Bristol-based duo Emptyset (James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas) create some of the most austere, hard-edged and deconstructed electronics you could imagine. Their music is strange, experimental, highly textured, and at times sonically challenging, drawing influences from techno to industrial music. They’ve recently released ash (Subtext), an album of stark muscular electrics, staticy machine gun rhythms and washes of truncated digitalia, though they’ve also reissued their third album, recur,(subtext) ten years after its initial debut on raster-noton – and for the first time digitally. Eight years ago we interviewed the duo and for various reasons it never ran, so given we touched on some of the themes within recur, as well as some of their other earlier albums, we felt like (with the consent of the duo) it was a great opportunity to bring some of their thoughts to light. We’re also presenting the first look at their video for ‘fragment’ taken from recur.
Innerversitysound: I presume your name comes from a Mika Vainio interest?
James Ginzburg: No, I think I first encountered “emptyset’s in a calculus class in high school and I found it a fascinating idea. I wanted to do a project somehow with that as a heading. I guess when I was thinking about these things I was very interested in physics and more abstract mathematical ideas. But it sat on the shelf until Paul and I started working on material, we were trying to find a name to encompass what we were doing at that point and Paul warmed to it very quickly. I had never come across Pansonic at that point, or Mika Vainio, Paul had, he was very interested in that.
Paul Purgas: Metri was still a record with a name, since the 1990’s, but I had never really delved into the actual symbolic meaning behind it. At no any point is it proposed that the word applied to the symbol.
Innerversitysound: So basically trying to start off with origins and to convey some idea of how the project Emptyset began. James you run Multiverse studio and publishing and Paul you come from an architecture background. How did your separate trajectories intersect and form this project?
Paul: I was based at an art gallery in Bristol called Arnofini, which is a contemporary arts space there and James was in the process of Multiverse beginning and setting up a network of labels around that. We just met through visiting the studio in 2005 and we just started working together on sort of basic ideas. Through discussing music we opened up the conversation to include literature, art history, design and architecture. The project started to take a form which applied to all of those ideas. It felt like more of a project that encompassed multiple fields rather than something that was based primarily in the domain of music.
James: For me the project represented a completely functionless project. Most of the projects I was involved in had a clear direction and ambition, not necessarily really creatively either. I was doing the music I was working on, but it still felt that because I had a career in it, that I was touring projects, working on commercial music, or whatever it was, that there was this element of function with everything. But when I started working with Paul it was a kind of pure space in which to experiment and indulge a lot of things I was probably more interested in than music. Over time it developed into a project where that internal conversation somehow entered into a public conversation.
Innerversitysound: You have a long connection with Matt Sampson, your engineer. You seem to focus on the underlying concepts of electrical noise in analog, white noise, sound waves as basic building blocks. Matt’s very hands on, and has a deep understanding of this space. Has this been quite formative in your approach and development of your sound?
James: In terms of the development of our sound, for example, we are working on of traditional forms of techno music and that ceased to be interesting and we have reduced everything back to the elemental components and started moving forward again. The development of the sound was built into the approach and just kind of expanded outwards. In terms of relationships with Matt and other people we have collaborated with or had a sort of mentor relationship. It’s more in terms of helping us expand our idea set beyond this kind of scope of sound and how these ideas interface with other mediums and other possibilities. So I think Matt met at a very fortuitous moment for me, particularly as I was moving beyond an interest in club orientated music. Initially our relationship creatively started around other projects I was working on based around more traditional forms of recording. But then as our conversation progressed and broadened they kind of inevitably led to ideas we were playing with in Emptyset and to ideas stemming from his background in electronic engineering, product design and his theoretical understanding of sound and audio technology. A huge amount came out of these conversations that was kind of influential on us being able to implement ideas that we had been developing but hadn’ quite realised.
Paul: It just seemed like a case of having a support structure in place with someone who had a very good understanding of electronics as a medium. And someone we could discuss both the ideas of an equipment and technology approach and even into spatial recordings. He had a very specific refined expertise that we could be in a conversation with him in terms of developing ideas an actually had a very clear idea of how to technically realise certain things that were beyond the scope of what we had worked on before..
Innerversitysound: Moving on to the albums. The first self-titled album seems less experimental and deals less with the architectural, spatial constructed domains. It would seem there are a few distinct periods your recording output.
James: I would say that the proposition that everything in the project proper is set out in the first album, in a sense. You could see that the first album is a very basic form of algorithm and it iterates throughout the project after that. I would see it as a very much reduced version of what came after, as if starting from 0 to 1 to 2 to 3 to 4. That kind of recursion, it becomes a process that through perpetual expansion creates more and more inherent complexity deriving from the same simple proposition. I think in terms of the stuff that we have done this is more geared around space, and particular spaces, is connected but more of a parallel exploration that takes from the approaches we have in the studio but then finds a way of extrapolating from the processes and integrating with environments. I think that a thread of iterations that we have looked at and are developing other ideas that don’t necessarily follow on but are informed by those experiments.
Innerversitysound: Medium and Demiurge albums, how would you describe the iterations. In what way are they specific developments?
James: Demiurge followed from the first album and we see the Emptyset album, the Demiurge album and the the Recur album to be a kind of continuum. The Medium album is a documentation of an evening spent at this particular place, the Woodchester Mansion (Gloucestershire), and in terms of a process of completing it, it wasn’ so much a process of rearranging it. It was actually compiling recordings we had made into a state, a presentation that had a beginning, middle and an end. Most of what you hear on the record is 90% what is happening in the space as they were, there is nothing particularly added or taken away.
Paul: It also seems that in terms of braking apart all that we have produced it seems that the first album, Demiurge and the recent album Recur only exist within a very specific world, which is a studio base practice. Alongside that Medium and Material and simultaneously the installation that we did for the we did for the Architecture foundation and the project that we did for Tate Britain all exist within another parallel conversation. It’s almost approaching to a studio based project and a more expanded environmental way of working
James: What makes Demiurge a particular development from the first album is that within the scope of the first album we were looking at incrementally increasing complexity. By the time we had reached Demiurge we were playing with the idea that the emergence of apparent intelligence, or a complexity that seems to have gone above and beyond the simple propositions or algorithms that are expressed in the first album. So this idea of feedback from the experiment to the playing in the second album of the sort of thresholds that one can find between the exploration of the mechanical and electrical processes. The spontaneous voices that a process is given when feedback processes are introduced at various times. Where Recur picks up from there is going further into the dissolution of rigid structures and leaving behind a particular kind of linear construction that was in the process of being liquefied in the second album is inspired by the idea of moving beyond linear construction of rhythmical patterns and traditional song architecture.
Innerversitysound: In the middle of this is Altogether Lost seems slightly anomalous to your development.
Paul: I think that was a record that was kind of brought about through a conversation of a long standing relationship we have with Cornelius based in Detroit. And I guess it was acknowledged that there was whilst we were simultaneously existing, or do exist within a conversation with the moving image, art production, the history of sonic art simultaneously there was a strand that was clearly connected to the structural rhythmic history of electronic history and I think Detroit is an intrinsic part of that. You can’t think of electronic music now without I guess having an awareness or a consideration for that period of production. So I think that for us it was a kind of a way to do something that in some ways was a more relaxed proposition but equally was something that was building on a kind of collaborative relationship that had previously existed. It was an opportunity to work outside a framework, much in the same way we did with Medium, it was just an opportunity to test a different boundary and work with different people and present something that still existed within the framework of the project, but just had a different framework, a different flavour, a different vector to what it was doing..
Innerversitysound: So moving to the more recent phase, the Raster Noton phase of your sound. It dominates the full sound spectrum allowing you play speakers and the possibilities of large sound systems giving you access to warehouse scenarios with very large crowds.
James: It’s difficult to know how much that’s an indexical relationship between the particulars of the aesthetics of what we are doing at the moment or just the wider audience we have reached over time. I think that the material on the Collapsed EP, which I consider a similar aesthetic to what was on Demiurge and Recur. We were developing some of those ideas before we were in a conversation with Raster Noton and then it seemed to make sense to explore those ideas further for that context. But I think inevitably that’s what opened things up to a wider and more varied audience and perhaps there is something particular about our production approach that seems to translate very well to a quite wide range of rooms and sound systems which means that we have been able to move between contexts very comfortably.
Paul: It was also a case that there were several ideas that were already in development before we entered into a conversation directly with Raster Noton and it seems that Raster Noton had a very established history of working within sound and performance in a manner that crossed over from the territories of visual arts design, art based music and gallery based performance. It was a matter of us being able to enter into that conversation and essentially address the wider audience that was already associated with the label. So I think certain opportunities have arose that have allowed us to perform to larger audiences but I don’t think it’s a case of us adapting to fit to that context, it’s just been an area that we have expanded into, quite naturally, I guess.
Innerversitysound: Your Secret Thirteen mix, it gives a good portrait of a specific landscape of sound, which you have approached. You acknowledge influences, document and mix together contemporary forms of sound structures that you are particularly interested in. Can you tell me something about this mix?
Paul: It’s a case that the mix is something we produce intermittently, when invited to, essentially. It’s almost the case of finding a way to essentially consider other forms of music that are being produced at this moment. We have always worked on Emptyset in a way that has been quite closed and hermetic and try to build within an internal conversation. I think it’s more a case that those mixes are just an opportunity to consider what we do and reflect on other modes of production that are in play at any moment of time.
James: If it must be said then one of the reasons we have done mixes infrequently is most of Paul and my conversations, creatively, don’t really revolve around contemporary music production. It’s more our conversations about other things that feed into our conversation about what inevitably gets produced. I think I am particularly quite fascinated and interested in what we actually do and are very pleased by what we produce but I don’t spend a whole lot of time listening to music that would perhaps be considered contemporary music or related to what we do. I think it’s much more interesting for us to operate from a point of view of finding interesting expressions or ideas rather than worrying too much about a conversation that are contemporary in terms of production..
Innerversitysound: Let’s talk about Recur a bit, what are the ideas and concepts that went into this album and what were you trying to achieve or convey through this particular form?
Paul: Recur was in a specific linage, based around the first album, then Demiurge and then finally into Recur. So I think it was in the process of increasing certain orders of complexity within a studio based production and simultaneously there was the idea of the rigidity after the first album followed by the more liquid feedback based approach of Demiurge and I think essentially with Recur we were thinking of this idea of recursion and the metaphors of a hall of mirrors and crystalline structures. I guess we had certain elements that we had put aside sonically, so Origin which was the first track on the album, the parts of that had been with us for some time so we were thinking and considering how we could construct a world around that premise. And I think Recur was the outcome from that.
James: I guess within that premise was the idea of looking at things from different points of view in terms of scale. So whereas perhaps the entire proposition of the album is contained in the first track but over the course of the album looking at different aspects of the process of moving from stability to fragmentation to chaos and then the order that is implicit in chaos, mathematically speaking.