Name: Gil Sansón
Occupation: Composer, multimedia artist
Current release: Gil Sansón's Impostor Syndrome, a surreally pastoral suite of pieces for voice, guitar, field recordings and electronics, which somehow, inexplicably and miraculously, blend into a larger, coherent whole, is out now via Full Spectrum.
Recommendations: The book is not an art book, but still I think it's essential reading for artists: The Society of the Spectacle by Guy Debord.
This movie, on the other hand, is quite definitely an artwork: The Mirror by Andrei Tarkovsky.
If you enjoyed this interview and would like to find out more, keep reading and head over to our feature on Gil Sansón's thoughts on sound.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences? What was it about music and/or sound that drew you to it?
I was a late bloomer. For many years I was happy being a listener, but eventually I started to get hints that I was probably more than a listener when I realized that what I thought was normal (hearing music in your head) was not, but it was a slow process; much observation, little action.
Initially I wanted to play the drums, but two things conspired against it. One, drums are expensive, and two, my rhythmic sense wasn't that good. Pen and paper were cheap and easily available so drawing became my medium for many years until music became more and more important. A typical introduction to the guitar came in my teenage years, when I saw firsthand how a boy could attract attention from girls and peers by strumming a guitar. But quite early on I found that I was attracted to the more experimental and difficult side of things so that led me to the fringes of rock music, which luckily for me were very active and exciting in the late 80's and 90's and offered many possibilities.
Art music was always there, so early influences were British Prog Rock bands like Genesis and Van Der Graaf Generator, but also less easy to classify artists like Robert Wyatt, combined with independent rock bands like Sonic Youth.
To this day I can detect traces of these early influences in what I do.
For most artists, originality is 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?
Consciously imitating an artist was never my thing. I had my inclinations but also I tended to do things in a certain way whether I want it or not, and that placed me in the road for experimental music. Occasionally fellow musicians or a more mainstream bent would call me to record a guitar solo on their record when they wanted something crazy or unusual. But the real possibilities of experimental music as a scene only came when I moved to NYC in 1999.
As soon as I got there I bought a cheap guitar and a 4 track recording machine. This early music was wild and not too focused, but to my ears sounded like no one else, for good or bad. Once this self granted permission to make my thing I started meeting fellow musicians and playing gigs.
The experimental scene in NYC was very lively and approachable, small audiences didn't seem to matter to the artists and the whole thing felt like home.
How do you feel your sense of identity influences your creativity?
This is an interesting question. I view identity as that which I can't change in myself. A statute of limitations, so to speak. So I don't work actively trying to assert my identity, in fact, the opposite is true. I believe my work has a strong identity already and I don't see why I should overplay it to suit the current climate and I will always defend the right to avoid definitions and remain open to potentialities available to those unwilling to cast themselves univocally, however noble the agenda.
Identity can be evaluated forensically, as in analyzing the characteristics of a style, but style and identity are two different things. Identity seems to me to be more of a set of non transferable conditionings that more often than not are beyond our control. Naturally, I understand and sympathize with those who see identity construction as an essential part of social life. Personally, I don't feel the need to control things too much and I like to keep things open, including the notion of identity as a person and as an artist.
What were your main creative challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
The main creative challenges at the beginning are lack of big picture comprehension and lack of technical means that you don't know you need.
Over time, things that were never an issue can become very real obstacles. Motivation is one.
In essence, the main problem is the same: how can I bring to life the sound I hear in my head?
As creative goals and technical abilities change, so does the need for different tools of expression, be it instruments, software tools or recording equipment. Can you describe this path for you, starting from your first studio/first instrument? What motivated some of the choices you made in terms of instruments/tools/equipment over the years?
I was raised on records, so being able to record music on my own was very important. As soon as I got my Tascam 4 track I started recording and experimenting, mostly with guitar but also with field recordings and concrete musique type of elements. Over time I moved to a G3 laptop but always kept the taste for analog tape frequencies. After my laptop died after a concert I spent a few years working without amplification or with a combination of tape and live sound.
To this day I favor acoustic sounds when playing live, for the most part. The main difference would be that the level of editing that a digital workstation allows me a level of fastidiousness that I could only dream of when working on 4 track.
Collaborations can take on many forms. What role do they play in your approach and what are your preferred ways of engaging with other creatives through, for example, file sharing, jamming or just talking about ideas?
Working in collaboration needs just one thing, really: shared trust between the artists. I have worked with many artists, each with their own quirks and inclinations. So first rule for me would be to work with artists I admire and see common ground with. Rule number two would be to trust each other and trust that each is interested in creating something that would be bigger than the sum of the parts, which means willingness to leave one's own comfort zone and take a few risks.
With each artist a certain language of artistic communication has to be found, which can mean long processes in some cases or almost telepathic communication at the speed of light in others. Facebook has been very useful tool for this purpose, from the actual work to the part of shopping for labels once the projects are finished.
Take us through a day in your life, from a possible morning routine through to your work, please. Do you have a fixed schedule? How do music and other aspects of your life feed back into each other - do you separate them or instead try to make them blend seamlessly?
My morning routine normally entails breakfast, checking my emails and media, which mostly means checking on what friends and colleagues are up to. Only then I sort of plan the working day, with the main concern being not working on anything that would cause me anxiety or displeasure.
A good day of work can be half hour of work or five hours, depending on my effectiveness that day. Breaks are common and include petting my cat and taking walks around my neighborhood.
Can you talk about a breakthrough work, event or performance in your career? Why does it feel special to you? When, why and how did you start working on it, what were some of the motivations and ideas behind it?
I do remember one event that cemented my resolve as an artist.
I was invited to participate in a concert in Brooklyn in 2003 and decided to present three CD players on stage with the work, which comprised a CD on each player, with the shuffle function activated. I did not want to appear on stage and wanted the music to be the only focus. The expenditures of buying three boomboxes (same model, different color) greatly outnumbered the concert fee but I was adamant that this was what I wanted to do. It was not about doing what first, but more of an experimental attitude to the presentation of music as much as the music itself.
After the concert a sense of validation remained and has led me to avoid taking things for granted, even the most basic.
There are many descriptions of the ideal state of mind for being creative. What is it like for you? What supports this ideal state of mind and what are distractions? Are there strategies to enter into this state more easily?
The ideal state for making music or making art is, for me, one of quiet amazement at the wonders of the world and of being alive. Being able to tone to the small miracles as well as the big ones. How can I contribute to it in a way that feels natural. Also, how can I be always open to ideas, when to stop watching the movie because I have an idea that could work. That type of situation never has a one size fits all answer.
Music and sounds can heal, but they can also hurt. Do you personally have experiences with either or both of these? Where do you personally see the biggest need and potential for music as a tool for healing?
Music can hurt or heal, but it's a complex issue. Is music like a poison, that can cure with a small dose and kill with higher doses? I would say that proportion and timing determine in great part if the music is painful or not.
Also, there's the cultural aspect of sound, changing the meaning of it depending on the source. A young person in deep emotional pain may very well find death and black metal to be antidotes to pain, whereas a Guantanamo detainee will find death metal being blasted at irregular intervals to be quite painful and disorienting.
I remember a concert in which there was a guitarist playing on a Sunn amplifier at full blast and there were times in which I felt that the music was going to give me a heart attack. Another time I was partly deaf for a couple of days after an Iron Maiden concert, but I don't remember the concert being painful at all, quite the contrary.
There is a fine line between cultural exchange and appropriation. What are your thoughts on the limits of copying, using cultural signs and symbols and the cultural/social/gender specificity of art?
The way I see cultural appropriation has to do with the person doing it from a position of unchecked power.
Eric Clapton is a good example. He embodies a system in which Anglo Saxon white men can steal from other cultures in true imperial fashion. Eventually other British artists who couldn't help but steal from other cultures tried to do it while bringing attention to the injustices of colonialism, like Peter Gabriel.
I'll say that it's been a rocky road with good intentions not always being enough, and it's only when we have the other part being an active part of the discourse that we can start to find practices that are really fair. It will definitely take more than artist quotas and emphasis on representation, I think.
Art can be a purpose in its own right, but it can also directly feed back into everyday life, take on a social and political role and lead to more engagement. Can you describe your approach to art and being an artist?
Art is the pursuit of freedom as an individual. It allows for the sublimation of aggressive impulses into the creative art, it allows for absolutist positions or the most relativist ones.
By definition, it can't offer answers to general problems. But art can be a great way of forming citizenship, a space to delight in differences. Personally, art enables me to live anarchically, in a state of constant potentiality, limited only by the things outside my interests.
What can music express about life and death which words alone may not?
There are things about life and death that can't be expressed with words. Art allows us to express these things.
The death of a loved one can be expressed verbally to friends and relatives, but the pain may require a non verbal form of expression.