JUSTIN BENNETT & BRANDON LABELLE TALKING 10.05 – 02.06

from NERO n.12 december/january 2007 What follows is the result of an e-mail exchange between Justin Bennett and Brandon LaBelle. After we’ve asked them to improvise a correspondence, we asked them to edit it as they liked. The result is a conversation with no starting point and without an end, more similar to a snapshot of an encounter rather than an interview. Both the artists are working with sound, have a musical background and have decided not to stick only to the musical field, but to work in the wider range of visual arts and performance. LaBelle is American but lives in Denmark, he’s an artist and a musician, but also a writer, essayist and theoretician. Bennett is English but lives in the Netherlands, is a drawer, photographer and the founder of the electroacoustic improv band Bmb.com. The conversation took place between the end of 2005 and the beginning of 2006. Consider the fact that between asking a question and receving an answer there could have been a gap of several weeks: this should explain the apparent discrepancy between question and answer and also the bulleted way of  answering. Obviously I would like to thank them.

Justin: Hi Brandon,
I was thinking: we were both drummers in former lives - maybe we still are? For me there is a definite link between percussion and my “sound art” a bodily approach to making sound combined with a feeling for materials and how they translate into sound - or how (as my former Buddhist percussion teacher would say) the sound of an object is just its form manifested in vibration.

Also maybe (and I’m thinking of some of your pieces) a feeling for the texture of sound as if it were a surface that you can run your hands over....

Brandon: Yes, maybe drumming has had a lasting effect. At times, I feel I’m still working in a sense through the lessons learned from drumming, as you say, with the materiality of objects and sound, and also, I think with an understanding of space. How drumming as a kind of force can transform space, and a particular social event into something quite dynamic. That bodily approach you mention maybe also creates a sensitivity to bodies in general, and the rhythms they adopt or move in and out of, according to a larger movement of environments and their features. Seems we’re talking about some form of choreography...?

Justin: I was very busy setting up a show in Den Haag. And since then very busy getting over it! I showed some new things: a new piece with a 24-hour city soundscape compressed into 12 minutes, and various combinations of image and sound. One of the old pieces was a video “Resonant System” which is really a percussion piece. All the sound is made by striking a metal disc, and then resonating the sound of it in various objects, or the hands. I was worrying that it would seem completely different to the new work, but I think it seems to fit. It is nice to have something that is obviously human and musical and direct in a show where a lot of the sound could be (but isn’t) electronically generated.

As to choreography, yes, I think sometimes that composing sounds for space is more like choreography than musical composition (but then I don’t know much about choreography!!) especially pieces I have made which are more-or-less algorithmic, where I am creating systems which move sounds around as if the sounds themselves have “behaviours”. I like listening to groups of people (and other animals!) making sounds, how rhythms emerge and dissapear, or how shapes and textures grow. This happens at demonstrations or large events, marching band parades, carnival etc. I think that there’s a Xenakis quote where he talks about masses of people moving and applies it to ideas about sound/composition. (i will try and dig it up!) .

How is that connected/moving installation idea going that you were talking about?

Brandon: Good to hear from you Justin! And to hear the work is going well.

Yes, I can relate to this idea, of the movement of sound through a space and the question of bodies (or animals!) and their movements, occupying and defining space. You seem definitely involved in sound as it relates to given locations, or how location and sound are always part of a greater condition or reality. I wonder if the technological move toward the interactive, or more direct interactive systems, really pushes the whole notion of composition toward this level of “behaviour” as you say: composing is not so much about focusing on sound as it relates to itself, but as it begins to conduct an inter-subjective conversation with people. The “moving installation” I’ve been working on is just about finished - we managed to construct the interactive system with web-cams and wireless speaker systems, so people move these speaker-sculptures around the space (they kind of look like large colourful birds!) and in doing so they activate a transformation in the sound’s they are carrying. I like this idea, of something very tangible or concrete that people hold in their hands, and have to care for, in a very primary way, like your “Resonant System” (and maybe back to percussion here!), and yet in doing so they are immersed in a rather immaterial or elusive structure of digital information.

I wonder what this does to listening? What kind of listening is this then?

Justin: Your installation looks nice on the photo. Is that one of the sculptures? I was wondering - with this piece, is there a concrete relationship between the placing of the sculptures and the sound - like a spatial score - or is there a more complex relation between the elements themselves?

Listening and moving the pieces, I can imagine that, yes, this becomes a bodily sort of listening. Musicians often listen with your fingers - if you have to move large things around you’re going to be listening with your whole body.

I like the idea of the listeners being immersed in the “score” as well as in the sound. In strongly spatial psychoacoustic-style pieces like by Michael Brewster, Maryanne Amacher or Alvin Lucier, you get the feeling that the structure of the work exists in space and you can almost “play” the work yourself by moving around (Neuhaus too - when you can hear him!) or Christina Kubisch’s headphone pieces. If you add some sensing or feedback mechanism then this effect becomes magnified.

Navigational Listening anyone?

Going back to sounds having behaviours... this gets important when you stop working with sounds as events or notes, and start working with streams, textures, shapes. If you work with textures built of fragments or grains, then note-to-note control is impossible and some other kind of control is needed - could be hierarchical or it could be some kind of self-organising/behavioural model. But this is all algorithmic stuff. What is maybe a nicer idea is if the sounds can listen to each other, like creatures.

What sort of sounds are your sculptures making? Are they like birds calling to one another??

Brandon: The installation in the photo is the one with the sculptures I mentioned: each sculpture is on wheels and contains a wireless speaker; they are tracked overhead by two web-cams, so when visitors come in and move the sculptures the audio output changes. The changes occur in stages relative to their relationship to their “home” locations, which is generally one sculpture to each of the four walls - the more they move away from their home the more radical the sound is altered, moving from the pure, unprocessed recording to either a more dense version or one that is more “tonal” or modulated. So, there are loosely two axes dividing the room, along which these forms of processing happen, with a few built in random elements, to keep things interesting. I think it does work well in a sense to develop a kind of field of sensitivity, though in some ways the installation is a bit more “clunky” too than someone like Neuhaus or Lucier - which comes about through the sculptures: sounds are definitely contained within the boxes as opposed to operating strictly in the air. But your point about “navigational listening” is interesting, being immersed in the “score” along with the sounds...And this question of the differences that come about, shifting from notes to streams - what someone else also said of my installation, from expression to emission. It seems to introduce a different notion of appreciating the work since it doesn’t deliver a final crescendo but sits there in the space, as an experience... For the installation, sounds are based on the workshops with kids, building small sound devices and my recording them: shakers and rattlers, delicate textures to percussive thwacks! These become the only sound content in the work, a series of samples allocated to each of the sculptures, to give each one a kind of character or sonic feature. They do very much take on traits that make you feel they are somehow alive, and I really like that - birds calling or standing around pecking grain, or squawking around each other... This seems to also bring up the issue of “visuality” as part of sound work - is this something you work with as well? Creating sculptures, visual information... Looking at your book “Noise Map” (which is great I might add!), you are obviously moving between text and drawing to talk about sound. How does this work for you?

Justin: There was an article recently in a dutch newspaper about sound art where the writer (Sacha Bronwasser) gave the opinion that sound art worked best when there was nothing to see - and also talked about 2 pieces that I was showing in my show here in Den Haag - one where I’d combined a binaural recording (heard with headphones) with a projected photographic image. He said that “the image pushed itself into the foreground” whereas another piece which was purely sound in a space worked better. I think that it depends on the individual though - in that piece, for me, the image and the sound created a kind of tension which changed how they were both perceived, but then I am maybe less visually fixated than some people. When I make pieces with sound and image or objects the visual element is very important even though it is often secondary - it’s like a frame around the work, framing the space that the sound occupies, suggesting or strengthening one particular meaning in the sound above others. That’s what your “bird” sculptures seem like too - they would work very differently if they were gleaming hi-tech boxes with glowing lights on them, even if you used the same sounds.

As far as text and drawing goes - I think they are personal (drawing) and public (textual) ways of exploring what I do with sound. I draw a lot when I’m thinking and this usually is at the level of “doodling” but as a piece develops, the corresponding doodles also crystallise out - sometimes into drawings that (I think) are interesting enough to look at individually. There is obviously no single way of “drawing” sound. Some of the drawings are like scores, showing a temporal progression, but most are explorations of space in one way or another. If I have more time on my hands then the drawings often take an “autonomous” route and go off somewhere of their own without being related to a sonic project. I don’t write so much for myself these days - apart from when I am integrating spoken text into a sound piece, I only tend to write when I have to explain things to others and want to get my ideas clear. Most of the time I wallow in my bath of vague-ness, sometimes a clear idea will float to the surface, or crystallise, and that’s what people get to see - not me blowing bubbles or playing with my rubber duck! ;) You, on the other hand seem really to be busy with text - what is the relationship between the text and the sound-work for you?

Brandon: I definitely had that sense from your “Noise Map” book, how drawing and text are completely integrated into a larger process of thinking sound. Also, that this was very much a process, of externalizing or making apparent ideas, possible routes toward working with sound, making space, etc., which strikes me as very different than drawings by someone like Ryoji Ikeda, which seem to state a fact by diagrammatically depicting a work or installation set-up. Maybe these in the end are not really “drawings”, but still, they are attempts to depict sound it seems... and no doubt reflect a certain personality. For you, I can almost imagine the drawing reflects how you might also work with sound: something spatial, processional, concrete and abstract all in one! and also tactile: a trace of the hand, the materiality of mark-making, visual exploration... For myself, I have always veered more towards “note taking”: scribbling words in notebooks is a way to work out ideas, to take note of a way of thinking through problems, or dreaming around possibilities... This very much happens in words for me, and probably goes back to my own literary background - reading and writing were really the first things which got me into the idea of art, or creative practice, and I started writing when I was around 13, kinds of loose poetry or prose, which has stuck with me ever since: the magic of words... Writing though, like your drawing, expands from the private notebook and toward public space in the form of publishing. And I guess in a lot of ways this functions as a means for not only expressing ideas, but working with existing ideas, histories, and cultural meanings: so, it is a kind of participation within an intellectual field, exchanging through words with other texts, works, writers, to have a conversation with culture. Of course it falls back upon my own artistic practice, influencing how an art piece may develop... At some point I did become very interested in the idea of text and sound having a relation, either in overtly text-based sound pieces (from my “Text=CD” CD) or more metaphorically (as in the “Maps of Tenderness” CD), where sound-making is equated with a form of writing... At the moment, I’m thinking more about speech and its spatiality, and how the voice is produced by space while producing space. You mention working with spoken text, I wonder if you might say more about this?
Justin: I’m just listening to Maps of Tenderness… As well as referring to writing, it seems to be sensing the irregularities surface of the earth, like a large stylus scratching, running (ploughing?) through a groove in the earth.

The second part of the first track reminds me of a piece I made together with Boris Gerrets, when we turned a (repetitive) text of his into sound - reading the ascii code of the text file as sound data. (although at the end your piece reveals itself to be contact microphones on some kind of machine - I think?) In turning the text into sound of course the most obvious sonic element comes from the way that the data is stored, any information appears almost as blemishes on this “surface” of sound.

I like the extreme use of stereo too - in a way you really have made a surface instead of a virtual space.

About spoken text, which I don’t use so often, I tend to use it in quite a narrative way, leading the listener through a piece, or through a physical space.

Recently I made a piece with Renate Zentschnig about people living in a new town near Utrecht. http://www.soundscaper.com/andere/docs/LR.htm. She interviewed people about their experience, and especially their response to the (changing) soundscape around them. We used their voices combined with short, collaged compositions. I noticed though that some peoples voices and especially the spaces they create between the words, when thinking or hesitating, said so much, that we didn’t need to use much other sound. The voices seem to sound space literally while implying space through silence and through what they say or don’t say. The voice is a description of internal space anyway (Barthes!) as well as the emotional state of the speaker. But also the voice is a description of an (imagined) geography or genealogy. The boy you hear talking in the excerpt on the website was born in Holland but speaks with a strong Moroccan accent and also dreams of “returning” to Morocco when he gets married.

There has just been a big discussion about language here in Holland. The minister for immigration and integration policy said publically that she thought that people should speak Nederlands on the street (implying: not Morrocan or Turkish or Papiamento). This sparked off a political discussion as you can imagine, but also a discussion of street slang in Holland and how kids of all backgrounds speak a mixture of dutch, english, moroccan and turkish all mixed up. And that street dutch is spoken often with a moroccan accent even though the speakers might be Russian! I read too in Orhan Pamuks “Istanbul” that a similar “linguistic cleansing” took place there, sweeping the streets clean of armenian, greek, ladino (jewish medieval spanish). There are many jokes here about English tourists getting arrested for saying out loud “which way to Dam Square?”. I guess you’re being careful with jokes in Denmark at the moment ;)

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