Unusual names seem to be something of a theme in Scanner’s world. The experimental musician/artist was born Robin Rimbaud and is the only person with that surname to hold a British passport. This, apparently, presents its own problems. ‘When you say it correctly, it sounds like “Rambo”,’ he explains. ‘People expect a musclebound hunk, then are a bit disappointed with me.’
Scanner’s moniker was established in the 1990s when he used the electronic device to sweep the airwaves and broadcast live random phone conversations over his music. However, he stopped doing it after 9/11 for what he calls ‘paranoia reasons’. ‘I figured that I would be arrested,’ he says. ‘It was bad enough trying to explain what a Theremin is at Frankfurt airport.’ It was also a moment of realisation. ‘I asked myself: do I really want to be known as the man whose career was listening to other people?’ It is perhaps no surprise, then, that other curious pseudonyms inform his latest project, ‘Flow Forms’ – interpretations of Tudor composer John Dowland’s ‘Lacrimae, or Flow My Tears’. Next Saturday, as a Spitalfields Festival associate artist, Scanner performs his ‘Dowland Remix’ to accompany a film by Chris Turner. It is a concert that also features The Haxan Cloak (aka Bobby Krlic) and an installation from the Computer Junk Orchestra. Meanwhile, Gazelle Twin (aka Elizabeth Walling) has curated four other responses to Dowland, from herself, cellist Laura Moody, Juice vocal trio and electro-acoustic composer Anna Meredith – which they will perform in four secret underground Spitalfields venues.
In his tidy Bethnal Green studio, he plays me the remix on his computer. The music begins faithfully before morphing through various styles, including techno, lush cinematic soundtrack and percussive rock workout, yet it is still recognisable as Dowland’s tune. ‘It is a fantastic progression,’ he says. ‘It never resolves itself; it unravels, but the thread never ends.’
But why did such a technology-savvy artist choose a lugubrious lute song from the seventeenth century? ‘Dowland has intrigued me since I was a teenager,’ he says. 'When I was a student, I was listening to all kinds of eclectic pop music, rock, industrial and experimental, but I used to go home on a Friday afternoon and listen to “Choral Evensong” on the radio.’ It has obviously made a lasting impression. ‘The older you get, the more you realise that melancholia and pathos are very English, in a way,’ he says. ‘There is a lyricism in the folk music of Ireland and Scotland, whereas English music is about sadness – not in a negative way, just much slower and more elegiac.’
Judging by the remix, it is a sentiment that he has retained and yet brought excitingly up to date.
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