Interview with Richard Chartier, Yann Novak and Fabio Perletta by Gianmarco Del Re, Pascal Savy and Nathan Thomas...
Gianmarco Del Re: Undefined started as a sort of “Postal Art” project in a sense since, “The piece began with Chartier creating an unfinished work and sending it to Novak with no explanation, just the instructions to add to it, subtract from it, or a combination in order to finish the piece. Novak was then to send the recording back to Chartier for a simple approval or rejection.”
I am intrigued by the notion of space and location and would like to start off by quoting Donald Judd who wrote in 1993, “The smallest simplest work [of mine] creates space around it, since there is so much space within…”
Considering the importance Judd placed on the idea of location for all his work and the fact that he also added that, “There is no neutral space since space is made, indifferently or intentionally, and since meaning is made ignorantly or knowledgeably”, would you see the act of transferring the work into the hands of another artist – and eventually in those of a relatively new label – as an attempt to restore some of its neutrality by appealing to its “transitory” nature and if so, do you believe you might have succeeded? After all, the piece is called Undefined and not Untitled…
Richard Chartier: First of all, one of the major elements of this process was that I found this piece that I had begun, but I couldn’t remember where, when, or under what circumstances it started.
It was initially a piece with mystery… with no place. I think I was beginning the early stages of my move across the country from Washington, DC to Los Angeles.
I am listening to it now for the first time in several months and I still don’t know what this piece is… what is mine… what is Yann’s… I guess it’s ‘undefined’ by my lack of understanding of it. It feels like a stranger to me.
If it had to be defined I would liken it to my whole experience of moving, changing place, driving across country. Changing your sense of place, being between places, having places/locations move through you. I am still trying to get back to a sense of normal.
I am writing this without having my morning coffee, which makes me feel even more “undefined”,
Yann Novak: A stranger is a good way of looking at it.
For me, I have always been concerned with space and location, so much so that I have based all of my work on field recordings. I wanted every piece to be tied to something real, in the physical world.
Without that backbone, making work felt so arbitrary. With all the tools available to an artist working with sound, one is capable of making any sound… but why? Why make those sounds. So I spent years with field recordings, working in that manner and started to feel trapped in my process.
So when Richard first approached me with his portion I initially grilled him with what did you use to make? When? Where? Etc. When he explained the undefined nature of the piece it seemed like a wonderful opportunity for both of us to free ourselves of conceptual constraints and come at the piece purely from the point of a listener.
My process changed drastically and instead of calculating each decision based on a concept I simple listened, added and subtracted. I then sent it to Richard so he could simply listen.
Fabio Perletta: From my first listen, I was really impressed by Undefined’s “transitory” nature. I am particularly into transitions, as a possible way of investigation. The piece has a tension intrinsically tied to the idea of being in between two distinct emotions, without ever resolving this conflict. I believe that the real essence of a human being emerges in an undefined state, due to a lack of understanding of it, picking up from what Richard has said. In other words, when one doesn’t have self-control, one can experience purity.
Gianmarco: Taking away any visual stimuli attached to Undefined, and I am referring here to Fabio’s “minimal” artwork, could mean precluding the possibility of adding an extra layer of possible meaning, but could also be seen as liberating it from the constraints of a predetermined reading. Placing yourselves outside the scope of language (visual or otherwise) you seems to call for an immersive experience. This notion is something that Yann, for instance, has explored many times in his installations by pushing the audience outside of an observer/observed relationship with the work and, instead, focusing on the experience itself.
Personally I found listening to Undefined far from being an easy experience, in the best possible way. As Nathan Thomas pointed out in his review of the album for Fluid Radio, “Deep, rumbling bass and very high-pitched, narrow hisses and whistles flesh out an amorphous and shapeless mass, something roiling and tumultuous and far from static, though careful attention and good speakers or headphones are required to follow the flux.”
The “narrow hisses” to me represent “negative space” or in other words the horror that lies within the concept of the Sublime as famously theorized by Edmund Burke. Furthermore, I also detect the way the sound flows and is (de)-constructed, as an attempt to re-encode what could be misinterpreted as a “simple” piece of “digital minimalism”. Would you consider stimulating a sense of awareness to be an essential component of the Undefined experience?
Richard: This piece, to me at least, gives more of a sense of suspension, of inbetween-ness. In a way it doesn’t even sound complete.
What I like about it is that it certainly doesn’t “go” anywhere, which is exactly how I felt packing up my life and moving. Traveling back and forth between DC and LA for basically months, living in other people’s homes… or what felt alien… even when it was my home.
Yann: I think Richard and I both deal with altering the awareness of the listener. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision and others times it’s just a side effect of the pacing and/or volume we chose to work in. I think Undefined was a good example of both.
Sonically I think it was kind of inevitable that the two of us working together would produce something that asked for the listener’s attention. The material I was given contained an amazing range of sounds both audible and near inaudible; and I am incapable of moving faster then a turtle.
Then the ‘concept’ was to not have one. This decision to strip away this kind of conceptual device left the listener with no context, just as we had creating it. I listened and responded; Richard listened and responded; and now it’s out in the world and all we can hope is that the listener is present to do the same.
Fabio: I agree that listening to Undefined is certainly not an easy experience, and why should it be? For us it is very difficult to recognize what is shapeless, without boundaries, an undefined emotion…
As far as I am concerned Undefined is very complex sonically as it represents a real bridge between the artists’ experience and the listeners’. One may focus on hidden frequencies as well as surface sounds. This alters one’s awareness while opening up the unconscious, or at least that is how it feels to me.
I like the fact that it has not concept. It focuses only on perception, far away from a predetermined reading as Gianmarco has suggested.
Nathan Thomas: Richard and Yann, a lot of your work seems to operate at the thresholds of perception, either in terms of pitch, loudness, or rate of change. What interests you about these thresholds? And how might this interest relate to the figure of the stranger you identified in Undefined?
Richard: My main interest in using these is creating a sensation or experience. My work has always been about focus and the act of listening itself.
I think the seemingly shapeless auditory nature is a good reflection of the feeling of space-less-ness or being between spaces. Not here nor there.
Yann: Like Richard I am interested in creating an experience for the listener. When I work with pure sound I generally utilize the devices you suggested. In an installation I may position a projection on the same wall as the entrance to the space to create a moment of discovery when the audience turn to look at the piece. Another example is a recent performance I did where I performed for 6 hours and gave the audience the choice of when to come and go, which gave them the power to dictate the duration of the performance through there experience. All of these are a way of drawing the listener in, making them an active participant, I want the work to be unfinished without their participation.
With pure sound works like Undefined, you have no control over the context, which the listener will listen. So I choose to incorporate that into the piece. Another device I use is I don’t have my work mastered in the traditional sense. Instead I chose to take advantage of the qualities an unmastered piece has. By doing so the listener can discover one thing on earbuds walking down the street, another while listening on their stereo at home and yet another when they listen on fancy headphones at work.
My hope is that all these little discoveries create a more personal relationship between the work and the listener.
Fabio: My interest as a sound artist resides in creating a unique relationship between conscious and unconscious. The threshold that unifies (or separates) these apparently distinct sides is always different. Maybe my main passion as a human being, before art, is to discover my identity as much as possible.
Music, as well as installations or home listening is, for me, a way of creating an intimacy between human beings and themselves, visible and invisible. That’s why my research keeps going towards quantum physics and the infinitely small. In this precise moment lots of molecular processes are about to happen – or have simply happened – and we are not able to see those. Despite that we do feel them.
I find the idea that sound originates from – and goes – nowhere quite fascinating. It simply exists. It would have been an amazing experience to attend Yann’s Snowfall as he has described it above.
Gianmarco: On the subject of the listener, I wanted to quote an answer given by Simon Whetham in a recent interview for 15 questions. “The role of the listener is one thing I am constantly considering and working with, especially now in performances. I have even gone as far as to have the audience participate, which engages them much more. For a time I considered a darkened room and to be out of sight enough for audiences to actively listen, but have reconsidered this over the last 7 months as I have performed to such varied audiences, most of whom have not stopped talking, even thinking, and just listened for a long time. It seems like the easiest thing to do, but many people find it difficult.” Having seen both William Basinski, and Tim Hecker perform in the last few weeks, the former bathed in fluorescent blue light and with the aid of abstract back projections, and the latter in complete darkness, I’ll have to state the obvious and say that context is really crucial in my appreciation of a performance. I was wondering what do the three of you expect from a live set when attending a performance yourselves and what do you feel are the necessary requirements, if any, for you to be able to connect with and focus on the experience?
Yann: When I see a performance there has to be some sort of conceptual or structural relationship to all the elements the artist incorporates. I always appreciate sound only performances because it seems there is huge pressure on artists these days to create some sort of gesture or spectacle. If an artists practice or that particular piece is about sound and listening I see no need to ‘see’ what they are doing or be engaged by it. In this situation what becomes important to me is making the audience feel comfortable. Often why sound only performances are so hard on audiences is because they force a period of introspection, people are uncomfortable sitting silently in a group, but if they are comfortable and can’t see one another this eases their anxiety. It’s visually unappealing, but floor cushions or beanbags are a huge help for me because they allow the audience to get physically comfortable.
I get picky when visual elements are involved. I only use visual material in my work when that material has an integral relationship to the sound. I am not that strict when experiencing a performance, but I like to be able to make a connection. William Basinski’s visuals, for instance, are always done by James Elaine, his partner. It has been that way for 25 years and I feel like you can see that history in how the two interact. What takes away from a performance for me is when there is no relationship, when the visuals seem arbitrary. I don’t need a one to one relationship, but often visual elements don’t feel nearly as considered as the sound.
Richard: I completely agree with everything Yann has stated.
I will add there is a fine line between “visuals” and “screen saver”… a performance’s visual element must really be integral and not mask the sound/music. People are very visual and I find that they start to make connections between the sound and visual activity on a screen… as in “when that sound comes on… the visuals do that.” This is problematic for me because at that point the artist has lost the audience’s full ears (so to speak).
Having said that, I love the visuals that I have seen accompanying SND’s performances in the past because they are confusing, abstract, and don’t really synch up with specific activity… rather they are an accumulation of visual events.
If you go to a magic show, you don’t want to see the hole where the rabbit is shoved up through into the hat… you want to experience the magic. I prefer it all obscured.
Fabio: It’s very rare to attend a great audiovisual concert nowadays. Visual environments have to create a synesthesia when associated with music or they have to be perfectly fused with sound. I am thinking of Ryoji Ikeda or Franz Rosati, for instance. What I love about their work is that it is never clear whether it is the sound that generates the visuals of the other way round.
What differentiates a live situation from home listening is that one experiences a gig with other people and this creates an interesting connection.
I have recently performed both in an open space (on a sunny afternoon) and in a very dark room with a bar service. In both places I played with very low volume, using some moments of pure silence, and I was really impressed by how people interacted with the performance. I saw different emotional states when I tried to take a look at the audience: fear, solitude, alienation yet contemplation, concentration, sense of beauty. Silence creates a unique sense of introspection and a sort of respect for what is happening. Ambience noise, like the spill out from the bar or nature’s textures – as well as other everyday mundane noise – becomes really different and interesting in its detail, which I find quite fascinating.
One can reach a perfect state when intimately touched by music without having the awareness that someone else is creating it.
I don’t really like it when people sit and watch a performer playing, as I tend to find it embarrassing. In that case I do prefer a completely dark room. People forget you are playing and focus on stillness, memory and timeless sensations.
Pascal Savy: On the subject of performance, how would you envision to play or interpret ‘undefined’ in a concert space? More precisely how do you think such a space and the way you would engage with its intrinsic sonic and architectural qualities would influence how ‘undefined’ would come across as a live experience?
Also, generally speaking, how does the experience of performing your music for an audience influence its (re)-presentation compared to the work you do in the studio and how do you separate improvisation from live composition in such a context?
Richard: I don’t think this particular piece is meant for performance as it’s very much about a specific time/place/transition.
In most cases when I perform my work in a live situation it tends to be more audible and enveloping partially due to the nature of performance spaces.
There have only been a few instances when I could even perform/present a hyper minimal work like Series (@ Immersion at Oboro, Montreal) or Recurrence (@ Akousma at EMPAC, Troy NY).
As a performer it’s very important to me to take into consideration the context of the environment.
Yann: I agree with Richard, we never really planned for this piece to be performed. I think even if we wanted to it would be very difficult to deconstruct it enough to then reconstruct it in a live context.
My solo work almost always starts as some sort of presentation and then gets converted to a CD for home listening as its final stage. Most pieces start as either an installation or a performance that has been tailored to a specific venue.
For me the opportunity usually comes first, then I start doing field recording and studio work to make a framework for the piece with the presentation type and venue already in mind. Then I use either the installation process in a gallery or the performance in a venue as the core to my studio practice. For me that’s where the majority of my experimenting, problem solving, learning and falling on my face happens. That is the most exciting part of my practice for me.
In terms of live composition and improvisation both are present in my performances. There is always a composition present because there is always an idea or concept I want to convey and I have prepared material to work with, but I use every chance to perform as an opportunity to refine the composition. So every performance I am moving and shifting things as the venue / audience / experience inspire me to.
Fabio: I’ll answer the third question. I must admit that to me, a live performance and my studio work are both one and the same thing in terms of composition. I mean that I always use live recordings to create a composition which I could then employ in future for my live sets and installations. It is all part of an ongoing process for me. That’s why I find it very difficult to wrap up my compositions in order to make an album. Sound continuously evolves. Both live and in a studio, I work almost in the same way by creating a new dimensional experience while trying to find a relationship between human’s intimacy and the infinitely small in science (light, space, color, geometry, movement).
Regarding improvisations I don’t think I have really fully grasped their essence, maybe because I don’t consider myself as a musician in the traditional sense: is it something related to an instinctive gesture rather than a pure result of our intentions? Regardless, I love to be part of a sonic flux, for example together with other musicians, letting chance create the composition.
Pascal: You’ve talked about the undefined nature of concepts, emotions and space attached to this record, but what about the notion of time? It seems that the sonic complexity as much as the range of frequencies at work are echoed by vast and complex temporal scales operating throughout the album. Is temporality an emergent phenomenon resulting from the process of working with sound first, or did you shape time as much as you shaped sound and space, even if all remained undefined in the end?
Yann: Timing and duration were an interesting part of the piece and the process of making it for me. I think every artist working with sound has their own sense of timing and duration. Though both of us tend to work on the slower side, I was really aware of the differences when confronted with the piece Richard gave me.
The process was the intesting part for me because Richard gave me a single file and not the stems (I think that’s what music people call them). This meant his timing was pretty concrete, so when I felt like the larger composition or layout should change, I would have to subtracts and erase very carefully and precisily. I felt a bit like Rauschenberg making Erased de Kooning Drawing.
The result here I think is a more honest hybrid of our different styles then if we had done a more traditonal collaboration. No matter how much I wanted to change it, there was only so much there to work with and wanting to stay within a minimal pallet, there was only so much I could add.
Richard: I am going to basically do a “what Yann said” on this question.
Pascal: Have you got any plan to work together again in the future?
Yann: Nothing concrete in terms of a new record, but with Richard just a few blocks away I think one will easily fall into place when its time. We already have a rigorous practice started that involves late afternoon wine and snacks on the patio of a local wine bar, which can really only lead to making more art together.
I am also in the process of reactivating my label Dragon’s Eye Recordings through an upcoming kickstarter campaign to fund four new releases in 2014. Pinkcourtesyphone will be one of the four, which feels like a different kind of collaboration. Richard has been extremely supportive of the reactivation and has given me a wealth of good advice.
Los Angeles is a very open and supportive community and Richard seems to have been very well received, so I think there are a lot of exciting collaborations in his future.
Richard: Yann said everything I was writing… so his answer will be fine.
Fabio: Personally, I would like to say that it has been a real pleasure working with both Yann and Richard and I hope there will be further occasions in the future.
Interview: Gianmarco Del Re, Pascal Savy, Nathan Thomas / Photography: Robert Crouch
Undefined is out now on Farmacia901
Fabio Perletta’s new album Field: Atom(s) Entropy will be released on Farmacia901 on the the 31st of July 2013.