Name: Janet Cardiff
Occupation: Sound artist
Current event: Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller have been awarded the Wilhelm Lehmbruck Prize of the City of Duisburg and the Landschaftsverband Rheinland. To celebrate the occasion, their current exhibition at the Lehmbruck Museum presents their collaborative work from the past two decades. It is open to the public 27 March 2022 to 14 August 2022.
In this interview, Janet expands on her work with her partner, which, as the Museum aptly puts it, has “shaped an entire genre” and “transport us into imaginary worlds.”
If these thoughts by Janet Cardiff piqued your interest, visit her official website. Janet and George also have an excellent Youtube channel which offers several examples of their work.
Can you talk a bit about your interest in or fascination for sound? What were early experiences which sparked it and what keeps sound interesting for you?
I think that my experience of walking alone in a rural landscape when I was around 10 made me very aware of the power of sound to affect and even destablilize. A rustling bird in the leaves in the forest or even a leaf falling makes your body go on alert and be aware of sound in a three dimensional way.
Forests are really one of my favorite places to be. It was in a forest in Banff, AB that I developed my first audio walk by just wandering around lwith portable equipment looking at things.
What's your take on how your upbringing and cultural surrounding have influenced your sonic preferences?
I grew up in a farm. There was a lot of quiet reflective time. I think unconsciously I became biased to quiet environments. I can’t live in certain cities if they are too loud.
One thing that I really liked about Berlin for the years we lived there was the quietness of the city. I don’t think I could live in London ... the diesel engines of the taxis make the city so loud.
Do you see yourself as part of a tradition or historic lineage when it comes to your way of working with sound?
When I first started working with the binaural audio walks in 1991 at the Banff Centre for the Arts I wasn’t aware of binaural audio or audio art traditions. They had a Seinheisser head and a portable DAT recorder that allowed me to experiment with ambulatory audio. The library also had a small collection of audio works that introduced me to different audio works. I remember hearing a Mono audio walk by a 60’s artist but it was didactic in style and very basic in quality. I don’t remember the artist’s name.
But the walks were really the result of the new access to portable technology and the time to explore and experiment. I started to wander and record thoughts through the forests and locality of Banff with the Dat recorder. It was during one of those exploratory walks in a graveyard recording that I pushed the wrong button and started hearing my voice on site describing what was in front of me.
It was serendipitous ... a real aha moment. I realized immediately that the syncing of a past recording with a physical site was very interesting. Since I was also experimenting with binaural audio in the studio I decided to try to put the two together and made my first binaural audio walk there ... all edited on a cassette 4 track Tascam. Pretty primitive.
Adding lots of foley sounds and some music to the walk track I realized that the small experimental piece was a type of physical cinema. The combination of the real and the virtual soundtrack really excited me. A couple of years later I experienced a binaural audio tour at Alcatraz by Antenna Theatre in San Francisco which was a further inspiration to me for the walks but that was the only binaural audio walks that I was aware of.
I was also working in the sound studio there at Banff on my first multi speaker audio installation with 16 small speakers mounted on stands throughout the space. (Whispering Room 1991) This artwork is composed with 3 women’s voices telling stories from a different viewpoint playing back from surplus 4$ speakers on stands (that my dad welded for me), 8 different cassette decks and mini amplifiers that I made myself from kits. We didn’t have much money for that first installation and the equipment was around a hudred dollars for the whole piece but this work was seminal to the installatoins that came later like The Forty Part Motet and To Touch.
In terms of The Forty Part Motet 2001, it came into being because of the music itself. A British singer that I was working with recognized my interest in 3D sound and gave me a CD of Thomas Tallis which included Spem In Alium.
As soon as I heard a CD of the music I wanted to get inside the sound and hear the 40 singers separately. Funny how little things like being given a CD can influence a whole carreer. Also it was a good time to have this idea in terms of new technology because there really hadn’t been a tradition before 2001 of artists working in synced multi speaker pieces because the technology to do that was too difficult.
Luckily just that year Tascam came out with a 24 track playback system so we paired up two of them to be able to have the 40 tracks. At the same time a producer in London, Theresa Bergne (Field Art Projects) invited me to produce a new work ... and then everything came together. She was incredible in her inguenity of finding the right singers and hiring a mobile audio truck that could record 60 tracks at once (for the sopranos we had 2-3 children).
Now there’s so many ways to accomplish multiple speaker playback ... it’s so much easier. Murder of Crows done in 2010 has 98 speakers playing off a computer although for that piece the computer back then was really working hard trying to process surrounds sound to all the speakers and crashed a lot.
It was only after exhibiting The Forty Part Motet in the early 2000s that people started mentioning other artists like Max Neuhaus, Luigi Nono, Trimpin and others and we discovered that we were following in a small tradition of sculptural audio. We came from a visual arts background, not sound or music, so we were pretty ignorant about the history of sound or music. Dadaist and surrealist art was our main connection and inspiration.
What types of sound do you personally prefer to work with? Are there sounds you reject – if so, for what reasons?
I don’t like grating noise or even a lot of atonal music that uses high pitched discordant sounds. Or flutes ... we both dislike that instrument for our works for some reason.
Otherwise you never know what will work in terms of audio. The piece that we’re making dictates the type of sounds that we use. So concept, imagination and intuition come first.
Where do you find the sounds you're working with? How do you collect and organise them?
We do have an extensive sound effects bank but generally we go out and record them. This could be anything from windmills to the whining of a dog. First we visually script the sounds of the overall work in written form then we find the sounds. Once they are in the piece then we listen and see if the sounds actually work in the way we thought they would ... quite often they don’t on the first try. It’s a slow process.
With the walks it’s sounds that have to resonate with the physical site as well and we usually have to try them out in-situ. Sounds, especially binaural audio is so different in the studio than it is on the site. With installations we organize the audio so that one line has to add to the whole feeling and flow from one soundscape to another in a way that continues and contributes to the narrative.
George also makes a lot of music, like abstract drone type guitar stuff that we quite often incorporate into our works.
Some artists use sounds as a means for emotional self-expression, others take a more conceptual approach or want to present intriguing sound matter. How would you characterise your own goals and motivations in this regard?
I use voice as a means for the intimacy of my thoughts and writings. We definitely use sound for it’s emotional resonance ... its ability to bypass the intellect. We also use it for its physical effect on the bodies of the viewer.
But for alot of our works we use it to contribute to the narrative baseline of the work in a way that sounddesigners for filmmakers use sound ... to influence how you experience a scene.
From the point of view of your creative process, how do you work with sounds?
We tend not to manipulate the audio very much. We might have to edit or clean it up a lot but we generally use it in a very straightforward way.
Which tools have been most important and useful for you when it comes to working with and editing sounds?
Good microphones are the first in essential tools. We have had a series of types of binaural mics and binaural heads and portable recorders and upgraded as technology has advanced. We have Fritz for studio binaural recording but also have a very old hair cutters dummy head that I made ears for which is better for when I walk and talk. She’s named Shirley. We have also upgraded our ambisonic mics over the years.
We use a variety of programs depending on what the final artwork will be. For mixing of stereo or binaural we use Digital Performer. DP is also useful in controlling playback systems in installations because we quite often have the sound synced to visuals or moving lights in the same file and it’s easy to do that with DP.
We use Plogue Bidule for programming in pieces like Instrument of Troubled Dreams. With ambisonic installations we use Harpex for decoding.
The possibilities of modern production tools have allowed artists to realise ever more refined or extreme sounds. Is there a sound you would personally like to create but haven't been able to yet?
Underwater breathing and swimming sounds maybe ... I don’t know really.