During the many concerts at the Gaudeamus Festival, multiple new works whose ink has only just dried will be played. We talk to a number of composers who tell us about the compositions that they have written for us. On Friday night, Thomas Ankersmit will premiere a new piece written with and for his Serge Modular Synthesizer.
by Christina Patsa
Thomas Ankersmit is a Dutch electronic music composer who has been commissioned by Gaudeamus this year and will present his work in De Helling on Friday 9 September 2022, during the festival. I met Thomas, who is spending his time between Amsterdam and Berlin, on a friendly zoom call, as domestic as it can be; him from his home in Berlin and me working from home in Utrecht. Not so special anymore after two years of Pandemic, the online meeting has become a working and a social habit. He jokingly confesses that he made it through the pandemic managing to not use many digital platforms of communication, another proof that he is someone with a strong relation to the analogue world. He’s introducing himself and his instrument. He has a long and intimate relationship with it. Thomas Ankersmit is making essentially analogue electronic music, an electronic music composer for one instrument, the Serge Modular Synthesizer.
My first question aims to extract information about what kind of influences he uses for his work. Musique concrète and electroacoustic music in general is a big inspiration for the composer. The piece he has worked on, for Gaudeamus, is a purely electronic music piece, but it reflects musique concrète because through the electricity and his instrument, he’s looking for and recreating sound worlds that are real, organic. Specifically, he says “I’ve been working with electronic sounds but through them I am referencing natural phenomena like fire, wind, rain, thunder. The urge is to sort of give life to the electricity, to extract an organic element from it. I am playing with the suggestion of acoustic sound through a synthesizer.”
It’s difficult to imagine the new commissioned work that a composer is making before you hear it, that’s something that happens often before Gaudeamus, no-one knows what to exactly expect, so I can’t help comparing his upcoming composition with his past sounds. His previous main body of work explores intensively the relation of sound to space. Thomas clarifies “I think I have taken a step back from that direction, for now. It’s also a result of the Pandemic, of working mostly from my studio during the lockdowns. A lot of my work of previous years was marked by the interest in physical and psychoacoustic phenomena and a very direct sonic communication with the physical space of a performance. The lack of it during 2020-21 results in a more intimate work. It becomes more music for the mind and less for the body to experience in relation to the physical concert room.”
Hearing this, I become more curious about the new work, what experience is he working towards? What are the current challenges? “I aim to create a virtual world behind the speakers. The challenge in doing that is using strictly that one analogue synthesizer I am playing with, no recordings of other instruments, or digital processing. I have been digging deeply into the instrument in search of sounds that live within the instrument. This is kind of my challenge recently. ”
He adds, “finding sounds in Serge that remind me of natural phenomena is surprising to me, I use sounds in the piece that I don’t know where they came from, I know they came from my synthesizer, but I don’t know where exactly from and I don’t know how to reproduce them.” In order to make me understand he uses a metaphor, “you know the term field recording, right? When people…you know… go out with a microphone and record special things they find. To me this project felt like field recording the synthesizer, when you develop this intimate relationship with the instrument, go inside with the microphone and find a sudden storm coming or the howling of an animal.”
As we engage in this conversation Thomas admits that “I go back and forth between music as a spatial experience and music as a temporal experience, although we cannot really experience without space or without time. In this piece for Gaudeamus, I’ve been thinking more of the narrative of sound and a bit less on the sculptural elements of it. At parts of previous works you’d see that the sound is occasionally completely static, but the listener’s experience would change depending on small movements of the head or the body in the space. That was ‘music as a sculpture’, where the listener can move around and observe from different angles.” That’s no surprise if you know that he studied fine arts at Rietveld Academy.
Finally I am curious about the journey with musical instruments and how he engaged with Serge, and he mentions that his interest in electricity started when he discovered the self-built guitar amplifier of his father in combination with the tape players of his mother. That led to developing a curiosity about the sounds of electricity, feedback, and the hidden noises within electrical devices.
After premiering at Gaudeamus he will continue with shows at AKOUSMA and Artengine, in Canada. He mentions that he likes traveling a lot with his work and performing in many different places. “I want to make music that has legs in the real world. It’s important that people can access it in different kinds of settings and be affordable.