Anne Karpf meets the one-man sound industry who is putting the magic into Radio 3's Midsummer Night's Dream.
When Robin Rimbaud, alias Scanner, is asked on airplanes what he does, he often says he's a hairdresser. Well, he's hardly likely to volunteer some of the descriptions which have been applied to him, such as sonic terrorist, data pilferer, cultural agitator, or flaneur electronique (electronic wanderer).
Audio artist is the simplest term for a fellow who has been sampled by Björk, admired by Stockhausen, performed with 100 violinists alongside Laurie Anderson, worked on Brian Ferry's new album, and had a Fellowship in Sound at John Moores University. For five years, until 1998, he also DJ'd the Electronic Lounge club at the ICA once a month, turning it into one of the buzziest places to catch British underground music. Or he could go by the name of sound designer, on the strength of his work for Derek Jarman and Neville Brody and for Radio 3's new production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.
I think he should call himself plain "traveller". In 1997 he made around 200 trips,averaging two foreign forays a week. This month he'll be in Austria,Switzerland, Brussels,Amsterdam, Berlin and Holland - remixing,curating, composing - as well as London. He keeps a small suitcase packed by his bed, and his passport is always in his bag. He travels light. Sitting in his fabulouslyuncluttered, minimalist flat/studio in a converted former Sunlight soap factory in London's East End (what better setting for a self-confessed anal retentive?), he shows me his case, which contains everything he needs to sample, stretch, and record sound at gigs. His file-sized Powerbook allows him to lay up to 126 tracks, many of them evident on his new CD, Lauwarm Instrumentals,with its wailing and booming and its whispered voices.
It's been produced on Scanner's own label, Sulphur: packed into his slight
frame is a whole industry. Eschewing all stimulants (including tea and coffee),
he rises early, works late and hard. In photos he looks scary: alien, hypercool,
with bald head and alias. In person he has a cheeky-chappie personality, all
facetious quips and jokey asides.
Rimbaud is his real name but so few people could pronounce it that he fell back on the name of the machine he uses to scan radio waves. Sound and not technology has been his obsession since his teacher at school in Battersea, south London played John Cage'sPrepared Piano Pieces to the class. "I remember at 11 years old thinking, 'this is extraordinary, this is another world.'"
He began to play around with a tape recorder at home, setting it to work inside the piano and recording family dinners. He has kept everything, no matter how embarrassing. It's all neatly labelled, stored in pristine drawers, alongside the journal he's kept since he was13: 500 words a day, and never missed one. While the other 15-year-olds were telling the careers master they wanted to be a policeman or Prime Minister, Rimbaud said "I wish to escape the accretions of contemporary work life". And he has.
Around that time his father died. The editor of a motorbicycle magazine, he was testing a new motorbike which malfunctioned. He crashed into a wall and died instantly. The family dealt with it "in a very English way. The next morning my mother said,'your father died last night', and then I went to school. We simply never spoke about it. My father just wasn't there." Rimbaud reacted by not speaking for two years: the sound-sensitive child withdrew his own voice. "I just read a lot. It's probably why I speak so much now." The speaking voice brought him to public notice. In his earlier work he used scanned voices from cordless phone conversations, rendered unrecognisable and transformed into a narrative of his own. Inevitably they brought tabloid accusations of voyeurism.
Rimbaud seems to have exhausted the method but he's still fascinated by the human voice and in "indiscriminate signals. If I sit here and wave my hand around it produces radio waves that you could put together. I like the idea of being a magician and producing sound from nothing. I'm not a trained musician,but I think I understand how space works with sound. The sounds I often use are what you might call mistakes, the debris." So, for example, in the recording of A Midsummer Night's Dream, an actress made a loud rustling noise when turning the page of her script. It couldn't be cut, so Rimbaud used it instead, turning it into a beautiful part of his fairy soundscape.
He spent last week at an electronic art festival in Linz, Austria (he speaks fluent German). There, with five other composers, he made 60 hours of music, stretching, shredding,and looping the music of Michael Nyman. "Nyman's really good about it - not at all precious. He says we can do what we want with his work. I'm interested in how far you can take a sound - it's like putting it in a blender." The result is much more seductive than the Nyman original.
The rise of ambient and techno have brought him a new audience, making him
popular with clubbers and dance music fans. Yet until recently British radio
has ignored him and the other sound artists. He's never received a BBC commission,
though the last year has brought a number of invitations to sound design. He
did the wonderful Radio 3 version of Ann Michaels's Fugitive Pieces earlier
this year and, as well as the Dream, he's done the sound for a superb Sylvia
Plath three-hander, TheThree Women, to be broadcast on Radio 3 on new year's
day. But why hasn't Radio 1 taken him up? The Electronic Lounge
would make a terrific late-night radio show.
Next month he teams up with graphic artist Tonne for Sound Polaroids at the ICA, an interactive sound installation which examines the textures and images of London. He had 10,000 postcards printed inviting the public to send in public and private sounds of the city, and left them in cafes, record shops and museums, as well as mailed out to an art audience. The replies formed the basis of digital photos that, converted by software into sounds, will create an holistic tape-slide show.
These are busy times for Scanner. Coming soon is Sound Curtains, a permanent installation of sheets of sound for a new digital extension at London's Science Museum. There's also the possibility of composing for an orchestra in Norway, and offers of placements in Australia and at the academy of media arts in Cologne. He's booked until 2001. There's no silencing Scanner now.