Photo: Press (Levon Vincent)
A Levon Vincent tune will always hit different. While a lot of knowledge around the classic tropes of dance music goes into the producer’s music, they also continue to push the envelope and are marked by experiments in rhythm and especially sound—it’s as if you hear him thinking aloud against the grain. His latest album Silent Cities came as a surprise nonetheless, moving at lower BPMs and picking up on elements from genres other than techno and house. Released through its own Novel Sound imprint, it is however not at all a lockdown album as the title seems to suggest at first. “The name is a commentary on the cultural and societal shift we have undergone in recent years,” explains Vincent. “I am not referring to the pandemic, but Corona sure didn’t help the situation.” It’s only fitting then that Silent Cities sees the Berlin-based New Yorker at his most experimental. His contribution to our Groove podcast, one of his rare mixes, draws primarily on his own catalogue and features previously unreleased material. It is accompanied by an in-depth (and we mean in-depth) interview about different tuning systems, the connection between post-minimalism and New York City hip-hop and much, much more.
The majority of the tracks on Silent Cities were written before the start of the pandemic and mark a distinct change in style compared to your previous releases. What inspired you to go into a different musical direction?
I released an album in 2018 called World Order Music. There is a song I wrote called “She Likes to Wave to Passing Boats.” This was the first Silent Cities song really, and because the response to that song was massive, it inspired me to push further in that direction. I’ve not changed much – I run a vinyl label called Novel Sound, and I write and release techno and house records. That’s music for partying in the night, in hot, sweaty clubs … It’s made with the full intention of raising the heartbeat of people on the dance floor, to bring them excitement. But, as an artist, I wouldn’t feel complete without also dedicating time to music that reflects a heart rate as it is at rest. I am a techno and house DJ first and foremost. DJing is my art and my passion. Silent Cities is an alias, a second project. It’s music for autos, music for the daytime. Novel Sound makes music for the night, while Silent Cities is music for the day. Silent Cities is also a project intended for massive audiences; a live performance. However, because of the style and the rhythms I use, it is music intended for giant, enormous sound systems, where the sub frequencies can be powerful enough for the listener to be strongly affected. Think daytime festivals of 10.000 people or more.
You have worked with “non-standard tunings” on the record, working with so-called just intonation. What potential do you see in this tuning system in general, why did you want to use it for this specific project and how did you go about creating your own tunings?
To be fair, equal temperament is the non-standard tuning. Just because we live in Europe doesn’t mean our tuning system is the dominant one in the world, or that people in other cultures even admire our tuning system. In the West, bespoke tunings peaked with the avant-garde in the 1950s and early 60s, with visionaries such as La Monte Young and Harry Partch, and later with Wendy Carlos as well. John Cale said in a documentary recently that they would pick the 60 cycle hum of the electricity to tune their instruments to—the grand fundamental of the West. This is so clever. The most exciting tuning work in recent decades comes from Erv Wilson who also mentored a man named Kraig Grady who is responsible for some interesting work as well as handling the archival work from Wilson’s systems. That is trailblazing stuff, truly original, inspiring and brilliant in its conceptual execution. I recommend reading the book about Erv Wilson’s tunings written by Terumi Narushima. Commercially, in mainstream music in the 1990s, the most popular artists using bespoke tonal dialogues were Sonic Youth (via Glenn Branca), Aphex Twin (most obviously), My Bloody Valentine, plus almost all of New York City hip-hop, which has been using “non-standard” tuning for 30 years, and has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry. That’s the beauty of cutting up samples; the surprise tonal universes. That’s why I will forever be a child of the 1980s: the sampling revolution. I have not seen anything as exciting as that happen in my lifetime. If creating your own tonal dialogues is en vogue right now, then I speculate that it’s because the software has made it possible to do things on such a fluent, reliable level. Before the present era you had to rely on Scala format, which was exciting and I have created 70 or 80 LV scales using Scala, but now with MTS, one can create tunings within a plugin format, and well, it’s a total gas. I believe creating bespoke tuning dialogs will re-vitalise techno and give it a strong new direction for the next decade. It’s even the most obvious direction to go in, without having heard the results personally from other artists as of yet.
This is the first of your albums written in a studio that you had newly built, but during the pandemic you have also sold all your music equipment. What kind of setup were you working with for the album?
From the years 2010 to 2015 I played circa 100 shows per year. Every weekend, I was grinding non-stop, and I made a lot of money. With that money I bought a bunch of sneakers, clothes, and, of course, music equipment. My love has never really been about synthesisers though—I have always gone for the tone that pro audio equipment can yield, it’s a sort of black magic you learn when you’re hanging around studios in Manhattan. “Go-to” pieces and things like that. Pre-amps, compressors, etc., or a Space Echo, an idiosyncratic machine that can’t be replicated in plug-in form realistically as of yet. It was fun spending money as someone who grew up with a lot of financial uncertainty. We struggled and were often poor. I enjoyed spending money freely for the first time in my life … To have that experience was fun, and also to experience how money informed my music making process at the time, which was really balls to the wall: decadent, and druggy, etc. But, in the end, you collect all this material stuff, then you have to take care of it, you have to think “is someone gonna rob me?” When you are out of town, it’s stressful. The truth is, you don’t own anything. Your possessions will always own you, that was the big lesson I learned by experimenting with materialism. Once I really understood deeply that my material objects were dead weight, I got rid of everything. Today I am a very nimble musician , and living very light overall. I take gentle steps and don’t hoard oxygen, metaphorically speaking. Today, I use a WeWork type of service, where I rent a desk for € 140 a month. I have two synths and some controllers, and of course my piano. My music sounds better than ever and when I do need a rack of boutique pieces, I process my audio online using a service called Analog Access. It’s brilliant and it represents a paradigm shift in how we can engineer our techno beats. I rely on this service for tone and tone colours, and I write my songs mostly in Reaper these days, not using Logic as often. Currently, some of my favourite gear is the SSL Fusion Buss processor, the Silver Bullet saturator, Iron Age EQs, and I really like Daking compression on my kick drums. You can’t beat that. That’s about 10k of kit that I use by the hour, and then I walk away from it at the end of the session. Analog Access is about to introduce Neve Summing, which should be a solid replacement for my own Chandler mixer. What’s most important is that making techno gets out of the hands of rich kids who can afford gear, and into the hands of anyone with any means. Rich kids will get all the gear and mimic the sounds of what they were hearing already. Poor kids who get access to that gear will make something new out of it. That’s not snobbery—it’s just a fact about accessibility and what it does to the mind of the artist. I will get a new studio and rebuild, I won’t be free until I have new equipment. But it will be bare-bones this time around. It’s not really any sweat for me because it’s probably my tenth personal studio … It’s not the first time I’ve gone and sold everything I had. The new studio, that’s gonna take a lot of money, because I have to own my space. The most important piece of kit you could ever own is to feel safe in your room. Safe to experiment, to make noise; a place where anywhere, day or night, you can sit at the piano and play. That would be a dream come true, to live somewhere that I can play piano anytime I want. And another thing I would really love is a home in which to live and work where I can also teach my kids about music, and we can jam together and form a little band without complaints from our neighbours or the police. The gear is secondary, though still important. I must bide my time and be patient. And my next studio will be incredible. I can take all my experience and knowledge and slowly build a 24 track studio, and it will be the finest workspace I have had yet. Most important will be the console. I will finally get a real, professional 24 track console. SSL and JCF conversion via MADI. And, I have always, always wanted a pair of Voyetra-8 rack synths, so that is on my list as well. Even more important though is to own a space where I can work freely, and play piano when I want. I haven’t had that situation since moving to Berlin 13 years ago. It’s rare and hard to find in this city.
Picking up on the system of just intonation also meant that you were able to more visibly connect your background in post-minimalism—something you have studied while also working for the likes of Steve Reich—with the electronic music you’re making. How do the things that you have learned during your studies and your work in this field inform your music more in general?
Is it possible you mean Phillip Glass? I’ve never even met Steve Reich, although I was present and interning as what they used to call a so-called tape operator during Steve’s “Violin Phase” sessions. But that title, tape op, is really just something you write on your CV since Y2K or so … it’s more like sitting with an engineer, discussing and learning. He didn’t even record to tape! It was Pro Tools. I did however, study with Phillip Glass in a couple intimate masterclasses 20 years ago as part of my academic training. He was a very nice man, and I have been inspired by both composers in my lifetime; really all of New York’s downtown culture, the melding is what inspires me, the fusion of so many ideas coming from every corner of the Earth, that is what is so downtown to me. Rap artists in New York have been phasing this entire time. A good MC isn’t rhyming directly on the beat—they fall back, then move ahead of the beat, and so forth. They dance around the beat. That’s phasing, and it’s what makes 1990s American hip-hop so hypnotic to listen to. It’s also why US-American 1990s hip-hop is so singular—the phasing. You have to understand about New York though—everyone is trading ideas, and sharing the same recording spaces. Steve Reich’s engineer made a bunch of freestyle records in the 1980s, and Steve was definitely going to see the Ramones play in the 1970s at CBGB’s. Phillip Glass performed at the Kitchen when Arthur Russell was playing as well. Chuck D knows Kim Gordon and they have even collaborated on wax. It’s all one community there. It’s not “Oh I make deep house from the Nu Groove era, so I’m only going to play alongside or release records with other Nu Groovers” … it’s a melting pot! It’s when you have heard both the New York City genres of post-minimalism and hip hop, and realise that the interplay is directly related, that one couldn’t exist without being informed by the other—that’s what reflects the beauty of NYC. What I really enjoyed about lessons with Phillip was seeing him perform for solo piano later that week, a friend and I ate some pot brownies and went to hear him play piano. It was quite mystifying and took place in a choral hall rather than somewhere bigger like the Brooklyn Academy of Music, where I have also seen him perform. It sounded ethereal and beautiful. That certainly made a mark on me. More influential for me personally though are Joel Thome and Dary John Mizelle. Dary John taught me everything I needed to get involved in creating my own tuning worlds, he literally put a scientific calculator in my hands and showed me how to find the 12th root of two, and other permutations of equal temperament as well. This was 20 years ago. Even 17TET is already such a departure from 12TET. My first experiments with just intonation were while under his tutelage. In fact, one piece I played him back then even had him raise his eyebrows, it was a triumph—I did make a real impact on his ears with one piece of music I wrote, using a scale devised from just intonation. However, back then I was designing a single tonal system, then writing music with it. That could be compared to picking up a new instrument and then fiddling with it; no orchestration involved. But you must understand that everything made at the turn of Y2K using bespoke tuning systems sounded too ”1990s” at the time. So I sort of kept that knowledge on the shelf, waiting until the right time to bring it out. I have a few aces up my sleeve like that for future use in my career. Today, thanks to recent software developments, you can now easily combine different tonal worlds, and that is what is so incredible about today’s era and where we will likely be headed as techno and house music producers: combining tonal dialogues, using multiple dialogues simultaneously. Modulating and pivoting between different tonal worlds. I’ve paid tribute to these people with my Novel Sound records. For example, as a nod to my experience with Steve Reich, I regularly release phase records for the dancefloor: techno that utilises minimalist and Senegalese phase techniques. My LP World Order Music included an official cover of “Opening” from Phillip Glass’ Glassworks LP. That was really interesting because a couple years later, when I put the LP on streaming services, over night it became the most-shazamed tune of my entire catalog, like, a hundred times more than any other song of mine. My rendition of Phillip Glass’ “Opening” found an entirely other audience; that song reached people that don’t dance in sweaty nightclubs and do not listen to techno at all. Any tuning worlds I create are because I had a strong foundation learning from the best. And without analysing the score to Webern’s “Opus 23” while studying under Joel Thome, I would not be able to create arrangements that are iso-symmetric In form. That was a struggle, performing the analysation, but then highly rewarding when the puzzle revealed the answer. It yielded hundreds of ideas about forms and functions that I use today. So really, what I did when I was coming into my own as an artist, and what I recommend to any person on their way up is to go to people that had what I needed, and politely asked them how to do it. It has to be proportionate to their skill level though, don’t waste anyone’s time. You know, I would not track down Phillip Glass and then ask him how to play a C major scale … But I might go to him to speak on his usage of hemiola, for example. Something that would not drain his time or energy. If you’re nice about it, you will usually learn what you seek.
Silent Cities was released on cassette, a nod to the mixtape-like character of the album. What relationship do you have with the format of the mixtape?
Well, as a DJ I made mixtapes and sold them in the early 90s, one was called Private-Eye Killer and had a real film-noir cover on it. I found a pic from a few years ago and shared it on social media. People were excited about the cassette idea, people love cassettes today because nobody can surveil a cassette player. People who have been affected by localised surveillance are drawn to the older formats, devices with no CPU … They are also just, really cool. Not as cool as vinyl though. It’s more of a complement to vinyl. Just sayin’!
What was the idea behind your mix for our Groove podcast?
I would call it “potluck,” which is an English expression for random, more or less. I have a Reloop cassette audio recorder. I love this thing. For a few years I saw them around and thought it was a bit of a gimmick, that it was toy-like and not for serious professionals. After a few experiences with sending a hot signal to traditional recorders, I thought “I need something for DJs, created by people in the know.” So I got one! It’s perfect for recording mixes and gigs. A mixer sends a very hot signal, even if the VU is reading at unity gain and the team at Reloop recognised this and created a recorder for us. I have a 128 GB card in there, and I record constantly. It’s about 120 hours I would estimate, or like, 10.000 hours of MP3 recordings. When I was mentioned in Groove most recently, Alexis waltz stated that I was a big fan of Ron Trent. Which is true! So I set out to find a recording with a Ron Trent record but then at random I found this segment of recorded audio, and thought it was perfect because it really shows what I am doing in recent years, which is playing almost exclusively my own music plus one or two classic records every couple hours. It’s something very special I can bring to the table. Since I am the only one on Earth with this music, I can provide something very unique to the dance floor that my years of experience have yielded—tonnes of my own music perfect for dancing heads and of course their feet. (laughs)
Last but not least: What are your plans for the future?
I am always moving forward. Most exciting right now is the release of Novel Sound #40 which will arrive in shops December, The Medium is the Message Pt II. It’s a sequel to a record I released on Novel Sound in 2010 and re-affirms my own commitment to vinyl, and running my label, which is my life’s work and my passion. Well, I am about to start a new label actually, but it will still be part of the same body of work, albeit under a different name. More on that in 2024 though. I’m just just getting back to normal after the lockdowns, like everyone else. We have to rebuild the industry together, the pandemic caused a lot of damage to our scene, and we must create the next wave which will have nobody thinking about the pandemic eventually. With enough festivals and some killer club nights, Corona will just be a thing of the past. We will see a new “Roaring 20s.” Just out of the gates already and it’s been brash, wicked and awesome, and I believe things will evolve into fresh dialogues in techno built upon the usage of bespoke tuning systems. Three or five years from now that should have formed into a real movement of its own, with new innovators and the usual players getting involved as well. It will be magic.
Stream: Levon Vincent – Groove Podcast 360
01. Levon Vincent – OF (Side B)
02. Levon Vincent – New Day
03. Levon Vincent – YOU (Side B)
04. Levon Vincent – Barreling Through Space and Time with Absolutely Nothing on Your Mind
05. Levon Vincent – Anais Nin Tracks (Pt. 1)
06. Levon Vincent – Uniquely Situated to Soar Through the Clouds
07. Surgeon – Atol
08. Levon Vincent – Musique
09. Levon Vincent – Doves
10. Levon Vincent – Rocking to the Funky Rhythm
11. Kai Alcé – Music Institute 20th Anniversary E.P. Track 2
12. Levon Vincent – Carena
13. Levon Vincent – From Here to There
14. Levon Vincent – Julius Caesar
15. Levon Vincent – Going Home
16. Levon Vincent – MKS ACID
17. Levon Vincent – I Love You
18. Levon Vincent – The Magician (Thomson) (features vocals by Steve, Andrew, Jess, and Trevor)
19. Levon Vincent – Kissing
20. Levon Vincent – Civil Disobedience (Unreleased Alternate Version)