Of course, Rutger Zuyderveldt alias Machinefabriek knows his music is part of a particular niche. But in the past fifteen years, the Rotterdam sound artist has explored just about every corner of that niche. He releases a new album almost every month. And those releases are successful, too: Zuydervelt is a highly valued sparring partner for fellow musicians, is regularly asked to make soundtracks and can count Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke among his biggest fans. On With Voices, Machinefabriek once again explores unknown territory.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Cheonghyeon Park
The neighbourhood in which Rutger Zuydervelt lives – about twenty minutes from Rotterdam Central – sounds a bit like the beginning of a piece of music that he would compose as Machinefabriek. At first you don't hear anything, but then the softest sounds start to stand out the most. A tram that disappears into the fog, a woman with a shopping cart that occasionally squeaks. Inside, steam curls up from a kettle, a warm jazz record is spinning in the front room. For fifteen years now, Rutger Zuydervelt has made an art of creating comforting pieces from seemingly random tones and sounds.
In 2004, he starts to use the name Machinefabriek: the word is on a building that he walks past every day, and sticks in his mind. Zuydervelt soon begins to build up a gigantic discography. Before making music as a Machinefabriek, he already released truckloads of cassettes under a different pseudonym, in editions of five to twenty pieces. In 2004 he switches to CDRs, usually in editions of about fifty. In the beginning, his dark mix of post-rock and electronica showcases his metal past, after that his sound shifts towards serene ambient. “I only played in a metal band for three months,” Zuyderveldt puts into perspective. “Then I found out that rehearsing weekly with multiple egos was quite a hassle.” And so Zuydervelt starts to look beyond death metal. At first he exchanges guitar violence for dark ambient, a style that many black metal bands adopt at some point in their career. From there, it’s a small step to Dead Can Dance and Cocteau Twins, who open the door to the Warp Records universe of Aphex Twin and Brian Eno. In 2006, Marijn, the first official Machinefabriek album is released. “That really felt like a start to me.”
"I think it's terrible to work on an album for two years. Then there would be nothing spontaneous left with me."
After that, the releases follow each other in rapid succession. In 2007, Slaapzucht, Weleer and Bijeen see the light of day, after which the stream simply never dries up again. “I think I just got used to it”, laughs Zuyderveldt. “I'm very impatient: when I have an idea in my head, I think I should go with it, try to capture its spontaneity. I think it's terrible to work on an album for two years. Then there would be nothing spontaneous left with me. I prefer a kind of rawness and freshness, rather than polished perfection.”
His indomitable urge to release music is the reason that Zuydervelt releases a lot of music independently. “When you're with a label, you often have a long waiting period,” he explains. “It can take six months or a year before your album comes out. By that time, I’ve already made four new ones." It ensures that the composer still fully supports his work when it is published. “My old work too, you know. But when I release something now, I still think: hey, this is new!” In addition to the production and distribution of a large part of his music, Zuydervelt is responsible for the graphic design in almost all cases. “I am very attached to physical sound carriers, so the cover is very much part of the creative process for me. When I make something, I also start with the idea that it has to become one thing. I don't just make songs until I have a dozen or so. No, I know from the start that I'm going to work on an album. Everything I do then falls within the same concept.”
Take With Voices, for example, one of Zuydervelt's most recent releases at the time of writing. As its name suggests, the album – with a drawing on the cover made by a student in a school newspaper – is entirely devoted to the human voice and its most original use. The seed for the album is planted when Zuyderveldt participates in a dance performance in Taipei. He follows one of the dancers on Instagram and is inspired by a video she posts. “I heard a singer who sang a very special melody. That turned out to be her herself. The idea arose to use the human voice for a new album.” Zuydervelt invited eight singers to participate, including dancer Wei-Yun Chen herself. Marissa Nadler, Peter Broderick and the Belgian-Dutch Chantal Acda also participated. They all received the same half-hour track from Zuydervelt. “The only condition was that they feel comfortable with improvisation. Other than that, they were completely free to do whatever they wanted.”
Zuydervelt selected men and women from all kinds of different genres and received all kinds of different improvisations in return. “But I don't think you can hear who comes from which genre now. Peter Broderick, for example, delivered a very bizarre, spontaneous track full of spoken word, cartoon-like voices and overtone singing. Things I never expected from him. Marissa Nadler sent back a fully worked-out part with three or four different melody layers.” The parts became Lego blocks for Zuydervelt, who cut and pasted them to his heart's content and used the voices in the same way he would normally use an instrument. For me it was not so much about recognizable lyrics, but more about the sound. The emotion in the voices themselves. However much the voices are cut up and distorted, the specific qualities and character of those voices had to remain.” Polyphonic choral music from the Renaissance was an important source of inspiration, but Björk, Frank Ocean and Arca's latest album just as well.
A person Zuyderveldt did not get hold of in the run-up to With Voices is Thom Yorke, the Radiohead frontman who put no less than four tracks from Machinefabriek in 2017 in a playlist that he made for Pitchfork. "I listen to this at home", Yorke described. And there was Rutger Zuydervelt, just like that between ambient greats such as William Basinski and A Winged Victory for the Sullen and the most progressive classical composers of the twentieth century. “I have all Radiohead records in my collection, so that did something for me”, the Dutchman humbly admits. “The only thing I wondered was why he chose such old tracks,” he adds with a laugh.
File sharing ten minutes away
The collaborations that did come about on With Voices enable Zuydervelt to once again discover new territory. “That's the nice thing about working together: I get influences that I can't control, that surprise me and perhaps send me in new directions.” It’s why Machinefabriek has been joining forces with musicians from all kinds of circles for almost his entire career. With the Nijmegen free jazz and grindcore band Dead Neanderthals, for example, but also several times with violinist Anne Bakker and fellow sound artist Michael Banabila. Together with him, Zuydervelt released Entropia in January 2019. And although both composers reside in Rotterdam, that album, like With Voices, was largely composed digitally. “Of course it sounds a bit idiotic, living ten minutes away from each other and then making an album with filesharing, but it works for us. I think we both secretly feel most comfortable with the bubbles our studios have become for us, so we just kept this way of working.”
It is an example of the frameworks that Zuydervelt likes to set out for certain projects. Limitations, but in the most positive sense of the word. “You always have to set limits within which something has to happen,” he explains. “If everything is always possible… It won't work for me.” In the case of his own releases, Zuydervelt sets his own frameworks, but he also doesn't mind if they are set by others. Over the years he has made several mesmerizing and serene soundtracks. For the recent television series Sahara by Dutch public broadcaster VPRO, for instance. “Although it contains samples of music from countries in the Sahara, it was certainly not the intention to approach it as some kind of ethnological project and to copy the music from the region. As a white European, I can't do that at all, then we could have just asked musicians from there. The samples mainly served to capture a kind of atmosphere and rawness that really appealed to me. The rhythmic. I then poured it into my own mold, as it were.”
Yet his contributions to dance performances in recent years have made Machinefabriek dream about what is to come the most. “You work very directly with the dancers, see how they react to your sound. When you see people dancing to music you have made at home for the first time, it is very intense, very emotional.” It is the same tension that Zuyderveldt strives for during his unique live shows. In it he does not play music from his many releases. He doesn't make them with the idea that he should be able to perform them live. Instead, it's improvisations that matter. “I start with nothing and build up from there,” explains Zuydervelt. “I don't find it interesting to serve the public something that has already been pre-chewed. You embark on an adventure together, with trial and error, because things don't always go well. But it is very exciting. And when it goes well, incredibly satisfying.”
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.