Can sound be a sculpture? What is the space between music and art? At the recent performance of A Slow Unraveling presented by VOLUME and Vacation Vinyl at Human Resources, the nature of sound and music was given a stress test as musicians and artists pushed the artform to its limits, and beyond. Curated by Robert Crouch, the performances functioned as an exploratory mission to the outer reaches of sound and music. Visual artist and field recordist Steve Roden performed an angular and ambient set, perched upon an amp with a guitar; emitting a louder piece that contrasts his quieter, more pensive sound works. Aaron Bradford Turner from seminal post-metal band Isis joined experimental musician William Fowler Collins to create a wall of sound, a jet engine of a sonic tsunami, generated by Turner's voice deconstructed through guitar pedals, and a calligraphy brush run over Collins' guitar strings. The intense noise becomes a kind of aural cave, a place to climb into, and delve into introspection. A Slow Unraveling became the nexus of sound, noise, art and music, destroying the liminal spaces between, and unifying ideas that are often seen as opposites.
To dissect the dialectic between these performances, Artbound caught up with Turner, Roden, Collins and Crouch, to deeply discuss visceral nature of music, the driving energy of creativity, and challenging the pretensions of "sound art."
Aaron Turner and William Fowler Collins performance.
Drew Tewksbury: If you could start, introduce yourself, talk about your practice.
William Fowler Collins: My name is William Fowler Collins and I'm a Pisces. [Laughs]
Drew Tewksbury: I like long walks on the beach.
William Fowler Collins: Let's see. I guess I would consider myself a recording artist. I enjoy playing live as well. My music is generated using guitar and also some electronics and tape. I wouldn't call it sound art. I think it's music. But I do incorporate extra musical material. It could be field recordings, it could be the sound of some kind of machine in my house, the air conditioner or something like that. It's generally described as abstract.
Aaron Turner: I'm Aaron Turner and I straddle a couple of different musical and visual worlds. Primarily, I work in music but I do a lot of visual art and graphic design too. I don't really have a primary area of focus with the music that I do. In the last year, I've done things that range from very straight-ahead, kind of crusty, hard-core to what I'm working on with William, which I don't even know how to describe. When I was trying to describe it to my brother who is a person who has very little frame of reference for this, I said, we are doing a droney, artsy, sci-fi, performance. I am avidly seeking lots of different avenues of exploration, which is part of the reason why I have my hand in a lot of different things. So, I'm trying to be careful not to categorize myself as one thing or another. I would just say that I'm basically interested in expression through sound, however that manifests itself.
Steve Roden: Could I just say that? "Expression through sound," and I'm done. That was great.
I'm Steve Roden. I work with painting, sculpture, drawing, film, video, sound, and writing. Like yourself, I'm sort of trying to have all this wiggle room so I can experiment with different mediums, bring things together and mostly contradict myself in a way that like saying I'll never do this ... I'll never do a loud guitar performance, and then [Volume Curator] Robert [Crouch] invites me to do a guitar performance and I'm like "sure." What surprised me was It actually made sense when I was done in relation to the quiet work that I normally do, which I would not have anticipated. I mean structurally, I use the same pedal for everything. So there's a consistent approach to the time component, a rhythmic time that's generally part of every performance.
I generally work with systems and predetermined chance operation structures, but when I perform live I usually just improvise. So, each medium tends to offer me a slightly different approach to process, as well as language. Obviously, painting doesn't exist in time for a viewer the way that sound does, offering me different kinds of experiential things as a maker, as well as a viewer or listener.
I can't really play an instrument. I don't have any training in sound or music. I like to call what I do music, but I would never call myself a musician.
I don't like the term sound art as much as I used to.
Mark Manning's Performance
Robert Crouch: I mean I would sort of reinforce what you said about the evening starting off with Mark's piece. Which in the beginning was a somewhat uncomfortable moment in that it genuinely starts off with a kind of earnest and almost clumsy song. But after about three minutes that piece changes and starts to shift into something else. It becomes this much longer exploration of what he can do with the way the sound is working in the space, through his instruments, and controlling feedback. It became a perfect starting point for the night, and that's why I called the event "A Slow Unraveling," because that was my anticipation through selecting certain artists.
I didn't realize that it would be articulated so poetically, for it to start with this idea of a song or a place where we can all understand what this is, but then to break apart after that and to then just spill out into these other kinds of explorations.
When we get to Steve's piece, again, it became this struggle between finding a balance between the sounds doing what they want to do, but also sort of touching upon the qualities of the instrument that we recognize. There's a bluesy moment in what Steve was playing and there was something about the way he was positioned on his amp that there was a familiarity to it. Imagine seeing a busker on the street performing, but it never became that. The language was still there but it was completely mixed up, being read backwards and upside down. It became a really great way for the evening to continually open up and give us these places that we understand as being songs but then breaking off from that just enough to grab onto something, and to let it pull you a little further. We have an understanding of how that language works and there's a respect for that tradition. I think everybody here loves music in a conventional sense, but last night was about doing something different, and doing it in a very smart way. How can both worlds be addressed if we're to create that division between something experimental and something conventional, and getting those things to work together in a way that I think creates a really engaging, two hours for an audience, as well as something that's satisfying for the artists.
Drew Tewksbury: I think it's interesting that all of you guys bring up the idea of music and describing what you do as music, because it's that idea of sometimes you can't tell if it's music but you know it when you see it, that kind of thing. What are the ways, what are the elements of what you do that is musical? How does that come through?
Steve Roden: It depends on who you're talking to.
With all the jokes about this stuff, I'm actually listening to the cooling system right now. [A fan whirrs loudly in the studio]. For a lot of people, that sound is music and that's not a preposterous statement if you're somebody who's interested in things like field recordings, or found sounds. That's why I think it's more interesting to talk about the kinds of things you want to focus on, in terms of listening experiences, as opposed to defining things as music. I mean if my mom was here, she'd answer with an an emphatic "no." But we could have a conversation where I think she could find something interesting in listening to the air conditioner or a landscape.
I guess I didn't answer your question. I derailed it.
Drew Tewksbury: It's even better.
Steve Roden: It's hard, for myself at least, to differentiate between the two since I don't have any technical musical skills. I've done performances under the context of experimental music, sound art, whatever you want to call them, and when I've used my voice and people have found that to be inappropriate in the context cause I don't go BLAGHGH, I'm singing kind of melodic tones. I respond emotionally to a more traditional harmony - a comfortable melodic situation, as opposed to spastic free jazz, sort of language, which is I think just as codified, but that's another discussion. I think it's hard to articulate truly why something would be perceived as musical or not. You're really talking about known and unknown listening experiences more than anything else.
William Fowler Collins: I think everybody brings something different to the table, in terms of audience and what they think of as music, and why they like it. Some people want to be entertained. Some people want to be soothed by music. Some people want to dance to music. One of the early descriptions that Robert, he called us all, our practices: exploratory, and I think that that's a good word for it because I think that's pretty much exactly what we're doing.
I don't have a predetermined way that I work in the studio, and that's how I like to work because I don't want to know. I want to see, and find my way as I go along. It's not improvisational in the end, but I want to be able to explore and find where it is I'm going. Writing about music, and to try to apply terms and genres to music is really difficult. It's like holding water. You can give sign posts like, okay it's drone. It's like, okay, well why is it called drone? Where does drone really come from? It's only Eastern music or Indian music or something where they actually have some sympathetic strings. And if it's transformed when it comes over to the West, and then how does metal get into that, involved in that, it's like heavy loud electric guitars combined with this Eastern drone thing, and you just have something new.
I think it's easier for some people to identify with, like if you were trying to talk to your brother about what it is you were doing, I think it can be helpful to have some terms, but it's almost impossible to describe it if there isn't a tradition there that people can look to. We've named blues, songs, drone, sound art, abstract, are all terms that came up. I don't think it's any one thing or all of them.
Steve Roden: Especially since the presence of everything is so visceral. It's really palpable. I mean, obviously it was a pretty intense room as the evening went on. I'm not sure that's an abstract experience when you're actually physically feeling something moving right through you. It's a pretty direct experience.
Aaron Turner: I think direct experience is one of the most crucial aspects of my motivation for doing any kind of sound based thing whether it's something that's recognizably song based structure or something that can be classified as being more abstract.
For me, like William said, about his studio process, I don't want to limit myself by trying to think about what the parameters I'm operating in are or how they're going to be perceived, and maybe it's very selfish in that way, but I feel like, in terms of what I'm looking for, I'm looking for a response from what I'm doing within myself. It's like, if what I'm doing has meaning for me in the moment that it's occurring then that to me is valid, how it fits into some kind of terminology completely, it's not even secondary, it's non existent. I think imposing those kind of limits can be really damaging and actually I feel part of my focus right now is a process of rehabilitation, in a way, where I was concerned for a long time about how what I was doing was going to be perceived or categories.
I don't know if that was part of a youthful identity crisis or what but it's now gotten to the point for me where it's like, if I have a reaction to what I'm doing or what someone else is doing whether its more intellectual or whether its emotional or physical being in the presence of very physical sound, that's what's important to me.
I think one of the things that was interesting the [performance was ], I could see a common thread between what everybody was doing to some extent. But the thing that was most interesting to me was how everybody had very different approaches to what they were doing and I got something out of what everybody was doing. And I wasn't thinking about how any of us were fitting into any particular thing. I was immersed in the music and/ or the sound, or however you want to describe it, that is the absolute most important thing to me.
If I feel drawn to something, if I feel like I'm being driven towards a particular goal, if I feel, I mean even more ideally if I feel like I'm serving as a conduit for something that's probably the best place for me to be. And sometimes when I'm most inspired by encountering someone else's stuff, I also am able to see the person or the creator as conduit and I think that that's really compelling.
Drew Tewksbury: I think that's interesting bringing up the point of being a conduit and the way that music can be channeled. In a lot of cultures, you brought up the Eastern cultures, they think about the rhythms of the universe and the great vibrations, and how that becomes channeled through us in our own biological rhythms. We have our heart beats, we listen to the heartbeat in the womb, we're part of this song that happens in life. But not everyone can tap into these rhythms. Musicians can. Is there something that's particular to you guys that you think that you're more attuned to?
Robert Crouch: We're trained from an early age that the kind of music you listen to is somehow an integral part of your identity and as young adults we often will construct our identity with that in mind. So the choices we make and the kinds of music we consume are based on how we think of ourselves. It's based on things we probably genuinely like, but it's also how we want to be perceived in the world. So going back to what you were talking about earlier, your earlier concerns about making music, I think that everybody here has had an experience that's not really at play anymore, where the kind of work you might be opened to now isn't in conflict with how you think you're supposed to be perceived.
Steve Roden: I just think the difference in what you're talking about is essentially like jumping off a building and you're basically plummeting down to the ground. When you're just farting around, or you're just doing something that you don't have any history with there's a good chance you're just going to hit the ground. So last night, at least for me, because it was the first time I've ever done anything like that, it was scary.
I mean, I did choose gear and played around a bit in the morning, at home, and there was a moment when I felt, "alright, I guess something will happen." Nonetheless, I was petrified because I decided not to mask the instrument with a bunch of pedals so that my ineptitude would come to the forefront, so that I couldn't hide behind 12 pedals that would allow the sound to do its thing by itself. But I realized at some point that I didn't need all those pedals because, I'm not afraid of the fall, and I know how to stop it. I've been performing for so long that even when I'm completely out of sorts, there's a way to kind of bring the focus back to this intimate place. It's not always great, but you have so much history behind you that you can somehow manage to steer the thing back a bit and it begins to make more sense then you realized; and suddenly you're in a space that feels comfortable, and then I can blow it up again because I can always come back. That skill is something that simply evolves through listening for 30 years.
Aaron Turner: I think that's really, really important. I think there has to be some balance between experience and a willingness to fail.
Steve Roden: Yeah. Failure is so super important.
Aaron Turner: Yeah. I mean, honestly part of my conscious effort to move a little bit further away from being just mostly on a more conventional rock path was that it became too safe. I knew what I was doing. I knew all the spots on the guitar that fit well within the context of Isis for instance, and it just wasn't challenging anymore, and it didn't feel good to me. It felt stifling, actually. And thinking about some of the commonality here too, like talking about being immersed in different artistic disciplines, I feel like there might be something about overall understanding of structure and dynamics, and experience that can come from any area of work and be applied to another.
For instance, one of the things that I've become more interested in, in the last few years, and have had some greater exposure to, is different forms of visual representation for music, whether that means graphic scores or pairing design with an album cover or making artwork in response to a piece of music. For me, it's hard to separate those things and when I look at the work I've done over the years I can see very distinct parallels between the visual work, notes I've made about things, lyrics I wrote that I had no idea what they meant at the time, and then going back to them years later, I realize how directly connected to this, the things that I'm doing now, even if that connection to other people would be explicit.
So, I think what you're saying makes sense, that there's a basic understanding that comes from years of experience and it can come from doing lots of different things or two different things or just one thing. But I think there has to be a balance between your expertise or your ability as a craftsman and your willingness as an artist to fuckin' put yourself out there, and know that you might eat shit, and eat shit regularly.
William Fowler Collins: I always try to do that behind the studio door. I think what Steve was talking about is that he was going out and doing something that was risky but there was plenty of intention involved or at least balancing what was going on.
I think we all have a visual medium background too, as a painter, a designer, a visual designer, but to touch on Aaron's thing about how different mediums influence one another, I'm definitely kind of a cinephile. I watch tons of films and when I'm in the studio mixing or I'm thinking about how an album sequence is going to be when I've completed, a set amount of tracks - even though there's not a specific narrative in what I'm doing with the music and it's abstract, I've actually referred to pieces as scenes, like in this scene, this is what happens and the way the film was edited, I'll have a hard edit, slowly fade to black, slowly fade in - those things definitely influence the way I think about music. I don't have a classical background. I don't read music. Whatever training I have on the guitar, I've gradually unlearned and learned how to play in a different way. I mean, that's just an example of another medium that probably influences my musical work, maybe more than actually listening to music.
Steve Roden: Yeah, my existence is pretty schizophrenic. I'm known in some places more as a sound artist and in some places more as a painter. And so I'm always getting crap from people, like if they prefer the paintings they say, "Why do you waste all of the time on that sound stuff. You'd be a better painter if you focused on one thing." And I'm like, "No, I learn about painting when I'm working with sound." That's exactly what you're talking about because again, you look at your core and you see how it resonates in these different ways of thinking and experiencing and you bring it back into the fold of what you're working on and it really opens your eyes, I think.
William Fowler Collins: Going back to the fact that's hard to describe things to people, and some people have a very conventional sense of what music is, or what art is, I've actually brought up to people that can't actually get their heads around what it is that I do and how to think about it, they might be hardcore classical opera people, so what I do is I try to draw a parallel between someone like early Picasso or early de Kooning, if you dig a little and you trace back to their early works, it can be very conventional still lifes or portrait paintings that are very literal but if you follow their careers you see an unravelling of their work and then they explode and they go completely abstract in both of those cases. If you take music, you can follow it and take similar paths. I started here, studying blues and jazz and you can take those genres and just follow them - it's kind of a natural thing, to almost break it, to deconstruct it.
Steve Roden: You can find that in any medium, you can look at Godard, or, there are so many people who began with something conventional and it just keeps opening up...
William Fowler Collins: And then it's not that weird to them. If they have some kind of a reference, they're like, "Oh, okay, I can start to think about music in a different way...maybe."
Aaron Turner: There's a couple of things I'm just thinking about listening to both of you. You mentioned something about unlearning, which I think is really important cause I think part of my desire to keep making stuff is about getting back to the feelings of, and it's not a nostalgia thing, it's purely about the experiential aspect of this getting back to experiencing music on a really pure, intuitive level. And you mentioned something about making musical choices in order to form identity at an early age, which I'm sure is part of it, but I also think part of it is a very natural response to sound.
I was not encouraged to listen to heavy metal, no one around me was like, "You need to listen to this." It was like when I encountered it, I was like, "Holy fucking shit! This is it! This is it for me!" So there's this weird path that I feel like I'm following where for a long time, I was trying to learn about things, I was trying to figure out how to define what I was doing, I was trying to think about what I needed to do in my process to help clarify that definition. Now I'm like, "Fuck this!" I want to go back to where I'm just having an immediate response to what I'm doing and part of that really is a process of unlearning.
Robert Crouch: When I first started discovering this music, that's when I decided. I feel there is a need for me to actually assume the role of a curator in that regard. It's actually the people at this table. The first time I saw Isis perform it was right before I started curating projects and I remember I thought, "I like the band, this is great, this is one of my new favorite bands," but there was the moment when I actually walked into the Knitting Factory and I walked in right when the song "Hymn" was playing and my honest response was "that sound actually comes out of real people." There was something about it being a real live project, not a studio project, that was a deep, visceral response to it, and I was like, "Why is this not in the canon? Why is this not discussed?"
Something that could have this much impact, the same way like a Richard Serra sculpture - that basic large form could have such an impact on somebody. Why is this kind of music excluded? At the same time, I was getting into Steve's work and Steve's work would have all of this - there would be these structures and strategies around how he would make decisions in terms of making work, but the work wasn't about articulating an idea, it was about how do these concepts allow him to make interesting decisions as an artist.
Steve Roden: That's how I started to do pretty much everything that I do. I was 15 in 1979, rode my bike to the Whiskey, saw X, saw Black Flag, saw The Screamers. You know, I had my hair down to here, had my Jimi Hendrix t-shirt...we were so young. I don't even know how they let us in. And we were like, "What the fuck is this?" And nobody seemed to be good, not that I could tell or knew, cause I was into Hendrix. But everybody had this crazy great energy and they didn't feel like you know, when I went to see Toto or Cheap Trick at the Coloseum. At the Whiskey, there was no distance.
The stage was this high, there were maybe twenty people in the place and there was this crazy feeling where it was like "I want to do this." And I couldn't play an instrument, and I got four friends together and none of us could play. We were terrible but there was all this great energy. And it meant something. We didn't want a record deal, you know, we were idealistic and we just did it because it felt like it mattered. I think if you come from that, unless you get crazy successful, you don't ever let go of that.
I think, even when I started to do what I do now, there was a conscious decision to use materials that were inexpensive. You open the whole thing up for people so that there isn't that distance. You know, I've heard these classical musicians whose technique is insane and it makes me cry, but for the most part technique is the concept thing you're talking about - hermetically sealing the thing as being great, but where is the soul in it, how does it affect me?
Robert Crouch: I wanted to think of it in terms of sculpture. I wanted to think of it as something that has duration. It has volume, no pun intended. But actually takes a space, because sound is a physical phenomenon. It actually is about activating the physical space. I wanted to make that demonstration. Again, that's something that happened last night, and it was a really wonderful reminder. As the volume of the evening increased, with your guys' set, it was such a wonderful reminder of the way in which sound can create a sense of place and a sense of connection. You realize that it's not just me sitting alone listening to something, but I'm sharing this space with people. We're inhabiting this kind of temporary space that actually has physical boundaries. And it's real. And it really does change your relationship to time and to the place that you're actually inhabiting.
Aaron Turner:Yeah. That's been my M.O. since day one, to fuckin' do whatever I can and to try to obliterate boundaries between things. And I think exclusivity in any place, especially if it leads to stagnation, that's the antithesis of creation.
Drew Tewksbury: One thing that I've been thinking about a lot with sound art, and talking about the physical nature of listening to things, is that I'm wondering if boredom is a physical thing that we experience to block us from connecting with deeper thoughts
Steve Roden's Performance
Steve Roden: There's the great thing that [John] Cage always said about if something was boring for two minutes, do it for four. If it's boring for four do it for eight. I think it's something that comes out of zen but I think if you're interested in and invested in the thing that you're going to experience, at some point you relinquish yourself to that experience.
Drew Tewksbury: That's actually an interesting thing of how our days become segmented by how often we check our watches and that certain things obliterate time.
Aaron Turner: Its weird. You're talking about time and you talked about this earlier too, but there's like this temporal fracturing that's going on now. Where talking about people taking pictures in their phone, people don't want that so they can look back on it 20 years from the experience in their scrapbook, they want it so they can show other people that they were there. So they're thinking about the future of their life but the future of that life referencing a moment that's already past. And that's such a fucken insane thing that you're totally...
Steve Roden: disengaged from the moment because you're thinking about posting it on Facebook.
Drew Tewksbury: Which is why I think that these kinds of pieces are important, becaue they can't be re-represented, in a sense. There's no way to create the same experience. Especially when there's huge volume. It obliterates the way that you can capture that, digitally. You can never take a picture that truly represents it. You can never try to just record it because its something that just blows out your phone. That experience becomes just distinct because of that.
Aaron Turner: I think that may be a way in which, with the advancement of technology certain, more ancient forms of musical experience are becoming more relevant. Again, in the advent of recorded music, took people away from the experience of having to go somewhere to see something and it made the process more convenient, it meant it was more listener dictated and now it's gotten to the point where recordings themselves have become so disclosable and so numerous, in a lot of ways really meaningless. That live performance in the instance when the audience, I mean they can escape if they want to, but it's harder to escape from that then it is to turn down your radio or turn your radio off or skip ahead in your iTunes shuffle. So, in a certain way I think there's something about live performance that is taking on greater relevance with the diminishing attention span that's occurring culturally. In reference to something you were asking about earlier, boredom and long-form duration, I don't know that it's a good idea to make something long on purpose just for the sake of that, but at the same time, if you're trying to bring people outside of mundane experience to something which can challenge their ideas or enrich their experience of being alive or create a kind of mental stillness that can't exist in normal day-to-day life. That's super important.