15 questions: interview for Tokafi

Last autumn I was asked 15 questions by Tobias Fischer of Tokafi about my current work and views. Tokafi is a nice site that covers all kinds of “new” music; experimental, composed, improvised and occasionally rocked.
The interview has now been posted on the Tokafi website.

reprinted below:

The world may not be an oyster, but to John Grzinich, home is definitely where he lays his hat. Born in the USA, he moved to Slovenia in the late 1990s and from there to his current base (or as he calls it himself: “regional concentration”) of Estonia, where he works with the artist-run non-profit art space MoKS. A large chunk of the past decade and a half has been spent traveling through Europe, organising symposia and workshops, performing live in the most diverse locations as well as learning about new techniques of processing sound and about himself. And the more he learned, he found out that he did not want to be a part of a culture which likes to shine in the supposed glory of its prizes, awards and titles. Grzinich has consequently been a thoughtful and socially-minded musician, releasing without direct economic aims and only when convinced that the work justified it. To him, music can never be a mere product, even though the reformation of the music scene into smaller, decentralised market places will eventually turn even the most left-field sound experiments into something which could potentially sustain a living. Some may call this approach idealistic, but to John, it is simply the way he works – the music he writes is a means of personal expression and like-minded artists are his family. It is no wonder, then, that an album like “insular regions” was appreciated on tokafi by noone less than Steve Roden, an artist with an equally diverse artistic repertoire. And with a similarly restless mind: With recent projects in Portugal and Japan, Grzinich shows no intention of laying his hat in the same place for all too long, even though his quick movements do occasionally make the world seem as small as an oyster. -Tobias Fischer

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m fine. At the moment I’m in an improvised studio at MoKS, the cultural center where I work in southeast Estonia. I’ve been living here for three years and the project continues to grow. The name of my studio (wherever it happens to be) is maaheli, which is a constructed  Estonian compound that meaning, sound of the earth/land.

What’s on your schedule right now?
Right now I’m going through all the material I recorded this summer. Some of it has made its way onto a DVD compilation of sound-films, that is films I made while recording sound (field recordings, spontaneous improvisations etc). I will be developing this idea in two upcoming symposia this autumn, Pushing the Medium #2 in Portugal and Pushing the Medium #3 in Italy (I helped organize the first event in Estonia two years ago and now two of the participants from that time have decided to continue with the idea in their own way). The project is entitled ‘Location Sound Films’, which involves recording sound and video material based on site-specific activity. At the end of October I leave to Japan to take part in another art symposium where I will work on some type of kinetic sound sculpture that uses natural elements I find there. I plan to travel there and make some performances with my colleagues Evelyn Grzinich and Hitoshi Kojo.

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?

My biggest influence was probably college radio in the US in the late 1980’s where you could hear all kinds of music. I had a good group of musical friends in high school as well. In the mid 1990’s I lived in Austin, Texas and worked with Michael Northam and Seth Nehil who helped foster my creative ambitions. Being around creative people is important. As I do a diverse amount of work I seem to be influenced by nearly everything. I try to be open to whatever comes along. I find that the nature of the medium itself inspires me. That is, I look at the fundamentals, to ask; what is sound or what is video, how does it get affected by these devices, this process, these interactions, this environment etc. The artwork becomes a constant search to unfold and elaborate on its nature at a particular space in time. It is an exploration of a medium of communication after all. I have to go with this notion to understand my own position or purpose to use that medium. As complicated as this sounds, I see it really as a practical means of navigation through life as one does with language. This becomes important, the more I relate to the world and the people in it through my artwork. I realized one day that most of the important connections to people I know in the world came through my artistic activities. I value those connections and therefore approach my work with the intention to continue developing my ideas. While larger movements within music of the last century may have influenced me, I tend to operate among smaller more independent movements. If I traced all the paths of influence back into history I imagine things may branch into a thousand directions. It’s a wild idea, but I’m not one to look back in time and study history with great detail. The important thing for me, is to understand that as a creative artist, you can’t focus so much on being part of past or existing movements as much as you may be a catalyst for new ones.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

Music seems to be in a healthy phase of transformation as I see quite a lot of activity going on within various social circles, be they traditional cultural practices or simply young people exploring their interests. With the rise of the internet it’s clear that the forms of distribution of recorded music is breaking down. There seems to be a great deal of fear from those in control of the mainstream media (who are the means of distribution) that this is something we should all fear. Unfortunately for them many people are not ‘buying it’ (in the literal sense). As people begin to take the means of distribution of music into our own hands different forms of musical ‘economies’ my come into existence. This is happening with digital media in terms of sharing and trading. While this happens on a global level, it will hopefully encourage more live playing and interaction on the local level. While I enjoy the physicality of CDs and LPs, they’ve never been a big part of my income for existence (although I’ve spent a lot of money on them). So little will change there. I have however found a renewed interest in ways to present my music live and even without a dependency on a computer or other technical means, which was a habit I fell into for a while, but didn’t always enjoy.

What does the term ‘new’ mean to you in connection with music?

‘New’ simply has to do with novelty. There will always be something new and fresh about by creating music ‘in the moment’, whether its improvised or rehearsed. It has to do with the energy or feeling the artist puts into the music. As a label or genre it makes no sense. It’s a contradiction to consider music or media to be ‘new’, especially when it’s something that’s been around for 50 years.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

My compositions are mainly made from recorded sound, so I need sound to compose. But I’m not sure what you mean here.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

Again, I mainly compose with recorded sound (as in the electro-acoustic tradition) so the distinction is fairly clear. Many of the recordings are from improvised sessions, but then they may get cut up and processed. Improvising has to do with a live context. Composing has to do with the studio context.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?

A good live performance makes an impact on yourself and the audience. I prefer to break down the borders between audience and performer. One way to do this is to eliminate the stage, move about and interact with the audience. I’ve started using smaller more portable speakers to get away from big sound systems. Acoustic sounds have always been one of my primary interests, so I’m trying to use unique acoustic environments for performances whenever possible. It’s also interesting to mix amplified sound with acoustic sound if the levels can be balanced properly and the space can accommodate acoustic sounds. If you don’t insist on a classical stage-audience arrangement it opens up many possibilities. Site-specific sound actions interest me, particularly in collaboration with other artists and musicians. I also enjoy mixing symbolic action/performance with sound, where the physical interaction with objects is both visual and ‘musical’. Much of this started last year with suveFLUX, an all night performance held in an old mansion in south Estonia on the solstice. That was instigated by Michael Northam who was in the MoKS residency at the time. He was joined by myself, Loren Chasse and Hitoshi Kojo. I continued with a series of performances called Point+Periphery, during a residency in Finland last winter. That was a collaboration with Seth Nehil and Hitoshi Kojo where we each made a loose score for the others to follow. So there were 3 performances in the end and I organized it in 3 different galleries in 3 different cities. This developed into ‘Clinamen Tides‘, another 3 person sound performance with Hitoshi Kojo and Evelyn Grzinich which was given a test run this summer and will be done in Japan later this autumn. In all these cases we’ve tried to mix acoustic and amplified sounds, live action, and movement. The effect has been surprisingly strong for the audience and myself.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as ‘music’. Would you draw a border and if so, where?

As I have little or no musical training (or art training for that matter) I don’t find myself in these kinds of debates. I’m not preoccupied with what is music and what is not. Many of the people I know or work with found their way into making/experimenting with sound/music through their own interests. Some might consider this an ‘outsider’ approach, but I find it very much a self-motivated attempt to do something in the world. That is, in conditions that lies outside the control and management of institutions, whether academic or commercial. Whether or not this is defined as ‘music’ is up to the artist/s. I would say that, music could really be any form of organized sound that attempts to communicate something. In this way, animals make music.

Are ‘serious’ and ‘popular’ really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?

‘Serious’ usually has to do with status and money. ‘Popular’ is measurement a quantity. Sometimes the two mix. They don’t mean much to my work though.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?

It’s hard for me to see how an artist can’t be social or political unless they only work in a closed room without anyone else knowing. If they do it for some time and leave any evidence than someone might find out. My point here is that you can’t avoid having your work make some effect in the world as long as someone else experiences it. Music is a social medium that may or may not have some political impact. What I find more the issue is how relevant the musical ‘message’ is to the public and what is the intention of the artist. Some music may intend to have an immediate message, some may take 30 years to have an impact. I may not intentionally include any overt political messages in my own music or activities, but I do it because people respond to it. This is the social meaning it contains. Now if, for some reason, more people would respond to my music than say commercial music on the radio, it might become a political issue. But I don’t see that happening. Or if I give a workshop to young people that encourages them to produce their own music it could be considered a social or political act. Of course personal satisfaction comes with the work, otherwise I’m not sure I would do it.

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.

I’ve found that there is little that people need to be educated about other than meaningless repetitive tasks, or value systems other than what occur naturally in the world. People might need to be educated on how to buy and sell music or to judge others by their taste, but not how to appreciate it.

Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?

Any difference would depend on the system of power in control. Music is often used as propaganda for ideologies and belief systems, much like the commercial music industry uses it to push consumerism. But religious and state power systems also use it to further their goals. This may be one major difference between ‘folk’ music and so-called ‘popular’ music. I see ‘folk’ music as self-propagating in its social function for a limited group, whereas ‘popular’ music usually involves the added construction of an image to increase its appeal to a wider public. Although, somehow I expect these two types will always exist. In the current situation I feel the function of music, primarily being used as a commodity, has fallen well out of balance and is therefore losing its appeal.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?

Good music. Good food. Some open space for social interaction (around a fire maybe). Some structured discussions. Maybe a sauna evening or two. I’ve helped organize a number of festival type events with these elements that have worked out well.

Many artists dream of a ‘magnum opus’. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?

I like the dichotomy of ‘vision’ and ‘sound’ in your question. As you mention a dream, I’ve often thought about and have had dreams about sounds that shape and melt ‘reality’. In some way music does this all the time, but more on the mental level than immediately with physical matter (at least not what we can detect). I’ve had strange apocalyptic dreams where great lights and sounds came from the earth shifting in space. It would be something like the aurora borealis making thunderous tones that stretch across the entire sky. Often this happens while I’m standing near a great sea where the sky is reflected on the water. In reality this compares only to the sound of a frozen lake that cracks and produces warped, electronic sounding noises that move in space. I’ve heard this in the absolute stillness of a chilling frozen night deep in winter. These are only things recorded in memory. My mind may be telling me that the ‘magnum opus’ of my dreams is a living sound or light experience beyond anything that I alone could produce. So for now I will continue using sound and light to bridge the fiction of ideas and the reality of human experience and some day I may look back and the whole process as a magnum opus.

Documentation and examples of my work can be found at:

insular regions (SIRR-ecords) 2005
equal and distant lines (Cloud of Statics) 2005
intimations (CMR recordings) 2004

gyre, with Seth Nehil (Cut) 2006
frequency curtain, with Rick Reed & Josh Ronsen (Elevator Bath US) 2002
confluence, with Seth Nehil (Intransitive Recordings) 2002
stria, with Seth Nehil (erewhon records) 2002
the absurd evidence, with Michael Northam (Bobby J/Orogenetics) 1998
the stomach of the sky, with Michael Northam (Staalplaat) 1997

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