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  • Apocalypse sound: Mary Ocher on music for the end times


Apocalypse sound: Mary Ocher on music for the end times

Technology and surveillance are at the heart of Berlin-based musician Mary Ocher new album, Approaching Singularity: Music for the End of Time

There is no artist quite like Mary Ocher. Her music is like an organism, evolving with each project, adapting to the world around it. With each new record comes a new concept, a new sound and a message about society, delivered in the form of a written essay that comes as an amended version with the record, or in full as a download. On her latest record, reassuringly titled Approaching Singularity: Music for the End of Time, the Berlin-based musician tackles our relationship with technology, exploring how it’s intertwined with authoritarianism and control, and delivers it as a sombre and poetic body of electronic music.

Born in Russia and raised in Israel, Ocher has always been critical of authoritarian rule throughout her work, judging the political roles of her home countries and relating them to the struggles she sees around her. In Approaching Singularity, Ocher explores the theme of technology, surveillance and control, one of the ways in which society will descend towards the singularity. Many futurists argue that technological singularity, the point in time when technology escapes the control of man, is inevitable. The new record also deals with ageing, gender, inequality and power struggles.

It’s a deep and conceptual album that manages to bind so many thoughts and feelings together through experimental synthesised music, in part inspired by the pioneering sounds of krautrock. Delving deeper into the new record, we asked Ocher how technology influenced her new album, and whether or not we really have any self-determinism left as a society.

Due to its unique place in the world, politically and culturally, it feels like Berlin is one of the very few places where you could record such an experimental album.

Should we fear change? It is a process, and we’re already in it.

It’s funny you mention that, because the album was written in lots of places, recorded in Italy and mixed in the UK. We travelled all over with these recordings, but perhaps we took a little bit of Berlin with us wherever we went. Berlin is an idea, and while there there’s much less of what it used to be known for – its acceptance and affordability – the idea lives on.

In your essay, you state that Germany itself is very authoritarian, an opinion built upon personal experiences. How would you describe Germany, or Berlin, as a home for creativity?

I can’t imagine living in any other German city. I certainly did try to imagine, and simply couldn’t. The city I moved to back in 2007 was utopian, in part due to its appeal to idealistic outsiders, many of whom are foreigners. It is much less utopian now, but its particular history connects to mine, and I feel comfortable being here.

Being Jewish, born in the USSR with a grandpa captured by the Nazis, the city’s dark history makes me feel at home, and having grown up in Israel, its guilt complex resonates with mine. Here, I can talk about anything without fear of censorship, or misunderstanding, while in most parts of the world that is certainly not the case.

Berlin’s large international community helps fuel creativity. It’s something you touch upon in your essay. Do you think places like Berlin can help slow down our inevitable journey towards the singularity?

The essay describes a few types of singularities. Perhaps a big part of the human desire to advance technologically and to transform from a biological form into something more eternal comes from a similar dark place that drives the human desire for endless wealth and power. But should we fear change? It is a process, and we’re already in it. We may not even notice that moment of irreversible change, but we certainly cannot know what’s on the other side. I’m not certain whether we should try to slow it down, but I am quite certain that we cannot stop it. We may as well work towards a better humanity, one a little more sensitive to injustice.

The album is more than just a critique of our society’s slide into annihilation, it’s almost a manifesto for dealing with it at the same time. What was the process when it came to bridging so many perspectives and agendas into one body of work?

I do realise that it’s extremely demanding, unlike previous essays. This one is nine pages long, and it is a lot to ask of people in this day and age, considering that many listeners may not be readers, and that readers may not be listeners. I do hope that it will be read, because the very short version that accompanies the LP and CD does not quite do it justice. It was a very slow writing process, followed by many edits. Like always, I collected notes from a few trusted individuals, and tried to learn how to make it better. I think I did the best I could.

There were two new stages I used as well: an AI grammar check – I think the final, or most recent version still has a few slips here and there – and an interesting stage of feeding the essay, bit by bit, to an AI, requesting it pick its favourite parts, and ask me questions if anything seemed unclear or unrelated. It mostly regurgitated my own words and spat them back, but it was a very interesting process.

Do you think it’s inevitable that AI will play a role in the creation of music?

I think the use of AI in everyday life and in every possible way is inevitable. We will increasingly be relying on it more and more. Having said that, I am an absolute Luddite. I use a flip phone, do not use MIDI [Musical Instrument Digital Interface], and prefer analogue to digital whenever possible. No AI was used in the creation of the music, but I do not rule it out, when and if it becomes a little bit less limited than what I’ve seen so far.

Being Jewish, born in the USSR with a grandpa captured by the Nazis, the city’s dark history makes me feel at home

Do you think there is a connection between you making a more electronic record and delving into the themes regarding technological singularity?

No. There’s been increasingly more synthesisers in my records since 2013. The themes of the album’s essay arose from the content and not its sound, which isn’t even particularly futuristic, as it’s rather old technology. And like you mentioned, the themes of the record and the essay also cover quite a bit more than that.

The artwork, presentation and style, almost make the record feel like it’s part of an interactive installation. How do you intend to present this record in a live setting?

Oh, it would be incredible to be able to have a more interactive, perhaps more technological experience. Perhaps it’s a little hypocritical, but I mainly use old-fashioned technology, keeping things mysterious and minimalist. There will be new elements used for the first time, and I’m very excited to see how it comes together.

Outside of your musical endeavours, where else can people find you?

Music is the main thing I am known for, and everything else is connected to it by extension. Every now and then there’s a screening in a more ‘fine arts’ context of an experimental short, video work or an installation. I love contemporary art and hate its institutions at the same time. Some of the worst experiences of exploitation I’ve witnessed occurred within the fine arts context.

And I absolutely detested the exhibition that was put on recently about recorded music at Hamburger Bahnhof [Broken Music Vol. 2]. It did the same thing that [contemporary artist] Matthew Barney did in one of his Cremasters [a series of artistic films that were displayed at galleries across the world, exploring the processes of creation]: it claims ownership of other forms of art, putting visual art on a pedestal, and all other arts or knowledge were forced to dance to its tune, be it music, film, literature, history, religion… it’s absolutely repulsive. Power dynamics and hierarchies within the art world are grotesque.

Finally, how much self-determinism do you think we actually have, and how far away do you think we are from reaching the singularity?

I think it might be best for the readers to look up the Approaching Singularity: Music for The End of Time essay online and read it there.

  • Approaching Singularity: Music for The End of Time is out on Nov 3