By Anita Malhotra
The work of Argentine musician and sound artist Alan Courtis (also known as Anla Courtis) is all about expanding musical, artistic and social boundaries.
With a background in teaching music to people with disabilities as well as a communications degree, he co-founded and plays guitar in the groundbreaking experimental band Reynols, which integrated a former student with Down’s Syndrome as its drummer and singer.
Courtis has composed a wealth of electric and acoustic experimental music and has also collaborated in live improvisations across a wide variety of genres and media with musicians all over the world.
He has released over 300 recordings, many of them in non-digital format, and some of them collectors’ items. He also teaches at several universities and music schools in Buenos Aires.
Courtis’ latest release is Telematic Concert, a live internet collaboration from 2009 with the renowned American experimental composer Pauline Oliveros, whose written work he has also translated.
Anita Malhotra spoke with Alan Courtis, who was at his home in Buenos Aires, by Zoom on June 5, 2020.
AM: What are your earliest memories of music or sound?
AC: I’ve always been curious about sound and music. My brother, who’s a little bit older than me, brought home a lot of music My parents were more into classical music and some Argentinian folklore, but later my brother was also into rock, jazz, soundtracks, contemporary, electronic, field recordings, etcetera, so I heard quite a wide range of musical styles.
AM: Were there any musicians in your family?
AC: My father played a little bit of Argentinian folklore on the guitar, but he was a doctor – a cardiologist. My grandfather came from the Czech Republic and he was a piano player and also played violin and viola. In the Czech Republic, music is very important.
AM: You had some formal musical training in Western music. Could you tell me a bit about that?
AC: I studied classical guitar and piano as well as theory and composition. At the same time, I was playing rock, improvising, and doing experimental stuff in the late ’80s and early ’90s, so I was doing a little bit of everything.
AM: Was your experimental music both electronic and acoustic?
AC: Yes, because in those years I worked a lot with cassettes. In the early ’90s, computers were not that widespread. I had a computer, but it was a lot more difficult for audio.
By ’98, I had my first computer with editing programs, but before that it was cassettes, which I still use. I also have a reel-to reel-recorder, so I like all technologies. And I also worked with different tunings on the acoustic guitar. A couple of years ago I made a record with microtonal guitar. The tuning is completely “non-western.”
AM: In terms of experimental composers, were there any in particular that influenced you in those early years?
AC: I was completely absorbing everything: rock music and Argentinian rock music, a lot of improvisation – free jazz – and of course electronic, experimental music.
It was a period when I was just searching for things and realizing how diverse music can be. I didn’t want to copy one thing. I just wanted to mix different things, which is a bit like what I am still trying to do.
AM: For a long time you taught music to people with special needs. How did this lead to one of your students getting involved in Reynols, the band you were in?
AC: That’s part of this diversity I’m talking about and it was completely unexpected. In the early ’90s, Miguel Tomasin – who is the Reynols drummer and singer – came to the place where we were giving classes.
He asked for drum classes, and we tried to find a way to get him started with drum technique. Soon we realized we should play with him. We were trying to work with free improvisation and he was a lot freer than everybody else on this planet.
We were not specially trained in that and there are a lot of cultural barriers and taboos that society has related to that, but we realized how free Miguel was so it was really exciting for us.
Over the years, I studied science of communication at university, and then we developed a method to play with people with disabilities based on our own experience playing with Miguel.
AM: How would you describe the music that you made with Reynols?
AC: I’d rather not use any words because you need to reset all your parameters when you are listening to it. It’s not trying to fit any market category or music category.
We have a lot of conceptual projects, like the 10.000 Chickens’ Symphony. And we also made a record with blank tapes. On the box set last year we had some more conceptual projects – one is Reynols Plays the Eiffel Tower. We literally played the Eiffel Tower and made a piece from that.
AM: Reynols has built up a really good following in Argentina. Why do you think it has been so successful?
AC: It’s not a commercial band but it has been successful in social terms because it has exposed a person like Miguel to many people.
We were the first band in Argentina to play on a daily national TV program for a whole year, in ’98. That was a lot of media exposure. It was a medical program, and that probably gave it a lot of visibility.
AM: You’ve done a lot of travelling and collaborating with different people. What is it like to collaborate with different artists?
AC: It’s always challenging and interesting to collaborate with people coming from different backgrounds, like electronic or rock or more contemporary ensembles. The good thing about doing collaborations is that you go out a little bit from your safe comfort zone to sounds that you don’t usually go to by yourself. I think it’s really important to not get trapped in your own selfish stuff.
AM: When you start a new piece of music in your studio, how do you go about working on it?
AC: In the studio, you have to think about how to organize the materials – whether it’s recordings or electronic stuff or field recordings or guitar. I always tell my students that sound is like a being. It’s not an object. You have to work with it, and you have to listen to what it is asking of you. It’s not only about you having control.
The interesting zone starts when you reach the point where the sounds are telling you things. Of course, they are not speaking in human language, but there are meanings that you can somehow read and then you can interact with them.
AM: Where do you find the best audiences for your music?
AC: I would say you can probably get very good audiences everywhere.
I had good experiences in countries like Japan, where music is very important for them, and I also played in China, Korea and other parts of Asia. And in Europe, as well. I played quite a lot in Norway and the very north.
We had one tour that was very challenging for me. It was very near the North Pole Svalbard – and we were doing scooter rides at minus 30 with everything packed on the scooter. So that kind of experience was really amazing.
I think you can get a good audience anywhere, but each country is different and I’m always interested to discover how it is in each place.
AM: One of the best-known musicians you have collaborated with is Pauline Oliveros. How did you first meet her and how did that relationship develop?
AC: She came here in 1994 for a couple of workshops and a concert. We were there with Reynols but Miguel was not yet with us. We were in our 20s – I think we were probably the only young guys in the whole workshop. Pauline wrote a very funny article for her book Sounding the Margins about her encounter with Reynols.
And then over the years we stayed in touch with her, mostly by mail and fax since there was no email yet, and we asked her if she would let us remix her stuff. A record was finally released in 1999 – Pauline Oliveros in the Arms of Reynols.
The first edition came with a small bag of sand. It was really great because we just remixed some bootleg concerts of hers that we had on cassette. They were very lo-fi, so we worked with guitar pedals. It still kept the drone – the very deep, intense stuff – but the sound was distorted and compressed.
Then she invited us to play at the Lunar Opera at Lincoln Center in August 2000. It was an amazing experience. After that, we did a tour in the United States and gave a workshop at the Deep Listening Space and played a concert as well.
We stayed in touch for many years for many things. There’s another record that is called Pauline Oliveros and Reynols Live at the Rosendale Cafe. It was recorded at a cafe near Kingston [New York], where Pauline lived.
AM: How did the Telematic Concert come about?
AC: I did not go to the United States for at least 15 years, so we were mostly in touch by mail and chat. At some point we decided to do a collaboration playing through the internet for Ione’s Dream Festival in 2009. Nowadays that is very usual, but at that time it was not.
Pauline was really into improvising, so it was very easy to play with her. She was very careful with listening and it was nice to see what she was doing with the stuff.
On that recording, I played a guitar that has no strings. It has a pick-up so there’s just feedback, and you can also play the body and it makes some noises.
I bought the guitar in a second-hand shop and it didn’t have a bridge. I tried a couple of bridges and nothing really worked for it. At some point, the same way I work with people with disabilities, I thought, “We need diversity, so I will play this guitar as it is.” So I just attached the pick-up and played it without the strings.
AM: You’ve just released a version of that concert. Can you tell me about that?
AC: Basically it was the recording of what we played, but we divided it into two pieces because of the length of the LP.
Also, with the internet connection, it was difficult to know exactly how it was working, so I took a recording of what I played here and Pauline sent me the recording from there, and I mixed both to have better quality.
AM: Why is the Telematic Concert only being released now?
AC: We talked with Pauline in 2011 or 2012 and German label was supposed to put it out, but it didn’t happen, so the project lay in the archives for 10 years.
It was released by Spleen Coffin in the United States last Friday as a brand new LP. It’s 18 or 20 minutes on each side, so it’s long but not too long. It’s nice to have it on LP, and of course it’s digital as well and there are two excerpts on SoundCloud.
AM: Did you have any more projects with Pauline?
AC: For the 2010 version of Ione’s Dream Festival, I composed a piece for “newspaper ensemble” and Pauline premiered that piece – In-Formed Music. Then, in 2016, I asked Pauline if I could translate some of her work because I needed an article for my improvisation class.
Pauline was super happy because she didn’t have anything translated in Spanish and many people in Latin American are interested in her work. After that she asked me to translate a book, Deep Listening: A Composer’s Sound Practice.
But Pauline suddenly passed away in November 2016 and we were all very shocked. We finally worked on it last year and we released the book and it’s been very well-received.
Pauline was an amazing person. She was so creative and sensitive, and also very open-minded. For me she was first a teacher and then a friend.
AM: Is there a medium that you prefer to release your music in?
AC: Nowadays the basic medium is digital. Considering that, I like vinyl and cassettes very much because they’re the media I grew up with. But CDs are also nice as long as they are well-presented with nice artwork.
I’ve also been doing very non-traditional releases. We made an 8-track with Reynols. We also released micro-cassettes and did a floppy disc release.
AM: Sometimes you go by the name Anla instead of Alan. Why is that?
AC: Miguel started writing my name as Anla and I thought it was great because he reversed the letters and created something new. So in the Reynols days I started signing as Anla, and in Japan they know me as Anla. Sometimes, for artistic purposes, an artist can change their name. In my case it was interesting because it was kind of a broken pseudonym. So for some projects I’m using Anla and for some I’m using Alan.
AM: Are there any other projects that you’re working on right now?
AC: With Reynols we are working on at least six or seven records in different stages. I also have some collaborations that are recorded but not released yet. We made one with Gert-Jan Prins from the Netherlands and also recorded in Oslo with Lasse Marhaug and Jon Wesseltoft.
I’m also working on a project where I recorded very old synthesizers from Argentina. And I’m composing some stuff. It’s good to not stop – just keep on doing things and try to keep the creative stuff going on.
For more information about Alan Courtis or Reynolds, visit UbuWeb: Sound – Alan Courtis, UbuWeb: Sound – Reynols or bandcamp.com. For more information on his Telematic Concert with Pauline Oliveros, visit spleencoffin.com or soundcloud.com.