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Anla Courtis in conversation w/ Thomas Bey William Bailey

Photo of Anla Courtis by Daniel Caldirola
Photo by Daniel Caldirola

While growing up in Buenos Aires, Anla Courtis studied music composition at the Conservatorio Municipal Manual de Falla before co-founding The Burt Reynolds Ensemble (later re-named Reynols) in his early twenties. Since his first solo release as Anla Courtis in 1996 (Poliestireno Expandido on the UK label Matching Head), he has made a name for himself as one of the most prolific musicians of South America, with a catalogue of over 140 releases on different labels around the globe. He has collaborated with many other experimental musicians, including Pauline Oliveros, Kawabata Makoto (Acid Mothers Temple) and Rokugenkin, KK Null, Campbell Kneale, Tetuzi Akiyama, Merzbow, Aaron Moore, Detlev Hjuler and Mama Bär, Lasse Marhaug (Jazzkrammer), Pablo Reche, Anthony Milton, Tomutonttu, and PBK. Courtis specializes in guitar improvisation, cassette tape manipulations and experiments with a menagerie of modified instruments. In 2017, Courtis released Los Galpones on Fabrica Records. The album contains four dark and grimacing industrial-tinged drone pieces reflecting upon the post-industrial landscape of the artist's native Buenos Aires.

Thomas Bey William Bailey: Shall we begin by discussing what you're up to right now - for example this new LP - since it relates very much to 'main' topic of our interview? In the brief description that the label provides for the album, it mentions something about the decaying post-industrial landscapes of Buenos Aires. Is that a true statement - is the local environment really dominated by this type of decay? And has it had much of an impact on your creativity and expression?

Anla Courtis: Well, the title Los Galpones can be translated as "The Sheds" (or maybe "The Storehouses") and it refers to that kind of old big zinc shed with some abandoned quality that you can find mostly outside the city. I live right in Buenos Aires' downtown so not many of those sheds are there, but occasionally you can still find some in non-central city parts and there are plenty of those in the surroundings, especially on the rural areas. In any case, the idea came from the sound: I was getting guitar sounds with let's say some "isolated character" and I thought instead of "garage rock" this was sounding more like "shed rock"! So I decided to do a whole record with that kind of sound.

TB: As far as the galpones you mention, do you have any personal connection to them that you wanted to explore, in addition to what you mentioned about the unique acoustics of the spaces? I mean, is there any sort of sentimental connection that you have to these spaces, or any kind of larger "cultural memory" associated with them?

AC: Of course there's some amount of cultural memory associated with them. For instance, when I was a kid I used to play in my uncle's galpón, which was full of metals. And then I've seen many of these galpones all around the country, mostly in the rural parts of Buenos Aires province but also in Patagonia (in the very south of Argentina) where I visited some huge old sheds for sheep shearing. In any case the sound of the record was not actually recorded in a proper galpón but it was the imaginary reference that in the end helped me to create a sounding landscape for the whole record.

TB: I am definitely interested in the idea of how our built environments are not merely passive, but are active participants that provide us with feedback on the sounds that we initially transmit (these can be isolated structures like the sheds you mention, or entire cities). Can you think of any other unique architectural features of Buenos Aires (or Argentina as a whole) that you have entered into a kind of "dialogue" with - buildings or locations that helped to shape your sound in ways that you had previously not expected?

AC: I agree, environments are not just passive - somehow they affect us. There's a certain type of let's say "psychogeography" related to specific spaces that of course can be reinforced by the music in a more specific or incidental way. Actually there's a kind of paradox because sound is at the same time very physical and very unphysical. The physical aspect is relatable to how the sound is reflected in some specific spaces. The unphysical aspect comes because sound lasts only a second and it's gone, so from then it works on the imaginary side. In any case, yes I have some specific sound memories of Argentine locations, to mention a few: some underground venues from the 80s, old flats and basements and things like the sound of the wind in the deserted Patagonia or the infinite noise of the Iguazú waterfalls.

TB: This makes me think a little about the increasing "virtualization" of space, using GPS technology and (soon) 'augmented reality' tools in which you will be bombarded with others' opinions and impressions of a space before you have had the chance to draw your own opinions about that space. For example, imagine you are traveling to the waterfalls you mention and your 'Google Glasses' advise you that the waterfall has only a "2-star" rating overall from visitors, that many tourists have claimed it to be "too noisy" or something... with this kind of future ahead, I feel like the entire nature of why we record "on location" will change. Meaning, it will become an act of resistance against having your decisions made for you, and will be a deliberate attempt to communicate with an environment on a personal level without caring what the existing consensus is. Do you agree?

AC: Well, I'm not sure how it will be "travelling" in the future but for sure there's some tendency which is not entirely new but probably increased with technology. It's this tendency of getting it "all done for you", think of "package tour" as a kind of "fast-food-tourism": of course then you'll go there but I wouldn't say you'd really be able to know the place that way. In music there's something similar, for instance with keyboards - or sound processors - and the idea of "preset". I mean some of them can be useful but if you only play with "presets" and don't try to find your own sounds then the comfort zone can easily turn into a trap. For example, on some tracks of Los Galpones I worked some rhythmic stuff but tried not to be confined to the "standard" side. Nowadays setting a rhythm with a computer is the easiest thing on earth, but sometimes it turns into something meaningless. So I was working on tracks where the rhythm part is somehow out of focus and is mutated by slight tempo changes, but if you listen carefully there's still some kind of beat there.

TB: Your comments in the last answer make me think about all the different rebellions against "preset culture" that have happened, or are still in progress. For example, there is the ongoing culture of "circuit-bending" which aims to get a radically different (and much more unpredictable) sonic experience from very "standard" equipment. Or there is the increased interest in just building all instruments from scratch, whether by handcrafting or by creating new computer algorithms. Have any of these been especially useful to your personal expression? And also, do you notice any of those techniques becoming more popular within Argentina?

AC: I'd say there are many ways to try to escape the "preset" but we need to be careful: anything can sooner or later turn into a "preset". About "circuit bending" yes there's some kind of small scene in Argentina with people doing workshops and using this stuff to play with. In general I think it is interesting but sometimes I also think the music coming from these hacked circuits sounds pretty similar. I think there's some potential but it probably needs some research to find more options and alternative ways of using them. I've tried it myself a little bit and, although I wouldn't use it as my only sound source, I've definitely had fun. However beyond technology I think we need to be alert all the time in all directions to escape the "preset" zones.

TB: Keeping in mind the idea of "preset" culture, I have noticed one of the main distinguishing features of this so-called "sound art" culture is that the artists involved (or at least the ones that I'm interested in) genuinely want to change their own perceptions in addition to the perception of their audiences. They seem to be questioning their own cultural or perceptual "presets" before they present work to an audience, and in that sense the music is truly experimental. What do you think - are we, as a global subculture, moving more in this truly experimental direction, or are we still for the most part stuck in a situation where both the majority of musicians and the public thinks "experimental" is no more than "something that sounds weird?"

AC: It's difficult to give a global answer. I think there are many contradictory realities going on at the same time. It's true technology is giving us some new possibilities for the expansion of freedoms, but at the same time it's generating more "presets" and a lot more control. So it's a complex situation, a bit paradoxical on many levels. It's an ethical decision to preserve the more "experimental" instances in such a context.

TB: Another intriguing release you sent me recently was the Coils on Malbec LP with Cyrus Pireh. This is a recording that features the sound of electrical coils being placed over small bowls of Argentinian Malbec wine. This fascinated me since it distills an element of Argentine culture into a sound experience that you wouldn't expect. It goes beyond simply representing a local environment with field recording, giving a "voice" to something that is supposedly non-communicative. I'm very interested in these kinds of efforts, can you think of any similar recordings from yourself or others that attempt to accomplish the same thing?

AC: Coils on Malbec was somehow trying to give a "voice" to Malbec, which is the most emblematic wine - and grape variety - from Argentina. Since we recorded it in Buenos Aires with Cyrus it made sense for us to use such sources. In this case the Malbec wine had coils, so they were not liquid sounds recorded by regular microphones but eletromagnetic variations on wine captured by coils. And I have some other projects exploring different areas. For instance I could mention that record I made with an "Unstringed Guitar" which was a guitar found at a second-hand store without a bridge. In this case, of course it's a different approach but in a way it was also giving a "voice" to an instrument that would have been normally discarded.

TB: I think one of the most interesting aspects of the process we're talking about (giving a "voice" to otherwise "unheard" objects, spaces, etc.) is the process of choosing what kinds of things to "amplify" in the first place, since there's a universe of different possibilities. It seems like the things we have discussed so far are things that have a strong personal resonance for you - when you work with them, is your intention to make a kind of audio auto-biography, or maybe to do something completely different than this?

AC: It's true there's some kind of resonance with all these objects, spaces, etc. but also there's some kind of mystery as to how they all work. The same thing happens with the autobiographical aspects; they are obviously there, even if you don't want it. However in my case I don't necessary want to be pinned to the autobiographical thing, I think is always better to keep meanings open so the audience can fill them with their own histories. In that sense each person will experience the sound according to its own resonance.

TB: I do agree it's important for people to make their own individualized interpretations of a piece, even if that piece comes with autobiographical information as you say. Has anyone in an audience of yours communicated any interpretations or reactions that you found particularly surprising or interesting? Have any reactions to your work been strong enough that they changed your approach to making art?

AC: It's not just an intellectual interpretation, the whole way a piece is perceived can radically change from one person to another. Over the years I've learned to listen to what people say but at the same time try to keep it somehow open, because many times I received feedback about a piece saying one thing and later somebody else said exactly the opposite! It happens! And in a way it is fascinating because meanings can change or evolve even in the same person, so something in the music seems to be alive there. And to realize this has of course affected me.

TB: I think with music like yours that is radically open to interpretation, critics will often claim this is the case because there's nothing truly distinct or unique about the music. Yet your works do 'stand out' when I listen to them, even if I can't perfectly verbalize why. Is there a factor or are there factors that separate what you do from the many other examples of free and experimental sound?

AC: Firstly, things not easy to verbalize are systematically rejected by some critics for obvious reasons, but in fact those kind of things are usually quite important. However, I'm definitely not the best person to talk about the "unverbalizable" aspects of my own work. The only thing I can say is: behind any technical or esthetical procedures there's always some kind of search and if that search goes deep enough, no matter in which direction, then you'll definitely notice something when listening to the music.