“I find it really exciting and magical when people do something that they are not necessarily specialised in. Specialisation – whether in music or whatever in life – takes away the potential of so much.”Ivan Vukosavljević
What does it mean to “un-specialise”? Serbian composer Ivan Vukosavljević‘s most recent album The Burning – performed by Dutch contemporary music pioneers Ensemble Klang – seems to ask just that. The album – consisting of a singular 45-minute piece – sees the performers each taking up deconstructed electric guitars, creating an “ominous, majestic drone [that] starts as a smouldering glow, but gradually develops into a hellish forest inferno.”
Based in The Hague, Ivan Vukosavljević’s work explores extreme amplification, hybrid instruments, unorthodox playing techniques, and improvisation. His first collaboration with Ensemble Klang – ‘The Atlas Slave’ – was nominated for the Gaudeamus Award in 2017; subsequent projects have included pieces for orkest de ereprijs, ConTempo Quartet, and Slagwerk Den Haag, among others.
Following the release of The Burning on Ensemble Klang Records, Patrick Ellis sat down with Ivan Vukosavljević and Ensemble Klang artistic director Pete Harden, discussing new approaches to ensemble writing, creating shared vocabulary, sacred drones, balance, and more…
Patrick/PRXLUDES: When did you first hear about Ensemble Klang?
Ivan Vukosavljević: I first heard about them when I moved to The Netherlands. I came here around 2014, and around that time, Klang would sometimes do projects with students from the KC [Koninklijk Conservatorium]. I was lucky enough that they were doing one of those projects during the time I was studying there; and I wrote a piece that was actually supposed to be a short 5-6 minute piece, but ended up being a 17 minute long piece, and I thought it was a success. That piece also got nominated for the Gaudeamus Award – and then at that point we knew each other quite well, and then I approached them with this new idea for ‘The Burning’.
Patrick: Pete, when did you first come across Ivan’s music and what characteristics drew you towards his work?
Pete Harden: In that project with the KC, Ivan came with a fantastic sort of reinvention of the guitar part – [he] laid the guitar flat on a stand, and then it was being bowed, it was strung with different strings, and had a very specific instruction for the kind of sound. The rest of the ensemble fitted within this sonic guitar field. So we’ve got saxophones with these beautiful multiphonics that come into this field of overtones that the guitar was producing. And that was really attractive and something a bit new for the group as well, that we hadn’t really explored at that point.
After we’d done ‘The Atlas Slave’ a couple of times, Ivan said “you know, I’ve got this idea for a new piece, where everybody plays the guitar”, and I was like “hell yeah, let’s make them do it!”
Patrick: Could you give an overview of the collaboration process? You’ve already touched upon ‘The Atlas Slave’ and knowing each other for a number of years – did Ivan just come and approach you out of the blue?
Pete: One of the things about playing so long together with the ensemble and [that] there’s just six of us is that you’re always in search of new avenues to explore. So when we get the whole ensemble doing something a little different from usual, but still playing beautifully virtuosic and very carefully articulated material – it becomes an excellent way to develop the group and to think more about sound, and to think slightly differently about notation. That was all really attractive, and [the] cleanness of the structure of the piece – and also of ‘The Atlas Slave’ – fits within our aesthetic. I think part of the way the collaboration then developed was also simply on a practical level, just assembling these guitars. I think Ivan maybe has to explain how that went…
Ivan: I find it really exciting and magical when people do something that they are not necessarily specialised in. Specialisation – whether in music or whatever in life – takes away the potential of so much.
When people play other instruments, or play in a way they are not specialised in, it brings out some sort of magic, at least for me. So working with the ensemble, it was just a matter of having everyone being comfortable together, and understanding what’s supposed to happen; let them ease into this style of playing, get comfortable with it, and kind of claim it as their own. And now, especially after several performances, I feel like they feel it as part of their practice even. They can just sit and play and there’s no problem. That’s something very special.
Pete: It’s interesting what you say Ivan. There’s something fundamental to the group: it’s not like a string quartet, where everybody has the same kind of technique and those instruments work in a similar kind of way, where there’s a shared vocabulary in the way that you play.
With [Ensemble] Klang – basically [in] all of the different kinds of instruments – you’ve got saxophones that have a different kind of way of tuning, the trombone that does it also totally differently, working with [the] overtone series, and then the piano, the guitar, and the percussion. The guitars are never in tune with any of the other instruments [in] the entire planet of the [sound] world. I don’t know how it works, but it’s impossible to tune them, and that’s really interesting.
So part of our practice is learning from each other’s instruments and the way that they work. That’s great when you turn around and, you know, Anton [van Houten] the trombonist has to start thinking: how does he fade in from niente, for example, in the way that the saxophones can do? A lot of that practice seeps from one instrument to the other, and that’s one of the beautiful things of having these different instruments in the one ensemble.
Patrick: During the process, how often did you meet? Did you have all of these guitars ready? Was there a lot of workshopping or did you have quite a clear idea from the onset?
Ivan: When I approached Pete, I already had sort of developed the sound of the guitars, what I wanted to do, etc. It was written in this period of a few years where I experimented on the guitar a lot. I wrote a lot of pieces for guitar, exploring different aspects of it, and then it kind of culminated in this piece. So when I approached Pete, I already had the idea – and then it was just about expanding it and letting it flow out the way that I wanted.
When it came to the performance, we had an intense three rehearsals within a few days, and that was it. There was no prior workshopping. I met with Pete once or twice to test how everything sounds together. I would prepare each guitar separately at home, and then play them all at once – but it was never with other people to see how [they] are going to interact, it was only me. And then when the ensemble came in, it was an intense couple of days of rehearsing, and that was it.
Patrick: In terms of the tunings and effects, was that stuff you all sourced? Or was that what Pete and the rest of Klang had ready?
Ivan: We bought additional gear, we bought two guitars, a few amps, the ensemble bought some additional equipment since [the first performance]. Pete had a few guitars, I had my own guitar, some amps already existed, so we already had some stuff, but even Ensemble Klang, as big a group as they are, don’t have six guitars and six guitar amps.
Pete: And it’s a great combination [in] the piece, with some super trashy, lo-fi gear and some super high-tech, hi-fi gear.
Patrick: Did you have a clear sound in mind as well when you planned the piece? The preview trailers on YouTube, as well as the two previews on bandcamp tap into a lot of drone and shoegaze, like Sunn O)))?
Ivan: The sound really came through experimentation. If you listen to other music that I do, you can hear that I’m more interested in “slow” music, or a bit of drone music, or sustained sounds. So that comes naturally, or at least it did at that time.
The sound I was working with was prepared guitars with magnets, in order to get this certain texture – and then once I got the texture that I really liked, I tried to tune them in a chord, because the whole piece is just one chord. Each guitar is tuned into a note of that one chord. And this noisy and crackly sound [effect]: it is sort of in a stable pitch, but always kind of wobbling. So then I thought what if that texture gets tuned into something – as just a minor 7th chord – and that was the basis of the piece.
This is something that exists in ancient cultures, in traditional cultures around the world; in Serbia where I come from, sacred music is drone and then chanting over the drone. In ‘The Burning’ you get that drone, and then there is music coming out of the drone in a similar fashion.
Patrick: When you sourced this equipment, did you have a preconceived idea, like “we need this kind of reverb, this kind of distortion” or was it trial and error?
Ivan: The most important part of it were these little magnets that are absolutely essential for the sound that you get – and they have to be a specific size. I had one by accident and then it was almost impossible to find another four; so for me that was difficult as I was very specific about that. They’re either too big or too small.
But when it came to gear it was not so important. Especially the first time [for the premiere] it was like, “let’s see how we can patch this together.” As the piece lived on, we got some better equipment for it.
Patrick: What was it like teaching the other members of the ensemble who weren’t guitarists to play?
Pete: I loved it! It’s not like they’re playing guitar like a guitarist has to play a guitar. They’re laid down flat, but nevertheless they’re dealing with sound, the volume potentiometer, the sensitivity of the EBow; learning that when you move an EBow across the string that it flips to different harmonics on the string, and once it goes up to a harmonic, it’s very difficult to get it back down through the series. All sorts of things. It’s all carefully notated by Ivan.
What was an interesting process for everybody through the multiple performances was being able to really hear exactly what they’re supposed to be doing after the first two or three [performances]. As much as following the instructions in the score, hearing what the note is supposed to be, what the texture and the colour is supposed to be, and then being able to control that, start playing with that, and interacting with each other. But I loved seeing the fear on people’s faces when they’re equipped with an amp cracked up to 10 [with] distortion and you just go, “be careful, be very careful.”
Ivan: Yes, because there is a big dynamic range within the piece, and the first part is very quiet, [you] have to contain this instrument, so that it doesn’t get loud, and the sound doesn’t explode. The sound is constantly there. The whole of the performance is basically containing the sound that you can hear in part V – where it is the climax of the piece.
During the second half of the piece everyone is playing their own instruments and Pete goes around controlling them [the levels and EBows] just a bit. Most of the piece is just containing that sound and moulding it into something else; if you make a mistake or do something by accident, the sound just explodes in a section where everything needs to be extremely contained. I think that was the biggest challenge for everyone – not letting the guitar sound explode.
Pete: But also fun, everyone really enjoys it, once you’ve crossed that boundary and you start getting comfortable with these things in front of you, then everybody really thrives on it.
Patrick: To date, the piece has been performed four times. Have there been any changes to the notation in response to some of the performance?
Ivan: No, not at all. The thing about this piece [is] some things come out differently, it’s unstable. Like Pete mentioned, if you move the EBow across the string, sometimes the string produces a harmonic that I did not expect or have in mind when I composed the piece. Whatever happens in that domain, I don’t think it obstructs the piece, it just makes it a very lively thing – like an organism that has its own life. So I feel that it doesn’t really need to change within notation at all.
Patrick: Did the confidence gained from the other members playing guitar have an effect on later performances?
Pete: I think the performances get better and better. I think the piece has bedded in really beautifully over the years. You’re dealing with such a long arc across 45 minutes, and as a player you rehearse it, but the performances are [where] you really learn about the piece, and really learn about shaping it. Just performing it more often and frequently, you learn dynamically where you can push things, in terms of articulation, where you maybe hold back a bit. They’re the learning moments.
Patrick: In terms of the recording process, what was that like? Was it all done in one live take or was it multi-tracked?
Pete: It was multi-tracked, but it was a single take. There is a beautiful church in Schiedam [nearby to Rotterdam], that we’d never used before to record in; but we knew we wanted something with a little bit of acoustic, but not too much acoustic. You can never be totally sure [when] you can visit these places – until you stand there with your six guitar amps and all of the guitars, getting the sound into the space. They’re the moments you really learn what it sounds like in that acoustic. I think it was just about right; it left space to play and colour the sound in post-production and in the mastering, but also [the space] has a little bit of life to it as well. It’s not like all the guitar amps are all in the same space – they’re not each in a different sound-proof cabinet – everything is mixed as one sound, and there’s a stereo pair at the front of the set-up. So it’s basically set up like a concert.
Ivan: It’s amazing: you don’t often get to hear five droning guitar amps in a church, you’re not necessarily used to that sort of sound blending. It’s cool to listen to that in a church.
Patrick: Were there any production decisions or choices that were unique, or brought out some elements more than the live performances?
Ivan: We wanted to record it in a space with acoustics, and I wanted to master it with a guy from New York who we met through a friend – Murat Çolak – I was certain that I wanted to do it with him. Maybe that was different than the usual [Ensemble] Klang releases, but other than it was just straight-forward.
Pete: With all of the things we put out, we’re looking for new adventures and new approaches to the ensemble, and new approaches to what an ensemble can be. It means that each time we sit down and decide that we’re going to record one or some of these works, it’s very often [we’re] looking for a different kind of location, or a different kind of approach to how we record it as well.
Some of the albums we’ve done have been total multi-track with overdubs or the instruments totally separated. Recently, a lot of it has gone back to live environments like this, and I think that it’s just dependent on the project. But [it’s] always a puzzle as well, to figure out. “Okay, that’s a piece we want to record, that’s a piece we want to share with everybody,” to think about “how are we going to do it and where are we going to do it?” – often, “where’s a place with a really good piano that we can use, with a good acoustic as well?” It’s not easy to find.
Ivan: There was a lot of debate on how we were going to do it, whether we were going to overdub it, record it in sections, etc. or whether we were going to record live. How to bring that sensation from a live performance, how to capture it in a recording; because a live performance is all consuming, [a] wall of sound and that is always very difficult to capture on a recording. So we were thinking how best to approach [and make] a satisfying experience while listening to a recorded piece. In the end we decided it’s best to just play the whole thing through all together, and everything gets blended within one space.
Pete: Also about finding that long arc: it’s important as a listener that the experience is the same as the performance. You’re not just setting out and it’s a new entry, but you’re 35 minutes in this long journey and you want to feel that. Hopefully we communicate that in the recording as well.
Patrick: Could you please explain the theme of ‘The Burning’? How did it shape the work?
Ivan: On the more instinctual part of the process, there was the sound which sounded to me like ‘The Burning’ – the sound of these five guitars together, playing with this texture, playing this one chord, it has this connotation of “burning”.
But also, obviously I picked that sound as important for my own reasons. At that time in my life, I felt that there was a significant psychological transformation – whether it has to do with age or something else… It’s difficult to title a piece, but this one word encompasses how I felt in that moment in my life, as kind of giving up on something or burning something from yourself, and continuing onwards. This kind of symbolism of ‘The Burning’ is kind of a duel; it keeps going while shedding some things off of yourself, you give something up and continue at the same time. Flowing in – flowing out.
All of these things kind of came together – the personal and psychological coming together with this sound that I created. It seemed like the perfect title.
Pete: I think primal. There’s something primal in the piece and primal in the sound, and ‘The Burning’ conjures that in the title, [it] comes back to an essence, something very fundamental.
Ivan: Yeah, there’s a heaviness to it. I feel like after that my pieces became lighter, so it’s an important moment in the process of being an artist, in my life at least’.
Pete: How old were you when you wrote the piece Ivan?
Ivan: When it premiered I was 32/33, and then the process between the conceptualising of the piece to the premiere, was also around 3 years. So from around 30 to 32/33 was the period.
“This kind of symbolism of ‘The Burning’ is kind of a duel; it keeps going while shedding some things off of yourself, you give something up and continue at the same time. Flowing in – flowing out.”Tweet
Patrick: I notice that the artwork for the vinyl of the record is similar to the previous [Ensemble] Klang with the font and stuff, but it’s got an orangey glow in the background. For me anyway, it’s a good visual representation, but what was the reason to break away from the other Klang releases with the text and the lines?
Pete: There’s an annual discussion within the group about when we are going to have a new design for the output on the record label. I had been out to the UK and had a few meetings about some prospective projects. I handed over the most recent albums, and had really positive feedback, which ran counter to the conversations we’d been having about changing the design and doing something entirely new.
We had a conversation with the graphic designers that we work with here in The Hague – a great company called Studio Duel. When we approached them they were like, “oh wow, that’s great you’re still making those albums, you’re still doing it!” Because we started back in 2010, we said to them “we think it’s time for something a little bit new” – and they threw out three [draft] versions, which I shared with Ivan. We pored through it and gave them some feedback about what matches well with the album. So it draws a line to the Ensemble Klang series of composer profile albums, but also starts something new; and I think it gives a new template for future designs, which I think we’ll carry on this kind of vein with some variations.
Ivan had a little design that he made as a point of inspiration for a mood board for the designs. And they used that as the background and abstracted it even further.
Ivan: It was about how we can incorporate the Ensemble Klang design with the certain ideas I had about it, also I always made a joke, “how are they going to add my last name with the Ensemble Klang font that they usually have on their usual releases?” It would be even more obscure.
So yes, I had some sort of an idea with the flame and the ornaments around, and then Pete suggested this idea to the designers and they came up with this nice solution; that everything is in the background and still has this recognisable Ensemble Klang design, but with something new to it.
Patrick: As I said, it does have a nice representation of the piece, as well as the consistency with the fonts that’s been used on those other composer profile albums. It’s also on vinyl; I was gonna ask, was there a reason that a more analogue format was to do with the theme of ‘The Burning’?
Pete: It’s our third LP. And it’s a decision each time when we put an album out, per album [the format] changes as well. So what’s the format that works best? Is there a physical release at all? Every year there’s a different balance among people that are interested in buying CDs, and people that want to buy vinyl. It’s of course an interesting decision, because it’s a 45 minute long single arc and we had to put a little gap in the middle to flip the LP. But it’s also a nice moment actually. It works really well.
Ivan: It’s also a larger format where the artwork gets presented in a satisfying way, and therefore the whole experience of the music gets amplified. I like buying music on vinyl, I think a lot of music within [a] similar sort of genre gets released on vinyl, and I think there’s a big renaissance of releases on vinyl. It’s a part of the experience of listening to music.
Pete: And also sound quality: the analogue warmth you get from a vinyl, it relates to a guitar and the EBows, the electronic crackle that’s inherent in this. You can draw a direct line between hands on the guitar running through the electronics in the pickups, running through the electronics in the amplifier and through the microphones that recorded it, and then back into the vinyl on your LP player. It suits the piece perfectly.
Ivan: I think there’s something magical about it – as much as when I spoke about the magic of the performance with people who have to learn how to play new instruments. There’s a whole aura around the piece that is a bit romantic, so I felt that vinyl has this romanticism behind it, and it just amplifies the whole experience of listening.
Patrick: Did it take quite a while to get a balance between each of the instruments?
Ivan: It took a bit. But mostly on how to control the guitars, how people interact with the sound; how the sound of other instruments emerges from this guitar drone, and how to most effectively achieve that, so that it doesn’t sound foreign to it, but sounds together with it. I think there were sections that were originally a bit louder when the musicians play their core instruments.
The whole point is that everything comes out of this guitar sound, and the piece was composed with that in mind. Especially in part four of the piece, where saxophones and trombones come for the first time into the piece: the guitar sound is really reduced and there are only a few harmonics playing, but then they expand and the harmonies are created together with the saxophones, trombone and the keyboard. It all had to be blended very well. And of course, in the climax part there is this motif constantly repeating, which also comes from the slow drone of the guitar, with the low notes of the tubax [a type of a contrabass saxophone] and the baritone saxophone. So everything emerges from the sound of the guitars.
Patrick: Were there some things with the equipment that you had heard that were good, but weren’t good and were there lesser effects that hit the spot?
Ivan: The sound that we were using is just really basic heavy guitar sound[s], it’s just distortion and a bit of reverb, and that’s it, there’s no additional guitar effects to it. It’s pretty simple. We have different pedals for it, some are heavier than others and then it also gives a different aspect to each guitar. And that sound is achievable extremely easily. I leave it open to whether we’re going to use this pedal or that pedal, and sometimes we just use distortion from the amp itself, so there’s a bit of chance to it, but it only contributes well to the piece, it gives some sort of diversity to the sound.
Pete: It’s actually one of those pieces that works acoustically. What you hear really is what happens in the space, and you plug the guitars in, and you have the saxes when they come in, and the vibraphone and the keyboard… It all sits in balance with each other.
We’ve had a few surprises over the years. Michael Gordon’s ‘Trance’, you think, “gosh, that’s loads of instruments” – but you stand in a room with however many players that is and everything is in balance and [everything] works. The amplification is an emboldening of the whole thing, but there’s no fundamental changes to it, and that is the same with ‘The Burning’.
It’s testament to the piece that it works so well and sits so beautifully within itself. There’s a few of them in the repertoire where you look at the score and think, “okay, this is going to take some balancing”, but you start playing and just go “everything’s in balance, everything is good.”
‘The Burning’ is available for stream and download at:
Check out more by Ensemble Klang and Ivan Vukosavljević: