May 17, 2013
Thurston Moore and his new band, Chelsea Light Moving. Photo by Carlos van Hijfte
Founded in 1983, the Festival international de musique actuelle de Victoriaville (or “Victo” to those in the know) has long been regarded as one of the greatest experimental music festivals in the world. Eclectic programming has always been one of its hallmarks, bringing together local and international performers for a unique showcase that each year overruns this small city 100 miles northeast of Montreal.
It’s been said that the growing success of the Suoni per il Popolo festival over the last decade has stolen some of Victo’s thunder, as adventurous listeners within Montreal who may have gone to Victoriaville prior to 2001 have gradually stayed home and attended Suoni instead. This may have even contributed to FIMAV’s decision to take a hiatus in 2009 while they readjusted their programming. They returned in 2010 with a shorter, four-day festival, a renewed emphasis on Québécois artists and the inclusion of sound art installations. Though both festivals have been full of diverse programming all along, there is no substitute for the rustic setting and concentrated programming offered by Victo.
Unlike the rigidity of rock group formations, the musicians represented at Victo are constantly seeking out new collaborators and new styles, giving listeners the opportunity to hear the same artist playing with a variety of performers, simultaneously emphasizing the uniqueness of each artist’s sound as well as the magic of collective performance.
April 18, 2013
a big circle drawn with little hands was created from a box of things sent to me by sylvian, who runs the ini itu label. the box contained everything from newspapers, coins, wooden toys, pamphlets, plastic objects, plastic bags, broken airline headphones, notes, a bottle opener, a noise maker of wood, a small electronic toy shaped like a butterfly that offered tones and animal noises, cardboard, a fan, and other things. i also used a banjo in the first track, and my voice in the last track.
the lp was mastered by taylor deupree, and the cover design and photos were done by sylvain.
a number of people have attempted to “de-code” the song titles, but like the rest of the approach to the soundmaking, etc. the titles actually also came from one of the items in the box of stuff sylvain sent to me – a newspaper, and i used each of the photographs to determine the titles, based on the number of hands appearing in an image as well as the image’s narrative. the title of the lp was based on a drawing made by sylvain’s daughter.
I met Steve earlier this year at a workshop and public conversation when he performed as part of the Suoni per il Popolo festival in Montreal, and I find its best to let him do the talking as much as possible. This is the first of a two part interview conducted between June and December of 2012. As it is already considerably longer than even my already-lengthy pieces, I’ll try to keep the introductory comments to a minimum, so we can get back to his words.
Steve Roden is an artist living in Pasadena, presenting his work since the mid-’80s. The text above describes one of his most recent recordings, but the spirit conveyed by those words animates all his endeavors. In contrast to a sort of radical openness suggested in each piece, Roden adopts a series of self-imposed rules or creates idiosyncratic notation to act as a guide in which to execute creative decisions. A true bricoleur, this at times entails limiting the tools or resources at his disposal, often with no regard for “fidelity” or technical processes. Instead he embraces these qualities, not as flaws but as interesting in themselves. In addition to making music, he also works in many different media, including painting, drawing, sculpture, film/video, sound installation, and performance. Throughout the ‘90s he released several records under the moniker In Be Tween Noise and coined the term “lowercase” for a music that “bears a certain sense of quiet and humility; it does not demand attention, it must be discovered. the work might imply one thing on the surface but contain other things beneath. … it’s the opposite of capital letters—loud things which draw attention to themselves.” His 2001 release Forms of Paper brought attention to the term lowercase, which at the time united a wide variety of practitioners exploring silence and quiet, from lap top musicians, to electroacoustic artists to free jazz. As is the way with such things, the term took on a life of its own, though Steve still insists upon an openness in its interpretation. You can read more about Steve’s thoughts on lowercase and the history of that release at “on lowercase affinities and forms of paper.”) He has collaborated with Brandon LaBelle, Franscisco López, Jason Kahn, Machinefabriek, Stephen Vitiello, Bernhard Günter and many others
Roden’s philosophy is very much in line with that of Sound Propositions, and A closer listen as a whole. We each, as listeners, must play a central role in shaping what we hear, bringing a sort of Zen-like acceptance while still attending to Rilke’s “inconsiderable things,” a reference Roden often mentions. I can’t help but hear echoes of Nietzsche,one of Rilke’s great influences, in Roden’s approach to listening, and his conception of the artist more broadly. Nietzsche didn’t write for everyone, and certainly not for those who would cherry-pick his words. He decried the equivalent of iTunes on shuffle, music as background noise. No, Nietzsche wrote for those who would put in the effort, who could read slowly, carefully, and deeply. Roden is a similar kind of artist, that is he who has no contemporary. This can be a dangerous place to be, but for those who press on through this isolation, their work transcends the ebbs and flows of fashion. Still, as the poet Hölderlin wrote, “where danger threatens/That which saves from it also grows.” There is something creative and productive that comes from this place of risk. Not hostile or coercive, not elitist or condescending, but rather quietly carrying on its own logic, rewarding patient and careful engagement.
Steve is a rare kind of artist. One who has created a rich and diverse body of work that is uniquely his own, one who can work across media without losing his conceptual rigor, who can create resonate work and speak articulately about it, while speaking simply and without sacrificing nuance, and all the while still remaining utterly humble and approachable. His work is patient and characterized by a level of restraint that is hard to match. Rather than be confined he turns the limitations around him into that which generates the work.
Enjoy. (Joseph Sannicandro)
A playlist of the pieces mentioned in this article can be found here.
Joseph Sannicandro: I’ve heard you mention your early interest in the LA punk scene in several interviews. In my experience, many of us who are experimental music, electro-acoustic music or music that in some way draws inspiration from the avant-garde or conceptual art, have a similar background of being interested in more extreme music (punk/hardcore, or industrial music). This genealogy seems relevant to me, as opposed to those who come from the EDM/club background, or who are more formally trained in the classical tradition. Can you maybe expand on this, how the ethic of the punk scene may have influenced your aesthetic, your attitude towards promoting concerts, releasing music, and your evolving material practice itself?
Steve Roden: I can’t really emphasize how lucky I was to be able to be part of that scene from 1979-82, especially as a 15 year old. A friend and I literally encountered the scene by accident… we rode our bicycles to the Whisky A Go-Go to see a Jimi Hendrix impersonator, and the show was so great… the guy came out in a coffin and it was like Hendrix was reincarnated! We had such a good time that we went back a few weeks later expecting another rock show only to be confronted by The Screamers!!! At that time, I had hair down to my shoulders and I was wearing a Hendrix t-shirt, but nobody gave us crap, in fact most of the people, who were older than us, were super cool. I had no idea what was going on, but I remember standing there with all this crazy energy on stage and after the show I went home and cut my hair, and painted a big red no left turn sign over Hendrix’s face on that t-shirt. The next day I wore the shirt to school and a few guys picked a fight with me because of the shirt, and I felt excited and different.
“122 hours of fear”
Haha, wow, love this story and the imagery!
Yeah, I wish I remembered the Hendrix impersonator show a bit more detail… it probably was very close to Spinal Tap territory!
While the punk scene became very violent by 1982, those earlier years were fantastic, and a lot of people were very positive… we really thought we’d change the world. Yes, of course the music was very important, but even more so was the feeling of potential that came out of being part of a community. Certainly, there were a lot of drugs, a lot of angry people, and sometimes violence, but it’s clear now that for so many people who were part of that scene it fueled a very creative approach to life – as well as a strong sense of integrity: “no compromise”, etc. I have no musical training and I think half our band knew how to play their instruments and half could not. I was the singer and wrote most of the words – ridiculous songs like “kill reagan” and “jesus needs a haircut”. We were young and angry towards the government and religion, and society’s rules in general. Like every subculture, we were dreamers as well as fighters. But what was most important was that we didn’t want to be rich and famous. That was NEVER a goal. And that gave the whole thing a level of integrity that I have tried to carry forward in life… to do things the way that you want to, to find meaning in your own way, and not only to have integrity but to protect it. I don’t think I ever really felt the music or the scene was truly “extreme”, certainly not in terms of hearing someone like Merzbow or Aube live. But the scene had a crazy wonderful energy certainly. In Los Angeles, not all of the bands offered an extreme experience - although certainly early Black Flag, Fear and the Germs did – but if you think about the variety of influences upon bands like X, Gun Club, Fear, Black Flag, the Weirdoes, the Germs, each of these bands had their own sound and their own influences, so I would not really categorize them all as extreme in sound. Punk was loud, but only in certain cases was it truly extreme – such as live Dead Kennedy’s!
Yes, these are all social scenes that I think have strong underpinnings, punk with integrity, hardcore with unity, club culture with a kind of hedonism.
This morning I was reading the newspaper and there was an article about Snoop Dog and how he re-tooled one of his songs “drop it like it’s hot”, to fit a commercial for “Hot Pockets,” which is some kind of sandwich. While I don’t begrudge anyone seeking a paycheck, it’s hard not to see that decision and not think about him as a sell-out or a compromise (for if nothing else, he is surely compromising the integrity of the original song by retooling it for an ad). I’d like to think the Clash would have been aghast at the idea of turning “white riot” into a jingle for soda pop… “rite diet, rite diet, rite diet, a flavor of its own”
Can you imagine? That’d be some soda! But still, even though Snoop obviously doesn’t need a paycheck, and not that “drop it like it’s hot” had much integrity to begin with, there is still something about making such a change that just doesn’t sit right. I like how you deploy INTEGRITY here, it’s not just an abstraction but the literal integrity of the song itself, as such.
Last year I was watching a press conference with a baseball player from this area, and instead of testing the free agent market he re-signed with the team he’d been with for several years. His decision was rooted in his relationship with his teammates, living in Los Angeles and his family. In making the decision he left a few million dollars on the table, and on the radio, some fans criticized him for not trying to get the most money he could get… but after being asked the same question by a reporter he simply said, “how much money does a person need”, and it was kind of great to see a wealthy professional athlete take less money because there were other things in life that meant more to him… so I see this dude as having a hell of a lot more integrity than Snoop Dog!
When we met back in June at the Suoni per il Popolo festival in Montreal, during a public conversation you had with Doug Moffat, you mentioned an album whose liner notes influenced you far more than the music itself, which was just speculative for so many years, until you found a copy and finally were disappointed a bit by the actual music, or at least it didn’t live up to the limitlessness of your imagination. I’m blanking on the LP at the moment, but maybe it was German? Anyway, this reminded me of something the writer Samuel R. Delany has said, in an interview with the Paris Review. Excuse the long quote…
You have suggested that the writers who influence us “are not usually the ones we read thoroughly and confront with our complete attention, but rather the ill- and partially read writers we start on, often in troubled awe, only to close the book after pages or chapters, when our own imagination works up beyond the point where we can continue to submit our fancies to theirs.” What were some of your “ill-read” books?
Any book you have to work yourself up to read. …When such books influence you, if that’s the proper word for what I’m describing, it’s what you imagine they do that they don’t do that you yourself then try to effect in your own work, that, to me, is what’s important. What these books actually accomplish is very important, of course! But the whole set of things they might have accomplished expands your own palette of aesthetic possibilities in the ways that, should you undertake them, will be your offering on the altar of originality.
Before I read Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Conqueror books and stories, I really thought they would be the Nevèrÿon tales, or at least something like them. But I discovered that, rich and colorful as they were, they weren’t. So I had to write them myself.
I wonder if you were maybe getting at a similar concept of the ill-heard album. Or really any work of art that can be more inspiring as a specter than as a proper engagement. This sort of thing probably occurs less now that the internet has made it much easier to find out about things. The mystique fades a bit, but that’s another question.
Yeah, that is great!!! I can’t tell you how many things I love were discovered through a bad review… and with the record, being unable to hear it (this was pre-internet), it just started growing inside of me, and the [liner] notes really offered me a path to start to make my own music. The LP was by the painter Jean Dubuffet [found of Art Brut], along with the Cobra [and Situationist] artist Asger Jorn, and they borrowed a bunch of Asian and exotic instruments and made all these reel-to-reel tapes. It’s really like noise music or free jazz without the jazz parts, but Dubuffet approached music in the same way he dealt with art brut, and the liner notes are so beautiful in terms of how he speaks of playing instruments without technique – and at the time I was working with instruments, making crude instruments, and working with them to make music and I was so affected by Dubuffet’s notes that it pushed me. When I heard the actual LP, maybe 10 years ago, it sounded so completely different than I’d heard in my mind and it never would’ve inspired me in the same way. It was lucky that I had no access to the content!!!
What are some of your early memories or impressions of sound? When did you realize you were interested in sound (as such)?
This is a question I get a lot and I never know how to answer it. Honestly, as a child I don’t remember being specifically attracted to sound as sound. Certainly there were experiences that I remember strongly, such as my first tape recorder which was given to me by my father when I was 10 years old. But I did not go out and make field recordings, in fact, I distinctly remember a friend and I sitting on the tape deck’s microphone and farting and giggling a lot (a story I have never offered in an interview before!)… but most of the actual sounds I remember were not natural sounds, like the ice cream truck songs, the sound of my father’s car, and my grandfather’s whistle. Honestly, I don’t really think sound was something I responded to at a young age, certainly I have no listening epiphanies that I can remember…
I would say that I really noticed sound – as sound – when I was 12 or so. I didn’t know it at the time, but in the mid-1970’s I used to hang out at the local Tower Records store with a few friends on Saturday nights. The store stayed open until midnight, and we became friends with some of the folks who worked there, and one night someone mentioned it was my birthday and one of the clerks handed me a copy of Eno’s Another Green World as a gift. At that time I was listening mostly to Hendrix – as his was the first music I was obsessed with, buying bootlegs, etc. so I had no context for Eno at all, especially the instrumental tracks… but I remember clearly listening to one of the ambient-ish tracks “the big ship” a million times. It wasn’t that I had any interest in that kind of music, but I loved that track (as well as to a slightly lesser degree, “In dark trees”); and I think what appealed to me was that they were atmospheres or moods – of course, I didn’t think about it as being important, but it was the first abstract music I responded to, and in particular, to the sound of those pieces, which are very warm. It’s not like I listened to the LP a bunch of times and became an Eno fan… that would happen much later, but every once in a while I would listen to it the LP, and try to make sense of it. It’s kind of like the quote you offered about Samuel Delany, because I needed to keep re-visiting it because it confused me and while I had no context or language to understand where it was coming from, I still wanted to find my way in it…
It seems pretty unusual that as such a young person you actually made the effort to try. It suggests a level of openness. So, back to the sound of recordings…
People don’t talk much about the sound of punk recordings, and certainly there aren’t a lot of distinct approaches to recording with a lot of punk records, but if you listen to the first X or Gun Club LP’s – both on Slash, the sound is really different than, say, never mind the bullocks… the Slash recordings are full of energy, but sound somehow clean and kind of warm… it wasn’t until the post-punk scene where bands like PiL, Joy Division and Bauhaus were experimenting with sound, that I started responding to sound itself – and it was the same with Cabaret Voltaire and Throbbing Gristle. But PiL was especially influential – especially “Metal Box” – which had a HUGE impact on me – as well as the Clash’s Sandinista, just in terms of how the music was expanding and feeling less influenced by the scene… those two records are so different from each other stylistically – truly independent – both embracing experimentation and to different degrees influenced by dub – they both point to different potentials towards the future. I think even bands like Felt, Eyeless in Gaza and Orange Juice also had very particular sounds. One record that resonated deeply was Martyn Bates 10″ Letters Written, from 1982. It is mainly voice and, I think, a synth organ, and it is one of the most beautiful melancholy lonely records I have ever heard, and at that time in my life which was quite a disaster, I felt so connected to that music, maybe deeper than to any record I’d heard until then, and my response to that record was the beginning of moving away from punk… and I was kind of lost trying to find music to fuel my interests.
Public Image Limited – Metal Box “Memories”
Martyn Bates – “Letters form yesterday”
What stands out to me here is how you identify a move away from aesthetics being dictated by “the scene,” which I’m interpreting as the sort of social aspect. Of course genre is often very much about community and sociality and exclusion as much as any formal aspects or “the sound” itself, but it may also hint at why it’s so hard to talk about various strains of experimental music as having a coherent community at all.
I think what you are getting at is very important, because while the music scene generates the culture, at some point there is a split, and for me it was twofold, the culture of punk was getting violent and codified, and the music felt overly predictable (I’m generalizing of course)… honestly, I wasn’t looking for culture to be part of, feeling growth could come from isolation, and that’s really when i started making my own recordings – again without any context, but trying not only to find music to like, but also music to make.
Another monumental experience happened around that time, a friend’s dad had tickets to a Philip Glass performance and he couldn’t go so he gave us the tickets. Once again, we had no context and when the concert started – I believe it was a two piano piece or two organs, and all I remember was them starting and ending, but during the performance I was transported to another place… truly. I have to say even though that was a life changer, I’m not really a fan of Glass’s music, but it got me to Steve Reich, which was huge… also, around 1984, I discovered Eno’s Obscure label and I bought a copy of [Gavin] Bryar’s Sinking of the Titanic – not knowing how much the other side of the LP – Jesus Blood ever Failed Me – would also be HUGE for me, this idea of using a “field recording” within the context of a work, and also the repetition. That record really opened the door to my working in a quiet way. (and if I can bring up integrity again, the version with Tom Waits singing really destroys the integrity of the original entirely…). then, in 1987, I was driving in the car with my mother, listening to the radio and the announcer mentioned the that [Morton] Feldman had died. I didn’t know Feldman’s work at all, but I remember telling my mom to go in the store to get what she needed, while I remained sitting in the car alone and listening to this music, which was a very quiet and seemed from another world, yet had en enormous impact on me.
It’s interesting to me how at that time media circulation was a bit more closed than it is today (though of course radio, portable tape recorders, cassette tapes and even xeroxed zines were huge innovations and contributed to new circulations not available to earlier generations) but that this closed-ness made possible the almost context-less encounters you had with Eno, Bryars, Glass and Feldman. In many ways, looking back from the present, these seem serendipitous, though I’m sure there were plenty of other kids who were into punk or classic rock or something who had or would have had very different experiences. Or even the friend you went to see Glass with.
2011, performance at cafe oto (i use the laptop only for video, which is filmed the day of hte performance and used as visual/sound loops during the performance. offering documentation of private performances earlier in the day – i don’t love having a laptop on my table, but the use of video for me is awkward and quite difficult, and so it seems worth pushing)(photo by helen of sound fjord)
Yes, and I think if we had the internet we might’ve found out about things sooner, but the ease would’ve made
everything feel less special – and the important thing was that I was making connections between things, rather than “links” determined by a machine or someone else. All true subcultures start small, as do all alternative cultures – and I mean true alternative cultures. What was different was that you had to be in a certain location, and you weren’t able to mimic the dress style or the music unless you had been there in person – or at least were surrounded by physical things that were hard to find… records, zines, even t-shirts… we made Damned t-shirts because we could not buy them anywhere. I just searched “punk rock t-shirt” on ebay you g
et 27,644 hits!!!!! On one hand that is super cool, on the other hand how does one become part of a true alternative culture with virtual friends who form a virtual community, where everything you need to join the club is a “click”
away. I hate to sound like an old guy, and I’m not trying to make a value judgment, but I believe that such a path was different, both physically and emotionally, and I believe that it made everything feel a lot more important and a lot less disposable.
Hm, it’d be interesting to think this through further. I don’t think virtuality necessitates an inauthentic community. But certainly, in the sense of digital mediation, it is much harder to imagine cultivating anything that can be sustained over long periods of time. Points converge and trends pop up and burn out almost as fast (particularly in the already fragmented space of electronic music, cf. #seapunk, witch-house, PBRnB). The obsession is with novelty for novelty’s sake, not with fixed identity or any sense of cultivating a style or craft. How did diasporic communities, like the Jewish people for instance, maintain a shared sense of identity across time and space without modern communication? If I had to answer I’d say: Ritual. Of course modern subcultures are far from having this sort of fixed identity, but it does but the coming together in a different context, a sort of spiritual and ritualistic beyond merely social, or at least at its best it is this. So then, I wonder, how does listening to music alone at home or anonymously via headphones impact this ritual? It becomes very alienating. Literally disorienting, people dip into and out of things in a shallow way, and even though some of us may treat the Internet as a godsend to delve deep into the archive, most people don’t seem to really explore and learn about what has come before. Anyway…
Sure, I understand what you are saying, but we all know that conversations via email, facebooking, etc. are quite different than humans in a room. There’s a freedom in the invisibility, and a willingness to offer information to others online that might be quite different than sharing in person – politicians sending phone pictures of their genitals without a worry, who would never pull down their pants in public…. funny, yes, but it also shows that there is a huge difference in being in a room with people and sending a text… and hence, I think there is an enormous difference in an online community and a group of people meeting every weekend at a club…
In terms of moving away from what I knew, the question became how can you determine your trajectory if you don’t know what you are after? I certainly didn’t know. When I got out of the punk scene I started listening to a lot of song stuff, again coming from the UK, with labels like Rough Trade, Cherry Red, Postcard, Factory, etc. a lot of that music had a melancholy quality that I responded to… and it wasn’t until maybe 1984 or so that I started moving outwards – discovering Steve Reich’s Desert Music (because I liked William Carlos Williams’ writings), which led me to Music for 18 Musicians, and eventually to Meredith Monk (because she was on ECM… ) and Stephan Micus (who was also on ECM), and just like everything else, I had no context for these artists at all. And it wasn’t until maybe a year later that I heard about minimal music – finally contextualizing that Glass performance I experienced. Now, I don’t listen to any of those artists, but they all helped get me to where I am, and in one way or another felt sympathetic with my own responses to music (as well as the Chicago Art Ensemble)… and the list goes on, but it was all a game of telephone, for if I liked something on a label, I would buy something else, and then after 2 or 3 releases I found some kind of context. It wasn’t always right or good – there are a lot of ECM records I hated… but Meredith Monk’s Turtle Dreams was just as important to me as PiL’s Metal Box.
I almost want to ask about California. The LA punk scene was pretty removed from what was going on in NY and London or even DC, even though later that scene became very well known and appreciated. But there’s something about California, maybe being so far away from Europe, that seems to have allowed room for all sorts of creative flourishing in the States, from avant-garde music to poetry. You’ve traveled all over the world at this point, but has LA always been your home base? Anything about LA as a city, or as a medium of sorts, that you might care to talk about?
I think there has always been a strong difference in west coast aesthetic and east coast aesthetic – in painting, music, writing, etc. and I consider myself very much aligned with the history of west coast art – looking at someone like Bruce Conner, who worked in a variety of mediums, never really exploited a consistent style, left the scene, returned, etc. I think the beauty of Los Angeles as opposed to NY, at least in terms of history, is that the scene here has always been smaller and much more casual, and hence less of this overriding feeling that everything is a big deal. You can disappear in LA without really disappearing, and there isn’t that feeling that you have to be at every opening or you will miss something. Painters like Lee Mullican and Gordon Onslow Ford made paintings with cosmic intentions, inspired by American Indian culture – and in NY, at the time, they probably thought it was hippie painting (although that was before the term hippie existed). I think about the Screamers in relation to DNA… it sounds like a cliché, but historically, the east coast has been more cerebral, and definitely more academic… of course, these are huge generalizations, but even the difference between jazz in the 40′s and 50′s between east coast and west coast, you can clearly see two very distinct sensibilities. Even with Hollywood, this is a laid back town. It is as a car culture, meaning you are generally alone and more disconnected from “noise”. A car is like a moving cave, the NY subway is like a moving crowd… I’m not sure about location, but certainly the way one lives life fuels their approaches to art making (and similarly, art also fuels one’s approach to life). If you are in a place your whole life, it is not just a place, but an incredibly strong influence. People talk about the light in certain places, but it is more than that, it is how one lives in a location.
DNA – “Not Moving”
Of course you’re not interested only in sound, but you are also a visual artist, you work in many media, at Suoni you used sound and video together, and you’re also rooted in the academy, in your training and working as a professor. How did your sound practice begin, and how did it evolve related to your visual practice? Do you have techniques or approaches that transcend medium specificity? Or does the materiality of the medium (a lo-fi tape recording as it is, the interface of your cheap pedals, etc) steer the boat? I realize now this question sounds almost naïve, there must be some of both, or maybe there’s no system underlying it at all.
Well, there’s no naive questions – nor any bad ones. My method is not exactly codified, so it is a very relevant question, especially as it is somewhat complex. But first, I must attend to the first part of your question about me being “rooted in the academy”… which is quite funny, as I’ve never been spoken of as such. My relationship to my education was quite contentious, probably for all the reasons I mentioned above. I was interested in pursuing personal vision, which is not always compatible with the goals of a program. I had a very difficult time with the readings of Beaudrillard and Deleuze – as I was mostly interested in Rilke, poetry and literature like Hamsun, Hesse, Mann, etc. and I didn’t fit in. At the time, the late 80’s, people were moving towards spectacle and I was moving towards quiet. I fought really hard against “the academy” in school, and was nearly kicked out of school for it. And this is where these ideas become important – because you don’t become an artist to please other people or to conform to the thing of the moment… at least in terms of what being an artist meant to me, so in terms of a student, I would say that in many ways I bypassed the academy, as I was able to succeed in doing what I felt was important, rather than what expected. it was quite a difficult experience that made me much stronger once I was out in the world.
In terms of my being a professor, well, I really feel it is my duty to work with younger artists and to push them to think about these larger issues of integrity and fighting for what you want to do. Graduate school can suck the life out of a student, particularly if they are already thinking about being successful; so I feel it is my job to go in there and to help them empower themselves, so they can fight back and experience life in a little messier way, so that it becomes real. They seem afraid to trust themselves, and they want success without really understanding what success demands of you. And more than anything, I share my own career with them. I’ve been out of school for nearly 25 years, so I have a lot of experience behind me – both good and bad. In my own experience, teachers like to create distance, and I try to break that down.
In terms of my practice, well, I studied fine arts with a major in painting -which ridiculously meant I had one true painting class in 6 years of school! I had been working with sound since I graduated high school in 1982, but mostly writing songs. It wasn’t until 1987 or so that I started working with ambient sounds and electronics and abstraction. What took a long time was to acknowledge that the sound work was part of my practice – not something separate. In 1993, I finished a group of sound works and as I was about to drop the tape into a very full drawer of tapes, I felt like I had to acknowledge the sound was part of my work. It was a freeing moment, which opened the door for the work to continue to open up and to defy expectations. So eventually text, film, sculpture, performance… became part of the work as well. I don’t like being considered a visual artist or a sound artist… and tend to simply consider myself as someone who makes things in a variety of forms.
2012, video/sound installation titled “shells, bells, steps and silences”
Well, maybe ‘rooted’ was the wrong term. But, still coming through graduate school and teaching, you seem to be much more able to articulate what it is you do, and think conceptually, than a lot of other artists I’ve encountered. (Not that every artist has some obligation to be able to really speak articulately about their work, I suppose.)
What’s funny about this is that I am teaching graduate school right now, and I just told my students to try to write like they speak… and I ended up writing them a manifesto for writing/speaking about their work, with rules such as: clarity, simplicity, honesty, etc. they are constantly griping because their other teachers are making them write in a very specific academic way, which I think is too detached from life, and which fuels distance, rather than intimacy. an artist statement isn’t to show how smart you are, it is to convey what your work is about, where it comes from, and why it matters.
So I create games for them, like Eno’s Oblique Strategy cards specifically towards a critique situation, so that they can begin to think differently – to break away from learned habits. They write the way they write because they’ve been told it has to be a certain way; so I believe it is my job is to tell them that what they are being told is simply not true. The purpose of articulating your work is not to baffle folks into thinking you are smart, but to articulate what you do, clearly. A statement is an opportunity to share, and that sharing should be as generous as possible. I’ve spent a very long time trying to to articulate what I do with enough clarity that my mother or my neighbor can understand me.
A lot of people who come out of academic culture seem to enjoy speaking or writing in ways that create distance, talking down to people; but I have no interest in making someone feel as if they don’t know enough. I’m interested in offering permission, so that anyone can respond to artworks or music on their own terms, rather than my own – so that their responses can fuel conversations – perhaps, them showing me something about the work. Of course, sometimes it helps to know context or histories, but sometimes you bump into a record like Another Green World and you don’t need an instruction sheet as much as you need to simply be patient and trust your ears and your insides….
In specific terms, a source generally dictates my engagement with it – as well as determining the tools. My recent LP for ini.itu was created through recordings and objects sent to me by Sylvain, who runs the label; and the stuff he sent me was pretty stubborn. At first I could not find my way to doing anything with the materials, and then eventually I created 3 or 4 tracks that utilized the material but the resulting tracks felt too familiar, and I felt as if I wasn’t acknowledging their characteristics. When you have been working for so long, you need to find ways not to get in the way of the material you are working with, so I threw those tracks away and started over, and finally we came to a meeting point – between myself and the materials, and slowly the tracks evolved into a record. What excites me is that feeling that I could never have made this record without these materials – so that it feels as if their voice is present as much as my own. It’s a different kind of improvising when you aren’t improvising with a person, but you still must find a place of sympathy. Sometimes this does come through scores or plans, but those aspects are usually collaborating with improvisation… no different than Cage pulling the I-ching or Eno’s Oblique Strategies or Fluxus scores… just words suggesting moves that would not have come about without them.
it seems a necessity, as active listeners, to become sensitive to these things in the world around us that the german poet rilke called “inconsiderable things” (the things from everyday life that most people don’t really pay sensitive attention to). standing on a street corner, listening to the sounds of cars approaching and then passing, the repeating crescendos resemble the sounds of ocean waves or the patterns of gentle breezes. these sounds do not only move around us; but also through us; and with sensitive ears, we begin to hear the world differently. we determine the possibilities of such “everyday” sounds for ourselves, and depending upon the depth of our attention to them, all sounds have the potential to evoke profound experiences through them.
-Steve Roden, Active listening
This is the second of a two part conversation between Steve Roden and I, conducted between June and December of 2012. You can read the first part here, in which we discuss Steve’s influences, growing up in LA’s nascent punk scene, and his approach to creativity in general. Below, we discuss his technique in more detail, his relationship to cheap technology, and his approach to live performance.
Once again, I find it most appropriate to begin with Steve’s own words. As diverse as his body of work is, and as open to possibility as Steve is as an artist and thinker, there is a serious thought and philosophy uniting his work. I think it would be too easy, and reductive, to call this “lowercase,” though the metaphor is a compelling one. Lowercase is about not screaming for attention, but a self-awareness that one’s activities are for those who put in the effort.
In addition to his work as an artist working in multiple media, Roden has also written a number of essays that explain this philosophy. He’s written about how he is not in anyway a technical person, but uses technology to his advantage by focusing on a restricted set of parameter specific to the medium in question. These essays about his basic use of recording equipment, tape, his first foray into digital recording, and more can be found at his website www.inbetweennoise. The actual techniques he employs are rather beside the point, so this interview dwells more on the concepts and ideologies, if you can call it that, and the systems he constructs and uses to guide his work, almost like scores. The creative spirit animating his work is scene in the processes he sets up and the ways in which he navigates within these closed systems.
The figure of the bricoleur, or amateur handyman, perfectly encapsulates for me the nature of Roden’s talents. Bricolage is the art of making do with what’s at hand, not settling for less but maximizing the potential within any circumstance. In The Savage Mind Claude Levi-Strauss describes the ‘bricoleur’ as “adept at performing a large number of diverse tasks; but unlike the engineer, he does not subordinate each of them to the availability of raw materials and tools conceived and procured for the purpose of the project. His universe of instruments is closed and the rules of his game are always to make do with ‘whatever is at hand,’ that is to say with a set of tools and materials which is always finite and is also heterogeneous because what it contains bears no relation to the current project, or indeed to any particular project, but is the contingent result of all the occasions there have been to renew or enrich the stock or to maintain it with the remains of previous constructions or destructions.” When Roden translates poetry from a language he can’t read, or uses the indecipherable notation from Walter Benjamin’s notebooks as a compositional score, or gently coaxes inanimate objects into dialogue, I can think of no better description than that above. His method foregrounds the act of production as production, a true love for creation itself that is both serious and playful all at once.
Architecture also serves as an important influence and inspiration for Roden, no surprise considering the scale of architectural development in the 20th century and its explicit acknowledgement of its influence on ordering social relations. Goethe famously said “Music is liquid architecture; Architecture is frozen music.” Perhaps it’s the ability to work within structural frameworks imposed by material conditions that draws this comparison, but Roden seems to take influence from the experience of physically navigating the space itself. He actually lives in the last remaining Wallace Neff “bubble house” in North America. Neff is best remembered for his Spanish Colonial Revival style mansions built for LA’s elite, but he designed the bubble house as a low-cost solution to the global housing crisis. In a 2004 interview with the LA Times, Roden said “It’s a little like being the caretaker of someone’s project. …If someday someone found all my work at the flea market, I hope they would take care of it and read some catalogs and try to do the right thing. This house is something Neff believed in. I feel so strongly about his dream of what this thing could have been.” Roden also has a special relationship to the work of architect RM Schindler. Roden declared the Schindler house in LA to be his “favorite space in the world,” a space in which he made a special in situ performance and recording. The modern design of the home is not just a question of aesthetics, but also how aesthetics and design influence social space. Absent any traditional living room, dining room or bedrooms, the house is meant to be a collective living space shared by multiple families. Both architectural works speak of a time in which our great thinkers hadn’t exhausted the dream of utopia, and understood how aesthetics and ethics intertwine, an understanding also reflected in Steve’s work. A recent blogpost on Roden’s site hints at this relationship as well.
Roden recently released a book [buy] entitled , … i listen to the wind that obliterates my traces that compiles early photographs related to music, a group of 78rpm recordings, and short excerpts from various literary sources that are contemporary with the sound and images, all culled from his personal collection. The accompanying CDs collect a variety of early recordings, including amateur musicians, long-forgotten commercial releases, and early sound effects records. There is no explicit narrative connecting the parts –that would be too confining and linear- but the implication is that our we collectively shape our culture as bricoleurs as well. It’s a beautiful realization. (Joseph Sannicandro)
A playlist of the songs mentioned in these articles can be found here.
Are you familiar with (French sociologist) Bruno Latour’s concept of Actor-Network Theory? The way you describe working with objects reminds me of this, in some way, it’s as if you are improvising with the (non-human) objects, as actors, rather than using them as instruments. Is this fair?
I don’t know Latour’s idea for acting, but yes, I view my work with objects as collaborative. I don’t force them to fulfill my needs as much as I try to let them lead me somewhere I’ve never been, so that the object maintains its integrity. I’ve often spoken about a review I got a long time ago about a CD I recorded at a space in LA, designed by the architect RM Schindler. It’s my favorite space in the world, and when the reviewer wrote about it he said the disc was great, but it could’ve been made with anything, which really stung me because he didn’t understand how deeply the space determined my approach, or the way my eyes, hands and ears collaborated in suggesting moves. These things are silent; they don’t offer themselves up nakedly as if porn – but they are determining the processes that occur behind the scenes. Because of my history with the house, I forced myself to arrive without a plan… thus the initial recordings came about through this conversation with the house; and while I could probably remake the sound of that record with a computer, hairbrush and a potted plant, my engagement with the space and its qualities, were what fueled all of my decisions, and if I had made recordings at the house next door, the piece would’ve been completely different.
Steve Roden live at the RM Schindler House
That reminds me of something I read by Michel Chion, probably from “Invisible Jukebox” feature in the Wire. He said he felt that field-recordings were kind of beside the point, because at heart the sounds you’ll capture in Paris aren’t so different from the sounds of another city, unlike photography of its fabled roofs or streets or what have you. I was really shocked, you know, because here’s this big critic and figure in sound studies, and he totally misses the experiential aspect of how recordings come to be made. There is more to a recording then the physical, material impression or information. Maybe he never encountered Dewey’s Art as Experience.
Yes, some people think that if an idea fuels a work and is must present upon the surface of the object. This is such a literal approach, like a joke, first hearing a set-up and then a punch-line and done… I’m not so interested in a kind of perfect resolve; in fact, I’m much more interested in open ended things that do not resolve easily, as I feel that it allows meaning to be built through one’s experience with the artwork, object, song, etc.
Your work also seems to break a lot of the “rules,” or defy the doxa at least.
For instance, you improvise, but mostly against yourself, not in dialogue with others. (Though your duo with Seth Cluett was interesting to watch as a contrast to this). You utilize cheap gear, don’t monitor when making field-recordings, translate poetry from languages you can’t read, etc, and manage through these practices to produce engaging work nonetheless. You’re academically trained and currently a professor, but continue to go against the grain. At the talk you have at Suoni in Montreal last year you mentioned being inspired by artists who work on the margins. Did you set out to do things your own way by choice or by necessity?
That’s an interesting question. On one hand I would say not many people would set out to work on the margins by choice, but on the other hand, if you want to be left alone to do your thing, the margins might be a haven. I look at someone like Harry Partch, and how his music is absolutely his own, and I think that because of how “other” it is, he has cemented his career as being on the periphery (and in some sense, Feldman did the same thing). For me, what’s important is being true to the work – which is very different than being true to the audience. Expectations are deadly, and both Partch and Feldman were unwilling to tuck the difficult parts away for the sake of being in the “center”. If Partch cared, he’d had turned to traditional tuning, and if Feldman cared, he’d have composed shorter pieces with more dynamics and narrative. I hate to keep going back to the same things, but I would never have made any of the works or had the approaches that you are asking about if I wasn’t part of the punk scene; because that moment was so much about pissing on talent and embracing the creative act – jumping in the water without needing to know how to swim. It’s all about ideals… and trust. so if I am unwilling to compromise my practice, then i must own my place on the margins. Honestly, I think it is highly unlikely for an artist to determine where their work fits in relation to the center or the margin, and there are certainly folks who get to straddle both at different times in their career… such as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music and Lou Reed’s “Take a Walk on the Wild Side”… you never know where the work will land…
I use cheap electronics because they are limited in terms of options – so I have to really think or feel when I’m performing with them, because I don’t have a million choices or plug-ins. I have always wanted the live experience to be live – which means very little preparation and being in the moment of a potential disaster. I’ve played with people who literally open an iTunes file and press play. On one hand this is great – the sound is pre-set, the mix, etc. but it isn’t live music, and it doesn’t offer any of the tension of live music, nor the creativity of a live performance, it is simply sharing music.
The Wallace Neff “bubble house” Roden lives in.
Which can be great if the venue is really special and the audio-system is really unique and offers something quite removed from simply popping a CD in at home, but I will come back to this later.
Absolutely! I’m not making a value judgment between live performance and tape performance, but they certainly offer different expectations and experiences. Part of the reason I recently started improvising with video is that it offers more complications in a live situation and seemed to offer less control. At the Suoni gig someone came up to me afterwards and criticized the performance for using low production quicktime files, but what he was really criticizing was that the films were not crisp clean hi-end production. For me, the medium – video shot a few hours before the show – offers the visual immediacy of improvised recordings, and it was important not to dress them up as “films.” The fact that they were crude and repetitive and of the moment – just like the sound – was indicative of the whole process of improvised performance. truthfully, he didn’t like how “crappy” they looked, but for me, they spoke in a language appropriate to the performance situation, and I’m not adverse to the vulnerability that such decisions offer.
You talked a bit earlier about ‘jumping in without knowing how to swim,’ and also about the tension that animated live performance, and I think improvisation in particular. So, I think my follow up has to be, how do you reconcile your ‘studio’ practice with your live practice? Not that you have to, but what I mean is, unlike painting or visual art/gallery art, where a ‘finished’ object is presented as something closed, generally, live music has a performative dimension, a temporal dimension, that the performer responds to in an open way.
My first live gig was a total disaster. I had just finished my first CD in 1993, and I had no idea what to do live. I knew very little about gear, and my recordings at that point were mostly multi-tracked, using mostly acoustic objects – Turkish flutes, homemade instruments, old toy instruments, stones, chairs, etc. But it was all related to working in my home studio. So for that first live gig, since I didn’t even have a delay pedal, I brought a cassette machine with me, and I had some of the sample loops from the CD on the cassettes and I tried to improvise over the loops. The problem was that it was kind of like experimental music karaoke… there was absolutely no life to it! For many years my visual art practice was limited to painting – no drawings, no sculpture, no film, etc. When I finally added drawing to my practice it was because I had finally discovered what I wanted from it – to experience an activity that drawing could offer me and painting could not. This was a huge moment, because it was about the integrity of the medium and/or the situation of making. So I began to think that if I was going to do live shows they absolutely had to embrace the temporal, and they would have to be absolutely LIVE. So I got myself a delay pedal, someone made me a few contact mics, and I just started to mess around with this stuff.
I don’t like playing live very much, I don’t like being the center of attention and for the most part, I’m happier with the results when I make records – in fact, in 19 years of releasing stuff, I’ve never released a live recording (although I’ve posted some things online). Nonetheless, while I don’t “like” performing, the potential in that discomfort is kind of wonderful and a lot of things happen live because I’m so uncomfortable and I’m trying to make sure the thing I’m creating isn’t going to implode – it’s absolutely the most focused activity because there is an audience – which scares the hell out of me. A risk in a live environment means so much more than a risk in the studio. So to answer your question, I don’t totally use the same tools in the studio and live, but even more so, I try to make sure that the activities are medium specific.
a recording session in the garage/studio working without electronics, other than some small cassette recorders (2011)
It seems to me that because, before recording technologies were developed, music was the only sonic art, with the possible exception of the complicated case of spoken poetry. Recordings of music tend to be thought of as capturing something live. (Sure, there was ritual music, and folk music, music for entertainment and music for contemplation, music for work or for art. But this is all still rooted in some sense of ‘liveness.’) Even though this isn’t quite true (and was never true), in fact recording is always in some sense a studio practice- even in 1948 when Muddy Waters plugged in and sang into microphone we’re already playing and listening differently and recording responds to this- the baggage of music being a ‘performative’ art rather than a ‘studio’ art hasn’t quite gone a way. And I think a lot of sound art and experimental music is implicitly or sometimes explicitly challenging this, just by incorporating/instrumentalizing media that was conceived of as recording/playback, be it tape music or with a laptop. I’ve seen a lot of folks trashing on guys like Skrillex for not being “real” musicians. Not that I want to defend Skrillex, but its striking to me how much people seem to miss the point.
I have no musical knowledge or skills either, and I would never consider myself a musician – a composer, maybe – but never a musician. I don’t know Skrillex, but I find those kinds of arguments to be pointless. Some people would rather listen to a drunk singing his ass off out of tune, while someone else would rather listen to the band Rush… if you are looking for technique, that is one thing. If you are looking for something real, it might come from an amateur… I mean how does one define a “real” musician… it’s not like Son House learned to make music in a conservatory.
Son House – “Grinnin’ in your face”
But then, there must be something at work if even after half a century of tape/computer music, or hell, a full century after Russolo, people still can’t seem to distinguish between listening to something in your car and experiencing it with a room full of strangers, dancing and celebrating together, or sitting and contemplating together. Who cares, on some level, what the guy on the stage is going? Of course plenty of artists respond to this by playing out of sight, or in the dark, or blindfolding the audience. You do have distinct practices that fall all over the spectrum from studio to performance, so I’m curious to get your perspective. Maybe I’m wrong to draw that distinction at all, but I think there’s something to it.
Early on, I did some performances where I was behind a curtain, etc. But it tended to draw more attention to the “missing” musician than having one present. I tend to close my eyes when I hear music, but even with someone like Francisco Lopez, who demands blindfolds at times, I find that to be a kind of distraction from listening simply because of the vulnerability and the anxiousness the blindfold evokes. It turns the thing away from pure listening. I have seen laptop players sit in the audience, and I’ve seen them sit on stage, and again, I don’t think you can make generalizations based on someone’s tools. Carl Stone is one of the most energetic and engaging performer i’ve ever seen, and ever since he has downsized to a laptop his performances remain gritty, human and exhilarating!
Carl Stone –“Shing Kee”
In terms of “what’s he doing?” I think people respond to my performances because they can see that I’m doing things with my hands, and it is very intimate and somewhat primitive – so there is usually a disconnect for people in relation to how these poor materials are creating such sounds; but if you approach performance from a place of humility, I believe that people feel less distance from you, and perhaps the gentle nature of my live work offers an entry point into dissonance or abstraction that would seem aggressive if it were loud. I don’t think about live music as a narrative – more like creating a space… it is a building process, but I don’t have a plan when I start. Sometimes I have cards or cues to push myself away from comfort zones.
my gear and stephen vitiello’s gear for a performance at the rothko chappel, related to an exhibition called “silence” (2012)
I know your working method changes based on the project, the materials, the site, its architecture, who you’re working with, etc, but, can you walk us through a sort of typical engagement with your equipment? I know you resist that fetish relationship, but at the same time you’ve developed a relationship with some pieces, with your two old delay pedals, with a particular type of mixer, and so on. Do you run an FX send/return? You don’t monitor your mixing with headphones when you’re performing, is that right? How about in the studio, do you mix on headphones?
Basically, my two biggest tools are my mixer (an old 8 channel Mackie) and two guitar pedals (both the same – a DOD dfx94 – I think it holds 6 or 8 seconds of sound, and it’s called a sampling delay. You can layer sounds in loops, but the oldest starts to degrade every time you add a new loop. You can also change the pitch of the loop by speeding it up or slowing it down. Both of these tools are very very limited, and that is what I like about them. When I do a gig and someone brings me a 16 channel mixer with multiple aux sends, etc. I am totally overwhelmed and generally it is a disaster, as I don’t understand mixers in general, I just know my own since we’ve been together for nearly 20 years… Recently, I purchased a couple of high end sampling delays and I realized they did too much… which got in the way of the simplicity and limitations. That’s why I consider these two my instruments, more than the things I make sound with, because they are the only pieces of gear I feel totally familiar with, as if they were extensions of my hands.
The other most important tools are contact mics. I use piezo buzzers to make them, and I use the ones in plastic housings – which means they don’t have the sensitivity of true piezos, but I like the way the plastic housing sounds, and you can dunk them in water or drag them along the ground, put them in your mouth, and the little hole in the plastic offers a ton of options.
recording in norway, contact mic in water (2007)
The variables can include a record player, pine cones, stones, recordings made in the space, field recordings, my voice, a lap steel guitar (rarely anymore), harmonicas, etc. One thing I NEVER use is reverb. Live, I simply pick a sound or object to start with and move forward adding and subtracting, making decisions mostly improvisationally. If I feel like I’m running on the fuel of habit, I try to find ways to disrupt things.
In terms of headphones, I never wear them during performances – which would suggest that I’m hearing something entirely different than everyone else. That seems total detachment from the audience (unless they too are all wearing headphones!). For field recordings, I also rarely monitor what I’m recording with phones as well, as I am mostly interested in the document and how it can become “useful” regardless of what it sounds like – it’s more about capturing air than sound, to bring some of the landscape into the recording mechanism, like capturing the landscape’s aura. I know I’ll never be Chris Watson with my field recordings, but I am also not looking to capture nature as it is in life. I’m interested in how the recordings can trigger new experiences. Field recordings for me are mostly a cache of material to be used. Now I make a lot of recordings with my phone, and I think if I made super high quality field recordings I’d be afraid to play with them as freely as I am able to do with the sort of wonky recordings I make.
Even with your project on Walter Benjamin, it seems like you arrived and let the idea take root through a dialogue with the unknown. I’m reminded a bit by artists like Gabriel Orozsco, this idea of the artist who just travels around with nothing but a notebook and a toothbrush, his studio wherever he finds himself. Does this idea of an “artist” resonate with you?
With this it is twofold, I get my inspiration just about anywhere or anyhow, might be a book a place an object a season a word a color, etc. and traveling around with nothing but a notebook and a toothbrush is basically, for me, a form of inspirational gathering and elaborating through writing… but the work generally occurs in my studio, and I am not someone who can really make work in hotels or on airplanes, etc. I still have that need for a studio space, mostly because I’m incredibly messy! So I feel somewhat in between an old idea of an artist slaving away in solitude in a studio and someone who travels a lot and who gathers a lot from traveling. Clearly, my work would be much different if I never left home (for better or worse).
What advice would you give to readers interesting in experimenting with sound. Rather than: the manual says this is how to do something, these are the scales or modes to learn, or such and such a controller mixing together stems in Abelton, etc etc. Was it just trial and error, resourcefulness, getting to know the gear you had available?
Most important story: Eno on the radio talking about working with the DX7 synth, and how everyone was gathering sound files and trying to build libraries, and he decided instead to work with the presets – horribly cliché and boring sounds… because he was interested in how a dead end fuels creativity. That resonated with me very very deeply. What it emphasizes is not how great your gear is, but how you approach something creatively – a source, an idea, a form, a limitation, etc. so that it will unfold!
A lot of artist seek works that fulfill their expectations from the beginning – an idea appears and is realized. I have no issue with that as a method, but it is not for me. Certainly, I’m using physical material – say with Benjamin’s notebooks – but I don’t have a plan at the beginning for what will come out of my conversation with this material. I don’t want the sources to have to conform to my expectations as much as i ask the materials to open me up, initially to create difficulty, then to teach me something, and then to push me off onto a path… this is generally not an end point, but one of many beginnings. failure is a necessary part of the process, and I have no idea what will come out of it. working with Benjamin’s notebooks, I never could’ve conceived of a sound piece, a few video works, drawings, and now beginning to find a way towards paintings (nearly a year later). if I knew what I was looking for, I would not see anything else (like driving in a car and never looking out the window until you arrive at your destination – for me, the journey has the most value, in fact sometimes even more so than the result!. But of course, it is a slow process waiting for voiceless things to speak.
, recording the interior of edvard grieg’s writing cabin in oslo, norway (2007)
John Cage would have been 100 this year, and of course we’ve been presented with a never ending Cage programming lately. Can you talk a bit about Cage and his influence on you? I remember you mentioned something about realizing a score of his.
Without realizing this would be his 100th year, in January 2011 I began a year long project performing 4’33″ every day for a year. If I thought I knew Cage before then, this certainly took everything to the next level – for I not only performed the piece every day, but also wrote about each realization in a diary (which has been included in a few exhibitions already and which I hope will be published at some point). It wasn’t that different from working with Benjamin’s notebooks (and in fact while in Paris, I performed 4’33″ using one of Benjamin’s notebooks on display at the Jewish Museum as my instrument… so much of my thinking collided in that moment.)
My relationship to Cage’s work grew slowly. First, I knew him as this guy who made music with cactus and noise. I, like a lot of people, assumed his work was mostly situations where the musicians could do anything… but after realizing some scores with Mark Trayle for a performance of Variations II and Contact Music last year, I really learned a ton – and I think you never really know Cage until you’ve realized some of these scores where you have do some drawing and reading and dice throwing to create your own score. These are not free-for-alls at all… because the parameters that serve the improvisation are very fixed and very complicated to “play”. I don’t think I could break down how much that year of performances worked on me, but it was a really wonderful thing to do (and I recommend it to anyone, especially if you can maintain focus).
What’s so fantastic about Cage is that when he went into making visual works, he was so inventive, curious, and willing to try certain things – willing to fail. I think his genius was to maintain that curiosity, in all of his endeavors…
me and rob millis performing together at the stone in ny. (2012)
Lastly, many artists seem to cite you as an inspiration. In my interview with Rutger Zuydervelt (Machinefabriek) you came up as an important influence. I’ve also heard Taylor Dupree mention you were an inspiration for him in moving away from the laptop. Any reflections on being on a stage in your career in which you’ve been able to play this role? I suppose I should mention the whole phenomenon of ‘lowercase,’ which you seem to have your reservations about. Labels are always problematic, but was this a rejection of the idea of seeing commonality between artists grouped under this heading?
Funny, this was the hardest question to answer… hmmmm…. how to even approach such a thing… I mean, it is so gratifying to even think that your work or your process has inspired others… its quite humbling. I’ve worked with both of them, and happy that people a generation younger than me find me relevant. I remember some early gigs with Taylor, and me being perplexed at how he could get those sounds out of a laptop and he looking at my table of junk and wondering the same. While he has moved away from the laptop, I’ve (surprisingly) found myself using the laptop in performances to work with video… so the best part of all of this is that we are all still evolving and our practices are allowed to be messy rather than neat and crisp.
In terms of lowercase, I guess you could see it two ways. One would be a bunch of like minded folks starting something (like punk!), but on the other hand you have people who want to be part of something so badly that they create work for the scene (which I’m sure did happen in punk rock as well). For me, I have always felt that it was important to do things your own way, to veer away from the center and to mine some deep personal territory. When we had the lowercase list, people would argue about which movie was lowercase, or book, and it felt like it was working towards conformity rather than experimentation, which drove me crazy. Now I’m waiting for the uppercase backlash!
Thank you so much to Steve Roden for taking the time to ramble with me and have such in depth and meaningful discussions. It was truly an honor to have him take part in Sound Propositions. Roden’s deserves all the acclaim he receives, yet like many unique voices who work in multiple media and don’t fit easily into accepted categories, his work is too often neglected by the mainstream critics and institutions. We certainly don’t have enough of an audience to make much of an impact as far as that goes, but are heartened as outsiders ourselves to have such dedicated practitioners like Steve quietly working away on the margins to look towards.
And in case you missed it, Steve put together this fabulous mix for Secret Thirteen in December connecting 24 7″ records from around the world.
February 4, 2013
The Legacy of Situationist Psychogeography: Its Relational Quality and Influence on Contemporary Art
In the time before the Industrial Revolution, cities were defined by their rivers; the spirit of a city was revealed by the ways in which its citizens interacted with this most important of resources. Imagine how different London would be without the Thames, Paris without the Seine, or New York without the Hudson and East Rivers. The social, economic, and political life of a city revolved heavily around this major landmark, a primary source of transportation, commerce, and shared social space, not to mention drinking water. Following industrialization, however, city life began to change rapidly, and the significance of the river declined, finally superseded by the highway as the principal channel of commerce and transportation. Aqueducts and underground pipes delivered water below ground, unseen, while trains and automobiles delivered passengers and goods. This move from natural to artificial follows the general trend of modernization, and urbanization, one which has alienated us as human beings from both nature and from ourselves.
Many poets, thinkers, and artists were quick to recognize the ways in which industrialization changed the way we live, and reflected both praise and criticism in their work. As technology and its incursions on the social sphere have increased exponentially, our ontological framework has been fundamentally changed with it. Theorists such as Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin responded specifically to the effect of new technologies on not only artistic production but also on aesthetic concepts that govern our understanding of works of art, while remaining critical of the culture industry that was emerging from it. This critical Marxist perspective influenced the next generation of thinkers, who bore witness to the increasing encroachment of capitalism on all aspects of the social space. Guy Debord, for example, argued that society has become a series of spectacles, commodities having overtaken all aspects of life, and we, the public, have been reduced to a society of extras, passive receptacles who act only the minimum required for the mechanism of capitalist power to function. Artistic production was radically altered by emerging technologies, as was artistic reception and the governing aesthetic criteria, by changes in technology and by economic structures. Photography, film, and other inherently reproducible media emerged, raising profound questions about the nature of art and calling into question traditional aesthetic beliefs. (cf. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”) Therefore by the post-war period, European artists and intellectuals were already questioning the role of art and the artist and what constitutes art in a way that was informed by their views on technology and capitalism.
The situationists in particular saw the way that the landscape itself, primarily urban, was being altered, and engaged in ‘psychogeographic’ research as a means of revealing and combating these attacks. Though they may not have always been interested in labeling an action as inherently ‘artistic,’ the methodologies, icons, theories, and works (of art) left behind have profoundly influenced contemporary aesthetic theorists and artists who continue to strive to understand, explore, and challenge industrial-capitalism’s negative effects on our cultural, political, and social, not to mention natural, environments.
During the late 19th century, the French poet Baudelaire translated the work of the American writer Edgar Allan Poe into French for the first time. Poe’s urban stroller (or, perhaps, stalker,) was instrumental to the creation of Baudelaire’s own take on the modern gentleman, the now famous character of the flâneur. First described in his 1863 essay “The Painter of Modern Life,” the flâneur was in turn an influence on a great many 20th century artists and writers. Baudelaire related the figure to the French Impressionists, the first artists in the post-industrial world to leave the confines of the studio for the streets. Walter Benjamin examines the flâneur in Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century and The Arcades Project, while Guy Debord and the Situationist International (SI) were inspired to conduct psychogeographic research as means of understanding the effects that industrialization has had on our behavior. This articulation of the effect of the modern urban environment on its citizens emotional and psychological lives and the (purportedly) practical strategies outlines offered by the SI to change this relation resonated further, and have been utilized in various ways by many contemporary artists, though often without the underlying, and crucial, political dimension characteristic of the SI themselves. The radical subjectivity of the psychogeographic map paired with the performative nature of the dérive has influenced many important artists and contributed to the progression of an aesthetic theory that reflects modern societies shaped by modern technologies.
Psychogeography and the new Urbanism
Edgar Allen Poe and Charles Baudelaire both wrote on what has been termed the flâneur, the distinctly modern figure of the urban stroller, recognizable to any urban dweller. A concept which many readers instantly connected with due to the recognizable and universal character, the flâneur has come to represent the way in which modern man relates to constructed, urban environments. Writing in the 1950’s, radical thinkers such as Guy Debord re-appropriated the concept, turning the act of strolling into the distinct, and much celebrated dérive, the act of purposelessly drifting through a city in order to understand its ambience. The SI sought to find ways to fuse art and life, and so they considered the dérive to be a serious strategy. Though they too were embodiments of the flâneur, they did not carry around paints and canvas as did their predecessors from the century prior, but instead their artistic output was focused on subjectivity and constructed situations (hence the name.) In the early years of the SI, much consideration was given to how future cities should be built, and the dérive was one means of discovering which neighborhoods should be preserved once the city was replaced by something superior.
The SI understood the effect that the layout of a city has on its inhabitants, and sought to alter these effects by opening “a channel of communication” between the city and its citizens. Changes in communication technology have further altered, and it could be argued alienated, citizens from themselves and from their cities. The technologies which affect us are not naturally occurring, but instead are designed; the effects they have on us can manifest themselves in positive and negative ways, and though these effects may not be necessary foreseen, the designs are nonetheless planned. Architecture, urban planning, city layouts, and various aspects of infrastructure can all alter the way we relate to our environment and to each other, as individuals and as a community. Because of this fact, the artifice of architecture, it is a fair topic for artists to be interested in, and in fact a necessary one. Artists, whose works invariably become the relics of their culture, recognized the effect that industrialization had on us as a species and responded in various ways. The SI thus paid careful attention to the effects of urban planning and emergent technologies. They termed their investigations ‘psychogeography,’ defined by Jorn as “the study of specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviors of individuals.” (Jorn, 45.) Such practices were made necessary by the overly cold and rational urban planning which they perceived as having excessive influence, particularly in post-war Europe. They were reacting to
bourgeois culture and politics on the one hand and the sterile, austere functionalism of high modernism on the other. … In the modern city, Logos has triumphed over Eros, order over disorder, organization over rebels. (Merrifield, pg. 27. Emphasis mine.)
The irrationalism of Freud and Nietzsche thus take practical form with the playfulness of the SI. Play is one of the central tenants of their philosophy, reacting against rationalism, and embracing Eros.
The threat posed by functional architecture and urban planning was countered by encouraging the public to take part in their own psychogeographic experiments. In fact, in the first issue of the Lettrist journal Potlatch, in which the term ‘psychogeography’ was introduced in the name of a column, “The psychogeographic game of the week,’ readers were encouraged to write to the editors describing their own psychogeographic experiences. Debord’s collaborator and fellow Situationist Asger Jorn wrote that psychogeography was “an artistic practice carried out in the everyday space of the street rather than in the conventional art spaces of the gallery or theatre.” (Jorn, 69.) Thus the practice is both radically subjective as well as novel in its communal orientation. In 1957, Guy Debord created, with his aforementioned Dutch colleague Jorn, several psychogeographic maps, most notably “Psychogeographic Guide of Paris” and “The Naked City.” A sort of Dadaist collage, these maps were made by cutting up a map of Paris and reassembling the pieces based on their drifts through the city. Although radically subjective in capturing the experience of its creators, the maps could be used by the viewer as a catalyst to navigate oneself through varied ambiences, both physical and psychological. Debord and Jorn understood the resulting psychogeographic maps, and the dérive itself, as a form of détournment, a concept fundamental to understanding the artistic output of the SI. Détournment literally translates as ‘diversion,’ though it has been argued that a more fitting translation might be “‘rerouting,’ ‘hijacking,’ ‘embezzlement,’ ‘misappropriation,’ ‘corruption,’ all acts implicit in the situationist use of society’s ‘preexisting aesthetic elements.’” (Sadler, pg. 17) This concept is associated with Jorn’s essay “Détournment Painting,” still a strikingly modern text that has clearly influenced contemporary artists. This concept of détournment, understood independently of mere painting, is necessary to any nuanced understanding of the psychogeographic maps as works of art. The maps were created by cutting out the areas of Paris that were found to be most interesting, generally neighborhoods discovered by the dérive, and generally those that were the least gentrified. They were mapping atmospheric unities, and trying to encourage moving through varied ambiences seamlessly, a way of combating the ‘haveness’ which has interfered with our authentic mode of Being. The source material was “Plan de Paris à vol d’osieau,” the most popular and extensive map of Paris available at the time. The Plan was published in 1956, and drawn by G. Peltier, and was therefore a work of art itself, and thus capable of being détourned. Although all traditional maps embody Cartesian rationality, the Plan was a particularly attractive target for the situationists because of its “unconditional celebration of “the Spectacles” of Paris, which it carefully listed.” (Sadler , pg. 83.) These neighborhoods were cut out of the map and rearranged according to their ambience, while red arrows depicted the most common (psychogeographical) ways of traveling from one distinct ambience to the others. Traditional maps, with their Cartesian rationality so despised by the situationists for it’s cold calculations and inauthenticity, organize information spatially. Psychogeographic maps rely on a different method of organization. The typologies that order a psychogeographic map are subjective, and can very greatly. In the case of the two mentioned above, distinct atmospheric unities were carved out of the supposed unity of Paris, a unity which the SI saw threatened and eroded by gentrification. The neighborhoods are often cut out along roads that are heavily traveled by automobiles. In this way the roads have replaced the rivers completely, making islands out of city blocks surrounded by a moat of machines. The SI often said, in explanation of the dérive, that roads for pedestrians and roads for automobiles are incompatible. The drift has a radically political and subversive character from this perspective, as a way of reclaiming space taken by cars, highway authorities, and urban planners. The city bears not just the scars of gentrification, but also of militarism, and this is particularly evident in Paris. The Champs-Elysées, for example, is nowhere to be found on any of Debord’s maps. It was widened and straightened by Napoleon to enable grand military parades, which also makes marching an army down it easier. The German troops famously marched down in a military parade celebrating the Fall of France in 1940, as did the American and Free French troops in 1944 when they reclaimed the city. More objectionable to the SI than even military parades is the potential for the cities roads to be utilized by the military and police against their own citizens, as during the student riots of 1968.
Debord wrote “The Theory of the Dérive” as a way of explaining many of the theoretical concepts which justify the creation of (the) psychogeographic maps. Debord calls into question the underlying premise of traditional maps, which posit a perspective, that of an omniscient viewer, that never actually exists.  Therefore the map is fantastic; as an act of fantasy, it exists purely as a construct of the imagination, and is in this way an art object, if one claiming to be objective. (Cf. Adorno, …) It is organized to help navigate, but Debord knew that the map could be organized instead by various other typologies. Debord therefore disregarded spatial connections and instead organized his maps according to feeling, creating documents that are completely subjective in nature, as well as entirely trapped in a specific moment in time. This was unique and could not be universalized, (not a bad thing in itself,) but the map could still be used as a guide, calling into question traditional, capital-centric, notions held of the organization of space and our behavior in it. An early example of the dérive inspired by psychogeographic mapping was recalled by Debord, in which a friend wandered around the Harz region of Germany guided by blindly following a London Tube map. (Merrifield, pg. 48.) If we take the idea seriously, the unity imagined by a traditional map is in fact imagined, if the criteria for the map is changed. For Debord, his maps represent the feel of the city, and so certain neighborhoods do not belong next to each other on the map, because they do not feel next to each other, in life. Additionally, by altering the spatial lay out, the reader is jolted into re-contextualizing and re-examining their understanding of the city, by breaking from routine or calling to mind one’s own ignorance. [Railroad turntables, greater depth in discussing the maps] “The Naked City brings these distinctions and differences out into the open, the violence of its fragmentation suggesting the real violence involved in constructing the city of the Plan.” (McDonough “Situationist Space,” pg. 65) So although these maps are subjective, they can still be true guides in that they can aid in awakening the follower to the rhythms of the city that may have been masked by idiosyncratic routines and insidious urban planners. They also, as art objects, represent the city at a specific time in its history, as the ambiences will of course change over time, and thus the psychogeographical map is also something of a time capsule.
One must ask what it was about the modern city that so troubled the SI. They understood architecture as profoundly affecting social order, for it orders the way we relate to and navigate through space. This notion can be extended to all forms of urban planning. In “Fluid Spaces: Constant and the Situationist Critique of Architecture,” Thomas McDonough explains “that social order… tended to become more and more fascistic,… and reaching its fullest development… as the triumph of what the SI… called ‘ the organization of life along the lines of a concentration camp.’” (Zegher, pg. 94) He goes on to point out that the “narrowness of bourgeois life was not perceived merely in the abstract sense of its mores and manners,” in the way one might typically interpret a Marxist critique, but rather as “a concrete matter of its spatial practice.” To demonstrate this understanding, McDonough relates Debord’s reaction to a map of Paris showing the movements of a young woman over the course of a year, compiled by an urban sociologist. The map has a clearly visible triangle, which shows that the woman rarely deviated from her idiosyncratic route as she navigated between her school, her residence, and her piano instructor’s. Debord saw this as an example of “’modern poetry capable of provoking sharp emotional reactions’ -specifically ‘indignation at the fact that there are people who live like that.’” (Zegher, pg 94. Debord, “Dérive,” pg 1) Here we see that Debord not only sees a material understanding of his criticism of capitalism, but also a sort of aestheticization of the relationship between a city and its inhabitants, even if it is demonstrating a negative manifestation.
The SI considered themselves as the descendents of Dada and Surrealism, as the inheritors of this legacy of challenging bourgeois conceptions of life and art, but also considered their practices to completely supercede those of their forbearers. The ‘works of art’ produced by the Dadaists were created with the intention of being absurd, of destroying the concept of art by leveling the aesthetic playing field. The Dadaists were attempting to create a radical paradigm shift, breaking away from old, bourgeois aesthetics in favor of expressions which reflected the times. They were intentionally provocative. The SI continue this tradition of provocation, and sought to ‘construct situations’ as a means of creating new forms of human relations which have been flattened by rationalism, bourgeois values, urban planning, and capitalist enforced primacy of the image.
Both Debord and Jorn were interested in the spectacle, and sought to identify the relationship between an art object, its referent, and its viewer, (the spectator.) The spectator does not determine the value of a work of art, in my view, but rather that great works are capable of consistently opening a space for community. The spectacle itself is a negative term, describing a temporary manifestation around an object, or more accurately an image or appearance, which is not great art, but rather a Thing, in the Heideggerian sense. This concept of triangulation, which is related to Jorn’s own concept of triolectics, brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s works on aesthetics. Adorno argues that all art is fantasy, as it is always trying to represent something, though it is something else, so there exists a tension between that being represented, the work itself (be it painting, literature, music, or whatever) and the viewer, or spectator. Art is fantasy, and can never be what it mimics. This is one more justification for Debord’s implementation of a psychogeographic map as a tool, for the objectivity of the traditional map cannot ever be realized.
The psychogeographic map is fragmented, and this is completely acceptable. In this way the SI were absolutely postmodern, unaffected by the lack unity, perhaps abandoning the search for unity all together. In fact by identifying neighborhoods within Paris that are distinct, those cut out to make the collage, they are physically attacking the proposed unity that is ‘Paris.’ Marxists, though clearly influenced by Nietzsche and irrationalism, the SI were analyzing effects, and not trying to see what could not be seen.
Relational Aesthetics and the Situationist International
Similarly, Bourriaud identifies 1990’s performance artists as embodying an aesthetic that is relational, one that is routed in the moment and not preoccupied with being material; its is only alive in that it is replicable, more inherently reproducible than Benjamin could have imagined! The trend of inherent reproducibility and loss of aura did not peak with film, as Benjamin thought, but has reached a new height in performance art. Bourriaud describes the work of many varied artists whose works embody a modern dichotomy; they exist only as performances in specific times and places, though as actions they are reproducible. Their work is interesting, and artistic, because these ‘constructed situations’ blur the line between participant, work ,artist, and spectator, and raise questions about our social organization. In a certain sense, art has always been made to raise questions about social relations, and Bourriaud is merely pointing out the ways in which our social relations have been affected by new technology. This new understanding of aesthetics that is based on relationality and interactivity, rooted in material and historical realities, as well as social conditions. In Relational Aesthetics, Bourriaud posits an aesthetics for the modern world, one which reflects the changes which have occurred in industrialized capitalist societies. For Bourriaud, this means incorporating new theoretical concepts, particularly as they relate to technology, such as usability, interactivity, play/rewind/fast-forward, and so on. Summarized as relational aesthetics, he claims that modern artists, or those working in the 1990’s at least, reject traditional aesthetic notions in favor of work that plays with social relations. In this way art has become about reproducibility and performance, and less about objects and posterity, instead focusing on ‘documentation,’ (since the gallery is still a store at it’s core.) He reiterates that this documentation should not be mistaken for the work itself, however, which is inherently tied to a specific time and place. He writes that contemporary art is “viewable only at a specific time,” and that the
documentation … should not be confused for the work itself. This type of activity presupposes a contract with the viewer, an “arrangement” whose clauses have tended to become diversified since the 1960s.” (Bourriaud, pg. 29)
Bourriaud is focused on the new theoretical concepts underlying contemporary art, and though many of these practices began in the ‘60s, our way of understanding them has evolved greatly in tandem with advances in technology. Much of what he offers is rooted in Situationist theory. Debord put forth the idea that the image has become the “final form of commodity reification,” and Bourriaud and the artists he describes could not exist if not for this formulation. He frees Debord of much of his Marxist leanings by refusing to challenge the problem of commerce in art, at least directly, instead writing that art is “a human activity based on commerce,” whose sole function is “to be exposed to this commerce.” (Bourriaud, pg. 19) He takes great measures to lay out how artistic practice has long been based on relations, on how with modernization this relationality has been brought to a new height. For Debord, the spectacle masked true human relations. The social became dominated by economics, and human relations suffered. Bourriaud believes that artists can re-appropriate this space by making the spectator an active participant, by creating new, authentic, interactive space and social relations through art. “Any art work might thus be defined as a relational artwork,” he posits, but first notes that the society of the spectacle is followed by a society of extras, who find “the illusion of an interactive democracy in more or less truncate channels of communication…” (Bourriaud, pg. 26.) Though a recent work, technology has continued to progressand to grow exponentially, dating even these capitulations.
Not unlike Marx, Bourriaud points out that the ‘society of the spectacle,’ and all commodities, deals primarily with human relations, though these relations are often masked by ‘image.’ He is clearly indebted to Debord for much of his understanding of Marxist concepts. The separation resulting from living under industrial-capitalism is one reason why works that explore relationality have become artistic acts. Bourriaud writes that “this is a society where human relations are no longer ‘directly experienced’, but start to become blurred in their ‘spectacular’ representation.” (Bourriaud, pg 9.) Again drawing on Marx and Debord, he continues to argue that the essence of humanity is its social relations, and talks of life as a game, something the Situationists would have approved of. The Situationist ‘constructed situation,’ which can include many activities beyond those that are psychogeographical, is a part of the game, and Debord saw “ ‘art being exceeded’ by a revolution in day-to-day life.” (Bourriaud, pg. 19) This understanding is critical to relational aesthetics, as well as to the SI, because it is this blurring of life and art that gives these practices force. Bourriaud reiterates this point, clarifying that the ‘constructed situation’ is “intended to replace artistic representation by the experimental realization of artistic energy in everyday settings.” (Bourriaud, pg. 84)
These Situationist theories have left more of a legacy than the works themselves, and in many ways this is the point. Debord and the Situationists wanted to fuse life and art, not to leave material evidence but to change the way individuals interact and think about the structures which govern our lives. Though the images, such as “The Naked City,” are quite iconic, it is the theoretical justification which continues to influence generations of artists and musicians. Today, the questions raised about technology, urban-planning, industrialization and capitalism, and the concept of psychogeography in general, clearly informs the work of several major contemporary artists, from performance artists, such as Vito Acconci or Sophie Calle, to rock bands, such as the (international) Noise Conspiracy. Because of the widespread appropriation of SI concepts, particularly the dérive, it is difficult to argue that these ideas have retained any of their political significance, if they ever even had any. Regardless of how they have been used, the concepts are still powerful, and retain their revolutionary utility.
Legacy and Influence on Contemporary Artists
Contemporary artists continue to produce works that question the social relations which are defined by industrial-capitalism/modernity, and many artists do still raise the same kinds of questions about how societal structures control or manipulate our behavior simply by steering the way we move and see. Janet Cardiff and Charles LaBelle are two representatives of the various types of contemporary artists whose work can be understood via relational aesthetics and psychogeographical frameworks.
Janet Cardiff is a Canadian installation artist whose work is primarily audio-based. “Her Long Black Hair,” part of a series of sight-specific urban walking tours designed by Cardiff, takes the listener on a walk through Manhattan’s Central Park. The listener becomes more than simply a spectator, but instead an active participant, strolling through the park, observing other people and listening to the narrator’s own experience in the park, following the path of a women in decades old photographs. The guide makes several direct references to Baudelaire, which makes the connection to psychogeography easier to discern. She also alludes to the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, specifically imploring that we “Don’t look back.”  A clear genealogy is visible between her retroactive voyeurism/audio-guided dérive and psychogeographic practice.
The audio tour relies on re-creating binaural sounds, rendering for the listener a convincing three-dimensional world. As one walks through the park, one begins to exist in an odd and fantastic space between reality and art, never quite sure if one is hearing a sounds from the headphones or from those actually in the park that day. Cardiff’s voice is hypnotic in its cadence and tone, and easily guides us along. The premise of “Her Long Back Hair” is that the narrator found old photographs showing a young woman in various locations throughout Central Park. We do not know how much of the narrative we are given is fictional, which heightens the surrealism of the experience. Cardiff narrates, though never identifies herself as such, her drift through the park, attempting to find the exact locations where the photographs were taken. Did she truly find these photographs, or is that her in them? Perhaps someone else? The narrative itself is filled with similar ambiguities. She wonders who took the photographs. A lover perhaps? What was their story, who was around that day, what did they experience in the park, how did their relationship end, are they still together, and so on. Making many allusions to Baudelaire and Orpheus, she weaves a stunning narrative that still manages to still open a space for subjective experience. After all, the listeners are still themselves, wandering through the park. In this way, Cardiff has created the audio equivalent of a psychogeographic map; she logs a subjective experience, her own wanderings around the park (which may or may not be sincere) and presents them to others to guide them through there own exploration through constantly shifting ambiences and locations. Though the park is basically unchanged, those who populate it and the events that one encounters are fundamentally different.
Charles LaBelle’s work is more easily identified as being psychogeographic in nature. When LaBelle moved from Los Angeles to Harlem, NY’s Sugar Hill neighborhood in 2005, he dedicated his work to exploring his new home, producing a series called Sugar Hill Suites-BLDG and Sugar Hill Suites- Territory Covered (Days 1-14). Through walking around Sugar Hill, LaBelle sketched hundred of apartments and businesses, and kept careful notes on the routes he walked each day, finally redrawing them, in his own blood, with arrows, notes, and key places, creating both documentation of his wandering as well as psychogeographic map. The 788 watercolor-pencil drawings of buildings he sketched create a temporal portrait of the neighborhood, trapped in time just as Debord’s impression of Paris is trapped in 1957. His maps, documenting his daily walks around Sugar Hill, are clearly influenced by Debord’s, though LaBelle adds his own unique style. Similar arrows to those used by Debord make appearances, though here they represent “psycho-spatial movement,” (as in Day 14) or the singularity and overlap of the beginning and the end (as in Day 12.) The splattered blood of Day 13 may call to mind a page from Debord’s book Memoires, which has similar patterns and collage of text. Like in The Naked City and The Psychogeographical Guide of Paris, LaBelle’s maps may show two or more areas without connecting them spatially, and only represents subjective connections. LaBelle disassembles the perceived unity of the neighborhood in some ways by breaking it up into distinct unities of his own.
A 2004 piece by LaBelle entitled Driftworks also betrays his debt to the Situationists. A photo-based work made up of compound photos from shots taken while traveling all over the world, Driftworks is a record of the artists drifts creating unities now from pieces of many cities and thousands of photographs (which themselves create a type of unity.)
Older pieces, such as those by Sophie Calle and Vito Acconci, also demonstrate a debt to psychogeography and the dérive. As Bourrioud describes, Calle’s work “consists largely in describing her meetings with strangers.” (Bourriaud, pg. 30) In Suite Venitienne (1980) she documents a trip to Venice, in which she follows a casual acquaintance whom she met at a gallery opening in Paris after overhearing his plans. She wanders around Venice, hoping to encounter this man, disguised and carrying a special camera so she will not have to look directly at him, and attract his attention, to photograph him. “He’s not there,” “I have seen him,” “What if he saw me?” the accompanying text relates. Calle’s adventure is itself the art work, embodying both relational aesthetics and SI psychogeography. Acconci’s 1969 work Following Piece similarly relies on random encounters to produce a drift which is in turn documented in photographs. For one month, Acconci would leave his home and follow the first person he saw until they entered a place he could not follow (such as a private residence.) As Bourriaud reminds us, the documentation is not to be confused with the work. The art work is itself the act of following. This was a very radical notion when first proposed, and could not have been made for not the influence of the Situationists.
Owing more to Constant perhaps than Debord, contemporary installation artists explore the ways in which we rely on our senses and how constructed spaces play into those perceptions. Artists such as Olafur Eliasson, for instance, can be understood as belonging to this lineage. Most importantly, Eliasson’s work is designed to make us ‘see ourselves seeing ourselves.’ This self-consciousness is quite a radical aim for a work of art. “Eliasson presents perception as it is lived in the world. Because people do not stand in front of his work as if before a picture, but rather inside them, actively engaged, his installations posit the very act of looking as a social experience.” (Loxana Marcoci, Curator, Klaus Biesenbaer, Chief Curator, MoMA, Olafur Eliasson: Take Your Time) For example, in Mirror Door (2008) spotlights shine at rectangular mirror doors creating a circle of light on the gallery floor. When the viewer stands in that spot the attention of the piece is transformed as the individual becomes self-conscious of themselves in the mirror and being watched by the other museum-goers. More personal is Space Reversal (2007) in which an opening in a corridor creates a space where the viewer and the immediate surroundings are reflected into infinity, literally allowing one to see oneself. Though not reliant on the blurring of life and art, Eliasson still plays with the affects of installations on perception, and relies on our self-awareness.
Psychogeography, and performance art in general as it has come to be understood, takes place in a world in which art and life have been blurred. The act itself is art, designed to create a situation which breaks the mystical illusion of the spectacle, which has created a ‘society of extras,’ trapped in passivity. In a world in which “the image is the final form of commodity reification,” it is a significant political statement to deny the commodification of art by relocating the art work in a temporal action.
Figure 1: Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, The Naked City, 1957.
Figure 2: Guy Debord and Asger Jorn, The Psychogeographic Guide of Paris, 1957.
Figure 3: Guy Debord, Life continues to be free and easy, c. 1959.
In this piece, Debord detourns his own work, adding a collage of text, a postage stamp, and hand colored figures over a portion of The Naked City.
Figure 4: Guy Debord, a page his book Memoires, 1957.
Territory Covered- Day 12, 2005-06
Blood and Letraset on paper
17″ x 14″
Territory Covered- Final Day, 2005-06
Blood and Letraset on paper
17″ x 14″
Territory Covered- Day 13, 2005-06
Blood and Letraset on paper
17″ x 14″
Figure 8: Janet Cardiff, Her Long Black Hair, 2005.
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Situationist Architectures from Constant’s New Babylon to Beyond. New York: The Drawing Center, 2001.
 Hannah Arendt, in “The Crisis in Culture,” writes that mass society and mass culture were both recent developments caused by new technologies, and analyzes the effect these have had on politics and art. Furthermore she argues that the concept of ‘society’ itself is a result of Modernity.
 Nicolas Bourriaud points out, for example, how the birth of Marcel Duchamp’s first ‘ready-made’ coincided with that of the motion picture. “For the first time… art no longer consists in translating the real with help of signs, but in presenting this same real as it is.” (Bourriaud, pg. 112.)
 The Situationist International was not founded until 1957, and so it is technically incorrect to label those to-be Situationists doing psychogeographic work prior to then as such. I will follow the example of Simon Sadler, however, in labeling them ‘situationists’ with a lower-case ‘s’ for the sake of simplicity.
 Essentially this boiled down to becoming inebriated on red wine and wandering drunkenly around the city. These derives, as they would come to be called, became the subjective experiences on which future works of art would be based.
 Benjamin’s writings often seems to embody a similar spirit of wandering, particular “Hashish in Marseille” (1932,) which can be found in Reflections. In it, Benjamin walks around Marseille while intoxicated by hashish, and muses on the nature of the city and modern life, drifting from café to café.
 The SI are clearly an important influence on Bourriaud’s relational aesthetic, and performance art in general, as their actions were dependent on inter-subjectivity and relationality. One can also see the influence of Dada and Surrealism on the SI’s own theoretical grounding.
 The actual planning of such a city is most clearly embodied in the work of the Dutch Situationist Constant, whose New Babylon embodies the utopian city of the future.
 The notion of playfulness, though often associated with childishness, also comes up in Benjamin, and is considered as positive ideal. The 20th century, perhaps like early ancient Rome, denigrates the arts and play, and even childishness, as being negative and frivolous pursuits. Cf. Arendt, “The Crisis in Culture.”
 Arendt, again in “The Crisis in Culture,” brings up the example of a Church. She writes that the artistic beauty of the Church is unrelated to its function as a building, which is merely to shelter, and could be accomplished without the grand embellishments. Therefore these elements must have a purpose beyond utility.
 The International Lettrists was one of the movements which preceded the SI.
 Thus Brecht’s hopes for theatre have been realized in a certain way, by transferring the act of performance to the masses.
 The pseudo-anonymous British graffiti artist and up-and-coming celebrity Banksy comes to mind, as well as Adbusters magazine, among others.
 I’d like to propose what is perhaps an etymological coincidence, but regardless is nevertheless quite illuminating. Dérive comes from deriver, which means to drift in French. The English word ‘derive’ is in fact itself derived from the French derivez. The two words, derivez and deriver, are no doubt etymologically linked, and I think their meanings philosophically overlap in a rather poetic way. We derive thoughts through a process similar to that of the dérive, drifting through the metaphysics of the mind the way the SI drift through the psychogeography of the urban environment. “We don’t come to thoughts/ Thoughts come to us.”- Martin Heidegger, “The Thinker as Poet.”
 New technologies have changed the ways in which we organize information, and in some ways the SI have predicted these new typologies that are used to sort data. Computerized databases have changed the way we think, and are quickly replacing printed databases, that are both rationally organized and inefficient. (Not that the SI were in favor of increasing efficiency, necessarily.) In a manor of thinking, psychogeographic maps, organized by ambience and subjectivity, preceded these changes, and with GPS technology and computer databases, we can envision even more revolutionary forms of psychogeographic maps organized not around spatial and objective truth but by shared feelings and subjective experience. Try to map the internet, for instance.
 This is easily tested by conducting a drift of ones own. Take a walk around any urban environment, crossing the street when able based on traffic lights and car traffic, or simply observing how the perceived unities change as one approaches and crosses major roadways, or how one’s path is completely obstructed by them. The work of Francis Alÿs, in which he walks around a city with a dribbling can of paint, is an interesting example that demonstrates how automobile traffic can directly influence our own routes.
 The automobile most completely embodies the objectionable aspects of Modernity and Capitalism; they are ubiquitous, wasteful, machine powered, non-eotechnical (to quote Will Self,) and inauthentic as a result.
 This was true until recently, it could be argued, with satellite and plane mapping technology. Despite these new developments, or even the advent of airplane aided mapping prior to World War II, the map is still an act of fantasy in that it assumes an omniscient viewpoint.
 Thomas McDonough argues in “Fluid Spaces” that this belief was inherited by the SI from Georges Bataille. (contained in Zegher, pg. 94)
 This calls to mind Michel Foucault’s classic examination of the prison, Discipline and Punish, in which he traces the genealogy of the prison and demonstrates how insidious the human sciences have been in transferring the efficient order of the prison into schools, work places, and other controllable social organizations, effectively transforming all of society.
One may also think of Heidegger’s rather infamous comparison of industrial slaughterhouses and the concentrations camps. He meant to imply that it is only a short step to go from the organized killing of animals to turning these techniques on each other. If I may extrapolate from this, there seems to be a parallel in their thinking.
 In so far as the SI could be considered to consider anything. It is impossible to make such unifying statements about such a disparate group of playful gentlemen. However, much of the theoretical foundation of the SI can be traced back to “Formulaire pour un urbanisme nouveau,” written in 1953 by the 19-year old poet Ivan Chtcheglov. Released in an abridged form in Internationale Situationniste #1 (Paris, June 1958), under the pseudonym of Gilles Ivain, this was the earliest situationist reappropriation of the legacy of Dada and Surrealism, and also of the derive. Sadly, he was a very troubled youngman, and was committed to a mental hospital after being arrested for attempting to deconstruct, physically, the Tour Eiffel, that hideous monument to rationalism.
 The clearest example of this is given in Heartfield and Grosz’s scathing criticism of Kokoschka in “Der Kuntlump.” Often regarded as being in fact ‘anti-art,’ that which they produced destroyed the value of ‘artificial’ objects whose importance is raised above men. One can appreciate Kokoschka’s plea to avoid damaging works of art, but it is easy to agree with Heartfield and Grosz’s criticism (though they were a bit harsh) that Kokoschka was exalting an object over the workers’ lives. This political concern over the aesthetic/spiritual is typical of a Marxist view, and the genealogical connection to the SI is clear.
 “A condition of the work of art is that it exists in a state of perpetual non-reconciliation with what it mimics or reflects.” [Pg 327, Donald B. Kuspit, Critical notes on Adorno's Sociology of Music and Art, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 33, No. 3 (Spring, 1975), pp. 321-327.]
 Nietzsche would of course, rather ironically considering how the postmodern artists have embraced him, dismiss the vast majority of postmodern, and even modern, art, because they do not demonstrate a suitable amount of hard work, a criteria laid out explicitly in Human, All-too-Human.
 This notion, that there is aesthetic value in something merely surviving, is related to Roman ideals of grandeur, permanence, and is very much a Western ideal. One sees a very different view of aesthetics coming from the East, and even from the ancient Greeks. I would argue that in many ways, 20th century developments in aesthetic theory, such as fusing art and life, the primacy of the performance, and so on, are manifestations of a greater understanding of the philosophies that underlie Eastern aesthetics.
 Perhaps making for an interesting re-reading of Marx’s “The Fetishism of the Commodity.”
 On that note, I’d like to add that I am certain Debord and co. would have approved of parkour, a movement which happens to have originated in Paris. Parkour is an activity which has much in common with the Situationist derive, except it is more active and playful. Participants treat the constructed environment, generally urban, as an obstacle course, or playground of sorts. This playfulness would appeal to the Marxist perspective as well because it is entirely free, transforming the capitalist constructed landscape into something subversive.
 “Who are we trying to kid,” writes Bourriaud, “that it might be helpful and beneficial to stage a return to aesthetic values based on tradition, mastery of technology, and respect for historical conventions?” Pg. 84
February 4, 2013
Originally published at ACL
photo: Davide Lonardi
Listen to an exclusive excerpt of Leonardo Rosado’s The conscious illusion: homage to Bergman
The avant-garde of the 20th century radically expanded the potential of sonic arts in at least two important ways.
With the advent of sound recording technologies, figures such as Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry were able to reconceive the building blocks of music through the creative use of devices initially conceived of as playback technologies. The resulting compositions, and the theoretical ideas underlying them, help to gradually shift the emphasis away from form and structure based on melodic and harmonic motion (arguably reaching its pique in the 12 tone and serial music popular in academic/classical music at the time). In its place was music organized based on texture, pitch, duration, frequency. These parameters would inform all electronic musics that were to come. John Cage and others also used playback devices, from phonographs to radios, during performances. Though their use was written into the score, their output was aleatoric, dependent on chance. Even earlier, the Futurist Luigi Russolo, (in)famous for his now century old manifesto The Art of Noises (1913), created his Intonarumori to create music with sounds that were more in line with the industrial sounds of modernity. These noise intonators were machines that produced sounds corresponding to Russolo’s six categories of noises, and there use caused a scandal among the concert-going public.
By manipulating, processing, and collaging recordings these early experimenters set the course for the widespread use of these techniques across a wide spectrum of genres.
The Futurists and the dadas disoriented poetry in similar ways that the musical avant-garde disrupted academic music. The gramophone meant the ability to write in sound, which allowed for poetry to exist as “pure” sound, the text becoming akin to a score. Liberated from the page, poetry could evolve again as an aural art form, but the dada’s also freed poetry from meaning and structure. Dada sound poetry explored the materiality of the sound itself. Decades earlier Stéphane Mallarmé, the French Symbolist poet, had made a similar innovation in understanding poetry as being primarily a text, anticipating what would be known as concrete poetry. “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard” (“A roll of the dice will never abolish chance,” PDF) was written taking the space of the page into account, and the significance of that work can’t be separated from its layout on the page. The white of the page was for Mallarmé what silence would be for John Cage.
The Futurists were inspired by this approach in their own typography and layout design, which would quickly be re-appropriated into the mainstream and radically change the approach to typesetting in all forms, from advertising to the gallery arts. Mallarmé’s poetic works “are an expression of the desire to break away completely from the phenomenal world and toward a poetry of absolute purity.” (Quoted in Johanna Drucker’s The Visual Word.) This purity is only an ideal, something to strive towards, but in fact this very concept of an ideal may distract from the fact that the poet was invested in a highly material practice. “Un coup…” exists as a visual object, and dada sound poetry exists as a sonic object. To paraphrase May Sinclair, a British novelist, poet, and critic, the sound “is not a substitute; it does not stand for anything by itself. Presentation not Representation is the watchword.” The poetry of fin de siècle Paris may have anticipated the intermingling of the arts that occurred during the Great War, but from there the hybrid forms went down more paths than I can recount here. For our purposes, what is most relevant is to understand the way traditional forms were re-imagined when confronted by new media that called earlier practices into question.
Music has been used to augment lyric poetry throughout history. Oral cultures preserved their poetic works through recitations, which were often accompanied by music to aid in memory. Lyricism can be in service of the music, but the contrary can also be true. Just confining ourselves to the 20th century, one can observe the great contrasts between the relationship between lyrics and music in opera, folk, and hip-hop. With the emergence of hip-hop in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s in the South Bronx, the poetry of language began to dominate the music, the metre of the verse playing off the meter of the rhythm in a way very unique from similar techniques in rock music. Eric B. & Rakim are arguably the first mature examples of the potential of the art form.
One might argue that, in the United States at least, instrumental rock was on some level a reaction against the arrival of hip-hop. When Simon Reynolds coined the term post-rock in 1994, grunge was ascendant, and it was clear to any who took a close look that rock had become a reactionary, conservative force, squarely identified with a white suburban middle class. With language at the center of hip-hop as music, musicians working within the idiom of rock began to explore music without words. The racial boundaries separating genres weren’t so strict in Reynolds homeland of the UK, a key point of the “Post-Rock” article that often seems to be forgotten. Hybridity of forms and practices was far more common in the UK, therefore, than in the US. Post-rock, hip-hop and the various iterations of electronic music borrowed from one another, and samplers, MIDI controllers, and other electronic instruments were much more freely incorporated into rock performance.
The influence of sound poetry mostly followed a trajectory quite removed from the poetic use of lyrics in popular music. The dada sound poetry of Raoul Haussmann, and the post-dada masterpiece “Ursonate” by Merzmaster Kurt Schwitters, would serve as direct inspiration for some, like the Dutch sound poet Jaap Blonk, who is keeping alive this tradition is a very explicit way. Others have been inspired to simply challenge received notions or orthodoxies while striking out in their own direction.
What does any of this have to do with mainly wordless instrumental music? Lyrics music can be wonderful, but lyrics can also be restrictive. By introducing the art of poetry into music, the music is put in service of the interpretation of the lyrics. Now, if one is already working with words (as a poet, a journalist, an academic), when writing dominates so many aspects of our lives, music can be a a pre-linguistic refuge.
Leonardo Rosado is an experimental artist working in various media, including poetry, photography and music. Born in Portugal in 1975, Rosado’s creative practice was dominated by poetry. Though he explored the incorporation of music early on, it’s only been the last 5 or 6 years that he’s begun releasing his own music. At times releasing music under the name Subterminal, he began to develop a process of composing music using poems as a kind of compositional guide. This practice grew to use other forms of text to provide compositional structure, within which Rosado creates his own music. After completing his PhD in Environmental systems Rosado and his family recently relocated to Goteborg, Sweden. At first I found it funny, associating that city with death metal such as At the Gates, but the experience in Sweden seems to have inspired Rosado to engage new texts and mine sources rich with resonance, such as his engagement with Bergman.
One of his early releases was Mute Words, a striking work of ambient music released on his own Heart and Soul label. That work was accompanied by a book of Rosado’s poetry, and featured guest vocals from Alicia Merz (Birds Of Passage), Barbara De Dominicis and Michelle Seaman Leonardo. Perhaps the work truly lies in the interplay between the poetry and the music. Though much of his work is instrumental, it is driven by poetic associations, a form of poetry without words. His catalog also showcases his interest in word play and vocals in the context of music as well. It is no surprise to see the work of self-described poemproducer AGF (Antye Greie) in his mix for Secret Thirteen. Greie has developed similar methods, at one point activating lines of computer code to poetic affect in a not wholly dissimilar process. Rosado again collaborated with Merz for Dear and Unfamiliar, a collaborative album using the classic film Casablanca as its departure point.
Joseph Sannicandro: When did you get involved in making electronic music, and how?
Leonardo Rosado: I did several spoken word performances in 2001-2002 using other artists’ music and reading some of my poems and other poets. Back then I wanted to make the music and let others do the spoken work part. After that period I stopped for several years and one day a friend of mine told me that Vítor Rua (an important experimental musician from the Portuguese scene) was making this crash course workshops. This was by the end of 2008 and I said why not, I want to learn the basics for so long that I should do it now.
Did you play an instruments as a child? When did you become interested in recording?
I played piano for most of my youth though since I hadn’t a piano at home it was hard to practice, but nowadays the technique is almost gone, I just kept the love for the instrument.
Music always had a very special place in my interests – mostly attached with my love for poetry – Leonard Cohen, Ian Curtis, Patti Smith among others were always my favorite because they put music at the service of poetry mostly, and that was my main driver to make music to support my own poetic voice, literally. Later I found out that using sounds to convey my poems without actually reciting them is much more interesting. In that sense I am slowly moving away from actual words and directly into sound emotions.
Leonard Cohen – “One of us cannot be wrong”
I know Portugal has gone through many changes since the ‘70s and ‘80s but aside from Fado and the like, I’m afraid I don’t know much about Portuguese music. Is there an experimental tradition to draw on? Classical composition? It seems Lisbon has become a popular city in Europe for festivals and DJs and the like, but is there a network of experimental musicians as well? Or is this involvement more “European,” or trans-national?
In Portugal there has been always a strong influence on music coming from abroad (asides the Fado and some traditional / folk music) so what appears are often experimental musicians that are individuals and not so much as being part of a group. Again, the popularity of Lisbon for festivals is mainly towards the big names, although there is a lot of “indie music” love, but not Portuguese.
I did have some mentors in my path, first and foremost my father, my biggest criticizer, but always helping me in reaching better and more meaningful results, and Vitor Rua without whom I would never realize how simple and fun it can be to compose music. After all music can be just the decision of combining sounds in a way that for me they make sense.
Can you tell us a bit more about your personal background? You mentioned you were working on your PhD. What are your studies pertaining to?
I am an environmental engineer and have been working on R&D for the last years mainly on material flow accounting for urban areas, which is my PhD work. I have been creating a model that allow the characterization of inputs, stocks and outputs of materials in metropolitan areas. In simplified terms I am understanding the amounts of materials that are stocked every year, where are they going to, and when will they be obsolete and hence ready to be recovered for recycling or reuse.
That’s very interesting, and somehow seems fitting that your work has taken you to Sweden. Like a lot of other electronic artists who embrace a DIY approach, your work reveals a very careful approach to listening. How did you become fascinated with sound?
I don’t know how, why or when I became fascinated with sound, but I do remember always having music at my place, but also poetry, paintings, architecture, ancient civilizations and all kinds of literature, so I always felt drawn to all this universes that would appeal to this three senses (listening, seeing and talking). Always loved to delve into the details, the small differences that we can see if we pay enough attention.
What appeals to me most about working with electronics is the freedom in exploring. By not being bound to a particular instrument, or a set of sounds, I can always explore deeper and deeper into different universe. I do prefer to work alone, although I don’t mind working in a group, but then I will have much less freedom to do what I prefer.
Music is part of a larger concept, an artistic idea if you like, in which I am mostly interested in presenting specific concepts with sound. Therefore, the creative process almost always starts with an idea, some keywords, or more complex, images, a movie or a set of poems. With this in mind, I choose my sonic palette and then make several improvisations, at first to understand how I can explore the sonic material and afterwards to start constructing pieces of the album. Sometimes the concepts are changed along the way, because sound shows me different meanings that are normally associated with the first concepts.
After defining the concepts I choose the sources of material. When I started making music I used several iphone applications because they were easily accessible and usable, but lately I have been working with almost only acoustic / analog sources captured with a microphone in my studio. The choice of objects will fall under a set such as: a solo instrument or two, some percussion objects, and a drone machine of some sort. This are then explored with a Kaoss Pad a loop pedal and some built in effects in the DAW. I like to keep few sources of material, because I feel the real challenge is working with minimal resources. Keeping things simple always works better for me and that implies also the use of silence and very slow building sounds. With that I make several improvisation sets, and overlay them. Afterwards, I start cleaning the parts I don’t like, and if necessary I’ll redo parts I felt should be better and so on. The key aspect in my working process is how the different sources interact with each other. In a sense I am using my sensibility towards sounds to reach an aesthetic, like trying to measure the perfect dimensions for a figure.
What equipment and gear do you use?
I use a minimal solution, a Kaoss Pad, a Loop station, a mixer and microphone and the laptop with a DAW and some vst plugins. Sometimes, if I feel is necessary I program with Max/MSP but generally I prefer to keep things more spontaneous.
Improvisation is the most important part. For instance, I can first record some samples of a piano I play and capture samples in the sample bank of the Kaoss Pad, after that I start listening to the combination of the samples with the several effects of the Pad and when I feel I have something I like I start improvising with it and recording it in the loop station. The use of the laptop can be before or after the loop station, depending on I want to explore more. I take time to overdub several tracks, but lately I have been working on improvisation sets where I tried to emulate a live session. I am still working on a live setup, but it will most likely be a laptop centered setting with the Kaoss Pad to explore a bit more effects and beat sequencing and the loop pedal to build several layers in real time.
I reviewed For R for That Site Before this one, I saw a lot of nice press for Mute Words, and of course Dear and Unfamiliar was a big hit with us. You also released a record at the end of the year for Rural Colours. 2012 saw your record A Long White Sleep for the Laverna net label. What else can we expect from you?
For now things are very quiet in my end, I am working on a new set of pieces based on the idea of the Sea and the human condition, using Moby Dick and The Old Man and the Sea as main inspiration. Nevertheless, after Dear and Unfamiliar I released an album called Mute Words, in my own new label Heart and Soul that is specialized in releasing music and poetry joint together. Also, the Soaking Wet ep was released late December at Rural Colours but this ep is a collection of tracks belonging to the Opaque Glitter sessions that didn’t make it to the album, although I thought they had an enormous value as an EP. Hopefully, later in the year 2 collaborations will also be developed, the first with Barbara De Dominicis and the second with Monolyth and Cobalt.
Each release is has I mentioned before worked based on core concepts, even Dear and Unfamiliar was made in this way – the movie Casablanca was our (mine and Alicia’s) inspiration to make the music. But in terms of the collaboration, things work a bit differently, because since I make the music, I try to mould my way of making music to the person I am working with, although experimentation will always play a large role. Looking back, I think that Dear and Unfamiliar surely is an album that shows off at first the talent of Alicia, but if you dig deeper you’ll see that the music is far off her work, and in a sense it is also far off my own work. And that is the best thing for me, to create music not bounded only by my own personality, but gaining from working with others.
How long have you been practicing photography? Does your photography relate to your music in any way? Be it in the packaging, the general aesthetic, or do you think that sort of trans-media comparison is not apt?
I started working with photography in late nineties (I even had a B&W studio in my home) and ever since wanted to explore the abstract side of images, to explore images with blur, light effects, shadows, all the more hidden facets of our life. All my work seems to be conveying into a single language in different mediums, be it poetry, music or photography, they all are directly working together, sometimes one provides context to the other, than another time the opposite occurs. Actually, lately I started working on a project where I explore my ideas about colors so the starting point is images that remind me of an aspect of each color, and then I compose the music for that image, and now listening to the music I want to write poems about the music, and that can eventually lead me into new images and sounds …in a way it feels like working in a spiraling context every art feeds into another and provides me new insights that will lead me to getting back to the first and make new things.
Can you tell me a bit about the FeedbackLoop label and Heart and Soul?
FeedbackLoop Label started out after I helped Tiago Morais Morgado with his XS Records [portuguese netlabel] because I wanted to release music that I think has a quality feel to it and explores the world of emotions and everyday life through sound, it has become a stable and hopefully interesting place for people to go and download music they will enjoy. But lately I felt something was missing, and I think it has to do with the fact that digital files will mostly remain in the realm of portable players and computers. Having that in mind and also the idea that I want to make physical objects as beautiful as possible and combining them with poetry and photographs I started Heart and Soul and go into the realm of the pleasure to hold an object that can be surprising. For now Heart and Soul is releasing books of poetry with music but will soon expand to photo art postcards with a beautiful packaging I am working on.
Also I’d love to hear about your involvement with Exquisite What and with Barbara in general. Over the last year or so I’ve become a big supporter of what she’s doing, especially after learning so many of my friends and acquaintances are involved in her projects.
Some time ago Barbara De Dominicis listened to a couple of my tracks in soundcloud and we became friends. She soon asked me if I wanted to join this project where both musicians, photographers and video artists would embrace a Cadavre Exquis process, in which we would, as a community work on pieces of someone else’s music to build some kind of collage and simultaneously a modern Babel.
It’s really interesting you started using the iPhone when making music initially. I also have experimented with the iPhone. Just as cell-phone cameras are a lower-fidelity but always present apparatus to take pictures with, I’ve found it’s useful as an ever-present field-recorder that is always in my pocket as well. It’s not so much that the device is so innovative and opens new possibilities for music production (though certainly there are some really interesting possibilities for iphone/ipad controllers) but that its ubiquity seems to make it a useful tool.
In the beginning I was collecting apps like a maniac, after awhile I tired of it, but the main thing is that it is a good way of finding out some strange sounds that you can use. I remember enjoying Brian Eno‘s apps Bloom and some others, but they do have a very recognizable signature.
In what cases and how have you been using Max?
In my music composing learning process I wanted to use Max, to know what were the potentialities of the software so I did a workshop and by that time again I was excited in using it, but mostly I use it to construct some sounds, mostly by granular sampling.
I also record on the computer, even though I try not to use it for anything other than recording and editing. I like the fact that an artist like Steve Roden can use nothing but a microphone and some old pedals while still producing such evocative music. Still, I don’t have a strong inclination in the “analog” vs. “digital” wars that are often invoked. Are we simply past this dichotomy, or do you have a preference?
Well, maybe I am more inclined to use analog sources, but then, I always process them through the laptop, so most of the times it is always a combination of both signal types that interest me. But more importantly it is the dirtiness in the sound that I prefer, and I use the laptop to further explore it.
Can you talk a bit about some of your creative and musical influences?
Being trained in engineering and having had a long path in science coupled with the art explorations I have done for so many years are both the main drivers for my creativity, and it takes many shapes and forms, sometimes might start with something I remembered, or saw, or heard and from there I build up the whole foundations of a piece of music, or an album, but it can be otherwise, where I start with a concept and then I try to approach it with a logic where I set the sounds in motion, but then I let improvisation enter the stage and bring the composing into a level where it is both abstract and scientific. Anyway, what it becomes apparent to myself is that I am always exploring the threshold between opposites. Between light and shadow, right and wrong, clean and dirty, but always in the perspective that any opposite can be found within the other and vice versa. Regarding my musical influences, it is hard to say, because there is so much music I enjoy and so much music I would like to do, I find myself in a place where it is better not to follow any specific path because if I do, i’ll stray from it the minute I start focusing on what i am doing, and then all influences just vanish, because in the end I am following the sounds, and the sounds are telling me where to go next.
What influences cultivated your taste?
When I was a kid my father had a huge collection of vinyl, and through that collection I explored another world, a world of words and sounds. Furthermore, I was always inclined to all art forms, from contemporary painting to poetry, as well as a sense of reaching true feelings through arts. There was also a strong sense of understanding what some of the musicians wanted to say, for example the punk movement, and mostly what came after were full of relevant messages for a teenager as myself. So for me it was a normal path to listen to several different things, from pop, songwriters, art rock, indie, jazz, ethnic music, classical, electronic. In a sense, listening to music was like living a dream life.
How did you discover experimental music?
Actually, I have a hard time defining experimental music, because to my ears there is music that I like, that defies me, that draws me in, that stays with me for a long time, and maybe that is the only thing that I can define as experimental music, otherwise there is music that I just don’t like, or that it becomes boring and without surprises after a couple of listenings. I always enjoyed the indie pop / rock music in the 80′s, and then the trip hop scene in the 90′s, but my most preferred songs were the somewhat more experimental stuff. So it was always normal to go from one thing to the next and exploring and delving into more obscure and strange music, but always with a sense of trying to find the inner beauty in music.
You incorporate so many different forms of media into your work, I wonder if you have a preference, or how the format of a work may reflect your involvment with it.
Nowadays, listening to music has become I would say even more individual, more like a search into details, in a sense, though I don’t like too much the term a “spiritual quest”, like in my life I do tend to be much more involved with the little details. I could stand for hours just feeling the snow falling on me, or seeing the rings of a tree. At least at this stage I do feel involved in exploring the micro feelings, the sound of a word when writing poetry, the echo of a field recording or instrument, the blurred colors and shapes of a photograph. So I do tend to listen quietly to the music, normally with a pre-existing mindset, which in a way I guess everyone of us do.
What is your home listening situation like?
At home, with the kids around, I can only listen when they go to bed, and when they do, it is normally late in the day so I tend to put a vinyl record, or a cd and let the sounds fill the air.
If you have car, are there any records or types of music you feel are best heard in your car, driving around?
I used to prepare a lot of special compilations for trips by car. Normally in this cases some of the best tracks I enjoyed, with energy, not necessarily beat driven, but they can be pop, rock, electronic, jazz songs. But in my day to day car trips I usually take the time to listen to my own music, because I am alone and I can put it loudly and listen to the details in a different setup.
What about headphones walking around town?
I never use headphones when walking around. I used to listen to a lot of music in my walkman/portable cd player when I was a teenager, but nowadays I prefer to listen to my surroundings, and since I carry around my mobile phone there is always opportunities to record something I hear.
Thoughts on vinyl vs tape vs cd vs mp3 etc?
For a long time I used to not worry too much about the medium with which I listened to music, because in a way the need to listen to music, and the need to find new music was stronger. Of course I enjoyed a lot to see the cover, read all the information in the cd/vinyl, but listening was and is what is most important. Lately, I started changing a little bit, I don’t feel the urge to find new music so often, or in a sense, I prefer to focus on a different type of music. Long are the days when I wanted to listen to the new indie / electronica / rock / jazz music that was out, or that I didn´t have the chance to listen before. Nowadays I prefer listening to drone 7 ambient / electroacoustic / experimental (whatever names you like to call it) and that comes with a different attitude, I tend to just listen to the music, and I find it interesting that vinyl is the preferable medium, because it demands your attention, which perfectly fits to what I want my relationship with music to be, a personal exchange, almost like a dialogue, and that needs indeed attention.
This series is all about reacting to the idea of creativity and resourcefulness rather than expensive gear or virtuosic technique. Of course I felt a kinship with you work in this regard. Electronic music but with a punk rock sort of ethos. To end this discussion, do you have any reflections on this?
I am totally on the side of do it yourself electronic music, and I really enjoy the fact that nowadays anyway can make music. In fact, it is liberating to know that one can express itself anyway he wants, whatever the cons that might have attached. Anyway, I also think that it is good to restrain yourself from using all technology at your service, because if you do that, you will never achieve the full potential that is locked within constraints. And again, people strive when faced with constraints because they have to fully understand what they have at hand in order to do something meaningful and relevant. On the opposite side, if you do have gadgets that do everything, then you are faced with two big problems: the first is that the gadget is always more far from reality than using your own small resources, so in a way, gadgets have the tendency to sound more fake that genuine; and the other problem is that with gadgets you exponentially increase the amounts of sounds, setups you can use, so in order for you to just explore them and be lost in them, without actually bringing something meaningful to the world, is quite easy. And I believe that any expression we have as people, should always be meaningful, especially when it is some kind of art form.
Thanks for your time.
November 22, 2012
First published at A CLOSER LISTEN
All photos by Caroline Campeau, courtesy of Réseaux des arts médiatiques
Québec has long nurtured creative and experimental arts & music. The Québécois are something of an historical anomaly, an island of Francophones adrift in a sea Anglophones. This fact, combined with its relative geographic isolation and the paradox of containing the world-class, affordable and pluralistic city of Montréal has apparently been the perfect combination of forces to cultivate many diverse and intensely creative artistic scenes regardless of language. The fact that a city like Victoriaville, QC (which I hadn’t heard of either, so don’t feel bad) could host such a long running and influential event as the Festival International de Musiques actuelles speaks volumes alone. Montreal itself is extremely fertile ground, roughly equidistant from Toronto, Boston and New York, and yet completely in possession of its own identity. Long known for jazz and free improv (in fact the city was briefly home to Sun Ra and his Arkestra for several months in 1961), more recent genres such as post-rock, ambient, hip hop, metal, and electronic music of all sorts have taken root here over the last several decades.
Add to that list electroacoustic music. Montreal is without a doubt the center of electroacoustic music in North America, and in no small part to the efforts of Réseaux des arts médiatiques. (Feel free to comment if you’d like to suggest a contender.) Founded in 1991, Reseaux’s mission was to publicly present a variety of “electroacoustic works using an array of loudspeakers. The works in question can be acousmatic (tape music), mixed (tape and instruments), live (live electronics) or include other art forms, such as video, dance or installation art.” The city is truly lucky to enjoy the efforts of a group like Reseaux, let alone one partnered with an institution like the Conservatoire de musique et d’art dramatique du Québec and world-class venues such as Usine-C.
In its more than 20 years, Réseaux has presented over 100 international composers to audiences in Montréal. The AKOUSMA festival of electroacoustic music in Montréal , produced by Réseaux, is now in its 9th year, though they have also presented events in the off-season and at other venues in different cities, such as Troy, NY’s fanastic EMPAC theatre (current home to legendary co-founder of the San Francisco Tape Music Center, Pauline Oliveros, a past-performer at Akousma).
Before diving into a review of this year’s festival, first let me break down some of the terminology, and establish a critical lens by which we can examine these concerts.
What is meant by acousmatic music? Electroacoustic music? Musique concrète?
Pierre Schaeffer described sound technologies as producing “acousmatic” sounds, sounds that are isolated from their source. Schaeffer is best known as the pioneer of musique concrète. While working as a broadcaster at Radiodiffusion Française, a radio-station in Paris, during the late 1940s, Schaeffer innovated many techniques utilizing turntables, phonographs, and later tape recorders to manipulate pre-recorded sound to produce new compositions, an act which was radically innovative at the time and has gone on to be standard techniques employed by producers all over the world. These techniques included looping samples, playing them backwards, changing the speed of playback to alter the pitch, and more. Rather than organize compositions on the basis of traditional principles such as melody, harmony or metre, Schaeffer and his associates relied on timbre, tone, and spectrum, using textures and events to produce dynamics and narrative. The resulting compositions existed as recordings, and therefore were very obviously a studio art rather than a performance art in the way we think of “live” music.
The term “acousmatic” itself originates with the Greek pre-Socratic philosopher Pythagoras, who delivered lectures to his novice students from behind a screen, forcing them to focus on the content of his words rather than on his presence. Just as the Greek logos became the Christian Word of God, acousmatic carries with it an implied and often unchallenged assumption regarding the relationship between a “source” and a “copy.” The Word came to be privileged as more alive compared with the “dead” letters of writing, resulting in a metaphysics of presence that went unchallenged in the western world until the 20th century.
Schaeffer himself was also a devout Catholic, and one might suggest that his relationship with sound, that he described as acousmatic, follows this theological framework, one that distinguishes between “origins” and “copies” as fundamentally different.
This narrative hasn’t gone unproblematized. In his now classic work The Audible Past, Jonathan Sterne writes that figures such as Schaeffer:
assume that sound-reproduction technologies can function as neutral conduits, as instruments rather than substantive parts of social relationships, and that sound-reproduction technologies are ontologically separate from a “source” that exists prior to and outside its affiliation with the technology. Attending to differences between “sources” and “copies” diverts our attention from processes to products; technology vanishes, leaving as its by-product a source and a sound that is separated from it. (Pg. 21)
We can clearly see this at work in much electroacoustic music, perhaps no more so than in the performances of Francisco Lopez, who literally blindfolds the audience and covers his console in a tarp, literalizing the absence, the lack, and using it in favor of his compositions. Other contemporary artists, however, such as Giuseppe Ielasi, seem very much aware that mediation is not a neutral tool that re-presents a more authentic source but is, one can say, the message itself. His recent LPs of the past four years (the Stunt series, Tools, 15 CDs, 15 Tapes, his Bellows collaborations with Nicola Ratti) list only the media employed itself and not the source material, putting the emphasis on reel-to-reel players, CDJs, effects pedals, a Discman. Sterne asserts that “sound reproduction was a studio art, and, therefore, the source was as bound up in the social relations of the reproducibility as any copy was. On the contrary, sound reproduction-from it’s very beginnings- always implied social relations among people, machines, practices, and sounds.” He continues, “Sound reproduction is a social process.” The question of “authenticity” or even “fidelity” rather misses the point, or at least diverts attention of the materiality at hand. “Reproduced sounds are not simply mediated versions of unmediated original sounds.” (Pg. 219)
Rather than consider sound through dichotomies (original vs copy, (a)live vs dead, present vs recorded) in my look at the AKOUSMA performances I try to isolate the practice itself, including the variety of ways the audience interaction is in tension with the interpretation of the work itself. How might this inform our understanding of the nature of electroacoustic composers working today?
The Akousma festival presented a variety of work, some improvised and site-specific while others were pre-composed pieces, but all took full advantage of the generous multichannel sound system at Usine-C. Though this is my fourth fall in Montreal, I somehow hadn’t heard of the Akousma festival until this year. The promoters were very generous and invited me to attend, and I hope that this coverage will introduce others who may have missed out to the great work they are presenting, and to document these incredible performances for those elsewhere.
Occupy the Ghost of Griffintown
“Occupy the ghost of Griffintown” took place the week before the festival, on the 16th of October, gathering participants for a free concert held in Parc St-Ann, a recently converted green space built on the ruins of an Irish Catholic chuch in the post-industrial neighborhood of Griffintown. Legend has it that every 7 years the ghost of Mary Gallagher, a prostitute who was brutally murdered and decapitated in 1879, returns looking for her head. This tale has come to represent the Irish community who once called Griffintown home, but have since left do to industrialization and it’s subsequent collapse, though lately the neighborhood has been gentrifying, adding a variety of artistic institutions, studios and gallery space. The ghost was scheduled to appear earlier this summer, but apparently she failed to meet her engagement. What that means for us hasn’t yet been born out, but the spirit of absence and exorcism would continue to animate the festival.
Standing in the park on a rather frigid evening, surrounded by construction sites, empty grain silos, and the canal that built modern Canada, three local artists pushed the elliptical set up of 16 speakers far enough to make you forget you were outside. (Almost. It was very cold!) Félix-Antoine Morin began with a set incorporating bowed guitar, laptop and mixed acousmatic sounds. Alexander Wilson’s set was more focused on mixing acousamtic sounds that utilized the 16 channel set up and provided for a spatially interesting, bass-heavy and suitably creepy atmosphere for a cold night waiting for a ghost on the ruins of church. Nicolas Bernier was the nights final performer, and impressed me most of all with his astonishing live mixing skills. (Read our review of his recent album Music for a Book here.) Overall, Occupy the Ghost of Griffintown set the festival in motion by introducing the principles of acousmatic sound, public interventions and a phantastic and sometimes haunting ambiance.
Each night of the festival proper, running from October 24-27, began with artists discussions in the café, before two sets in the main hall. Usine-C itself was formerly a marmalade factory, but was converted in the late ‘70s in a multi-million dollar renovation, resulting in one of Montreal’s finest multi-media venues. The spirit of reanimation therefore was constantly the backdrop for the concert’s proceedings.
Martin Tétreault’s Turntable Quartet
In a very unusual manifestation, Tétrealt presented his “Turntable Quartet,” directing/conducting the four performers. Martin Tétreault is something of a local-legend, an internationally-praised DJ and improviser, and one of the sure highlights of Quebec’s musique actuelle scene. Trained in the visual arts, he brings a conceptual approach to his work and has a long list of equally impressive collaborators. His recent turntable experiments explore the sounds of the turntable itself, and he directed his quartet that evening utilizing turntables, mixers and prepared discs. This relationship, by its very nature, calls into question a variety of forms one might take for granted. Surrounded by the audience, Tétreault was more than just conductor, but also the composer (as producer). In lieu of a score, Tétreault had prepared various records, some of which were modified with pieces some material to produce regular, rhythmic loops, not at all unlike that of a techno DJ. The format looks classical, with music stands and the conductor directing the performers, but many elements also call to mind free improv and with moments reminiscent of club music, fittingly given the history of turbtablism. Tétreault was also responding to the room (as physical, sonic space) and the response of the crowd, its mood and accompaniment with the narrative of the journey of the piece, again not unlike a good DJ, which of course in a literal way he is.
Tétreault conducted/produced as four players with turntables and mixing boards responded to his cues, conveying with hand gestures or a raised eyebrow and telling gaze. The output of each of the four performers was projected out of the corresponding corner of the room, giving the performance a quadraphonic spatiality that helped to follow the mechanics of what was occurring. Some of the records were rigged with geometric intervals or other alternations, so that the turntable could make rhythmic looping beats or be manipulated by other techniques. Each piece had a very different and distinct vibe, and each performer got to improvise and be expressive within the compositional authority of Tétreault. The result was something very unique, dynamic, and not at all abrasive as some turntablism can be.
Tétreault has a good reputation here, and I think it is indicative of what is unique about Montréal that such a practice could cultivate a thoughtful, attentive public. I think people are more open to understanding these sorts of performances as something artistic. In fact in some sense it’s almost high modernist in its abstraction, yet formalized and also communitarian in the sense that the audience’s response is incorporated into its own unfolding . In terms of the parts that make up the whole, there is nothing radically new: seeing him conducting, configured in a way to be reminiscent of a string quartet, the turntable being instrumentalized the way club DJs (kinda) use them, using prepared objects, incorporating improvisation within a compositional structure. Taken altogether they produced something rather extraordinary. The Quartet itself consisted of four local sound artists, Magali Babin, David Lafrance, Alexander Macsween, and Nancy Tobin, with each given room to interpret and express themselves within the parameters as laid out by Tetreault.
The second night, perhaps more than any other, demonstrated why Usine-C is such an ideal setting for presenting acousmatic music. The room itself has a high ceiling, perhaps three-stories, and is rigged so that there was almost full surround-sound, including numerous channels suspended overhead, totaling, if I’m not mistaken, 42. (It’s not quite Stockhausen’s spherical concert hall, but still.) This rather special post-indsutrial space provides excellent acoustics, structural ambience and décor, and the multiple-channel system coupled with flexible audience configurations allowed for some truly extraordinary audio spatialization.
Contemporary art is often accused of failing to cause much emotional reaction or contemplation in its audience, but these pieces have had me thinking quite a lot, not just about the nature of the pieces but producing other thoughts as well as a result of the direction of my thoughts set in motion from the work.
Manuela Blackburn, PhD., is an electroustic composer from the UK, and also a lecturer on music technology at Liverpool Hope University. I mention her academic training in part because her work has some of the qualities one might expect, utilizing Max/MSP and presenting her work in a very controlled manner. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way; this is by no means the sort of overly cerebral Computer Music that often comes out of the academe. The program consisted of four prepared pieces, the last which was exchanged in favor of a recently completed piece, the first of a planned trilogy utilizing Indian music samples. That last piece incorporated tabla and sitar, which I found to be not very compelling. Acousmatic music is meant to obscure the source material, but both instruments were clearly recognizable, not to mention identified by the composer in her address to the audience beforehand. Freed from their original context but still identifiable, they were utilized in way that didn’t resonate with me. The philosophy (or spirituality) of Indian music is an inherent part of its structures, eg. the drone, or the meter/tala, and underlies the music (as social practice, as art). Manipulated and cut up in this way that impact is lost, so their inclusion begins to seem like an necessary exoticization rather than teasing out something new. The first three pieces were more appealing, however, at times verging on glitch territory. Each featured a steady momentum, almost impatient, never stopping or repeating. The compositions were dynamic and propulsive in a very thoughtful way. The audience was seated with the composer’s mixing console behind us, with some space available to lie down in center of the front rows.
Keith Fullerton Whitman is a fairly important figure in the experimental music community. In addition to work under his own name, he’s also released records as ASCIII, Anonymous, and Hrvatski. Counter to more beat driven, drill-n-bass style of Hrvatski, the material under his own name explores very different territory, from working with pure sin-waves, computer processes, algorithmic & generative systems, musique concrète techniques, and mixing field-recordings and archival samples. Along with Geoff Mullen, KFW also runs the underground music mail distro Mimaroglu Music Sales.
Lately Whitman has been showing off his portable modular analogue synth unit, which you can see being demonstrated in the video below.
There are additional videos at the Akousma site.
Originally produced for the prestigious INA-GRM in Paris (l’Institut National Audiovisuel-Groupe de Recherches Musicales), KFW performed an exquisite set that made full use of multi-channel room, arguably more so than any save Lopez. The piece featured 4 movements, with a coda and improvised segment at the end. The GRM was founded by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henri, the two father of musique concrète, and others, and included Luc Ferrari and Iannis Xenakis among their members.
The first movements was comprised of Whitman playing around with his analogue modular synth, which if I was feeling ungenerous I might say boiled down to arrhythmic bleepybloopy-time spread across 20 channels. Engaging spatially, but compared with the order of Blackburn’s compositions it came across as rather unfocused and de-centered, though interesting at times. Some ideas from here developed further or resonate with the later non-synth parts, which incorporated a variety of unidentifiable sound sources. The remainder was more like an electroacoustic collage, which sounded more cohesive and substantive. The immersive nature of the piece, coupled with the audience arrangement complete with places to lie down, made it hard to clearly separate the movements. The latter movements featured more sustained tones, and was the high point of the set for me. Pitched, manipulated metallic tones, perhaps sources from a bell or some such clattered and rung out, very flat tones but satisfying. The duration of the set continued to feature more metal, the final coda and lasts movements being the most intense, almost approaching Ben Frost type zones (which is to say, it got pretty dark, and Very Loud). Many in the audience were completely blown away by the completion, with Reseaux chair Louis Dufort pronouncing the set as one of his top 5 performances of all-time. I’m personally unwilling to go that far, but the evening certainly was a suitable showcase of some of the most innovative elecroacoustic music being made today.
Francisco Lopez is easily one of the most renowned figures in the international electroacoustic scene, as well known the quality of his music as for his strict policy of blindfolding his audience. As one might expect, Lopez holds fast to the principles of acousmatic sound, and has written numerous essays explicating principles of musique concrète, and criticizing what he terms as program music. See my interview with Francisco Lopez from prior to the festival here.
Lopez returns to Montreal, a city he called his part-time home from 2001-2006, diving into a set drawing on a variety of sounds. Without a doubt the event was a truly intense experience, as we were subjected to Acousmatic in the most literal sense. Upon entering the main room, we were greeted to several rows of chairs arranged in a circle around the mixing console in the center, covered by a black cloth. The chairs all faced away from the console, except for the lone outer row, which faced inwards. After brief introductory comments from Lopez, we were instructed to blindfold ourselves with the attached black cloth, at which point the lights were dimmed and the room descended into near pitch black, the photographer and the composer the only individuals exempted.
After a few moments the silence was broken by the sound of close-miked noises, objects being dragged against another, layered and organized and moved across the wide sonic space. The disconnect between the types of noises, the anticipated distance and the sonic sculpture they were distorted into, create impossible spaces and uncanny senses of perspective. In fact, at least at the outset, the result is the farthest thing from soothing. Yet the experience is also more than just an assault, but a very solid, focused and directed work of sonic sculpture. Lopez’s music is quite removed from what would conventionally be considered musical. Without a fixed rhythm, or a beat of any kind, devoid of melody or even pitched sound much of the time, any sense of narrative or direction can only really be viewed retrospectively. Along with being blindfolded, this results in a sense of constant fear and anticipation, an uneasiness that not all are able to process.
Even if we recognize a sound or source material, it doesn’t much matter. The origin of the sound is not at all relevant. Does it matter that we know who is pulling the levers? “Pay not attention to the man behind the curtain!” The act of being blindfolded in this context actually draws more attention to the artist, even if we cannot see what he is “doing.” Though listed in the program as “Untitled,” as his unique live performances often are, it is without a doubt a piece by Lopez, and needs no further signification. His identity, and all that comes with it, provides the context to the to the piece, and ultimately is relevant to how we experience it. Lopez has a particular vision of the experience he wants to communicate. Complete control is neither possible nor (I think) desirable, yet by tightening the parameters of our individual engagement Lopez is able to generate a greater reaction as well. By attempting to make himself absent as a “doer” and by masking the source of the sounds he is not denying tradition or context. As he makes clear in his piece on Cage he knows well that we can never fully be rid of these things, but he is subverting them and our expectation in order to produce novel spaces and experiences. The question is, do we want this kind of space and what else might it imply? There is something very Fascistic about this, but aesthetics may be the place where Fascism makes the most amount of sense, where it is most appropriate.
Though I may be critical of the political implication of such an event, and though it seems to create a spectacle more than an ideal setting for listening, in the end I must conceded that the manner of presentation does indeed accomplish something worthwhile. Being denied sight is only troublesome if we resist our condition, if we have reason not to trust the man behind the curtain. When we SUBMIT to the experience, when we accept it, we listen and not just hear, letting our ego be swept away by the force of the performance. We aren’t distracted by checking our phone, looking at the time, by taking photos, by observing others’ reactions, by checking how much time has elapsed and calculating how much more will continue. Duration is only relative to the piece itself; in effect we lose a stable third, resulting in something like a sonic equivalent to a parallax view. (Have you ever been on a train looking out the window as another train alongside you begins to move, and for a moment you cannot tell if it is your train or the other that is in motion?) In this disorientation we are utterly swept away.
At a certain point in the piece I dissociated. Blindfolded, I focused on my other senses, and realized how much awareness and connection were still available to me. I also couldn’t help but think what would my blind friends think about this experience? Out of the layers of sound and space a steady rhythm gradually emerged, not unlike something one might hear in a dance club. By this point I was already transfixed, manipulated to the point where the suggestion of a recognizably beat was enough to hypnotize me completely, the transfixion elevated and my consciousness vanished. I didn’t zone out so much as zone in, but in a way that my conscious mind, my ego, was abandoned. I can’t call it a transcendence – that’s not at all right, I was very much bodily present, not transported somewhere else- but I was transfixed in a really very powerful way. I sat upright, I was mindful of my breathing, I was not afraid but had simply decided to go along with the experience with anticipation, like riding a roller-coaster or having a psychedelic experience. If you resist it will be unpleasant, but if you give into it, you can find pleasure, even in what could be at times a painful experience.
Being in an audience of blindfolded listeners is no doubt a social situation, but because of the disconnect of having our sense of vision cut off, it is a very alienating experience as well. One is clearly removed from one’s neighbors. It is communal in that we are in the same boat together but not that we have any chance of communing with one another. Writing on Lopez’s work, Seth Kim-Cohen, in his book In the Blink of an Ear, draws an unsavory comparison between Lopez’s practice and the hooded prisoners of Abu Ghraib. This may seem like hyperbole, but there is something truthful to the juxtaposition. At least some members of the audience I spoke to actually felt traumatized, physically shaken by the experience. This is where Kim-Cohen is most right in his analysis. It is difficult not to think of torture, sacrifice even. Is this his aim somehow? Surely, Lopez is on some level a sadist. Kim-Cohen wonders at Lopez’s seeming ignorance that in the current context of the war on terror, audiences may have such reactions. Here is something sadistic, whether intended as such or not, but also communal in an odd way, as the end result is a shared experience of being subjected to another’s will. Georges Bataille might approve of this experience, an Excess that brings us together; as accomplices or as victims, I don’t think it makes a difference.
Lopez is a master.
Quite on the opposite end of the spectrum while remaining utterly terrifying, Portland, Oregon’s Daniel Menche performed seated directly in front of audience, with a large screen behind him onto which black and white abstract shapes and textures were projected. Menche began with nothing but the sound of a contact microphone on a singing bowl, lightly activated by a chain of small metal beads. We can see his actions, but through manipulating effects pedals he gradually builds layers of accumulated textures, gradually increasing in intensity. We can see what he’s doing, or at least connect the sounds produced to his actions. The bodily aspect of it coupled with the unseen actions of the effects pedals gives the air of a magic incantation. One of Menche’s primary “instruments” seemed to be a metal ruler with contact mic, which he would tap like a flute while blowing over the mic. At times he would hum in a falsetto, again suggesting ritual. These moments weren’t quite meditative, as the intensity is to great and the volume quite loud. The performance seemed freely improvised, exploring the range of his tools rather than generating a preexisting narrative. As the performance reached its greatest intensity, the images on the screen began to subtly shift from abstractions to recognizable scenes of rushing through a forest, introducing something of a mood of nervousness or fear.
The crescendo of intensity goes unresolved. As if a DJ in a nightclub were to continue to raise the tension without the expected release, the anticipation of the resolution coupled with the nervous mood generated by the film and the music was traumatic in its own way. At times the music seem ecstatic, however not in the happy way but more like an exorcism.
Taken together, back to back sets from Francisco Lopez and Daniel Menche proved a suitably horrific experience for Halloween weekend.
Pierre Alexandre Tremblay, Monty Adkins et Paulina Sundin
The final evening’s performance was more tranquil, a fascinating and calm coda following the intensity of the prior night. The compositions did generate moments of tension that contributed to the over all impact of the works. Monty Adkins and Jay Payne’s video work deserves special consideration, as the underlying aesthetic is augmented in the interplay of shades, movement and harmony.
Special thanks to Réjean Beaucage and Louis Dufort, of Reseaux, and Andrea Marsolais-Roy of the Conservatory.
All photos by Caroline Campeau, courtesy of Réseaux des arts médiatiques
Article: Joseph Sannicandro
August 7, 2012
First published at A Closer Listen
Joseph Sannicandro interviews Italian soundshaper Matteo Uggeri (Hue, Sparkle in Grey) in the second installment of an ongoing series searching for a relationship towards technology that doesn’t fetishize equipment, but rather valorizes the creative process itself.
There is a long tradition of fetishizing musical equipment, be it as artists, fans or hobbyists. Just a casual glance at the world of guitar blogs should be enough to confirm this, from the obsession with “authenticity” of pedals to the absurd names of all numbers of products. This fetishization goes far beyond the typical masturbatory relationship with that great phallus of 20th century popular music, and perhaps even more so pervades the world of electronic music. Commodities become imbued with great symbolic power,or so it seems. One might think, “if only I could acquire such-and-such an amplifier I may achieve a great tone,” or “if only I had the right sampler I could produce great beats.” This can be distasteful in part because such thoughts stifle actual creativity, but also because of the broader media ecologies these devices are embedded in. They rely on materials that are destructive to the environment to mine, produce, and dispose of, regardless if they are encased in a lovely wooden box. Like so many of our modern technologies, the development of electronic musical equipment can be traced to military research, born out of the impulse to destroy rather than create.
Following the end of the Second World War, the German invention of magnetic tape supplanted the inferior wire-recorders of the Allies, opening up sound to new, more flexible and material manipulation. Musique concrète, the grandfather, so to speak, of so much of today’s music could not have developed its techniques without the tactility of tape. The most creative minds continue to take the radical implication of this material change as a starting point for new artistic exploration, often with the barest of resources. The cost of electronic musical equipment, from tape recorders to synthesizers and beyond, has continued to decline throughout the last several decades, encouraging more artists to experiment and innovate. We seem to forget that there is a detriment to this as well, that we may not be witnessing a democratization but making technology companies rich while artists starve. Rather than foster a true democratized artistic production, the increased participation in electronic music actually encourages more and more of us to become consumers, endlessly buying the latest gadget. This is as true for listeners as producers, as we buy blank media, playback devices, home audio equipment, and data subscription services. Still, there is something redemptive about re-purposing technologies for creative uses, and this tension, between production and consumption, between being captivated by the fetish object and resisting it, animates so much of the most interesting electronic music.
In many ways this is also the larger narrative of the European avant-garde (another military term, for what it’s worth) and contemporary art in general. Marcel Duchamp’s infamous ready-mades changed the art world by claiming that the lens of the artist defines what is art, and that simply by reframing an existing object it can be transformed. This attitude had a great impact on a young John Cage, and music has never been the same since. Beginning in the late ‘60s in Italy, the arte povera (poor art) movement continued this radical tradition by incorporating found objects into the work, rejecting conventional styles, materials, and artistic institutions. The political tradition of anti-institutionalization declined in the late ‘70s as far-left groups turned to terrorism, but the autonomistspirit represented by arte povera continued on as an aesthetic philosophy in the ‘80s. Mail Art found a tireless and prolific (self)promoter in Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, and Arte postale flourished in Italy, despite or perhaps because of the legendary inefficiency of the Italian postal service. These artists rejected the established hierarchies and institutions of the Art world, and gave birth to the tape trading culture that fostered the early Noise and Industrial music scenes. William Burroughs and his cut-up technique influenced this emergent culture, and despite their radical aesthetic differences, the same techniques influenced avant-garde electronic music, Techno/House, and hip-hop. In all these traditions, the artistic pioneers were driven by creativity and a deep knowledge of music, relying on their resourcefulness to make due with what they had, not on crass commercialism or on a drive to acquire the latest musical equipment designed for obsolescence.
When Matteo Uggeri first began experimenting with producing music of his own, he sought to emulate the artists he loved. Without “proper” equipment, he marked up crappy vinyl to make cheap loops, and used headphones “turned backwards” as microphones. Though these early tracks, Poor Loops for Krishna, may not be his strongest work, they show the determination of a resourceful and creative artist in the nascent stage, a creativity which has been in full bloom these last few years. Never trained as a musician, the results are highly original and compelling on a deeper level than mere technical virtuosity can achieve. Uggeri translated his passion for records into creating his own work, establishing the labels Moriremo Tutti and Grey Sparkle to release both his own work as well as that of his friends. As Der Einzige, Uggeri explored his interest in industrial music, while Hueallowed him to explore more serene aspects of his personality. With his group Sparkle in Grey, electronic manipulation and field-recordings are combined with live musicians and more conventional song-structures, resulting in some of my favorite records of recent years.
Uggeri has continued to fuse theanimus that drove these early inspirations into his collaborations with a wide variety of artists, including De Fabriek, Claudio Rocchetti, Punck, Cría Cuervos,Nicola Ratti, OvO, Andrea “Ics” Ferraris, Andrea Serrapiglio, Bob Corn, and many others. His recent collaboration with Luca Mauri and Francesco Giannico, the fourth and final installment of the Between the Elements series, was recently praised by The Wire and included in their Wire Tapper 28 CD. (As well as by this very publication, review here). That quadrilogy was initiated alongside the industrial tape-trading pioneer Maurizio Bianchi/MB, who has been an inspiration to the present Italian scene in all its manifold glory.
MB also contributes to Uggeri’s recent video art project, Remote Control. As the liner notes explain, “Remote control has a double meaning of ‘control from a distance’ and ‘tv zapper’, and even if it has a strictly political message, at least is a sarcastic attack on TV, a scorn for the broadcasting system, especially the Italian one.” This project also has a double manifestation, as a live performance and as a double VHS tape. I would argue that Remote Control is the clearest articulation of Uggeri’s artistic vision. In it’s live version, Uggeri and collaborator Luca Sigurtà (Harschore, Luminance Ratio) create a cloud of noise against the backdrop of live TV zapping projected behind them, using junk electronics and processed fragments of the broadcast audio. The tape format is deeply symbolic, as well as a touch nostalgic, defying easy commercialization while harkening back to the glory days of tape, the first technology that really liberated media from the producers. Attacking the vapidity of television, particularly as it has developed in Berlusconi’s Italy, this work takes the idea of participatory culture to a level that completely resists the trappings of commercialization and advertising so often associated with “interactivity.” Uggeri acts as a curator, bringing together an international crew of artists using noise as anti-institutional catharsis, their various tracks set against the random zapping of Italian television.
The effect of tearing these images from their original context – freed of their accompanying sound, of temporal location in a broadcast schedule, from narrative context- and randomly paring them with noise music is surprisingly effective. Just as protesters banging pots and pans in the face of police in response to Quebec’s recent controversial anti-protest “special” Law 78 robs the police of their legitimacy by exposing their powerlessness, Remote Control robs these base television programs of their social and political capital. Uggeri is operating within a tradition of the Italian experimental musicians that broke decisively from the high cultural output of the pre-movement of ’77 days. The anti-institutionalism of that political and cultural moment eventually self-destructed, but lived on in the aesthetic realm of Mail Art and industrial/noise tape culture. It’s no surprise then to see music journalist and Mail Art pioneer Vittore Baroni providing fascinating articulations of these ideas in the liner notes. Barone’s enthusiastic response to Uggeri’s project draws a connection between that earlier time and today’s experimentation, and demonstrates that today’s new media can still be used in novel and subversive ways.
Joseph Sannicandro: Can you describe what led you to be interested in making music?
Matteo Uggeri: I loved music since when I was very young, a kid I may say. My mother and her brothers were all fond of music and I grew up listening to Inti-Illimani, Italian folksingers (eg. Guccini and De André), and some prog stuff (early Genesis and PFM). Apart of the latter, I still like all of these… but I started to think about creating my own music in the middle of the ‘90s when I discovered early ’80s industrial artist such as SPK and Cabaret Voltaire, and most of all Controlled Bleeding. I wanted to do something similar, and I thought I could. I don’t have any traditional musical background, I learned how to read music only four years ago, and so I loved the idea of playing in a rough way.
You began with poor equipment and loops, releasing the results under the monicker Der Einzige. How would you describe your creative process at this time?
Yes, at the very beginning I just wanted to imitate the sounds of what I listened, stuff like those ofCold Meat Industry label… but I didn’t have any sampler, just two crap Walkmans and a very basic IBM PC (in 1996 was a good one, I think a 286, but if you think about it now…!), that was my father’s PC, being honest. I didn’t even have microphones, so I used headphones used ‘backward’. And to create loops I tried to use the turntable. I wanted very harsh sounds, so I tried with adhesive stripe on vinyls. The result was pretty good, but I didn’t want to use my LPs, so I got one from some hare Krishna guy that was selling them door to door. That’s why in the CD-R card Early Poor Loops for Khrisna you can listen to some sort of mantra between a jump of the needle and the other!
Download: Der Einzige – “Cabaret Montesquieu” (mp3)
To create percussive sounds I used a tent’s bar stuck against a heater. My parents weren’t too happy for this, but they let me do it. Later, at university, I knew some ‘real’ musicians, like Icci, to whom I asked for recordings of guitars and more, so I’ve put his stuff (a bit manipulated through the PC) in the first tape. He even borrowed me a drum pad (that I didn’t like very much).
I think the use of field-recordings demonstrates a careful way of listening. What are your early impressions of sound and music? What lead you to treat sound as you do?
Yes, I think I’m a careful listener. I always loved to record sounds around me, and in this case – I must say – without any imitation purpose. I didn’t know artists such as Francisco Lopez or Chris Watson (apart of his activity as a member of Cabaret Voltaire) when I decided to take a microphone (a real one, but cheap again, a Sony mic usually done for interviews and similar purposes) with me when I was around. I always loved the sounds of the objects also, like the things I had in my house (tools, home machines, washbasins…). But it’s difficult to say what lead me to treat sound… most of the time I don’t treat sounds in terms of ‘effects’ like distortions, granulizers, echoes… I did in the past (not so much, usually, except for reverbs and delays) but now I usually prefer to let the sound recognizable. I just cut and eq, or compress it a bit. I like to preserve the identity and the memory of the sound. For me each field recording has a specific link to a place and a situation, and often to people (relatives, friends, somebody who was with me at that time). I’m a sort of sensitive researcher and collector of sounds, not a scientist or a experimentalist. A sound is beautiful to me especially if it has a meaning to me, and if possible to the potential listeners too.
I dunno exactly what brought me to the love for sounds in this sense. Maybe the fact that I’ve never been able to play any musical instruments, so I searched for something in the air that I could grab and use into my compositions. At the same time, I notice that I record a lot of human voices also, and that I like the emotional and even semantic value of these speeches…
Do you think of your process for creating as being, artistically, fundamentally one that takes place in “the studio” (that is, editing, mixing, arranging) or a “live” process that takes place in real-time.
For Sparkle in Grey is mostly a live real time process, so this means that we meet and play improvising into the rehalshal room as a way to ‘invent’ new songs/tracks, but afterward there’s a loooong studio phase that is really fundamental to us. And for my solo projects or for the projects I do in collaboration with other musicians is 90% studio (home studio, BTW).
And what projects you have coming out soon?
Yes, the [most recent] one is finally Pagetos, with Luca Mauri and Francesco Giannico [released byBoring Machines]. But I have also another very strange one with Bob Corn (Tiziano Sgarbi), an Italian folk singer which is really a good one, in the style of Bonnie “Prince” Billy, with whom I made a sort of “folk singer field recording album”: the idea was to let him play and sing ‘en plein air’ while I recorded with binaural mikes, often in movement. I also got my first sort of solo releases, one is Four Steps on Points, an EP based on strings (not played by me!) and Untitled Winter Nights, a full length CD based mostly on acoustic sounds of several instruments. The first should be out on Fluid Audioand the second on I don’t know yet.
Moreover, with Sparkle in Grey, we’re working on three albums, that will be issued very sloooowly in the following years – I hope.
[Update: The CD Fields of Corn, by Bob Corn & Matteo Uggeri, should have been published on May 25th, but was delayed due to the earthquake that struck the central region of Italy. The copies had laid unassembled in Tizio's house in San Martino Spino, until the last edition of Tagofest, where the two finally had the opportunity to meet and put together about 100 of the 500 limited edition copies of the record, which you can order here.]
Do you have a way of working that you bring to all your different projects? Or do some releases take on a specific process?
The process changes all the times according to the collaborators. I usually take care of field recordings and mixing, but not all the time and the sequence may change. For instance for Autumn is Coming… Andrea Ferraris recorded his guitar parts over tracks that I already prepared for him, mostly fields and little drones, then I mixed the whole stuff and then we also re-arranged it all together. It also depends on where the buddy lives: with Andrea we met two times, he’s not too far… For Pagetosit was different: I never met Francesco Giannico face-to-face, and he never knew even in internet Luca Mauri (that is a good friend living 40 km from my house). So in this case Francesco was the real initiator of the sounds, as he sent me piano tracks. Then me and Luca went to a sort of ‘studio’ (the Silos, in Merate) and he improvised on the piano tunes. We even get a track from Francesco while we were in the studio, by chance, in real time. Afterwards I spend some months in mixing the piano and the guitar and adding my sounds, then me and Luca reviewed the mix… And one track is just from Luca’s guitar. There I asked to Franz Krostopovic to add his violin and I played (much later) drums and trumpet here and there. Yes, it really changes all the times!
Can you further elaborate on some of the specifics of your working process?
I may say that in some other case it’s different again. With Alessandro Calbucci, for The Distance, I just gave him some of my field recordings and he did everything: he played the guitar drones and did the mixing. At the end I just added some more sound, did a basic EQ and a mixing between the tracks.
The Der Einzige EP with Harshcore comes just from 2h improvisation session in the same sort of studio above mentioned (the Silos), with some light editing months after, and that’s it.
Download: Der Einzige – “Yellow Six Meets Yellow Swans” [mp3]
With Sparkle in Grey it is much different, with improvisation sessions to generate the tracks and lot of creative and re-writing process later, always together until the final recordings in a real studio (that changes all the times) with real sound engineers (so far Giuseppe Ielasi and Cristiano Santini), and help in the mixing phase by Giuseppe again. In this case it takes years!
What equipment and gear do you use?
I just have an Apple laptop (but I’m not an Apple supporter, not at all!) Previously I had a PC and I still use a PC for the graphic work) with an Edirol FA 66 external sound card. But the most loved tool is a wonderful MIDI controller by Doepfer : both it and the Edirol have metal case and they’re lovely at touch. It’s important for me as my approach to ‘gear’ is not really physical as you can imagine. I also use some object (toys, polystyrene cubes, rubber bands…) with contact microphones, but they’re so delicate that sometimes I prefer to leave them home. I can play a trumpet and a bit some very very easy drum stuff, but I’m not really good with it!
And how do you use these? As you collaborate with more diverse artists and acquire new skills and techniques, how has your set up, and approach to music, changed over the years?
It changed a lot, of course, if you compare the very basic set to make noisy lo-fi loops with vinyls and adhesive stripes of Der Einzige and this Mac and audio device. In the middle you can find the stuff I played with various PCs (not laptops) in the ’90 as Normality/Edge and for Norm (the pre-Sparkle in Grey band I was playing with). My first software sequencer was Fast Tracker, a DOS program that ran with these old machines and that I had partially to setup with number and codes (in sexagesimal units, God! It was 90% random for me). I was not an expert, but I made as much as I could to build up patterns and rhythms that I liked, mostly in a dark EMB style music. I even had a :Wumpscut: like project with a mate at the university, Human_Against_Hope… I was singing/screaming. Real teenager ugly stuff!
Later, with Norm, I used shareware or free version software of Cooledit and mainly Goldwave to edit sounds, and ACID to make loops and record the instruments of the other member of the band (Agostino Brambilla, Andrea Zoia, Emanuele Nardini and at the end also Cristiano Lupo, that is still in Sparkle in Grey). It was a really funny and creative process. We spent days and days in summer in my parent’s house (when they were away, on holiday) recording day and night and processing the sounds. Nothing really listenable, but funny, yes.
Then I moved to Fruityloops, a completely different and easier and flexible software, with whom we decided also to go to a rehearsal room/studio (always the Silos) to improvise in a way that is similar to the Sparkle in Grey creative process, but much more radical. Only improvisation, each time different.
How does it transfer to a live setting?
It’s difficult. Now it’s rare for me to play alone, for instance. When I played the trumpet often I started to do live acts as Der Einzige based on trumpet, objects and laptop processing. It was funny to do and (I think) to watch and listen. Very short gigs, 20’ max, sometimes 5’.
In the past I also did laptop+contact mikes live acts, but I didn’t enjoy them very much, I had to prepare everything before and there was little space for improvisation, for ‘real’ playing. With the band (SiG) everyone plays is instrument (Franz Krostopovic the Violin, Alberto Carozzi the guitar and the bass, Cristiano Lupo bass, drums and guitar) and I use my laptop to provide rhythmical and melodic patterns, and some contact microphone is used too. So I don’t get bored because I need a lot of concentration to not make any mistake and the audience has someone to watch playing (them). It works, and it’s difficult too, as it’s not too easy for them to play with electronic paces all the times.
Some other project does not has a real live set (Autumn is Coming… or Pagetos, for instance) but we can think about it… Now I’m preparing a sort of field-recordings showcase. Not a concert but a sort of trip in sounds recorded all over, with no melodies and no rhythm, only field recordings. Maybe it’ll be very boring. The best live stuff is probably the performance related to “Remote Control”, that I do with Luca Sigurtà. In that case we use a real TV set with a spectator that does zapping all the time and we process the TV audio through various devices, showing the TV transmission to the audience through a beamer. This is funny.
Any tour plans?
Unfortunately not. It’s getting more and more difficult to play around in this period, especially for those like me who have a job in a completely different field. But I’m doing my best.
Any other albums or collaborations in the works?
I’m working to the second collaboration with Andrea Ferraris, and I’m helping a singer, My Dear Killer/Stefano Santabarbara to mix his album. I love working with non-strictly experimental musicians. Moreover I’d like to issue some noise stuff from Der Einzige, including a solo trumpet and bagpipe record we made years ago and a live album with Harshcore. I still have some record into ‘my drawer’ ready, like my first solos I already mentioned and a very good collaboration I’ve done with the Portuguese musician NunO Moita, called “Batalha”, but I can’t find a label for it.
Ah! I forgot Sparkle in Grey: we’re working on three records, as I mentioned, but very slowly. One should be recorded at end June 2012 by Andrea Serrapiglio and it’s called Thursday Evening. It’s a heavier one than Mexico.
A Closer listen whole-heartedly thanks Matteo Uggeri for this interview. All images courtesy of the artist.
August 7, 2012
First published at A Closer Listen
Joseph Sannicandro interviews Rutger Zuydervelt, akaMachinefabriek, in the first installment of an ongoing series exploring the creative process and a non-fetishization of equipment.
“A rather poor instrument,… but how wonderfully they use it.” In this quote, James Joyce is referring to the French language, but at its heart is a lesson for artists working in any medium.
Along with our fascination, and fetishization, of our instruments, can come a desire to harness an aesthetic of liberated creativity. Too often the tendency is to see a direct correlation between technological “progress” and development of the arts. Or worse, in the wake of digital technology we may forget that experiments in arts technology predate the digital era. There is no correlation between creativity and the ownership of equipment. One could have the most expensive equipment and still not create anything worthwhile, while another can have junk electronics and change the world.
So much of the evaluation of music, particularly electronic music but also rock, pop and so on, tends to focus on gear. Companies that produce music gear rely on the fetishization of their products in order to expand their markets, and this aspect of music communities contributes to a subordination of raw creativity to equipment. Yet if we look to some of the most productive artists and scenes of the 20th century, the marketing ploys ring rather false. Brian Eno famously said that over-reliance on computer processing would be akin to a painter mixing all the colors on his palette together. Eno’s innovation came from realizing that combining simple inputs can result in generating complex and unique results. Similarly, when Pauline Oliveros, one of the great unheralded composers and improvisers of the 20th century, first began experimenting with tape in the late ’50s, she created groundbreaking work by manually winding the recorder, allowing for a variable speed recording that was not at all the intention of the producer. These sorts of explorations often encouraged composers to become technicians and vice versa, designing and building their own devices (such as Ramon Sender and Morton Sobotnik, Oliveros’ colleagues at the San Francisco Tape Music Center, orKraftwerk‘s legendary Kling Klang studio in Düsseldorf, or conversely Studio di fonologio di Milan RAI’s technician Marino Zuccheri, who composed the drone piece Parete 1967 to represent Italy in the Montreal Expo of 1967.) Writing about the San Francisco Tape Music Center, John Rockwell notes that “…one is struck by how modestly funded it was, how they made so much of so little. But sometimes penury can be a spur to creativity, however romantic that may sound. Maybe had these composers had all that institutional equipment, they might have been subtly— or unsubtly—undermined, denied the stimulus of bohemian penury.” Though the major studios may have produced lasting theoretical contributions and technical achievements, it may very well be the case that the more influential music and even technical advancements came from those who made due with less, those whose creative instincts were sharpened by constraint, forced or otherwise.
Sound Propositions sets out to challenge this fetishization of gear, instead taking a close look at the creative act itself. It will explore music that constitutes a questioning of technological determinism through its very form. What if we cast out on the alleged neutrality of our technologies, instead seeing them as embedded in the larger context of their creation, socially dependent and shaping the quality of the results by the nature of the mechanism? The apparatus now appears quite differently, and this shift in tension results productively in new artistic work. It is in this transformation that this series will dwell.
It seems that more and more, we expect out tools to lead us, rather than the other way around. We ask how we can use our tools, rather than how they use us, how their “proper” uses may actually constrain us. Of course there are interesting works that may seem to let the tools guide the process, an exploration of the tool’s capacities itself, but this is still guided by a concept that orients the exploration. Artists like Maurizio Bianchi (the pioneering Italian industrial/noise tape artists MB) draw on the same source that inspires arte povera, eschewing proper instruments or techniques in favor of developing new uses of equipment that is easily available, such as a DVD player, a broken microphone, and a tape deck. Steve Roden and his “lowercase” sound represent the purest distillation of this aesthetic, and hence brings the nature of electroacoustic improvisation into clearest relief. Touring at times with nothing but a microphone, Roden performs using found objects, delicately coaxing out sounds and amplifying them. It is no surprise then that he often comes up as an important influence on the artists we cover, including Machienfabriek, who’s current live set up (see below) no doubt takes its cues from him.
I can think of no artist more appropriate to launch this series than Machinefabriek, whose vast output is not so much characterized by any unity but instead by an ongoing series of creative explorations. An experimental artist in the truest sense, in so far as the results of his explorations are not planned or determined in advance, Rutger Zuydervelt continues to release groundbreaking music at breakneck speed. Never content to repeat himself, he has paired down his equipment, no longer using laptops or even his guitar, so long a staple of his live performances. Rather than work with the same tools, Zuydervelt instead refines his process, creating a replicable technique and identifiable aesthetic that is not dependent on specific equipment or even notions of supposed fidelity.
As an artist becomes more proficient, the number of tools needed goes down. It isn’t possible to take in all of his output, (even in an age of file sharing, Zuydervelt now has over 100 releases to his credit), and a Machinefabriek release can no doubt be enjoyed on its own. Even so I’d argue that a hermeneutic reading of his oeuvre, taking in to account the parts that comprise the whole, clear the way for a deeper understanding of the ever expanding work itself.
The work of Machinefabriek demonstrates that process may have just a few moving parts, and yet can produce beautiful, complex results without utilizing expensive equipment or professional techniques.
Can you describe what led your interest in making music? What is your musical background, both in terms of playing instruments and musical “scenes” which you were shaped by?
Somewhere between when I was 8 and 13, I had guitar and piano lessons. But the first music that really started the fire, was extreme metal. Grindcore and especially death and doom metal, that was my thing for some years. I played in a band for three months, and then we broke up. Not long after I found out that I could also make music on my own, on a computer. By then, I also listened to early Warp stuff, drum ‘n bass and trip hop. It was all much more rhythm orientated then what I’m doing now. At that time, I didn’t really feel part of a scene, and most of the stuff I did didn’t leave the room.
The music I was interested in grew more and more experimental, leading to where I am now.
I think that is actually a more common passage than it may appear at first. Interest in extreme music, I’d argue, leads to a similar transformation of our understanding of time. Grindcore, for instance, is so fast that one must simultaneously perceive the music on various time-scales, the hyperfast as well as the structural changes. And it is also quite noisey, of course, which creates an appreciation for different types of sounds, different aspects that are more textural and timbral.
It’s often said that your live shows are quite apart from your studio practice, and though they are related in approach the latter of which seems more central to your artistic identity. Is this the case? And although your live performances are in some sense “improvised,” Machienfabriek doesn’t seem to have much in common with established improv scenes, (which are often from my perspective really about interacting with other performers as much as anything.)
If I really had to choose, I’d say the studio work is more important. There’s more freedom there, simply because stuff doesn’t have to happen in real time. But on the other hand, the feeling I get when a gig goes well, that kind of rush, that’s almost impossible to get when working at home. Live performing is also more a hit or miss process. It’s mainly improvised, and I like to keep options open and to surprise myself, which sometimes can be a bit stressful, but at other times can be really rewarding.
I do sometimes improvise with other people. That’s important, cause it keeps things fresh. It can open new doors.
You’re saying that Machinefabriek doesn’t seem to have much in common with improv, but to be honest, I’m very inspired by ‘lower case improv’, such as John Butcher, Keith Rowe, Mark Wastell, etcetera. Not that I come close to their instrumental skills, but their approach is extremely inspiring.
Ah yes, you’re right about that. I indeed meant those who are able to go beyond the ordinary… TheErstwhile/Confront/Another Timbre scene… Those who dare to go beyond the academic and more into micro-sound or noise territory…
There must also be some connection between ‘lowercase sound’ and “lower case improv.” Of course your collaborations are almost as numerous as your solo releases. Anything else to add about how collaborating with such a wide variety of artists has shaped your creative approach?
Hard to pin something really specific… To be honest, I don’t think my collaborations changed my way of working, but more so broaden my musical horizon. Though live improvising with another musician is always a good exercise. The fluid, droney playing from Gareth Davis for example is totally different then the all-over-the-place vocal acrobatics of Jaap Blonk. Doing these kind of combinations more and more make more flexible as a live performer, though honestly, there’s still a lot to improve in that area.
You’ve been releasing music since 2004, at the age of 25, and have established yourself as an extraordinarily prolific artist since then. I believe the first release of yours I came across, or at least the first I really listened to carefully, was your first release for Type, the split with Aaron Martin back in 2007. As I encountered later releases over the years I’ve often found myself having to go back and re-listen and re-assess your work, as the sheer volume of your output makes it hard to construct a clear “identity” for Machinefabriek in the listener’s mind. You near-monthly output (or so it seems) of 3″ CDs seems a perfect medium for you, as they are limited in terms of material copies but also short enough to allow for the execution of an idea that isn’t as grandiose as a full length. But I wonder if you could talk a bit about why you do release so much music. Is there a Merzbow-esque goal of obscuring any unitary idea of “Machinefabriek,” or do you just work very quickly? If the latter, do you ever worry that some of your releases that might find larger audiences get hidden within your larger discography? I suppose another way to phrase that would be, for those just discovering your work, where would you suggest they begin?
A question I’ve been asked many times before, and one that I ask myself too, but I still find it hard to answer.
First of all, last year already has been a bit slower, in Machinefabriek terms. So no 3-inches each month. Actually, the whole 3-inch thingy is a bit over.
But anyway, I’m not trying to obscure a ‘Machinefabriek identity’, but I simply try to do something different for each release. To make, it doesn’t make any sense to make an album in exactly the same style as a previous one. The difference can be in small things. Things that might only be obvious for me, but still. I see Machinefabriek as a vehicle for unlimited research and experiments, and the releases are documenting that. I’m not making it easy for an audience, but I’m also not expecting that they will like or buy everything. I think every record I make has my signature, but each one should also be rated on it’s own terms. I’d rather surprise people (myself included) then have an oeuvre of uniformity.
And yes, I do work very quickly. The releases are really made ‘in the moment’. Once I have an idea in my mind I find it hard to focus on anything else except executing that idea. Another important aspect is that I try to keep things spontaneous, and not overdone. Things may be a bit sketchy sometimes, but that’s nice I think. If music is ‘too finished’, it doesn’t leave so much room for the listener to discover things.
One way of dealing with the issue of releases staying hidden in my discography, is compilations, such as Daas, Vloed, and Veldwerk, which were released on Cold Spring. These give a very good idea of my work, and are widely available. These are also the ones that I recommend as a start in my oeuvre.
I think the use of field-recordings demonstrates a careful way of listening, listening in a way that extends itself to your way of organizing sound. (The Jerusalem Tape of the Day makes this pretty obvious, but I think it’s true of your work in general.)
The most important influence on my music has been minimalism. And especially how Oren Ambarchi uses that. Listening to his (and similar) music made me realize that you can sometimes say more, with less. The idea of Cage’s 4’33″was also inspiring. The tiniest sound can work miracles, and field recordings can be a fantastic example of that. A lot of the times I’m finding the balance between boredom and tension. And that’s a thin line.
Again, doing it live or for recorded work makes a difference. Live, my setup depends on whom I playing with… For studio work, most of the time it’s a file-sharing affair, so using each other sounds and process these, edit ‘em, etc.
One of my best memories of a collaboration is the one with Stephen Vitiello, which was something different all along. Instead of sending each other sound-files, we sent each other objects to make sound with. That was great fun, and a really nice creative process. Also the live performances we did (using the same principle) were a blast. [See Box Music and Birds in a Box.]
Can you describe your working process? For instance, do you begin with an idea for an effects process, or a particular sound, or some particular idea?
Most of the time I have a half-baked idea for a sound or mood that I want to set. Most of the time I use a recording of me improvising on an instrument, or a field recording, which I’ll use as a soundsource that I cut up, layer and edit ‘till a track exists. But when I start, I don’t have a clear idea about the structure or duration of the piece. It’s where the process takes me that decides the final track. I find it really important to keep the possibility open to be surprised by sound. One moment dictates the next…. It’s quite a organic process in that sense.
What equipment do you use?
Again there’s the difference of studio or live work. As for the studio work, the basic sound can be anything. The actual composing then happens on the computer. I used to work with this really simple editing program called Sound Edit, but that doesn’t work on [Mac OS] X , so I had to look for something else when I bought a new computer. I bought Logic, which is a really good program, but I must admit that most of the editing happens in Sound Studio, a program similar to Sound Edit. Super simple, and probably as unprofessional as you can get, but it works for me. I like the simpleness. There’s no filters to hide behind, it’s just very rough cut and paste work.
Live, my most important gear is obviously my looping pedals. There’s been a few changes in my live setup recently, but for a long time I used a guitar, with two volume pedals, each with a looping pedal, left and right divided, to make syncopating loops. Nowadays I’m not using the guitar anymore. An analogue tone generator took over, which again goes to some looping pedals, a freeze pedal and reverb.
What I do live (either with guitar, tone generator, radio, etc) is really looping and building layers, not so much heavily processing the sound. Except for a reverb, and sometimes an equalizing pedal, there’s no other effect pedals.
As we speak, I just decided what to use in my upcoming gigs with Celer. It’s a setup that uses a little box with contact mics, and a set of tuning forks. This goes through the Freeze pedal, a Boss RC20 looper, a Line 6 DL4 delay/looper and a Fairfield Circuitry ring modulator. I also have two cassette Dictaphones connected to my small mixing desk, each of ‘em with a 30 second looped cassette. I also use these to record sounds I make, and then replay the loops, adding a nice wobbly effect cause of the oldness of the tapes. It’s the smallest setup I’ve used so far, which I’m very happy about. An important aspect for my live performances is to use as little as possible and still be able to do something interesting. The more stuff on my table, the harder it is to concentrate.
Screenshot from Logic
Another Screenshot from Logic
How has your set up and technique, and approach to music, changed over the years, with different projects, with growing skill, etc. Perhapsstudio vs live process misses the point, even, as it strikes me that your work, regardless of the form it takes, is about exploring acoustic properties. The shape may differ depending on the equipment, the intent, the setting. Is there an underlying interest that is being mined? Can you describe a typical, or a particular Machinefabriek equipment set up?
It’s 80 to 100% improvised. I try to start with a concert not knowing where it will end. Again, surprising myself is important. It can go both ways of course, it’s a hit or miss process, so the results are not always satisfying, but I still prefer this way of working then having to perform the same songs over and over.
I don’t think my music is really about technical skills. I don’t have much of that. But what I (think I) do have is good ears, and a good sense of musicality. After years of playing live, I’ve came to a point where I can go onstage without hardly any preparation. Again, it’s not a guarantee for a successful performance, but this sense of liberation is where the power of music lies…
You don’t use a laptop except for recording and editing, is that right? If so do you find benefit in forsaking the limitless possibility of the laptop?
Correct. I don’t use much processing on my sounds… That’s all very basic. It’s the recorded sounds themselves which are more important. And yes, the laptop can have limitless possibilities, but it’s also a lack of interest and patience on my side that I haven’t really explored that. I love hardcore computer music like released on Editions Mego, but I never felt too attracted to it do try that stuff myself. I think that if I’d do that, my music would lose personality. I think I won’t recognize myself in it anymore. I like a more hands-on approach, with a clear human touch. An important influence isSteve Roden. I had moment that his music assured me that really simple methods can have great results. That it doesn’t have to take super expensive equipment or complex processes to create appealing, intimate music. Using less can definitely result in more. In that respect, I find it interesting to keep searching for more limitations to create new possibilities. Does that make any sense?
Yes, exactly. I can imagine what just a tuning fork and that Freeze pedal can accomplish in your hands. And I’m glad you mentioned Steve Roden, as I have the feeling his influence will be important to most of the people I’m interviewing for this series. You guys are likeMacGyver.
Often when writing about Machinefabriek it is said that you work for a living as a graphic designer. Now I think knowing someone’s career and/or interest in other media can be telling, but often those kinds of trans-medial comparisons are misleading, as they minimize the specificity of sound as a medium. Vision is already over-privileged. Anyway, that said, do you find any similarities in terms of the technological interfaces you use (e.g. between graphic design software and digital audio workstations) that may affect your process?
I’m actually living as a musician now, but still do graphic work. In my case, the working process isn’t that different as with making music. It’s both quite intuitive, and I like to make quick decisions. Interface-wise it’s very different though, but obviously, making music on a computer program like Logic, is obviously a very graphic way of working with music. There literally are blocks of sound to move, the sounds themselves are made visible with waveforms, and (for example) volume adjustments are made by moving lines up or down.
Most of my sleeves are being created simultaneously as the music of that same release. So it’s an integral part of the process. I’m a sucker for nice sleeves (I don’t by music with sleeves I don’t like), and I don’t really like downloads. So yes, I think that how an album looks is integral part of it. As an artist, I try to establish a consistency in quality, and the sleeves should reflect that. The sleeve is also the first step of ‘pulling the listener into my world’
Last year the Dutch announced huge cuts to arts funding. How do you feel about this? Has the Machinefabriek project received any public funding?
I have mixed feeling about this… I think we were spoiled for a long time, compared to finding in other countries. But still, the way politicians speak about art nowadays is terrible, as something useless and mediocre, eating up tax money for nothing. That’s sad, especially ‘cause artists that have just started, or small theater of music groups are affected the most.
As for my career, it didn’t do much harm to me yet, but I think it will next year and after, when it comes to playing in the Netherlands or doing projects. I’ll probably get asked less, and get less paid… We’ll see…..
Other than some vague ideas about Ultra, I don’t know much about the Dutch experimental tradition. In some places I’ve been, like Italy, I’ve found experimental musicians often perform regularly in gallery spaces. Is this the case in the Netherlands?
Sometimes, but not much. It’s mostly small theaters and venues that are specifically programming experimental music and film, like WORM in Rotterdam or Extrapool in Nijmegen. Indeed, in other countries I have played in galleries often, but here it’s not so common.
This may sound like a strange question, but I wonder if you have any strong feelings about the relationship between art and politics. Is there a politics to machinefabriek?
Nope. Machinefabriek has and will always stay away from politics. With my music, I try to create sort of abstract worlds, not referring to the here and now, but to transcend into something that can trigger the listener to really let go of anything else and immerse in the music. God that sounds pretentious, and I’m not sure if it’s truly working, but I guess you can see it as some form of escapism…
A look at Sound Studio
An understandable impulse, when the world can seem so bleak, and particularly the world of formal political institutions so trapped in their outdated orthodoxies. The role of the artists can be simply to offer a temporary respite from the everyday, an escape, but I think that simply by choosing to be creative, to produce mini-works of art and self-releasing them and contributing to a non-hegemonic culture, this too positions the artist in an inherently political role, even if it’s only implicitly. More so, working with “non-musical” objects and sounds changes our way of hearing the world around us, aestheticizing the mundane.
Recently you’ve been taking part in more contemporary art installations and sound art projects, and even your recent release Bridges has a very (sound) artistic concept behind it. You provided the score to an upcoming film about Sol LeWitt. Are these (installations, scores) something you’ll be engaging in more often? Any thoughts so far on your work in this category?
I definitely want to do more in this direction. I love it to make site specific work. It’s interesting to get into a dialogue with a place (or a film), and it can trigger choices that I might not make when making uncommisisoned music. For example, I’m working on a short piece for a machine room in an old building. People will get a tour through the room, while the sound of my piece will complement the sound of the still working machinery in the space. By walking around, the sound will also change. You’re really digging deeper in music as an experience, which is fantastic.
Which reminds me, why did you decide to use the moniker ‘Machinefabriek’?
Around 2004 I lived in Arnhem, and each time I went shopping for groceries, I passed a building that had the text ‘Machinefabriek’ on it. I fell in love with that word, so when I was thinking about a name for my project, it was easy… The meaning of the word is also nice, as a place where they make things to make things with… There’s something funny about that…
All of which makes you, to my mind, the perfect artist to score a film about Le Witt, who wrote, in “Paragraphs on Conceptualism,” that “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.” Contemporary art practices, including sound art and music projects such as Machinefabriek, are best understood through the lens of conceptualism. In the case of sonic art, what Seth Kim-Cohen has termed non-cochlear art (a play on Duchamp’s non-retinal art, that is to say that a work always has additional registers that it functions on, extra-scultural, extra-sonic etc).
Any projects coming up or recently released you’d like to highlight?
Sure thing… A few things… Like a second 7-inch with Celer, that will come out later in the year. [Just released following their tour together, available here] Our collaboration works really well, so after the first 7-inch we decided to do more… There’s more plans for that, so keep your eyes open.
Fang Bomb just released my solo album Colour Tones, which was made a year ago, for an exhibition about colour. Each track soundtracks a story about a specific colour. It’s one of my most playful records… Quite like how that one turned out.
The French label Nuun is releasing my album Stroomtoon, which was made using a tone generator, effect pedals, and a lot of editing. It’s quiet a rough record, adding something new to the Machinefabriek discography… There’s even some beats in there…
And there’s more, but I’ve mentioned enough already…
Thank you again for inaugurating this new series.
Readers, I hope may have deepened your interest in Machinefabriek, and may also serve as inspiration to create for yourself.
March 25, 2012
Originally published on The Silent Ballet, November 2010. (Their archive is currently migrating, so I’m republishing it here.)
Just 2 months ago, the anonymous Brooklyn-based tape loving ambient artist Black Swan took TSB by storm with Black Swan (In 8 Movements), certainly the most captivating debut in recent memory. (Review here.) Who was this arresting artist who managed to stir our emotions and imagination? An established artist looking for secrecy? A savvy young upstart? A CD with two bonus tracks, tracks that hint that Black Swan has more quality material in the works. I had to find out more. So rather than research who registered the domain name or track down the IP address, I contacted BS for an interview.
Can you please tell me a bit about the recording process? Did you record the 8 movements first, and then the additional two tracks, or vice versa, or simultaneously? The tone of the recording, as well as the limited edition cassette and reel, seem to suggest a certain orientation towards analogue media, not just the tactility but the absolute uniqueness of each play, even if it is imperceivable. I can’t help but think of William Basinski, for many reasons. Can you describe a bit the process by which you created Black Swan?
The recording: Basically, I wanted to work with a type of sound that breathes… something dark and emotional. I love tape, and everything about it. I love its imperfections and the magnetic factors of tape. The first 8 movements had been recorded as a whole, followed by the extra two tracks. I’ve been told that my sound is similar to WIlliam Basinski, who I had recently become familiar with. I think I can say that I’ve heard enough to truly admire his work. As for Ambient music, I have always been a fan of music by (early) Brian Eno, Biosphere, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Thomas Koner. The field recording works of Hildegard Westerkamp and Raylene Campbell had also made a great impact on my music as well. I think it’s safe to say that these were my main influences within Black Swan’s sound.
So was tape used directly as a sound/instrument in your work? I mentioned Basinski in part because I’m wondering about your technique in creating music. Do you use samples from other work, or did you record work and then manipulate it? What is your background in terms of musical training?
Yes, tape definitely had a large instrumental breath in the recording of ’8 Movements’. Most of the sounds came from my own recorded and manipulated experiments, even some being previous projects. I am in love with found sounds found media, etc. I’m even more in love with manipulating them. I guess, in reality, I love manipulation.
I’ve had no musical training, and have been messing with tape since I was a kid. As a high school retiree, I’m sort of against learning in general, schooling wise, when it comes to certain things. Sound, analog sound, will always be a love of mine… I had always been fascinated by reel to reel media and records, and how it moved as it played.
Regarding your interest in found-sound, media, and manipulation: that was the impression I got. You mention your own recorded experiments and previous pojects. Can you describe the nature of these recordings? Were you more interested in the specific moment? In the creation of an archive of experiments/sounds? Or did they constitute finished projects in their own right? Were you planning on the Black Swan project, or did it arise out of other factors?
The nature of a very (minute) selection of my previously released sounds that I manipulated were basically made within the same fashion. I’ve always had a fascination with home-made sounds, preferably analog grown.
The Black Swan project was a sudden idea, which had been recorded in a matter of a week, mastered within another. I didn’t plan to reuse my previously released material.
Of course, the question of anonymity has to come up. Is Black Swan your first project, or have you released other work previously under different monikers and prefer that this project be anonymous? 2010 seems to be the year for anonymous artists. Can you tell me a bit about your reasons for secrecy, what you hope to gain, or imbue the work with, and so on?
I’m obsessed with secrecy. Like a heart, it’s inside all of us. My main goal is to put out music which comes straight from the source… emotion wise, light or dark. When I record music, it’s like I’m shouting my most darkest secrets to a crowd of family, friends, and strangers. It’s almost like a way of being honest, without saying a word.
I really hope to do sound design and film music for other people’s projects. I’ve done it in the past, but my heart wasn’t really into it. But now I feel like I want to go full force. Sound design is disgustingly ignored in cinema these days (as is originality) and I really hope someday someone catches onto that. That would be unreal. Eraserhead wouldn’t have been what it was if David Lynch himself never owned a tape deck.
Black Swan is pretty much my first anonymous project with sound. I had released a CD a few years ago, still being in the ambient realm, but more melodic and piano based. I might even take that direction with the next Swan release. I haven’t even noticed any anonymous releases recently… Can you recommend a few? That would be great.
My favorite anonymous projects of this year have been Hummingbird (on Fluid-Audio) and Arandel (on InFine). They both made it known that they are established artists who wanted this particular project to not be identified with their other persona. Arandel also seems to have a larger artistic goal, a statement about authorship.
You mention secrecy as your motivation. Does secrecy allow you to be more honest, to take more chances? Often secrecy is manipulated as a gimmick to produce more interest in a project. Were you conscious of this as a potential result of your anonymity? Are you the only one involved in the project? Do you have any accomplices/ collaborators?
Yes, I am the only one involved. No accomplices, no collaborators.
The exact identity of the brain Black Swan will indefinitely remain anonymous. Sure, anonymity gains attention, but honestly, I find that to be almost pretentious and dull. I want to remain anonymous because I do have previously released sound and film material and do not want to associate Black Swan with those materials. I want to keep it as a sort of hidden secret, and as personal as that secret remains, not only to myself but the listeners being submerged. Sometimes it ruins the emotion when one associates a ‘face’ with a ‘name’. I can be black, white, famous or infamous. In the end, it really doesn’t matter… nor it shouldn’t. Simply put, I don’t exist. The music does.
I have fallen in love with the fact that so many people are connecting to the music on an emotional level- light or dark.
It’s clear that you are enamored with the medium of tape, which is understandable. How do you feel about digital recording, in general. Do you like the fact that the medium of tape is “obsolete,” and therefore derive some pleasure from working within the medium-specifics limitations, and benefits, of tape? Is there something in the obsolescence itself? Is it nostalgia? Does it matter at all?
Digital is great. And free in a sense. You can utilize it with total and utter passion, or you can rape and abuse it. Either way, it doesn’t mind. Same goes for tape in a way. I find that musicians who go out of their way to record in an analog method (with ready-made patience waiting to be spent, of course) take their work a bit more seriously. They’re recording that way for a reason. They’re recording that way for its charm. They want it there. Sure, it can be faked, but it seems these days that everybody and everything is pretending to be someone or something its not. The fact that tape is obsolete drives me further to do more analog work. It’s on par with an abandoned building. Lost and desolate, but could still be utilized and proven. It’s nostalgic too, of course. And, yes, sure. It matters.
You mentioned the process happened very quickly. When did the idea for Black Swan first emerge? That is, from that first idea to being reviewed by TSB, how much time has elapsed?
Years ago. Much time has gone by until I realized that if I didn’t do it at the time I did, I would lose touch with it.
So, will their be future releases as “Black Swan?” Those two extra tracks lead me to believe yes….
The comments I have received about the music was flooring… I was astounded that my audible diary was liked so much. The honor and loyalty I now have toward the listeners of Black Swan, both downloaders and purchasers, is the reason I will be recording more and I love them to death. Not because they’re listening to my music, but because they’re putting themselves inside my sound. That’s just something that is forbidden in the mainstream, because the powers that be, controlling both the media and our government, won’t allow it. We’re supposed to be controlled by these evil fucks, to listen to what they want us to listen to, and to do what they want us to do. To know that people are loving it so much, independently, connecting with it on a meditative and cosmic level, emotionally, is the biggest honor one could ever have. And I really think that’s what ambient music is all about. If the response wasn’t as good as I feel it was, I might be saying something differently. Mainly out of discouragement and sadness. But yes, there will be more. Perhaps on even vinyl.
Do you enjoy live performance, or do you ever perform live? I get the impression that your art is a studio based project, and beside, anonymity doesn’t exactly lend itself to public appearances.
I thought about putting a live performance together. I wouldn’t do it in a way where I would be recognized of course, but I want to be as close to my fans as I possibly can, and interact with them face to ‘face’. But I’m not sure if I can do that.
Were you aware of the film Black Swan when you chose the name? More importantly, what is the significance of the name Black Swan?
I’ve always had an idea of doing an anonymous project, focusing on dark but beautiful music. The name ‘Black Swan’ described what I wanted to do, perfectly. But the film looks great and can’t wait to see it, not just for Clint Mansell’s new musical work.
Clint Mansell is great eh? So you self-released Black Swan, as a custom CD, cassette tape or 7” reel-to-reel, which comes in a beautiful 7” box. Have you heard from any labels since the albums release? Do you have any interest in releasing via a label?
As far as labels go, I am actually in the process of possibly releasing a limited 500 vinyl pressing… Still thinking about it. As long as I won’t lose creative control and won’t lose touch with my listeners, I’m all for it. Those are the two most important things to me.
[Post-script: after this interview Black Swan announced that he has signed with Experimedia to release the LP version of Black Swan (In 8 Movements.) Taylor Deupree is mastering the record now and it will hopefully be released in December. Keep an eye out here for the official release date once it is set.]
Are you originally from the NY area? How was the NY community influenced your work, approach, ear, etc.
Born and raised. The NY community had a huge impact, as it’s over-crowded, pretentious, and disgusting. This made me disconnect from that and keep to myself with most things. It forced me to hide in the corner and record this project. I just wanted to add one thing about NY influencing my ear. I must have missed that part of your question. Yes, I think the drones that creep up in the city’s highways and tunnels, like any other city, had an influence in my love for field recordings. I don’t care for it, art wise.
“I can be black, white, famous or infamous.” Many people claimed that the internet was a space of liberation because it lacked the corporeal signifiers that seem to create prejudice and bias in ‘the real world,’ but scholars quickly disproved this notion, as race and gender persist in virtual space. Many readers assume, unconsciously, a straight white male in absence of other signifiers, not surprisingly when you look at what we are presented with in mainstream American media.
I don’t know that you’ve dropped any hints- I’d have to read very carefully with this in mind- but I suppose thinking about it now that I assumed you were male. I agree with your statement about maintaining flexibility in terms of listener’s reactions, but to play devil’s advocate, is their anything about staying in the shadows, so to speak, that is frustrating or limiting?
Yes, I am a male. I don’t really find what you stated as frustrating. I just ignore the media’s ignorance as much as possible, as much as it does bother me. Staying in the shadows seems so comfortable, and I’m beginning to like it here. I think, for once, I’m finally happy with myself, creatively at least.
I’ll leave it there for now. Thanks, as always.
My pleasure- it’s been fun.
The LP version of In 8 Movements will be released in December via Experimedia, mastered by Taylor Deupree.
The follow up record The Quiet Divide will be out soon as well.
The Silent Ballet would like to thank lack Swan for taking the time to do this interview.
Black Swan’s The Quiet Divide was enthralling as expected. He’s just released his third LP, after a string of fascinating collaborations on BandCamp. Follow this one.
March 25, 2012
My first piece for OpenFile Montreal was published last month. Does the current structure of the rental board favour landlords over tenants?
Quebec’s Régie du logement (the rental board) is a tribunal tasked with overseeing residential lease matters. It makes decisions on complaints and publishes guidelines on rent increases to try to make the relationship more fair for all parties. As a result of the Régie, it is illegal for landlords to ask for first and last month’s rent, or even for a security deposit. Created in 1980, the Régie was intended to be an independent tribunal to serve both landlords and tenants.
The wait for a rental board hearing, however, has increased dramatically over the past decades, and can range from 1.3-15.1 months. The Régie has several categories that it uses when scheduling hearings: non-payment of rent (average waiting time for a first hearing in 2010-2011: 1.3 months), urgent civil cases (1.4 months), rent fixation and revision (9.8 months), priority civil cases (10 months) and general civil cases (15.1 months).