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Interview: 20.SV

The Great Sonic Wave is the culmination of five years’ work. The something very “definitive” about such a title; does the recorded version represent the “wave” in its completed form, or a snapshot of an entity that could grow and expand indefinitely?

I haven’t had a conscious thought about this actually… interesting that you have asked. Now that I do reflect on it, I say it’s both, which explains my choice of words. The Great Sonic Wave stands for the recorded version in its completed form as I find the work to be the most sophisticated one (sound wise) out of all the 20.SV works so far and it functions like a wave in the literal sense. The sounds start building up slowly until they reach a certain peak, but it doesn’t collapse right after, instead the “peak” grows in intensity and keeps on moving faster and stronger until it reaches its own climax, and that’s where it all just crashes and ends.

But on the other hand, The Great Sonic Wave is without a doubt a snapshot of an entity called 20.SV which has always been growing and expanding in Its own way for over a decade now. The project really has its own life and it’s fair to say that 20.SV in Itself is a one giant sonic wave.

Micro-sampled iron and steel objects form the predominant basis of the piece. How and where were these sounds gathered?

I don’t remember precisely to be honest. I’m sure I had a small amount of these sounds 7-8 years ago recorded at home with very primitive equipment and thrown in some forgotten folder on my hard drive. When I began the actual process I started randomly recording at various places and times throughout the years up until 2011. A lot of the sounds were recorded at home though with a condenser microphone linked to my soundcard…whenever I find some pieces of iron, metal or steel from a construction site or near the garbage or in the street or an old warehouse I’d just pick it up and take it home to hear what kind of sounds I get smashing them against one another. I wanted a “dry” sound (not too dry like the sound you get in a studio), so I always preferred recording in my room with these objects as it would be easier for me to manipulate them and give them “character”. Recording outside has its advantages and disadvantages as the sounds captured will always carry the energy and character of the space recorded in, which limits the possibilities of manipulation I was after.

But I clearly recall two places I recorded at as I was after the type of sound they offered, one of them is at a dome right in front of my house which is part of an abandoned/unfinished international fair made by Oscar Niemeyer back in the 60’s if my memory serves me right. The dome is a great natural echo chamber that has all those iron sticks coming down from the ceiling, hundreds of them. You hit these together and you get natural iron echo with some sort of a flanger-like effect. I captured these with a borrowed field recorder somewhere in 2008 or 2009 if I’m not mistaken (On a side note, I took my friend Balazs Pandi there last year and recorded some percussive experimentation on those metal sticks for his own work. No idea if he’s going to release that or use the material later on somehow).  The other location was near the airport runway of The Kingdom of Bahrain back in 2010 using a friend’s mobile phone. There’s this place where you can “hang out” right next to the fence of the airport’s runway. The planes would be landing down right above your head (5-6 meters above you). They were doing some maintenance work in one of the hangers or don’t know what, so there was this huge echoing sound of hard hitting hammers on iron.. It’s a flat land with zero buildings around it, so you can easily capture that open wide echoing sound with the sound of plane engines ranging from a real close/strong one to an explosive/rumbling distant one when it reaches the middle of the runway and on.

There must have been empty construction sites where I have recorded some material, warehouses and some few other places that I have no memory of. I have never used any fancy equipment to capture/record anything; whatever I had or could borrow was just fine. Hammers were pretty useful though; I’d just hammer each metal object once, record it and file it. I think I have recorded something around 100 sound files of these alone.

Listening to the work, it’s clear that the assembly of the work is an incredibly meticulous process; it sounds like the equivalent of creating a giant statue out of tiny individual shards. I notice you refer to your work as 20.SV in sculptural terms; how is your creation/composition process informed by this perception of your work as sculpture?

It’s hard to not link both in terms of work process. The more detailed the sculpture is the closest it gets to sound design. You have to be patient, have an endurance to stay focused for a long time on the same thing, great attention to details to a point where the simplest deviation can alter the entire work and affect the outcome. Sculpting can reach epic proportions where you can use an entire mountain or mountains as “raw material”. It also has this very physical aspect to it, which I feel a similarity with the way I work with sound waves, it’s very surgical, sharp and precise. I don’t like to press a button and get a “sound effect” and stop there or solely rely on one of those retarded electronic tools to generate sounds. I open up the sound wave and start dissecting the very core of the sound where I can manipulate several parts parts of the right channel differently of a sound that is one second long and then manipulate 6 different parts of the left channel of the same sound, then process it as one sound wave then re-open it and re-dissect it again. This can go on and on then mix the outcome with another sound and do the same process to the new mixed sound. That always reminds me of sculpting and how accurate things have to be. It’s a demanding process; you can’t move your hands freely or as smoothly as with painting or drawing for example. You work bit by bit with sculpting and so you have to do with the mouse you use, you find yourself moving the mouse slowly, bit by bit and accurately, which explains the microscopic direction 20.SV has taken. The shorter the sound wave the more control I have over it and the more detailed the final outcome is.

The first minute and twenty seconds of The Great Sonic Wave is a clear example of what sound sculpting is to me. You can listen to that part more than hundred times and you’ll hear a new thing in it every single time. All those small sounds and fast “noises” you hear are a combination of the “handcrafted” micro sounds placed one after the other, so they form those “sentences” which I sometimes jokingly call “noise soloing” haha!

Seeing my work as a one giant statue also means that I already have a “drawing” of it. I already know how the final outcome should be so I decide beforehand what type of sounds I want and how these sounds should be sculpted and where each one has to be to manifest the final shape, otherwise it will be one big mess of sound carnival and a technical show off… or a work with no soul.

It is a very disciplined/strict way of creation process actually, I have always enjoyed it, but with this work, it wasn’t anymore. It got very surgical to a point where I almost gave up on it entirely and did not have the required energy to finish it at some point. It drained the hell out of me, so when I was done with it I just kept my distance from sound sculpting. It’s been almost 2 years now that I haven’t processed a single sound. I thought I will never do that again, but seems soon I’m going to get myself into something even more complicated as some sounds are already taking form at the back of my mind.

Does The Great Sonic Wave take any inspiration from any particular landscape, earthly or otherwise? As a listener, I find myself flitting between mental pictures of actual places – dark industrial factories, aircraft hangars – and more abstract images.

Great to know that! This is one of the main goals with 20.SV; to take the listener to places and invoke all sorts of mental imagery. Some people really confuse this, they tell me that my work is very cinematic and it should be used in films, which annoys me. How one can trade the freedom of seeing his/her own personal images while listening to a certain work for the images of someone else? How many great books were ruined when turned into movies? How many people were disappointed? I don’t mind the combination of sound and visuals, but not with 20.SV, the project is designed to pull you away from your actual environment and fill you with certain energy through sound and nothing else but sound. I grew up listening to music taking me to new worlds and landscapes, it made me drift with a state of mind that I haven’t experienced before. I want to give that kind of experience to others too.

But let’s go back to the actual question… I wouldn’t say that I am directly inspired by a particular landscape, even though I have an obsession for post-apocalyptic sceneries, but places have a strong impact on me. I get certain energies/vibes from landscapes, streets and places in general and it happens that my city is a seriously desolate place at night. I don’t use it as a source of inspiration but I would say that I am greatly affected by it, sometimes it ruins me and bring me down, sometimes it make me feel empty and would think the whole world is like that and at other times I just find comfort in it all. The older I get the more I realize the impact this landscape has had over me, so I think it’s only natural that this feeling find its way in what I do, otherwise my whole body of work would be an act of dishonesty. Some people do take direct inspiration from the land they inhabit and others are just simply indirectly affected by it. It’s a great topic and I have always observed the relationship of sound and land and I’m becoming more inclined in firmly believing that land, lifestyle and weather do really shape the sounds coming from that area. A lot of musical genres were born and had a clear identity because of these 3 factors.

I understand that the vocals of Alan Dubin (Gnaw, Khanate, Old) marks the first instance of a human presence on a 20.SV work. It’s an interesting choice, as I think Dubin pushes at the extremity of what it’s possible to recognise and empathise with as a human being. How did you come to work with him, and how was the experience of incorporating him into the architecture of The Great Sonic Wave?

It’s hard to ignore the fanboy in me as I’ve been into Alan’s work for a long time now and he is one of the very few vocalists out there that fascinate me and send shivers down my spine with his vokills! So to work with him was simply a great honour and a privilege to say the least, the man is incredible (I won’t say more as I know if he’s reading this now he’ll just hate the compliments haha).

What happened is that we both post sometimes on the same forum. I had a thread about the “Insects” album back in 2006 and he commented by saying it’s a killer album, which put me in a state of shock for several minutes. I couldn’t believe that Alan is already familiar with 20.SV (it was even more of an obscure project back then than now –  not that it got big now or anything, but you get what I mean) and actually has the album and thinks it’s great! So we got in touch and started talking to him about Gnaw (This Face was out around the same time of our communication and I was already obsessing about it) and I guess I suggested to him that maybe we can work on something together in the future, not really sure if I brought that up back then or not. Years later, when I started working on The Great Sonic Wave the idea of having vocals was there. With the type of sounds I was going after I already knew that this time there is room for vocals and Alan was the one in mind. As you said, his vocals share so little with anything human and he knows the project well, so to me he was the perfect choice. As soon as I finished the sound work I shared it with him and asked if he would be interested in doing the vocals, and that’s how it went. I know well almost every single album Alan appeared on so I had absolute trust in whatever he was going to do, I just had to sit and wait impatiently.

Nine months later he told me that it’s done and sent me the album… It was goose bumps for me from start to finish that we didn’t have to change anything except for taking one scream out and that was it, we had a finished work that we both felt satisfied with! He really surprised me with some of the techniques/approaches he applied to his vocal assault to go hand in hand with all those micro sounds going on, haven’t heard him doing that on other works, which was simply great to hear as a listener and not as someone involved in the project. I completely forgot it was my project; it was more like listening to an album that Alan worked on and is sharing it with me, which helped greatly in maintaining a sort of an “objective ear” during the first few listens.

Given that you refer to 20.SV as a “sound project with no restrictions”, is there a conscious reason why you haven’t utilised human sounds up until now?

A very conscious reason, it was out of question. The aesthetics of 20.SV before The Great Sonic Wave were based on over compression and clippings of computer generated sounds exclusively. I was after a very destructive outcome, something inhuman and machine based. It’s always some sort of a statement with every 20.SV release… this time I had something different to say and a different perception of sound so it was also the first time that I have worked with non-computer generated material. As an entity, It is a sound project with no restrictions, the next work might always be something completely different, but once I’m working on an album there are some restrictions, disciplines and concepts that I am aiming for, which kind of make it clear where to go and how to tackle it.

I also notice the tagline of “the art of apocalyptic sound sculpting” at the top of your website. How does the idea of “apocalypse” feature in your work? I remember interviewing another artist that was keen to correct the depiction of apocalypse that was put forward in my album review; I’d chosen to see it as a bleak and fearful event, whereas he perceived it as a positive precursor to creation.

I think I know where both of you come from. After an “apocalyptical” event, if some form of life survived, the logical thing would be witnessing a new beginning, but no one can know what will come after such an event, all possibilities are open. He must be an optimist. As for your interpretation of it, I think anyone with the slightest attachment to life, ambition, belongings and some amount of love would fear such an event, it means the loss of all those things. In my case it’s about the sounds. I don’t know if we’ll ever witness an apocalypse but I know one thing for sure, that destruction and death in numbers have their own sounds. It’s another sound dimension, far different from the daily one we know. It’s a sound with a different energy. If you’re sitting in a restaurant enjoying a meal, all the sounds around you are a re-assurance of safety, the flow of sounds is the expected one. Take a gun and shoot in the air and listen to what goes on in that tiny space, the entire sound dynamics shift dramatically. You start hearing panic screaming in numbers (something you don’t get to hear in your daily life often, sadly), the steps’ rhythm is unusual and so is the silence that follows… for some time during that silence any sound that occurs, the smallest one, can have a great impact.

I’ve witnessed a great deal of violence in my life, was born through a civil war, live in a zone considered to be home of terrorist activity and experienced what car bombs mean. So imagine the sounds that can be heard during these situations, the adrenaline rush and how magnified sounds will be after an “attack”, the sounds of birds will sound different after that, it will not make sense at all. Everything will knock you off your feet; everything is unusual that you can easily lose your sense of balance just by listening to the sounds you don’t even have to see anything you just listen. This is when we use our ears to the fullest, we are forced to listen to try and understand what is going on, where it is coming from and where to go etc… And this is when you will be actually really listening to the news for the first time in your life haha. You’d listen so attentively and on a high volume that the slightest noise will piss you off!

Any unusual sound will alarm you and will push you to be attentive for the next one. So when the apocalypse will come, it will come with endless new sounds and new dynamics with endless meanings to us that even the desolation and bleakness that follows with its quietness have its own sound life and energy. This is what 20.SV is all about, those apocalyptic sounds, those new sounds unfamiliar to your ears, those loud destructive sounds, new dynamics, different textures and new arrangements to form a new meaning in different contexts.

Let’s talk about the artwork. On first glance it looked to me like a metallic surface under extreme magnification, although it later started to remind me of rainwater frozen against a window. Could you enlighten me as to what it is, and how it interacts with the sound element of The Great Sonic Wave?

That’s pretty much it in a way; it’s up to each one’s imagination. We supplied the designer with the following keywords: shards, ice, snow and cold and he came up with this. I wanted something direct with the artwork, something that can easily reflect what the work made us feel. It’s an album with the majority of its sounds collected from metal objects for cold and sharp results, it’s clinical and surgical in treatment, and Alan’s lyrics were about vengeance in a snow setting. I sometimes look at it and think it’s a cold moon rock, I like to think of it that way, but I have no idea how the designer came up with this or what he used and I really don’t want to, it will ruin it for me.

What are you listening to at the moment?

Well, right now I’m enjoying the sound of rain and thunder while hearing the voice of George Clooney acting in some movie (he got an easy to recognize voice) and the distant singing of Umm Kulthum coming from the living room. Strange combination, I should record that and call it a conceptual record showing unity between cultures and nature in one environment under the title of globalization, ha!!

As far as music is concerned I’ve been listening to Gnaw Horrible Chamber, Culted Oblique To All Paths, Ulcerate Vermis, and some Howlin’ Wolf, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Genocide Organ and Brighter Death Now and some others. I’ve been digging more into the old blues releases, some really great guitar tones were going on.

What’s next for you and for 20.SV?

Nothing for 20.SV at the moment, some ideas and sounds are taking form in my head but don’t want to do anything about that now. I don’t like talking about the future, we’ll see what this rain and thunder bring.

 

20.SV website – http://www.20sv.com/
Osman Arabi’s blog – http://osmanarabi.blogspot.co.uk/