Michael Schumacher. Room Pieces. Interview by Ilari Valbonesi
I had certain instruments, synthesisers, which had multiple outputs and so I thought, what if each sound could have its own output speaker like a little orchestra. When an instrument vibrates it activates a space around it. If you think of an orchestra there are 30 violins, each having its own space and its own air of vibration and it is not possible to reproduce all these vibrations with only one speaker, so I started to place speakers all around the apartment. At that point I began using the architecture of the space as one of the structural elements of the music, in the same way as melody, rhythm, harmony or timbre.
The analogy I thought of was to be in a space with windows all around that opened on various kinds of sonic activity. I use this term on purpose, because I thought of the sounds as continuing even when they're not heard. So I imagined sitting in this space and the windows opening and closing according to certain timing algorithms, and this was the form of the music. Sounds would alternate with silence and create new contexts for each other. The structure would be the working out of these millions and billions of possibilities, the listener "learning" more and more about particular sounds and combinations of sounds as the piece continued.
IV: Room Pieces takes on a unique identity based on the nature of the space in which it is installed. What do you mean by “ nature of space?” And how is it related to time?
MS: When I enter a space, I listen to the space, I get the sense of what the acoustics are, what the noise level is, what kind of sounds already exist in that space...every space has sounds: a quiet space is actually full of sound: the constant din of workers, doors slamming, people talking... You have to sense where to place a speaker and you have to do it very quickly. Basically you have to sense multiple points which are activated by the installation. I have a lot of experience doing this, which helps.
IV: What makes the listener’s unique experience part of this shifting context?
MS: I hope that each listener has a unique association with each sound and creates all kinds of personal fantasies and different relations with each sound. For example, you said you heard a motorcycle sound.. it’s not a motorcycle sound…it’s a recording of a lawnmower that's been sped up... You hear an echoing chamber and you might think that you are in a cathedral or if you hear tapping you might think of that time when you worked on your apartment. The installation is supposed to trigger your subjective memory: Each association is of course very specific to each listener but the objective experience is the same for everybody. When you hear the "motorcycle" sound and it comes back again, the context will have changed; the first time you heard it, it was the only sound in the room whereas the second time it was accompanied by four or five other sounds. Everybody hears that change of context. Also, contextualizing sound means drawing attention to its more abstract elements, such as pitch and rhythm. The structural method of Room Pieces allows for, on the one hand, a highly subjective "reading" of the sound world, and on the other hand an abstraction of what could be thought of as "musical" elements from otherwise concrete sound objects.
IV: That’s why you describe it as a shifting grid?
MS: I'm trying to relate space and time in the idea of a grid. Time in this case has two aspects, time as expressed in the structure of the installation, and the experience of the listener extending into his or her past. The use of multiple speakers is important, not for creating "virtual" effects, but to clarify the abstract relationships that develop between the various sounds. The installation needs a certain amount of time to establish and deepen these relationships.
IV: On the contrary “every sound element remains highly independent, articulating its unique path into the future”. What makes for the independence of the sounds?
MS: I try to create sonic "objects" that have a sense of occupying a specific and particular space, a dynamic, emotional and physical space. A sound doesn't even have to be particularly interesting, but it should be distinctive so that it can serve a purpose within the structure of the piece. Some sounds, of course, should be interesting...
If you think of Bach, each voice is independent, but often, as in the case of the Art of the Fugue, the timbre can be uniform (often Bach did not stipulate what instruments to use). The counterpoint of Room Pieces begins with tibral difference and expects the listener to discover pitch and rhythmic continuities that unify the experience.
IV: These sounds are culled from different sources. What makes for "specific" distinctions?
MS: There is a big difference in terms of the kind of energy that sound communicates. When a person plays an instrument it’s a highly energetic activity and you try to capture that. I don’t mean that the sine tone or something like the tone that a computer generates has less energy. Mechanical energy may have more precision and a neutrality which could be a interesting. I think that the suggestion of possible associations with other sounds is what’s important.
When presenting the piece I print out a list of the sounds used in the piece. The point of this list is to supplement and counteract the listener's "attempts" to locate the sounds as real objects in the world. Much of the list is tongue-in-cheek, since many of the sounds are so distorted by various processes that they are unrecognizable as what they are listed as being. So on the one hand you have sounds that are triggering memories and on the other hand you have this list which concretizes the sounds but at the same time adds another layer of associations and, if you will, disinformation.
IV: Does it mean that you are interested in the modes of listening to the sounds more then the sounds itself?
MS: In the installation I explore various modes of listening, and hope that the flow of one way of listening to another becomes another aspect in what can be described as the structure of the installation. For me, musical structure is not expressed in the score, in the map, so to speak. The structure is a process that occurs in real time and has a high degree of flexibility. To develop the map analogy, if I take a walk I can talk about the "structure" of the walk being the various details of the physical process of walking, such as the effect of road surface on my feet, of wet or dry pathways, general weather conditions, energy level, am I alone or with someone, do I meet a stranger or pass a construction site, etc. All of these things are vital but none are expressed in the map that we carry to guide us on our way. I would compare this to a musical score, which lays out a process but contains none of the details that an experienced performer incorporates into the realization. I want to acknowledge these details as an indispensible part of the musical experience, details that are, importantly, ephemeral. This is one reason why I love algorithmic composition, a particular constellation of sounds occurs once and never again, pointing out the essential fragility of the experience. Add to this the many conditions lying outside the music itself, the factors that determine the concentration level of the listener, the way the sounds resonate in the space, etc. I hope to make all of these factors foreground events.
IV: Can we say that sound is the result of an associative process?
MS: There are levels of associative processes and the associations that I use are quite sophisticated, they have to do with the basic elements of music, the same sort of elements that I would use if I were to write for a string quartet: rhythm, harmony, pitch and timbre, very basic structural elements. So those are ultimately the associations that I use: these really fundamental musical associations, but considering the range of sounds it’s inevitable that people are going to have other associations.
IV: Is that why you speak of different “states of listening”?
MS: For me different states are more levels of concentration, whether something is a foreground operation or background operation. I feel there is a lot of value in background listening. Somebody doesn’t need to be focused on a musical event to have a beautiful experience.
IV: Basically Room Pieces is an objective manifestation of self affection.
MS: You’re free of dictating your own environment. By freedom I mean you allow the environment to flow through you, you don’t control it. Control is not freedom. People associate power with freedom but power is almost the opposite: power ties you and restricts you to a particular structure. If you release yourself from that structure and allow thoughts and ideas that come from the environment to flow through you and deal with them on a moment to moment basis then you are free. Then you are approaching a state of freedom.
IV: Is that why you call the installation elements “instances”?
MS: I used to call my installations with live performance "Instances and Opportunities".
IV: Computers as media for creating arts: Almost 20 years that you reflect on issues of the nature of memory, human and digital. Do you see any similarity?
MS: Computer memory is an important practical concern for anyone working with digital technology. The issue is what happens to a piece even just 5 years after you create it? How does one insure that one can reconstruct a piece? The pieces that I made in the 90s, when I used analogue synthesisers and other "tone generators", are now impossible for me to reconstruct. This fact is part of the reason why I started to work the way I do now, which is an accumulative way of creating this constantly expanding world of sound which becomes an immense catalogue of possibilities that I can structure in different ways.
As far as human memory goes, it is very interesting the question of how with traditional music it's possible to conceive it all in your head. I don’t think this is true with the kind of music I do now. I can’t sit in a room in silence and imagine the piece. I can dream very explicit sounds, very complex sounds, but in waking life I use the computer as a means to actuate what I sense more then what I specifically imagine in my mind's ear. This caused a huge moral issues for me because the way I always made music was to imagine it in my head very carefully and then to write it down.
IV: It’s a different way of composing…
MS: Totally different! I wonder whether in a generation, young people are going to compose with the computer in the way I used to with pencil and paper: imagine a very specific sound and tell the computer what to do.
IV: I understand that Diapason is your gallery in New York:
MS: Check the website: http://www.diapasongallery.org/ There's an archive. Before Diapason I had another space for 4 years. I am most interested in computer-based work though I present non computer-based work. Diapason is a space that is dedicated to listening. There is no talking, there are no openings and it’s not a particularly social environment, it’s more of a private experience. People come in, they lie down, they listen and they don’t interact too much with other people. Many people value this.
IV: How is the reception of Sound Art in New York?
MS: The only space devoted to sound art is Diapason. There are other spaces which present sound works but not as consistently. Some of the programming of other galleries includes sound art, like The Kitchen, or the Sculpture Centre or The Whitney. Although I don’t consider this a facility on the level of those institutions, it serves an important function. The sounds system are high quality, and by doing a little I've created a really good space for focused listening.
IV: Do you think there is more attention to Sound Art in other countries?
MS: There are many sounds artist in New York. It is an amazingly active community right now of composers, visual artists, architects, computer programmers, engineers, people from many disciplines who make works of sound art: It’s an important idea right now and New York is extremely active. The country that is probably at the forefront of sound art is Germany, particularly in Berlin, where there's a long history of presenting works in a serious way.
Michael J. Schumacher is a composer, performer and installation artist based in New York City.
He works predominantly with electronic and digital media, specializing in computer generated sound environments which evolve continuously for long time periods. He imbues these self-creating structures with an abundance of sonic material, resulting in forms that flow through a wide range of moods, timbral combinations and textural densities. In their realization, Schumacher uses multiple speaker configurations which relate the sounds of the installation to the architecture of the exhibition space. Architectural and acoustical considerations thereby become basic structural elements.
Schumacher’s sound installations have been heard at Art in General, Apex Art, PS 1, the Queens Museum and The Kitchen and Sculpture Center in New York City, CCNOA in Brussels, the Technical University and Podewil in Berlin, the Museum for Applied Arts in Frankfurt , the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyon, Triskel Arts Center in Cork, Ireland, Transmissions Festival in Chicago, SFIFEM in Sante Fe, the Waveform Festival in Sydney, Via 7 Festival in Paris, )toon Festival in Haarlem, and others.