Billy Roisz needs no introduction. The Vienna native has been making music, performance art, and film for so long that even people with no reason whatsoever to have heard of her have heard of her. And yet, BAJO, her new release on Ventil Records, is only the second solo album by the self-taught grand dame of the audiovisual. She arrives almost early for the interview at Vienna’s storied Café Kreuzberg, but she doesn’t have much to say. Sometimes we sit wordlessly, later she laughs out loud. In order to avoid misunderstandings, she has edited the transcript of this dialogue.
Let me suggest a thesis: in your music, space isn’t present – only time.
Billy Roisz: I have to contradict you: space is an important aspect in my music, both the space in which I play – the one I share with the listener – and also in my perception and conception of sound as material in space. I work sculpturally. The thing that interests me most about sound is its multidimensionality and the way it possesses the space. How does sound encompass the listener?
Your bass becomes a resonating space.
Billy Roisz: Of course it is, but I’m interested in the sound itself – as if it were stone or some other malleable substance that I can chisel with my tools: the mixing board and all the analog and digital effects.
You’re talking about a subtractive process, right?
Billy Roisz: Sometimes it is, yes – an uncovering, but sometimes also a layering. It’s a multifaceted process.
That sounds archaeological. You don’t exactly putter around in the ground, but in the…
Billy Roisz: …in the instruments, exactly. Or actually in the sound itself. First I collect a lot of material; for the new album there were several phases of sound recording, in different places. I took a trip with my longtime partner Dieter [Kovačič] to a tunnel under the highway in Spillern, where we recorded double bass, dulcimer, and helicon, which Dieter plays as a guest on the album. Then I sifted through all the material and layered it in my editing program on the computer, arranged and “sculptured” it to create the final tracks.
Without the computer work, the bass wouldn’t sound like it does in your hands.
Billy Roisz: I can’t really say that. There are a lot of natural bass sounds in there – sometimes pure, sometimes as a layer together with a processed bass sound and electronics.
“The Bass interests me as a medium for the creation of sound.”
The effect is the main thing.
Billy Roisz: It’s always about the sound, the structure, the dramaturgy. The bass interests me as a medium for the creation of sound. As a sounding body. As a thing to experiment on. It was a present.
How do you get a bass as a gift?
Billy Roisz: Dieter gave me the bass as a surprise for my birthday two years ago. He somehow figured out that I was interested in trying it out. And when it was suddenly there in my room, I was almost shocked. But we made friends quickly; now the bass is my buddy.
You said ‘if any instrument, then bass’. Why?
Billy Roisz: I love the low frequencies.
Where does that love come from?
Billy Roisz: It’s just there.
Low frequencies affect the body, right?
Billy Roisz: I’m sure it has to do with the body – both with one’s own body and with the body of the bass sound and its movement in the room. You perceive the sound more strongly in your belly and musculature. Also, my origins were in physical theater and dance performance. And I used to go dancing in Flex at least twice a week. Drum’n’bass, techno, hip-hop: that was my music in the late 90s. Since then, I’ve always love the warmth, the softness of low frequencies.
How much of the recordings is improvised?
Billy Roisz: I would compare the work for tracks on an album more with the work I do editing film. I’m not usually interested in releasing an improvised concert without any editing. The place, the time, the atmosphere – you can’t capture those things [on a recording]. There are interesting improvised recordings, but the most interesting thing to me is working with the recordings, fine-tuning and forming the dramaturgy.
You work pieces out before you play them.
Billy Roisz: For some projects, yes; others are improvised. BAJO exists as a record, but it’s also meant to work on stage. Differently, because I could never realize it the same way – nor do I want to – but it should work, because it’s inside of a compositional framework, the acoustic material that I used for the album.
To me, that sounds like compositional digging – it kind of matches the idea of exploring the depths, doesn’t it?
Billy Roisz: I often play the double bass lying down – I mean, the bass lies on its side and I play it on my knees, leaning over it. I often play the electric bass standing up.
So, one shouldn’t imagine the kind of posture you see in the Musikverein. You play totally differently.
Billy Roisz: Not only because I can’t [play that way], but because if I did, I’d automatically become subject to convention.
You play, so to speak, with the instrument.
Billy Roisz: Exactly.
Let’s talk about the cover for a moment. You paint animals, I take it.
Billy Roisz: I started painting and drawing again during the pandemic. Mainly animals.
What’s the animal on the cover of the new album – a zebra?
Billy Roisz: An aardvark.
That’s very specific.
Billy Roisz: Aardvarks live partially underground, but that’s not why I painted it. All the animals were originally the pictures on postcards that I sent to my friends in 2022. On each of the cards, I painted odd-looking – but real – animals, and that was one of them: the aardvark.
“I come to the surface every now and then.”
The aardvark tunnels, and so do you. When do you surface?
Billy Roisz: I come to the surface every now and then. For concerts, for instance. My own, of course, but I also really enjoy going to concerts and hearing what my contemporaries are up to – other musics, films, literature, science…all that brings me to the surface and gives me inspiration for new pieces, either musical or visual.
Translated from the German original by Philip Yaeger.