For his upcoming Cafe Oto appearance on 14th March 2015, sound artist Francisco López will perform two quadrophonic pieces to a blindfolded audience. The pieces will also be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3’s Hear And Now programme. Go here for a link to listen live or to listen back.
I spoke to Francisco as he was in the midst of making preparations for the evening. What follows is our discussion on topics including site-specificity, the attainment of deep listening experiences and the challenges of performing for radio and a live audience simultaneously.
So this is your first time at Café Oto. Have you been to the space before? Do you have any expectations?
I haven’t been to the space actually. I know the reputation of the place, from many friends and musicians that have performed there, as a certain type of place for experimental music and improvisation. I have technical information about the space that I needed for the preparation of the show but I’ve never been. In fact, this is one of the reasons why it will involve some serious testing of different possible materials in the space on the day of the performance, in order to decide exactly what I’m going to do. I always like to make my performances according to the space and the sound system in every single performance situation, so that will happen on Saturday.
Café Oto has a lot of glass surfaces; there are these big windows covering most of one wall. Are you also concerned with the surfaces of the space, in terms of how the sound will reflect?
Yes. There are a number of very straightforward pieces of information I can use to help decide a few things in advance. One of them is the dimensions of the space, but also materials. Of course, it’s not the same to work in a space that is nicely dry than it is to work in a very reflective space like this. I’ve got photographs of the space, a floor plan, a detailed technical list…in fact, the equipment we’re using is not the normal equipment they have at Café Oto – they’re bringing in additional and different types of equipment. So features like the glass are helpful for me, but you always have to check sound and try different things. It’s not a matter of finding the perfect space – I don’t have an ideal kind of space – but I think that different spaces demand different things, or different spaces are really good for things you need to test in an empirical way. Glass is not the ideal for many things but it works very well for others. The sonic materials that are chosen are according to the materials of the space.
I understand that these two pieces you’re playing are composed specifically for this event. Does the composition process only begin upon receipt of the venue’s technical information, or are the pieces created and then later adjusted to accommodate the space in which you’re playing?
The performance is constructed from a limited selection of live materials, but I’m going to bring a wide range of materials with me. Today I’m working on different things that I think could work there, but the decision on what exactly I’m going to use and how I’m going to combine them will be made when I’m there. That also means that these are not finished compositions. They will be put together, specialised, mixed and processed live in the space. So in that sense, the compositions are tailored for the space within the limited number of possibilities I have from my own taste and my materials. These pieces are site-specific in that sense.
I think a lot of people, including myself, have this certain perception when it comes to how recordings of other spaces are used in the live environment. They are often fixed – appearing “as they are” – rather than being able to respond and interact with space, as they do for you. That’s something that has always allured me to the way you approach your live shows.
I always insist on the fact that I work with sound. I don’t work with tools that produce sound – I use the tools I need in order to work with the sound, which I think is dramatically different. That means a number of different things. When it comes to live performance and sound installations, I don’t think you can successfully fix a piece. You can fix an aspect of the piece that is going to happen, but it only has to do with the initial step of the playback. You certainly cannot fix sound. There are no instructions on how to produce something that will materialise later to replicate what you had at the beginning. This is not only a philosophical question – it really becomes a very practical, direct question of experience and listening in different spaces.
In other words, sound only exists, even when we’re talking about a recording or a combination of recordings, when it physicalizes again. That happens necessarily in a space and it happens necessarily through a sound system, whatever that system is. If we are consistent with our work with sound, we necessarily have to work that way. To me, it’s a need to react to the reality and physicality of sound.
While I understand that this will largely depend on your experiences within the space on the day, are there any expectations the listeners can have of the kind of sounds and themes that will be present in your performance?
I am planning to use a lot of different things, which may include industrial machines or industrial-sounding things. I like to work freely with sound; some things are as they were recorded, and some things are heavily transformed into something else. I like to work with a very extreme dynamic range and I like to go from the subtle to the big, but I always try to do something that doesn’t sound harsh to the ear. To me, this is one of my main concerns: to do something that feels intense, that might feel overwhelming, but is definitely not dangerous for the ear.
I attended one of your blindfolded performances back in 2012 at London’s Corsica Studios. Before the piece commenced you turned to the audience and said, “it may get very loud at some points, but I have everything under control”. I remember becoming very aware of how vulnerable I feel when I can’t use my eyes to make sense of my place within my environment.
That’s a typical introduction that I always do in my performances for a number of reasons. One of them has to do with explaining, very briefly, the reasons for blindfolds and darkness and why that is important to me, and why that is an integral part of what I propose to do in a live performance. I want to make a very personal mention of these things beforehand. In terms of being vulnerable…audiences in my performances are not more vulnerable than they are in any other musical performance. In a typical performance, we are exposed to sound levels that are much stronger than what I can produce, and without any warning. These days, I always carry my earplugs in my pocket wherever I go. A lot of performances are just too loud.
I prefer to mention this for those people in the audience who are particularly sensitive, but also to create an expectation. When I say “under control”, this is not a matter of just sound levels. It’s about where those sound levels are in the audible spectrum. As you probably know very well, you can have a huge amount of decibels with low frequencies, and the building might be shaking but nothing will happen to your ears. If you have the same pressure of sound levels in the mid/high range, you will produce irreversible damage. Unlike many other artists and musicians, I am aware of these things and I take care of them.
You performance will involve situating yourself at the centre of the venue, with the audience arranged in circles around you. Whenever I hear of an artist working outside of the common rituals of live performance – where the stage and the audience should reside etc – I realise how infrequently these rituals are brought into question. Do you think there is an issue around that?
I try to be where the audience is as much as I can. The audience surrounds my central position because my technical intention is to be with the audience. Also, I don’t want a stage because I don’t want people looking at what I’m doing. I think you lose so much of the listening experience when you just watch something. This is not against any performances on the stage – there are many types of music where that makes sense. I don’t think it makes sense in what I do personally, and I prefer not to lose the potential of listening when people are looking at what you are doing. That central position is because of this specific reason: trying to be with the audience or, in other words, hearing what the audience is hearing. As you know, this doesn’t happen when you have stage and monitors.
In what I do live, there is no sweet spot in the room. There’s not a single spot that is the best one. This is not a performance with a 5.1 multichannel conception, where there’s an ideal place at the centre. I do not perform with that kind of strategy. During the performance, I intentionally work to create different interesting locations and things happening all over the room. Not just in a central position.
At that 2012 performance at Corsica studios, you mentioned that you’d spent five hours at the venue in preparation for the performance. Does a lot of that time involve moving around the space to hear the pieces from different angles and perspectives?
Oh yes, plenty of that. There’s a lot of testing with different possible materials and different combinations of things: lots of equalisation, specialisation…a number of different things that I have to do manually during the performance. And then, as you said, there’s a lot of moving around the room and checking what you get in different places and how you get it. That will also affect the precise arrangement of chairs. Normally, you will have chairs arranged around that central position facing outward toward the speakers, but at some point you might reach a distance from the centre, relative to the position of the speakers, where it might be even better to orientate the chairs in a different way. This has happened in many different performances. I just came from a performance in Valencia last weekend and we had to re-arrange a number of things in the room because of this. The arrangement of chairs in the room is really a consequence of the acoustic situation in the space for listening. It is not a consequence of the visual contemplation of the performance as it normally happens in most performance spaces, including Café Oto.
The fact that people are sat on chairs is interesting in itself. Once an audience member assumes their spot within the space, they are fixed: they have chosen the space they will inhabit within the field of listening. Have you ever had it so that people are invited to walk around the space while you’re performing?
I have no objections to that. It has its advantages and disadvantages. If you let people walk around the room, you know what happens with that kind of performance: a lot of people are moving around and some dislike that there is a number of people doing that, because that interrupts their listening concentration. That’s one relevant thing. Another is that it puts you in a mood of just checking different things in the space, which is good for a few minutes. But I think that mode of listening – of comparing and contrasting how different things sound at different spots in the room – is extremely dangerous for a performance that tries to be a very deep experience. It doesn’t really put you in a mood for very deep listening and profound transformation of the listening, which happens more readily if you have less of your concentration on comparing listening mood. I’m very aware of the limitations of having to be in one specific location, but in terms of the pros and cons of those two options, it definitely brings the balance to the option of the chairs. A lot of people I know prefer to sit. When there is enough space in the room, people even lay down and in some situations that’s actually much better. I try to very flexible about options, as long as I can create an immersive and profound experience.
I’ve been to quadrophonic performances before where I’m encouraged to walk around the space, and I remember that my mind is partly occupied with where I could walk to next. Once the option for movement is removed from the equation, I guess that the potential for distraction goes with it. The person is fixed where they sit and they no longer contemplate it.
To me, it’s too much of a distraction. I prefer not to do it for that reason.
It’s interesting that this performance will also be broadcast. Is the fact that it will be transmitted through the medium of radio another consideration for you? Will that affect the way you approach the piece?
It’s a very significant challenge to try to do convincing and fulfilling performances for both: for the live situation and simultaneously for a broadcast. There are many things that are very difficult to broadcast. Sonic space is a very difficult thing to broadcast; the most apparent features of sonic space can be broadcasted, and you can tell the different types of space in a broadcast, but only the most superficial and apparent features. Details of space, and details of things that will be clear to most people in Café Oto, won’t be so clear over the broadcast. Dynamic range is another thing. The dynamic range for broadcast is very narrow. I’m in conversation with the engineers about this – they’ll have to make a number of very delicate decisions in order to cope with that very big dynamic range. Very quiet things don’t render well in broadcast, and very loud or intense things, with many different frequencies for example, are very difficult to retain. It is a challenge because of the massive difference between those situations. That said, I’m trying to make decisions that will hopefully work fine in both situations. The broadcast is also peculiar because it will be done in quadrophonic. I don’t know how many people will have that possibility. That will create a simulation, or a transference of some sort, of the quadrophonic situation in the space to a broadcasted situation that is only equivalent in the number of channels; definitely not in terms of the space or the decisions that come with the space.
You’re also at the mercy of whatever room they chose for their listening, too. They could have marble flooring, or carpet…all of that will be beyond your control as well.
On the other hand, you have the natural blindfolded nature of the radio.
Francisco López’s website – www.franciscolopez.net
BBC Radio 3’s Hear And Now – www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006tnsx