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Interview: Orphax & MAZE Ensemble’s transformative exploration of ambient and minimal sounds

Orphax & MAZE Ensemble’s upcoming performance at Rewire 2024 will mark the world premiere of their joint venture, redefining the frozen time concept inherent in Orphax’s music. The collaboration, rooted in a decade-long journey and mutual appreciation, transforms Orphax’s microtonal masterpiece, En De Stilstaande Tijd (2022), into an enriched performance with live acoustic musicians. The collaboration promises to be a jubilant and transformative exploration, blurring the boundaries between solo- and ensemble creativity in the realm of ambient and experimental music. 

For Orphax, this collaboration marks a significant shift from the solitary nature of being a composer or producer, allowing him to explore new realms as his music merges with the ensemble’s expertise in interpreting unconventional sounds. On the other hand, Anne La Berge shares her insights on the relationship between performer and music, emphasising the ensemble’s profound respect for the composer’s methods while infusing a special life into his work. 

Can you each talk through the early processes of collaboration that happened when you began working together?

ALB: I have worked with members of MAZE for the last 10 years on various releases. I started with Gareth Davis and Merzbow, Reinier van Houdt and Alvin Curran and then Gareth Davis, Dario Calderone, and others playing Elliott Sharp. After that there were two more releases with Dario and finally a recent MAZE release playing Annea Lockwood.

O: Even since before 10 years ago, we’ve kept an eye on one another, playing at the same concerts and festivals, and building a mutual appreciation for our initiatives, productions, and creative work. I thought Anne, Dario and Gareth and I would be an interesting match for performing my work, En de Stilstaande tijd.

Orphax, your music plays a lot with the idea of time stretching and becoming malleable. With that in mind, what role does nostalgia play in your music?

O: Most of my recent work is about perception of time and influencing how people perceive time. En de Stilstaande Tijd deals with time standing still in relation to sensing time-and-place as they were before, in the past. The nostalgia part relates how we think of the past with how we perceive the past. An example is that we often think that old times were better, but is this really case? Were things better? It’s a frame of mind. Nostalgic.

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Similarly, for MAZE Ensemble, your collaborative work with composers often involves revisiting their works, amending them, altering them, and forming new hybrid scores. What sense of responsibility do you feel towards the original works, and how does this affect what is performed?

ALB: Our repertoire includes music that was created and archived in somewhat non-conventional ways. Those scores could be text, graphics, a computer patch, an audio recording, or even a video. In order to bring these works back to the stage, we need to find a way to interpret them while staying as close as possible to the original idea of the composer or creator. Our interpretations of these works give the members of the ensemble quite some space for our individual voices, creativity, and performing styles, while all the time we always still sound like MAZE.

The performance that will happen at Rewire is based upon the exquisite Orphax release En De Stilstaande Tijd (2020), a microtonal wonder of bright humming drone. Can you both speak to some of the challenges and joys of adapting something so inherently minimal and slight for an expanded performance with an ensemble?

O: En De Stilstaande Tijd is a studio creation where I spent long hours complexly layering audio which in the end evolves through time and has a kind of sonic transparency. By adding live acoustic musicians, I’ve created a new environment for the piece to develop further. The almost naked sonic qualities of the acoustic instruments is different from processed electronic sounds. It’s exciting to have other people playing my music with me.

ALB: MAZE loves drones. This gives us a chance to dive into Sietse’s sonic universe and find ways to support his compositional methods and make a new work that grows out of an existing one. It makes so much sense considering who we are as an ensemble: creative interpreters or interpreters that create.

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Orphax, as a solo musician and composer, you are venturing into a new music exploration by collaborating with a small ensemble for the first time. Collaborations such as this bring a jubilant tint to what is often considered a solitary sort of role – that of “being a composer” or “being a producer.” Orphax, in which ways did working together with MAZE Ensemble bring new dimensions to your practice?

O: I’m looking at my music differently and learning new ways to reflect on my past work. I’m enjoying the role as a composer, where my ambition is to have musicians other than MAZE also play En De Stilstaande Tijd. This is new for me. Plus, working with MAZE like this on an existing work is giving me ideas for future compositions.

Working with others gives variety to the more solitary process of studio creation, and I like that.

And for MAZE, I can’t help but feel that there’s a sense of generosity or altruism in what you do with your collaborative projects. What kind of epiphytic learnings do you take from each of them in return?

ALB: We respect the aesthetic and compositional rigour of the works we play while, at the same time, we feel a responsibility to bring a special life to each work and still recognise the artistry of the composer’s voice.

We like the music we perform because the scores are unconventional, leave space for interpretation, and are conceptually and therefore artistically strong. MAZE never loses sight of its own identity or vision in what we do. We lean towards the extremes and gentle unpredictability.

Orphax & MAZE Ensemble, consisting of Anne La Berge, Dario Calderone, and Gareth Davis, perform on Sunday 7 April at Rewire 2024.