Accompanying text for the wonderful EP, out now on XL
On the 16 of November, XL Recordings will release Spoken By The Other, the first EP by Powell Tillmans. It’s a collection of recordings from two of the most interesting artists in Europe, and one whose short length belies its radical tenderness, sonic language and political ambition.
The first part of the partnership is Oscar Powell, the London-based electronic musician. The second is Wolfgang Tillmans, the Turner Prize-winning fine artist and musician who lives between Berlin and London.
After 25 years away from music-making, Tillmans began releasing his own vocal-led electronic tracks in 2016, with a series of EPs and collaborative visual mini-albums, with one track closing Frank Ocean’s Endless album. Powell, meanwhile, has been releasing music since 2011, on his own label Diagonal and XL, drawing from the history of machine music to create a bold new language. They met at the Tate Modern, where Tillmans was programming a series of performances to coincide with his 2017 exhibition. Quickly the conversation turned to talk of a full collaboration, and following Tillmans’s video for Powell’s track Freezer, over the summer they got into the studio to begin making music.
Recording took place in Berlin, London and Turin, with Tillmans’s vocals working in tandem with Powell’s synthetic processes. Rather than a simple producer-vocalist arrangement, explains Powell, “Wolfgang’s voice and my sounds drive toward some sort of shape or feeling together.” These tracked were workshopped live at European festivals Atonal and Club2Club in the second half of 2017, and with no small number of emails and voice files exchanged, these ideas evolved into the final EP this year.
Across the record’s six tracks, Tillmans’s vocals drive and weave through the music. The lyrics serve as both poetically abstract snapshots like “All surfaces and all reflections,” on Doucement, and direct invocations to the listener, like “Lose your pride!” on Feel the Night. Across the EP, Powell’s sounds are at once sharply focused and beautifully free. Each track represents another venture into the possibilities of computer music: composed with modular synthesizers and digital signal processing applications, these are etudes that glitter, shift and shimmer as they find themselves. Feel the Night uses a flickering pair of notes and Tillmans’s treated voice to slowly build an anthem. Tone Me — which Tillmans says is a semi-affectionate send-up of gym culture — plays with how low a bassline can go, a melody sketched above. Doucement (“slowly” in French) is an electro acoustic tone-poem. Rebuilding the Future swings, even as it journeys into static. On 445, a dinner party turns into a dazzling piece of music concrete. This is the sound of two artists pushing each other towards, well, freedom. Freedom to move. Freedom to play. Freedom to change. Freedom to be soft.
For Powell, working with Tillmans was liberating: “I think a lot of Wolfgang’s work is to do with vulnerability. He’s never been afraid to express that, or highlight it, or lift it up as something worth showing,” he says. “Recording the EP was almost the process of losing the expectations that might be placed upon myself. People have described it as a vulnerable record, and that transparency and honesty is how I felt making it. It made me feel very out of my comfort zone, but I think working with Wolfgang has pushed me to trust myself more. To feel more.”
Just as Wolfgang’s images draw profound truths from seemingly instant snapshots, much of his process depended on sending voice files and lyric-filled emails on the move. “After we spent time together in the studio, Wolfgang would send music and ideas as voice notes, sometimes just taken on his phone and sent from his stairwell. It’s very much like his pictures: ‘This is how I feel now’. The last track, 445, is a field-recording he captured at a dinner party, and I used it to trigger all the sounds around it.”
Wolfgang picks up this story. “I’m actually acting as a percussionist during this recording: I’m playing with the cutlery and the glasses at a family dinner, so although it sounds like a field recording, it’s also a musical injunction. This unclear nature of what exactly is being shown is something that I really take from my photographic work. People always want clean cut answers, and I’ve always found this not true: we can be both earnest and humorous; political and hedonistic.”
These aren’t opposing forces for Tillmans, whose support for the EU and migrants rights against the rising tide of nationalism has formed an increasingly urgent backbone of his work. “If everybody hardens up in this polarised world, we cannot come out of it in one piece. The solution is not to hit back all the time but make a new better alternative and which is not authoritarian and hard but is so kind, it’s combined into a love song. We can’t let the haters overtake our lives. We must keep on partying; we must keep on loving, and living.”