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Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) on film scores, radio waves and location recording on the Lizard

Flaneur Electronique Robin Rimbaud (aka Scanner) has been working in sonic art since 1991, producing innovative and inspiring contemporary electronic music in concerts, installations and recordings. He is firmly committed to collaboration, and his huge body of work traverses an experimental terrain between sound and space, interacting with, and exposing, the invisible communication networks that compose our surroundings.  In June 2019 he presented work at Helston Museum from '400 Light Years'; a week-long residency on Lizard Point, alongside artists Joanna Mayes and Justin Wiggan, and project collaborator, astronomer Carolyn Kennett. 

Interview by Nigel Ayers.


 


NA: So Robin, youíre pretty much a full time sound artist... 

RR: I am, yes.

NA: I donít think thereís many who do it full time...

RR: I find it remarkable, actually.

NA: Chris Watson, maybe?

RR: Chris Watson yes, because heís also employed by doing...

NA: Megafamous David Attenborough work.

RR: Yes, Iíve been fortunate not to have to do that any more. When I went to university, I finished, I worked in a music library for five years working with the public every day and then I started getting projects together. And I thought if I can earn £250 a month it will pay my rent, I could stay where I was in London etc etc and Iíd earned enough. And after a while I thought I could stop this, couldnít I? So I stopped and since then Iíve never looked back.

Itís that risk and I always thought I could get another job.

And I go through months when I earn small money and then I earn quite well and it balances out over the years. So, something happened, I donít know what. But also, I hugely diversify in what I do. So the thing I least do is play concerts or make records, itís kind of the last thing I do. I make a living through things like scoring contemporary dance, Iíve written 65 pieces for dance companies and ballet.

I work a lot for radio, do commissions on the radio, lots of collaborations with film makers. And when you do things long enough it seems that people return to you Ė it may take ten years, it may take five years it might be in the last six months they come back to you and you work again and again on some things. And then itís a bit like being a good plumber, or electrician, if you do good work people tend to return to you. They think ďhe was a good plumber, he fitted the pipes really efficiently. He wasnít expensive, letís work with him againĒ, so Iíve managed to maintain a flow

NA: On the musical side, how do you rate yourself? Iíd rate myself as a naÔve musician, I put my hands down on the keyboard and if it sounds good I record it, if not I donít. And up from there thereís people who can actually sight read, so where would you rate yourself on that sort of scale?

RR: Itís funny in a way Iím an appalling traditional musician. But I can play melodies, I can write music, I wrote a big piece for the BBC Concert Orchestra last year so thatís for orchestral musicians playing proper instruments, not electronics.

What I like is that I can tidy everything up of course, I can tidy everything up in a computer. I learned to play the piano when I was around 11 or 12 , read music for a while, but havenít read it since. I can read very, very slowly if I have to - but there has been no need to.

But I found what really helps is to find a voice. Like in music one of the most important things if you can find who you are - which isnít always easy Ė then youíre able to do these things Ė youíre able to maintain it because people start to recognise you for who you are. You think of something like the guitar, you think how can you tell the difference between Eric Clapton , Robert Fripp, Jimmy Page, theyíre all using the same instrument through an amplifier but you recognise this distinctive style.

You recognise it in production: Martin Hannett productions you can recognise as opposed to another producer. Itís quite remarkable, I find, how people do that. Thereís a lot of chance involved, so I take a lot of risks with what I do as well, I play lots of risky kind of games in a sense - because Iím not sure what route Iím going to follow. So Iím quite open to collaborating with a risky outcome but if itís publicly accessible to me thatís really welcome. So this week for example, is a good example, I arrived here with nothing on Monday, and now I present 20 Ė25 minutes of new work in situ by visiting these different locations and recording at them.
 


NA: So what youíre doing tonight is location recordings?

RR: We went to the lighthouse at the Lizard, we went to Goonhilly, so I got access to where the old satellite dishes are and everything Ė thereís not much stuff happens there. But you pick up the strangest kind of sounds at times. Thereís this strange popping noise that comes out of the ground Ė itís really quite eerie you donít know what it is. Itís in this kind of vacant corner - like somebodyís trapped underground.

So I recorded all those kind of sounds and made loops and processed them. This isnít a finished work, this is a work in progress so what youíre going to hear is Justin Wiggan for the first 20 minutes, then we do something together for 10 minutes or so then me for like another 15 or 20 minutes. Itís very much a kind of 'show and tell'.

Joanna Mayes, who you wrote to the other day, has been working with film and so sheís been filming in these spaces as well and processing them in a very kind of unique way not through labs or anything but through all kind of domestic chemicals

NA: Is it coffee on 16mm?

RR: Yes its all these kinds of things. Actually itís quite kind of low budget but makes it quite exciting.
What I have is a computer, which is playing back Justinís backing track. I have my samplesÖ
And then I have a Digitakt sampler and a little Eurorack modular system Iíve put all samples in there, so I can process things live, Iíve got live radio signals coming in so I can pick up things live at this moment into the performance.

NA: So youíve got a modular system there Ė about the size of a laptop that your take around with you

RR: Itís a nice portable system

NA: And youíve got a little Macbook

RR: With samples on it from this week, and then an Elektron Digitakt sampler which I also put sounds on - lots of radio sounds and all kinds of things so I can just basically make pieces and I can improvise. And I can set sequences up live if I want it to become more sequenced. In this kind of environment you canít anticipate who the audience is. It could be 30 elderly gents all sitting there who are not used to electronic music, it could be a mixture of young people and old Ė who knows? You have no idea who these people are.

NA: So itís something youíve never presented before, itís what youíve put together this week.

RR: It wonít be presented again, in this way. You know this work wonít be experienced in this way- so thatís what makes it kind of unique. I like these kind of risks and also learning Ė I discover a lot and I get to explore a country I was born in but I never actually get to experience this way.

NA: It must be really hard Ė There was a visitor centre at Goonhilly years ago but itís closed.

RR: Yes, to have the opportunity to walk around that space quite freely and explore somewhere that feels a bit like an apocalyptic vision in a way, itís kind of like a JG Ballard land. Which is a bit like the airfield we went to which youíre not meant to go to. But youíre not really stopped going to it. Getting to explore these kind of Ė itís the wrong word perhaps - dystopian landscapes in this area of the country, itís quite remarkable you may think youíre in Russia if you saw the photos or something. Or might be some small eastern European city that no ones lived in for years itís fantastic to think Ė Iím just in Cornwall! And not that far away.

NA: The big thing at the moment is the D-Day thing. Thereís practice sites all around here. You probably saw a lot of that and I think from where youíve been in the Lizard there is that transatlantic cable which takes all the Internet traffic. So I suppose that has got to link in with your surveillance work?

RR: Yes, I think thatís what interests me. Iíve always been interested in an idea that all around us are radio waves, or are signals basically, and with the right equipment we can pull in those signals so whether its at one time mobile phone conversations or other times earth-to-satellite transmissions or in the most banal way, a bus driver, somebody on their walkie-talkie, somebody on a baby alarm, those kind of things. As weíre standing here talking to each other this whole space is drowning in these signals. So to be able to draw those down from the ether, pull them inside your work and then kind of manipulate them and use them like a tool to paint with and sculpt with, itís fantastic, I think! You know, rather than to have to use a piano or guitar in a traditional way. I find that quite thrilling but whatís important it becomes a picture of that place and that moment. Thatís whatís always been important for me, Iím not really an import, I donít want to arrive and go ďHey! Here I am!Ē Which is why Iím not interested in gigs so much because it feels for me at least, it feels a bit fake almost. It feels not reflective of where I am

NA: So, what youíve got on tonight isnít really a gig. Itís more of a presentation of weekís research.

RR: Yes, and itís difficult, people may judge it as performance, as a gig so youíve got to be kind of conscious of that. But weíre going to introduce this Ė thereís a context at least - and it should be fun, I think, you know, it should be nice.

Justin does some great work, so I think the balance is going to be quite, quite strong. But again it kind of fits in with all the things I tend to do which are Ė I tend to say ďyesĒ when I donít know what the outcome will be.

Somebody says do you want to play a gig, itís less interesting because I think I can do that quite easily. Iíve done lots and lots of shows, earned some money with it but actually itís not about that - itís about more than that. I want to feel like Iíve learned something, challenged myself and it introduces me to a whole new concept. So here itís brought things together that wouldnít have happened before I could just come down here, I could go anywhere with my equipment, set up and play. But Iíve done enough of that...and I tend to generally say ďnoĒ to those kind of opportunities in recent years.

NA: I really like the way youíre doing it Ė what I really liked was your tweet about actually getting paid for doing gigsÖbecause that is just ridiculous what they expect of an artist.

RR: Iíve been fortunate to work with very big companies at times. You know Iíve done projects like for example some of the things I do people wouldnít know. Thereís a telephone made by Cisco, itís a telephone thatís in almost every office, they have it here in the museum.

NA: Iíve got one on my desk at work .

RR: OK, so Iíve designed the new one, the brand new one. All the sound in it is mine, so when it rings itís my ring tones when you press the button its my sound, the engaged. I did that. And I love doing work like that because you suddenly access a space youíd never otherwise access. Itís a huge challenge professionally to do, but I take it on because it just pushes me in a very different direction - but also I can make a living through that.

NA: What was the brief for doing a Cisco phone?

RR: Itís just, you receive an email that says ďweíre interested in this, hereís our budget do you think you can work with this?Ē Thereís always a NDA, youíre not allowed to talk about these things. And you work on it, and then they come back to you and they say ďOoh, it needs to be more professional, it canít be too musical - it canít be this - it canít be that..Ē to be truthful people never know what they want until theyíve heard it.

NA: But you actually supply them with sounds and samples and things Ė and I guess, thereís electric cars now Ė electric cars donít make a sound... so...

RR: A friend of mine does that, Richard Devine his job recently has been designing the sound of engines Ė imagining what an engine would sound like for an electric car, and doing that. Iíve designed car horns in America in the past - I designed car horns and the sound of doors. I worked with an engineer because the car was expensive - when the door closed they wanted the weight of the door to say ďmoneyĒ, basically to be expensive..

So I had to work with him to kind of look at the acoustics of it and see how the weight alone, would lend wealth to it. So, doing that kind of work, I find really rewarding because certainly itís out in the world outside of a kind of idea of performance, or also ego. What I really likeĖ it doesnít depends on you. No-one even knows itís you. Thatís what I really enjoy, being quite invisible like that.

 

 

NA: Yes, I did some work for Sony, for Playstation, they just paid me off for the job, thereís no credit there or anythingÖ

RR: Oh really? Yes sometimes I get credit, like when I worked with Philips they put my name on the side of the box. Itís a wake-up alarm clock so it says ďSound by ScannerĒ which I found really amusing Ė they suddenly thought ďHey, we can sell this to a whole new audienceĒ Ė which in itself is quite amusing, I found actually, that Philips might think that was cool. Maybe it is cool for them, because usually they wouldnít put those kind of credits on their objects.

NA: I guess itís over 30 years youíve been professional Ė since that first Ash International ..

RR: That was like í91, Ď92, something like that, yes.

NA: So how do you think this situation has changed for that Ė I mean youíve obviously steered your own course...

RR: Itís curious, isnít it? I mean, the themes I was interested in that time what fascinates me is theyíre so mundane and of the moment now. Our TV culture is what I was talking about then Ė which is quite amusing in a way Ė at the time you know it was like people didnít want to listen to those things and there was a morality question. Yet people still listened because thereís the voyeuristic aspect.

Today our culture is saturated in this stuff, of course. To me its fascinating how in just 25 years or so something becomes normalised. I could point to MTV. Very early on had they videos of Lady Gaga. Theyíd blur out bits of her body. So sheíd turn around and you couldnít quite see her bottom, blurred out on the video. Today you donít think twice about that Ė just semi-naked in a video, who cares? Thatís acceptable.

And the kind of morality...things dissolve, generations pass, decades go by, barriers dissolve, some seem to reappear. Itís really interesting, the whole aspect of public and private, you know? The other week I saw a woman on a train talking to her daughter using Facetime. And the girl was sick. So I could see the girl in her room sitting on a bed talking to her mum saying ďI donít feel at all wellĒ. Itís such a bizarre thing, really, really bizarre.

NA: What strikes me is people walk around talking to themselves. In ages gone by youíd think theyíre possessed by something and now itís - theyíre looking at you and theyíre talking and theyíre not talking to you Ė itís really bizarre Ė theyíre sort of somewhere else.

RR: I canít work it out. But itís become the norm and thatís whatís curious about it, you know? Its really interesting to live at time time when things have changed so much. We were both making stuff before the internet was around so it was cassettes Ė it was a cassette culture we were dealing with. And it was very much one to one Ė you were doing it, everyone was doing it themselves, sending these things out, exchanging , no-one was getting rich by it, by any means, largely. But it was this wonderful exchange Ė and obviously the Internet has taken over that completely. And yet thereís still a sense of community with all this stuff going on Ė thereís still great groups of people and sound and music is still a great connecting point Ė a great nexus point.

NA: Thereís fantastic sound and visual art mixtures going on at the moment that isnít making any money, not getting any exposure...

RR: No, and there always will be, unfortunately you know. Itís quite funny how sometimes the avant garde gets absorbed into the mainstream. That can happen. And other times it just doesnít. These poor figures just kind of sit on the edges. You get someone like Charles Ives, who was a celebrated classical composer Ė he was an insurance salesman his entire life: thatís what he did. And look at other figures. Francis Bacon was a furniture designer for years before he really gave it up to become an artist. Samuel Beckett was a Maths teacher at school and there were stories about him just staring out the window with these long silencesÖ you think thatís really Samuel Beckett, isnít it?

NA: And a cricketer, as well, wasnít he?

RR: Yes, yes thatís whatís really interesting. And I think, you know, some of these figures are able to transgress, to actually move into a different field in a way. Iím quite lucky because the thing Iíve never been interested in is success in a way like big ego on stage, recognised in the street, making lots of money. I make a very decent living being completely invisible and kind of staying under the surface. But it continues to go on. Thatís what I like. I make about, on an average year I make between fifty-five to sixty projects which sounds like a lot..

 

 

All photographs were taken in Helston Museum 7.6.19

http://scannerdot.com/

http://nigelayers.blogspot.com/

http://www.mayescreative.com/

also see Scanner on The South Bank Show 1997 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yfuat21E_dg