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Sound Matters [2010-08-17]

“Sound matter” (or “sonic matter”) seems to be Francisco López’ preferred denomination for his highly-acclaimed work that, over the past 30 years, has been purely based on field recordings. But, regarding such recordings as documents of a time and place – as one does with other high profile ‘recordists’ such as Chris Watson – misses the point of López’ work, which is to immerse the listener in a world of pure sound, free from form, contexts or language. While much of his output does contain recognisable sounds – be they frogs or aeroplane engines – the listener is challenged to rid themselves of these associations to enable them to explore the inner world of the sounds themselves and, ultimately, be rewarded through a transcendence of their preconceptions.

This singluar vision has lead to Francisco becoming a luminary of the international sound art scene. In addition to a regular crop of consistently rich, immersive releases and performances, he is regularly invited to present at key symposia and has established his own annual workshops to inspire others to approach and deploy sound as powerful ‘matter’ that can tune our attention away from knowledge and communication to sensation and the ineffable.

m[m]:Your work with sound is often defined by what it avoids as opposed to what it includes: it is not concerned with instrumentation or musical form, it neither intends to have documental or representational qualities and you deliberately omit details about your sound sources and any subsequent processes (the majority of your releases are untitled and unaccompanied by text, graphics or anything but the barest of packaging). Do you find yourself having to defend your approach regularly, and if so, how do you manage this?

FL: I guess every time you take a public bold step that doesn't fit some of the norms you're bound to have to defend it somehow. I'd say that the best stand for anything like this should be the work itself. In my experience, my sound work has generally been able to do that, without much further explanation. A lot of people actually face sound work that way already, they just don't make it explicit.

m[m]:You aspiration to create immersive experiences requires the listener to work hard to attain transcendence, where any acknowledgment of external sounds or internal dialogue could break the spell. To this end, in your live performances the audiences are often blindfolded and deliberately seated facing away from where you are working. Do you feel you have greater control of the potential for immersion when you perform live as opposed to casting out recorded releases to unknown environments where you have no control over the technologies used to reproduce the sound or the environment in which it is digested?

FL: Again, when the sound work is compelling enough most people intuitively and smoothly go into a multiplicity of immersive/dedicated personal listening modes. You don't really need to work very hard for this. I have more room to personally work out the perceptive details of this kind of experience when I do a live performance, since I'm present there and I can control a lot of detailed sound features. But a lot of people have very interesting individual ways of approaching this level of intense listening.

m[m]:I have found that your longer works, particularly those around one hour in length, have a more profound effect than the shorter ones, presumably due to the length of time they afford in which to become focussed. Are you aware of the psychological parameters involved in listening and, if so, does this knowledge influence your decisions when recording or composing?

FL: Personally, I also prefer the longer stretch to compose. Part of the immersion idea needs this wider time. But of course you can also work with different goals and time frames for shorter pieces. On the other hand, I'm not an analytical person in the sense of being fully aware of precise psychological parameters or techniques. And to tell you the truth, I prefer not to go too much into that kind of analysis, it's deceiving in the long run.

m[m]:You have expressed a preference for non-repetitive sound environments. Do you consider each of your releases to be listened to as a one-off experience or do you expect repeated listening to enhance their influence or reveal hidden depths?

FL:I definitely work in a way that would reward repeated, attentive listening. I like detail, nuances and hidden layers of sound events in the sound works. And I do take a lot of effort and time in working out these features in virtually every sound piece I make.

m[m]:Have you found any instrumentation-based music that has the ability to invoke an immersive experience?

FL: Of course. Dumitrescu or Xenakis are good examples for me of an amazing instrumental approach to texture, depth and I guess also immersive potential in the music created.

m[m]:In addition to your work with sound, you are an ecologist involved both in academia and in the field. Does your role as a scientist pose any conflicts, philosophical or otherwise, with your work as an artist and are there any areas where they complement each other? While I can see that your ecological work gives you access to natural sound sources across the globe, I can also imagine that a scientific discipline may not sit comfortably with work that embraces confusion and expels contexts.

FL: On the contrary. The more you've worked in science the more you realize how relative, paradigm-biased and temporary are demonstrations, proofs and, in general, that thing called "scientific truth", something that was quite shattered during post-modernist takes on science (Kuhn, Feyerabend, etc.).

m[m]:When you speak of “trying to reach a transcendental level”, “spiritual drifting” and of liberation of “openness of content” in your music, I’m reminded of eastern religions and philosophies such as Buddhism whose meditative pursuit of enlightenment has parallels, arguably, with “profound listening”. Have you any interests in such philosophies and, if so, do they influence your work?

FL: I don't think I know much more about these philosophies than the average person. Perhaps I should explore deeper into them (perhaps shamanism also) but I suppose my work with sound is my personal way of doing something like that.

m[m]:Your work seems to expand upon the aesthetics of musique concrète first developed by Pierre Schaeffer in the late 1940s that was enabled by new technologies of the time such as magnetic tape recorders. Since then, what developments in technology do you feel have had an impact on sound art and do you envisage any further significant developments for the future?

FL: I'm generally more interested in the social-technological than in the purely technical. To me there's no essential difference between the analog and the digital, the reel-to-reel and the computer, for example. I think the most relevant changes in experimental music making over the past few decades are more aesthetic than purely technical. You could argue there's a back-and-forth connection between the two, but I believe other social circumstances have had a stronger impact in what we musically live today compared to the past. I have in mind currents like punk, DIY, and the socialization of portable, affordable, widely-accessible simple technology.

m[m]:Recent developments in computer technologies have made it even easier to record and produce music and, consequently, there is more ‘sound’ being released by more people than ever before. Do you feel that the amount released (in whatever format) may reduce the value of sound as an effective mode of connection, or, conversely, has it encouraged more people to listen with greater dedication?

FL: Definitely the latter. On the other hand, here is a political issue about who (or how many) has the right to create and distribute his/her work. My take on this has always been very "naturalistic" in a Darwinian sense, i.e., the amount of creation is a natural-social consequence of the accessibility of technology for creation and diffusion. Then, a relative selection process will naturally take place within the obvious constraints of every society, in this case, expanded as a global network.

m[m]:You have acknowledged the ideas of Italy’s Futurist movement of the early twentieth century. While it’s easy to see a correlation between what you do with sound and Luigi Russolo’s L’Arte dei rumori that promoted “the infinite variety of timbres in noises”, are there other aspects of Futurism that continue to influence you?

FL: Well, I'd say the passionate take on creation. The intuitive drive to take action and work. The scorn for the traditional established division between the so-called "professional" and "amateur". And so on. The essential drives of Futurism.

m[m]:Do you see any parallels between what you do with sound in other art forms – for example, the color field movement’s avoidance of the figurative decontextualised colour as you decontextualise the sounds of the natural environment, or maybe analytical cubism whose reduction of natural forms eschewed colour in favour of emphasising physical forms as you emphasise sounds when divorced from their sources?

FL: In the realms of visual creation, I feel connected to forms of non-narrative, quasi-phenomenological "realism", such as Robert Ryman or Robert Irwin, for example.

m[m]:Each year you direct the Mamori Sound Project, a two week residential workshop in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon on creative approaches to working with field recordings with the sixth one coming up this November. And in contrast, you have also been directing a series of collective projects in cities around the world – called ‘Sound Matter’, starting in Brussels in 2004 and most recently in Birmingham, UK last year. Do these follow a similar curriculum and criteria to each other?

FL: "Mamori Sound Project" is more focused on the field work and in this residency/workshop I try to facilitate the gathering of exceptional sonic material from the Amazon and encourage on-site discussion of different views on what it means (or could mean) to do field recordings and work with them. The "Sound Matter Cities" projects are more collective takes on the exploration of the myriad potential sonic universes arsing from the non-intentionally generated sound environments of a place. They're also a way to explore compositional decisions when a group of people share both all the original source materials and the transformations of these.

m[m]:You’re currently giving a ten day seminar at the Internationales Musikinstitut Darmstadt’s International Summer Course for New Music – what have you chosen to focus on?

FL: Evolutionary collective composition from very small sound "seeds" or "ancestors", shared and then mutated by a small group of composers. I'm interested in exploring (in practice) the levels of determination and intertwining for composition of the actual sonic materials, the individual aesthetics and the techniques employed, individually or collectively.

m[m]:A couple of your recent works – untitled #247 and untitled #242 – have been released solely online as free downloads and a small amount of your back catalogue can now be bought as mp3s. How do you feel about digital formats?

FL: A lot of this is out of my control, as it happens for a lot of music today. Personally, I always try to have better sound quality formats (than mp3) for downloadable material. On the other hand, the theoretical possibility of a "disembodied" piece (i.e., detached from the physical "album" paradigm) is a wonderful advantage of the digital-networked situation. But then, of course, you have the object-oriented judgements for the presence of releases / pieces, which explains the vinyl (and even cassette) revival.

m[m]:What releases or live performances do you have planned for the near future?

FL: Too many to list them here, really ;-) About 30-40 different projects in the making right now, including several works with specific starting environmental materials I recorded in the Brazilian and Peruvian Amazon, Australia & New Zealand, South Africa & Namibia, Cuba and the US, among many others.

m[m]:What’s made you laugh recently?

FL: A lot of different things!

Many thanks go to Francisco for all the time and effort that he put into answering my many questions in the midst of his busy schedule.

To find out more and to keep up-to-date with all his many activities, releases and performance schedule, check

Russell Cuzner
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