Mark Fell is a multidisciplinary sound artist and electronic musician currently based in Sheffield, England. Fell’s work in sound and media explores the intersections of club culture and academic computer music, and as such challenge the aesthetic and social boundaries of each. Fell’s recordings of electronic music have been released on the labels Mille Plateaux, Editions Mego, ALKU and Raster Noton, and his work as an installation artist has been presented in gallery and museum spaces in London (ICA and Whitechapel Gallery), New York City (Roulette, Southfirst Gallery, Artist Space), Europe and elsewhere internationally.

Avant.org presents a conversation between Fell and our contributor Robin Buckley. Buckley is a sound artist currently based in London, England. They first interviewed Fell while studying at London College of Communication in March 2016. The two initially met at Cafe Oto in London, where they discussed various aspects of Fell’s experience working in the sound industry less frequently covered in previous interviews, articles and artist talks. Topics include Fell’s contrasting artistic processes, musical ideologies, classism within music and academia and an affinity for the pop musician Taylor Swift. Below is an expanded version of their original conversation, edited for clarity.

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Robin Buckley: My first question is about your [studio] album Multistability (2010), which you have since performed live many, many times.1 2 How do you see the original studio recording and its relationship to the live realisations? Can you see another record coming out of the live performances?

Mark Fell: I made the record and there was a bunch of systems. Then the live version I think had a few things in it that weren’t on the record, and so after doing the live version for maybe a year or two, I kind of recorded some of the bits that weren’t on the CD and released that on Editions Mego under the name Periodic Orbits of a Dynamic System Related to a Knot (2011).3 I called it a live-ish album–sort of live, that’s how I described it. So, I’d already thought about how I could use the material that didn’t get onto the first release and make something of it [separately].

R: And were they more live than the original compositions? Why would Periodic Orbits… be considered a live record as opposed to Multistability which was composed? Do you see a distinction between these categories?

M: Well, remember I call it live-ish, so I’m deliberately trying to ask that question in the release itself. What makes it live? The difference was that the recordings [featured] on Periodic Orbits… were played a few times in a live context. I performed them in front of an audience and that sort of changes how you engage with those systems. [In contrast], Multistability had never been performed in front an audience, it was just me… I was doing real time interaction with the software, but it was [entirely] in the studio.

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Excerpt: Periodic Orbits of a Dynamic System Related to a Knot (2011). Courtesy eMEGO. Photo: Mark Fell performing at Sonic Acts (2012). Courtesy Rosa Menkman via Flicker.

R: Could you clarify what a system means to you?

M: In terms of system, I mean the logics and possibilities of the technologies or software that you’re are engaged with.

R: Have these systems changed a great deal after five years?

M: The system that I use now is exactly the same as it was before, it’s not changed at all. I made the record Multistability, [and then] made a live system, a live version, which used algorithms and some things that hadn’t been released on record. However, I remember when I first made it there were bits that I wasn’t very comfortable with doing in front of an audience… maybe they were not very energetic or were kind of low key. Or they were a bit formless and difficult to do live because there weren’t any obvious places to go with it. I’ve now found that those are the parts that I really enjoy … the other bits are just dead easy, “Oh yeah, I press this I do this,” but I let those parts happen for a lot longer now. It’s nice that I’ve had this system for four or five years and people still want me to do it, you become very familiar with parts of it, but there are always different combinations of parameters. Now I might do something that I never tried before and something new emerges. But, I’ve been thinking I might put a limit on the [project]… I’ve probably done it like sixty-five times or something, which is quite a lot of performances.

R: That’s like a world tour, times two…

M: Yeah, I might say I’ll do a limit of a hundred and then never do it again. I’ll just write a new version… I’ve been thinking about doing a Multistability Volume 2 or something, which [would be] sort of just a newer version of the first [album] but with different algorithms and probably quite different sounds.

R: I guess would that come about if [your label] Editions Mego asked, or if someone asked eventually…

M: Editions Mego are waiting for another solo record off me, but I’ve just been too busy doing all these [other things] - going around and earning money basically - and so it’s been difficult to find time. I mean, what happens is I tend to be not very busy in January. So for the past like three Januaries, I’ve said right I’m just going to stay at home and just spend January making a record. But what happens is that I just end up watching daytime TV and just doing nothing. But, yeah, I need to actually make a record.

My interests are also shifting away from entirely electronic stuff. I’ve started to work with the cellist Okkyung Lee quite a bit and doing things with Rhodri Davies and Laura Cannell, so I’m kind of getting an interest in acoustic sounds. I’m doing a residency at Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (ZKM) in Germany. I’m now working with an orchestra… not working with the orchestra as a whole, but with individual players. I get them to make sound and then I construct a composite, a sort of collage. There will be no spectral processing of the sound, but it’ll just be purely edited - no sound treatment. The composition process will be me editing together these bits into a complex whole. It’s just going to be a dense cloud of sound, not musical melodies, and it’ll just be very intense. I’m going to use their multi-speaker system to create an ambisonic composite piece, this will then be transcribed for orchestra.

Mark Fell, Diagramming the Listener at Summerhall (2016). Installation excerpt. Courtesy Mark Fell.

R: How do you approach multichannel pieces versus doing just stereo compositions, whether live or in the studio? Do you arrange speakers in a very specific way to add a kind of movement to the piece during live performance?

M: They are very different things. I’ve never successfully done a multichannel rhythmic piece, for example. Like all the multichannel pieces that I’ve done tend to be very linear, oscillators in specific points, and there’s never any movement around space. Sounds never pan [spatially so] they’re always in static positions. It tends to be very synthetic and layered. The multichannel pieces could either be performances or installations. A performance could be a sphere of speakers, but the audience are within [the environment]. I’ve done a performance piece in Berlin with the Swedish sound artist Carl Michael von Hausswolff. The collaborative piece, Seven Oscillations in Space (2015), had seven speakers and seven little synthesisers. We walked around the space manipulating these oscillations. So it was kind of again a very linear piece, but not a sphere of speakers. The speakers actually pointed to different directions in space.

R: How do you feel that [methodology] will translate to the ZKM residency? Their setup is very specific and I do not think you can move it around…

M: Yeah, it’s basically a hemisphere of speakers. I’ll just position individual bits of acoustic sound at a position on the surface of that sphere. I really can’t stand when sound moves around… I really don’t like it at all.

R: Helicopters? 4

M: Yeah. Any kind of movement of sound in space for me is just not acceptable. I don’t know why and I don’t know where it comes from, but it’s just like, no way am I ever going to do that… and I’ve realised as well, a lot of my stuff [will use an] oscillation that won’t move in space and it won’t change in frequency, so it’s just very static. The more I think about the way I work, and the more I think about it in terms of frequency structures and time based rhythmic structures. I’m doing a piece in Berlin – do you know John Chowning?5

R: Oh, you mentioned him at your talk at the Whitechapel Gallery with Georgina Born. 6

M: Yes. So, I met John a couple of years ago and we’ve been working together… he’s a professor at Stanford. He invented Frequency Modulation (FM) synthesis. I met him and said let’s make a piece together and and after a bit of persuasion, he was like “Yeah, let’s do it.” That’s going to be an ambisonic piece with static spectral structures placed on the surface of a sphere with other speakers in the middle that play rhythmic stuff.

R: Great, O.K. So what’s the total number of speakers then? Like sixteen or something?

M: Well, I don’t know, maybe more than that… I’m still in conversation with the venue about what the speaker setup will be. But, I don’t know if you came to a performance piece, Is It Raining In Z-Land (2015), that I did at Whitechapel Gallery? 7

R: The one last year, yes I went to that…

M: And that was like this kind of same thing so it was like a sphere of oscillations with rhythms in the middle and I also used some voices as well. So basically I kind of did that the day before the show, oh I’ve got this I’m just going to try something. It turned out alright, I think.

R: So apart from movement in multichannel works and “progs for powerbooks,” is there anything else that’s particularly grating you at the moment in terms of ideological or aesthetic positions? 8

M: For me so much of music has been about the things I don’t like, I don’t know why. When I was a kid at school, this in the mid-80s, it was the fact that I used a drum machine really pissed off a lot of people who thought it wasn’t real music, for example. So it was always about a distinction between what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable. So I was drawing a line in the sand and saying I’ll never cross this. Another example; a lot of people that I’m quite good friends with who are making music, make music that’s quite dirty sounding and use lots of processing or effects. I just don’t like those sounds, I like really clean, crisp sounds and, a lot of what I try to do is really just the basics of how different sounds fit together. Like when I first got, I borrowed a portastudio off a friend a long time ago, it was the first time I could actually make three sounds at the same time. And I realised when I put the third sound in that it is actually really difficult getting sounds to work together. So a lot of my stuff basically is two kinds of sounds… percussive sounds and pitched or oscillation type sounds.

Mark Fell, Diagramming the Listener at Summerhall (2016). Installation excerpt. Courtesy Mark Fell.

R: I think that general ethos is at work in a lot your pieces. I guess with my work, it’s very similar, it’s almost exploring the discomfort rather than exploring what does make you feel comfortable. And especially within underground or more radical forms of music where people pretend that they are doing something that is very anti-establishment in some way, messing with those ideas is very important to me. And you talk about drum machines and now they’ve completely turned around and become these super festishised pieces of gear that people will say, ‘“Oh, I’ve an 808, like this costs thousands on eBay and it’s really authentic because I sound like I’m from ’92,” and at the time no-one would have ever touched them.

M: The 808 was immediately a complete failure when it was released. Two drum machines were released in 1981: the LinnDrum and the 808. What’s interesting is that the 808 drum machine was from a Japanese manufacturer and used analogue synthesis and a step time pattern entry system. You had to enter the drums in on a the grid. The LinnDrum was an American company, used samples of real drums and you could tap the rhythm into it. So the LinnDrum sold itself on being more ‘real’ and also at the time there were groups like The Human League. The Human League started to release records using the LinnDrum, I think they were the first group to get in the charts using a LinnDrum and it stole the show basically, this LinnDrum became super successful. The kind of sounds it had were very sharp, the kick drum was very sharp clicky kick drum sound. And even in non-electronic music, even rock music for example, this drum sound was the way it was meant to be. And so the 808 was a complete economic disaster. I remember people were just dying to sell that stuff for next to nothing. I remember people saying to me “will you buy a TB-303 for thirty pounds?” and I’m like “I’m not paying 30 pounds for a fucking TB-303.”

R: It would have been an investment!

M: It was just a piece of crap that no-one wanted. But, what’s interesting about drum machines is they’re intended to be a copy of real drums, but they’re not just a copy. Each unit offers a different set of possibilities and a different version of what constitutes real drums and drumming. So, what the 808 had in its favour was that because the LinnDrum was samples, all you could do was pitch them up and down. The 808, however, offered parameters where you could change the quality of the sound in a different kind of way that you could on a LinnDrum. Also what you could do with the pattern entry, the step time buttons, meant that you could change these patterns in real time and and that, I would argue, contributed to the emergence of the musical vocabularies associated with techno music. So for me the fact that it is a copy and it offers this very skewed perspective on what a copy should be, actually is what enabled it to be a really important component in the evolution of a new musical vocabulary.

R: In the last five years or so we have also seen a resurgence of Roland making 808 clones that are widely derided as being not as good as the original, but do you think that somehow a similar process will occur?

M: I mean I think the appeal of those systems is that they are good to mess around on, you can have one on your coffee table and just spend the whole evening just tweaking around and so I wouldn’t say they’re not as good as the original. I don’t think they are going to be as revolutionary as the original because they’re just copying the kind of methodology that already existed. There’s not really been a kind of groundbreaking shift in drum machines, I think, since the LinnDrum and the 808. I always keep saying why doesn’t someone develop an algorithmic drum machine? Terre Thaemlitz - [who performs as] DJ Sprinkles - was in touch with Yamaha or Roland or someone and we were like look let’s develop an algorithmic drum machine, but they never went with it.

R: I don’t think you two would be able to pitch them a commercial success that is the algorithmic drum machine, but if it was Tiesto maybe?

M: Yeah, unfortunately.

R: How has your work with the feminist visual arts organization, Pavilion, which was the U.K.’s first women’s photography center, changed your relationship to paradigms such as feminism and gender [disparity] in the fields of electronic music and contemporary art? 9

M: Well, I’ve always kind of considered myself to be a feminist sympathiser. I wouldn’t describe myself as someone who was ever deliberately misogynistic. I wouldn’t be overtly sexist. But, at the same, [until recently] it never really was a problem for me that 99% of people on a festival lineup were men. I started doing the film To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (2015) with Luke [Fowler] and I met all these hardcore feminists. I ended up respecting these women for the positions that they took [on gender]. I was a young person in the 1980s, so I remember what it was not a nice place. The north of England, and England in general, was a very repressive, sexist, racist, homophobic place to be. It wasn’t a nice… it was brutal basically. So I developed a sense of respect for what these women had done [in photography and the visual arts]. And then it dawned on me that the massive kind of disparity between how many men and how many women were involved in electronic music was [also] a problem.

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Mark Fell and Luke Fowler, To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (2015) via Pavilion at The Modern Institute, Glasgow.

R: Especially within the avant-garde… it’s always kind of thrown away as something that’s irrelevant somehow.

M: So, it just occurred to me, “Why am I accepting it in electronic music?” I just became more aware and started to read situations from that perspective [and how gender disparity] is perpetuated. I am technically very competent, and for example I might come into a venue like Cafe Oto - actually Cafe Oto are really decent - but there’s always that moment when you meet the sound engineer and a sort of assessment about who knows the most about live audio… it’s a game that sound engineers play. They’ll be quite arrogant about their knowledge until they realize that you know far more than them and then suddenly they start to defer to you and treat you [with respect]. Why should there be that kind of bullshit goes on? If you’re a young woman - and I’ve seen this happen a few times - you really get treated so badly in those situations.

For example, I [once played] in Peckam and [a woman artist or female artist] was playing before me. She was sound checking and saying “It just doesn’t sound right, there’s something not right.” The sound engineer replied “It’s because you’re producing square waves.” I said to the sound engineer, “Did I just hear you say that this sound system isn’t working because this person is using square waves?” He’s like “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “Hmm, O.K., well hang on a minute,” and asked [the other artist] “Do you mind if we just do some tests? What frequency square wave shall we do here?” And the engineer was like, “Oh, I dunno like 100 Hz?” I produced a 100 Hz square wave and said “Well that sounds fine to me.” It’s this kind of bullshit that never gets challenged… and it’s all really, it’s all about some guy just demonstrating his kind of knowledge to some woman. There is all this bullshit about how technology is used. This was something that the women at Pavilion also told me about. One of them did a workshop on a beginners guide to photography. The first few lines were how to deal with the guy in the photographic shop and storeroom, who is a complete knobhead, basically.

R: Oh my god, that’s awful.

M: That’s interesting that part of how to take photographs was dealing with the guy in charge of the cameras. Do you know what I mean? I don’t know how to solve the problem, but I think you can at least acknowledge that there is a problem.

R: You have recently worked with non-musical arts institutions to produce installations and other spatial sound pieces, such as Self and Now (2013) at Baltic39, Is It Raining In Z-Land (2015) at the Whitechapel Gallery, Structural Solutions to the Question of Being (2016) in Sheffield, and recently Diagramming the Listener (2016) at Summerhall. 10 How do you begin those art projects and how do you go about submitting proposals?

M: I never submit proposals because every time I do it no-one ever wants it. Even if it’s a really small project, it’s like ‘oh no we don’t want it’. I mean I started making music and using sound synthesis in the mid-1980s and just did what I wanted to do and was totally unsuccessful for a long time and then around 1998 I got really serious about it. I’d finished university and had a few years on the dole… I had two kids, I’ve really got to be serious about this if I’m going to make my kids endure being completely skint. Also I was working all the time and earning no money, so it was the worst possible world for my kids. So I just thought I’ve got to get serious about it and made a few steps to try and push what I did, got a record out through a friend with some money, but really most of the kind of offers that come to me are just people just emailing me and saying “I’ve seen this, do you want to do this?” And I think the reason why I get work is just because I try to make good work basically. I try not to just do shit work.

R: It’s a bit of an exponential effect, because if you get more commissions, more people see your work and more people ask for work.

M: It’s nice to have regular work, it’s nice to be successful, but the real motivational factor is the quality of what I do. There’s no point for me being super successful if you’re not actually making the work that is asking the questions or dealing with themes that you want to deal with. Luckily I managed to get a bit of interest and build a sustainable career out of it, but I never know how long that’s going to last.

Mark Fell, Diagramming the Listener at Summerhall (2016). Installation excerpt. Courtesy Mark Fell.

R: You’ve done some work in academic settings. What’s your current relationship with academia?

M: I’m really, really hostile to academia. I did a degree in fine art (time-based media) and then towards the end of the 90s got a job working as a technician in an art school. And I really enjoyed it, it was a great course. It was at Hull School of Art and Design and I was in charge of the sound studios. But, I wasn’t an academic member of staff and I was always aware of this massive class divide between technicians who tended to be working class and academics who really tended to be from wealthy middle class backgrounds. And also how that kind of divide lead to an aesthetic divide as well between popular club musics and serious, art music and electroacoustic music (which I thought was totally shit). But then I started to get all these offers from big festivals and started to win some prizes and awards for what I was doing, while these academic staff were just doing crappy projects, basically. And yet there was still this status that was attached to it that, due to the very kind of traditions and vocabularies that I was dealing with that rendered my work, an object of anthropological, not aesthetic interest. So I became aware really early on that the academic institutions and universities were, what I call, knowledge mafias.

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For me, the primary function of classical music is to define you, the listener, as someone who’s relatively middle class. Classical music is a lifestyle choice and a kind of [bourgeois] role play, which is probably a terrible thing to suggest, but that is the way that it [seems to] function. When I worked at the University of York, I travelled to big festivals and all the academic staff were quite envious of what I was doing. Nonetheless, the only other person in the department who had the same accent as me was [on the cleaning staff]. So it’s like what the fuck is going on, you know? This is the twenty-first century and we still have this massive division of labour.

Mark Fell, Diagramming the Listener at Summerhall (2016). Installation excerpt. Courtesy Mark Fell.

R: For sure… before you have talked about ideas of value. People put value on whether is something good or bad and whether something is natural or unnatural. These kinds of judgments are often also connected with class.

M: Yeah. Within musical technology there’s a paper by Eric Lyon with some kind of roundtable discussion that was published in the Computer Music Journal in 2002, where they talked about the difference between popular music technologies and research level music technologies. 11 12 It’s so skewed in favour of their [academic] practices. They say utility technologies like mixing decks are used to create normative music and the open technologies that they use make experimental music (which might be the normative music of tomorrow). They set up this world of researchers and open music technologies that feed into everything else. So popular music today is grounded upon the experimental music of previous generations. It’s this really patronising model of how culture operates. It ties into this belief that the open technical systems that are used in a determined manner by creative thinkers… and as it’s through these that culture milestones happen, whereas in actual fact, if you look at how cultures evolve, it’s completely not like that.

R: You often cite popular musics in reference to your work, for example you placed Taylor Swift’s 1989 (2014) in your Boomkat chart of 2014. What drew you to that particular record? 13

M: I think that it’s a really good record! I don’t know anything about what’s trendy or not trendy really. I mean, I do to some extent now, but when I was listening to that I didn’t realize that Taylor Swift was super trendy. I have a daughter [and] at that time, she’ll have been about sixteen. And I said “This record’s really good,” and she was like “I can’t believe you’re listening to Taylor Swift!” She told all her friends.

R: But did she like 1989?

M: Not as much as me. She thought it was slightly crass to be into Taylor Swift, but I really enjoyed listening to the record. It was as good as anything else I’d heard that year. And also from a technical production point of view, [if] you listen to how that record is constructed, the production standards are insanely high… much, much better than anything from the electroacoustic world that year. It’s really easy to put weird sounds together and make a weird record. It’s really difficult to make something that sounds like Taylor Swift. You have a go at making a record that sounds like Taylor Swift! I’ve tried and failed miserably, several times.

R: Really? That sounds like a really interesting project. With your own music or with other musicians?

M: I mean, I have tried to make things that sound very commercial… just at home trying combinations of sounds. Actually of what I do, the production techniques try to sound quite, well, if you listen to the combinations in Multistability, they’re trying to sound quite normal. The structures are weird, [but] with normal production techniques.

R: How familiar you are with like sample packs? Because that’s a really easy way to just work these kinds of sounds, which are already really well mastered and engineered, and you can just play around with them…

M: But even just recombining them they do sound a bit different. Like I think it’s something to do with the mastering process and the compression and things… I don’t know. But, yeah, maybe I should just download some.


Cover image: Mark Fell and Luke Fowler, To the Editor of Amateur Photographer (2015) via Pavilion at The Modern Institute, Glasgow.

  1. Fell, Mark. Multistability. Chemnitz: Raster-Noton, 2010. CD.

  2. Fell, Mark. “Multistabilitylive”. Markfell.com. N.p., 2016. Web. 2 Sept. 2016.

  3. Fell, Mark. Periodic Orbits Of A Dynamic System Related To A Knot. Vienna: Editions Mego, 2011. Vinyl.

  4. Jimenez de Cisneros, Roc. C&R Interviews Roc Jimenez De Cisneros (EVOL)_March 2015. 2015. Internet.

  5. Chowning, John. “The Synthesis Of Complex Audio Spectra By Means Of Frequency Modulation”.Journal of the Audio Engineering Society 21.7 (1973): 526–534. Print.

  6. Fell, Mark, Georgina Born, and Jan Hendrickse. “Music And Computers: Georgina Born & Mark Fell”. 2016. Lecture.

  7. Fell, Mark. “Is It Raining In Z-Land”. 2015. Presentation. http://www.whitechapelgallery.org/events/mark-fell/

  8. Barrow, Dan. “Sonic Reducer”. The Wire 2015: n. 377. pg. 28. Print.

  9. To The Editor Of Amateur Photographer. Pavilion, Leeds; The Modern Institute, Glasgow: Mark Fell & Luke Fowler, 2016. Film.

  10. Fell, Mark. This Is Structural Solutions To The Question Of Being. Sheffield: Art Sheffield 2016, 2016. Print.

  11. Lyon, Eric. “Dartmouth Symposium On The Future Of Computer Music Software: A Panel Discussion”. Computer Music Journal 26.4 (2002): 13-30. Web. http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/014892602320991347

  12. Fell, Mark. “Dawn Of Man”. Markfell.com. N.p., 2015. Web. 4 July 2016.

  13. Swift, Taylor. 1989. Nashville: Big Machine Records, 2014. CD.