[infinite grain is a series of interviews inspired on microsound procedures, exploring a wide variety of topics in dialogue with artists who work with sound on installation, composition and improvisation]
Sometimes the words space, light and sound mean different things. Sometimes, all of them lead to one same concept, one same element. ¿How to think about space or light without sound? ¿Is it possible to conceive a universe without vibration?
There are philosophers, scientists and engineers exploring those concepts, but when it comes to art, this field gets enriched in very special ways, from the development of profound expressions of the such notions. Los Angeles based artist Yann Novak is one of the clearest examples one can found in that field. His simple, direct and expansive methods of exploring sound and its relationship and consequence over “other” elements such as materiality or light, is fascinating and unique.
Novak is an artist able to freely navigate across non-referential territories, fabricating routes of introspective and transcendental experiences, often getting out from the common artistic procedures in order to maximize the experience of listening by actually minimizing its needs, thus inhabiting the space without adding too much, but less. In his work, minimalism gets into its own paradox: there’s not less or more, but the right amount, not for creating something we can measure, but for developing a direct door to the vast universes of sonic infinitude.
Although he doesn’t necessarily rely on concepts or rigid statements, the artist has a deep exploration of notions such as the extension and perception of space-time and the way (micro)sound affects us until there’s not a single way for explaining what’s going in there, simply because the invitation to immersion is enough. Even when his work is not really about theories, he agreed to answer several questions where he kindly shares an intimate perspective of what he has been doing all this years (and if you enjoy the reading and Novak’s work, be sure to support him for getting his taliesin residency).
– Yann, many thanks for taking your time on this. What are you listening right now?
Recently I have been listening to a range of 15 to 20-year-old rave mix tapes from my youth. I have been really nostalgic for that time in my life recently because I will be attending a residency this summer about an hour away from my home town.
At this every moment it’s a live excerpt by Plastikman called Live at Spastik (Slak & Kriket). Very reminiscent to the first time I saw him live back in 1995.
– I wonder how did you get started with art and how sound begun to make a central part of it.
Being an artist was always my goal, from my earliest memories of art class I could not understand why anyone would want to do anything else with their time other than make things. Sound came later, when I was failing at finding a voice as a painter and had become disillusioned with dance music culture. I started to seek out slower, softer and more experimental music and through that discovered there was this whole history of artists working with sound in a fine art context. Because I had a history with electronic music I was most drawn to work that fell into both those categories. It took a few years after that discovery and knowing that was the direction I wanted to take before I was able to afford my first laptop so I could run the software I wanted to experiment with.
– Dragon’s Eye is undoubtedly one of the most important labels for microsound and minimalist audio explorations. Aesthetically talking, what are the main ideas behind it? Also, what’s different now on the label than before its closure time ago?
That’s very kind of you to say. I have to admit that was never my intention. When I started the label I only had one friend producing the kind of work I was interested in, and I saw starting a label as simply a catalyst to building a community of like-minded artists. For the first few years the label branched out really slowly, and all the curatorial decisions were made through the my access to the artists and the work. At some point the label hit critical mass and I was getting tons of demos and meeting people online from all over the world. Then I was able to pick and chose a bit more. That’s when I realized my main focus has always been working with artists that had a good balance of a rigorous conceptual practice and a consideration for the aesthetics of the final product. There was never a specific style or genre that I was focused on.
The critical mass that happened was also one of the reasons I took a hiatus from the label. The label got popular and more professional faster than I ever thought it would; and the more that happened, the more responsibility I felt for the success of each release and artist. I started to take things distributors said really personally. I started to let what was selling better or what formats were popular at the moment influence decisions in my own practice. That’s when I realized I had to step back and take a break.
Now the new releases have been pre-paid through Kickstarter, and I don’t have to listen to a word of the record industry’s nonsense. I can release what I want, how I want and not worry too much about sales. That might mean that next year will be really hard or short or sparse, but at least I will not be participating in a damaging conversation anymore.
– What do you like the most about microsound? What do you find unique in this minimalist and granular way of dealing with auditory phenomena?
For me, coming of age in the rave scene, what I was most drawn to was that it sounded like the future to me. It was about looking forward and imagining what the future might hold. I grew up in a hippy family so there was a lot of idealism and freedom, but also a lot of looking backward. My mother loved classical music, and my father was an avid record collector who focuses on traditional music from around the world. Growing up influenced by that along side most generations’ fetishization of earlier generations, my youthful rebellion ended up being an obsession with the future.
So when I started working with sound there was a kind of convergence. I already knew I wanted to generate sound that could only be produced by a speaker. This was really important to me as it was one of the main traits of rave music and culture that I still related to. I was also broke and making coffee for a living, so the cheapest entry point into electronic music at that time was a laptop and software. And finally the work I was most inspired by at the time was minimal, often granular and/or computer based sound that felt like it was following that same trajectory of looking towards the future.
My interest now in microsound and computer music is having a relationship with the cutting edge of technology and what is possible with sound. I want to continue to look forward towards the future.
– Related to space is your installation work. What do you find special in that immersive way of creating and showcasing your creations and how do you think it relates to your publications and the compositional aspect?
I have always been interested in experiences that position a person in a specific space or state of mind. From a listening standpoint, my favorite music as a young adult was not in the form of songs; it was 60 or 90 minute mix tapes. From there I was alway happiest when listening to an albums I could listen to from start to finish. One song would never satisfy me, and one bad song could pull me out of the space an artist had created.
In my installation work, and in my performance work as well, I am interested in making a similar connection with the audience beyond what listening to a song or looking at a painting might be able to achieve. I want to create an experience that is visceral and transcends other forms of communication.
Most of my work is originally created for these situations and publishing CDs or digital downloads is a form of documentation or archiving for me. I feel like my work needs to be in a raw or unfinished state to have the kind of impact I want out of an installation or performance. It has to be fragile and there has to be a real chance of failure. I have to really be putting myself on the line.
Once that stage is over I will rework a piece into something that can be played over and over, in different situations and outside its original context. I think the kind of scrutiny that I have to put the work through in order for it to be ready for release takes a bit of that vulnerability away. This leads to other opportunities in the recorded work, but I think there is a real distinction between the two.
– I wonder about the relationship you establish between light and sound, and how their characteristics get related.
Originally working with light was about creating a visual cue to get the audience’s attention. I would present video with sound because it gave the viewer something to stop and “look at.” Then as they discovered that nothing was going to happen in the video, their attention would turn into listening. It was a tool to change the viewer into a listener. While I was installing these pieces I started to become far more interested in how the reflected light would tint the room and enhance the space in the same way my sound did.
I have not had many opportunities to work with pure light yet, but I am now seeking them out and even presenting a piece that is just light in the same space as Dopper.Shift which will be called After.Image.
– Could you please tell us about your workflow when composing and how do you think is your relationship with technology, especially when dealing with field recordings? What do you find interesting on those sources?
I was first drawn to field recording because I could not justify why I was making synthesized sounds, the range of sounds that were possible was just too great. I liked that field recording grounded the work in the real world, and I went further as to limit myself to only one recording per composition. I also liked that when I processed field recordings they would talk back and even fight back. I could never process two field recording in the same way because one might work beautifully and the other might sound horrible subjected to the same treatment.
I became really interested in that push back and started using my software in a way that I could achieve the same result. Every time I got a sound to a place I liked I would record it and destroy the path I took to make it, so I could never look back at setting or reuse anything. To push that farther I will stop using software as soon as I know it too well. Once I can imagine the sound I want and quickly create it I know it’s time to move on.
In the last year and a half I have been moving away from the computer and have started using a few hardware synthesizers and building a modular synthesizer as well. It’s taken me a year to get to a place where I feel comfortable incorporating those experiments into my work, but my recent durational performance / free download, We can’t take it all with us was, was created using 75% modular and the rest is computer processed field recordings.
I like using computers and machines to make sound because I have no interest in being a musician or gaining any kind of virtuosity with an instrument. I can use them and change them as needed to keep a somewhat novice relationship with them. This keeps me from getting too lost with what I am technically doing and lets me continue to think conceptually about the work.
– I wonder if you have a particular way of listening to everyday moments. Also, when talking about your work, what do you think is your ideal listening process and conditions for properly experiencing your pieces?
When I do field recordings I am almost always present with the recorder. This forces me to sit or stand as quietly as possible with the recorder and the sound I am recording. I didn’t realize it until I took someone on a field recording trip with me that it was a kind of meditation practice for me. Those moments when I am recording are some of the only ones that I can easily clear my mind and experience life in the moment. It was sorely missed when I took someone who was interviewing me on a short field recording trip, and my head was filled with self-conscious thoughts as I had to ask them to sit silently with me for 10 minutes.
Things are the reverse though when I work in the studio now. I share a loft/studio with my partner Robert Crouch, and we will often leave things that we are working on playing for hours in the background. I could never do this when I was alone in my old studio because I would get overly critical and start tearing things apart. Having someone there to inhabit the sound with me allows me to let that go and have a very passive relationship to the sound and hear it as a listener rather than the creator.
I think that might be the best way to experience my recorded work, not as background music, but as a sound that you can inhabit and let it move freely from the foreground of your attention to the background.
– One of the most fascinating aspects I find in your work is the way you use long drones in order to create deep experiences and reveal very special listening states. I wonder why this decision and what do your think about the importance of time in your sound creations.
I am really interested in how sounds can be in the foreground or background and how hearing can turn into listening. I use long duration and slow composition so that sounds can come and go without the listener always being conscious of them. I do this because I always want there to be moments of discovery in my work. Moments when you think, “oh, that is the piece” or “when did that sound emerge/change?”
I am really interested in that discovery. In all my work I try to create a situation that the audience or listener can discover the work either by turning a corner/falling into line with a speaker or by become comfortable with the work and even forget it’s playing. By doing so there is an opportunity for the listener to then discover it when something in the work pushes it back into the foreground. My intent is to create a deeper and more personal connection with the listener though these moments.
Ideally I would like my work to never have a start or an end; it would be like walking into a room with a noisy air conditioner or refrigerator. The audience’s relationship to the sound would be framed by their physical presence with the work and their engagement with the work rather than the duration of a CD or concert.
I think that work like this is very challenging for a lot of people and asks a lot of them. By creating the expectation that they have to sit with a work or concert for a fixed length of time can fuel their insecurity or even resentment and stop them from becoming immersed. With my installation work I create cues either with slow-moving video or near static sound that alert the audience that there is no expected length of time they have to sit with it. I have found that giving the audience that freedom actually produces a deeper experience of the work and they will actually stay much longer then the usual gallery or museum goer.
This is why I have started to do durational performances of 4-6 hours rather than concert length pieces as well. I have had amazing success with it where people who don’t like it will go in maybe 10 minutes instead of staying and bothering people through fidgeting or talking. This allows the people who are enjoying it to stay as long as they want. Up to 3 hours for one particular audience member.
I have also started to start and end recorded works with the same sound, there are fades, but my intent is that the listener can put it on repeat for as long as they like. Both my recent download I mention earlier and my newest CD Snowfall can both function that way.
–Finally, what would be your notion silence and how is it “present” in your work/life?
I have a challenging relationship to silence. My idea of silence is that of a city dwellers because I have lived in heavily trafficked urban areas for the last 10 years. In my current living situation silence is when there is not a semi truck idling outside or cruising and crashing past our 1st floor space at 30mph. When I go on residencies or am out in the country I find real silence deafening partly because of my tinnitus, but also because it’s such a foreign thing to me.
I have been aware of these different forms of silence from the time I did my first field recordings. My first release was 40min of raw field recordings I did for a zine in Seattle called Ong Ong. The zine creator and I took a long walk where I did these field recording with a mini disc in a park and the arboretum in Seattle. It was lightly raining on and off throughout the day and we though we got some really delicate and intimate recordings. When we got them back home to listen we realized half were punctuated with airplanes flying over every 3 -4 minutes and the others had the constant din and rumble of a nearby freeway. So the silence our urban brains heard was actually cluttered with sounds we had filter out.
There is never true silence in my work, but through the use of ambiguous sounds like the ones described above I can imply silence. These implied silences can then be used as a tool to allow the listener to discover the sounds of their surroundings or rediscover the piece itself as the composition progresses.
I am not interested in presenting my work in pure silence because it’s a setup for failure because it so rarely actually exists. Instead I try to leave room in all my work for the sounds around us to intermingle and in the best circumstances harmonize.
Interview conducted by Miguel Isaza. June 11, 2014.