Emptyset stands at the vanguard of electronic music. With each release, they stretch boundaries and explore new methods of creating sounds with scientific precision. On their EP Skin, Emptyset (the duo of James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas) bring together techniques they developed through their 2017 LP Borders, exploring structural aspects of ritual music and non-Western composition and combine them with recent performance work examining microtonal vocalization and acoustic qualities of materials. This is the first time Emptyset has presented a body of work using entirely acoustic production methods.
The compositions of Skin are all focused on structure, texture, and rhythm captured through recordings of a custom string instrument, drums, and physical granular materials modulated in real-time, alongside tonal vocal elements.
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Last month Emptyset premiered a commissioned installation and performance at David Roberts Arts Foundation in London. The site-specific performance was entirely acoustic, using compositional aspects of micro-tonality, percussion and voice.
In their RA feature, the duo explained the importance of acoustic music and how challenging it can be: the idea of using voice as an instrument. We want to play with how that most direct human experience of music-making or sound-making can relate to what we’re doing. It’s both the continuation and a departure, and it’s exciting to us that there’s still actually a lot to explore, a lot to be fascinated by.
Besides finding new paths for the project to explore, the duo, in this latest feature, analyze the concept behind Emptyset stating that they’ve developed a composite of various strategies of architecture, design, history, music, materialist theory. It’s a form of collage we’ve formulated internally, within ten years of internal conversations. That’s created a kind of foundation by which we know the rule set. The process is employed within that, as a means, but to us, it never feels like it’s the actual output. It’s a tool that’s required to give voice to space, material, form, structure.”
The concept of space is further analyzed from the duo in this FACT interview, saying that: “The idea of space, for us, is more exciting in thinking about context and the physical structure and its sonic potential, as well as the kind of connotations and narratives invested in certain spaces, and playing with those kinds of boundaries.”
The duo has also created a mix for The Wire with the aim of connecting all the previous mentioned points, stating that “The mix brings together work from artists and musicians whose work have been an inspiration and have informed ideas around the recent album Borders, reflecting upon the interwoven histories of electronic and acoustic music, as well as the inherent ritual qualities of sound and performance.”
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Emptyset’s James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas have prepared an exclusive mix for Self-Titled’s “Needle Exchange” series. The mix contextualizes their recent album Borders on Thrill Jockey and the track list can be found here.
This mix features a variety of production methods—from the electronic to the acoustic to field recordings and vocalization—and reflects a broad range of practices that have connected the use of sound and rhythm with transcendent sonic potential and the ceremonial power of music.
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Emptyset composes within a complex set of self-imposed parameters and the results as evinced on Borders, their new LP out now on Thrill Jockey, are at once minimal and visceral. From the very first track one can hear the physicality the instruments have imbued in the sound’s texture. In tracks such as “Border” and “Speak”, Emptyset uses basic rhythmic structures drawn from an array of broad cultural practices, expressed neutrally and without overemphasis on the source. As Empytset’s Paul Purgas in an interview for The Quietus explains:
We were looking at certain non-Western musical settings and thinking about that structure of, quite literally, drums and strings. Within an Indian context that’d be like the tabla and the sitar, or you can go back far further in an anthropological sense. It was useful for us to think about that very reduced way of making music.
Focusing on shifting timbral changes over melody, Emptyset’s work is a true exploration of the relationship between rhythm, texture and space. The critical reception to Borders has been phenomenal:
Treblezine: What Emptyset does is perhaps more art than entertainment—they mold recorded sound into weaponry, sharpening the edges and wrapping them in muddied and bloodied armor. There are beats, and maybe on a very primitive level there are melodies, but the heart of what Emptyset does is manipulate sound itself. […] Emptyset evades easy categorization or consumption, their strength is in building percussive, buzzing elements into pieces of their own.
Tiny Mix Tapes: For a band that defines their sound through heavy constraints, Emptyset always manages to produce something exciting and new.
RA (3.6/5): Once it pulls you into its core, its dissonant sound becomes comforting, and then cathartic. In evoking confusion as to where man ends and machine begins, Borders offers a musical interpretation of a very modern dilemma.
AllMusic (4/5): The music is never less than tense and bracing, but it retains a hypnotic power. Completely dispensing with the conventions of dance music and embracing techniques more in tune with natural human rhythms, Emptyset have created one of their most unique works yet.
Pitchfork (7.4): Emptyset are in a class by themselves when it comes to excavating brutality out of silence.
Exclaim (8/10): Coming across as a viscera-churning blast of pure sub-bass propulsion, Borders demonstrates that while Emptyset’s methods may have morphed, their madness is still intact.
Taken as a whole Borders distills the duo’s inspirations to their essence and the resulting music is a raw as it is captivating, creating a perfect balance with a sound that creates a new definition of distortion. As stated by Emptyset’s James Ginzburg:
Distortion represents something that is in quite complicated relationship to the source sound, and depending on the circuit it has a life of its own and a complexity you couldn’t contrive. It’s a perfect tool for us. I guess there’s a poetic analogy between these relationships between order and chaos… and orderly chaos.
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London / Berlin by way of Bristol duo, James Ginzburg and Paul Purgas, established Emptyset as a sound art project in the wake of the UK’s dubstep explosion. Founding Subtext Recordings alongside Roly Porter and Paul Jebanasam, they charged themselves to work with the concrete nature of sine waves in physical space, releasing Demiurge and Medium in 2011 and 2012 thus garnering the attention of fellow structuralists raster-noton who released their debut LP Recur in 2013. Their live show which traveled around the world in the ensuing years presented a slow, stark version of techno with visuals from an analog television tube responding directly to the audio signal via magnetic coil on multiple screens resulting in an immediate visceral synergy together with the pounding sound.
For their second full length, Borders, out January 27, 2017 on Thrill Jockey, they have documented one-take performances utilizing their newly self-constructed string and percussive instruments which reproduce their signature sound completely live. The live presentation is bolstered by a site-specific, immersive audio-visual set-up in conversation with the architecture and audience and has so far been presented at Ruhrtriennale in Essen, DE and Unsound in Krakow, PL with many more dates to come. Get more familiar with this “exercise in sublime humility” over at Tinymixtapes and check the first track, “Speak”, below.
Now booking site-specific live A/V shows: brandon [at] lb-agency.net