My conversation with sound artist and educator Steve Barsotti is now online at Imprintable.
Steve Barsotti is a sound artist and educator based in Seattle, Washington. This conversation took place over Skype on 10 September 2013. Originally imagined as the groundwork for a potential collaboration under the Atlas Sets project, the interview fits well under the Imprintable umbrella. Note: the term ‘phonography’ refers to the act of recording, collecting, and performing sounds by a diverse community of sound artists, composers, acoustic ecologists, and other audio-centric practitioners.
Glenn Bach: So, what’s going on right now? The [Seattle] Phonographers Union have a new disc coming out?
Steve Barsotti: We have an LP coming out [the LP is available on Bandcamp–GB].
We performed in this aircraft hangar in a park in Seattle called Magnuson Park, which used to be a Navy base way back, so there are a lot of hangars on this site that are being redeveloped for commercial interests. The building that we were in, Building 23, is now an indoor sports arena, so there’s a lot of that kind of stuff happening. We went in with a sound system, and we played in this huge, huge cavernous space. We took our typical setup, which Chris DeLaurenti dubbed the Politburo…
Barsotti: Yeah, eight of us on a platform with laptops and lights on our faces, overseeing the audience. We adapted that form in this incredible space. We performed there two times over the span of three or four years. I recorded both of them, in surround sound and in stereo, but the second one had a more consistent feel. Chris and I took that section and mastered it, and it ended up being our first CD, along with a collection of excerpts from five or six different shows.
We got a residency through this organization called Environmental Aesthetics, and they had access to this nuclear silo down in Elma, Washington. It was to be the largest nuclear plant in the country [Satsop], but it went grossly over-budget in the mid-seventies. They finally shut down the project, but they had already built the two huge cooling towers. No nuclear material was ever installed, and now it’s an industrial park, with different types of businesses. These towers have amazingly unique acoustic signatures. A variety of people have gone in there to do different things.
We went down there with a sound setup, and four of us as the Phonographers Union did a two- to three-hour set inside this tower. So, Side 1 of the LP is going to be eighteen minutes from Sand Point, and Side 2 will be eighteen minutes from Satsop. I selected the excerpts, mixed them, and mastered them. I took them to an old-school mastering engineer in town named Ross Nyberg. I met him through the Art Institute [Steve was the Academic Director of Audio Design Technology at the Art Institute of Seattle–GB]. One of the cool things about that gig is that I’ve met some cool professionals.
Barsotti: So, Ross mastered the LP, and this guy knows what he’s doing. He has an amazing setup. I went out to his studio in Issaquah, and, he just went through and helped me pull out nuances that sound great. It should be out in November. I put the last final touches on the artwork and text yesterday, as a matter of fact, so I’m looking forward to it.
Bach: What label?
Barsotti: Prefecture, from Paul Kikuchi. It’s an independent label, primarily his own stuff, but expanding into some other things. For me, what he’s doing is like the newer school of labels. There is the typical label, which we all know—and love, depending on whether they release you or not. And then there is the individual who calls himself a label in order to get stuff out.
Bach: Right, right.
Barsotti: More and more, there are these hybrid collectives of people, where artists are getting together to release stuff. They really do look, smell, and taste like labels, but they don’t necessarily use the same business model or structure. Paul started Prefecture in order to release his own stuff, but he now has other artists. The SPU is footing the bill for some of the pressing; it’s a shared responsibility on a lower scale. If we’re talking about community, the smaller labels are doing this stuff, where there is a shared responsibility among the people involved.
Bach: So, what’s the run on the LP?
Barsotti: 250? We also just released a cassette through Banned Production. Anthony King. He’s down your way, actually, in Los Angeles. He just released a 50-run cassette with ten minutes per side.
We did a couple of sets on KUOW, the local public radio station, in the midst of these hour-long discussions about phonography as part of the Sounds of Winter, Sounds of Summer series.
Bach: I remember those.
Barsotti: We did quick five-minute sets. I put two of them on Side 1. On the second side is an eleven-minute excerpt from our very first performance in 2003 at the Indy Media Gallery, the first time we ever got together and did this as a group. It sounds great. The work is good. I’m still looking for the power cord for my cassette deck.
Bach: [laughs]. Yeah. So, the phonography thing has gone through some iterations over the years, hasn’t it? I remember when I first heard the term, in the context of phonography.org, the website and the listserv, which is still going.
Barsotti: With these things, there’s a small group who starts them, with conversations that are pertinent to that group. Then other people join, and, to be fair, it evolves over time, maybe not to the agreement of the people who started it, but that’s what you get for letting more people in. That’s what happens.
Bach: Yeah, it’s not like a secret cult or anything. It’s not like we have the corner on the market of recording sounds from the real world. People have been doing that for a long time. It’s not a closed system where only we have permission or the authority to go out and do that. It parallels the idea of the bedroom laptop producer; if everyone has access to cheap software, is everyone a producer? If anyone can go out and record sounds, are all of them phonographers? It really gets down to your state of mind or your intentions.
Barsotti: This isn’t necessarily a push for agreeing with this, but any art movement where you create a beginning, an end, a set of parameters, conditions, or descriptions…there is a difference between the Impressionists and the Surrealists because of their different approaches. I’m not suggesting we’re in the middle of a Phonographerists period. I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing. The phonography.org list started out as an idea of sharing a similar way of thinking about that subject, then you start bringing in all these other people…and, like you said, just because someone goes out and records does that make that person a phonographer? Well, what is the definition of a phonographer? Do we want to commit to one?
When I first moved to Seattle, there was a collective called The SoniCabal. This was in 1999, 2000, 2001. It was a group of sound artists and experimental musicians and people doing all kinds of crazy things with music and sound. Some of them a little more conventional or traditional. Others a lot less so. They had already released one compilation, and I was part of the second compilation. We did it collectively. We divided the CD into 74 minute increments, and you paid per minute.
Bach: Okay. Interesting.
Barsotti: If I had five minutes of material, I paid for five minutes of time. It worked. And I also got that percentage of CDs. There was also an e-mail list, and a weekly or monthly meeting where we had the opportunity to talk about what we were doing, listen to others who had something to say, and listen to work. It was engaging. And over the course of five or six years, the group shifted. There was an element that started coming to the meetings and participating in the conversations that ended up basically taking over. And they happened to be a little more…are you familiar with the Decibel Festival here in Seattle?
Barsotti: Some of the early crowd from that group started taking over the SoniCabal, and defining themselves as the SoniCabal. And, I don’t think I really cared, since I had stopped participating…but there were definitely those who were resentful of this newer crowd taking over this collective and redefining it. Based on what they had written about it, the SoniCabal was specifically meant to be open and defined by the people participating in it. And the people participating at that time happened to be more beat-oriented, more involved in electronic music, and less into concrete music. Phonography was still being figured out as a term at that point.
I think a similar thing happened with the phonography.org list, and it happens often: you have an idea or concept, and you create a structure around it, and you want it to be democratic and open, because we’re liberal and that’s what we think is right…
Barsotti: And then it changes.
Bach: Right, because that’s what happens when you open it up. When you don’t enforce membership. If, like SoniCabal, the membership is what the members say it is, then the current membership has a say in what it is. And if you suddenly find yourself in the minority, you have to be okay with the floor shifting beneath you.
Barsotti: It’s like the Surrealists, and the Dadaists. And Fluxus especially; they were weird, because they had this dichotomy of breaking open this notion of the art event and the art object on the one hand, and on the other hand, a very strict sense of rules. I took a Fluxus class when I was in school, and we re-realized some of the Fluxus performances. We had to pick from the book of existing works. I suggested that we create new performances in the spirit of Fluxus, but that wasn’t allowed.
Bach: [laughs] Yeah.
Barsotti: These organizations, the people in charge of Fluxus and the Surrealists, said, “if you’re not these things, you’re not in this group, man. You can’t be a Surrealist unless you have weird dreams and paint them,” or whatever the case may be. It’s an interesting notion. And, like I said, I don’t think I am interested in creating a definitive notion of what phonography means, and ensuring that people stick to that. People are writing about it a lot more often now. People are writing about phonography and acoustic ecology and sound, and they want to come up with a theoretical diatribe that becomes the definition of something, because then it gets lodged in the history books. And some people are doing it, some of whom we know, and we see them on Facebook. They’re articulate and academic and they’re writing these things. It’s fun, but, to me, it’s just weird.
Bach: How much of what you do would you consider phonography-related? I would never call myself a phonographer because that’s such a small part of what I do, and even when I practice phonography, I’m not a purist.
Bach: I don’t use high-end gear to record pristine recordings, and I don’t know if that’s punk rock of me, or DIY, or just lazy. Field recording is simply part of this larger, integrated thing that I do. Can we even talk about these isolated communities anymore? “I am a phonographer.” “I am a poet.” “I’m a this, or a that.” The boundaries between these groups seem so porous now that I’m not sure I can claim membership in such a narrowly defined group.
Barsotti: Well, I have an easy out. I’m in the band, man.
Bach: [laughs] Right, right.
Barsotti: So, I started this term at Cornish [College of the Arts], and, as we all do on the first day of class, I introduced myself, and I found myself marveling at the list of descriptors that I sometimes come up with: improviser, phonographer, composer, sound artist, educator, whatever. It’s in my bio. Sometimes I use those terms to give context. Do I consider myself a phonographer? I’m not entirely clear what a phonographer actually is.
Barsotti: As part of the Seattle Phonographers Union, it’s easier for me to use that term because of the idea of the Phonographers Union. We’re not the genesis of this concept, by any means. We’re a realization of an aspect of that concept. We’re a possibility of what that concept can mean. What’s interesting is that each of the members of this group, over the years, has come at it from very different places. Perri [Howard, nee Lynch] is a sculptor; she has public works all over the city. So, there are a lot of different perspectives, which is one of the most fascinating things about this group. We’ve been together since 2003…ten years, our tenth anniversary.
Bach: That’s crazy.
Barsotti: It is crazy. So, hopefully this album will be the grand ten-year…
Bach: That’s fantastic. Perfect timing.
Barsotti. We’ve [SPU] never had a discussion about what phonography is. We’ve never had a discussion about what the rules actually are. We’ve hid behind the general statement, “We improvise, in real time, with unprocessed field recordings.” That’s all we’ve ever said. There seems to be a general acknowledgment, because we’ve said it out loud, that contact microphones, magnetic coil microphones, hydrophones and things like that are allowed, but we’ve never sat down and said, “What is phonography?” Because I think we’d break up if we did [laughs].
Barsotti: Because we’d never agree on anything.
Bach: Exactly. And what fun would that be?
Barsotti: Yeah, I know.
Bach: Trying to control that.
Barsotti: We’ll all get rip-roaring drunk and have a conversation about what phonography is and never speak to each other again.
Bach: It’s funny, because I used SPU as inspiration when I was in Wisconsin to start Milwaukee Phonography. It didn’t last long, since I was only there for two years. And, then with the Southern California Soundscape Ensemble, participation and membership waxes and wanes with the collective energy level, but it’s still on the books. The same concept underpinning both of those projects is exactly what you just said: we perform live with mostly unprocessed field recordings. And I use the term “unprocessed” loosely.
Aaron Ximm joined us in Milwaukee, and he used loops. Is looping forbidden? Some people are working with cassettes, Dictaphone tapes, and maybe the pitch is a little different; is that okay? I’m not about to tell people, “No, you can’t do this.” With the exception of obvious processing, like effects or reverb, I think the aim is mostly unaltered recordings. It’s great, because that construct isn’t a limitation at all. It’s actually an open and freeing concept.
Barsotti: It’s funny, because I’ve run into people who initially say, “I don’t understand…you can’t use any processing? Doesn’t that limit you?” Well, no, quite frankly it frees me because I no longer have to be concerned about what processing I’m going to use, or how much flange, or how long the reverb tail should be, or any of that. And I also counter with “it’s not that I don’t enjoy the sound of a good LFO, it’s that I also enjoy the sound of a cricket.”
Bach: By itself.
Barsotti: Yes. I have this electronic music class I’m teaching, and this week is musique concrète. And we listened to a couple of pieces by Pierre Schaeffer, of course, and they’re interesting and difficult for the students because they are immediately dated by the sonic quality. But then there is Luc Ferrari‘s work. Music Promenade, for example, is a gorgeous musique concrète album. And then there is all of Dale Lloyd‘s and/OAR catalog: field recordings, some of it processed, some of it not. There’s so much there. It’s so rich and so wonderful and so beautiful to listen to. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like that other stuff. I just don’t feel the need to do that all the time.
Bach: There’s a time and place for that other stuff. And this [SPU] is the time and place for sounds from the real world. Just let them be what they are. They are musical enough, you put them in different contexts and your collaborators will bring in sounds that you would have never expected, and that’s a remarkable aspect of group improvisation. One of the most exciting things I’ve done in a long time is working with the Soundscape Ensemble because it’s unpredictable, fresh, fun. It tends to not be overpowering in density.
Barsotti: It’s an amazing exercise in restraint to perform in that environment.
Bach: With SCSE, we have two “rules”: unprocessed field recordings, and each person has to have his or her own individual amplification. Since we spread out throughout the space, the audience hears sounds being broadcast from all directions. That’s our mission, and, like you said, it’s this perfect recipe for restraint, because each performer has to listen and pay attention out of necessity, and it does wonders for the group. We can have six or eight people and it sounds balanced. It’s my favorite group improv project.
Barsotti: How many times have you been to a performance where you never really know how it came off, because you were not in the audience? You’re so in the midst of doing your stuff, you get a very different perspective. So, our sets…of course, they vary, thirty minutes, an hour…the stuff we did at Sand Point was four or five hours, over the long haul. But even with the shorter sets, there have been multiple shows where I can say I performed for ten minutes. It is the only performance where I can come back later and say, “I heard the whole damn thing.”
Barsotti: It’s about trust and restraint. This gets into the improvisational aspect of this. Improvisation, for me, is about listening. And, I think about the concept of improvisation as a metaphor for how one ought to interact with the larger world, not just musically, but socially, culturally.
Barsotti. When Dan Godston started the World Listening Project, and he came up with concepts of what it meant and what it meant for us, I wanted to push the notion of listening as a political act. Where, instead of imposing your beliefs or ideas on other people, you listen to who they are. Take in information in order to learn and grow. Improvisation, musically, for me, has always been about that. It becomes a metaphor. It’s not been perfect for me. I’ve had shows where I’ve performed for five or ten minutes, and others where I performed the entire time, and I look back and think, “Wow, I bogarted that one, didn’t I?”
Barsotti: I’m trying to take that into account with my improvisation. In fact, I just read a quote recently from some stupid internet meme: “Listen with the intent of learning rather than the intent of saying something,” or something along those lines. So, for me the Phonographers Union has always been a wonderful opportunity to do that very thing, and it’s a wonderful experience to listen and to really find out if you really should be contributing, or that what you have to contribute really works.
Bach: Yes. To avoid selfish playing.
Bach: Simply wanting attention. And I think that’s a perfect way of saying it. “Is the sound I’m about to play a positive addition to what’s already happening? If what we’re hearing is already perfect, then let it be perfect and just sit there and enjoy it.” So, with SCSE, there is an opportunity to be simultaneously performer and audience.
Bach: A lot of times in other improv settings, you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you lose touch with that. With the phonography setting, there are moments when I played only one file during the entire performance; I would bring it up at times, then bring it back out, and there were moments when there was open space, and I chose not to bring it back in, because it wouldn’t have added anything to the perfection and the beauty and delicacy of that moment.
And this is what I’m talking about when I talk about community, when we can find people who are open to that as well, and can appreciate that openness without being forced. That’s a blessing, right? To perform with people who are already there. You don’t have to twist their arms and say, “Let’s be quiet.” It’s such a rare thing.
I had a performance a while back that was the complete opposite of that. And it left such a bad taste in my mouth because it was so dense and so impenetrable that it was really painful. That type of gig is something I said I’d never do again. I’d given that up years ago. I thought it was going to be different, but it wasn’t. When that happens it’s really disappointing, because there’s really no need. It’s walking the talk. When you say you’re going to listen and be open, then do it. Really do it. Shut up for a while and listen and don’t play anything. By not playing anything, you’re still contributing. You’re contributing in silent participation by simply observing and backing out and allowing an absence that can speak just as powerfully as a presence.
I’m really interested in how that comes together naturally, and I don’t know if it’s because of the people I’ve chosen to associate with, or there really is something in the air that we’re all part of? Serendipity? Probably a combination of all of that.
Barsotti: Yes. I think there is definitely something about like-mindedness in terms of the concept of listening. I know that the original impetus for this group was a fellow named Isaac Sterling. Way back in the early days of phonography.org, 1999, 2000, right after I moved here, the phonography.org list got established, people were contributing, conversing on there. And then Isaac realized there were a lot of list members here in Seattle: Alex Keller, John Tulchin, Doug Haire, Mark Griswold, Steve Barsotti, Chris DeLaurenti, Toby Paddock, Dale Lloyd. There was a bunch of us who were interested.
So, he called this meeting. It was Isaac who recognized this particular quality in each of us. He had work from all of us, and he noticed that we were all part of this list and said, “Let’s come together and talk about this concept of phonography and play some work.” And, so, the first set we did was more of an academic presentation of individual work. There were seven or eight of us at the table, round robin, where we each got seven minutes and thirty-seven seconds, if I remember correctly, and we just played. Some of us played individual recordings, and others performed a mix. That was the first set. For the second set we just jammed. It was due to the collective interest we all had in the concept of listening, and Isaac recognized that in the field recordings he heard from us in the first place.
I think in order to work with field recordings, you have to be interested in the concept of listening. You go out in the world and listen to stuff, and there is something about that process that engages you so much that you want to grab it, abstract it, bring it home and listen to it in a very different, strange way. That process right there is fundamental to my interest in this. When I collect a recording, I tend to avoid headphones; I check the levels to see I’m not distorting, but when I bring it back into my studio to see what I have, it’s like the old days of film photography when you’d shoot, shoot, shoot, and then only later look at your negatives.
So, all of these Seattle people had these great field recordings and were obviously interested in this concept of listening. And, they also had these other endeavors. Most of the people in our group have been involved in some level of improvisation. Some, like Mark Griswold, had done work with NPR…he was the sound guy; when the story opened up you’d hear car doors and footsteps on gravel. Toby and Doug and Alex and Chris and myself, we had all improvised and been involved in other music creation. But I recognized that these guys loved to listen. So Isaac brings us together and we do this thing and it worked. I wasn’t surprised, but it was still fabulous to go through that.
Bach: It’s amazing that there was this concentration of all those people in that area. That’s pretty remarkable. That doesn’t always happen. Maybe it was just a convergence, where everyone happened to be there at the same time, and you were hungry for it. You have to wonder, would SPU have come about now? If it didn’t previously exist, would your group come together today and have the same longevity and camaraderie and humbleness and confidence? Could that have happened now, as opposed to ten years ago?
Barsotti: Right. Interesting question. It’s hard to answer that definitively. I look at the nature of our group now and it’s never been appropriate to call us a band.
Barsotti: For the first three, four, five years there was more of a feeling of a band, more interaction between us, events happened more often. These days there is not as much communication. We still have events, but they’re usually a lot smaller. In our heyday we had twelve people perform at the Decibel Festival in 2007.
These days it’s smaller, different types of gigs. We did a thing for KUOW, and there were one or two members who popped up out of nowhere, “Yeah, I’ll do the radio gig with you guys.” So there’s a little bit of that. As far as your question, I don’t know how to answer that. Isaac passed away a couple of years ago. It was a different time, different collection of people, but the concept has evolved over the years. Back to what you were saying about the setup for your ensemble, the Phonographers Union historically has had the Politburo, but of late there has been more interest in attempts to do what you guys are doing in terms of setting up small locales.
Barsotti: We’ve had some opportunities to perform in some interesting spaces. In Seattle there is a space called The Chapel. In the middle of Wallingford, one of our neighborhoods, there is the Good Shepherd Center, with a preschool and community organizations and things like that, and on the fourth floor there is an actual chapel. It’s a gorgeous space, with huge vaulted ceilings and big stained glass windows. Steve Peters from Nonsequitur set up shop there many years ago when he moved back to Seattle and established the Wayward Music Series. I’d say that 75% of the adventurous music that happens in this town happens in that space.
We performed there a couple of times with local setups, but, more interestingly, we got a gig at the Seattle Art Museum. They do these things called SAM Remix, and, on opening night there are a variety of activities, with a more typical musical setup on the main stage. We got invited to perform for the Aboriginal show. The museum has a small Aboriginal collection in two small rooms, fortunately located way in the back away from the main stage where all the loud stuff happens. Three of us set up in there with individualized sound systems. It was cool because of the way we set up, but it was also cool because it was one of the first times we responded directly to a theme. We as a group asked, “What do we do with an Aboriginal show? What are these paintings about?” They are maps, spirit guides.
Barsotti: There are these notions of guiding us through something. So we said, “There’s your inspiration, go with that.” We each brought in recordings we felt addressed that concept of what these paintings may be about. That was interesting, but, more to the point, we had been adopting these setups with individualized, small locales, individual p.a. systems, a couple of small speakers, or something like that. And people experience it in a different way. You meander, just like your [SCSE] performances. It’s such a great way to experience that type of thing.
Bach: For me, it was revelatory, because it deconstructed, changed, remixed my whole concept of the group improv. For the longest time a group improv meant going through the same p.a. You had four, six, eight sound artists, using electronics, and unless you’re really careful, you’re likely to get a wall of dense, undifferentiated sound.
So, by parsing this out, it solved all kinds of problems. It solved the soundscape issue, monitoring issues, improvisation issues, and having to lug a p.a. around, right? That inspired me to consider sound in space in a new way. Teaching the audio classes, and researching what I was sharing with students, I was able to wrap my head about the idea of reverb, with the direct sound and the series of copies, and what is called the critical distance, the point at which the direct sound is at the same volume as its reflections. At what point do the reflections take over? What about the natural ambience of the space? The normal sound of whatever space we’re in, along with the sounds we are adding to this preexisting soundscape…at what level do these introduced sounds that are contributing to this hybrid soundscape take over and become louder than the original sounds? It got me thinking about my solo work and about threshold, critical distance, and what happens when sounds are blended together at very low volumes, in a space, through speakers that aren’t necessarily massive p.a. monsters.
Bach: And, so, it was a transformative experience for me, and it changed everything I do as a performer. I’m really thankful that it happened.
Barsotti: It’s interesting. I really like the idea. I think your method of setting these smaller locale systems allows for a lot more interaction with the ambient space because you’re individualized, you’re localized, and, by default, you have less power.
Barsotti: And you’re less likely to overpower the situation. That’s fascinating. We’ve always been interested in how our sounds combine with what is already happening. I have no end of examples of shows that have ended with an external sound to the space that becomes our punchline, which is really kind of nice. But, to your point about the p.a. system, the history of our performances have been one massive p.a., and our original concern was the wall of mud, with all this stuff coming through. And that’s what really honed our skills as listeners as far as restraint, even more so as we realize we’re all coming out of the same set of speakers.
Bach: It forces you to be mindful of everyone else.
Barsotti: It was a challenge, but I think that on this album in particular, which is a sort of ‘best of’ collection, we made it work. It’s been a really good run for us as far as making that format really successful. The LP that’s coming out, the Sand Point gig and the Satsop, the hangar and the nuclear silo…now, there’s a whole other concept of space involved in those two pieces, but we’re still coming out of a single p.a. system.
Bach: Yeah. You know, it’s part of what makes it experimental music. My friend Alan [Nakagawa] and I had a conversation about experimental music and what that term means, the idea of the experiment. You establish a hypothesis, you think this is going to happen, set up the parameters, run the experiment, test the results to determine if it was a success or not. So the experimental part of experimental music could be what you’re doing with the single p.a., with six, eight members, and the goal is to figure out how to make this improvised, unpredictable collection of sounds work as a unified piece. As a unit, as a band, as a collective composition. The experiment is how to make that work. For us, it’s what happens when we break it off into smaller units. For me that is really exciting. Not knowing all the answers.
Bach: I still think that’s a valid thing going forward. What will the next iteration of that be like?
Barsotti: Good question.
Bach: Am I going to insist that SCSE, from this point on, only be involved with field recordings? Do we start to bring in other types of instrumentation? Once we do that, though, then it becomes something else. So, perhaps SCSE could collaborate with different ensembles in order to maintain their own identities.
And this is what I wanted to talk to you about—what happens when those two worlds start to meet again? Before, it was, “Let’s parse out field recording from the rest of electroacoustic composition and improvisation, experimental music, and let’s just give field recordings their own platform and see what happens.” What happens, then, if we allow regular musicians or sound artists to bring in LFOs or composed work or whatever? The stuff that you’re doing with your handmade instruments—what kind of cross-pollination can occur?
I haven’t taken that step yet, because again, I’m so leery of the wall of sound. I’m still not done exploring the delicacy of the SCSE aesthetic. I don’t know how you feel about that…
Barsotti: A few things come to mind. As a group, we talked about this…there are a handful of ways you can approach this. On the one hand it goes back to something we talked about earlier in terms of defining a set of parameters, and then creating a project based on those concepts.
SoniCabal and phonography.org evolved and changed because of the people who were a part of it. With the Phonographers Union, we haven’t written in stone a manifesto of how we’re supposed to do this, although Chris DeLaurenti has probably been the most consistent in terms of setting constraints. And he’s brought those around the country.
Bach: He did that when he was in Milwaukee. We sat down beforehand and he went over the rules of the game. It was really interesting.
Barsotti: It’s met with different levels of appreciation or skepticism, depending on where they’re coming from. So, for example, we’ve gotten offers from people to show film work during our performances, and we’ve turned them down every time. We have no interest in having visuals during our shows, because what’s the point?
Bach: There’s no need. It’s so visual to begin with.
Barsotti: Right. It’s about the act of listening. It’s not meant to be in support of some other idea. So, there’s that. The same thing with dancers. People have contacted us about having Butoh, or other dance ideas, and we’ve refused all of that as well. Internally, as a group, it’s pretty clear: unprocessed field recordings. The idea of what we’re doing is interesting and unique; there are laptops galore, electronic music galore, and processed field recordings galore. And a lot of this is really good. Again, I go to Dale Lloyd’s and/Oar label. A lot of great stuff. Or Wind Measure, the label out of New York. Those two in particular, the ones I’m most familiar with. Gorgeous stuff. I love everything on Dale’s label, without exaggeration. I really do. But, by sticking to this concept, I think there’s a unique quality to what we’re doing with the Phonographers Union.
You mentioned earlier that there is still a lot to explore there…the idea is still valid. However, what I do think is potentially interesting, and we’re starting to discuss this as a group, although we haven’t really followed through, is what if the Seattle Phonographers Union collaborated with another entity, with these two groups working together, so the SPU could still claim that we work solely with unprocessed field recordings. “The Seattle Phonographers Union performs with Jarrad Powell.” Or “performs with fill-in-the-blank.” So, there’s a very clear designation between these two ideas. We had Bernhard Gal in Seattle some years ago, and we did a performance with him, and it was the same sort of thing. We billed it as the Seattle Phonographers Union with Bernhard Gal. Before his solo set, he did a set with us, and he bent the rules slightly, but it was fun. The idea is that we perform with someone else so that we go from a group of seven to a single entity, the SPU, performing with whatever that other side may be. And see how those two concepts interact with each other.
Bach: It’s like a duet.
Barsotti: Exactly. I think that allows the concept of the Phonographers Union to remain intact. It’s not that I want to maintain some kind of fascist control over what the Phonographers Union should be. But as a concept, I think it’s relevant and important to establish a concept and stick to it.
Going back to the earlier parts of our conversation, it’s as if the Surrealists and the Dadaists decided to collaborate, and these two well-defined ideas did something together to form a third thing. I think that this concept of unprocessed field recordings from this band with a series of reed players, for instance, becomes this duet. That’s a great way to put it. I think there’s validity and interest in that idea.
[Update from Steve: “Since our conversation, several members of the SPU have performed a couple of sets with improvising musicians. The events were billed as ‘Tom Varner with….’ events, so, not SPU gigs. But, we were asked to participate to lend field recordings to these sets. The first one had 7 or 8 musicians, mostly horns of various kinds. The last one was Tom on French Horn, James Falzone on clarinet and other small reed instruments, Heather Bently on viola, and Paul Kikuchi on perscussion. Doug Haire, Steve Peters, and I also participated. It was an incredibly beautiful evening (alas, no recording). As mentioned, not an SPU gig, but it was an interesting attempt to combine what we have been doing with this other idea.”]
Bach: How do you see it in your own work? You practice phonography with the Phonographers Union, and you are an electroacoustic composer, generally speaking, with handmade instruments that you take into these spaces to record. How do you see those demarcations in your own work as a solo artist, and are those demarcations even important?
Barsotti: As far as the last part of that question, I don’t spend a lot of time worrying about those distinctions, so, no, maybe the differences are not all that important. I do think there is a commonality in my instrument building, my electroacoustic compositions, and my field recording. The electroacoustic compositions become the gathering point for all these different ideas.
Barsotti: So, the two albums I have, Along These Lines, and Say “tin-tah-pee-mick”, are really a combination of all the things I’m engaged in.
There are field recordings, which involve going out to some place and capturing what’s happening. There are the recordings of objects that I deliberately interfere with to produce sounds that I wouldn’t put in the category of built instruments. For instance, I’ll record the sound of a can opener because I like the sound of a can opener. Then, there are my instruments. Finally, there is the instrument of the mixing console, having things spread out, and improvising. Earlier I made the remark that that’s how I got started.
Bach: Because you were a recording engineer, right?
Barsotti: Actually, I came from photography. I studied photography at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and then at the School of the Art Institute, way back in the late eighties. And when I got to the School of the Art Institute, I signed up for a video class, because that seemed like a logical progression in my narrative development. With that, I knew that there was a technology hurdle, in both video and audio, so I took a sound class. Well, the video class ended up not running, but the sound class did.
Barsotti: It blew my fucking mind. The idea of thinking about sound in a way that I’ve never thought about before. My earliest pieces…we had four reel-to-reel four-track machines in the studio, a mixing console, and a very small collection of gear, like the SPX90, and the MidiVerb, and some processors and things like that, and a DAT machine, a cassette deck. The first thing I did was bring in my CD collection; the SPX90 had a looper, the sample and hold thing.
So, I started sampling little excerpts out of my CDs, finding things that would loop and feel a bit more continuous, as opposed to having a more repetitive nature. I’d load up sixteen tracks of this information, four on each of these four reel-to-reels. In groups of four they were synched, but the individual decks were not, so there would be variance from machine to machine in terms of timing. Then I’d run them to the console, and I’d set up some kind of effects chain, figuring out how to route to the MidiVerb and to the SPX90, and things like that. Came up with a mix to cassette, and then I’d crack my knuckles, hit play on all four machines, and go to town. They were all one-offs.
Bach: Exactly. They were performances.
Barsotti: They were. That’s where I came from. The recording engineer aspect came later after I got an internship at Experimental Sound Studio and learned way more about the ways of studios and working…and also I started teaching.
Bach: We were talking about the mixing desk as another instrument in your repertoire…
Barsotti: The electroacoustic compositions become this focal point where I can take field recordings, object recordings, instrument recordings, along with technology like mixing boards and tape machines and processing devices, which becomes a fourth sonic element. But the commonality between all of this, which is part of my lineage as a photographer…I didn’t know what it was until much later in my life…is this concept of reduced listening.
Barsotti: Pierre Schaefer, musique concrète. What I found myself interested in was the quality of sound, period. The source was not relevant to me. I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I’ve been able to actually achieve reduced listening, and I don’t think I have completely. My interest in instrument building started after I’d find an object and say, “That makes a cool sound. So does this. I need to put them in one place so I can have access to them, interact with them.” I was interested in the quality of sounds they produced. And then the field recordings became the same thing. I started recording things because I liked the sound of this. What it was a sound of didn’t matter. I liked listening to it. And the same thing with the objects, and the process of taking sound and running it through an effect of some kind, coming up with some kind of processing chain; it was very aesthetic: “I enjoy this process, I enjoy listening to this.” The act of listening is the common thread, of being very interested in the quality of the sound regardless of whether it’s from a field recording or a processor.
Bach: That brings us to the idea of collaboration. One of the things we talked about in San Francisco was the idea of a summit. A Phonographers Union summit. Let’s get everyone together. Marcos [Fernandes] with the Tokyo Phonographers Union, Chicago Phonography, the New England group, SoCal, Seattle, and have a huge party. That’s an amazing idea, and I’d love to see that happen someday. That got me thinking about what kinds of activities could happen remotely; you’re in Seattle, I’m in L.A. Common ground could be San Francisco, maybe, but what kind of structure…because in the old days, someone would record something on a cassette tape, drop it in the mail, the second person would listen to it, and add to it. That’s still a valid approach.
Barsotti: There’s Dropbox.
Bach: Dropbox. What types of cool things could we do that would be fun and could incorporate the things you’re interested in, that I’m interested in.
Barsotti: We’d probably need to put more thought into it, but one thing that just occurred to me is that we can talk more about this idea of space. You alluded to the process of how your ensemble works in the space, and I really like your ideas about reverb and ambient space, and how your sounds blends with that and how those two things interact. The work that SPU has done in the hangar and the silo are all about that. An interesting thing happened in the hangar when we performed there. We had this huge debate about our monitoring setup. They wanted monitors in front of us so that we could hear ourselves. I said, “If you do that, you will fuck this project up. We will hear everything crystal clear, respond based off of that, and the audience will hear mud.”
Barsotti: I finally convinced them to set up our monitors 150 yards away. And we did a great job because we had to interact with the space. Every decision we made was dependent on what the space did to our sounds. When we started doing these small, local setups like you guys have been doing, it makes the sound work in the space in a very different way. I think there is something interesting in the concept of space, and one thing that occurs to me is this notion of re-amping.
Barsotti: Taking sounds, maybe from each other, and bringing them into spaces and broadcasting them and recording them in different, interesting ways. The idea of getting sounds that I may not be familiar with or comfortable with and taking them down to Carkeek Park and figuring out a way to broadcast them in the marsh and then record them. Or take them to the studios at the Art Institute.
Chris [DeLaurenti] is coming into town again in November, and we’re going up to the Cistern in Port Townsend in Seattle [this session was subsequently canceled–GB]. It’s this big underground concrete bunker with an amazing sonic quality that has attracted all kinds of musicians. One of the ideas I’m working on now is re-amping through substance, like sheet metal [moves laptop’s camera to show instrument].
Bach: Wow, look at that.
Barsotti: I have two speakers connected to that. The speakers vibrate the metal, sending vibrations through the metal in different ways, and then microphones are placed in different locations to capture the vibrations. Ideally I’m looking towards a performance with this where I have four or five microphones tied to four or five speakers in surround, so as sound goes through the plate, different nodal points of vibration will give off different qualities, different timbres, and that will surround you…so re-amping through materials like that. I also have these tin cookie bins, and I’ve attached speakers to the backs of them, and I laced the inside with springs, and the speaker excites the springs, which yield more reverb and more space because of the tins, and I stick a mic on the other side, or a contact mic inside the tin, or something like that.
So that type of sound is fascinating to me. To be fair, the sound artist Toshiya Tsunoda …I have three or four of his albums, like Pieces of Air, and The Air Vibrations inside a Hollow. He went around and stuck microphones in crevices like a Coke bottle on the side of the road. “How does the world sound from the inside of a Coke bottle?” So, there’s a direct connection there.
[Update from Steve: “I did realize the performance with the sheet metal. As described, I set it up with the speaker drivers connected to it. I then placed four pencil condensers very close to the plate (5mm or so), in specific locations. Ran tones through the plate creating different vibrational patterns. As the patterns shifted, the sound shifted on the plate. The mics were run to four speakers surrounding the room. The sound shifted through the space as the tones shifted across the plate. Recorded the performance as a direct mix since recording the surround did not make sense.”]
Bach: Sure. We don’t have to solve it now. I see this project as an open-ended series of conversations. I’m thinking of this as simply the beginning of our talk. We’ll sit with it, ponder it, do our own thing, read the transcript later. Maybe establish another conversation after that, talk about stuff we didn’t get to. Send a couple of files back and forth and see what develops. Look at it as an experiment: “How did that work? I sent you three sounds, and you went into the woods and re-amped them; how did that work?” Let it evolve. That’s the organic process I envisioned for this project, and so far it’s how it’s been working out. We don’t have to solve anything right now.
Barsotti: I think that’s fine. Frankly, I’m quite content to let you guide how this proceeds. Whether it takes a long time or a short time. I think that’s a fine, organic way to think about this.
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