Christopher DeLaurenti is a sound artist, improvisor, and phonographer based in Virginia. His work encompasses field recordings, electroacoustic and acousmatic music, text-sound scores, free-improvised low-tech electronics, and compositions for acoustic instruments. Known for his politically engaged works, he has exhibited, performed, published and presented works across the globe consistently from 1990s onwards, receiving many prestigious awards and accolades. For comprehensive information visit: http://delaurenti.net or listen at: https://soundcloud.com/delaurenti
ER. I’m interested to know how sound recording, politics and your art practice came into being. Did sound lead you into politics?
CD. I have always been political and I have always listened. “To be political” means charting and reacting to how individuals and groups deal with, address, deny, or smooth over differences – real and perceived, material and intangible.
I grew up in alternating periods of poverty and passable prosperity. For a while I lived in a big house with a lovely view. I also grew up in neighborhoods where you could get thrown down a flight of stairs for the hope of a dollar or a sandwich, so listening to footsteps around the corner, to a dangerous voice was crucial. In sound, I heard the material world of want, power, and desire.
Most of us know right away who has more and who has less. The political person merely wonders why – and then responds.
ER. Who were your references for recording back then?
CD. Like many young artists, I began by making the work of others, imitating masters like Gordon Hempton and Bernie Krause. But as my field recording skills and equipment improved, I re-heard my “nature” recordings as sickly, generic copies. That took 10 years, by the way; I’m not always smart but I am persistent.
Instead, I found my own forest and went into the city streets, asked questions and really began to listen – not to what I had hoped to hear, but to what was really happening. I had that epiphany in 1997; two years later I was recording the protest against the World Trade Organization in the streets of Seattle.
ER. Do you think sound is a political medium? Do you think sound art/phonography engages with politics more broadly?
CD. Sound is our political ocean. To the attentive ear, sound poses and implies intensely political questions such “Who is heard?” “Who has?” “Who is here?” and “Why are you listening to this right now?” Sound is an invisible manifestation of calm, property, strife, pain, love…. Yet oceans tend to be so deep, so omnipresent, that it’s easy to forget you’re swimming for survival – especially when it is all that you know.
Sound art and, narrowly, phonography, overtly engages with politics much less than the visual arts. Acoustic ecology is, alas only a small part of the practice of phonography.
CD. There is no such thing as an apolitical artist. The composer Kyle Gann wrote, “In America making any art, no matter how ‘apolitical,’ is already a protest. Putting endless time and work into a disciplined, unremunerative activity for the potential benefit of audiences unknown constitutes sufficient defiance of capitalist imperatives.”
In Gann’s formulation, my work, ranging from N30: Live at the WTO Protest to Live at Occupy Wall Street to Deckle and nictating is political, but unlike other sound artists and composers I seem to be one of the few who spends most of their time working with overtly political material, what I call “the pertinent sonic materials of social change.”
While I like Gann’s formulation, defying the profit motive – for me – is not enough, not sufficient. There is much more (“the Five Problems”) to remedy. Lawrence Weiner once stated that “All art as it becomes known becomes political regardless of the intent of the artist,” so you may as well know where you stand and, crucially, accept that you and your art might have answers.
One duty of the artist is to offer possibilities. I believe sound can help us speculate as well as create utopian spaces.
ER. How did your Protest Symphonies project come about; what were your initial thoughts/motivations behind recording the sound of protests?
CD. In retrospect, recording political demonstrations was a natural progression. I spent my teen years reading books and talking to people from all over the world about politics. In high school, I had a subscription to Current History, which remains the nerdier version of the tony journal Foreign Affairs.
I make recordings to teach myself to listen, to learn more about the world, and to experience joy. So investigating actual manifestations of my beliefs – freedom of assembly, the free exchange of ideas, the temporary suspension of notions about of public and commercial space (condensed in the term “ deterritorialization”), and spontaneous (and thus perhaps oracular) responses to vital issues – with sound, with listening, was the next step. I had attended and participated in many demonstrations before the WTO protest in Seattle in 1999, but that was the first time I had the sense to bring recording equipment.
At the time, it felt somewhat dangerous, risking my equipment (some of it was not mine!) and my health – not my life unlike in other countries, but I do know other activists with incipient arthritis from bruises and bashed bodies. I had a sense too that one’s personal future is also at risk.
If you attended a major demonstration after 2002, you are probably on video and in a database somewhere. This kind of work dims the career prospects too; many, but not all, workplaces – corporations, small companies, colleges and so on – remain timid and conservative.
ER. When I go on marches/demonstrations my overriding feeling when there is one of collective emotion tainted with fear. The situation seems always on the edge; on the one hand full of optimism and potential; on the other, always close to being disrupted or stamped out, for want of better words. What is your emotional psychological state whilst making these recordings and does recording/amplifying heighten the situation or remove the affect of being there?
CD. I experience a range of emotions and the rapid cycling from joy to worry to fear to optimism opens my senses, particularly my ears. It’s important to remember that demonstrators have a threadbare support and supply system to cope with injuries, trauma, and legal harassment. And while we in the West participate in large gatherings often, such events (football games, election speeches, awards ceremonies, religious services) follow a script and serve up many harmless distractions that salve uncertainty. You can always read the program notes or nod your head to the Oldies between innings.
At a protest the stakes are higher. We exercise our right to gather, our right to the unexpected, our right to challenge laws to which we have, in fact, no tangible connection or duty; all of this embodies a fundamental freedom: the right to decide how you want to be ruled and regulated (or not). And there I find the soul of anarchy; not chaos or pandemonium, but a calm and consensus-based re-assessment of how our rights can work, what our rights should be, and who can enforce those rights.
Every event I have documented has been generally peaceful. We create our own fear, but law enforcement happily abets fear, uncertainty, and doubt. The greatest trouble – bodily injury and brutality – is almost always inflicted by law enforcement. It’s important to add that I’m blessed with several advantages: Pale skin and big nose tells the world I’m “white ethnic” but aside from that privilege, I have other corporeal privileges too. I’m tall (6’4” or thereabouts) and almost football player big, so when law enforcement needs to make a snatch arrest to intimidate the crowd, who are they going to grab? Me or the smiling, spindly hippie who’s 2/3 my size and half my weight?
When people ask me about recording at protests, I tell them to know your body’s strengths and weaknesses and plan accordingly. My size has disadvantages too; I can’t get into small places or slide under barricades that easily.
ER. I very much like the acknowledgement of the fact that you are present in these recordings – we hear mic noise, you, banging, bumping i.e. it’s not an illusionary presentation of something ‘pristine’. Did you always record and re-present like this, or was the acknowledgement of your own presence built from experience?
CD. Acknowledging and including the presence of the recordist was part of my epiphany in 1997. “Style” means sensing what everyone else is doing and knowing why you do it differently.
I found those so-called flaws to be an important, overlooked resource. Those formerly forbidden elements can: Surprise the listener and help propel the story; set the work apart from commercial work and most other artistic sound work; and break the Fourth Wall of drama by reminding listeners that the work is made of materials and choices.
ER. You must have to improvise when in these situations? Do you go in with an agenda i.e. how you want to show and position yourself and these recordings, or is it really open to the situation?
CD. I go where my ears lead me. I do show up with an agenda, but it is always scuttled by some unexpected encounter. I work intuitively, sometimes interviewing people, eavesdropping, capturing general ambiance, inserting myself in a frantic situation, or sidling up to something quiet and intimate.
ER. The participant/observer relationship must have been an interesting one to navigate in your Wallingford Food Bank project. Could you talk about that a little in terms of the process and how you went about it?
CD. Wallingford Food Bank established a template for later pieces in that I made multiple visits and attempted to collate a range of materials (and recording fidelities) into a single topic polyphonically. It was important to me keep working, to value my work by making it, even if no else might.
WFB reminded me that waiting, seeming idle, can also be a creative act and the core challenge of our existence today: transforming tedium into living and redefining what “work” is. I am blessed to be never bored. To steal a phrase from an AMM album title, listening is “an inexhaustible document.”
Making WFB also connected me a bit closer to ultra-red, who were kind enough to release and promote it. Their pamphlet, “Five Protocols for Organized Listening,” which is free at http://www.ultrared.org/uploads/2012-Five_Protocols.pdf should be read by anyone interested in making field recordings. Their model of autonomous, networked, transnational collaboration is a path more artists should investigate.
ER. I’m interested in what recordings you choose to keep and use – how does that selection process work for you?
CD. I wait for the electric moment. Later, I give it “the test of time” by listening many, many times in multiple modes from intense, focused listening to looping in the background while I do something else like read the newspaper.
Empathy and amnesia are two crucial components in my creative process. I record to remember, but I listen to forget and live in the moment. If the recording retains some kind of gravitational attraction, then it’s worth sharing.
Listening is sacrifice, the sacrifice of time and mortality that can never be redeemed or returned. Tristan Murail eloquently makes this case in his essay “After-thoughts” when he writes that “…the composer is stealing a little bit of life of each listener.” and asserts artists “…. should always provide interesting, and even new (daring though the word seems to us today) propositions, while remaining perceptible so that it can be received by the listener.”
ER. You’re documenting a very real situation(s). What is your relationship to the re-presentation of those documents? Does the audio document somehow remove the specificity of the event? I’m thinking here of someone like Max Neuhaus, who did not document his work in sound for this reason.
CD. I hope the representation of those protests – a stereo or multichannel recording, a digital file, a compact disc or vinyl recording – creates something new and are not mere representations. I don’t think the protest symphonies dilute or remove the specificity of the event; I agree with Adorno on this point when he wrote “When Brecht or William Carlos Williams sabotages the poetic and approximates an empirical report, the actual result is by no means such a report.”
But I think it’s clear that my pieces are not empirical reports. The obvious distortion of time and the elements of phonography (variable fidelities, a continuum of edits from invisible to obvious, the presence of the recordist and technical flaws) contribute to this sense of the work being something else, a subjective representation of an event.
The intangibility of sound and its second-rate status as a sense offers an advantage. A film or video which can masquerade or represent an event – what is seen is assumed to be true – sound inspires variable images in the minds of listeners and, unlike the visual, can prompt or inspire entirely different images with each hearing.
ER. So you’re clearly not treating these documents as mimetic representations?
CD. No, I’m not invested in making the representative work of a particular event or movement. I made an N30, ultra-red made an N30, there’s several documentaries and a Hollywood film about the so-called “Battle in Seattle.” I make what I believe should be made.
As for the attendant objects – CDs and so on – those were always explicitly a means to an end. N30 was on a CD for several years in tandem with a free mp3 on the web. The subsequent protest symphonies have always been free online and, at times, given away as CDs in free or inexpensive (like, one dollar) newspapers.
Listening to N30: Live at the WTO Protest November 30, 1999 will not give you a primer on globalization or trade regulations. You can get that somewhere else. My duty is to find something new in what is ostensibly familiar material. Instead N30 is most likely about (among many things) the occupation of public space, protean assembly, and the possibilities of collective improvisation translated through speech, music, and combat.
I should stop before I make the mistake of seeming or claiming to knowing more about my work than someone else who listens to it.
ER. In terms of re-presenting your recordings is there an ideal scenario? Do you have a preferred mode of realisation (CD/Installation/Talk/Essay)?
CD. My ideal scenario welcomes listening. That said, listening – meaningful, engaged, perhaps transformative listening – can happen anywhere, from crappy bars to museums and galleries and traditional concert halls. While I’m not a fan of crappy PA systems, if the gig is really about listening, then I’m interested.
But I should clarify that I never re-present my recordings. Every performance is new and different, even if the material is out there on soundcloud or on a CD. Listeners at home who cue up one of my pieces have a unique experience of their own space and context. I want those who hear me perform in public to have something similar, but with the added benefit of something entirely new and a properly calibrated volume. Volume and loudness are crucial. I remember Maryanne Amacher exhorting me (one more than one occasion, alas) to “make the sound LIVE in the space.” I believe in presence, not volume. If anyone is wearing earplugs at a live gig, failure is already in evidence unless the artist really wants you to hear the resulting muffled hi-frequency roll off. When I’m there, I get to make the details right and perform with the space and perform the space itself.
At the Museum of Modern Art in New York (2011), I did a solo laptop set of my “greatest hits” of field recordings and electroacoustic elements. The space at MoMA was cavernous, so I got to inject a great deal of murk, which was a rare and welcome opportunity. A few years before that, in 2009, I brought malfunctioning speakers and magnets to the SS Josephine. Last year (2012) at the Whitney Biennial I did a live performance-commentary of Wallingford Food Bank. The set-up was, again, different; I cued tracks from my dinky Sony M10 and spoke into a microphone.
I tailor each performance, installation, talk, etc. to the venue as best I can. I often incorporate unheard material from the event, material that seems relevant now. I’m very aware that those who see me, may, due to my erratic performance schedule, never hear me in person again; I try not to bring coals to Newcastle.
ER. What projects are you currently working on?
CD. Two albums will be out any day now. A collection of field recordings capturing unusual confluences of sound, speech, music, and silence – Phonopolis: Urban Field Recordings vol 1 – will be released by Masters Chemical Society, which will issue albums by Matt Shoemaker and Nerve Net Noise later this year.
I’m also excited by No Sound is Stolen: Fair Use Music 1983-2013 which has some of my earliest work. Alterity 101 plans to unveil it later this year; it’s another Seattle label which just released an amazing album by rmillis, best known as one-half of Climax Golden Twins and a member of the Seattle Phonographers Union.
I’m included in Sound Generation (Autonomedia), a book of interviews, or as described by the editors Lex Bhaghat and Greg Gangemi, “a colloquy of conversations” with a slew of sound artists ranging from Maryanne Amacher to Pamela Z.
I have many other pieces and projects in various states of completion, including an LP with the Seattle Phonographers Union and To the Cooling Tower, a solo exploration of an unusual tunnel at a mothballed nuclear power plant. And I really need to finish a sequel to Favorite Intermissions, which I’ve been working on since 2008.
I make work because I need to create, not because I want to have a plump discography. Most of my work is free. I try to add new things to my soundcloud page at http://soundcloud.com/delaurenti every month or so.
ER. And finally, as always Ear Room asks: what does the term sound art mean to you?
CD. A sound artist is someone who hates Beethoven. Just kidding! But seriously, I confess my use of “sound art” began as purely reactionary and oblivious to the gradations among “Audio Art,” “Music,” “Listening Art,” the recent “Non-Cochlear Art” and their respective scholarly, critical, and institutional origins and ideology. When I call myself a sound artist, what I’m really saying is that sound and listening remain THE vital component you’ll encounter in my work whether its in my installations, videos, plundercomics, prose, compositions for acoustic instruments, text-sound pieces, performances, and so on.
My installations contain material objects, all of which always remain secondary: Remove a chair and the installation should still feel somewhat complete. Remove sound and the installation deflates into a bunch of junk in a room, or on a good day, a worthy sculpture. (As an aside, I believe painting is form of sculpture, much like music is a form of sound art.) With little or nothing to hear, meaning gets depleted.
Today, “sound art” telegraphs that a work might not conform to established ideas of “music,” “sound,” or “performance.” Additionally, it is a handy avenue of escape for artists and curators to avoid the seeming contradiction rooted in loving (and advocating for) what is visually and haptically pathbreaking while still digging the Doobie Brothers or Nicki Minaj. Although I believe in making distinctions between essential and elemental differences, I don’t see a conflict but a continuum, but that’s just me. In the 1990s I used to bemoan the vague fog surrounding “sound art.” Now I find those cloudy vapors valuable. Morton Feldman once declared, “What was great about the Fifties is that for one brief moment – maybe, say, six weeks – nobody understood art. That’s why it all happened.” I think you can say the same thing about sound art and especially phonography.
The web has extended these six weeks into 60 years. There is no writer, curator, or institution that has a handle on what is happening or has happened during the previous decades. (Is there a reasonably paid, canny, full-time writer covering adventurous listening anywhere in the world right now?) Every month a new, lost progenitor is admitted into the historical “now.” Such transtemporal flux compels anyone interested in sound art to investigate, experience, and assess the artist herself – which is what we should be doing in the first place.
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