Nils Quak ‎– Tanger At Night (Luv Sound, 2009)

luvsound was a netlabel administrated by Erik Schoster that specialized in sound art. Between 2004 and 2010, it made a number of digital releases available, most of them single mp3 files. One of luvsound’s more curious artifacts was a four minute mp3 called “Tanger At Night,” produced by Nils Quak under the abbreviation NQ. What makes this sound file interesting is that it takes a short bit of audio and degrades it over and over again until it is nearly unrecognizable.

I contacted Quak to fill me in on the background behind this notable bit of sound art, and he was happy to furnish me with details. “In 2007 my father-in-law died and when we emptied out the house, I also checked the record collection — which had some nice records, such as a first pressing of Neu 2,” he tells me. “There were also a couple of seven-inch records with ‘world music’ recordings: Turkish, Chinese, Greek records and a lot of other stuff. There was also this flexi disc with klezmer music. Due to its age, the recording was already pretty worn out and sounded eerily beautiful.”

He explains that he recorded a couple of parts of that record to his computer and played around with them digitally, adjusting the pitch and speed, and adding effects like reverb and delay. “But even though they sounded gorgeous, I wasn’t able to arrange them into something coherent,” he explains.

“During that time, my commute was about one and a half hours each way. Since the largest part of the commute was by train, I often used the time to make music or to play with some ideas.” He explains that he was using a piece of audio production software called Max. That program provides producers with a visual interface to customize their music, which is much easier than having to program audio manually using text commands. Max is also highly modular, allowing independent programmers to create patches (or “externals”) which are custom methods of producing sound. When “Tanger At Night” came about, Quak was experimenting with a set of externals created by a programmer named André Sier. He tells me he was “quite into chaotic systems at that time,” and therefore gravitated towards Sier’s A-Chaos Lib –a set of patches designed to produce chaos using non-linear equations, through a mathematical concept known as “strange attractors.”

On one commute, he subjected the flexi disc’s klezmer loops to one of Sier’s A-Chaos externals called Lorenz. That external was named after a set of equations developed by a mathematician named Edward Lorenz; these equations, which generate chaotic results, are responsible for the concept of the butterfly effect.

A screenshot of the Max patch that Quak was working with. (Source: Nils Quak)

“This led to a nice patchwork of loops fading in and out,” Quak recalls. “I remember finalizing the export of the audio file just seconds before I arrived at my home station.”

Yet he was unsatisfied with the results. “The recording still sounded way too clean and detailed for my taste and dirtying it up afterwards with distortion and waveshapers didn’t lead to the desired results.”

So he decided to go lo-fi. He thought of Alvin Lucier’s famous “I Am Sitting In A Room” experiment. Lucier’s concept was to record himself saying “I am sitting in a room,” then to play it back and record the playback, then to play that recording back and record it again, and so on. With each successive version, the resonant frequencies of the room, amplified relative to the rest of the audio, monopolize more and more of the sound field. Repeated enough times, the words themselves become inaudible, and all that’s heard are the resonant frequencies as tones.

Quak adapted this concept, using the tools at his disposal. “The lack of proper recording equipment led me to play this over my speakers and record it via my phone. I repeated this step various times in different locations around the apartment and outside on the street and the garden. So in this way the method differs from Lucier’s version, since I was not focusing on the room’s resonances, but always introduced new sounds and reverberations with each iteration. But since I always did at least a couple of recordings in each location, the resonances got superimposed on each other nevertheless, but not as much as in ‘I am sitting in a room.’”

He deliberately used cheap recording software and the sub-par microphone on his cell phone, adding to the sonic limitations and sense of degradation. “The speakers and microphones of the phone and dictaphone I used probably played a larger role here. Their strange frequency response definitively left a big mark on the recording. [My equipment was especially lacking] towards the extremes of the audio spectrum, so the lows and highs vanished more and more with each step.”

Indeed, listening to “Tanger At Night,” you would never know it started off life as klezmer. Instead it’s a tinny, foggy drone that seems to drift in and out of frame. It sounds a little like an early Emeralds tape.

In a sense, “Tanger” serves as a microcosm of Quak’s approach to sound art. “Chance and generative systems often play a role in my music,” he explains. “I like working with feedback systems, where the final result influences the starting point. But more often than not, this is not a deliberate decision, but comes with working with modular synthesizers.” He credits these highly customizable instruments with enabling him to design feedback systems, to tilt the balance towards randomness.

Quak’s modular synth rig. (Source: Nils Quak)

Interestingly, despite Quak’s technical knowhow and familiarity with sound art concepts, audio production is a hobby, not a career. “I never considered my music making as something that could have a career,” he says. “My relation to making music was formed in punk and hardcore bands and the related scenes. Making music was just a personal and social practice I enjoyed. I never wanted to turn this into a profession. I like playing small shows, releasing some records here and there, meeting people, and getting the chance to hang out with them for an evening. That’s all I ever wanted and that’s still what I do at 43.”

When “Tanger At Night” came out, it was the same story. “I was working at a regular job, trying to get the most out of my spare time, making music, hanging out with friends.”

Eleven years down the line, he is happy with how “Tanger” turned out. “I really liked how it all came together after struggling with the initial sounds,” he explains. “It’s weird that sometimes you can’t fit all the pieces together for ages and then at some point it just clicks and it comes together super easily and you already know what to do with the next step. The recording had that vibe, even though it was quite a long process. I still enjoy it today, but I haven’t listened to it for years until you contacted me. It has this weird familiarity: On the one hand listening to it brings back fragments of memories and at the same time it feels like listening to somebody else’s work, because it’s been so long since I listened to it closely.”

Thanks to Nils Quak for the interview and images. “Tanger At Night” is still available via luvsound’s page. Nils Quak’s Bandcamp page features many of his sound experiments.