Name: Joshua Bonnetta
Occupation: Artist / Associate Professor
Bands/Projects: Strange Lines and Distances / American Colour / Lago / El Mar
Labels: Senufo Editions / Experimedia / Shelter Press
Musical Recommendations: I really admire the work of Sigtryggur Berg Sigmarsson. His solo works and his collaborative projects as Stillupsteypa are always fascinating. Recently I have been listening a lot to his collaboration with BJ Nilsen Avant Garde Gasse on Ultra Eczema and So Long on Helen Scarsdale. I am always inspired by his work, it's so varied and unpredictable, I feel like I am always in the midst of experiencing this sort of unfolding present thats really organic. It inspires me to rethink my own process / I recently have come accross the work of Matthew P Hopkins. A release he did on Penultimate called Blue Lit Half Breath and one on Canti Magnetici called Fog Study that both fantastic and very inspiring listens.
When did you start writing/producing music - and what or who were your early passions and influences?
I took a physics of sound course during my undergraduate studies, when we got to constructive interference it was a revelatory moment for me to realize that sound waves could have all these complex properties interacting with one another and in interacting with spaces. I began to understand that there could be a potential in sound as something other than musical and that its relation to things like architecture and material could be used to reciprocally explore space and environment. At the time I had mostly been with working with video signal and had been lurking around the physics department trying to get some advice from the engineers on how not to get electrocuted taking apart CRT televisions. I ended up collaborating with an engineer on modifying a CRT with bespoke electromagnets we made to manipulate video signal. We needed something to drive the magnets and ended up using signal generators, I found these devices fascinating, that you could precisely generate specific frequencies to the exact HZ. I ended up patching one of these into an amplifier one day and just became intrigued with this pure waveform and was captivated.
I began building composite tones, acquiring a volume and looping pedal and exploring relationships between layered tones to perpetuate all sorts of different interference, harmonics and resonances. I was working as a film projectionist for a university and was able to set up a workspace behind the screen to use afterhours and this lead to the opportunity to experiment with interference, feedback and rerecording in a specific environment. It was both a lecture hall and cinema space so the acoustics were not dead. Figuring out how sound was contoured in a particular environment became an obsession of sorts and as the building was closed at night it became fun to try and play the building, make things rattle and whatnot. I was able to work with volume, duration and to explore sounds in the environment of the cinema space which was important for me later on. I spent an enormous amount of time listening within/to that environment. It was a formative experience and a time that I had to dedicate to pure experimentation. I would document the experiments on tapes but there was never an intention to release any material from this and although I was making films and video work then, I wasn’t interested in marrying the two at the time. These experiments didn’t end up linking to other parts of my art practice until later on, but it was the start to record and document experiments, working from improvisation and using process and experimentation to generate material.
As cinematic influences go, Structural films from the 1960’s-70’s were influential in expanding my thinking about cinematic sound. Works like Paul Sharit’s Ray Gun Virus or Shutter Interface, Michael Snow's Wavelength, Hollis Frampton's Nostalgia and much of the Austrian work from the 90’s, Peter Tscherkassky and Martin Arnold.
Seeing/hearing this work helped me imagine different possibilities and strategies to use sound in relation to the image. It wasn’t just about a spatial enhancement of the screen space, or decorative sound with no actual aesthetic/conceptual connection to the image, these were works with sound that could actually could imbue the image with additional meaning, invoke a conceptual approach, challenge representation in the image; works that strove to have a balance or reciprocal connection between sound and image in a critically and aesthetically engaged way.
For most artists, originality is first 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?
I think that’s accurate. I was definitely inspired by particular works and you do end up emulating them because you get so captivated. Though very often your own perspectives, eccentricities and limitations end up filtering these attempts and you end up with something entirely different and then you start to see your own possibilities to build upon.
The concept of originality is problematic to some extent; I think in many cases a lot of the work that artists explore is part of larger continuum of ideas and aesthetics. When you are younger you are excited and inspired by so many thing so you are trying to pack all these ideas into one work, developing as an artist for me has been about learning to recognize limits, purposefully embracing parameters and working to distil things back to something more clear that you trust to reveal itself in the process of making. I think in many ways the parameters you set for yourself are indicative of your own process and maybe that’s reflective of your originality.
What were your main compositional- and production-challenges in the beginning and how have they changed over time?
I mostly work with 16mm film, so creating sound for these works is always different as you are working within a double system. The camera doesn’t record sound, so immediately there is this divide and parameters are set in place. The sound/image exists separately and comes together in the editing process. So gathering sounds for the work is really about trying to come up an index of future possibilities. With analogue film, to some extent, you have no idea what you get for certain until it returns from the lab. In this sense all the cinematography and sound recording takes place in this hopeful imagining.
As my work is site-specific, for the most part, the challenges are trying to have enough material to give you the possibilities you need. Once the image comes back it really is functioning as a form of visual notation. You compose and design the sound around this. The compositional challenges for me are about trying to strike a balance with the image in terms of creating a sound design that is in dialogue with the aesthetic approach, process and concept.
Tell us about your studio, please. What were criteria when setting it up and how does this environment influence the creative process? How important, relatively speaking, are factors like mood, ergonomics, haptics and technology for you?
For me it is first and foremost a space to think and listen. Environment does influence the creative process and I like to work in a space with good light in a bright simple space, if I do work at night I work by good light. It's just as much a listening/thinking space as production space. To an extent (depending on who you talk to) I like it to be cluttered, I think the creative process is really about synthesis and you can create a studio space where literally things are overlapping, colliding, wires crossing and this has in the past made a lot of connections for me.
Ergonomics are important, I use a standing desk while improvising but I'll mix sitting down because I like a fixed controlled stereo image that won't change with the monitors. It makes more sense to be standing if you're using multiple devices reacting to one another so you can move throughout the space. I like to use the desk as an island while improvising so I am able to work across the table in every direction. I love teaching a workshop when students are all interacting to devices on the table from every direction, with no sense of fixed orientation other than the sounds, I think this simple gesture opens up a lot of collaborative potential.
Haptics are important and when you work digitally on a computer and with technology by hand, it opens up a lot of creative possibilities as corruptibility, chance and accidents seem to be more aligned to the physical world.
Technology is important, but I'm not driven by exploring so much all these new frontiers and devices, I use both digital and analogue gear. I work with some devices and mediums that could be considered obsolete. The market pushes us to discard things so quickly that the medium specificity and uniqueness of a lot of technology never fully gets appreciated or explored.
What are currently some of the most important tools and instruments you're using? In which way do certain production tools suggest certain approaches, in which way do they limit and/or expand your own creativity? How do you see the role of sound designers and software programmers in the creative process?
In the beginning I wanted to have as many options as possible so it was about obtaining as much gear as I could to yield the most possibilities. Over time I've realized for me creatively, the less options seem to yield better results, as I'm forced to work within parameters. I think that’s one of problems for me creatively with digital is the ubiquity of options it opens up which can collapse on itself and almost renders the decision making process inert. I tend to get scattered and overwhelmed this way. Working primarily with analogue forces a limitation. When I shoot I use film, the process for me creates an awareness and thoughtfulness that I don’t get with digital and it forces me into make better decisions with less takes. Light with analogue almost feels like it has a weight to it and to make a shot is a lot of effort so you are more certain about what you choose.
Sound design has been the same workflow for a while, recording with contact microphones, location recording microphones and then a process of improvising with ¼ tape and then editing/mixing in Protools. This process of composing isn’t so linear though; I find I am working back and forth in this way more and more.
Could you describe your creative process on the basis of a piece or album that's particularly dear to you, please? Where do ideas come from, what do you start with and how do you go about shaping these ideas?
My ideas come about through an on-going synthesis of research and curiosity. I get obsessed with many things at a time and a project ends up weaving itself out of all these different threads. Things reveal themselves over time through the process of making and experimentation. The more I take in, the more ideas I tend to have as the more things that bump around will eventually start to coalesce. An idea will emerge from a constellation of things that sometimes over years will begin to resonate.
I have new album out with Shelter Press that is collaboration with American photographer Ron Jude. This was an entirely different experience than how I normally work, as I don’t collaborate often and it was an opportunity to respond to someone else’s work and there was a sense of responding to someone else’s process, which was exciting because I knew I would learn a lot from this, especially from an artist that has been practicing so long.
Ron had created a photo project over the course of five years that documents an area in and around the Salton Sea in California that he has a connection with personally. I had never been to California nor any desert for that matter so I was encountering an environment that my understanding of had been shaped entirely from cinema, literature and history. So initially the work began by studying the sound design for films set in the desert and what the soundscape was. Not in the sense that I would discover the acoustic ecology of this environment from this research but I was interested in familiarizing myself with the cinematic tropes as a kind of ballast to be aware of how my own understanding of these environments had been shaped. You encounter places, even places you’ve never been, with so much baggage that a framing already exists. This project became an extension of my recent work in a sense that I'm interested in how our phenomenological encounter of place is shaped by the past.
Ron and I logged a lot of miles on that trip and in between sites it became a dialogue about photography in general and photographic montage in book form. I was trying to understand that in relation to cinema and sound design.
There is a certain intimation of narrative threads within the photographs themselves and I thought it would be an opportunity to explore this within the compositions which I haven’t done so overtly before. The photos and geography became a form of conceptual notation and we visited as many of the sites as he could remember.
After capturing the sounds it became an attempt to try and respond to this photographic montage in book form, and find the parallels in sound design and between the photobook and LP format. I was looking at these visual elements and structures trying to find resonances and aesthetic counterpoints with the sounds. It was a nice opportunity for us both to expand our works outside the space of our respective framings; in this case both works kind of cast a shadow into/onto the other that we were both excited about.