Yuri Landman


Written by Chris Woolfrey
Photos and illustrations by Yuri Landman
31 Monday 31st October 2011

Over the last ten years Yuri Landman has established himself as a leading instrument maker, developing experimental custom instruments for the likes of Sonic Youth, HEALTH, Liam Finn, Liars, Blood Red Shoes, and Jad Fair of Half Japanese, as well as making his own music. Despite the weird, odd, scary and wonderful sounds he’s helped make, it turns out he’s big on pop music, punk and its unwritten yet inherent rules too…

For you building a new instrument is what brings about the creation of new sounds. How much of your work on that idea is based on a theory or an ideal?

To begin with I wanted to solve a practical question: the problems around unexpectedness in guitar preparation. I was focused on randomness – because that's what interests me about music unexpected sounds. I wanted to be able to have a certain amount of randomness but also wanted a certain control. That's the reason I started to build instruments: often with an unexpected range but within controlled situations.

In the twentieth century there was an incredible revolution of musical theory that bred so many different styles and sounds. Can that side of things continue using theory, or should the physical materials and instruments change?

In the twentieth century, in visual art, people started looking less at what the most beautiful thing was, and instead at what could challenge the borders of what art it is. That was the goal of Duchamp, Mondriaan, Barnett Newman, Rothko, and those kinds of artists. And in music, the same thing occurred. What John Cage is doing with four minutes of silence, and what Rhys Chatham does performing for 20 minutes at one tone – that challenges the borders of what's acceptable as music.

With the rise of Nirvana you became interested in their predecessors:  punk music, No Wave, and noise rock. How do you think the values of those movements have impacted on the way you work?

First of all, rule number one in punk and noise rock is “do it yourself”. It's a general rule in counter-cultural movements, because they're underground and there's no money, so they're eager to develop their own book of rules and truths; new aesthetic developments. That was key in punk music and so was the expressionistic element, the aggression of the music and the anger involved in it, as a youth movement, and as youth culture.

Those two things are important to me in my work, and in music: I want that aggressive music more than composed stuff. And although I'm influenced by, you know, Harry Partch and John Cage, I also think it's quite boring. It's good to read a book about, but maybe not to listen to.

One of Yuri's custom pieces.

So if you had to pick your biggest influences?

I think everybody can recognise the things I've made are directly influenced by Sonic Youth; they’re a predecessor to the kinds of sounds that I’m making, as well as to that DIY approach. They really combine rock with parts of modern classical music, particularly minimal music and noise – not noise rock, but “noise”, which is more the classical stuff raised by Russolo and Schaeffer – and fuse it with the darker side of life expressed in beatnik culture, the No Wave scene, and so on. The Velvet Underground, too. I'm very interested in art brut: things like Daniel Johnston, or Syd Barrett.

You're interested in the link between music and the natural world, the idea that music is bigger than just sound.

Yeah. My starting point was the manifesto How to Play Guitar by David Fair, because it says this: any sound is good sound. John Cage is saying the same thing, though maybe not so strictly, because he's willing to accept certain rules and not others. But it's quite a common theme in punk rock and noise rock that any sound can sound good: there are no rules. Or hardly any rules.

Now, during my work with guitar preparation, I noted that some sounds do sound better than others. What I discovered – and it really was an eye opener for me – is that there are some rules. You know, like the octave, and the perfect fifth, and the second octave, and the major third and the minor third...and they are quite strict rules, and they appear in every musical culture.

Some cultures might lack the harmonic seventh and some incorporate the harmonic seventh, and some take out something else – but they all come from a set of harmonics, a general set of tones. Everybody listens to harmonic keys, but different cultures choose to use certain elements of it and not others. So, you know, if you listen to the blues for twenty years you get to appreciate the three blue notes, and if you're used to always hearing stuff that's based on the harmonic seventh, you feel that more.

So – how can I put this? --while punk rock artists think there are no rules, there are rules, and they're in nature. There are traditions, but they're based on nature laws: you can't ignore those laws.

More of Yuri's work

Plenty of theorists have said that music needs to go beyond the sounds of the tonic, to make music something more than things that sound nice together, pleasant sounding notes. A lot of what you've built holds to that idea. So do you agree?

That's basically a punk rock aesthetic. I partly disagree. But that's the paradox: to make music challenging again, you have to try these new experiments. And that's great on an aesthetic level, but then at the end, it all comes down to pretty, harmonic music. You just have to fuck up the system once in a while, to make a challenge. That's why I'd like to take perfect pop music, and put in some tension, some randomness – to challenge. Then you have a good song.

Really, despite the fact you seem to be an experimentalist, you just love pop music?

Yeah, of course. But pop music with an angle. I like Melt-Banana, I like Sonic Youth. There has to be a certain amount of pollution, like there should be a certain amount of the Schönberg idea in there, and a certain amount of John Cage – but not John Cage all the time.


For more on Yuri’s work, check out his website.

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