Altar is a collaborative project combining the skills of Roly Porter and Paul Jebanasam based on a performance of ritual system music. The approach unites the technical and creative abilities of two of the most powerful composers of contemporary music, and was world premiered at this year’s edition of Berlin Atonal.
On the one side, Paul Jebanasam is an ambient producer born in Sri Lanka, raised in Sydney and based in Bristol; his music ranges from ambient drone to metal, noise, sacred music and modern composition. He is also a part of the Subtext label. On the other side, Roly Porter is a London-based producer and former member of industrial dubstep duo Vex'd. As a solo, Porter has reinvented himself as an experimentalist indebted to modern classical and his work ranges from live improvisation to dark ambient. After attending their performance at Berlin Atonal and being mesmerized, we talked to both of them to discover more about their new project, Altar.
When did you start your relationship with music?
Roly: Well, I don’t have a very good memory, but this is what we have always done. I first started making music when I was with turntables at the age of fourteen. When I was fifteen I bought a little Roland, the hardware-like beat maker thing.
Paul: Here’s the thing, I was really interested in playing in a metal band but none of my friends could play instruments very well – I couldn’t either. We went down that route of not playing music properly. What is interesting is that I come from a musical family; my sister is a piano teacher, thus it was kind of pressuring to learn music. I obviously didn’t want to become my sister’s student so I got into computers while trying to learn an instrument – I am better at computers than playing the piano. It was a really good time because all software was available, stuff like Cool Edit Pro and things like that. In the 1990s you could record sounds, put them in the computer and edit them. I only had to record CDs to rearrange things; I never had a soundboard or a drum machine. I slowly went on a midi keyboard, but the main thing was all this software.
How old were you at that time?
Paul: I was also around fifteen or sixteen; high school time.
When and what was your first ‘cathartic’ sonic experience? Something that made you think, “This is what I want to do in my life”, the breakpoint when you decided you wanted to be a musician, a composer.
Paul: There was a trance party in Sydney and a track called Out of the Blue by Ferry Corsten from System F played. I used to go to concerts and things like that, but I had never had any emotional experience as I did when I first went to raves. In Sydney a lot of the raves were multi-genre, you wouldn’t really go to a jungle rave, a hard-core rave or a trance one. I think there weren’t enough people to build a specific scene or to create a big event with just one genre, so you’d end up listening to all these different kinds of music in one night. In any case, I think this trance tune was the one that made a change on me.
Roly: Really? That’s interesting because it was totally the opposite in the United Kingdom at that time, everything was very segregated; it was pure jungle, hard-core, or whatever. For me it was a similar thing: by going to jungle parties I was almost a hundred per cent sure that there was nothing else worth doing besides that, which made it very difficult to carry on with school and my normal life. I mean, some people’s lives consist of running from one jungle party to the next, writing music and so on. And then I asked myself, “How could you want to do something else?”
And then you said, “This is the sound I like and this is the music I want to do myself”?
Roly: When you start anything there is always a process. Effectively at that age the dream was about being at the jungle scene deejaying. It’s only after years of trying and experimenting that you begin to be interested in developing your own ideas. I think it is unusual for people at that age – fifteen or similar – to actually have a really clear vision; that’s outside of the conventional process. For me, it was a standard one.
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And it seems obvious that you live from what you do. Professionally, since when do you pay your bills by doing music?
Roly: I’ve been earning more than the minimum wage in the United Kingdom by doing music for exactly five years. When I did my tax return, I discovered it was above the country’s minimum wage – and that was an amazing day! When I meet people who can’t have full-time jobs in the music industry, I realize how lucky I am. It’s a real big step, especially because we don’t particularly engage with totally commercial events. We still do things that we're proud of –our own artistic projects, and I know how unusual it is to make that work.
Paul: When I first moved to Bristol around 2007 – I grew up in Sydney — I was doing administrative stuff at the label. Then, I started gradually moving away from the managing side to the creative one, spending as much time as I could in the studio making music. This was about eight years ago.
Your music seems to respond to conceptual and/or theoretical approaches. Can you explain where do they come from?
Roly: If you talk about our personal relationship with loud music over the years or about certain compositional structures, there is an on-going personal relationship with them. The compositional conceptual structures in this project are slightly different: it doesn't follow any type of conceptual narrative. It’s built around a system of parameters as a framework, whereas that conceptual approach is something that we’ve set aside for this collaboration. It is really focused on the theoretical, which is the second half of your question.
There were certain technical aspects – performance and sonic-related ones – that we wanted to achieve; this was what drove the parameters of this project. It is opposed to a couple of albums I did before, like Life Cycle Of A Massive Star, where the whole thing revolves around a specific physical event that develops the narrative story. This time there’s a focus on the elements we both don’t have in our own personal musical projects because we want to see how far we can push them technically. That was the driving force for this project.
Yeah, and everybody in Berlin Atonal seemed to highlight your incredible technical capabilities. Both of you stand out for the production of your sound and your technique. Can you talk a bit about the technical resources that you use?
Paul: That’s very nice of you to say. We try to use twice as many tools as we can. I find it surprising when people get very genre-based and don’t use other processes and tools. I think they limit themselves because there are a lot of interesting tools with different possibilities to explore sound and music from different approaches; we just list them and try them all – for example, metal style production techniques, in which you find distortion and the sound of amps. We are curious about how distortion works as a way of composing music.
We also follow academic processes that come from classical music, film music, sound design, computer programming, coding, etc. This is not because we try to be really good at all these different styles and techniques, it is just the curiosity to understand them. I think that if you’re curious about sound, it’s hard to not want to understand all these different sonic differences happening in the world, whether they’re musical or not. There’s so much to discover, it’s fascinating.
“Music is an introvert experience to me. The more inclosing the atmosphere is, the better” – Roly Porter
Exactly, even as a spectator, you always wonder how certain sounds are made.
Paul: That’s it. I think that even nowadays, in any person's lifetime, you can’t fully understand the capabilities of sound.
Roly: Which is why it's exciting, you know, for the fact that you’ll never get bored.
Paul: Right, even if we both – as a team of two people – dedicated every moment to it, we still wouldn't get close to it.
So your technical expertise comes from curiosity and your capability to integrate all the tools you find in your musical processes. Then, do you ever repeat a specific tool or machine in your works?
Roly: There is a flipside to this. One of the things with this project is that we wanted to be able to create music that used as much instant energy as possible. There are people who find a process they like and then they refine it and repeat it over and over again. Often, this is a really productive way to work because you can forget about the technological side of production and free your performance on the artistic side. If you have a production process you are happy with, it often creates interesting dynamic results. However we follow many pods and styles to be able to originate instantaneous creative energy. The flipside is that if you don't like researching, coding, recording and all this stuff you can find yourself spending a whole year learning those amazing stuff but not writing one thing, which is good.
Paul: This reminds me of Alban Berg. He studied all the different existing musicals styles, went through the classical tradition, studied serialism and all the 20th century works, went back and studied chart music, then took all that information and distilled it down into one crystalline act, in which actually there is everything, all the history of music. I know I'm very biased about this, but that is the amazing thing: all the research he did, the nature of mysticism, religions, science, numerous ideas, etc. are somehow distilled into one repeatable act.
Talking about nature of sound: is ‘any sound’ always a sonic experience to you, even silence — from a philosophical point of view?
Roly: I wish I could say that’s true. I wish I had this meditative engagement with life in which I could appreciate all sounds. But actually, the truth is that I do not need to. Listening is an active experience; if we all start now to actively listen to our surroundings we will hear interesting things, but we’re not in that mode the whole time – although there is a slight benefit to be gained from the entire sonic environment.
Paul: I do not find the all-world sounds interesting. There are a lot of people focused on the whole thing, listening to the wind in the forest and the great return for their voice. I think some of the most interesting sounds are the ones you can’t hear or you won’t get to hear. I’m not trying to be overly philosophical, what I mean is that the formation of a planet, a star being born, and even a thunderstorm produce sounds. If you could hear in a certain frequency range and you were at a certain level of altitude, there’s this sonic potential that is unrealized. And this isn't philosophical, it is physical: there are sounds impossible to exist because there’s nothing vibrating.
Roly: There was a talk about that subject. The thing is not only about vibration but also about replication. It means that if your speakers or headphones are playing on low frequencies, they vibrate and the synthetic frequencies make you hear, it comes like a sound. It is the belief it can be heard, but these super low frequencies – for example ten hertz or something like that – can't be heard because the brain can’t follow them.
Paul: It’s at best a simulation.
Roly: It's a simulation.
Paul: When you hear the thunderstorm you are not hearing the thunderstorm, you are actually hearing the vibration within your range but actually it's happening across.
In fact I was thinking also in the sound modified by architecture, the vibration and the bouncing of the waves on the walls. For instance, when you set up a concert in a venue like Kraftwerk Berlin, where reverberation is huge I guess, at least compared to other venues. It is said that architectonically it is like a cathedral made of concrete but also related to the hearing, it sounds like a cathedral. How does this environment affect your performance? —Taking the premises of avant-garde musician John Cage, who was very focused on silence and on including in the composition all sounds produced during the performance. His piece 4’33” is made only by background noise from the public.
Paul: Interesting, I like Cage’s thinking about sound. I would say that Cage was interested in getting to zero. But actually getting to zero in sound is impossible; there are always perturbations. I like to explore the infinite depth in this type of spaces, but not on a quiet level. Mathematically, between zero and one, there is an infinite amount of decimal numbers; this is almost like the layers of structure you can have here, they are infinite. You can exploit this depth where there are many different layers; you can hear things that are at a certain level of detail and volume but you can also hear things that are quiet, and this is amazing. 
Does it mean you like the sound here?
Paul: Yeah, it is weird but I do like it. Actually, we still don’t understand it.
Roly: Well, I think this place is rewarding and frustrating at the same time. When you spend hours putting sounds in super fine detail, working on the sound design, crafting something in a treated room with monitors where you’re used to be, and then you play on a room full of people, the fine details you were working on before get inevitably lost. Although the sound engineering in Kraftwerk is incredible and it does retain a lot of fine details, there is a general frustration when performing in a big environment; the details important to you don’t translate very well. But the payoff is the incredible wave resonant frequencies and the vastness of the sound. I'm sure there are people who could design the sound specifically for this environment after spending time in the place. To me it's really exciting to come to listen to music here; it’s a totally different experience.
Paul: I would say that the place even reanimates the sound. Say that you have two sounds within a certain frequency spectrum. One’s at a certain level of volume and the other is a little bit louder. In a studio environment, you’d hear them in almost a linear way; you’d surgically be able to hear. In a space like this, you don’t know what will happen: a difference of a few decibels in a certain frequency range will create a version of that sound somewhere over there, and such creates an added layer of depth. The thing is that you can’t work with it because you can’t control it. It’s a surprise during the show.
But this is super poetic, lost of control and surprise. I think it is nice as a performer to experience that.
Paul: Yes, the show takes different sounds into space, the room takes them back and replaces them in a way that you can’t control.
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Talking about control, do you improvise at all?
Roly: Because there is two of us, it’s easier to leave room for improvisation – that was one of the premises. There’s a lot of pressure on performing as a solo artist on your own. Having two people gives you a sense of security, frees you up to improvise more. In this case, the structure of the set was designed in advance but again relates to what we’re saying, it’s really difficult to design sounds specifically for this space because it’s very unusual. We didn’t know how the set we had prepared would sound, which is exciting and a lot more fun. That’s one of the main advantages of working with someone else: the sense of security.
Paul: You can drop the ball.
Roly: Exactly, I can say, “You take over.”
And how do you communicate on stage?
Paul: We just talk; it is funny because if you are very close to the stage, you can actually hear us. We can even have a conversation about anything up there. It’s something about the space, it’s not that loud where we are.
Is it the first time you two do something together? 
Paul: This is the first time we’ve played the music in one continual set. We hadn’t played together before; the first run through was the Atonal show.
“Often, when you find out too much about something, you discover the inner way it works and the magic is ruined” – Roly Porter
Could you please explain what led you to give shape to Altar? Which are the elements you worked with to create the show? The statement says the show is based on “ritual system music” and ‘altars’ are something used in rituals — religious or not.
Paul: The idea of ‘ritual system music’ was born out of the communication between the two of us and it means lots of different things. I guess everyone has internal languages, and when you're collaborating you come up with terms used to reference ideas.
Then, your communication is a ritual, which is wonderful!
Paul: Yes, but one version of it, nothing is too sacred to be used in a different way. What if you could look at sound in a way that wasn’t tied to its initial function – ritual, social or sacred purpose? This is something that was seen as profane and I think we’re still scratching the surface of working with it in that way. For example, imagine that you use important music in a way that it seems like you are not taking it seriously. I remember I was listening to pop music on my headphones while reading a book on Xenakis, about formalizing music, where he uses mathematical theories. Actually, this embodies what I am telling you because I was thinking about how could I process pop through the lens of Xenakis. Who cares if Xenakis is really serious. These things can merge and coalesce without caring. The idea is that nothing is sacred, and Altar is maybe one way of inverting the function of an altar.
Excellent, I like the answer.
Paul: That was way more articulate than I thought it could be.
The show presented in Atonal was very, very powerful in sound and intensity. I would say it was thunderous, flashy and melodramatic, even apocalyptic but also very sharp. You covered yourself in a cloud of smoke, an approach sort of like an acousmatic experience from the spectators’ point of view, where you do not see the source of the sound. Do you think in the public when you perform? What do you expect from them?
Roly: Of course we do, but music is not a social thing to me; it’s always difficult for people to understand — mainly when I was younger — why I don’t want to party. Music is an introvert experience to me. The more inclosing the atmosphere is, the better; that's why I love fog – because I am in my own personal space.
So you would like to always be invisible onstage?
Roly: Yes, I would like that, especially in this type of performance where you are not watching or admiring a virtuoso skilled in violin or similar. From my personal perspective I want to remove the presence onstage, thus the audience can concentrate on the sound and locate their own narrative, feelings and explore personal interests. Whatever the performer is doing doesn’t drive your emotional connection to music. But it’s very difficult in an environment like this as shows are based on the traditional structure where you have public on the ground and performers onstage. Definitely that is something I’d be happier without, I guess it has to do with the way I experience music. The whole ‘aspect’ of music is not important, my personal engage with the sonic environment is what matters.
You both collaborate with other artists; for example, Paul with Tarik Barri and Roly with Marcel Weber, among others. How do you choose the artists you collaborate with?
Roly: I was introduced to Marcel long time ago by CTM Festival. We were put together for a performance and we had such a great relationship that we collaborated on several projects afterwards. Paul, how did you meet Tarik?
Paul: Similarly. It was James Ginzburg who introduced me, but I think he actually met Tarik through CTM Festival too; I am not quite sure. When you make music, you're putting out a little beacon and it's not a coincidence that people who have similar ideas work together — yes, curators will find these links and put them together, but also they are also actively searching each other out. There is a sort of gravity that seems to pull people together. With Tarik this was basically what happened, which is rather exciting because we have a very similar approach towards things.
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In a festival like Atonal, which lasts five days, I guess you have the opportunity to meet a lot of professionals and make a lot of networking.
Roly: This is a great opportunity to meet people. I think this festival more than others is very good for that because there are many artists.
And do you know each other?
Paul: You know, you are nearly automatically friends just because you’re in the same place. It is similar to skaters: you go to a place and the fact that you’re both skating means you’re ‘friends’ already, meaning you can start talking about something. I feel this atmosphere here and it is great.
What is your relation with the audio-visual world? Which are your references in visual arts, cinema, or music videos?
Paul: There's a piece I saw in the Tate Modern years ago by sculptor Richard Serra. It is called Trip Hammer (1988) and consists of two pieces of thick metal, one over the other in balance. I remember walking into the place and the immediate feeling was the sense of threat. The system he constructed had an ominous presence; if anyone were to touch it, it would collapse. It's a dangerous structure – apparently, people have been injured by his work. In any case, I felt this piece had a sonic potential, this threatening sonic structure in complete stillness could have collapsed and could have released a very intense sound. Back in the studio, I thought about the way I could design a sound like this, but it is impossible. That idea is not cinematic, it's not like a story; it’s a presence, an atmosphere. That’s one of my artistic references. That force being withheld and never unleashed was there and you know it’s there, it felt more impactful than actually hearing the loud sound.
Roly: Nice.
Let’s talk about business. I personally think that the music industry should rethink its philosophy on distribution to cope with the Internet as the global dominant medium — in fact, electronic music is one of the most advanced in this subject. The industry must start adapting to it instead of prosecuting and banning. What is your opinion about the ways of consuming and distributing music nowadays?
Roly: Actually, if you compare it to what’s happening with the publishing houses, I think music has gone through but it hasn’t solved it – and it’s obviously still relevant. But the music industry was one of the first to be hurt by the technological changes. I believe it’s ahead of other industries even though there's no resolution yet.
Paul: There’s no conflict either. It’s just going to happen.
Roly: I entirely changed the way I perceive the value of music in the last ten years.
Paul: We have to! There is a moment when things get to a certain degree of intensity, and music was trying to free itself. It’s like asking water not to evaporate when it gets to a certain heat level. It is going to definitely turn into this other medium, change its form and interact with this new environment. People will hopefully hear our music without a referent point of the things we’re interested in and they’ll interpret what we do in a total different way, which wouldn’t have been possible some years ago.
Also as a musician, as an artist, what you might want is that creations arrive to as many people as possible. In electronic music – and experimental music especially –, I do not think anyone does a living from selling records (not even the most popular producers). I can’t finish the interview without talking about politics. We are living an extremely delicate moment. Do you think music, specifically instrumental electronic music, is politic? Can this genre send a political message?
Roly: I do. I think it’s really important but it’s not something that I do.
So how? Because we all agree that music produces a lot of emotions. Actually, you feel very touched with some sounds, in particular when you close your eyes. Personally, with very loud music I feel like shouting – as a kind of cathartic experience. But a political message… I don’t know, maybe if you use very literal sounds like gunshots or children crying for instance, but still it would be highly subjective.
Paul: Politics seems to bring music down to earth, which is a bit of a shame. Music itself is capable of transcending, whether it’s rock, electronic, acoustic or any kind. At the same time, I have no problem with political music; the passion and energy that can go into it can result in really great art. There’s actually amazing music that comes out of political motivation, but personally, my relationship to music is not political.
Roly: Moreover, the political situation in Europe or England or all across the world is very complex, constantly evolving. In the last five years, I’ve found politics really de-energizing, depressing and oppressive. As I see it, music is opting out and embracing escapism. When I listen to music I want to think about philosophy and space, the grounds we were talking before. Politics, especially in the United Kingdom, is getting worse and worse. I don't even want to think about that.
To finish, could you please tell us what do you normally listen to at home? Or could you tell us what are you listening to right now, in your phones or similar?
Paul: Classical music is what I’ve been listening for the past few years. Also, I’m working on a project for which I must catch up on my knowledge of classical music and search for ideas. I’m listening to music that I don’t immediately like – for example, I’m putting effort in understanding Thomas Adès’ music. There are some bits that I think are amazing but there are lots of things I do not understand. I am also reading about him.
Roly: I can’t listen to music when I’m super focused on finishing a project. In between projects, yes, I do listen to music. Before I started writing music many years ago, it was a joy in life. Often, when you find out too much about something, you discover the inner way it works and the magic is ruined. To me as well, it’s really important to listen to music after I am completely removed from the things I am doing; I really love listening to classical music, blues, metal and acoustic. Music that is as far as possible from what I do because it still has all of that magic.
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