Interview mit Martin Riches

Das Gespräch mit Martin Riches fand am 16. Dezember 2008 in seiner Privatwohnung in Berlin-Charlottenburg statt.

Interview & Abschrift: Björn Gottstein.

Why did you start constructing machines in the first place?

My name is Martin Riches. I am English and I have been living in Berlin for about 40 years perhaps. And in about 1980 I was invited by a friend of mine, Eberhard Blum, to take part in a concert, a flute concert, and there was quite a large budget, and he stressed it that I should do something, maybe make some sort of machine. And I thought to myself, well, why not make a flute playing machine. And this was my first music machine. I should mention the concert was dedicated to Theobald Böhm, the inventor of the modern flute. Anyway, I built the machine, and at that time, this was about 1980, it was a bit before one generally had access to computers. So I had to program this in some way and what I used was a transparent music band, which is rather like a pianola role, except that the notes are drawn with a felt tip pen. So this was my first adventure in mechanical music. Then later on I went on to make an organ, automatic organ, this was already driven by a computer. I made two talking machines. Now these machines that speak in the same way we do, with air, air and resonators. So I made two of those. And in-between whiles I have been making objects which really don't have so much to do with music, music machines. But I come back to music machines all the time. It is largely a question of opportunity. And quite often that is a question of the budget, because they take quite a long time to make; and you really can't do them speculatively.

When I think about making a flute machine, I would imagine that the flute with its flaps is itself it not a problem, because it's very much mechanical. But I can imagine that constructing the lips could be difficult.

I should say first of all that it was quite difficult to make the flute, because I had to make it specially to be played by a machine rather than a human being. It's an alto flute. Now the lips, I cheated. This was my first music machine, so I thought I would make things very simple for myself. It only plays in one octave which means that the lips don't move at all. It's a cross flute, a travers flute. So the lips are arranged as the lips of a life flute player, in right angles to the flute. It's not like a blockflute.

So does the part air is blown through look like lips?

It looks a little bit like lips, except that is made out of brass.

Do you have to do a lot of research or can you rely on books when you start building a machine like this?

Well, in this particular case, the case of the flute machine, I read the book that was written by Theobald Böhm. On the construction of flutes. So everything I know about flutes is based on this book. Which is very thorough, right from the beginning, starting with the tube and then all the way, calculating the acoustics on the length, the diameter, the position of the holes, this was all done for me. So I had a head start. Otherwise with other instruments I had to do quite a bit of research.

The most complex machines are probably your talking machines. I can imagine that is very difficult to construct resonant spaces that are similar to the human resonances.

Yes, by I did a lot research. And there is a lot of information about the shapes we make inside our mouths when we speak. Our first talking machine was rather like an organ. In fact, it was an organ that I had built before and I took all of my organ pipes out and I replaced them by voice pipes. Now I can't give you a little demonstration of this. I don't have the machine here; it is with a composer, Roland Pfrengle, who is working with it at the moment, who is writing a piece around it. But what I can do on the table top here, I can give you a demonstration of the various pipes, how it works. I have some leftovers. Whenever you make a project like this, there are so many pieces which don't get used. So I can demonstrate some of these. 11605 I have in front of me hand bellows (pumpt) and I place on the exhaust of these hand bellows a reed. I will demonstrate the sound of a reed by itself. (Quakgeräusch) So that is the sound of the vocal chords. Now, I get to add a resonator to it, this filters the sound of the reed and turns it into speech sound. So this is going to say something like "ah", "ho". ("Ah"-Klang). Again the reed. (Quakgeräusch) With resonator on it. ("Ah"-Klang) And now a different resonator. This is a nasal sound. So "mh", "mh". ("Mh"-Klang) This resonator has a nose added to it. And then there is another vowel sound. This is something like "eh". ("Eh"-Klang) There is always the question how to make the consonants. Well they are done with a specialised kind of whistle.

So consonants do not need a reed.

When we says "s", or "t" we are not using our vocal chords. We are making hissing sounds. And the machine does it the same way. In the meantime I built another speaking machine which is called motor mouth, and this machine is much more like a human being. It doesn't have a series of pipes, it just has a mouth that moves.

Looking at the shape of the resonators: it is the space that our tongue creates in our mouth?.

Yes. This is in "ah". Your tongue is there, (zeigt Zungestellung) your tongue goes to the back. And this is more like an "ee", your tongue goes to the front. If you say "ee" you can feel your tongue touch the teeth.

And the motor mouth: it has teeth and lips?

Yes, it has teeth, it has lips, it has a nose, it has that mysterious little flap at the back of the nose which connects the nose to the mouth. And it has vocal chords, which can change pitch.

And there is a contraction inside the mouth?

The tongue moves backwards and forwards, and on the tip of the tongue there is this extra bit which makes the constrictions.

So you don't need to add sound by sound by sound to spell a word, because it all comes out of the same source.

Yes, it looks like a robot. It's metallic with some rubber damping on it, for the acoustics. But basically it looks like a robot.

Your don't disguise your machines much.

No, not at all. I try to make them so you can see and understand what is going on. That is one of my main points, I think.

So you are not interested in baffling the listener or stun the listener, but explaining how things work? Is it pedagogical in that way?

I am not so very interested in the pedagogic aspects, but I think when you see one of these machines you get quite an Aha-Erlebnis, an aha-feeling.

You mentioned making the flute machine around 1980. They machines you make, the things they do, there are other machines that do similar things: voice computers on the telephone for example. Why make them from wood?

Well, I am not trying to compete with electronic firms. In fact, I never use loudspeakers, or hardly ever. I like, and I am not saying this in any particular green way, I just like these natural materials but also metal, because you can see what is going on. One of these telephone voices is totally uninteresting, it is just a couple of transistors on a printed socket board and you can't see anything at all. So I am very interested in the visual aspect.

Whereas people in the 18th century disguised there automatons.

Also I must say that with this talking machine I was fairly in the field. Of course, there were people who were way ahead in the field, who were doing things at the end of the 18th century, the earliest, very earliest talking machines, but more recently, since we have computers, there has been a new awakening of interest in mechanical talking machines. And this is not for communication purposes, this is pure research. Very enjoyable I must say.

It is interesting that the moment the computer comes along, mechanical things are of interest again.

I am sometimes forced almost to use a computer, especially to drive a talking machine. It can be done mechanically, but it would take a terrible amount of effort. And I don't know if I want to spend many, many years doing it. They already take a couple of years to make, using a computer. But sometimes, most recently, I have been talking on a machine with a Japanese composer, Miwa Masihiro, and he came to me ... I should mention that he is an algorithmic composer, which is very close to where my head is. And he wanted me to make a machine, which would play according to a formula. And this I was able to do. He called it The Thinking Machine. This was rather a grand name for a simple device, but it does in some way think. It was called The Thinking Machine because we had to get our budget together very quickly. And we thought thinking machine which would really hit the committee very hard and make them pay off. That was the reason. (lacht)

You have also made walking machines. Would you want to reconstruct the whole human body at some point?

A human body with all its funtions. I think it would take to long. It is a nice idea but I would have to think about the time it takes to do such a thing and I don't think it is really worth my while. There are many people making very fine robots. So I leave that to them.

When you look at the work of people from the past, that is similar to yours, do you sometimes feel that you have distant relatives? I am thinking of the famous duck and the writing machine.

My main heros are Jacques de Vaucanson who made the fabulous duck and the flute player. And also I very much admire the work of Wolfang van Kempelen. What's good about both of these people is that they wrote. Especially Kempelen. He wrote exactly what he did and he tries to encourage other people to make a speech synthesizer. So he gave an exact description of his own speech synthesizer, which was built at the end of the 18th century. And he did this in the hope that people would follow him and try to improve on it. A generous gesture.

A scientific approach, making available all of your data, instead of exploiting an idea in order to make money off it.

I am mainly interested in the research. It is wonderful to have a challenge of about the right size, which one thinks one can deal with and then one can follow it through. This is maybe why I am not interested in making complete human beings. It is just too much.

Have you ever failed?

I have got one project which I can never complete. It sits in my work room but I can't complete it. It does have to do the human being, but I don't really want to talk about it, because it is a work in progress.

I would like to talk more about your predecessors. You mentioned Wolfgang van Kempelen as being somebody whose work is related to you. Yet I would think that their whole "Weltbild" was different from yours. The genius of the machine versus the experience of industrialisation. How does what you do differ?

Well, of course I am standing on their shoulders. But I think both Vaucanson and Kempelen were thoroughly modern people. I mean they are much more modern than some people living today. They were really high tech, they were completely high tech. They were really advanced. They thought in a completely technological way. And that is very refreshing to read these books from so long ago with such modern ideas in them.

It is the beginning of modernity, something the end of which we are maybe just experiencing now.

I think if Vaucanson had taken his flute player or his duck to Spain he would have probably been questioned by the inquisition which was still running, I believe, at that time.

Besides that there is always the idea of the homunculus, of Frankenstein's monster, of creating an artificial life. But if I understand you correctly, this part of it doesn't interest you.

It is a very Romantic idea of course. And this idea came at the beginning of the Romantic movement. That is where it comes from. I am not so interested in this.

So it is not about the god-like gesture.

I sometimes feel a little bit like god, when something really works out well. But this is just common to all artists, I think, to make something and see that it works.

Earlier you talked about a serinette you made. What is a serinette and why did you make one?

A serinette in the 18th century was an instrument that was used to teach canaries to sing. It had this little organ about the size of a very large cigar box, and had a handle on the side, little pipes, and you sat in front of your canary's cage and played the same tune over and over and over again, until the canary picks it up. I wanted to make something which could be used in a concert. So I had built what is basically the world's largest serinette. Has a much more powerful voice, has much more windpower, but the pitch of the pipes is the same, in canary range. And with my friend Alex Kolkowski we did a concert with life canaries on stage. And when they heard the sounds of this machine, they would be jumping around in their cage and suddenly they hear these sounds and suddenly they would go completely crazy and start tweeting like mad because of course they thought there was another canary. And this concert was giving in Berlin. It was quite complex, other instruments were involved like violins, a string quartet, but they all geared to reacting and interacting with these twenty live canaries.

This was done at MaerzMusik.

Yes, in Sophiensäle.

I missed it at the time. What was the tune you taught the canaries.

Oh, all the tunes, all the music it played were interpretations of canary song. Of course, canaries don't usually sing menuetts when they are in their cage, they have their own songs. And so my composer friend, Alex, he went to the home of the trainer of these canaries, and he made recordings of their songs, their natural songs, and then we transcribed them for the machine. So we were playing the canaries their own music which is perhaps why they liked it so much.

But they weren't learning anything.

They weren't learning anything new.

Actually they taught you their songs.

But I have transcribed some traditional pieces for serinette. Baroque menuetts and other 18th century pieces.

One other composer that is very important for you is Tom Johnson.

Yes, certainly, I have worked with Tom Johnson for many years. I think as with Masahiro Miwa we have something in common. We like this rationality. So he is a rational composer, and it is very pleasant for me to translate his work for my machines. We have given many concerts together and he has written many pieces for my installations.

That sounds plausible.

About eight years ago I had the idea ... normally when I make a machine, the valve or whatever it is, is operated by an electromagnet which is connected to a computer. And I had the idea, why not just have the computer switch an electric light on and off. And then, instead of this mechanical activator, you would take a real life human being as an activator. So Tom Johnson and I collaborated on a piece called Do It Yourself. Where there were eight players without any musical experience. Each player was confronted by an electric light bulb connected to a computer. And they had a tubular bell, each one a different note, each player a different note, and when the light went on, they struck the bell. And this played a nine-voice canon for eight people.

A nine-voice canon for eight people.

Yes, it is very difficult and you have to look at the score to see how it is done. It is a question of the voices. So it is a nine-voice canon with eight instruments or eight notes.

So instead of training machines to become better human beings you are training human beings to become better machines.

It is a funny feeling. Of course, I had to try this out by myself to see if it would actually work. I don't play a musical instrument. And it was very pleasant for me to be in an ensemble and suddenly be able to stand on the stage and perform, without any musical skill, all you need is lots of concentration.

What are these film rolls, that are lying over here?

They are for the flute playing machine.

I see.

This is a very, very fast glissando. This bar is the air, and these others are the notes. Here you have a trill as you can easily see.

One tone stays put whereas the other opens and closes ...

... while the air is played continuously.

You make these films yourselves?


By hand?

By hand. I get a score from the composer and then I sit at the kitchen table and I draw it. It is the same with all instruments: you have to learn the pieces. But once the machine has learned it, it has learned it for good. It doesn't have to practice any more.

Except for a drop of oil now and then.

A little oil, yes.