John Grzinich, born in New York state 1970 is an artist currently living and working in Estonia. Grzinich has worked primarily with sound composition, performance, and installation since the early 1990s and performed and worked on projects extensively throughout Europe and the US. Areas of interest range from; phonography, found objects, sound and performance, film sound, itinerant sound actions, abandoned space, site-specific sound installations, collaborative sound actions, environmental sounds, and extended tonal and atonal drones. Grzinich is also project co-ordinator for MoKS, an artist-run international residency center and project space in southeast Estonia. For comprehensive information please visit www.maaheli.ee
ER. Tell us a little about your background and when you became aware of sound as an artistic/experimental medium?
JG. My background is varied, often making it difficult to pinpoint clear origins of my interest in sound as an artistic medium. Besides discovering tape recorders as a child I usually refer to some “enlightening” experiences I had in high school regarding explorations of my inner and outer world. The primary gateway in searching for new and different forms of music came from college radio. The mid to late 1980s was what many consider to be the “golden age” of “indie” publishing and broadcasting with its flourishing of record labels and unregulated non-commercial radio showcasing “underground” music. I absorbed everything I could from indie-rock to jazz to world music, even staying up late to catch more obscure experimental/industrial music shows (playing things like Asmus Tietchens, Illusion of Safety, P16.D4, John Duncan, Zoviet France, HNAS etc.). At the same time I somewhat accidentally discovered some forms of “meditation” particularly while listening to music, what I later found out could be termed “deep listening” (a technique used by Pauline Oliveros in her workshops). Without much effort (and entirely without the aid of any drugs) I could induce visual imagery while listening to music on headphones in a dark room. This “enhanced” form of music listening aided my interest in architecture (what I later studied in college) because it helped visualize spaces and structures, much like 3D modeling, but in a much more imaginative way.
Looking back now, I would consider this to be a type of semantic research on the effects of sound cognition and the way the brain reacts to musical association, frequencies and compositional structures. But really at the time it was just an enjoyable way to listen to all the music I was hearing. These interests continued for several years during my Architectural studies in college as, lets say, a “passive” relationship to sound as a medium. It wouldn’t be until 93/94 when I would start actively pursuing experiments with sound through recording, instrument building and performance collaborations, particularly with Seth Nehil and Michael Northam.
Picking up on your collaboration with Seth Nehil, could you talk about this dynamic and how it evolved?
In the beginning with Seth, it was simple, mostly a curiosity to experiment and see where it took us. There didn’t seem to be too many expectations so our “goals” were fairly open ended. Seth had just entered art school and I had moved to Austin not long before so our ideas about what we were doing were not particularly shaped by that much either. So there were a few invitations to performances that forced us to give form to our experiments. These were attempts to mix self-made instruments, recordings and manipulations on 1/4 inch tape and cassette 4-track and something like performance. Not having a fixed idea about the processes and methods we were using was again important because it helped foster the dialogue because the “language” of it involves so much of the process itself. We also seemed to work very much with site-specific contexts right from the start, to use what we had as material rather than seeking out an ideal. I think this ethic remains even now, at least for myself, although it’s more difficult having had so much experience over the years. That’s why the workshop environment is important for me, to see the openness of an exploratory process through other people’s eyes as it helps to remind me that new possibilities and variations in working with sound are always there.
ER. Your work often deals with the microscopic world around us and the complex forms and patterns in the natural world. Can you talk about these emergent patterns and how it intersects your own work?
JG. When I talk about emergent patterns, I’m mainly referring to the meshing together of forces in the natural world, the effects they have and how we perceive this. In one sense it is the study of complexity, looking at processes we have little understanding of and not trying to rationalize it so much as be absorbed by it, to really sense nature rather than analyse it. This is where my view differs from science in that the value of nature here is not in what we can abstract and isolate but what generates forms of meaning, particularly in a cultural sense. So the “art” here is in using sound and its properties as a medium of translation for finding significance in processes that give rise to the emergent patterns around us. Most of this happens on the microscopic level or beyond what we can normally perceive, but if we employ tools and techniques, our attention can be sharpened allowing us to develop new forms of sensitivity, aesthetic relations and ideally creative impulses. This is a good base from which to start and from here we can go into great detail about the specifics of this process and what it means.
ER. Since moving to, and living in Estonia; what is your experience of this particular environments soundscape?
JG. Estonia, like much of Eastern Europe, has undergone a series of significant shifts since the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s On the one hand there has been the rapid succession into the western world through the economic and cultural influences of the US and EU while on the other hand an a lapse in traditional living and in many cases, an outright abandonment of the former infrastructure of industrial agriculture. The effects of which have led to both increased urbanization of the cities and a “wilding” of many parts of the country, particularly the rural landscape around where I live. It is not too hard to imagine how thee changes have affected the soundscapes one hears. While the urban landscape becomes homogenized with familiar traffic sounds and the globalized media sphere the rural environment displays its potential as a space of human abandon and adoption of the forces of nature, the boundaries of which, become ever more distinct. In the countryside it is not uncommon to confront total silence on the days or nights of still weather. In such case for recording sounds, one has the interest to seek human activity rather than escape it. Also in experiencing this gap between human activity and nature I’ve begun to take a more active approach through a dialogue with the forces of nature and how they may be revealed through sound. This is a significant departure from the more passive nature of field recording where one sits quietly and captures existing sounds.
ER. What draws you to working with a particular site e.g. Soviet Silos?
JG. I would like to emphasize that every site, in fact, has sonic potential, yet it’s the conditions we have to work with that are very likely to determine the outcome. So why the attraction Soviet Missile silos and other sites I visit? Part of the answer is practical. Many abandoned sites offer an open space in which to work, where one has less of a chance to be disturbed. One of the facts of dealing with life after the post-modern age is to understand the notion of defined space, in all senses of the term. In many cases we can clearly see how spaces, given highly defined purposes or uses offer less in terms of open ended creative options. This can even be the case with a theatre or club for example, where constraints on creative options are determined by the time and costs of staff and the space itself. I’m more interested in, lets say, processes at the generative end of the spectrum, where ideas can be freely explored, experimented with and expressed without certain constraints or conditions of time and space. This tends to be in areas that get “lost” in the folds of history, where a once highly specialized space no longer has any value or public space, such as a state forest, is under a low level of management (both are the case for the missile silos).
ER. How has your appreciation/perception of your environment changed since you began actively listening through the microphone?
JG. Listening “through the microphone” is, more often than not, the gateway for many artists as it was for me. At the same time it can also be a technological trap. I’ve noticed how often people assume that when working with sound one must work with technology. Microphones and speakers are mechanisms for sound detection, amplification and reproduction. This seems obvious, yet I often must remind people, that until we are able to hear by some neurological implant to our brains we still need to hear all sounds acoustically with our ears even if its through headphones. I note these details because my perception of the “environment” is not only about the soundscape but also extends to the behavior and attitudes that people (and artists) have towards how they work with and listen to sound. In this sense I’ve become rather sensitive to the environment as a whole, which includes not only the sound environment itself but also our response to it. It comes with the realization that these two things cannot be separated.
ER. Education plays a huge role in your practice, how did you arrive into teaching and leading workshops, and how has this influenced your practice?
JG. Education is a tricky term when it comes to sound as it feels much less like teaching than conducting exercises and facilitating interactions. The workshops I lead (often in cooperation with Patrick McGinley and Maksims Shentelevs) start with the premise that there is little we can share with others apart from certain information and our own experience in working with sound (which in the end is a lot), and that the emphasis is on raising awareness of sound and its effects on us through different forms of listening and action (what I’ve called enactive listening). This naturally tends to either reveal or remind us of what we already know but rarely practice (at least on a conscious level). This refers particularly to the instincts we have regarding sound as both an expressive and social medium in individuals and groups beyond our common cultural associations of sonic experiences through music and language. As with many things there is an infinite array of possibilities in the “chaos” of expressive and experiential forms we cannot articulate in language or put into musical form. While these territories are rarely explored it is relatively easy to conduct experiments using sound in the forms of exercises and simple rituals which, has become an essential aspect of the workshops over the years. The realization of the practical potential of sound came through continued personal work of recording, composing and performing with sound and through exchanges, dialogues and collaborations with other artists, the influence of which cannot be understated. With this evolutionary process, it is important to have short term goals, yet the results or outcomes should remain open-ended.
ER. Where do you position your own field recording practice between the paradigms of representational acoustic ecology on one side, and processed soundscape composition on the other?
JG. I make field recordings because it’s a way to capture certain sound phenomenon I’m interested in. I work “in the field” because the living world around me is more my studio than a specific room or technological setup.
In reference to the “paradigms” listed in the question and in light of my answer, my position is essentially in a bubble apart from neither. I’ve had virtually no contact (or interest for that matter) in Acoustic Ecology per say apart from knowing certain individuals (in Italy primarily) who are involved. I say this mostly because the research side of my sound work has been conducted in relative isolation. Yet this sounds somewhat misleading as, in practice, I’ve had a rich and complex history of collaborations with other artists over the years. This paradoxical position is mainly to express my view that I don’t believe in “scenes” or “movements” so much as a complex network of parallel activities by individuals and small groups based on what they produce. Because of the mediated promotional outlets of the work of “sound artists” (magazines, festivals, radio shows, labels) tends to receive a distorted image, i.e. something larger than it is.
ER. What’s coming up in the near future for you?
JG. There are a number of projects in motion at the moment, namely some workshops that involve working with a small group of participants to develop site-specific sound activities in various urban locations. I hope to realize this in Bristol and Prague this autumn and Istanbul next spring. I’m also working on a few films about sound that over the last 3 years are finally coming into form. We’re also hoping to formalize a residency for “sound artists” at MOKS, the organization I work for in Estonia. We’ve had many great artists visit already but mostly with the encouragement of myself to apply to our program. Much of this depends on the renovation of our space, so it may take another year. I’m also continually updating my website with smaller projects like sounds and images from field-recording trips so anyone who wants to follow can do so.
ER. And finally, as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
JG. I often use the term “sound art” in quotes because of its highly flexible and subjective nature. The use of “sound art” by myself, a recent art school graduate or a curator probably means something completely different to each one. The more accepted use of the term in recent years, I suspect, has to do with the fact that one who works with sound as medium can easily shift between music contexts (composition, concerts and improvisational settings) and art contexts (installation, sculpture, performance in gallery settings). The boundaries of which are increasingly blurring however as I’m extending my research into education, art therapy, and areas of social, cultural and environmental science.
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