by caleb~k

Oren Ambarchi has been involved in the Sydney music scene since the early 90s and might well be one of the best-known young musicians making new music here. Originally a drummer Ambarchi has taken up the guitar from which he pulls various sounds which hold only the memory of a traditional guitar sound. In this respect his audio output has much in common with other guitarists currently working in an experimental and improvisational way - Rafael Toral and Kevin Drumm, especially.

Oren Ambarchi

Oren Ambarchi and Robbie Avenaim direct the Australian experimental music festival 'What Is Music?'. The festival has become regular outlet for new music since it began in 1994. The festival puts well knowns, both local and international, together in various improv groupings and orders. "The nights are not a smooth progression," says Ambarchi, as in typical rock gigs where supports lead up to the main act. The festival is based around a diverse set of performers and styles. "I want the audience to be made uncomfortable by the bills, I want to be uncomfortable." In 2000 the festival hosted European improviser Keith Rowe along with Mego artists Rehberg, Fennesz, Bower and Skot, who played along with locals including Pimmon and Martin Ng. Three releases have come out of the festival so far, Fennesz and Rosy Parlane (Synesthesia), a solo Fennesz CD-R and a collaboration between Ambarchi/Fennesz/Pimmon/Rehberg/Rowe (Ritornell).

Since the Tzadik release with Avenaim and his solo release "Insulation" on Touch there has been a steady stream of releases from this very hard working improviser. Though he does not play live, especially solo, very regularly in Sydney when he does it is a treat. The latest outing paired him with David Haines (Sigma Eds) and saw the audience cheering and banging feet in an uncommon feeling of excitement from those present. (laudanum.net/imp.aud)

A common problem with the audience in Sydney is their knowledge of the old Ambarchi and his extreme output. He was part of the group post-punk group Phlegm and is known for taking part in extreme and far from comfortable performances - of the type that most only need and want to see once. In recent years, however, his output has become much quieter and an interest in explorative electronics & acoustics has come to the fore. His guitar is fed through a number of pedals and effected and delayed to form layers of patterns, textures and tones which verge on falling into feedback but are normally restrained. The sound is one of both contemplation and intensity influenced both by contemporary improvisation and digital audio along with early American experimental composers such as La Monte Young, Alvin Lucier and Phil Niblock.

The interview was held over a number of e-mail exchanges in October and November 2000.

01. You have a diverse range of interests in music from noise, improvisation, punk, to the quieter end of things. You drum as well as play guitar and have a history in bands including Phlegm and The Menstruation Sisters. How did this history end with you playing abstract and often quiet sound based on your delayed and effected guitar.

In 1998, after many years of various diverse (& often noisy) projects, I had the desire to start recording/documenting some solo guitar works. This was also a reaction to the lack of live playing opportunities in Sydney; all of a sudden there was nothing going on, so I had a chance to experiment on my own & see where it would lead me. I wanted to limit myself to guitar & see how far I could go. I was interested in making sounds that were cold, unemotional and totally detached from 'the guitar'. In time I realized that slowly evolving, quiet textures was something that also interested me. Sounds that were in some ways a response to my previous recordings and live projects that were usually quite chaotic & 'maximal'. These experiments evolved into what you hear on the 'Insulation' [Touch] release.

02. The audio is no doubt detached from guitar in that the link between your actions and the sounds emitted are distant and seemingly unconnected. Why were you interested in cold, unemotional sounds? Have you achieved this goal, do you think they are cold?

That was my original intention, before I had actually recorded anything. It was a way of setting myself a boundary to work within. I had seen a solo performance of Jim Denley where he was improvising (using only a flute) & the whole performance was so alien. It was really beautiful. The sounds were totally removed from what I perceived a solo flute performance to be. This (as well as a lot of electronic musics, old and new) was a big inspiration for me to try something kinda similar on my own. Once I started recording, I realized that this idea (the cold & unemotional one), was more philosophical and in reality, the recorded results were quite the opposite. The sounds turned out to be quite warm & at times 'old school' sounding, which I think was partly the result of using a guitar and recording it all to tape (as opposed to doing it on a computer). In fact I'm glad I didn't achieve my original intentions!

03. Tell me about improvisation in terms of your recent music. Even when playing solo you approach the performance without a preconceived idea of how it will go and which sounds, techniques etc you will use. How do you set yourself up to play both live and in the studio?

Improvisation has always been an important element in all of my projects. When recording solo in the studio I always begin a track with an improv (with no preconceived idea) & then it is shaped & refined via overdubs, taking away a track etc etc. I'm interested in extending the vocabulary of what I do, discovering new sounds/ideas, & improvisation is usually the catalyst. In a live solo context I usually have a starting point &/or parameter in mind & then wherever it goes, it goes.

04. You have played with a number of well-known improvisers including John Zorn, Jon Rose, Otomo Yoshihide and most recently Keith Rowe, (with Pita, Fennesz and Pimmon released on Ritornell). What is it like playing with artists who have such a long history of playing music under this approach?

Really inspiring; you grow as a player when you improvise with artists that have a distinct approach to playing & have had much more experience than you have.

05. Maybe we should talk about some of your recent projects. What are you working on at the moment? Do you often have a number of projects on the go at once? Or is there a reason that a few are appearing at around the same time?

There are always a lot of projects happening - this is a way of keeping myself from going insane! There really isn't much happening in Sydney, so we find ourselves recording all the time. Also, I have two jobs, so when I have free time I want to make the most of it. Recently I have been doing some duo recordings with Martin Ng (a Sydney cardiologist/turntable player). We have already recorded loads of material & some of the early recordings are being released on German label Staubgold. It kinda reminds me a little of Lucier's recordings (whom I love).

I've also recently completed a song-based duo recording with Chris Townend (the guy that runs Big Jesus Burger studios). We're trying to find someone to release it, so hopefully it'll come out one day. Most people will be confused when they hear it (!) lots of singing, acoustic guitars etc etc, quite the opposite of anything we've released.

There's a few things that should be coming out soon; 2 x solo LPs recorded a long, long time ago... The first of these is the final volume of the Stacte series which will be released by Plate Lunch & the other LP (Persona) will come out on ERS. Plus a studio collab with Fennesz, Pimmon, Pita and Keith Rowe has been released on Ritornell (Afternoon Tea).

06. You have mentioned a couple of times the fact that Sydney doesn't have much happening in the way of live events, etc... Why do you think that is?

I guess the main reason is the lack of live venues; the ones that operate are usually only interested in the same old shit. + Most people aren't really interested in anything here... just bullshit. We've got loads of great restaurants though.

07. Could anything be done about it? People have tried but no one turns up, unless it is truly one off.

It goes through waves; 5 years ago there was plenty of live activity, & at the moment it's the opposite. The only thing that can be done is artists organizing their own shows, but there aren't many spaces or interest for this either. Sydney has really gone to the dogs.....

08. The lack of live events is made up for in other ways however...eg radio, there are loads of experimental radio shows both in terms of live and DJed stuff. Also Sydney's does have a really interesting studio output thing happening.

There are many talented, innovative artists here. A lot of people are recording, slowly getting recognition & releases overseas + touring overseas; right now this seems to be the only way to operate. How much can one actually do here? Melbourne, on the other hand has a lot more happening; people actually go out to hear music there! But sometimes being in a place far away, with little activity brings out things that are real different. For example, John Zorn suggested Robbie & I record our Tzadik CD in New York, with New York musicians & we chose to do it in Sydney, on our own - it wouldn't sound the way it sounds if we did it in New York. Sometimes there's something interesting when people create in their own isolated environment.

09. Tell me in general terms about your technique.

...Or lack of... I'm actually a drummer and played a lot of free jazz all those years ago, I still play once in a while. I ended up playing guitar, as there were no unusual guitar players to work with around here, so one thing led to another. I'm not exactly a conventional guitar player & have no interest in going there (there's enough of them out there already). I had always been into electronics, and cheap tape cut-ups when I was younger, so for me the guitar is an extension of this interest. I use some conventional effect pedals (delays etc) & try to trick them into doing things they're not supposed to do and not make it sound too obvious. Not sure what my 'technique' is....

10. How do you see your musical vocabulary in relation to recent developments in improvisation? That is, there seems to have been a couple of recent developments which have had an important effect on the improv scene... I think both are relevant to your out-put.

Firstly the more traditional instrumental improv artists such as Rowe but also the younger artists such as Drumm, Burkhard Stangl, Dean Roberts, and Taku Sugimoto... there has been a move away from both noise and density. Many are currently happy to explore the quieter regions, with loads of space...

Secondly the laptop improv lead by Mego... which is still playing very noisily but even this I expect will calm down as artists develop a vocab with the new tools and sounds.

11. I see your output as somewhere in both areas in that your output often sounds as if a computer could have made it, while it is quiet with loads of space and room etc.

To me the 'laptop' improv is partly coming from the musique concrete/noise electronics world which has always been an inspiration - at times I try to push the guitar into this area. My love for composers like Morton Feldman and Alvin Lucier have also affected my work, so both of these schools interest me. I'm sure this is true for a lot of the artists you've mentioned

12. One of your biggest contributions to the Australian music scene is the "What Is Music?" festival which you organize... how has the festival develop and where do you see it going in the near future?

The festival was originally organized in 1994 together with Robbie Avenaim. There was a lack of opportunity for local artists to present their work in a live context so we organized a week's worth of shows under the banner 'What is music?' It has since become an annual event with many international guests appearing. The audience attendance has grown and it has extended to other cities in Australia. The festival has also encouraged a collaborative exchange amongst its artists, and many exciting projects have come to fruition. We hope to continue to present many important local and international artists to Australian audiences in the coming years.

13. Finally what does the next year hold for you?

Currently I am planning the 'What is Music?' festival for late Feb 2001. We're hoping for more Mego artists (Farmers Manual, Uli Troyer, Hecker, CD_Slopper, Russell Haswell) + Pan Sonic, Cor Fuhler, Max Nagl & others.

I'm going to Europe in May 2001, so far doing some solo shows in London (Touch anniversary evening) & a trio with Keith Rowe & Robbie Avenaim in France. Also getting some tracks together for a new Touch solo CD.

Oren Ambarchi

select discography

stacte lp (jerker productions) 1998
stacte.2 lp (jerker productions) 1999
insulation cd (touch) 2000
stacte.3 lp (plate lunch) 2000
persona lp (ers) 2000

ambarchi / fennesz / pimmon / rehberg / rowe -
afternoon tea cd (ritornell) 2000

oren ambarchi / martin ng -
reconnaissance cd/lp (staubgold) 2000

oren ambarchi / robbie avenaim -
alter rebbe's nigun cd (tzadik) 1999
clockwork 3"cd (jerker productions) 2000

caleb.k can be contacted at: caleb.k@laudible.net

photos: mr. snow