Name: Robert Stokowy
Occupation: Sound Artist
Reyes | Stokowy Duo - Northern: Ashroud Is My Country (To be released via ADR on 5/6)
RES - Strife of Permanence (2021 via ADR)
RES - Room 135 (self-released)
Recommendations: If this in regards to my work:
1. structures [albuquerque] - a site-specific installation in Albuquerque, New Mexico (2019 - today)
2. and horses were marking time
If this is in regards to other people’s work:
1. SANR is a great duo from Turkey-
2. MORK is a project based in Norway.
If you enjoyed this interview with Robert Stokowy and would like to know more, visit his official homepage.
When did you start writing/producing/playing music and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I always had an affinity to sound.
I grew up without a TV so I listened to the radio or my parents' records and tapes a lot. When I was around 10 or 12, I started recording stuff with a little tape recorder that I had. My dad got a bass guitar from a friend that I just grabbed and started teaching myself how to play . Later I switched to guitar.
I started producing sounds in my 20s and went on from there. I started listening to Zappa, Deep Purple and other bands like that. Then I discovered punk and metal and loved it ever since. I don’t really know what it was that fascinated me about it but I knew it felt right so I stuck with it. I don’t really know if I would call anything that I tried or engaged with a passion. But I was certainly curious to learn what you can do with an instrument or other tools.
I was a late bloomer when it comes to making conceptual sound arrangements. I worked as a sound engineer for one of the biggest national broadcasting stations in Germany for over a decade. I was in my early twenties and all of a sudden had access to recording studios, amazing microphones like Neumann mics from the 60s, and tape machines like the Telefunken Magnetophon 15 A. Of course all of that equipment was solely meant for radio production. But I had plenty of free time to try things out, experiment, and find a sound aesthetic that I liked.
One thing that I taught myself there, is trusting my ears more than my eyes when it comes to production. When you work with programs like ProTools and the like, you deal with visualized sound which often is a false representation. But when you work with a tape machine you don’t have that visual information, just your ears and your hands and you try to figure out when to cut and where to cut exactly. I knew that I wouldn’t have access to the broadcasting studios and equipment forever so I started switching to equipment that was cheap, moveable and accessible at all times. That led me from HiFi to LoFi DIY which worked beautifully because I always preferred imperfect or dirtier sound to clean recordings.
As I dove deeper into the conceptual side of sound I was getting curious about Sound Art and studies that at the University of the Arts Berlin. And that was like pouring gasoline on the fire - I had the technical know-how and the artistic / academic context and started working on projects daily for the next five years. It was a good time.
Some people experience intense emotion when listening to music, others see colours or shapes. What is your own listening experience like and how does it influence your approach to music?
This question reminds me of a quote by former German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt who said: ‘Anyone who has visions should see a doctor.’
But seriously, my work as a sound engineer has shaped and trained my analytical, detail-focussed listening. Sure, there are pieces that move you in one way or another, but I would describe my listening experiences far far from esoteric or psychedelic. I either listen to music and enjoy it in a more passive way, or I listen to a piece / song more analytically to try to figure out what the respective person did with their sound material.
When I produce my own projects, the order is reversed: analytical listening first and then, at a later point, when I have some distance to the material I try to listen to it as a listener and not as a maker of sound.
How would you describe your development as an artist in terms of interests and challenges, searching for a personal voice, as well as breakthroughs?
That is a tough one because a lot has changed for me since I started with all this. I would say that I went through phases that were sequential and sometimes overlapped. I started with sound installations, then did some graphic scores, then took to studio projects and did interdisciplinary projects. In the last years I have been paying a lot of attention to the curatorial aspect of all elements that form a project.
In the beginning I made the mistake of thinking of all this art stuff in an idealistic sense but I got rid of that idea quickly. Since then I don’t care about consciously creating or developing a personal voice anymore. Rather than trying to find a voice, I try to find sounds - something that you hear in daily life that catches your listening. Based on the perceptive memory of those found sounds, I create ideas for pieces or fragments that can contribute to a piece.
I would say my approach is very direct, trying to get rid of as much of this artsy hightened understanding of ‘one’s oh so unique craft’. Making sounds - for me - is a craft in its simplistic and archaic understanding - like working at a construction site. It’s loud, dirty, underpaid, and has way too many men running about.
I am doing what I like to do and all this contributes to the perception of the audience or press even. But I’ll leave it up to them what to make of this. I am interested in the process of making sounds, that is my happy place. Some people talk about documenting and their legacy - which is fine - but in the end all things fade and I find that to be a comforting thought be it regarding life or art.
Tell me a bit about your sense of identity and how it influences both your preferences as a listener and your creativity as an artist, please.
Please ask me that question again in 5 years.
I lived in Berlin and Cologne in Germany and immigrated to Chicago in November of 2019 and then Covid hit. Those were two big changes happening at the same time and they shifted my thinking about myself, my identity, my perspective on Germany as well as the US immensely.
What, would you say, are the key ideas behind your approach to music and art?
That would be a big arrow with lights around it, pointing towards a DIY Punk approach.
I learned to work with what I have. Just because one can afford an instrument, tool or plugin doesn’t mean that makes anything better. So I just try to make sound material and means of production accessible to me by simplifying the process - find things, make things or (mis)use tools in a way that allows you to make what you have in mind. That has worked better and better over the years.
The same goes for content: Simple ideas without extravagant decoration or pomp around it leave more time and focus for the core of the project - that is, what really is going on underneath the surface. The less you build around it the stronger your idea has to be to work because there is nothing to back it up. I enjoy working that way and I guess that some listeners enjoy it too.
How would you describe your views on topics like originality and innovation versus perfection and timelessness in music? Are you interested in a “music of the future” or “continuing a tradition”?
The aspect of timelessness as in the perceptional loss of one’s sense of time is interesting to me. Especially in longer duration pieces it gives you the chance to delve deep into the structure of a slow composition. Karl Heinz Stockhausen wrote some interesting things about that.
I like to steer clear of things like perfection, music of the future or musical tradition. I feel they belong in the academic context or in the category of classical music history. Without trying to disrespect anyone, but those always feel a bit pretentious to me. Are artists special? I would say no. Is ART something larger than life? For me, also no. That is where the Punk approach comes in again for me - You do what you do. It’s pretty straightforward and not concerned with a sense of tradition or the conscious effort to break said thing.
I make the projects that I personally would enjoy as a listener. If anyone else enjoys them too, hey that’s great. If someone is even willing to pay for it, well that is kind of them (but not a must).
I guess what I am trying to get at is, I like to concern myself as little as possible with the financial, business and wider artistic context side of being creative. You can’t always avoid it, and sometimes making a compromise even helps you to make an idea become a project. All that is to say, I really love making these projects of mine and as long as it keeps me happy, I will continue.
Over the course of your development, what have been your most important instruments and tools - and what are the most promising strategies for working with them?
Guitars, various found things that create good sounds, and most importantly: speakers of any kind. The strategy is working as direct as possible, using them in the intended or unintended way to find something that sounds good to me.