Interview with John Grzinich

by John McEnroe

When I get asked about the most successful and interesting sound art releases of 2012 one that will come to my mind is ”Madal öö’ by John Grzinich. When I knew from the artist that it almost went unpublished I felt intrigued to know more about it, so I made him a few questions that he kindly offered to answer for The Field Reporter.

Q. On ‘Madal öö’ you compiled recordings made during a two-year span that you captured on the twilight time. I wonder what kind of relation or connection was established between all this many individual moments on the put-together process of ‘Madal öö’?

A. I’m not sure I understand the question but the simple answer is, I basically had to think about my relation to the places, the recordings and the potential audience of listeners. But this goes with any type of recording, no?. In this case the ‘production ethic’ was minimal, to limit my involvement in the process and present the recordings as they were made. In general I do construct a strong conceptual frame for my compositions, films, installations etc., but for ‘Madal öö’ it was even hard to want to title the CD. Each track is listed as the time and place of the recording and actually that’s enough. I trust the listeners’ ears and minds to fill in the rest.

Q. Regardless of the level of edition or non-edition (assuming there was not significant processing of the captures) ‘Madal öö’ sounds particularly real and vivid which allows for a potential strong connection between the listener experience with the release and your own experience with the environment during the recordings. Aside for the equipment and all the technical aspects, what would you say is the key for the strong realism on the ‘Madal öö’ sonorities?

A. That’s an interesting question and one that is not easy to answer. Since I was present at the time of the recordings and have a strong connection to many of the locations, its hard for me to hear these recordings from a fresh perspective. Many people have noted the “realism” of the recordings which is pleasing to hear as I sincerely wish to communicate as much as possible about the rich sonority of these environments at this particular time of year. If there is anything that connects these recordings, it is the phenomena that the title implies, what I’ve called “shallow night”. During the eternal twilight of the spring evenings, the air can become extremely still. This means that all of the sounds and movements of creatures can be heard clearly, making their distinct points in space very present. As we know, wind essentially adds noise to an environment, so I think of these recorded moments of stillness as being very high fidelity (to borrow Schafer’s terminology).

Q. What was the purpose behind you going out very early in the morning for some days during two years to record in Pölva? Was that part of a process or rather a habit?

A. As an active recordist I do have a habit of going out regularly especially during spring time. Its probably a combination of the long winters and the magic of the white night that makes me just want to be outside. As I mentioned this time of day also tends to be very free of wind and human generated noise. Along with my colleague Daniel Allen, I also got inspired by the Nature Sound Recording workshop we hosted at MoKS in 2011, where fellow recordist and biologist Veljo Runnel opened the window to identifying many of the bird species in the region.

Q. Pölva is not only the subject of ‘Madal öö’ but also the region where you live. What can you say about the connection and differences between recording home and recording away not only in the capturing process but also on the montage process?

A. Well, it can be difficult to keep up inspiration on home territory because when you travel abroad everything seems exotic. Many people think you have to go to the arctic or a tropical rainforest to make interesting recordings. But I’ve always tried to explore everyday familiar territories in a way that makes them more magical in a way, specifically to really ‘listen in’ and focus on details as well as ‘zoom out’ and understand the diversity that really exists and how it changes throughout the day, month or year. When I compiled the tracks for the release I thought about how to share these perspectives and to frame specific moments that were captured in a way that made my position more transparent.

Q. On ‘Madal öö’ we can hear mostly sounds from the ‘nature’ such as toads and birds. We also can hear the sounds of dripping, splashing and running water. Anyway we can also hear sounds that are either: very musical, hardly to identify or sounds of what seems like human activity that somehow ‘interrupt’ the more natural sounds. Do you have anything to say about that?

A. What you describe is really the conditions that exists in most environments, its just that we often tune out certain elements or get overwhelmed when a place becomes too noisy. I’m not really a purist when it comes to recording environments. I like recordings with a deep spatial “image” and if that happens to include a diverse array of sounds, familiar or not, natural or mechanical, it doesn’t really matter. Of course what I like about these areas is that they are protected yet accessible. In general, Estonians like to get out in ‘nature’ which helps to develop their respect for it. On the other hand, while it looks like a very rural area, there always seems to be a farm or village around the corner. I often hear things that the microphones captured that I didn’t hear with my ear.

Q. In relation to the previous question, on the review I wrote for ‘Madal öö’ I spoke about the documental, political and poetical importance of phonography in terms of capturing the sounds of environments that are quickly changing because of the sound pollution as the principal factor. Is the sound pollution a subject that concerns you? And if it does, how this concern relates with your work as sound artist?

A. I’m of course concerned with issues of sound pollution, not only in regard to how it shapes our environments, but also in the way it shapes us as listeners. From my experience in teaching and doing sound workshops, it takes great effort to get people to focus on sound and listening. You can take the average person and place them in a quiet environment, but it doesn’t mean they will hear it. There is a common story from many people who practice field recording, where they will be asked by a stranger about what they are doing. The recordist responds by describing the sound and the stranger has no idea what he or she is referring to. Noisy environments tend to decrease our sensitivity to individual sounds. Although strangely enough, I found that particpants in my workshop in Istanbul which can be a very noise city, were able to be highly focused on sound and listening, so its also a cultural attitude, not just individual.

Q. Why you said that ‘Madal öö’ almost went unpublished? Was it purposed to work on another media (sound installation, broadcast…)? Why it finally became a sound release?

A. I simply didn’t have plans to use this material before. Its hard to know what to do with straight field recordings. There’s so much material already out there, also with nature sound recordings, I certainly don’t feel its necessary to publish everything. In fact my published output is very small in comparison to the archive of material I generate. But, it wasn’t until I put a few excerpts up on soundcloud that Jez Riley French noticed and encouraged me to compile the material for a release. Jez has been to Estonia in our residency and even knows a few of the locations so he probably wants to help share the beauty that exists here and I thank him for that. And judging by the positive response to this release I will definitely consider releasing more straight field recordings.

Q. Finally how you see ‘Madal öö’ as part of your ongoing artistic process and what importance does it have after the many years you have publishing works on the sound release format?

A. I actually don’t consider this as much of an artistic statement as my other works (although I understand there is an artistry in making good recordings). In many ways I tried to be more or less invisible as an artist, in assembling these recordings. Much of my compositional work is processed and layered, but with ‘Madal öö’ I didn’t do anything apart from select parts of the recordings and adjust some levels. In the end I think Jez even proposed the track order and did the design. Nevertheless that an ongoing but good debate concerning ‘field recording’ which has become sort of a genre apart from a specific type of recording method.

[Pölva location photos, author John Grzinich]

* [John Grzinich photo courtesy of the artist website]

John Grzinich website
Review of Madal Öö on The Field Reporter by John McEnroe