in the soundscape : interview

…interviewed by Paulo Raposo

PR: How did you start working with field-recordings? And how did you first
start to integrate field-recordings in your music?

JG: Last month I had some childhood memories come to me that I would say are related to this question. I used to play with tape recorders as far back as I even knew how to operate one. These were playful exercises in recording made-up “songs” or secretly capturing parents conversations. The ability to record sound has always intrigued me in the way it seems to capture “something else”, more than just sound. When I was 12 or so I got a “boom box”, the kind with the built-in microphones. Sometimes strong storms would come through and I used to go out in the garage with the door open to record the heavy rain and thunder sounds. There was a certain thrill in capturing those moments of natural beauty.

Then, sometime around 1993 I began to work with Michael Northam and Seth Nehil, doing different sound experiments using what was available to us. I cant remember exactly what was our first use of “field recordings”. I don’t remember making a distinction between different types of recordings we made. For me it was simply recording sounds that interested me. There was a natural progression that came with our use of devices, objects, home-made instruments and tape recorders in improvised settings that grew from a “studio” setup into site-specific locations. We were interested not only in the sounds we were making but how they could be integrated into our surroundings. The early actions are not too well documented but Michael got a portable DAT recorder at some point, which was a significant boost in quality and we started recording everything. Recordings we made in different situations, settings or locations became integrated in our compositional works. Some of those could be defined as “field recordings”, yet they were often transformed through the composing process. For myself this slow evolutionary approach has been an integral aspect of my work. I see few defined borders in artistic techniques that approach the irony of the sound medium, in the way that you can “capture” sound while understanding the difficulty in “containing” it, while releasing it into space.

PR: Have you come to develop a grammar or vocabulary from the captured audio in your compositional techniques?

JG: I like the term “captured audio” (I think this came out of one of our discussions). It denotes a “living” quality of sound that you somehow capture this essence, process it, then set it free. The use of language with sound has always been a difficult one for me. Making experimental music and working with sound is essentially a non-linguistic form of communication. But rather than leave it at that I still try to develop an appropriate language to describe what I do in order to push the conceptual, philosophical and practical aspects of my work. Some people simply “understand” through listening, others don’t and like to have additional stories or descriptions related to the music.

PR: You studied architecture in Texas. How did it affect your compositional work and your awareness of space? I also know you are very interested in systems, behavioral systems that come from the realm biology. Could you tell me a little bit about this and how you integrate these in your music?

JG: I studied architecture in Kansas for about 3 1/2 years. That education showed me what I didn’t want to do with my life, but afterward there was still the question of what I was going to do. The actual study of architecture didn’t affect my personal approach to composition other than introducing elements of architectural vocabulary, how to shape, define space and so on. My understanding of sound and space came earlier, through intuitive listening exercises I did as a teenager. I used to do “deep listening” type exercises with certain music in order to visualize space. It was my way of “dreaming architecture” to get ideas. This type of active listening became a tool for creativity as it is inherently connected to visualization of the imaginary. I realized early on that when you limit the “input” of the visual sense (you close your eyes) the auditory sense becomes greatly enhanced. Therefor listening becomes a key for visualization. These kind of exercises I found out much later were practiced by Pauline Oliveros and others as forms of musical meditation. So “my” architecture, the personal notion of visualizing structures within space, was of course not the architecture they teach in Universities. So how then could I express this notion of space? It was eventually through my sound “research” in making experimental music that I was able to explore these understandings of how space is related to human perception. This then opens up a large discussion of what sound induced spatial relations mean. For me this is still a matter of curious speculation, but calls for continued work.

In the mid-90s while working on sound experiments with mnortham and Seth Nehil, we also often found ourselves in discussions about how to articulate verbally what we were doing sonicly. The aesthetic debates about whether the music was “post-industrial”, “electro-acoustic” or even genre related at all seemed pointless (and essentially is for reductive journalistic purposes). For this we looked to other sources for answers and and came to interesting topics in philosophy of science. At some point Michael came across the work of Maturana and Varela, the Chilean biologists, and their theory of Autopoietic systems. This at once had an appeal because it explains the role of “the observer” within the context of larger living systems. Here the observer is never a passive individual but always an active component of that which he/she is engaged with. As sound makers and composers our work has a function or purpose beyond the aesthetic judgments often perceived of as a linear progression of a defined historical lineage (that experimental activity being “ahead” or “advanced” leads to proven “results”). Sound is much more an aspect of something we can’t immediately understand, because it induces phenomenon such as visions (as I stated before) and physical matter (known as Cymatics). As the quantum physicist David Bohm has stated there is an inextricable relationship between thought and matter, that both are aspects of an unbroken process. So from these principles I began to consider my sound work more as a signification medium, a generator of meaning, and particular form of communication if you will. Like language, sound can also send messages, express structures and make statements but on a more abstract level. Systems theory helps describe this far more than than terms and concepts used in the disciplines of art and music. Again this has to do with language used to describe what I do, but this looks different in practice which is not very scientific at all.

PR: Someone, I think Barry Truax, said that in soundscape composition it is precisely the environmental context that is preserved, enhanced and exploited by the composer. What is your position regarding this subject? What is, if Lamy says so, the moral status of the captured audio inside your work?

JG: It depends how you define “soundscape composition”. These terms are relative. I don’t think you can preserve, enhance or exploit an environmental context any more than you can an FM signal from a synthesizer. There isn’t anything moral about this view other than I prefer to use self-induced or naturally occurring acoustic sounds in my work over electronically generated sounds. Acoustic sounds being what they are, are inextricable connected to a context, but of course once captured will be released somewhere else in another context (something like a zoo for sounds?). To put it more simply, for composing, I use the sounds I want to. I’m usually not trying to preserve or enhance the context as much as I am the experience of being in that context. Its much more ephemeral and subjective. In this way I enjoy transforming and obscuring my source material, to shift between an original context and an imaginary one. This is why environmental sounds are more interesting because of the richness and “complexity” of their original nature. Of course if you want to “preserve” a soundcape then it’s a scientific matter and not an artistic one. One needs to decide the “best” devices to record, store and reproduce those sounds and figure out how to get the resources to support your work.

this interview was originally conducted for the Binaural Media website.

website of Paulo Raposo.

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