John Chantler: “I was always most afraid of the stopped car.”

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John Chantler is an Australian born Stockholm based artist who works with synthesizers and electronics. He’s released music with the likes of Lawrence English, Maher Shalal Hash Baz, Tujiko Noriko, and Holy Family. His solo work, much of which is released on Room40, has displayed a restless desire for exploration and experimentation. Whether its the massive pipe organ at St John-at-Hackney in London on 2015’s Still Light Outside or the dynamic robotic synthesis from Stockholm’s EMS (Elektronmusikstudion) on of 2014’s Even Clean Hands Damage The Work, he’s remarkably adept at creating fascinating highly textured quite dynamic electronic worlds. His latest album, Tomorrow Is Too Late was commissioned by INA GRM for their Présences Électronique festival in 2018, and furthers his experimentation, with two 20 minutes pieces, it’s freeform abstract electronics, with shifts in density, timbre, and dynamics.We’ve been fans of his music for years, even inviting him to do a Cyclic Selects for us in 2014. With the release of Tomorrow Is Too Late we took the opportunity to ask him a few questions.

Cyclic Defrost: Where do you think your attraction to the electronic sound comes from? And what continues to sustain your interest in synthesis?
John Chantler: The first attraction was just a practical matter of getting the means to make ‘all of the music’ myself instead of just being the drummer. Synthesis seems to be a logical extension towards then making all of the sounds yourself, rather than relying on samples like I did at first… and its a lifelong process of learning/ discovery — that also appealed and continues to do so. I feel like it’s possible to make whatever music you want to make and isn’t tied to specific notions of genre.

Cyclic Defrost: When I first met you, I think you said you were moving to Sweden, and were pretty excited about being close to the GRM studios. Can you tell me about your experience there and how it has impacted upon your music making?
John Chantler: I moved to Stockholm at the end of 2014. This meant i’m closer to the Elektronmusikstudion EMS — an absolutely incredible public facility with multiple studios with fantastic monitoring, a few great synthesizers (80s Serge, 70s Buchla), and some of the kindest, clever, and curious people I know on staff. I don’t go there so much now as I have a space to work near my apartment, but inevitably when I do some work there I end up meeting interesting folks who are visiting from afar or some of the people who are working in Stockholm. This kind of serendipitous social function is as important as all of the gear.

The biggest thing about the move to Stockholm is having more time to work on music. As you know I had a pretty all consuming dayjob before — even if it was an incredibly rewarding one… Like London, Stockholm is very expensive — but the balance is different and I’m fortunate to live in social rented housing with affordable rents. None of what I do would be possible without that and it is criminal that successive local and national governments here have worked to dismantle and privatise this basic right.

Cyclic Defrost: Can you tell me about the INA GRM commission for the Presences Electronique festival. Is this related to a residency? What does this entail?
John Chantler: Yeah, François Bonnet asked me to play at Presences Electronique festival in 2018 and then through this European project “Re-Imagine Europe” was able to turn it into a residency/commission. Philip Dao — the brilliant technician there — had just finished reverse engineering the legendary GRM synthesizer designed by François Coupigny in the late 60s and they were interested to have someone make a piece with it. I visited the studio for two week long sessions and made the whole piece in less than a month, start to finish — which is not at all the kind of timescale i’m used to working to, but it was great to have that situation where you need to make decisions quickly and then just live with the results. It would have been nice to have more time with the Acousmonium speaker system, but I have some chances to present the piece again in 2020 and have another go then. Can’t wait.

Cyclic Defrost: I had trouble putting these questions together primarily because I wanted time to understand Tomorrow Is Too Late. I’ve listened to it many times but I still don’t think I understand, and I don’t think I will with more listens. Can you tell me what you were thinking about when shaping the pieces?
John Chantler: That’s good. Nice to hear that there is enough there to keep you coming back. I love a good tune, but some of my favourite music is stuff that I do not understand — music I can’t really ‘remember’ or where I’m totally baffled by how it would have been created. It’s not a goal I have when making my own, just nice to think that listeners might have that relationship to it. A bit of ‘Positive Confusion’ is healthy.
The pieces are shaped pretty intuitively. There isn’t a grand scheme, just a feeling that something needs to happen. If anything was conscious, it was an attempt to avoid making a maximalist drone thing where you know exactly what is going to happen. I think about when I was cycling in London — you could generally judge the trajectory of moving traffic, but I was always most afraid of the stopped car. Good to have a little danger in the music to keep it interesting.

Cyclic Defrost: What do you like about longer form pieces? Is it about immersion?
John Chantler: I don’t know if it’s about immersion as much as making associations and processes of memory and context. These two longer ‘pieces’ could easily be broken up into smaller ‘tracks’ or ‘songs’ but for me they belong with and gain meaning from their place alongside the other elements around them. A good example of this I can think of is Nuno Canavarro’s Plux Quba. It’s listed as individual tracks, but for me it’s the whole thing that is the work. In this era of streaming/decontextualised listening, I thought it worth making it more explicit.

Cyclic Defrost: To what extent do you use improvisation as part of the compositional process? How does it work?
John Chantler: It all starts with some kind of improvisation. It is all music that is made at the moment of creation. I don’t do any kind of separate scoring process in advance that I’m trying to realise. It is very much a process of listening to the material and making decisions based on that listening. Obviously there is a massive set of aesthetic prejudices that I draw upon in that listening. It is not a neutral or objective activity in any way.

Cyclic Defrost: It feels like there’s a real delight in the different textures you manage to elicit things gurgle, hiss, rumble and belch. It sounds like lots of fun twiddling knobs to create this. Or am I naively oversimplifying things?
John Chantler: Sure, there is a lot of fun to it alongside the usual frustrations when nothing seems to cohere. Sometimes it is just a very simple switch of change that brings things back into perspective, and those moments when you touch on something that really works is pure joy.

Cyclic Defrost: What role do you think emotion plays in your music? Are you ever attempting to elicit in the listener, or perhaps yourself during your music’s creation?
John Chantler: I really try to steer clear of having clear emotional signifiers in the music. Hopefully it remains ambiguous enough that the listener can bring their own energy to it. Seems crazy to try and limit what that response could be.

Cyclic Defrost: What is the relationship between your recorded work, such as Tomorrow Is Too Late, and live performance?
John Chantler: It’s very hard to get the fine level of control in concert. At the moment i’m working with a setup with three different synthesizers — a Serge panel, Nord Micromodular and an open source PD synthesizer called Automatonism on the computer. It’s easy to switch between patches on the Nord and in PD and I mix these together in different ways for each concert… again a process of listening and seeing what comes as there are some unpredictable/randomized aspects of the PD patches in particular and of course the interplay of the room / audience means it feels different every time and it would be really weird for me to play the exact same thing every time.

Cyclic Defrost: What do you think you learnt from the creation of Tomorrow is Too Late?
John Chantler: Oh, I think there is plenty of little things… some I probably won’t realise for quite a while. Not sure I can articulate anything spectacular though.

Cyclic Defrost: Finally why is tomorrow too late?
John Chantler: The title sounds more prosaic than it is. François had written to ask for a title and I said I’d have a think about it and send it to him the next day. He replied “Tomorrow is too late” and it seemed perfect. Was talking to someone recently and we were joking about it being my climate change record. Not that imminent environmental collapse isn’t hypercritical but I couldn’t possibly pretend to make something that only speaks to that kind of issue. This ongoing tendency to require some kind of narrative — especially within broadly-speaking ‘Electronic’ music — does music a disservice. Rendering it as background to ‘real’ issues where the music itself does not matter and is not materially worthy as a subject for discussion in and of itself.

You can find Tomorrow Is Too Late here.

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Bob is the features editor of Cyclic Defrost. He is also evil. You should not trust the opinions of evil people.

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