Interview: Byron Westbrook

Photo by Aviva Rubin

Sonic tactility is a strange thing. We can talk about how Byron Westbrook’s new record, Body Consonance, mimics the sensation of being plucked and flicked from the inside. At times I can feel the weight of his electronics pressing down against my head, soft and slightly moist. The surface bounces back into shape as it lifts away from me. Yet this presentation of sound-as-touch does nothing to placate its illusionary potential – I’m still misled about the location from which these sounds emanate, and the instruments that bring them to be, even as they rub up against me. Stream the whole record right here, and please: listen with headphones on.

Below, Byron and I discuss binaural sound as a proto-VR, the idea of productive procrastination and the installation work developed during his current residency at New York’s ISSUE Project Room.

Within seconds of listening to Body Consonance, it became apparent that this is a much sharper, more urgent work than Precipice. Was it always your intention to move in this direction after you finished your last record? What led you to explore this more viscerally energetic mode of sound?

A few months before the last record came out, I refurbished an old Otari ¼” stereo reel-to-reel and began using it as my primary source for gathering material. I saw the tape machine as a good opportunity to really dig deeper into making work specifically for the stereo format and decided to make that a focus for the next release. It seemed like a logical progression, given that most of my past recordings have been translations of multi-channel audio pieces into stereo. Working with the tape machine also pushed me to deconstruct my process a bit, which I think was a major factor in things becoming more immediate. I also was making conscious effort to push away from approaches that would read strongly as “ambient”. That led me to take a more gestural approach than in the past, as opposed to focusing purely on texture, and I think that also adds to the sense of immediacy.

The album is referred to as a “meditation on physicality” in the accompanying description. I’ve seen you speak about your preference for human/sensory intuition over software-based means of assembling compositions, and it seems that this physical relationship with sound was already a consideration for you. From your perspective, what does it mean to convey physicality through sound, and how have these thoughts informed your approach to the creation of this record?

Well, abstract sound is something that – from a perceptual angle – is inherently implicating the physical: If we can’t see something that we hear, our nervous system will try to interpret what it is and whether it is a physical thing that we should react to. I realize that ASMR is a fairly trendy thing to be talking about these days, but when I first discovered the wormhole of ASMR videos on the internet, I was taken by how engaged people seem to be with the physicality of sound presented there and the approach to translating sensation. Many of the sounds on this record were considering ways that binaural microphones are used/mis-used in these videos. I developed synthesis/programming techniques that work with those physical qualities, while still reading in a more traditionally “musical” way. I guess I was ultimately looking for interplay between elements that are less ephemeral, less about internalizing and more about engaging with tactility somehow.

Beyond the album and track titles, the record is sonically rife with these allusions to human body and human behaviour. “What We Mean When We Say Body Language” has a drone running through it that appears to emulate overtone singing, while some of those rhythms have a soft, almost sensually haptic texture to them (like skin depressing and bouncing back against my fingers). It’s possible that your answer to this question is already covered by the one prior, but to what extent is the album concerned with the presence of body within sound? 

I thought long and hard about all of the titles. I was really hoping that they’d raise questions for the listener, but also guide the experience towards a human interface – not necessarily human bodies though.  I’m also thinking of the sounds as body/bodies, which has some truth in that sounds are physical ripples in air. I was really aiming for sounds that project out in a three dimensional way, so there’s the matter of human interface and inhuman sound in conversation with each other.

Could you tell me about the frenetic, chattering sound that runs throughout “Dance In Free Fall”? To my ears, it seems to never repeat; is this lack of repetition instigated through human improvisation, or through computer randomisation?

It is actually both of those things to an extreme. It involves randomized data but the recording is mostly built from an improvisation where I recorded myself “playing” the range of the randomization as well as the spread between speakers. In fact, nearly all of the tracks feature some sort of improvisation.

This opening sound also demonstrates the album’s constant manipulation of shape and depth; it stretches and contracts like a muscle throughout the piece. The whole of Body Consonance exists in this illusory three-dimensionality (which I feel existed within your previous music, but it’s very pronounced here). What interests you about exploring the binaural potential of sound, and has the creation of this album had any effect on your relationship with this concept? 

All of my work – installations and recordings – considers bodies interfacing with space and each other in some form, not specifically human bodies in all cases, but with human interaction as an element, so it makes sense that this is one way that those concerns can manifest on a vinyl format LP.

I think it’s interesting to consider binaural and stereo as a sort of proto-VR formats. Something that bothers me about VR is that it does all of the work for you for the most part. I really feel that it’s important to leave elements to the listener/viewer’s imagination, and I’d say that the binaural aspects of this work considers human interface in an immersive way but is interested in letting it be an impulse for some sort of perceptual conversation between the work and audience. 

I’d imagine that this material lends itself to being presented in the live environment. I know that you’ve already been presenting some of this music through performance over the past few years. How does this material change when you present it in the live setting? To what extent have these live experiences come to shape the way in which this material has manifested in the recorded form?

The one thing that is different in a live setting is that I still generally perform with a makeshift multi-channel configuration. Sometimes this is just adding a guitar amp as a third channel. Sometimes I add a couple of extra speakers that are not as nice as a PA system. In either of those cases with auxiliary speakers, I put them out in the room, usually on the floor, so that I can voice some sounds in a way that makes them appear to emanate out from where the audience is, rather than surround. This is my way of customizing the music to the specificity of performance spaces.

Many of the pieces were first developed in a live, semi-improvised setting by playing back recordings of improvisations on top of each other, sometimes through these speaker arrangements, and sometimes just totally improvised where I don’t know how something will sound superimposed on something else. It usually takes a couple of years for a tune to solidify in its identity.  For a lot of the material on this record, I really deconstructed it from what I had been doing live for the recording, re-built new ideas to emphasize what was strong in stereo, which changed some of the tracks very dramatically. Except for one or two of these tunes, the live versions are notably different arrangements than the recordings.  The exciting thing is that there’s room to keep changing and evolving things.  

PHOTO BY FANA FENG

Are there particularly environments – moods, places, times of day – that you find particularly conducive to the act of composition/recording? Are there any rituals or habits that accompany the process of making music for you?

I go through phases of recording a whole lot of improvisation, which mostly happens in times of procrastination – and that’s really the answer: I probably make most recordings of raw material when it’s not what I’m primarily focusing on at that moment. People talk about productive procrastination and I stand by that as a good thing. Having said that, the proper recording/arranging and mixing of these tracks were very focused sessions where I set my studio up specifically for that purpose over a few months.

You’re currently artist-in-residence at New York’s ISSUE Project Room. One of your recent installations at the space is titled Interval/Habitat, which you describe as “a technique for site-specific intervention within a social environment.” Given the site-specificity and social energy of the piece, did you observe any differences in the way this installation was treated/received by audiences at ISSUE, compared to previous iterations you’ve shown elsewhere in the world?

It was really an entirely different piece at ISSUE, for a number of reasons. The first was that I didn’t use any abstract sound made via computer/synthesis. I basically made a playlist of other people’s music and worked with that as an architectural element in the space: placing sounds in small speakers on tables, having music come only out of a subwoofer so that it appeared to be in the next room, and superimposing field recordings over those, playing with volumes and fades in conjunction with lighting.

Also, in regard to the idea of site-specificity, even though we had a bar in the room, this was a performance at ISSUE’s space and people felt like they had to come in, sit down and listen, which actually wasn’t my intention or expectation. Charity Coleman was speaking in the room on and off, acting as a guide and I think her presence still allowed people to have the experience of my elements as being a background to their interaction.

There’s an excellent moment during your video documentation of the event when a spotlight suddenly illuminates three audience members stood against the back wall, all of whom quickly shuffle away from the newfound focal point. There seems to be an abrupt shift in the energy of the room – those in the spotlight become very self-conscious, the rest of the audience start laughing. Was it intentional to catch people in the light at this moment, or did they just happen to be standing in the right place?

Yes, that was one of the very best moments and was exactly the intention – to break the reverent mood and to have a real ambiguity around who is performing and who is being performed to. The goal is really a collective experience of intimacy and navigation. I’m thinking of the social dynamic and social awareness as something that has a range in the same way that I’d think of musical or spatial placement dynamics, except that it’s out of my control and something that the audience defines. 

Your Threshold Variations installation recently finished, which I understand was centred on the idea of synaesthesia. Is there something specific to the way in which light and sound are combined in the name of a synaesthesic experience, as opposed to creating an experience in which both elements simply harmonise with each other? 

That piece is considering implications as much as it is trying to define. It’s really about positioning sound and light in ways where one of the two things is not easily perceptible and the other is changing gradually. So perceptually the listener’s mind is trying to calibrate to something they can’t totally perceive sonically but there is a visual that in some way defines the sound – either in colored lighting of the room, the lighting of the audience (this piece also lit the audience) or the lack of light with a sound that has something fairly defined being heard. It is definitely not presenting things operating in harmony and is more about positioning the audience where both their interpretation and their choice of how to exist in the space are defining elements of the work.

You were recently involved in a project for Walker Art Center’s Sound Horizon summer music series, where you “sonically mapped” Minneapolis Sculpture Garden and then remixed the material into a live performance. Could you tell me about the experience, in terms of how you approached the gathering of sonic material – particularly within the context of “mapping” the garden – and what processes you used to remix them?  

“Mapping” may have been the Walker’s terminology, but the experience was a very good one. I would say that it was more about a layered mediation process, between my listening to the garden/sculptures via microphones, between myself physically and the sculptures – I was recording sounds of the sculptures either moving or being touched/tapped as well as clapping and vocalising in resonant spaces – and finally mediation in re-representing these experiences via a quad speaker configuration in a very large pavilion, where what was happening in the present and what was previously recorded was not clear at all times to people passing by. Elements of the sculptures and spaces were re-inserted into the environment in ways that would be impossible without using a microphone (ie microphone inserted into a bell, magnifying its resonance from wind blowing as a sort of white noise background that fades in and out), as well as documenting reflections of human voices and sounds off of different surfaces.

What records have you been listening to lately?

Ellen Arkbro’s For organ and brass, the newest Golden Retriever LP, the Pep Llopis reissue on Freedom to Spend, Konrad Sprenger Stack Music, the new Giuseppe Ielasi Inventing Masks record, Roger Tellier-Craig’s new Root Strata LP and Koen Holtkamp’s new Beast twin LP releases are super nice.

What’s next for you and your music?

There is one more installation project for the ISSUE residency coming up in December, which will be pretty ambitious. Beyond that I’m hoping to be able to present more of these installation projects in the not too distant future. It will depend on finding the right institutions. I have some other releases pending for early next year and a few potential collaborative ideas are being discussed that I’m excited about.