How much can you sacrifice when you spend your whole life on an idea?
This is the question that has been facing Alex Sonnenfeld for the last 14 years and is perhaps one that many of us can relate to.
As such, the next few months will mark a huge landmark for the Berlin-based music theorist, innovator and turntablist (who performs as the exuberant Hix Boson) and provide a certain amount of vindication and reward for all that effort.
In cooperation with fellow researcher Kjetil Falkenberg Hansen, he will present his Theory of Motions at TENOR 2016 in Cambridge, UK, the international conference on music notation technology. It is an impressive achievement since the paper sets out, in fine detail, a method of explaining and notating the musical notes of the scratch DJ - an especially difficult task when the source material can frequently change.
Integral to Theory of Motions is his development of S-Notation - a method of notating scratch DJing which has formed a large part of his research. And remarkably, during this time of study he was in permanent contact with Prof Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928-2007), the famous experimental composer, who took a keen interest in his work.
In 2012, he became a guest professor at Qbert's Skratch University in San Francisco. Qbert is, of course, widely recognised as one of the best DJs ever to have graced the decks and is held by some to be the greatest. Sonnenfeld's thorough breakdowns of patterns, especially in the sub-field of "drumming" made him a valuable addition to the team, influencing and coaching plenty of budding scratch DJs since.
Not content with that, in 2015 Sonnenfeld launched the Sample Music Festival - a celebration of sample music culture hosting live performances and workshops with DJs and musicians. Taking place in Berlin, it is scheduled to be an annual event with the overall purpose of furthering the field.
In the lead up to the official release of Theory of Motions we grabbed a chat...
How long have you been working on S-Notation and what made you first decide to investigate it?
I started in 1999/8 a self study of music theory with the idea to transfer this written utility model and music science on turntablism. To my surprise I didn't find a definition of a acoustical backward motion in any music book or encyclopedia. So this was for me a mysterious sign that I have found something which probably did not yet exist.
Why do you love scratching?
Back in the days the sound of scratching was really exciting for me because I couldn't link this to any other instrument's output. Then I found the idea absolutely mind-blowing to imitate every music instrument by working with recorded sound material. Already as a kid I loved the idea of being able to play "every" kind of instrument. 10 years later this crazy or probably aloof thought came true when I started to scratch. Funny to recap the pattern of your life sometimes.
How would you compare DJ scratching to other musical instruments?
First of all we have to get things straight. We still work on a playback device for recorded sound material and the evolving process to transform this into a fully fledged instrument concept is IMO still not technically mature.
The liberty to work with any kind of sound is really overwhelming and differs from a classical music instrument. Beside the fact that we can play every sound backwards (which is compared to other instruments unique) the mixer let us take influences on specific musical parameters (panning, frequency, volume, effects). These results are due to comfortable faders which resist the rapid movements of all this crazy playing techniques. There exist a great analysis of scratch performance and acoustical consequences written by Kjetlil Falkenberg Hansen. In this you can gain valuable info on this subject.
You collaborated with Professor Karlheinz Stockhausen on the project – what influence/input did he have?
You know, I grew up in a family with no serious musical background. The same applies for my friends or any environments back in the days. I really didn't know anyone who could read music or give me a feedback on my idea or approach of music theory for turntablism. So I was in a sort of anxiety (if I'm right or if I'm wrong) after I finished the basics of S-Notation.
Coincidentally I saw a picture of a professor on a scientific music magazine and I decided to write this guy (I didn't really know about him) a postcard. In this short message I reported about an instrument which allows to play "everything" and that I have developed a new design of music theory for this musical tool.
At first he suggested that I check his compositions "Electronic Studie " before I use words like "new" or "revolutionary". But of course he was really nosey and he asked me to tell on which instrument I'm playing. But I wrote back that I will give him only an answer by presenting this device at a personal lecture. So he agreed and we meet on 28.03.2015 for the first time in his birth town Kürten, Germany.
I presented to him turntablism as a new form of music making and the basics of S-Notation. He was really surprised about the acoustical possibilities of this instrument and said that I'm on the right path. So this is how everything started. Till he died in 2007 we had a really friendly pen pal relationship, but there was no influence on the elaboration of Theory of Motions. It was for the main part a mental support (like mentor and student) and he helped me to encourage my self-awareness regards to this music project.
What was your impression of him as a person?
He had a strong aura, very friendly, nosey and absolutely focused on everything what belongs to sound. He was surprised about the acoustical possibilities of the turntable instrument and that even world championships already exist. He told me how difficult it was for him to generate loops, cuts or layering in his first compositions back in 1950. At this time he worked with tape band and regular scissors and glue were his tools for editing sound samples. He needed two weeks to produce five seconds of sound. Thank god for today's technology.
What was the biggest challenge in coming up with a finished theory?
The fight against yourself regarding qualms and negative feedback from other people. The intelligence that your theory will never been finished. All the circumstances in real life are essential. For example: how to pay your bills when you tackle the research of turntablism and elaboration of the theory as a full time job. How much can you sacrifice when you spend your whole life for this idea? Another challenge is the fact that I got no graduation in music which is the requirement to submit the theory to academics.
When and how will you be making it public?
In cooperation with Kjetil Falkenberg Hansen we plan to publish the explanation of my system/ theory of motion within the next months via online. His knowledge and research in this scientific field is really valuable to make the whole topic more transparent for peoples who are not so involved in turntablism. Beside my music theoretical issues in this thesis he will lay also his focus on history/modelling analysis and future developments of the subject. Me and Kjetil will present Theory of Motions at TENOR2016 in Cambridge, UK and I'm really looking forward to present S-Notation in front of such an exclusive audience.
In a perfect world what would you like the end result of your research to be?
To send my kids one day in a regular music university to study sample music based on Theory of Motions.
How has your research been received in the scratch community?
At the beginning it was quite difficult because I had no credibility in the scene .. No title under my belt or any other reputation in the scene. It is understandable because suddenly someone appears from nowhere who claims to own a theoretical "masterplan". But after I published more than 400 videos on my YouTube channel about turntablism and my graduation to work as a guest professor for the QSU (Qbert's online school for scratch DJs) minds increasingly changed.
Will you be doing further research into scratching or music in general?
Yeah for sure .. Like I said the Theory of Motions grows and the technological development is always linked with new forms of making music. It is essential to recognize that we live in a time period which will be called "classic" in hundreds of years.
You launched the sample music festival in 2015 - what did you learn from the experience and why did you decide to launch it?
The spirit of the festival was pretty awesome. It was like a meeting of friends who share the same love for the art of using samples in a musical context. There was no competition as you know it from DJ battles - just a jam session in a familiar atmosphere. We had even visitors from UK, Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Italy and the US. I think the lectures were valuable for the development of DJ culture and I'm very proud that we have started with yearly scientific conference on sample music culture. We have recorded the whole content of 2015 on video tape for the ensuing ages.
I'm already in the planning for SMF 2016. I cant wait to announce all the acts and academics who will give lectures and workshops about different areas of sample music culture.
I just want to thank everyone who were involved and I hope we see us in September for a unique weekend of music in Berlin. Peace.