Ray Lee is an artist, composer, and performer. His work investigates a fascination with the hidden world of electro-magnetic radiation and in particular, how sound can be used as evidence of invisible phenomena. His large-scale installation and performance ‘Siren’ has been internationally acclaimed and toured throughout the globe. Recently Lee received an award at the 2008 Prix Ars Electronica for Digital Music for his work ‘Force Field’. He also lectures in contemporary arts and music at Oxford Brookes University. For comprehensive information please visit www.invisible-forces.com
ER. Can you recollect where your interest in sound came from, in particular an interest in kinetic energies?
RL. When I was eight my mother ordered some LP’s from a record club. The first to arrive was Beethoven’s Fifth with Shubert’s Unfinished on the other side. I can distinctly remember ‘borrowing’ the record and creeping uninvited into my brother’s bedroom and playing the album on his Dansette. I was compelled to start conducting along. What followed was about ten years of classical music snobbery, refusing to listen to ‘pop’ music under any circumstances.
I have always been a musician, singing in choirs as a kid, learning the piano, writing music, playing in bands (once I got over my classical music affliction). My father was a sculptor and I grew up with a sense of familiarity with making things, using materials, messing around with stuff. When he died I ‘inherited’ a big box full of old motors and mechanisms and maybe in some way as a tribute to him I started making mechanical sculptures that made sound. I use sound primarily for its possible musical characteristics rather than sound as a carrier of meaning. That said I like the idea of using sound as a way of revealing hidden electro-magnetic processes where sound becomes a kind of by-product, evidence of unseen phenomena or a way in which these invisible-forces can be made tangible. When I use machines it is because I like making them, but also because I’m trying to invest energy into the things I do, to make the work dynamic, exciting. To make it the kind of thing I’d like to experience as a member of the audience.
ER. How important is a sense of physicality in your works, not just the actual structures, more so the sonic content and composition?
RL. Physicality is essential to the work and it is inherent in both the structures I build and the sound that is created. The idea is that one is inseparable from the other. I build machines that make sound. The fact that they often move means that the sound itself is being modulated by the movement. In my approach it is not possible for me to have the sound in any way separate to the physical structure, object, or machine that produces the sound.
ER. Compositionally, minimalism and noise feature heavily in the works. How do you begin working on a composition such as Siren?
RL. It would be nice to think I could sit down and start composing a piece like Siren. The reality is less comfortable and much messier. For example, I had no idea that I was going to create Siren much less that it was going to become a composition with minimalist tendencies and would end up going twice round the world. Siren emerged out of an organic process of working with materials. As a musician/composer I am more of an improviser than a notational or studio composer. As the machines evolved and took shape I began to see the potential for them (the Siren tripods) to have a compositional form, but this in itself emerged out of a desire to create a theatrical structure/form for them to be experienced within. This way of working, an empirical approach, means that many of the structural facets of Siren are functional. The motors are 12v windscreen wiper motors. When you apply 12v they go from a standing start to 75rpm. This has a disastrous effect on the mechanism and as a consequence I use variable voltage power supplies so that I can start the motors slowly and gradually build up and then slow down their speed. This has become a compositional tool, allowing me to create different effects through the speed of rotation of the arms. Because the arms have to start slowly and slow down gradually and not just stop dead this means that the shape of the work takes on a gradually curve upwards in speed intensity and then a slow decline to a conclusion of stillness. This shapes the performance and the composition, but it is the result of practical issues. Likewise, the sound is produced by small 9v battery powered oscillators situated on the top of the arms (to avoid having to use commutators). This means that the tuning needs to take place before the arm is set it motion. Once in motion the tuning can’t be changed. So structurally the tuning of all the arms takes place at the start of the composition and once tuned the individual sirens are not re tuned at any stage of the composition. So, I see Siren as a composition, but also one that has emerged through a practice based approach to what is possible to achieve given the logistical/practical necessities of the work. I enjoy this. Although I listen to minimalist music, I’d never set about composing it. Siren became minimal through its nature, much like Reich’s early tapes works.
ER. Having seen/heard this (Siren) work, it’s apparent that it combines elements of performance. Could you talk about your performative role and the roles of other operatives?
RL. For me, good performers engender trust and allow the audience to relax and focus on the end result rather than worrying whether they are going to get it right or not. Watch a skilled musician engaged in the act of performing music and there is little or no pretence. They are engaging for an audience to observe because of their skill, their concentration and their lack of self-consciousness in a performance situation. As a member of the audience you are not distracted by them. This is one element. I think of the performers in Siren, in particular, as somewhere between skilled musicians performing a difficult musical task (which it is!) and factory workers engaged in manipulating dangerous machines. It is not an act. In Siren the performers take the audience through an experience, they shape that experience, controlling the pace and timing, first demonstrating then manipulating the machines, keeping the whole thing in precarious control without affectation, ensuring that the giant machine works safely. But they are also humans in a mechanical environment, and for the audience this relationship between the performers and the machines is important.
ER. There appears thematic overlaps between science, the universe and philosophy in your practice. Are these subjects relevant areas of research and practical discovery for you?
RL. Sound art is a form that my work currently fits into. As an artist I explore my fascinations with the world. I am continually fascinated by themes that include the emergence of the scientific method, the development of technology, and the way science represents our view of the universe. So my work stems from these interests and has found a form through the use of sound and kinetic elements. Maybe it will be different in the future.
ER. The works are, on a technical scale, very intricate. But how important is the listener’s ‘experience’ of a piece, not necessarily their ‘understanding’ or ‘rationalisation’ of what is happening?
RL. It’s an interesting question. A computer is intricate. But its intricacy is hidden, inaccessible. A fundamental part of what I am trying to do is uncover, unwrap technology and make it accessible primarily to myself but in so doing to others. I don’t think about listeners. I think about an audience. Listening is one aspect. For me my work attempts to create experiences that involve listening and looking and the two are not easily divisible. I try to avoid deliberate obfuscation of the processes use. I don’t expect everyone to understand how I am creating what they are experiencing, but I go to some lengths to try and make the process accessible without making it obvious. In Siren we carefully tune the first few tripods to show the audience what is happening before we start making them rotate. They have the chance to start making up their own minds about what is happening.
ER. How important is the use of cutting edge technology when representing something kinetic and essentially natural – where do you position yourself between primitive and new technology ends?
RL. Primitive is an interesting term. I am fascinated by how our view of ourselves in 2010, for example, affects the way we view the past. We look back on previous technology as primitive, on current technology as cutting edge. But this is a highly transitory state. Our cutting edge is quickly replaced by tomorrow’s new thing and what was once brand new and shiny is consigned to the scrap heap. There is a tendency to associate primitive with simple. My view is that the technology we use is very frequently under used before it is replaced by the next ‘new thing’ and more often than not it is replaced for economic exploitation rather than for creative reasons. So I can’t oppose primitive with technology. I might oppose digital for the sake of digital when analogue would do the trick. I’m a huge fan of Nicolas Collins’ book ‘Handmade Electronic Music’. It made me feel that the years I spent messing around, taking things apart and reconstructing them was completely valid as an approach to making music.
My approach is to use the technology that is appropriate to the result I am looking for. So if I want to make a high quality recording of one of my works I use a digital recording and digital editing. However, this is because I don’t see my work as being about the recording, but being about the event, the experience of being with the work in a live context. In order to create the effect I’m looking for I use deliberately arcane ways of making and manipulating sound. I think of my work as a kind of vision of the future of sound but one imagined from about 100 years ago.
ER. Your installations have been played across the globe. Do you have any favourite spaces/experiences?
RL. I have some great memories of Siren now. It has become a bit like the sound art equivalent of some long running Broadway musical, we’ve done it that many times.
One of the last spaces we did it in was in the middle of the biggest hall I have ever been in, part of an exhibition centre in Miami. This room (one of four the same size) was the size of about three football pitches. It took the audience about 5 minutes to walk to the middle where we’d set up Siren. And then, it being Miami, we had about 1500 people seeing it in the space of a few hours. Complete mayhem. More like an American Football match than an art event. My favourite space was probably the grand church at Laboral in Gijon, Northern Spain. I’d always wanted to do Siren in a church, not for religious reasons, but because originally I had intended to call the work ‘Choir’ and I liked the association with singing and choirs and the strangely choral sound that the active Siren piece creates. As it happened it both looked and sounded great in there (see video below). My abiding memory though is of being in the same church doing a schools performance of Siren to about 150 four year old Spanish children.
ER. What are some of your key influences?
RL. I tend to avoid charts, top tens, and collecting favourite bands/composers/artists. My key influences are diverse and actually things change in relative importance as I move through my life. What might have been a key influence twenty years ago is now less important. If I look at Siren I can see what should be the key influences. I can post-rationalise the references that the work throws up, but at the time I made it I was more interested in a book about Victorian technology that my dad had given me. Early scientific experiments, the history and development of science, electricity, magnetism, radio waves and of course early electronic music. There is a difference between an influence and things I like. I love the bell-casting scene from Tarkovsky’s film Andrei Rublev and I have been learning English church bell ringing for several years now. I listen to more Bach than any other single composer and am inspired (and sometimes appalled) by great works of industrial technology. I’m inspired by libraries and bookshops, ancient sites, by good science and bad science, by the extraordinary things people do, believe in and make in their spare time and of course the astonishing beauty of everyday existence.
ER. What’s coming up?
RL. I’ve been buying old wooden boxes off e-bay. I think something might happen with them. I’ve measured them, drawn them and listened to them. Let’s see what happens.
ER. And finally as always, Ear Room asks, what does the term sound art mean to you?
RL. Sound art is an evolving term. For me it describes a spectrum of activity that ranges from Sonic Art, (i.e. a practice emerging out of contemporary composers working with electro-acoustic studio-based work) to visual artists working with sound as a carrier of meaning. It’s also a problematic term as any umbrella term tends to be. For me it’s similar to the way Live Art is used to encompass a broad range of vaguely related activities. Whether what I do is sound art or not shouldn’t be something I spend too much time thinking about.
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