RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

A grammar of space

img  Tobias Fischer

The history of the Seattle Phonographers Union has long been a mystery. Which is surprising given the fact that public performances have been an integral aspect of the project. A simple reason for the relative obscurity of the formation may be that despite its prominent members, which include some of the finest sound artists and field recorders not just of the Seattle area but the entire scene, it has placed music first and egos last. The SPU's Steve Barsotti has described how the expansive, almost twenty-musician-strong line-up gradually formed in the early years of the new Millennium, when Dale Lloyd founded his And/Oar imprint and started a series of releases based on pure field recordings. The fascinating point of departure for the group was the idea of basing live improvisations on these materials, creating worlds of sound from spontaneous collective processes. Since then, the  Seattle Phonographers Union have performed on numerous occasions in their hometown in constantly evolving constellations.Two of the more memorable are collected on Building 27 and WNP-5, a lavishly produced LP on the Prefecture imprint containing performances within a decommissioned aircraft hangar and an uncompleted nuclear plant cooling tower. The result is a strangely mesmerising trip, each sound a carefully placed note on a canvas of breath. Even the most attentive listener will not be able to make out the source of every single sound. But that, just as the history of the Seattle Phonographers Union, may only serve to put the emphasis more firmly on the music.

Your new LP Building 27 and WNP-5 was recorded in two unique locations. Can you tell me about these buildings and what made them interesting for the performances? What are some of the other more unusual and rewarding spaces you've performed at over the years with the SPU?
Steve Barsotti: I have always been interested in how sounds are affected by the space in which they exist. I like recording in spaces that we won’t usually find our ears such as dropping mics down sewer grates, or slipping them into tubes at construction sites. Then I take these sounds and play them back in a space and by doing that, create new spaces and contexts for those sounds to exist. The hanger and silo offered very unique, and admittedly dramatic, versions of this.
Christopher DeLaurenti: The challenge of Building 27 - a giant aircraft hangar at Sand Point - and WNP-5 - an incomplete cooling tower at a nuclear power station is to find a grammar of space with different sounds. The aim is not to re-sound recordings within a space. Anyone can do that in software. The aim, for me at least, is can I learn how to listen to my sounds and the band's sounds in a new way. Anytime I find an unusual acoustic space I ask can this space teach me something new about my sounds, sound in general, and listening?

If I understood correctly, at least some of these performances were attended by an audience. I'd be curious about how that influenced the interaction.
Steve Barsotti: Both of the sessions are first and foremost about the spaces. And by the space I of course mean the acoustic translation but also about it’s history, it’s purpose. The echos and reverberations of these spaces are the voices of the previous lives of these spaces. The album has two sides; one is an unedited excerpt from Building 27, a decommissioned aircraft hangar and the other from Satsop, the never-finished nuclear cooling silo. Building 27 had the audience while Satsop did not (or only a couple people that let us in). In B27 the audience puttering around the space became part of the show. Also, there is always a feeling of excitement when there is an audience. It made it feel like an event. In Satsop, with no audience to speak of, at least I focused on it as a recording session and was able to experiment, stop, think, try again, and then say, “Ok, let’s track it!”
Christopher DeLaurenti: In Building 27, audience footsteps and murmurs became part of the piece. And most of us at one point or another would leave the main performing area and walk around and listen for 10, 15,40 minutes or more just to hear and return to the group with fresh ears, We had a visibly small (2? 4?) audience at WNP-5, but we also had an unknown audience beyond the tower, as if we wanted to funnel our listening towards the sky.

How you see the interaction between the actual space and you as musicians? Are you rather finding that you are playing the space or is the space playing you?
Steve Barsotti: Both really. I have never been sure how you can play this kind of material into a space without taking the space into consideration both acoustically and aesthetically. In B27 I was insistent that we not have “stage monitors” or speakers set up close to us so that we could hear ourselves clearly. I made us set up our speakers on the opposite side of the room facing back towards us. This forced us to listen to how the sound is translated through the space and affected how we would perform.

Dale Lloyd: Personally speaking, if a space has particular acoustic properties, I try to use sounds that carry (or translate) well within that space.

Christopher DeLaurenti Other phonogs may disagree, but I believe we are creating a space inside a space. The audience hears the SPU, but the group does not completely envelop the space. With quieter volumes, we accompany the space. When silent, the space - and those in it - becomes the soloist.

What kind of sources were you playing on the occasion? Will there be discussions afterwards about who played what? Would you say there are sounds which are a no-go or is anything possible?
Steve Barsotti: These seem to me like three distinct questions that cover very different ideas.
I do consider the space when selecting recordings to play. The hanger and the silo are both spaces that have unique and long reverbs. So whatever you play will hang in the air for a bit. I selected sounds that were either short and sharp, percussive in some manner with distinct transients, or lush longer drones from engines or motors. The percussive sounds would illicit a nice response from the space while the drones would just fill the space and envelope all within. However the trick in these spaces is to avoid creating a thick unintelligible mass of sound with no clarity or definition. What might mix together nicely in a controlled room with a clean P.A. system can very easily come across muddied and dull in a huge cavernous room. So it starts with selecting recordings that I think will be more effective in the spaces. Then it becomes about how we listen in the space and how we mix the audio with others in the space.
We don’t necessarily discuss who played what after shows although occasionally someone might have a question about a sound played. We quite often have no idea who played what. In fact, there are times when there is a sound being played that I thought was mine but was in fact being played by someone else!
The idea of “no-go” sounds kind of fit into the processing category from a previous question. I think we each have our own notion of what we would or would not play. Some members have street recordings that include playback of music over speakers, recordings of Hare Krishnas chanting, or recordings of crowds at sporting events. I list these three specifically because at some point some members of the group have expressed their distaste for these recordings and have stated that they would not play these. But that is less of a “no-go” and more of a personal aesthetic.

As pointed out by Frans de Waard in his review, vinyl may seem like an unusual choice of format, with regards to the 'sonic impurities' of the LP itself. How do these things play into your considerations?
Steve Barsotti: I liked that comment. This whole process is riddled with sonic impurities!! The LP decision was based on two factors. First, I am interested in how this material changes as it is translated by various speaker sizes, various locations, and recording mediums. We have two CDs, a cassette, have been broadcast on the radio (both broadcast and Internet) and have played live in a variety of settings. But we had not yet translated our material through vinyl. The vinyl format can be difficult for quiet experimental music in that the noise floor can interfere with the very delicate or quite material. However I feel that the selections I chose for this album could sit within that effectively.
Second, I was thinking of this project as something larger that just the audio. I wanted a format that would allow for the presentation of the photographs as well. The gatefold LP was a perfect opportunity to present these photos as well as the audio. Tif Lin’s wonderful design of these shots really does a nice job portraying the spaces.

From your performances and research, are you finding that it is the most 'exotic' noises which tend to elicit the strongest response or, conversely, the 'everyday' ones?
Dale Lloyd: Regardless of what the sounds might be, I think it's mostly a matter of timing and delivery. For example, you could play a very humorous sound, but if it's not inserted at the right moment, it might not generate any reaction.

Steve Barsotti I think those terms are subjective. As our mission states: we “uncover what is foreign in the familiar and familiar about the foreign.” When you are going about your business and have the coffee machine gurgling in the background you may be aware of it but it just exists. This is about as “everyday’ as you can get. But when you take that sound and play it loudly over a PA system (and even mixed with other sounds) it suddenly becomes exotic. Part of this is the definite size difference but it is also the concentration placed on the sound. You are listening to it versus hearing it. Now you are hearing something new that you had not heard before. That to me is where we get the most reaction. It is the surprise and joy of “That was a coffee maker???“ that is the most interesting.
The more exotic (and I will use this word as you intended) sounds that we play are so mysterious that people usually just comment on them being interesting sounds. However, it is possible to find comfort in these sounds. While you may not have ever heard their original sources, or even know what the original sources may be, you might still find something familiar about them, something that evokes a memory or is otherwise inspirational.

Seattle Phonographers Union interview by Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Seattle Phonographers Union
Homepage: Prefecture Music