Futurism Restated: Basic Channel’s Moritz von Oswald on “Silent Sonic Waves of Noise”
The Berlin techno legend talks about his new choral album Silencio, his lifelong love of opera, his bond with his synthesizers, and more
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Last week, Moritz von Oswald—the Berlin dub-techno auteur of Palais Schaumburg, Basic Channel, Maurizio, Quadrant, Chain Reaction, Rhythm & Sound, Dubplates & Mastering, the Moritz von Oswald Trio, and still more incarnations over the past four decades—released what might be the most surprising record of his career so far. It’s not simply that Silencio almost entirely abandons beats, in a departure from the dominant role that rhythm has played (pulsing, burbling, tapping, crackling, chugging, sweeping, cycling, churning, rippling) in virtually all of his output to date. Plenty of techno artists eventually turn around and drop an ambient record. And in von Oswald’s case, some measure of ambient has always been woven into the fiber of his music. What makes the new album stand out is the fact that it is, in part, a choral work.
As an adept of dub, von Oswald has always put the malleability of musical form at the center of his music. For Silencio, he took that interest in metamorphosis, in transmogrification, a step further. After writing the initial sketches on an array of mostly classic analog synthesizers—EMS VCS3 & AKS, Prophet V, Oberheim 4-Voice, Moog Model 15—he worked with Finnish pianist and composer Jarkko Riihimäki to transpose those parts for a 16-part choir. Then, once the parts had been recorded, he fused them back into his synthesizer recordings. The results are unlike anything else in his catalog: While the opening “Silencio” does incorporate a very subtle dub pulse, the majority of the album is untethered to anything like a downbeat, dissipating into a spectral spray of voice and electronics that takes obvious cues from Ligeti and Xenakis. It’s a timbral marvel. (Whether coincidentally or otherwise, parts of it remind me a little bit of Laurel Halo’s wonderful album Atlas—which I wrote about in September—at least in their mutual interest in dissonance, their mutually gaseous qualities. And Halo, of course, played keyboards in the Moritz von Oswald Trio on 2021’s Dissent (Chapter 1-10).)
A few weeks ago, I spoke with von Oswald over Zoom. We’d spoken a few times before: once for a Wire cover story in 2009, meeting up in a cafe in a quiet neighborhood in Berlin, and another time in a public Q&A at Ableton’s Loop conference, in 2016. But in many ways, despite not actually meeting in person, this felt like the most intimate of our encounters, simply because von Oswald was sitting in the middle of his studio, surrounded by banks of gear. (I can’t say I recognized any of it, however, beyond a boxy Martion Bullfrog speaker that I spotted in a far corner of the room—something I only recognized from having seen one in Ricardo Villalobos’ studio, years ago. “I have two in the back and two in the front,” von Oswald said. “So it’s like a headphone,” he added, laughing. That would be some headphone!)
We talked about making synthesizers a regular part of your family, his long-standing love of opera, and how he finally transformed a melody he’s been carrying in his head for years into Silencio’s first track. Read on for the full transcript of our Q&A, which has been edited for clarity and length.
Also, if you’re going to be in Berlin, von Oswald and Vocalconsort Berlin present the live world premiere of Silencio on November 16 at St. Thomas Kirche. Buy tickets here.
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