13 June 2019

Using algorithms, composer Orm Finnendahl morphs the works of BIG ORCHESTRA into a unique soundscape. A conversation about big egos, Brian Eno and computer-generated sounds.

By Leonie Reineke

For BIG ORCHESTRA, composer Orm Finnendahl has created a sound installation from recordings of sounds and noises using the exhibited sculptures. Using a computer program, the recordings are combined in ever different ways, collaged, layered and can then be heard via loudspeakers in the entire exhibition area. This produces different acoustic situations, which range from isolated sound events through to concentrated soundscapes involving all the loudspeakers. 

With “Music for Exhibitions” you composed music that is specifically tailored to “Big Orchestra.” You were asked to create an acoustic reference to the artworks presented that would allow visitors to also experience the artworks’ sound dimension. In other words, the project is less about an “autonomous” piece of music for the stage and more about a function-based task. As a composer, how do you feel about such tasks?

I imagine my attitude is somewhat unusual for a composer of contemporary music. After all, it’s no problem at all for me that my composition has to satisfy a function. I would go even further than that: music always has a function. Without exception. And every composer who says otherwise is lying. Even the most abstract music designed for the classic concert hall has a  functional aspect. Even if the function is that it confronts listeners with existential questions. Personally, I have a very pro-active approach to this situation. I find it easiest to compose when I know the occasion – know where the piece is to be performed, who will play it, and what kind of audience is to be expected. And if a piece is to be performed in an exhibition space where people are coming and going I adjust to that situation. It should not be a case of imposing your own ego or wanting to show at all costs what a brilliant composer you are. On the contrary, it is about creating something that makes sense in that specific place. Then the audience can benefit from it.

That being the case, how do you go about composing? How did you start composing “Music for Exhibitions”?

I work exclusively with sounds that are generated by the exhibited works. That means visiting the exhibition with an instrumentalist who then plays the objects. Many of them are percussion instruments, some are rubbed, scratched, plucked and so on. I record the sounds produced and that constitutes my material. Using these collected samples I can begin to compose, and then I simply draw inspiration from what I find. I don’t have a predefined plan, I just begin by listening attentively.

Music always has a function. Without exception. And every composer who contests thatwho says otherwise is lying.

Orm Finnendahl

In other words, you have a very open, exploratory method of collecting your sound material. How do you then work with it? And what kind of music do you wish to see ultimately as a result from your work?

First, I have to edit and sort the samples I’ve collected. Then they are processed using computer algorithms that I programmed myself. You could say these algorithms are like digital editing devices that organize, arrange and order the sounds in a certain way. They are then played in their organized form via loudspeakers in the exhibition. Acoustically anything can happen: some of the samples are played in their original, unedited form so you can quickly recognize which exhibition item they originate from. But perhaps the sounds will be accelerated, decelerated or transposed up and down. Then suddenly the original material is no longer clearly recognizable, or more and more tracks are layered so that the sounds are continually translated into an abstract, mysterious world of sound.

If, for example, a thousand layers can be heard simultaneously presumably nobody will be able to identify the original sound anymore. As a composer, you can experiment wonderfully with the parameters of this condensed information: perhaps at times only sporadic events are to be heard and then the material builds up again and at some point culminates in a tremendous sonority. So, the composition should oscillate between an almost unnoticeable background sound and a huge acoustic presence. What is important to me is that the music should never seem intrusive to the listeners or disturb them during their exhibition visit. Traffic lights for blind people are a good example of this: their clicking sound is always audible but never overpowering. They are very pleasant sounds I think.

I don’t believe music is a kind of glutamate for feelings.

Orm Finnendahl

So, is your primary aim to create a pleasant atmosphere for the exhibition space? Then we could draw a parallel with Brian Eno’s “Music for Airports” from the 1970s.

Not necessarily. After all, I don’t believe music is a kind of glutamate for feelings. But of course, Brian Eno is right in a key idea of his (and that also goes for Erik Satie incidentally, who developed the idea of background music in the early 20th century): the moment you play music in a space you alter something. You need to be aware of that as a composer. And with “Music for Exhibitions” it is important to me that the visitors’ imagination is stimulated. On the one hand it should be clearly traceable to the instruments in the exhibition, but equally sounds should be alienated and advanced. This might then open up new perspectives to the listeners, give them a different view of the acoustic potential of artworks.

As might be expected, the exhibition takes place in several rooms. How do you deal with that as a composer?

It’s a multi-channel piece. In other words, there are between eight and sixteen individual tracks, each of which are played via their own loudspeakers. That said, there is not a different piece in each room, but rather all the tracks are synchronized and correspond with one another. This means that a somewhat different soundscape can be experienced in each part of the exhibition – depending on how close you are to which loudspeaker. Everything is controlled via a central computer, which stands like a robot at the sound mixer and synchronizes all the channels with one another. Naturally, I drew up an overall design plan first to ensure that all the loudspeakers do not simply churn out some sound or other. You repeatedly hear points of culmination and collective acoustic events.

As part of the display, “Music for Exhibitions” is a composition that is generated at the interface of music and visual art. Are you familiar with this kind of work, and do you think it suits you?

Yes, absolutely. I have always been really interested in interdisciplinary approaches. And I came into contact with visual art at an early stage. In my youth I spent a lot of time in Düsseldorf and became very familiar with the scene that was developing at the art academy there. As such this area, as well as architecture, has always played a role in my life. As far as music is concerned I have a similarly heterogeneous background: aged 17 I discovered punk, and before that I heard a lot of progressive rock. And incidentally, just recently I joined two colleagues to perform the rock suite “Tarkus” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer as keyboarder at Frankfurt University of Music and Performing Arts. And thanks to these various musical influences it was not that difficult for me to develop an affinity with New Music.

As such, without wanting to sound coquettish, I would say that I’m a very adventurous person. I like getting involved in new projects, trying out new methods I am not familiar with. Of course I know that you can’t always reinvent yourself, but I must admit that I really regret only having one life. For example, I would love to be a construction worker or go on a trip around the world. I would really like to be four people at once. I imagine that was always a fundamental part of my personality.