INTERVIEW : Ryoji Ikeda and Peter Weibel, Austrian artist, curator and theoretician
Recorded at ZKM Karlsruhe on 31 July 2012 by Manuel WeberTranscription by Wolfgang Knapp
PW: First, thank you for the time and opportunity to speak about your work. My first question would be the title: superposition. Are you referring to the quantum mechanical idea or are you referring to the cinema where you work with superpositions. What is the idea behind the title?
RI: I have never specified anything. How did you feel when you heard the word ‚superposition’? I am very curious about how people can have an impression when they hear ‚superposition’.
PW: Well, I would think of the wave function of Schrödinger, from quantum mechanics. Then I would think of the super-imposing of image on image and then I would think of the observer who has a position superior to anything else.
RI: Because you are a very intellectual person. When you hear the word superposition, you are inspired. But, for example, my mother just think “Super!” “Position!”. The word has a very wide spectrum and I think that’s good. People can get many meanings. And of course, I am obsessed by that notion of a quantum mechanical meaning. And also, the other superposition principle, the fundamental principle of physics. For example, the harmonics that superpose and that makes our voice and sound. Like an analysis and a basis.
PW: So you are also thinking of musical notations? Of the superimposition of frequences?
RI: Yes, exactly. But the core topic to me is really the newest one — the quantum mechanical meaning, the fundamental characteristic of quantum physics.
PW: Since when are you interested in the quantum nature of reality? And why?
RI: I read some books when I was a student. Of course, it was really difficult and pretty counterintuitive. But it stunned me to discover quantum mechanics. After then I became an artist, but it was absolutely impossible to describe quantum mechanics for my art. It’s simply impossible. So, I am just making a piece of art. It’s a performing art piece, which never explains quantum mechanics. It is rather inspired by quantum mechanics. It’s just art. But some of the expressions are scientifically totally correct. I use lots of data sets from NASA and so on, but the construction, the composition is very intuitive because I am an artist. So, it’s hybrid.
PW: I see. I can imagine that when you have to make a decision between the classical world view – that means causality and mechanics – and quantum mechanics, I think that, as an artist, the idea of uncertainty or of many different possible worlds is more attractive. I think all these possible worlds give us – as artists – more freedom.
RI: Yes, but quantum mechanics is just the science for a very very small scale, at atomic scale order. It’s about nature. About how we see our nature. As in cosmology the level is really macroscopic but in quantum mechanics it is very microscopic. Really tiny, tiny. At such an extreme microscopic level, classical physics doesn’t work. I think that’s it. Then I came to qubit (quantum bit = quantum binary digit) and the quantum mechanical information through pure mathematics because I was totally obsessed by mathematics. Number theory, set theory, proof theory and meta-mathematics etc. And I was very obsessed by the philosophical problem of “the continuous and the discrete”. And then I discovered that in between 0 and 1 there is such an uncountable and unthinkable infinity. Just between 0 and 1. This is just pure mathematics and this problem has been discussed since Plato’s era for many years. And I was very much obsessed by this problem for a really long time – actually since I was a child – before I discovered quantum mechanics. When I think about the real number 0.00000001…. and then again 0.000000012, 0.000000013, 0.000000014 … it’s crazy. Our human logic is basically discrete. We can’t grasp the concept of continuous line (continuum). It’s platonic. Line means a collection of points. But a point has no parts as Euclid said. I was very obsessed by that and then I encountered Quantum bit — so-called Qubit. Classical bit, which is a building block of information and computers, means 0 or 1, Yes or No, Black or White. Qubit means 0 and 1 at the same time, which is called “state of superposition”. It’s almost impossible to imagine for us. The mathematical model of a qubit is a sphere where you can point infinitely many points onto/into and everything is superposed at the same time. So my brain kind of exploded when I encountered the quantum information and the qubit. But this notion emerged from the applied science, but now applied science, pure science, art – everybody gets together. Especially quantum research – quantum field, cosmology, quantum mechanics of course and then the quantum information, computer science. And I met many scientists and mathematicians around that topic. The key word ‘quantum’ gathered a new team and that is really exciting for me. Through the great meetings with many scientists working in that field they inspired me to make this piece (superposition) and you will see it on Sunday.
PW: Until now, it is pretty clear that artists have oriented themselves towards macro-phenomena and physics – which are scientifically correct. But now you are moving forward to the micro-phenoma where laws of classical physics don’t function anymore. I see you are moving into a new area of atomic or molecular scale. There, we have not only to do with materials but also with information. When you mentioned that you met many scientists did you also meet people like Lloyd and other people who are thinking about working with a quantum computer?
RI: I saw the quantum computer in Canada. Three types of quantum computers. They are just like fridge or tank. You have to cool it down to stabilize for a precise observation of the spins of electrons, or you have to form an ultra strong magnetic field to read the spin of nuclei. Quantum computing is very interesting because it is a computer but only in the notion, the concept. The point is how to read the spin of an electron, photon or whatever. It’s not like hardware. This is very exciting for me. Radical.
PW: There is a very famous Japanese scientist who wrote a little book on the spin and even won the Nobel Prize for it. Unfortunately, I don’t remember his quite difficult name.
RI: Nor do I. But that field is very exciting.
PW: Are you also interested in observation? In the idea of relativity and observation? You use your ideas to investigate a new theory of reality. You use quantum mechanics to give us a new idea about the nature of reality.
RI: Yeah, but I can’t apply that concept to the stage art because we have to fix the audience here. But for the installation piece of superposition, I am thinking about it.
PW: The people who help you working on the superposition performance – your assistants; are they programmers? Musicians? What is their profession?
RI: They are basically programmers. And architects and all kinds of artists. They are very young, in their twenties. They can program almost in every language. Super.
PW: Does your interest in music also come from mathematics?
RI: No, I am basically a composing musician. I just love music and dedicate myself to it for a long time. Then I discovered that music and mathematics are sisters. I discovered a certain beauty from the structure – with Bach, for example – and at the same time harmonics as a physical phenomenon as a sound. Sound is not music, it’s just sound. It’s not music which has a grammar, a structure which is sometimes purely mathematical. Anyway, I like music, I like sound because it’s invisible. And that’s why I really like to make something invisible visible. I am not really a visual artist but I try. I don’t want to fix my position. I’m just an artist. I am free. I can make stage art, an exhibition, a concert, public art…
PW: Do you see yourself in the tradition from Phytagoras to Xenakis? Is it a tradition you belong to? You mentioned Bach but there is also Xenakis, who worked with computers.
RI: I can’t believe it. It is such a long time ago. Some hundred years before Plato, there were mathematics and music, even before we had philosophy. It’s so pure.
PW: So, you don’t make any difference between music and sound. You feel well in both. Normally people say: well this is sound or this is music. You wouldn’t say you are either a sound artist or a musician. You are both.
RI: There is no clear definition of what is sound, of what is music, of what is art. My feeling is the essential beauty of music is structure. And the sound of course – as people like John Cage and others suggest – is how to listen to sound. This is very intellectual, a very radical attitude. Even the sound of waves can be enjoyable for us. It’s attitude. We don’t even need any machines for it, for sound art. But music is very different. You know, for example my cat and dog react to sound. But music, we are not sure if animals can really perceive music the same way as we do. So, music is very much a human invention and we only can appreciate the harmony and the beauty of the structure. And that is very mathematical. Of course, music is not a rational thing. Xenakis, of course, but Boulez or those kind of people, they put little priority to the theme but, structurally, it can be very beautiful. Like a poem.
PW: As an artist there is a famous problem named by Pierre Schaeffer – the founder of musique concréte. He wanted to make clear that a sound should lose its origin. That we don’t say “This is the sound of a car or of a cat” but that we turn the sound into music. Because when you say this sound is a broken glass or a car, this is an anecdote. How did you solve this problem as an artist?
RI: That’s why I distill. My language, my alphabet is sine waves, square waves, white noise etc and is very reduced because I try not to be trapped. I just have a very simple alphabet – maybe A, B, C and maybe 1, 2, 3, 4… and then I can emphasize more on the compositional structure. But I have a very good relationship to GRM (Le Groupe de recherches musicales where was founded by Pierre Schaeffer). I live in Paris and I listened to the entire-archive of Pierre Schaeffer. Actually I had a key to their studio. Very nice people. Not like IRCAM which is very big but GRM is only five or six people. Usually in academic community you have a top-down system but GRM is pretty much “bottom-up”. There are artisans and engineers with a very good sense and it became art. Actually, I have no preference. I like both
PW: You mean top-down as well as bottom-up?
RI: Exactly. It´s always nice to encounter both. Of course top-down is a little bit too much but it is working very good – like in universities and in very scientific research. Only academical work can do that or at NASA and on this kind of very big scale. But with very experimental things with lots of trial and errors – for artist or engineers for example who explore new things – it is different. I like both.
PW: Your argument about structure is very relevant because from time to time I am sitting in some jury for a competition together with Pierre Boulez. He says when he listens to electronic music: it is not structured, it is not music, it is just sound. I think you know this problem and therefore emphasize on structure.
RI: Yes, of course. But if only structure is important, we don’t need the sound, just the notation. So, extreme contemporary music is like this. They have a big paradox. They have a certain beauty of score, but maybe they don’t need the sound. They are very technically-detailed but they don’t have sound.
PW: …and that is not enough!
RI: But I understand it. That is also exciting. But without sound.
PW: When you have only structure you don’t need sound.
RI: It’s funny. Music without sound. That is academic music.
PW: But anyway you like the beauty of graphical notation, but it is dangerous.
RI: As I said, I like both. The very academic which has certain beauty and intellectuality on their score, and the very “street-level” which has certain physical strength. We need both anyway. If I were trapped in the academic, I would die. If I only work for the underground scene, it would be chaos.
PW: You are touching a very crucial problem, which was posed by Stockhausen who was here at ZKM several times. We had a lot of discussions and he said “Peter, I am the first real composer. Because I have made the music. Beethoven and Bach and Mozart they only wrote papers but they did not produce what they wrote. On the paper there was structure and time and everything, but not music not even sound. I am the first one who can say that I really made these 120 hours of music, sitting in the studio, mixing it myself.” And I think that you are in the tradition of Stockhausen, producing real music in a studio instead of just writing a score. What is your opinion about this?
RI: Yes, I think I am more that type. Working in the studio with real sound.
PW: You produce music and sound in the studio where it is real sound. What you produce is a finished product completely designed by you. Or do you also write scores so that somebody else – for example after your death – could use it and do it in another way? Do you leave a visual score? Or don’t you do that?
RI: This is a little bit difficult. It is like a painting. When the painter is putting colour on the canvas it is his own hand. Stockhausen or other electronic musicians like me we struggle with something. I complete a unique thing and it cannot be performed by anybody else. It’s like a painting. We have lots of instruments, which we can use very precisely to make it. And that’s it.
PW: So, you are on the side of Stockhausen.
RI: Yes, but if it is only that, it would be a little bit sad. We have only my own huge archive and no collaboration with musicians. So this time it is a challenge for me because I hired two percussionists. I let them perform. And I also wrote for an orchestra before but I didn’t really like it. I am not a trained composer or musician. Anyway, this time there are 2 persons on stage, which is a real challenge for me. There are 10 computers and 22 screens on the stage, and this is my visual ensemble but with two humans on stage which are very difficult to control. That’s the parameter of randomness – human. We are the most random creatures. We cannot perform precisely, on a millisecond level. Impossible. And that gap is very interesting for me. If it is a computer it is precise. It is beautiful but we are missing something. So now I am playing on that level and it is very interesting.
PW: I have a last question for you as an artist. How do you solve the following problem? Morton Feldman – the wonderful composer from America – whom I know personally from my time in Buffalo – he said that music is structure. Normally it is time based structure. But he disliked most kind of music because it is such a slave of time. Rhythm and beat – these things control the music. The time tells music what to do. But Feldman wanted to destroy this control. He wanted music that is not a slave of time. How do you solve this problem? Can we accept this slavery of time or can we create a music that is superior? A music that destroys our structure of time? What is your tendency?
RI: I really like most of Feldman’s music and his philosophy and thinking is just great but I can’t really follow him. And after John Cage and after that generation, you know, and the generation of computer and programming, my direction is super-precise, is “control”.
PW: So, no chance experiments like Cage. Control instead of chance.
RI: I try to control randomness. Like in a computer. You need to control the randomness.
PW: This is also about Chaitin, who wrote about algorithmic randomness.
RI: Great work!
PW: This is more on your side.
RI: Yes, if we are free of the time-based composition actually, we can’t handle it. It is very difficult to achieve and to appreciate it as music because there is no structure.
PW: That means when you work as a composer with the computer you have a time-based structure given through the computer. In video, we have even a time-based corrector because the scene would not function without this time-based code.
RI: I am more following my nature. Control. I follow more and I add randomness and this is a counterpoint that is very big, an encounter of randomness and control. The contrast is more interesting. If you really control a millisecond there is another possibility, even if it is microscopic. You can’t perceive it directly but as a whole if you pay very close attention it changes the whole thing. So, I try to put some randomness and I like to see the counterpoint, the counterbalance. It is a big experiment and I try to find a new aesthetic from this point.
PW: Do you also read and think about the way how the brain perceives acoustics, what we now call neuroacoustics? Is it also something that interests you? Because my ideas are as follows: We know now that all the data coming through our senses are a temporary code. The spike train is just a temporal code, like decoding second by second. So, experience is in fact a kind of music. Because it all has a time-based structure, a time-based code. Do you think about how music could create new intuitions and emotions? When I listen to music this is what I feel. The supercontrol of time. The kind of superimposition of my own cerebral time-based code and what you impose on me and my brain. The creation of a new kind of altered state of consciousness.
RI: I can’t be objective to what I am doing because I am the maker. So, people can judge. This piece will be touring in the next couple of years and I will continue updating it all over the world. After the première at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, I will be showing the piece in Europe, Asia, Japan and USA. Anyway, this time here at ZKM is very precious to me. Otherwise I could not have finished this piece
PW: Are you also interested in sonification, when artists try to find new ways through sonification?
RI: I was invited by NASA to give a lecture about sonification. But still, I am not a scientist. I am just an artist. Everything is intuitive. I can analyse but this part is not my job.
PW: Is it inspiring? To listen to them?
RI: It is very practical. I prefer to see more crazy people. At NASA, using lots of data. Everything is amazing, everything is very practical but it’s not about new ideas. I like to explore new things. So, this is not so exciting for me.
PW: It’s not musical enough. Mathematics…
RI: Mathematics is crazy. Even though it is pure, it is so crazy. Theoretical Physics – they use a lot of mathematics but the goal is to reveal our nature, the subject is our nature. Natural science. Even quantum mechanics, astronomy, cosmology etc. – the topic is nature. Mathematics is different. It is not about nature. They easily break the rules of nature. Their subject is forms, magnitudes and numbers, etc. It is crazy.
PW: As an accoustic artist, how do you see the problem of Schönberg, who in his late times in his book “Style and Harmony“ stated that the problem of the composer is to come from one note to the next note. So, you don’t work with notes but with waves, continuous sine waves. A note is a discrete model. Then you could say this note is a point on a score. But you don’t have this problem, do you?
RI: Of course, I use sine waves, pure waves or whatever but if you try to reduce things utmost microscopic level it gets impulse. It’s like a singular vertical straight line in mathematical functions on Cartesian plane. Just one point is infinite. So, you reduce the waveform to its function, to just one line. This point is very very tiny and is called the impulse. This is interesting because it is so short and when you listen to this sampling you don’t hear it. It is too short. The point makes the acoustics. Sine waves are continuous, they have no direction. They never contribute to the acoustics. For example, there is a speaker somewhere and a sine tone you don’t understand where it comes from.
PW: It is ubiquitous. I see.
RI: You feel it everywhere and it kind of kills the acoustics.
PW: That’s a very good idea. When you have a line this will be the peak and this will be the impulse. Very good idea.
RI: The opposite is white noise which is random. That’s a different thing but I use lots of impulse as you will hear. An impulse, for example, if I make a sound installation or something, it can be very elaborate. I never use one hundred speakers like Stockhausen. No. Mono! At the center in a church or somewhere large space, maybe I just put impulse on a single mono speaker. That would make you feel the very accoustics spatially through some rich reverb occurred by that very short impulse.
PW: I see. The acoustics of a wave is a kind of point you…
RI: … you slice
RI: Any point.
PW: Brilliant idea.
RI: I discovered this.
PW: So this is your own discovery?
RI: Well. I discovered it working together with Carsten Nicolai. We researched on this for ten years. I send you a book. We discovered many waveforms and we showed this to the scientists and they said ‘wow’. And if you put that sound to an interface you have a figure. All kinds of figures: triangular and sometimes even 3D. Only by waveforms. Carsten and I spent a lot of work in this. More than sound design, this is fundamental research on sound waves.
PW: So this is a kind of new series of harmony. Different.
RI: Yeah. It’s different. The beauty of a waveform is mathematical.
PW: You see it as a composition.
RI: If you analyse the phase and the correlations it is beautiful but the sound is sometimes horrible. It is so harsh. You can’t stand it. That’s interesting.
PW: The picture is beautiful but the sound is horrible…
RI: And if it is a beautiful tone it is boring to see. No pattern. But a pure interesting geometrical form you just can’t listen to it. It is so harsh. … We (Carsten Nicolai and RI) cut tiny parts and recomposed for this and that, we are now preparing an installation piece for this but I don’t know what the next ten years will bring.
PW: So I see that you are now investigating not only a new organisation of sounds but a new series of harmonies on a technical and mathematical basis.
RI: Yes. That is my basic research. This is not really the work of an artist but basic research for basic knowledge to find my language. To develop my alphabet and the grammar is my structure, my music. And I don’t want to use the normal alphabet.
PW: Did you ever read Schillinger? A New York artist from the 1930s who wrote a book on mathematical theory of music. A long time ago…
RI: Yes, I think it passed my desk somehow.
PW: Well, Ryoji Ikeda. Thank you very much for this interesting talk.
RI: Thank you