Efdemin: The long dive to the self
Before there was such a thing as satellite-based navigation, sailors had mastered the art of navigating the high seas and reaching the desired destination precisely based solely on the color of the water, the course of the waves and the nature of the wind.
In an equally sensitive way, Efdemin invites the listener on “New Atlantis” to go out past the Pillars of Heracles into the open sea of sound, in order to dive down to the sunken utopian depths of electronic music outside of the 12-mile zone of musical conventions.
Kaput author Felix Nisblé met with Phillip Sollmann to talk about his new Efdemin album.
We arranged to meet in a small Japanese restaurant in the north of Berlin, the name of which is written in large Japanese letters on the window pane and which is run by Phillips’ partner together with some friends. We warm up for the upcoming interview with excellent food whose health-promoting effect Phillip enlightens me about. He tells me that he has been there regularly since a study visit to Japan in order to travel the country and visit friends, but he is equally interested in my career, which quickly allows us to develop a relaxed conversation.
After dinner, we set off for the studio, which is located in a small building complex with several studios of fellow musicians. Upon entering, I am inevitably reminded of the Sound Houses described by British philosopher Francis Bacon in his book “Nova Atlantis”, the novel that provided the title for Efdemin’s new album.
As sound houses, Bacon described spaces in which unheard sound spheres can be opened up through experiments with new types of instruments. An early prophecy, so to say, of today’s recording studios. In addition to a lot of analog equipment, a modular synthesizer section and various classical drum machines, I discover a number of obscure instruments, first of all, Efdemin’s barrel organ, a Helmholtz siren and a microtonal tuned piano. Phillip confides to me that the synthesizers are readily shared between the studios and that they all are happy to provide one another with feedback. A big advantage if you have colleagues like Ed Davenport as neighbors in the studio.
Setting out for New Worlds
“New Atlantis” begins with “Oh Lovely Appearance Of Death”, a track based on a song by Charles Wesley, who co-founded the religious Methodist movement in England in the 18th century and whose lyrics are carried by a drone floating in space.
A religiously charged opening song for an album released on Ostgut Ton? “Of course I found it amusing to open a supposed techno album with a praise about death,” Phillip explains. “In fact, the piece is not so much about the lyrics as about the articulation. The way it’s sung has always been extremely moving for me. The recording was taken at an art lecture by Willam T. Wiley, who also sings the piece. I came into contact with it more by chance when I found the recording of the lecture on a record. We then contacted him to ask for his release, and when he heard my piece, he was moved as well, so he immediately agreed.”
From a musical point of view, it also makes sense as an opening, Phillip continues, as it introduces the drone that runs through “New Atlantis” like a golden thread. The time has come for a confession on my part, because the vocals of “Oh Lovely Appearance Of Death” have been on my mind all day, and since this morning I’ve been cheerfully singing the melody – despite the morbid theme. Phillip has to laugh and tells me that his three-year-old daughter is also very fond of the piece and that he has to sing it to her again and again.
The fact that the record opens with a piece about death also leads me to ask whether the thought that a new beginning always includes the decay of something old played a role in the production of the record? “I have the feeling that this record opens up new spaces for me and that I can tread new paths with it,” answers Phillip. In that regard, an album doesn’t differ from normal life in that old things have to come to an end first. “In recent years I have always felt the supposed pressure to produce a hit,” he admits. “In fact, it was the same with this record. It would have been a great chance to make an Ostgut record and put ten party tracks on it. But instead, I start the album with a song about death and get into drone dub techno. However, I was only able to do the record in exactly this way!”
An artist like Phillip Sollmann can’t compete with his nature. The sense of satisfaction he now feels for the album, however, was preceded by an intense and not always easy developing process. “The album contains a lot of time, work and suffering. Many years in which I was traveling as a DJ and sometimes wondered: Do I even want to do that in this way? As a result, there is now this logical linking of things that have existed in parallel all along. If I let the 909 run and then play my hurdy-gurdy over it, it makes me come to myself.”
Resolution in Sound
The hurdy-gurdy mentioned above is one of many acoustic instruments that have been recorded for the album, partly by Phillip himself, partly by friends like Nika Son or John Gürtler. But there are also as many sounds from classical machines like the Roland SH-101 or the 808, which mix together with the instrumental sounds to an organic sound fabric in the complex textures enriched with field recordings. And yet the hurdy-gurdy plays a special role so that it is present in almost all pieces.
For example in the title track “New Atlantis”, which Phillip produced at the beginning of the record summer of 2018. In that early period, he started to produce very fast tracks around 140 BPM – and the hurdy-gurdy delivered the missing crisp overtones, which now run entirely through the almost 15-minute piece. In the middle, the track changes to major in a surprising transposition. A change of key that gives the piece both a positive twist and an unbelievable pull, drawing the listener in reverse gravity further and further down into the breathtaking depths. The track also features the recording of a tribute concert in honor of the artist and experimental musician Tony Conrad, who died in 2016 and was performed by Phillip and his band PNIN in Hamburg.
Apart from that, there is another reason why the hurdy-gurdy is an important linchpin in Phillip’s life: “As a child, I learned to play the cello, the instrument is my first experience of sound.” Since the hurdy-gurdy is equipped with cello strings, it is precisely this primary experience that finds its way into the album. A closing circle that really brings Phillip happiness.
For a moment we leave New Atlantis, and he tells me what it felt like for him to play his cello as part of a 50-piece ensemble. “It’s the most beautiful experience I’ve ever had in my life, and I want to return to it again and again. It feels as if you are dissolving in the sound, becoming a common voice, a voice that you no longer can hear yourself. You only hear yourself when you’re playing the wrong note. But if you play correctly, you are part of the whole and just hum this great physical vibration. Behind you there are the double basses, next to you the cellos, on the other side the violins and rear right the wind instruments. You sit in the middle of the sound. That’s just gripping.”
This experience of dissolving into sound might not be that far away from those happenings on the dance floor every weekend. The only difference is that the orchestral musician’s contribution to unifying with the audience is the sound they produce, and the dancer’s contribution is the energy they produce through movement.
This feeling of being part of something bigger in connection with the loss of the sense of time was also the experience that brought Phillip to electronic music and clubs at a young age. Undoubtedly, a timeless atmosphere can also be felt on “New Atlantis”. While listening, there is an effect of the slow loss of space and time. I immediately have to think back to my first experiences on the dance floor.
When I tell Phillip about it, he is visibly pleased: “This is exactly what I want! I would like to produce music in which even less happens or in which the listener doesn’t even notice that something has just happened – and which is still not boring because obviously there is a risk”. In this respect, it might have been an unconscious decision to free the pieces from everything that would have been too obvious and would have served ordinary ideas of track development and the setting of effects. “Actually, everything is standing in itself, which is why what I’m doing is a kind of static music. Only the rhythm progresses and therefore there is the level of time.” Furthermore, Phillip adds, he has processed many microtonal concepts, where it was more about the accuracy of the texture than about the narrative. For him, “New Atlantis” is “decidedly non-narrative music that nicely reflects what I usually do in such an installative way.
The installative effect of Efdemin’s music is the link to all the other projects in Phillip’s versatile oeuvre. In 2017 I had the opportunity to experience a performance of his piece “Monophonie” in Bochum. A composition which he wrote for the self-built instruments of the composer Harry Partch and which was performed on these very impressive sound structures. As the set, these instruments form a wooden sound garden upon the extraordinary forms of which the ensemble creates an equally extraordinary sound.
Phillip Sollmann is particularly fond of special instruments. For another project, which he is pursuing together with his musician friend Konrad Sprenger, they are building an organ out of discarded organ and trombone pipes, which can be controlled and played via Midi once it has been tuned correctly in a painstaking task. During the sound happenings (including one at last year’s Meakusma Festival), the listeners are located in the middle of the organ and can experience the full 360-degree sound experience.
In addition to such time-consuming and labor-intensive projects, Phillip is of course still active as a DJ and, apart from his residency in Berghain, has an extensive international tour schedule, which has taken him to virtually every corner of the planet between South America and Australia. As far as his home base Berghain is concerned, he has done a tour through the house over the years. “starting at the top at the Panorama Bar, where I started out as a resident in 2006, I slowly descended the stairs to the Berghain Floor. Now I am playing much more often downstairs. At the moment the floor downstairs is much more exciting to me, because it’s more about sound, while above the party and hands-in-the-air moments are rather the focus. To me, that isn’t as exciting right now and there are other artists who can do that way better than me at the moment. I am much more about the ears than about the feet.”
Boundary Crossing Techno Music
Using the sound experience as a central element of the Efdemin universe, a bridge can be built, from the organ installations to Berghain and to “New Atlantis”. With his new album, Phillip has succeeded in bringing all his musical facets to sound together. He is aware that with the special album format of “New Atlantis”, with its long, static tracks and the underlying concept, he is moving counter-cyclically to current musical developments. The general attention span seems – not just in terms of music – to be constantly decreasing, and even in techno quickly produced hits have disappeared from the consciousness and playlists after about two weeks. Phillip pursues a completely different approach with “New Atlantis”, one that demands attention and devotion from the listener and thus poses a new challenge to the ear. Smilingly he assures me that he would certainly not hold it against anyone if they did not have the patience to treat themselves to the record in its entirety. But for all those who are ready to embark on this journey, “New Atlantis” offers a wealth of possibilities to rediscover the infinitely profound effect of music and sound.
I realize once again that we are not in the timeless New Atlantis but in the very real Berlin when Phillip asks how many questions I have left since he will have to pick up his daughter from day care soon.
Therefore I only ask him one more question, which occurred to me during my research on ” Monophony ” and Harry Partch. Partch had designed his musical tuning system as a conscious counter-design to Bach’s omnipresent, well-tempered mood, in order to liberate people, so to speak, from his tonal dominance. I would like to know whether, in his opinion, there are similar conventions and paradigms in techno today that need to be overcome?
Phillip embraces this idea with interest and explains: “What Harry Partch did with the moods is more and more finding its way into techno. For example through artists like Aleksi Perälä with his Colundi Sequences. Many of my pieces are also microtonal. Not quite as radical, but I use pure moods. If you play them with other tracks, they often do not fit at all. For example, my song “Move Your Head”. A lot of people said, “Hey, that has such a pulling effect, what’s going on?” It’s because of the mood, which only contains whole numbered intervals. You’re not used to that and for a lot of people, it sounds weird at first. But I really like it when techno evolves in such a direction. I have a huge collection of transgressive techno music, which is in part dysfunctional or experimental, but the sound is amazing. In my head, I’ve just always made the error in reasoning that it won’t work if I play too many of them in my sets. But the opposite is the case, it gets more and more interesting! Because in general there is so much more room for the not so obvious.”
Translation by Denise Oemcke