Eric Leonardson is a Chicago-based composer, radio artist, sound designer, instrument inventor, improviser, visual artist, and teacher. He has devoted a majority of his professional career to unorthodox approaches to sound and its instrumentation with a broad understanding of texture, atmosphere and microtones. Leonardson is also director of the World Listening Project (WLP), a non-profit organisation devoted to understanding the world and its natural environment, societies and cultures through the practices of listening and field recording. For comprehensive information on Leonardson and the WLP please visit www.ericleonardson.org & www.worldlisteningproject.com
ER. I’m Interested in how you came into the World Listening Project (WLP) and the acoustic ecology movement as a whole, your background is one of electroacoustic composition I believe?
EL. Thanks to my friend Sabine Breitsameter I learned about the first international conference on acoustic ecology, at the Banff Centre for the Arts in 1993. A lot of things happened that week, among them the founding of the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology.
The idea for the WLP came from a local musician and community arts advocate, Dan Godston in 2008, following the formation of the Chicago Phonography group. We’ve known each other for the past ten years. Dan invited me get involved and he registered the WLP as a non-profit organization in Illinois. Since I had more experience and connection with the local sound art and acoustic ecology communities, Dan invited me to act as the director of the WLP.
EL. Some may argue but I think the ethos is utopian and liberal for lack of a better way of saying it. On paper the mission statements says we’re maintaining an online archive of field recordings, giving workshops, doing public outreach (such as soundwalks). Those are the practical things the WLP aspires to. Making an online sound map of the world with field recordings was the initial impetus. I pointed out a significant number of similar, existing projects and so the mission was revised, and revised again. I thought we sounded like a clone of the World Soundscape Project or the World Forum for Acoustic Ecology, but without the same social or historical purpose. In fact, with Andrea Polli’s help I formed the Midwest Society for Acoustic Ecology to foster our affinities with acoustic ecology.
Living up to the name of a “world listening project” has had me thinking what that actually means, while at the same time directing an organizational response to the many invitations and opportunities Dan Godston throws us. We’ve done a lot and there’s a lot to do. We are an all-volunteer, no-budget effort so far. That means people do what they can afford to with their own very limited time and resources. I’m happy that we have a large number of subscribers to our yahoo discussion group. And locally, we have significant number of people from a variety of different backgrounds who attend our monthly meetings. Using the Internet to create and build an organization is a new experience.
ER. Acoustic ecology is sometimes dismissed as a somewhat negative emphasis on noise in urban environments, how would you counter this accusation?
EL. That’s an awfully narrow definition of acoustic ecology. Just like sound itself, the field of acoustic ecology is diverse and heterogeneous. That’s not to say that degradation of the acoustic environment due to human activity isn’t a concern. It is. But there’s a lot more to learn about, leading out to a lot of different and interesting areas of scientific and cultural activity.
ER. Can you talk a little about the Acoustic Mirror of the World project and the importance of communication in environmental listening?
EL. I’ve described it as a sculpture or installation that provides a “synesthetic” experience of sound. In reality it’s a platform that you stand on to experience a tactile, bodily experience of vibration using low-frequency transducers. The mirror part of its title refers to the show that Dan Godston and Annie Heckman curated at the Chicago Cultural Center. It was a celebration of the centenary of Daniel Burnham’s 1909 Plan of Chicago, which I found to be, in part, a call for raising Chicago to the level of a world-class city. I thought the WLP’s interest in sounds from around the world would be a means to collect the sound, and the piece to be a reflection, or mirror of Chicago’s global connections. Greg O’Drobinak took on the risk engineering of it. Greg, Jayve Montgomery, and I built it. The plan is to keep it running at the Chicago Underground Library. We intend to keep collecting sounds and regularly change the collection: six one-minute sounds repeat on a CD player for visitors to experience when standing (one person at a time) on the platform. There’s some info and pictures on the WLP website. We plan to feature recordings that are submitted on the website too, even if they’re not featured in the installation.
EL. Maps, as well as sound fascinate me, and I’m always discovering sound maps online. The Google maps interface provides a way to do it, though visually this lends a sameness to visual experience. Udo Noll’s radio aporee employs the Google API with a lot more added. It’s an active and a truly interactive site. Since getting involved with the Locus Sonus Streaming Audio Map project, I’ve focused more of my time on getting others to populate the site, while hoping to find time to re-locate my own streambox to keep the cold winter air out of my house! So, no as of this time the WLP doesn’t have a new sound map in the making. One of members, Jesse Seay has worked with Peter Cusack and ESS to build the Favorite Chicago Sounds web project. This is a nice example of how Google maps and field recordings can be collected and presented.
ER. How much does chance and intuition factor when recording in the field?
EL. That’s a good question because chance and intuition do factor in a lot. So much so, that you could say that this is what makes field recording an art of chance. This question suggests that field recording is an expression of environmental art. And then when you reflect a little on what chance is—which I do as I teach a foundations course that explores the themes of memory, the everyday, and chance—it reveals itself to be an experience of the unknown. Chance is really at the core of experience whether in life or art. In the context of art field recording brings out the features of both. The practice places the potentiality for art and life to be one experience, not an “either, or.”
ER. Do you remember a moment/memory when you became interested in sound as creative medium?
EL. My mother told me I’ve always been making sounds in a creative way. I can’t really remember when. I can recall humming melodies and making vocal sound effects while drawing pictures. Later on, while playing indoors, I was always playing and listening to my father’s records. He and I got a kick out of listening to sound effects records. I still have some of those records. Then portable cassette tape recorders offered a way for my friends, brothers, and I to make recordings that were quite creative, though appropriate for public listening.
The change or “big moment” came when, as a young adult you self-consciously decide you’re an artist. Then, I discovered Marcel Duchamp. This was when I was in high school. By chance, I was given a Nonesuch record of music by Iannis Xenakis. It blew me away.
Fluxus, 70s punk rock, John Cage, and conceptual art encouraged me to use video and sound as an art medium. One turning point was when I was 19 years old, majoring in art at Northern Illinois University. I’d always been good at drawing. I was getting used to unintentionally generating attention to myself through my drawings. This emboldened me to be more experimental and take more difficult challenges. A very large drawing made in a very reductive, almost “anti-drawing” way was chosen to be shown at the semi-annual, juried exhibition of Chicago area artists at the Art Institute of Chicago. With that confirmation I decided I would audio and video media, and more “non-art” actions. My last semester at NIU included an introduction to electronic music that I received special permission to count toward my visual arts degree. I also had the opportunity to meet John Cage when he visited the school.
EL. I always interested in news kinds of sounds and music. I remember seeing and listening to records of Harry Partch, and as a college student, attending new music percussion ensemble recitals at the NIU music building. Hubcaps, brake drums, and other everyday items were used along with conventional instruments.
In the 80s I was using drums, tape, and synthesizers to make and explore new sounds and music. Digital instruments were available if you had a lot of capital, worked in a commercial studio, or in an academic institution. Since I had no money I had to organize a group with other like-minded artists. We formed the Experimental Sound Studio as service and a sonic art organization providing facilities to record and experiment with sounds on good quality analog and digital gear. When ESS began giving public workshops, it exposed me to visiting artists who inspired me. Nicolas Collins was among the first ones. I hadn’t been familiar with his work. His trombone-propelled electronics was a brilliant solution to the problem I had with the “black-box” nature of electronics: their absence of a tactile and physical interface for using them to make sounds with any kind of gestural control. Nic showed that you could play the box as an instrument. Elliott Sharp came and he had a self-built instrument called the “slab.” The key event was a workshop on instrument invention led by Hal Rammel. He used contact mics to amplify everyday materials and objects. That’s what clicked for me. It was so low-tech but the sounds were amazing, from sources that were free or affordable, and unlike any device you’d get from a commercially manufactured audio device or traditional instrument. That contact mic was the key that truly unlocked a world of sonic exploration.
ER. And finally as always Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
EL. The term sound art includes a wide range of practices and, as Douglas Kahn pointed out several years ago, is a term that’s somewhat flawed. I’ll chalk it up language’s inability to be an accurate reflection what its users actually do. For me, depending on the context, I’m happy with defining sound art as artists who use sound as their primary medium to make art. Of course that logic conflates music into the category of art. Having been influenced by the ideas of John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, and other artists and movements that blurred the boundaries separating traditional art disciplines, I’m less interested in maintaining those traditional separations. I favor a multi- or trans-disciplinary approach to making and thinking about the arts and culture.
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