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Interview: E-Stonji (Germany)

Originally published on Fat Planet.

For as long as there has been scientific study and for as long as there has been art, the two disciplines have made for curious bedfellows. Over the centuries, they have been both repelled and attracted to one another – often at the same time – and in each instance, the results are inevitably fascinating. The legacy of crossovers between music and science is just as complex, particularly over the last few decades as electronic music has pushed its way to the cutting edge of sound. Much to the distaste of many die-hard analogue heads, music has evolved well beyond the simple use of one’s own brain and fingers, and has quickly adapted to include the use of the processor, of deep algorithms and of vast landscapes of programming code. Arguably, the appliance of science – whether we’re conscious of it or not – has become the defacto standard for music composition in the 21st century.

Enter Jens Doering – software engineer, audiobook director, sound designer and, yes, a musician of some renown; from his solo work as e.stonji, to collaborations with Hans Platzgumer (as hp.stonji and e.gum); and other work such as convertible, reejk lynur, jerry lusion and new productions with vocalist Berna Celik. On the eve of his latest full album release, ‘Particles’ (released on Kitty-Yo), Jens’ engineering and audio design background grants him a uniquely intense perspective on the synthesis between art and science.

“For me there is a deep beauty in structures that you can make visible through geometry, or that you can calculate in maths” he says, via email from his home in Elchingen, Germany. “I think that technology and the arts are more closely related now than in any other previous decade. There are already some specific programming languages that can help to find the bridge between art and maths, and if you want to go beyond what any application can do, you just need to program your own application. That’s where you need to be an engineer in order to be an artist.”

However, his life as an engineer germinated from an artistic seed, and a pure idea of music that only Jens could envisage. “When I started writing, I was just looking for a possibility to make music without having to look for band members who had exactly the same ideas as I did. In fact, I didn’t know anyone who would have liked to produce this kind of music that I had in mind. So I knew that a traditional way of making music (i.e. guitar, bass, drums, vocals) wouldn’t work for me. It was at that point that I started to experiment with a synthesizer, including a sequencer that could save up to ten songs. The disadvantage of this synth was to not being able to export your song. When I had finished ten songs, I had to delete one of them in order to start another one… Later however, the Atari and other synths came along and so on. and so on.. and so on… and so on….”

Traditionalists are quick to denounce an over-reliance on mathematics in music, often claiming that the net result of jettisoning ‘organic’ instrumentation leads to a lack of soul or warmth within the sound. Of course, as time marches on, this view is becoming increasingly marginalised, but it remains a bone of contention within music communities all around the world. You would be right in thinking that Jens has a great deal to say on this subject.

“I think it’s not difficult to retain soul in any way, as there are always human beings who operate the artificial environment. I think there are different ways to use technology for creating music. You can use technology to express yourself in an emotional way, and the result can be very soulful, but you can also use a more experimental – or let’s say scientific way – to explore things. For example, Mozart was one of the first composers who brought maths into composition (algorithmic composition). He wrote a piece, where you had to throw the dice to know how to play the piece. This was the beginning of computer music, in a way.

“I don’t think that electronic music has no soul. I think there is a lot of electronic music out there which isn’t very soulful, but it’s the same with music on organic instruments. You need to learn using the computer as a musical instrument in the same way as you need to learn playing a guitar…

“For me, soul is the most important thing to happen in music. I hope you can feel that while listening to ‘Particles’. It’s more about a reflection on emotions, and some of the tracks should work on a dancefloor. The name ‘Particles’ has been taken from the scientific context, because it’s so fascinating to zoom in to the smallest possible things and to get to limits – like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle – or to zoom out into extremely large scales. So everything, myself included, consists of a large amount of particles. In the digital world, you find particles in form of bits, bytes, dots, milliseconds, 128th in the music measure (beats) and so on. Hence, the album name particles is a very suggestive title, open to all kinds of interpretations, and I just wanted it that way.”

As if to prove the point, Jens has often drafted the most challenging instrument of all – the voice – into a number of projects. Standouts include the tight electro-funk of last year’s e:gum project (on Klein) and new work with vocalist Berna Celik. “The voice is a beautiful instrument. In most of the cases, the voice is a stronger stylistically than the synthesizer. But the voice is not necessarily needed to bring about a sense of soul into electronic music – this can also be done with digital instruments. I work with Berna as she has a very strong and soulful voice. She is a good friend as well, and her lyrics and melodies are always a great inspiration for me.”

With so many parallel projects seeming on the go at the same time, it’s easy to get lost inside the e.stonji universe: the grunge pop of Jerry Lusion (“guitar and grunge music”), his work with Platzgumer across hp.stonji and e:gum (“a very rare and special friendship and collaboration”) and his work as an Audiobook producer. He knows that this schizophrenic genre hopping confuses most people, but he retains the important belief that we need to expose many dimensions of our own personalities at any one time. It’s the latter work, in the Audiobook realm, that undoubtedly leads Jens into a multiplicity of creative alleys.

“It’s a very interesting field. It’s like doing a remix, but you don’t have any song to remix – you just have speech, and there is much space for interpretation. This provides a lot of freedom, and is a good way to experiment. You can also put in real sounds like footsteps in a staircase, bees, water etc. which opens your mind in such a way that makes you see pictures, just by listening. This is a beautiful process. Most audiobooks you get in the shops are just readings – somebody with a deep strong voice reads the whole book. I don’t know what this means, but I don’t like that at all. So for me, an audiobook is much more fascinating when it has music and, even more though, if it is a melting pot of speech, music, field recordings and sound effects.”

After the release of ‘Particles’, we can expect a follow-up to e:gum’s 2006 debut and continuing work with Platzgumer on additional projects. “There are a lot of totally different aspects I would love to explore in music”, he says, “It’s just a matter of time”. And you can almost hear his brain building the blueprint for the e.stonji time machine right about now.

more: estonji.com