It seems inaccurate and incongruous to describe Emptyset as a music act, or an AV project. It feels far more like a constantly shifting art project, with each live performance different in sound and visuals to the last. Emptyset is formed of RCA graduate Paul Purgas and James Ginzburg, with the visual side of thing also taken care of by Sam Williams and Clayton Welham, a graphic designer at Why Not Associates.
Their live performances, aside from being definitely the loudest, and possibly the most brutal we’ve seen, forge a new path in what it means to perform sound and visuals. Each is site-specific, using the space itself as an instrument. James told The Quietus that they’re interested in “getting to the essence of the relationship between time, structure and sound.” Which all sounds rather complex, but in its simplest terms, it means the pair has moved from more traditional techno and into the field of making music from process, using a series of analogue effects to form patters of sine waves that are shaped and distorted by the architecture of the space. But for all the harshness and, let’s face it, a whiff of pretentiousness; the Emptyset sound has evolved into something that may be harsh and intense, but is also as fitting for a club as it is for the pages of The Wire.
The Emptyset visuals have come to be as much a part of the act as the sound, and are created in a very similar way – using analogue tech and a process-based approach to create visuals that are ultimately out of the control of their creators, generated and shaped by frequencies and space rather than software.
“The project has a background in Structuralist film and music from the 70s, so with the visuals rather than using those as reactive phenomena to accompany our music it’s much more integral than that,” says Paul.
“You can never underestimate people’s visual and sonic literacy in this day and age. Just through exposure to it people are much more aware of the grammar of filmmaking and sound and music. It’s about letting people relate to it in any terms they want to. It’s a medium which people can take what they want from.”
Clayton started working with Emptyset on the visual side of things having also studied at the RCA, and adapted a college project from his BA called Transmit and Receive. It used a television transmitter, which he says was “in the loft, but not forgotten.”
“I like that Emptyset were really pure, even the name suggests that. They’re not really meant to have any input [in the sound] – it’s just the machine, so from a visual point of view I wanted to do the same thing. The process creates the visual experience,” he explains.
“We put in a chain of processes that distort the visuals at the same junctions as the sound, so what comes out the other end is always different – it depends on the frequencies of the space, so the distortion varies depending on the room.”
For the live shows, Clayton takes a small black and white television everywhere, which he says can sometimes prove tricky with hand-luggage. “VJs who condense it all down to software make sense, but the older kit gets a better response. We celebrate the distortion and the imperfections.”
He adds: “It’s tempting to jump on new technology, but it always goes round in circles and suddenly people want to celebrate old media. There’s a bit of nostalgia, but you realise you shouldn’t chuck these things away.”
“People applaud – as a graphic designer I’ve never received applause for what I do.”
The very tricky thing about writing about Emptyset is that the sheer physicality of what they do is nigh-on impossible to convey in words and jpgs, and even in videos. Their installation at Ambika P3 as part of the Sounding Space series literally shook my insides. I thought I was going to throw up at one point – which sounds awful, but was thrilling, and hopefully goes some way to conveying the visceral brilliance of what they do.
“The interesting thing for me is when people come up at the end of the show and go ‘how the hell did you do that?’ I love revealing the nuts and bolts, showing how we just use the tech as a filter,” says Clayton. “It’s only a side project for me but I’ve loved that insight into the music business. People applaud – as a graphic designer I’ve never received applause for what I do.