Alexander Schubert

Alexander Schubert: ‘It would be a stupid idea to try to recreate a rave event’

Ahead of the UK premiere of Supramodal Parser, the innovative composer talks sensory overload and exploring the melancholy side of techno.

Nervy, fast-moving and relentlessly inventive, the work of Bremen-born, Hamburg-resident composer Alexander Schubert takes the multimedia world as an all-pervading fact of life. With his background in neurobiological research, it’s no surprise to find his work constantly questioning our perceptions and assumptions, as well as drawing upon the captivating, contradictory stream of sound, images and ideas that bombards us.

When we last spoke with Schubert in 2014, he was firing up the strobe lights in readiness for the  hcmf// staging of his work Sensate Focus. This time he’s promising even more of a sensory overload with the UK premiere of Supramodal Parser, which closes hcmf// 2017 on Sunday 26 November. Performed by Ensemble Nikel and vocalist Mohna, it’s an immersive response to techno culture, with all the highs and lows of an epic night out condensed into one concert.

hcmf//: Can you tell us what Supramodal Parser is all about?

Alexander Schubert: The name Supramodal Parser is the name for a region of the brain which takes information both from the visual and auditory parts and processes them without differentiating the modal source. It’s a kind of stream or overload of information that belongs together or where you don’t differentiate between those things anymore.

The piece has its origins in techno rave culture. It’s a journey through what could happen in this context, condensed into one hour. It deals with different states of excitement or ecstasy or energy, these very strong inputs, but it also has a different side to it, of being thrown back to yourself.

The aim is to create a setting where it’s not so much a piece that is happening onstage, but which puts the audience in the centre of what is happening. It’s a piece about the audience’s perception and that’s reflected in the fact that all the lights and the fog aren’t exclusively facing towards the stage but also towards the audience, so the space where they are is a central part of the piece.

It’s not like a rock show where you use the lights to make the band look cool. It tries to mimic the disorientation and confusion where you’re overwhelmed with information and people pop up and then are gone again, making the musicians look a bit like a hallucination in the fog.

hcmf//: It’s interesting that you’re trying to centre the audience when a key part of rave culture could be said to be a kind of communal, egoless experience…

AS: Absolutely. There are two things that I wanted to say. The general topic behind it is letting go: immersing yourself in this situation whilst giving up control and letting it push you wherever it can. There are parts of the piece that are very fast and in-your-face, and there are others where it super-slows down and you’re thrown back to yourself. The duality of the high and low, the being there with so many people or being there on your own; for me the balance between those aspects was important for the piece.

I see the rave setting as a starting point; the emotional side is an example of something larger, of states not exclusively linked to something happening in techno culture. I see it more as a metaphor for situations we can be thrown into and how we deal with or can be overwhelmed by them.

hcmf//: How did you face the challenge of contemporary music concerts usually being very different environments to clubs?

AS: It was always clear that this piece needs a certain room or situation to work. You can’t have it in a chamber music hall where the people are sitting; it more or less needs to be a black box. But then other things are not possible: the concert needs to be at 8, 9, 10 o’clock in the evening rather than 4 o’clock in the morning, and the duration needs to be an hour as opposed to 24 hours. That leads to a question: how much of the setting that I’m ‘quoting’ doesn’t make sense to recreate? It would be a stupid idea to try to recreate a rave event, because it’s much cheaper, more efficient and fun to just go to a good club and do it there.

What I also didn’t want to do was have a kind of super-meta thing that quotes it so academically that in the end it’s just a contemporary music piece. I realised that at some point I will need to have the kick drum going through for a few minutes; I needed to get my hands dirty and work with the material, but it’s a challenge to find the right balance. It needs to be something else, and to offer something that a club experience cannot.

For me, it’s about condensing it, and also about working with text, so there’s spoken text and sung lyrics that give it a narrative and encapsulates different experiences in this context. The music evokes this overwhelming experience, but aside from one or two minutes, you couldn’t play it in a club. Some people did dance at the premiere, but it’s not a dance track.

hcmf//: Are there any particular nights you’ve experienced that you draw upon for this piece?

AS: It’s not really about one particular night; for me it’s really a summary of what my experiences were for several years and trying to put all of them into one hour. It’s not autobiographical by any means but it also has a very personal side to it.

hcmf//: Many of your recent works, for example Black Mirror or Star Me Kitten, have very dark undercurrents. Are audiences going to discover a horrible secret at Supramodal Parser?

AS: Star Me Kitten and Black Mirror are much more clearly narrative, so they can develop this dark side in a more explicit way. With Supramodal Parser, it’s not horrific or scary; it has a melancholic and questioning side, rather than the upbeat party experience.

hcmf//: It seems there’s been a distinct move in your work away from concentrating on performers – for example working with gesture in a very detailed way – and towards centring the audience…

AS: That’s a direction I’ve consciously taken over the past few years. I see it as a general shift, beginning with my purely musical works, then with the gestural works that started to use the body, then the body combined with the lights that created more of a setting. And then at some point the lights left the stage and entered the audience’s space.

I wouldn’t say traditional music performances onstage are irrelevant but they’re not what I want to do. I see my potential in works that are even more immersive. Supramodal Parser was the first full-length piece to push it in this direction; Black Mirror was even further away from a normal concert situation. The things that I’m looking at now take basic settings that are not even musical.

hcmf//: Can you see yourself creating a work that takes place in virtual reality?

AS: Yes, I’ve been thinking about this, as perhaps a lot of people are right now, and I can totally imagine that. But there’s nothing concrete yet. The topic that I find interesting and which has been seeping into the stuff that I do for a long time is working not exclusively with virtual reality in the sense of putting on glasses but focusing on aspects of virtual things, fake things, how you can twist the relation between something happening and a result, maybe sonic, maybe visual.

This aspect of creating, it’s not virtual reality in the strict sense but in a bigger sense, for me it’s one of the most interesting topics, sociologically, politically, and it’s also one of the great benefits of working with this kind of technology.

Our Ears Felt Like Canyons
21 November @ 8pm
Bates Mill Blending Shed
Tickets £12 (£9 concession / online)

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Nikel: Alexander Schubert
26 November @ 9pm
Bates Mill Blending Shed
Tickets £17 (£14 concession / online)

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Book tickets online