Robin Rimbaud

Robin Rimbaud
Scanner (Robin Rimbaud) at MTF Berlin
(Photo: IWPhotographic)

Since 1991 Scanner, British artist Robin Rimbaud, has been intensely active in sonic art, producing concerts, installations and recordings, connecting a bewilderingly diverse array of genres. He scored the hit musical comedy Kirikou & Karaba (2007) and Narnia ballet (2015), Philips Wake-Up Light (2009), the re-opening of the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam and in 2016 and installed Water Drops at Rijeka Airport in Croatia. His work Salles des Departs (2003) is permanently installed in a working morgue in Paris.

Why do you make music?

Now, that’s a simple question, with a reasonably complex answer. One could answer, simply because I can, for myself, for personal pleasure and so on, but perhaps a little more context might help.

In many ways my life’s work has been born from a series of chance encounters and discoveries of technology. I was born in the 1960s and so growing up in the 1970s offered a very different approach to life than it does today. Technology was not as abundant then as it is today, the very idea of being able to maintain a relationship with the world further than your close friends and family was an impossible fantasy, and could only be achieved by finding a pen-pal on the other side of the globe to communicate with. Today at the swish of a thumb we can meet people, make sounds, discover new worlds.

Thankfully my family had an interest in acquiring the latest gadgets. Though reasonably poor, with many of our belongings, the TV, the video recorder, being only rented from a local company, I was fortunate to be able to play with these tools. One of these was a tape recorder. Nothing fancy, just an ordinary cassette recorder about the size of a large hardback cookery book, running on batteries. My brother and I would spend hours recording around the house, in the garden, in the street. It wasn’t with any intention or understanding of music or sound but because it was simply possible. There was a joy in capturing the world around us, much the same I suppose as people with their mobile phones do today, constantly photographing that will surrounds them.

Remarkably I still have those tapes today so can travel back in time and experience what I was hearing aged 10 and 11 years old. Though not revelatory to others these recordings of a TV show in the living room, with the interruptions of my mother and grandparents every now and then, are like looking at detailed photographs. It’s incredible what images they can present to me, far more than photos in some ways as you can actually hear the physical space.

So in many ways this was the start of my recording career, not with a bang, not with a whimper, just a casual discovery that a tape recorder could capture a linear tale of my life across 90 minutes on a tape bought from the local supermarket. So I began making music and sound purely be accident in some ways. It was almost not a choice but something inherited by the technology about it.

You might ask why I continue and I can’t really answer that either. I suppose simply because I can and at no point have I ever become bored or uninspired by possibilities. I thoroughly enjoy this life of sonic discovery.

What music do you make?

Labels can be extremely helpful for when we shop in the supermarket and able to decide between beans and soup for example, but in the creative arts can easily prove to be rather limited and misleading.

My work continues connects the points between a bewilderingly diverse array of genres – a partial list would include sound design, film scores, computer music, digital avant garde, contemporary composition, large-scale multimedia performances, product design, architecture, fashion design, rock music and jazz. When asked under pressure I simply respond that the music I make is a form of film music, sound to colour the pictures in the world, but unfortunately it’s virtually impossible to narrow down into one genre, apart from the tools that I use which are largely electronic. So a dumb answer would be ‘electronic.’

How do you make music?

How questions can be read in different ways of course. There’s the how of what tools one is using, as well as the how one approaches the very act of creativity.

Simply put there is always a moment in any new work where you are presented with a blank page and need to make your mark on it. That can sometimes be rather intimidating but I simply begin with something, which often might be erased later on, but you always need a place to start. Compositions are born sometimes from the most surprising of places. I have kept a diary since I was 12 years old, never missing a day, and equally a series of notebooks capturing countless (and frequently unfulfilled) projects, ideas, propositions and structures. Every now and then I draw on these towards something new.

With regards to the other ‘how’ I use the tools of the time to create the work that I make. This has developed from using cassettes and reel-to-reel recorders in my teenage years, via Atari ST1040 computers, software on Apple computers, and more recently back to using synthesisers, samplers and hardware, so in some ways already a circular route.

Is any of your sound-based work not ‘music’ as such and, if not, what is it?

For a moment let’s consider the context of how we listen to music today. We never listen to sound in isolation. Even at home there will be the distraction of others in a room, the presence of people outside, traffic, the kettle boiling, the echo of your shoes as you walk across the room. Today people frequently listen to sound whilst mobile, on a train, in a car, on a plane. So already what they are hearing is not music in itself, but a collage of the world about them and composed and arranged sounds.

Some of my work follows a very traditional route of harmonic, melody, rhythm, easily consumed, but equally I have a body of work that could be argued to be less musical, closer to sound design or even Musique concrète. I have several permanent works in public spaces that use sound in more exploratory ways, from the Science Museum in London with Sound Curtains, that plays back the sounds of science via a trigger when you pass it, at Rijeka Airport in Croatia with work to assist in reducing stress in travellers and most significantly in a hospital on the outskirts of Paris.

Salles des Departs was commissioned for Raymond Poincaré hospital in Garches, France as part of their bereavement suite (Channel of Flight 2002). This was an extremely difficult invitation via the Italian architect Ettore Spalletti whom I'd met in Palermo the previous year. Essentially it's a score to accompany the viewing of a recently deceased loved one in a hospital, a place where no-one wishes to be, a location that no-one wishes to hear sound. It's a work that deals with the essentials of life itself - birth, death and love. The space itself is an airy blue room where one spends about twenty minutes with the body of a loved one, the last chance to share this physical moment before they are taken away for autopsy. It's an exceptionally fragile and difficult location and with no 'audience' as such to speak of the work was a challenge. The work plays at the same volume as the air conditioning system so is as visible as it is invisible and offers a momentary solace for those in deep distress, using natural sounds in the world to offer comfort and solace to a very difficult moment in a life.

So though these works might easily be argued as not traditional ‘music’ for some people, they continue to reward in a similar way on an emotive and creative level. And somehow I’ve managed to answer this question without a nod to the legendary John Cage too!

How do you describe yourself (e.g. are you a performer, a composer, a technologist, an engi­neer, some combination of these or, indeed, something else) and why?

I am an artist, composer, sound designer, performer, collaborator, curator, and activist. I use technology to recover, capture and transform sound, and recording and performance to interrogate its meaning and context, adding new layers of significance. This includes questioning the artifice in using found sounds, and involves audiences in directly realising pieces interactively, playing with the illusion of the (non-present) physical sound source, and/or posing ethical as well as aesthetic questions.

My work is concerned with capturing and revealing sound from inaccessible spaces, whether private phone conversations I find in an airspace that proved more public than anyone thought, or location recordings from the restricted access sites of my art projects. My work equally explores the relationship between sound and architectural space and the semantic spaces between information, places, history and relationships, where one has to fill the gaps to complete the picture.

As such I’m performer when I’m required to be, a composer at other points, a technologist who is also an engineer and so on. Simply put - I’m a shapeshifter!

What is the cultural context for your work - how are you influenced by music from other cultures or the other arts?

It’s almost impossible to find words that encompass what resonance art and culture generally plays in my daily life and personal well-being. Since my earliest memories I recognise I’ve been drawn to those folks creating magic out of their experiences and imagination and how much words, pictures, sounds, movements, shapes and colours play in my joyful life. Having ensured I always bought catalogues of shows that inspired me, my vast book collection is a kind of portrait of my interests in itself and a walk through history. I still own the earliest catalogues I would have bought from gallery shows from around 1980 onwards, as well as vinyl records I bought as a teenager from 1977 until today. My enthusiasm and energy for discovering and sharing what I have found never ceases with age, nor the desire to learn and find new things.

All of these play a part in both who I am and what I make. If it were not for cinema, literature, painting, sculpture, dance, performance and so on my life would be very grey and banal indeed!

What skills and attributes do you consider to be essential for you as a musician?

Beyond any appreciation of technological prowess and skill-set I would argue that patience, understanding and intuition play a key role in every aspect of my work. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with artists at the top of their game at times, some with extraordinary dexterity and proficiency in an instrument for example but were impossibly difficult to communicate with or egocentric and selfish.

My real life skills as a musician are reasonably limited, and confined to rudimentary piano and guitar playing, but I listen and if you are working with sound and music it’s utterly crucial that one simply listens. Again this is something that also reflects on how one lives their life too and so these attributes are not isolated to just being creative but living positively too.

How have you built and sustained a career in the digital world?

This is a question I frequently ask myself actually and find it remarkable that 26 years into my professional career things continue to happen!

I am a consistent collaborator in all fields, often with artists quite outside of the field of music. Whether it’s with a writer, an artist, a video maker, a choreographer or architect, the ability to exchange and share ideas is crucial and these collaborations allow me and the collaborator to work as both negatives and positives of each other, recognising spaces within the work fields and ideas of the other. Collaboration teaches the respect of space but also the relevance of context and extension of one’s ideas to the other, and opens opportunities to all manner of things that might never have arrived if I simply remained within one place or musical scene. The digital advancements that have developed over the course of my life have ensured that this type of collaboration isn’t limited by geography or ability either. It’s been extremely empowering and constantly inspiring.

What would you consider to be the most important training and education a musician like yourself should receive?

Any ‘training’ or education I have received has not been directly related to music making. I studied English Literature and Modern Arts at University but ideas are essential and the ability to voice these and share them. From the earliest age I taught myself that the drive towards success and personal reward needs to come from within, and that you cannot depend upon others to make things that happen. You can control your own destiny to some extent and without sounding too much like a self-help manual it does largely depend upon your own outlook.

I learnt by the example of others – I was deeply inspired by the open minds of such inspirational creative people like John Cage, Christian Wolff, Derek Jarman, Joseph Beuys, Robert Rauschenberg and so on. These were people who were interested in others, in the world around them, in the power of art to change and alter and ultimately improve our world. It goes way beyond issues of ego and financial reward too. I do everything I can within my means to support the work of others, as indeed others have offered the same to me as I grew up.

Do you have any other useful or relevant things to say about being a musician in the digital age?

Remember that these technologies were developed for the good and advancement of the world around us, to enable communication and support, to offer access to ideas, technology, ideas, history, social issues, and so on. Use them responsibly and intelligently and contribute to a greater good in as many ways as you can.