The first time I met Ata Ebtekar a.k.a. Sote was at Unsound Dislocation in Yerevan. He was performing his solo set and was one of the highlights of the evening. One year later, when I saw his name in the lineup of “Urvakan” Fest, I planned a longer talk. Over the last two decades, he is one of the predominant artists in the electronic music scene and has signed with established labels such as Warp, Sub Rosa, Opal Tapes to mention a few. He is also the co-founder of the “SET” Festival in Tehran.
The Tehran-based electronic music composer was presenting his audiovisual show. “Sacred Horror In Design” first presented at Berlin’s CTM Festival. It was the opening concert of “Urvakan” Festival (urvakan means ghost in Armenian) at Aram Khachaturian Concert Hall. Quite a unique and extraordinary event to experience within academic walls. Sote collaborated with Persian performers Behrouz Pashaei (setar), Arash Bolouri (santoor), and Dutch visual artist Tarik Barri (collaborator of Thom Yorke, Flying Lotus, Robert Henke). The show was an interesting fusion of electronics with traditional Persian acoustic instruments and visual journey. I had the great pleasure to talk to him after the show.
Can you explain your methods of reconstructing soundscapes and patterns?
I am a composer. When I create music, I always try to come up with something new. Something that I haven’t heard before. Something that I hear in my head usually. Or ideas that come to my head and I would, you know like to listen to it and usually it’s about taking obviously elements that have existed before and broken the formulas because I’m very against formulizing music. I like to first break them and then take them again and do something new with them.
It’s very simple. That can happen with a rhythm that can happen with the sound that can happen with scales that can happen with patterns it also it always depends it depends on what kind of project I work on because I have a lot of different projects. Sound is like just synthesis and sound and coming up with new sounds through the various things so it can be through traditional musical elements can be through synthesis but in the end, it’s all about the composition of the sound, and even in a more macro way it’s about the composition as a whole.
I respect people who are into synthesis and the whole process of things, that’s very interesting, but a lot of times the actual composition is ignored. For me, the end result has to be a whole composition. Because I don’t like to repeat anybody, because I don’t like to repeat myself. I like to break formulas. Obviously, there are a lot of different types of music that I love, and depending on the project, I would like to break them with respect and just come up with something new.
Space has a special role when you perform. Can you share your “dialogue” with it?
It depends. A lot of times I try to do respect it, but then also sometimes I actually on purpose do it the other way around. I challenge the space. There have been times that I’ve performed my very intense rhythmic music in places where people were sitting down. Sometimes that’s by choice and sometimes that’s not by choice but you know I like that challenge as well. In the show “Sacred Horror In Design” we’ve played it at venues, that were not necessarily the best venue for it. But I think that’s always interesting because it’s just brings something new out of the whole thing. So sometimes I try to go by that rule and sometimes I like to challenge the space so to speak.
“Sacred Horror in Design” audiovisual performance.
Arash Bolouri (santoor), Behrouz Pashaei (setar), Ata Ebtekar aka SOTE (synthesis), Tarik Barri (live visuals).
Many artists are so dependent on the tools they use, that are basically limited by it. Do tools define your artistic vision?
No, absolutely not. Do your tools dictate the outcome? I don’t believe in that, I absolutely think the other way. It doesn’t matter what you have in front of you, whether it’s just a computer or if it’s a hardware, combination of those, or acoustic instruments. That absolutely doesn’t matter. I can work in a laptop environment and make music that everybody thinks that I used only modular synthesizers. And the other way around. I can use modular synthesizers and people would think I did it all with max MSP for example. A lot of people are very strict about the sound of this or the sound of that or this is good or this is bad I don’t believe in that. I believe that you have to have the knowledge, literacy and you have to know the history of what you do. Whether it’s the technical history or the actual history of electronic music. Once you have the knowledge, you can do anything you want with whatever you have in front of you. I’m a firm believer.
I’ve done pieces whole pieces with the little “Yamaha qy70” and people who were programmers, people who were actually into this kind of stuff, they really thought that I did it with either reactor or Max MSP. But it was purely done with a little “qy 70” without any processing. I teach synthesis to students in Tehran. And they’re always like “oh I don’t have this” or “I wish I have that”. And I tell them, it’s not about that. You can do anything you want as long as you know how to do it: you have the knowledge and literacy.
In retrospect, you seem to shift from analog towards more digital production. Why do you prefer digital to analog now?
In the past 30 years, I’ve done it all. I’ve used everything. I’ve done hardware synthesizers, analog, digital synthesizers, just computers. Nowadays I use mostly a computer because I don’t have access to hardware in Iran. I had to sell all my equipment before I moved back to Tehran because it was impossible to take everything with me. So it’s not really by choice, but at the same time, I don’t really care about it either. When I was younger, I thought that it would be so amazing to have hardware synthesizers. And I still think it is fun. But nowadays, I don’t crave them, and I am at peace with it.
The digitalization of music and the introduction of the internet changed the world. Production and distribution of a track and its download happens in a blink of an eye. Do you feel disconnected in this hyper-speed network?
For me, it’s the opposite actually. Before I moved back to Tehran, I never had a Facebook page, Instagram, or Twitter account. Usually, my music is released via labels that are pretty established and have the power to distribute, but still. Interestingly via social media sites, I’m actually connecting with my audience. I know who they are because they talk to me. They send me messages, and I share what I’m about to do. Be that concert, video footage, or news. And actually, I think it’s great. Before the digital era, before I had a Facebook or an Instagram page, I was very disconnected from my audience. But now what I like about it is actually I’ve been talking to a lot of friends. And the fact is that now I have good connections with the people who like my work.
There is a huge spike of electronic music producers and especially techno music. It is coming back again, why?
It’s the energy, to be honest with you. I think it’s the energy that I felt when I was very young you know 20 years ago. When I first heard techno or when I started doing techno and it was absolutely experimental music then. And it’s coming back purely because people need that energy and with the technology available it’s easier to do a lot of interesting sounds with producers and a lot of people are doing techno again. Which is a good thing, but unfortunately a lot of techno music now, even the interesting stuff, even the really intense hardcore stuff, is becoming a formula. And that’s what I always try to run away from because it bores me. Techno is my background, it’s my roots. I love that energy, I love the feeling, the mentality, the aesthetic of experimentalism. What I don’t understand why people have to go and copy formulas. There are so many things that you can do with techno music and interesting intense music but unfortunately, most people don’t do that.
How would you describe the modern Iranian electronic music scene?
The country after the revolution was pretty much closed for about 10 years and there was the war with Iraq for eight years. So people were hungry for new music, new ideas, and new concepts. So that’s definitely one element. And also I think, Iranians just overall are big big big art lovers. Culture has been always part of their lives: art, literature, poetry. Everything from paintings to carpets, to architecture and music.
So the combination of that and the fact that they were not exposed to a lot of new music, like other countries turned out to be something beautiful. People who were coming to the festivals and events were not necessarily into electronic or experimental electronic music. They actually really enjoyed it, it was interesting to them. And they would come back, you know a month later two months later or three months later. We would see familiar faces, and they would bring new people with them. And I know for a fact that it’s not necessarily even like we converted them to experimental electronic music lovers, no. But still, they would come back and that’s really cool.
The fact that experimental electronic music doesn’t have any lyrics usually and it’s really not dance-oriented, we’re lucky in that way. We can do everything by the book and have to get government permits and not have any trouble you know. Because it’s not threatening to anybody, it’s not political. So we’re lucky in that way that it can grow.
In the west, for example, experimental music has its dedicated followers, a lot of friends of the artists. I lived in San Francisco for a while and never saw somebody with a completely different background that would come to events. It is different however in Iran. People from different age groups and different interests may come and I think that’s very beautiful. Things are happening every day, new artists are coming up and it’s a cool thing. That’s why I always say that the future of experimental electronic music in Iran is very bright.