“In 2009, when I began nula.cc, I had at that time begun to feel that using physical objects to distribute media was an unneeded encumbering to simply offering what were essentially digital artifacts,” explains artist and musician Lloyd Dunn. “I felt then that my audio and visual work might be better served if distributed as dematerialised forms, without need of physical support provided by me.”
To provide this “dematerialised form”, Dunn initiated the nula.cc ‘filecasts’: an email mailing list and blog platform for the ad-hoc distribution of audio recordings. “I really wanted to throw out this notion of a ‘container’ and a ‘format’ and think solely in terms of my output as being primarily ‘digital’ artifacts, and hence, entirely unbothered by any imperatives of physical support,” he explains further. The files so cast encompass field recordings, sound collages, and ambient music of various sorts and instrumentations, as well as images and essays. Each recording is accompanied by a photo and a short poetic text; in some cases, the text is the main artifact, accompanied by an illustrative recording.
So it was that I began receiving mysterious, irregular emails, each linking to an impressionistically-described but otherwise anonymous work. Electronic communications can often seem to arrive ‘out of nowhere’, from some non-specific location out there ‘on the Internet’, but nula.cc has several ways of adding context back in, without giving away too many details. The use of a world map on the project’s website to plot the source material or inspiration for each recording is one such contextualising method, re-locating the files and adds an additional layer of meaning. “Each fragment used in making a piece is eligible for a pin on the map, if I can ascribe a location to it somehow. Usually, the pin represents a place I have actually visited and have collected some material there. But some material that I have found, too, has received a pin, because I can identify the place it came from, or the place that it is about.” These “digital artifacts” from ‘nowhere’ are turned into postcards from varied and disparate locations.
I can happily examine maps for hours, so this is the interface to nula.cc that I gravitate towards most often. I ask Dunn about a couple of things that had been bothering me: Why so few pieces located in Africa? And why is the piece ‘55017 rather sad’ located in the map over the Atlantic Ocean? “In the case of ‘55017 rather sad’, the map pin is over the ocean because I made the photo that goes with the piece during a transatlantic flight. I don’t know exactly where, so I put it more or less in the middle, between the Americas and Europe. Similarly, there is a pin in the middle of European Russia, not because I have been there, but because a fragment I used came from there, and so putting it in the middle was a logical compromise. The few pins in Africa are from a journey to Morocco I made, but I’m definitely open to adding more pins to that continent!”
nula.cc’s distribution method allows each short piece to stand on its own, without needing to find some sort of formal harmony within the context of an album. So it is that a field recording made by the Caspian Sea is followed by a deep ambient drone piece, then by an essay about swallows. Sounds recorded in various places, by Dunn or by others, often form the basis for a piece, but the final outcome can take any one of a wide range of forms.
“If I make a field recording, and find it somehow ‘complete’ in and of itself, then I present it as a piece,” Dunn explains. “But sometimes I have a musical idea that I want to put down so that I can listen to it again, and if I am lucky, it will eventually become a piece, too. I am not actually trained in any musical instrument, but if I find the opportunity to use one, I will recorded myself making whatever sounds I can get from it, knowing that I can bend it to my vision later in the DAW [digital audio workstation, a class of software for computer-based audio production].”
“A piece takes form from a impetus. I hear something that I want to work with. I put it in a timeline in my DAW and start pushing it around, trying different EQs and reverbs or a few simple effects, stretching it sometimes, chopping it to bits. I listen to my response to what I hear, maybe more than I listen to the sound itself. I try to create a feedback loop between what I hear and how I respond, psychologically, emotionally, intellectually, to what I hear. I focus on that subjectivity and bring it to the centre of my attention. My own subjectivity becomes an object of study. My nula.cc pieces all come from this practice, which requires a kind of intense, but very calm and relaxed, attention, when it is really working. Most of the pieces I make are failures in this regard. But I have the will somehow to keep trying, and that is the source of my energy for it.”
Not all of the sounds forming the impetus for Dunn’s ‘digital artifacts’ were created by Dunn himself; there are pins on the world map for places he has never visited. In a way, this creates a strange, generalised subjectivity that somehow seems broader than Dunn’s own, and is heightened by the relative anonymity of the nula.cc platform. “I use a lot of found material, which I very often combine with my own recordings and generated sounds. Often, a sound that I ‘find’ is stimulating or inspiring in a way that makes me want to hear it longer, or hear it in a new context or in a different way. Or maybe I think there is some possibility in the sound that was not fully realized in the form that I found it in. Further, I prefer not to draw a strong distinction between found sound and field recordings, which are, after all, also sounds that have been ‘found’, in a sense, out in the world, and which I happen to have recorded myself. I take the attitude that all sound files are ‘equivalent’. Indeed, I consider all digital file data, regardless of its source is equivalent in this way, and what matters to me is what it implies or elicits and eventually becomes, not what it started out as.”
The email distribution format has the effect of attaching a specific date to a piece, turning the project into a diary of sorts, recording certain moments experienced over time by a listening subject that sometimes seems to extend beyond any given individual identity. “Very often, the work seems to serve as a conduit for particular, anonymous moments of sound. Sometimes I think of a piece that I’ve made as an ‘audio painting’, because it’s like it can be hanging there in the room and you attend to it for as long as it’s interesting. But it’s still there when you look away. The sound or the painting can be broken down (de-“composed”) into its parts but all the parts are “going on” and simultaneously present for the duration of the piece. Sounds, of course, may vary over time; a hanging painting may seem to have a somewhat varying character depending on changes in ambient light. But it’s always essentially one thing for as long as it exists.
“Other pieces are more like compositions, sequential, perhaps even with abstract narrative logic. The listener will know how to listen by the nature of the piece as it is playing: either by attending to it in detail and following the structure, or by letting it go and simply living in the piece for a few minutes. Most of the nula.cc works are around ten minutes or longer precisely to create the sense that the piece can be lived in, that it has an indefinite length (even though as a practical matter its duration is finite).”
The contrast between these two forms — between the serene “audio painting” of ‘57349 another shore’ and the ‘composed’ narrative of ‘57063 tbilisi metro’, for example — can be heard across the nula.cc archive. How does an artist build a sense of a coherent body of work with such an approach? “Basically, I don’t focus on having a coherent vision,” Dunn replies. “I would maintain that coherency (if it exists in my work) happens of its own accord. My focus is instead on keeping alert to things I find interesting and exploring them using my digital tools until my curiosity is (at least momentarily) satisfied about what can be understood about those things. Subjectivity is about detecting and discriminating between stimuli, making selections, gathering impressions, and things like that.” His reply seems to locate subjectivity in the ‘now’ of the moment, leaving temporal continuity to serendipity. And yet, nula.cc does seem like the work of a single artistic vision, however varied its styles of presentation, suggesting that Dunn’s tactics are working.
Dunn is by far the only one to have become interested in alternative methods of audio distribution in recent years. Since the nula.cc platform started in 2009, there have been seismic shifts in the ways in which music is made available to listeners, with the rise of streaming transforming the listening habits of millions of people. When asked about these changes, Dunn is quick to draw a distinction. “Streaming is just a technology, but the commercial practice of streaming is something else. I don’t happen to use any of those services for listening. I have plenty to listen to without them. But as a technology, I’m not opposed to streaming. It’s like radio, and radio is great because things come to you without maybe your knowing they even exist. So one of its strengths is discovery.”
Does the centralisation of control in the hands of a few streaming services make it harder for more experimental forms of music to find an audience? “Actually, I don’t think the difficulty in finding audiences has much to do with the centralization of control, though that’s problematic in itself for other reasons. The difficulty comes, more fundamentally, from the fact that there is just too much to find and listen to, and maybe we don’t have good enough ways to narrow our searches and discover unknown things that would interest us. We have lost the possibility of doing an exhaustive search in most fields because there is simply too much to find. But I also know that any one who invests time in seeking out adventurous listening experiences can eventually find seriously good ones. If we hold on to those and never stop searching, we’ll be fine.”