Nic Bullen

nic_bullen-component_FixationsI conducted this interview with Nic Bullen over a year ago but was never able to get my shit together and publish it then due to just trying to survive the first few months of parenthood.  But now I’m excited to finally share it as he had so many interesting things to say.  Some day I’d love to follow this up with a second part, but as it’s already been so long I wanted to get this posted.

Bullen’s 2013 album, Component Fixations, was one of the year’s best experimental releases.  To those only familiar with his role as a founding memeber of Napalm Death, the sounds therein were a shock.  Bullen’s solo work has far more in common with GRM or Dick Raaijmakers than any sort of metal.  It was an eye-opening album and the way he used his own environment as a palette for deconstruction and exploration is fantastic.  Component Fixations makes its living in subtleties and Bullen, as a composer and sound sculptor, is in top form.

Component Fixations is still available on vinyl & digital formats.

So when did your interest in early electronic and experimental music begin?  Was there a particular piece of music or composer that served as your gateway?

As a child growing up in England in the 1970’s, I was initially exposed to electronic music through children’s television programmes. At the time, these programmes would often use electronic sound (by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop and others) as scores and incidental music: the music possessed an otherworldly quality which seemed mysterious and compelling and it appealed to me very strongly.

By the late 1970’s, I had begun to become interested in Punk music and very quickly found that I was very much attracted to the more ‘Do It Yourself’ examples of the genre (both in terms of musical approach and politics) which me to an interest in other expressions of ‘D.I.Y.’ music which, in my childhood naivety, I thought were somehow connected. Often these unexpected discoveries utilised electronic sound and processing, such as the pieces using tapes and synthesizers by Crass, the artists loosely affiliated around the Industrial music genre (such as Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Nurse With Wound and other releases on the United Dairies label, and – later – the early Power Electronics releases), and the bedroom-based experimentation associated with the ‘D.I.Y. Cassette’ culture of the late 1970’s and early 1980’s.

I have always maintained an open mind to different expressions of art forms so further exploration into experimental and electronic music was a natural progression for me. A key discovery was the  ‘Soundviews – Volume One: Sources’ cassette compilation and booklet (1990) which featured a range of artists (including Annea Lockwood, Hildegard Westerkamp, Charlemagne Palestine, Ellen Fullman and others) exhibiting a range of approaches to both electronic music and environmental sound recordings. I found that this release clarified the concepts of using recordings of the world around you as source material and creating longform works which did not follow the more conventional compositional structures generally applied in the Western world.

The releases in the ‘Acousmatrix’ series on BVHAAST (1990) were also very inspirational (particularly the Henri Pousseur and Gottfried Michael Koenig releases) for their introduction to the diversity of electronic music, and – in particular – their use of the stereo field and silence as an element.

Most people probably still associate you with the early days of Napalm Death, but you’ve done so much since then, including Scorn.  Can you give a quick rundown of some of the projects you’ve been involved in since?

I have generally maintained what could be viewed as a consistently low public profile, in large part because I feel that the composition of music is only one element within my life as a whole, rather than a defining factor, and consequently it doesn’t seem necessary to be focused on releasing music in a public manner.

When I left Napalm Death, I was very conscious that I had begun to feel stifled and that (for me) the potential for exploration was diminishing and shutting down, and I was also much more interested in my studies at university (in literature and philosophy). After graduating, I was asked to work in Scorn by another ex-member of Napalm Death.

Our intention in Scorn was to synthesise a range of aspects of our musical interests with a particular focus on a formal level on bass and rhythm (drawing in interests from Dub and Hip Hop), abstract textures, and stasis within extended durations. We released a series of recordings over a five year period during which time I also composed music on an individual level, some of which was released publically (such as the ‘Bass Terror’ album with Bill Laswell on Sub Rosa).

The realisation that I was not temperamentally suited to the life of a jobbing musician led to my leaving Scorn.  As part of this, I made the decision that I would not make live performances or release any recordings, and concentrated my attention in other areas (including composition as an end in itself), alongside a second university degree (in computer science).

In the early 2000s, I had begun to feel that enough distance had developed so that it may be interesting to perform in a live context, so I began to make sporadic live performances in a number of collaborative groupings, including explorations of electronic rhythms (as Black Galaxy), abstracted sound (as Spectrum Noh) and electronic improvisation (as Migrant). The focus was largely on improvisation and exploring a group dynamic, and this encouraged me to continue and to begin to make solo performances which are now my key focus. Alongside my work with electronic sound, I also play instruments in groupings which use more conventional instrumentation, again with a primary focus on the dynamic of compositional interaction between the artists and live performance.
From the mid 2000s, I have been exhibiting  artworks, working across a range of media (encompassing sound, text, film, 2D images, multimedia installations and performance).

What role has your environment of Birmingham played in influencing your work through the years?  I know that John from Type often talks about growing up in Walsall as always having an impact on his work and from what I know (having not been there and such, obviously), Birmingham was a pretty grim place in the 80s.

Although I do not come from the city, I have lived in Birmingham for the major part of my adult life and I do feel that the environment has been one factor which has influenced the development of my work.

Birmingham is a quintessentially industrial city, its very existence predicated on trade and industry since its beginnings as an Anglo Saxon settlement in the seventh century and amplified by its locus at the centre of the Industrial Revolution of the late eighteenth century. The need to rebuild the city after the bombing raids of World War Two led to rapid architectural development in the city, a large proportion of which was characterised by the application of the Modernist ethos through Brutalist design. This development  has been progressively degraded and tarnished as the manufacturing base in the city inevitably diminished through the latter half of the twentieth century, to the point that the facade which Birmingham presented to the wider culture of England in the 1980s was a dark one: the mid-century Modernist dream had become a lost Arcadia, a city with a centre characterised by grey concrete, dark and shadowed walkways, abrupt disjunctures in scale, and ever present litter on the pavements. It seemed as if the industrial foundations of the city had embedded themselves into its fabric. The concentrated focus of the harsh music made by the musicians of my generation (characterised by a sense of frustration and anger, and an alienation from the surrounding culture) comes – in part – from this environment.

I grew up in the countryside just outside the city (in a small village which is the recognised central point of England, with a monument on the village green to match) and I have become increasingly conscious of the interrelation between these two points. One of the qualities of the city which I am particularly attuned to is the blending of sounds from traditionally opposing poles (such as the industrial and the pastoral, the human and the animal): this interaction between elements is one of the areas which I explore in my work,

Component Fixations has been brewing and coming together for quite some time, I understand.  What has the process been like for you that finally led you here, to completing this work?

The pieces on ‘Component Fixations’ have taken around 4 years to complete. My process of the composition of a work begins with the development of a conceptual idea which I work through in terms of text and diagrams, attempting to understand what it is that I wish to do.

When this process seems to have developed to a pertinent point, I then begin to gather material (from my library of recorded sound and from new recordings of bespoke sound material for the particular project). The recordings are made with a variety of tools (including digital recorders, cassette tapes and dictaphones, digital cameras and phones, and contact microphones) in order to have a range of positions on the same environment. In the case of these pieces, I have been working within a self-imposed frame where the initial material for a composition is drawn from environmental recordings made within our home and garden. On a formal level, this allows for the placement of a limit on the potential sound material (in order to concentrate on extended focus on and exploration of the source material) and to expressly focus on environmental sound rather than electronically generated sound (in order to be exposed to what may be called the ‘imperfections’ contained within the source material which allow chance elements to influence the composition). It also allows me to utilise concepts related to the domestic (the home), the pastoral (the garden) and personal memory (my relationship to the sources on the material) as arenas for exploration.

I listen to and analyse the sound material as isolated cells in the first instance, choosing elements to work with which I then process using both digital and analogue means, looking for an accommodation between the glacial qualities of the digital and the organic warmth of the analogue. The period of processing the material takes some time (often throughout the period of the realisation of a composition) as I continue to return to and re-work the material, looking to see how the material will reveal itself. Gradually elements begin to make connections between each other, and they in turn lead to combinations of sound which begin to take their place within the wider framework of the composition.

These combinations operate at the level of the sonic realisation of the work, but also at a conceptual level in terms of how I respond to them emotionally. However the material is not fixed within the original concept for the composition: the material itself often begins to define the direction and content of a piece, leading in new directions (sometimes far away from the original concept). As the overall structure of the composition becomes apparent, I simultaneously explore sections within the composition, concentrating on the various iterations of elements across the duration of the composition and their handling (in terms of position, stereo placement, volume, attack, and so on) until I reach a point where the piece feels like it has reached a realisation.

I initially develop all of my pieces for use in a live performance context: wishing to make each concert different, I re-work all of the pieces and, with each iteration, the works shift in focus in an organic manner, hence the different versions of ‘Element Configuration’ (the third of which is released on the album). In effect, the pieces are a view of the material at a particular point in time and, as such, I view them as part of an ongoing and continually developing project.

The decision to make a release the recordings is a result of the feedback and encouragement which I received from John Twells of Type which led me to re-appraise my reasons for not releasing any music. It took me some years to decide if a release would be appropriate, but this finally led to the album being released on Type.

Is there any particular story behind the album title?

My compositional work is often the result of a cross pollination between disciplines, occurring at a point where ideas and elements from the range of arts intersect. The album title ‘Component Fixations’ is a result of this, referring to a term used by the American architect Kestutis Payl Zygas to describe an architectural approach evident in America in the 1950s which was characterised by architectural montage and a clashing of formal elements, a form of Pulp Modernism which had an antecedent in the approach taken towards architecture by the Russian Constructivists.

There seem to me to be correlations between this concept and my own process of composition where I appropriate elements (components) which are then modified and recombined (fixed) in order to form re-presentations of the original elements.
This concept is also pertinent to the artwork of the album (which consists of still images from one of my films ‘The Inverse Heliograph’). The film  follows a similar conceptual approach, using Super 8mm film related to my family and life as source material which is then recombined and re-presented (through multiple projector montage, re-framing of the image, the use of coloured gels and materials to alter the palette and texture of the image, and alterations to the durational presentation of the material) to create a new work which changes with each iteration.

The bulk (or entirety?) of the record is comprised of field recordings that you recorded around your home, yet there’s this almost alien feeling to a lot of it where it feels like it comes from another world entirely… it creates this really great dichotomy for me, this struggle between domestic banality and this bleak, otherworldly feeling of being lost on some distant realm. And maybe that’s just me!  But where did the idea of taking these sort of everyday field recordings and obliterating then reconstructing them into almost unrecognizable forms come from? Was there some overarching motive behind that basic idea?

The entirety of the sounds used as initial material for the development of the pieces on the ‘Component Fixations’ album are drawn from my library of environmental recordings made in our home and garden.

There are a number of elements to this formal concept. I am interested in the transmutation of material in order to create new forms and entities (utilising electronic processing in the case of sound pieces). In this sense, my compositions could be broadly defined as acousmatic. I also wanted to explore the limitation of material available for a piece, using the topographic boundaries to limit the potential sound sources available for a composition in order to encourage intense exploration of individual sounds and to concentrate on all of the permutations available from within a small selection of units of sound. There was also a deliberate decision to utilise a soundfield which is characterised as domestic and quotidian, in part for its personal qualities and also because I view this area of exploration as a form of political expression.

The obliteration of signifiers and transmutation of material are approaches which I have utilised consistently since the early 1980s, using electronic effects to alter both my voice and instruments from the power electronics of Final in 1984 through Napalm Death and Scorn to the present day in art works such as the Breach project which is an ongoing series of performance pieces for voice, fixed media sound and electronics where the human voice is both material and medium for exploring strategies within which the voice itself can be used to undermine the codes which govern discourse.

I have a personal predilection towards certain sonorities which are often viewed in a negative manner: dissonance, the cold, the distant. I am very much attracted to this in the sound works of other artists, particularly Allan R Splet (with his use of domestic sounds, of radiators and the pressure of air) and the use of extended longform tones in the work of artists such as Else Marie Pade, Teresa Rampazzi and Franca Sacchi. These sounds speak to me of the unknowable, of a form of the eternal which operates in a deep geological time outside of my own timeframe for existence which is an idea which simultaneously terrifies and entrances.  The domestic always finds itself in a struggle with the impersonal vastness of an impervious and disinterested universe, and I feel a need to search for an accord between the two.