Modulisme 104

Raoul Van Herpen

Conception - Layout : P. Petit / Cover Art : Proefrock

Raoul Van Herpen is an electro-acoustic music composer and improvising musician from the Netherlands.
In writing music he draws heavily on modern composing + improvisation techniques and loves to explore new “territories” and play with noise, electronics, textures, Wurlitzer piano, clarinet, saxophone + flute and DIY Synhtesizers.
Combining electronics, acoustics and silence…

You are an electro-acoustic music composer, improvising musician drawing heavily on modern composing and improvisation techniques.
What have you been working on lately, and do you have any upcoming releases or performances?

I’ve just finished the mastering of a duo Album with my friend Timo van Ruiswijk. It’s our second improvisation album based around drums (Timo) and me on Wurlitzer piano, only this time we added spoken word, flute, daxophone, mouth harp and of course some synth.
We’re still in the stage of finding a proper label to release the album but we’re excited to share it.
I’m also currently mixing 3 part quartet composition I made in the last few years. In these pieces tone and silence are treated equally. Though it’s mostly acoustic, its conception was made for electronic instruments and the search to equality in sound and silence (and noise). In the end I thought it would work awesome in quartet form. You’ll find some “stretched” piano (and further treated by the Serge synth), flute, tenor sax and some guests on violin and bass clarinet. I was very inspired by John Cage and Morton Feldman on this one.
Next to that there is of course the ongoing explorations with the EAT ensemble and “EAT The Podcast”.

Are you still playing in groups, improvising? How do you approach live these days? Do you still need an interaction with an audience or are you happy with studio work?

My main group is EAT (Electro Acoustic Trio) We come together and take whatever instrument we want and improvise on the spot, record, and discuss it in the “EAT The Podcast”. We’re not playing live currently but that can change. For me personally I don’t need a live audience to feed me. I do like to share my work of course. But I’m very happy to “live” in the studio and be creative, making things.
I also feel it’s kind of a different art, working in a studio or on stage.
A few years ago I discovered that I enjoy to create compositions and record my music. Kind of like Glenn Gould did, he stopped playing concerts to focus on the art of recording. Please note, i’m not comparing myself with Glenn Gould, haha…
Of course it is awesome to play in a group too, it forces me to deal with different choices and tastes and people. The most important thing is to trust these people and the art they bring. New things arises and flourish that wouldn’t be there if I were by myself.

Do you pre-patch your system when playing live, or do you tend to improvise on the spot?

As I don’t play live, I don’t know, but when playing in our trio improv recording sessions, I do prepare myself in getting to know my way around my system of choice, to be able to find the sounds I am into at that moment.
Most of the time the first two songs or so, are pre patched (just before recording) after that, it’s free patching and living on the edge haha.

Do you find that you record straight with no overdubbing, or do you end up multi-tracking and editing tracks in post-production?

That depends on the idea of the recording or composition.
Most of the time I like to record multiple things and edit the music to make it work like I hear it in my head. There’s one album with almost no overdubs, but that was out of necessity, my computer broke, and I wanted to make something so I went all in recording one take to tape. That’s a very different concept than what I usually do and it requires a lot of planning.
Usually I do start pieces like that, with a “rehearsed” improv one take, but after that I’ll add or edit things to make it like I hear it in my head.

You play Clarinet, you are interested in gesture, physical move to create the music, right? What is your favorite way to achieve such expression? Improvising, taking risks? Combining with other musicians playing the acoustic?

I studied piano at the conservatory, so that’s the most comfortable to be physical and gestural on. Maybe also the most daunting because of that..
My playing Flute, Sax and Clarinet is more recent.
I like it a bit on the edge of things.
I do try to put that in compositions as well. It brings an extra dimension to the composition. I also favor that idea of writing music that can not be played perfectly. As far as I’m concerned it feels more lively, as in my book “perfection is boring”. This is also very doable in the electric or synth realm where I love to put some “random” stuff on parameters, and react to that.

How were you first acquainted to Modular Synthesis? When did that happen and what did you think of it at the time?

I was searching for a way to play with synths without dealing with any kind of presets, or physical boundaries. An instrument that would let me be creative instead of forcing me to play in a certain way.
During that search I discovered the modular synth, and found a nice little second hand set. I had no clue how it worked but I was really drawn to it. I had to spend a lot of time and find my way around this thing.
Frustrating and fulfilling at the same time.
I was very curious if this would be something for my composition practice or not, so it was also a little test. Being used to playing keys, how do you play such a thing, that still is daunting, but a nice way to “escape the laws of the keys” and force creativity that way.

When did you buy your first system? What was your first module or system?

This is around 6/7 years ago. I bought an “Elektor Formant” semi modular synth. With some basic modules and sounding pretty good. Soon after that I started collecting eurorack modules. Not long after that I bought the DIY “Home build” 73/75 Serge panel/pcb from “The Human Comparator”. I had no idea if I was able to build it, but it still works great to this day!

How long did it take for you to become accustomed to patching your own synthesizer together out of its component parts?

It’s a gradual thing of course, At first you just try to get sound out of the thing, and discover how these things work, then there’s the taste and need for more functions, sounds and possibilities.
It takes quite a while to know what you really want to make and how to do it.

What was the effect of that discovery on your compositional process? On your existence?

I was already pretty much into the electroacoustic stuff from Karlheinz Stockhausen and John Cage. And into synth sounds from jazz artists for years. So I could see I wanted to make this work. The cool thing with getting to know a new instrument, is that everything is a “fresh” discovery, and that inspires to write music. Even with basic things like moving sine tones on tape delays.
In composing with these things, I hope to always stay in that same environment as “just getting to know” the sound and possibilities, staying “fresh” and feeling free to simply be creative and passionate.
Always coming back to the “simple” basic idea or concept for a composition.
It also opened up a whole world of sound and focus on timbre and noise. Maybe the most important thing, because a modular is capable of producing constant sound, it became very important to deal and compose with silence, that became a crucial part of my practice, on and off the modular.

Quite often modularists are in need for more, their hunger for new modules is never satisfied?

True, I’m also guilty of that, though I have to DIY a lot because it may get pretty expensive. And still…
But it feels like I’m at a spot where it’s more peaceful in that regard.
Not so eager to getting new modules at the moment.
Who knows for how long…?!

How has your system-instrumentarium been evolving?

I got into Serge more and more, and also into the Ciat Lonbarde world, to the point I sold my eurorack to feed that beast. And I went on DIY-ing for both of the systems. Whatever got my attention and whatever I think I can make, by pcb or on strip-board I try to do it. Of course because of that, not all is perfect and the synth has its quirks, but I like it and it’s not holding me back creatively.

Would you say that the choice of an instrument can be an integral part of your compositional process?

Yes I do think so, Every instrument brings possibilities and difficulties and of course a certain sound which you’ve got to work with. Or you can also use it to enhance or alter another instrument or sound, that way it’s more like a creative tool instead of an instrument.

Would you please describe the system you used to create the music for us?

My main composition focus was based around clusters. Basically I set up the Serge to play clusters, then let the clustering move more closely to, or apart from each other. That sound became the basis for a few pieces. I used that to derive and write other voice and a piano part. The Serge is also used to proces acoustically played instrumental parts. There is a Max/MSP patch to make microtonal clusters to enhance a written acoustical piece. Next to that I used 3 Toccantes (Ciat Lonbarde touch instruments) to make short notes and cluster chords sounding like an orchestra and organ. In almost every piece the electronic is combined with acoustical instruments, I really think there’s magic in the combination of raw electrons and acoustic vibrations, they are more closely connected then you would initially think.

Cluster module

What would be the system you are dreaming of?

That’s so difficult, I’d like to dive into a synthi, or even better the synthi 100… Or a Buchla system, I’ve never played those. But when I think about it, I would love to try out everything but I have the feeling that it’s way more important for me to be able to work with the things I own, with all their imperfections.
It forces me to be creative, and search for ways to make things work together. I think that’s what this thing is all about. It’s should give an urge to create.
That said, I’m still building stuff, synths and studio equipment because I love doing it. And maybe it’ll enhance my practice.

Which pioneers in Modularism influenced you and why?

That’s definitely got to be David Tudor and Karlheinz Stockhausen. Their vision, being so open minded to everything sound, bold to experiment and talking their art so seriously. But I would not be were I’m now without Chick Corea and Joe Zawinul. Exploring the possibilities of the piano and electronics also in free form, and making the synth sing.
Probably forgetting a lot here, but this will do fine…

Are you feeling close to some other contemporary Modularists? Which ones?

I can answer that, but it’s only a comparison in sound or in treatment, in vision, or in style. Whatever it may be, is for you all to decide. haha.
I feel some strong connections with Thomas Lehn, Stockhausen, Yannis Kyriakides, Toshimaru Nakamura, Thomas Ankersmit, David Tudor, etc…

Any advice you could share for those willing to start or develop their “Modulisme”?

Go for it, play, explore, be “child-like” and excited.
While also being patient and creative with the gear you have!