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15 Questions to Josh Russell

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hello! I’m doing well here in Austin Texas.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I just completed another semester of school and am looking forward to finishing some projects which have had to be put on hold. This weekend I am installing some of my visual work for a show at the University of Texas. Next week I am hoping to finally put the finishing touches on the audio material I’ve been working on for about a year derived from recordings of my kitchen sink. Bremsstrahlung recordings is going to start releasing its trans>parent radiation net-series as limited edition CDRs this month (June ’07) so am getting those together now, too.

What or who was your biggest influence as an artist? Do you see yourself as part of a certain tradition or as part of a movement?
This is a difficult question. It’s kind of hard for a fish to see the water that he/she swims in. I grew up oblivious to avant-garde music so it wasn’t until my aesthetic was pretty well formed that I found out that there was a community of like-minded individuals. I had played rock music but it slowly moved from verse/chorus to instrumental, to guitar echoplex loops and then to the sounds of the effects pedals themselves.

I remember what a revelation it was to me when I subscribed to the “lowercase-sound” mail list in the spring of 1999, then only a couple months old, and found them to be discussing whether this CD (Francisco Lopez Untitled #74) had any sound on it at all. I think the consensus was yes, but you had to have a really good system to hear anything. I had just recorded an improvisation of the sound of me writing a spontaneous poem and was glad to find that I wasn’t going crazy but was actually practicing within a long tradition of “sound art.” So now I feel that I am part of this movement of non-classically trained artists who intuitively gravitate towards assembling and manipulating sounds from a wide variety of sources; however, I am not as much influenced by what else is being published in this movement, rather I tend towards actualizing the aesthetic that seems to have been hard-wired into me. Of course there are artists within this tradition whom I respect a lot and enjoy listening to. That’s why I formed bremsstrahlung recordings.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?
No! My view is that it’s quite the opposite. I don’t think there’s ever been a better time. I have really been impressed with the growth of sound-art net-label community. I think the internet provides an increasingly satisfying environment for sound-artists to become familiar with each other and get their work heard. Artists are no longer limited by physical location or money in getting their sounds out to an educated and passionate audience. I hope that in the future it becomes more common for net-releases to receive reviews. This seems to be the only missing piece. Earlabs has started doing this, as has Vital Weekly (a bit), but it would be great to find a well done net magazine devoted to this emerging sound subculture. Of course if one is defining the “crisis” to be that artists and labels cannot make money, then I think we are in one. It seems to be a bit harder to sell CDs now compared to even a few years ago. At the end of the day, however, I think the benefits far outweigh the challenges. I think someone just getting started with making sound-art today is in a much better position than anytime in history.

What does the term „new“ mean to you in connection with music?
My first reaction is to think of a SEAMUS compilation; academic electro-acoustic music. It has been calling itself New for many decades now. Since new is a relative term one has to know what to compare it to…newer than what? When composers of experimental, challenging works had to exist within the confines of symphonies and academic institutions and were presented in the same venues as more erstwhile works this comparison was natural. But now that everyone is free to create and disseminate audio I don’t think the term makes much sense anymore.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
For my work the sound completely dictates the composition. Composing for me is listening to the sounds over and over again to try to figure out how they could fit together. For the most part I try to stay away from any preconceived notions and focus on the sounds.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
For me composing is solidifying improvisations. I use a circular process of improvising with sound-files live until something intriguing emerges at which point I start recording. Later I listen again to the improvisations and decide which ones are worth pursuing. Then I go back and recreate them live again, this time making sure to highlight all the aspects of the original that I though were interesting. These recordings are then used as a basis for creating a piece.

What constitutes a good live performance in your opinion? What’s your approach to performing on stage?
The broadest interpretation of a successful performance for me is one in which the audio the audience hears is as close to the sounds the artist intended. If the presence of his/her sounds were relayed cleanly, conveying all their intricacies and enveloping the audience in their atmosphere then it’s worth the price of admission. The artist could just play a CDR of sound tracks but if they did a through sound-check and optimized the audio for the space then, to me, it becomes a “performance.”

Personally I try to leave as many parameters open to real-time manipulation as possible. For me a successful performance is one where a fragile, unique, personally compelling and inherently fragile sound-world is created from raw elements and sustained via attentive ear and dexterous hands. In order for me to feel I’ve given a successful performance there must have been the possibility of failure, things not going right. Unfortunately a few times this possibility has come to fruition. This is usually due to unwanted feedback, loud air-conditioning units, or intractable grounding issues. There have been a couple special cases when the show had to end early, once due to an audience member freaking out and rushing the stage when I was playing samples of a baby crying, and once by the Hollywood police following up on a noise complaint. Due to logistics I’ve sometimes played shows that have largely been recorded tracks but given the chance I try to create something new in the performance space, even if it’s just presenting in surround sound.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
I think everyone has a border of what they call music and that border probably changes depending on their mood. I don’t think music happens in the sound-waves but rather in the listener’s head. I am not a musician so don’t have more developed thoughts on this since I never think of my own sounds in musical terms.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
I don’t have any idea.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
I think the artist’s only duty is towards self. Of course that sense of “self” could compel the artist to create works which have a political/social agenda. If someone is naturally political then by expressing those things in him/her that lead to that disposition will be compelling. Just as context separates visual art and graphic design if an artist is trying to garnish their work with a political/social agenda then it will not be art but something more akin to advertising or marketing.

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.
I think false because of the work “need.” However I am sure that as with most things, the more the person’s knows about music the more levels they can connect and appreciate with it. I think there can be some cases where the education can occlude the listener’s direct experience and so not really be “hearing” the music and therefore actually lessen their experience of it. The ability to clear the mind of preconceptions needs to be taught along with the theory!

Imagine a situation in which there’d be no such thing as copyright and everybody were free to use musical material as a basis for their own compositions – would that be an improvement to the current situation?
I don’t think it would be much different than the current situation. There’s lots of great material published under the creative commons license now.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I was lucky enough to get to do that a few years ago. I put together a couple all day “festivals” in Los Angeles called “Day of Attention.” They included several audio and video installations, a kinetic ice sculpture, catered Thai food as well as performances by Bernhard Günter, Steve Roden, Akira Rabelais, v.v., Christopher Willits, Aaron Ximm (quiet American), and others.

Given the chance to do it again with someone money being no object I would love to host the event in Marfa Texas and have Toshiya Tsunoda and Christina Kubish creating sound installations and performances by Dale Lloyd, Radu Malfatti, Ubeboet, Cory Allen, Rick Reed, Duane Pitre, and murmer among others. I would like to try out an idea presented to me by civyu kkliu several years ago to have an outdoor concert in which the performers were on the other side of a hill from the audience and to have a powerful enough PA to really be able to play with the acoustics of that location. I also would like to commission artists to create pieces for a walking performance. That is a performance where the audience walks along a specified path that contains hidden PA speakers along the way. Ideally the multi-channel compositions would be created to fit with the journey of the audience, or if the composers were technically savvy enough, react to the audience positions.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
This relates back to question 6 and composing. I don’t know if I could ever consciously create a “magnum opus” since that would mean that the qualities of the composition be conceived prior to the sounds themselves. I do seem to be striving again and again towards the same goal in my compositions…maybe one day I’ll reach the goal and then that will be my magnum opus. Haha!

ub_cus- (Stasisfield) 2002 
Live in Austin: February 2004 (Stasisfield) 2004
FOR (CON-V) 2005

Josh Russel
Bremsstrahlung Records

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