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Robert Lippok – The Electronic Pulse of Berlin

Born and grown in Mitte, on the Eastern side of the wall, Robert Lippok is a seminal figure of Berlin’s electronic music scene. His long career started with Ornament & Verbrechen (an experimental post-punk open band active between 1983 and 1994), and took off with the electronica trio To Rococo Rot, with his brother Ronald on the drums, and bassist Stefan Schneider (1995 to 2014). Starting around 2000, Robert has delved more and more into solo projects, always keeping a strong collaboration network, though. We have had a chance to talk with him in April, in the middle of the lockdown period.

Hi Robert, the first question is pretty obvious : what has been your personal experience of the lockdown, as an artist?

Well, as for many other musicians, these have been strange times for me: everything that I planned for the Spring period basically vanished. I was supposed to be on the seaside on a Spanish island in two weeks, and of course this is not happening. A very important show for the Maerz Musik Festival was also canceled, with a live version of the Non-face project I did in 2019 with Lucas Gutierrez: two already sold-out concerts gone, like that.

Otherwise, my routine hasn’t changed much since the lockdown. I tend to wake up really early, often around 6am, starting to make music right away. When you go out and walk on the street, the fact the you see now the other people as a possible danger, this really feels unpleasant. It is stressful but also really sad, this is not how the society should be… things have changed so much, in only a few weeks!

After the lockdown I decided not to work on new tracks, because I feel that music should not be “infected” by this situation. Personally, I need freedom, time, but also some lightness to work. Even though sometimes my music is very dark, I still need a light heart to do it. Therefore I am spending this period working on a sketch book for future projects, and looking into new software and hardware. I’ve recently got the Tracker by Polyend, and a couple of beautiful softwares from IRCAM Paris, Giorgio Sancristoforo, and of course, finally I got HEXO which I tried out, it is very intuitive and inspirational, at the moment I’m working on a project called Glacier Music, one inspiration are the shape of snow flakes, as you know they are build on hexagon structures. So HEXO fits almost too perfect. The other project I would like to involve HEXO is a composition for computer controlled pipe organ which will have premiere in August.

Let’s talk a bit more about this project.

It’s a pipe organ, MIDI was installed early in 2000, and most of the stops are “midified”. I have the software version of this organ, I am currently working on that. My goal is to build heavy clusters that would normally require 20 hands to be created. I am particularly interested in what happens with the air on the wind-chest of the instrument when all the valves are open, so that the wind pressure goes beyond the possibility of the instrument. There will also be many empty moments, making use of the reverberation of the church. My first experience with a church organ was in the early 1990s, I composed music for a East German performance group called Lautlinie, I used only the biggest metal and wooden pipes to create a dark soundscape, the air pressure came from five or six CO2 gas cylinders, I raised the pressure until they literally screamed…

Apart from solo works, you seem to have always been open to all kinds of collaborations.

Yes, I have always been interested in working on different projects, and at a certain moment in my career I clearly chose not to follow only one path. To be honest, there have been advantages but also drawbacks in having such an attitude, especially the fact that I happen to be in perpetual motion, with no real time to settle down. But this is the way I am, when I was around 30 I realized that I needed this confusion around me. I also work on different areas than just music, for instance I recently did the set design and costumes for the new opera by Stewart Copeland – former Police drummer -, Electric Saint.

As far as these collaborative projects are concerned, what is the degree of creative freedom that you feel you have?

Most of the projects literally fly to me, one after the other. I certainly feel lucky about the cluster of things that happen around me, and that seem to constantly unfold, allowing me to develop one collaboration after the other in a very natural way. Now, for commissioned works it is somehow difficult to find the right balance between my personal approach and the expectations of the commissioning institution. But it depends. For instance, when I work with Argentinian choreographer Constanza Macras, she gives me total freedom to explore, and this is great! For sure, it is only with my personal solo projects that I really feel I have 100% the control on the artistic process. For this reason, lately I feel more and more the need to rebalance my activity to leave more place to my personal work.

Let’s then talk a bit about your last solo project, Applied Autonomy, released in 2018 for raster. It shows a lot of inner consistency both in terms of sound and formal structure.

I am always very self-critical on my work, and for this reason it typically takes me a huge amount of time to produce an album. My first full length for Raster-Noton (REDSUPERSTRUCTURE from 2011) literally took me 10 full years to be completed, 8 of which were spent trying everything, in terms of expensive gear, studios, all possible social configurations… It came out that the only real thing that I needed was to avoid any excuse, sit down, and work. No need for expensive gear, no need for specific acoustics – the acoustics here in my room sucks, but I love it because it has a great atmosphere. After that, I decided that for Applied Autonomy things needed to go much faster. I took advantage of an invitation that I received by the Berghain for a gig, and worked on sketches that were initially meant for the live show. This really worked well. As I usually do, I played the show with super loud monitors, to be really surrounded by my sounds, and this allowed me to adjust even the tiniest details in the sound balance. After that, it basically took me only two or three weeks to complete most of the album. Let’s say that after 20 years of struggle, things are now a bit easier to handle! The consistency inside this release you’re mentioning is a result of the compact production process.

Are there specific influences as far as the sound is concerned?

There have certainly been different influences, one comes from Gabi Delgado (Deutsche Amerikanische Freundschaft, D.A.F.) and more specifically the album Alles ist gut (1981) that also features my overall favorite record producer, Conny Plank. I really tried to reproduce the tremendous impact given by those electronic bass lines. That was definitely something I wanted to explore in my last album. Mark Fell became an influence and Lorenzo Senni, I like this „euphoric plastic“ sound a lot.

How have your live and studio set-ups evolved in recent times? You seem to integrate some Eurorack elements, while keeping the core of your work around the computer.

Well, I have always worked with the computer, starting in the mid Eighties with the Commodore C64. I like the opportunity given by the computer to keep a fast working flow. I mostly work with plugins, and in a standard live setup I have 6 or 7 sends, each with different effect chains – for instance, working with Ludovico Einaudi, I had the feed from his piano sent to 6 different aux channels, blended in and out to obtain different treatments in real time.

For me, the difficult thing about a lot of the hardware gear, especially with little displays, is that it forces you to dive into the machine. You lose so much time stepping from one function to another. I hardly ever used a step sequencer, I’m not a techno guy… I was very happy when Polyend Tracker came out, it has a very fluid workflow. I quite like Modulars synths . You can really have a focused musical idea, look for the module that you need and create something from there. From the initial thought to the actual sound, you can make very precise choices. Of course I adore the work of Moog and Buchla. For instance, I have a Roman Fillipov 208 module – the sound source of the Buchla Easel – it is monophonic, but very flexible, it has no filters but two lowpass gates which make the sound very unique. After about 4 years trying different combinations, I have found my good setup, and it only contains a few modules. I like them, although I don’t really need them so much. Again, all my “heroes”, like Mark Fell and many Mego artists, basically only use a laptop! But I do think of a DAW free live setup from time to time.

Do you happen to use emulations of vintage synths, like the Arturia collection, to keep the ease of use of the computer, having access to specific “historical” sounds that you may like?

Good question! Let me see. Actually, when I’m lazy I use the Omnisphere, especially for the filters. I also like virtual acoustic modeling : Sculpture (for Logic) was a game changer for me, with this idea of combining and morphing different families of instruments. It brought so many new ideas to my music. It’s a pity there isn’t anything similar in Ableton Live, but it’s ok, I would keep jumping anyway between these two DAWs…

I can just guess that it is a difficult choice, staying well informed about all the new instruments presented each year at the NAMM shows, and keeping the right amount of time to actually create music…

Yes but I love keeping track of everything that comes out! Also because I became a music teacher, for the NYU campus here in Berlin, where I teach a class called The future of production and performance : which means that of course I have to be up to date. Plus, you have these amazing machines nowadays, and little companies offering you possibilities that weren’t there before. A good example is the Blackbox sampling machine (from 1010music): I do not need it today, but for many years I have been longing for something like that, a portable version of an AKAI or Emax sampler, and it just didn’t exist…

You already mentioned HEXO, for your next organ piece. Did you already happen to use any other devices or plugins by K-Devices ?

Yes, I recently used TTAP and WOV a lot. They are in my aux channels, I use them in combination with distortion and reverb. A typical chain contains a distortion, low-pass filter, reverb, another distortion, then WOV to give a bit of movement. I use them a lot while performing live with other musicians, and the effects are controlled by TouchOSC, which allows me to create my own faders. There are often 6 aux channels, and in two of them there are different settings of WOV, that I can blend in real time. One gives a sort of Steve Reich’s rhythmical pattern – something that WOV does really well – the other has a more abstract setting. More in general, whenever there is some kind of vibration and distortion, then usually WOV is involved.

Talking about live performances with other musicians, you have this nice project with pianist Kaan Bulak (the Kubus album was released in 2019). You recently presented a video stream with him, a really nice live.

Actually, that wasn’t even live! I recorded an improvisation alone, and then he improvised on it… It was somehow a “two-step live” performance. It was interesting, because of course I couldn’t react in real time but I had to keep in mind the colors of his piano and effects, in order to make room for his playing. A “ghost improvisation”, so to say, in which you have to pretend that the other person is there, like in Hollywood blue screen technology, with actors fighting imaginary monsters… In this case, he was so focused on the music that he kept playing, not realizing that I had already left!

One last question. You spent your entire life in Berlin : do you still love this city ? In which way the dramatic evolution this city had, especially after the wall came down, affected you as a musician ?

This city changed so much, I basically travelled without moving. Now we are in a new phase, people with lots of money invest a lot in the city, they’re buying houses and don’t care about who is living or working there. The fast raise of rents makes it almost impossible for small businesses to stay in the center of the city, and Berlin’s natural social mix gets lost. It’s very sad, but this is the way things are. It must be said that this is a development that you can find all over the world. London, New York, even in Karachi Pakistan, I heard about similar developments.

But there are also a lot of new things, new clubs and music scenes, for instance in Neukölln. I still like Berlin, for all the opportunities that it offers, but for sure, now it is a completely different game, compared to the wall period. Anyway, I don’t want to be too sentimental about this: older generations just always complain about how things changed for the worst, and in the meantime young people arrive, and find new interesting ways…

For sure, one good thing about Berlin today is that things keep steadily changing, with new places opening and old ones closing down, as it has always been the case in the past. This continuous change is healthy for the underground culture, and although finding new spaces becomes more and more difficult, it is nice to see that these alternative movements still exist, and that people from all over the world keep arriving, bringing new vital energy to the city.

(all pictures courtesy of Robert Lippok)

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