Name: Jos Smolders
Occupation: Composer, sound artist, mastering engineer
Current release: Additive Inverse, a collaboration between Jos Smolders and Jim O'Rourke is out now via Moving Furniture. [Read our Jim O'Rourke interview]
Recommendations: For people seriously interested in composing electronic music I think Curtis Roads’s books are essential. And recently I read You Nakai’s book on David Tudor which gave me great insight in the development of new music in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
If you enjoyed this interview with Jos Smolders and would like to find out more about his work, visit him on Instagram, twitter, or bandcamp for more information, recent updates and music. He also has a dedicated website, earlabs, for his mastering services.
If you want to dive in even deeper, read our previous interview with Jos, where he talks about his mastering philosophy.
When did you start composing - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I have always had an inquisitive ear. I remember lying in bed in the night when I was 8 and hearing a moped pass by the village. It was the dead of night. Everything quiet except for a moped in the distance. I knew exactly where it was at every moment and knew it went from the village in the West to the village East of my tiny town.
Later on, when I became interested in music, I was always attracted to the deviant sounds in music. We had no turntable, only a mono radio which was always playing. The first time I heard stereo music on a record was some time in the early 1970s. "Rain", by the Beatles. Then during high school I travelled from rock, to prog rock, Berlin synths, Kraftwerk, Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica, The Residents’ first official albums. From there on to industrial music and electroacoustic historical albums. And so, what really triggered me, was the question: how do they do that? How does that work?
For most artists, originality is preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you: How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
The NWW connection is clearly audible in my first releases, just like the sound of Current 93, Cabaret Voltaire and Hafler Trio. It was a period of wild experimentation. Listening to records and finding out how that was produced. A short period later I discovered the 2 Pierres; Henry and Schaeffer who connected me to a more academic playground, away from the quasi-religious, tribal nonsense that always came with a lot of the aforementioned bands. That’s when I decided not to use an alias anymore but just publish my products under my own name.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
When I seriously started making music and presenting it to the world I remember making a conscious choice to stay close to the Western tradition. What we know as modern classical or contemporary music is very cerebral. That appealed very much to me at the time.
I was reading up a lot about classical and 20th century music and felt connected to the reports from the studios of Cologne and Paris, especially to Pierre Henry. He was a French classically trained percussionist, co-invented electroacoustic music but parted from that scene as soon as things became too academical, thus staying free to do and explore as he wished. I was keenly aware that, although sounding quite different from traditional instrumentation, electronic music still remained within the contemporary domain.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
In the early 1980s I had no money to buy instruments. And where others took up a job I did not because I was studying and very much determined to record as much of the stuff that came up in my mind as possible. I saved money and became very creative in searching for sound sources around the house that I could use, and lending stuff (tape recorders, microphones, etc).
Over time this has slowly changed. I took up a real job during my early 30s which made life a bit easier, money-wise.The last 10 years I have also picked up work as a mastering engineer (as a second job) which enables me to buy instruments that I need, or rent studio space and be able to produce releases.
Time is a variable only seldomly discussed within the context of contemporary composition. Can you tell me a bit about your perspective on time in relation to a composition and what role it plays in your work?
I find that astonishing. If sound is the paint with which a composer builds and technology the brush, then time is the canvas on which a musician works. In music, theoretically your canvas is endless. Where a painter constraints himself before he starts, as a composer you continuously need to think about where the borders are. You can stretch the canvas but that has consequences for the material you have already put on it.
When I start a work, most times I only have the first minutes in my head and a very sketchy idea about how to continue. I then work from there, adding material. And I continuously zoom in and out, move back and forth in the timeline. Parts are moved, shortened, placed in different order, transitions change from gradual to sudden (or vice versa).
Simon Emmerson and Leigh Landy published an academic study on compositional structure in electroacoustic music from which I took: unlike the ‘rules’ of composition in traditional classical music, in contemporary electroacoustic music every composer makes his own set. The absence of a textbook makes it easier for one and more difficult for the other. But every composer should take the variable ‘time’ very seriously.
There are a few quite well written texts about electroacoustic composition which focus more on the meso scale of composition: Annette Van Der Gorne’s syllabus “Treatise On Writing Acousmatic Music On Fixed Media” which has very practical instructions and lots of examples and Curtis Roads’ “Composing Electroacoustic Music” which is unsurpassed in detail.
How do you see the relationship between the 'sound' aspects of music and the 'composition' aspects? How do you work with sound and timbre to meet certain production ideas and in which way can certain sounds already take on compositional qualities?
These aspects need to be in balance. One is directly dependent on the other. The approach can vary. Sometimes I want a sound to have a certain character, or make it go from one to the other via a certain trajectory. There are various strategies to choose from, but all aspects need to be considered and they are all dependent on each other.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives?
I have various ways of working with other musicians. Sometimes it’s exchanging material over the Internet, at other times we do jam sessions and record material in a studio.
I am really a studio guy and love to tinker with sounds and patches of my modular synth but I aim to go out more and collaborate live with musicians.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
I am still not a full-time composer. Professionally my work is divided into a day job, composing and mastering.
So I work 4 days a week for a government organisation which allows me to live comfortably and have a decent studio. Since March 2020 that has been from home. My job is completely separated from the musical work. When I do a mastering assignment that has priority over composing because there is always a deadline. For mastering I also do solfeggio sessions to train my ear.
And then there is composition. Most times I have various projects in various stages of progress. Works can take years to complete. When a project has real focus, like in the final stages of “Submerge Emerge” I sort of work on that continuously for days. Then I let it rest for a week or so and then return. I know that is slow but it helps me with deleting stuff.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
It was a sort of punk experience. Where every punk band suddenly understood they could play rock’n’roll after listening to Sex Pistols, for me it was hearing Nurse With Wound’s Merzbild Schwet. I heard it a first time at my friend’s place but it just didn’t register. I sort of knew I had just crossed a line but needed some time to come to terms with it. That was important because I couldn’t really play an instrument and Nurse With Wound’s music was like a wormhole to produce music myself.
I knew a bit about recording stuff and with just a small electret microphone and a radio I fabricated my first cassette tape which I offered to my best friend as a birthday present.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
I think it is mystified too much. For me it is first and foremost being active; doing things and being attentive to what emerges. Sounds present themselves and you follow a trail. And then you record it and start combining, superimposing, changing, cutting away. Et cetera.
The cutting away is the most difficult. Sometimes I have been working for an hour (or two) to get a certain sequence right. And in the back of your head you start to realize it’s not going anywhere. I then need to put it away and not think about it for a certain period. Only thén can I cut it away.
Our sense of hearing shares intriguing connections to other senses. From your experience, what are some of the most inspiring overlaps between different senses - and what do they tell us about the way our senses work?
My intention has always been to produce music that you can listen to with your eyes closed and have a fulfilling experience. Unfortunately people are always searching for visual stimulation, even in a concert environment.
I am planning on working with a visual artist next year to see how that extra sense works out for my music. I have worked with visual artists before; composing a soundtrack to their visual work. Always loved it. But it’s been a long time ago now.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Attali and Adorno have written about this quite eloquently. Personally I am not interested in placing my music in a political context. Art, to me, is the expression of a soul. I work quite intuitively and almost never with a social or political notion in mind.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
Language can only go so far in expressing deeper emotions. Music works on a much deeper level, subconsciously. And so, where words communicate on a cognitive level, music asks of the listener to dive below that surface and experience the message with a more direct connection to other parts of the brain.