Name: Steve Bates
Occupation: Sound artist, producer, engineer
Recent release: Steve Bates's All The Things That Happen is out via Constellation.
If you enjoyed this interview with Steve Bates and would like to find out more about his work, visit him on Soundcloud, and twitter. Or visit the bandcamp store of his label the dim coast.
For an even deeper look into the topic of sound, read our earlier Steve Bates interview.
We can listen to a pop song or open our window and simply take in the noises of the environment. Without going into the semantics of 'music vs field recordings', in which way are these experiences different and / or connected, do you feel?
Maybe I’m lazy. I never really feel the need to make music and field recordings be a ‘versus’ so thanks for framing the question this way. I listen to both very happily. Like Barthes who clams the reader completes the text, or the viewer completes the artwork, I think with both the listener completes the ‘work’ so in this sense they are similar. Both are filled with intention even if the intention is to capture the most “realistic” field recording. But what does this even mean?
I can nerd out about stereo technique or surround sound but it’s not what I’m most interested in and is perhaps why I’m as intrigued by “wrong” technique in field recording as the most realistic. Steve Roden, a remarkable sound artist, doesn’t even monitor his field recordings when he’s doing them. He only listens to them later in the studio.
I don’t think of either as being necessarily neutral or impartial, there is intention in both, and technique. Field recording doesn’t really capture things in a “natural” state does it? There are so many decisions made to do field recording that impact the recording. As an exercise, I like to think of field recordings as completely “made-up”. Like music. Even with the most “precise” equipment, there are so many filters both human and mechanical. This is before we even discuss the idea that there are as many ways to listen to spaces as creatures on Earth.
All of this to say I’m not so interested in “accuracy” in field recording as in being able to listen to a space through another person. Toshiya Tsunoda’s recordings are incredible not so much because of how they are made but by what he is listening to.
From the concept of Nada Brahma to "In the Beginning was the Word", many spiritual traditions have regarded sound as the basis of the world. Regardless of whether you're taking a scientific or spiritual angle, what is your own take on the idea of a harmony of the spheres and sound as the foundational element of existence?
This question relates to an ongoing project I’m working on with many collaborators called Black Seas. It’s influenced by contemporary and historical experiences of pathological and non-pathological auditory hallucination. So many important spiritual events and outcomes are rooted in hallucination that it’s quite incredible to consider. Here we have singular events that are ‘real’ and ‘not-real’, that go on to have such an impact on the world.
I say ‘real’ and ‘not-real’ because hallucination is colloquially considered to be ‘not-real’ sound. It’s only in a person’s mind, not in-the-world. But what we can now see with contemporary technologies and our ability to map individual’s brains while they are hallucinating, is that many parts of the brain processing real-world sound and hallucinated sound are common. So in a very real sense, hallucinations are … real. This is encouraging because it allows us to more fully understand, to listen to those who hallucinate and come to realize the over-arching pathologization of hallucination in the West is problematic.
I’m not suggesting there isn’t pathology or that some people don’t require support in the form best suited to them; likely a combination of medical, psychological and community-based supports. Again, we can see there is a range of being.
Regarding sound as the foundational basis of the world, I am in the camp that would suggest existence is more vibration rather than sound. By saying vibration instead of sound we are able to draw in a much larger picture as the range of vibration is so much grander than what humans can perceive as sound, even though it too is vibration. If we consider vibration instead of sound, it opens up the field past the human and includes all creatures and matter. So this is much more interesting to me, and I believe more conceptually rigourous. People like Karen Barad are interesting and inspiring places to turn for this conversation.
Regarding the harmony of the spheres, I’ve always appreciated Tony Conrad’s remarkable take on this - Slapping Pythagoras! While I can appreciate the conceptualizing going on with this idea of a harmony of the spheres - to order the universe in some conceivable way, it is also incredibly Eurocentric in it’s consideration of the Western standard tuning system somehow being the root of the universe! There’s a colonialism happening here, which is what Conrad was getting at.
So I can get behind the exercise of considering the ordering of the universe in a musical-mathematical way, no problem, but we need to be careful to not centre a European system at its core. It leaves out way too much and further establishes a racism and colonialism on the universe.
Lately I’ve come to think more in terms of attunement than tuning. This is a radical shift in that one attunes to the universe, not the other way around. It’s a way of radical listening. In this sense, there is no harmony of the spheres. The spheres just are (see Eugene Thacker’s super awesome In the Dust of This Planet trilogy here). There is dissonance and consonance.
[Read our Eugene Thacker interview]
With attunement there is a relationship that is more about encounter than ordering. It doesn’t place humankind at the centre or as the measure.