Thomas Ankersmit
Interview by email with Martin Haanstra
Spring 2006


Thomas Ankersmit is a 25 year old saxophonist, electronic musician and installation artist born and raised in the Netherlands and now based in Berlin who combines abstract, intensely focused saxophone playing with hyper-kinetic analogue synth and PowerBook improvisation. He also creates installation pieces that use sound, infrasound and "modifications to the acoustic characters of spaces" that disrupt the viewer/listener's perception of the exhibition space and their presence within it. He's a frequent collaborator with New York minimalist Phill Niblock and Milan-based electroacoustic improviser Giuseppe Ielasi, and other improv partners include Gert-Jan Prins, Thomas Lehn, Keith Rowe, Kevin Drumm and Axel Dörner.

Can you tell me something about your first years of musical activity and how you started?

As a child I wasn't particularly interested in music. Of course I remember watching videos on TV and listening to the radio, but I only developed a real interest in music when I was exposed to underground/noise rock – the Velvet Underground, The Stooges, Sonic Youth etc – through friends in high school in my early teens. I used to hang out with people who were a little older than I was, which helped. Listening to that stuff led me to buy an electric guitar, although I can't really remember what I was thinking of at the time. My father actually showed me how to make feedback with it on the first day, so that sort of set the stage for my guitar playing. I must have moved out of the rock phase pretty quickly because by the time I was sixteen I was listening to noise and improvised music (some important things then or a little later were P16.D4, early New Blockaders, Borbetomagus, the early Evan Parker Incus albums, the Malfatti/Wittwer records on FMP and Tony Conrad's Four Violins). I spent my teens playing around with the prepared guitar and old cassette players I found in thrift stores, putting my fingers on the circuit boards to create feedback, etc. It was a little frustrating because I felt that there was already so much prepared guitar and electronic noise music being made, and that I couldn't possibly have anything to add. That changed a little when I discovered the saxophone.
I came across a Russian saxophone in a second-hand store on 14th Street while visiting New York in 1998 and bought it, basically because I happened to have the cash in my pocket. It cost $60. I was listening to a lot of experimental saxophone music at the time – early Parker and Brötzmann, Borbetomagus, Tamio Shiraishi, etc. – so that's the sort of stuff I had in mind when I thought about the instrument. I completely bypassed jazz or other more conventional genres, for better or worse. I never took saxophone lessons or went to music school either.

So you learned the saxophone techniques you use by yourself.

Basically, yes, although of course I learned from listening to records. I used to play the saxophone on a freeway overpass at night near my apartment, I couldn't play inside because of the neighbours. I remember returning home happily on two occasions, one when I stumbled upon a way to play multiphonics and another when I managed circular breathing for the first time, among the exhaust fumes of the trucks passing below me. I have no capacity to play the instrument conventionally, though: I can't play "Take 5" or anything like that.

What took you to New York and how did that visit influence your musical activities? Who did you play with over there?

I was raised in Leiden, an old university town south of Amsterdam, but I moved to Amsterdam when I was 17 to study at the art academy there. I went to New York in early 1999 as an exchange student at the School of Visual Arts. The time in New York was very important to me, it's essentially where I started playing music in public and sort of felt part of a circle of musicians for the first time. I never was part of the free jazz scene in Amsterdam, or any other scene for that matter, so before I moved to NY I would essentially just make noise by myself. There were a handful of concerts back in Amsterdam, but looking back they were sort of without context, like opening for Sonic Youth in a rock club in 1998, but obviously I was just starting out anyway.
In New York I was mostly around people like Donald, Don and Jim from Borbetomagus, Tamio Shiraishi and the people from Sonic Youth. Tonic had just opened and there were performances at La Monte Young and Phill Niblock's lofts, and there was a really extensive overview of American experimental film at the Whitney Museum. I made many visits to Anthology Film Archives. Hearing early minimal music by Young and Terry Jennings at the Dream House, Charlemagne Palestine at Castelli, Tony Conrad at various places, Niblock at Merkin Hall and in his own place was as important as the local guitar noise/improv scene. It was stuff I'd read about for years, but only knew from recordings, or in the case of film something that had been almost completely inaccessible to me.

You also organized concerts yourself in New York.

I produced a handful of concerts at the School of Visual Arts at the time, something which I've never done since. People like Kevin Drumm, Jim O'Rourke, Takehisa Kosugi, Borbetomagus and Voice Crack performed. The school had funds for cultural events like that, so I had the chance to invite some people who I'd hoped to hear in New York but who hadn't been playing. I was particularly happy that we could have the shows free of charge, because I was having trouble paying to see gigs all the time myself.

To what extent do you consider yourself an improviser or a composer?

It's not a distinction I'm particularly interested in, not in my own music at least. I tend to think I improvise when I play saxophone, but obviously within a pretty narrow pre-selected range. I mean, I'm guided by what I hear and what happens while playing in terms of uncontrollable factors on the instrument and the room's acoustics etc., and I make decisions in real time, but it's not exactly a case of "anything can happen". But then it rarely is with anybody. I suppose playing with others makes for more real improvising. Although there are reasons for collective improvisation which I find sympathetic, I ultimately only care about making music I like, no matter how much or how little instant composing is involved. I also have no problems cutting up recordings of improv sessions. I suppose I make "tape music" for recordings, but I often use long improvised sequences, as well as real micro-editing. A piece can consist of five minutes of unedited saxophone/synth jamming and then move into a much shorter section that might take several days to construct.

How do you think of yourself as a saxophonist in relation to the history of the instrument? You seem like one of the few people who have managed to make it compatible with electronics. Is that something you consciously wanted to do? Have you developed special techniques to play with electronic musicians?

Not really. Like I said earlier, when I started playing saxophone I was mostly listening to noise and electroacoustic music, so my ideas about sound and music (as well as what could be done with a saxophone specifically) were shaped by that from the outset. In a way I've played saxophone like this from the beginning, although of course the emphasis has shifted and I've become a little better at it over the years. I've never consciously tried to make the saxophone sound like an electronic instrument, it's just that the sonic language of noise and electronic music was my mental framework for playing an instrument. When I occasionally take notes for particular saxophone techniques I do tend to use electronic music vocabulary; I always define pitches in Hz and think in terms of amplitude and frequency modulation etc.

What kind of electronic instruments and software do you use?

I mostly use an EMS Synthi A, an early 70's portable analogue synthesizer in combination with a computer running Max/MSP. The synthesizer is usually prepared with electromagnetic pickups and small metal objects, the sounds of which are amplified and processed, as well as used to make quasi-random connections on the synth. I also use a custom-built patch matrix for the synthesizer, so that any patch setup (which is normally done with pins in a patchfield on the synth itself) can be saved and instantly recalled so more radical cut-up juxtapositions can be made in real time.
The computer is there mostly to allow me to control the synth in various ways (switching between patches, sending control voltages etc.) and to play back pre-recorded sound fragments to reprocess live. I rarely use any digital synthesis or signal processing, I'm generally more interested in analogue electronics because of the physical nature of it:"direct access" to the electrical signals, short circuiting connections, disturbing magnetic fields etc.

Do you process the saxophone electronically too?

No, rarely. I did that a little when I was starting out. Spending time developing certain sounds on an acoustic instrument only to use them as the start of a signal processing chain doesn't seem to make much sense. That said, I do think I'll try again at some point, I just don't want to confuse matters too much at the moment. The fact that the saxophone is acoustic is important to me. I like that it can project sound in particular directions, reflect its sound off surfaces etc. I appreciate the detail and flexibility of acoustic sound. I now mostly play saxophone either parallel to my electronic instruments, or sets where I move from one instrument to the other.

Do you amplify the saxophone?

It depends on the context. When playing with Gert-Jan Prins for example it's a good idea to have one or two microphones ready so that some material can be amplified. It's not so much about making the relatively loud sounds louder (that's rarely been necessary), it's more about pulling the stuff that would be below the threshold up into his level. When I use a microphone I usually have one very close by, running into a mixer I control while playing, so I use the mute button to cut from acoustic to amplified sound. I've never been particularly interested in playing quietly per se or reducing the volume of the music to such an extent that it almost sinks into the noise floor. For me the use of very quiet sound has always been about using microphones to capture and enlarge barely audible phenomena, putting them under a microscope so they can acquire real detail and sound pressure.

Many improvisers have left their acoustic instruments behind in favor of electronics in the last few years. Have you thought about moving in this direction yourself?

I go through phases when I'm more preoccupied by doing one thing or the other, but I can't imagine giving up the saxophone completely. I think the popularity of using electronic instruments in improvisation has made things a lot more interesting for those who decide to stick with traditional instruments. One of the reasons I think people like Burkhard Beins and Axel Dörner are so interesting is because the omnipresence of electronic music has shaped their playing into something that might have been impossible to develop in different surroundings. I think in the best cases electroacoustic improvisation is re-energizing acoustic playing.

You've released very few records, especially considering that you've been performing internationally for several years. There's a solo 3" CD-R from 2001, a limited edition CD-R with Kevin Drumm from 2003 and the recent split LP with Jim O'Rourke. Why so few?

Well, I think the fewer recordings you release, the harder it becomes to release any at all. I've always had this idea that a record should be music that you're really proud of and excited about but it's hard for me to feel like this about my own stuff, and when I do find something I like in my recordings, I think "that sounds pretty good, now if I work on that for several months more maybe it'll sound better". A combination of perfectionism and laziness I suppose, and being on the road too much. That said, I think a lot of people in the experimental music scene in the wider sense of the word make far too many CDs. Doing it for the sake of getting people to pay attention to your work never seemed like a good idea.
I still like the first solo CD, the small black one. It was recorded in 2000 in an empty cube-shaped glass pavilion (hence the reverb). The CD-R with Kevin on it is actually solo stuff, I just asked him if he'd mind if I used some fragments of shows we did together and some other unreleased stuff of his. Kevin's sounds only appear on the first track, but there are multiple versions of it. I made the music in various hotel rooms in Japan and then burned a handful of copies a few times to sell or trade at shows. I think there's at least three versions of that CD-R, probably like ten copies each, with totally different stuff on them. Some I like, some I shouldn't have released (but then all copies were sold in Japan during the same week so it didn't get very far). Kevin is one of my favorite people in this circle, he's a very funny person, and a really impressive musician.

How did the split LP with Jim O'Rourke come about?

Daniel Löwenbrück, who runs Tochnit Aleph, suggested that Jim and I should release a split cassette for his label, though I wasn't sure if he was serious about it at the time. He also suggested I make a solo LP, which I thought was a little too much, so it turned into a split LP. I think Jim might have been scheduled to release something for the label already too. My side is a single piece, I forget how long it is but it plays at 45rpm (Jim's side plays at 33rpm), of music made with synthesizers, computer and multi-tracked saxophone.

Do you have any CDs due out in the near future?

I'm supposed to make a CD or a record for the Fringes label in Milan, which Giuseppe Ielasi runs. He suggested it about a year ago, before we started playing together, but I haven't really worked on it yet. My excuse might be that it sounded at the time like a proposal for a distant future. I've always liked the label a lot, and I appreciate the fact that Giuseppe uses it to reflect his interest in other people's work rather than just document his own music. I often think musician-run labels tend to be a little egocentric, with the musicians who run them just putting out their own stuff all the time. I'm happy there are good labels for this kind of music run by people who aren't musicians themselves.

You recently toured with Ielasi and Gert-Jan Prins and in Europe. How did that trio come about?

Gert-Jan and I have done things together sporadically for a few years, playing as a duo. Giuseppe Ielasi came to Berlin in May 2002 and suggested we perform somewhere together, which worked pretty well, so I think that's how we met. I'd always thought it would be a good idea to combine the three of us. Although it might be a little inappropriate to compare Gert-Jan and Giuseppe, I think they both have a great sense for constructing sound and tension, in the sense of having really beautiful material and juxtaposing density and transparency very well. It seems to me that three people is the ideal format for a group that can be sort of snappy in its decision taking but where there's also enough flexibility as to what roles people have.

You play with Phill Niblock a lot. How did that relationship come about and what sort of music do you make together?

We've known each other since 1999. We met when I was living in New York. I used to go to the shows at his loft in SoHo. We were both invited to take part in an exhibition in Tokyo in the summer of 2003 which also involved some concert performances, so that's when I started playing his music. The people at Headz in Tokyo booked us as double bill in a few other places.
In the beginning I would play pieces that Phill wrote for saxophonist Ulrich Krieger, so that was a little difficult, but now he's made music using samples of my playing that I play along to during concerts. The new piece Universe Premier is very rewarding to play, the recorded and live frequencies can match very well, and I usually prefer to play it without a microphone playing acoustically, loud, while moving around in the performance space finding locations with particular harmonics and modulating them locally by playing frequencies slightly above or below the recorded tones. Phill plays the piece at around 115 dB so often I can't hear my own signal, but I can hear the phase interference patterns I create. Phill's a very straightforward and pleasant person, so as partnerships go it's about as unintimidating as you could get, considering his music has always been very important to me. We've done a number of tours and festivals together where we present our own music, usually a solo improvised electroacoustic set of mine followed by several of Phill's pieces combined with multi screen projections of his films.

You've been living in Berlin for several years now. How do you see yourself in relation to Berlin's improvised music scene? What's going on there at the moment?

It's a very lively scene and a lot of the people involved in it are friends. It seems I'm considered as part of it even though I don't really have regular groups with anyone in Berlin. I don't perform in the city much, not more than five or six times a year. The city is big and has such a long avant-garde music history that the camps seem to have become fairly rigid, though. It's become a little segregated, unfortunately. You never see improv people at noise shows, for example.
It seems that what I consider to be the core of the Berlin improv scene, is opening up, or coming apart, depending on how you look at it. A lot of the players have started composing and using computers along with or instead of their instruments. As I said, I know all of those people pretty well, but I've always felt more like a welcome visitor than a core member. I still think some of them are doing great work, Robin Hayward and Burkhard Beins in particular. It's also nice to see younger musicians coming to the city and not simply adapting to the local sound as some seem to have done. People like Claudio Rocchetti (I like 3/4's a lot) or Antoine Chessex seem interesting, although I haven't heard much of what they do.

What sort of installation work do you do and how does it relate to your music?

I tend to separate the installation pieces from my music because I have different ways of thinking about and different reasons for doing them. The installations are very unmusical. They're usually static situations made by sound or infrasound (fluctuations in air pressure slower than 20 cycles per second; sound too deep to hear) or changes to acoustic situations (modifications to architecture) that don't actually involve any signal generation on my part. The installation pieces manifest themselves in space rather than time, and often need a visitor to articulate themselves.
Although most of the installations consist of sound alone, I tend to think of them as being very different from my music, because they're not abstract. That's not to say my music is without connotations, or that it's neutral, but there is no particular statement involved in the sounds themselves. I think certain installation pieces are good not because they sound good (in the way one listens to music, the sensory pleasure of listening) but because the ideas or emotions suggested in the situations strike me as poetic. Generally speaking, visual art and film has always been more important to me than sound art (with a few exceptions – Neuhaus and Lucier, for example); people like early Dennis Oppenheim and Dan Graham, William Anastasi, Tony Conrad's Film Feedback etc., mostly what's known as post-minimal art or the less cerebral sections of concept art.

Could you describe some of your recent work in this field?

I made a room where I attempted to make a real-time reversal of all sounds entering it, so that speech, footsteps etc. mirror back and forth in time. The reversed sound is reversed over and over again, played back and forth into the room again and again. Sort of like a real-time I am Sitting in a Room [Lucier] where you hear yourself leaving the gallery as you enter it.
A piece I hope to show this year involves the opposite of an anechoic chamber, a small room made artificially reverb-rich (but acoustically, without the use of electronics) so that a regular sized room sounds like a cathedral, but because it is completely dark there is no way of telling that it is in fact a fraction of the size it seems to be. This room is located in a museum complex in such a way that the surrounding architecture makes it clear that it couldn't possibly be this large, sort of creating an enormous, but impossible, hall within the larger structure of the building. I'm also working with prototypes of highly directional loudspeakers that can project sound in narrow beams where the signal is only heard if the listener is directly in the path of sound. This is something I think I'll use in installation pieces as well for music performance in the near future. Signals can form corridors or surfaces of audible sound as well as silence when used out of phase with other signals, as well as made to emanate directly off walls, ceiling and objects by reflecting the sound from their surfaces. Over summer I'll be continuing work on this in New York.
Something related to this is recording in a former NATO listening station on the western outskirts of Berlin, where there is a very large dome constructed out hexagonal metal panels. Sound made in the dome echoes in very specific directions, so that depending on the position of either the source or the listener, the same sound sounds radically different. The saxophone is pretty good at projecting sound in a particular direction, so I can shoot sounds in various directions in sequence, and they will then all come bouncing back from various locations sounding different. The reverb is close to ten seconds long in certain spots in the dome. I want to return there to record more saxophone and possibly work with these directional speakers as well. Maryanne Amacher is planning to spend time in Berlin and she wanted to visit the place, so we might try out some things together as well.

You also curate experimental film shows.

I put together programs of experimental film for places in Berlin and New York a few times. Andrew Lampert of Anthology Film Archives, Jim O'Rourke and myself are considering showing a program they did in New York last year in Berlin later this year with a few additions. It's sort of an overview of parallel developments and intermedia work in experimental film and live-electronic and minimal music, mostly in America.

What are your plans for the near future?

A tour of Scandinavia with Phill Niblock, festivals in Italy, France, Holland, Poland, Norway, maybe Canada and the US. I think I'll be in New York for most of the summer, but other than that I'll mostly be in Europe this year.

Interview 2006 by Martin Haanstra. Thomas Ankersmit's split LP with Jim O'Rourke is out now on Tochnit Aleph. For PT review click here..