PETER KUTIN releases “A C H R O N I E”, his first solo album since 2013. The sound artist and co-founder of VENTIL RECORDS first lets an AI-Adorno ramble about laptops and then proceeds to the machine room for experimental exercises. One encounters noise for three student flatmates and grunting and bawling that makes one think Mongolian throat singers are fraternizing with choirboys. Hovering over all this are memories of a time that was and is no more. In conversation with Christoph Benkeser and Michael Franz Woels PETER KUTIN tells us how easy it is to deceive perception, why heterogeneous things grow together and why compositional mazes are exciting for him.
What does Adorno have to do with artificial intelligence?
Peter Kutin: The voice you are hearing is not Adorno’s voice, but a voice clone. Florian [Kindlinger, note] and I experimented with machine learning software last year for a radio piece for WDR3 – Studio akustische Kunst – and created Adorno’s voice as speech synthesis.
Peter Kutin: The voice in this work tries to reflect what it is. By now, almost all content falsified through machine learning or artificial intelligence goes under the popular „Deep Fake“ term, but how deep it actually is or what this “deep” may mean is rather unclear. For our radio play at the time, we prepared 300 sentences of Adorno by transcribing them from audio recordings, then we met with a programmer specializing in speech synthesis and promised him a modest fee. He fed the Adorno samples and the corresponding text file into machine learning software – after which we had a text-to-speech engine that not only sounded one-to-one like Adorno, but could say anything we fed it with, at least in German. When people say “Deep Fake,” they don’t understand how deep we could already be in this Deep Fake by now.
One might think they were recordings from a smoky lecture hall during an Adorno lecture in the 60s.
Peter Kutin: That’s what the „Machine Learning Network“ is based on. Most of the existing recordings of Adorno are noisy lectures and talks from the ’60s. There are no later recordings because he died in 1969. The background noise of the recordings is classified by the algorithm as belonging to the voice.
In your case, Adorno is reading Kafka.
Peter Kutin: Adorno is reading a wonderful musical passage from Kafka’s „Das Schloß“, but in it, he suddenly is speaking of a laptop. That can’t be, it’s a paradox. Nevertheless, almost no one has reacted to it yet.
At the end of the piece, you are also making Adorno speak about using a keyboard. What kind of disruption does that create?
Peter Kutin: It’s a disruption that I put in on purpose. It makes it impossible that Adorno could have said these sentences. As realistic as his voice sounds, the spoken content contains an error. Yet the piece on the album is only a fragment. In the radio play, I was referring to, we had to explain to people what a cloned voice is. It was exciting to see how distant that is for many people and how difficult it is for them to grasp that.
One automatically doubts one’s own perception.
Peter Kutin: Have you seen the video snippet where Adorno can be seen on TV?
Peter Kutin: We took a YouTube video of an Adorno lecture and superimposed our language clone onto it to stretch the perceptual arc even further.
I recently saw a John F. Kennedy Deep Fake that monochrom founder Johannes Grenzfurthner helped produce.
Peter Kutin: You have to imagine how little funding we, or in this case, I guess monochrom too, got for that. It’s a financial joke. Let’s imagine how far one could push these technical possibilities if one would do it in a more professional way. I’m not a paranoid person, but you have to be aware of how our perception can already be deceived with little effort. That’s why we can’t even imagine today in which direction it will go. Technology creates and closes off spaces of possibility.
That fits well with the term achrony you are using in the album title. I know the term as a definition for events in a story that are not chronologically connected and create a dissonance of different temporalities.
Peter Kutin: The dissonance of temporalities sums it up well. I am using the term referring to a German sociologist, Elisabeth Lenk, who has studied the subject. She has described how different temporalities collide and the distance to the past becomes elastic. If one imagines time as a distance, the way from A to B can be very long. But if you imagine that distance as a tripod that can be telescoped, you can move skins of time close together and see through them. That’s an exciting thought.
Because time becomes spatial as a result?
Peter Kutin: I’ve been dealing with temporality a lot lately. When I go to my parents’ house, for example, I notice how the past is getting closer to me. When I’m in Vienna or on tour, on the other hand, it’s far away. Only in places that trigger my past does it become tangible and memory gets an almost plastic quality. This has to do with subjective and personal experiences and points rather towards a metaphysical space.
Do these experiences go hand in hand with moods?
Peter Kutin: I started more from sounds and their structures than from specific mood concepts. The pieces do not follow such concepts but derive from the arrangement of the sound material. I found it exciting to use sounds with old connotations, such as a hurdy-gurdy, in connection with the concept of achrony. Also, to produce digital alienations at the same time, to let the allegedly old collide with the supposedly new.
What difficulties arise from the combination?
Peter Kutin: None at all, the difference between old and new is only an illusion and dissolves in the music. However, the record does not work with musical or harmonic structures. If you were to take an approach from a musical history point of view and, for example, combine baroque music with a modern string quartet, this undertaking would probably be more difficult and rather something academic.
I remember Hans-Joachim Roedelius saying that digital and synthetically generated sounds are more difficult to classify in terms of their temporality.
Peter Kutin: I think so too. One would have to ask oneself when something is considered old. Things only age when they are known, written down and made comprehensible through words or formulas. Through the comprehending archiving process, a thing is being attributed a temporality, an age to it.
Doesn’t temporality also imply a process of decay?
Peter Kutin: That’s an exciting question that Thomas Grill is dealing with in the course of his “Rotting Sounds” project. It’s about decay in digital storage. Hard drives don’t last forever. One of the reasons why data storage and server farms are so huge is because they are constantly making backups for the hard drives.
Otherwise, they would no longer be readable after a relatively short time.
Peter Kutin: I’ve heard similar things from filmmakers. Nikolaus Geyrhalter transfers all his films to 35mm because there is no better way to store film material securely for a longer period of time than on just one data carrier. Sometimes you do wonder whether the digital era is really the measure of all things.
How do you deal with the decay of the digital?
Peter Kutin: I’m really not pedantic about it. Sometimes I’m even happy when I’m losing things.
You make room for something new.
Peter Kutin: Yes, for me a project is finished the moment I realize that it’s working and that the individual parameters are fitting together coherently. From then on, you can only bring something more out of the respective project by using variations – I don’t really listen to my old stuff anymore.
Nevertheless, you have incorporated experiences from your spatial installations like TORSO#1 or ROTOЯ into the album.
Peter Kutin: I am working less with installations than with performances. Both TORSO#1 and ROTOЯ are conceived as live performances with a starting and ending point. That is often misunderstood.
Sorry, which experiences from your performative works have been integrated into the album?
Peter Kutin: That can’t be put in direct terms, because both work differently. The kinetic sound sculptures occupy a space over time, and are connected to light or an image. The connection affects the sound and its temporality and perception. It affects the presence of an object or an image. With an album, that ceases to exist. Here, people ideally are “only” listening closely, are all ears – as in the aforementioned text by Kafka. That’s why the experiences from my kinetic and audiovisual works don’t directly intervene in the design of the record, as one might perhaps imagine. On “Achronie” I was mainly concerned with how long certain sonic situations can last.
What do you mean by that?
Peter Kutin: I hope for the record to be unpredictable. It doesn’t follow classical structures or orient itself towards specific musical genres, but rather creates states that are bearable or pleasant for a certain time. This appears to be very heterogeneous but grows together over time.
You are building emotional breaks into the pieces. One is transported from one state to the next without transitions: brute volumes and frequency jumps.
Peter Kutin: The hard cut interested me. Let’s take the “Clusterfuck” piece as an example. If you look at the compositional sequence analytically, the intro section, which features Adorno’s voice, lasts pretty much one-third of the entire piece. This is followed by strident frequency clusters and finally a hurdy-gurdy coda. But: all three parts are lasting almost the same amount of time, although one feels that they have different durations.
One notices it when one sees the waveform of the piece.
Peter Kutin: Exactly, I only noticed it when Marian Essl (Monocolor, note) and I were editing the video. It’s not a form that I thought of in advance in the sense of an experiment. It just came about.
What interests you about the hard cut?
Peter Kutin: These imperceptible, set mood changes. If a sound was present with a meaningful length, a striking hard cut works. Many hard cuts in a row would be another distinct state again.
The sequence, of course, has an influence on how one perceives the piece. After all, each state feeds off the previous one.
Peter Kutin: The concept of timing comes into play. One would have to write a doctoral thesis on it if one wanted to define it. For me, I describe it as a labyrinth in which new corners and paths are appearing all the time and can be taken. I like tracks that are built like a seductive maze. One can design such a thing in a consistently exciting way, without becoming desperate in it.
The sensory overload with countless individual images in the video for “Clusterfuck”: there’s something slightly disturbing about that, but also stimulating because one can’t understand the relations between the visual information.
Peter Kutin: I was hoping that people would recognize that these are just screenshots. They’re shot out there in a random process. Screenshots are still quite different from photographs.
More like digital Post–Its.
Peter Kutin: Yes, personal data such as bank statements, flight times or even film stills, all with different resolutions. The way we, working at the computer, are taking screenshots is similar to a certain extent – unless it turns into some kind of mania or fetish.
On two tracks one can hear the voice of Agnes Hvizdalek, very discreetly. How did that come about?
Peter Kutin: I got to know Agnes through a film project by Marlies Pöschl. I contributed the electronics, Agnes the voice. The material for the two tracks is partly based on that project. But it’s more about the nuance of a human voice that I am weaving into the piece.
Which again is a merging of different temporalities.
Peter Kutin: It’s a rubbing of different temporalities, yes.
I’m trying to explain this for myself with theories about photography. Walter Benjamin or Aby Warburg have attributed an afterlife to photographs that capture the imprint of a moment in the past, but at the same time continue to have an effect in the present. Can this afterlife be applied to sounds?
Peter Kutin: You have to differentiate what knowledge you associate with an image. A musicologist will hear Gregorian chorals differently than someone who is not familiar with them. Storing memories, which is readily displayed as knowledge, has consequences and after-effects that are individual. At the same time, there are collective memories, such as generational traumas. We are living through a once-in-a-hundred-years event right now. How will this period traumatize us? Through works that document this period, we will be able to draw conclusions in the future.
This makes „Achronie“ become a documentation of the current state that goes beyond the music and continues to have an effect in the album’s cover photograph.
Peter Kutin: The cameraman and photographer Stefan Neuberger had impressed me with his pictures for Thomas Heise’s “Heimat ist ein Raum aus Zeit”. When he had a photo exhibition, I wrote to him and asked if I could look at photographs of his digitally and possibly use them for my album. At some point, in agreement, we chose photographs that, through interplay with the music, could open up a space and – despite all heterogeneity – connect with each other.
Peter Kutin: Yes, there is something futuristic inscribed in the dragonfly. The military industry has been trying for decades to figure out how to construct something that can change directions or react as quickly as a dragonfly. How it navigates in the air is an ancient, unsolved mystery. It is considered a perfect hunter. In the photograph, this modern primordial animal is in focus with its huge compound eyes, while the child in the background is looking through her wings out of focus. This looking through the wings is wonderful, I think It epitomizes perhaps what Elisabeth Lenk is trying to describe: If you want, you can see through the walls of time.
Many thanks for the interview!
Christoph Benkeser und Michael Franz Woels
Translated from the German original by Julian Schoenfeld