Janek Schaefer is a UK based sound artist, musician, and composer born in England to Polish and Canadian parents in 1970. His concerts and installations explore spatial and architectural aspects of sound, and employ hybrid analogue and digital techniques, modified vinyl, and found sounds. Janek’s work has been exhibited and released by numerous galleries and labels across the globe and in 2008 he won The British Composer of the Year Award for Sonic Art & The Paul Hamlyn Award for Composers Prize. For comprehensive information on Janek please visit www.audioh.com.
ER. Can you remember the moment when you became aware of sound in a creative sense? And what if any, distinctions do you draw between sound and music?
JS. Legend has it that when I was six I did a sound collage and recorded it to tape, calling it The Journey. I remember doing it, but I haven’t yet gone through mum’s loft to find the tape, but so what really – it’s the truth but nothing really happened from when I was six to twenty six. I was head chorister, I used to play flute and piano, and I hated the idea that you had to repeat something properly and of course get it wrong every week; it was the same with school. I didn’t excel in those instances but as soon as I went to Architecture college and they said ‘here’s a scenario, do what you want’ I was like, ‘great!’ And I got an A, the first in my life, and all my peers liked what I was doing and so it began – sleepless nights of work ever since. I am very lucky, I get paid to be me, and as a result have 100% freedom and have seen the world. I love it! Not a lot of cash, but a rich life experience.
There’s a difference between sound and music. I was a musical man growing up, I loved dance music and remember saying to someone ‘I’ll do some music when I graduate from the RCA’. They replied ‘why don’t you do it now’, and after that conversation I realised music was different to sound. Sound is space, place, architecture, environment and perception. That conversation is the moment when I got turned on to sound rather than music. Sound can be music, but it can be all these other things. You can hear sounds coming around corners, and when you close the window you get an impression of the world as a mental image and that’s what all my RCA architecture designs were about; using that ‘Dissociated Sound’ as I call it. Sound removed from its point source in time and space. It has a sculptural feel to it.
ER. You mention your architectural designs, how does this training impact upon your sound works?
JS. My work is about space and place, and finding sound around me. My architectural / musical background is not one influenced by mathematics or compositional rules or schemes. I am an improviser and shy away from rule systems. I am a wholly anti-academic man and that feeds through to my practice. I do like words, just not many of them, and they should be friendly. I advocate practice over theory.
I graduated from 7 years of architecture training unable to build my own extension! But I did learn how to drive ideas into reality, to tell stories, and to respond to context. I graduated as an artist. Not a total surprise I guess studying at The Royal College of Art.
ER. Thinking of your work with spaces and architecture, in particular Vacant Spaces (2006), a collaborative work with Chris Watson, how did this come about and what did your two respective approaches bring?
JS. I really believe you make your own luck in life. I saw Chris give a lecture at the RCA and it introduced me to field recording qualities and capturing sound and space with the microphone. The Vacant Space commission came along 10 years later. I was invited to do a gallery installation in a series of unknown white gallery spaces, and I usually do site specific work.
The piece was about empty space/interiors and recording the special quality in those interiors given that sound is always present. The stupid philosophical question about the tree falling in the forest is just ridiculous. Sound is a physical process. So I invited Chris who is an outdoor location recordist, and asked him if he would like to concentrate on interior sounds? This difference interested him. Personally, a key component of all my work is bringing the character of everything into a piece and amplifying that, so if I do an mp3 recording in an empty space I don’t mind the hiss, I work with it, whereas Chris is much more high fidelity in his recording ethic. He went to some wonderfully exotic paces and really enriched the project. I also added a bunch of my lo-fi recordings.
Chris is now coming back into my life with the Bradford Soundpool permanent sound art diffusion system that opens in 2012. He will be supplying his collection of water bird recordings from around the world to make a virtual aviary around an 80m-mirror pool with flocks activated by motion sensors on each of the 15m sound posts. He probably has the best wildlife sound library in the world! These invisible birds will be released from their hard drive cages to live again every day – such an exciting commission!
ER. Recorded Delivery (1995) was your first formally acknowledged work; can you talk about the concept and process behind the piece and how you approached what was essentially a site-specific work without being at the site?
JS. I was meant to be designing a post office at the time during the RCA and I wasn’t enjoying the project because I love the Post Office exactly as it is! Why should I re-brand and rethink the post office? I respond to opportunities well, and there was a poster on the wall saying, Brian Eno and Art Angel are looking for students to propose ideas for an exhibition in a self-storage building. All disciplines were accepted, so I phoned up and asked if I could visit the site and they said no. Well, how can I make something site specific? I started thinking about parcels moving in space and the secret life of a box, so maybe I could send something? I’m interested in sound; I could stick a tape recorder inside and give the box ears! But a twenty-four hour recording of a box would have been really boring. Then I found a C120 tape recorder with a sound sensitivity dial that said when it turns on and off during the journey – ah ha! So I stuck it in the box, fixed a cheap mic inside and the next morning I had 72 minutes of a recorded parcel’s complete journey to the site. The highlight is the conversations of postmen early in the morning talking dirty!
ER. It’s interesting how non-accessibility can really inspire a work. How important is the consideration of audience in such installation work given that again, you do not really have prior access to them?
JS. People say never think of your audience for your music or art, but I always think of the audience first in making an installation in a gallery or a certain context. With a certain audience, what kind of thing would make them happy in reference to either knowing me or not knowing me, the time of day and other works around me. I try and give chit chats before my concerts so people have a sense of context; it’s what Catherine, my wife calls ‘expectation management’, a delightful phrase she taught me!
ER. Many people pick up on the conceptual element of your installation works, overlooking what is often an emotional and highly evocative listening experience. Works such as Extended Play (2007) come to mind, how do you navigate the conceptual and the emotional?
JS. Head and Heart is a common theme through humanity and creative practice, and I‘m always mindful of each when creating a project. My vinyl works I create more with the head, as the format is more obscure and you have to put it on for a reason. Live concerts and music/cd releases are more emotional, but yes, I combine both. I like to pump both up as fat as they can go, let it off and watch as it fly’s into the distance. I’m not a soft touch but I’m a softie! I guess I swing between rigorous and the ridiculous too. But of course I prefer to be taken seriously, just with a smile.
Recently I was in a church, performing in Manchester, and the vicar was really cool. I love volume but not aggression, so I was doing a very big spatial work, a lovely and wobbly drone piece that was lifting the roof and the vicar was really interested so I had a chat with him. ‘ You know’ I said, ‘I was trying to achieve that feeling of euphoria and uplifting of the spirit, I think that’s as close to God as I can get, do you agree?’ He looked at me and said, ‘yes’! A triumph.
ER. Can you talk a little about the importance of collaboration in your work and your latest ongoing collaboration with Charlemagne Palestine.
JS. I work with strong people I admire and love, Robert Hampson, Stephan Mathieu, Philip Jeck have been musical collaborators. You have to be flexible. With Charlemagne Palestine, you’ve got to be quick. Recently I went to his warehouse studio in Brussels and we only had an afternoon, I brought in some beautiful desk bells but he said he felt he needed to use a different acoustic space. So I suggested we go busking at the local street fete, and make some music for the people. We took out the bells and microphone, some harmonicas and we got old ladies and kids playing as well! I’m an improvised, intuitive person, you have to seize opportunity, vocalise it and follow it. Each collaboration follows a quite different curve.
ER. Thinking of the Memory Museum (1996) in particular, this positive ethos really comes through in how you promote the work, very entrepreneurial.
JS. With the Memory Museum, I had to consider how to do an architecture project without ruining my favourite place, the underpass. Part of it was going around sticking up these road signs – there I was up my ladder in my donkey jacket trying to look like a workman with my bike and rucksack. Piccadilly went well, Notting Hill went well, Paddington went well, in Buckingham Palace the police pulled up and asked what I was doing. I said I was just ‘putting up a sign for the memory museum that’s opening in the summer’, and they said, ‘oh that’s all right we thought you were trying to nick it’, so off they went, and it was pointing right at the Queen! The sign on Waterloo Bridge is still there today.
ER. And I believe you hold some World Records?
JS. In addition to my Tri-Phonic Turntable which is the ‘worlds most versatile record player’, I hold the world record for breaking the most number of records, world music records in fact! I broke 17 records in 30 seconds and set the world record, it’s my ‘oh yes very funny ‘Janek’ side and it was set on my 33.3rd birthday in a pub in Cambridge after a gig where I played all the records and then went over to the table to break them all.
I like thought, I like intelligence, I just don’t like when academics make something dry as a bone. I am a wet artist in comparison I guess. What a silly phrase but while I am at it, I once pigeon holed my music after a gig as ‘Power Ambient’ but I am not keen on reflection! In the end, I just call myself a Sound Artist. And then have to juggle my way through describing what I am up to at the moment.
ER. How do you balance your own artistic independence/motivation with commission proposals that come to you rather than you going to them?
JS. I’m very malleable, and on the top of my tech rider it says ‘I am flexible’. All ideas morph, titles and ideas infect one another and become improved with an eventual reality. It’s really hard being a solo artist, freelance, experimental musician, no agent, no company etc. Thank god I design all my own artwork, I do everything myself, it’s all in my control, I own everything I have produced. And that’s important in putting out a true character. I much prefer being asked to respond to an opportunity, but I have historically spent a lot of my time finding things to do, I call it ‘fishing for work’ and my career began with the dawn of the internet and cheap flights, and I am on the doorstep of well funded Europe. So that’s why I say you can make your own luck. I decided to be independent, and take a chance and just enjoy the ride. We all survive until we drop, so you just have to concentrate on enjoying the journey along the way.
ER. Tell us a little about The British Composer of the Year in Sonic Art award 2008 – was it based on one piece?
JS. It’s based on Extended Play and means I can hold my head up high in society; I’m not the weird one in the corner anymore. My neighbours, and everyone else I tell understands what it is, and that means an awful lot. I’m meeting with the Head of the British Composers and Song Writers Association for the award soon to see if more can come from it, brain storming how they can create more opportunities. They are being great.
ER. What’s in the pipeline?
JS. The Bradford Soundpool! I have designed a permanent sound art diffusion system around an 80-meter shallow lake with sound coming from the ground and sky. It’s concerned with nature and artificiality and my role is also to get everyone talking. Going into Schools, getting them to take ownership on this centre park, I really relish that. I’m a big community man. I am also designing an underground sound system with one of the best creative speaker designers in the world from Funktion One in the UK. I will also be working with brass bands to make drone music, and running global sound finding workshops with the Bradford community, to play from the earth beneath their feet all night long.
I also have a retrospective at the Bluecoat Gallery in Liverpool this winter and I’m doing a new piece as part of it called, National Portrait. It surrounds the idea that analogue television is about to be switched off, so we are at a tipping point from an analogue to digital age, the telly has died and mass media has taken over – channel hopping through a wasteland of drivel. I say that limitation breed’s creativity, so I’m doing a portrait of a nation through recording the five terrestrial TV channels over their final 24 hours, cut up to constantly create new versions of the past.
ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
JS. Life, love, and a living!
*Ear Room would like to say a special thanks to Janek and his family for their warm hospitality during this interview.
Download printable version [here]