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Interview with Fabián Racca

img  Tobias Fischer

Since its inception in 2003, the 60x60 project has published and performed a one-hour work composed of sixty one-minute-contributions from around the world each year. One of the pieces which stood out from the fold the 2010 Vermillion mix was "Murmullos de pantalla" by La Pampa based Fabián Racca. Over the course of its outwardly puny duration, this uneasy, yet intriguing track somewhere between sound art, field recording, installation and noise explores the interaction between a simple microphone and a TV screen, culling from a seemingly simple situation equally alien and highly musical sonorities. For Racca, "Murmullos de pantalla", which aptly translates to "Screen Murmers", may represent the temporary acme of a long journey which started sometime at the end of the 80s. But it is certainly not the first sign of recognition his oeuvre has received from the experimental community. Luminaries like Pauline Oliveros have voiced their approval of his efforts. His Carbonoproyecto, dedicated to free improvisation, ecoacoustics, radio art, deep listening and sound manipulation, has drawn attention for its singular blend of intuitive and academic approaches. And in 2003, renowned Print mag Musikworks included an article by Racca about "Listening in Argentina", shedding light on a scene all too often shrouded in mystery. It is easy to see what makes his work seem so appealing: Working with a motley setup of both old and new, cheap and advanced technology, he has been forced to find his own voice rather than leaving the creative part to technology. Growing up 600 kilometres away from the only city seriously dealing with Sound Art, Racca's path has always been a highly individual one, paved with as many obstacles as unique discoveries. Judging by the results, "Screen Murmers" is not going to be the last.

The relationship between image and sound seems particularly close in your work ...
Until 1999, visual aspects were not something that I found particularly interesting beyond the consumption of movies, videos or comics for example. It was only when I felt the need to get a camera to register some images of natural ambiances in the surroundings of our house in Toay town, a semi rural area 5km away from Santa Rosa of the main city of La Pampa province, that my perception started to change. Finding out that I could use the lens of the camera in a similar way as the microphone produced inside of me a big sense of euphoria, since it implied that I could focus on an image and discover details and perspectives that had before remained somewhat unnoticed. Photography also helped me a lot to observe natural processes in my experiments with the growing of native plants of the pampean region, which is the way I make my living. And when I could get a digital camera, with which I could also film, I was attracted by the possibility of exploring sound and image simultaneously, and the fact that most of the final result could be produced that way, with an austere later edition.
As for the experience with both languages, I have found moments of intensity which are very much alike in both sound and image. In the case of my piece Screen murmurs, there is a tension, a reaction across the sound over a media like TV that usually exerts a visual and hypnotic dictation.

How does your social and cultural background play into your work?
Argentina is a country with a centralist logic based in Buenos Aires: gaining access to formation or any possible acceptance, criticism or diffusion of an artistic work like this, is almost impossible without moving to Buenos Aires. In La Pampa, where I was born and where I’ve been living, there are no art schools or educational institutions that may include an experimental approach, and I never had the economic means to be able to move to BA. So I did all my learning in a self-taught way, and fortunately I could find a small group of friends here, to exchange opinions and share musical experiences.
Somehow it all happened in a strange way, in my early years of radio experiments between 1988 and 1996, everything was developing in an intuitive way, without having knowledge of concepts such as sound art, field recording, or deep listening, for instance. I had neither computers nor Internet, and access to information was very eventful and fragmented. Occasionally, one could read an interview in some rock magazine with someone who was mentioning John Cage among their influences, for example, but it was very difficult to understand what that meant. By 1994-95, I had an office job, that allowed me to save some money and travel every two or three months to Buenos Aires to buy CDs, and some magazines which spread different concepts, disciplines, and composers of experimental music. There was one occasion when I had worn out all the money on discs and I had go back to La Pampa - 600kms away - by hitchhiking! But those were the means within my reach to learn, and at the same time spread this music through the radio, although it caused quite a lot of rejection and controversies among the listeners.

You were developing the Carbonoproyecto at the time. What was this about?
As a constantly growing space, Carbonoproyecto inherently includes  different practices like field recording, radio art, free improvisation, deep listening and sound art, among others. In fact they were being defined as time went by, as individual and simultaneous practices at the same time, until somehow they all came together in a single language; and my work in the Carbonoproyecto, although with periods of predominance of some on others, usually develops in all such directions, which are interweaving. So in my compositions, the production processes are highly related to those that I use in the Carbonoproyecto.

If I understood correctly from your biography, Pauline Oliveros and Hildegard Westerkamp proved to be extremely helpful in your development since then ...
In 1998, I managed to buy the complete collection of Musicworks magazine from Canada, and thanks to Claudia, my wife, who was helping me with English, I could discover works and ideas that turned out to be very revealing to me like those of Pauline Oliveros, Malcolm Goldstein, John Oswald, Hildegard Westerkamp, R. Murray Schaffer among others.
By the beginning of 2000, and in the lack of local references, except for my small group of friends, and access to specialized criticism in Buenos Aires, I decided to write to a lot artists that I had listened to for years or whose articles I had read, to tell them about the approach we had at the newly born Carbonoproyecto and to ask them for their opinion. So, by extracting directions from magazines - The Wire and Musicworks in particular - and from CD booklets, I went to public Internet machines - we have a connection at home only since 2009 - and started sending e-mails. Obviously the majority didn’t answer me, some of them expressed their rejection to my ideas on producing music anyway. That is, with the available tools and information at my place. But I guess I was addressing them from a very different reality and maybe they found it difficult to understand that it was an issue of a rejection neither to the professional technology nor to the formal musical formation, but rather it was the fact that I had neither money nor possibilities to have access to scholarships or financial support. The only persons who were interested in my ideas were Pauline and Hildegard, who told me they’d like to listen to some works.

In which way was their feedback valuable to you?
It helped me very much to perceive the real dimension of what I was doing, and to keep on guiding myself for the results beyond the limitations of the cultural context I work in. So I sent them some recordings and they wrote back to me saying they had enjoyed them very much, that the quality of the sound was good - you have to bear in mind that many of them were made with non-professional tape recorders - and they both helped me to spread the work and ideas of the Carbonoproyecto in articles at magazines like Soundscape, Journal of Acoustic Ecology, and Musicworks, where they edited also seven audio tracks. From then until now, they keep on being very important for me, and with their attitude they have demonstrated their enormous coherence as artists and human beings. At the beginning of this year I had the opportunity to do a brief residency at the Deep Listening Institute and to meet Pauline. But it didn't happen, because I couldn’t get local economic support to afford the trip to US, and my savings were not enough. So you can imagine what a wonderful thing the Internet is to me, that I can even have this interview with you and have managed to be a part of one of the 60x60 mixes!!

I find it interesting that Argentina seems blessed by a particularly explorative type of sound art. What's your take on this?

I don't have a sufficiently well informed overview as to find a feature that distinguishes sound art in Argentina. What I've got to know during the last years seem to be some scattered efforts, with interruptions that make it difficult to speak of a continuity. It's as though things are always starting from scratch. Let's not forget that the last 30 years in the country are the only ones when we have had uninterrupted democracy, outside those periodic military coups that have marked our history. There are now experimental artists based in Argentina, which have a good recognition and activity in the international arena, but that does not mean that they can make their living from this job or that they may be broadcast nationally as to be made visible beyond some alternative media.

For artists like us, who live far from Buenos Aires these constraints are exacerbated. Achieving possibilities for financing such projects, even considered too "weird" by fund managers for culture, is very cumbersome and exhausting, and that situation ends up exerting a negative influence on what you want to do. The paradox of all this, and maybe there is a point to start thinking about a possible feature of sound art in the country, is that it produces a lot and in different directions, with much aesthetic and compositional freedom. Perhaps the context of not having to meet anyone's standards somehow favors further exploration in individual projects.

You mentioned some of the artists you've tried to contact as part of the Carbonoproyecto. In how far, on the other hand, were you finding artists sympathetic to your ideas at home in Argentina?
I believe the exchange between artists within a country is a complex issue, one that exceeds my ability for sociological interpretation in terms of that number of factors at stake. I don't find it pleasant to admit that mostly I've had better experiences with people outside of Argentina. This generates a huge void because it's as if I always lived in the wrong place. However, in recent years, and as far as Carbonoproyecto is concerned, the use of internet as a tool of connection has promoted a series of meetings and contacts with other Argentine artists. But I think it's just like starting all over, we are still far from a nurturing, respectful discussion of diverse ideas and experiences. In my opinion, we are like small islands, each with its own world, its  history, its group of friends and safe places. Communication between these "islands" is complicated and the actual scene is still not built.

Let's get back to your involvement with 60x60. Was conceptualising and writing a one-minute piece a more challenging task for you than working without limitations?
I found out about 60x60 thanks to an information that was posted at some moment on the Acoustic Ecology e-mail list, to which I’ve been a subscriber for several years. Although the central idea arose in a quite natural, spontaneous way, the fact of having to restrict my composition to one minute was a challenge in the sense that I had not been working with time limits for a long while. So, to me, it meant being able to connect again with my experiences in soundtracks design for dance and theater as well as radio art.

What were some of the basic propositions guiding your work on Screen Murmers?
One of my favorite practices is listening to and recording ambiance amplified through a field recorder. It helps me to immerse myself in the sound and pay attention to details that are like sonorous micro worlds inside the acoustic environment we normally perceive. This process leads me to some sort of compositional reaction in different ways, either by discovering a possible composition without intervening beyond the act of concentrated listening, or redirecting the tape recorder to receive different frequencies, and to improvise with that and also exploring the sounds of the objects that are in a place, either by beating, rubbing, blowing, or whatever I find interesting subjecting them to at that particular point in time.

What do the disciplines of field recording and sound art have in common that make them interesting for you to work with?
Their main connection is that the two of them involve the process of the listening, and also the fact that the limits between both often are vague. For example, I usually work on many pieces of sound art by manipulating field recordings, and on the other hand I produce works of sound art through the practice of interacting with a certain ambiance using the tape recorder and the ears as the main instruments, as in several of my discs of the still unpublished “Walkman Stereo” series. I also find it interesting to apply sound art criteria to select parts of field recordings, which do not need further intervention than such a selection.

Is there any kind of connection between your work with plants and your music? I'm mostly asking because I could imagine that your work in the open field provides you with a very unique acoustic environment - and of course because an artist like Miya Masaoko also thought plants an interesting subject for sonic exploration.

In my work of sonic experimentation, listening is an essential component, and so, there's no doubt that the sound environment in which I move every day, does influence me greatly. But this does not mean that my work is focused on finding the sounds of nature only. Perhaps, what really happens is that I live in a soundscape where the contrasts between urban growth and the rural enormity are neatly perceived, and somehow I respond to that in sound art pieces or improvisations. But it is true that listening to different sound aspects related to my work on growing plants, such as the wind, certain birds or insects associated with native plants, the sound of the pods and capsules containing seeds at different degrees of maturity among several others, are part of my daily activities, and are often triggers or field recordings with ambient improvisations.

How did the idea for the 60x60 piece develop more concretely?
The initial idea or impulse that generated Screen murmurs, was to bring the digital tape recorder next to the TV screen while it was displaying the white noise of a channel without signal, to try to listen and record some possible interference between the TV set and the tape recorder. Or, by adding the crackling sound from the surface of the screen, the white noise of the speakers. But the sound that really attracted me was the one that was taking place when I put the mic of the tape recorder and its foam rubber padding on the screen. So I started improvising by rubbing the mic with different intensities and recording the results. Listening to these sounds I selected different fragments and loaded them in tracks of an audio edition software - Cubasis - and began to work on the mix.

What exactly happened during the 60 seconds?
Although nothing in Screen murmurs would have happened without the will and the personal decision to generate this improvisatory action on the TV screen, unexpected situations simultaneously showed up, like the sound of the mic colliding with the screen, which was like opening a door that defined the rest of the search. Also, there's the physical and mental process of a person, exploring with a tape recorder and earphones, listening with concentration to something he discovered and wants to observe-enjoy as long as possible. In this sense, recording means extending this time, to be able to observe in a more detailed way the possibilities of this sonorous source.

What kind of digital processing techniques were you working on specifically?
In the social and cultural context in which I work, trying to have access to professional technologies is very frustrating and an impediment, unless you have a lot of money, which, for me, is not the case. So I have always worked with the hardware that my budget can afford, i.e. technologies of domestic use or a semiprofessional one, which I’ve been gathering throughout the years - I still use the old mixers from the time I worked at an FM station in 1990 for example - and I use them in combination with the new ones. As for the software, the Cubasis version that I used for Screen murmurs is the one that came with a 2004 Soundblaster sound card, the one I’m still using. There, I put in a track, one minute of original sound that I selected as a base and cut away other parts of the original recording that I put in another three tracks; then I applied to these three some basic processes, such as equalization, pitch, reverb, cut & paste, a little delay and tempo changes. Then I started trying different dialogues between the tracks across the mix and when I came to a combination that satisfied me, I repeated it until I considered it fluid, and recorded it with the “what you hear” function, in real-time.
That is to say that I did not programme the mix to export it, but I did it as if I was handling an analog console but with the software, something that turns out to be particularly attractive to me since the process always has something of a new experience.

How do you see the relationship between technology and creativity?

I think that having better technological chances helps expand creativity in general, but that is also something to be careful about. This is because I think there is a lot of technology oriented at imposing a particular form of production on artists - and this form is one aimed at consumption. For instance, many devices with different rhythmic patterns and effects are combined and sold under the "make your own music" slogan, when in fact you can see that the idea is to waste your time consuming what they have already designed. Of course, one always has the option of using these possibilities in other ways, transforming them into something less predictable. There's an interesting current tendency such as circuit bending or technical feedback devices, which expand or release the sonic scopes of these technologies, regardless of whether they are low or high cost. But at the same time, I feel the results achieved with this are headed towards another standardization, since they are spread as new canons to fit into this or that experimental variant. There are few cases that come to these developments through an intuitive search, or because that was the way to live and creatively solve a technological disadvantage, for instance.

Where do you see the sound art scene in Argentina and your own work as a sound artist going?

First of all I think we can only speak about a scene "in progress", which, beyond the different individual cases, lacks a degree of maturity and self-confidence. But if we take as a basis the existing state of the scene, I think the course is going to be defined by the set of attitudes we have, as we balance our logical individual development needs with a collective reality. We must learn that without the other, we are just a bunch of fools running after a plastic carrot.

Fabian Racca interview by Tobias Fischer

Fabián Racca

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