Interview: Yann Novak

PHOTO BY CHRIS WORMALD

The music of Yann Novak utilises all the different modes of listening. Through mindful focus, I’m able to hear the intricacies tucked at the back of the frame: the steady fracture of safety glass, the hidden rumbles of life within seemingly empty bands of noise. Yet the music is also designed to slip away from the conscious mind, anchoring itself with the same vaporous constancy as traffic noise, or morning birdsong, or cafe chatter. I feel more secure and serene for its presence. Little jolts of activity draw me back to a more attentive state of listening, and I find myself swaying back and forth between active engagement and peripheral awareness. This music is both an object in front of me and the safety boundary of my sensory world.

For his new album “Ornamentation”, Novak takes his conceptual inspiration from Alfred Loos’ 1913 manifesto titled “Ornament And Crime”. In a text that infers the superiority of white, capitalist ideals, Loos argues that the adornment of objects/buildings/bodies is a primitive and degenerative practice, with the evolution of western culture dependent on the removal of this ornamentation and a migration away from the labour usually associated with it. In light of this, Novak’s latest work deliberately centres on the labour of composition, using “poor quality” field recordings as a foundation for a much more attentive, additive and arduous creative process. Below, Novak and I discuss the plethora of poor recordings drawn from his archives, the sound of ventilation and the appeal of moving slowly.

How did you first encounter Adolf Loos’ manifesto, and how did you come to decide that it would make for a suitable basis for a new sound work?

I first heard a reference to his essay about 10 years ago in an interview with one of my favorited artists Josiah McElheny. His work often critiques modernism and he used Loos’ essay as an example of how, when taken to its logical extremes, modernism falls apart and becomes this really ugly and awful thing. This had bounced around in my head all this time, but I didn’t dig into the essay until this summer when I was doing research at The Getty Museum for a performance/installation. The site we were using was the Getty Villa’s outer peristyle – the whole villa is a replica of one that was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The research we were doing involved the Getty’s collection of Roman antiquities. While researching it and trying to figure out how to place a black body into this context, we (my collaborator taisha paggett and I) started to notice the stark contract between the value of labour then and now. The Roman Empire used the aesthetics of excess through adornment as a way to show wealth, social class and to honour the dead. This felt in total opposition to modernism, and to some extent conceptualism, and its valuing of ideas over material, craftsmanship, and labour. That’s when I dug into Ornament and Crime and realized this line of thinking was important and that it would be the focus of my next project. 

I understand that you started by gathering “poor quality” field recordings from your own archives from the past 10 years. Are you referring to recordings that would be seen as “poor” against the general paradigm of high recording quality, or in the sense that they wouldn’t normally be considered useful to you in your personal practice? 

I would say both. I started by assemble recording from my archive that had not been used anywhere else. Some were unused because I didn’t like them when I captured them, some were rejects from other projects and some were just orphans. Because I was culling from so many recording sessions and locations over a long period of time, it meant the recordings were done with multiple recorders, multiple generation iPhones and/or had a multitude of different reasons for rejection. A lot of them were rejected because there was an interruption mid-way through the recording. When possible I like to use recordings in their entirety. So for instance, if a child asks ‘What are you recording?’ five minutes into a recording that I need to be 10 or 20 minutes long I usually start over, even though the 4 1/2 minutes are probably usable. The whole point of using these recordings was to make it as laborious to work with them as possible, so for the most part I was paying attention to their flaws rather than their assets.

I always surprise myself with what I discover when I trawl through my own recording archives; often I’ll uncover ideas that I’d completely forgotten about, some of which exhume certain emotions/situations/ways of thinking that now feel distant and somewhat separate from me. Do you enjoy going back through your own recording archives, and are you ever surprised by what you uncover? 

This is actually my first time going through my archives like this. I am so project-oriented that I usually collect recordings with the project/context in mind, use what works and save the rest in the archive but forget about them. So every new project gets a new recording session unique to that idea or situation. There were definitely some surprises when I heard some of the orphans, though the good surprises were not used here because they would have been too easy to work with.  

Would you be able to divulge the stories behind some of these “poor quality” recordings on Ornamentation? (i.e. what was being recorded? When/where was it made?)

There were a few from the sub-basement of Art Center College of Design from 2009 when I was teaching a studio class on sound there. I was demonstrating to the students the kind of things I would record, so there was the ventilation system that had a humming to it and the room tone of an unused bathroom with shower stalls.  All of the recordings were punctuated with an elevators chime and student giggles, so there was only a minute here and there in these long recordings that I could manage to use. There were also some from my old loft in Seattle when I would try and record something inside, but the actual recording would be dominated by bus brakes squealing or the sub bass of their engines pushing them forward.

My favourite one, that I had always wanted to use and kind of treated myself to, is a fairly unaltered recording of safety glass cracking. I was at a residency in Wyoming in 2010 and each studio had a table with safety glass on top. One of the other artists hit the edge of her table wrong and the whole thing shattered, but because its safety glass it happens over time, so there was an initial shatter, but then all the pieces kept cracking over about 30 minutes. I convinced her to wait to clean up so I could leave the recorder in her studio until it was over. I love that recording but could never figure out a context that it would be appropriate to use unaltered. So I guess the challenge there was when to use it.

How easy was it to work with these recordings, and how did their presence in the work influence your composing method as a whole? I’d imagine that having an atypical sonic foundation would have a knock-on effect on the rest of the process, in terms of how these recordings are refined into something listenable/interesting, how they interrelate to other textures etc. Did it instigate a reflection over how your composition process usually plays out? 

It was really challenging. For one I usually only use a single recording for a whole piece, so I don’t have to worry about pacing or interaction that much. On a micro level I had to use a lot of loops rather than long passages from a single recording. Usually my recordings are long enough that they never loop, or loop once before they exit the piece. Here, because I was using recordings with interruptions I would have to find two-minute, one-minute or even 30=second passages without interruption that could also seamlessly loop. This meant far more pre-production on a recording before I even entered the processing or composing phases. Then in the composition phase I could not pair too many loops of a similar length together or it would create a recognisable pattern or pacing, so that limited the combinations. Once everything was all laid out in order I tried to stick to my usually improvised composition style of automating everything with a controller in real time so that it has a slow, but still human pace. On a macro level I don’t think it changed things much, though everyone that hears it tells me it’s much more active then my other work, but I can’t hear that yet. 

There’s often a murky hiss running through Ornamentation, which adopts different forms throughout the work. It’s the sort of sound I might normally associate with air conditioning or distant traffic noise; a sort of blunt, vacant drone. I find it to have quite a meditative effect; it’s like a blanket lain over the mid/high frequencies. Providing you know the sound I’m talking about, is there a reason that this type of noise is so prominent?

I love recordings of ventilations system, or simulating them and the din of traffic in the distance, because working in urban environments these things are unavoidable with the recording equipment I can afford to use. I always use them, or something like them, because I want the work to feel like a by-product of the space its inhabiting. So a listener that enters half way through might not realize its recorded sound, or on repeat listens someone might have to stop the piece to make sure everything they are hearing is part of the piece. My goal is to produce a moment where hearing can become listening. I think in that moment of discovery, a deeper bond between the listener and the work can be created. I try to have ambiguous sounds like this present at all times, but slowly shifting character through the piece so that moment might happen again and again. This is also why all my work moves so slowly, if at all. I want the listener to maybe drift off and forget they are listening and then things change enough that that are bounced back into it. One of my favourite compliments about my work was from Richard Chartier who told me my work sounded like ‘the most beautiful air conditioning he had ever heard.’

PHOTO BY ROBERT CROUCH

PHOTO BY ROBERT CROUCH

I love how the synthesiser is utilised in the work; it’s played so gently that I barely register the presence of a human instigator, and often melts beautifully into the recordings you place alongside it. How do you find the process of bringing the synthesiser into communication with “non-musical” recordings? Do you perceive the synthesiser as distinct from the field recordings, or do you simply treat it as another source of sonic material?

The modular synthesiser gets treated very similarly to field recordings in my work. It is always secondary, meaning I have a general idea of the type of field recordings that will sit with it. When I use it I set up a patch, hit record and live with it for 20 – 30 minutes, then hit stop, make a new patch and repeat. I build up a library of recordings just like I would with a field recording where I would process a single recording over and over again to hear all its possibilities. Then I come back to them and the ones I still like get processed in the computer in a number of different ways. Both the synthesiser and field recordings have a way of fractalling out until each project has 10-25GB of variations.  I do a lot of computer processing to the modular to remove its directness as well – that way it can sit with field recording instead of cutting through them.

Do you have a particular optimum environment for composing and recording your music (i.e. time of day, location etc)? 

I have a live/work studio with my partner and we have very compatible working methods.  He has a daily practice that he engages with a little bit each day.  I have more of a contemplate-and-release methodology where I think about an idea and circle it in my head outside the studio for a long time and then finally dive in and obsessively work until I have seen the idea through. Unfortunately, because I work a few different jobs to pay the bills, this usually only happens when I have a few days off or am up against a deadline so I really have not had the luxury of discovering optimum time of day or mood.  That said, our studio is kind of optimal for us because we are in an old brewery and our space used to be the distillery, so all the original surfaces are lined with cork which makes it sound really great despite the high ceilings and concrete floor.

You’ve been involved in numerous other projects this year, including durational pieces in collaboration with dancers and movement artists, a site-specific sound performance at the Hamon Observation Tower and an audiovisual installation inspired by the empathogenic effects of MDMA. A lot of your projects seem to take root within a premise from another medium (or at least, one that is not exclusive to sound). Is this your preferred way of working, as opposed to producing sound upon an entirely blank canvas? How easy do you find the process of adapting your practice to accommodate different ideas and different environments? 

I always start with an idea or an invitation or a collaboration. I never really have a blank canvas. This is how I have always worked. I think what shaped this was about a year after I started making sound around 2004, a friend and choreographer was looking for a new composer to score a full-length dance piece. She hired me and I was immediately thrown into this amazing year-long collaboration with her, a stage manager, a set designer, a costume designer and five dancers. It was a crash course in collaboration and professional practices where I learned everything, from how to communicate ideas with others to how to properly wind a cable. Scoring for dance also meant that each piece I did had a context before I began: either a mood from the choreographer, a function to move her vision along or a set/lighting situation to be interacted with. In dance you often have to include queues to tell others in the piece what to do or when to do them. So the sound was never just sound; it always had more context or had a greater role to play.  When I went back to working on solo projects I could not imagine just making sound for sound’s sake. I needed some catalyst to start or an idea to imbue the sound with.

What have you been listening to recently?

It may not be what you expect, but I have been obsessed with Solange’s A Seat At The Table.  My obsession had started to fade until the results of the current US election came in and it became all the more powerful and healing.  The pace of each song and the album as a whole is remarkably slow for mainstream music, which is what drew me to it. Then the two videos that accompany it have some amazing and beautifully slow movement. It’s also nice that it was written and produced almost entirely by her, which seems really rare for mainstream music. That also makes the whole album feel like it’s coming from the same place and each song is part of a larger movement, so it all flows together, each song building off the last and all with really powerful messages that are eloquently conveyed. 

What’s next for you and your music?

I am currently working on a new collaborative installation set to open in January 2017 at the Pitzer College Art Galleries called Distance In/Formation. The collaboration consists of two dancers: Rebecca Bruno who I have collaborated with a number of times, and Wilfried Souly who was in a piece I scored a few years back. Then Johanna Breiding – another media artist who I have also worked with before. The piece will be an installation involving sound, video, sculpture and dance… and after 12 years working with dance I will finally find myself as one of the dances/movers in this piece which is both exciting and terrifying. Then in February I have a solo exhibition at Human Resources here in Los Angeles titled Repose. I will be revisiting a performance I did with the same name in 2014, but transforming it into an immersive installation. I am really excited for the closing where I have invited Rebecca Bruno and Sarah Rara (of Lucky Dragons) to each create a performance in conversation/collaboration with the installation.

Yann Novak’s Website – www.yannnovak.com
Ornamentation on Touch – touchshop.org/product_info.php?products_id=793
Yann Novak on Bandcamp – yannnovak.bandcamp.com
Yann Novak on Vimeo – vimeo.com/yannnovak