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How to make music from life (with the help of a few ghosts)
by Louise Gray
The Independent on Sunday
19 November 2000

He has turned his diaries into performance art. Next he plans to play live with the spirit of Jim Morrison. Louise Gray meets Scanner

Robin Rimbaud does lots of things. He makes recordings, gallery installations and sculptures; he collaborates with artists as diverse as the Kronos Quartet, Charlemagne Palestine and Bryan Ferry; he is Radio 4's artist-in-residence and John Moore's University's Fellow of Sound. But often he just thinks.

Currently, the 36-year old London-born artist is thinking about ghosts - not necessarily the phantoms of dark imaginings - so much as the subtle traces that people, action, sounds leave behind. "This building I live in has remnants of other people. Their old wallpaper, their mail, suggest a continuing presence of some type. Even," (and here follows a typical Rimbaud sequence as an idea seeps into adjoining territories), "on a computer you can retrieve items that you thought you'd trashed.What if you could apply the same idea to hi-fi speakers? Mine are 20 years old and they've had to listen to the most hellish stuff. They've gone through Motorhead, AC/DC, Supertramp. What's their archive like? If a building developed a memory what would it remember? How would that sound?"

Working under the alias of Scanner, Rimbaud (real name, no relation) is someone who resists categorisation. It would be lazy to describe him as a latterday Brian Eno, the theorist and non-musician who put the art into Roxy Music, but there does exist a congruence between their two approaches. Both work with electronic, and increasingly, digital, music to explore the effect that technology has on human communication. Rimbaud, particularly, is intrigued with the temporal fluency that digital storage systems facilitates: is, for example, a sound sample - now one of the recording studio's standard tools - of the past or the present? and how may its future use alter that status?

It's to Rimbaud's considerable credit that he's able not only to articulate such issues - and these are big issues - through his work, but that he can do it with such an urbane immediacy. And, undoubtably, it will be a quality carried over to his first national tour which begins this week. A collaboration with the graphic artist Tonne, Scanner's Diary tour is based around a diary that Rimbaud has kept since he was 12. "Its important aspect is the personal element, the human voice. I'll be reading from scripts without editing myself," he says. "The diaries are funny, they're adolescent, but there's no point in censoring them. They're someone else."

But one also knows that Diary will be much more than mere recital. Scanner, who recently won praise for his soundtracks to A Midsummer Night's Dream and Sylvia Plath's Three Women (both broadcast on Radio 4) and his multi-layered sound design for Jean Cocteau's The Human Voice, takes a directorial approach to his work. Sonic and verbal languages will combine to throw up their own contrary narratives. It's a risk, Rimbaud admits, but to expose oneself so emotionally is, he believes, to cut through the artifice that surrounds everyday life. "My father died when I was 15," he says, "and my diary just says: 'Mum said Dad died last night - sad. Had my tie pulled at school.' It's an inability to know how to talk about these things. When my friend Derek Jarman died, I made a CD about it, because it seemed a public way to express a private sadness. I want these diaries to work through private moments as theatrical performance ... and I like telling stories. That's something I learnt from John Cage."

It's no surprise to find that Cage is one of Rimbaud's continual reference points. Cage's great legacy was the attention he brought to the framing of events: after his famous silent work, 4' 33" made its 1952 debut, no work of art could ever be the same again.

"When the first Scanner record was released in 1992 and I made a concert, writers spoke of me as a performance artist," Rimbaud explains. "I hadn't perceived it like that. I'd been playing around with music - ways of making sound and changing sound - since I was 11. But then I didn't fit musical parameters. The thing that always intrigues me about performance is that there's no real way of recording the experience. Yes, you can take photos, make videos or netcasts, but nothing will ever capture that moment. I remember going to early performances by Stuart Brisley - those durational pieces of cliché where he might sit in a bath for ages - and being enraptured. I realise now what an inspiration such events were."

It's inevitable that Rimbaud turns to the memory traces that such events may leave behind. Of his many works in progress - which include a "memory project" with photographer Luisa Lambri, his first "pop" CD, Wave of Light, and a longterm collaboration with the Kronos Quartet - one of the oddest is a piece with Mike Kelley, destined for Paris's Pompidou Centre in 2002. "We're going to get mediums on stage and channel the spirits of Jim Morrison, Serge Gainsbourg, Jacques Brel. It's us being pranksters. Do I believe in ghosts? No, but it's a playful way of looking at serious issues about sampling culture. When you sample you take objects from an archive, but what can you take from the dead?"

And should the dead fail to materialise? "Well, I love the idea of the poster that reads, Scanner, Mike Kelley, Jim Morrison - Live at the Pompidou."