Techno Tuesday: Sebastian Mullaert talks Circle of Live and the philosophy of improvisation
Techno Tuesday is a feature on Dancing Astronaut documenting the culture of underground dance music. We’ll bring you exclusive interviews, tracks, and narratives from artists within the techno, tech house, and deep house world in an effort to shed light on some of the best talent outside the world of mainstream dance music.
Sebastian Mullaert has been active with a variety of electronic music projects, notably his melodic techno duo Minilogue, for nearly 20 years. Having played the organ and violin from a young age, Mullaert is as comfortable playing with with analog electronic gear as he is the Tonhalle Zürich philharmonic orchestra. A life of live performance and mindfulness has led the Swedish multi-instrumentalist to develop a holistic philosophy that he applies to every aspect of his life.
Basing much of his philosophy around the intersection of nature, meditation, and tranquility, Mullaert adds an uplifting energy to all of his collaborations, be that with other musicians or just the audience listening to and engaging with his music. Having taken a break from his more structured duo performances, the forward-thinking artist has been focusing on his new collaborative improvisation project, Circle of Live since 2018. Dancing Astronaut had the chance to sit down with Mullaert to hear a bit more about this project before his six-hour Movement Detroit performance with Mathew Jonson, Amp Fiddler, and Vril, as well as his solo performance at Brooklyn’s National Sawdust on May 24.
As an introduction for our readers I’d love to hear just a little bit more about the concept behind Circle of Live.
On the surface Circle of Live is only a live performance of music from the beginning to end of the night or stage. So there is no DJs playing, there is no music before it starts. No music after. It’s basically to allow improvisation and the musical journey based on the whole night or the whole day, depending on where we do it. We really want to to let creativity, and then life, flourish with opportunities not demands or restrictions. At the moment we are a group of twenty artists, and every Circle of Live performance is a combination between about three artists. They are free to come and do whatever they want. We don’t have their time schedule. There is no rule that you have to play all night, there is no rule that you have to play with someone else. I want to encourage everyone to to try to feel and decide “what do I want to do now,” not to push people to think about what they’re expected to do or what do I normally do in a situation like this. “Maybe I don’t want to play, you know, I want to take a break on stage.” So therefore it’s up to the artists come to the stage whenever they want. I don’t tell them when they should come. It’s up to them. And also they don’t even need to come to the place. I tell the artists that if you feel like taking a break, you want to come later in the night, that you for some reason need to rest or be by yourself, you’re also free to do that. So if an artist is like “Oh I’m not up for jamming with someone else today, I really want to have a play by myself,” it’s totally okay to do that. If I don’t want to play by myself, I would like to improvise with other people, that’s also fine. It’s really about setting a quite clear frame full of opportunities and possibilities, but not with demands.
Personally, it is, in a way, an extension of my approach to to expressing through music in general. I think it’s a method or an approach that I can apply on humanity as a whole, from kids to other adults. How you approach your work can be applied in many different situations. It’s not the only method. But I feel that it’s one method and, personally, that my creativity really blossoms when I approach it in that way. I try to go to the studio and do things in a way that when I feel things, I do them. I don’t do what I should do but what I feel I want to do. It’s not an egocentric perspective, but it’s included in the whole setting. I don’t encourage people to be egotistic individualists. Not just thinking about themselves, but an that approach in a way also makes an individual more open to the environment they’re in. It’s easier for you to actually connect with other people around you, regardless if it’s musicians jamming on stage or if it’s a situation where you’re sitting with your family and enjoying painting in the evening together or whatever. So it’s really about possibilities for me. To make that possible on stage, you need to improvise. If you’re a 20 artists–a lot of these artists have never met. They don’t know each other. That never played together. They can also have very different backgrounds. I tried to invite artists that I feel have an open attitude to music and the values that I’m talking about. Some have played electronic music for five years, some have played electronic music for one year. Some people use just a laptop, other people use gear worth $500,000. You know there are people from all different directions of music. So to be able to do a six to 10 hour live jam together with that background, you need to be open and accept that. I believe it’s a beautiful perspective for musician to get to new routes of creativity and to find new ways of expression.
As an artist with many projects, what brought Circle of Live to the forefront for you and made this the project that you wanted to focus on?
What I felt personally and also as feedback back from a lot of other artists, is that in our scene of electronic music and dance music, there are a lot of expectations. We get bookings sometimes even a year ahead. Very specific slots, like “you’re going to play here between two and three.” You come there and you know it is a club where people do this or that. I like this music and I know that I’m supposed to do it, though no one really knows what you’re going to play. I think the beginning of night the audience starts to wonder like who’s playing. Oh now it’s two, and now it’s four people. But then after worrying, then you don’t really care, you know, because you can’t really keep track of it. So the importance of who is playing and what they’re playing in a way also get’s lowered. It’s more important how I feel about it now.
The whole setting I want to create on stage gives the same opportunity to the audience and the dancefloor. Ultimately I don’t think there is any difference. As human beings we are created. And the creativity is just flowing through us. And when we listen to music or play music or dance to music it’s all an expression of what we feel. And that’s creativity.
It seems like this comes from a philosophy that values like open mindedness and balance within the realm performance and consumption as a whole. You kind of touched on this just very recently, mentioning that the electronic music scene the dance music scene often have these kind of strict set times norms of performance or that someone is going to get to show up somewhere play their songs, and then leave. Since you are coming at that from a different approach, do you feel like these kind of completely improvised sets these sets with fewer expectations are riskier? How do you feel going onstage you know where when a crowd may not know what to anticipate that you might be bringing?
That’s a very multidimensional question. In general what I personally really loved to listen to is improvised music, and also stripped back minimalistic improvised music. I’m not so interested in very complex compositions from very advanced productions. The reason for that, I think, is that I feel that as a live organist, I feel connected to some things I listen to that are a product of an organic flow. It’s something that very naturally happens. In a way, I feel it’s very similar to go out into the woods, like in really old nature that is left alone and has a very very honest and true balance in itself. When I come into a forest like that I feel like “this is it.” It’s not produced. It’s not defined. It’s not made with an intention that it should be in a certain way. It’s more an expression of something. I think when we are close to something like that, it reminds us. So, in a way, when when music is that reminder and the dance of the audience becomes an expression of that idea, I also become that reminder towards myself and others around me. Suddenly we have these beautiful circles reminding me of now. When that happens, something very, very beautiful and strong musically happens.
There is, of course, during long sessions of improvisation, quite boring parts. There can also be fuck-ups, things that were not super good. We also have that in our journey in life, going through all kinds of things, beautiful moments and terrible moments where you are actually adding in a destructive way, and the moments where you’re adding a very constructive way. And I think to follow a jam and dance to it, because when we dance we are so directly connected to what’s happening, it’s not a passive exercise. The audience becomes an active part of the whole experience and you follow all these parts that the audience can also follow from boringness to, “Oo, now it get’s interesting, now it clicks, now it blooms.” I think that gives energy to the audience. To me as a listener, I get something that I can take out of life. Because life it is like that. I don’t feel that I went through something that is better than me or more that me, I just experienced something. It was not something external. That experience belongs to you. It’s yours because you are conscious.
I think I think that’s an interesting dynamic to analyze–that of the differences between being able to be one with an experience but also an observer of it. And I think that you are bringing Circle of Live, as well as your next solo perfomances, to environments that are very conducive to that. Somewhere like Movement in Detroit, where there is such history of innovation and experimentation in techno, as well as National Sawdust in Brooklyn, which brings a ton of great performance art and usually a crowd with an open mind. So what makes these settings more receptive to live improvisation spontaneity, and what is is helpful in sort of setting the mood and philosophy of the night for it for a space that you’d like to perform?
I think what Circle of Live is a reaction to is that, in our time, we are getting more and more restless and we expect that the delivery should come really fast and quickly. When we go to a concert, we almost expect to have an Instagram photo with smoke in the air, lights, all hands up after five minutes. We are waiting for that moment where we can take that photo. Once again, we are not there. We’re waiting for something. We have an expectation. It’s a thought that we project on our wishes. And for me that’s the opposite. To come with an open mind and kind of let whatever happens happen. To an audience that wanted to come early, an audience that doesn’t want to run around that go to five different stages at the same time but actually stay and add to this presence that is key. And I think that musically also what I tried to do in the beginning is really start music before the audience comes. The intensity of the music and the volume of the music is always kind of increasing in a very slow way to create a warm welcome space for people to enter. I think these are some small things that can help. I also think that what we are doing now, to be able to talk about this and have a magazine or a journalist that wants to talk about and share this also may be attracting people who might otherwise miss this or want something different to the consumption experience.
That makes a lot of sense I think bringing some diversity to what we can expect from festivals and what we can expect from live performance past the typical hourlong sets.
Some of the artists that are included in Circle of Live are very successful, selling lots of tickets, have high expectations of themselves. When they come and do something solo, a certain responsibility pops up. “Ok, 2000 people came here to see me, probably a lot of them expect me to do a certain thing.” I think you can be a little bit afraid to challenge that. Or you can feel more humble, but you don’t want to disappoint them. But when you do a collaboration like Circle of Live, I think all the artists, in a way, can hide. Because their individual presence, as much of that is of course super important, it’s also less identified as specifically important. Maybe one of the artists that normally always play in the middle of it night smashing the room can play an ambient set, and there is room for the artist to, within the collective, be free to do what they feel for.
I see that Circle of Live have some recordings posted online and some recordings for sale, such as your FreeRotation performance on vinyl, as well as a few remixes. How do you kind of translate those ideas of spontaneity and improvisation and the whole live sector into a realm of recording music?
At the moment, we record all sessions always, so we have loads of upcoming releases, which will be selections of that. It’s almost impossible to get a feeling when you select a little piece out of a long improvisation. You disable the listener to follow the whole journey. I have a dilemma with that, but we still feel that to share what Circle of Live is and also to promote improvised and less perfect music. When we improvise, it’s never as perfect as someone in the studio making music. There will always be things with the mixing, with effects. Maybe people in Circle of Live play a little bit out of tempo, sometimes that adds a very organic and random touch to it. But if we always only release music that is perfect, that also creates a certain perception of what music is. In the way as an artist running Circle of Live as a label I feel that we have an opportunity to share things that are less perfect, but maybe even more pleasant to listen to. It will always be improvised.
The idea of creating less perfect music and not kind of being beholden to the standards of studio mixing is very fascinating. It reminds me a lot of how early jazz was recorded live in jazz clubs, where you hear the band members calling out to each other, you hear a little mistakes and crowd reactions. It’s very organic. While maybe imperfect, it’s a very unique and individual experience.
That’s exactly my inspiration. I also want to point out that I do not believe that Circle of Live isn’t something super innovative in that sense, improvised music has a really long history. But I think for an electronic scene, sometimes you need to do a little bigger project and kind of raise the flag a little bit higher or something, and I think that’s what Circle of Live is. We are trying to take it to a festival stage with a lot of people and also do it there, not only in this small venue with 20 people where the nerds gather. We try to take it even further in that way also spread the message and share these beautiful things. Because I do think it’s a healing process to dance to music and also to dance to improvised music. So I want, in a way that is true and honest, to enable it for a bigger audience. [00:26:37][82.4]
I’m looking forward to seeing that Movement, I’ll definitely be there at the stage to catch some of definitely some Mathew Johnson and Amp Fiddler!
Yes, it’s so fun because so far we haven’t done one collaboration two times. So this one is very I’m very excited about. I am big fans of their music but they are so different musically and personality-wise. It’s a lot of psychology. This week I’m talking with all three of them. You know it’s a lot of time and effort to create this warm space for them as artists. To not feel any fear or not feel that they need to compare themselves to each other. You know if you have Amp Fiddler next to someone, for example, who has only played the keyboard for one year, of course that can also trigger fear like “OK who am I to play with this person who is so experienced.” Let me put that on hold to say “you know, I have creativity, I have energy, I can express that.” Each new person together in one room in one session has that opportunity, and none is less important the other.
This interview was edited for brevity and clarity