Seeing the world around you through a distorting mirror can be a pretty frightening experience. Perhaps this is why BJ Nilsen’s “The Invisible City” was one of those albums that left no one unaffected this winter. Based on field recordings from his native Sweden as well as Iceland, Norway, UK, Japan, Portugal and his current home of Germany, Nilsen built a city of pure sound, an audioscape so vast, threedimensional and “real”, that it seemed to embody some deep, dark secret underneath the pretty-picture surface of the dermis of quotidian society. Consciously extending beyond the comfort-zone of pure source materials, the work placed them in a confounding new context, adding instruments such as Organ and the Subharchord of the EAM Studio in Berlin (“I love the blend of old and new technology”, Nilsen says) and creating an equally stirring and unsettling narrative. In a way, the album has turned into a open-ended concept album, possibly about the influence of sound on human life and the city as a self-created organism, that constantly surrounds us and influences our perspective of the world in a host of intricate ways. Reviewing the album for tokafi, Antoine Richard wrote: “Listen carefully and don’t let the appearance fool you, the album seems to whisper, ‘natural’ and ‘artificial’ are just words invented to make you naively believe in an easy duality: a city is as natural and artificial as a hive.” We sat down with BJ Nilsen to talk about his perspective on the city and the process of sculpting the record – as well as hunting for demons in the Japanese forests.
The techno-dominated 90s were an affirmation of the exciting qualities of modern metropolises. In a lot of contemporary Sound Art, however, there seems to be a strong urge to focus on the beauty of the countryside. How is this for you: Could you imagine living away from a big city?
Sure, I grew up in the countryside so I definitely have a need for it, but has to be under the right circumstances. I like both.
So do you feel as though living in Stockholm has shaped your perspective on music in a particular way?
I’ve been living in Berlin for the past three years and I’m spending lot of time in different places but I think my years in Stockholm shaped what I do for sure – at least up to a certain point. It´s a pretty open city in terms of space, especially with all the water and light, so it´s easy to get work done and concentrate. However the city suffers from many things. It suffers from a small town syndrome and it´s pretty conservative also, very safe if you like. During the mid 90´s-00´s there were lots of new things happening, I was part of a group of people organising performances and concerts and during those years mostly at one particular venue called Fylkingen. There was lots of new music around and we felt we were in the middle of it all. Inspiring times meeting a lot of musicians and artists. All of this was possible because we had some funding to invite people.
What causes this simultaneous fascination and uneasy feeling with regards to cities?
Since I was raised in the countryside, the city was always something that was charged with a lot of exciting energy. I always had a longing for the big city, but it´s a place that can be both dangerous and beautiful. I also like the meditational qualities that the city can provide with its endless drone of activity.
Are cities by default unnatural organisms?
I think most of this impression is caused by what one could call side effects. Most cities are places that slowly, gradually get out of hand. We don’t mean to fuck it up but we do one way or the other. Today the awareness about how sound affects humans is much bigger amongst designers and architects, but still we are fed constantly with sounds and music blasting out of stores and restaurants. Most of it could be taken care of instantly, while other sources are so integrated into society that it´s impossible to change them. I think that cities are as natural as we make them.
Couldn’t one see these daily sounds as a form of music as well?
Depends how you listen. You could adapt this thought to any sounding environment, parts of it can work like this, but I don’t necessary believe that switching on a microphone anywhere makes for an interesting recording. I would think that the city 100 years ago was actually even noisier in some ways.
Would you say that the influence of sound compared to visual stimuli is generally overrated or rather underestimated?
Sound requires more training and concentration I think. Most people just feel discomfort listening to abstract sound. I think that sound can trigger memories to a greater extent, similar to the way smell can. One time a lady came up to me after a performance and said that it reminded her of giving birth to her child …
When, for example on a sound walk, you close your eyes and listen to the city, the scenery is very much dominated by the hum of cars and machines. Do cities more or less sound the same all over the world nowadays?
Yes I guess most Western cities do. Would be interesting to hear a blind person’s thoughts about this. I don’t think you can learn something about a city by listening to it. There are so many layers to a city … I think you learn more by the smell of it (laughs).
You said that the exact origin of the audio sources for “The Invisible City” did not matter. In general, though, what kind of timbral qualities were you looking for?
I always reach for sounds that I feel fit in the mix. However, I wanted something more sharp and with a clear for this one. I also worked with binaural effects and psychoacoustic elements. But the sounds are all carefully structured and edited for the composition.
Would you say that your collaboration with Chris Watson offered you some interesting insights for the field recordings part of the project?
Perhaps not for this CD particularly but as a whole yes. I´ve been working with Chris since 2000 starting with the Wind Album. It´s very educational to be around him, also with the way he executes his work. He’s always been a great inspiration.
In another interview you mentioned that “it’s very enlightened and spiritual when you really ‘tune’ in” to the sounds of the city. Are there perhaps some interesting examples from from your work on “The Invisible City” in this regard?
This goes for recording in the field in general. But if you don’t have a special target to record you can end up with amazing results as well. I was in Bergen, Norway for a week a few years ago and decided to take a walk up a mountain close-by. I had been reading about Japanese mountain spirits and demons at the time and was interested in the topic. By chance I took a different route from the main path and walked further into the woods. Suddenly I heard this haunting creaking sound from a distance, very difficult to pinpoint its exact location. But after 20 minutes or so, I found the source and it was two dead trees leaning against each other creating this squeaky sound. I placed the mics in the hollow tree and recorded it. You´ll hear it on ‘The Invisible City’.
Our reviewer asked: “Is “The Invisible City” a concept album about the cohabitation of creatures, nature and man-made technology?”
I can relate to that. The concept grew out of the material I was working with. I was focusing on small situations. Stuff that people perhaps never pay attention to.
“The Invisible City” is available from Touch. BJ Nilsen is also currently working with Stilluppsteypa on new material for a double-LP as well as an installation for the Donau festival together with Icelandic artist Ingolfur Arnason. He is furthermore finishing a soundtrack for a Swedish documentary about the American desert and the people living there called Test Site. [Tobias Fischer]
You can find the interview on the Tokafi site here