Somerset House Studios

ASSEMBLY: An Interview with Karen Gwyer

28 Oct 2019

Restraint, breaking convention, and the personal experiences driving her music: Karen Gwyer unpacks the processes behind her new piece commissioned for this year’s ASSEMBLY series, guest-curated by Christian Marclay.

Known for her expansive and largely analogue live electronic performances, Karen Gwyer’s signature musical style is one that shifts between pumping, thickly melodic, just left-of-techno and diversionary acidic psychedelia. The US artist, now based in Berlin after over a decade of living in London, returns to her previous home to present a new moving yet sobering piece for Somerset House Studios’ ASSEMBLY series; a composition charged by her emotions toward the city and the conflict of looking at it now from afar.

Featuring new works from the likes of Beatrice Dillon, Haroon Mirza, Lawrence Lek and more, ASSEMBLY’s three-day programme sees a number of performances by invited artists in response to guest curator Christian Marclay’s conceptual vision for the series; for each piece to work directly with the unpredictable hive of activity and noise of Somerset House’s surrounding area as a compositional framework, created live inside the building's Lancaster Rooms. Approaching the Waterloo Bridge street noises as drums, Karen Gwyer plans to manipulate and process the ambient sounds to create a new high intensity multilayer, polyrhythmic piece.

What appealed to you about getting involved in this project?

Many things appealed about it. I liked the fact that I could potentially introduce a narrative lens through which the audience might view the city outside. As an ex-Londoner, I immediately relished the chance to return not in my normal guise as a club act, but rather with a performance that could allow me to confront the city again, having left in bitterness, remorse and relief. Also, simply seeing how other artists will interpret the same brief I was given, and what shape the whole project takes in the end, under Christian's curation, is an incredibly fascinating prospect.

In previous interviews you’ve talked about wanting your music to resist predictability. How have you interpreted Christian Marclay’s curatorial vision for your ASSEMBLY piece? Should we expect the unexpected?

To be honest, I'm never sure where expectations lie, although I admit that this piece is very much in line with my own emotional sound, that maybe one or two people in the audience might be familiar with. My interpretation is rooted in a desire to transport and contort the rhythm and hum of the street to a place where a distinctly disquieting mix of beauty, dread and impulse fills the room.

There’s a video you did for FACT in which you talk about the benefit of enforcing creative limitations on yourself, to prevent ‘noodling into the abyss’. Has the concept of working with Waterloo Bridge’s sonic activity as components for a new piece acted as a compositional limitation or have you found it relatively wide in its scope for interpretation?

Technically, it has been difficult. Our brains intuitively filter familiar sounds out of the noise, but working with the huge weight of the low-end frequencies actually present out on the street was an unexpected challenge. Conceptually, however, I've enjoyed taking benign elements of foot and vehicle traffic, and building a narrative around them.

Although you'll also be incorporating a variety of samplers and synthesisers to produce a multi-layered composition, has producing something rooted in the more ‘organic’ found sounds of outside been a markedly different process to making music with your usual analogue hardware setup? How will the ambient sounds of Waterloo Bridge undergo transformation into ‘drums’?

A bit, but also not so much, because I tend to be drawn to and work mostly with sounds that already feel highly textural and atmospheric, and have a distinct organic warmth and personality to them. Synthetic sound has never been my thing. The drums have come about simply by isolating particular elements from the noise of the street, then figuring out how to bounce them off of each other in a way that is both anchored in reality and a departure from it.

The element of the unexpected, and a lack of control, can often result in the happy accidents that become the defining or breakthrough moments in the creation of work. In the instance of your ASSEMBLY piece, to make a new work more or less on the fly from inherently unpredictable components, as and when they happen, however, seems like particularly unstable ground to build a composition from, and potentially a vulnerable position to put yourself in as an artist attempting impart some kind of control over their work.
Does this surrender to the unknown often play a part in the music you make or is working in this more improvisational, reactionary way new territory for you?

It's not strictly new territory; I have a fairly long history of working improvisationally in greater and lesser degrees. I tend, though, to give myself some type of constant in order to provide structure, and in the case of this piece, there is a very strong rhythm underpinning it. The main difficulty has been avoiding overcrowding my performance with material on which I've been working from afar, because it's so easy to get carried away. So much noodling! I just have to trust that the unpredictable sounds from the street on the night will be fascinating in their own right and that everything will come together, like a really productive jam session.  

Although you’re predominantly known for your heavier and more driving productions, often performed in clubbier settings, you’ve also created commissioned work quite unlike what you describe as your ‘just left-of-techno’ style. For last year’s Pop-Kultur festival, you invited an audience into an intimate, almost apartment-style space, to present a new piece composed especially for the unorthodox setting.
Does developing a work for an environment like Somerset House’s Lancaster Rooms, quite a grand (but slightly rough-around-the-edges) Neoclassical space, dictate what you will make at all?

Yes, of course, and what really led my thinking the most is the view, both visually and audibly, out of the windows. It's so rare, for me, anyway, to present a piece of music outside of conventional soundproof, often black, windowless spaces. I've really enjoyed knowing that there will be an active dialogue between myself and the city outside, which the audience members will witness and develop in their own minds as the performance progresses.


There’s a particular emotional resonance within the piece - you’ve mentioned that the work draws on both the pain and relief of leaving London after your 12 years of living here. Do these personal experiences, histories, play a significant role in the music you make?

Personal experiences are definitely the biggest driving force behind my music. This piece directly addresses my frustration, to put it extremely lightly, with British culture and politics, and the heavy weight of internal conflict I've carried around since turning my back on it. It's quite fashionable right now to say that anger and fear aren't productive, however, I firmly believe the opposite. A great deal of anger and fear drove this piece, and I'm hoping that following my performance, my own experience in that room will have led to a shifting of at least some of the weight. 

ASSEMBLY: Christian Marclay runs 8 - 10 November 2019.