked to do a tour of Japan side-by-side.
Claudia Moriniello: Can you tell us how do electronic, acoustic, analogue and digital elements live together in your music?
Thomas Ankersmit: They basically coexist side-by-side. The analogue and digital electronic parts are very much intertwined. I use the computer to record, edit, play back, control the analogue synthesizers. Most of the music is “made” with the synthesizers. In concerts the computer is mostly used as a sampler: I use it to play back pre-recorded sound fragments and those sounds are sent through the processing analogue signal. I don’t really use the computer to generate or process sound, it’s more a device for recording, editing and playback. As a musical instrument, I prefer analogue electronics because I like shaping and disturbing the electrical signals directly. The possibility of patching anything into anything on the modular synth is important for me. I do a lot of primitive messing around with the signals too: wiggling the connectors back and forth, short-circuiting things, etc. My interests always shift back and forth between the acoustic and the electronic, but I usually end up combining the two. I’m pretty attached to acoustic playing also. I appreciate the physicality and the site-specificness of playing an acoustic instrument, having the sound coming from where you’re standing rather than from a pair of speakers located somewhere else in the room.
Claudia Moriniello: In your live performances you use that glamour instrument that is the EMS Synthi A, an analogue modular synth built in 1972. Apart from the poetic charm of an old second-hand instrument contained into a little plastic suitcase, used by musicians as Brian Eno, Klaus Schultze, Pink Floyd and why not Thomas Lehn, the EMS Synthi A is a very impressive instrument provided with multiple operative opportunities. How do you use it? I mean which is your logic for using it? Do you use it as it was planned or do you look for a personal way trying to widen or change the operative techniques?
Thomas Ankersmit: I use the EMS and Serge modular synthesizers to generate sound and also to process external signals (recordings from computer, microphones, guitar pickups). There are usually a few things going on at once, different signal chains, different things happening at different speeds. A lot of that has to do with a kind of cut-up character, pushing in the connectors (patch pins or patch cables) and quickly removing them again. Some of the sounds are made with standard synthesis techniques, oscillators modulated and processed in different ways, and some of it is messier/more experimental with modules feeding back on themselves, short-circuiting the signals, making quasi-random connections etc. The Synthi is small and has only about ten modules with particular functions that you connect together to design a sound. The Serge is a lot bigger, so you can set up more independent processes simultaneously. I’ve never listened to the musicians you list (Eno, Schultze, Pink Floyd). I like Thomas Lehn. I’m not a big fan of most synthesizer music, it just happens to be what I mess around with. I guess it’s the same with the saxophone.
Claudia Moriniello: What about the saxophone? Which is your relation with this instrument?
Thomas Ankersmit: The fact that the saxophone is acoustic, related to the energy and the location of the body is important to me. I also appreciate the limitations of it, the fact that you’re stuck with that one thing, that one design. Obviously, and for good reasons, the saxophone is mostly seen in a jazz context, but I basically by-passed that completely. I never tried to play jazz myself. I’m interested in acoustic phenomena, in a kind of focussed sound-intensity, and I enjoy realizing that with my hands, breath, voice etc. Sometimes playing sustained complex tones leads to a kind of trance-state, where you don’t think about making the next musical “move”, but sound simply pours into the room, and especially if it’s a reverberant room, stays there for a while and reflects back to you.
Claudia Moriniello: In your music, the separated acoustic and electronic elements even if managed with great talent, are in contrast with one another. This contrast reveals a post-modern approach but at the same time results in a romantic effect. How do you explain this paradox?
Thomas Ankersmit: I never think of it in these terms, but I suppose it makes sense. They’re just two things I’m interested in and I just combine one each other. I don’t try to use one instrument like the other, and there are obvious differences between the approaches. I suppose the electronic parts tend to be more about time, the acoustic parts more about space. My way of playing sax is often quite static, more about creating a dense, complex sound that shifts depending on where you’re listening, not so much about having a sequence of events. The electronic stuff tends to move quicker over time, it’s more cut-up, the sound events are more distinct from each other. I’d like to be able to create a kind of non-lyrical sound-collage on the saxophone too, but so far I haven’t appreciated the results I got. And I don’t want either to get too involved with elaborate preparations in order to squeeze different sounds out of the saxophone. So, I usually focus on a few small sound-areas of the instrument and push those for a long time. People usually consider playing the saxophone the more expressive part of my work, so maybe it sometimes stands in contrast with the other noises.
Claudia Moriniello: Until today you have chosen not to mass-release your production, but to public it in an absolutely private and limited edition. Why?
Thomas Ankersmit: I just haven’t really thought about, and I probably enjoy travelling and playing live more than working on records. Maybe I’ll manage to make a solo CD this year, either saxophone or electronic music, or both. The fact is that the few things I made were in small quantities so I just to get rid of them quickly, they weren’t meant as “collector’s items”. And I don’t think they’ve turned into that, anyway.
Claudia Moriniello: What is the role of the audience in your performances? What kind of relationship, if it exists, do you have with the audience? i ascolta?
Thomas Ankersmit: During concerts I’m not really aware of the audience, I just focus on playing music. Afterwards, I do find it hard to improvise in the studio, in front of a microphone. So the audience probably keeps the pressure there. I like the risk of building something up in front of people, with the potential risk of having it fall apart. That’s important to me when I go to other people’s concerts too: the presence of people right in front of you concentrating on their sound, without knowing where it will go. I like meeting people before and after the performance, but I don’t talk to the audience from the stage or anything like that. What’s important to me is that there’s people listening. Fortunately they’re rare, but I find badly attended shows very frustrating. It is a waste of energy and the organizer’s money if nobody shows up.
Sometimes I walk around or turn towards a wall in the performance space in order to reflect the sound, sometimes my back is turned towards the audience, as far as I’m concerned this is just for the sound and the acoustics, not as a kind of performance-communication gesture. Of course some people like to see a kind of non-verbal meaning in the physicality of playing, which is okay, but unintentional. I yell into the horn and sway back and forth when I’m by myself too. I’ve never looked at videos of myself playing so I don’t really know how I look like.