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Composing for Humans and Computers: Pantha du Prince Discusses Songwriting for The Bell Laboratory

Pantha du Prince explains his obsession with bells and the difference between writing for human musicians and computers.
July 8, 2013, 11:15pm

What happens when an electronic musician with a penchant for weird instruments and experimentation falls in love with a three-tonne instrument composed of 50 bronze bells? The electro-percussion collaboration known as Pantha du Prince and The Bell Laboratory. Spawned from a fascination with a traditional church instrument known as the carillon or the glockenspiel, the project is an exploration into the fusion of organic percussion and synthesized electronic sounds.

Pantha du Prince (aka Hendrik Weber) has had a long and well-documented (see his three previous solo albums) with percussion and with bells in particular. On the Bell Laboratory's first album, Elements of Light, Pantha teams up with a Norwegian collective of percussion musicians and, for the first time in his musical career, finds himself having to collaborate with other human beings as opposed to his trusty computer.

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The result, as we learned at Mutek last month, is magical. The transcendant sound of bells, which seems to move through you in a way that pierces you to the core the way that no other instrument can approximate, mingles gloriously with Pantha's typical shimmering synths. We spoke with Hendrik before his performance and were surprised to learn that much of the music is improvised and left up to the intuition of the performers. It's crazy to think this beautiful cacophony is something that could be left up to chance.

Check out our interview with Pantha du Prince below about his obsession with bells and the difference between writing for human musicians and computers.

The Creators Project: So, I'd love to hear more about Bell Laboratory. How did this crazy project come about?
Pantha du Prince: I was in Oslo and I heard the carillons of the city hall. For years, I was researching the carillons all over Europe--I was listening, recording. So I heard this carillon and I said [to producer Mattis With], "I would like to write a melody for this carillon." I'd always say that when I hear a carillon, like, yeah it would be great to work with it one day. But this time, I said it and Mattis said it's not a problem. I was like, ok wow. They were already doing pieces for this new musical festival in Oslo so they already knew the guys.

He said he could [help me] create an ensemble of musicians because there are many musicians in Oslo [who are] very much interested in the issue of the bell and bell sounding instruments, melodic percussion. So I started writing this piece, this 44 minute track that's existing as a track, but it's not yet finished. It's like an open skeleton of music, kind of a raw version, and then we transferred this into a notation system. We talked to the musicians about how they would be able to play it, how I want them to play it, how they receive the material to be played, and then to find a way in between the raw material, the notations, and the personal perception of each musician.

A typical carillon instrument.

So a lot of it is left open to interpretation?
Yeah, I always kind of push them to use their intuition to play the piece and not to look too closely to the notes and not to listen too closely to the original material, but kind of find their way with the material. That's why we called it the Bell Laboratory, because it's in development, and it's also kind of a little ironic smile referencing Bell Laboratires and the beginnings of computer music, the invention of communication.

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Very cool. Where did your fascination with bells come from, do you think? Or with this particular carillon?
The bell is just a very physical instrument. You know it's just so robust on its own. The bell stands for me to be something besides time, besides whom and time.

Something that exists outside of space and time?
Yeah, and it makes you also vibrate in another way, you know? Your whole existence is kind of questioned by it and you also feel very comfortable at the same time.

Pantha du Prince and the Bell Laboratory performing at Montreal's Maison Symphonique. Photo by Caroline Hayeur.

Do you think it this feeling has to do with the religious associations we often have with bells?
Yeah but I am questioning what is behind this. I don't see it as a religious thing because I don't believe in religion and the way we are using it and the way it's established on this planet. I believe in a reform of all this. I mean, music can be the transmitter of something, of an understanding what stands above you, and your personal existence. And I think the bell is an instrument that triggers [that] in you. And also working with it shows you the power it has over you that is beyond your construction of personality and ego.

It's just a very strange instrument to work with because you don't have the steady, pure beauty. You have this beauty-ness, but this beauty-ness is also, it can be very strong. It's a very sensitive thing but at the same time very dissonant. A lot of the moments I'm working with is like unstable moments. Instability where, out of the instability you catch a new creation because it's all in the bell sound itself. So for me, it's just a very precise picture of, and kind of condenses the things that I'm working with. With Pantha, with Rough Trade, with the Bell Laboratory of course, and with the installation work.

I imagine it made writing for bells to be somewhat challenging because of that imprecision, that unpredictability. Maybe that's why you left it open for interpretation for the musicians a bit too?
Yeah, I mean you have to be much more open and you have to give away control and you work with an ensemble and you work with transmitted recordings. You have to kind of give up your idea of full hands on shaping, you know? As soon as you step back and let it grow it's very liberating but it's also a way of opening up yourself and letting things happen. And this was a very profound difference to my former work where I would be in this constant communication with the machine and I would push the machine, but the machine doesn't have the same intuition as a human being. And it doesn't have this intelligent interface. The human being is still the most intelligent interface. And to let it happen as an interface, you have to kind of let it happen and not, you know, be the dominating thing. That's a basic essence and difference between the two working methods.

Sounds like a more organic process. There's like an exchange happening.
It's also organic when I work with computers though. It's something that I can't explain. It's a way of letting go with certain things and then taking them back and nailing them down. It's like you have these ideas and they float around and you capture it. But with these guys, you have the idea, you capture it, you have to tell them what it could be, so it's much more of a verbal kind of explanation. At the same time, you have them let go and keep them doing what they have to do, you know? You have to trust.

Now that you've done this, how do you see yourself moving forward?
I would go back to the old way…  No, ha, I don't know. I think it will remain, you know, something of it will remain, but it will go a new path as well. You always take things from one project to the other project. We step from this place of complete computer produced music on the road with one controller and headphones, to Black Noise [and working with] weird recordings, weird instruments, weird synthetic sounds. Now we are in a complete acoustic production within synthetic sounds as well. But after all, an organ doesn't sound itself as an acoustic organ. I think I will move and kind of transfer again with Pantha.