In the world of sound engineering, music research and testing, for more than 20 years, a name that has always been present is Robin Rimbaud aka Scanner. An absolute genius of sound, known for its fantastic tributes and collaborations with great artists of the caliber of Derek Jarman, Royal Ballet, Merce Cunningham, Michael Nyman, Steve McQueen, Mike Kelley and many others. Amazing and unique artist and member of the band Githead. Today Last Day Deaf has the honour to interview him.
Who is and how did Scanner become and how did you build your own style?
I’ve been recording since I was around 10 or 11 years old. A tape recorder was always my best friend at the time!. It was actually purely by chance I discovered this scanner device, since a friend was part of a hunt saboteur group and would use it to listen in to the local police. I immediately saw the potential and intrigue of being able to access these private spaces and incorporate them into these exploratory soundscapes I was producing at the time. I was especially drawn to the fact that the recordings were so intimate, so clear, yet abstract in nature. One had to imagine who these people were you over overhearing, where they were, and what kinds of lives they led, although the nature of their conversations often clearly explained this! I began using these live voices and recordings inside the music I was producing and adopted the name of the machine I was using to create the work.
Can you explain to us how alternative literature as Burroughs or artists like Coil have influenced your art?
I’ve always been drawn to outsider figures, in music, literature, the visual arts and so on. I studied modern literature at University so Burroughs was a figure that really shook up the establishment, taking the word on the page into completely new directions. I became friend with Coil very early on when they released their ‘Scatology’ album and remained friend with them until their passing. Coil offered a uniquely English voice combining esoteric ideas with popular electronics. A beautiful union. I miss them still.
In your career you have worked and created for different artistic contexts. Cinema, dance (especially the Royal Ballet), music. Do you prefer any in particular? Can you describe your approach to this artistic breadth?
I don’t have one favourite artistic output of expression at all. I’m drawn by possibilities, ways of extending my own practice and opening up to new audiences most of all. People who are choosing the dance company or the choreographer, for example, visit dance, but rarely the composer, since composing scores for contemporary dance means that my work is then exposed to audiences who would not usually hear such music. That’s a real joy for me. In 2016, I scored ten contemporary dance productions, from Rambert Dance in the UK working with a live orchestra, through to the world’s first VR ballet with Dutch National Ballet. My approach to each art form remains the same. It’s a collaborative process based on discussion and trust and a belief in the strength of the ideas ultimately. I’m a very open person and welcome such opportunities and that’s proved to be part of my success over the last 25 years of my professional career.
I don’t want to miss a question about Derek Jarman. Can you describe him in few words?
As a person of great generosity and kindness, who was always willing to offer advice, time and enthusiasm for your own ideas. I miss his vision and friendship. Given the fact that he worked before the advent of digital cameras I can only imagine the magical visuals he could have offered us today if he were still with us.
So, now we need to know your idea about your album ‘The Garden is Full Of Metal’.
This is the only album I have released under my own name. In some ways it’s just a collection of memories, taking recordings from spaces that Derek Jarman inhabited or experienced – from the walk to the sea’s edge from his cottage in Dungerness through to the roar of London congestion around his Charing Cross Road flat – I attempted to create a fluid, elegiac sound portrait, a form of landscape painting with sound that weaves through recordings of Jarman’s own voice. At the time I used the term ‘‘Sound Polaroid’s’’ to describe these intimate, isolated, improvised moments, the same way a Polaroid camera captures an image for a moment, almost disposable, forgotten but a tiny epiphany that dwells within but surfaces at unexpected triggers. The majority of the sound was abstracted and processed through modest means, cutting, stretching and editing tape, featuring recordings of his voice throughout the album that I’d made at the time. The finished recordings reflect very strongly my personal attachment towards this artist: they map my first chance meeting with him at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in 1984 through to his death in 1994, which I fatefully heard as I made my way through London’s St James Park towards the ICA again, the tears falling from my bloodshot eyes like tiny meteorites in a gigantic valley of sorrow.
Let us now turn to the technical ‘arguments’ and your productions. Specifically, taking into consideration your approach to modular world (very complex and difficult). Can you tell us how do your compositions emerge?
They start as they do in any digital format, simply by playing. With the modular it’s always about finding a sound, a shape, a pulse, something that triggers the next thing. There’s no particular magic, just the moment needs to happen. Sometimes that doesn’t work of course! The joy of modular is it’s all about the ears, not the eyes. There’s no screen, you just need to listen. Something we can so easily forget!
Your tool or your favourite instrument?
I don’t have any tool that appeals to me. I use whatever is at hand. For speed and efficiency it’s my laptop but to be honest it could be anything. I like a challenge!
An album of yours that best represents you?
I’ve released over 75 full-length albums and would find it very hard to choose one album, but some appeal to me more than others. ‘Lauwarm Instrumentals’ remains a firm favourite of mine, as does ‘52 Spaces’, written for the 90th birthday of film director Michelangelo Antonioni.
And about the link with Minimal Compact. What can you share with us?
I have a band Githead which features Malka Spigel on bass, who also plays bass in Minimal Compact, but I have no direct experience with Minimal Compact apart from seeing them live in the 1980s and then again about ten years ago in Israel!
Let’s go back to your past works and in particular the last work of the Pisa Theatre. Can you tell us about it?
Pisa was very special as it was an opportunity to present and then perform excerpts from ‘Vex‘, my very special project for a house in London. Even for my eclectic catalogue of works, it’s quite a unique recording. Back in 2012, British architects Chance de Silva approached me to collaborate with them on their project Vex, a curved, fluted, in situ concrete house in London. With their buildings they always collaborate with an artist, be it a photographer or sculptor and this time decided that sound should take a key role in the development and structure of the house itself. This album then is an adaptation of the permanent and expansive sound installation that exists within the frame of the building itself. Initially inspired by composer Erik Satie’s ‘Vexations’ (1893), the composition that was the starting point for the architecture design itself, the final soundscape focuses more on the environmental sounds of construction, the physical pouring of the concrete and so on. It’s truly musique concrete! The permanent work in the house is an extensive piece. There’s also a CD commercially available, where two of the pieces are edits of the full-length extensive work, plus a special mix made for showing our work in the Venice Architectural Biennial in 2014. So this was a world premiere of a very unique project!
That of Pisa is not your only performance in Italy. In particular, in 2008 you composed ‘Deliver, Girl, Your eyes’. Can you talk about your Italian experience and how do you see the Italian experimental music scene?
I’ve been working with Lenz Teatro in Parma for a number of years on theatre projects of theirs which have always been very rewarding, scoring works based on classical Shakespearean texts and more. I’ve been fortunate to work in many different situations in Italy. It’s been a very liberal and dynamic territory for me. I even worked with the recognised Italian composer Salvatore Sciarrino on a number of recordings and shows. Experimental music is always finding its place in the world and Italy continues to produce some interesting works too.
Future projects or future collaborations?
There are always lots of projects ahead. I’m just off to the USA to spend six weeks on an artist residency at the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, where I’m going to write a book and develop a new project based around flamenco rhythms. I’m then off to Sweden to compose a new contemporary score, and then compose an orchestral work for the BBC Concert Orchestra for a big concert in 2018. I have two new albums coming out. One on Italian label Glacial Movements which explores ice and craters in sound, and another studio album which will be my first major release since 2009.
We thank you for your time and for your art and we finish the interview with one last question. In this media and computer tumult what do you think the modular school will matter and what is the role that will have?
The modular retains a presence in the world, it’s not digital, it’s about the physicality of an instrument as well as chance, it’s about human interaction. That in itself is enough to retain an importance and role in composition and ideas. Thank you!!!
Photo credits: IWPhotographic (1st one)