A career in moments
Professor of contemporary music, sound art and performing arts at the Belgium's Ghent School of Fine Arts, Esther Venrooy considers her dual roles as composer and sound artist as occupying two very different sensorial planes. With a sharp focus both in her studies and creative impulses on audio topography, the Dutch artist explores the way sound inhabits space and has given a TED talk on her work on Vessels. However, in her expressions as a composer, Venrooy prefers to let temporal structures impose on the shape and form of her work. Having collaborated live and in the studio with a variety of visual, sound and dance artists, Venrooy's biography reads like a mixed media map of projects from architecture to dance. Venrooy uses a combination of electronic and traditional instruments favouring the piano, guqin, pipa and satsuma-biwa and has performed all over the world.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I was involved in music, sounds and listening at a very early age. My parents filled our house with classical music, sixties and seventies pop music. In those early years I started to make short songs / compositions for my baby piano, recorder and later saxophone. My dad gave me his old cassette recorder and I was able to make my own compilation cassettes. I would spend hours in my room listening to the radio, waiting for the ‘right’ song.
When I think of early influences I think of the soundscape of my hometown. One of the earliest sound memories is a low knocking sound of boat engines. We lived in Zaltbommel, a small town in the Netherlands, near the river. At night, when all was quiet, the wind would carry the boat sounds to my room. My earliest memory of electronic music is the soundtrack of the Swedish movie ‘Bröderna Lejonhjärta’, based on my favorite book by Astrid Lindgren, a wonderful combination of folk instruments and analogue synthesizers.
After high school I studied saxophone, playing mostly contemporary and experimental music. Unfortunately the literature for classical saxophone is very limited, but I was fortunate to meet the American composer Jim Fulkerson, who introduced me to the music of Giacinto Scelsi, Morton Feldman, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Luciano Berio, Alvin Lucier, etc. I was impressed by their attitude towards music and sound, compositional concepts, graphic scores and sonic experiments.
What do you personally consider to be the incisive moments in your artistic work and/or career?
In every (artistic) process there is an incisive moment. I consider this moment to be the feeling when everything seems to come together, falls into place and suddenly makes sense. As an artist/composer you have to be alert for this moment, because it can be caused by the introduction of a new element or a simple shift of one sound in time. The artwork or composition might still need a lot work, but the blueprint has been established and the character of the work has revealed itself.
A series of incisive moments is maybe a career.
What are currently your main compositional- and production-challenges?
Since 2009 my work has shifted from electronic compositions and collaborations with musicians to sound installations and art. As a composer I deal with the linear concept of time. I place sounds in time and every now and then in space, depending on the sound system. As a sound artist I have been dealing with placing sounds in a space. Just like a video installation it is essential to give the ‘soundwork’ time. But most of my sound installations are not time pieces and it is up to the listeners to decide how long they want to experience the work.
I think about sound as a dynamic ‘object’ in space, focussing on the way it appears to us and what ‘signal’ or ‘meaning’ it carries. These sound objects are usually ‘sculpted’ for a particular location and are projected in the space by different types of speakers (bi-polar speakers, transducers, etc.), using the specific acoustics of a place. Listening and ‘reading’ a space have become essential in the creation process.
What do you usually start with when working on a new piece?
When I compose I usually have a general idea for the duration of a piece, or a concept. At the beginning of a work I will go through my notebooks, looking for some words, graph scores, drawings or notes. I will start designing sound from a particular collection of sounds, with very different characters, textures, lengths and intensities.
When I create a sound installation for a particular location I explore the space by taking photographs, making drawings and taking measurements. Then I start collecting, recording and generating sounds.
How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
It is possible to improvise with a map, plan or structure and it is possible to integrate improvisational parts in a composition. When I compose I have often a plan for the work, but during the compositional process unexpected things, mistakes or unwanted soundings happen. Instead of correcting them, I consider them triggers or indicators which can take me to unknown territories.
For me the essence of an electronic music concert is the physical, spatial and collective experience of sounds. There is a huge difference in experiencing a concert alone with headphones, in your living room with friends or in a hall filled with two hundred people. The improvisational aspect is maybe not always related to performance, but to the live creation, shaping and projection of sound. I particularly remember a concert by Eliane Radigue in Witte Zaal at the art academy Sint-Lucas in Gent, where the performative part was absent. She was sitting behind the mixer in a very small room next to the audience. Even though we couldn’t see her we were all concentrated, intensely listening to the sounds moving in space. Meticulously she was placing and mixing sounds in space, following the composition and creating a communal sonic experience.
Installing a soundwork has an improvisational aspect. When you start a project there is usually an idea on how the sounds can work in space, but in reality the shape, intensity, character and spatiality of a sound is very different. Experimenting and improvising with sounds on site is essential when you create a soundwork based on the acoustics and sonic characteristics of a location.
How do you see the relationship between sound, space and composition?
Aristotle stated in ‘De Anima’ for actual sound to occur it needs two ‘bodies’ to make an impact, creating a movement of air. He argued that we can perceive the impact with our hearing organ, because the movement of air is registered in our inner ear. ‘For sound is the movement of that which can be moved.’ Sound waves are mostly happening outside of us. According to the British philosopher Bernard Russell there is a distinction between sounds and sound waves: sounds are not part of reality, whereas sound-waves are.
The absence of sound is silence. But we human beings do not experience absolute silence, except maybe in space, but even in space or in an anechoic chamber we still hear the sounds of our heartbeats, the tones of our nervous system and blood pressure. And even when we experience absolute silence we seem to fill this void with projections of ourselves.
There is a wonderful statement by Charles Moore in the introduction of ‘In Praise of Shadows’ by Junichirō Tanizaki which catches the relation between sound, space and composition: ‘(…) so it is when there comes to us the excitement of realizing that musicians everywhere make their sounds to capture silence or that architects develop their complex shapes just to envelop empty space.’
Do you feel it important that an audience is able to deduct the processes and ideas behind a work purely on the basis of the music? If so, how do you make them transparent?
It depends very much on the kind of work you make. I like for instance a lot the elevator piece ‘Work no. 371: Ooh/aah up/down’ by Martin Creed. In this work the composition is determined by which floor you step into the elevator and move from a to b. The concept of the work plays a very significant role, but the form and the sound material are still very important. Creed: ‘Art happens, if it happens, in people – in their hearts and heads and bodies.’
In my own work I want to explore with the audience a new territory of thought, by filling and projecting sounds in a room/tower/... Experiencing sound can be an intimate process, because the auditory memory can create an internal image. We do not only sense the sound but through audition we draw our attention to the ‘umwelt’, intensifying our other senses. Every sound has the ability to awaken, rouse our minds and stimulate us, if we are willing to patiently wait.
In how much, do you feel, are creative decisions shaped by cultural differences – and in how much, vice versa, is the perception of sound influenced by cultural differences?
Perceiving sound and listening depends not only on the physiology of the ear but of course also on culture. In the book ‘Spaces Speak are You Listening?’ by Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter there is a statement by anthropologist Anthony Seeger: ‘Just as time and space are not perceived by the vast majority of human societies as a regular continuum and grid, so the [sensorium] is rarely thought of in strictly biological terms… The five senses are given different emphasis and different meanings in different societies.’