We had the pleasure and honour of going to meet José Manuel Berenguer in his home. José Manuel Berenguer is a key figure in the electro-acoustic experimental scene in Spain. A polyvalent artist, with a rich CV of experiences in various fields, and also co-director of the Orquestra del Caos, he is a likable man, open to dialogue and of enormous cultural knowledge. You could listen to him talk for hours without lowering your level of concentration. His professional and artistic journey is fascinating.
A doctor in medicine, an expert in neurophysiology, a guitarist in his youth. Under the guidance of Gabriel Brncic and Lluís Callejo, who brought him to new paths of musical exploration and introduced him to musical applications of maths and computer science, year after year he became the person who he is today: a creator interested in dissolving the line that separates installations and acoustic and robotic experiences, generating different kinds of pieces, from acoustic pieces to multimedia installations, from kinetic sculptures to artificial life systems.
José Manuel’s dense artistic production is well documented and would not fit in this short space. We will limit ourselves to citing two more recent projects that he is busily working on. One is Autofotóvoros, which he will talk to us about personally during the interview; the other is Sonidos en causa, a collection of soundscapes connected to countries where the recent economical development has been growing rapidly.
This project took José Manuel and the Orquestra del Caos in the Amazon, documenting the changes of sound in the landscape starting from the city with a high demographic density and moving out further into more desolate areas, where only nature could be found.To avoid influencing the animals’ behaviour, our artists projected and installed some recorders on trees capable of resisting the weather conditions and documenting the sound life of places in total absence of human beings.
This project generated a rich archive of recordings described and available to whoever wishes to use them, and also plans other phases by installing microphones that allow for the transmission of sounds via streaming on the Internet.
But let’s go back to the story of Berenguer and try to retrace his footsteps with him. It was the 70’s, machines and technology were far from being what they are today, but armed with his foundations in the scientific field and his unstoppable hunger for knowledge, José Manuel began his journey, which lead him to encounter characters of great importance, such as Luigi Nono.
Barbara Sansone e Jordi Salvadò: Talk to us about your relationship with Luigi Nono.
José Manuel Berenguer: Luigi Nono appeared in Sitges one day when I was 24 years old and we became friends, and he influenced me greatly with his way of thinking. We talked mostly about politics and philosophy rather than music (I do not define myself as one of his pupils). When I was granted a scholarship in Germany, I studied German, but then I got another scholarship in Bourges, France, and opted for that because I could already speak French. I got two jobs there: lecturer at the university and professor of electro-music at the conservatoire. Thanks to my earnings I often went to visit Luigi Nono in Freiburg and learnt a lot from him.
For Luigi the issue of lack of perfection in the score was important: the writing cannot say everything, it always presents some emptiness. And this idea was founded on the logical-philosophical Treaty by Wittgenstein, whose proposition 7.0 is renowned, and says that anything that cannot be talked about must be hushed. In other words, Nono talked about those things that language cannot transmit and thought that most of musical thought was not transferable from the point of view of writing.
This was one of the ideas that struck me the most at that time, because I was convinced that you could do practically anything with writing (I was 25 and had studied composition) and because it opened up a path to a kind of sculptural work with electronic means. It presented the possibility of going beyond the mere definition of behaviour that should be followed in order, because that’s what the score said, because the composer thought that. Now I could go into the sound as matter in a sensitive way, and to use a modern term, in an “interactive” way.
Barbara Sansone e Jordi Salvadò:As can be seen on your website, “interactivity” is one of those terms that you doubt…
José Manuel Berenguer: Yes, I would put it in inverted commas because interaction, from the point of view of plastic art, implies that there is an audience and that that audience transforms the piece. In this case I say interactive in the sense that the device is activated and the device responds quickly and in “real time”.This was important for those who then went on to write the programs and those who created digital hardware: the devices must become capable of responding in real time, not just for the issue of interactivity that can be seen today in plastic art, but so that the response could be swift for what was being done.
Of course, up until the mid 90’s the issue of real time was really a dream: you had to write a program with a language, like for example C, and you had to spend some hours filling it in. In the meantime you could read a book and when you heard what you had done you had already forgotten what it was you were doing in the first place.
This was one of the main objectives: that you could touch a button and that button would produce an effect that in some way was an immediate response. The thought of impossibility of writing everything with the means available in language is related to infinity, because writing or any other language is a discreet construction if anything, it jumps about, it doesn’t continue and so the existence of infinity with which mathematicians work for their demonstrations (more useful in physics, for example, where it is the limit used to define trajectories, integrals and so forth), needs the idea of continuity, which is a hypothesis.
Today there are mathematicians who sustain that this hypothesis will be proved to be false. For the time being we work with this hypothesis and then we’ll see, even if things will surely continue to function.
This issue is very important from a theoretical point of view and often it seems that theoretical issues aren’t important in practical issues, like writing music. But the problem is that over time there will be errors, and gross divergences between theory and practice and the final result will be that you will be doing music with serious ideological problems even if you don’t want to accept that.
The fact is that in the beginning you try, it doesn’t matter if you move away from the initial point, but in the end you find yourself going in a direction when you really wanted to go somewhere else. This often happens.
Barbara Sansone e Jordi Salvadò: This all happened up until 1987
José Manuel Berenguer: Yes, before I decided to go back to Barcelona for personal reasons and entered into the faculty of computer science, or rather the department of computer science of the science faculty, because a specific faculty did not exist yet. I finally began to learn about technical issues, which were very important to me because I needed to develop a discourse about contradiction and continuity and discontinuity, a discourse founded in Maths and philosophy.
Along this path there were obviously machines, with their characteristics, and they were very interesting, they were useful for doing very specific things and therefore it was very important to know what the curve of response of each of them was, to know what could be done concretely with one or another.
Right now machines begin to function on their own, which is marvellous because you can forget about all that: you don’t need to research too much, but you limit yourself to using the interface as a user and it’s done. This is a great advantage because you have more time to dedicate to the concept, which is important. Most of all one of the problems that we still have in experimental art, in electronic art, is that we are still too limited when dealing with machines, hardware and software.
For this reason open sourcing is talked of a lot. My opinion is that it’s not really important if you do it open, closed, hard or soft. The important thing is having a thought about things and to be able to mould and deepen this idea.
This easiness offered by machines that practically work on their own allows us to go further than was initially thought possible. The machine by Luís Callejo had 4KB of RAM; my Mac has 4GB of memory and does not bother me, maybe just a little for the speed of the processor. I know the type and quantity of instructions that it can elaborate per second but really the architecture of the machine ceases to interest me, because what I see is that I connect devices, I launch applications and it does everything on its own. This allows me to dedicate more time to the artistic part.
This doesn’t mean that it isn’t important to have a foundation of how your instrument works. Pierre Schaeffer said: “Know your instrument”. If you play the guitar you must know the physics of the strings, know the acoustics and know the wood.
If you work in electronics you must know the devices to know how far you can go and often many interesting pieces of work are created by forcing the machines so that they can go beyond what they are capable of. Here serendipity comes into play, when you’re working on the sensitive issue, because in reality you’re working with things that come up, that were unforeseen.
So you must have a foundation but then forget about it a little, so as to not remain attached to the issue, if not it’s very difficult to get out of that situation. It’s what happens when you study counterpoint for many years or harmony and at the end you only know how to do counterpoint and harmony exercises and that’s dramatic. It’s what happens to most composers.
The technique is very important but you must not get trapped by it: it will be a topos, but technique is important mostly in order to transcend it. What is interesting are the paths that people use to get over it, to acquire the domain of what is difficult to transmit with language.
In my case, as I hinted at, I tried to find catastrophes in the limits of the behaviour of machines. It is not my invention: there are many people who do so. I don’t know if they express it in this way, but that’s what it is. Serendipity: you find yourself in a point that has nothing to do with the starting point, because you have made sure that the machine behaves chaotically and therefore unpredictably according to your theory.
Barbara Sansone e Jordi Salvadò: What you have said up until now mostly answers the next question, but we will ask you anyway because we are very interested in it. Your work presents a very solid philosophical foundation: how do you translate the thought, the concept that is behind artistic expression, what is the process that generates the work?
José Manuel Berenguer:Yes that is what we were talking about. In relation to the research of chaos in things, there are different factors that come together in my work. On the one side there is nature, which is a sort of interesting model that offers many starting points. Then there are devices. And then there is the artist, with his ideas.
What I observe in nature is that it is rich of things that are related in a sort of mesh, with simple units that are unified. For example, bees and ants: one alone is not so interesting, and presents a relatively simple behaviour, but when there is a group then shapes begin to form.
Therefore the issue of a collective or great number of particles, that when unified create things that are not written by single individuals, is very present in my work. When I am doing granular synthesis of some material, the beauty outside is the unpredictability given by the fact that there’s a great mass of individuals. When there are few, they present an easy behaviour that can be understood simply, but when there are many of them they generate productions that act upon me in an unexpected way.
This action upon me, on my perception, on my conscience, offers information to be able to choose the behaviour that I’m more interested in. But you’ll notice that on one side there’s this model of behaviour of masses in nature and on the other the treatment of the masses in an artificial way (to use a term that I’m not interested in but is needed in order for us to understand one another).
Therefore I listen, observe what happens with these algorhythms and in the end I choose an absolutely arbitrary way. In other words, I do the opposite of what Cage did. I don’t want to talk about how he worked, I think he’s fantastic, I really admire his music and his way of thinking. But in this case I don’t use the case as he does.
In my thought process a very strong component is the philosophy of chance and there’s a lot of evolutionary theory. I think that one of the genial ideas of Western thought was that of natural selection as an engine of evolution. On the one hand natural selection is more evident when there are masses of individuals who behave in a certain way and relate to a particular environment, on the other there’s a question that has to do with natural selection and that is that I let these kinds of production grow in a medium which is my mind and this is what I am getting at.
I use my mind like an environment where I can let a series of perceptive or sensitive species live. Here there are species that evolve and others that devolve: some take shape, others don’t. What influences this is the relationship between them.
Another thing that I see is very related to the issue of natural selection is the idea of conflict. This has been taken from Luigi Nono, who was an avid dialectic materialist and said that conflict is the engine of the world, it is that which makes things possible, makes them evolve and stay in constant movement. He said it with a passion that really convinced you and I think that situations of conflict really do make us evolve.
When there are two perceptive species that get into conflict for something, it is there that interesting things happen: both can keep developing according to the dynamics of the system, or maybe disappear. This kind of thing is fundamental and basic in my way of making art.
For example I put it as a manifesto of one of my pieces, the one about robots, Autofotóvoros. In this case it was a recreation of a situation of conflict where there were 21 equal elements in competition with one another not to obtain a greater dose of something, but for a purely systematic issue, because they ended up in the same place, looking for light.
This makes us think that violence is more systemic that ethic: violence exists because there are situations that bring violence, and if we are different in something compared to those little robots who argue between them until they break, till they “die”, it is in knowing how to evaluate systemic situations to avoid those points.
This work presents all of this, mostly the issue of conflict. There are currently 9 robots and 12 must be fixed. On my website there are videos of some of them, but I wanted to see what happened but putting together a greater number of them and to avoid riots I had to introduce a system that moved the light when the readings registered excessive gatherings, but often it was too late.
The work was presented in Vittoria, in the Paìs Basco, and I really don’t know why but the people of Krea made me make this work: they are fantastic people, who believed in my project from the very beginning and immediately agreed to produce it. But for me it was an experience
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: So to recap, the fundamental issues of your work are evolution, masses and conflict.
José Manuel Berenguer: There is a fourth one, in relation to these, which is the epiphenomenon, the idea that when there is a collective of individuals that do the same thing, unexpected phenomena arise from it. They are at the beginning, but for me they are important because these unexpected things create for you. They interest me because for many years (even if I know it’s a utopia, that I’ll never get there, because I don’t know enough about it and because from a systemic point of view it’s impossible)
I try to listen to myself, to see how I work from an artistic point of view and I try to mould this function with external machines. From here the idea of making machines, only to then tend to stop making them, to get to a kind of nirvana. I’m not Buddhist, but I understand the necessity of getting to nirvana sooner or later.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: And what do you say about the light? In your work and even in the sculptures that you have here in your home, it seems to be an ever-present element.
José Manuel Berenguer: Light and sound compliment each other. I know a lot about sound and little about light. Sound therefore bores me somewhat and light doesn’t at all, because I have much to learn. For this reason I’m experimenting with light, even if I’m conscious of the fact of the lack of my plastic work. I have experience as a user, I’ve seen a lot, but it’s another thing to make sure that the formal aspect of what I’m doing is the most appropriate.
I think that this creates another kind of epiphenomenon, that is that the work grows and takes on a shape in function to what it does. This is the idea that is at the foundation of my electronic sculptures: shapes depend on how the electronic components are connected, that is the circuit cannot be in another way, the basic connections require a specific structure.
Barbara Sansone e Jordi Salvadò: How would you define the type of music you make? Before you used the term “experimental” or “electronic” but these define other things now, don’t you think?
José Manuel Berenguer: I will answer you as I answered a 13 year old boy who asked me the same question a day after the concert at the Fundació Miró: I make the music that I want to (laughs). The fact is that I don’t know, how would you define this music? I wouldn’t define it in any way, because I don’t have the perspective to answer.
There have been many attempts but it seemed that everyone sinned in lacking historical perspective and in any case it was the music that I wanted to do, something that I did not invent (no one invents anything), but that I learnt by reading Edgar Varèse, who at a certain point in his life wrote in some of his writings: “I don’t know if I’m making music or not, but I’m doing what I want”.Aside from that what is the necessity to define something in one way or another, when what you’re interested in is doing what you’re doing, full stop? What is the necessity for so many denominations? It’s a bourgeois reminiscence of a descendent from something.
It cannot be that you are doing just one thing, a definition risks becoming a manifesto, but it would be a tautology, because any music you make is a hybrid. A moment ago we were talking about evolution, right? Evolutions makes species need the maximum amount of hybridisation and genetic crossover in order to not reduce the spectrum of production. In music it’s the same thing: all the descendents are nothing but sagas like The Lord of the Rings, cosmogonies, like our Christian one (“In the beginning was the word”).
It seems that all these genealogies are nothing but justifications of power. Think of monarchies, which say that power comes from God, but who says that? The king himself! The problem is that when God stops existing there’s an enormous problem, because who gives authority to the powerful?
In music the same thing occurs: the creators need to affiliate to a determined extraction and in reality do not accept their freedom. Therefore things like people saying that Karlheinz Stockhausen or Pierre Henry are the godfathers of electronic music happen. Ok, but we must see what relationship there is between them and their music and what today can be defined as electronic. It’s true that in the 50’s Stockhausen’s music was defined electronic, but then the term moved onto another meaning, which is OK, because terms move, but it cannot be that for the sole problem of terminology a form of music is seen as a descendent of another when there are so many differences.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: There’s a definition that we like more: “research music”
José Manuel Berenguer: Yes, I like that, but I would not only say research music, but I would say research art, because I think that it’s a way of making art. Research music, yes, people who are searching for things, who worry about searching rather than looking for a result that is always the same. Luigi Nono was very radical because of this.
He said that if you wanted to be an artist, you had to stop doing scores where everything was thought of, you had to surprise yourself with what you had written. If you weren’t surprised it wasn’t art. Joan Albert Amargós, who at the time was my professor and a very talented composer, disagreed entirely. But Nono said: “If you know exactly how it will sound, what are we talking about? Avant-garde? What avant-garde?”
It’s not about going further but rather going somewhere else, not of growing (evolution is not a line that point upwards, but shows a composed flow of uncontrolled highs and lows) but exploring new places. It’s not progress, but making sure that things are always fresh. In my opinion there is an art (and a music) that can withstand the idea of the cultural industries and another that cannot, because it is an art that is a “waste of time”, that uses all of your creative capacity to do “research” in a rigorous way. And this is related to the necessity for an economical support from cultural departments in various countries.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: Is that offered here is Catalonia?
José Manuel Berenguer: Not at all. Here there’s CONCA (Consell Nacional de la Cultura i de les Art), that would like to be a support organisation, but it has little funds. In my opinion politicians have created it to free themselves of pressure from artist associations, for the issue of the democratisation of art.
The real interest comes from cultural industries, like the ICIC (Institut Català d’Indústries Culturals). At the moment all the musical issues have been transferred to the ICIC. In France there were 5 important research groups but now that France is a country that is entering into a more exacerbated neo-liberalism they are disappearing.
In December we attended a sound art festival called Zeppelin, and the themes this year were fear and power, and we had a chance to listen to some work from the participants in octophony in two spaces of the CCCB, the auditorium and the hall. Did all of the authors have all the necessary elements to produce their work (like 8 speakers and matrixes for the distribution of signals)?
Some did and some didn’t. For example Ignasi Álvarez from Telenoika worked in stereo, imagining how the work would sound like on 8 speakers, and obtained a good result.
Octophony is a standard in studies where research music is created, but it’s not the only one: there are other systems where a greater number of speakers are used (from 16 to 400 or more). The issue is multi-focus: in reality sounds do not come from in front of us, but surround us.
John Cage in Roaratorio said that we must listen to the forest, where you have no idea of what’s ahead of you and what’s behind you, and everything is produced around you. To reproduce this situation there are different solutions: for example Canadians, Americans and Germans tend to opt for square environments with speakers that surround the listener completely, which was the idea that Stockhausen had for The Universal Exposition in Osaka.
An important concept is the fact that we must not consider the speakers as sources of sound but as musical instruments, like devices that allow us to use the reflections in spaces where the music is presented, because the spaces are never neutral and vibrate differently. Another concept that is interesting is the necessity to deprive the musician of the role of “officiate” on the scene to offer the public a listening zone where they can enjoy complete freedom of movement.
Barbara Sansone and Jordi Salvadò: Talking about listening and spaces, how is it possible that musicians work on a stage with a monitoring system and not in the centre of the room where there’s a concert, where more often than not very different things happen than what is being heard on the stage, because of the acoustics of the space and the amplifying system directed at the audience?
José Manuel Berenguer: I ask myself the same thing and I suppose it’s because of a lack of education to listening. A piece that is created at home with a couple of speakers will never be the same as when it is reproduced on a big system and in a determined acoustic space and this is the same as a loss of data in what is being given to the audience. With time and with different acoustic “failures” you learn that it’s important that the piece doesn’t only sound good at home, but also sounds good in the place where it will be played and often people have little experience in this.
The musician must learn to move away from the monitor and consider the space where he is performing, the amplifying system and the sound technician to be part of his instrument. The sound technician does not only have a technical role, as people often think, but is in fact the person who works on respecting the fidelity of the piece and that makes aesthetical decisions in the space where it is being reproduced.
Barbara Sansone e Jordi Salvadò: Exactly: this happens in plastic art as well. A sculptor does not limit himself to creating the work, but must also preoccupy himself with how to show it to the public, the context and conditions of where he will display it. But we interrupted you.
José Manuel Berenguer: Yes, I was saying that in general people don’t listen enough. And not in a global way, because we search for meaning, we are convinced that sounds point at a determined source and that is partly true, but it doesn’t matter where they come from. The important thing is the experience of these sounds. It’s an aesthetic leap that is not easy to take in society and even less in the political world.
We are used to a frontal distribution system from our school days where a person is up in front and talking to you. Nowadays shows have the same philosophy, with a stage in front, and for the music industry it’s unthinkable to propose a different format.This is like putting the brakes on new ways of listening. Take a politician, put him in the centre of a sound space that surrounds him, ask him to listen: if you can keep him there for long enough he might start to realise what’s happening around him and he will surely be surprised.
But in the beginning, without a consciousness of this kind of listening, he will not notice anything and so it will be difficult for him to understand and support this new way.Politicians normally move for quantifiable arguments and music isn’t one of them: that’s why they aren’t interested. Music and art are characterised by other things that cannot be said or read and so they must be transmitted via empathy. And here we go back to the Wittgenstein proposition that I cited earlier.