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Interview with Chris Whitehead

img  Tobias Fischer

These days, originality appears to be the main gauge for artistic success: No insult could be worse than being made out a copycat or rip-off, no praise higher than having one's work being commended as 'unique', 'personal' or 'inventive'. And yet, as much as it's in demand, originality is a highly problematic term. For one, entirely original music is an impossibility, since every composition already builds on what came before it in some form or the other. Also, originality as a main priority does not by default result in satisfying results. Even more critically, our notion of originality is questioned by the advances of the information age: The more people are making and releasing music, the smaller the potential for each of them to create something truly original, after all. What happens when everything has been done - every sound sculpted, every beat programmed, every chord played and every arrangement tried? We spoke to a wide selection of artists from all corners of the musical spectrum to find out more about their take on originality, how they see it changing and what it means in their work.

In this interview, sound artist and field recordist Chris Whitehead argues that originality needs to be woven into the DNA of a composition if it wants to remain interesting for more than a single listen.

For most artists, originality is first preceded by a phase of learning and, often, emulating others. What was this like for you? How would you describe your own development as an artist and the transition towards your own voice?
I remember having a reel to reel tape recorder and a cassette player in my room as a boy. I'd be around 14 or 15. As a sound source I had an acoustic guitar that I'd never learned to play, and of course a short wave radio. I had a book with chord shapes in it, but I was fascinated by the sounds of notes decaying and single strings vibrating rather than the possibility of playing other people's songs.

By placing paper on the strings, by hitting the head of the tape recorder microphone directly against them, by lodging pencils and kitchen knives inbetween them and generally detuning as low as possible it became a laboratory for making recordings of space, distance, plasticity and physicality.

I came of age during punk. Armed with the statutory three chords, a cheap electric guitar and an even cheaper amp, I answered an advert in the Sheffield Star and joined a band. We rehearsed and we went to see visiting punk bands play. It became clear to me that in fact these sons of the DIY ethos were actually rather good musicians with nice, expensive looking instruments and they carried themselves like preened lizards in the dark clubs they inhabited.

Luckily Sheffield somehow spawned bands that suddenly grew from its simultaneously industrial and crackling underpulse. Famously Cabaret Voltaire and the early Human League, but also those that imploded too soon or just fried in the flames of their birth: Graph, I'm So Hollow, Disease, The Veer. Everything, everything, everything seemed original in those times.

More than anything, thinking back to making my private double-tracked tone layers, and then seeing that same attitude of experiment and defiance unfold onstage at night in dank, unloved bars made a connection that stayed with me like a pilot light.

When, would you say, did you start to appreciate originality as an important quality in music? What were some of the first artists that stood out in terms of their originality to you and what was it about the originality in their work that attracted you to it?
I saw Sparks on Top of the Pops singing "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us". The song faded in, but finished suddenly. The words spilled out like a shower of pins, largely incomprehensible, and yet peppered with the kind of subjects songwriters don't have any truck with. Cannibals. Zoo time. Protein. Tacky tigers. The man singing in a falsetto voice was curly haired and good looking. The man playing keyboards wore Brylcreem, a tie, a cardigan and a moustache with uncomfortable connotations.

I was on holiday outside a caravan in the sun with a tiny transistor radio. A tune came on that sounded like nothing but hissing, metal utensil percussion, rushing air and monotone chanting in a foreign tongue. What this was doing on mainstream radio I had no idea, and it was announced as being by Craft Work. There were no proper instruments on Autobahn, so it hit me and I still feel the shudder. I've heard the tune so many times on so many sound systems since, but the tinny transistor punch of that initiation into electronics was immense.

I remember putting our tiny portable black and white tv on the kitchen table to watch a science fiction film that was going to be shown. Everybody else was in the front room watching something entertaining and sparkly. From the beginning sinuous weeds weaved and curled gently in clear water and then there was the derelict space station and a sentient ocean. It all unfolded so slowly and Solaris proved to me that time could be sculpted to dilate and dissolve and almost turn inside out.

What's your own definition of originality?
Originality is the ghost of yourself that haunts the work you create.

Originality is one, but certainly not the only aspect of quality in music. What, from your current perspective, is the value of originality and has it become more or less important to you over time?
Originality is not something that can be learned like technique or harmony, it is something that needs to be let go of like a falcon. It needs to be let off the reins. By itself it is of little value, but with a medium to work through it comes into its own. It requires quality and evolution for it to remain compelling.

For the listener of course, once they've heard an original idea in a piece of music, when they listen for a second time it ceases to be so original. For that reason there needs to be a subtlety and a depth to the originality. In successfully original pieces of music new connections between the elements in the composition occur with each subsequent listen. The originality can be weaved into the music's DNA

Because it can still function as a refracting prism within the tight boundaries of accepted musical forms, the value of originality is to keep these forms rejuvenated.

With more and more musicians creating than ever and more and more of these creations being released, what does this mean for you as an artist in terms of originality? What are some of the areas where you currently see the greatest potential for originality and who are some of the artists and communities that you find inspiring in this regard?
It is important not to confuse quantity with quality. Every one of these musicians has a personal originality and whether they choose to expose it or not is their own concern. Obviously trying to be wholly authentic to yourself regardless of idiom is not a guaranteed way to get people engaged with your sound world, so artists tend to dribble originality into pre-existing genres like coloured ink swirling through clear water.

I speak every day to different people. In conversation I try to put my ideas across clearly and interestingly. I try to express sometimes abstract thoughts in a way that illustrates to others my position on matters, and I attempt to be engaging. I am not depressed or downhearted because everyone else in the world also speaks and listens in an effort to communicate with their fellow humans. This fact doesn't decrease my forays into conversation one iota, and my own choice of words, sentences, phrases, ideas and expressions remain unique to me. Why shouldn't creating music be the same?

Partly for geographical reasons, but also because going to see a man sitting at a table, his concentrated face lit up by the glow of an Apple screen, doesn't constitute a satisfying live experience for me, I rarely go and see performances of this kind. I think the presentation of this type of sound dissemination offers a place for original thinking. I like watching people hit, scrape, drag, rub and shake things for my admission fee.

Undoubtedly the greatest potential for originality lies with children. 

What are areas of your writing process at the moment that are particularly challenging to you and how does the notion of originality come into play here? What have been some of the more rewarding strategies for attaining originality for you? Please feel free to expand on some of your recent projects and releases.
I have never started with a predetermined plan or score of any kind, so I sculpt rather than interpret, I think. Sometimes the work grows in a satisfying direction, at other times it needs to be trimmed back or trained to branch out along a different route. There is a sort of symbiotic relationship with the work. It's a bit like making clothes for yourself to wear in that they need to look good and express your personality, but equally they need to fit well. There are aesthetic and practical aspects to consider.

Originality stems from not doing things rather than doing them. It is about finding new solutions to the problems every creative artist encounters and not adopting the textbook techniques or the easy way out.

The last piece of music I produced was concerning Ludwig Koch. It stemmed from some old tape recordings of him in conversation, and his voice contained a sad, melancholic element. I thought this infused everything with loss and I quite liked this.

There was a recording he'd done of a cuckoo calling, and whilst trawling through some sound files of a metal bowl being rubbed and struck, a tiny piece of this (probably just the minutest sound of a finger tapping the bowl) seemed to mirror the bird's call. I used this repeatedly in the finished work. Koch was an abrasive character, and the world is noisier now than it was then. Huge electrical eruptions made by plugging a mixing board back into itself give the piece an unstable backbone.

So the creative process here is always one of seeding an idea, and then sculpture. I tend to see things on the soundtrack as background, foreground, detail, hard outline, blurred outline and gentle curve. I tend to think visually and spatially.

The idea of originality is closely related to one's understanding of the creative process. How would you describe this process for yourself - where do ideas come from, how are they transformed in your mind and how do experiences and observations turn into a work of art?
Ideas come from doing physical things and not from thinking about things. If I construct a composition in my mind and go out to collect the sounds to build into that composition, it will always end up as completely different entity. This is because the outside world is so unpredictable. The best you can do is set limits, for instance collect sounds from a certain location, but you can't ever predict what that place is going to offer you.

Often (most of the time actually) I'll go and experience the sounds in various environments without having a recorder about my person, just like everyone else does. It really isn't necessary to record every sound and keep a huge archive. For me listening without the encumbrance of equipment, without an interface between me and the sounds, is purer. Also the other senses are active and simultaneously working together to build up the most complete representation of the world my inbuilt biological equipment can achieve. This totality can be lost if I'm listening through headphones and homing in primarily on auditory signals.

When I say ideas come from doing practical things, I mean that if I want to write a poem I start by writing a word or two physically on paper. Without doing this the poem will not occur. Once this act is done, I can build on it, and the original word will inevitably be erased and replaced several times, but nevertheless it served as the seed.

I work like this when drawing, writing reviews of other artists or composing sound pieces, or whatever you want to call them. The first act of assembly is to place a sound file onto the computer. From there others can be added, subtracted, lengthened, shortened, generally messed around with and tortured until a meaning emerges.

I once wrote a letter to Ivor Cutler, and he wrote back in a spidery hand on very thin paper. He said when writing poetry don't worry about the meaning, concentrate on the rhythm of the words. The meaning will emerge later. That's pretty much how things work

The aspect of originality has often been closely linked to copyright questions. I'm not so much interested in the legal and economic consequences, but your thoughts on how far an artist can claim an idea / composition as being their own – is there, perhaps, a better model for recognising originality than the one currently in place?
It seems to me that these questions of authorship only matter in an economic context. An artist can only legitimately claim an idea as being their own if the idea is their own, but a mechanism for policing this and punishing transgressors seems unattainable. There is a seepage of influences and ideas from the outside into every one's work, but to draw a line where originality is definitively breached is futile.

Bearing in mind the possibility of two people generating very similar ideas independently, other than psychoanalysing artists to find out if these ideas are truly original, I can't think of any way to find this out for sure, so I'll live with it.

How do you see the relationship between the tools to create music and originality?
As a rule this relationship is an illusion. The banjo is just as likely to be a tool for originality as the modular synthesizer or the computer. I think that artists carry the responsibility of producing new and personal extensions into creative space themselves. I don't see instruments of wood and wires and circuits and metal as having any bearing on the problem. They are inanimate objects.

The relationship between the musician and the instrument is the crux of this rather than the instrument itself.

In terms of supporting originality, what are some of the technological developments you find interesting points of departure for your own work?
The ability to work from home with portable equipment that is relatively cheap is a major advance for  me. A handheld digital recorder and various bits of wire that connect to things are all I need to collect sounds. To arrange them into compositions  I use a digital audio workstation and that's it.

I'm not interested in the technology.

The importance and perspective on originality has greatly varied over the course of musical history. From your point of view, what are some of the factors in the cultural landscape that are conducive to originality and what are some of those that constitute obstacles?
The cultural landscape, taken as a landscape that includes all culture, from the television talent show to Wandelweiser, from R and B to HNW and all points inbetween, is a vast and sprawling continent, and yet each part interacts with the next. It is a mistake to build walls around little bits of this cultural landscape because they will be porous and other things will seep through.

Anybody should filter originality into anything they do, so the problem isn't getting the originality into the work, it's getting other people to hear it. On the one hand, thanks to technology, it is easier now to get music out into the public domain on discs or downloads. On the downside everybody is doing it, making an overview of what is actually happening, even in quite a parochial way over a limited area of output, quite impossible due to the quantity of product and the lack of time.   

Conducive to originality: Ease of production, ease of distribution, cultural conformity (you've got to have something to rail against), cheap equipment, the proof that weirdness can be accommodated (True Detective, Adventure Time), nutrition (waking up feeling well fed and healthy helps mental activity blossom) and the possibility that some people actually are looking for new things to stimulate them.

Obstacles to originality: Ease of production and distribution (so much stuff in which to find gems, and few signposts), cultural conformity (it's so much easier to be fed by an intravenous drip than source food yourself), cheap equipment (the use of technology and shiny polish are not analogues of originality), the proof that weirdness can be accommodated (weirdness in itself is not to be confused with originality either), also almost nobody is actually looking for new things to stimulate them, although they'll swear blind that they are.

The one I left out there is nutrition, which isn't really an obstacle to originality, unless you spill your breakfast cereal onto your computer. I speak from experience.   

Do you have a vision of a piece of music which you haven't been able to realise for technical or financial reasons?
I have an idea for a gallery installation. A large speaker is placed on the floor of a space facing the ceiling, and in the cone of this speaker is a very light ball, possibly a ping-pong ball.

A sudden burst of sound, a loud, short bass note, causes the ball to be ejected from the speaker and land, either directly or after bouncing, in the cone of another speaker.

A carefully arranged group of speakers might allow a choreographed interchange of balls being propelled between them.

Chris Whitehead Interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Chris Whitehead