The art of sonification

An interview with Jonas Gruska

Born in Czechoslovakia. Studied at Institute of Sonology in The Hague (Netherlands) and at Music Academy in Cracow (Poland). Works mostly with computers and electronics as a musician and sound artist under his civil name, or as Mrkva or Binmatu. He has authored interactive poems and visual performances, and is also a developer of open source computer instruments, artistic software and hardware. Gave workshops on city sonification, printed circuit board design, and programming for artists.

Performed and exhibited his work in Belgium, Czech Republic, Finland, Netherlands, Poland, Slovakia; on festivals such as Kraak (Belgium), Audio Art (Poland), Mélos-Ethos (Slovakia) or Next (Slovakia). In 2011 he started label LOM focused on East/Central European experimental art and music.

You describe yourself as a sonologist where composing means writing code and writing algorithms is writing music, and yet you seem to apply an empiric approach rather than a scientific one when creating specific works. Could you detail briefly what the starting point for a new piece is for you and how you develop your ideas?

It varies quite a bit – I have worked in so many various domains already, it is difficult to find one singular starting point. Somehow, even though I have passion for engineering, I feel like my artistic work shouldn’t be about that. I am trying to always keep technology as a tool for my goal, it should never be the goal itself. Because that is not what matters to me – and in the end, most of the people don’t care too.

I guess one starting point, when it comes to installations and exterior projects, is site-specificity. I really enjoy to create specific works for specific places and work with their atmosphere. It is very inspiring, to have certain ground for my work and build on top of that. I feel like I am connecting my artwork not just to the point in space, but also to the idea of a point in space within shared consciousness. Memories of others, of the place and their expectations. It is how I modify their world.

Regarding my music, it varies quite a bit. Lately, I have been charmed by old analog modular synthesizers, which I got a chance to work with during my studies at Institute of Sonology in The Hague. There is a irreplaceable quality in the instability, sonic quality and in the ‘patching’ creative process, where one connects different modules together with patch cords. It somehow encourages creativity in a new sense, very different than a computer–even though computers offer much larger possibilities in terms of both sound creation and composition. Important part of the process is, that I often work on ‘one take’, where I prepare everything I want in a piece, and then mix it live, while recording on a tape or cassette. It emphasizes the moment somehow, forces me to put all the emotion and effort in a single shot, like during a live performance.

What is your studio set-up and what equipment and programs, do you favor and why?

In a computer, I mostly use Supercollider programming language and Max although I have worked on some pieces (usually with small Linux board named “RaspberryPi” – controlled over wifi from my computer) where I enjoyed ChucK.

In a studio world, I have some home-built modules and instruments – oscillators, filters, LFOs, Roland System 100m (old modular system), reel-to-reel machine, old professional Tesla (Czechoslovak brand) mixing console and tape deck. My secret gem is rare soviet keytar named “Junost”. Extremely heavy, extremely beautiful.

“Streams and currents”, your BA thesis, is a study on Wireless Network Sonification. In it you indicate minimalism, hidden technology, and the reusing/repurposing of materials as your main areas of interest in your own practice. Have these interests remained constant over the years and how would you say you have managed to translate most successfully into your own work?

This line of work is still going on. In my installations, I often recycle various trash I found thrown away on the street. Especially in Netherlands I have spend quite some nights riding streets on my bicycle and looking for useful things amongst others people waste which can be useful to me. Even found some nice instruments, like old electric organ (fully working).

Regarding minimalism, I guess it is quite essential part of my work – I like to focus on simple ideas and let them work undisturbed. I often performed with just few clicks and sine-waves. But with the right atmosphere and right timing, a lot can be done with just simple means. I remember one performance in particular, in Villa K in The Hague, where I played in a 1 m high basement (everyone had to squat/sit), connected with transducers to pipes inherent to the house itself, surrounded by candles. I didn’t play anything complex, yet the atmosphere I created was just amazing – somehow even ritualistic. That is often how I perceive what I do when performing.

I also have to say I continue with the line of sonification, although lately I have been doing it ‘externally’ without computers. I created a device named “Elektrosluch”, which allows one to listen to electromagnetic fields.

In your thesis you also mention that you consider traditional speakers as distracting elements. What do you consider the ideal parameters for the presentation and fruition of your work?

It all came from a realization, that there are other means of emitting controlled sound then just with speakers. I have started to use objects as speakers and thus using their inherent properties as part of the sound. Most of my ‘own’ speakers are far from perfect, and that is what I like about them. They become part of the sound, realistic and somewhat strange at the same time. It changes the esthetics and experience of a listener quite drastically.

Technology should never disturb the piece/work itself. It is a good servant, but a bad master!

One of the several projects you are currently working on is Binmatu, an audio-visual drone project. On the subject of drones, in your thesis you wrote “I have never been a very extensive listener of drone music and I could hardly relate to most of the works that I have heard. The idea of extremely slow movements did not please me aesthetically or technically. At the time, I preferred wild improvisations with a high pace of change and an especially high variety of sonic content packed into short compositions. My horizons were broadened when I heard the works of Phill Niblock and La Monte Young.” You then go on describing the way you have experimented with vocals only to find that to be a dead end. Indeed drones can be a “risky business” in the sense that they can end up by inducing drone fatigue in even the most hardcore listeners. What is a good recipe to avoid this?

Try listening very soon after you wake up, and just when it feels right. It is a mediation, so I believe it has to be treated that way. Drone music in my opinion has to be listened in a certain higher state of mind, and by that I don’t necessarily mean induced by psychedelics. Simply, a state where one is open to different layers of perception of the sound and time doesn’t play such important role.

In a recent mix for Bepotel you have connected dots between haunting Balinese gamelan recordings, Sudanese kecapi music, Japanese gagaku, throat singing of Eskimo women living near the river of Povungnituk and their contemporary consequences, with a small addition of your own work. Personally speaking, the musician I rate the most, like Giuseppe Ielasi, often seem to have a keen interest in the instruments and the rhythms of different cultures (Ielasi even called his label Senufo, from the ethnolinguistic group composed of diverse subgroups of Gur-speaking people living in an area spanning from southern Mali and the extreme western corner of Burkina Faso to Katiola in Côte d’Ivoire) even if this doesn’t always translate into a direct influence on their work. You seem to favor the gamelan. What is it that specifically appeals to you about this particular traditional musical ensemble and what do you derive from its melodic patterns, if anything at all, given your propensity for “digitalism”?

Gamelan to me is a beautiful connection of mind-boggling patterns, chilling sound palette and tuning/melodies. Few weeks after I discovered it, I have even started to play in a gamelan orchestra. During my studies in Netherlands, I have been playing in two different ones at one time (one Javanese and Balinese), and at the moment I am active in local group in Bratislava. It really resonated with me – and it definitely inspired me in terms of polymetry and polyrythms, principles I use a lot in my work.

One work worth mentioning in particular is a composition I made for set of bells placed on a square right in the centre of Bratislava. These bells are playing same old boring melody every hour for decades. Through the means of a festival Melos Ethos I have been able to access the control mechanism of the bells, and create special hardware to hookup my own compositions. You can hear the recording here:

Nocné oscilácie pre jedného, “Nocturnal oscillations for one”, is a set of four compositions you recorded in the analog study of the Royal Conservatory in The Hague. These works are described as having “emerged from many evening studio meditations and are reflecting mainly intimate topics, such as loneliness and contrast of human being amongst machines.” Elsewhere you describe your working conditions at one specific point when you were not communicating with many people during the day and your only companion was a computer (and social contacts accessible through it). In what way did this particular mental state condition the music you were creating?

In that particular work I have felt exactly like that. Somehow connected to all the composers working alone on their music, not caring much about the outside world and focusing deeply on the machine-speak… One gets carried away with it, and starts to enjoy it somehow. Surrounded by old equipment, sitting behind the mixing desk and recording these sounds of Universe on a piece of tape, completely alone. Three pillars: you, the machine and the tape.

What would you say is specific about the music you release under the moniker Mrkva, and why did you choose this particular name, which, if I am not mistaken is the Slovak word for carrot?

Correct. Mrkva is old nickname I go by with some old friends. This particular project is very free in a sense of a signature. Mrkva is about experimenting with whatever comes, code or hardware – it doesn’t matter. Good example is my part on the split album “Mrkva/Bolka”.

Lately when performing as Mrkva, it is often in wild circumstances and at parties with my friend Bolka. Together we create very intense performance – I play on my DIY analog instruments and Bolka plays with Supercollider and wireless controller. Here is a short excerpt so you can get the idea.

How do you approach a live set and what are the most important factors for you in order to determine its success or failure?

I do very different live sets, often unique for the particular event. Sometimes I play only with my computer, sometimes I bring/make some custom speakers for the occasion and interact with them physically during performance, or I play just with my analog instruments and reel-to-reel machine. Atmosphere is everything to me, and that often means, that I have better feeling about my work when performing in extremely small places, for just few people. The flow of energy is very different then on big stages during festivals. I like to see peoples faces, reactions and confront them on a personal level. I feel like I failed, when I didn’t manage to get the atmosphere I wanted.

Considering the number of installations you have worked on, what is your relationship with the visual arts and what influence and importance do they have in your work?

I have been trying to take care of the visual aspect of all my works by myself. Most of the time, I am trying to make the visual experience enhancing the sonic qualities of the piece. It is often very minimalistic. Sometimes, there aren’t even any visual clues – like with my installation at psychiatric hospital in Prague. I have used objects already present in the space (huge ventilation system) as my speakers and I hid all the technology from eyesight. So the visual aspect is already there, doing its job.

In Binmatu, I have created a set of psychedelic visuals to accompany the works, but I tried to maintain the close conceptual relationship between what is going on in a sonic and visual domain.

You run your own label Lom, which releases mostly Slovak artists, who, unfortunately, often seem to go undetected. What do you think could and perhaps should be done in order to raise the profile of experimental and electroacoustic music from Slovakia?

This is a question boggling a bunch of people over here. To be honest, I have no idea. Articles and interviews like this one is a great way to help to promote what we do. A couple of friends of mine from the duo “Jamka”, who currently live in London, have organized a few events bringing Slovak experimental artists over to play, so I guess that is a good way too. There is an interesting effort named “Kraa”,  which collects information about all the various projects in field of experimental music. Another project worth noting is the initiative “Eastern Daze”, which maps eclectic music from the Eastern Europe. They are both in English.

For raising local awareness, I have started doing a short podcast in Slovak named “Rozvuk” about new releases and events.

With a number of great experimental musicians such as Strom Noir, the Noize Collective, and Casi Cada Minuto, amongst others, there seems to be quite a vibrant scene in Bratislava. Is there a sense of community within the ambient/noise/electroacoustic world and is there an audience for this kind of music in Bratislava?

Definitely! I would say the community is quite big at the moment. There are a lot of projects, events, and people, which come to concerts to listen and not to talk. After I finished my studies in Netherlands, it was one of the reasons for coming back. I feel like something great is going on here, a good fertile ground.

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