I desire to hear the unexpected in ways that excite me: An Interview with Jeff Düngfelder a.k.a. Ümlaut

In recent years, the name Ümlaut has become increasingly prominent on the widely ramified map of experimental and ambient electronic music. Behind the name is the Chicago-born composer and sound artist Jeff Düngfelder, now, after some years in California, based in the north-east of the USA, whose roots lie in visual arts, design and sound design and who, after several years in areas of applied creativity, can now concentrate on his own artistic visions, because perseverance sometimes pays off. These ideas and visions give rise to albums of playful, predominantly digitally produced subtlety – in addition to moving and still images, which represent a completely unique but by no means isolated pillar in his work – where you always have the feeling of accompanying an explorer on his voyages of discovery. The open-ended curiosity, the excitement about the result of a musical search, is one of the essential programmatic principles in Düngfelder’s work, in which silence always forms the framework, the potentiality from which very different things can emerge. We talked with the artist about all this, about the role of memory in his music, about his collaborations and much more in the following interview.

German Version

Over the past decade you have produced a lot of music mainly under the artist name Ümlaut, then you also create images and films. Can you tell us something about your beginnings? Did you come to your artistic work through formal training or were there other types of inspiration?

I graduated art school years ago, with a degree in photography and illustration. But the reality of the working world made me realize how difficult it was to get a paying job within the creative areas I was interested in. Then I discovered graphic design. That was a field where I could actually make a living and, for the most part, enjoy the work. It paid the bills. As a backdrop to all that, my real inspiration was always music and album cover art. Like most artists, I wanted make art that had meaning for myself, not just for the commercial world. So I worked on my personal endeavors after my day job and on weekends. Fortunately, I’m now in a position to focus on my musical and visual projects full time.

Were there some specific influences or a community that were particularly formative for you?

Electronic and experimental music has had the biggest impact on me over the years. Some of the artists I follow, and which immediately come to mind, include: Brian Eno, Hans-Joachim Roedelius, Carsten Nicolai, Geir Jenssen, Bill Nelson, Ryuichi Sakamoto. Specific record labels include: 12K, Audiobulb, City Centre Offices, EMIT, Expanding Records, LINE, Morr, Raster-Noton, Touch. But, in reality, there are too many artists to name this space. Other influences for me are Nature, and what the Japanese call Forest Bathing, abstract painting, inner reflection and meditation, and a heightened awareness and openness to the world around me.

01 Field of vision from Jeff Dungfelder on Vimeo.

Do you regard your visual and your sound works as a unity, or do they each stand for different things you like to express?

For me, sound and vision have become one. They intertwine and highly influence each other. Specific examples would be my two albums, MUSIQUE DE FILM and MUSIQUE DE FILM II. For both these albums, I first created short films without sound. After that I composed the music. During the past several years I worked a lot with silence and created silent films. These silent visuals help me to reveal/discover the relationship between the silence and music. Which is why I often regard my music as memory recordings. I let the silence reveal the music to me through memory. When I start a visual or musical project, I enter the space open-mindedly. There is no preconceived idea or structure. Instead, I am an explorer seeing what I can find. This process is in communion with my interest in abstract painting. Seeking to reveal what is inside and not outside oneself.

Just recently you produced an album, or in the words of Audiobulb, a tone poem named “Abandoned Spaces” with your fellow sound artist Michel Mazza aka OdNu. The result was more reminiscent of the work of a wellrehearsed band, which is surprising since you don’t seem to have known each other for that long. How was the idea of the album born and how was your way of working?

It was very informal. We had been chatting back and forth for about a year regarding the possibility of working together. I believe we both admired and respected one another’s music and tastes, and wondered what might come of a collaboration. So we decided to exchange some recordings back and forth to see what happened. It was a very organic process, with no talk about achieving anything. It sort of came together naturally. Pretty magical actually. In a way the music took on a life on its own. I think we were tuned into each other, which was why the compositions just flowed. Before we knew it, we had enough tracks for an album.

The album is about abandoned spaces, places and scenes. What fascinated you about the subject, and are there certain forms of abandonment that inspired you to create the work?

The title Abandoned Spaces actually came from some of Michel’s recordings. We were both drawn to the concept. I think it was a good definition of what was happening in the music as it began to reveal itself. As I said above, it felt so natural. Ideas and relationships with sounds that just magically fit together. Everything complimented everything else. A very unique thing was happening. Nor until after the music was completed did we actually discuss our mutual attraction for abandoned places.

Do you think that there is or could be an idea of abandonment that differs from the desolate connotation of the term in our culture? I also ask because I find the music on the album very warm and alive, as if it fills the abandoned spaces with the presence of something again…

Well, from my point of view, these abandoned spaces, places and sceneries are full of life, full of energy. Energy waiting to be discovered. Nothing is really empty. When exploring silence and stillness it’s possible to go deeper, to go beyond the visual (the desolate connotation of the term as you mentioned) and let the creativity reveal itself. Personally, I empty myself as much as possible of my thoughts and preconceptions and let things happen. All of this is an act of discovery. In my visual art I’ve always been drawn to empty scenes. I lived in California for most of my life and fell in love with wide open dessert spaces. Abandoned buildings and spaces were like a magnet to me. Things that are very warm and alive, as you described the music.

Some of the passages on the album have a slightly jazzy colouring. Did that emerge from the atmosphere that was created, or did you already have such a style in mind?

Working with the attitude of “let’s see what happens,” always amazes me. There was no style in mind at all. Just an openness to exploration. Only during these past few years have I gotten to the point where I totally trust my instincts. To me, making visual and sound art is a intuitive experiment. Because I never know where it is going, I’m pleasantly surprised at what develops. That being said, I do like jazz. In my group Intelligent Life, we explore electronic sounds with jazz and downtempo elements. So the jazzy colouring you’ve mention is in the back of my mind somewhere.

To what extent would you say the instrumental equipment is a co-originator of the structures and sounds? Do you experience the work with sound sources as kind of a dialogue?

All along I’ve been interested in the juxtaposition of sounds, of exploring what happens when you combine the unexpected. Before my move from California to New York, I sold all of my keyboards and rhythm machines and focused on exploring a purely digital method in the computer using sound samples. I think the combination of software, audio samples and field recordings does create its own dialogue in this digital atmosphere. But then I expand upon that further by manipulating these structures and sounds. I manipulate everything: stretching, bending, chopping, distorting, processing, just to see what happens. Then I juxtapose and weave these elements together in this cut and paste environment. So yes, I am having a conversation with these sounds in my work.

Your new solo album “Half the Speed of Light” is at a large scale an album about memory and the processes of remembering with all their strange logics, time structures and unpredictabilities. In my impression you depicted memories as sort of an archive which is hard to deal with and yet very worthwhile to use. What is it that fascinates you in these processes?

I feel everything is connected. It’s almost as if the music has a way of pulling many various elements from a sort of collective memory. And, yes, in my music and visual work, I have a huge archive to pull from. And often this pulling or selecting is totally random, but I have trust in the process. For instance in my recent album “Everything in its own place,” I set up a random system of chance in the selection of sounds for the entire album. The album has twelve tracks. To begin with I created twelve folders and into each I added fifty to one hundred samples. Like in a game, I created certain rules – such as, I only used the sounds in that individual folder for that individual track. Then I imported those sounds into Logic Pro and, amazingly, after a lot of experimentation, a song came to life. I have no conception of what I want or like until I actually hear it. So, again, there is no preconceived concept, just exploration.

In a way, memory processes could also be understood as very tragic and painful events in which a lot of precious things are lost and a battle against forgetting takes place, which you ultimately have to lose at some point. In your music, however, the labyrinths of remembering and forgetting sometimes come across as very playful. Do you see it similarly, and if so, is the serenity and acceptance in dealing with memories also the result of a personal development?

Yes, my music is very playful. I am having fun. We allstruggle with our own personal issues and yet personal development is ongoing. I don’t think it is necessarily about forgetting. Perhaps, it’s more about acceptance. I think that once you accept the way things are, the reality of things, life becomes so much easier and even joyful. And I find extreme joy in music and art. This quote by Chien-chih Seng-ts’an, Third Zen Patriarch [d. 606 AD] is one I like: The Way is perfect like vast space where nothing is lacking and nothing is in excess. Indeed, it is due to our choosing to accept or reject that we do not see the true nature of things. Be serene in the oneness of things and such erroneous views will disappear by themselves.

One thing that I really enjoy in many of your works is that one almost never can guess how the narrative of a composition will go on and which directions it will take, but at the same time it’s never harsh and irritating. Do you deliberately search for such a goal, or does it rather happen due to the way you perceive the world?

Breathing from Jeff Dungfelder on Vimeo.

There are many harsh sounding music works out there that I respect, but they’re not something I would go back to for pleasure. Ultimately I make the kind of music that I want to hear. I desire to hear the unexpected in ways that excite me. I mentioned Hans-Joachim Roedelius before, because he is an example that I strive towards in creating unexpected beauty. Over the years I have been lucky to discover that doing what you really love, just for yourself, is what matters. Listeners might enjoy and relate to it because it involves real sharing, the sharing of oneself.

Yet “Half the Speed of Light” is about the processes of remembering, it also tells about the journeys across the globe you have taken over the years. This reminds us that you also have an album about “Vasco da Gama”, the Portuguese sailor and explorer of the 15th and 16th centuries. Is traveling and discovering new places a passion of yours, independent from your art and music?

It is, for sure. I love traveling and discovering new places off the beaten path. I think all my experiences, particularly exploring the vastness of the southwestern United States, have greatly enriched my creative life and is in sympathy with the openness and emptiness mentioned here earlier. My first album “Vasco da Gama” was my first step in envisioning a richly layered experience of reflection and discovery.

How do you practice the discovering new things (which doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to places, but can also include all kinds of ideas)? Do you tend to let things push you, or are there also movements that are very purposeful?

Mostly through reading and listening to lots of new music. My radio show Listening Pearls on CAMP Radio gives me the opportunity to listen and hear what’s new and pass that along to my listeners through the unique 2 hour mix I create. This is a project I really enjoy. For years I’ve been exploring new sounds non-stop. Platforms like FaceBook and Instagram provide an incredible connection to great artists and their music, a never-ending source of inspiration. I visit art museums and galleries as often as possible. Conceptual modern art has a way of opening up your mind to new ways of perceiving the world. Recent visits to MASS MoCA, Dia Beacon and Magazzino Italian Art Foundation have been very fulfilling.

You probably moved from New York City to rural Connecticut several years ago. We can well imagine that the new environment affects your creativity in very different ways. Are you very interested in the stimuli of your environment and are there many other things that inspire you now?

I loved living in New York City for the 13 years I was there, but something happened during the pandemic. I began longing to be closer to nature. During that abnormal time you couldn’t do anything or go anywhere on impulse or otherwise. We took many drives out of the city seeking the peacefulness of nature. After lockdown we knew it was time to move. I’ve been in Connecticut now for 2 1/2 years. At times, I do miss the energy of NYC. But communing with nature on a regular basis has provided a whole new realm of inspiration. It has also provided studio space to work in. In NYC I worked in a foyer.

Does the change of location also create a distance – in whatever way – from music communities? Or does it play a subordinate role due to digital communication?

I am finding out that having a large, quiet studio space and more time to work outweighs the need for physical proximity to a music community. Lots of live music is happening one hour north or one hour south of us, so not that far away. And NYC is a three hour drive away. I also love the online music community on Instagram. So many great friendships have developed there.

In various of your releases, especially in “Same But Different”, one encounters allusions to Buddhist teachings, especially from the Mahayana tradition. Do these teachings (and practices based on them) play an important role in your life and work?

I consider myself to be a spiritual, philosophical, but not necessarily, religious person. I have studied Yogic, Buddhist and Zen teachings for a long time, but I don’t follow any one, specifically. I try to implement meaningful elements from all of these disciplines and strive to be a better person. So you could say they play an important role in my life and aid me in my creativity and exploration of emptiness. Meditation is a big help. I find a calm empty state is the best way to let one’s creativity surface out of the silence.

Are there any new projects that you have already started or planned that you would like to tell us about?

Yes. I have a new Intelligent Life album coming out soon called “Analogies”. The music is completed and I’m just finishing up some marketing materials. I am very excited about this album. It has a new refined energy about it. As usual, I’m on electronics, Mike Brown is on contrabass and Joshua Trinidad is on trumpet. In late summer I have a new Ümlaut release coming out on Audiobulb Records, which I am also excited to share with everybody. More on that later. This summer I will start recording a new OdNu + Ümlaut album with Michel Mazza. We decided this only a few days ago. Our Abandoned Spaces album that was released in February has been a great success and we’re excited to be working together again. As always there will be some surprises coming up in 2024, so stay tuned.

Interview: U.S. & A. Kaudaht

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