Interview: John-Robin Bold

John-Robin Bold: “Every attempt of being something else today is just the transhumanist fantasy”

The newcomer of the label Mille Plateaux gave Data.Wave an interview and spoke of his new album "Demonstrations" while sharing his view on modern music.

1. How did you achieve your signature sound, a mix of ambient and glitch? How do you personally understand the word “glitch” itself? 

Glitch has ceased to be the thing recently, I would say. I would rather say that I work with “cuts”, I use a sonic element we can call “click”, but I use it in a very formal way. As to why I wouldn’t refer to this as glitch is that glitch has this connotation of an error, a malfunctioning. It’s not really that in my music. I mean, a “click” when I put it somewhere can be multiple things – and it doesn’t need to be a glitch, it can be a proper break, it can be an intended gesture. The basic principle of how I work is a juxtaposition of two sonic elements. One we could call drone or noisescape, soundscape, whatever – a sustained sound that is fluctuating in time. I use hard cuts as a means of formal composing, basically. I use these cuts to create structure in the piece, to make something disappear, to make something new appear, and the cut is kind of a vertical opposite to this horizontal drone that I work with. So I think of it as, you know, a juxtaposition of time flow and eternity and the pure moment. There are several ways to go about it.

2. So you consider it to be more like clicks’n’cuts rather than glitch?

Yeah, it's not really glitch to me because, as I said, glitch has this particular aesthetic of malfunction. And somehow, for me this does not play a role, at least in how I perceive my own work.

3. Let us talk about “Demonstrations”, your new album. Could you explain its concept?

“Demonstrations” consists of four pieces that use the same type of sound material and the same type of processing. So it's the same thing in four different iterations, if you want. I talked about the formal procedure, how I juxtaposed these things, how I use different drones within one piece, if you want, how I create a greater structure. That's one side of it, the other side is the sound material that matters a lot to how I think of “Demonstrations”. I'm working with, on one hand, sacred music from the XII-th to the XVI-th century. And on the other hand, recent pop music… by recent I mean pop music from the last 10 years. And then we're talking about the big pop music industry productions from the United States. I mean, in terms of composers I'm using people like Pérotin, and who is considered to be the first master of polyphonic music or the founding father of polyphonic music up until Carlo Gesualdo or an early baroque, Renaissance-Baroque, very outstanding composer, with their excessive use of chromaticism. And on the other hand, I'm using names like Ariana Grande or Justin Bieber or Selena Gomez and whomever is also involved in the production of their music.

And so I'm once again working with this radical juxtaposition as I do it in the formal way – the juxtaposition of drawn and cut, to put it simply… and as I do it in terms of sound material, I use something very old or at least in our time dimensions, it seems very old, like, we've almost forgotten about it in our culture, and something very fresh. And also two sound materials with certain similarities, but also with very different aesthetic modes, like, there is a way of listening to this early polyphonic sacred music that I'm using as sound material that is very subtle. It's only an invitation to be elevated, perhaps, while pop music has a gesture of something bombastic, something overwhelming, something that comes to you, something that doesn't stand there and wants to be touched by you, but something that that is calling out, that is calling your name. So I want to span up a field of extremes, one could say, in general.

4. I have been listening to your first album. When I went on the Resident Advisor page, I saw that it was called “Untitled”. But on Bandcamp it is called “John Robin Bold”, just like your actual name. Could you please clarify that one for me: Is it untitled or is it called “John Robin Bold”?

The album is properly untitled, and none of the titles should have names as well. But as you know, it's impossible to do that in the age of digital distribution. Right? Everything needs a name. Every piece of music needs a name and every album needs a name. 

5. So originally the concept was to make it untitled, right? 

Yes, to make it completely untitled, because I'm opposed to this kind of mannerism – now it seems mannerist to me, this gesture of calling it “Untitled”. You know, I wanted to have a blank thing there. I used to upload some of this music myself just with the hyphen or 10 hyphens in a row or something like this to really say: “There is nothing here. It's just what you hear, and I'm not interested in giving you much more”.

6. What do you like about noise? 

There are very different types of noise, and I couldn't say in general. I would claim that the way I use noise differs from what I would call maybe the traditional noise music.

7. Is it similiar to the concept of Luigi Russolo?

Well, it's definitely different from that as well. But also from, for example, Japanese noise or from a certain noise scene that's very much connected to the idea of underground and something raw, of something very direct, unpolished. That's the idea. Also some idea of authenticity is still there in this unpolished thought, whereas the noise that I am interested in is extremely polished. It's baroque, it's opulent. What I'm interested in in this case is that it's too much of something. And this “too much” seems to be from a societal perspective, this plethoric aspect seems very present in our time and especially in music and most of all in pop music, where you are just confronted with too much audio information in some sense. Everything is super compressed, everything is overwhelming, that's what I'm interested in. To me, it has colors, it's shiny, it's black and it's gold and it's very baroque, that's the noise I like. 

8. So you perceive music in colors sometimes?

Sometimes, when I describe it, yes. Not so much in shapes.

9. You give some lectures. What are they about? What are the most important topics? 

I am very interested in the aspect of form in electronic music and especially in terms of ambient music or noise music or all forms of electronic music that are not supposed to be taking place on the dance floor, but that are supposed to be received in a concert setting. But that is not an electroacoustic or academic type of music. To put it briefly, a lot of electronic experimental music today that I am listening to has no formal idea essentially. There are certain processes that you find everywhere over and over again, and that is the actual way of how pieces function today. For example, loops. A loop can occur and that's it, or a loop can run and there is something on top that is changing, or the loop can run and be changing a bit. Or there may be something like a drone type of thing that is just sustaining. It's moving maybe in one direction, let's say, it's getting brighter or dimmer, or it's fluctuating or it's moving in two directions.

It seems to me that there is something lacking in experimental electronic music today. At least I perceive it as lacking, which is a certain megalomania maybe, a gesture of greatness - to try to really construct something here that is more than a track that lasts three or four minutes or 10 and stays the same, to be able and be willing to force the listener through certain states of mind or emotion or whatever, to go through different phases of hearing as well. Something in the listener can really transform and he enters the world again after he left the piece of music, the piece of art. He enters the world again, but in a really different way. If you continue doing the same thing, it will just be a hypnotized version of the listener in some sense, you know, and the listener can dive deep and so on. I want to propose some kind of a more brutal gesture, perhaps. Of course, we need listeners that are attentive and that are willing to give their time and their energy to follow the piece of music. But when we have that, we can move that attention in certain directions that are unexpected, that are beyond the listener's world, essentially. We have to pay back something to the listener, maybe.

10. What do you think is the main problem of today's modern music? A lack of experiments, a lack of new techniques, a lack of new methods? What do you think?

I think we are facing a twofold problem here. If I just say that the way how forms worked in music in the XIX-th century, for example, has ceased to be in the XX-th century – at least if we're talking about classical and contemporary music, and also about electronic experimental music that came from that side of things – the old forms like a symphony or a sonata, ceased to work. In the 20th century, there was something that could fill this gap. Or maybe the old forms also ceased to work because this new thing arose, which was the discovery of new technologies, new means of music making with everything that's available in this new and modern world. Now we see that the software we're using on our laptops was all written in the 90s. We're using “Ableton Live”, “SuperСollider”, “Pure Data” or “Max MSP”. This is all coming from the 80s or the 90s. This great process of discovery has ended, I would say, and we have nothing to fill the formal gap anymore. The core of what I'm trying to do as a composer of music is to invent forms, to find forms that work. I need to create my own context, my own background, because nowadays we live in a globalized world with so many, so fluctuating forms that appear and disappear that we cannot believe any longer, we cannot take for granted that our listeners have a certain understanding of a certain form. There is no common ground here. That's the basic point – there is no common ground, and then there are composers who reduce what they can do. I would claim maybe they're insulted now, but there are composers or sound artists who focus very much on the human hearing. They take this to the biological level. I think, of course, there's something to discover… a lot, actually, but we should not give up the realm of forms yet, and the realm of art and culture, if you want. We have to create something new there and also try to connect a larger time span here. We have to understand that we are not in the middle of nowhere.

11. Can you connect your works to different philosophical studies?

I think that they are both authentically unique processes. The musical process, a compositional process, and also the process of listening. It is something as authentically strange as the process of philosophical thought. They do not, in my eyes follow the same set of rules. They have a different internal logic. Music and philosophy have both their very individual internal system of functioning. And maybe this difference is really the touching point. I'm highly aware that there is a lot of philosophical thought in my work, in this new CD “Demonstrations”, and also around Mille Plateaux, obviously.

Music and philosophy are maybe two perspectives from which you can look at the same thing. But the way they look at the same thing, the distance and so on, or the “eyes” are fundamentally different. Musical choice can in the end, not be justified philosophically. And that's a problem when I'm writing about my own work, for example, or now when I'm talking about it. I would like to make it clear that I'm trying to understand what I do, and actually all my artistic choices are artistic choices and not philosophical ones. I never sat there at my desk and said “Ok, what could now be the opposite material of Renaissance sacred vocal music? Oh, it could be contemporary pop music”. That was never the question. You know, these questions arise later when you ask yourself: “What did I actually do and why do I sense something in there? Why do I think it's great? Oh, it's something that's worth It”.

12. I just cannot avoid this question. What do you think about Gilles Deleuze? 

Actually, Gilles Deleuze is kind of off my radar, I have to admit. I know this sounds strange for someone who released on a label called Mile Plateaux. But I'm a bit too young for this generation.

13. You're twenty-five right now?

Twenty-four. But one of my really essential philosophical influences that showed me how to think about life and art was Alain Badiou. As you might be aware. there is this historical deal between Alain Badiou and Gilles Deleuze. There were a lot of conflicts in the context of university, classes and so on. I never made the way to really study Gilles Deleuze, actually.

14. How did you discover the Mille Plateaux label? How did you meet Achim Szepanski?

One of my closest friends with whom I studied in Austria released on Mille Plateaux before…

15. Who was that artist? 

Gianluca Iadema

16. Oh, yeah, he is actually right now in the roster of Mille Plateaux.

Yes. His album is going to be released as a CD soon, I think in November. So far it was just out as a digital album. I remember that I was talking to him maybe three years ago, and he started to become obsessed with Mille Plateaux, because he realized that his music would really fit into the style of the label, one hundred percent.

And when I was on a student exchange, a new student came to the University of Arts Graz, where we studied. And this student is the other person working with Achim on Mille Plateaux. And he just started to study there, so my friend Gianluca talked to him, they became friends and he released. And obviously there was a very personal connection and a friendly connection. And I met Achim much later, only in March when we played at Mille Plateaux label night. Achim read some excerpts of his book, “Ultra Black of Music”, from his contribution to the book. And Thomas Köner played a concert, I played the concert. It was the first of March this year. The other friend, Jonas, who actually released on Mille Plateaux under the name of “DeRayling”, he played an excessive DJ-set for I think almost six hours.

17. Was it his own decision, or did Achim tell him to do it?

As far as I know, there was supposed to be one or two DJs, residents of Pudel, but somehow it didn't work out. And then we were alone. 

18. As you know, COVID-19 has tremendously changed the communication between people and gave us a chance to rethink our lifestyle. According to you, what is the weakest part of today's society? 

I go with Marc Fisher here, at least in the sense that there is no vision of the future, there is no functioning utopia, as there were several promising visions of the future in the XX-th century, there were radical claims. And nowadays... where are the radical acclaims? Where do we try to be something else? I mean, every attempt of being something else today is just the transhumanist fantasy, some tech fantasy.

19. What are the ideas you're going to base your music on in the future?

In the last couple of months, I started to think more and more about something that I call sound realities or sonic realities. It's the idea that the developments in electronic music, for example, that we have seen over the last couple of decades are like aesthetic trends. There was obviously this high phase of the whole Mille Plateaux and Alva Noto/Ryoji Ikeda glitch aesthetics, for example. Then we have seen lo-fi, we have seen retro, we have seen hauntology in whatever musical form. Recently, for maybe 10 years, we are seeing these more distorted but hyper complex things that are somewhat related to post-club music, maybe, that are maximalist in their approach.

And I'm trying to think: is there a non-postmodern meaning and non-collage or non-pastiche way of using what all these different aesthetic trends can give to the listener. Is it possible to combine so many things, so many aesthetics? But it goes even beyond aesthetics… or aesthetics and this sense, at least, not in the sense of perception. It can be what I call sonic reality… it can be an acoustic sound, it can be the difference between the sound when I speak in this room and the sound that you hear on the other side of the Skype conversation and the sound that the listener hears in their room and the sound that their loud speakers make, for example.

Does that make sense? It’s very connected to different media. And you can actually see a little bit of influence of this in the Mille Plateaux and in the “Demonstrations” album.

20. Are you referring to an idea of a unique atmosphere of each voice end, right? If we're talking here, in New York, I have my individual sound of the conversation, and you have your own sound from Berlin. You're referring to an individual unique sound, not the voice itself, but the sound of the space, of the physical space?

Yeah. The actual thing that is perceived by you or by me and how that is shaped by the media in between us. Essentially what I want to do in the future is to become more global. I want to really extend my use of sound materials. I want to extend my use of programs as well or equipment, but not just to be over the top or completely excessive, to be the guy who can do everything. No, the idea is different. I’m trying to make music that really works.

That might sound strange, but I don't think that music works today. It works if you like it and if you're a listener of it. I'm trying to make something that works like a punch in your face. 

21. So there must be some kind of physical influence?

I mean, more of the inevitability. I want it to be as strong as possible. And I don't think that's something bad to say about the work of art, even though nowadays it sounds masochistic or whatever, but a work of art is in the end a work of art that has to be convincing. I'm trying to approach it through combining different aesthetics, or it’s more like juxtaposing them. And also, I use different sound qualities, that is what we talked about before: your voice and your room and your voice and my room. By using these things, I'm trying to paint a huge painting of the present day. Perhaps that's the idea.

22. Is it abstract or is it more like classical art? 

I guess that it is actually more like classical art. Something that's essential to me is illusion. Even though I'm talking about this picture of our time, I talk about illusion, as nowadays people use the term emotion, but I really don't like it.

23. So it fits into the idea of surrealism? As you know, the idea of visual illusion was important for surrealism. So it cannot be considered classical. What do you think?

There is some relation to surrealism. But I mean, illusion also in the sense of something that makes you believe in it. The most traditional painting, the most traditional naturalist painting, was trying to do that. It was trying to trick you in some sense. 

24. So what's your nearest plan? Did you graduate from the university? It's obvious that the financial aspect of life is crucial for everybody. Do you have any solutions?

I have no solutions but I recently watched a fantastic film called “Network” by Sidney Lumet. Do you know it? 


My only solution that I can offer is what the news-presenter says: “I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore”. That's the only solution I want to offer. Real madness, real insanity. Somehow this has to appear in public life. Maybe my use of noise is something like that, right? It's trying to bring that insanity to the public. But since, to be honest, the scene is extremely small, I'm wondering whether that's the most efficient way of doing it. In terms of private situation or solutions for me it's relatively an “okay phase” for the next couple of months, and concerts are starting to come back in Germany and Austria. I'm playing next week in Austria, the release concert for this album, even though it's coming out later; anyway, I call it a release concert. And then the week after there will be a concert in Berlin.

25. Do you still perform as a classical guitarist?

Yes, I am. But it's gotten significantly less because there has been a change of scenes, you know. So when you lose touch with some people, that's just how your career goes. And also my perspective on music has strongly shifted over the last couple of years. So the amount of repertoire in the classical guitar world that I'm interested in has just been diminished immensely over the last couple of years.

26. Currently, your setup, your technical equipment is more software or is it actually hardware?

It's entirely software. It's just my laptop that is the carrier of my soul. And the carrier of all my contacts, my music and my life. The main thing here for me is that I like to work with the laptop because it's a daily life device. I mean, I don't honestly believe that the laptop is carrying my soul, but that's a common assumption today, even though it might not be outspoken. But laptops or mobile phones, which I also use at live performance settings sometimes, these devices have some mystical element to them. We have no idea how they work and they are so important for us personally. So it's like an abyss, this technology. It's some strange sacred object with an abyss, and I am from an artistic side, much more interested in that than in hardware. Not everyone working with hardware works like that, obviously, but something I see very often, is this idea of building something yourself or understanding how it works totally. I'm interested in the opposite. I'm interested in doing something… and I still have no idea how exactly I got there, and I can't take the machine apart. And to be honest, for example, the first piece of the “Demonstrations” album, I actually composed it in 2015 already in its first version, and I tried to... well, I obviously reworked it, and I tried to generate that sound again with exactly the same song material and the same software and the same plugins and I could not do it. It was somewhere lost, maybe in some overwriting and saving of data and those types of miracles, the digital miracles, is something that I'm fascinated by.

This is going to be a live set, which is published nowhere else. It's a concert composition. The way I approach live sets… these are specific compositions, I have different possibilities in a live scenario, I have a much wider dynamic range, for example. This live was composed out of 18 from 20 of the pieces on the Mille Plateaux album. I used these 18 pieces as sound material again to transform them into a long form piece that works with soundscapes, drones, noise, cuts and to put the cells together, that this Mille Plateaux was always the original plan, I always thought of the Mille Plateaux album as different cells, like… leftovers. They are bricks of a building that fell apart. And then what I always wanted to do with it afterwards would be to set it together again and try to construct something new with it, maybe a new church or a Soviet town hall or whatever building. That is not only a formal construction, but it is also a construction in content.

Official website of John-Robin Bold
John-Robin Bold on SoundCloud

Questions: Ilya Kudrin