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Financial Times
by Greg Hilty
December 1998

When I met Scanner he was coming down with something. Instead of just drooping, like the rest of us, he was busy analysing exactly how he felt, energetically considering how to maintain his health. He settled for an orange juice and began to talk. Just back from a short residency in Denmark, having recently completed a Fellowship in Sound (the first) at John Moores University in Liverpool, and with two ambitious performance projects involving complex mixes of recorded and live sound due to open within a fortnight, Scanner clearly had no time to be ill. On top of everything, he’d been waiting six months to take possession of his new home and studio, in a converted factory in Bethnal Green. All of his equipment, his tapes, his archive, all his working material, was stored in cardboard boxes. He was so rootless he had even been compelled to get a mobile phone.

This last fact was a pleasing irony, given the way he made his name. ‘Scanner’ is a stage name derived from a standard - and what’s more, legal - piece of electronic equipment that allows you to pick up sounds from such otherwise private transmitters as hand-held telephones, hearing aids,baby alarms, and refrigerators. Scanner has been using this implement since the early 1990s, in events and recordings that combine sounds of musical origin with noises snatched out of the air around us. Who hasn’t inadvertently picked up a party line, and listened for a few seconds longer than necessary ? Or heard the eery crackle of a short wave transmision intrude over the radio ? Scanner searches out such sounds and allows them to make their democratic music. However personal or technical, emphatic or dull they may be in themselves, he weaves these fragments of communication into a rich tapestry of sound.

Scanner’s real name is even less plausible than his monniker, and no less revealing of his practice or personality. He was born Robin Rimbaud, thirty-four years ago in Wandsworth. It actually helps to see him as a Southwest London cross between Batman’s side-kick - the modernist super-hero as perpetually amazed ball of energy - and the French poet who found new depths in an over-used language and then set off for Africa to be an adventurer businessman. When asked what he is or does, Robin Rimbaud favours words like ‘entrepreneur’ over ‘composer’ - although he has released a dozen CDs and performed in concert halls around the world - or ‘artist’ - although he has featured in many of the cutting-edge visual art showcases of recent years. He won’t even answer to ‘DJ’, in spite of instigating projects like the ‘Electronic Lounge’ at London’s ICA since 1994.

For someone who has made sound his material it’s hardly surprising he is a master of the sound bite: he claims he operates on ‘the threshold of hearing’, dealing in frequencies that are around us all the time but inaudible to the unaided ear. ‘I am not a jukebox,’ is another quotable claim, deriding the endless repetition upon which the music industry is based. Instead, as ‘a member of the cut and paste generation,’ Scanner feels free to manipulate sound in response to a given situation. Scanning is only part of his act, and he now feels slightly trapped by the notoriety of the label he affixed to himself. Accused of invading privacy, he retorts that his work is rather ‘an illustration of the end of privacy.’ It
does lead to some remarkable moments, as when he picked up a couple indulging in phone sex while he was taking part in a jazz improvisation session: the musiciansresponded to this unexpected input with gentler, more lilting tunes.

More often, Scanner complements performers by sampling their music live, then throwing it back at them. He claims he is ‘the risk factor’, there to break the thread of the musical melody and allow it to change direction, only to build back up again or dissolve altogether. ‘I’m interested in dissolving reality. I look for tones, textures, drones, fragments that could be the backbone of an event. Like I’ll sample the breath a saxophonist takes between notes and repeat it.’ He demonstrates by sucking in a ‘phwit’ sound once, then several times. He plans to work with a choir led by composer Orlando Gough: he’ll record their rehearsal, then treat it and play it back the following day, first subtly anticipating the live performance, then accompanying it, then leaving something like an echo or a memory hanging in the air after the singers stop.

Scanner also works in contexts closer to the visual arts. He has recently collaborated with the Austrian artist Katarina Matiasek, making a ‘wishing well’ in a venue called the ‘Klangturm’, or ‘Sound Tower’. They recorded thousands of peoples’ wishes, offered in response to an internet mailout. Desires ranging from ‘I want to have sex with Antonella’ to ‘I want my mother to get well’ and ‘I want Jesus to enter everyone’s life’ vied with each other in this electro-acoustic pool.

Two new projects, both taking place this month, push further Scanner’s manipulation of sound in precise relation to space. A house that has lain empty for twenty-five years will become the site of a theatrical event, devised by Scanner with writer Simon Armitage and directors Wilson and Wilson, for the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival. Live actors and pre-recorded sounds will jointly articulate the space, giving form to its memories and fantasies.

For London, Scanner has devised a solo piece, the first of Artangel’s ‘Inner City’ series of urban explorations. The work’s title, ‘Surface Noise’, belies the many-layered approach adopted. The familiar nursery song ‘London Bridge is Falling Down’ has been superimposed in graphic format upon a map of London, its notes becoming stopping points on a journey between St. Paul’s and Big Ben. Along the way, Scanner will record both sounds and images. He will manipulate these, then play them back to an audience assembled on an old Routmaster bus, as usual mixing in live sound - from a microphone outside the bus - and subliminal sounds he picks up with the scanner. The conversion of visual images into acoustic ones will be effected courtesy of a computer programme called ‘Metasynth’ which Scanner has written. He likes the easy transition from image to sound and back again: it encourages the collapse of legibility into texture, the distillation of sound into acoustic disturbance, ‘like wow and flutter, or the fluff on the end of a needle.’ Robin Rimbaud, adventurer in sound, will in the space of a brief bus journey draw upon many of our common reserves of sonic recognition, mingling the folk memory of the nursery rhyme, the background roar of traffic and the private sounds we make secure in the knowledge that no one else is listening.