interview with Jez riley French

[2008] After some email exchanges with Jez riley French we both felt there was plenty potential discussion surrounding our approaches to working with sound. Jez runs a great blog that reveals much about his artistic process, travels and interest in other artists whom he admires. After being asked to answer his 4 questions survey I thought to reciprocate with my own set of questions. What follows, gives insight into his keen interest to explore sonic terrains and the places that offer them while maintaining caution towards the pitfalls of common linguistic descriptions in relation to the real depth of the work itself. The next step is to hopefully meet some day and stand together on our common ground.

Taking sound as an artistic medium unto itself, what interests or motivates you to work with sound? Is it some form of “musical” drive or is it a more abstract and less tangible means of expressing something?

JrF: well, with this first question I already feel the weight of the limits of language for me. I find it quite odd to explain really. I just started making music when I was quite young & for me I believe I have progressed naturally to the point that I’m at now. By ‘naturally’ I mean that I gave myself time, I worked intuitively and whilst that means a longer journey than perhaps achievable by constant formal study, I feel this was the only way for me to be. So I make the music that I enjoy making. I engage in the creative act when I am moved to do so – it feels natural and a part of my way of being. I think music is a part of it all – the way I think and feel, the way I read, the way I cook and eat, the way I watch, the way I take photographs etc. etc. So I guess, going back to your question, what motivates me is as abstract and intangible as life is and as tangible as the moment to moment way we find to enjoy or cope with life. Working with music / sound & simple visual elements (photography, drawing) is the way I feel able to express myself.

What are some of the challenges in working with sound, both personally for yourself and for what you present to the public (live for an audience or as published work)?

JrF: These are good questions ! you see I really feel that the challenges, the ebb and flow of undertaking these things are private. I could say that, for example, I only make recordings when I feel ‘right’. Sometimes I come across a sound that I like to listen to but I don’t record it – I don’t feel right about it. I don’t really give myself any set expectations. I’m not someone who goes out hunting for an unusual sound. I just live and my creativity is an emotive response. That’s a term I use a lot because it’s the most descriptive phrase I can think of to explain.

In terms of releases, I simply put out the recordings I enjoy and that remain enjoyable or that I instinctively feel are right to release. Perhaps this is where the element of the unexplainable starts to make a difference like a photographer who is said to have ‘an eye’ I suppose I trust my ear & am quite happy to stand by those choices.

Live performance has always been part of my musical life. I started out playing guitar & was in bands & performing solo from early on. I got really into music around the time that new wave / punk music hit the UK so it was all about just getting out there & playing. These days I have a fully formed set of things that cause me stress when performing, but those relate mainly to the organisational aspects. I like to have a nice, friendly time with the folks arranging the concert / event & a stress free soundcheck + an audience who respect music / sound. So all the challenges relate to aspects other than the actual music. Once I’m performing, working with intuitive composition, it all boils down to whether the piece ‘works’ or doesn’t & whilst one always hopes it does I suppose I rely on my instinct. There might be challenges but again, I feel these are private and more to the point are different with each performance.

I understand you do a lot of site-specific work, recording in particular locations and improvising with what you find. Can you talk about why this type of field work is interesting for you as opposed to, let’s say, only making studio based work? Are you attracted to certain locations more than others or do you look for certain types of locations?

JrF: it’s a simple story – I often found myself performing in spaces that I liked & wanted to record the sounds I found. I did that for a long time & avoided using the term ‘site-specific’ – by & large I have a difficult relationship with what I term ‘art speak’ but that’s a different story. I suppose when I improvise or compose live with instruments the sound of the space one is in has a direct effect & so, when using field recordings I find it enjoyable to incorporate the sound of the performance space too if possible. It’s not something I always do – again, it has to feel right.

I don’t really look for locations all the time. Sometimes I will go out with the intention of recording a church or some water (a river or the sea for example) but I often find that these more deliberate attempts result in recordings that might be ok but perhaps lack a certain something. It’s nearly always the happy accidents, the sounds one stumbles across that provide the most pleasing results.

I am attracted to the locations that I like – simple as that. What I’m trying to say is that I am attracted to places as a person & not as a field recordist.

Continuing with the topic of site-specific work and field recording… What is it you like others to hear from the places you visit and record? Why should we at all record the sounds we hear or the music we experiment with in these places?

JrF: well, putting aside the question of whether one can ever know or control what the audience hears, I always hope that an emotive impression is communicated to those who are able to listen in that way. It’s not possible if the audience is full of males who are more interested in the equipment being used than the music though ! or indeed if one is performing to fellow field recordists who are just waiting to hear something they haven’t heard before. This is one reason why I use the term ‘music’ rather than a term such as ‘sound art’ – for me it is that essential quality that makes music ‘sing’ that is the key.

I think, as I said earlier, the music and sound of places is enjoyable whether it is recorded or not of course. For me, the act of recording is a gentle intervention and I never force it – if I don’t feel right recording then I won’t.

What is your relationship to the technology you use for recording and listening? How dependent are you on technology and what kind of standards do you have?

JrF: I would describe myself as an technophobe ! I like equipment that I can be intuitive with and that is immediate. I started out using portable tape recorders back in the early 1980’s & then moved to minidisk – which I still use because I like the portability. I have never been one to rush out & buy the latest bit of kit – I prefer to fully explore the possibilities of the equipment I have. In fact I have a guitar multi-effect unit that I’ve had for about 10 years I guess & it’s still on the first patch !

However, as my interest in recording very quiet sounds – audible silence & sonic architecture – has developed I have invested in a high quality CF recorder (Sound Devices) & a variety of different mics.

I make my own contact mics & hydrophones too. I guess I’m a bit like the stereotype Yorkshireman – never spend a pound unless you have to!

I treasure the exploration & the moment of discovery so in that respect the technology involved isn’t key. I capture those moments using whatever kit I have with me & I’m really not someone who spends hours setting up a recording in order to capture some perception of a ‘perfect’ recording. For me not only do I believe that that doesn’t exist, but even if it did I wouldn’t find it interesting for long. Much of what I don’t like in terms of music, sound & in this context, field recording is technically very high quality but lacks the emotional aspect, lacks the sense of having been captured by a person with a mind and a heart, with strengths and faults – I guess I feel it is dishonest in some way. So my standards would seem lower to some other artists who value the technical perhaps, but I feel my standards are very high – you can easily buy better equipment but you can’t buy better ears or a better connection to your emotions and inspirations!

Jez Riley French in residence at MOKS, May 2009

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