- David Cowling
Sound, and the art produced within its realm, is difficult to define. Its language largely borrowed and physical manifestations invisible, sound is often at the mercy of terms appropriated from visual and tactile diction. I sat down with Constantine Katsiris (Scant Intone) to begin a dialogue on sound art and new music — one that will continue over the coming months in our new series Auricular. Within the manufactured cacophony of a Main St. cafe Constantine and I discussed quietude, development of communities, and attitudes towards archiving and documenting the ephemeral performances of sound.
Scant Intone at Fan Tan Studios, Victoria BC. Photo courtesy of Steve Louie.
Constantine Katsiris: Sound art, experimental music, and all of the grey area in-between is kind of hard to define. There are people who come from an academic background, studying sound art and experimental music in university, and then there are the people who are more or less self-taught, who aren’t academic at all, but rather they are practitioners with a more DIY focus and a very experimental nature to what they’re doing, but maybe they don’t have any theoretical angle to explain their work. They just find something interesting, utilize it, and all the information is in the sound that’s created and none of it is theorized. So that’s also kind of akin to the two opposing views between composers such as [Karlheinz] Stockhausen or [Iannis] Xenakis; Stockhausen really preferred the audience to have read about the piece to be able to understand it; whereas Xenakis was of the persuasion that the sound should be able to convey everything, and [he] shouldn’t have to speak about it. So even when you come back to these 20th century composers, that’s very much still the case.
David Cowling: The first thing I was going to ask was, because you were interested in originally meeting at the Waterfall building by Granville Island (however inclement weather dashed those plans and we instead met in a small cafe on Main St.), what was the impetus behind trying to meet there? I know they have a waterfall structure on the outside, but what drew you there?
The Waterfall Building, Vancouver BC. Courtesy the Internet.
I was trying to think of buildings in town or places that would have a sound element but also be a relaxing place to sit. That building sprang to mind just because of the cascading white noise; I mean now it’s been raining outside for a few days, so it’s a moot point [laughs], but it is a place where on a warm day it’s nice to just go and sit and listen to the cascading water.
And there’s some more traffic noise from 4th Ave right across the way.
Speaking of places like that, I was involved with founding a group, Vancouver Phonographers Union, of local artists [for whom] field recordings are a primary aspect of their practice. This was in some ways an offshoot project from the Soundscape program on CFRO Co-op Radio. We instigated this ongoing project to create a list of acoustically active spaces in Vancouver for our projects; because so often we’ll meet or we’ll have a field recording expedition planned, but in the end it’s always “where do we go?” So that’s another project we have underway, that’s just a text that says “these places in Vancouver, from our point of view as phonographers, are interesting places to go,” whether it’s near New Brighton Park, with the docks there with containers being loaded, or underneath the Lions Gate Bridge, or where have you. I’m sure there are even malls and other business type places that would maybe have atriums that would be interesting too. I think we have to study the city first — most of us aren’t actually from here, so as people coming here, we feel we have to do our research of the buildings, the spaces, the indoor, outdoor these kinds of things.
And yet at the same time, I think to assume that Vancouverites, who have been here for 15 or 20 years, know more sound locations is fascinating, too. I don’t think people necessarily go to find interesting soundscapes like they do landscapes (such as Stanley Park for a view of the ocean or things like that). I think people have a better sense, generally, of visual landmarks than aural, so that’s a fascinating idea for locals as well as for people moving here – to highlight the docks, like you said, or places like that.
Yeah, your mouth isn’t agape at the beauty of the docks or container ships or anything. One of the only other documents I can think of like that is the Vancouver Soundscape Project vinyl that was created how many decades ago.
And they have a whole library at Simon Fraser University of sounds that they recorded [for that project]. Even Hildegarde Westerkamp’s work with soundscape recordings, I think a lot of that is to the same end but with a recorded product.
Her soundwalk work is really interesting too — the places where she’s walked and how they might have changed [acoustically] as development has come in and changed the neighbourhood, or changed the location — does the location still exist and does it have the same characteristics?
…we, as an art community, don’t even have the vocabulary to describe these works in some ways…
Yeah, and that’s huge, because I think some of my favourite local art I see are curated series’ of photographs of Main St. or Hastings St. in 1960; you see such a different world with the neon lights, and how few cars are on the street and you think of how that would change the soundscapes to have so few motor vehicles on the road all the time. It’s fascinating to get that nostalgic point of view of being able to see the world as it was, but we don’t really have that for sound as much. With projects like yours or SFU’s we’re beginning to build those libraries, but we don’t have that history for recorded sound like with visual work.
It’s also interesting to think about how things are presented; if it’s presented on a CD, that’s meant for home-listening. I’ve only come around recently to realizing I don’t have very much recorded work, and for the most part – as far as music I play in a performance atmosphere – it doesn’t translate that well into a home listening [experience]. It’s the same thing with noise; you buy a CD by Merzbow, take it home and play it at medium volume, you’ll go “oh, this is kind of boring, I don’t really get it,” but it’s because you don’t have those visceral effects of listening to it incredibly loud. So what’s important is how all these different presentations of things influence how the work is perceived.
A lot of that can come back to public knowledge on sound. If someone’s hanging a picture on the wall, there’s not much they need to know about that; or if they’re watching a TV show or movie, people just buy whatever high definition television is on sale, get the Blu-Ray and watch it and that’s a pretty good replication of the original artifact. Whereas with sound, I think a lot of people listen to music on their laptops or whatever else is easily accessible. They don’t really understand the difference, or that there is a higher quality that can be achieved if you listen to it on a hi-fi system which would allow you to listen to Merzbow on high and get some of that visceral experience. (Listen to Scant Intone. “Elevator,” 2009. From the album Swift Current.)
So much music these days is listened to on internal laptop speakers or earbuds and so you miss so much of the audio content that, so often, I find that if you’re trying to preview something or get a sense of something, and you use earbuds or internal speakers you don’t really know what you’re listening to. You have to take the time to take the music home and listen to it in front of speakers and actually ingest it properly. It’s hard, because people will say “you have to hear this record” and if you don’t actually take the time to properly sit in the right space with the right sound system, then you’re almost not getting it, and then it’s hard to pass judgement, too.
Yeah, so it’s hard to get that experience to everyone consistently with recordings, whereas during a performance you can control the setting and make sure they’re getting the experience you intend; but with things like noise you’re really throwing a CD out there and saying “I hope you listen to this on something better than your laptop.”
* * *
Getting back to definitions in art, do you think sound art suffers from being a bit more difficult to define?
Well it’s definitely secondary in the art world. It suffers a lot from not having the terminology, like how do you describe these [aural events]? If you do a lot of reading on sound art or installations in modern art galleries, the terminology being used to describe these works are often borrowed from the visual art milieu so we, as an art community, don’t even have the vocabulary to describe these works in some ways, so you end up likening it to a painting; kind of like the way the soundscape term was coined, too, because you can easily identify that with a landscape and say “oh, and this is the sound equivalent.”
Do you think it’s necessary to create that vocabulary?
Certainly, but it’s progressing very slowly. It’s coming up a lot more recently as sound art finds its place in the art world. I think the more people discuss [sound art], the more it will become [its own thing], and the more it will have its own specific place as an art form – much as photography, sculpture or these things do-
They get defined over time.
So whose responsibility is it to create those contexts and words? Do you think that’s something artists are doing as they keep creating and discussing their work, or do you think art institutions have some role to play in the creation of those terms?
Maybe a bit of both, but I find the institutions work a lot slower than the actual art scene. For example, maybe 15 years ago when “microsound” was a new term being thrown around in new electronic music, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t have read or studied anything about that in university until a number of years later, because I think academia probably moves a lot slower in absorbing what’s current and adding it to the curriculum. So in that way, I think the artists are definitely the vanguards creating new terms and finding new ways of working with sound, and it’s the institutions maybe that are lagging a bit behind just because of how they work.
Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller. “Opera for a Small Room” (Installation View), 2005. Courtesy of the Vancouver Art Gallery.
Maybe we could transition into talking about the different ways in which these institutions do start to glom onto more modern material; for example, the Vancouver Art Gallery almost never puts on a sound primary show — to my knowledge. To people outside the sound scene, I think the VAG does lend a certain credibility to what it holds, but if sound is never presented, it’s interesting to think about what that means. Although, I suppose sound does manage to creep in through performance art or installations (like the recent Lost In The Memory Palace exhibition which had a heavy sound component). As sound art continues to evolve, is it important for more traditional and ingrained institutions to incorporate sound art into more of their programming?
I think in a global sense, it’s happening very slowly. I think it was the MoMA who only just had their first sound dedicated show last year, or the year before — and that’s New York: an art hotspot in the world. In London, they’re maybe a bit ahead of that, as galleries in London have been doing sound art related programming for the last couple of years. But I think in most major cities, it is the grass roots or artist run centres that are doing a lot of interesting programming, it’s just the big institutions that are slower to pick up on that; they have all of art history to draw on, but it’s the artist run centres, with current practitioners running the show — they’re the ones who can cut straight to what’s current. But when it happened at the MoMA last year it was a long time coming for a lot of those artists, who for a lot of them [the work being displayed] was 15 years old already.
It makes me think that maybe the Orpheum is a better Vancouver comparison than the VAG, since they’re home to the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra. If symphonic works are, arguably, the old guard of sound art, making way for John Cage and Pierre Schaeffer later, it feels as if the VSO never quite gets to that point, but maybe they should?
I think it’s worth it to note that the Vancouver New Music Festival uses the Orpheum Annex as well; so they’re co-existing in the same venue, but whether or not there’s a dialogue between them is kind of debatable. Maybe Giorgio [Magnanensi], the director of Vancouver New Music, is the one mostly pushing for conductors to push the boundaries a bit more; because as a conductor and director of a festival, he’s trying to bring the chamber and electronic groups together and have both those scenes at the same concert, appreciating the same thing. He does a lot of graphic scores and new music, which is their mandate – and that does cross boundaries with sound art a little bit and experimental music in general too.
...I’ve booked artists who, even in the sound check, are asking “so, do I have to play quietly?” and it’s like, “no, you play the kind of music you want to play…
There is a dialogue, but I think there can be more of a dialogue. Even if you look at our local scene for experimental electronic music, improvised music – I think there’s a lot more room for dialogue. We’re always trying to do that; for Quiet City, I try not to book from one genre or one particular group of people, we’re always reaching out and trying to put an eclectic bill together of people who might not have met each other, but they’re all practicing within new music, and maybe for a number of years already. I’m into breaking those walls down: academic and non-academic, or if it is sound art, free improvisation, live electronics. All these things should be open to discussion, for everybody, and that might make things a bit more interesting.
It has started here already. When I first moved here people would tell me Vancouver is pretty segmented into different cliques. But since living here, for seven or eight years already, I’ve seen things are a bit more inclusive than they are exclusive. People are coming together, building bridges, discussing things with one another, and including one another in their programming.
* * *
How many archives are there in Vancouver dedicated to archiving performances from events such as Quiet City or other sound events like it?
There are some, but there could be more. I think documentation is really key. If you’re going to look back on something, it would be totally fundamental to have the photos, recordings, videos to give the whole scope of what’d happened. We’re lucky that there are some [organizations] like VANDOCUMENT out there now [and have been for two years], and they’ll send a videographer or journalist to any type of art event to try and document what’s happening (that is really admirable I think). I try as often as I can to invite photographers and journalists because their feedback and ability to capture those moments is totally key.
I find it kind of interesting that a couple of times you’ve brought up photographers first; but what about sound archiving in terms of recording the sound of the show as well? Does that happen very often or is it mostly through these more traditional media?
Uh, it’s not so… like, [laughs] you would think that we all have portable recorders, we all have computers: at every show you’d just have the recorder out and everything would be archived. But it’s actually less of a common practice than you would think, I guess. Occasionally, someone who comes to a show will say, “I recorded that one artist on a portable handheld,” or something like that, but as much as I say it’s really key, I’m also guilty of not recording things and just offering them up as a happening. But I think it is important, too, that these things are archived because in the future it would be really interesting to look back on what’s happening now, or what has been happening over the past 10 or 15 years, and get an idea of the scope of it all.
And be able to hear the whole scope of everything. It seems like the longer it takes to get that going, the later the history begins. I think that’s a lot of the reason why sound is, not behind, but it’s a younger art form because we’ve had means of documenting visual work for centuries but with sound, recording to a cylinder only came about a few generations ago, so it’s a new thing to be able to hear the past. The idea of recording things as much as possible just hasn’t proliferated at the same speed as the recording technology I guess.
On the performance side of things, sure, not everything is recorded, but I think the actual being there is a very important thing. As far as the organizers and that are concerned, maybe that’s the main thing. There’s a certain feeling you get when you’re in the room and you experience something the way it’s supposed to be presented as opposed to recorded; but that’s not to say the recording for archives sake shouldn’t be done, and yeah, it should happen a lot more often.
Bill Horist performing at Destroy Vancouver IX (2014). Photo credit: Steve Louie.
With bigger series’, like your Quiet City, and VIVO’s Destroy Vancouver, you do get more of a general arts community that isn’t necessarily only sound people coming to those shows – people who are just interested to see what’s happening in sound art at that moment. Is it important to try and attract more people from outside of the sound art community to these shows and events?
It’s always expanding. Whenever we host a [Quiet City] there’s always new faces and there’s people to meet and people there to ask questions and see what’s going on; it’s really inspiring because all these people, coming together who are going to an event not knowing what to expect and they’re excited about what they see. How often would you go to a rock concert not knowing what to expect? Much more rarely I’d say. I think in experimental music, something that’s really fun is not knowing what to expect. In Montreal, I found a lot of people would go out to be freaked out – like “show me what’s weird. I’ve heard about this or that but I want to see it now.”
Do you think that attitude is as prevalent in Vancouver?
I think the art scene in Montreal is a bit more evolved than it is here in some ways. There’s a really strong artist culture there – it’s ingrained in the society from so long ago, even from visual arts and painting. Vancouver is a young city, it’s in the right place, and I think it’s moving in the right directions. It could just use a push here and there to bring things together.
* * *
Do you think the effect of a Quiet City changes depending on what venue you use? Like, what changes when you go into VIVO, which is showcasing lots of new media, video based work, compared to going to another venue or independent space that has no context at all. Do you think it changes those events and the dialogues surrounding them depending on the place you’re in?
Yeah, I think when we do Quiet City in more underground venues, it feels like more of a secretive thing because people, first of all, have to find the place, and find out about it; it’s all par for the course when you’re doing something under the radar. Whereas when you do something at VIVO the potential audience you could reach is quite large. VIVO is actually one of the best examples we can use for an institution in this city that is almost as cutting edge as it gets. When we were talking about the VAG, their programming and how it relates to sound art and that, the only other larger gallery that would come to mind would be the Surrey Art Gallery which has had some proper sound art exhibits, and they do their Sound Symposium once a year, which is commendable. VIVO is different though because it’s a place you can learn: 1-on-1, or in small groups. It’s a hive mind of creative types. When you’re dealing in media arts, that does include sound, programming, video and all these things; VIVO is probably the pinnacle of [an institution], in Vancouver, because of everything they have to offer for the community. You could come in totally ignorant to sound art, experimental music, programming, not knowing a thing and with just your ideas and your creative drive you can take whatever ideas from whatever artistic background you have and apply them to these new tools and bounce them off of these artists, staff and instructors there. I think it’s one of the best things Vancouver has going for it is a space like [VIVO]. I never studied sound in university or anything; most of my studies were either self-taught or 1-on-1 or in small groups and workshops. I’ve done a lot of workshops over the years and I always come away feeling like I studied with someone and we have a very genuine meeting of the minds where our ideas were exchanged, feedback was exchanged, and we both left the educational relationship feeling richer and wiser. That’s definitely one of my favourite ways to learn and that’s something VIVO provides.
Actually, when I first moved to Vancouver in 2008 it was about a year prior that some friends who were moving from Vancouver overseas said, “You have to go to VIVO, meet everyone there, and you’ll be dropped into the middle of the whole scene in Vancouver – that’s where everything circulates,” and they were right. As the first place I dropped in and met everybody, and now seven or eight years later we’ve been working together pretty much the whole time (in different capacities, on different projects).
Do you think there are enough of these organizations, or could there be more varying levels of institutions? Right now I feel there are the mid-size spaces like VIVO and Western Front, and then it’s basically straight to the VAG. There aren’t many in-between spaces that are a bit more ubiquitous, but still open to new and progressive works.
Considering the roots of artist run culture has been here for 40 years or so, you’d expect there to be more [institutions using that] same model that’s [worked] so well in this city, but I don’t see it. It’s an expensive city, and the fact that VIVO has lasted this long and has support of the city is something to be nurtured and cherished. It’s a hard city to be an artist.
Yeah, especially when most of your shows happen at night. It doesn’t help that 90% of this cities businesses close before 6pm; but it’s always fascinating how early people start heading in, and then how hard it is to get them back out to see shows.
Quiet City Poster (2014). Courtesy of VIVO Media Arts.
That’s part of the reason for the name [Quiet City]. It’s more of a commentary on the culture of the city than it is the music being played. I’ve booked artists who, even in the sound check, are asking “so, do I have to play quietly?” and it’s like, “no, you play the kind of music you want to play – it doesn’t matter if it’s loud.” The speakers can take it, I’m sure the audience can take it. It was never meant to be a zone for only quiet music; although the ability to sit and listen in an intimate space without people talking and distracting was definitely part of it.
Are there many sound events where extremely quiet sounds are more so the hook than extremely loud sounds? I find sound art performance is very focused on the extremely loud for the physical experience of those tones at those levels, but I don’t hear many events that try to bring the volume down for different effect.
I’d say the [loud shows] are more prevalent, like you said. Noise Fest and noise shows are definitely more the norm. But there are definitely groups of people who like to play with the quieter end of the spectrum. Joda Clément has been organizing a series called Listen Up which focuses a lot on the quieter end of things, which is really interesting because when you’re considering ambient music, you’re in a space, and you’re sitting quietly just listening to this sound and this music; you can hear the traffic outside, you can hear the smallest movement of someone’s chair, someone coughs, someone stands up, you can hear everything. You become more aware of your surroundings. In an ambient music sense, that all becomes part of the piece. That performance, everything that happened in the room, especially if you recorded it, it all becomes part of your document. If you were there, that’s what you heard.
Speaking of performance, what do you think of visuals in sound art and new music performance? At Merge, I saw you didn’t use any extra visuals for your piece. Is it something that brings in people who aren’t used to sitting through straight sound shows, or does it pull you out of deep-listening experiences meant to heighten your aural senses?
Over the last couple of years I’ve really been staunchly adamant about playing in as dark a room as possible, because I don’t believe my physical presence is part of the performance. It’s not meant to be a visual thing that I’m sitting there, or it shouldn’t be. That’s one aspect. I feel the ability to close your eyes and not be distracted by the visual – we’re such a visual society, looking at our phones, we’re all distractedly looking around – to be able to just listen and go inward into yourself and experience. I think that’s the most ideal way to take in some of the really deep drone or introspective material that I’ve
Visuals might not just be video projections, either. There are also people who love to see gear. If you roll in with a modular synth or any vintage synthesizers, people want to see that. They want to see blinking lights, [knobs], maneuvering between keyboards and gear. There’s definitely a fetishistic thing around analogue. Like listening to records on vinyl is coming back quite strong. I’ve noticed in electronic music, too, if someone is using hardware, it’s something people like to see.
Someone who always jumps into my mind when talking about [hardware] is Sarah Davachi. Whenever I see her perform, she’s always mastering these giant consoles and that’s its own beautiful visual performance.
And she does so very well. Compositionally she’s really fantastic, and her level of proficiency with the equipment she’s using is top tier as well. She’s [probably one] of the most exciting artists in Vancouver right now in that sphere of things, too; consistently blowing other artists out of the water who are probably more well-known or part of the old guard of musicians in the city. She’s wonderful, really sharp. Also very notable on the hardware front are Josh “Magneticring” Stevenson, Jesse “The Passenger” Creed, and Jesse “Reflektionss” Taylor.
In closing I have one last thing to mention, mainly that it’s great to have all these different people organizing different things in the city because they’re all coming at it from different angles, too. Shaunn and JP who curate the Big Joy Festival: as far as small festivals go, they take the best cross-section of what’s happening because they have no stylistic boundaries and every showcase they do is really eclectic. Their positivity as organizers is just infectious. You may arrive there with one or two friends, but you leave feeling like you’re part of something greater; a community.
#ConstantineKatsiris #DavidCowling #Auricular #ScantIntone #experimentalmusic #QuietCity #BigJoyFestival #Xenakis #Stockhausen #soundscape #HildegardeWesterkamp #Merzbow #JanetCardiffGeorgeBuresMiller #VancouverSymphonyOrchestra #SarahDavachi #VIVO