DJ, producer, minimalist sound explorer: Phillip Sollmann re-maps the dimension of sound and forces us to an intense encounter with ourselves – whether on the dance floor or between the organ pipes exploding into the room.
On the tennis court, Phillip Sollmann reflects on the topic of solitude. ‘Rarely do I experience such a degree of solitude as when I am DJing or playing a tennis match. I am on stage in front of 1,000 people and yet completely on my own. I can't talk to anyone because it's so noisy, I am completely on my own with my DJ set. And with tennis, it's a case of one on one. That's where I come from, from that mindset: I do everything on my own.’
Then he laughs about the comparison. It's November and we are having beetroot gnocchi at a café in Berlin, close to his studio in an industrial compound located in the former working-class district Wedding. This is where he stores all those pipes which have been part of his artistic process for the past five years or so. This is also where he spent most of his time during the lockdowns. For Sollmann, who is known as DJ and Berghain resident by the name of Efdemin, spinning the turntables was hardly possible during the past 18 months, as has been the case for most DJs. Solitude, on the other hand, was more present than ever.
Therefore, he is even more happy about his 'Modular Organ System' project which he will install 2023 together with his partner Konrad Sprenger in the unique building called “glass-pyramid” designed by Heinz Mack in Monheim am Rhein this summer. Especially since he does not work on his own there: ‘The organ project is taking on increasingly collectivist, process-like forms. More and more people become part of the artistic team. Right now it's growing nicely and has something mushroom-like about it. A bit like a mycelium, with new branches constantly emerging from it.’
The installation really looks somewhat mushroom-like. Sollmann tries to explain the idea with the help of a video on his mobile: 'It's sort of like an organ that exploded into the room.’ Tubes run from a central pneumatic machine to the organ pipes of various sizes, which are scattered all over the room, placed vertically or horizontally, or suspended from the ceiling. Some seem to rise up in a frozen dance movement, others have dangling funnel-shaped amplifiers made of ceramic or glass fibre, transforming the shiny copper organ pipes into abstract, sculptural objects.
Materiality is a major topic for Sollmann. Creating something new from existing material through re-combination and re-contextualization is a principle that runs through all of Sollmann's forms of artistic expression – whether he works with records, tapes, samples, or mechanical instruments. Or indeed with organ pipes made of fibreglass, copper, or carbon. 'I'm very much interested in the shape, that sculptural quality. It's all shaped by hand,’ he explains. The Portuguese organ builders, who produced most of these pipes, almost envy Sollmann and Sprenger for their radical approach to the choice of materials. 'It has to be 30-year dipped oak, completely acid-free, so that the zinc alloy does not corrode after 150 years', Sollmann says, imitating classical organ builders. 'And there we are, trying out something with a gas mask and fibreglass reinforced plastic.' Sollmann can't help but grin. Then he looks over his shoulder and points to the wood stove behind him: 'It could also be used as bellows and attach some horns to it'. He seems to be permanently tinkering in his mind.
He even works on the sound itself like a sculptor works on a sculptural object. Detached from their register context, the individual notes of the organ can be experienced through the visitor’s movement within the room. By working with pure tuning, i.e. the tonal tuning of the pipes in full-numbered ratios to one another, the overtones become audible as a structure behind the sound, according to Sollmann. 'We lift the curtains and reveal the complex structure behind it. Just as the organ is uncovered, we also expose the tonal spectrum. The tones’ composition becomes tangible.’
The ‘Modular Organ System’ is the ultimate deconstruction. Instead of talking about an instrument, Sollmann therefore refers to it as a 'modular sound-generating machine'. Modular in several respects: In regard to its construction with individual components. In regard to the collective of visual artists who join the process periodically and continue to develop the installation. In regard to its mobility which allows it to be set up in different places. 'Organs are usually locked up in churches. But we have an organ that can travel.' This automatically evokes associations with organ virtuoso and performer Cameron Carpenter and his 'International Touring Organ'. ‘That's no organ! That's a computer,’ Sollmann exclaims, amused by this association. Then he talks himself into a rage about Carpenter's deliberate display of virtuosity: ‘I completely reject virtuosity. I have never been interested in that. A computer can simply play much faster than any human being, that's really absolutely boring!'
The whole concept of the acclaimed performer is profoundly repulsive for Phillip Sollmann. And this despite the fact that he is an acclaimed performer himself: However, you won't find any poser photos with record cases next to the monochrome black-clad queue in front of the world-famous techno club where he is a resident on his Instagram channel. Instead, he posts a selfie from the bathtub after his first post-lockdown gig at Berghain in October 2021, with a caption of how nervous he was before the gig. ‘I've done this so many times. But I really couldn't sleep before this gig! And then it was just great,’ he says with a laugh. 'But I was actually excited all week long just like the very first time.'
Phillip Sollmann clearly remembers his very first time at Berghain: It was in 2005 and DJ Rolando from the Detroit collective Underground Resistance was spinning. Sollmann was fascinated. 'The equipment, the place!' But it was also a completely different Berghain compared to nowadays. ‘Much more of a gay hang-out and still more of a 90s clubbing scene. Today you encounter the entire S&M fetish nude queer divers scene in there. A totally different pace and movement. It's a great social mix bubbling in that place.'
Sollmann didn't last long in the club back then – and he still feels that way today. He feels, it was ‘too intense’. Nevertheless, he was inspired. He took the S-Bahn home, sat down in his bedroom studio and wrote ‘Acid Bells’. Today, this track with its reduced groove is a classic: 'It took me exactly ten minutes. I came out of the Berghain and was totally full of this music. I made a 'zig zag' a couple of times.' He waves his index finger in the air as if on an imaginary drum machine. ‘And then I had this line, and the piece was finished. I usually work on a piece for months. And this one was like: Tada! Unfortunately, this never just happened like that again.’
It was then that he became famous as Efdemin. Born in Kassel, Sollmann made his home in Hamburg, came into contact with the techno scene in the 90s. He was fascinated by the unpretentiousness of the proclaimed ‘faceless techno’. ‘In contrast to rock music, I found it extremely pleasant with how little attention and notion of unimportance Richie Hawtin played back his music in some corner at the Rote Flora in Hamburg.‘ Sollmann started DJing himself and moved to Vienna to study computer music and conceptual music. He was intrigued by experimental sound exploration. But that memorable first night at Berghain was to have a lasting impact on his musical path over the years to come. ‘I handed a mixtape to a friend, and he passed it on to the boss of Berghain. And then he called me and asked: ‘Do you want to DJ this weekend? And I felt like: ‘Oh shit!’ And that was the start of it all. One thing led to another. I hadn't planned to become an international DJ at all. It simply just happened.’
Sollmann is living the improbable DJ dream without ever having dreamt of it. For a long time he was a stranger to the excessive party scene, searching for his place between the experimental and the functional, between crowd-pleasing and sonic irritation. In 2019, these worlds finally seem to unite in harmony. With his conceptual 'New Atlantis', Sollmann's first album on the Berghain label Ostgut Ton, his two artist aliases came closer to one another than ever before. Psychedelic drones and kaleidoscopic techno meet mechanical instruments like dulcimers or wooden percussion.
‘As someone who has been active in club contexts and amplified music for over 20 years, who owns a lot of records and loves recorded archival music, I increasingly felt a strong need for a direct experience of sound. This sound produced mechanically by air vibration, is very moving every single time.' On the 2020 follow-up album 'Monophonie' which he composed as Phillip Sollmann for the Ensemble Musikfabrik, everything revolves around the microtonal instruments of avant-garde composer and inventor Harry Partch.
In Monheim, he will play an ambient set, not as Efdemin, but under his real name. At the time of our interview, Sollmann did not want to be overly specific about how this developed so far. His work is always in a state of flux. This is also a theme he uses as a foundation for content: ‘I will deal with dysfunctional music on the topics water, river, Rhine and flow in general. In a nutshell, it will either be a DJ set or an amalgam of electro-acoustic live performance with a hurdy-gurdy as well as records,' according to Phillip Sollmann.
He will also perform as a trio with Konrad Sprenger and Australian multi-instrumentalist Oren Ambarchi, who has worked with the likes of Fennesz, Sunn O))) and Charlemagne Palestine. Sollmann describes the project as a 'krautrock improv Bband'. Post-techno meets psychedelic distorted guitar riffs and polyrhythmic grooves. In 2018, the trio released their first EP on A-Ton, the experimental sub-label by Berghain label Ostgut Ton. During the lockdown, the live session in the Berghain venue was Sollmann’s only livestream. But whether it’ krautrock, hurdy-gurdy, or techno banger, Sollmann's underlying ideas remain the same: minimalism, repetition, the exhaustion of time and space dimensions as well as sound. This is also true for his 'Modular Organ System'.
‘It's about the pure sound. I wouldn't even say that what Konrad Sprenger and I do with the 'Modular Organ System' constitutes as music. It has very little in common with music. Because music always has a direction, a narrative, a movement, a development. We don't have any of that.' Sollmann and Sprenger radically push statics as a principle to the extreme: continuous drones dissolve temporality. Since visitors decide themselves how long they remain in the installation, they themselves become the timeline and an integral part of the installation. ‘As each individual moves through it, the spectrum of overtones changes in relation to each other. And you can go back and forth between the individual tones and mix it up. By moving along, you can perceive this richness that was previously hidden. You don't need a melody anymore.’
Sollmann is more interested in microtonal shifts, in acoustic glitches. ‘When nothing happens for an hour and then suddenly something moves, that's pretty striking.’ Irritations on the micro level, distortion of perception are what fascinates Sollmann. And positions it, as it were, in the tradition of minimal art, where intense static states suddenly trigger an almost automatic process in the brain as well. ‘It's like looking at a monochrome color for a long time in a given space. Eventually your eye starts to picture something. Because it simply needs to see something.’ The experience of listening to repetitive music for hours and thereby entering a trance-like state is yet another parallel to the club. Sollmann does not want his work to be perceived as meditation or even a spiritual experience. Even if he does not rule out the possibility of people experiencing transcendent moments while experiencing the installation.
What he likes most about the organ installation is that it allows him to engage with a place for longer than just the duration of a DJ set. ‘I make the place my own, also on a social level. The people who run, manage, or organize the space. Those are elements I would not have if I were a 'DJ celebrity' – well I was never that famous – and get flown in, picked up, go on stage, back to the hotel and fly out again. This is by no means the same as 'getting to know the place'. Here, I literally enter into a dialogue with the space around me. While other artists pre-plan the construction by simulating it on their computers and then send their assistants to the performance venue, Phillip Sollmann considers the intensive inspection and encounter with the installation location over several days to be a compulsory part of his artistic process.
A dialogue with the space must also develop between the visitors and the installation. They have to experience the 'Modular Organ System'. The video he initially used to try and explain to me how the installation works can therefore by no means depict the three-dimensionality, this complex changing vibe in the installation space. ‘That is definitely also a turndown,’ Sollmann is pleased to say. ‘It looks totally great, Instagram-ready. But the actual, sonic sound experience cannot be digitalised or transported anywhere. It doesn't work because the complex sound experience created by movement can only be an individual experience. And this cannot be captured. This gives it an exclusive edge, which is also exclusivist in a positive way, because it facilitates an intensity that is not possible otherwise.' The fleeting moment becomes the primary objective, absolute presence becomes the goal. No Photos on the Dance floor! Instead, Phillip Sollmann's work always forces the ultimate self-awareness. Because, as we all know, the most beautiful solitude is the one you share at a given time together with others and surrounded by sound.