biography | construction of instruments | noise | sound | composition | sculpture | timeline

catalog 'Urban Rituals, The Sound Artist Christof Schläger'
I. Construction of Instruments

The construction of individual, self-made instruments has its origin in the experimental music movement of the twentieth century. Perhaps the most famous builder of such instruments was the U.S. American, Harry Partch (1901-1974), who constructed whimsical, often quite large acoustic sound generators the tuning of which was based on microtonal scales that divide the octave into 43 unequal tones that are derived from the natural harmonic series. Partch used scales that allowed for more tones of smaller intervals than the standard Western tuning which uses twelve equal intervals to an octave. He used a quite different, microtonal harmony. This opening and exploration of new sound worlds inspired many musicians and artists to build their own instruments. Christof Schläger is one of them.

Schläger feels that classical instruments despite their present level of perfection resulting from several centuries of development have a limited sound capacity/range. "The piano is no longer sufficient for me," he says. As his like-minded colleagues he feels constricted by the standardization of the instrument and the tuning system it represents. With his self-constructed machines the artist wants to leave the foundation on which Western music is based and move toward an unknown terrain into an unstructured, unchartered sound space - anarchical in its original intention, without a beginning, without a history.

Experiences with sound inspired Christof Schläger to pursue this path. "In the end, I found the piano simply too limiting," he claims. "When I look at it now, Pythagoras is in the forefront of my mind, the harmony of sounds, their relationships, and so on. This contradicted causally a completely different experience, which I had found in my surroundings. This world was filled with machines, sounds, a universe of clamor, of noise, often threatening of course, but at the same time fascinating.

Christof Schläger originally studied process and constructional engineering and enjoyed some years of piano lessons. After deciding to discontinue his engineering studies to devote his time to his art, he began to make sound recordings in industrial facilities, coalmines, on canals, and on/under autobahn bridges. When he replayed these recordings he found himself dissatisfied by what he realized was the inevitable difference between the actual sounds he was hearing and the quality of the audio reproduction which lacked the immediacy of the experience of live sound and the essential mystery inherent in it. From that time he knew what he wanted to achieve, he wanted to create something that could be experienced immediately, directly, and spontaneously.

Schläger began altering the piano by inserting thumbtacks into the area of felt on the hammers that comes into contact with the strings; he further attached metal chains to the strings. Later he abandoned the "prepared piano" (John Cage) completely and created larger than man-sized air sculptures from inflatable hosepipe systems. In the process, he explored the acoustical aspects of these architectural sculptural objects. In 1984, the first sound machines materialized. Their acoustical emanations initially had no clear pitch. The instruments produced a whole universe of differing sounds, to which the typical environmental noises of the Ruhr region can be constantly traced. Later machines began to evolve which at least partially generated clear sound pitches, yet colored by the materials and the construction of the instruments.

Soundmachines: Quäker, Standzeit, Schellenbaum, Federine und Klapperrappel

For his sound machines Schläger uses component parts from other machines such as small motors or magnets of the type found in electric typewriters. He is always looking for such parts just as a violin builder looks for suitable wood. He places parts of various functions and derivation into new contexts and develops completely new machines. The record player motors used for Flatterbaum no longer serve as rotation mechanisms for the playing of phonograph records, but rather for the streaming of paper discs. Schläger chose these specific motors, because they are small and designed to produce a rotation velocity that lets the plastic or paper discs of Flatterbaum produce sound without destroying them. If the component parts do not fit and are therefore unable to function properly, he alters them in whatever way is necessary until they fit precisely.

In order to play these machines, Schläger initially used an industrial control system by Klöckner Möller, which is still in use for the regulation of waterworks, railways, and traffic lights. However, this method of programming proved to be cumbersome, he therefore decided to apply the data transfer protocol MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) which offered him much more convenient options. However, it is necessary to interpose a laptop with sequencers, compositional and notation programs between the two. With MIDI the programming of the operations of motors and magnetic pickups is enabled. Although the sound machines are then ready for use in performances and in installations, they are not considered completed, rather they are subject to an ongoing process of modification, a constant fine-tuning and adjustment of their sound characteristics. The construction of a machine is not a completed process, but a never-ending exploration of the best-possible form. On a pragmatic level Christof Schläger knows in advance the kinds of components he requires and he will search until he finds the precise part he is looking for; usually it will require some physical alteration to fit into the structure of his sound machine. On an artistic level, while Schläger has a sound in his imagination and which he strives for, he is not rigid in his intention. The sounds evolve and come into being in the interplay of imagination, the constant adjustment of the sound machines, and the listening experiences of the sounds produced.

The sound machines are the result of artistic creation, at the same time they are also technically produced objects. Compared to many everyday machines Schläger's machines are designed to be efficiently functional to the smallest detail. Some of their parts, particularly the electronics, can be hard to find and expensive to obtain. Nevertheless, they also have a significant esthetic quality. As art objects they show a close harmony between construction and function and as such, they can be understood as an allegory for a sensible/intelligent use of technology. "If you treat machines well, they treat you well," says Ralf Hütter, founding member of the electronic-music band Kraftwerk.