David Moss
23 ways to remember silence – only one way to break it

The 46th Tonspur (22.8. - 26.11.2011) is delivered by David Moss in context of a cooperation between Ö1 Kunstradio and Tonspur. David Moss is considered an extreme vocalist, exceptionally gifted percussionist and a central character of avantgarde sound art.
In his piece ’23 ways to remember silence – only one way to break it’ of which actually two versions exist – one Kunstradio only version and one Tonspur-Passage exclusive installation - David Moss combines his own texts of philosophical quality with extracts of soundscapes, improvised vocal performances and very special live-electronics giving us an idea of his memory.

Kunstradio: You started as a percussionist at early age but you left the path of strictly rhythm and got deeper into the wide field of art music. What brought you there?

David Moss: The difference between popular music or entertainment music or mainstream music and artmusic - if you can use the word art music - is timing and rhythm. How do you use time? How do you trigger the memory of the listener(s), the reflection of the listener(s)? Are you keeping the listener(s) at the moment of the music every moment exactly or are you giving them time to reflect, are you catching them and letting them go and recatching them? This is the big difference: In art music we try to go fishing for people. We say we don't know if we catch you but we put out into the water - the water of perception, the water of listening - we put out our sound and it gets moved around by the current, by the waves, by the daily experience, by things we don't control and maybe ten people are sniffing but no one is stopping and maybe one person stops and maybe one person bites and maybe one person is hooked by this sound or music. So in a strange way we're playing with time. And that's what a drummer does to go back to my roots. A drummer by definition plays with time. You play time [ding ding ding ding...]. You make rhythms that are stopping and starting time - in the most basic way. And if you begin to experiment with time you very quickly find that drumming or normal drumming is a limitation, is a structure. It's not all that rhythm is and all that timing is and then - once you realized this - you have the incredible universe of changing events of past and future, of speed of interaction, of rhythmic looping and energy levels. It becomes very big, the universe of sound, when you move from simple drumming rhythms to the time of attention.

Kunstradio: You are not only an exceptionally gifted drummer but you are endowed with the capability of firing phonetical fragments of different size and timbre as fast as a gun. Are there any similarities between your play on the drums to your play with vocals?

David Moss: My singing, my voice comes exactly and directly from my drumming. This is clear, it's what actually makes me different from almost every other singer. And what very many singers ask me: 'How do you sing like that?' And then I say: 'Well, you know, actually I was a drummer' And they go: 'Oh, now I understand how you sing like that' because they understand very quickly if you were a drummer you are learning how to make very quick sounds in space, to hit the cymbal, hit the snare drum, hit the tom-tom, hit the bass drum and to move very quickly between them. And if you sing this way you are trying to move your voice in space and quickly change it between [makes very fast sounds with his throat] - very fast movement between the areas of your voice! Imagine, imagine, close your eyes and imagine that your throat is a drum set. Imagine inside your throat there's a cymbal and a snare drum and a tom-tom and a bass drum. Imagine that you can move the air between these drums and cymbals in your throat. This is really where my singing came from. This changing sound that a drummer can do I taught myself to do with my voice.

Kunstradio: Do you think there's a difference between sound art and radio art?

David Moss: The context in which something occurs is the biggest shaper of how people perceive it. So if something is coming to you from the radio, from two speakers or from a box, a little box that is the radio or from your I-Pod that has a download from the radio and something is coming to you from this you have some choices. Choice one: You turn it on, you listen to the whole thing, you turn it off. Choice two: You turn it on, you don't like it, you turn it off in five seconds. Choice three: You turn it on and you go cook dinner and you have the music or the sound in the background while you're making dinner. You have basically these three choices if you are listening to the context of radio. If you are listening to the context of sound art - by that I mean something happening in uncontrollable environment; outside in a passage, in an "U-Bahn"-station, on a tram, in a museum, in a museum-entrance foyer - if you have sound in this place you don't have the same choices anymore because people are living in a different context, they are living in normal life - this is the context. And they go through the normal life and they hear something but they can't turn it off. They can only ignore it or they can ask 'what is that?' or they can just accept it. So you have a really different perception of what's going on and then if you really want to hear it you find it that daily life, in sound art daily life is affecting what you hear. So you stand in the middle of a - say for example the "Tonspur-Passage" here in Wien - you are staying in the middle and you want to hear this sound art but people are walking by and they are talking and their babies are screaming and their dogs are barking and there is a machine 20 meters away and you say 'stop, stop everybody - I want to hear this sound art' - but you can't control it. That's life.

Kunstradio: You are ‘artist-in-residence’ for Tonspur and in the context of the cooperation between Tonspur and Kunstradio two different pieces resulted. How big is the difference between the two pieces you prepared for the Kunstradio broadcast and for the Tonspur-Passage and what does it look like?

David Moss: The difference between making a piece for Kunstradio and making an installation for Tonspur is unbelievably big. It's like you have two continents with a gigantic ocean between them. The continents are connected under the ocean by dirt and stone but there is 2000 miles of water separating them. It's a really big difference and let me try to explain what the difference is: As I said before a radio piece and an installation are affected by the context. Not only for the listener but for the person who makes them - for me. I come to the studio at ORF and I have a beautiful chance to work with the Tonmeister here, with the technical equipment to make all kinds of experiments putting my voice on computers and storing it and mixing it together but the end of this experimentation is an exact piece of sound that will start at 0 and end at - in my case - 31 minutes. 31 minutes of exact composition. Every time you play it it's the same. Every piece of sound and text and word is put exactly in the place that I wanted it to be. As a composer I'm kind of a control freak. I like to know everything about what's happening. I like to really, really make every moment of transition a perfect transition. By perfect I mean that it is full with surprise that it is also inevitable that it must be that after you are surprised you say 'oh wow - it couldn't be any other way, that's how it had to be'. That takes a lot of control to make that happen. So my work in the radio is full of decisions. Decisions, decisions, a million decisions all the time: 'Yes, yes, yes, no, yes, no, OK, put that together with this, yeah, OK, good, no, stop, change it, ah - I have it, that's the answer - let's go!' [spoken really, really fast] In the end I create [smth.] like a theater piece; it has a shape, it has a form, it needs to exist for these exact 31 minutes. It has created itself. I created it and it's necessary. When you do a sound installation which has an endless replay ten hours a day for ninety days and every hour it is different because it has random elements inside it which means that every time it replays from 0 the position of the elements changes. The same music is not after the same music, the same text is not next to the same sound. It readjusts itself. It creates a new mixture. It's like a landscape. Sound installation of this kind is like a landscape in a desert - imagine a desert like Arizona in the U.S. with incredible mountains, crazy mountains [...] and these purple sand things in the distance and gigantic sky with incredible number of clouds moving around all the time and every time a cloud goes across the sun it changes the color of the landscape and the clouds are moving at different speeds and no one has control over this and the landscape is changing all the time but it is the landscape; it is stone, it is dirt, it is grass, it is air, it is light - it is always these things but it looks always new. And that's what happening with my installation here. The elements are there, there're the same elements pretty much the same elements I have in the radio piece but the landscape and the light and the clouds are changing radically every hour. And this was for me a shock. It was a gigantic shock. And it is a real big difference between the two styles of working.

Kunstradio: You consider yourself a control freak who wants to have direct control to what he is doing. When it comes to usage of your loop machine what can happen inbetween such a 2 sec. loop?

David Moss: I have a funny system that I use, a live-performance system. It's developed over ten years, it grew over ten years and I have been using it almost exactly the way it is for almost twenty years. My equipment is old. It's not computers, it's not laptops, it's not harddrives, it's not really too many samples, it's not too much prerecorded. Most of what I do is coming from me, from either my mouth, my voice or from my hands. In some way you can see this as a leftover from my drumming days. A drummer makes everything from [their] hands, there is no other way. You put a stick in your hand and the stick hits the drum and that's the sound. And your body controls that. In this case I do the same thing with my small electronic setup. I have a 2-sec. loop machine but I have to touch it, I have to tap it to start looping, I have to tap it to stop looping, I have to tap it one more time to make a new loop. I have a 4-sec. loop machine, the same thing, I have a little [...] microphone that sits on the table but it's actually what they call a piezo-microphone which means that it captures the sound that happens on top of it, you have to touch it. So I put little objects on top of this little piezo-microphone like I put a little Mbira, Kalimba, African instrument on top of it and it amplifies, it catches the sound as [makes a Kalimba-like sound with his mouth] this sound that I have. And all of my electronics must be activated by my hands in time. So I have to choose when to make them work and when to make them stop working. And I have learned very, very... I taught myself in fact...let me rephrase that: My electronics have taught me how they work. My 2-sec. looper will only do...it's a baby, it only does two seconds, you know, it will only go [David Moss starts a 2-sec. looped chant looping it three times], only the two seconds - you can't make it to five seconds, sorry! And the 4-sec. looper does four seconds, it won't do ten seconds, that's the way it is, you know. And my piezo, little micro, will pick up, make the sounds louder that I put on top of it. It won't amplify anything if you shout in the room. If you shout in the room it will not make this sound louder - only if you touch it. So each of my objects has a job. It does its job and I know it and I am, in some way I am the orchestrator, I am the conductor, I am the regisseur of my objects. I put them in their position and I tell them when to go and when to stop. And I've learned how to use them like they are an instrument. These little electronics are to me like a drum set like a real instrument, I can play them. I put information into them, I take information away, I mix my voice, I mix two voices, three voices, four voices, I make a percussion sound, I sometimes touch my little box that has samples already inside it of my voice or other sounds to add one more layer to the mix and I'm playing this selection of stuff and it's really a kind of old, it's kind of a - how can i say it? - it's a way to have an instrument without having a name for an instrument.

Kunstradio: In this context during production time the German expression "Echtzeit" became kind of a running joke. How important is real-time improvisation to you?

David Moss: I am most powerful as a musician and as a performer when I am performing at the moment, in the time that is real - in the real-time, in the "Echtzeit", in life-time, living time, you know - the moment that is happening in front of you, that's the real-time. I am really good at this time, I can play with it like ... I'm very "spielerisch". I can play with this thing like an actor, like a juggler, like a magician with this time. I know how to stretch it and make it longer, I know how to change its energy, I know how to make it fast, I know how to slow it down and I do this in real-time with people giving me their attention in a performance, giving me their focus. People sitting and allowing me to play and manipulate the real-time that they have and the real-time that I have and I've learned how to really make interesting things happen in this time and also how to...this is how I defeat, this is how I - how can I say? - this is how I surprise myself. On the one side I'm a control freak, I want to control everything that happens, on the other side if you are control freak nothing new ever happens. So how do you balance these two things if you want something new to happen. If you want to be surprised you learn to work at the moment when you cannot control everything. When you try to push the button on your sampler but your finger misses it because you are singing and you are looking in the other direction and suddenly your loop is going much longer than you thought and then you have to sing something new and you sing something new and it's really good and you didn't expect it and then you say 'oh good, that was really working, let me try it again next time' and you try it next time but it doesn't work so well because that surprise was necessary with a kick into your...surprise is a kick into your perception. Surprise is an unexpected tickle in time with something happens that stops your perception. So you need this, you need to be tickled or kicked in time if you want something new and so I try to control but I try to have new so real-time performance for me is very important. When I made the piece here for Kunstradio I made three performances. Basically I did three pieces that were performances for me. I sit down at my table, I say turn on the computer I'm going to play for five minutes and develop a musical piece that hopefully will have some interesting uncontrolled information inside of it that will give us something new. So that's really important.

Kunstradio: Speaking about this balance you are not only improvising but you write most of the texts for your pieces on your own as well. Is there a balance between your text works and your sound works?

David Moss: I don't consider myself a writer. I write words in order to find ways to use them in my performance. Words for me are a kind of magical percussion. Words are percussion without drums because to speak words you need silences, to make silences you need rhythm, when you have rhythm and silence and words you have meaning and then you make sense and you tell a story: A, B equals C?! Maybe, could be D, you never know but I'm talking about one thing following another, making a story. So I found twenty years ago that not only what's abstract pure sound interesting but words and fragments of stories and fragments of sentences changed the rhythmic flow of the music and added another layer to my sound - the layer of meaning which is a really interesting layer. When you, a musician or a regisseur, director uses meaning what they are doing is focusing the mind of the listener on a process - understanding something. When the listener is trying to understand something their mind slows down like an animal chewing on a piece of meat, you know. You are chewing on it and so you are slowing - you have to chew. So you can't runaway because your chewing you are concentrating on your food, right? So you can't run away - you are slower, a little bit slower. While at the moment you are chewing on your food on meaning, you are concentrating on meaning the composer, the performer, the director, has the opportunity to change the scene, like magic because you don't see it because you're concentrating on the meaning. The listener, the observer, the audience … and this is really how all changes happen - the best transitions, the best changes, the magical changes happen when the listener, the observer is focusing on one idea to understand it and the performer, creator goes beyond you and sets up a new scene in front of you and you suddenly stop chewing and you look 'oh my god, where am I, everything changed, how does this happen?!'. That's really why I love to use words and meaning because you can play with people, people’s perception of where they are - musically, intellectually, spatially - and you can give them stories that will remain in their memories in the back of their brain and that memory will affect how the listener, observer understands the future. It will be like a taste that stays on your tongue. You had dinner, you had a great Indian meal, now you're at side walking and the moon is full, it's beautiful, you're down in the middle of the Schloss here in Wien and suddenly you taste: 'Mhm...Cumin! Spice! Wow!' Is that mixed together with Wien? No, not really but here it is, you know. It's a new mixture. So you try to open up these possibilities from mixtures and texts are really an interesting way to do this.

Kunstradio: Does a certain single sound have a meaning?

David Moss: Different people will say different things about meaning and about sound having meaning. I come from the tradition - if you call it a tradition - that sounds is basically an abstract concept, that sound by itself has no meaning we only learn to put a meaning with it. I mean if you hear [makes a sound with his mouth sounding like an aching stomach] it has no meaning but if you know that I just ate too much food maybe you think my stomach is having a problem, you know, so then it has a meaning, you know. Sound by itself is pure vibration. What is sound? I mean, come on, really, it's vibrational patterns in the air. I mean that is really as abstract as you can get, you know. It's only your memory - I always come back to this phrase, I always come back to the idea of memory. Your memory organizes and gives meaning to the sound. My memory does it and your memory does it. So in a strange way when you make sound you are agreeing to mix together two memories: The memory of the creator of the sound and the memory of the listener of the sound. This mixture of these two memories is what sound means which is why you can't really control sound because I never know what is your memory. Hey, you people out there listening, you know, you sit in your house, you sing in your kitchen, you're driving your car - I don't know what you did today, what you did yesterday, I don't know how many children you have, I don't know what you love, what you hate - you have a different memory than me. You experience my voice and my sounds in a way I cannot control but the mixture is interesting.

Kunstradio: Being born in the U.S.A. you decided to move to Berlin, Germany about twenty years ago. How would you describe US American radio culture in comparison to German or Austrian radio culture?

David Moss: If you grew up in America when I grew up in America from 1955 to 1970 as a kid - from the age 5 to the age 20 - the radio had one meaning: It meant daily life. Radio was daily life. That means the weather report, the news report every hour, occasionally some pop news - mostly pop music, mostly Top 40, Rock 'n' Roll happening most of the day - every little bit of time you could hear some classical music but I mean Mozart, Brahms and Beethoven and if you stayed up late at night you could hear some Jazz at midnight, some regular mainstream 1940's or 50's Jazz - not new stuff, old stuff! And advertising - oh, believe me - advertising for every product, every ridiculous crazy thing you could imagine, cars and deodorant and coffee and everything on the radio. Radio was what we called normal life. If you heard something on the radio it was real. It was real part of your experience. It wasn't crazy, it wasn't weird - it was real. That was radio. As I grew older and as time moved into the 1960's suddenly there were some things happening on American radio which we would call 'experimental'. They were talking about sound, the power of sound and storytelling - how to tell stories and how to make different use of the imagination that the radio gives you when you close your eyes and you hear sound. You close your eyes and you are in your own mind and you hear sound from the radio - this is a imagination space. There was a little bit of this in America but because the American system was concentrating always on profit, on money, on making money there was no real place for experimental work on the radio. It was so, so, so, so tiny. I never heard new music, experimental music on the radio. Three times in my life when I was living in America as a young person until I was 30 years old did I hear what they call 'Contemporary Music'. There was no possibility, nobody would hear it - it was not real! It was not given the stamp of reality. It was not coming to America radio. Of course if you lived near an university and you could find the university radio station sometimes you would find a young kid who was really interested in ... say Bartok, or maybe they really liked Schönberg or maybe they even liked - my god - they liked Ligeti. That was amazing, if someone would have played that. Or Varèse, you know, that was so rare. America was kind of a wasteland desert. There were some things but very, very, very rare. So I come to Europe, 1990/'91, and even at this time which was not the primary time of radio art in Europe there was really a lot of energy in the radio. Hörspiel-projects, radio-plays, experimental sound art, in cologne, in Berlin, in Düsseldorf, in Paris, in Finland, in Austria. I did a number of radio pieces in the late 80's and early 90's for ORF, for different people in the music department and I think even in the sound and Hörspiel department and everybody wanted to have different sound because that was what radio was living on: Sound, sound was the fuel. And if you as a musician or composer/performer like me ... if I had a different sound radio here in Europe was really interested to use it, to show it. So I had a lot of chances here to show my sound, to put projects together on the radio. There was - how can I say it - there was a basic willingness here in Germany, Switzerland, France, Austria to experiment with the sound world of radio which was very different from America. America did not want experimentation, America wanted cash.

Kunstradio: Are there any cultural reasons for America’s lack of interest in experimental radio forms?

David Moss: I have theory, it's my own theory - not everyone agrees with me. America has a kind of mythology. The mythology of America - I grew up with this mythology - is independence, that you are alone, that nobody helps you and that you can have adventure like a cowboy. These three things independence, aloneness and cowboy adventure are three powerful things in the American mythology - so background. So, what does that mean? Independence: That means you are free to develop your own style, your own crazy ideas, you are free. Two: You are alone, no one will help you. 'Oh, so no one will help me? OK, I have to get strong, I have to be strong, I have to really do what I want to do, very much. OK!' Number three - cowboy, means: 'Oh, I can be a little bit aggressive, I can be a little bit macho, I can bother people, I can be strong'! These three ingredients are part of America but there is one more thing - the fourth point is: You cannot go too extreme in America. if you get too extreme America says 'well, sorry, you are too crazy, you are too independent, you are too cowboy, you are too much alone, we don't know what to do with you, you are a weird person - go away, we don't want you!' And this is the borderline of the experimental work when you become very, very personal and very into your own work to an extreme point that is a beautiful, beautiful research point America says without saying it - they show you - that they are not interested anymore, it's too strange. And then you find when you come to Europe that it's not too strange, it's interesting! And people want it and lots of people are working in this very personal, deep, eccentric, beautiful way and I can give you lots of examples about this. Many of the most famous American performers on the "Avantgarde-scene" perform their work 95% of the time in Europe and only 5% of the time in America, or 2%, or 1%. I mean, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Meredith Monk - all these people are performing in Europe, Japan, South America, Canada but not in America because it's just too strange for the American concept.

Kunstradio: The title of your piece is ’23 ways to remember silence, only one way to break it’. 23 … David, are you familiar with conspiracy theories?

David Moss: No, is there something about the number 23?

Kunstradio: Actually it’s considered to be the number of the illuminati hidden in house numbers and cross totals.

David Moss: [laughs] Really? I didn’t know that.

My title is for me a kind of a mental game. I wanted to give a picture, I wanted to give a puzzle, I wanted to give a thought that people would say 'what does he mean, 23 ways to remember silence? Come on, how can you remember silence? Silence is only silence, that's all it is! No, wait a minute - maybe it's more. To remember silence...that means...I have to...aha, so I remember the silence because of something that happened before or didn't happened before or maybe it's what happened after, now I remember the silence!...' and then 'but only one way to break it?! What do you mean with that? One way to break it, I mean you can break silence a million ways, right? Can't you? Sure, why not, I mean...wait a minute: You can only break silence by not having silence.' It's a game - I'm making a game for people's minds and this title is part of my performance. It stops your mind, it gives you a kind of food to chew on and I like that idea, you know. And 23 - I chose this for a very exact reason: In the Tonspur-Passage here in the Museumsquartier a normal size person who is like 175 cm tall - yes, like you - a normal size person walking from one side to the other side of the passage takes 23 steps. And that's why I used the number 23. Now for me it's just a game but I like to connect my work in a certain way because it gives me a memory. I have to continue in my life. After this work here in Wien I go to Linz for Ars Electronica, then I go to Ghent for the Flanders Festival - I have always new projects and I like to generate a memory that I have a [...] that I can use in my performance in the next city. So I have now this new idea '23 ways', a title. This will become a song, this title will turn itself into a song or a chant or a part of my next piece because I remember it. So I like to give myself these stones, these memory stones that come from the work I do connect things together and then I take them into the future.

Kunstradio: What is silence?

David Moss: To be truthful there is almost no such thing as silence, I mean in one way. Silence is kind of a concept that we have to have but doesn't really exist. Silence is the time or space between two things - two sounds, two actions, two movements, two happenings, two thoughts, two anythings. Silence is the dip if you close your eyes and you picture two sticks in the ground and you look at the tip of one stick and then your eye travels down the stick and moves across the empty ground to the second stick and you look up to the tip of the second stick - the silence is the ground space between these two sticks, something that takes up the space between two events. It takes up space. In some ways silence is like a black hole - it's impossible to imagine, you know. We almost never, we don't ever hear a real silence in our life, a full complete 100% silence. We hear breathing, we hear noise, we hear sound, we hear our blood, we hear the air blowing by, we hear everything, you know. So silence is the moment when the perception is stopped and things happen to start the perception again - that's silence.

Kunstradio: Do you have any concluding sentences?

When I came here to Kunstradio to make this piece '23 ways to remember silence - but only one way to break it' I was really involved in my memory, my reflections about life, my thoughts about history, mothers and fathers and the future and combinations of music and what is important to remember as you go through 50 years of life and what might happen next week that I don't control and how does it sound to put this voice next to this text. I really was working on different ways of creating memory from my own memory, from my own past and I kind of learned that what's really interesting is, the process of investigating the past always generates future. It's like waves are generating. You throw a stone in the water to investigate the water. Meanwhile the waves go out and push the water into the future and in some way it's quite interesting to keep on throwing stones into the water to generate more future for myself. So you investigate the past at the same time you create the future. The future will not exist for anybody without the past you will always be in kind of eternal present if you don't have the past. So for me the future is created by your memory. So I'm really more deeply than ever thinking and working and investigating the idea of memory.

Kunstradio: Thank you very much!

Kunstradio Broadcast 23.10.2011

Interview:Yannick Hofmann Transcript:Yannick Hofmann

Further information:

David Moss