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, hed 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 whats 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 hasnt 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.
Scanners 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 Batmans 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 wont even answer to DJ, in spite of instigating projects like the Electronic Lounge at Londons ICA since 1994.
For someone who has made sound his material its 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. Im interested in dissolving reality. I look for tones, textures, drones, fragments that could be the backbone of an event. Like Ill 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: hell 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 everyones life vied with each other in this electro-acoustic pool.
Two new projects, both taking place this month, push further Scanners 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 Artangels Inner City series of urban explorations. The works 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. Pauls 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.