Listening to the Processes that Shape the World: An Interview with John Grzinich


John Grzinich is passionate about sound and listening. Rather than just being someone who merely ‘works’ with those elements, he is deeply involved in the actual experience, placing the listening realm in a very important spot in his life, as a way of extending his artistic practice as such, in order to place sound in his own way of living; a journey, as he calls it. He lives in Estonia, where is constantly involved on projects related to listening, sound art, field recording, among other fields. He also commands the MoKs residency and is very active in several outputs, including art projects, workshops, performances, audio releases and other interesting activities you can explore on his website.

Grzinich’s work is not only concerned with the process of field recording, but the pure act of listening, here understood not just as a way of perceiving sounds but primarily as the art of being deeply being aware not only of sound, but everything that’s resonates in and around us, all the “social and mental” aspects of sound, not valued just as something we just own and collect. As Grzinich suggests, that is something important for us right now, to be able to connect with the environment as a whole structure of life, rather than just a place with objects we perceive.

That is what actually starts the artist’s journey towards the recognition of the sonic environment as a living system in which we establish  not just languages, but feelings and experiences, which are actually activated directly from the act of listening itself, where Grzinich’s perspective becomes highly important, as he invites to go to the direct experience of sound that is in fact an experience of embodiment with the territory, so is not necessarily reliant on contemporary technologies, but in the natural act of listening.

This is masterfully reflected in several inspiring ways in which Grzinich works: field recordings, (audio) visual experiments, listening exercises and a well-documented process in which a bunch of ideas and practices (several of which he openly shares) converge, making him an artist we all should pay attention too. If there’s something exciting in our way of discovering the fact of sound/listening, is to find people who not only shares that passion, but is also kindly enough to share what’s behind their vision and experience.

John Grzinich is a great example of that, since his way of valuing listening has an implicit intention of sharing, learning and activating sound not just in the individual experience but also in the collective way of sharing ideas, of creating community towards sound. That’s why I initially got interested to know a bit more about his perspective, so after some e-mail interchange, he finished the following interview.

John, could you please tell us how you got started working with sound and how that relationship has grown over the years?

There wasn’t any clear starting point for me. It was an on-off thing for many years even going back to my childhood when I enjoyed recording things with a cassette recorder. I tend to have many different motivations for why I work with sound, but probably the most consistent theme in working with sound, is maintaining a sense of play and experimentation and working site-specifically. This grew out of the collaborations I did on the 1990s with Michael Northam, hajpeth Nehil and others. But the work is in constant evolution. If I feel things get too formulated or I feel stuck I take a break or try working with some other artistic medium to get inspired again. Even though sound is a medium in itself, I find it interesting when the forms of sonic activity are connected to other means of expression be it sculpture, performance, film, architecture or aspects of being in the social or cognitive sense. In other words I guess I’m interested in how people relate to sound in the broadest sense. This started as a personal journey, to understand what I like to listen to and why, and then moved into trying to discover shared processes of activation and listening. As you can see the path is not too logical.

How has this process developed, of exploring the sonic potential of a place, the relationship with the act of listening and the act of recording for that matter?

Again there are a number of different factors which have influenced my interests. Long before I knew anything about location recording or “field recording” I was drawn to the idea of capturing something of a place or even just trying to sense a place through listening to it. As a child I liked to wander in forests, go hiking and generally explore outdoor environments. Each environment has its own sound or sonic characteristics so this eventually developed into exploring the question of how I can relate to an environment through these characteristics be it passively through recording or analysis or active through some form of engagement. With so many possibilities I think its essential for one to define the intentions behind working artistically, at least for yourself. There’s no need to record anything for the sake of recording it.

In an interview for Ear Room you talked about a very interesting approach to microscopic sound, using it as a way of focusing on natural forces that are not normally perceived by our perception and one can listen to it in your work in different ways, from contact mic captures to very quiet envirode hecho nos podemos devolver juntos para el poblado, si vas para allanments. Could you tell us about those kinds of environments and the experiences you have had in order to capture those elements? I guess you’ve taken a lot of surprises on experimenting with those kind of “hidden” realms.

There are many levels to the forces that shape our world, yet we tend to focus on the most dramatic elements, the ones that affect us immediately or are useful in some form. I’m generally interested to go beyond the ordinary levels of perception or at least to exercise the abilities we have, be it with or without technological enhancements. This also applies to time and timing, to question the chronological ordering of events or usual breaking of processes into segmented or repetitive structures. There is always a challenge to surprise myself which I often do even with locations I’ve visited many times.

Is that related with the fact of using contact mics regularly? You seem to be a big fan of those and I personally love what you’ve found and recorded with those types of mics. Could you tell us what’s that particular sound you like from those tools and how do you like to use them?

I like to ‘listen in’ to the processes that shape the world. There is something fascinating about how natural forces affect materials and the sounds that result. We can hear in metal for example, all kinds of vibrations and resonances be it from wind or water on wires, sheets or other forms and structures. The sounds generated tell us something about the quality of the materials and its construction. In architecture we learned how to minimize natural effects on buildings due to the risks on the stability of structures which is why we don’t often hear these effects on a larger scale. But on a smaller scale we can allow and foster instability, vibrations and resonances. Not only can we sense what is happening to the material or structure by listening to it, but the effect extends to the surrounding affective forces from the weather. I find this useful in how we can be informed about our environments, that we not only label at them or analyze them, but also hear them as dynamic interdependent living systems.

I personally think that topic is very interesting, since it’s a great example (as many others) that field recording is a way of expanding not only our creative options but also our life itself, I mean the way we construct reality. How do you see the relationship between field recording and that? Do you think is something really dependent on the machine or is more about listening and perception itself? a kind of “cyborg” interaction maybe?

The more I do it, the less I actually feel the “cybernetic” aspect of the technology, because I’m generally listening in to the greater living world, the ‘open system’ so to speak, that humans are not so much in control of. Those working with sound through synthesis, modeling or computer processed methods probably know this more. So for me its more like deconstructing and reconstructing reality based on input from ‘non-human’ elements, at least in so far as culture defines it (hence there’s no pressure to talk about it as “music”). This extends to the expanded notion of perception, as exercising our ability to listen, which also includes the questions, ‘what are we listening to?’, what are we hearing?’, and ‘how can we share what we hear?’. From a technical standpoint the answer to the last question has become rather ubiquitous, hence the blanket term ‘field recording’. Yet this is not an answer for me. Yes, we can share files as a technical solution, but rarely do we address the first two questions in the same manner even though this curiosity leads many of us to record sound in the first place. Right now I feel that many people want the easy way out, to focus on ‘field recording’ as a method and technical solution rather than a practice that leads down a path that addresses difficult questions.

Regarding that, there’s an interesting interview at The Field Reporter, where you talk about the way you choose specific moments to record and be able to get some particular recordings, very pristine and exotic. Is that something you find over the process or do you also use some specific methods? I wonder how much processing and mastering you do and what kind of processes you use to like to do to your recordings.

I think once something is recorded it becomes something else. No one will hear it the way it sounded originally. In this way it is fair game to process the recording in any manner. Some like to process the sound right there in the field, but most do it in the studio. Personally I’m less and less motivated to post-process the recordings since there is already so much involved in the displacement of what we hear in the recordings from the source environment (for example I never really feel temperature in a recording from a jungle or the bright light from a desert recording). A recording can sound pristine and exotic but mostly because all the extraneous sensory experiences are cut out. We should remind ourselves that what we hear is a recording, a representation. No one will sense the struggle of hauling gear through clouds of mosquitoes in my spring chorus recordings. Why should they? One of the reasons I record natural environments is I feel that few will venture into those environments to hear it for themselves or be able to. Yet if I recall the experience of a certain environment I recorded I don’t listen to the recording, but prefer to remember what it was like at the time (the light, temperature, the journey there, who I was with etc.). Even if I do listen to the recordings they become triggers for everything else. I think this is where ‘phonography’ is similar to photography, the captured artifacts often mean most to those who did the recording.


If there’s something I really like from your work are your videos, where you not only just document what you do but also create some interesting perspectives and artistic results. I wonder what’s your approach behind the videos you publish, I mean what’s your interest on integrating the visual element on your work? Also, could you share us how was your experience creating the films on the and/OAR DVD?

The reason to include visual elements with the sound works is similar to what I said above about the displacement of experience. For me there is always a hyper-real aspect to play and experimentation with sound because we are taking ourselves and willing listeners out of their everyday states or modes of perception or at least enhancing it in some way. I know some people feel there is a violation of sound when you add an image. Well yes there is, but then you can always close your eyes. This so called violation is also one of the keys to why cinema works as a format, yet with cinema it is a high level deception in how much the sound is a construction. I did start out trying to document recording situations because of how mystical and even mythical many of them have become for me, but I realized rather quickly that few people understood what was going on and (naturally) created their own associations as would just with the sounds. This fed my approach and allowed me to think in terms of cinema and for me to ask, what kind of film is it that I would like to create. Of the two films on the and/OAR DVD, ‘Sound Aspects of Material Elements’ was the one I struggled greatly with and feel some level of achievement with. ‘mimema’ was an exercise in creating a visual narrative to an existing sound piece, a more extended ‘experimental cinema’ form of music video. But ‘Sound Aspects…’ is a different work altogether. The easy way to explain it is its a ‘field recording film’, not a film ‘about field recording’, but is san enhanced experience of the recordings themselves, with images. The difficulty of course is that you include a much wider description of the location when including images, so it does become something else. And because I collected material for 4 years there was no initial script. It grew out of the experiences and experiments themselves. For this reason the approach to editing is very different. To be honest I forget much of process because it took so long, but for the final version I did gravitate toward working with themes, like materials, seasons, passive and active interventions etc, so there is an internal logic there.

Is there any specific approach you have when performing? I wonder how is that related with improvisation and/or composition and if there are any particular lines to your aesthetics and perceptive “intentions”.

I generally don’t like performing and avoid it because the standard conditions are often poor… here’s a PA system, now get on the stage and impress the audience. It rarely has to do with the possibilities of creating an acoustic experience or an environment and more to do with representing some finalized artistic statement, a bit backwards if you ask me. With that said, whenever I do perform, my intention is to use sound to give the audience an impetus to listen to their own thoughts. One of the best comments I ever received after a performance was something like, “those sounds helped open my imagination and gave me ideas”.

I really enjoyed your essay-manifesto at TFR, specially the way you engage artists to participate, create and collaborate outside the field of releases and compositions, but in a more personal and intimate way, by doing workshops, gatherings, etc. I see you’ve been doing something like that we’re you live. Could you talk us about your activities you normally do during the workshops you participate as facilitator? I wonder if you have some particular experiences and approaches on those exercises and ways you use to work with sonic awareness and intuition.

I have a lot of methods and use a range of exercises in my workshops. It’s a little too complex to go into for an interview. There’s also a lot of improvisation that happens because so much of it is getting people to respond to the given conditions be it a space, structure or environment. This can take time and I think I have high expectations since its hard for me to get somewhere with a group in less than three days. Generally I prefer 5 or more, especially when I’m not familiar with the place. We start slow, just going into listening and orientation exercises, then there’s a whole range of exercises based on game play and thinking in terms of building social relationships, being performative and scoring to focus on the temporal experience of sound and listening. This is all aimed at building attention, group dynamics and ‘content development’ and doesn’t really involve technology at all. When you see how naturally people respond to a direct learning approach based on sound and listening its absurd how people can even consider communications technology as ‘social media’ (if anything these are social inhibitors that isolate people, counteracting millions of years of human evolution, but I won’t digress). Regardless, I try to avoid basing sound workshops on recording, especially after I’ve noticed how young people are more and more starting to equate sound as something that emanates from technological devices. If anything the approach I take is about using sound to open up complex social and mental processes that lead to more of an understanding of who we are and the places we inhabit rather than focus on seeing sound as a tangible ‘thing’ that can be captured and processed. I know this approach is not for everyone and I’m used to seeing some sense of disappointment when I don’t reveal the magic combination microphones and software that turns one into a “field recordist” (if anyone knows what this is please tell me). A bit of earnest internet research can give you some background info on mics/techniques etc and there are courses that will do it better than I could. Also this might seem contradictory to what I’ve said about working with contact mics, filmmaking etc, which is very technical and mediated, but there is a big difference in how I prefer to work, be it alone or with a group.


How is your position regarding the use of field recordings in narrative, evocative or contextual ways and also using them as pure sonic materials in a more acousmatic way? How is that reflected on your work?

As an artist I use all of the above, as these notions of working with recorded sound go with the territory so to speak, in the way it has developed over the last century or so. It has to do with my specific intention which of course really only goes as far as the listeners ears. Realizing how subjective the listening experience is has made me more relaxed with how much I try to define the use of recorded material. I’ve seen so many artists insist on  a deep conceptual theory behind a certain work only to have the audience look completely baffled because it was probably the furthest thing on their mind while listening. This isn’t to say I don’t have intentions or work with concepts. I always do, but I try not to determine what someone will hear by relying on designated terminology.

I wonder what the term silence says to you. How is the relationship you find of it into your work and how do you think it is present in your way of listening?

This seems to be a standard question for every interview which reads like, are you a Cageian or not. Silence is a relative term that, for me, reflects a mental state more than anything. I’ve seen New Yorkers who find their silence on the subway every morning and Estonians who indulge in the silence of living in the forest without a radio or television. I prefer to talk about sound in terms of dynamics which might come off as being technical but this is also the way we perceive sound, and develop cognitive frames relative to what one considers useful signals or unwanted noise. As I get older I tend to not tolerate unnecessary “noise” and appreciate differences between broadband and subtle dynamics. I’m also interested in finding natural environments as acoustic spaces with a very low noise floor where sounds can be perceived in terms of their clear behavior and presence in space.

Finally, could you recommend us some sounds, places, field recording releases, labels, films, books and/or artists you personally think our community would enjoy?

There is a treasury online for seeking out recordings, from Radio Aporee Maps, to Soundcloud to Freesound. Although it can take time to dig through a sea of files, its also a good way to help define what you like and what you feel makes a ‘good’ recording. As for other things I feel I’m out of touch with the world of releases. I haven’t released anything on CD since 2011 and only realized recently that cassettes are becoming more popular than CDs. I love cassettes but I don’t think I could ever bring myself to release anything on cassette (unless I maybe recorded and mixed a piece on cassette). Of course its best just to get out, exercise your ears and really try to listen to the world around you. Find the places you like in recordings but try not to exotify sonic experiences. That is, chances are, with the right attention and focus you can have just as fulfilling sonic experiences in your own neighborhood than if you would go to Antarctica or the Amazon. It’ll be cheaper and have far less of a carbon footprint as well (remember that world tour you’re dreaming of next time you complain about airplane noises ruining your field recordings).

Links: John Grzinich website | Soundcloud | Vimeo | MoKs residency

Miguel Isaza M

Listener, speaker.