One of the more prolific artists of our time is Dutch experimentalist Rutger Zuydervelt aka Machinefabriek who also records in various trio, duo and other variations. His music is not one that can be forced into a corner and this is seen through his more abstract compositions and his various soundtrack work for dance, film and games. One other aspect as prolific as his music is his artwork for his various releases and other artist. Sometimes this is the full product, other times it can just be lay out, but like his musical output, his design work is similarly diverse. Rutger kindly submitted to my questions about his art/design work as well as his music. Below the interview is a review of the forthcoming second album by the group FEAN of which he is a collaborator / member.
*Please excuse the genericness of this question – Please give us a background as to your history with art. Where did you study? What sources inspire or influence you?
Musically, it started with piano and guitar lessons when I was young (from my 10th to 15 or something). My interest in electronic music came after that, and that was all DIY. So I didn’t go to conservatory. Instead, I studied graphic design, and as you know, I still work as a designer. I’m lucky enough to be able to do two things that I really like.
*Your bio describes your musical approach as “The music can be heard as an attempt to create sonic environments for the listener to dwell in. Finding tension in texture, tone and timing, the result can be very minimalistic at first glance, but reveals its depth upon closer listening. The devil is in the details.” I was wondering how close to this process your visual output follows?
Most of the time, when working on an album (I practically always work for an album’s perspective, not separate songs), the idea for a cover develops in the process. And like with my music, I’m very much into the ‘first thought, best thought’ principle. So it can all be quite intuitive and spontaneous. And as soon as an idea for the visual side of a release starts to form, it becomes nearly impossible for me to separate it from the audio. They become one entity. That’s why I find it hard to let anyone else handle the design.
*How much is the process of providing artwork / design for another artist? Do they give you ideas or images to work with or do you have a collection of work you have been consistently working on that you can access?
There’s certainly graphic elements that return in multiple covers that I did, but always transformed to make it unique for that specific sleeve. But most of the time I start with a clean slate. It also depends: there’s occasions when the artist is providing images to use, and other times I have carte blanche.
*You have worked with a variety of artists and labels. Is there an over reaching philosophy within your artwork that you try to convey with designs?
I definitely see graphic design as a tool to communicate information with, and to give a strong first impression. It’s all about clarity and organization. Loads of things (images, type, graphic elements) are aligned, I can be quite obsessive about that, using grids and guide-lines to make sure every little thing is placed where it ’should’. It’s a bit how I organize my musical output as well, but I think in the music there’s more space for freedom, and more textural – the visual side it quite austere. An inviting, accessible entry point to the music.
*The changing landscape in the way that music has been ‘delivered’ since you started, how has this affected the artwork / design / lay out you do? Do you think that the physical form has more of a role in design than for digital releases, or do you see an equal amount of effort put into strictly digital only releases?
The work itself, designing sleeves, didn’t change. Of course nowadays you always need a square digital cover to go with a release, but that’s about the only difference. A digital cover is just as important as the physical one, especially since that music market is so cluttered – all the more reason to try to stand out. Of course, as a designer it’s much nicer to work on a physical album, so that artwork can be more comprehensive. I love it when there’s a CD, LP and download version of an album, and I can build a graphic language for the album. A digital-only release feels a bit one-dimensional, visually.
*Outside of music design have you exhibited or had your work featured? If not, is this a further avenue that you would like to pursue?
No, this is not something that interests me a lot. I truly see my visual work as something that serves a broader purpose (to transfer information in an accessible way), not as a stand-alone thing, not autonomous like that. Not as strictly art, if you will.
*The music of Machinefabriek is quite diverse. There is a feeling of what you may suspect (in ball park terms) to hear, but with an openness to any possibility. Is the same approach taken through to your artwork?
To be honest, I don’t think my graphic work is as diverse as my musical output, probably because I’m sticking to a certain simplicity and readability. The music is definitely more layered and mysterious. This is not to nullify the visuals: I think it’s super important to create an inviting (as I called it before) entry point into the music. It’s like a hand gently taking you to a different world. The artwork is that hand, the music is that other world. Does that make sense?
*Do you have any particular covers you have designed that are your personal favourites?
I quite like what I did for my ‘With Voices’ album. The image on the cover (the entrance of a cave, drawn by a kid) was a bit of a lucky find; I was working on a kids magazine, and one of the articles compiled children’s drawings of their imagined perfect playground. So this kid drew a cave, but it also looks like a mouth. This was while I was working my album as well, which (as the title implies) uses vocals a lot. The mysteriousness of a cave that could also be a mouth, and the playfulness of the drawing felt so aligned with the album, it really is the perfect image for it. So obviously I was glad that I was allowed to use it. But now that I’m thinking about it; could I say that I designed it? Probably not… I’m also very fond of the designs I did for the two albums that Gareth Davis and Merzbow released on Moving Furniture Records. It’s stupidly simple: there’s a line with all the titles and credits, in a small font, white on black (and on red for the second album), being repeated so it becomes a pattern/images that looks like a visual translation of the static noise on the album. Your eyes dance a bit when you look at it. A nice effect, with super simple means.
*The music you create has a flexibility in that it is adaptable to different situations such as dance works or in the film world. Do you consciously create music that seems to transcend genres or limitations or is it just the way in which you create/compose?
I never consciously made the decision to start making music for film or dance. Choreographers and film directors just approached me, and I gave it a try. And I’m glad I did, ‘cause I love collaborating in that way. To be part of something bigger. It’s very inspiring, and it definitely helps to broaden my horizon. I’m sure that working on these different projects had an effect on my autonomous output as well, and is partly responsible for that output being so versatile. And it’s funny that you say ’transcend limitations’, because I actually feel that my music is very depending on limitations. I mean; I love to have a very clear framework or concept to work within. This can obviously be the story and atmosphere of a dance or film production, but just as well be self opposed limitations. This helps me to focus and get my creativity going I suppose.
*From an outsider it feels that you are very much a self contained unit in regards to art, music , releases. How important is it to be so independent in turbulent times like these?
I would imagine there is a beauty of simplicity in releasing when and how you want to.Not sure if it has to do with turbulent times… probably more with me being used to it. I love the freedom of it, doing practically everything myself. It’s also the control-freak in me. And nowadays, with Bandcamp and Distrokid (for digital distribution) etc, artists can easily get music out into the world. I know, it’s because of that that we’re flooded with new music all the time. So the downside is that it becomes harder and harder to stand out and be heard… In that regard, I’m not sure I would be able to get the same music carrier as I have now, if I would’ve started in this decade.
*You’ve just release the Porcelain Soundtrack and in the past you have worked on game soundtracks and short films/videos. How different is the creative process in creating an audio companion to someone else’s visuals and during so do you make discoveries that can be used on Machinefabriek releases?
The big difference is that there’s not only my own ideas, but someone else’s too, that has be be ’translated into’ the music. So that framework I was talking about earlier, is not only defined by myself. Which is a challenge, but in a good way. It makes me go places where I wouldn’t go otherwise. In that regards, I see these ‘compromises’ more as ’new possibilities’ for my music. I love to surprise myself when making music, and with these commissions, this happens a lot.
*What does the near future hold for you both musically and artistically?
There’s a lot in the pipe-line, release-wise:A second FEAN album coming up soon, on the new Laaps label, this month.A new solo album on Zoharum, very soon too.And a duo album with violin player Anne Bakker, in June.Then there’s a few soundtrack commissions that I’m working on, for film and dance. One of these is planned to premiere in New York in April, but in the current crisis, it might be postponed…
“FEAN II is the following of the first opus released on Moving Furniture Records in 2018, from some materials of the improvisatory collective FEAN based around Jan Kleefstra (voice, poems), Romke Kleefstra (guitar, bass and effects), Mariska Baars (vocals) and Rutger Zuydervelt (electronics) from Netherlands, joined by the Belgian musicians Annelies Monseré (church organ, keyboard), Sylvain Chauveau (tuned percussion, radio) and Joachim Badenhorst (acoustic and amplified clarinet, bass clarinet, saxophone). Like The Alvaret Ensemble, this project is the result of some improvisations in a Church. But at not the same place.
The FEAN project gets its inspiration from the ecological decay of peatland in the Dutch province Friesland and in other parts of Europe. Agriculture and peat extraction are threatening the landscape severely and with long term consequences. This forms the underlying thought for the improvised recording sessions, which were overseen by Jan Switters. Although the Piiptsjilling members are obviously used to perform and record together, adding the three Belgian guests (who didn’t play together before) added an extra dimension to the group’s dynamics, resulting in a concentrated yet playful series of improvisations, that were later mixed and edited for the project.”
Following on from this ensemble’s sold out 2018 debut on Moving Furniture Records, “FEAN II” also continues the ‘exquisite cadaver’ project that is Laaps with each release tying into the next one as shown by the tiny flashes of the next cover art in the digital cover of the current release. The tie between Laaps 1 and 2 are the Kleefstra Brothers who appear (amongst many other things) in The Alvaret Ensemble. Like the Alvaret Ensemble album was edited by member Greg Haines from the various improvisations, this album is edited by Rutger Zuydervelt who also mixed it.
While the Alvaret Ensemble was more rooted in Improv Modern Classical styles, Fean feels definitely part of the electroacoustic scene with a mixture of jazz and folk as well as experimental ambience and electronics. The track titles which translate to “Sour Milk” (Soere Molke) “Swelling” (Swellen), “Burned Books” (Ferbaarnde Boeken), “A Little Life” (In Bytsje Libben) and “Forget All About You” (Ferjit Alles Om Dy Hinne) offer little hints at the themes covered throughout the album (unless you can understand the words of Jan Kleefstra). For some reason I always seem to feel music like this is designed to be listened to in the middle of the night. There is a real feeling of not necessarily isolation, but a need for contemplation when listening to pieces like this. It doesn’t hurt to be able to focus on the pieces otherwise you may miss the intricate things like Mariska Baars vocals that feel barely there.
Looking at the credits it reveals that the music that has been created is largely one where all collaborators have a hand in the process resulting in a full album rather than a core of musicians with some guests. The one thing that is apparent is the attention to detail in the depths of sound. There is a real way in which the various instruments occupy their own space but also come together as collaborating sounds. The soundscape is one which exists within a semi tense environment as there is a somewhat dark underbelly to the pieces and just going on Jan Kleefestra’s voice / narration it feels like a warning is being given. Musically it is fairly indescribable with the term sound art coming to mind. I would be interested to know in the sessions that made up the album, how the pieces were constructed. There are times where Joachim Badenhorst’s clarinet work leads some of the pieces and I wonder whether the musicians were in-tune to that during the recordings or the construction of the pieces is a reaction to these clarinet lines.
In some pieces like the opening “Soere Molke” I feel the music suits experimental film, while a piece like “Ferbaarnde Boeken” has a real stark and intense quality about it and it would suit a black and white multi media art piece. At the end of the day you get music that is as artistic as it is approachable. This is not experimental for the sake of experimenting. Instead you are getting pieces constructed by experienced artists who are on a similar wavelength to each other and sympathetic in their playing that both compliments and coaxes out the sounds of their collaborators.
“II” is available on LP, CD and Digital from March 17 from Laaps.