Sight and sound
Analogue audiophile, photographer, architecture lecturer and chronicler of city landscapes, Leon Krige grew up in apartheid-era Johannesburg but travelled outside of the country enough to be able to look back differently and start to see ‘the strangeness in things’.
At his cosy fireplace on a cold Highveld winter day, Leon roasts coffee beans – it’s clear that he looks at the process of raw materials in many aspects of his life. While he philosophises about the special taste of coffee prepared and processed at home, we ask him…
MOMO: What is it that interests you in vinyl and your specific audio system?
Leon Krige: The very physical presence of analogue had its peak in the mid-1980s. Analogue reproduction was highly advanced but, in these particular components, it was also stripped to the bare minimum of aesthetic sentiment, a kind of minimalist audio functionalism.
My cartridge is a custom rebuild by a wonderful man in the Netherlands, AJ Van den Hul, now in his mid-eighties. It was greatly reduced in cost because it’s a rebuilt unit – I love this element of sustainable products with a personal signature.
This was one of Van den Hul’s personal older cartridges, which he customised for the linear tracking arm, which has much greater horizontal force than a normal pivot arm. He wound the coils and assembled the cartridge by hand under a powerful microscope. It was a great privilege to fetch it from him in 2015.
A vinyl album is a very long continuous spiral, from start to finish. The acoustic signal of stereo uses each side of the groove, in which a tiny diamond tip tracks the topography inside to unravel incredible detail. It took many years of evolution to develop different shapes of diamond, like the line or Shibata tip, which extracts more musical information but causes less damage and wear. This tiny diamond sends signals through a cantilever into the cartridge body, where, in this case, tiny magnetic coils move between alnico magnets.
All the other components date from the mid-80s, including the linear tone arm, which remains tangential to the groove at all times. Consider that on LPs often the most intimate track was the last one, where the greatest tracking error of a pivot arm occurs; linear tracking is built for intimate music.
I rebuilt an ’80s Swiss direct drive classic turntable, which had a lot of damage but it was a pleasure to restore it to its minimal beauty. As a student, I bought the baby version of that same make in Paris, second-hand, with everything I owned; I waited for three years for it to arrive via a friend, and used it for 27 years while most people were getting rid of their vinyl albums to embrace the new god of compact disc, which in my world is a failure of note. So much transient detail of the music is lost. Sure, there are no scratches, but there is also no life.
Every other component was slowly and painstakingly improved with advice from friends. I rebuilt the power supply for the turntable, the head amp (moving coil cartridges need more amplification) and the pre amp. All these steps added more clarity to the sound, more space and more depth. To be honest, I have absolutely no knowledge of electronics, but I can solder and build very well, and I have a good ear.
As a student I always aspired to a very pure sound, but with very little money, friends helped me to build and improve, like the head amp, which was based on a famous
American make, using Nuvistor metal valves, some of the last before transistors took over. The pre amplifier also uses tiny valves. Most of this technology still exists because it was used in Russian fighter jets to avoid radar detection. The Mosfet power amplifiers were designed by Daan Jacobs, a wonderful man with incredible hearing who developed reasonable sound systems in the 1980s.
I got very lucky with these enormous Danish Dahlquist speakers. I had heard about them but they were stacked in a garage – the previous owner’s girlfriend wouldn’t move in
with him with the speakers – so I couldn’t even hear them. After two years of polite emails, he sent me this miraculous note saying that I was the only one who hadn’t insulted them, so if I could transport them, I could have them. In reciprocation, I framed one of my panoramic photographs for him. These are once-in- a-lifetime opportunities. It took some work to repair blown components but they’re fabulous. I’ve always appreciated the girlfriend who couldn’t stand those speakers.
MOMO: When did your interest in the mechanisms of audio systems start?
LK: As a teenager I bought an old Sony reel-to-reel and recorded my Scottish neighbours’ LPs on my parents’ very basic setup. As with cameras, I always yearned for more resolution, and used equipment was improved. As an exchange student in Iowa, I bought a used Rega 2, my first turntable, then had to wait a long time for it to arrive in South Africa. A similar situation arose after my fourth year in architecture practical working in the Netherlands and finding a used direct drive in Paris.
Those journeys out of South Africa were an escape from the narrow views of apartheid, and that was when I realised how strange and unreal the politics was. Every journey was a step of learning; every step was an attempt to improve the resolution of the sound, while searching for music that was banned or unavailable in South Africa at that time. Somehow, music and political changes were connected.
MOMO: What kind of music do you listen to?
LK: There’s so much talent out there but it’s difficult to find on vinyl. I have no interest in vinyl for sentimental reasons; it’s purely for acoustics, as most other formats are severely compressed.
I’ve always loved quieter but very explorative sound. That thrives on this system; loud rock or overly busy music becomes a cacophony of noise. I don’t listen at very high volume, as most music sounds better at its natural level. I love free jazz, the experimental side, but also quieter contemporary acoustic and experimental artists.
My daughter has her own vinyl setup, with old Quad valve amplifiers. We share a passion for Nina Simone and experimental jazz because I took her to live performances that she wanted to hear as a teenager. Lil Wayne was hard work for me but because we did that together, she’ll try music with me. There’s no greater joy in this world than sharing it with her.
MOMO: You’ve mentioned that music – besides travelling – gave you a mode for new perspectives. With this in mind, what kind of music do you collect?
LK: Music represented a form of protest. For example, in my student days at university it was an intense time, with a lot of police on campus and riots. I don’t call myself a political activist; I wasn’t running around but I was definitely not supporting the status quo.
In the early days of the quiet revolutionaries, my first album was Joni Mitchell’s Blue, bought in school uniform at age 15; I was deeply in love and still am; I still have the album and it’s still beautiful. Music that’s raw and stripped of decoration hardly ages.
Another of my earliest albums was Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim’s The Journey. On my first-ever trip to Cape Town in 1985 I saw Basil ‘Manenberg’ Coetzee at a secret venue, and listened to and photographed Jennifer Ferguson. Only much later I realised that top free-jazz artists like Don Cherry and Johnny Dyani were performing with Dollar Brand; it took time for me to realise how brilliant he is.
I also support the excellent young jazz musicians rising in South Africa: Kyle Shepherd, Nduduzo Makhathini, Zoe Modiga and many others. We have a world-class jazz renaissance happening right here in South Africa.
MOMO: Your music appreciation is very hands-on, an analogue experience similar to how you shoot your large-scale images of city landscapes, which is also very complex and time consuming. What’s your process?
LK: As an architecture student I started walking the city and documenting rare buildings, many of which have since been demolished. I realised the need for greater resolution, but I had very limited finances, so I used old film and old paper, and a used 6×6 Bronica. When you’re trying to capture transition or decay, resolution is very important. I also used a normal lens or long lens to do multiple adjacent images, rather than a single wide-angle image which is much easier but lacks detail – the idea of panoramic as multiple frames started then. People often asked to be photographed because there were no cellphones, but it was a lengthy and slow process – measuring light by hand, then compensating for contrast and old materials in film processing, and finally printing on old paper in the darkroom, which I absolutely loved.
I’m searching for timeless quality in an imperfect world.
I eventually bought an old Linhof 6×9 field camera that could do tilt-and-shift for perspective control. At the time digital cameras were being introduced, so, much like my analogue sound system, these wonderful tools were being discarded for digital alternatives.
The Linhof is very manual: it opens like a jack-in-the-box, with many settings, all manual, and focus on a glass plate, and measuring light by hand, and only eight exposures on a roll of 120 film, so you had to be very careful. But in doing things manually you develop a kind of intuitive mechanical understanding of light, contrast, etc. This cumbersome, clumsy camera was less attractive for theft when the city started becoming rougher, but delivered great detail.
For a long period, while my daughter was growing up, I stopped photographing – there was no time to raise a child, run a small practice, teach at university and do darkroom photography, or analogue sound, for that matter. In those years I hardly listened to my vinyl albums; it was just too complicated with being a dad. By stopping these cumbersome but precious rituals, part of my creative spirit died.
Around 2005, after seven years of abstinence, I picked up the old tools and started photographing with the Linhof again. I did my first images with the Linhof using old chemicals and paper which caused once-off beautiful aberrations. Shortly afterwards I got my first digital SLR [single lens reflex] camera, and got permission to shoot the stadiums in progress for the 2010 World Cup. It was a very humble camera body with only one lens but I couldn’t tell the stadium designers that, so I started learning how to stitch and stack composite images for higher resolution with very limited equipment. I later got a better camera body and two good lenses, which is still the equipment I use today.
I started documenting the city in transformation, mostly at night. Much as with the old medium-format system, I use long manual exposures and focus at the lowest ASA [film speed] to capture the detail of ever-changing cities at night. I check many high- resolution details after every exposure, scanning the view of the city like a painter would imagine an outcome. It’s not visible in camera until the image is stitched together, so there remains an element of abstraction, similar to using film that captured an invisible likeness of reality.
I’ve always striven to capture space with razor-fine detail in a kind of raw, unforgiving way. Most photographers have access to good equipment and good software but sometimes they rely on automation. The composite process is cumbersome but every minute detail of an imperfect world is captured. You can almost hear the sounds when you see a three-metre-wide cotton-rag print. In the same way, you can almost hear the room and the breath of the musicians on a good analogue (or digital) system. I’m searching for timeless quality in an imperfect world.
MOMO: Do you see the mechanisms of music, photography and architecture as intertwined, especially considering the amount of work and time that go into your way of listening to music or photographing?
LK: Very much so. When I moved from drawing buildings by hand with pencil or ink to early digital CAD systems, the technology was very slow. I used 3D CAD quite extensively, but in the same pain-in-the-ass manner as I do in most other things, I wanted precision in the detail. Some students today rush into using quick, easy 3D programs, which eventually result in mindless generic buildings like shopping malls which perpetuate consumerism but remove the idea of craft and intelligence.
Interestingly, I use hand-sketch model building as my primary tool in architectural education at university. The students thrive when they see their dreams unfolding in hand-sketch models. They develop remarkable dexterity and can explain systems much better than with generic software. I’m all for using cutting-edge technology if it improves the end result, but first you have to understand the connection between mind and fingertips; computers haven’t reached that level of sophistication yet.
In the right hands any technology can produce great results but it requires a deep level of understanding. I can see the needle in the groove, and clean it if there’s dust on it. I can check every detail image for exposure and sharpness or surreal movements. I can measure from good models accurate 3D drawings but only if I understand how they’re made.
Jean de Sainte-Colombe
French composer and violist
Art Ensemble of Chicago Archie Shepp
American jazz saxophonist
Estonian religious and classical music composer
American harpist, pianist, vocalist and lyricist
Icelandic multi-instrumentalist and composer
Dollar Brand/Abdullah Ibrahim