response to questions from Nic Collins for noisy.org, July 2000
We met probably in 1983 or so, when P was studying for a maths degree at University College London (where R had graduated in genetics a few years earlier), beginning by running into each other regularly at contemporary music concerts, which in those days was still fairly often, that is to say before new music in London began in earnest to be eroded by a combination of atrophying financial support and institutional conservatism. Our musical interests already corresponded to an unusual degree; other interests and engagements (fundamental physics, socialist activism) subsequently developed in parallel.
FURT came into being on 17 March 1986; at the time R was working with an improvising quintet called The Number Twos, so that group’s equipment was sitting around temptingly at R’s house between rehearsals. The two of us spent two days playing, recording and (in the breaks) leafing through the Spurious Words section of the Oxford English Dictionary in search of titles and otherwise useful words and definitions, one of which was “Furt, in dicts. explained - ‘theft’, is a misprint in the later edd. of Tomkis’ Albumasar for ‘furie’.”
At that time our instrumentation consisted of such things as electric guitars, trombone, percussion, crumhorn, synthesisers, voices, cracklebox, vacuum cleaner, effects pedals, cassette recorders, and anything else within reach, which we improvised on and overlaid in various extremely low-tech ways; live performance as a duo would have been almost impossible and definitely precarious, but an aesthetic was emerging through the murk of bad amplification and tape-hiss, so we invited some friends to perform with us* and played a couple of concerts the following year. While these were pretty unsatisfactory from most points of view, one of our invitees (Dafydd Thorne, also of The Number Twos) brought along a Casio SK-1 sampler, the arrival of which changed everything. Sampling was obviously the way to go - but, crucially, with the purpose of extending (as far as our imaginations would stretch) the accessible sonic repertoire of the duo without dragging around a truckload of instruments and growing several extra arms each, rather than buying into a postmodern world of undigested quotation. That was clear from the start, and has become ever more clear; once a sampled sound has found its way into a FURT performance we seldom have any idea ourselves as to its origin. Sometimes we sit around at home listening to a CD and are shocked by the surprise appearance of a FURT sound in somewhat unfamiliar (ie original) form. Much of our sampled material is based on recordings we’ve made ourselves and/or has been processed into unrecognisability. A constant strand in our output has been the appearance of diverse vocally-derived materials, using our own or sampled voices, which seem primarily to be engaged in the (often desperate) attempt to articulate a message whose import remains out of reach.
Back to the story. After two gigs by the expanded incarnation (and through no fault of the extra musicians: the main problem was that FURT as an entity was still too embryonic for its identity to be communicated to or appreciated by anyone else) the original duo decided to retire from concert-giving until ready to perform alone. This took four years, during which we recorded 27 albums varying in duration from 30 minutes to three hours, acquired several Casio samplers, and battered every musical form which interested us into the shape of FURT, including various abortive attempts to apply ourselves to pop music. By the end of this process FURT had acquired its own inscrutable personality, mythology and momentum.
FURT reappeared on stage in Stockholm in 1991 with a stack of Casios (fed by Walkmen) and, for the last time, an electric guitar, which had already had a corner sawn off it to fit the guitar case we borrowed for the trip. The audience started small and gradually shrank, but the way forward could clearly be seen. Over the next couple of years we played the London improv scene (making it onto radio and TV, even) and ditched the toy samplers for more professional gear. After a while we also began (occasionally) to invite collaborators, sometimes as performers in projects we had composed as a duo (like Failed Experiment of 1998, with vocalist Ute Wassermann and cellist Friedrich Gauwerky, both of whom have also excelled in performances of R’s notated music), sometimes as guest improvisers. Some performances have included a visual component in the form of installations and projections by the artist Richard Crow.
R’s move to Amsterdam in late 1993 ushered in the STEIM period, during which we spread ourselves over the contents of STEIM’s recording control room in the same way we had originally done in a living room in south London, and we performed more extensively in Europe. At the same time the aural and structural complexity of the music took a leap into areas which hardly any music we know comes near, and this process goes on. An unforeseeable trend has been the development of what might be called a virtuosity with the sound-materials. For some time after the duo began we seemed to be working from a zero-point of instrumentalism - using sound-sources which couldn’t be played, and instruments which couldn’t be played by us. That type of behaviour is still part of our vocabulary, though more in the preparation of materials than in performance, and has also been extended into our studio techniques: obvious and clumsy edits, one of the stereo channels inexplicably cutting out or acquiring its own reverberation, accidental sonic artefacts or hardware malfunctions as compositional elements, and so on.
More recently we’ve withdrawn once more from dependency on external resources and we do most of our preparatory work at home. The changing technology does affect the soundworld of FURT but has never been the central point. What is? It really is all in the sound. People respond to it, when they do respond, for different reasons, but what the sound is trying to do is express something about the nature of reality, of thought, of society, of music, of itself, to name only these. In our wistful moments we imagine it as a (necessarily alienated) vision of artistic production in a post-individualistic world.
Both of us are otherwise involved in notated composition and in improvisation with others, which experiences serve only to intensify a feeling that FURT is neither and both of those things. We tend to think of FURT as one person rather than two; while our musical preferences and activities outside the duo don’t coincide precisely (though almost), in a FURT context they do, so that for the most part disagreements don’t occur. One of its most important aspects is that it encourages both of us to think in terms of more extreme ideas, or solutions to musical issues, than we would do individually or in playing with others. We’re constantly taunting each other with accusations of lily-liveredness in the face of some idea or other which seems initially to challenge tastefulness in an new or unexpected or merely stupid way. If taste seems to rule something out, it must be questioned. When one of us brings up an idea or a criticism, the other generally agrees without hesitation. This enables FURT to work quickly, efficiently, and without disappearing up too many blind alleys except where necessary - although we did recently stay up half the night recording R’s broken central-heating boiler, assuming it would oblige by providing us with some of the fascinating sounds it had been producing the previous evening, which (of course) it refused to do.
Extra-musical communicating in performance generally involves one of us reminding the other that something important ought to be about to happen. We did have a repertoire of signals, which were eventually discarded because they were never used. We mix our performances from the stage, and fiddle around with each other’s output levels without bothering to ask. Synchronisation is one of those things which takes its course; both of us deciding simultaneously to do something, or to change something, or to stop something, can be taken for granted as an outgrowth of the general symbiotic situation which obtains in a FURT performance. At the moment we are engaged in exploring a hugely-accelerated kind of dialogue, in which we throw sounds into the interstices of each other’s playing, several times a second (but irregularly) when it’s working well. Though the functional difference between pre-recorded and live materials in a FURT performance is already blurred, the next stage is likely to be that the former (in the shape of CD playback) disappears altogether. While there is pausing and/or fading in and out of the CD, eventually something with just as much or more memory and improved flexibility has to emerge - for example, an additional computer which behaves somewhat like a third performer but which, on the other hand, will unquestioningly do what its told when appropriate.
During the preparation of a piece for performance we improvise with sampled sounds, record, overdub, process, working on the poetic concept of the piece, its structure, its technical setup, the relationship of any live playing to pre-recorded materials. A piece ends up being relatively consistent from one performance to the next. On the whole we establish a new level of sonic intricacy and then perform with it until it’s (relatively) under control. At the point when we have a good recording of a particular piece we tend to stop playing it; at that stage it becomes a piece of recorded music which could be released, broadcast or whatever other means of non-performative dissemination might be available. At the same time we work on studio compositions (like our CD angel, which consists of one 70-minute piece conceived specifically for CD release) which are not directly connected to our performing activities, although almost all of the material will have begun life as improvisation.
Our music generates a wide variation in response from its listeners, as the foregoing might suggest. The range of individual responses seems to swamp any variation attributable to the geographical location of a concert. Of course everyone ought to make up their own mind independently of whatever spin might be employed by the artists, but an occupational hazard in performing live electronic music is the tendency of some listeners (and musicians!) to concentrate their attention on the technology at the expense of the musical purpose of using it, and such an approach will certainly miss the point of FURT. Our instrument is situated and developed at least as much in our minds (or in FURT’s singular/plural mind) as on the table in front of us. Our music isn’t a demonstration, but an expression of
* Harry Gilonis (clarinet, voice, percussion), Steven Holt (voice, ocarina, violin, percussion),
Mark R Taylor (hype) and Dafydd Thorne (saxophones, tenor horn, sampler)