Steven Peters is a Seattle based sound artist/composer whose works are often site-specific, made with recorded sounds of an environment and found/natural objects, or through exploration of acoustic phenomena, as well as conventional instruments and spoken text. Peters is a freelance producer, writer, curator, and member of the Phonographers Union. He also runs a non-profit concert/events organisation called Nonsequitur. Peters’ CD’s have been published by various labels such as Sirr ecords, Dragon’s Eye Recordings and La Alameda Press to name but a few. For comprehensive information please visit: www.steve-peters.blogspot.com
ER. Steven welcome to Ear Room.
SP. Please, call me Steve. Only my mother calls me Steven!
ER. I want to focus a little on the site-specific aspect of your work. At what point did you start working with site and sound? With hindsight can you talk about how it emerged in your practice?
SP. I became interested in field recordings in the mid-80s and began incorporating them into my music. Then Rich Jensen and I did a radio program called Snapshot Radio on KAOS-FM in Olympia, Washington, which was nothing but field recordings collected by ourselves and sent to us by others. For me it was very much about being in love with that particular place, having a kind of genuine intimacy with it and and wanting to share that in some way. Flash forward several years: I was hiking in the mountains near Santa Fe and stopped to rest in a clearing. I heard this lovely chorus of random short notes coming from all around me. I discovered that this was where aspen trees had fallen over and landed in pine branches. When the wind blew, the fallen trees bowed the branches, making these delicate little pitched sounds. Suddenly it all became clear to me…
ER. How do you go about the process of working with a site? Obviously each interaction is different from the next but are there any specific, fundamental ways you approach such work?
SP. It all starts with listening. It completely varies depending on the site and the project and the amount of time I have. The more time I have to get to know a site, to build a relationship with it, the more the work develops. Sometimes I don’t have that luxury. Sometimes the site is not particularly lovable. Places are like people – with some it’s love at first sight, some appear better up front than they really are, and some grow on you once you get to know them better.
ER. Are the sites you engage with of any personal significance and how do you navigate the subjective and objective ear in recording a site?
SP. By “personal significance,” do you mean are they places where something important has already happened there for me?
So far, no. It has always about engaging with some place I don’t really know yet. I am not averse to working in a place that has personal significance or a larger public history/story behind it, but so far I haven’t had that opportunity.
I always go into a situation with certain ideas or baggage or expectations, but I try to remain open to what might happen that I had not expected. This carries through the entire process of making the work. If I have an idea for a piece and I make it and it turns out exactly as I had imagined it, that is not very interesting for me. All I’ve learned is that I am capable of doing what I already know. When a piece takes on a life of its own and insists on going in directions I hadn’t intended – that is interesting.
ER. Thinking of works such as Here-ings (1999- 2001) or Window Seat (2004), whereby the listener is invited to engage with the audio whilst seated. Why did/do you choose to seat the listener and how does this contemplative offer enrich the work?
SP. On one level this is purely practical. The work often develops slowly, so I want to encourage people to sit down and spend some time listening. Too often with sound installations, people walk in, stand there for 30 seconds, and leave, thinking they’ve heard it all. But I would like to think that my work rewards extra time spent with it. On another level, I like the bench as a metaphor for paying attention to the present moment. I have a meditation practice, so for me the bench refers to “sitting” in that way.
ER. Can you elaborate on this meditation practice?
SP. About ten years ago I began sitting at a Zen center near my house in New Mexico. I used to do sitting meditation every day, now it’s more like once a week or so. I am not affiliated with any particular group or teacher or lineage, and don’t really consider myself a Buddhist – maybe more like a lower case buddhist? But, aside from an obvious aesthetic affinity, Buddhism proposes some very intriguing ideas about the nature of reality and perception, and encourages a certain level of attention and awareness that I appreciate and try to incorporate into my daily life, including the sound work. In many ways I was already exploring some of those ideas anyway, so Buddhism was a good fit in that, it provided a more developed conceptual framework for pursuing them. I don’t think Buddhism is the only place one can find those ideas, or the only lens through which to examine them, but it’s been quite influential for me and certainly for many other composers and artists whom I admire.
ER. Clearly the act of listening is as much a part of your work as the audio itself, is this a fair assumption?
SP. Sure. The audio itself would not exist without the act of listening.
ER. Works such as Two ways of listening to nothing (2008) and Silent Room (2007) creatively use the recorded silence of a space, would you class silence as an instrument and where or when did your investigation into silence begin?
SP. I would not class silence as an instrument. I respect it too much for that. I probably first started exploring it in my work when I was making radio pieces in the early 90s. Radio people are terrified of silence, because the air is a commodity, being bought and sold by the second. I wanted to hear radio that allowed for moments of silence. But aside from that, my piece Emanations was probably the first thing I made that deliberately played with blurring the boundary between audible sound and silence. Sometimes that piece is barely there, and sometimes you think it’s there when it isn’t. I like that.
ER. Could you talk a little about the Seattle Phonographers Union, its origins, motivations and your role?
SP. I do not know the full history of the Seattle Phonographers Union, so am not qualified to comment on its origins. I was very flattered when I was invited to join shortly after I moved to Seattle in 2004, because it is always nice to be recognized by kindred spirits. I knew one person in the group and had never heard them at that point. I enjoy all of the individual band members, and I enjoy playing with them because there is no pressure. I have terrible stage fright and quit performing some years ago, and this is about the only thing I can imagine doing live now. It’s a large group, and we do not all play at each gig. So if I don’t feel like playing a certain show, I don’t. And nobody has any idea who is doing what – I could spend an entire concert on stage without playing anything, and no one would ever know! So it’s a live performance situation that perfectly suits my temperament.
ER. How did living in New Mexico influence your work?
SP. I lived in New Mexico for 15 years, and have lived in Seattle for the past five. New Mexico was important for the work in the sense that it is very easy to get out in some amazing, remote place where there are not many people and it is very quiet. And everything is really dry and brittle and crisp, so it all makes a sound; this encourages tactile interaction with things. And much of the landscape itself is just so evocative. So that combination of things really offered me excellent opportunities to listen, to hear things in a different way. Also, New Mexico is fairly remote from the “experimental” music/sound world. Distance is a good thing, it allows you to find your own path without feeling pressured to fit into a particular scene.
ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
SP. In spite of Max Neuhaus’ repudiation of the term he basically invented, and in spite of the fact that it is by now so over-used as to have been rendered essentially meaningless (see also “installation”), I actually find Sound Art to be a useful distinction. “Music” is problematic – people have such rigid ideas about what qualifies, and/or they identify with it so personally. I don’t really care about making “music.” Most of my work does not use musical instruments, steady rhythm, pitch, harmony, or anything else that most people (including so-called musicians) associate with music. And I have no interest in trying to convince anyone that it is music. Referring to it as Sound (Art) side-steps such preconceptions, and allows people to experience it without feeling like they “don’t understand.” Everyone who can hear is capable of listening, so we all start at the same place: sound. In fact, I’m a little wary of this colonial mentality that insists, “Every sound is music!” Of course it can be, but why must we be prepared to call something music in order to allow ourselves to listen to it? The implication is that anything that is not music is not worthy of our attention, and unless someone is prepared to make that conceptual leap, they can’t possibly appreciate it. So when I use instruments and notes etc., I am happy to call that music. And for the rest, Sound Art works perfectly well for me. And most of the time I just call it Sound.
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